“Okay, how? How do you do that?” I demanded while looking sideways toward my companion as the two of us strolled across the grass of the school grounds. There weren’t that many students around, since it was the morning of Thanksgiving break and a lot of people had already headed out to see their families. Still, the ones who were around still were waving and calling out greetings or even jokes.
“How do I do what?” Tristan asked casually while catching a half-full bag of popcorn that someone tossed him while passing. Calling a thanks to them, he tilted his head back to pour some into his mouth.
Taking the bag from him, I poured some into my mouth as well and chewed before answering. “That.” I gestured back the way we’d come, toward the guy that had passed him the bag. “You’ve been here for like… a week and you’re already friends with basically everybody. How do you do that so fast?”
It was true. Even in the short time that he had been around, Tristan had somehow managed to learn pretty much everyone’s name (and no, he didn’t have some perfect memory like Vanessa did. I checked), even some of the people from older years. It seemed like every time I saw him that he wasn’t with his sister, the boy was playing Frisbee with some of the second years, or hanging out on the beach with a bunch of our classmates, or even setting up an after dark barbecue. He was almost constantly active.
Even more than that, he seemed to take an incredible amount of joy just in including everyone. He went out of his way to make sure that everyone had fun. And somehow just seemed to intuitively know when someone should be left alone or when they needed attention. I’d met people that were full of life before, but Tristan was just insane. He was charismatic, gorgeous, and just plain fun to be around.
The boy shrugged easily while taking the bag back to have some more. “I dunno,” he replied. “I just like talking to people, I guess. I mean, when you’re as awesome as I am, you’ve gotta share the wealth.” His words were light, teasing me as he raised an eyebrow, flashing me that perfect, model-worthy grin.
“Besides,” he added then. “Have you seen this place? Of course I’m having fun. Once you get past all the rules and the–” Looking both ways while somehow making it look casual, he lowered his voice. “–fact that a lot of these people would kill me if they knew anything about me, it’s practically paradise.”
In spite of myself, I snorted. “That’s a pretty big asterisk you threw onto that ‘practically’ there. But at least you’re sure adjusting well.” I shook my head slowly. “Though I’m pretty sure your sister would prefer if you spent a little more time studying. And, you know, actually making it to class on time.”
“Yeah, I need to work on that whole schedule thing. Nessa’s gonna find a way to strangle me in my sleep if I’m late again. Totally my bad.” Slipping a pair of sunglasses from his shirt pocket, the blond boy slid them onto his face. “But what can I say? This school’s just got so many cute girls–” He used a finger to tilt the sunglasses down so he could look at me over the top of them. “–Present company most definitely included, it seems like a waste to spend so much time stuck in some stuffy old classroom.”
Flushing a little bit, I coughed. “Don’t forget that whole ‘not drawing more attention’ thing. Since giving certain people an excuse to look too closely at you and your twin could be a bad idea.”
Grimacing at that, Tristan’s head bobbed. “Fair enough. Sorry, it’s just… I’m here! I’m on Earth. Do you have any idea how long I dreamed about this? And, well, I’m not used to the whole class thing. My education was much more… hands on. This whole book studying thing, it’s not really me.” Before I could say anything, he pressed on. “I know, I know. I need to learn, gotta catch up. I get it. You’re right. I’ll do better. Besides, it’s vacation right now! No more school talk. You’re heading out soon, right?”
“Yup,” I nodded. “I would’ve been gone already, but Shiori had some things to do this morning. And since she’s coming to spend time with Senny… well, here I am.” I took back the bag of popcorn again.
Tristan snapped his fingers. “Right, Nessa’s out with her right now. She volunteered to help take care of her little friend out in the jungle while you guys are gone. I guess Shiori wanted to introduce them.”
Raising an eyebrow at that, I coughed. “She told Vanessa about Choo already? Wow, those two must be getting along even better than I thought they were, cuz she’s pretty protective of the feisty little guy.”
Chuckling, Tristan rubbed a hand over his forehead. “Yeah, ever since Nessa found out there was someone else around here in our… situation, she’s been picking poor Shiori’s brain pretty much every night. You should’ve seen her reaction when she found out the headmistress already knew about her.”
Yeah, as it turned out, Gaia had known that Vanessa was another one of the half-Alter students. She hadn’t known exactly what kind of Alter, or about her relationship with Tristan. Apparently, tracing that kind of lineage was harder when the rest of the family had been magically banished to other worlds.
“Speaking of Gaia,” I nudged the boy. “Is the team solution still just temporary?” For the moment, Tristan had been put onto the same team as his sister, and was in his own dorm without a roommate.
Taking the bag of popcorn back from me to empty the last of it into his mouth, Tristan shrugged. “She said we’ll see what opens up next semester. Right now I’m just supposed to be playing catch-up. Which, by the way, are her words, because I would not stick ‘playing’ anywhere near that much work.”
“Baby,” I retorted while elbowing him. He caught my arm and spun me around easily, making me yelp.
Releasing me after winking in a way that made me blush again, the boy balled up the empty popcorn bag and tossed it into the nearest trash can as we passed by. “The point is, it’s sure gonna be lonely around here while you’re off having Thanksgiving. It’ll be so bad, I might even get all my work done.”
