“I don’t understand, this… museum is called Wonderland?”
As she voiced her confusion hesitantly, Marina slowly looked around. She, the children she had taken charge of, and Roxa were all standing in a large, brightly lit room that was full of dinosaur displays. The kids were nearby, gathered around the centerpiece Tyrannosaurus rex skeleton in the middle of the room as they excitedly jabbered back and forth about both it and the other displays scattered around. Across one of the walls was a mural depicting the various time periods of when various dinosaurs lived.
With a tiny smile, Roxa replied, “Wonderland is more an organization than a place. The location changes all the time, because…” She paused briefly, biting her lip. “Because of people hunting them. It was in a closed-down mall awhile ago. Right now, it’s in this closed museum. In a few months, assuming nothing happens, they’ll move again. Can’t stay in the same place too long.”
“There’s… there’s Strangers here, you said.” The words sounded awkward coming from Marina’s own mouth, as her eyes slowly looked around. She saw nothing out of the ordinary that would make her think this was a haven for monsters. The kids had moved to look at a Triceratops skeleton, while their self-appointed expert Alicia (an eleven-year old brunette who was actually currently wearing a shirt with a Pteranodon on it) began to list facts about the horned dinosaur for her enraptured audience.
Roxa was watching her, nodding slowly. “Yes. I mean, they’re not here in this specific area. They cleared out for now, to give you guys time to… to settle in. They’ll stay out of this room, if you want to keep away from any… any non-humans. We prefer the word Alter, for the record. Alternative from baseline human. Actually, they consider Heretics to be Alters too, which is a whole other can of worms. But… yeah, there’s Alters out there, and they’d like to meet you guys. But they’re not gonna force it. You’re welcome to stay here as long as it takes to get those kids sent to their parents, and if you don’t want anyone… else to come around, it won’t happen.”
Her expression softened then, as she quietly added, “I know it’s scary, Marina. It’s a lot to deal with, and all you want to do is protect these kids. But you’re afraid that you’re making the wrong choice, because you’ve been told all your life that the people who live here want to kill and eat the children you’re trying to protect. You’re wondering if you made a mistake. Every sound makes you look around like you’re about to be ambushed by a bunch of… well, monsters.”
Marina was quiet for a moment, looking away to watch the children. “I… you’re right, I’m afraid I made a mistake. I’m afraid if I close my eyes for more than a second, something horrible is going to happen. You said there’s… there’s thing–creatur–people… whatever through those doors that everyone I’ve ever known has told me were monsters. And I brought children here. Children that I’m supposed to be protecting, Roxa. What if I’m wrong? What if you’re wrong? What if you’re… lying? I don’t… I don’t think you are. But what if I’m wrong about that? It’s not me I’m risking. It’s these kids. And I can’t… I couldn’t… handle it if anything happened to them. I’d rather die.”
Solemnly nodding, Roxa murmured, “I get it. Believe me, Marina, I get it. It’s hard to… to move past that. I kind of got thrown into the deep end of all this. You did too, just in a different way. And you’re not just responsible for yourself. You’re responsible for these kids. I get that. I think… I think the only way to make you feel better about this is to let you meet them. If you don’t want to, that’s okay. Like I said, no one is going to force you. If you want, you and the kids can stay in this room, we’ll bring you food, and no one but me will come visit you. Or you can come out with me to meet the people here and decide on your own if you trust them enough to close your eyes.” She smiled just a little, watching the older girl. “It’s totally up to you.”
“But if I go out with you,” Marina pointed out, “wouldn’t that mean that I’m leaving the kids here alone? If this place is dangerous, that would be pretty stupid of me. I mean, not that it is, just… um, you know.” God, this felt awkward. She still just wanted to hug Roxa again, even though she kept feeling that dangerous Stranger sense every time she looked at her. It was just… wrong.
“Bring them with,” Roxa suggested, gesturing to the assorted kids. “Keep them with you while we go out there and look around. Like I said, no one’s gonna hurt them. And if they’re with you, you won’t have to worry about what’s happening to them.”
Marina hesitated at that before replying, “And if you’re right, then you have kids who are going back to their… loyalist parents after meeting a bunch of Strang–Alters who don’t seem like the monsters that their parents think they are. Even if they go back to parents who are… who are hardcore Crossroads loyalists, the kids might think differently after meeting those people.”
Roxa met her gaze without blinking. “And if I’m right, would that be a bad thing?”
