The second I set foot on the Atherby campground again, my father was already sweeping me up into his arms. He had clearly been told ahead of time where to wait for us, because I was already off the ground and being crushed against him by the time the feeling of being teleported away from the Crossroads hospital had faded. And that grip only got tighter after a moment.
Making a brief, strangled noise, I quickly returned the embrace. My own voice was soft, tired, and worn out. “Hey, Dad,” I murmured. “So, what’ve you been up to?”
“What’ve I been up–” Dad’s voice was choked with disbelief before he set me down, putting his hands on my shoulders to push me back so he could look down at me. “Do you have any idea how–what I was–how many–the kind of–” He kept trying to talk, but clearly couldn’t put actual words to it. He just kept repeating the same few syllables over and over for the next few seconds before giving up. At that point, he just yanked me back against him for another hug.
“Yeah,” I murmured quietly, enjoying the sensation. “I’m glad to see you too. Even if it does feel like we just did this.” The words were a weak attempt at teasing.
“We did,” he teased me right back. “See what I mean when I say you need to stop getting in trouble? We’re repeating ourselves now. Broken record already. Except, ahh, you brought new friends this time.”
He was right, the others were all behind me, having been sent along by Gaia once all of our meetings with the Committee were over (at least for the time being). There was still a hell of a lot more to sort out and get through, like how they were going to deal with the Kohaku situation. But for the moment, our part of it was over. So I had insisted on coming here to be with Avalon (not to mention Tabbris and my father). Shiori had also insisted on staying with me, and everyone else came with as well. Which meant that Sean, Columbus, Scout, and Doug were seeing the camp for the first time. It wasn’t Koren’s first time, but she was there too. And Deveron… well, I wasn’t sure how often he’d been here beyond the time just a day earlier. For all I knew, this whole place was new since he’d been around regularly. I had heard that the camp itself tended to move around a lot, just to keep things safe. Gabriel Prosser was Gabriel Prosser, but there was still no need to take unnecessary risks.
In any case, turning back that way, I nodded. “Uh, yeah. Guys, this is Gabriel. Gabriel, guys.”
Doug was doing a whole gaping fish routine, his mouth opening and shutting repeatedly. Slowly, he lifted his hand to point at Gabriel as if indicating him to everyone else. Gradually, a quiet whine escaped the boy, as his head tilted. That whine turned to a faint, “Y-you… you…”
Looking equally impressed, Scout gave a quick nod, her head bobbing up and down. “You,” she agreed, voice squeaking just a little while she clutched Sean’s arm tightly.
For his part, Sean also looked like he felt a little faint. I saw him swallow a few times, shifting his weight while using one hand on top of Vulcan’s head to steady himself. “It’s–it’s um, it’s good to–uh.” Swallowing yet again, he finally managed, “It’s good to meet you, s-sir.”
Clearly Gabriel was completely accustomed to that kind of reaction, because he just smiled a little bit before waving them off. “The pleasure is mine. Given everything you’ve managed to deal with in such a short time, I am more honored than you know to meet face to face. And I’m sorry we didn’t have a chance to meet back in the hospital. There were pressing issues to deal with.”
“Yeah,” I muttered, “like you getting to leave without dealing with the Committee. Lucky duck.”
The man was clearly about to say something to that, before he stopped, looking toward Deveron. Something passed between the two men then, silent communication (which was probably literally silent communication considering I knew Deveron had telepathy and had no doubt that Gabriel did as well). They stood like that, meeting each other’s gazes for an almost uncomfortable amount of time before I cleared my throat. “Um, you guys know we can tell you’re talking about us, right? Or about me. Or whatever. We can tell.”
Clearing his throat at that, Gabriel gave a little smile that somehow looked both guilty and charming. The man still radiated power, and I could tell why the others all looked stunned into silence at his very presence.
Somehow I doubted that Doug would appreciate hearing that one of my first reactions upon meeting Gabriel Prosser for the first time had been to hit him.
“Yes, well,” the man himself was saying, “there is a lot to talk about, and even more to think about. But I would imagine that most of you are very tired. Your headmistress has said that you should stay here for the evening. Unless there are any objections?”
For a second, Doug seemed to forget who he was talking to. Looking away, he muttered a dark, “Yeah, sleep. Can’t wait to see what new and exciting nightmares come out this time.”
A look of sympathy and understanding crossed the man’s face, and he took a step forward before kneeling in front of Doug. “It’s been a rough year, hasn’t it?” He murmured the words.
I saw Doug’s mouth open and shut twice before he gave a tiny nod, clearly not trusting his voice. There was a lot of pain in his eyes as he met Gabriel’s gaze, fists clenching visibly.
