I was there, dropping to my knees to wrap both arms around the… the child who had not-so-long ago been my long-time (very much an adult) babysitter. Grabbing onto Scott, I hugged him tight while blurting, “You’re here! You’re–but–you’re here, and–and you’re–”
“Small?” he finished for me, returning the embrace with an obvious smile in his voice. “Yeah, that tends to happen when we have to go through childhood all over again. Unfortunately.”
Pulling my head back, I stared at him without actually letting go, finally seeing a few more details. Like the very noticeable rabbit ears. “Those–you didn’t have those before. I swear I would’ve noticed. I mean, after the Heretic thing, obviously, but I would’ve noticed!”
For his part, Scott gave a soft, light chuckle while those long ears twitched. “Yeah, well, Pooka tend to end up with different, random animal features whenever we… ahh, respawn.” He sobered then, looking at me with eyes that were far wiser and more understanding than the nine-year-old body they were attached to. “Are you okay, Flick?”
“Am I okay?” I echoed, sounding a bit hysterical even to myself. “Am I okay? You–you–” My mouth opened and shut as I stared at him, unable to even think straight in that moment, let alone say anything intelligible. After everything that had happened, everything that was going on, seeing Scott here right now had just pushed me all the way over the edge. I had nothing.
Scott let me suffer for a few long seconds before rescuing me with a simple, “I missed you.”
“Missed–” That single word escaped me before I suddenly shook him. My hands found his shoulders as I shoved the boy back and forth briefly. “I thought you were dead! I saw you on the porch and–and you were–and you–I thought you were dead, you stupid asshole! I don’t care if it was only for a few minutes! It was horrible! It was bullshit, it was–it was–I thought you were dead!” I was repeating myself. And I also sounded hysterical. Not to mention how it would have looked to an outsider, seeing me literally violently shaking what looked like an innocent nine-year old boy (complete with bunny ears). But I didn’t care. I’d been waiting months to yell at Scott for the horrible emotional nightmare that seeing him die had put me through.
Finally, I got control of myself again and stopped shaking him. But I was still trembling, tightly gripping Scott’s shoulders as I stared at the boy. My voice was a weak, tremulous whimper. “I don’t care if it was only for a minute. I thought you were dead. I saw you shoot yourself and I thought you were dead.” There were tears flooding my eyes, tears that I had thought I was done with already. Yet they came back with a vengeance. Because seeing Scott now, remembering what seeing his dead body laying there had looked like just reminded me of seeing Rudolph’s body. And that all-but destroyed my ability to hold myself together. “I thought you were dead.”
Scott’s expression softened, as he nodded understandingly. “I’m sorry,” he quietly replied while reaching up to grip both of my arms in his small, yet strong hands. “Flick, I am so sorry that you had to see that. I’m sorry we didn’t tell you sooner, as soon as you came back the first time. I should have. I should have come to you and told you the truth, about what I was, why I was there, all of it. I should have been up front with you about it. I wasn’t, and you had to go through that. I–” He took in a breath before letting it out. “I’m sorry. I can’t begin to tell you how much.”
“Gabriel said that you were coming that night to talk about it.” Looking to him, I added, “He said that you would’ve told me everything then.”
Scott heaved a sigh, his face looking entirely too somber for as young as he appeared to be. “Yeah. Too bad it was just a little too late by that point.”
For a few more long seconds, I couldn’t even respond to that. I didn’t know what to say. I wanted to punch him, hug him, scream at him, laugh with him, shake him, cling to him, all of it at once. I didn’t know how to handle everything I was feeling, or what I actually wanted.
“I–” Closing my mouth and my eyes together, I took a long, deep breath. Then I let it out, along with all my uncertainty and confusion. I let all those negative emotions go, before opening my eyes again. Finally, I spoke up. “I’m really glad you’re here, Scott. I–I’ve been waiting to see you again. I’ve been waiting to– to–” Tears tried to take over again, but I pushed them away and focused. “You’re a big, stupid jerk, but I don’t care. I don’t care. You’re alive, and you remember.” Again, I hugged him tight, crushing the Pooka against myself. “You remember, and you’re here.” Yeah, I was babbling. But so what? Scott was a big stupid jerk. And he was there.
“Not so big right now,” the boy pointed out with a little smile once I pulled back once more.
“You could be two inches tall and you’d still be a big stupid jerk,” I primly reminded him.
It was amazing, how easy it was to fall right back into our same old habits. Scott had been a friend, a close friend, for… basically as long as I could remember. As we’d established between each other many times, he used to change my diapers. He was always there. Scott was almost as important to me as my father was. He was like a big brother to me, before I’d had a real big brother. Scott Utell was my brother in every way, shape, and form that he could possibly be. And he was here, finally. After months, he was finally here again, standing right in front of me. My brother was there, right there, for the first time in the months that it had been since I’d seen him lying dead on the ground. I could talk to him about everything that had happened over the entire year, about everything that had happened over my entire life. He was there, and I… I…
I punched him in the shoulder.
