Hisane stared at Marlin. "You didn't!" she said, horrified.
Marlin nodded quickly. "We did, me and Tevi. Hana wasn't listening to me and Yahin was being shy. So we shut them both in a room and kept everyone away until Yahin knocked on the door."
He started laughing and Hisane gave him a poke in the side. "Finish," she demanded.
"Yahin told me oh-so-politely 'if someone doesn't open this door right now, I'm break it down, find the people who locked us in, and dump large quantities of pudding in their bed'." Marlin spread his hands. "What was I to do? I opened the door and Hana flounced out. She pushed a finger almost through my chest and told me the next time I locked two potentially romantically-inclined people in a room and told them to confess that there had better be a piece of furniture to make out on."
Jasea burst into laughter and Marlin grinned at her. Kyren wasn't doing much better and Hisane was just shaking her head. "Your lack of forethought astonishes me," she said haughtily and dissolved into giggling.
"And that's the story of how Hana and Yahin got together. He's the only one who can rein her in when she gets too bubbly." Marlin paused. "Except for Barric, but that's because he can do the Look that has us quivering in our boots. It might be a Head of House look."
Hisane managed to look at her watch and it calmed her laughter. "We've got to get back," she said reluctantly. "Our Head of House has to put in an appearance and then it's bedtime. Long day tomorrow."
Marlin nodded. "I want to go to two of the discussions tomorrow, at least one sparring match, and I've got to walk around to make sure everyone has everything they need."
"And enjoy yourself," Jasea reminded him.
"Yes. During the talk on me in the morning, I'm going to go visit the 4th. If I'm needed, someone can run over. I shouldn't be gone more than two hours."
Hisane sighed. "Take your time," she advised. "The 28th isn't going to fall apart in two, three, or even four hours."
Marlin stopped at the sign on his office door and his shoulders shook with suppressed laughter.
Marlin, it read. Do not do any paperwork today. Go have fun!
He sighed. "It's seven in the morning," he muttered. "What am I supposed to do? I've already had breakfast."
He shrugged his shoulders and walked toward the nearest door to the outside. There would be something he needed to help with out there.
But it wasn't that way this morning. In his experience with festivals and carnivals and celebrations, there was always an extra pair of hands needed.
Not so with his 28th, it seemed.
Everyone had their hands full, but turned his offers of help away. If he didn't know better, he'd claim it was a conspiracy.
Marlin frowned. Actually... It probably is. Jasea and Hisane both told me to enjoy myself and relax more.
He stood at the edge of the festival preparations and looked around. The booths were up, including the games. People were setting up the prizes and the various ways to win the stuffed animals, glasses, or knickknacks.
The grass was being trampled under so many feet. The barbecue pit was being set up at the opposite edge of the yard that Marlin was standing in. The wind was shifting around today, so everyone would get a whiff of what was cooking. The other food was being set up on that side. The mess hall was closed for the day.
There were already masses of children running around. Some of them were playing, but others were carrying nails, tools, and running drinks back and forth to parched people.
Marlin had heard rumors of there being a merry-go-round in storage, but he hadn't seen it yet. The 4th had a few rides that they hauled out for their festivals, so it wasn't a shock that the 28th would have one. They could be rented, but most of the Houses had one or two.
He idly wondered how long that merry-go-round had been in storage if they had one, but pushed the thought away. Today was for fun, as he'd been reminded.
So he wandered around and asked if there was anything they needed before he went to the 4th.
Marlin's arms trembled as he struggled to hold up the booth with the other two men. Now why did I think coming to the 4th would be a good idea, he wondered.
They let go gingerly and Marlin sighed. He'd helped with the booths, the food, and almost everything in between. Yahin clapped him on the back and they grinned at each other.
Oh. That was why. He liked feeling useful and his own House wasn't letting him. He'd have to mention that to them.
Or he had a feeling he'd be lounging around doing nothing for the rest of his life.
Yahin was spun around by an insistent tug on his sleeve and soundly kissed by Hana. Marlin watched, smirking at the couple he'd helped bring together.
Hana gave him a wicked look and dove at him. "Oof!" Marlin wrapped both arms around the woman and gave her a swift hug. "Yahin, you take her. She's your girlfriend."
"Fianc e!" she said, grinning and holding out her left hand.
"When?" Marlin said, taking her hand and looking at the ring. A very pretty diamond if he did say so himself.
"Last night. See what you miss when you don't come around more often?" She shook a finger at him and kept grinning.
"Congratulations and let me know when the wedding is." Marlin smirked. "And what wedding present you want."
Hana nodded. "And when are you going to find a girl? Huh, Marlin?"
Marlin looked up at the sky, then glanced around. "Well..." he said, rubbing the back of his neck. "I'm a lot to put up with."
