Knife into mayo. Mayo onto bread. Swish, swish. Knife into mayo. Mayo onto second slice of bread. Swish, swish. Meat onto one slice. Cheese onto the other. Close sandwich. Set aside onto plate. Repeat for the next sandwich.
Sariel had the rhythm down. Mindless repetition. Several bags of bread, a couple jars of mayonnaise, and packs of lunch meat and cheese were in front of the woman, and she slowly but surely worked her way through them. There were a lot of mouths to feed, especially given how hungry the members of her people who had been brought out of their stasis tubes were.
There were only a few of them at that point. Ten, besides those four children. Ten adults. They had Larees, the six parents, and three more that Gaia and the others had been convinced would be safe to release.
There would be more, of course. More prisoners in that group who could be trusted to stay in the camp and work with this… Gabriel and his people. But they had to take this situation slowly. Every single person that they released had to be carefully researched. Thus far, Kushiel’s data (or the data that someone at the facility had recorded at least) had been accurate as far as they could tell. They released one prisoner at a time and had Gabriel speak with them. That was it. That was their main vetting process beyond what they read in the files. Gabriel had a quiet, simple conversation with the person and then he and Gaia judged whether the person could stay out. Sariel and Larees were involved and could give their ideas, but final judgment came down to Gaia and Gabriel. That was the way it had to be, considering the other two were too close to the situation. These were their people, after all.
Thus far, Gabriel had not yet vetoed any of the people that Sariel and Larees chose to release. Because they were going slowly and only releasing the ones they were quite certain would work out, at least for now. Later they would get into the ones that were harder to decide on.
Actually… it made Sariel wonder why the ones who had been parents to the children that they had found had all been okay to release. By the odds, it would seem that at least one of them should have been untrustworthy, or at least harder to verify. Did it have something to do with Kushiel’s process? It could be as simple as the fact that the people Kushiel was most likely to keep locked up were the kind of people that would work with Sariel and the others.
Still, they would be careful. One at a time. Slowly. As glad as Sariel was to actually see and interact with others of her own people, they couldn’t rush this. Doing so and making a mistake would be… catastrophic.
Even lost in thought as she was, while her hands went through the motions of making one sandwich after another, Sariel was still aware of the presence behind her. Aware of the presence and… the identity of that presence. Yet, she chose not to acknowledge it at first. Part of her wondered if the girl behind her would choose to leave without speaking. Would her anger make her confront Sariel, or would she simply walk away?
Either way, it would be her choice. Sariel would not force the issue. She had failed in so many other respects, particularly when it came to… to this family, she would not take even that choice away from her. Stay or go, talk or walk away, she would let the girl decide.
Two more sandwiches made it to the plate before Sariel heard the girl behind her step more fully into the room. There was the brief sound of her inhaling and exhaling. Then came the quiet voice, a whisper that barely reached her ears, saying only two words. “I remember.”
Carefully setting the knife on the counter, Sariel took a breath of her own before turning.
“Hello, Sarah,” she started before pausing, a slight frown touching her face. “No. It’s Scout now, isn’t it? I’m sorry. I spent… years thinking of you as Sarah. But they said you prefer Scout.”
For a brief second, the young girl didn’t react. She seemed almost lost, her eyes gazing somehow through Sariel momentarily. Then she straightened, head shaking as she quietly replied, “Sometimes I don’t know who I am. Or who I want to be.”
There was a lot that Sariel wanted to say to that. But she held her tongue. Held it, and looked away briefly as a jolt of painful memories worked their way through her before she could focus. When she finally did speak, her voice cracked just a little. “You… you said that you remember.”
Scout nodded once. After another brief hesitation, she walked closer, passing Sariel to move around to the other side of the counter. Silently, the girl reached out to the unfinished sandwich. Her hands found the meat and cheese, adding them to the prepared bread before closing it to put on the plate. Only once that was done did she speak. “I remember the boat… the Fomorian.”
