“Seriously, how cool is this?” The blond boy spread his arms while spinning in an enthusiastic circle. “I’m home!” He paused then before raising his voice to echo through the trees. “I said, I’m home!” His voice turned into a giddy laugh that was almost hysterical. “Home. God damn. I’m home. I’m home.”
“How—what–when–what–” Those and similar words fell out of my mouth without any further input from my brain, which was busy running in circles while screaming. I almost reflexively lowered my hand from where it was shielding the important bits from my field of view, only catching myself at the last second. My vocal confusion finally settled itself on a single, properly summarizing word. “Huh?”
Tristan, for his part, was still grinning incorrigibly. He was clearly enjoying my reaction, and let it continue for a few seconds before giving me a quick salute. “So you remember me after all.” He paused briefly then before adding in a thoughtful tone. “Though I guess it hasn’t been that long for you, huh?”
“A… a…” I worked my mouth, trying to find the right thing to say. “No, it’s only been a couple weeks. It was—you were just–” I stopped, taking a breath before shaking my head. “How, Tristan? What are you doing here, how are you here, what happened, where did you come from, why are you older now?”
“It’s a, uh, kind of a long story,” Tristan admitted. “But the gist of it is, it’s been years for me, not for you. It’s because of the spell thing that kept rebounding me back over there. The short version is that I needed an anchor to get here and actually stay so that I don’t get snapped back to the other dimension again. We had to choose an anchor that I had a close connection to that was already in this dimension.”
“Me,” I realized immediately. “You used me for the anchor. That’s why you were—wait, that was you in that meteor? You almost killed me! Who taught you how to pilot your plummeting space rock?”
He had the grace to look a little embarrassed, rubbing the back of his neck. “Yeah. Sorry about that. I was supposed to land near you after it locked on. But the whole crossing the interdimensional barrier thing must’ve taken a lot out of me. I passed out, lost control, woke up over there after crashing.”
“And you’re naked,” I pointed out in spite of myself. “What part of interdimensional travel requires you not to wear pants? Because I did my own version of it, and I distinctly remember keeping my pants.”
His smile never faltered, and the boy made no real move to cover himself. “Sorry, yeah, like I said, it has to do with the system they used to shoot me here. Nick and the Meregan said I had to be as—uh, natural as possible. I think their exact words were ‘as you were born from your mother, no more.’”
I seriously doubted that he had come out of his mother looking like he did now, but I got the gist of it. Still, I hesitated before asking, “And why are you showing up here in the past—I mean your past—I mean-you know what I mean. Why exactly has it been years for you, but only a couple weeks for me?”
Running a hand back through his (somehow artfully mussed) blond hair, Tristan explained. “Yeah, see, like I said before, we had to use you as an anchor. Except, the you that I remembered, the you that I had an actual connection with, was from a few years earlier. A lot of things can change in that time. Especially Heretics. Your whole lives, powers, everything can change. So we had to anchor me to the you that I remembered, not the you that will exist in a few years. Uh, shit, does that make any sense?”
I opened my mouth while starting to shake my head, then stopped and considered. “You know, if I just accept that that sort of thing is possible, then I guess it makes as much sense as anything else does.”
“Oh good,” the boy announced with a grin. “Because they also gave me a much more complicated and technical reason, but I kinda stopped listening after a couple sentences because it involved math.”
“Right, uh, um, why– never mind.” I shook my head. “Could you just—I don’t suppose you could find a big leaf or something and cover yourself while I figure out how to get some help out–” My eyes widened then, and I grabbed for my pocket. “The stick!” After feeling around through both pockets, I groaned. “Oh god, it must’ve fallen out when I was in the river. I don’t suppose you happened to find a completely ordinary-looking stick when you pulled me out and picked it up for no apparent reason?”
Tristan, who had at least moved over behind a nearby boulder that covered him from about the waist up, shook his head. “Uh, nope. Not really in the stick collecting business. Why, was it a cool one?”
“It was a magic one,” I retorted. “As in, the guy escorting us on this field trip was using it to track us if we got separated from the group. I was supposed to break it if I got lost. You know, like right now.”
“Oh, right!” Tristan snapped his fingers. “This is that uh, island place, huh?” He looked around the small clearing that we’d ended up in before whistling low. “This is awesome. This is so freaking awesome. Do you have any idea how long I’ve wanted to come back to Earth, how many times I dreamed about it? This is insane. I mean, sure, it’s no Baskin-Robbins or Burger King—oh god, I remember Burger King. I would kill for a Whopper. But you know, this is pretty cool too. It’s Earth.”
