Month: June 2018

Homecoming 35-07

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It was Gaia’s office that we emerged into after passing through the portal. A nice, private area to have our reunion in.

And there they were, standing in front of the portal while clearly waiting for us. My team, my friends, my niece. Columbus, Scout, Sean, and Koren. Even Vulcan gave a happy bark when he saw the three of us. And in the second after that, I found myself nearly knocked backward through the portal once more as a lithe, dark-haired girl threw her arms around me and held on tight with a noise that sounded like it was a cross between a shout of joy and a sob.

“Oof.” Taking a quick step back, I caught myself on my back foot before returning the embrace, just as tightly. “Hi, Shiori.” My voice was soft, its tenderness hopefully portraying what I felt as I held onto the other girl.

God, holding onto her felt so good. It felt so right. For everything that had made the trip to Seosten space interesting and useful, I had missed my girls more than I could express. It all came back to me in a rush as I held onto one of them now. Feeling her arms around me and her body against mine, it was all I could do not to burst into tears myself. I was home. I was really, truly home.

Her hug grew almost painful as she squeezed me even tighter. Her voice was plaintive. “Don’t do that!” she snarled at me. “Don’t do that again! Don’t disappear like that. You can’t just disappear like that. You could’ve died and… and…”

In the background, I half-heard Vanessa and Tristan greeting the others, and I had a brief thought that it wasn’t fair that the rest of their team had to be kept out of it. I knew why, of course. But it still sucked.

But then my thoughts on that, as well as every other conceivable subject, disappeared as Shiori kissed me. Her mouth found mine, and I almost collapsed at the electric feeling. My hands gripped her back even tighter, and I pulled her up against me. I could have sworn that there was uplifting, beautiful music somewhere.

Wait a second, there was music. Pulling back a bit, I turned to find Tristan standing there with Bobbi-Bobbi in her full snake body. The cyberform’s mouth was open, and that song was coming out.

The boy grinned at me, adding a thumbs up. “Don’t let us interrupt,” he announced, “just thought you might like some mood music.”

Flushing a little bit, I turned back to give Shiori one more quick kiss. “I’m okay,” I promised while holding onto her. With a smile, I added, “Hey, where’s the girl that goes on this arm?” I waved my left limb a little teasingly. “It’s lonely.”

Winking, Shiori replied, “She’s waiting for you down on the beach. You know, for a private reunion. I’m pretty sure she didn’t think she could restrain herself when you showed up, and you know how she hates it when people see her being affectionate and… well… human.” She made a face at her own phrasing before shaking it off. Then she kissed me again, and I lost myself for another moment.

After a few seconds of that, I pulled back and smiled. “Seriously. I’m right here and I’m just fine.”

“Are you really, though?” That came from Columbus. He was staring at me through his goggles. And his posture remained a bit standoffish. “Are you really okay?”

My eyes passed from him to the others. They seemed just as withdrawn, watching to see what I did, how I acted, who I really was. Seeing that, I let out a long, low sigh. “Guys,” I announced, “I know what you’re thinking, but it’s me. It’s always been me.”

Koren cut straight to the point, as was her wont. “You’re possessed,” she announced flatly.

“Err…” I coughed once, then shook my head. “Technically, not right now I’m not. I mean, yes I have been for most of my life, but no, I’m not possessed right this second. She’s back at the Atherby camp.”

“She?” Sean pressed, sounding curious.

Before I could say anything to that, Scout quickly piped up. “Sands? And… Mom…?” She had clearly been restraining herself as much as possible, wanting to give me a chance to actually greet the others and all that  before she burst in with all of the many important questions that she had. But she hadn’t been able to hold back any longer, and I couldn’t blame her for that.

“They’re okay,” I quickly assured her. “We,” I gestured toward Vanessa and Tristan, “were sort of transported here through a shortcut. The others are still out there. But your mom and sister are safe. They’re just going to have to take the long way to get back. But trust me, they’ve got plenty of help. They’ll make it.”

“And by we, you mean the three of you… and your passenger.” Columbus, again making it clear through his words and tone that he wasn’t very happy about that idea. And honestly, who could blame him given what he had been through?

And then it really struck me. How long had it been since I actually spoke to the real Columbus as himself? I hadn’t had a chance to really talk to him since that fight.

My expression of softened, and I stepped that way. My arms went around him, and I felt him stiffen for just a moment before he hesitantly returned the hug. I could sense his worry and apprehension through it.

“I’m sorry,” I announced quietly while holding onto him. “I am so sorry we didn’t figure it out sooner, Columbus. I’m sorry you had to go through all that with that… that… psycho bitch.”

Grimacing a little, the boy met my gaze. His own eyes were partially shielded by those goggles. “What about yours?” he asked simply. “Pretty sure she wasn’t on the Seosten payroll.”

Quickly, I shook my head, replying firmly, “Definitely not.”  Then I took a breath before starting to explain everything once again. The others, especially Shiori and Columbus, listened intently as I went through everything that had happened. I told them all of it, from the moment that I had been left in that forcefield prison and Tabbris had exposed herself to save me, all the way up through getting back to Earth. I told them about Athena and the Aelaestiam, about Lord Yup, about Jokai and Jazz becoming an item.

And I told them about Katarin. And, of course… Isaac.

As they had before, Vanessa and Tristan spoke up now and then to help out. Especially when we got to the parts that they were there for. But mostly it was me, doing a lot of talking.

Through it all, the others stared at me, most of them open-mouthed. Occasionally, someone would ask a question for clarification. But for the most part, they were silent.

Scout slumped once I was done. There were tears in her eyes, and she folded her arms across her stomach while looking sick. “Professor Katarin was nice,” she murmured in a voice that sounded broken. “He was nice to me when…” Blinking away those tears as best as she could, the girl sat down on a nearby armchair and dropped her head into her arms. Her shoulders shook a little bit.

I took a step that way, but it was Tristan got there first. The boy went down on his knees in front of the chair, taking Scout’s hands and squeezing them a little. I heard him murmur something quietly, but turned my attention away rather than eavesdrop. Scout needed someone to comfort her right then, and Tristan was the one who was doing it.

Instead, I focused on Koren, who asked, “Isaac, he’s still at that space station?”

Nodding quickly, I confirmed, “Yeah, and trust me, Athena isn’t going to let him out. Actually, I’d be really surprised if they don’t just find a way to rip those secrets out of his head. I bet Apollo could do it with that gift of his.”

Columbus’s voice was pointed. “You sound awfully chummy with them.”

I looked back to the boy, nodding once. “Yeah,” I replied easily, “because they’re not all one hundred percent evil anymore than any other species is. I just told you, Athena and her allies are working with other species trying to fight and change things. Yeah, they’ve got an uphill battle to do it, but they’re trying. “Besides,” I added while gesturing to the twins. “Look at Vanessa and Tristan. More to the point, look at their mother. It’s not the species that’s evil, Columbus. It’s the individuals. It’s the society they were raised in. That’s what has to change. It’s not that different from all the Heretics here. Mom was trying to change that. We’re trying to change that. And Athena and her people are trying to change their side. You can’t condemn an entire species because some of them do awful, terrible things. You change the society that brought them up to be like that.”

From the expression on his face, I wasn’t sure that I had gotten completely through to him. But he looked away and didn’t say anything else for the moment. I hoped he was at least thinking about it. Though I knew that it would take time, especially after what he had been through. And it was time that I was willing to give him. He deserved that kind of patience.

It was Koren who spoke next. “This girl, this… Tabbris, you said? You really trust her that much? You trust her enough to be in your head like that?”

“She’s my sister,” I repeated simply. Then I gestured back to the twins, to where Vanessa stood by helping Tristan with Scout. “She’s our sister. She was in my head for years and she never did anything wrong. Believe me, we can trust her. Dad and her mom are with her right now, but I want you guys to meet her. You know, the next chance we get. I want you to talk to her outside of my body. I want you to get to know her as herself before you make any real judgments.

“But think about it this way, if it wasn’t for her revealing herself and saving me from that trap, I wouldn’t have shown up at that hotel. Which means that Charmiene would have succeeded with everything she was trying to do right then. All of us would either be dead or Seosten slaves. Tabbris didn’t just save me that day. She saved all of us. And she did it by risking herself in every way. She’s a kid, and she’s the bravest kid I know.”

“Well, then I guess we need to meet her,” Sean replied before stepping forward. He embraced me then. “Glad you made it back, Flicker.”

Koren took her turn then, as did Scout after rising from the chair. Despite her grief about the man that she had known for a lot longer than I had, and her disappointment about her sister and mother not being with us, the girl found a tiny smile. “Avalon’s waiting.”

“And you’re talking,” I shot right back, grinning. “I think Herbie’s gonna win your next quiet contest, at this rate.”

She perked up a bit at that. “You have him?”

Grinning at her, I nodded. “Of course I do.” From my pocket, I produced Herbie. “Here, rockstar, say hello to your adoring fans.”

Boy, it was weird… strange… funny not getting Scout’s input filtered through Sands. I wasn’t accustomed to hearing so much of her voice or for her to be quite so open about things. Clearly I wasn’t the only one who’d had a lot going on in that time. Scout had grown too. They all had.

I wanted to hear everything. And I wanted to talk to them all a lot more. Especially Columbus. I had a feeling that it was going to take quite a lot to talk him around on not every Seosten being evil, after what he’d been through.

I would do it. I would take as long as I had to. But right now, there was someone I really wanted to see. So, after a little more interaction with the others, I excused myself. Then Shiori and I left the room. The others would stay with Vanessa and Tristan so that the twins could fill in any gaps I’d left in the story, or answer questions.

Together, the two of us made our way out of the office and through the school. On the way, we were stopped no less than a dozen times by a mixture of teachers and students. Everyone wanted to know what was going on, if I was officially back, where I had been, where the others were, and so on. Apparently as accustomed as Crossroads was to crazy things happening, a half-dozen students disappearing for two months was pushing it.

I just kept promising that they’d get answers later, that I was okay, that Gaia was working on saving the others, and so on. All of which meant that it took much longer to reach the beach than it normally would have.

Finally, we made it. Shiori pointed, telling me, “Just keep going that way, you’ll find her. I’ll meet you guys in a few. Choo needs walkies anyway. And I–”

Abruptly, she kissed me again. That time, I tasted tears that had fallen to her lips, and pulled back after a moment to stare at her. Clearly realizing what happened, she sniffled a little. “Sorry,” she said quietly. “I was just… I thought I might never see you again.”

“Oh, Shiori.” Smiling despite myself, I brushed those tears away gently with the back of my finger. “I’m here. And you, you’re amazing. You know the only reason I can even think about walking away from you right now is because Avalon’s waiting, and she’ll kill both of us if she doesn’t get a turn.”

Arching an eyebrow, the other girl dryly replied, “You know how lucky you are, right?”

“Ohhh yeah, the thought has occurred to me a few thousand times,” I promised. Together, we giggled just a little. Then we embraced once more and Shiori promised again to meet up with us so that we could all walk back and rejoin the rest of the group to go over everything again. Once the initial reunions were over, we could talk a lot more about specifics. And I was sure that everyone would have a million questions for me, even after the quick summary that I’d given them along with the twins.

But for now, I needed a break. I needed to see Valley. So I made my way down that beach, eventually jogging. I had to see her. The prospect made me giddy. Even after everything that had happened, the idea of seeing Avalon after two months made me so… happy that I could almost laugh out loud.

I bet you think I’m cra–

Oh. Right. Tabbris wasn’t there. Tabbris wasn’t… in me… she wasn’t…

Well. Now I felt… empty. I hadn’t noticed that much before. But now that the thought had come, it was all I could focus on. Or at least, it was all I could focus on until I rounded another corner and saw… my girl.

There she was, standing on the edge of the beach with her gaze out toward the ocean as if she was waiting for me. The setting sun framed against the beautiful Avalon took my breath away for a moment. It was all I could do just to remain standing, as a lump formed in my throat. I tried to speak, but nothing came for a few seconds. It was almost enough to simply stand here, watching her. After all the time that we had been apart, seeing her like this, it was… powerful.

But it wasn’t enough. I needed to touch her, feel her, be with her. I needed to hear her voice. So I shook off my brief moment of stunned silence and called out, “Valley!” Hearing the joy in my own voice, I couldn’t help but giggle a little before throwing myself into a sprint. My feet kicked up sand as I ran that way. If my moment with Shiori had been what finally convinced me that I was home, this was icing on the cake. My other girl. My girl. Avalon. I was home. Finally.

Hearing my voice, Avalon turned. I saw her eyes meet mine, and I knew that little smile was coming. The one that was reserved just for me. The put-on reluctance, the acceptance, the happiness that I knew she felt. The happiness that I felt whenever I saw her.

She didn’t smile.

Instead, she spoke… in a voice that was not her own. “Miss Chambers. So glad that you made it home.”

The strange voice that wasn’t at all like Avalon, the fact that she didn’t smile, or move other than to look at me, all of it combined to bring me up short. A frown found its way past the joyful smile that had been on my face. “What…?”

“I do mean that sincerely,” Not-Avalon informed me. “Though you may doubt it. I am very glad that you escaped your banishment and returned. After all, this would not have been possible without the distraction that your arrival created. Gaia leaving the island completely for an extended time, leaving her daughter alone? It was an opportunity that I couldn’t possibly resist. Staying here until you arrived, however, that was a bit of an unnecessary indulgence. But, well, we all have our vices. And in my defense, you have been quite an annoyance this past year. So, I believe I have earned this moment.”

My mouth opened and shut, and then I felt my stomach drop as my knees went weak. The horror of my growing realization became a dark cloud that seemed to blot out all light. “M… Manakel? No. No, that’s impossible. You can’t–she can’t be possessed! That’s impossible!” Even as I spoke my denial, the words sounded hollow and empty to my own ears, like I was a terrible actress, reading them from a script that I had only just then picked up.

“Correct,” the horrible, fake Avalon in front of me confirmed. “Miss Sinclaire cannot be possessed. You are absolutely right about that. However, given… well, shall we say, most of a year to prepare, and multiple false attacks in which it was possible to… ahh, secretly gather samples of the girl’s DNA… it was very possible to create a spell which would… well, to put it simply, make a temporary duplicate of her. A duplicate which included every possible thing that could be used to identify or track her. Including, of course, all of those lovely, and dare I say, incredibly advanced protective spells.