Sariel’s mouth opened, but she hesitated, not trusting her voice. What could she say? What could she possibly say that would help this girl after everything she had been through.
Scout continued before the woman could find the right words. “I remember it… and I saw it.” She wasn’t looking at Sariel, her attention centered on the counter between them. “When I went through the Edge, I saw it again. The Edge showed me that day on the boat again.” While she spoke, the girl reached out to take two more pieces of bread from the open bag before laying them beside each other.
Moving almost automatically, Sariel spread more mayo on the bread. Her voice, as she spoke, sounded hollow and empty. “You saw… everything again. You saw… I–” Her hand held tightly to the knife, her body trembling slightly as she shook her head. “Scout–Sarah, I…”
Scout was already putting both the meat and the cheese onto the prepared bread, while continuing to not look at the woman. “I just… I just want to say something.”
Numb, Sariel put the sandwich together and set it aside with the rest. “There’s something that I need to tell you–something that I have been trying to figure out how to say for ten years. You’d think that would be enough time, but…” Her throat was dry, and she shook her head silently.
Silently, Scout took two more pieces of bread from the bag, leaving Sariel to put the mayo on them. The two of them worked silently through the next couple more complete sandwiches, neither able to find the words they needed to say.
Sariel said the words, her hands pressed flat against the counter, feeling the knife under her right palm digging into the skin from the force she was exerting. She said the words, only they sounded… strange to her ears. Was it just her voice, or…
No. No, that wasn’t it. The words sounded odd because she wasn’t the only one who had said them. Scout had spoken as well. She had said the exact same words, made the exact same apology in that exact same moment. And now, as Sariel’s eyes blinked up that way, she found the girl staring back at her, Sariel’s own confusion reflected back at her.
“What,” the young girl started with obvious uncertainty, “w-what are you apologizing for?”
For a moment, Sariel just stared back at her with a slight frown. “Why am I apologizing?” she echoed in disbelief. “Why are you apologizing?”
A look of incredibly intense shame crossed Scout’s face then, and she looked away with a slight shudder. “I…” she started slowly, that single word making her voice crack before she closed her mouth into a tight line. Her face showed her own revulsion at the words as she continued in a tiny voice that sounded more as though it were coming from the child she had been all those years earlier rather than the young woman she now was. “It’s my fault.”
Now Sariel was even more lost. “What—” she stopped, head shaking slowly. “What do you think was your fault?”
In an audibly shaking voice, Scout haltingly explained, “If I wasn’t there, you could have helped Mom. She wouldn’t have had to stall him. You both could’ve focused on him. You could have done something more. She sent you to help me. It’s my fault. If I wasn’t there… If I wasn’t there…”
It was in pure shock that Sariel stared at the girl then. “Lords…” she murmured quietly while the knife fell from her hand. In a couple of steps, she walked around the counter to reach her. “Have you been thinking that this whole time? Do you really think that was your…” She trailed off, seeing the look in the girl’s eyes. “Oh Scout, no, no.”
Without thinking, she wrapped both arms around the girl and pulled her close into a tight hug. “No, no,” she repeated, “That wasn’t your fault. It wasn’t your fault.”
Standing there stiffly for a moment, Scout shook her head. “But I couldn’t help. Mom had to send you to try to protect me. She had to face him by herself. If I wasn’t there, or if I could’ve helped…”
Her words were shaky, the tears right there in her voice as she physically shivered against the woman.
Sariel couldn’t even find her own voice for a moment. The revulsion that she felt at what this girl thought of herself was too complete. It took a few seconds for her thoughts to even become coherent.
Finally, she pulled back, hands firmly on Scout’s shoulders as she stared down at her. “You listen to me. That was not your fault. You were a child. It was our job to protect you. You didn’t do anything wrong. And beyond that, even if you weren’t there, things would not have turned out any better.”
