“Okay, okay…” Sands was pacing back and forth, her expression almost hilariously wild. “Okayokayokay… so you’re saying that she’s—that her mom—that she’s related to—that she’s really–”
“Breathe, Mason,” Avalon muttered quietly without looking at the other girl. Her gaze was focused solely on the grass in front of her, expression pretty much completely unreadable. “And calm down.”
“Calm down?” Sands blurted, eyes snapping that way. “Calm down? This is like—it’s like if a Bystander—if–” She stopped, frowning before looking to me. “Help, I need an equivalent Bystander.”
Blinking at the girl, I shrugged. “Uh, maybe George Washington would work? Or Jesus Christ?”
Shaking her head, Sands retorted, “I said Bystander, not—never mind. You get the point. Avalon, you know what this is. You’ve been in our world, you pretty much grew up in it over there in Eden’s Garden. If people find out that you’re related to–” In spite of the magical privacy protection, she still lowered her voice to a stage whisper, “–to the Heironymus Bosch, they’re gonna freak the hell out.”
“Okay…” I raised a finger, pausing a bit. “I have so many questions. But they can wait. Right now, we need to figure out what we’re gonna do. I mean, we should tell Gaia what we found out and see how much she already knew. Then we can figure out where this vault thing is and take care of that little–”
“No,” Avalon interrupted flatly before I could say anything else. When everyone looked at her in surprise, she went on. “I mean yes, I will talk to Gaia and find out what she already knew. I’m not keeping any of this from her. And I want to know how much she was aware of. But we’re not going to open the vault. We’re not going near it, and no one is going to talk to anyone else about any of this.”
“But–” I stopped after that single word, squinting at my roommate for a moment before the realization came. “You’re afraid if you acknowledge any of this, or go to the vault, or do anything that lets them know that you know the truth about your family, you’ll scare them off and they’ll disappear forever.”
“Afraid isn’t the word that I would have used,” Avalon informed me. “But yes. I’m… concerned that if the people who were responsible for all of this find out that the vault has been accessed, they will disappear.” Finally lifting her gaze from the grass, she looked straight at me. “If you’re right, they are responsible for killing Professor Pericles, getting me banished from Eden’s Garden, and killing my mother.” The girl’s voice was as hard and focused as I had ever heard it. “I refuse to let them get away with any of that. So we’re not going to do anything to spook them. We’re going to let them continue to think that they have the upper hand, that we don’t know the truth about any of it. And when they come after me again, because they will, then we’ll make them pay for everything they’ve done. All of it.”
Columbus spoke up before I could find the words. “Well, that sounds nice and all. Very important goal. But it also sounds pretty dangerous. I mean, you’re basically putting yourself out there as a target.”
Avalon nodded. “Yeah. And that’s my choice to make. Whoever is responsible for this, whoever Tangle and Fahsteth were working with, I am going to take them down. It’s–” She stopped, looking back to me once more. “It’s not like your situation, Chambers. I don’t even know my mother. I never met her. But they’re the reason why. They’re the reason for everything. So yeah, it’s dangerous. But I’m doing it.”
Despite her words, it sure as hell felt close enough to my situation. I felt a lump catch itself in my throat before nodding. “You know I’m with you, Valley. Whatever we’ve gotta do to stop these bastards and make them pay for what they did. But when you say don’t tell anyone else, um, what about Deveron?”
The other girl’s mouth opened before she stopped herself. I saw her expression as she took the time to consider before sighing. “Fine, Deveron. He’s supposed to be our mentor, he’s… sort of your step-father or whatever, and he hasn’t been a completely useless asshole lately. So yeah, you can tell him about it.”
“I think we’re getting away from the important point here,” Sands put in then. “Which is, holy freaking crap, dude, Avalon’s related to Heironymus god damn Bosch!” She looked at the other girl then, mouth working a little bit before she managed, “Is it really weird that I kinda want to hug you right now?”
“Don’t,” Avalon warned sharply before folding her arms. “And the point we should be focusing on is that the person in a coma in that bed really is Tangle, as far as every test Gaia gave us can tell. It’s her.”
“So some kind of magic shark attack puts her in a coma for months?” Sean shook his head thoughtfully. “Sounds like she and Fahsteth had a major falling out. Maybe he got tired of waiting years to be paid with whatever’s in that vault? They had an argument and it escalated to—well—that.”
“If they really had a falling out,” I started slowly, “Maybe that means Fahsteth could be reasoned with.” As everyone looked at me like I was crazy, I amended, “Okay, not reasoned with. Even I’m not that optimistic. But, you know, if he put one of them into a coma like that, there’s a chance we could get actual information out of him. At the very least, they’re probably not working with him anymore. So if we can get to him, we might be able to work something out where he tells us what we need to know.”
Scout shifted up onto her knees then, nodding toward me before leaning over to whisper in Sands’ ear.