“You didn’t think that I was sitting on my hands all this time, did you? All those failed attacks? They weren’t failures. Not really. Each one allowed me to gain a little more knowledge, a little more understanding of those spells, a little more of what I needed to create this temporary duplicate, complete with copies those same protective spells.Of course, I couldn’t use it just any time. After all, Gaia and whoever else she has monitoring those spells on the young Miss Sinclaire would notice if there happened to be two different versions of their charge at the same time. However quick I might have been, if Gaia were here on the island, she would have noticed. But when I learned that she had gone to collect you, well that presented a unique opportunity.

“You’ve seen that film… ahh, Indiana Jones? I refer to the part in which the great Indy must ahh, switch the artifact from the bag of sand, hoping to do so quickly enough that the device it was sitting on wouldn’t notice the switch? Well, I dare say that my endeavor was more successful than his. Taking Miss Sinclaire to a safe location, and leaving this duplicate behind to speak through, it was quite… challenging to time that perfectly. But I think even you can admit if you look at things objectively, it worked out rather better for me than it did him. I mean, hah, I don’t see a large boulder crashing this way, do you?”

Horror and disbelief clashed within me, their war becoming the awful pounding that filled my head even as he continued speaking through the simulacrum of Avalon. “And now, well, all that’s left is to hold onto Miss Sinclaire in a safe location far away and shielded from any tracking devices or spells, where we may wait until that nasty protection spell has run out. Thankfully, I have access to a great many resources that can speed that up a bit. And once the spell has run out without being renewed or refreshed… heh, well, then it will be time to eliminate Miss Sinclaire, complete my duty here on this world, and move on to bigger, better things.”

“No!” The shout tore its way out of my throat, filling the air. “No! No! You can’t have her! You can’t take her!

Not-Avalon smiled slowly. “But Miss Chambers… I already have.”

A wordless scream of fury and loss escaped me as I threw myself that way. My empty hands rose, only to tear straight through the fake body, as Not-Avalon dissolved into a cloud of sand and dust that simply drifted away on the wind. I was left standing there alone on the beach as my broken voice tore up to the sky.

“Manakel! You can’t have her! Manakel!”

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Mini-Interlude 63 – Son Of The Bogeyman

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Two Years Ago.

“What do you mean, he was expelled?! Do you know how much it cost to send that boy to that school?”

Sixteen-year-old Miles Cleary lay on his bed. The lanky, olive-skinned boy with shaggy black hair stared up at the ceiling of his room while he listened to his adopted parents ‘discussing’ his expulsion. Having been taken in by the two around ten years earlier when he was six, Miles still remembered being terrified every time either of them got a little bit upset that they would throw him back into the foster system that he had been a part of ever since his actual parents had up and disappeared when he had been only three.

Now, of course, the boy knew better. He knew his adopted parents, while they may not have been biologically related to him, still loved him nonetheless. They wouldn’t get rid of him just because they were upset. Which was what actually made this whole situation even harder, because he hated disappointing either of them.

He’d lost control, he knew that. Ronney Swank had deserved a good pop in the face for the way he had been bragging about manipulating Tracey Burge, a ninth grader, into a lot more physical of a relationship than she had been ready for, and then dumping the girl as soon as he’d gotten what he wanted. There was no question about it. He’d deserved to be hit. Miles didn’t feel bad about that part.

But somehow, he had done more damage than he had intended to. Even though he’d only hit the boy once, Ronney had been thrown backward into the lockers, which themselves had dented inward. The boy’s nose and jaw had been broken by that single punch, and he had damage to his back and arm from the impact against the lockers. He was going to be in the hospital for a while.

Needless to say, the school had expelled Miles immediately, and there was talk of their family being sued by the Swanks. Which was just… fantastic. Just really fucking fantastic.

With a long, heavy sigh as he stared at the ceiling, the boy muttered mostly under his breath, “The worst part is, I’m pretty sure I’d still hit him if I had the chance to do it all over again.”

“Being willing to stand up for those who are being mistreated should never be considered the ‘worst part’ of anything, Mr. Cleary.”

The sudden, unexpected voice made Miles jerk upright with a yelp. He spun on his backside, staring at the figure who stood in his doorway. There was a tall, beautiful red-haired woman there, who wore a pristine black suit. Her eyes were kind and soft as she regarded him.

“Wh-what–who–?” Scrambling to his feet, Miles quickly brushed himself off. “Who… who are you, a cop? Where’s my mom and dad? I don’t think you’re supposed to be in here talking to me without them. Mom?” At the last, he raised his voice to call past the woman. “Dad?”

Holding up one hand, the woman gave a slight shake of her head. “It’s alright, Mr. Cleary. I am not a police officer. My name is Gaia Sinclaire, of Crossroads Academy. And… it is best that we speak privately right now. Because what I have to say involves your birth parents. And an opportunity that is solely yours to choose whether to accept or not.”

Blinking once at that, Miles squinted at the woman in confusion. “My birth parents? What do you know about– Crossroads Academy? Another private school? Oh boy, are you ever barking up the wrong tree. Trust me, miss, you definitely don’t want anything to do with me. Besides, my parents aren’t gonna pay for another private school after– wait, how did you even get in here? My… they wouldn’t let you up here without being right with you. And what do you mean, an opportunity? What’s going on?”

Offering him a small smile, the woman–Gaia Sinclaire, started with, “I assure you, I am most certainly not ‘barking up the wrong tree’. And you may wish to sit down for the rest of this, Mr. Cleary.

“Because it it quite a story.”

*******

One Year Ago

“Aight, Miles, we’re all here.” Standing on the beach of Crossroads Island about as far from the actual school as they could possibly get, Kaleigh Ruffin spread both arms out while staring at him, the green-trimmed uniform shirt slipping a bit to show her pale, freckled arms. “What was the big emergency that we had to come all the way out here for?”

For a moment, Miles regarded the girl, as well as the rest of his team here at Crossroads. They had been a group like this for almost a year by this point, and had been through quite a lot.

There was Kaleigh, of course. The red-haired, feisty little girl had an incredible temper that was matched only by her generous heart. Then there was her quieter African-American roommate in a white-lined security uniform, Emily Perry; Miles’ own roommate, the Heretic-born Slavic-looking blond boy Royce Jacoby in his purple-lined uniform; and finally, Jason Trips and Chas Mena, wearing red and blue accented uniforms respectively. The last two were not related at all (as was easily noted by Chas’s heavily Hispanic features as opposed to Jason’s tanned, yet definitely white ethnicity), though they might as well have been. Within the first day of being made roommates, the two had practically been finishing each other’s sentences.

Miles himself, in his own red-trimmed uniform, completed the group. And now his five teammates were standing in a semicircle, waiting for the boy to explain why he’d made them come all the way out here. But instead of speaking right away, he took a long, deep breath. This was hard. Even harder than he’d thought it would be, and he’d been trying to plan out how to have this exact conversation for… a long time. Even knowing that he had an out if it didn’t go well, that Gaia wouldn’t let things get out of control didn’t really help that much. Yes, if they reacted badly to what he was going to say, it wouldn’t endanger everyone else who was in his position.

But he would still know that it had gone wrong. And if it did, if Gaia had to step in and undo this conversation so that they wouldn’t remember it, would he ever be able to look at these guys the same way again?

“Dude?” That was Chas, the boy frowning at him as he reached out to poke Miles. “You okay?”

“Yeah,” Jason agreed, “you look like you’re about to tell us that you’re a time-traveler from the future, sent back to stop the world from ending and–wait, you’re not, right? Because the further that sentence went on in my head, the more I realized that it’s not exactly completely impossible in this place. And if you are a time-traveler, please tell me indestructible robots are not involved.”

Smiling despite himself, Miles promised, “I am not a time-traveler, and as far as I know, there’s no apocalyptic future or indestructible Austrian robots.”

“Too bad,” Royce lamented with a low sigh as the blonde boy shook his head. “Arnie was hot in those first couple of movies. Those biceps, mreow.”

Despite himself, Miles forced himself to speak up before they could all get too offtrack. The truth was, he would very much have rathered just have an innocent, goofy conversation about nothing important. They were all good at that.

But his team deserved to know the truth about him, about his past. They deserved a chance. And he’d been putting this all off for too long as it was.

So, before they could all get distracted once more, he announced, “I know who my parents are.”

That got their attention. Blinking at him, Emily was actually the first to speak (which just showed how surprised her much more boisterous roommate was). “What… you mean your real parents? You found out who they are?”

Grimacing at the reminder of his months-long lie, Miles weakly admitted, “Actually, I’ve… sort of known who they were, who my father was, since before school started. Since Headmistress Sinclaire came to recruit me, actually.”

“Whoa, whoa, whoa.” Kaleigh was shaking her head. “What do you mean, Gaia came to recruit you? The headmistress herself? What’d you do to merit such an important recruiter? What, was your dad some secret Heretic hero or something?”

“Yeah, man, why would you say you didn’t know who they were?” Jason asked, frowning in confusion. “What’s the big deal? And what does that have to do with making us come all the way out here? You didn’t make us come out here just so you could tell us that you’re embarrassed about your real parents being dicks or something, did you?”

“No, no, I–” Miles sighed then, folding his arms tight against his chest while trying to remind himself to just push on. Tell them the truth. He had to tell them the truth. “Okay, look, I’m gonna tell you guys. But you have to promise to just stand here and listen, alright? You have to let me get through it. You remember our secret from a couple weeks ago, at the–”

“The thing that we all swore we weren’t going to talk about?” Royce suddenly cut in. He was frowning at the boy. “Remember, we said we’d never bring it up, never talk about it, never discuss what we did.”

“Yeah, well…” Wincing, Miles took a second to look over each of their curious gazes before announcing, “We have to talk about it after all. Sorry, we just do.”

Chas pointed a finger at him. “Look man, she was pregnant. I don’t care what’s going on, I ain’t killing a pregnant woman, you understand? I didn’t think this was gonna be a thing with you or what it has to do with your real parents or whatever, but they shoulda done a little more research before they sent us out to kill a Stranger that happened to be pregnant.”

“I’m not upset that we didn’t kill the pregnant woman!” Miles denied quickly. “Damn it, I just don’t know how to–”

Kaleigh was making a face as she put in, “Was that weird? I mean, whatever… offspring or whatever she has are gonna be evil when they grow up anyway, right? I mean… I mean…” She trailed off, gesturing vaguely with a confused look.

“Then let ‘em grow up and be evil so that someone can kill them,” Chas retorted. “Like I said, I ain’t killing no pregnant woman, and I ain’t killing no kids. That’s like… Eden’s Garden stuff.”

“But if the offspring kills someone else in the meantime,” Jason questioned, “does that make it our fault? I mean, we could’ve stopped it before anything bad happened.”

“I’d say killing a kid is pretty bad,” Royce pointed out. “And that’s getting really deep into the ‘would you kill Hitler in his crib’ stuff, except we don’t know…. I mean, we do know that they’re evil because they’re monsters. But–I mean…” He, like Kaleigh, trailed off with a confused look.

It was a look that Miles knew well. He’d seen it on all of his team’s faces since the moment that they had all decided, together, to spare the pregnant Stranger that had been one of the last targets of their most recent hunt. They had let her escape, standing at the edge of the building to watch her flee. Any single one of them could have put a stop to it, could have killed her. They’d had plenty of time, and her back had been to them. For those twenty seconds or so as the woman fled over the lot and through the field, they could have ended it and killed her.

They didn’t. And that had been what had convinced Miles to tell his team the truth. Except it was proving harder to get the words out than he had anticipated, and the rest of the team was already deep in conversation about the woman they had released. Apparently despite their initial promise to never talk about it, they had all been thinking about it a lot. And he had opened up the floodgates.

Still, he had to get through this. There wasn’t going to be a better time, because if he lost his nerve again, he might never regain it. But every time he opened his mouth to say what he needed to say, someone else would speak and the whole group would jump to another tangent. That continued for another minute or so until the pressure boiling up inside of Miles grew to be too much and… popped.

“My dad is the Bogeyman!”

Well, that got their attention. The other five members of his team all went completely silent, staring at him in confusion. Finally, it was Royce who managed, “I… what?”

Tilting his head back to stare at the sky, Miles let out a long breath through pursed in a half-whistle before returning his gaze to his team… his friends. “Okay, here’s the short version. When my mom, my real mom, was a kid, she thought there was a monster in her room at night. You know, under the bed, in the closet, hiding in the corner, the usual. She was a kid, like, maybe nine or ten? So she’d call in her dad and he’d do the rounds, but never find anything.”

“Considering where we are and what we do,” Jason put in then, “why do I doubt that there wasn’t anything to find?”

Grimacing, Miles gave a slight nod. “While that was going on, Mom met this kid around her age in the back field behind their house. They were pretty isolated, without very many neighbors. She had to take the bus to get to school. So she didn’t meet a lot of kids her age near the house. His name was Caleb, and he said that his family was some kind of weird religious isolationist sect that lived way back in the woods.

“So, Mom and this kid started playing together every day after school. Meanwhile, at night, she would be convinced there was a monster in the room and her dad had to check it all the time. But, again, he never found anything. That went on for a few months.”

Seeing that he had his teammates’ rapt attention, Miles bit his lip and hesitated slightly before pushing on. “One night, Mom woke up. It was about two in the morning or so, and there was this figure standing over the bed. He was a big guy. Even bigger than her dad. Mom screamed, but the big guy put his hand down against her mouth. It was so big, it almost covered her entire head.

“It took a minute, but Mom recognized him finally. He was this farmhand guy that her family gave some work to a few months earlier. His name was Grant, and all Mom knew was that he had suddenly stop working at the house. She didn’t know at the time that it was because he had been looking at her the way he shouldn’t look at a kid, and her dad had caught him and fired him on the spot.”

Emily was the one who found her voice first. “He should’ve killed the piece of shit.”

Miles nodded. “No kidding. But now the guy was there, he had his hand over her mouth and he started to tell her… Well, point is, he started to tell her the bad things he wanted to do. And then… well, he screamed.”

Kaleigh blinked. “He screamed?”

“Yuuuup,” Miles confirmed. “Mostly because there was this furry little half-human, half-monkey figure wrapped around his leg with his teeth digging into the guy’s thigh while the claws on his left paw were buried in the his crotch.

