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The sound of a ball repeatedly bouncing between wall and racket grew faster and louder with each passing moment. Soon, the figure darting back and forth across the small court became little more than a barely-visible blur as she activated her inborn boost ability. It wasn’t quite as fast as the girl had been capable of moving while possessing Pace with her superspeed, but still quite a feat. More than the average Seosten was capable of, that much was certain. And she held it, if not as long as many of the eldest and most powerful of her people, at least substantially longer than most her own still relatively-young age.
Finally, after boosting herself as high and as long as possible as she turned the ball into a nearly-solid line of back-and-forth bounces between the wall and her racket, Theia abruptly pivoted a hundred and sixty degrees on one foot without any warning. The hand holding her racket dropped limply to her side while her other hand snapped upward to catch the ball that was still coming her way, snatching it out of midair an inch from the back of her head. And just like that, she stood facing the figure who had stood in the doorway for the past minute.
Puriel, his eyes focused on hers, stood silently for another moment before stepping the rest of the way into the enclosed racquetball court. His footsteps echoed a bit as he took several steps and then stopped. The door fell shut with a somewhat final-sounding thud, and still the man had not spoken. Nor had Theia moved other than to lower the hand that held the ball. For a handful of seconds, which seemed much longer than that to both involved, they stood facing one another in complete silence. A pin dropped to the floor could have imitated the sound of a grenade in those brief moments.
In that time, he took in the girl’s appearance. She wore a pair of tennis shoes that had been painted bright orange, with several white lightning bolts added to them, and a pair of mismatched purple and green socks. Her baggy jean shorts fell to her knees, with a rainbow-colored belt. Beyond that, she wore an open orange windbreaker with its own lightning bolts, matching her shoes, over a rainbow striped shirt to match the belt. And, atop her head, the New York Rangers cap.
Finally, Puriel spoke his first words since entering the room. His first words since opening the door to see her. The first words he had spoken to her since he had taken her away from Kushiel’s experiments and sent her to be trained the way others with her condition were. The first words he had spoken to her since she became a person with a name. His first words not to the person she had been, but to the person she had become.
“Hello, my daughter.”
Three words. Each by themselves simple and unimpressive. Yet, as with all things, far greater when put together. Words held power. Not only of the enchantment sort, but true power, of the sort that would shape reality with no particular magic involved. The proper words, spoken at the proper time and by the proper person, could decide the course of an entire empire. As could the wrong ones, spoken at the wrong time, by the wrong person.
These words might not have determined the fate of so many (though that in itself remained to be seen, as lesser moments had caused great change), but neither of those affected by them missed their significance.
Another thump broke the brief silence that had followed those words, as Puriel dropped to one knee in front of the brown-haired girl. His hands rose almost to her face, before he stopped himself and stayed there with his hands shaking very slightly, mere inches from her skin.
When she saw that he had stopped, the girl closed her eyes and began to let out a low, quiet sigh despite herself. Yet before all of the air could escape her, Puriel spoke once more.
“May I touch you?”
Eyes snapping open as the breath she had been slowly letting out became an audible (if barely) gasp, the girl met her father’s eyes in stunned silence. Silence which stretched on for several more seconds, as their gazes locked. And somehow, standing there in front of the man, she knew that he would not be the one to break that silence. If it took a lifetime, he would not move or speak again until she did. He had given her something precious, something far more powerful than any who had never been without it would comprehend.
No, even that wasn’t correct. He had not given her anything. Acknowledging her right to choose whether to accept his touch was not a gift to be granted. Such a small thing which, in a just society, would have been entirely mundane. It would–should have been the absolute rule.
It should not have mattered so much. And for that, the girl felt something she had thought impossible for her in the moments leading up to this reunion.
She felt a single tear, before her eyes blinked it away. Setting her chin, she gave a very slight nod. Her voice was very soft, almost inaudible. “Yes, Father.”
