Explaining to my dad why I’d run out like that had been easier than I’d thought. And, at the same time, harder. I was tired of lying to him, tired of… all that. So, when I got back to the house, I was as honest as I could possibly be. I told him that there was something bothering me, but that I had to work it out on my own. I promised that if there was anything he could do to help, I’d tell him. And that when I could tell him about it, I would. All of that was true. If there was the slightest chance of my father remembering the things that I told him, I’d bring him in on things in a heartbeat, without hesitation.
I could tell that Dad wanted to talk more about it, especially about why the whole Scott thing made me run out like that. But he let it go. At least, on the surface. I wouldn’t be surprised if he started looking into everyone named Scott who ever went to my old school, had any interaction with me, or even went to Crossroads. Gaia getting a call from him asking about any Scotts there wouldn’t surprise me at all.
So Shiori, Columbus, and I spent most of the day trying to relax while talking about serious subjects whenever my father was out of the room. We tried to play some board games, and actually managed to get through a little bit here and there. I couldn’t ever quite forget about what Fossor and Ammon had done (or tried to do), but the other two gave it their best shot. And they even made me smile a little bit.
Eventually, it got late enough for Asenath to join us. Which meant it was time to exchange gifts. Dad and I had done ours, of course. But the three of us had been waiting for Senny to get up (apparently she and Dare had spent the rest of the previous night at a bar drinking the locals under the table while hustling them at pool so bad there might not have been an actual table left for them to be drunk under).
“Great,” I announced as Shiori and Columbus exchanged hugs with her. “You’re up. We thought we’d go for a walk and, you know… talk while we deal with the presents thing. Just missing one more.”
“Need one more?” Senny echoed while raising an eyebrow at me curiously. “One more person?”
Winking, I nodded upstairs while heading out of the room. “Don’t worry, they’ll fill you in.”
Columbus and Shiori told her what was going on while I poked my head in the kitchen to let Dad know that we were going out for a few minutes. Then I jogged upstairs, ostensibly to grab my coat. On the way, I poked my head in my room. “Twist,” I whispered in the direction of my bed, “You still awake?”
There was a brief pause before a dark-furred fox emerged from beneath the bed. She yawned before hopping up onto the mattress, transforming into the girl once more. “Whatsamatter?” she drawled lazily. “Your pops going out again? Need someone to tail him that isn’t spending quality sister time?”
My head shook at that. “Nope. Dad’s fine. I don’t think he’s going anywhere tonight. But you are.”
Her eyebrows raised, even as those cute fuzzy ears pricked with curiosity. “I am? And where’s that?”
“Out with us,” I informed her easily, gesturing. “It’s still Christmas, after all. And Christmas means presents. So c’mon, let’s go. I’ve never kept a vampire waiting for presents before, but I’m pretty sure it’s a bad idea. Do you wanna deal with a cranky, present-less vampire princess? Because I sure don’t.”
For a moment, the Pooka just sat there and looked at me. “You just want me to… exchange presents?”
Breathing out, I met her gaze. “I was thinking about what you said earlier, about Scott. I spent all day thinking about how unfair it was that all of Scott’s family and friends forget him, about how… about how much it must hurt him. But you’re a Pooka too. You’ve been through it. You even said that’s why you don’t interact with humans very much anymore, because they always forget you when you die.”
When Twister nodded silently, I coughed. “So, I mean… I know it’s not much. And maybe you think it’s dumb. But Asenath’s a vampire, and the rest of us are Heretics. The Bystander Effect doesn’t work on us. Which means we’re not gonna forget you. So come on.” I nodded over my shoulder. “Presents.”
Holding my hand out to make it clear that I wasn’t going to take no for an answer, I waited until Twister transformed into a mouse and scurried up my leg to hide in my pocket for the trip back downstairs.