Clearly, Tristan was too excited about being back on Earth to really think straight. I guess I really couldn’t blame him, after all the time he’d spent trapped away from here. I’d be pretty excited too.
“Okay, my pack,” I realized then. “Did you see my pack anywhere? I had it on me when I fell in.”
“Oh yeah,” he perked up even more, pointing behind me. “I think I saw it caught on that rock over there, where those bushes are. Hang on, I’ll grab it.” He started to come out from behind the rock.
“No, no, that’s fine.” I quickly shook my head before going to get the pack myself. Dragging it out of the river while doing my best to avoid anything that might bite me, I hauled the soaked thing up onto the embankment. Thankfully, the pack was waterproof, so the stuff inside still looked pretty dry.
“Here,” I hauled a pair of sweatpants out of the pack and threw them over to the boulder that Tristan was standing behind. “Put those on, then we can see about sending off a signal so they know where–”
That was about as far as I got, while Tristan had just taken the sweatpants from the rock where they’d landed, before a whistling sound filled interrupted. I had just blinked up at the sound, barely noticing it. Tristan, meanwhile, somehow managed to drop the pants that he had been holding and spun toward the trees opposite the riverbank while his hand snapped up. The whistling sound stopped, and Tristan was standing there with some kind of dart caught between two fingers where he’d snatched it out of the air.
My eyes were wide, and I was already snatching the staff from its place on my belt when a familiar voice bellowed throughout the clearing, “Step away from the student immediately, assassin!”
Pivoting on one heel, my eyes widened at the sight of Wyatt. He had just emerged from the trees, hand extended toward the boy with a silver machete. The blade was giving off some kind of violet sparks.
Before I could say anything, Wyatt had already put himself beside me with the machete held up defensively. “Did you really think you could abduct one of the students in my care and bring her here to… to…” Trailing off, the man looked back at me, then toward Tristan. His eyes seemed to take in the sweatpants laying on the rock where the boy had dropped them, then the fact Tristan was clearly naked.
After processing all of that, I swore actual steam must’ve come out of Wyatt’s ears. His face turned red, and he actually started to move that way while lifting the blade. “You foul-minded, dirty piece of–”
“Wyatt!” I quickly grabbed his arm before he could go any further (or do anything with that weapon). “It’s okay, it’s all right! It’s not like that. I gave him pants to wear because he didn’t have any. It’s okay!”
“Yeah, dude.” Tristan was holding his hands up, palms out. “I come in peace. Well, I mean, I guess the actual arrival part wasn’t all that peaceful. But that was an accident, I swear. I’m not such a bad guy. Actually,” he added with a roguish grin, “I have it on good authority that I’m pretty cool when you get to know me.” Flipping the dart expertly through his fingers before setting it carefully on the boulder, he then asked, “Is it all right if I put the pants on now? I think it’d make Flick a lot more comfortable.”
“Are you sure you’re not just traumatized?” Wyatt demanded, his eyes expressing honest concern. “Because if this pretty boy has hurt you in any way while you’re under my care, I will make sure he…”
I shook my head quickly. “No, I promise, it’s fine. It’s—it’s a long story, but he’s not an enemy. He’s not. He’s just… like I said, very long story. But how did you find us? Where are Koren and Deveron?”
“Right here.” The answer came not from Wyatt, but from Deveron himself. He and Koren emerged from the bushes where Wyatt had come from. I noticed that Deveron was actually standing a bit in front of Koren, as if shielding her from Tristan. He had a hand on her arm to keep her behind him, while his other hand held that pistol of his. He was glaring in the other boy’s direction. “Are you all right, Flick?”
That was… kind of weird. He actually sounded concerned, like he was genuinely worried about me.
“I’m fine. Really.” I managed to restrain myself from injecting any kind of sarcasm about his attitude. As annoying as he’d been pretty much all semester, right now really didn’t seem like the time for it.
By that point, Tristan had managed to get the sweatpants on, and came out from behind the rock with his hands raised. “See, dudes? It’s all good. Flick and me, we’re old friends. No harm, no foul.”
“No harm?” Deveron echoed. A second later, he literally teleported. A cloud of smoke appeared where he had been, while the boy himself appeared in front of Tristan. His fist lashed out to deck Tristan, knocking the boy to the ground. Meanwhile, Deveron shouted, “You almost hit her with a meteor!”
I was frozen in surprise. Wyatt and Koren seemed to be as well. Tristan, however, caught himself on one hand as he fell while lashing out with a kick that caught Deveron at the leg. “It was an accident!”