It took Marina a moment to answer. She bit her lip, her gaze moving from Roxa to her charges and back again. A wave of indecisiveness washed over her. If she was wrong… if this went wrong…
If she was wrong, she’d already fucked everything up more than anyone would ever comprehend. That was the truth.
“Guys!” Marina waved to the kids, beckoning them over. “Come on. We… we’re going to take a walk and meet some people.” Looking to Roxa then as the group approached, she added in a softer voice, “I’ve come this far with it. Might as well go all-in.”
It wasn’t as though she’d hate herself any less if things went wrong now rather than later.
Organizing the kids once more and giving them all firm instructions about staying with her, not shouting, not running off, not blurting out offensive things or anything that might make them look bad to their hosts, Marina finally led them through the door at the end of the room. Roxa was there, as was an incredibly thin Latino man with a neatly groomed thin mustache and dark eyes, yet a friendly smile. As with Roxa, looking at the man immediately made Marina’s Stranger-sense start blaring its warning at her.
“Good, ahhh, morning,” the man greeted, hands clasped behind his back as he stood straight beside Roxa. “I know this is a… tense and awkward situation, but I do want to say that it’s a pleasure to meet you, Miss Dupont. And all of you.” He nodded to the group of children and early teens assembled behind the girl. “My name is Mateo Dias. I ahh–”
“Are you a monster?!” That was blurted from the eight-year-old Donny Kartner, prompting Marina to spin on her heel, a horrified sound of disbelief escaping her. The sound was more akin to air escaping a balloon very rapidly than it was any actual words, as she paled, trying to simultaneously shush and point at the boy in horror.
“What?” Donny blinked at her reaction, his expression betraying nothing but complete innocence and curiosity. “I was just asking.”
“It’s alright,” Mateo assured her while she continued to make the sounds of a broken computer trying desperately to restart. “Let’s see.” Taking a knee, he extended a hand to the boy very carefully. “What’s your name, if you don’t mind?”
The boy looked first to Marina, then swallowed uncertainly before slowly stepping that way. “Um. Donny? Donny Kartner. Kady heard Miss Marina talking to her.” He pointed to Roxa. “They said that you’re werewolves. Aren’t werewolves monsters? Do you eat people?”
Marina almost wanted to die right there on the spot, but Mateo just smiled a little encouragingly. “Well, Donny, let me ask you something. Do you know a lot of Heretics?”
The boy’s head bobbed up and down quickly. “My parents were Heretics. But… but they died.” His lip trembled a little before he bit down on it and stared at the man. “They killed a lot of monsters.”
Meeting the boy’s gaze with a nod, Mateo agreed. “I’m sure they did. They must have saved a lot of people. I’m sorry to hear that they’ve passed away. You miss them a lot, don’t you?”
“Yes, sir,” Donny answered softly, his voice shaking a little.
“And you’re proud of them, because they helped so many people,” Mateo guessed. “They must have stopped an awful lot of monsters from hurting others.”
Again, the boy nodded, sniffling quietly. “They killed bad guys. Until the bad guys…” Again, he sniffed, his voice failing him.
Mateo’s gaze softened even more, and he swallowed once before speaking. “Your parents killed… monsters. They killed bad people before they could hurt others. And that’s okay, because the ones they killed were bad.” He stared directly at the boy, raising his hand as though making a pledge. “I swear to you that I have never killed an innocent person. I fight to defend myself and my family, my people. I have killed, but I kill monsters, just like your parents.”
That time, it was Kady, the ten-year-old dark-skinned girl with a tight braid and purple glasses, who spoke. “But everyone says that werewolves are all monsters.”
Turning his gaze to her, Mateo nodded. “You’re right. There’s been a lot of… mistakes. There are some of us… some people like me, who are evil.” He touched his own chest. “They’re monsters. And your families, your parents, your grandparents, your brothers and sisters, they’re heroes for stopping them. They make sure those monsters can’t hurt other people. But… sometimes it’s hard to know if someone’s a good guy or a bad guy. You guys watch movies?”
All of their heads bobbed up and down quickly, and the man grinned. “Of course you do. You know Star Wars?” When that earned just as rapid of a series of nods, his smile grew. “Okay. Well, you know how Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader both have the Force? They both have special powers, but they’re not both evil, right? How do we know which one is evil?”
“Vader hurts people!” One of the kids blurted.
Another put in, “He kills them! And he blows up a planet!”
“That’s pretty bad, yeah,” Mateo agreed. “So… we know he’s evil because of what he does, not because he has powers. Because Luke has powers too. We know Darth Vader’s the bad guy because he kills innocent people. Just like we know that real life people are bad because they kill innocents.”