So we joined the others. Twister went back into her human form and pretty much immediately latched onto poor Columbus. “Why in the dozen hells did you bother wasting so much breath talking me into coming along with this when you could’ve just told me this tall slice of chocolate cake was going?”
“Uhhh…” The boy himself coughed, squirming a little with an obviously flushed face. “Hey, Twister.”
“Hey yourself, big guy,” Twister all but purred at him. I was half-afraid she actually would turn into a cat in order to do just that. And between her and Shiori, the puns if she did might have just killed me.
Eventually, my poor teammate managed to extricate himself and we all walked down the street together. Columbus and Shiori had already grabbed the bag they’d brought with them, and I stopped long enough to get the one that I had set up earlier while we were waiting for night to fall. It was dark and cold by that point (beyond cold, considering what I was used to), but I didn’t really care. I was with my friends. The only thing that could have made it better was if Avalon was there. And that was a thought that made me glance sidelong toward Shiori as a somewhat guilty feeling bubbled up in me.
Yeah, we definitely needed to talk about that. Among every other situation that needed to be dealt with, at least that one I could actually affect. Coming clean with both of them about… about my feelings, it needed to happen before someone ended up getting their feelings hurt or there was a misunderstanding.
It didn’t take long to reach the nearest park. We went up to the pavilion and exchanged gifts there.
I gave Columbus a graphic novel collection and Senny a tan trenchcoat and deerstalker cap (so she could be a real detective). For Shiori, I had several Terry Pratchett books. They seemed right up her alley with her goofy sense of humor, and I’d made sure with Columbus that she didn’t have them.
Finally, it came time for Twister. Taking a breath, I focused on her. “I um, I called Professor Dare and asked for her help with this one, because I was pretty sure it wouldn’t be anywhere near here. At least, nowhere close enough for me to get to and back without access to teleportation. Or, y’know, a car.”
With that said, I reached into my pocket and produced a necklace (well, mostly it was a leather cord with a pendant attached to it), holding it out for the other girl to take. The pendant itself was green, and looked a bit like an infinity symbol with a third loop above the second one, or like a rope that had been twisted a couple times. It was bigger on the bottom and smaller as it went up, twisting around itself.
“Lemme guess,” Twister remarked dryly while taking it. “You saw the Twists and just thought of me.”
“It’s called a Pikorua,” I replied. “Apparently it’s a Maori thing, from New Zealand. It’s um, supposed to represent the strength and… you know, endurance of good friendship. The twisting thing is the whole… winding paths of two friends who keep crossing paths and how they’ll always be connected.”
For a few seconds, the Pooka didn’t say anything. She closed her hand around the pendant before clearing her throat as she put it on. There was a slight strain in her voice as she tried to play it off. “Gods damn it, you are bound and determined to make me feel bad about not getting you anything.”
“Are you kidding?” I retorted while giving the smaller figure a little push. “You watch my dad every single day. You keep him safe. You’ve gotten me… pretty much everything. I’m just sorry I don’t have anything better for you. It was just—kind of a rush and… and it felt like something you should have.”
There was more that I wanted to say. But before I could, Senny abruptly turned. She was sniffing, and my hackles immediately went up. As my hand wandered reflexively toward my belt, however, she touched my arm while shaking her head. “It’s not a problem,” she announced quietly. “It’s our–”
A woman stepped into the light of the pavilion. I swore she hadn’t been anywhere near there a second earlier when my searching gaze had passed over it. Yet she didn’t look like she had been running. She was just… there, stepping quietly and gracefully into view with both hands in the pockets of her coat.
She was Asian, her long hair tied into a braid. Besides the long coat, the woman also wore black slacks and a white shirt with an elegant flower design going up one side, culminating around the left breast. Over a shoulder, she carried a plain-looking leather satchel with a strange symbol that I couldn’t make out from where I was standing. But I did know that according to the power that let me know every item in my vicinity, there was nothing in it. Which meant the satchel was either actually empty, or it was magic like the storage devices that Heretics kept their weapons in. I knew which way I was guessing.