Deveron rolled with the fall, practically bouncing back to his feet. The pistol had vanished from his hand as he grabbed Tristan by the shoulder when the boy flipped back to his own feet. “An accident?” he demanded, the anger in his voice only rising. “It was an accident? She fell off the bridge! She could’ve drowned, she could’ve hit her head! Something else could have found her, and your excuse is that it was an accident?” He cocked back his fist again, clearly ready to swing and not stop swinging.
“Whoa, whoa!” Lunging that way, I put myself between the two of them, pushing one hand against Deveron’s shoulder while putting my other arm against Tristan’s chest. “Okay, okay, I’ll back off a little on the whole ‘you suck as a mentor’ thing, just calm down for a second. He didn’t mean to hurt anyone. This is all just one big misunderstanding. So let’s take a step back and breathe, all right? Breathe.”
Both of them stepped away from each other, Deveron lowering his hand after a few tense seconds. His eyes, however, were still narrowed suspiciously at the other boy. “Fine. Who the hell are you, then?”
“That,” Wyatt announced while coming forward to join Deveron, “is what I would like to know. Explain yourselves.” His eyes moved from Tristan to me, squinting a little as his suspicion returned. “If this wasn’t an attack, what was it? Some incredibly ill-conceived attempt to meet up for illicit nookie?”
My eyes widened at that and I blurted, “No! Just—no, it’s—okay, remember…” Hesitating as I thought of how much I could possibly explain, I finally just shook my head. “Remember how Headmistress Sinclaire sent us out on that special mission for our monthly hunt? Tristan here was a part of it. She knows him, okay? The headmistress knows him. You don’t have to take my word for it, she’ll vouch for him. So we just get him to her office, or get her out here, or whatever, and you’ll see. He’s not a threat.”
Wyatt looked doubtful for a few seconds, but finally nodded. From his pocket, he withdrew a short metal rod, only about as long as my index finger and slightly thicker than a pencil. There were runes etched into the side of it. Rubbing his thumb over the runes, the man murmured something under his breath. One by one, each of the symbols began to glow silver, then blue before fading back to normal.
“There,” he announced. “The headmistress should be here shortly. Then we’ll get to the bottom of this.”
“Sounds good to me, man,” Tristan put in, adjusting the sweatpants slightly. They were really far too small for him, but at least they helped a little bit. “Just as long as that dude doesn’t punch me again.”
Before Deveron could retort, I interrupted by clearing my throat pointedly. Focusing on Wyatt, I asked, “Seriously, how did you find me so quick? I lost that stick you gave me when I fell in the water.”
Wyatt scoffed. “Weren’t you listening this morning, Chambers? I told you, always have a back-up plan. Did you really think I’d take anyone into the jungle and only have one way of finding them if something went wrong? Especially you with all the trouble you keep finding.” The scrawny man gave me a buck-toothed smile. “I planted three different trackers on you before we even started this hike.”
After staring at the man for a few seconds, I shook myself. “Uh, wow. I mean, good. Yeah, good.”
Deveron and Wyatt were both standing between me and Tristan. It was obvious that they weren’t going to let me anywhere near the guy until Gaia showed up to sort this whole thing out. So I focused on Koren instead, stepping that way before lowering my voice. “Are you okay? I um, I sort of heard you scream just before everything went dark back there.”
She was staring at me, her voice lowered to a hiss. “Am I okay? You fell off a cliff into a river in the middle of the jungle. Of course I was screaming, I thought I—I thought you were gonna—I…” She trailed off, fidgeting a little before folding her arms tightly across her stomach. Her voice was a very low whisper, so quiet that I could barely hear her even as close as we were. “I was worried about you.”
Smiling in spite of myself at that, I teased her just a little bit. “And here I thought you didn’t like me.”
Koren flushed with embarrassment. “I don’t know if I like you or not,” she sniffed at me. “You’re weird. But you’re–” She stopped then, glancing to the others who were all staring at each other before settling on a simple, “You’re my classmate. And as my classmate, I really don’t want you to get hurt. Or worse. It’s not about whether I like you or not, it’s about wanting my classmates to be safe.”
I grinned back at her, but just as my mouth opened to say something, another voice spoke up. “I am seriously considering confining you to the school grounds, Miss Chambers,” Gaia announced while stepping into view. Her words might have come off as harsh if it wasn’t for her light tone that took it from a serious lecture to easy teasing (even if she did have a point). “You seem incapable of going anywhere without attracting a frankly incredible amount of… interest.”
