"Okay holdon, holdon…" said Parson quickly. "Time out." He set down his half-full teacup on the tray by his leg.
"Hm?" said Janis, with an innocent smile.
"Not saying no, just saying wait," Parson said putting up his hands. "And… you're not casting on me right now, right?"
Her brow wrinkled in confusion, and she shook her head. "Oh, no. Of course not."
"Okay, um… Sorry." He absently put his hand on his forehead, pushing back his hair. "You just caught me off guard."
He hadn't recovered his guard yet, either. She kept leaning forward, and looked up at him with a bemused little smile. He realized with a start that he could see down her blouse. Did he… did he want to hook up with Janis? Parts of him said maybe, but Christ, this was so far out of left field. Was he supposed to kiss her now or what?
"It's okay, relax," she said. "I could cast on you, if you want. Something meditative?"
Parson cocked an eyebrow. °What not, like… love potion number nine?" he joked.
"I just wouldn't think you'd be going for 'meditative' right now."
She shook her head, still not understanding.
"Aphrodisiac," he said. "You're saying Date-a-mancy is love magic, right? Isn't that what you want to show me?"
Janis closed her eyes, still smiling, and straightened up in her kneeling position. "Well. That is a lovely thought, Parson Gotti. And maybe it's something we can share, eventually. But unfortunately, that's not where this lesson was leading."
Parson winced and made a reflexive fist in his lap. "Oh jeez." He looked up at the wooden framework at the top of the yurt, then back at her and shrugged apologetically. "Sorry. Crossed signals."
"Give me your hand," she said, holding out her own. He unclenched his fist and took her hand, which felt warm and small and delicate in his.
"You don't have to be ashamed, Warlord," she said, looking into his eyes. "It's obvious from your discomfort that opening up about love is just what you need right now. Maybe more than anything else." Her voice was calm and friendly. She sat back down on her pillows and crossed her legs again. "You've got a few things bottled up, don't you? Why don't you tell me about them?"
In his life before Erfworld, Parson had looked at dating the some way he'd looked at the job market. It wasn't a game he was suited to do well at unless he completely changed himself and he wasn't willing to do that. So he'd pushed it out of his mind, focusing on other kinds of games.
He'd had his loves, his crushes, his girlfriends. In high school he had gone to prom with a girl named Lizzie, who'd asked him at almost the last minute. That led nowhere. He'd had his heart broken twice in college by Andrea and Bree, both women he'd scared off by falling too hard for them. He'd had awkward, drunken dorm sex a few times with Grace, a female gaming buddy he hadn't seen for a few years. And he'd endured a half-dozen painful first dates through OKCupid, before he deleted his profile. He'd been a little bit interested in Ashna, before he was summoned, but he didn't want to scare her out of his game group, so he'd never tried to start anything. And… that was pretty much it for his history.
Some of that was difficult to explain to Janis, without getting into all the ways Earth was different from Erfworld. She got the gist of it.
"It doesn't surprise me that love was made harder than it needs to be, where you come from," she said thoughtfully. "That vast intermingling of units of all types is probably the reason. Millions, really? That's totally marvelous and terrifying."
"Billions, technically," he said, "but I wasn't in much danger of falling for someone in Mongolia or Kenya, I guess. But no, that wasn't the reason things were complicated. I'd say it was more about how our units pop."
He then briefly explained pregnancy and childhood, to her wonder, horror and delight.
"People popping people!" she giggled. "And you pair-bonded into little sides! Is that right? Deep affections for the one you chose to pop units with, to the exclusion of love for all others?"Parson hesitated. "Iiideally, yeah. It, um, it got more complicated than that, sometimes. There were… variations? And it didn't always work out."
"Did you ever pop any units?" asked Janis.
He almost said, "none that I know of," as a reflexive, lame joke. But then he would have had to explain that, too. He shook his head. "No."
Janis nodded. "You know, I don't think the spell would have summoned someone who had. You would still have been loyal to your little side. You'd have wanted to go back to them."
"'Family'," said Parson, "was what we called the sides. I do have a mom and a dad, and I miss them I guess. They probably think I'm dead. That must suck. It would be nice to go home, and let them see I'm okay."
Janis eyes narrowed, discerningly. "But you're not going to do that, are you?"
Parson gave her a sheepish little smile. "Not a chance."
"And why is that?" The Hippiemancer's eyes were twinkling.
Parson took a deep breath and sort of shrugged. How could he explain it? "I'm useful here. I used to have jobs where I got trained to do something boring that I didn't care about at all. Now I'm with people who need me to do what I'm good at. What I like to do. I can't go back to collating and stapling reports. A job like Chief Warlord doesn't even exist on Earth."
She looked at him for a long while, still smiling, then said one word: "People."
"You like these people?"
Strangely, the first person he thought of when she asked that was Sizemore. This morning, Sizemore had gone out into the woods with a group of Florists and come back laughing, carrying an armload of mushrooms. Later, he'd done something with irrigation ditches in their potato fields, and he'd built them a tool shed. It made Parson smile to see him happy again.
But he also thought of Ace and his new workshop. He remembered the goofy, let's-break-the-game sessions with Jack. And he thought of his brief time with Bogroll, who'd only wanted "to save your life, Lord." He would never forget his friend, and the last mission he'd sent him on.
And of course there was Maggie, his constant shadow and… manager? Moral support? He wasn't sure what she was up to, with her whole Thinkamancy agenda. But he knew he always felt better when she was around.
But then he also recalled Wanda, that day when shed showed up holding the Arkenpliers and cackling. And the chilling things she'd done since. And Stanley, the one he was ultimately working for. Jerk-ass little Stanley…
"Yeah," said Parson. "I like all of them."
He cocked an eyebrow. "So you're saying it's more or less mind control? Or… heart control? I only feel this way because I'm magically compelled to?"
She looked a little amused at the question. "Was love not magical where you are from? Did you have a way to define love on Earth, or was it a mystery? Could you protect yourself from it? Could you control it, or did it control you?"
"Arright." He grimaced, putting up a hand to stop her. "Point taken."
"It's the same kind of magic there as here, I suspect. And you're not immune to it," said Janis. "I believe you can fall in love in Erfworld, and I know that others can fall for you. When that happens, a magical bond forms between you and another unit. You will be entangled with that unit on a fundamental level, one that a Date-a-mancer can easily see." Her last sentence was heavy with meaning.
Parson took in a deep breath through his nose and let it out slowly, looking at her. "You are about to say that Maggie's in love with me, aren't you?"Her smile went sad and sympathetic. "Rather desperately, I'm afraid."