When I’d met Gabriel Prosser, his power and overall aura had filled the room completely despite the man doing nothing to play it up. Being in the same room with that man, watching as he did something as ordinary as filling up a glass of water at the sink, had still somehow been an amazing experience.
By contrast, the woman in front of us looked like she could disappear within a second and leave all of us completely unsure of whether she had ever actually been there at all. Her movement was silent, and the shadows themselves almost seemed eager to swallow her up again, clinging to her almost lovingly.
She looked older than Senny, but not by that much. She appeared to be in her mid-twenties rather than a woman who could have given birth to the eighteen-year-old that Senny looked like. There was a sort of fragile china-doll type appearance to the woman everywhere but her eyes, which were a golden amber color that looked both unnatural and beautiful.
Oh, and naturally, my Heretic-sense was kindly screaming in my ear about the woman being an Alter. Thanks, Heretic-sense. Where would I be without you?
“Mother.” The word itself might have sounded stiff and formal. But in that moment, coming from Asenath as she took a single step that way before stopping herself, there was nothing standoffish about it. Her voice portrayed the unbelievable affection and connection she obviously had with the woman, a connection that had obviously lasted for centuries by that point. Their daily lives may have drifted apart so that they spent months or even years without crossing paths. But Senny obviously loved her mother. And from the brief look that I saw flash across the woman’s eyes, the sentiment was definitely mutual.
“Hello, Sunny,” Jiao spoke in a quiet voice that, like the rest of her, seemed to fade away immediately.
“Sunny?” Columbus put in, somehow finding his voice before I did. “Isn’t it Senny? Like Asenath.”
The woman smiled a bit. “That is what others call her, Columbus. But she has always been my sun.”
“Oh, you–” he coughed a little awkwardly. “You know my name. Uh, of course you do.” Glancing sidelong toward his sister, he looked like he was going to say something, but stopped at her expression.
“I do,” Jiao confirmed, her soft smile returning. “Thank you for being such a good brother. I could not have asked for more.” Her attention turned to me then. “And thank you, Felicity, for helping my daughter so much. I owe you a debt that cannot be repaid.”
For her part, Shiori had been standing there open-mouthed. I’d seen more emotion cross the girl’s face in those few seconds than a lot of people demonstrated in an entire week. She was happy, elated, scared, angry, terrified, hopeful, and more. And all those emotions kept flicking through her expression as she stared at her mother. Behind all of it, however, there was an obviously incredibly deep longing.
Her voice, when she spoke to break the silence that had fallen, cracked a little bit. “I don’t know you.” The words were simultaneously a plea and an accusation, and I saw the tears in her eyes. “You’re my mother.” She repeated herself, voice dull with an indescribable pain that had clearly been there for such a long time yet was only now being allowed to show itself. “You’re my mother, and I don’t know you.”
From Jiao’s expression, the words clearly struck home, drawing more pain than any kind of Heretic power or weapon could have. “I know,” she replied in a voice that was somehow even softer than before. “Reathma, my daughter. My child. I wanted so much, so badly to be there for you, with you.”
I could tell that the words mattered to the girl. But she was standing rigid, clearly trying to keep herself from crying even more. Her voice sounded brittle. “Why didn’t you? Because there were bad guys after you? I still could’ve stayed with you. You could’ve protected me if you wanted to. Didn’t you want me? Was I just too much to take care of? Was it too hard to watch me, so you just had to get rid of me?”
Jiao swayed back as if physically rocked by the words. “No,” she answered in a voice that was soft, yet as firm as any monarch’s decree. “I wanted you, Reathma. Never doubt that. I love your father and you as much as I love Sunny and her father. You were never a burden, and surrendering your care to others was one of the hardest things I have ever done in my life. But I wanted you to be safe, and you weren’t. Not after…” She went silent.