I shrugged at the woman. “Hey, I was in my dorm room when Ammon showed up.”
Her face grimaced at the reminder before she focused on the boy. Unlike me, she recognized him immediately. “Tristan,” the woman spoke sharply. “How–” Stopping herself, she looked him up and down. “I assume Nicholas finally agreed to have you educated here, rather than as part of his team.”
“Uh-” Tristan started, looking briefly blank before he caught himself. “Nick, yeah, he sent me back here. Said this was the best place to go.”
“Well,” Gaia pursed her lips, looking him up and down. “You could have found a better way of announcing yourself. Nicholas’s method of… travel has always lacked subtlety. And I told him that if he wanted you to join this school, it needed to be at the beginning of the year.”
Sighing as she shook her head, the woman gestured. “Come then, we’ll discuss this in my office and see if we can sort things out from there.” To me, she added, “I’d like you to come there as well, Felicity, but a bit later. I’ll send for you once I’ve had a chance to speak to Tristan here and sort out his immediate future.”
“I’ll uh, return your pants later, Flick.” Tristan offered, giving me a casual wave and wink before he moved after the headmistress.
Before they left, Gaia looked back to us. “Other than this… excitement, I trust your hike has been educational?”
Wyatt snapped himself into a full salute, banging his hand off his forehead sharply. “Yes, ma’am!” Belatedly, he added, “Wait, does this mean you’re not making me bring them in?”
Gaia shrugged, looking to me and Koren. “Are you ready to come in?”
The two of us looked at one another before shaking our heads. I looked toward Deveron, then to Wyatt before returning my gaze to the headmistress. “No, ma’am. I mean, I mean, I got a bit soaked, but I should dry pretty–” The headmistress waved her hand, and I was immediately perfectly dry. “–fast?”
“Good,” Gaia announced with a slight smile. “Tristan’s arrival, while surprising, was not an attack of any sort. I see no reason to force your trip to come to a stop just yet, if all of you are willing to continue. It will take several hours to deal with Tristan in any case. We will have to… speak with the Committee about things.”
Wyatt rubbed his hands together. “I thought we were going to have to be done for the day, but if you… if you girls really do want to keep going…” The poor guy looked at us uncertainly and nervously. It made me want to hug him.
“Sure, a little meteor attack isn’t enough to make me give up on a jungle hike,” I replied while glancing at Koren. “You’re still up for it too, right?”
The other girl nodded. “If Flick isn’t quitting after that, I’m definitely not quitting.”
“Excellent,” Gaia announced. “Then I look forward to hearing about your trip later on, girls. Come, Tristan. You and I have much to discuss.”
She took the boy with her then, and I promised to meet up with him later so we could talk. There were, to put it mildly, a lot of things I wanted to ask him. But I couldn’t do it right there.
That always seemed to be the way things went, didn’t it? I was out here in the middle of the jungle, almost as private as we could possibly get, with my half-brother, my niece, and… some guy who clearly had a connection to my mother. And I was still coming up with reasons not to open up to them, not to just flat out talk about what we all knew. Maybe I should stop doing that. Maybe I should stop letting things stop me from talking things out. Maybe enough was enough…
“Well now,” Wyatt looked even more eager than he had before. “I didn’t expect to get down into this area yet, but there’s a very interesting little nest of–”
“Wait,” I spoke without fully meaning to, my mouth getting ahead of my brain. As the other three looked at me, I blanched a little but pressed on. “I think there’s something a lot more important that we need to do while we’re out here. Gaia didn’t just leave us here to go on a tour, as cool as the tour is. She wanted us to talk. She wanted us to really talk.”
Slowly, I turned to look at Deveron. “But you’re the problem,” I said bluntly, staring at him. His advice just before Tristan’s arrival, and how he’d reacted to the boy himself, was completely at odds with the way he’d been behaving through most of the semester. So which one was real?
“You know more than you’re saying. I know that much. But I don’t know if I can trust you,” I informed him. “Give me one reason to, just one reason to think you’re more than the piece of shit, lazy son of a bitch mentor. Say one thing that could make me give you another chance. And I swear to god, if you make a crack, if you dismiss this, if you do anything but give me something honest, I don’t care what your reasoning is. I will not listen to you again.”
“Chambers,” Wyatt started. “What the heck are you–”
Deveron spoke then, his gaze never leaving mine. He gave me the answer I’d asked for, the simple words to make me listen to him and prove he was taking it seriously.
“Joselyn Atherby is my wife.”