Jockie and Tas expected to throw rocks at the windows to call Stu out, but when they saw his house they stopped, blinking. Their mothers would have both their hides if they threw rocks at glass windows. They had no idea Stu was so flush. Glancing wide-eyed at each other, they just stood, holding their pebbles.
It didn’t take long for Stu to notice them. The front door opened just enough for him to slide his narrow shoulders out. Then he ran down to them, fast as he could come, shoes scuffing against the heavy stone steps.
“Whoa,” Tas said. She smiled at him, then nodded toward the house.
Stu watched her trace the square stones that built the face of the building. Its shadow stretched all the way across the street this early in the morning. He shrugged. “Yeah,” he said. “It’s…”
“Big,” Jockie said.
“Yeah,” Stu said. He looked at him out of the corner of his eyes, his mouth turning up at the corner. “Glad you said something. I was afraid it was shrinking. It just doesn’t look as tall as when I left it.”
“Is Stu short for something… fancy?” Tas asked.
Stu blinked at her. “Stuard. How have you known me a year and not known that?”
“It’s not…” Tas paused in thought, shrugging. “Stuardinalian? Stuardarnon? Stuardamander?”
“Seriously,” Stu said. “We’ve seen each other every day on that ship. For a year.”
“You have a second name, don’t you?” Tas accused.
Stu shook his head at her, grinning. “Yeah. Visade.”
Tas smiled back. “Stuardamander Visade… Nope. You gotta be lying. It’s not long enough.” She raised her hands, lining them up to the edges of the gargantuan house. “It’s gotta match this.”
Jockie was still staring at the house as if it had pushed its hulking roof out of the ground at his feet in the last five minutes. “How many people do you fit in there?” he asked. His head was tilted back as if he was afraid of something leaping off the top at him.
Stu stuck his hands in his pockets. “Uh, ten. Sort of.”
“Ten?” Tas rounded on him, pronouncing the word as widely as she could.
Stu shrugged again. “Yeah, well, Zain doesn’t really live here anymore. Or Lainan. And Kashel and Brex barely ever come home, so… Most times it feels like six.”
“Six,” Jockie repeated. “Your house is the size of a boat!”
“Yeah,” Stu said, laughing. “But with elbow room.” He poked Jockie with his elbow, repeatedly.
Jockie hit him away. “We’ve got fourteen right now,” he said. “And you’ve seen my house. It’s two toothpicks standing next to each other.”
“Fourteen?” Stu stared at him. “Where do you keep them? A hole in the back yard?”
Tas leaned an arm against his shoulder. “My granddad is housing sixteen including me.” She nodded when he turned his stunned look to her. “Yeh. And that’s normal, Stuardamanderius. You probably have your own room, don’t you?”
“No,” Stu told her. “I’ve got a twin.”
Tas nodded understandingly. “Yeah. I’ve got a momma and two sisters.”
“You’re kidding…” Stu said. “In one room?”
Tas kept nodding. She hadn’t really stopped.
“Lucky stomper,” Jockie said. He kicked his heel against the street. He dropped his pebble onto the ground, and it was just hard enough to sound like he’d thrown it as it clinked against the paving stones. Stu glanced at him, quick. Tas glared at him over Stu’s shoulder.
“You must get so lonely when you’re not on ship,” Tas said.
Stu turned back to her slowly.
“I bet you can turn around… what?” She raised her hands in a question, elbow still perched on his shoulder. “Three, four times, before you bump into someone? Must be devastating.”
“Where have you been?” Stu demanded. He jabbed a thumb over his shoulder. “I’ve got seven brothers.”
She grinned at him.
“Poor boy,” Jockie said. He glanced at Tas first, then at Stu. He clapped a hand on Stu’s shoulder. “Maybe we can find a few more for you.”
“Yeah…” Tas said, leaning into him. She smiled sweetly.
Stu glared at them both.
“Don’t worry, Stuardimanderinarius,” Tas said. “It might take a long time, finding people willing to look at your face every day, but we’ll stick with you until it gets sorted. We’ll tie ourselves to you, if that’s what it takes to make sure you don’t feel lonely. Or at least, Jockie will. I’m too selfish for that.”
Stu glared at her harder, then started down the street. Jockie waited until his back was turned, and smiled at her. She punched him lightly in the shoulder. Then they ran a few steps to catch up with Stu before he got too far ahead.