Hana frowned. "Women are used to putting up with pain," she announced. "Every month. Plus childbirth and taking care of men when they're sick. Pick another reason, Marlin."
"Because now you're going to be married and I don't have a chance of wooing you away from Yahin anymore?" He winked at his friend and got an eye-roll in return.
Hana snorted. "You couldn't handle me on your best day," she declared. "And you're getting old!" Yahin cleared his throat. "Yes, you two are the same age. You have a fianc e. He doesn't."
"No, but Hisane and I are going on our second date tonight." Marlin frowned. "Or is it this afternoon?"
Hana gave him a hopeful grin. "You mean it?"
Marlin nodded. "I'm sure it's tonight. I distinctly remember dinner being mentioned."
She scowled at him and gave him another hug. "Oh, Yahin! Our little Marlin is growing up!"
"I'm older than you," Marlin reminded her. He glanced around the festival and saw that mostly everything was up by now. "There's got to be something to do."
Hana nodded. "Barric wanted to talk to you."
"Oh, now you tell me," Marlin said, giving her a mock scowl.
Marlin sat down on the picnic table bench beside his old Head of House. "Thanks for helping out," Barric said.
Marlin nodded. "The 28th barred me from doing paperwork or setting up, so I checked that everything was good there and came over here."
Barric chuckled. "Protective of you already?"
"They think I'm doing too much." Marlin grimaced. "They're having a discussion about me this morning."
"What we can do to make Marlin's life easier," he said, quoting the title. Barric started to laugh. "It's not that funny," Marlin objected. "I'm going to end up on one of those little platforms being carried everywhere and fed grapes."
Barric nodded and jerked his chin toward the festivities. "They've been after me to slow down, too." He smiled. "I'm taking more staff and I'll let Arin take over some of the duties when she's a few years older."
"I'm sorry," Marlin said. Barric tilted his head in question. "I left you with this."
Barric snorted. "I knew you'd have a House of your own sooner or later. And the 28th needs you more than the 4th does. How's it going with them anyway?"
Marlin told him about the discussion and smiled wryly. "I'll probably have to sit through a lecture from them when I get back and be thoroughly spoiled."
Barric nodded. "Houses do that. Better get used to it now." Marlin raised an eyebrow and Barric smiled. "You don't think the 4th does it to me? Barric, take a nap. You look tired. Barric, let me get that for you. Barric, I'm going out. Do you want anything?" He sighed theatrically. "I'm so put upon."
They shared a laugh and moved on to other topics.
Marlin left the 4th with promises of a few of his friends coming to bring food for him that afternoon.
He stared at the transformed festival area. The brightly painted booths were up and the scent of cooking food filled his nose. The merry-go-round's music was in the distance. It looked like the entire 28th was milling around.
"I guess they didn't need my help after all." He walked into the thick of things.
After checking on the major areas and calling hello back whenever his name was shouted, he sat down on a bench. The merry-go-round was out of storage and packed. The chicken and ribs were almost done and one of the people tending it had promised to bring him some if he stayed put at this picnic table. People were walking around with stuffed animals and trinkets. Even the mage booth was doing a brisk business.
It's eleven fourteen now, he thought. I want to see the sword fight at two and the discussion on pets at two thirty. There's another talk at four on the changes around the 28th and I definitely have to make time for that. Marlin grinned. If only to see what everyone wants.
He frowned. Or should I stay away, so they can speak what's on their minds?
"You look like you're worrying again." Jasea sat across from him, put her elbows on the table, and her chin on the backs of her hands.
"Stop it or I'll tell Hisane," she threatened while grinning at him.
"But she likes me too much to scold too hard."
Jasea smirked. "I'll be sure to tell her that."
"Marlin?" They turned as a woman approached with a huge plate of chicken and ribs. "Here's your lunch."
Marlin eyed it as it was set down in front of him. "Jasea, would you like to share?"
She leaned close and sniffed the air appreciatively. "I don't know. It's more than enough for two, but one of the things raised this morning was your eating habits. I might get in trouble."
From her tone, he knew she was teasing. At least about getting in trouble. Probably not about the discussion including his nutrition. "Please. I'll make it an order from your Head of House if anyone objects."
She reached out and snagged one of the ribs. "Well, if you insist."
News spread of where their Head of House was holding court. One of the children stopped by with a cone of cotton candy for him and he cheerfully shared the pink and blue treat with Kyren and Jasea.
Hisane found him and smiled. Marlin was literally surrounded by people. Some had brought out blankets and put them on the ground when they ran out of picnic tables close enough.
She snorted lightly. You, she thought, have no reason to doubt that you're good for us.
She tiptoed her way over and the man sitting next to Marlin turned to look at her. He smiled and got up when she came close enough.