Rolling my eyes at, I poked him in the shoulder. “Yeah, sure. You’ll be here all by own lonesome self. You know, along with your long-lost sister and all six dozen of your brand new friends, Mr. Popular.”
He grinned once more. “Well, sure. Believe me, spending time with Nessa is just… amazing. She’s… pretty much just like I remember. At least, I think she is. The whole memory thing is still a little fuzzy.”
Biting my lip, I glanced toward him. “Sorry you guys still don’t get to spend Thanksgiving with your parents. I was hoping Gaia might have a better idea of how to find them by this point. Especially after she found out that Vanessa’s your sister. I thought it might, you know, give her an idea or something.”
“Hey, it’s not her fault,” Tristan replied while giving me a serious look. “And it’s not your fault either. Nick was looking for any kind of information about them for years and couldn’t find them. Of course, all that means is that they weren’t on any of the worlds in the dimensions that we happened to check.”
Snapping my fingers at that, I looked to the boy. “Hey, yeah, I meant to ask you about that. Vanessa was kind of going on about it the other night. What’s that whole ‘dimensional time travel’ thing?”
Chuckling, Tristan stretched his arms up over his head before answering. “Nessa gets it more than I do. Which is weird, since I was the one that was involved in it. But the point is, the way time travel works… or at least the method Nick used for me, is like this. You only get one existence per timeline per dimension, reality, whatever. Only one. So if you’re here at Crossroads right now, you can’t also be in Paris at the same time. You can only exist in one instance in the same dimension at the same time.
“Plus, you can’t go forward in the same dimension either. Because it counts your dead body as existing. Even if you’re buried, gone, and rotted away. It’s just the way the rules work. So if you want to travel in time, you have to either go to a time where you haven’t existed yet, before you were born. Or you travel to a different dimension. You travel to a different reality and you’ve got a fresh slate. You can travel to anywhere in that timeline because there is no existence of you until you actually show up.”
I nodded slowly at that. “And because you were sent away from this reality when you were seven years old, you didn’t have an existing instance in this reality beyond that point. So you could time travel back, for you, to this time. But you couldn’t, say, go back to when your family was broken apart and stop it.”
Swallowing, the boy shook his head. “Nope. And trust me, because I asked, more than once. Never mind the whole paradox thing. It just flat out won’t even let you do it. Apparently just having two of the same person at the same time is enough to wipe every version of you out of existence completely.”
Shuddering at that thought, I looked toward him. “Well, however it happened, I’m glad you managed to get here, Tristan. And tell Vanessa that when I get back from this whole weekend holiday thing, the three of us are going to sit down and talk about… everything. We’ll find your parents, somehow.”
Looking at me seriously, Tristan quirked the side of his mouth up into a very slight smile. “Hey, you’ve got a lot to deal with already. The killer thing, that crazy teacher that hates Avalon for some reason, the big bad necromancer, your family… trust me, I’ve waited this long, I can wait a little longer. Take care of what you need to, Flickster. Don’t try to take on too many problems just because they’re there.”
“Hey,” I shrugged, raising both arms. “If I didn’t over-reach, I wouldn’t be me. Besides, we’re going in to visit Tangle in the hospital after Thanksgiving. And I’m pretty sure we’ll get some answers then.”
“Gonna bust some kneecaps until the comatose woman talks?” he teased.
Rolling my eyes again, I snickered. “Sure, you know me. I’m all thug-life.” I made a few fake goofy and exaggerated gang signs with my hands.
“Uh huh.” Tristan arched an eyebrow. “And if you go by the Wuyehn sign language, you also just said that your pink fluffy cabbage sings beautiful show tunes.”
After leaving Tristan, I made my way to someone else that I needed to talk to before leaving for the holiday. In this case, it wasn’t hard to find him. He was waiting for me beside the girl’s dorm.
“Deveron,” I greeted the boy… man… whatever, this was confusing. Guy. I greeted the guy.
“Felici–” He stopped, breathing out. “Flick, sorry. Listen, I know you’re probably in a rush, but I–”
Nodding quickly, I interrupted. “It’s okay, I was just going to come find you. I figured we should… you know, talk before I leave. Unless it’s past midnight and you’re gonna turn into an asshole again.”
Snorting, he dropped his head into an accepting nod. “I’ve got that coming and a lot more. I get it.” He cleared his throat then, looking back to me seriously. “But yeah, I’d like to chat. Somewhere private.”
“Well, the beach is pretty busy,” I pointed out. “But we could go up to the roof.” Nodding that way, I added, “After all, it’s not like anyone could listen in if you don’t want them to. Which, by the way, I am practicing.” He had taught us how to use that anti-eavesdropping spell, but it was complicated. Out of our entire team, Scout was the only one of us who had actually gotten it to work properly so far.
“You’ll get it,” he assured me before gesturing toward the roof. “After you.”
