“Now remember, hold really still. I don’t want to mess this up.” As he spoke, Lincoln Chambers frowned with concentration while he carefully and gently drew the small paintbrush along its current canvas.
That particular canvas giggled just a little bit before managing to restrain herself. “It tickles,” Tabbris whispered, trying not to move her face in the process while the brush moved along her cheek.
The two of them were in the cabin that Lincoln had been staying in for months by that point. It was late at night, but neither were tired. More to the point, neither would have been able to sleep even if they were tired. Not with everything that was going on.
Kneeling in front of the chair that Tabbris was sitting on, Lincoln pulled back a little to point the brush at her. “It tickles, huh? So even the mighty and invincible Seosten overlords are ticklish.”
Seeing the way that the girl’s face fell a little at that, Lincoln put his free hand out to touch her unpainted cheek. “Hey, I’m kidding.” His voice was gentle. “Yes, your people have done some bad things. But they’ve also produced some pretty damn cool people too. And believe me, if every species was judged and condemned by the worst of its actions, there’d hardly be anyone left in the universe. Which, I’m told, is a pretty busy place.”
As the girl tentatively looked up at him once more, the man went on. “The point is, it’s okay to poke a little fun at them without always condemning everything. It doesn’t mean that you forget every bad thing they’ve done. It doesn’t mean that you forget their problems. It means that you aren’t letting them win. Smiling, making jokes in the face of terrible things, it’s all part of…” He paused then. “Well, I was going to say that it’s part of being human. But I suppose it’s a lot bigger than that.”
Tabbris gave him a hesitant smile at that, mouth quivering just a little. “So, making jokes about it doesn’t mean that I forgot that it’s really serious and bad?“
The man’s head shook at that. “Oh, kid. No. No, it doesn’t mean that at all. Sometimes the only way to really understand and process just how bad something might be is to make jokes about it. Pointing out the absurdities of things by taking them to their exaggerated conclusion, that’s just one way of exposing things that are bad. Some take that as dismissing the seriousness of it, but believe me, it’s not. For so many people, joking about bad things is how they process it. Now hold still, I want to finish up here, so I can have my turn.”
Tabbris started to ask what he meant by that, but stopped herself. She held herself still while the man dipped the paintbrush once more and returned to his work with a look of concentration. He kept glancing at a reference picture nearby before returning to make another stroke.
Eventually, Lincoln leaned back and nodded with satisfaction. “There we are, perfect.”
“Do I look okay?” The girl piped up then, wiggling with excitement in her seat. “Does it look like—”
“See for yourself,” Lincoln advised while reaching out to pick up a hand held mirror. He winked at the girl then before holding the mirror up in front of her.
Tabbris gasped out loud, staring at the mirror in wonder. A fox. Her face had been painted to look like a fox. It was amazing. She had a little black nose, red-brown face with little tufts of white that almost looked like it had actual fur, and whiskers. Lincoln had even painted appropriate ears onto her forehead.
“I’m a fox!” the young girl blurted with delight. Her eyes lit up, a bright smile stretching across that painted face as she turned her head this way and that, then scrunched up her nose and giggled at the image in the mirror.
It made Lincoln’s heart melt, and his smile matched hers. “See,” he put in with a voice that cracked slightly, “all those summers spent doing this at the carnival really paid off.”
The girl’s arms were around him then, hugging tightly while she blurted, “Thank you, thank you, Mr. Chambers. Thank you for… for…” She was sniffling a little, unable to articulate herself.
“Hey now,” Lincoln rose, picking the girl off the floor to hoist her into his arms. “What did we talk about?”
Blushing, she wrapped both arms around his neck and hold on tight. “Dad,” the girl whispered quietly while smiling even more. “Thank you, Dad.”
He held onto her for another few moments like that, rocking back and forth in blissful quiet before speaking again. “Hey, don’t start thinking that this was totally out of the goodness of my heart there, kid. Now it’s your turn to do me.”
Leaning back a little, Tabbris stared at him incredulously. “You want me to paint your face?”
As if it were the most natural thing in the world, Lincoln nodded while informing her simply, “I’d like to be a bear.” Pausing then, he amended with a wink, “or a tiger, or clown, or maybe a big blue splotch. Just go with whatever your artistic vision brings to life.”
He sat down then, and Tabbris stood in front of him with the array of paints lined up nearby. After a momentary hesitation, the girl very carefully dipped the brush in one of the paints and slowly moved it to his forehead. When the man held still, she took a tiny stroke across it before giggling. “You look funny.”
Grinning at that, Lincoln replied, “I guess it’s kind of hard to paint a face that’s seventy percent beard, isn’t it?” Tilting his head, the man mused, “Maybe we should cut it off.”
The words made Tabbris’s eyes widen, and she shook her head back and forth violently. “No! I like your beard. It tickles. You can’t cut it off.”
Racing an eyebrow then, the man asked, ‘You like the beard that much, huh?” When her head bobbed quickly, he smiled. “Well then, I guess it’s lucky then that I made sure those paints are okay to get into hair. You might not be able to paint my face. But you can make the beard pretty colors.”
