After an interminable amount of debate, during which Xavier grew thoroughly bored and hungry, the elders evidently decided to allow him to stay. Or maybe made him a part of their tribe. He wasn't entirely clear.
More than anything, he was just glad to get off that damn bench. He'd noticed that a large quantity of the elders had blankets or pillows to sit on; as the discussion wended longer and longer he'd even spotted a few who had eschewed chairs entirely in favor of nests of pillows on the ground. Meanwhile he had bare wood and the dubious benefit of a bored cat boy to share it with.
After making some pronouncement to Yukio, who bowed low in response, the elders at last filed out of the building through an exit Xavier hadn't noticed before in the back while the rest of the crowd dispersed through the front doors. Yukio held Xavier back until most of the people were gone before finally leading him out into another blistering day. The transition from the below-ground-level amphitheater surrounded by adobe walls and the outdoors was astonishing.
«Well, glad that's over!» said Yukio cheerfully, as Xavier paused and shaded his eyes in the glare. «Come on, lets get back to the wayhouse and have a bite of lunch and maybe a nap before we track down the Antean. There's not much point in trying to get anything done in the middle of the day, really. Waste of water and good sunshine.»
Ah, now that was a good idea! «May I please have some water?»
Yukio coughed a bit of his weird laughter. «Course you can, Zabi-kun! Weren't we just sitting for a couple hours hearing those old farts debate that very thing?»
Back at the wayhouse there was indeed food available in the common living space, and when Yukio led Xavier to an inner courtyard that was open to the sky, Xavier was surprised to find himself following the cat boy's example and napping lightly in the shade for the better part of an hour. Absent the life and death struggle to make it through the desert on foot, he was realizing just how much the heat took it out of him.
A leisurely afternoon accomplished, the pair set out from the wayhouse in the late afternoon. Yukio brought Xavier across the town along a necessarily zig-zag path, occasionally stopping to ask questions of nearby animal people. At last, they entered one of the few passageways that remained straight for any length of time, and at the end of it Xavier spotted a much smaller cleared space than the town center with what appeared to be another well—this one more what he expected a well to look like with a bucket on a rope sitting near a covered hole. Near the well was a small tree with a woman leaning up against the trunk in the shade.
As they got closer, though, Xavier realized that the tree wasn't actually small. The woman was just that big.
She was sitting with her back up against the trunk and her left side closest to Xavier and Yukio as they emerged near the well.
Yukio bounded right up to her while Xavier hung back in the shade of the nearby buildings. «Hello, I'm Yukio! I've been wanting to meet you for a while. Hey Zabi-kun, come over here! It's the Antean! This is Zabi-kun; he's a human, can you imagine?»
«I heard you would be coming this afternoon,» rumbled the Antean, opening her eyes and looking their way.
Xavier approached slowly when Yukio gestured him over, and as he did the woman stood up. Xavier stopped dead with a gasped, "She's huge!" If anything, "huge" was an understatement.
The Antean had to be at least eight feet tall, and was broad enough that Xavier would have had no chance of wrapping his arms completely around her. She had deep, chocolate brown skin and tightly braided hair that hung down past her shoulders. Her left arm was completely bare and corded with muscle, but in a disturbingly bizarre contrast her right arm and shoulder appeared to be about the same size as a normal human woman's. It gave her a strange, lopsided appearance: bulky on one side, sloping slightly down to scrawny looking on the other. Was it a birth defect? She had her right arm cradled up against her chest somewhat, so maybe she didn't have full use of it.
The giant loomed over him. «So this is the human folks have been talking about. I don't think I've heard this many rumors fly since I came to Henka myself.»
Xavier gaped. He was getting a crick in his neck just trying to peer up at her face.
«My name is Kahina. It is very nice to meet you. Zabi-san, was it?» The giant bent over and extended her right hand as fluidly as Xavier had ever seen someone move. Evidently she had use of it after all.
Xavier reflexively grasped it in his own right hand, surprised to have someone in a Japanese-speaking culture offer a handshake. «Hello, it is nice to meet you. My name is Xavier.» The giant's hand felt completely normal, though as he spoke the unidentifiable feeling that he was coming to associate with physical contact from everyone in this world quickly built into a rush of warmth, comfort, a satisfying meal, and the satisfaction of reading a familiar book.
Kahina gasped and practically fell forward, her massive left hand clamping down on Xavier's right shoulder and causing his knees to buckle under the sudden extreme weight. With a cry, Xavier ripped his hand away and stumbled back a few steps, barely keeping himself from falling, and throwing the woman's balance so badly off that she went to one knee.
He didn't see when it happened, but Yukio leapt into the woman's personal space from the side. «Kahina-san, what do you think you're doing?! Zabi-kun, are you alright?»
«I'm alright,» Xavier managed.
«I'm so sorry.» Kahina's voice was almost breathy instead of the low growl she'd had previously. «That just took me off guard. Sadao-sama had mentioned he thought the human—excuse me, Zabi-san—might be able to help me, but I didn't expect him to do it so suddenly. Thank you, Zabi-san.» The Antean shifted from kneeling into a full kneeling bow, hands in front of her on the ground and head lowerd. «I am deeply sorry I grabbed you. Please, please help me.»
«Help?» said Xavier. He understood that the giant—Kahina—was sorry about something, and was thanking him, but he wasn't sure what it was she wanted help with. It was also surprisingly awkward feeling to have someone bowing like that to him.
The woman shifted into sitting cross-legged directly on the sand. Seated on the ground, her head came up almost to mid-chest on Xavier. She held out her normal-sized arm in the same position she had when she first approached. Did she want to shake hands again?
«Please,» she said, deep longing bleeding through her voice.
Xavier stepped forward, and tentatively took her hand again. Once more there was that rush of—whatever-it-was. Kahina sighed deeply for longer than Xavier would have thought possible, and bent her forehead in something like a bow, resting it lightly on their clasped hands.
«Thank you,» she said, and in those seemingly simple words Xavier heard a depth of emotion unlike any he could recall coming across before.
He wasn't sure what he was doing, or why it was helping her, but for the first time since waking up surrounded by sand Xavier felt something deep in his chest unclench. As the indefinable sensation of something flowing into him built again, Xavier knew one thing for sure: this woman, this Antean, needed him badly.
He hadn't realized how much he wanted to be needed.