It wasn’t hard, of course. But still, Scott rubbed his arm, grimacing. “Ow. Hey, c’mon. I’m weak and fragile next to you now, you big bully.” Sobering then, he added, “But I’m glad to see you too.”
It was all I could do not to crush him in another hug. Instead, I shook my head quickly. “It’s my fault. I mean, it’s my fault that Ammon got to you. I should’ve found a way to warn you. I should’ve-”
“Hey, hey.” Scott’s hands moved to my arms once more. “No. You didn’t know that the Bystander Effect wasn’t a thing with me, so how could you have told me about it? What would you say, that there’s some psychotic little kid running around with mind control powers?”
Opening and shutting my mouth at that, I grimaced. “I still should’ve… I should’ve asked Asenath to get someone to watch over you. I should have known that Fossor and Ammon would know that we were close, that you were a way to get to me, I should’ve–”
“Let’s just say that there’s things both of us could’ve done differently,” the Pooka boy interrupted. “We all could have handled it better. Like I said, I should have come to you as soon as we knew that you were okay with having a vampire and another Pooka living in your house with your dad. But hey, I’m okay. Little shorter than before, but okay.” He gave me a little smile then.
“I… I…” Wow, there was so much I wanted to say, so much I wanted to talk about. But I couldn’t think of where to start. “Do you wanna go for a walk?” I finally ended up asking.
“Sure,” he agreed. “Let’s go for a walk. From the sound of things, you’ve been a busy beaver.”
Mouth opening and shutting, I moved toward the steps leading off the porch, muttering, “Trust me, Scott, you have no idea.
“But give me a few hours, and maybe you will.”
“When I said you’ve been busy,” Scott started awhile later as the two of us walked around the edge of the lake, “I seriously had no idea. I mean, maybe I knew the broad strokes, but damn, Flicker. When do you sleep?”
“About an hour a night,” I retorted, sticking my tongue out at him briefly. “See why it was a good thing that I got that Amarok kill early on? Can you imagine how dead I’d be without it?” Pausing as those words struck me, I grimaced before adding, “And I mean dead in several ways.”
“I believe it,” he replied. “It must help with all that extra training you’ve been getting. I mean, Gaia, Avalon, Deveron, some with Wyatt, Gabriel a little bit, even Athena?” He whistled low, head shaking. “You’re getting some pretty top-tier tutoring there, you know?”
I nodded once. “Yeah, I’m–I guess you could say that I’m lucky as far as that goes. Which is pretty good, since I’m so unlucky in other ways. It balances out… sort of. If you squint.”
We walked in silence for another minute before I glanced back that way, watching my now much-smaller former babysitter. “But none of it seems to be getting me any closer to Mom. All this stuff going on this year and… and barely any of it has had anything to do with the piece of shit who kidnapped her, who’s been torturing her for… for all this time! Fossor’s out there, and he’s going to come after me eventually. He wants to add me to his collection.”
A brief flash of what looked like incredibly intense anger crossed Scott’s young-looking face at those words. I saw barely suppressed rage, though I wasn’t sure how much of it was at the idea that Fossor wanted to take me, and how much was at the reminder that he already had Mom. Either way, it took him a moment to respond through gritted teeth. “That’s not going to happen. You know Gabriel’s on top of that, right? He’s got people scouring everywhere for Fossor.”
“And they haven’t found him yet,” I pointed out before relenting, “I know, I know he’s trying. Everyone’s trying. But I can’t shake the feeling that this is going to be something that I have to deal with myself. I’d love it if tomorrow, or next week, or next month, Gabriel or Gaia or someone would suddenly say, ‘hey, we dealt with Fossor and here’s your mom, safe and sound.’ But I just don’t think it’s going to happen. Whatever–however this goes down, I’m going to have to face him again. And I’m scared. I’m really… really scared about how that’ll go.”
Grimacing, I shook my head. “Some birthday to look forward to, huh?”
Scott’s hand found mine, and he squeezed it firmly. “You’re not alone, Flick. Yeah, maybe it’ll come down to you needing to face Fossor. I won’t… I won’t try and say it won’t. You’re not naive enough to believe that. But even if you do, and even if no one else is around, you still won’t be doing it alone.” He paused briefly before looking to me. “You know what I mean?”
“I know,” I confirmed. “All the training, all the help, all the hints and tutoring and… everything. It’s all so that I won’t be completely alone, even if I am by myself.” Coughing, I added, “If that makes sense.”