Blinking, Tabbris looked down at the brush in her hand and then tentatively brushed it along the man’s beard. Then she giggled with delight. “Now you really look funny.”
“Of course I do,” Lincoln retorted, “That’s the pink paint.”
A short time later, as the pair left the cabin to walk along the edge of the lake, Lincoln’s beard had been fully painted a variety of bright colors, which continued up over his cheeks to his forehead. “Well now,” the man started while reaching down to take his newly-adopted daughter’s hand. “I’m all gussied up and pretty, with nowhere to actually go.”
Tabbris, still in fox-paint, giggled a little. “You wouldn’t really go out in public like that.”
Her words made the man sniff pointedly. “The hell I wouldn’t,” he declared. “One of my little girls made me all fancy and I want to show it off.” With a smile, he raised his hand, still holding onto her so that the girl was lifted off the ground briefly. “Think you’ll be able to get any sleep soon, kid?”
Eyes widening guiltily at that, the girl quickly blurted, “I’m sorry, I’m sorry! I didn’t mean to keep you up. You can go to bed. I-I can’t sleep. But, but I can do other things. You don’t have to stay up with me. Really, I’m okay by myself. You can go to bed.”
Letting her down, Lincoln put a finger to his lips. “Hush now,” he told her. “None of that. I’m up because I want to be up. Well, more because I can’t sleep either. If I was ready for bed, believe me, I’d tell you. I’m not going to try to keep up with some magically enhanced superfox.” While teasing her like that, he moved his hand to brush through her blonde hair. “And speaking of fox, a little bird tells me that I have you to thank for my ability to recite the Robin Hood cartoon verbatim, start to finish.”
Again, that guilty blush came as a girl dropped her gaze and shuffled her feet back and forth a little while mumbling, “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to make Flick watch it so much. It just made me feel happy when I was scared.”
“Are you kidding?” Lincoln reached out to tilt her head up by the chin so she would look at him. “Do you think our house is the only one where the same movie played over and over again? At least we have an actual excuse for it. And besides, it’s not like it was a bad movie. You could’ve had much worse taste.”
Pensively, she looked to him. “You’re really not mad?”
Straightfaced, Lincoln gestured to his ridiculously colored beard and cheeks. “Does this look like the face of a mad man to you?”
It made her laugh, and he smiled to hear it before continuing. “You listen to me. I’m just glad that you had something to help you when you were scared. But from now on, I want you to come to your mother, to Flick, or to me when you’re scared. You hear me? You talk to somebody. We’ll be there for you, no matter what. You just tell us what’s wrong. You’re not alone. Not anymore.“
For a moment, the girl said nothing. Instead, she took a breath and then stepped up to embrace him. Her arms wrapped around Lincoln tightly, and she whispered in a voice that shook noticeably, “D-Dad, I’m scared for Avalon.”
Lincoln returned the embrace, holding the girl just as tightly as she was holding onto him. He wanted to tell her that everything would be okay. She was a kid. She deserved to be told that nothing bad would happen. She deserved to believe that, deserved to be innocent for a little while. Instead, she probably had a better idea of everything bad that could be happening to Avalon than he did. Which, given his extensive experience reporting tragedies, was saying something.
And she would also know if he lied. So, instead of giving the girl a platitude, Lincoln sighed softly. “I’m scared too,” he confided in her. “But you know what? I am pretty sure that if anyone on this planet could find that girl before things get too bad, it’s the ones she’s got looking for her now.“
“Yeah…” After that single, softly murmured word, Tabbris looked back up to him, still holding on tightly. “Do you think Flick’ll be okay tonight?”
Lincoln grimaced despite himself. “Well,” he replied, “she’s sleeping in a hospital, so at least if she still manages to find trouble, they’ve already cut out the middleman for her getting help.” It was an attempt at a joke, albeit a weak one. He gave her a tiny smile. “I’m pretty sure I’m realizing what being an army parent feels like way too early. I’m supposed to have a couple more years before going through this. Well,” he amended, “I’m never supposed to go through it. I was supposed to be the one worrying about my kid nosing in where she shouldn’t and getting herself sued or something.”
For a few long seconds, the two stood like that, imagining all the different trouble that Flick could, and probably would, eventually get herself into. Or, more accurately, the trouble that would break down the door to find her.
Finally, and almost as one, they both shook it off. Tabbris bit her lip while asking slowly, “Are you really sure you don’t want to sleep yet?”
“Really sure,” Lincoln replied easily. “I’d just lay there and toss around a bunch. Besides, I’ve got a lot of lost time to catch up on. And so do you.” With a wink, the man added, “So come on, we’re going to find some things that you should have done as a kid. And the first one is that right there.”
Following the way the man was pointing, Tabbris blinked. “A tree?”
“Yup.” Lincoln nodded once. “A tree. And you’re going to climb it.”
Doing a quick double take at that, the Seosten girl stammered, “Climb the tree?”