Granted the permission he sought, Puriel finally moved his hands those last few inches. A gasp of his own escaped the man as he cupped her face. His expression was, at first, unreadable. He slowly moved his thumbs along her cheeks and under her eyes with the gaze of a man who was truly seeing and touching his own child for the first time. An unconscious, entirely unbidden smile rose to his face. It was a smile of pride, of delight, of… pure wonder.
“Theia.” The name came in a hushed, reverent tone, as he slid both hands along her face and through her hair, then down to her shoulders to squeeze. “Theia, my… my…” Where only a single tear had appeared on her face in response to that simple-yet-crucial request, his own fell freely. And then his arms wrapped around her, as the man pulled the girl to him. He was saying something, yet the words were muffled as he all-but crushed her to his chest.
And then he repeated it, drawing back just enough that she would hear and understand.
“I am sorry. I am so very sorry, my daughter. My daughter. My child. I’m sorry.”
For several long moments, they stayed there like that. Puriel’s voice had fallen silent as he simply kept his arms locked around her. He held on as though afraid that to let go would be to lose her for good. His hand brushed up through the girl’s hair once more, then down her back. He held and touched his daughter in the way of a brand new parent only just experiencing their child for the first time. He touched her as though she was a newborn, and he a father who was just experiencing the true miracle of what he had made.
Finally, the man pulled back slightly, meeting her gaze once more. Before he could say anything else, however, Theia spoke first while letting the ball and racket drop from her hands with a clatter. “You know what I did to Mother.” It was a statement of fact, an acknowledgment of reality. And yet, more than that. It was an acceptance, her voice making it clear that she expected anger, if not more.
Puriel, however, was silent for a few seconds. He said nothing, did nothing, made no move. His eyes continued to meet hers, his steady gaze the only proof that he had not once more fallen into lost memories. No, his silence in this moment was born entirely of shame rather than a damaged mind. When he spoke at last, it was with a voice that was rough, cracking slightly with each word. “I failed you in more ways than I could ever truly count. But by far the worst was to leave you with… with your mother for so long. I allowed my own prejudices, my own fears, my…” He stopped, glancing away briefly before returning his gaze to her while swallowing hard. “I failed you, Theia. I failed to give you a name. I failed to protect you from what I knew was a terrible environment, from a… a damaged woman. I failed to protect and guide you. I failed in every conceivable way.” Slowly, he moved his hand back to her cheek, gently resting it there. “I failed you when I could have helped. And yet, you have made your way through all of it.” His voice still held pain and regret, yet there was more pride in those words.
Theia, mouth opening then shutting briefly, made a noise in the back of her throat. It took the girl a couple of tries before she found the right words. “You do not… seek justice for her?”
It was then that Puriel realized why they were here alone, in this out-of-the-way room, why she had told others to let them meet here without any onlookers. She expected some form of punishment. She expected anger, retribution for the death of his wife, her mother. And she had sent everyone away who could have intervened. Hearing that in her voice, seeing it in her eyes, the realization made him start just a little.
This was what she expected, because it was what Kushiel (and he to a lesser extent in his inaction) had cultivated into her. She expected her parents to hurt her.
Processing all of that, realizing what his own daughter thought would happen here even after their initial reunion, Puriel closed his eyes. A low shudder ran through the man as he fought through all of the feelings and thoughts that came with her expectation. It seemed impossible to find the right words to respond to such a thing. Through distant memories, he thought of how desperately he and Kushiel had tried to conceive a child, how terrible each failure had been and how delighted they felt when it had finally happened. He thought of his wife’s face when she proudly told him that the pregnancy was sticking, how it had felt in his own soul every time she reported in to tell him that she still had the baby. He thought of how wondrous it had been to touch her stomach shortly before the birth, and know that he would soon have his own child.
And then he thought of every failure that had come following the girl’s arrival and the revelation of her condition. He thought of every change he could have made and didn’t. He thought of everything his entire society did to punish people like his daughter for the crime of being born. And most of all, he thought of what her mother had done in her deranged, deluded attempts to ‘fix’ the girl.