“So they stumbled around a bit, and this guy kept trying to kick the monkey thing off his leg. Then Mom screamed too and jumped on the guy’s back. They thrashed around a bunch, and then hit the big mirror that was up against the wall. There was blood everywhere, and the guy finally got free and took off. A second later, the monkey thing went after him and Mom was alone again.”

“Where the hell were her parents in all this?” Chas demanded.

“Tied up, it turned out,” Miles replied before adding, “Mom had to call 911 because she couldn’t get the ropes off by herself. It was this whole big thing, and the cops didn’t believe her about the little monkey thing.

“Anyway, a few nights later, she got that same feeling about something being under her bed. Only this time, she didn’t call for her dad. She leaned down and looked for herself.”

Royce lifted his chin, his voice confident. “It was that kid. Caleb. He was the monkey thing.”

Miles nodded. “Yeah. Turned out he was a Stranger. Specifically, he was something called a Kejjerfiet. Or, as a lot of people know them…”

“Bogeymen,” Kaleigh finished for him.

“Exactly,” Miles confirmed. “Except the bogeymen, or at least the Kejjerfiet version of them, aren’t there to eat or hurt the kids.”

“Excuse me?” Jason was staring at him, as were the others.

“It’s true,” Miles quickly insisted. “Kejjerfiet actually see themselves as sort of… bodyguards to human children. I’m not sure why, but they do. The homes that they stay in are basically places where they believe that bad things are going to happen without them. I think it has something to do with sensing evil intentions in an area or whatever.”

“No, no, no, no.” Jason’s head was shaking. “No, we can’t listen to this. This is fucked up, Miles. You can’t be serious. We can’t stand here and listen to him trying to say this shit!”

Kaleigh snapped, “We already let the pregnant woman go, Jace. I think we’re way beyond just accepting exactly what they tell us. We’re too far in this to say he’s the crazy one. So just… listen to him, I guess.”

Giving the girl a grateful nod, Miles continued. “The point is, they hide out in a room until the evil thing shows itself, then they kill it. Or at least stop it. Usually without the kid remembering that anything happened. Except in this case…”

“Blood,” Emily realized. “She was turned into a Natural.”

Once again, Miles nodded. “Yeah, so Caleb told her the truth. He told her all about Strangers and humans, and about how his parents had been killed. He’d been wandering, trying to find a place to go when he came across her family‘s house, and he sensed the evil inside. So he had set himself up. Because it’s what his parents would’ve wanted him to do, even though he was too little to really do what he should’ve been able to.

“Point is, he tried. And now he was there to help teach Mom how to use her powers. He showed her how to change forms into that furry, clawed thing, how to blend into even the smallest amount of shadow to turn almost invisible, how to teleport small distances through shadows, and more. They basically taught each other.

“Oh. Oh my God,” Kaleigh blurted. “When you said that your dad was the Bogeyman, you were really—”

“Really serious, yeah,” Miles interrupted with a quick nod. “They grew up together. They spent a bunch of time learning from and teaching each other. And when they were old enough, they fell in love. Eventually, they had me.”

Everyone seemed enraptured by the story. As he trailed off, Royce quickly blurted, “Well shit, then what happened?”

Miles shook his head. “That’s the thing, I don’t know. See, a lot of that I got from Gaia when she came to recruit me. And the specifics about that night I got from my Edge vision. But after a certain point, Gaia didn’t know what happened. She never found out. My parents just disappeared and I ended up in foster care.”

Jason was shaking his head. “Whoa, whoa, whoa. Okay, great story, but it can’t be true. First of all, Strangers are monsters, not daddies. Second of all, they don’t protect little kids. They eat them. Third of all, even if you were half Stranger, you couldn’t be a Heretic. It just doesn’t work like that.”

“Gaia changed it. I don’t know how,” Miles informed them, “but she did. She changed the Edge so that it would let people like me become Heretics. Because she wants people like you to understand that they’re not all evil. We are not all evil.”

His team was staring at him, open-mouthed. None of them could find their voices for several long, torturous seconds. Miles was terrified that he had guessed wrong, that they would react badly. He wouldn’t have blamed them, really. Not after the things they had been told about Strangers.

Royce eventually raised both hands. “This is insane. I’m sorry, it just–it’s insane! You want us to believe that, what, you’re part monster, only monsters aren’t always monsters? Sometimes they’re good? That’s just–just… fucked up, dude.”

Emily interrupted. “Like Kaleigh said, we let the pregnant woman go.”

“But that’s different!” Royce insisted. “I mean, she was… the kid was–it’s just… it’s different. Isn’t it? Isn’t it?” He sounded far more like he was pleading than actually stating a fact.

Miles met his gaze for a moment before slowly moving his eyes over all of them. “You tell me,” he replied. “Is it different? Am I a monster because my dad wasn’t human? Or was the monster the person, the human being, that my dad saved my mom from? Is that piece of shit better just because he’s human, than the person who saved an innocent child from the evil shit he would’ve done to her? If there can be evil humans, humans who do… who do that to innocent children, then who’s to say there can’t be good Strangers? I mean, if humans were all judged by the worst of our species, maybe there’d be a whole species out there dedicated to wiping us out too.”

For a few long seconds, he didn’t know how they would end up taking that. The rest of his team just looked at each other, their expressions impossible to read. He saw some doubt, some confusion, even some anger. And more. There were so many emotions there that he couldn’t hope to keep track of or identify them all.

Finally, it was Jason who spoke up. “Dude, you… you sort of lied to us for most of a year. But I uhh… I guess I understand why.”

“But what do we do now?” That was Chas, shaking his head quickly. “I mean… you want us to believe that–I mean, maybe your dad was–Damn it, I don’t know. Fuck. Fuck, fuck, fuck, we let that woman go and everything got so goddamn confusing. Now there’s this? I mean, you already said that Gaia knows what’s going on, but shouldn’t we tell… I dunno, somebody?”

“Tell them what?” Emily put in. “You know what most of the others would do if they found out about him. I can’t do that. We can’t do that.”

The group exchanged brief looks once more, before nodding. “We won’t tell anyone,” Kaleigh announced for the group as a whole. “I dunno about this whole… everything you’re saying, but we owe you that much at least. You’re… you’re one of us.”

“She’s right,” Royce agreed. “I don’t know how I feel about it either, but… you’re not a monster, man. So maybe…” He hesitated, clearly torn for a few seconds before settling on, “Maybe we just stay quiet about the whole thing, at least until we find out more.”

“Find out more?” Miles asked, frowning a little.

“Sure,” Chas confirmed. “You said you didn’t know what happened to your parents, right? So let’s find out. Let’s try to find out what happened to them. And while we’re at it… maybe we’ll find out more about these… not-evil Strangers. You say it’s true, I… I dunno. But after that pregnant woman and what you said… maybe we could at least investigate it. We could find out more.

“Because quite frankly, if you’re right, then this school is the most fucked up place on the planet.”

*****

Present Day

 

The reptilian man lunged toward Miles with a deep-throated snarl, showing deadly teeth while raking at him with a handful of wicked claws. Claws which, if they had connected, would have left the boy paralyzed just long enough to experience every agonizing moment of being eaten alive.

Fortunately, Miles had no intention of allowing that to happen. Flashing a brief, toothy smile of his own, the boy waited a half second for the reptile to fully commit himself, before abruptly sidestepping as his right arm snapped out. As he did so, the metallic gauntlet on that arm seemed to disintegrate, breaking apart into hundreds of separate, tiny parts. In that brief instant, the broken-up parts of the gauntlet were identifiable as tiny robotic bees, their mechanical wings flapping furiously to create a high-pitched buzzing sound. In that same second, however, the separated bees rejoined once more. This time, however, instead of forming a gauntlet, they became a long, curved sword. The same honeycomb-like hexagon patterns that had been built into the gauntlet were present within the blade itself, which was soon stained by the dark green blood of the reptile-man as he beheaded himself with his own lunge.

That was Miles’ weapon: a cyberform that was actually an entire swarm of tiny robot bees, which could shape themselves into various weapons and tools for him to use. They were controlled through the ‘queen bee’, which was attached to his ear similarly to a Bluetooth device that essentially read his mind and sent his commands to the rest of the swarm.

Staggering a little with a gasp of pleasure as his kill-aura sprang to life, the eighteen-year-old boy barely managed to catch the sound of footsteps rushing up behind him. They were coming too quickly for him to turn, the figure already almost right on top of him.

Thankfully, he didn’t need to. A simple thought made the armor that covered his left arm and back break apart into a swarm of tiny flying insects as well. Rather than immediately forming together into something else, however, this swarm all turned their (literal) collective attention to the incoming threat. Each fired a tiny, yet painful jolt of energy. Taken apart, it would have been almost nothing. The ‘sting’ from one of the bees was enough to be painful for a child, yet easily ignored by anyone of any actual strength.

But together, the combined sting shot from the entire group caught Miles’ would-be attacker straight in the chest and knocked them to the ground, twitching and moaning as their body’s muscles alternately spasmed and froze. It kept them busy long enough for the boy to turn and see another of those lizard-men. This one had been holding a spear, which he grabbed for a second before Miles put his own sword through the figure’s chest, ceasing both his attacker’s random twitchy spasms, and his attempt to swing that spear up.

Once more, that aura sprang up, but Miles didn’t actually care about the distant pleasurable feeling. He was too busy cursing repeatedly.

“What?” Royce, jogging up to him from across the warehouse where they had been fighting, blurted. “What happened? Wh–aww shit, they’re dead too? Damn it. Tell me we got something out of them, man. Two months just tracking down this one lead about what happened to your parents, tell me it wasn’t all for nothing.”

“It wasn’t for nothing,” Miles confirmed, while his sword and the swarm of individual bees all reformed back into their default form of his armor. “But it wasn’t enough. I got a name. That’s it, just one name.”

“A name?” Kaleigh asked as she and the others, all worn from the fight they had just been through, asked. “What do you mean? What name?”

“The name of the monster that has my parents. Or had them, I dunno.” Miles frowned thoughtfully. “It wasn’t clear. The point is, he’s the next step to finding them. There was something about a… a fight club or an arena or something, I’m not sure.”

“A arena for Alters and Heretics?” Chas demanded. “Who the hell is this guy, Michael Vick?”  

“Worse,” Miles replied softly, giving a long, low sigh. “He’s a necromancer.

“A necromancer named Fossor.”

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Homecoming 35-06

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For a few long, agonizing seconds, no one said anything. I was pretty sure most of us weren’t even breathing. A pin could have dropped and I was pretty sure that even those of us without enhanced hearing would have noticed.

It was Deveron who finally made the first move. But he still didn’t say anything. Instead, he straightened up a bit, opened his mouth as if he was going to speak, but stopped. His face twisted, and I saw anger there. I saw rage. The kind of rage that had been building for half a century. His hands closed into fists, and I saw that pitch black obsidian armor extend over them. It didn’t cover his face, however. His face continued to show that anger.

He took one step. One step forward. I wasn’t sure what he was planning to do. He probably wasn’t planning anything. But he took the step. Then I was there. I put myself in his way. I saw his mouth open, then he stopped. For almost ten full, long seconds, the two of us stood in silence.

Or at least, we stood in outward silence. There was a hell of a lot of silent communication going on between us. He was angry, and he had every right to be. But he couldn’t take that anger out on Sariel, no matter how at fault she had been. She had already paid enough for her sins.

Through those long seconds, neither of us spoke. And neither did anyone else. Heavy silence prevailed as he stared at me, and I stared right back at him.

And then he walked away. Literally, turning on his heel, Deveron walked away. I could tell that each step was an effort for him. His children had been taken from him. That had led to his wife being taken from him. Even if Sariel hadn’t meant for it to happen, that probably didn’t matter so much to him right in that particular second.

But it mattered enough for him to walk away. That was probably the only reason that he walked away. That was the only thing that stopped him from literally flying into a blind rage and throwing himself at the woman, whether I was there or not. And even then, I was pretty sure that it took everything he had, all of his willpower, just to keep walking.

Abigail and Wyatt hesitated. The two of them glanced to one another, and then looked back to Sariel. Lots of emotions crossed both of their faces, mostly Wyatt’s. Sariel, accidentally or not, had been at least partially responsible for the way he had been raised. The things that he had gone through, the pain of his childhood and all that had led to his incredible level of paranoia was partially the fault of the woman in front of him.

Abigail, meanwhile, had led a more normal and less terrible life. She had at least been given to a nice family in the regular, Bystander world. But even then, it meant that she had never known her real parents. The person she might have been, the family that she might’ve had, was taken away. And again, it had been, to at least some small extent, the fault of Sariel Moon.

Then, also without speaking, the two of them turned and moved to follow their father. They walked away, just like he had.

Theia looked torn, as if she almost kept saying something and then stopping. I somehow had the feeling that Pace was actually talking her out of speaking up. Strangely enough, it was actually that moment, the realization that she was actually listening at least somewhat to the girl that she had possessed, that convinced me she was being truthful about her claims.

Having moved beside me once more at some point in all of that, Miranda slowly breathed out. Her hand squeezed my arm, and I felt her tension. Or maybe it was just my own, since I had a lot of it to go around.

Throughout those tense few moments, Sariel had simply stood there as if she was ready to accept any retaliation that they chose. She made no move to protect herself or flinch away. Once the three of them had finally settled on simply walking away, her shoulders slumped a little, and her eyes closed. I saw her mouth the words, I’m sorry, though no sound emerged.

It was Gaia who finally spoke, though I hadn’t even seen her arrive. “Our actions,” the headmistress began in a quiet voice, “very often have unpredicted consequences.”

“I should have predicted that,” Sariel insisted. Her voice was flat, though I could see the pain in her eyes as she opened them to look that way. “I should have predicted what would happen, what he’d do. I should have known. I was blind. Because I would never have put such young children in that kind of situation, I didn’t entertain the idea that he would. For me, it was a mistake. For them…” Her eyes moved to where Deveron, Wyatt, and Abigail had been, and she visibly cringed once more. “For them, it destroyed everything.”