“It does.” Scott was quiet then before he cleared his throat. “Just don’t do something stupid, okay? You know what he’s probably going to do. He’ll threaten your mom and use it to get you to agree to come somewhere away from protection. But if you do that, then the only thing that will happen is that he’ll have both you and your mom, and who does that help?”
I shrugged, unable to speak for a second. “I… but if he does that, if he threatens Mom–”
“He’s not going to kill her, Flick,” Scott insisted. “Look at how much he went through to get her, how important she is. He may be a piece of shit, but he’s not going to throw away the only leverage he has over you just like that.”
“He’ll hurt her though,” I pointed out, my voice cracking as I fought to keep control of it. “He’ll hurt her as much as he wants to. And he can get creative about it. I don’t just mean physically. He’ll hurt her any way that he can.”
“You’re right,” Scott reluctantly agreed after a few long seconds of silence. He sighed then. “But… you know it’ll be worse if you just let him have his way. Of all the ways Fossor could hurt your mom, believe me, letting him have you would be the worst. No contest.”
“It’ll be bad if I do and bad if I don’t,” I muttered darkly. Then I paused. “You knew Mom before everything happened, didn’t you? You were a part of her group, her rebellion.”
A faint, wistful smile crossed his face then. “Yeah,” he confirmed. “I was there. I remember… a lot of things. Some good, some bad. But your mother was–is amazing, Flick. You should be proud to be her daughter.”
“I am.” My voice shook slightly, but I nodded. “Believe me, I am. I just–how hard was it to sit there and listen to me–the things I said about my mother, the awful things that… and you couldn’t tell me the truth. That must’ve been… God, that must have been so hard, Scott.”
“It wasn’t easy,” he agreed. “But I knew that you’d find out the truth eventually. So really, it wasn’t nearly as hard to listen to it, as it was to think about how you’d feel when you… when you understood.”
I had to look away at that point, as my memory insisted on piping in with details about all the things I’d said. And not just the things that I’d said, but things I had thought too. All while my mother was really suffering just to protect me. Everything she’d done, everything she had been through…
My head dropped, and I felt tears slowly filling my eyes. Not just because of Mom, but because of everything, all of it.
“She would have found a way to save Rudolph,” I announced in a voice that was so soft, I could barely hear myself. “She wouldn’t have split up, or she would have had a better plan. I-if it was her, if she was there instead of me, he’d still be alive.”
The shame was audible in my voice as I admitted that, as I spoke those words aloud. But obvious as it was, it was still nothing compared to the shame I was actually feeling. Rudolph’s death was wrong. I should have done more to prevent it. I should have been smarter, faster, better. But I wasn’t. I wasn’t good enough, and Rudolph had paid the price.
But I wasn’t going to let that make me spiral into an inescapable hole of depression. I just needed to work more. I just needed to train harder, think faster, and be better. Yes, we had beaten Manakel, but only with Sariel’s help. Which, well, made sense given he was a nearly ten-thousand year old guy that was basically a demigod. But still. I needed to be better.
“Flick. That’s not on you.” Scott was frowning at me. “You’re right, you’re not your mom. But if you think she never made a mistake, that she never took losses, you’re wrong. You’re just wrong, okay? I… I need to tell you some stories sometime.”
That actually made me smile a little. “Tell me stories about Mom? I think I’d like that.”
By that point, we had circled all the way around the lake yet again, and as I glanced up to the left, I saw the cabin where the others were sleeping. Or where they were supposed to be sleeping. There were two figures standing out on the porch, both of them clearly talking.
Columbus and Tabbris. The light from the moon and stars was bright enough that I recognized them immediately. The two were just standing there, chatting.
Well, that seemed like it was going… well enough.
“Flick!” Tabbris had seen me by then, and hopped off the porch to come running. She tripped partway, letting out a surprised squeak as she pitched forward. I went to grab her, but Columbus beat me to it. He appeared next to her, catching the girl by the shoulder.
He caught her. She was a Seosten and he’d gotten close enough to catch her.
It was only for a second, like it had been instinct. As soon as Columbus seemed to realize what he’d done, he let go (making sure she was fully upright first), before taking a quick step back. Then he stopped. It was like he realized he’d made things worse by overreacting to being close to her, but wasn’t sure what to do about it.
For her part, Tabbris pretended not to notice. Though I could see a very brief flash of hurt in her eyes before she pushed it back. “Flick!” she repeated, moving to hug me.
I returned it, giving Columbus a thankful nod. “Hiya. Looks like you guys are getting along.”
“Let’s just say we found some common ground,” the boy replied easily. “I… who’s this?”
Still hugging Tabbris to me, I looked toward Scott before passing around introductions so that everyone knew who each other were.
Scott, for his part, raised an eyebrow. “I knew it,” he murmured. “I did see you around the neighborhood now and then, didn’t I?”
Blushing, Tabbris clung to me before nodding hesitantly. “Uh huh. You wanted to ask me where I lived. So I ran away.”