After listening for a few seconds, Sands nodded as well. “Scout thinks you’re right, that we should focus on finding Fahsteth and get answers from him. Isn’t that basically what your mom said too?”
“Pretty much,” I acknowledged. “That and that we needed to find out what that Ring of Anuk-Ité is. Which I haven’t been able to find out anything about yet. I even asked Vanessa about it and she came up blank. Which, if she’s never heard of it, then I’m pretty sure it’s not listed in that entire library.” I shrugged a bit helplessly. “That or it’s just that obscure. She said she’d look into it, but nothing so far.
“She did however, tell me all about the actual Anuk-Ité. Basically, they were these two-faced monsters that a few Native American tribes told stories about. In some of the stories, they were ogres. But mostly they just look human, except they have a second face on the back of their head, and if anyone makes eye contact with that second face, they end up paralyzed until the Anuk-Ité comes and kills them.”
Sands looked thoughtful then. “That’s useful and all, but there’s really nothing about any kind of ring?”
I shook my head. “No rings, amulets, bracelets, or any other kind of jewelry connected to Anuk-Ité. Trust me, if there was a single fashion accessory in any way related to Anuk-Ité in any of the books that Vanessa read in there, she would’ve remembered it. So either it’s in one of the books she hasn’t read yet and she hasn’t been able to find anything even after looking for it all week, or it’s not there at all.”
Turning to Avalon then, I asked, “What about Gaia? I know you were going to ask her about it.”
She shook her head, looking annoyed at her own lack of information. “Gaia didn’t know very much about any ring either. She’s heard it before, but not enough to have any idea what the hell it actually is.”
Sighing, I leaned back on the grass to look up at the sky. “So even the thousand year old headmistress has barely even heard of this thing, and can’t tell us what it is. But we’ve gotta figure it out. Mom wouldn’t have mentioned it if it wasn’t really important, not with the time limit she had. We’ve just gotta… find some kind of information about the damn thing, and what it has to do with Avalon’s father.”
Scout leaned in to whisper to Sands again, and the other girl translated after a moment. “Scout says that it sounded like your mom was trying to tell you how Avalon’s dad could maybe be at Eden’s Garden without them knowing. So maybe it’s a ring that hides Strangers from the Heretic-sense. Sort of like the collar thing that you saw Pace wearing. Only, like, it even lets him hide from his own daughter?”
Nodding thoughtfully, I mused, “Two faces. It could be, but I’m just… not sure. We really need to find out more about it. Maybe we should look up the legend ourselves, or even better, find someone who actually knows about the real thing, or about whatever Stranger inspired that particular legend.”
Sands coughed at that. “Sounds like a lot more field trips in our future. Hope they all go as well as this one did. Hell, at this point we’re… what, one for two hundred and seventeen as far as outings go?”
Wincing, I put my foot out to jab the girl in the leg. “Stop jinxing it, damn it. We’ve already got enough problems without you sticking both middle fingers up to the sky and telling whoever might be listening to bring it on. If anything bad happens, we’ll deal with it. But we need to find the information first.”
“What did you tell Vanessa about why you needed to find out about this thing, or where you heard it?” Columbus asked. “I mean, I assume you didn’t tell her the truth about your mom and, well, all of it.”
I shook my head. “She knows there’s something going on, but I told her I couldn’t talk about it. She’s um, sort of still really grateful about the whole ‘helping her brother’ thing, so she didn’t ask a lot of questions. Well, she did ask a lot of questions, but they were all about how she could try to find out more about this ring. I sort of feel a little guilty about not telling her the truth about all this stuff.”
“Don’t,” Avalon snapped. “The less she knows, the less danger she’s in.” Pausing, she amended, “Up to a point. There’s a line where if she doesn’t know what’s going on, she could be in worse danger.” She straightened then, her eyes laser-focused on me. “But do not tell her. Right now, it’s safer that way. Besides,” the girl grumbled with annoyance, “Too many people already know more than they should.”
“Don’t worry,” I replied quietly, “I don’t wanna drag anyone else into our problems. Besides, they’ve got their own things to worry about. Vanessa deserves a chance to spend time with Tristan, and focus on trying to find their parents from wherever they ended up. We can—” I paused, frowning as a thought occurred to me. “You know, we have a lot of issues with missing or dead parents at this school.”
“You’re just now noticing this?” Sands retorted. “It’s kind of a requirement to be in our club.” Pausing then, she looked toward Sean before patting him on the shoulder. “Which makes you the odd man out.”
The boy shrugged at that. “Hey, my parents are much too busy making money and exploring brave new worlds to spend time with each other, let alone me. Can I still be an honorary member of the club?”
“Sure thing,” Columbus agreed easily. “And next vacation we get, you take us to see your uncle’s place.” He grinned as the next words came, his teasing obvious. “I’ve always wanted to visit Mexico.”