God, what could I say to that? What could anyone say to that? The whole situation was just so terrible. She clearly hadn’t meant what happened. Ruthers had taken her whispers in his ear completely the wrong way, far beyond what she intended. At least, and this was an awful thought in and of itself, but at least with Deveron, she had been targeting a combatant. Not children. But that didn’t make it any better for the people that her suggestion had affected. Hell, it could have been argued that her suggestion had led to the capture of my mother, which itself led to the continuation of the Heretic efforts to genocide every Alter species on Earth. What could possibly be said to make that any better, for anyone involved?

Nothing. The truth was that anything I could possibly have said would have sounded like meaningless prattle. Empty words with empty sentiment. There was no easy answer to this, no simple good guy or bad guy. Sariel hadn’t intended what happened, and she had more than paid for any unintended consequences. And yet, Deveron and the others had every right to be angry. They had every right to not forgive her. Fuck. This was… complicated.

Vanessa and Tristan had moved to stand next to their mother, as did Tabbris. My dad stepped up behind me, putting one hand on my shoulder and one hand on Miranda’s. From a glance toward his face, it didn’t look like he had any idea what to say about this either. I didn’t even know exactly how much he understood about the situation. But given what I knew of my father and how long he had been here, I was willing to bet that he had a pretty firm grasp of it.

“Sometimes,” Gabriel, who had appeared with Gaia, started, “the only thing that you can do, is give people time. And they might never forgive even unintended consequences. That’s their right.”

Sariel’s voice was barely audible. “I know,” she whispered, before kneeling. Wrapping both arms around all three of her children, she pulled them close, hugging them tightly. I saw her whisper something to them, but couldn’t make it out. I didn’t really want to. Whatever she was saying, it was meant for them, not for me. And the brief glimpse I had of the confusion on all three of their faces made it clear that… well, they needed to hear something from their mother.

Partway through that, Gaia and Gabriel moved to speak with them. Which meant that they were probably going to be busy for a few minutes, at least. Swallowing hard, I looked over to Miranda. The other girl was staring at me, biting her lip. When our gazes met, she asked, “Are you okay?”

“Yes,” I started, before shaking my head. “No.” I sighed then. “I don’t know. I don’t know what to think.” Glancing to my father, I asked, “What am I supposed to do? What am I supposed to say?”

“To be honest,” he replied simply, “I don’t know. Sorry, kid. It’s just… sometimes there is no villain. Just a bunch of heroes running headlong into each other on their way to opposite goals.”

I started to say something to that, but movement caught my eye. Theia was approaching me of all people. Or, wait, maybe she was approaching Miranda, since she’d actually apparently spent time with her. Yeah, that made more sense.

For a moment, she didn’t say anything, though it looked like she wanted to. Instead, the girl seemed to be having some kind of internal debate with her host that carried on for almost a minute before she carefully asked, “Pace-I would like to know… if the Roxanne girl is alive.”

“Alive?” I nodded. “Yeah, she’s alive. She’s doing–uh, pretty well, actually. I swear, if she stacks one more survivability power, she–wait, why are you asking?” For a second, I’d forgotten who I was talking to, and now I squinted at her a bit uncertainly.

Her response was a small shrug. “We have been talking, and after Pace-I’s words, Theia-I feels… responsible for what was done. It was… maybe not very… Pace-I says it was bad. Abigail said it was bad.” She smiled then, that feral, dangerous and unhinged smile. “Abigail is smart. She knows many things. Right and wrong things.”  

For a moment, I just stared at her, unsure of what to say to that. Pace and Abigail had told her it was bad? I–it was like she was a little kid who didn’t know a thing about actual morals or ethics or anything, and was learning all of them from scratch. Learning, apparently through a combination of actually listening to what her host said, and from my older sister.

And yet, she still wouldn’t tell us who Manakel was possessing. She wouldn’t tell us what we really needed to know. Instead, she was holding that back until she got what she wanted. Which, I supposed, made sense in her mind. Given what I knew about Kushiel, being her daughter, particularly as a Lie, had probably been really hard. I kind of doubted that Theia had had any actual role model or anything while growing up. Having something important that someone else really needed and holding onto it until she got something she really needed in return clearly made perfect sense to her. Manakel’s identity was her bargaining chip, and she would obviously cling to that with her dying breath until she got what she wanted.

This whole situation was just plain screwed up, to be honest. Totally screwed up. I couldn’t follow my half-siblings and their father because I had no idea what to say to them. I couldn’t go to comfort my new adopted sister, her mother, and her half-siblings because I had no idea what to say to them. And now I had a more-than-half crazy Seosten girl who was cooperating with her own host (whom she happened to be trapped inside of) trying to talk to me, and I had no idea what to say to her either.

Finally, I just settled on, “Whenever she gets back here, you two should talk.”

Behind me, Dad cleared his throat. “I take it,” he started slowly, “you’re one of the… people who have been trying to kill my daughter and one of her girlfriends all year long.”

“Yup!” Showing utterly no shame, Theia beamed at my father instead, giving him two thumbs up. “Your daughter’s pretty resilient. You should be proud. Theia-I am very good at killing people.”

Dad seemed completely disarmed and confused by that response, clearly having no idea what to say to it. His mouth opened and shut, but no sound came out.

“I know.” Miranda was nodding at both of us. “That’s my reaction to a lot of what she does too. But she’s serious about helping. I mean, she won’t tell us what she knows about Manakel and all that, but she’s still be useful to have around. And, you know, better to be with us than against us.”

Theia was nodding right along with that, brightly chiming in, “That’s true, we are a very annoying enemy to have. We wouldn’t want to fight us.” Her eyes crossed briefly as if she was trying to follow the logic in her own head before she gave a slight nod of satisfaction. “Definitely not.”

Giving up on knowing what to say to her, or them, or whatever, I instead turned to Miranda. “What was going on that made it take so long for you to get here? And why didn’t Seller come with you? Abigail said you guys were dealing with something, and that Wyatt left to help you handle it so you could finish up sooner.”

Grimacing, Randi shook her head. “Just a little enchantment problem that was faster with Wyatt’s help. We’ve been looking for solutions to Theia and Pace’s situation, which sort of… requires breaking into a few places that we’re not supposed to be anywhere near. Secure locations that are magically locked. We sorta… tripped a security measure in this guy’s vault and needed Wyatt to help deal with the situation. Seller’s finishing up with that. Plus I don’t think he feels all that comfortable coming here for some reason.”

Blinking at that, I tilted my head to squint at the other girl. “Are you saying you have adventures and a whole life when I’m not there to see it? I’m not sure how I feel about that.”

Randi stuck her tongue out at me. “Oh, so sorry. You’re totally right. We’ll make sure not to let anything important happen unless you’re there next time.”

Giving her a firm nod, I replied, “Good. Make sure you remember that.” Then I just hugged her tight. Because as complicated and hard to deal with as things might have been, she was still my friend, and interacting with Randi had a way of making everything better.

As we separated, Theia looked between both of us, then asked conversationally, “Are you going to kiss?”

“What?!” The high-pitched squeak burst from me, while I heard it in stereo from the girl beside me. Giving Miranda a brief glance, I turned back to the strange Seosten. “What the hell–why do you–why would we–what?”

“You are sexually attracted to females, like Pace-I am,” Theia innocently replied. “And apparently males, though we have seen little evidence of that. You already have more than one female that you are romantically involved with, and you are very close to Miranda.” After summing that much up, her head tilted. “What part of the question was confusing?”

My mouth opened and shut at that, as a noise escaped me. Luckily, I was saved from having to respond by my father, who cleared his throat. “Relationships don’t really work like that. Miranda and Felicity are friends. Yes, they’re close, but that doesn’t mean they’re–” He paused, seeming to consider his words for a moment before just settling on a simple, “They’re just friends.”

I barely had a chance to mumble a thank you to him before Gaia approached. “On the other hand,” she began, “Miss Chambers does have friends and girlfriends who are very eagerly waiting to see her back at Crossroads. And I’m afraid that I can only justify delaying so long before taking our wayward students there, lest our Committee representatives and the ears that they whisper into start to wonder too much about what we could have been doing.”

Grimacing a little at that, I gave a slight nod before glancing toward Tabbris and the others. “Um, give me just a minute?” With that, I slowly walked that way. They had already stood up and were waiting with Gabriel, who had a hand on Sariel’s shoulder. The woman herself looked shaken, and a bit lost. Yeah, it was… going to take a lot to get her through that.

Actually, I was kind of surprised that Gabriel hadn’t reacted worse to the whole thing. Though, come to think of it, as controlled as he was, maybe I shouldn’t have been. But still, Sariel’s actions had affected him a lot too, and the rest of the Atherby camp.

Then again, I supposed they were accustomed to accepting people that had done or at least been partially responsible for terrible things in their past.

“Time to go back?” That was Tristan, giving me a faint smile as he stood between and slightly behind both of his sisters. “Does that mean our vacation is over?”

Snorting, I retorted, “Some vacation. I wanna fire my travel agent.”

Then I sobered a bit, looking to Tabbris. “You gonna be okay here with Dad and your mom for a little bit?”

She looked scared at that prospect, quickly lunging forward to wrap her arms around me. “What if you need me?” the girl protested. “And we made up that whole system about communicating.”

“Hey,” I replied while hugging her back, “we’ll still use the system, don’t you worry. Trust me, we’ll have plenty of time together. But you need to get to know your mom, and let both your mom and our dad get to know you. I’ve got the dibs spell still, so I’ll be safe from anyone trying to trespass on your turf.”

“And,” Gabriel put in, “you’ve already been promised a bit of an education on how to protect your charge.”

It took Sariel a moment to respond to that little prompting. She was looking away, a slight frown on her face while clearly lost in thought. Finally, the woman seemed to realize what had been said, and gave a quick nod. Her lost, vacant look was replaced by a smile that was meant to reassure her daughter that everything was alright. “Yes,” she confirmed. “I will teach you how to place your own possession claim upon Felicity, so that she will be protected even if you aren’t right there. It will… take a few days.” Her voice was soft, cracking just a little with restrained emotion that she was clearly holding back to avoid upsetting her children with.

Sariel Moon needed a therapist. Like… really badly. Thankfully, I was pretty sure that plenty of other people had already noticed that fact. Like my dad, and Gaia, and Gabriel. They would do something about it. Especially since she and Gaia had clearly shared a conversation while Sariel possessed the headmistress.

Actually, that brought up a point. “Hey, I thought Larissa was protected because her body thought you were possessing her even though you weren’t,” I put in. “Did possessing Gaia screw that up?”

The woman shook her head. “No,” she replied quietly. “It is not… “ She coughed then. “I will explain how it works when the time comes. Suffice to say, though there is a… time-based limit to how many could be protected the way that I have protected Larissa, it does not require me to never possess anyone else.”

Well, that was confusing. Now I really had no idea how that whole thing worked. I really hoped that I could get some clarification on that soon, because as it was, I had a lot of questions.

Vanessa was hugging her mother then. “I can’t believe we have to walk away from you already,” the other girl lamented. “It took so long to find you, and now we’re already leaving?”

“You can come back.” That was Gaia, standing nearby once more. “We’ll set up a system to allow you to travel back and forth safely so that you can visit. And, thankfully, we already know that Crossroads is… uniquely and specifically prevented from noticing or tracking the presence of Seosten on the island. So your mother will be able to visit there as well.”

It was better than nothing, but I could still tell that they were reluctant to separate. The whole family embraced once more.

No. Not the whole family. Just the ones who were there. They were still missing Haiden. Even after everything that had happened, not everyone had made it back to Earth yet. Like Sands and Larissa. I was going to have to talk to Scout about how her sister and mother weren’t here.

Clearly, I still had a lot of emotional conversations ahead of me.

Speaking of which, I looked back to Gaia. “Are Deveron and the others going to be okay?”

“They will be,” the woman assured me simply. “Give them time. I will come back to check on them after taking the three of you back to Crossroads.” She nodded toward the twins and me. “Then Sariel and I will go over the Seosten prisoners and see what can be done about them.”

With a nod, I started, “What about Professor… umm… Professor…” Slowly, I turned, realizing that Dare hadn’t actually been around for a bit. Actually, when was the last time I’d seen her?

There she was. The blonde woman was standing a bit away from everyone, looking at a tall, reddish tree on the edge of the camp. Frowning, I stepped that way. “Professor?”

“Hello, Felicity,” she answered without looking back. “Are you ready to go?”

“Yeah,” I replied, “I think we are. I mean…” Pausing, I asked, “Are you okay?”

Turning back to me finally, the woman smiled just a little. “Yes. Sorry, I was just… thinking. And answering Scout.” Holding up her phone, she explained, “She called for help getting back to the school awhile ago, so I sent Nevada to get her. She’s with the others, and apparently very eager to talk to you.”

Wincing at that, I sighed. “She probably wants to know why I made it back, but Sands and Larissa didn’t.”

“Hey.” Dare stepped over, putting both hands on my shoulders. “They will make it back. Give them time.” With a wink, she added, “Now you’re stuck in the same position we were while you were gone: waiting.”

“Yeah, it sucks,” I retorted. “But,  you know, speaking of waiting, I guess we’ve made them do it long enough.”

So, I did the rounds one more time, hugging my dad and Tabbris, and thanked Gabriel for letting them stay. I thought about walking after Deveron, Abigail, and Wyatt. But in the end, I decided they still needed a little space and privacy together. I could always talk to them in a little bit.

Finally, it was time. Gaia opened a portal, gesturing. “Your friends are waiting.”

Friends. Sean, Scout, Columbus, even Koren… and more than friends. Shiori and Avalon. I would finally, after two months, get to see them all again. I felt nervous. And excited. And a little sick, sort of. Finally. Finally, I was going to be reunited with the others. I could explain everything that had happened. Maybe Tabbris not possessing me at the time would even help me convince them that I wasn’t being manipulated by her into accepting the possession.

Either way, it was a conversation that had to happen, and a reunion that was long-past due. So, with a deep breath, I moved to the portal along with Tristan and Vanessa.

Then the three of us passed through it, and, for the first time since late February, set foot on Crossroads island.

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Homecoming 35-05

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“Felicity!”

It was a minute after my little conversation with Tabbris about sharing my body. The two of us had just joined back up with the others, and the voice came from Abigail as she came straight through the portal that had been created to bring her in. My older sister swooped in, arms covering me as she pulled me into an embrace.

Grinning through the hug, I tried to joke, “Boy, I should disappear for a little bit more often if this is the kind of—ow!”