“But why do they say you’re all bad?” one of the kids asked while raising a hand. “My dad’s a Heretic and he kills werewolves, but he never said anything about some good ones and some bad ones.”
“Well, your dad’s trying to help people, just like the other Heretics,” Mateo carefully replied. “It’s just that sometimes it’s hard to tell who the good guys and who the bad guys are.”
“Does that mean my mommy’s bad?” The girl who asked that did so in a trembling voice.
Mateo shook his head. “No, sweetie, no. Your mom is a hero who wants to help people. That’s all. She wants to make sure monsters don’t hurt innocents. Right now everyone’s just arguing about who the bad guys really are. But your mommy, she’s doing the best she can, okay? She is trying to help people.”
That time, when the slow nod came, he straightened. “Okay. We’re gonna go for a walk and meet some people. And some of them are going to look a little different, or even scary. But no one is gonna hurt you. You are completely safe.”
While the kids reacted to that, Marina leaned closer to Roxa and whispered under her breath, “He’s very good.”
In turn, Roxa whispered back, “Why do you think I asked him to help? Also, werewolf hearing is super good, so he can totally hear this. Just FYI.”
They had barely started to walk again before a tiny figure zipped through the air. For an instant, Marina thought it was a large dragonfly. But then the figure stopped, hovering in the air in front of them and she saw that it… she… the figure was a small pixie. Her fluttering wings were bright purple, and her hair was dark blue. She wore a tiny sword at her waist, and leather armor that looked like it was made for a doll.
“Hiya!” the pixie blurted, waving.
The kids, in turn, jerked backward, one of the boys yelping in surprise. Kady pointed that way. “It’s a Fairy!”
“Humph.” The pixie folded her arms and gave them a scowl. “Pixie. A Fairy is different. And Faeries with an e are really different. Not a Fae. Pix. Pixie. My name’s Namythiet! What’re your names?”
The kids started to slowly introduce themselves while the hovering pixie gave them her rapt attention. One of them asked her a question about what it was like being so small, and she shot back that she didn’t know what it would be like to be as big as them and how they manage to avoid tripping over everything. That convinced another kid to ask a question, and then more came.
They were so busy asking the tiny pixie questions that they almost didn’t notice the tiny green cat that came trotting up. Marina started to ask why the cat was green, only to double-take as the thing looked at her to reveal long sabertooth tiger-like teeth.
“Kitty!” One of the kids announced, before taking a step back as she saw the teeth. “Whoa…”
Namythiet, however, landed on the green cat’s head. “It’s okay, this is my friend! His name is Clubber.”
If meeting a real life pixie and not being eaten was impressive for the kids, meeting a green sabertoothed tiger… thing was even better. Most wanted to pet him, though a few hung back and shook their heads, not wanting anything to do with either Namythiet or Clubber. They were staying away from Roxa and Mateo too, who hadn’t quite won all the kids over.
Biting her lip, Marina hesitantly looked to her old mentee. “And you’re… I mean, you’re completely sure that there won’t be… I mean that it’s… I mean–”
“It’s okay,” Roxa assured her. “They’re safe, like I said. There are little things that look like pixies who are pretty nasty, but actual pixies like Namythiet just got lumped in with those things because they look similar. And, you know, because everything that isn’t perfectly normal human must be evil anyway.” There was a hint of bitterness in the girl’s voice, but she swallowed it back and smiled a little at Marina once more. “I know, it’s too much to take in. But hey, at least the next meeting should be easier to take.”
“Next mee–” Marina started to echo, before hearing something behind her. She pivoted, only to stop short at the figure she saw there in the museum corridor, grinning at her.
“Jazz!” The name leapt to her mouth even as she moved to quickly embrace the girl in question. “You’re–you’re okay! You’re–wait…” Leaning back in mid-hug, she stopped short to stare at her. “You’re not a werewolf too.”
Raising an eyebrow, Jazz shook her head. “Nope. C’mere.” She hugged Marina tightly then before stepping back. “I’m not. And neither are these guys.”
Looking to where she was nodding, Marina saw Doug and Gordon. Immediately, she embraced both of them. “Oh my God, you guys are just–you’re together and… and…”
“It’s a really long story,” Doug replied dryly. “But hey, at least we can finally tell it to you. All of it.”
Biting her lip as she looked around at the four of them while hearing the kids asking more and more questions of Namythiet and of Mateo, who had wandered that way, Marina took a moment before managing to speak. “I… I guess we can’t talk to Rudolph, Paul, and Isaac…”
That made the four exchange more glances, their expressions sobering. Gordon cleared his throat. “That’s one of the things we should talk about. You’re not going to want to hear it.”