“Sure,“ he confirmed with a gesture. “I’ll be right here, little Vulpes. You can make it. No magic, no monsters, no life and death. Just a tree, and your hands and feet. Think you’re up to it?”
Still looking visibly nervous about the idea, despite everything she had already been through, Tabbris slowly nodded. “I can do it,” she announced while straightening up a little.
Maybe it was silly, considering the extraordinary feats her species was capable of. But Tabbris had spent so long inside of Flick that she still wasn’t all that coordinated. She’d mostly stopped tripping over her own feet after spending all that time with the Alaestiam, but still. She was going to climb this tree with no extra help, no magic, no boosting, nothing else. Just her. And her father, watching.
Lincoln stood nearby, offering advice, but mostly watching patiently while Tabbris slowly made her way up the tree. She had to start again after slipping partway once, but he was there to catch her. And she didn’t give up. Bit by bit, the girl climbed the tree without any other assistance. She climbed up the highest branch that could be reached, and laid across it while staring down at him with bright eyes, face still covered with the fox paint. “I made it! I made it by myself! I climbed a tree!” From the joy and pride in her voice, the tree might as well have been Everest.
“Yes,” a woman’s voice spoke with pride beyond measure as Sariel stepped into view while gazing up at her daughter. “Yes, you did.” Her simple, yet undeniable joy at watching her child perched at the top of a tree that she had clambered up herself was written across the woman’s face.
“Mama!” Beaming infectiously, Tabbris waved. “Hi, Mama! I thought you were asleep!”
For only a fraction of a second, the barest shadow or flicker of dark memories went through the woman’s eyes before she smiled. “And miss seeing my girl climb a tree? Hardly.”
Glancing to the woman, Lincoln remarked, “I’d ask if we woke you up, but I’m pretty sure that’s impossible around here.” With a chuckle, the man added, “It’s something I used to worry about, making too much noise in the middle of a quiet, peaceful place like this. Especially in the middle of the night. But, turns out all the cabins are magically soundproofed. Aside from setting off one of the alarms, you could stand on the front porch of one of the cabins, scream at the top of your lungs, and the people inside wouldn’t hear a peep.”
Sariel gave a slight nod. “With all the different species around here, everyone is likely on a slightly different circadian clock. Some would be more active at night, so soundproofing would be fairly standard.”
It was actually the opening Lincoln had been looking for when he’d made that statement, and he had just opened his mouth to ask her what she knew about some of the particular people here when a sudden noise nearby caught all of their attention.
It was Wyatt. The lanky man came stumbling out of the woods, eyes even more wild than usual. “Flick!” he blurted, his words coming between deep breaths. “Danger, trouble, bad, bad, stuck.”
While the other two reacted in loud confusion, it was Sariel who took the man by the shoulders and managed to get him to calm down for a second so he could speak.
He did so, finally. In a holding voice, the man explained that all of the danger alarms that he had put on Flick had gone off simultaneously. He had instantly alerted Gaia and then tried to make it to the hospital himself. Unfortunately, the whole place seemed to be blocked off. There was no way inside through some kind of force field that had been erected around it.
The only real hint they had as to what was going on in that place was that Wyatt had thought to include a spell on his younger sister that would only react when she looked directly at Avalon herself. It was a feat he had pulled off by taking a hair from the latter girl’s bed. Partly because he anticipated the blonde girl stumbling across Avalon by herself, and partly because he wouldn’t have been surprised if one of the Seosten managed to taunt Flick with her girlfriend. Or use her to lure the girl away. Either way, Flick at some point being near Avalon without anyone else knowing about it had, in his mind, been a foregone conclusion. So he had prepared for it.
And with good reason, clearly. Because that alarm was among those that had gone off. Whatever had happened, Flick and Avalon had come within eyesight of each other.
“Hospital,” Lincoln muttered with a dark look. “That was supposed to be safe. You have to get in there. You have to get in that hospital.” His voice rose with each word.
Wyatt’s head bobbed with rapid agreement. “We’re working on it,” he insisted. Then the man’s eyes flashed toward Sariel. “The headmistress would like your assistance with breaking through the shield that they put up. She said that you have permission to jump straight to her.”
But the woman’s eyes weren’t on him. Instead, she was looking up at her daughter in the tree. Her voice was quick as she raised a hand. “Tabbris, wait.”
But the girl wasn’t really listening. Her fox-painted face was staring out over the other trees as she weakly murmured, “Flick. Flick’s in trouble. I left her alone, and now she’s in trouble. If Manakel’s there, if they have Avalon…” She paused, clearly focusing on their connection before jerking a bit. “She’s fighting! She’s fighting right now! Flick’s in trouble!” With each word, her voice went higher.
Wincing, Sariel shook her head. “It will be okay,” she tried to assure the girl. “We’re going to go in and get her. We’re going to go in and get all of them.”
Finally, the young girl looked down at her mother. Her voice was soft, yet determined. “I know you will. I know you’ll come find us.”
Eyes widening then, Lincoln blurted, “Tabbris, wait, no!”
But it was too late. The girl had made up her mind, and a second later she disappeared. She had recalled to Flick and straight into all that danger.