“You said love,” Shiori managed after giving me a brief glance. One of her hands found mine, and I saw her take Senny’s hand with the other to get reassurance from both sides. “Love. Present tense. So he’s around. He’s alive. But where is he?”
Jiao’s expression fell, her gaze moving to the ground for a moment before she looked up. “He would be here if he could. I can promise you that much. If it was possible for him to be here, he would not hesitate.” She swallowed before continuing. “Your father’s name is Liang. I… I have been searching for him. I wanted to bring him to you, let him see how you have grown. That is why I was in Africa for so long. I wanted to give you that much. But he has gone missing and… and I’m afraid his enemies finally made their move against him.”
Shiori’s head shook rapidly, and I heard her breath catch. “But what enemies? The same ones that made you both give me up? Who’s my father? What enemies does he have? Where—what really happened?”
She sounded so desperate for the truth in that moment that it made me wish I could answer her. Instead, all I could do was squeeze her hand while trying not to interrupt. Now really wasn’t my time to talk.
Jiao, for her part, looked just as affected. And also like she really wanted to be the one holding her daughter’s hand (and probably more than that). She took a moment to steady herself before answering. “The short version is that your father is a member of the Ba Xian, the Eight Immortals. In human Chinese mythology, the original members are eight originally ordinary humans who gained immortality and great power. The myths vary on how this happened, but the truth was that the Eight Immortals were actually–”
“Heretics,” Shiori interrupted with a gasp. “The Eight Immortals were Heretics, weren’t they?”
Jiao inclined her head in acknowledgment. “Yes,” she confirmed. “Or at least the Ancient Chinese equivalent. They worked together, the Ba Xian. And they took on both followers and what you would call apprentices, those who could see the monsters that they did and who would take up their places. Because the Eight Immortals, while long-lived as any Heretic, were not truly immortal. They could be killed. And they knew that it would happen eventually. So they set each of themselves up as a position rather than a specific person, allowing their place, their identity to be taken up by another, and then another after that. Crossroads has their Committee, and their Chinese equivalent has their Eight Immortals, their Ba Xian.”
“Like a bunch of Chinese Dread Pirate Roberts,” Shiori murmured under her breath. “And… my father, he was—is–was–one of them?”
Jiao nodded. “He was potentially one of them, a student of theirs. And he was very loved, so loved that it was obvious he would be chosen as a successor. But not all of his fellow students liked that. There were those who saw him as a threat to their own advancement, and would use any leverage they could gain against him.”
“Including me,” Shiori finished softly, working her mouth a few times. “That’s why you had to hide me, because these… these Chinese Heretics would have taken me. Not because they’d think I was evil, but because… because it would help them become one of the official Eight Immortals.”
Jiao’s voice was barely audible. “Yes,” she confirmed with a pained expression. “We hid you, not because we didn’t want you, but because you deserved to be safe. When we found out that they knew about your existence, that they would hunt for you… I had to make sure you were safe. That meant getting you as far away from both of us as possible.”
“And now he’s missing,” Shiori muttered. “So they probably just cut out the middle man… errr, girl and went right after him.”
“I believe that is the case, yes.” Jiao hesitated then before continuing. “I haven’t given up on searching for him, Reathma. If he is still alive, I will find him. And I will bring him to meet you. That, I promise.”
Silence returned to the park. No one moved or spoke for several long seconds. Finally, I felt a tug at my hand as Shiori pulled free from both Senny and me. She took another moment to collect herself, then stepped over that way, stopping in front of the woman.
“Mother,” she spoke in a cracked, somewhat broken voice. Then the girl’s shoulders heaved a little, and I heard the tears as she spoke again, a single word that came out as a desperate plea. “Mom.”
Jiao said nothing. No other words needed to be said. The only thing left was action. One action in particular. She took her daughter into her arms, crushing the girl against her chest as tightly as possible.
And for the first time since she had been a baby, Shiori was held by her mother.