Dad, who had just jammed his finger into my back, gave me a sharp headshake. “Don’t you even tease about that,” he warned. “We’ve got enough problems with you disappearing without making a game out of it.”

Pulling back a bit, Abigail gave me just as stern of a look. “Your father is right,” she agreed. “No more disappearing for you for at least a… a…  as long of a time as it is realistically likely.”

Tristan, arms linked behind his head, joked, “We’ve been back for like, what, an hour? I’m pretty sure we passed Flick’s safe zone for not disappearing again like fifteen minutes ago.”

“Jerks,” I informed them, “you’re all jerks.”

Abigail embraced me again, just as tightly as before. “Where were you? What happened? Where are the others? Are you okay? Wait, never mind the first question. I know where you were. But what happened? How did you get back?” Looking to Vanessa and Tristan, she added, “And what about you two?”

Even as she spoke, the woman was giving a significant look toward my dad and the others with him. It was clear that she was trying to silently ask them certain questions without being obvious.

“I know I was possessed,” I quickly put in. “It’s okay. We already talked about it, and… well…” Turning a bit, I gestured for Tabbris to come out. She stepped into view, holding tight to her mother’s hand while giving a nervous, shy little wave. Even then however, the girl couldn’t keep the broad, giddy smile off her face that had been plastered there ever since what my father had said.

There were a lot of reactions that I could have expected from Abigail. What I absolutely did not expect, was to see a girl step into view from the shadows, move right beside Abigail, and announce, “Yep, that is definitely the kid we saw before.”

“Lies!” I blurted, not out of disagreement with what was being said, but because I knew that the girl standing there wasn’t really Pace. My staff was in my hand, and I almost lunged that way before two things happened. First Deveron’s hand caught my arm to stop me. And second, Abigail stepped in front of the possessed girl.

“Flick, no!” My sister’s voice was sharp as she held up both hands. “It’s OK, it’s not what you think. And,” she added even more sharply, “do not call her that.”

Beside me, Deveron sighed while still holding my arm. “I thought you said you were going to keep her out of sight until Flick understood what was going on. You asked for a chance to explain it yourself.”

Biting her lip, Abigail glanced back to where Lies was before turning to me. “Yes,” she replied, “I told her to stay on the edge of camp and wait until I called her.”

Lies was grinning. “Theia-I’m a bad puppy,” she announced.

“What-what-what?” I was a broken record. Even more than I had already felt like after telling the same story a couple different times. “What the hell are you doing? She’s one of the bad guys.” I pointed at Lies, feeling like I had suddenly gone crazy. Or maybe everyone else had.

Abigail shake her head. “It’s more complicated than that, Felicity. Just calm down. First of all, she’s the only reason that the Seosten didn’t didn’t already know about you being possessed. Because she saw you with that choker. She knew that you were possessed. But she never told her bosses about it.”

Lies confirmed that with a little sing-song, “They were being mean. And besides, us girls have to have secrets, don’t we?“

My mouth open and shut a couple of times then, before I threw both of my hands out and blurted, “She calls me Present! Present! As in she wanted to present me as a gift to Doxer!”

The other girl’s reply to that was simple and matter-of-fact. “Doxer was Theia-my friend. Theia-I wanted to get him a really good present. And you’re a really good person. So you would make a good present.  You’re smart and cute and funny and really good with your stick. The best present!” She finished with a completely innocent-sounding, “It was a compliment.”

“A… a…” I stared at her, then to the others, then back to her before finally demanding, “What the hell is going on?”

So, they started to explain. Mostly Abigail. She told me how they had tracked down Lies–now apparently named Theia, and how they had come to an arrangement. They would look for a way to free Pace from her, a way of fixing her condition. And in exchange, once that was done, she would tell us everything that she knew about Manakel and the other Seosten. And they also told us about her mother. Kushiel. Kushiel was her mother. Which… Gah. It did explain a lot, but still.  

“What about Pace?” I asked flatly after they’d finished. “And where are Seller and Miranda? Weren’t they coming?”

“They’ll be here soon,” Abigail assured me. “They just had something else to deal with. That’s why Wyatt’s not here right now. He stepped out to help them, so they could get here sooner.”

Nodding a little bit, I focused on Li–Theia. “If you’re really trying to be good, why don’t you tell us everything you know right now? That might be a bit more convincing.”

Smiling cunningly at me, the other girl shook her head. “Can’t give away something for nothing. That’s a terrible strategy. Especially if we want to keep living. We know things. We tell you when we get help. That’s the deal.”

“How about Roxa?” I snapped despite myself. “Did she get help when you helped turn her into a werewolf and left her in the woods to die from it?”

“She’s not dead,” the easy response came once more. “She’s even stronger now, right?”

“That’s not the–” Stopping myself from pointlessly arguing with her, I shook my head. “The point is that if you really wanted to help, you could tell us almost everything we need to know right here, right now.”

Her gaze met mine. Or rather, her host’s gaze did. “And give away the only reason we’re still alive? Sorry. Theia-I am just not that trusting. We need help. Pace-I needs help. Help us separate. Help fix Theia-me.”

Before I could say anything to that, Sariel stepped forward. Her voice was quiet. “Do you know who I am?”

Theia seemed to really focus on her for the first time, and as she did so, Pace’s eyes widened. “Wh–you,” she actually stammered a little. “The Hunter. You’re–but… Mother…”

Sariel gave a slight nod to that. “My children and their friends are very resourceful. But the point is, you know who I am. And you know where I was. So please. Look at me, and tell me that you are being genuine. Is this a game? Are you leading everyone on, Theia? Or are you really willing to help if you get help in return? Can you help us?”

A moment of silent near-communication passed between the two of them briefly before Theia dropped her head in a tiny nod of her own. “Theia-I can help. Will… will help. But not until you fix us. Not until you separate Pace. It’s all we have.”

“I will.” Sariel’s voice was quiet, yet firm. “I will find a way to help you, Theia. I promise. And when we do, when we help you, then you have to be ready to keep your side of it.”

“Cross our heart and hope to die,” Theia promptly replied, before amending, “Well, maybe not die. But Theia-I’ve taken a needle in my eye. Does that count?”

God, no wonder that girl was so screwed up. Even just the simple hints that we’d gotten throughout her story about how her mother had treated her was just… Kushiel. She was Kushiel’s daughter, which explained so fucking much. And as much as I wanted to be furious with her for holding back, along with everything else she had done, I kind of understood the situation she had been in along with the type of person that she had been raised to be.

Actually, the fact that she hadn’t told Manakel about Tabbris was basically enough for me to forgive everything else, now that I’d had a chance to calm down and think about it.

“Um.” Abigail raised a hand. “Maybe she knows who you are,” she informed Sariel. “But I’m still a little fuzzy on it.”

So, it was our turn. I felt a little uncomfortable talking in front of Pace/Theia, still. But they were right. I would have been even more screwed if she had told Manakel about Tabbris. She had already kept that secret. If she was playing us, we were already pretty screwed. And Abigail trusted her. So, once more, I explained about what had happened out in Seosten space. For the third time in a short span, I went through everything. Actually, I was getting pretty good at summarizing by that point.

“You poor girl.” Abigail was addressing Tabbris. She had taken a knee as soon as things settled enough, and opened her arms for my little partner to rush into them for yet another hug. Throughout the explanation, she had been holding the girl and stroking her hair. “You were practically a baby. I can’t believe you had to do all that.“

Sariel, who had never looked more guilty than in that moment, cringed. “There was no other choice,” she spoke quietly, giving a brief glance toward Theia before she continued. “They had to protect each other. And it was better than what they would have done with her.”

Abigail looked a little hesitant at that, but gave a slight nod. “Well,” she announced, “at least that’s over now. You don’t have to be in danger anymore.”

“What do you mean?” Tabbris looked confused. “Flick’s still going back to Crossroads, right?”

Abigail looked just as confused. “Well, of course,” she replied. “But you don’t have to. I mean, Flick can be protected from possession in other ways now, like that Dibs spell you were talking about. There is no need for you to be in that kind of danger anymore. You can stay-“

Tabbris pulled away from her. “If she’s going back,” she announced firmly, “I’m going back. We’re partners. She needs me.” As she spoke, the girl’s lip was poked out a little stubbornly.

In the background, I heard Tristan whisper, “Told you it was gonna be a thing,” to Vanessa.

Dad was nodding. His eyes were on Tabbris. “Honey,” he started, “Abigail’s right. You don’t have to be in danger like that. You’ve done an amazing job. But—”

It was the wrong thing to say. Tabbris suddenly disappeared from where she had been standing, only to reappear right beside and partly behind me with both of her arms around my waist. She had used her recall to put herself with me, though not completely inside. Not yet, anyway. Her head shook. “No! You can’t make me leave Flick! She needs me! I–I need… I need Flick. We’re partners.”

Her voice turned plaintive and desperate then, gaze turning up to me as she repeated the same thing. Only that time, it was a question. “We’re partners?”

I didn’t hesitate for a second. “We’re partners,” I confirmed, before looking up to the others. Abigail looked confused. Dad looked pained. And Sariel looked… tortured. Like there was so much that she wanted to say, but didn’t know how. And so much pain locked in her memories.

“You can’t make her do anything,” I informed them. My gaze turned slightly to Sariel. “I know you didn’t have a choice. I know that you did the only thing you could do to keep her safe, and to keep me safe. It wasn’t a fair situation. But it happened. She grew up with me. She was never a little kid. She saved me more times than I think she’ll ever actually tell anyone about. She should have had a chance to be a little kid, yes. But she didn’t get that chance. And forcing her to leave me now, taking her agency away from her and making her do what you think is right for her, that’s wrong. After everything she’s done, after everything she’s been through, she’s earned the right to make the choice herself. I’m not saying it’s a good situation. But you can’t take the choice away from her. Not after everything she’s done.”

Turning slightly then, I looked down to the girl at my side. “That said…” When she looked  up at me with those wide eyes, I touched her face. “I’m not gonna make you do anything either. You’re right. We’re partners. And I couldn’t have gotten this far without you. I’d be lost if I didn’t have my little sister when I need her. But… it’s okay… not to be together all the time.”

Lip quivering a little, Tabbris whimpered. “Wh-what do you mean?”

“I mean,” I explained, “you deserve a chance to spend some time with your mom, Tabbris. You and me, we’re partners for life. I’ll be there for you any time you need me. And I know that you’ll be there for me. But your mom needs you too. And so does our dad. They deserve a chance to see you, to know you like I do. I’ll always be there for you to jump to. We’re connected. You can hop back to me any time you want to. And I’m not going to make you do anything. You deserve the choice. But I think you should spend a little time here, with Dad and your mother.

“I will always need my partner, my sister. But they need you too. And you need them. Why don’t you give it a little chance. I’ll be okay. And if I’m not, if I need you, you know I’ll find a way to let you know.”

“I… I can help with that.” It was Sariel, glancing toward Theia briefly before she spoke up. “I can show you what I did, to make sure that no one would ever be able to possess Larissa, as long as I’m alive. I can show you how to mark her so that it looks like you’re possessing her, even when you’re not. Even when you possess someone else. So you’ll be able to communicate with her any time you want to, no matter what happens. They won’t be able to possess her, as long as you’re alive. And I can teach you a spell so that you’ll be able to transport between her and here any time that you want to, at will. So you can visit here as long as you’d like to, pop over to where she is for a little bit, then come back, whenever you like.”

“Y-you can teach me that?” Tabbris stammered, staring up at her mother while still clinging tightly to me.

Sariel nodded a bit then, giving her daughter a tiny smile. “If you’ll let me, there are a lot of things that I can teach you.” Her voice sounded a little hopeful.

Head bobbing quickly then, Tabbris agreed. “O-okay. Okay. Um, w-we can do that, Mama.” Her gaze turned to me then, as she added earnestly, “Are you sure you don’t need me for a little while?”

My own head shook. “Partner, I’m pretty sure I’ll always need you. But I can get along for awhile without you. Consider it a vacation. I mean, you’ve been on the job your whole life. Literally. Take a break to be with your mom and dad for a little bit. Get to know them. Let them get to know you. Especially your mom. If I need you, I’ll let you know.

“And besides,” I added then, “from the sound of things, your mom’s gonna be able to teach you a lot more stuff so we can be even more dangerous together. Right?” Shifting a bit, I held my hand up for her.

“Right.” Quickly, Tabbris slapped my hand, giving me five. “Okay, Mama. I’ll… I’ll st-stay for awhile.” She gave a tentative smile then, the crisis averted.

Nodding, Sariel looked toward Theia. “And I’ll help you too. I don’t know if I have an answer for your situation. But I will help, any way that I can. Between all of us, who knows, we may figure something out. Our people haven’t, but… well, they refuse to listen to any outside aid or suggestions. Maybe humans will see something that our scientists haven’t.”

“Flick!” It was Miranda. She and Wyatt had just arrived, apparently. My old best friend tore across the grass as she ran to me, throwing herself my way with a laugh. “You really made it!”

Grinning, I returned the tight embrace. “Randi! Took you long enough.”

Her eyes rolled, as she leaned back to stare at me. “Took me long enough? You were the one that took a two month vacation.”

“Oh, trust me,” I retorted, “I’ll tell you all about that ‘vacation’ in a minute. But maybe I should start with–” My hand started to gesture toward the nearby Tabbris, who had just barely stepped out of the way.

“It’s okay,” Randi informed me. “We heard most of it. Abigail’s been wearing a… uh, phone-spell, basically. It let us hear what you guys were saying. You don’t have to explain it again.”

Blinking once at that, I recovered quickly. “Oh, thank God,” I blurted. “I’m beginning to think that I need to write it all down and just hand out copies to everyone.” Smiling then, I hugged her again. “You look good.”

“Eh, lots of exercise,” the other girl replied with a wink before stepping back, her gaze moving to Sariel. “So… Artemis?”

“She’s my mama!” Tabbris, sounding incredibly tickled and proud about that fact, announced while hopping over to wrap both of her arms around one of her mother’s. “And she’s brilliant and perfect.”

“I am not perfect,” Sariel quietly protested.

“She’s modest,” Abigail put in then, smiling as she stood beside Wyatt. “She’s a very good person.”