“There is justice to come,” he finally found himself saying. “But it is justice for you, not toward you. It is justice for all… all like you.” Swallowing hard, he slowly stood up while sliding his hands down to take both of hers and squeeze them. “Kushiel made her choices. I do not fault you for protecting yourself and those you care about. I fault her for the choices she made, her father for forcing those choices onto her, and our society for creating… the situation in the first place. I do not blame you.”
His voice softened, gaze meeting hers as he quietly added, “I blame myself for not doing more when I could have, before you were forced into such a choice. You deserved better. You always deserved better. A better family, and better people.” Head tilting slightly, the man added, “And it sounds as though you finally found it.”
“I have… an Abigail,” the girl informed him. “And a Pace. And a Douglas. They are not Kushiel. They are better.” Even after saying that, she looked uncertain if it was the right thing, almost fearful of his reaction. But then she steadied herself and gave a nod of certainty. “They are better.”
“I have heard of–well, the first two,” Puriel confirmed. “They sound quite impressive. As for the last… what is a Douglas?”
“He is a friend. He gave me this hat.” Raising her hand, Theia touched the object in question, before amending, “It is covered in the enchantments which block out the Whispers and partially affect our people when possessing someone. He gave it to Pace so that she could help move the body we shared. When we were… separated, I attempted to return the hat, but he was… he wanted me to keep it. So I have.”
Puriel absorbed that for a moment before choosing to focus on something else. Something far more important. “The name. Your… your name. I must know. How did– how did that come about?” The odds of her happening to choose a name so close to that of the woman whose closeness to him had so infuriated Kushiel couldn’t be a coincidence, could it?
And yet, it did seem to be just that. Theia informed him that Abigail had, independently of any actual knowledge of the situation, come up with the name Aletheia as a reference to the mythological goddess of truth (originally born of Apollo’s work, of course), which his daughter had shortened to Theia.
Somehow, it didn’t surprise him that Kushiel had failed to tell their daughter about the real Aletheia. If his wife had ever had any inclination that there could be any relationship between the woman she had decided was her enemy (one of many), and her child, she would have… He grimaced at the thought before focusing on the girl in front of him. His voice was soft. “It is a good name. It is–” He stopped, considering his next words carefully. “It is the right name. But–but I should have named you. I am glad that you have one. It is yours. And yet, I am–it was a mistake to send you away. I had three… three opportunities to name you. First, when you were born. Second, when I sent you away from your–away from Kushiel to the training camp. And third, when I sent you to Manakel. I–I should have named you. I should have followed up, should have seen how you were–” Stopping once more, the man took a breath and let it out. “There are many things I should have done, but did not. I have made a great many mistakes. Those I cannot change.”
He was silent for a moment, his eyes gazing past her before slowly moving back with visible effort, holding himself then and there. He would not lose himself in memories. “Living in the past is–it’s something I find myself doing far too often, in ways I cannot control. When it comes to–to what I can control, I would prefer to focus on the present and future. You are Theia. You are my daughter. If… if you will allow me to, I would like…” The man straightened to his full height. “I would like to get to know you.”
Blinking several times rapidly, Theia took a moment to find her own voice, though it came in a soft whisper. “And I would like to know my father.”
Those simple words, that she wanted to know him, sent a rush of feelings through the man. He found himself smiling very faintly. His hand rose to gently brush two fingers along her forehead. His daughter. His child. It was so–it was overwhelming. It shouldn’t have been. He’d had decades to comprehend that, and yet somehow, right now standing in front of her, it was different. She had grown, and so had he. Things were… better.
“You have your mother’s hair, and eyes,” he murmured quietly, before adding, “And her gift.”
“She is not happy about that,” Theia noted. “The hair, eyes, or gift. She does not like me.” A thoughtful look crossed her face. “Perhaps because I killed her.”