There was obvious disbelief in the younger girl’s eyes at that. “But if I wasn’t there, you could’ve—”
“I probably would’ve done the same thing,” Sariel admitted. ”Yes, given weapons, time, my full power while I’m not projecting all the way across the universe against all the spells that were trying to keep me in place, I probably could have dealt with that creature. But I didn’t have all of that, or any of it. And my not having it had nothing to do with you. If you weren’t there, it wouldn’t have made any difference to how strong I was. If you weren’t there, I still would have had only one option, to pull your mother with me to Seosten space.”
She saw the uncertainty there as Scout bit her lip. “You really think that you couldn’t have done better if I wasn’t there? If you didn’t have to hide me…”
“It wouldn’t have made a difference,“ Sariel insisted. “If nothing else, taking the time to hide you rather than fighting gave me the chance to think of the only solution I could come up with. And believe me, it’s been years since then, and I’ve had a lot of time to think. There was no other solution. Not with what I had, not with what any of us had. If I had to do it again, the only change I would make would be to only take the Fomorian. If I could have found a way to separate him from your mother and only take him back with me, I would have. I should have.” At the end of that, the woman’s voice cracked, her guilt outweighing her urgent need to convince Scout that nothing there had been the girl’s fault.
Scout, meanwhile, stared up at her searchingly. “But if you couldn’t have done anything better with what you had, why were you apologizing?”
“Because I never should’ve put your mother in that position,” Sariel quietly claimed. “The Fomorian smelled me on her. If I hadn’t come back, if I didn’t spend time with her…”
Scout’s head shook. “If you didn’t spend time with her, you never would have sent Tabbris to Flick. She would have been taken by Kushiel, and Flick would’ve been possessed. And then, well, lots of bad things would’ve happened. You…” Her face screwed up a little with thought before she exhaled. “It’s like I told Professor Dare. You should live in what can still happen, not what could have happened. And–” Stopping, the girl blushed a little. “… I guess it’s kind of hard to take your own advice sometimes.”
Sariel managed a very faint smile at that. “It usually is,” she murmured softly. “But Scout, I am so sorry. I–the last thing I wanted was to take a child’s mother away from her. I didn’t–” Her voice cracked once more, and she closed her eyes briefly, shivering.
Scout embraced her then. Sariel felt the girl’s arms wrap around her tightly. “You were trying to help Flick. You were trying to get back to your children, trying to get your family back together. You didn’t do anything wrong. It was just… just… bad luck.”
With a little shudder, Sariel returned the embrace, sinking down to one knee as she held onto the girl. “Very bad luck,” she agreed in a quiet voice. “And intentional or not, I still contributed to taking your mother away. I still–” She stopped, biting her lip hard before her head shook. “I still did plenty of bad things, still made plenty of mistakes.”
Scout’s voice was simple. “So do better next time. That’s what you’re supposed to do. Success is built out of the remains of failure. You try, you fail, you break down the fail into something that you can use to succeed. It’s like practicing. You learn from it. Or you let it pile on top of you. That’s kind of the only two choices, you know? Either you let your failures crush you, or you climb on top of them and use that to reach success.”
Swallowing hard, Sariel shook her head in wonder. “You are a very wise girl, Scout Mason.”
“I just have a lot of time to think,” the girl demurred with a small shrug. “Too much, sometimes.”
The two finally released one another, and Sariel leaned back to look at the girl while staying down on one knee. “You have to let go of that guilt, okay? What happened back on the boat was not your fault. You did nothing wrong.”
Softly, Scout replied, “Only if you let go of your guilt. Because you didn’t do anything wrong either. You saved Mom and me, even though you were… um, handicapped at the time. You did everything you could.”
Flushing guiltily, Sariel hesitated before offering, “I guess we both have to let go of that guilt for each other. Either way, that was still a very bad day.”
“It was,” Scout agreed. “But sometimes bad days just happen. It’s not because you screwed up, or because you’re evil, or because of anything you did. It just happens. It’s not fair, and it’s not fun, but it happens. And you just have to pick up and keep going. Push on. Or lay there and cry about it. It’s your choice.”