Reaching up, the man rested a hand on his shoulder, squeezing it. “I’m very sorry about your friend, Douglas. What happened to him was unfair, and it shouldn’t have happened. He was a good person, a strong and brave person. Believe me, I looked into him when Felicity there was being tutored by him, and when all of… when all of that went down. Everything I saw convinced me that Rudolph Parsons was a remarkable friend, and would have been an incredible man if he had not been murdered. I will always count his death as a loss for humanity at large, and myself personally for not having had the honor of meeting him directly.”
Doug was clearly struggling for words there for a few long seconds, before he gave a visible shudder while managing a weak, “No offense, sir. But Rudolph would have liked to hear that. And that’s the problem.”
Gabriel’s head shook easily. “No offense taken. I would have liked him to hear it as well.”
He straightened then, keeping his hand on Doug’s shoulder. “What we can do is try to make as few people go through what you have, what he did, as possible. That’s all we can do. But for now, all of you have done quite enough. Fancy and Oscar will show you where you can sleep.”
“Avalon?” I quickly spoke up. I wasn’t going anywhere except to where Valley was. Not after everything we had just been through.
Nodding at that, Gabriel replied simply, “We’ll take you to her, while Oscar and Fancy show the others to a cabin.”
The little smartly dressed Kobold himself had shown up by that point, grinning as he tipped that top hat of his to the assembled group. “Roighteo,” he announced in that clearly put-upon accent he’d taken from cartoons or something. “We roight love playin’ poisenal tour guide t’buncha wee ones, don’t we, buddy?”
Beside him, the enormous eight-foot tall warthog-faced Orc lumbered up into view before giving a broad smile. “Sure ‘nuff. ‘ey there. Pleased t’meetcha.”
“You’re… Fancy and Oscar?” Columbus managed, staring at the rather mismatched pair.
“Betcha can’t guess which one’s which,” Oscar drawled with a wink.
It was Shiori who piped up then, “They started calling him Oscar after Sesame Street got really big.”
Looking confused at that, Columbus pointed out, “But he doesn’t have a trash can. And he’s not furry.”
“Yeah,” Oscar himself agreed with a slow, lazy shrug. “Ah don’t get it either, tell ya truth.”
Swallowing hard, I looked to the others. “Get some sleep, guys. You… you deserve it after everything that just happened. I mean, you deserve a–” My voice cracked. “You deserve a lot more than that. But I don’t–I can’t…”
Sean shook his head. “It’s okay, Flick. We know. This’ll all be here later. Dunno what we’ll do with it, but it’ll be there. Right now, I feel like I could sleep for a week.”
They headed off then, except for Koren, who was staying to meet up with her mother, and Shiori, who lagged behind. Choo was beside her, sitting back on his haunches while looking eagerly back and forth between us like an excited puppy. He, thank God, didn’t seem to have any actual injuries from being kicked across the room. And he seemed pretty proud of the collar that Percival had given him. He kept trying to show it off to anyone who looked at him twice, tilting his head back and doing this thing where he wiggled back and forth to draw attention to it.
“You’ll be okay?” Shiori asked a bit pensively, watching me before looking back toward her brother.
“I’ll be fine,” I promised, gesturing. “Go with Columbus. I’ll talk to you in the morning, I promise. Get some rest.”
We hugged briefly. Or at least, it started brief. I started to let go, but for a second I couldn’t do it. I had to hold onto her a bit tighter. Swallowing, I waited to catch the girl’s gaze before kissing her. She returned it, and there was a yearning there that I had to pull myself back from.
“Love you,” I whispered, nuzzling her briefly. “Go. Sleep.”
“Stay with Avalon,” she replied, giving me a little smile. “It’s her turn.”
Then she started off, jogging to catch up with the others. Which left me standing there with Koren, Gabriel, and my dad. As soon as I saw all of them looking at me, my face went red.
“Fliiick and Shiori, sitting in a tree–” Koren started in a sing-song voice that was interrupted as I stuck my hand through a portal and swatted her lightly upside the head. “Ow!”
“Yeah,” I shot back, “and don’t forget that I can push that tree over on you if I want to.”
She made a face at me before immediately paling, a sick look overtaking her. “I–I’m sorry, I…”
“It’s okay,” I replied quietly. “It’s easy to just… forget about everything that’s going on. Too easy sometimes. I feel guilty about it too. I feel guilty about… a lot of things.”
We exchanged brief looks then, before Koren gestured. “My mom’s gonna be here soon. She texted.” Idly waving her phone, she added, “If you want to wait and see her–”
“I’m sure she wants to talk to you first,” I assured her. “I’ll see her soon enough. Make sure she knows I’m okay and that if she wants to come find me, she can, okay?” When the other girl nodded, I hesitated before adding, “What about the pixie? The one that told you about Manakel being part of security. We owe her a big thanks too.”