Marlin turned to see who had sat next to him and his eyes lit up at the sight of Hisane. He gave her a guilty look and grimaced. "Don't tell me our date started at lunchtime. I'll have to grovel at your feet and I haven't bought your flowers yet."
She smiled. "Dinner." He sighed, relieved that he hadn't mixed up the times. "What time and where should I meet you?"
He frowned and leaned closer. "There's that discussion about the changes I've made. Should I go or not? Or sneak in at the last minute?"
She turned as he backed away to listen. "Enter openly," she told him. She stood up. "Attention!" she said. "Does anyone mind if Marlin comes to the discussion on what he's done with the 28th? He's worried we're going to fawn over him."
"I am not!" he said indignantly.
She raised an eyebrow. "Then what are you worried over?"
"That I'm going to be intruding. What if someone disagrees with something I've done and is too afraid to talk if I'm there? They should be able to express their opinions."
Hisane nodded. "And if anyone has a point to make, they can make it and you can offer a solution. Or take notes and think about it later."
Marlin looked around at the agreeing faces. "All right. The discussion's at four. I don't know when it will end, but I can leave early." He smiled. "It depends on whether you want to pick out your flowers yourself."
She was quiet for a moment while she thought. "Why don't you buy them for me tomorrow," she suggested. "That way I can guilt you into a third date."
"Yes," he answered quickly. "I am sorry. I spent too much time at the 4th."
Hisane's eyes narrowed. "Didn't we tell you to have fun today?"
"And I did have fun at the 4th," he said. He smirked. "I put up booths and talked with Barric. He warned me that my House is going to spoil me."
"We are," Hisane told him point blank. "If we get a chance to."
Marlin nodded. "Remember I was telling you about the two people me and Tevi locked in a room? Hana and Yahin? They're engaged. I've got to go to a wedding when they decide on a date." He snorted. "Then she told me I was old and I needed to find a girl." He smiled at Hisane. "Told her I had one and they said they'd be over with some food later."
"I'd like to meet them."
"I'll make sure of it." Marlin sighed as he looked at his watch. "It's almost two and I wanted to watch the sword fight."
Hisane got up and gave Marlin an expectant look. "Then come on. Ijima is something to see when he fights."
Marlin enjoyed the sword fight and the pet discussion. A lot of the children wanted their first pet or another to replace one that had died. Adults had missed their pets as well.
That discussion was over at three with the tentative decision to adopt a mother cat with kittens and have them in one of the outer buildings. The children could be exposed to pets and the people who were allergic wouldn't have them underfoot.
Marlin found himself with time to go to the florist after all. He had the flowers arranged for Hisane and he took the vase back to the 28th, carrying it carefully through the streets.
He knocked on her door, but she wasn't in. He took the flowers back to his room and put them on the dresser. He'd find her this evening and present her with them.
Marlin looked at the clock and grimaced. So much to do, he thought. I'm going to be late for that discussion.
He hurried through the halls and into the large meeting room. It was packed, but he found a place to stand.
Polly smiled at them from the podium and called the meeting to order. "Hello," she said. "This is a discussion about the changes our Head of House has decided are out of place here. Are they working? Do we need to alter them? Is there anything else we'd like him to change? Let's take the first question. Are they working?"
Hands flew up and she laughed. "Hands down. Up for yes, they are." Marlin watched as almost every hand went up. "And those that say no?" A few hands waved. "All right, let's here why the change isn't working."
A man stood up. "It's not that the rule about children isn't working," he started. "But we don't have any programs in place for the kids after four o'clock. There are some of us who don't get home to see to our children at that hour. I'd like to see something done about that."
Polly nodded. "Ideas?"
More hands went up for options like babysitting, after school activities and games, and help with homework. "We can use a few of the smaller rooms or even this one," a woman suggested.
Marlin nodded and took notes. It was a good idea. He hadn't thought about that. This meeting really was doing some good, not that he hadn't expected it to.
Marlin was one of the first ones out of the room when the discussion ended. He had pages of notes and things he wanted to do for the 28th.
But he had a dinner date in half an hour and he didn't know if Yahin and Hana had shown up yet. Someone would have come and gotten him if they had or he hoped so.
He was crossing between the main building and the yard where the festival was when he heard some shouting going on. Marlin changed directions toward the outskirts of the festival.
Some men were being loud and calling for someone to bring them more beer. Marlin grimaced when he heard the comments start to call the 28th a wussy House. "And your Head!" the one holding a bottle said. "He faints all the time. What kinda Head is that?"
Marlin started to gather his aura into a very specific idea. It wasn't to be used that often, but one could change another's attitude. Not for very long, but he could hold it long enough for the 28th to get someone from these men's House over here.