“You’re mostly right,” Sariel confirmed with a small smile. “Except sometimes we can stop and help up other people who have been knocked down. Or try to. No one can do all of this by themselves all the time. We all need someone sometimes. Maybe to offer a hand, or to smack us when we’re being stupid. Believe me, everyone has ‘smack upside the head because you’re being dumb’ moments.”
Her words, intended lightly, still made Scout flinch noticeably. The girl glanced away, arms folding across her stomach tightly. “You’d have to be pretty strong to smack my dad hard enough to make him wake up.”
Wincing at that, Sariel hesitated before speaking quietly. “Your father… he tries, Scout. He makes plenty of mistakes, and he is… stubborn beyond belief. He’s wrong. But he does care about you, and your sister, and your mother. He even cared about Joselyn and the others that he… that he betrayed. He thought he was doing the right thing. Just like now, he still thinks he knows what’s best. And in his own way, he’s trying to take care of you. He just… he doesn’t understand. Or won’t understand. Maybe he never will, I don’t know. But he loves you. I know that much beyond any doubt. He may be a raging jackass sometimes. But he loves his family.”
Scout’s response came after a few seconds of silence, her voice cracking. “I love him. I love my dad. He’s my dad. I’ll always love him. I just… don’t like him very much.”
Feeling the girl’s pain like her own, Sariel embraced her once more. “I do hope he listens, that he learns, Scout. But even if he doesn’t, even if he never changes, you have to know that he loves you. Everything he does is because he thinks he’s doing the right thing. And sometimes you just have to accept that it’s not as simple as the good guys always being right and the bad guys always being wrong. Your father is a good man. He’s wrong. He’s done some very bad things, but not out of malice. He’s misled and often foolish. But he is trying. And he loves you very much. Never doubt that.”
After a few more long seconds like that, the two separated and Scout whispered hoarsely, “I just… I just can’t talk to him right now. I know he wants to. I know he wants me to just… listen to him and agree with him. I know he wants a lot of things that I can’t give him. But I don’t want to see him right now. I can’t trust him. I love him, and yeah, I know he loves me. But I don’t trust him.”
Sariel stood up slowly. “I wish I could tell you that he’ll learn his lesson and that everything will be alright. But I can’t. All I can say is that… you’re not alone. You are never alone in this, Scout. Your mother and your sister will make it back here. They’ll make it here as soon as they can. But even before then, you have your friends. You have your team, Gaia, everyone who will help you.”
“And you,” Scout put in, staring up at the woman.
Sariel felt a thick lump in her throat, swallowing hard to clear it. “And me,” she confirmed. “I’ll be there for you, if you want me to be around. I… I just thought that you would be angry with me.”
“And I thought you’d be angry with me,” Scout pointed out. “Because my being there screwed up your chance to save Mom. I–” She stopped then, flushing visibly. “We were both being dumb about it.”
“Maybe a little dumb, yeah,” Sariel agreed, managing a weak smile. “But hey, we can move forward, right? That thing you said about climbing on top of mistakes and failure to reach success? We can still do that with misunderstandings. And uhh, speaking of success, do you want to keep helping me make these sandwiches? I’m afraid if we don’t get food out to my people pretty soon, they might just start eating the cabins.”
Giggling just a little, Scout obediently moved to the counter to take two more pieces of bread. “Okay,” she murmured. “And umm… maybe you could… umm…” She hesitated, clearly feeling self-conscious.
Sariel took the knife, spreading mayonnaise on the bread once more. “What is it?” she asked as gently as possible. “What can I do for you, Scout?”
The girl’s voice was faint, her hands shaking a little while she put meat and cheese on the bread. “Could you… tell me a bit about my mom when she was a kid? I never… I wasn’t old enough to know anything about her before… before all that happened. I feel like I don’t know her at all. I just–” Her voice choked itself off.
“Oh, Scout.” Sariel felt her own heart crack a little before she nodded once. “Yes. Yes, I’ll tell you everything I know about your mother.
“Starting with the fact that she has terrible taste in favorite Green Lanterns.”