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 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 Charmeine 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 of 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!”