“Yes, well…” Puriel grimaced once more, memories playing through his head along with an assortment of emotions. “She was always good at holding a grudge.” His next words were a half-muttered, “I expected that to end with her death, but perhaps I should have known better.”
“You loved her,” the girl quietly noted, her eyes watching his intently.
“Yes,” he confirmed immediately. “A part of me still does. I know what she is. I know what she did to you, and to others. I know that her death was for the best, and I do not blame you for it. I even… I believe it would have been better had she not come back in any way. I know that. I feel that. I believe it. And yet, there is a part of me that will always see the Kushiel I knew, the one she was when it was only the two of us, when she was…” His eyes closed, as he forced himself through great effort not to fall into that memory. He would not allow his wife to take him away from their daughter. Not this time.
Finally opening his eyes once more after several long seconds of focus, the man spoke again. “A part of me will always love the person she once was, as well as the person she could have been. But it is a part that does not control me. As I said, living in the past is something I have done far too much. When she died, she was not the person I loved. She made her choices. Now I make mine.”
“You sent me away,” Theia noted. Her voice was not quite accusation or relief. She wasn’t certain how to feel about the simple fact she was stating. “Twice. You sent me away to the… to others like me. And then you had me sent here, to Earth, to Manakel. You knew that–that she was wrong. But you did not tell me that. You did not… tell me anything. You sent me away.”
“I believed doing so would protect you,” Puriel admitted. “I believed that had I shown you much affection or… or spoken up more than I did in simply taking you away from Kushiel, she would have reacted poorly. She was quite jealous of my affections. And I did not trust that I could always be there to protect you should she react poorly. I believed the best way of protecting you was to make it seem as though I simply wanted you out of the house, as though I was tired of her… work with you. I believed that following up would draw her ire toward you once more.”
“And when you told them to send me to Manakel?” Theia prompted, her hand tightening a little bit on the racket as she thought about how that had gone.
“I thought he would give you–I thought he would help you.” Puriel took in a breath before letting it out. “It seems that failing to notice how much my old friend had changed was another to add onto the list of all the many mistakes I have made over the centuries. I heard of the problems you were having integrating with the other–with those like you. I thought that… sending you on a mission, sending you here to work alongside the man who was one of my closest friends once, would be good for you. I thought it would help.”
A cough escaped him then, as he gestured around the room. “In the end, it seems to have done just that, though not in a way I ever could have expected.”
“I did not imagine it either,” Theia admitted, before adding, “But I would not change it. Not if it meant not meeting Abigail and Pace.” A brief pause followed, then, “And Douglas.”
“Yes,” Puriel murmured, “as much pain as there is in our past, it has led to some good. And people whose presence I would not wish to live without.”
“One in particular?” Theia prompted knowingly, raising herself up on her toes while waggling her eyebrows at him. “Who happens to live in your head and invent things like teleporting spaceships? One who is basically my–my…” She trailed off uncertainly.
“She is Sariel’s child,” Puriel murmured, before adding, “But she is also more than that. She has been a daughter to me. I–does that make you sad?”
“Because you spent time with her that you did not spend with me?” Theia bluntly asked, before her head shook. “Abigail says that learning from our mistakes is a good thing. She says that doing the wrong thing to one person and the right thing to another because you came to understand what you did wrong the first time is… is how it is supposed to work.
“Besides, that all makes her a little sister to me. And I have always wanted a little sister. When do I get to meet her? I’m told noogies and fighting over telephone time are to be expected. I do not have a boyfriend, but I believe she is supposed to have a crush on whoever it ends up being. I hope she calls me an ugly pig and then apologizes so we can hug and promise that boys aren’t important while the names appear on the screen.”
For a moment, Puriel just stared at her, processing all of that before giving a slight shake of his head. “I–you will meet her soon. She deserves time with Sariel and her other siblings for now. And… and I wanted this time to be just the two of us. This is about you, Theia. I want to know more about you.
“Starting with this Douglas. Tell me more about the boy who gave you that hat.”