“No.” There was torture, pain, agony in Sariel’s denial that time, as she stared at the two of them. “No, I’m not. I’m not a good person. It’s my fault. It was my fault.”

“What?” I blinked at that, confused as to what she was talking about and where it was coming from. “What do you mean? What’s your faul–”

“It was me,” she interrupted, her pained gaze locked onto Wyatt and Abigail. “I didn’t know how he’d take it, but it was me. I… I told Ruthers, back then… I told him that if he wanted to beat Joselyn, he had to take someone that she loved and make her stop to protect them.”

Her gaze flicked toward Deveron then. “I meant you. Not you-you, because we didn’t know who you were then. Her lover. I meant Joselyn’s lover, her husband. Not her children. I didn’t mean her children. But that’s how he took it. He took my words and he… that’s what made him think of taking her children. So it’s my fault. It’s my fault you were abducted. So I’m sorry. I am so, so sorry.

“Because everything that happened to you, it’s my fault.”

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Mini-Interlude 62 – Flick And Tabbris

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Sitting cross-legged in the grass near the pier that led out onto the lake in the Atherby camp, Tabbris bit her lip while using one finger to draw a random symbol into the nearby dirt. It wasn’t a symbol that meant anything, simply random doodling. Sniffling a little as her eyes watered too much to actually see what she was doing, the Seosten girl closed them and gave a little shudder.

She’d run away. After what Mr. Cha… Mr. Cham… Fa… Da… After what he had said back in the cabin, Tabbris had just… had to get away. It was too much to try and handle. After everything she’d been through, after all her hopes and dreams and… and wishes seemed to be coming true, all she’d been able to do was run away. Excusing herself, apologizing frantically and desperately, she had fled the cabin where everyone was eating. Her last words had been to say that she needed a minute and to please leave her alone. Leave her alone. She had told her family to leave her alone.

It wasn’t true. She didn’t want to be left alone… did she? She had been alone for so long, and now she wasn’t. But it was moving so fast. Everything was moving so fast. She’d always had so much time alone, and now… now… what was wrong with her? What was wrong with her? Was she some kind of freak who didn’t even know how to be happy when good things were happening? Why was she crying because Mr. Cham–Flick’s da–her… her… why was she crying because he accepted her? What was wrong with her?

She should have been happy. She was happy. But… but… she was also overwhelmed.

At least she had repressed the urge to jump into Flick herself and hide. She was still herself. She just… had to step out, had to go away and sit down where she could breathe. It was too much to take in all at once. So, she’d run. She had run out here to sit down by the lake just to catch her breath. And then she’d become too embarrassed about ruining everything to go back.

“Pretty heavy stuff, huh?” The voice came from behind Tabbris, as Flick moved to sit down next to her.

Cringing, the young girl hunched in on herself while quickly stammering, “I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I just- I couldn’t… I didn’t mean to ruin–”

“Hey.” Flick’s hand found her shoulder, squeezing a little bit. “Tabby, you don’t have to explain anything. It’s okay to be overwhelmed sometimes. Even a lot of happy things is still a lot of things. It’s a lot to deal with. Trust me, it’s alright.” She rubbed the girl’s head a little and smiled at her. “No one‘s mad at you for needing to get away for a minute. I just wanted to make sure you were okay. You know, while we wait for the others to finally show up.”

Swallowing, Tabbris leaned against the older girl. “I’m happy,” she admitted in a trembling voice. “I am really, really happy. I mean, I didn’t know it was possible to be this happy. But I’m scared. I’m so happy that I’m scared. What if it goes away? What if something ruins it?” Looking down again, she mumbled, “I guess it’s just dumb.”

Flick’s head shook. “It’s definitely not dumb.” Putting her fist up against Tabbris’s shoulder, she gave her a little push while winking at her. “But you know whatever happens, we’ll deal with it, right? We’ll deal with it together. Because what are we?”

“Partners,” Tabbris answered in a tiny voice, biting her lip as she turned her head to look up at Flick.

“Damn straight,” The other girl confirmed. “But not just that. We’re partners and sisters. And that means that whatever happens, we’re in it together.” She coughed then, looking thoughtful for a moment. “Which sort of reminds me, there’s a lot more people know about you now. Which means they’ll want to talk to you sometimes. You know, since you’re brilliant and amazing. But you can’t just go jumping out of me at any old time. So I think it’s time we actually did something about that since we’re back here on Earth now.”

Blinking up at that, Tabbris gave her a curious look. “What do you mean?” she asked hesitantly.

“I mean,” Flick replied, “we need some signals. We talked about it a little bit back on Athena’s base. And we’ve got that whole system for fighting together. Which, if I do say so myself, makes us even more incredibly badass. But we don’t really have a good system for letting you talk through me when you need to. Which, like I said, we need now that people know about you.”

Eyes widening, Tabbris stared at the older girl, taken aback by the suggestion. “Talking through you?” she echoed in a stammering voice. “You mean like taking control just to talk?”

Flick was nodding as if it was the most simple and obvious thing in the world. “Of course. I mean, you’re part of the team. And they’re going to know about you. The ones who don’t already, I mean. So, if we’re going to do this, they need to be able to know when you’re talking and when I’m talking. You deserve the right to have actual input. Especially with everything that’s going on. I want everyone to know just how cool and smart you are. But I guess I’ll settle for just our friends. You know, the most important people.”

While Tabbris gaped at her for a minute, not knowing what to say, Flick continued. “I’ve been thinking about it, and I’m pretty sure I have a good idea about how we can let people know that you’re talking instead of me. I’ve got my hair and face shifting power, you know? The one from the Rakshasa.”

When Tabbris hesitantly nodded, unable to find her voice, the other girl went on. “I’ve been messing with it a little bit since I got it. You know, messing with my hair here and there. It’s fun. But I think it could be useful for this too. See, what I was thinking was, I could start changing my hair color and length and all that a lot more. Just randomly changing it in the middle of conversation. Doing it a lot so that people don’t think anything‘s weird. But, here’s the thing. We could reserve a couple different colors just for you. That way, when you’re saying something, you switch my hair to one of those colors and people who know about you will know that you’re the one talking.”

Gulping audibly at that,  Tabbris offered a tentative, “But, I could just keep relaying messages through you. I don’t need some kind of credit or anything. Who cares?”

“I care,” Flick insisted. “And trust me, you deserve to get a little bit of credit where you can. I guess I can’t make everyone understand how awesome you are, but I can do this much. We’ll  just let the appropriate people know that when my hair is certain colors, you’re the one talking. And then, when we’re in a conversation and you have something to say, you can just, you know, say it. Simple, right?”

Tabbris’s eyes had somehow found a way to get even wider than they had already been, while a tiny squeaking noise escaped her for a second before she managed to speak actual words. “You mean just start talking with your mouth without making sure you’re okay with it?”

Flick met her gaze evenly at that. “Tabby, if you’re stuck in my body, you deserve to be able to interact with people as much as we can manage. All you need to do is maybe let me know that you’re gonna say something. I don’t know, like maybe say me or something inside so I know you’re about to talk. Or maybe a better codeword. I dunno, exactly. Just so that I don’t start saying something and then interrupt myself, you know? We still need to be subtle about it and make sure no one figures out what’s going on.

“The point is, you’ve earned a voice. Actually, you’ve earned a hell of a lot more than that. But a voice is the least I can give you. So, what colors do you want to be yours? We should probably make it more than one so that it’s harder to pin down you saying specific things with one color.”

Tabbris still wasn’t sure about the whole situation, but she hesitantly answered, “Um… white? White and um… pink?”

Flick grinned at her. “White and pink it is. Those can be your colors. And…” Stopping, the blonde girl tilted her head a little, clearly thinking for a few seconds before snapping her fingers. “Actually, now I have an idea. Watch this.”

As Tabbris obediently did so, the girl who had become her big sister in every way that really mattered seemed to focus for a moment. A second later, one of her eyes turned pink while the other became totally white without any visible pupil.

“It won’t work when we’re in a large group where people can’t really see my eyes very well,” she conceded, “but for small groups, we can mix things up a little. Switch between hair and eyes so that it’s even harder to keep track for anyone on the outside.”

Despite herself, Tabbris found a smile. “We should mix up the colors sometimes too,” she pointed out. “You know, change them every couple weeks or so, or something like that. Just so that it’s even harder to, um, notice.”

To be completely honest, she still wasn’t sure how she felt about this whole idea. But she did know that she trusted Flick without any question. And she would do everything she could to make help the plan work. Besides, maybe being able to talk sometimes and have people know it was her would be kind of nice?

Wait, was that selfish? Wanting credit, wanting to interact with people and have them know it was her, was that going too far? This was a slippery slope, which was part of why she was so afraid of it. Terrified, really. She didn’t want to become the kind of monster that so many of her species were, those who didn’t see other people as anything more than puppets to control. She never wanted to be like that. Never.

Flick was nodding. “Good point, yeah. We should change the colors every once in awhile just to be on the safe side.” She gave the other girl a wide grin. “And see, now we’ve got that settled. So we can talk about you walking around Crossroads.”

Tabbris did a quick, startled double take at that. If she’d had a drink, she would have sprayed it all over. “I can’t walk around Crossroads,” she blurted. “Maybe there’s some problems with the security, but I think most of them would notice a little kid like me. Even if I am invisible to their security spells. Which, actually, would probably make them even more suspicious.”

Flick giggled. “Uh, yeah, probably. but that’s my point. You don’t walk around as yourself. You walk around as me. You know, my body.”

Tabbris stared at her as though she had grown six new heads, each of them spouting complete gibberish. “Y-you mean t-take over your body and walk around? Like, when we’re not fighting, just, just… to walk around?”

“What I really want,” Flick informed her while meeting the younger girl’s eyes with her own, which had returned to their natural brown, “ is for you to be able to walk around as yourself. I want you to be free. But, this is the next best thing, for now. Sometimes, I can just, you know, tune out. Go inside my own head and daydream or whatever. Maybe you could work out a way with your mom about getting me in one of those virtual reality things to hang out while you have a chance to do your thing. Walk around, feed the sharks, go for a walk or go swimming. Hell, maybe just play video games with the others. You might be better at them than I am. You know, just do whatever you want to do.

“Like I said, you’ve earned it. After everything you’ve done for me, you the least I can do is let you take over for an hour or two each day. I’ve already got a bunch of extra hours in the day thanks to that Amarok. You can use at least one of them for yourself.”

Tabbris said nothing for a few long seconds. Instead, she simply stared at the other girl with big, round eyes that grew gradually more damp before she couldn’t see through them anymore. Blinking back those tears, the Seosten girl finally managed a weak, “Y-you… you don’t have to do that.”

Shaking her head, Flick corrected her. “It’s not about what I have to do, Tabby. It’s about what I want to do. Like I said, you deserve to be more than a prisoner while you’re hanging out in my body. And it’s not like I can’t trust you. Remember? You spent years proving that I can. You could’ve taken me over any time you wanted to. But you didn’t do anything more than you absolutely had to in order to protect me.” Reaching out, she touched Tabbris’s hair lightly. “I trust you, partner. And if the best way to let you hang out and do something you want to do while we’re at Crossroads is to let you borrow my body for a little bit, then you’re welcome to it.”

Once again, Tabbris had no words. Her mouth opened and shut a couple of times as she fought to find her voice. But nothing came. In the end, all she could do was lean over, wrapping her arms tightly around the older girl to hug her.

Flick returned the embrace just as tightly, smiling down at her. “Besides, I’m pretty sure we’re basically officially sisters now, and sisters are supposed to share. This is just… a little more sharing than normal. But since when was anything about either of us normal?”

The two sat together like that, quietly embracing. Tabbris pulled herself up into Flick’s lap, and they remained silent for a moment. Each was content to simply look out over the lake as its waves gently lapped up against the shore, quietly contemplating the situation that they were in and the lives that they had led up to that point.

“Flick?” Tabbris started quietly, almost reluctant to break the peaceful quiet.

The other girl’s voice was just as soft, “Yeah, Tabby?”

Swallowing, the Seosten child leaned back into her adopted sister. “Our… Our dad is really cool.”

The smile was audible within Flick’s voice. “Yeah. He really is.”

“Flick?”

“Yeah?”

“Our family is really weird.”

“… Yeah. It really is.”

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Homecoming 35-04

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As Tabbris stepped closer into view, reaching up with both of her hands to grab onto one of mine while staring up with those wide, innocent and openly fearful eyes, Dad had what was probably the reaction that I had least been expecting. After an initial blink or two of quiet confusion (which was expected), his mouth opened and he blurted a surprised, “Wait a second, I know you.”

It was my turn to blink in confusion, before I started to correct him. “Err, no, Dad, see this is–”

“You were in my bed.” Dad‘s voice it was quiet, calm, and contemplative as he watched Tabbris. Slowly, he tilted his head. “You slept beside me. I thought it was a dream. I thought it was a recurring dream,” he amended then. “I’d wake up, and you would be laying there pressed up against me. I just thought it was a dream about…” Trailing off a little, Dad shook his head. “I thought it was the dream about having another kid after Joselyn disappeared. I thought I just really wanted another little girl. I wanted Felicity to have a sister. I dreamed about having another little girl. So I… I saw you and you were… you were there.”

He was silent again for several long seconds. I had no idea what to say to that, and it was obvious that no one else did either. Slowly, Dad took a couple steps forward before going down on one knee right in front of Tabbris. “It wasn’t a dream, was it?” His voice was soft, yet absolutely certain as he met her wide-eyed gaze.

Tears of shame and regret flooded the other girl’s eyes then, and her lower lip quivered a little before she replied weakly, “I’m s-sorry.” Her voice hitched and cracked. “I’m s-so sorry. You were Flick’s daddy and I was scared and I didn’t know where Miss Larissa was and I didn’t know where anyone was and I was just by myself. I was by myself and I didn’t know what to do and you were there and I just wanted to pretend for a little bit. You hugged me and it felt re-really good but I shouldn’t have done it because you were Flick’s daddy not my daddy and I’m sorry.”

From the corner of my eye, I saw Sariel start to take a step toward her daughter with her hands out to pull the girl back to her. But Gaia, a look of understanding on her face, put a hand up to gently stop her. She leaned in, whispering something to the other woman. I wasn’t sure what she said, exactly, but it made Sariel hesitate, watching to see what happened next.  