“You disappeared pretty quick,” Scott muttered. “I must’ve circled the neighborhood four times trying to figure out where you went. At least now I know how you disappeared like that.”
“Recall,” I realized. “She recalled back to me as soon as she was out of your sight.”
Columbus was clearly uncomfortable with all of this talk. But he put up a brave front, staying quiet while trying not to let it show too much on his face. He was making an attempt, at least.
Scott looked like he was going to say something else before abruptly pausing. His head tilted like he was listening with those ears of his before he looked to me. “Ah, Gabriel, the headmistress, and Sariel would like you to join them, if you’re not too tired. They’re at the end of camp, that way.” He pointed. “Something about the other Seosten prisoners.”
Oh. Oh, right. I started to nod, before turning as the sense of someone else approaching reached me.
Theia. It was Theia. Or Theia in Pace’s body, of course. She approached almost… hesitantly, coming out from behind the cabin with both hands out and down like she was showing us that they were empty. Even then, I couldn’t help but tense up a little bit.
“Theia-I would like to see Miss Sariel,” she started slowly, like she was very carefully working out what she was going to say. “If it is okay.”
“Mrs. Sariel,” Tabbris piped up then, a bit defensively. “She’s married.” As Theia looked to her, my little partner squeaked and moved behind me, peeking out from there.
“Mrs. Sariel,” Theia agreed, giving a little nod. “If it is okay, Theia-I and Pace-I–we would like to meet her. Miss Abigail is asleep with her… daughter.” Something brief flashed through her eyes. It wasn’t anger. It was… longing, maybe? Jealousy? I wasn’t sure. But it was there. “They are asleep.”
Biting my lip, I hesitated just a bit before nodding. “Sure, why don’t you come with. Columbus?”
“No.” He had taken a much larger step back as the other Seosten girl had appeared, and shook his head then. “No, I need to… I need to try to get some sleep.”
“Didn’t Theia-I knock you out once?” Theia’s attention was on Columbus, her head tilted curiously. “Theia-I am very certain that we knocked you out once.”
The boy stiffened a little at that, clearly thinking about that same first hunt that we had gone on, where Trice and his cronies had ambushed us. “Yeah,” he almost spat, “and later, you helped turn Roxa into a werewolf and put her through one of the most agonizing times of her entire life.”
Oh boy. My mouth opened to say that this wasn’t the time or place, but Theia was already nodding. “Yes,” she said quietly. “Theia-I have done many bad things. You have eyes and a brain, you know that already. I am no angel.” From the way she gave a crooked grin then, the girl clearly knew what kind of double-meaning her words held.
Then she sobered. “Theia-I have done bad things. Many of them. Some I feel bad for. Others I don’t. Maybe I should. Pace-I thinks Theia-I should. She is helping. Teaching. Explaining. But it is hard to understand. I do… Theia-I do think that… what I helped do to the Roxa-girl was bad. But it was not my decision. Not my choice. Theia-I was told to obey Lemuel, to do what he said. It was his decision. His choice.”
There was a lot there to unpack, but we couldn’t get into it. Instead, I just shook my head. “Let’s just be glad that she switched sides, no matter why she did it or what she did first, okay? What happened back then is between her and Roxa, and I have a feeling they’ll have a discussion about it eventually.”
Columbus looked like he was going to say something else about it. But he restrained himself. Instead, he looked to me. “Just be careful. And don’t go get in another fight, okay? We could use a few hours off.”
Teasing or not, he had a point. Wincing, I gestured. “I promise to do everything in my power to avoid it. Go sleep, Columbus. And… thanks. For everything.”
He paused, looking like he wasn’t sure what to say for a moment before simply shrugging. “It’s what we do,” he murmured. Then he walked back to the cabin, not once taking his eyes off of the two Seosten until he was inside.
“Well then,” I coughed. “Scott?”
“Go ahead.” He gestured. “I’ll still be here when you get back. Well, not here here, but you know. We can talk some more later.”
“Good.” I pointed at him. “Because we have a lot to talk about. You’re gonna tell me stories about my mom.”
That said, I gestured to Theia/Pace and to Tabbris before starting to walk. Together, the three (or four) of us started to head to the end of the camp. On the way, I glanced to the girl who had started out as such a threat. “Actually, I do need to talk to you about something. It has to do with… with what we talked about. About getting you out of Pace safely.”
Blinking once at me, Theia’s head tilted. “But Manakel is dead. He is no longer a threat. I am useless to you.”
For a second, I just stared at her, then I shook my head. “We made a deal. Besides, I want to help you get out of her anyway. Not everything is about–” Stopping myself, I sighed. “Just… we still want to help you get out, okay? I don’t exactly have the answer, but I do have something interesting.
“It’s about Doug’s hat…”