Sean’s retort came automatically, and I knew it was an ongoing thing between the two of them. “It’s not Mexico, you hijueputa. Colombia’s over two thousand miles from Mexico. That’s like calling a Swedish guy Egyptian. Or finding out a guy lives in New York City and being like, ‘Yee-haw, pardner. Didja hafeta ride yer horse tah school?’” Pausing then, he amended, “Actually, that one’s pretty damn offensive no matter where they live. But you get the point. I’m Colombian, not Mexican. Colombian.”
Somehow keeping a straight face, Columbus asked, “But they still have tacos and burritos, right?”
“Oookay!” I quickly put in before Sean could strangle his roommate. “We’re getting a little off track here. Let’s go over it again. We need to find out more about Anuk-Ité and the ring. We need to try to track down Fahsteth and find out what he knows about any of this, especially if we can make him wake up Tangle so that we can make her tell us the truth. And…” I paused then before looking toward Avalon. “I think we need to look into your mother’s past, Valley. We have to find out where she came from, whether she had any interaction with Heretics, any of it that could possibly be even a little bit relevant. It might help us figure out who guessed her relation enough to run that blood test in the first place.”
Avalon looked distracted for a moment before she gave a slight nod. “I’ll… see what I can do,” the other girl murmured before reaching out to pick up her crutches. She used them to push herself up. “If that’s all, I’ve got things to do. Don’t fuck up and start talking about this stuff where people could hear you.”
With that, she was already leaving, making her way quickly across the grass before most of us even fully realized that she had ended the meeting. We all looked at each other and mumbled a few things about what we could do and that we’d meet back if any of us thought of anything else. Then I picked myself off the ground and jogged after my roommate after grabbing the privacy coin. Which, despite her injury, I still had to work at.
Even as I hurried up behind the other girl, Avalon spoke up. “What do you want now, Chambers?”
Her tone made me pause, but I pushed past it and stepped around in front of her, holding up the coin so that she’d know I wasn’t making a big mistake. “I just—I wanted to see how you’re feeling. That was kind of a lot of big news. Not just the whole inheritance thing, but… finding out that the mother you thought died in childbirth was probably… probably murdered for it.”
Avalon squinted at me, though she did stop walking. Probably because I was right in front of her. But hey, at least she didn’t just run me over and keep going. “I never knew my mother, Chambers. I don’t have any feelings about her one way or another. Whether she died because of some normal complications during childbirth or died because she was murdered, it really doesn’t matter that much.”
“No offense, Valley,” I shot back, “But that’s complete bullshit, and you know it. Yeah, I know you don’t really do emotions that much. I get it. But whether your mother was murdered or not does matter. And you care about it too. That’s why you’re so insistent that we have to catch these sons of bitches. It’s not because they’re coming after you. It’s because of what they did to Professor Pericles and to your mother. You care about that. Whether you knew her or not, she’s still your mom. Especially since it’s those pieces of shit who took away your chance to know her. So yeah, you do care, and it does matter.”
“What does it affect right now, Chambers?” Avalon demanded while leaning on her crutches. “How would my being emotional about why my mother, who I never met, died actually affect anything? How would emotions be useful in any way toward making them pay for what they did?”
My head shook at that. “Emotions… they’re part of our humanity…” I winced then. “We really need a better word for that, considering everything. But the point is, our humanity isn’t a weapon for us to hit people with. It’s the floor that holds us up so we don’t sink down to that level. Some people’s floors are higher or lower than others, but all of us who aren’t completely soulless monsters have them. And it’s the humanity, empathy, compassion, and feelings, the floor, that stop us from just falling through and ending up in a pit of… real monsters. Alters, Bystanders, Heretics, whatever the hell anyone is, it’s where they put their floor that determines whether they’re a monster or not.”
Swallowing then, I finished quietly. “And you’re not a monster. Yeah, you didn’t know your mother. But you could have. And they took it away from you. It’s okay to be pissed about that. And it’s okay to be sad, Avalon. That’s what makes us… it’s what makes us better than the monsters.”
The other girl stood there stiffly, her voice brittle. “What am I supposed to do with it?” Deep in her voice, I heard the genuine question, the confusion, the fear and uncertainty beneath her hard exterior.
“You wanna know what to do with it?” I took in a breath and let it out then, stepping forward before I could talk myself out of it. My arms went around Avalon, and I hugged her tightly (though not too tightly, considering the strength that I had inherited). “I’m sorry about your mother, Valley. I’m sorry they took her from you.
“You’ve been there for me when I needed you. So let me be here for you.”
Because that was what you did with that kind of feeling, that kind of loss. You empathized with other people who were going through similar situations. You helped them as much as you could. You lifted them up, held them when their own floor started to sink, until they got it back again.
Something brushed by my leg, and I belatedly realized that it was Avalon’s crutches. She had dropped them to the grass. Then I felt something else: her arms closing around me.
We stood there like that for… I had no idea how long, both of us embracing each other. Then I heard her whisper, voice so quiet I could barely hear her.
“Thank you… Felicity.”