“She’s in Gaia’s office,” the girl informed me. “Pretty sure she’ll still be there whenever we get back.”
With that settled, Dad and Gabriel walked with me toward the other end of the campground. On the way, my father looked to me. It seemed like he wanted to say something, but kept hesitating, like he wasn’t sure of himself. Finally, he settled on, “They let us know everything that happened–well, as much as they could put together. Sariel filled me in with… with how it ended. He’s dead. The bad guy–”
“One of the bad guys,” I corrected. “One of them is dead.”
“One of them,” he agreed, looking a bit sick briefly before visibly forcing himself to move on. “But they also said that… that you–”
“I got his necromancy.” As I spoke, I couldn’t look at him. “I brought Rudolph back. I mean, I made him come to the room where we wer–” Turning, I fell to my knees right there by the side of the walking path and threw up again. My stomach heaved, and I lost… well, there wasn’t a lot left in there to be honest, so it was mostly dry heaving. Tears had started flowing again.
Dad knelt there with me. I had been trying to hold it together, but then… then I just lost it. He embraced me, and we just sat there like that for a little bit. I babbled explanations, rambling about everything from how I’d figured out that Avalon was there, to all the fighting we had done, to seeing Tabbris in the fox facepaint and how guilty that made me feel, to bringing Rudolph to the room and feeling even more guilty, and onward. And not even in that order. It was random rambling that couldn’t possibly have made any sense. But Dad still knelt there, holding me while he let me talk until I was done.
“I’m sorry,” I murmured, clinging to him. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry.” I didn’t even know who exactly I was saying it to. Him? Avalon? Rudolph? Everyone I had failed or not done the exact right thing at the exact right time for?
Either way, Dad just held onto me, murmuring soft reassurances until I was ready to stand up. Once I did, I felt even more embarrassed at the sight of Gabriel waiting a few feet away. “I… sorry.” Repeating myself, but at least that time I knew what I was apologizing for.
“It’s quite alright,” he assured me, shaking his head while nodding to my father. “Would you like some more time alone?”
“I… I want to see Valley,” I murmured despite myself, taking a moment to embrace my dad even tighter. “Can we talk in the morning? I promise to be more… coherent.”
With a tiny smile, Dad nodded, gesturing. “Go with Gabriel. And Flick? Get some sleep. You still need it.”
I went the rest of the way with Gabriel. The large man walked with me, waiting until we were close to the cabin he had been leading me to before he spoke again. “I have someone who can help teach you about your new ability.”
My mouth opened, but then I stopped myself from saying what impulsively came to my mind. I wanted to say that I didn’t want training with it. I wanted to never use it again. But that was stupid. I knew that. It was emotional. It was… I needed to wait. I needed to let my head clear.
So, instead, I just gave a tiny nod. “We’ll see. I… is she in there?”
“Yes,” he confirmed. “She’s mostly just relegated to bed rest. Which means not leaving that bed for any longer than it takes to use the restroom or clean up. There are spells on it that speed up the healing process. So don’t let her leave there, okay?” With a wink, he added, “It’s your job to make sure she stays in bed.”
Returning the smile hesitantly, I nodded. “Don’t worry, I’ll take that seriously.”
With that, I walked into the cabin. The front door opened into a small hallway. There was a dark bedroom to the left, a kitchen straight ahead, and then to the right there was a short walk before it opened up into a larger room. That was where Avalon was. The bed was in the middle of that room, with a television in the corner, the fireplace a bit to her right, and a big dining table a bit behind her. It looked like there had been a couch where the bed was, but it had been moved.
There were also lots of spellforms drawn around and on the bed itself.
And there was Valley. She looked… better than she had in that office, but was still clearly hurt and weak. Except when she saw me, then a bit of color came back to her face as she reflexively smiled.
I wanted to cry. I wanted to plead with her never to get hurt again. I wanted to… do a lot of things. But I also wanted to make things better. I wanted to be there with her in the now, not spend all our time weeping about the past.
So, I made myself tease her instead. Because that’s what we did.
“If you don’t stop getting beat up,” I informed the beautiful, amazing girl lying in that bed, “I’m gonna change your nickname to Crashtest Dummy.”
“Call me a dummy again, Chambers,” she retorted with a sniff, “and see where it gets you.”
Slowly smiling, I leaned in closer while whispering softly, “Okay… where does it get me now?”
Avalon gave me a tiny smile then, seemingly making the room just a little bit brighter in the process. Her voice was even softer than mine had been. “You wanna know where it gets you?” She almost purred the words, making my knees shake as my heart did a few jumping jacks.