Marlin heard a chuckle and was patted on the shoulder. "Hey!" Ijima said loudly. "What wusses? I don't see any around here unless you're talking about yourselves."
By the time he got their attention, his students and fellow teachers had the men down and hands bound. "There," Ijima said. "Find out their House and get someone to pick them up." He nodded to Marlin and took charge of the drunken men.
Marlin gave him a nod back and went to find Hisane. He had a date and it wasn't gentlemanly to keep a lady waiting.
He found her at the same picnic table as before and smiled at her company. Jasea was licking an ice cream cone and Yahin and Hana were there.
Marlin sighed as he took a seat beside Hisane. "Whatever they said, it isn't true. That goes double for the pool incident."
She gave him an interested look. "Okay. You're not one of the greatest people they know." Hisane shrugged at Hana. "I guess all that threatening was a waste of time."
"You threatened her?" Marlin said.
Hana nodded. "Standard, though. Don't break his heart or I'd make her eat mud." Marlin grinned at her thoughtfulness until she continued. "But if you were an ass and that's why she did it, then I'd come over and we'd have a 'men are dicks' party."
Yahin sighed and drew Marlin's attention by waving a hand. "We left the cakes and stuff in your office," he told Marlin. "Someone took us to your room, but the door was locked."
Marlin thanked them and they spent the next hour together. They traded stories about what had happened with the 4th and 28th and by the time Yahin and Hana had to leave, Marlin and Hisane had made plans to go to the 4th for dinner next week. Hana winked at Marlin. "We even got permission from Barric to ask you."
Once they had gone, Marlin turned to Hisane. "Dinner?" he asked. She nodded.
After having cheeseburgers and cups of French fries at the picnic table, they walked around the festival. The kids were getting a little tired by now, but the older ones were still up.
They took a turn on the merry-go-round and Hisane dragged him out onto the grass in front of the band. "These people haven't played together in years," she told him sternly. "It would be rude not to enjoy it."
"I think I could enjoy it without dancing," he said dryly, but let her lead him to a clear place.
A few minutes of dancing and she put her arms around his neck for a slower song. "You dance pretty well for someone who didn't look like they'd enjoy it."
"Hana," he told her. "She taught Tevi, Yahin, and me. All at different times under the reasoning that she wanted someone to dance with no matter what." He smiled down at her. "And I do enjoy it when I have a partner that no one's glaring at me to make sure I don't put my hands anywhere they don't like."
"Hana and Yahin?" she asked. He nodded. "I can stomp on your foot myself."
"Ah." Definitely needing a change of subject. "Not to change the subject, but I did slip out to get your flowers. They're on my dresser, but I'll get them for you later."
"No rush. I'd thought about putting them it the office to look at."
Marlin nodded. "Then I'll do that before I go to sleep."
When they got tired of dancing, they bought ice cream cones and went back to the picnic table. Hisane nibbled at the side of her cone after she got the ice cream off the top. "I've got the list we came up with at the meeting," she told him. "They nominated me to talk to you about it."
"The list of demands," he said, teasing. "Does it include riding around on a platform and being fed grapes? Because that one's a definite no, just like I told Barric."
She laughed. "No, it's not that bad. But it does include having a few snacks and not worrying so much."
"Then we'll leave it for tomorrow. Would you mind giving up laundry and being my second secretary?"
She looked up, considering his offer. "Give up all that reading time with the washers going in exchange for making sure my Head of House isn't overworked. I suppose."
He chuckled. "And that's all the business we'll discuss today. Not too bad a day, though. A trip to the 4th, you got to meet Yahin and Hana, and the ice cream was excellent. Not to mention the company."
She smiled and checked his watch. "Almost time for the fireworks."
"Mm-hm. We have the first slot and Watari said it was his finest yet."
"And when he says that, you know it is." She kept her eyes on the darkening sky.
Marlin looked around them at his House. This was such a switch from when he'd first arrived. They were quiet and scared, tiptoeing around him like he was an alarm that was going to go off. He'd changed their rules, upset their lives in a good way, and now look at them.
The children were still chasing each other around. Some of the younger ones had been woken up specifically for the fireworks. The adults were talking and looking around just like he was.
He was so proud of them and what they'd achieved in the past three weeks. They'd come such a long way in their attitudes. Marlin looked forward to seeing more changes.
There was a boom and Marlin's head shot up to look at the sky. Lights crackled out from the middle of the explosion forming leaves, then flower buds. Finally, the flowers opened in a riot of color.
Hisane reached for his hand hesitantly and Marlin glanced at her before squeezing lightly. The second boom went off and Marlin turned his eyes to the sky again.
Yes, that was the perfect expression for his House. Plants that had flowered and bloomed. He'd do his best to keep them that way.