“But you need to,” Jazz put in. “There’s a whole year worth of stuff that we all need to tell you about. Including that piece of shi–” She stopped then, clearly restraining herself. “We’ll talk about it.”
“Later,” Doug added. “Right now, we thought you might like some company walking through this place. You know, have some people you know around to help you meet all the people you… really don’t.”
“I–I just…” Blinking back the wetness that suddenly appeared in her eyes, Marina managed a weak, “I know I was a shitty mentor for you guys, I just–”
“Miss Marina!” The was Donny, eyes wide as he waved a hand to get her attention. “Nommy says they use the buddy system too! Just like us!”
Namythiet in turn bobbed up and down. “Yup! C’mon, you can meet him!”
“Meet him?” Marina echoed, blinking at Roxa. “How do you meet a buddy system?”
Roxa, Gordon, Doug, and Jazz all exchanged knowing looks before smiling at her. “Oh,” Roxa replied mysteriously, “you’d be surprised.” Then she sobered. “Actually, you being surprised is probably a bad idea. Buddy System is a–”
“Wonderful children!” The Russian-accented voice came from just down the hall, and Marina looked that way, only to see an enormous troll. The thing was almost nine feet tall, covered in thick muscle and leathery hide, with a face full of teeth that he was showing all of. Over his back he had a broken telephone pole with a big spike driven through it, and he wore a shirt that was almost comically too small for him, with words written across it. Words that read… ‘Safety First – Use The Buddy System’.
Marina, by that point, had put herself in front of the kids. Most of them had already shrunk back, hiding behind her while whimpering with fear. She found herself almost drawing the corseque at her side, before Roxa was there with a hand on her arm to stop her.
“Ohhh.” Slowly slumping down to his knees with a pair of heavy thuds that shook the hallway, the enormous troll shook his head. His voice cracked a little. “No scared, children. Buddy System not hurting you. Never hurting children.”
“It’s okay, Buddy,” Roxa assured the troll before walking that way with a quick look at Marina. She pointedly reached out, putting a hand on his gigantic arm. “He’s a nice troll. He protects the people here from the bad monsters.”
“M-Miss Marina?” one of the kids whispered in a trembling voice. “Is… is it okay? That thing looks… really scary.”
Marina honestly agreed. The troll looked terrifying. But then she looked at his eyes. She watched his eyes, and saw… dejection. He looked forlorn now, kneeling there staring at the children that he had… that he had been so excited to meet. He saw how they were looking at him, and it made him… sad. He looked… he looked… sad. He looked empty and sad.
She straightened. Clearing her throat, Marina took a single step that way, then another. She was shaking a bit, forcing herself not to cry from fear, and not to run away. One step at a time, she walked up to the kneeling troll. Her hand went out, shaking a little as she extended it to him.
“Mr… Buddy System,” she started, her voice cracking only a bit. “I… I’m… Marina Dupont. It–” She swallowed and kept her hand steady. “It’s a pleasure to meet you.”
The big troll gave her a hesitant look of his own, clearly gulping before he very slowly extended his own hand. It completely dwarfed her own, but he (extremely carefully) shook it, his strength obvious even through his incredibly gentle actions. “I am… being… good for meeting you too, Miss Marina Dupont.”
Very slowly, a couple of the kids came forward. Laina, the nearly thirteen-year-old girl who had been helping so much over the past couple days, was the first to put herself beside Marina. The little black-haired girl raised her own trembling hand, very lightly touching the troll’s before quickly jerking her hand back with a gasp. Then she put her hand forward once more and left it there, grasping his outstretched thumb. Her voice was soft. “You’re really big.”
“I like your shirt.” That was another kid, a younger boy named Thomas, who poked his head out from behind Marina’s other side.
The troll gave them a broad smile at that, his eyes delighted. “It is good shirt. And funny. I am Buddy System. We must use Buddy System for safety, yes?”
That made a few of the kids giggle, and more slowly came forward to join them. Their reaction made the troll–made Buddy laugh as well, a surprisingly pleasant sound.
Marina took a step back then, letting the kids move past her to meet Buddy. They were already asking questions, just like they had been asking Namythiet. And he was answering. At a request, he held his arm out, letting several of the children climb onto it in a vain attempt to pull it down.
“You’re wrong, you know.” That was Doug, who had moved up by Marina, along with the other three. “You’re not a shitty mentor.
“You just needed the right students.”