Instinctively, I leaned closer. Though whether it was to hear her gentle whisper better, or to kiss her, I really wasn’t sure. Either way, I found my own lips only a few short inches from hers. I saw the soft, wonderful smile cross Avalon’s face… just before there was a slight pain in my hand. My pain tolerance power took care of most of it, but I still felt it, gasping as I looked down to see the other girl’s hand in mine, two of her fingers shoving into a pressure point in my palm.
“Ow,” I remarked. “That is not where I thought that was going.”
“Told you,” Avalon sniffed while releasing me with a wink. “That’s what it gets you.”
Making a show of rubbing my hand and pouting at her, I asked, “What do I get if I don’t call you a dummy?”
That beautiful smile that made my knees weak came back, along with a hint of a mischievous glint in her eyes as she reached up with her hand to take my ‘injured’ one once more. Slowly, she drew it to her lips, giving the palm a gentle, tender kiss that drew a weak whimper from me.
“O-oh…” I murmured softly once the kiss faded, as Avalon drew her lips from my hand. “I think… um…” I swallowed hard, trying to think straight. “I think I might like that one better.”
“Is that right?” Avalon’s whisper came then, as she used her grip on my hand to give me a slight tug closer. Weak as I felt, it was easy. I found myself inches from her once more, before the girl added a tender, “Maybe you’ll like this even more.”
Then she kissed me. Really kissed me. And my thoughts vanished. Vanished, that was, save for one thing that I really needed to say, the only thing in my mind then.
“I love you, Valley.”
“I love you too, Felicity.”
Eventually, we both fell asleep together like that. I woke up after a couple of hours, raising my head just enough to look through the nearby window. I could see a tiny sliver of light over the lake in the distance as dawn approached. Everything looked so peaceful and serene.
For awhile, I just laid there with my arms around the sleeping Avalon, enjoying the moment. I liked being here like this with her more than I could describe. It felt… right.
On the other hand, I didn’t want to wake her up or disturb her rest. She really needed rest. I didn’t need anyone to tell me that much, after everything that she had been through. I was kind of hoping that she’d sleep most of the day. Seeing her the way she’d looked up in that hospital office… I never wanted to see her like that again. It had scared me more than I could admit.
Carefully, as I tried not to wake up the girl beside me, I slipped out of the bed. For a moment, I just stood there, gazing down at the beautiful vision lying there. Even weak and clearly beat to hell, Avalon looked so absurdly amazing that it made my heart start to do somersaults. I couldn’t resist very gently reaching out to brush my finger ever so softly over her cheek. She shifted a little, and I lifted my hand before stepping back. Time to go before I accidentally woke her up.
Making my way out of the cabin as quietly as possible, I slipped my shoes on before gingerly closing the door behind me. For a few seconds, I just stood there, looking out at the lake while listening to people running around in the distance. I took that in, letting the very early morning breeze brush over me. It felt nice. Not as nice as being with Valley. But still nice.
Rudolph. The thought of him, the memory of his dead face, all of that blood flooding his shirt, hit me like a bucket of cold water. I saw him back in that room with Manakel. And I saw him standing there after all of it was over, when I had accidentally summoned him.
The thought of Doug’s suddenly happy voice as he cried out the boy’s name, only for that to be just as quickly dashed made my head drop with shame. A much colder chill that had nothing to do with the breeze hit me then, and I closed my eyes tightly. Rudolph. Damn it. Damn it. It kept hitting me. Just like Professor Katarin. They were dead, and I would never… never really see them again. Never talk to them again. They had been murdered by monsters. Even if one of those monsters was dead, even if Manakel would never hurt anyone again, that didn’t bring Rudolph back. Even if Isaac never broke out of Athena’s prison, that didn’t bring Katarin back.
Maybe I had necromancer powers. But I didn’t know how to use them. And even if I did, that wouldn’t change things. Zombies, ghosts, whatever, none of it actually brought the person back to life. Death was permanent. There was nothing anyone could do about that. And it sucked.
“Hey, Flick. Your dad thought we should talk.”
The familiar… yet not familiar voice made me start a little, as it came just as the sense of someone moving within range of my power reached me. I turned, blinking away the tears in my eyes briefly before looking at the figure who stood there at the other end of the patio, watching me with an understanding that belied his apparent youth.
Apparent, because despite the fact that the boy who stood there looked as though he couldn’t possibly have been older than about nine or so, I knew the truth. I knew that he was much older than that. Just like I knew that we had a lot to talk about.
“Oh my God.” The words left me in a rush even as I found myself moving that way, every other thought dropping out of my head.