So, the two of us headed around the back of the dorm to the ladder before climbing up onto the roof. Once we were there, I waited for Deveron to set up another one of those privacy coins of his before speaking. “He really loves her, you know. My dad, he loves my mom. Even now. As far as he knows, she abandoned him, abandoned both of us. But he still loves her so much it… it really messed him up when she disappeared. I mean, I know you love her too. You guys were married. But so does he.”
His face softened a little and Deveron nodded. “Yeah, I know,” he replied quietly. “Believe me, Flick, it would be a lot easier for me if I could just hate your dad. But… I can’t. Because when it comes down to it, he’s gone through the same thing I have. They took Joselyn away from us. And I just can’t hate anyone that’s felt that. I love your mother. But I’m not gonna pretend that your dad’s love for her isn’t just as valid. I…” he stopped, taking a breath before pushing on. “All I care about right now is saving Joselyn. Whatever happens next, we can work it out. Right now, saving her is what actually matters.”
Meeting his gaze for a few seconds, I finally nodded, managing a slight smile. “Good.” After another moment of hesitation, I shifted awkwardly before asking, “So what’re you doing for Thanksgiving?”
Raising an eyebrow at me, Deveron shrugged. “Staying here, pretty much. They do a pretty cool Thanksgiving meal for anyone that’s here over the holiday. Chef Escalan goes all out. There’s a rumor that someone once even saw the guy crack a smile. I’m not sure if I buy it or not, but here’s hoping.”
Smirking in spite of myself, I admitted, “That’d be something to look forward to. But seriously. I don’t know if Koren’s talked to you yet or not, but we’re doing this thing at her family’s new house later in the evening. Apparently they’re having a big party with lots of people, and we were talking about how having you and Wyatt come by as father and son—only, you know, reversed, would be pretty cool.”
That time, his smile was genuine. It looked a lot different from his fake smirk. Warmer. I could kind of see why my mother migh’ve fallen for him. “I’d like that. I’ll uhh, talk to Koren and Wyatt, but yeah.”
“Good, good. It’s uh, it’s Koren’s family and her house, so work out the details with her. I just thought you should… get a chance to meet them and all that. And since Thanksgiving is supposed to be about family, you deserve to…” Trailing off, I breathed out long and low. “This whole thing is confusing.”
“You think that’s confusing,” Deveron retorted. “Try having a son that looks like he’s twice your age.”
“Don’t forget about the part where he threatened to have you arrested if you fucked up again,” I reminded him.
Chuckling, he looked thoughtful. “Yeah…. is it weird that I was actually really proud of him right then?”
“Nope.” I shook my head. “He was doing his job. You know, standing up to a lazy, incompetent,smug–”
“Yeah,” Deveron agreed.
“–dismissive, condescending, rude–” I continued.
“Yup, got it.”
“–chauvinistic, arrogant, pompous…”
“So I guess that’s it,” I announced an hour later while standing in my dorm room. My eyes were on Avalon as I tugged my bag of clothes and other things up onto one shoulder. “I’m gonna meet Shiori and Professor Dare down by the Pathmaker and then we’ll head out.”
Standing there by my bed, arms folded over her stomach, Avalon just watched me. “Uh huh.”
“Which, I guess means that I’ll see you on Monday,” I added, feeling more than a little awkward. It was Wednesday morning. I was just going away for a few days. Less than a week. And yet, I felt like I should say something more to her.
The other girl just nodded. “Unless you decide you’ve had enough of this place and stay home to stick with that whole reporter like your dad thing.”
“I’m pretty sure I–” Blinking once, I tilted my head. “You listened to me. You know I wanted to be a reporter. You know my dad’s a reporter. You did pay attention.”
Now Avalon looked awkward. “You’re not exactly subtle about it, Chambers. I can’t just go selectively deaf and forget how to–”
“I’m gonna miss you too,” I interrupted, blurting it out with a happy (dorky) little smile. “I know it makes you uncomfortable to say it, so you don’t have to. It’s okay. I’m gonna miss you, Valley. And I hope you have a really good Thanksgiving, because… because you deserve it. All these people think you’re this unfeeling ice queen, but you’re not. You’re really not. You’re brilliant and beautiful and strong and… and pretty much the best roommate I could have. You push me to be better every single day and I couldn’t dream of a roommate… of a friend better than that. So when I say I’m gonna miss you, I’m not just saying it to be polite. I will really, really miss you.”
Coughing a little after the brief silence that followed, I moved to open the door. “And I know how awkward that’s gonna make you feel, so I’ll just leave now and you don’t have to–”
She was there, right in front of me. Even as I jumped a little at how fast the girl had moved, she… embraced me. Avalon hugged me tight. That went on for a few long, rather wonderful seconds. She felt… warm and soft.
“I’ll miss you too, Chambers,” she said in a soft, barely audible voice while still holding onto me. And then I felt it. Her lips very gently brushed my cheek. She… she kissed my cheek.
Even as I was still realizing what had happened, it was over. Avalon gave me a little push to get me out of the room. Her own face was pink. Her mouth opened, and I swear she was going to say something else. Then the girl stopped herself, looking… shy before she quickly shut the door in my face.
And for a solid minute, I just stood there, staring at the door while holding my fingers against my cheek.