And what happened next was that my father put both hands out, cupping either side of Tabbris’s face. His expression softened, as he gently made her look up at him through those tear-filled eyes. “You can’t cry,” he informed her, his voice as soft and tender as I had ever heard it. Gently, he wiped his thumbs over her damp cheeks. “It makes me want to hurt the person who made it happen. And I already get into enough trouble without literally beating myself up.”

Sniffling a little, Tabbris whimpered. “B-but, you were trying to hug Flick, and… and I… I stole–”

“You listen to me,” Dad interrupted with a shake of his head. “Love is a muscle, not some kind of limited resource. You make more of it by using it. You make it better by using it. You didn’t steal a damn thing from me, kid. I was just as lost as you were. You needed someone to hold onto, and so did I. Those nights, dreaming about you–thinking that I was dreaming about you, they were some of the best nights. The only bad part was when I would wake up and you’d be gone.”

Slowly, Tabbris lifted her shaking hands, resting them against Dad’s wrists while his own hands stayed pressed lightly against her face, cupping it. I saw her give a full-body shiver while her mouth opened and shut, a sort of keening sound escaping the girl as she fought to find words.

“I didn’t… want you to… hate me.” That tiny, almost inaudible voice broke the silence, each word cracking just a little bit more until what she was actually saying was almost only understandable through context. Her hands clung to his wrists a little more tightly through that admission, like she was terrified that he would actually pull away, repulsed by her after all.  

“Hate you?” Dad’s own voice cracked then, as if the very idea that he could be capable of that was the most horrific thought that she could have entertained. “My girl, I could never hate you.”

His words, those words, made Tabbris give a little gasp. Her eyes widened slightly, and she abruptly broke. Those tears came back, but they were different this time. Her hands left his wrists, and the girl threw her arms around Dad’s neck, grabbing on tight while her sobs returned.

Dad stood, lifting Tabbris with him as he held the girl tight to him. As Tabbris buried her face against his neck and shook, he held onto her in a way that silently said he wouldn’t let her go until she wanted him to. His eyes found mine while he held her, and we exchanged smiles.

I wasn’t jealous. Yes, I had been away from my Dad for a couple months. I’d been waiting to be with him for that long. But Tabbris had been waiting years for him to know her, for him to accept her. She had waited her entire life for Dad to hold her like that knowingly and willingly.

After a few long moments of that, Sariel hesitantly stepped forward. She gave her daughter a wistful, tender look, and I could see the pain in her eyes. She wanted to have been there for Tabbris. She wanted to have been there for all of her children. But in the end, all she had been able to do for her youngest daughter was send her away, into a potentially hostile situation.

“I… should explain,” the woman started slowly, looking up to my father. “I should explain why I… sent my daughter to yours.”

But Dad surprised me again. His head shook as he easily replied, “I’m pretty sure I’ve got the idea. Let me make an educated guess. You’re Vanessa and Tristan’s mother too. The Seosten have been trying to fix their population problems and, as a prisoner, they weren’t too concerned with your rights. I doubt they have anything like a Geneva Convention or the eighth amendment of the constitution. So, experiments result in this pretty little bundle right here. Somehow, you got her out of that prison and sent her to Earth. Whoever you sent her to thought that she’d be safe with Joselyn, but Joselyn was gone so they put her in Flick since they didn’t have anywhere else that she’d be safe. She grew up protecting Flick from being possessed, since she was already possessed. I’m not sure how what had to be a toddler at most learned everything she’d need to know or kept quiet about her existence for so long, but I’m willing to bet that some kind of magic was involved. Maybe psychic tutoring or something, but that’s mostly a guess.”

With that, it was Dad’s turn to have everyone staring at him open-mouthed. I fought for several long seconds, but only a slight croaking noise from deep in my throat escaped. In the end, it was Gaia who found her voice first, and even she sounded a bit surprised. “Mr. Chambers,” she started slowly, “I admit, you continue to surprise me in many remarkable ways.”

“Yes,” Sariel agreed. “While you were not… exactly right on every point, you were incredibly close in many ways. I chose to send my daughter to yours from the start, after learning that your wife had been taken, because I knew that my people as well as other threats would be after her. It was the only thing I could think of that might protect her from them. And… and I knew that any mate Joselyn Atherby chose would be a wonderful father figure for my daughter to see. I… I don’t know who the father is. Kushiel never found that particular information relevant enough to share with her prisoners. I’m afraid that there is no way to know now. But I knew that my girl would have a good example in you.”

“You’re really, really not mad?” That was Tabbris herself, leaning back just a bit as she stared with wonder into Dad’s eyes while still clinging to him. Her voice was plaintive, still fearful of eventual rejection. It said a lot about how much terror she’d built up in her own head about being hated and pushed away for what she was. It wasn’t something that would just disappear so easily, just through a few reassurances. But I had a feeling that this moment was helping a lot.

“Mad?” Dad blinked. Reaching up, he took the black LA Times hat that he’d had from back when he worked there from his head and dropped it onto Tabbris’s. The hat was big enough that it instantly fell to cover her eyes. “Kid, the only thing I’m mad about is that I didn’t know you before. I–actually, there’s a lot of things I’m mad about. Beginning with you having to be in that situation to begin with. But as far as you’re concerned? No. You protected my daughter. If it wasn’t for you, she’d be a Seosten slave right now, wouldn’t she?”

“I…” Tabbris pushed the brim of the hat up with one, trembling hand as she glanced to me before swallowing. “They tried,” she admitted. “They kept trying.”

“Perhaps,” Gaia offered gently, “Mr. Chambers would like to have an opportunity to learn everything that happened while Felicity and the others were… away. Over a meal, of course. I’m certain you could all use something warm and filling to eat.” From the way she glanced toward Sariel with that, I was pretty sure that the headmistress was mostly referring to her. Which made sense. I doubted that providing good things to eat had been on Kushiel’s priority list.

“Eat?” Tristan sounded eager for that much, at least. Giving a hungry look around, he blurted, “What are we supposed to eat? Wait…” Frowning at the lake nearby, the boy demanded, “Is this gonna be one of those ‘teach a man to fish’ things like in the Bible?”

“That wasn’t in the Bible,” Vanessa corrected him in what sounded like it was automatic and unthinking. “Anne Isabella Thackeray Ritchie wrote the closest English version of that in 1885, but the exact original source is a little unclear. Definitely not from the Bible, though.”

“Don’t mind her,” Tristan informed the rest of us. “Now that I can’t forget things, Nessa’s using every excuse to try and shove as much useless information in my head as she can.”

An offended (and kind of hilarious) squeaking-gasp of indignation escaped the girl in question, as she gave a cute little stomp of her foot. “It is not useless! Having the correct factual information is never useless, you… you.. doddypoll!”

Blinking twice at that, Tristan gave his sister a bewildered look. “The hell is a doddypoll? You just made that word up.”

“Did not,” Vanessa retorted. “And see, if you had the factual information about it, you’d know what I was calling you. Doddypoll.” With that, she stuck her tongue out at him.

Gaia, who I was pretty sure knew exactly what a doddypoll was, smiled with what looked like genuine amusement. “In any case,” she announced, “it is not a ‘teach a man to fish’ moment, though you really should learn how to fish if you don’t already know, Mr. Moon. No, in this case, Gabriel has prepared a nice meal for all of you. If you are ready to walk over there? We can discuss more of this there. I’m certain that Gabriel will want to be involved in the discussion.”

Wyatt shook his head, however. “Abigail,” he put in. “I need to call Abigail,” the man announced firmly. “She should be here. It’s… it’s a family thing, isn’t it? She’s family. She should be here. And she should bring Miranda and Theia.”

The sudden joy I felt at the idea of seeing my sister and Miranda again was partially tempered by confusion. “Theia?” I asked. “Who’s Theia? I mean, I know I’ve met a lot of people this year. Too many to keep track of, sometimes. But I’m pretty sure there was no Theia.”

Wyatt started to answer that, but Deveron spoke over him. “It’s a long story. One that we should probably tell when they get here. It’s… yeah, let Abigail tell it.”

For her part, Gaia simply nodded. “Call them,” she agreed. “I assume Abigail still has the bone she was given that would bring her to this camp. Have them meet us here.”

Wyatt nodded, giving me a brief, goofy smile before stepping away while taking a phone from his pocket. As he started to call the others, I felt a brief pang. Avalon and Shiori. I wanted to talk to them too. I needed them to know that I was here, that I was safe. It was almost all I could do not to beg Gaia to bring them in.

But I knew why she wasn’t. There would be no way that I’d be able to pay attention enough to tell the whole story anymore if Valley and Shiori were here. I would instantly lose all ability to focus on relaying the stuff that they needed to know.

Still… “What about the others?” I managed to make myself ask while remaining as calm as possible about it.

From her brief smile, Gaia knew exactly what I had been referring to, and how hard it was for me not to demand their presence. “I have sent word to Avalon and the others,” she assured me. “They are aware that you are here and that you will meet them as soon as possible. I’ve told my daughter that you are safe, and physically well. She wishes to see you, very much.”

Swallowing hard, I gave a tiny nod. My voice was soft. “I wanna see her too.”

Dare’s hand found my shoulder, giving it a reassuring squeeze. “You will,” the woman promised. “You’re back on Earth now, Felicity. As soon as we get done here, we’ll get you back to them.”

“Speaking of getting back,” Sariel quickly put in, while I was slowly nodding. “My people who were on the transport, the prisoners–”

“They will not be harmed,” Gaia promised. “They are still frozen, still safe. I promise you. We can eat now, and then go over what should be done with them. You said something about a prisoner manifest back on the transport. Once we are done here, we can go over that together and find which people are safe to be released. Perhaps they will even choose to stay here, with the Atherby camp. It would do much to bolster their numbers on both sides.”

I could tell that Sariel wasn’t too opposed to that idea, while we left Gaia’s privacy/illusion bubble and made our way back through the camp. Our little group got a few stares from the people there, and Dad was greeted by name. Hell, so was I. They called out that they were glad I’d made it back, that it was good to see me. It was… it felt… strange, but in a good way.

Dad set Tabbris down partway there, letting her go back to her mother, who took her daughter’s hand tightly. Their little family walked together, whispering now and then as they carried on their own private discussion. About what, I didn’t know. It wasn’t any of my business.

In any case, Gaia was right, of course. Gabriel Prosser was waiting in one of the cabins for us, and he had a table full of food waiting. After greeting us, and introducing himself directly to Sariel (with a moment of brief, silent communication between the two that made me think that it wasn’t the first time they’d met in some way or another), he and Gaia stepped out of the cabin to have a conversation of their own. They said that they would bring Wyatt, Abigail, and ‘the others’ here to meet up with us as soon as they arrived.  

And with that, the rest of us all dug in. Because Gaia had also been right about something else: we were starving. As soon as my stomach noticed the meal laid out for us, it wouldn’t let me focus on anything else until I’d put away a full plate and a half.

Finally, however, I could think straight enough to start telling my dad the story about what had happened. I’d told it to Gaia and the others already, of course. But I was pretty sure I’d have to tell it several more times before this was all over. Especially to Valley and the others.

By the time I finished, again with a little help from the twins here and there, Dad was shaking his head in amazement. And more than a little worry. “I can’t believe everything you’ve been through this year,” he announced quietly. “Everything… I haven’t been there for you at all.”

“Yes, you have been,” I corrected him. “You’re my dad. Everything you taught me my whole life, that’s why I am who I am. That’s why I’ve been able to survive this. Don’t say you haven’t been with me, because you have. You’ll always be with me.”

Dad’s hand reached across the table, finding mine and squeezing it while he blinked moisture out of his eyes. A moment of silent understanding passed between the two of us, and for just a second, it felt like we were by ourselves again. Just the two of us, sitting at our kitchen table.

“She’s right,” Tabbris piped up then, pushing the hat off her eyes once more. “She… she thinks about you a lot, Mr… um… Mr… Chambers. All the time.”

For a second, Dad opened his mouth like he was going to say one thing. But he hesitated, settling on scooting his chair back a bit while gesturing. “C’mere, kid.”

Tabbris looked a little confused, but she gave her mother a brief look before sliding out of her seat. Slowly, she made her way around the table, taking the hat off her head and offering it to him.

Dad took it, but instead of keeping it, he carefully adjusted the size on the band, then put it back on her head so that it fit reasonably well. Then he took her hands. “You,” he started, “are just as incredible as Flick there, you know that? Everything you did, the things you had to deal with all by yourself… You’re an amazing kid.”

“She shouldn’t have had to.” That was Sariel. Her voice was pained, the loss in it audible enough that both Vanessa and Tristan were giving her worried looks. “I didn’t have a choice. If I didn’t send her to your daughter, if I didn’t send her here, they would have made her into a–they would have ruined her. I… I had to send her away.”

“You did what you had to do,” Dare quietly replied, “to protect your family.”

“She’s right,” Dad agreed. “You were in an impossible position, and you made the best choice that you could. You saved her, even if it was hard. But…” He looked up then, gazing across the table toward Sariel with the tiniest hint of a smile. “You were wrong about what you said earlier.”  

The Seosten woman blinked once, head tilting slightly as she replied, “Wrong? About what?”

Reaching down, Dad lifted Tabbris off the ground once more, setting her on his lap. “You said that there’s no way to know who her father is.” Slowly, he shifted the girl so that she could hold tightly to his neck, leaning in to gently kiss her cheek while she giggled from the touch of his beard against her face.

“That’s what you were wrong about,” Dad informed Sariel in a quiet voice while letting Tabbris cling to him. “Because we may never find out who contributed the paternal DNA that made her.

“But we know exactly who her father is.”

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Homecoming 35-03

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Just a quick note, the winner of our favorite joke tag contest will be announced in my first comment at the bottom of this chapter. Make sure you check that out! 

So, I began from where Professor Dare last knew, when Charmiene had knocked her out of the cab while abducting me. Gradually, I summarized the events of the past couple of months for my enraptured audience. Vanessa and Tristan filled in where they could once the story got around to them, but mostly it was me. I told them about being sent to that space station, and how we had escaped. I explained about the little rebellion we had started when we met Jokai, and I continued on through meeting up with Larissa and Haiden and all of that.

I told them the whole story of what had happened to Professor Katarin. It hurt. Saying the words like that, seeing their expressions as I told them what Isaac had done, it was one of the hardest parts. It had been bad enough telling the edited version of the story in front of Ruthers and the other Committee members, but this was even worse. I had to confirm that the worst parts of what I’d said before were actually true. Katarin was dead, and it was because of Isaac.

Pushing on from that, I told them the rest. I explained about how we had tracked down and captured Isaac, how I had ended up with Athena, and all that training.

Partway through the story, Tabbris hopped out of me and moved to her mother. The two stood close, Sariel holding her youngest girl against herself while her other two children stood on either side of her with their hands against her sides as though to stop her from disappearing again. Eventually, once I reached the point of getting ready to rescue Sariel. Vanessa and Tristan were able to chip in a lot more, and we told that part of it together. But for the most part, I told the story myself. Partly because they were thoroughly distracted with their family reunion. They helped out where they could, and we explained how the actual mission had gone.

Of course, we left out anything to do with Jophiel and Elisabet. Which… damn, had it really only been… less than an hour since our little conversation with those two? Because it felt more like entire weeks had passed. Everything that had happened in just the past couple of hours since the Sunstrider had arrived at Kushiel’s base, it was more than I could really grasp.

In any case, as much as I wanted to explain what had happened with Jophiel and Elisabet, as much as I wanted to have Gaia, Dare, Wyatt, and Deveron help us deal that that situation, we couldn’t. With the combination of the spells that the two had put on us along with the threats of what would happen if they found out that we had tried to break them, there was no conceivable way for us spill that secret. Not at the moment, anyway. As much as it sucked, as much as it made me want to scream and rant, I couldn’t. We had to keep our end of the deal.

For now.

Wyatt had summoned up a few glasses of ice water partway through and had handed them out to us so that we could keep talking. By the time it was over, I’d downed almost two full cups by myself. As I took one last sip off the water to finish it off, I let out a breath. “And then we found out that we were on Earth, and you guys showed up. Which, for the record, I’m really glad you did before Ruthers and the others. That whole… mess with the ship might’ve been a bit hard to explain.”

For a few long seconds, they just stared at me. I saw Dare open and close her mouth a couple times as she fought to find words. In the end, however, it was Gaia who found her voice first. “Miss Chambers,” she began slowly, “I have long since come to accept the fact that many of our students experience a great deal of… adventure while attending Crossroads, and experience more danger than we can hope to protect them from entirely. That said… please learn to pace yourself. You have three full years left at this school. Cramming so much chaos into your first couple of semesters is hardly necessary.”

Flushing deeply despite myself, I protested, “It’s not like I’m doing it on purpose.”

“Of course not,” Deveron agreed, shaking his head. “You’re just your mother’s daughter.” He then took his turn to embrace me once more. His hug was even tighter than Wyatt’s had been before I had started my story, and he added in a quieter voice, “I’m glad you made it back.”

For a moment after he released me, I thought that Professor Dare would take a turn. She looked a bit indecisive about it before finally settling on simply agreeing. “Yes, we’re all glad that you made it back.” To Vanessa and Tristan, she added, “And very glad that you two were not taken by the Seosten, as was feared for some time.”

“Sorry,” Vanessa weakly replied, looking embarrassed as she shifted a little on her feet. “It’s like I said, we didn’t mean for it to happen right then. I didn’t think it’d be that… um, easy to transport all the way out there like that. It was like… tipping just a little too far and then falling over.”

“It’s a good thing that you were there,” Gaia noted thoughtfully. “Otherwise, it sounds as though this rescue mission may not have ended successfully.” From the way she paused, slowing as she looked to me, I had the strangest feeling that she knew we were leaving out something important. Which, to be fair, wasn’t actually all that strange because… well, Gaia. But she didn’t push things. Instead, the woman simply looked to Tabbris then, while adding,  “And speaking of things that could have gone quite worse if not for outside aid, it seems that we owe you a great deal of thanks for everything you’ve done for Miss Chambers in her life. Even if we were unaware of it for so long.”

For her part, Tabbris blushed deeply. She clung to one of her mother’s arms, staring at Gaia with wide, saucer-like eyes. “I… I just wanted to help,” she announced quietly. “I’m sorry I hid for so long, and that I didn’t–”

Taking a knee in front of her, Gaia’s head shook. “Tabbris,” she started quietly as she made a clear point of using the girl’s name directly, “I meant no reprimand. You are, quite honestly, one of the bravest children I have ever had the great pleasure of meeting. And I assure you, I have met quite a few. The idea that you have worked so long and so hard to protect Miss Chambers, despite having every expectation that you would be hated and feared if you were discovered… it is extraordinary. You are extraordinary. And I count myself privileged to have met you now.”

Wyatt, looking fit to burst by that point, nodded his head rapidly while blurting, “Yes! Yes, very extraordinary. I have so many questions. How did you avoid detection by your own people? What spells did you use to protect Felicity? Did the necromancer show his face while you were watching over her? How many times did other Seosten try to possess her? How often did you leave her body? Did anyone ever see you out as yourself? Did other Heretics ever try to interrogate her to find out where our mother was? How many–”

“Easy, Wyatt.” Deveron smiled, shaking his head as he took his son’s arm and squeezed a little. “Let’s let the poor girl breathe a little bit. This is probably just as crazy for her as it is for us.”

Dare was nodding. “He’s right. But…” Her gaze moved from Tabbris, to her mother. “Are you alright?” Her voice was soft, and understanding. “You just came out of a… very long imprisonment. And being separated from your children, from your family, for so long under what must have been terrible conditions… “ she looked the woman up and down briefly, biting her lip before adding a quiet, “What can we do for you?”

From the look on Sariel’s face, Dare might as well have accused her of horrific crimes and threatened to make her pay for it. She dropped her gaze, smelling Tabbris’s hair and pulling all three of her children closer as though to steady herself so that she could find the strength to respond. “I… I don’t…” For a second, I thought her next word was going to be deserve. It seemed to be right on the tip of her tongue. In the end, however, the woman just finished with a weak, “I’ll be fine. I just… wish Haiden was here.”

“As do we,” Gaia assured her. “Though I’m certain that our wish does not come near equaling your own. But it is too bad that everyone has not yet made it back here. From the sound of things, Seosten space has not been entirely welcoming or safe.”

I started to say something then, but Tristan suddenly blurted, “Hey, that’s right. With all the blowhards back there, we totally forgot to ask.” His attention was on his sister. “Nessa, what happened with Dad and the others? You told them where we are?”

Quickly nodding, Vanessa explained what had happened when she had projected her mind to their father. She told us that the others seemed safe, and that they were going to find the rest of those banishment orb shards with the help of Apollo, Athena, and the rest of the Aelaestiam.

Once she finished, Sariel hugged her closer, her voice quiet. “Lucifer and Auriel… with Haiden…” She sounded dazed, like she was still trying to wrap her mind around that concept. Which was fair, since I was still trying to wrap my mind around the concept that she was actually there, that we had actually succeeded at rescuing her (as rocky as that particular road had been).

“They’ll make it, Mom.” That was Tristan, giving his mother a firm hug as he nodded encouragingly. “They’ll make it back here.”

“Speaking of making it back here.” That was Dare, a curious frown knitted across her brow as she looked to Sariel. “If you don’t mind the question, how did you get Tabbris to Earth? And how did you hide her from that witch long enough to do so? It doesn’t seem as though… as though the situation you were in would be conducive to hiding a child from your jailer.”

Sariel was quiet for a moment, while everyone’s eyes (including her children’s) turned to her. Finally, the woman let out a breath. “Hiding my brave girl was both simple and… complicated. I…” She looked away, clearly gazing into the past while explaining. “I knew that she was close to being born. In a few days, she would have come and… and they would have taken her away from me.” From the way the woman’s voice shook, I was pretty sure it wouldn’t have been the first, or the last, time that had happened.

“They would have taken her from me,” Sariel continued in that somewhat cracked, almost broken voice. “But I had a plan. A plan to get her out, at least. And it revolved around my cellmate.”

Vanessa blinked at that. “You had a cellmate?”

“Of sorts,” her mother confirmed. “Beauthrek was a Disidien, a species that gives off a sort-of… passive calming aura that is especially effective with children. They tend to work well as nursemaids or teachers. It was part of Kushiel’s attempts at countering the terror and emotional turmoil of being imprisoned, which tended to make pregnancies fail more often than they already do normally. Beauthrek was kept in a constant state of unconsciousness, what amounted to a medically-induced coma. After all, Kushiel didn’t need her for any action she could take. She only needed her passive aura.”

“Just when I think I couldn’t hate that bitch any more than I already do,” I muttered under my breath, “she finds a way to surpass herself.”   

From the look on Sariel’s face, she felt about the same. Continuing, the woman explained, “We would be left alone in the room for hours at a time, particularly in the middle of the night. Just the two of us. Three with my little, growing baby. So, that night, a few days before she would have been born… I possessed my own child.”

What?!” Belatedly realizing that the outburst had come from myself, I shook my head. “You–you what? I thought she was… I mean I thought you were… I thought–”

“She was inside of me, yes,” Sariel confirmed. “Which meant that we were in physical contact. I believed that, as Seosten infants are capable of possessing their parents, the entire reason that the population of our race is in such dire straits to begin with, the situation would also work in reverse. And I was correct. I was able to possess my own unborn child. Our… physical connection through the umbilical cord was severed, and I was possessing my own baby.”

My mouth hung open, as I stared along with everyone else. Someone, maybe me, mumbled, “This is really fucked up.”

“Normally,” Sariel continued, “a literally just-born infant would not be able to do anything of use. But I was an Olympian. My ability to boost is very strong. Boosting my own infant child would not have allowed her to fight in any meaningful way, of course. Even that could only do so much for her undeveloped muscles. But it did provide enough strength that I was able to pick her body up from the bed that I had been strapped to for the evening and eventually, over the course of an hour or so, traverse the distance to the other bed on the opposite side of the room. I took my baby up onto the bed, and made her possess Beauthrek. Once we were there, I used my own… experience with memory-alteration to… essentially program my baby. She would lay still and silent in her host. Once every twenty-four hours, provided the room was empty aside from Beauthrek and myself, she would rise from the bed, walk to where I was strapped down, undo the straps, lay down, and then come out of her host.

“Each night, as I was freed, I would play with my daughter for a couple of hours there in the dark room. I did everything I could to help and teach her, including long hours spent possessing her myself in order to instill what became my… virtual self, the memory manipulation that would aid and teach her everything that I wanted her to know once the time came that she was sent away from me.”

Kissing the top of her little girl’s head, the woman concluded with, “When the time came to send her to Earth, I possessed her long enough to instill a mental command for her to possess me for a very brief time before stopping. While she was possessing me, I maintained control and projected myself physically to Larissa. Once the time limit was up and she stopped possessing me, I gave her to Larissa, and she took her to you.” The last bit was added with a nod toward me.

Except, shouldn’t the fact that she had possessed her own child have sort of… eliminated Sariel’s connection to Larissa? It hadn’t, since she clearly used it after that. I already knew that much. But… how? How had she have possessed Tabbris, yet still held onto that connection with Larissa? Was it an Olympian trick, or one specific to the woman herself?

Now probably wasn’t the right time to ask. Still, I really wanted to know.

For a long few seconds, no one said anything. Honestly, I couldn’t think of anything to say. The idea that Sariel had possessed her own child while she was in her womb, had essentially given birth that way, and then had done all of that just to keep her child out of Kushiel’s hands was… was… holy shit.

“Holy shit.” Deveron echoed my own thoughts, mouth open as he stared at the Seosten woman. “That was, um, resourceful.”

“Resourceful?” Tristan echoed, sounding as shocked as the rest of us. “That’s not just resourceful, that’s… that’s… Nessa, what’s a good word for–”

“Fucked up,” was his genius sister’s simple, blunt response. “Really, really fucked up. And kind of super-amazing.”  

“One does what one must for our children,” Sariel murmured, hugging all three of them closer to her. “No matter what that is.”

“Indeed, we do,” Gaia confirmed, clearly making a point of changing the subject (probably to give the overwhelmed-looking Sariel a break). “And now that we have satisfied some of our curiosity,” she announced with a little smile toward me, “… or enough for the time being, I believe there is someone else who is owed just as much of an explanation and a reunion, and who has been waiting incredibly patiently given the situation.”

With that, the woman waved her hand, and we were suddenly transported somewhere else. Instead of that beautiful forest, we were by a familiar lake, with a familiar man standing there, pacing back and forth anxiously until the second I came into view. Once I was there, he spun, eyes widening before he sprinted those few steps as a wordless cry of joy escaped him.

My own arms opened just in time, before my father swept me off the ground and pulled me close to him.

Dad. I was in Dad’s arms. After two months away, two months of not knowing when or if I would ever see him again, I was in my father’s arms.

“Felicity!” Dad bellowed, holding me as tight as he could. “You’re back! You’re–you’re safe. I mean… you’re…” He pulled back a little, staring at me. “Are you… really…?”

He knew. Like the others, he knew that I had been possessed. In his initial delight at seeing me, he’d forgotten for a moment. But now he wasn’t sure what was going on. If I wanted to have a real reunion with him, I needed to show him the truth. He needed to understand.

“It’s me, Dad,” I assured him. “It’s really me. It’s always been me.” Glancing to the others, I squirmed free, taking both of his hands. “Dad, I need to tell you something, okay?”

His face tensed. “What? What happened?”

“Dad, calm down.” Squeezing his hands, I shook my head. “It’s okay. I’m okay. I just… I need you to meet someone. Someone very important. But you have to be calm.” Glancing over to Gaia, I asked, “Is it safe to explain?”

The woman gave me a slight smile once more, nodding in confirmation. “Gabriel is aware of our presence, but for the others, we are covered by an illusion,” she assured me, gesturing to where everyone else in the Atherby camp, which was about a hundred yards or so away,  was going about their business. “It is safe here.”

“Safe for what?” Dad was shaking his head. “I got a message to come stand out here and wait, that you were back and that you’d be here as soon as you could. What are we hiding? Who do you want me to meet?”

Stepping back slowly, I gave a slight nod, repeating, “It’s okay. I’m okay. Everything is okay.” Looking behind me, I extended a hand to the little girl who was clinging to her mother.

“Tabbris… come on. I think it’s time for you to officially meet Dad.”

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