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Mini-Interlude 62 – Flick And Tabbris

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Sitting cross-legged in the grass near the pier that led out onto the lake in the Atherby camp, Tabbris bit her lip while using one finger to draw a random symbol into the nearby dirt. It wasn’t a symbol that meant anything, simply random doodling. Sniffling a little as her eyes watered too much to actually see what she was doing, the Seosten girl closed them and gave a little shudder.

She’d run away. After what Mr. Cha… Mr. Cham… Fa… Da… After what he had said back in the cabin, Tabbris had just… had to get away. It was too much to try and handle. After everything she’d been through, after all her hopes and dreams and… and wishes seemed to be coming true, all she’d been able to do was run away. Excusing herself, apologizing frantically and desperately, she had fled the cabin where everyone was eating. Her last words had been to say that she needed a minute and to please leave her alone. Leave her alone. She had told her family to leave her alone.

It wasn’t true. She didn’t want to be left alone… did she? She had been alone for so long, and now she wasn’t. But it was moving so fast. Everything was moving so fast. She’d always had so much time alone, and now… now… what was wrong with her? What was wrong with her? Was she some kind of freak who didn’t even know how to be happy when good things were happening? Why was she crying because Mr. Cham–Flick’s da–her… her… why was she crying because he accepted her? What was wrong with her?

She should have been happy. She was happy. But… but… she was also overwhelmed.

At least she had repressed the urge to jump into Flick herself and hide. She was still herself. She just… had to step out, had to go away and sit down where she could breathe. It was too much to take in all at once. So, she’d run. She had run out here to sit down by the lake just to catch her breath. And then she’d become too embarrassed about ruining everything to go back.

“Pretty heavy stuff, huh?” The voice came from behind Tabbris, as Flick moved to sit down next to her.

Cringing, the young girl hunched in on herself while quickly stammering, “I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I just- I couldn’t… I didn’t mean to ruin–”

“Hey.” Flick’s hand found her shoulder, squeezing a little bit. “Tabby, you don’t have to explain anything. It’s okay to be overwhelmed sometimes. Even a lot of happy things is still a lot of things. It’s a lot to deal with. Trust me, it’s alright.” She rubbed the girl’s head a little and smiled at her. “No one‘s mad at you for needing to get away for a minute. I just wanted to make sure you were okay. You know, while we wait for the others to finally show up.”

Swallowing, Tabbris leaned against the older girl. “I’m happy,” she admitted in a trembling voice. “I am really, really happy. I mean, I didn’t know it was possible to be this happy. But I’m scared. I’m so happy that I’m scared. What if it goes away? What if something ruins it?” Looking down again, she mumbled, “I guess it’s just dumb.”

Flick’s head shook. “It’s definitely not dumb.” Putting her fist up against Tabbris’s shoulder, she gave her a little push while winking at her. “But you know whatever happens, we’ll deal with it, right? We’ll deal with it together. Because what are we?”

“Partners,” Tabbris answered in a tiny voice, biting her lip as she turned her head to look up at Flick.

“Damn straight,” The other girl confirmed. “But not just that. We’re partners and sisters. And that means that whatever happens, we’re in it together.” She coughed then, looking thoughtful for a moment. “Which sort of reminds me, there’s a lot more people know about you now. Which means they’ll want to talk to you sometimes. You know, since you’re brilliant and amazing. But you can’t just go jumping out of me at any old time. So I think it’s time we actually did something about that since we’re back here on Earth now.”

Blinking up at that, Tabbris gave her a curious look. “What do you mean?” she asked hesitantly.

“I mean,” Flick replied, “we need some signals. We talked about it a little bit back on Athena’s base. And we’ve got that whole system for fighting together. Which, if I do say so myself, makes us even more incredibly badass. But we don’t really have a good system for letting you talk through me when you need to. Which, like I said, we need now that people know about you.”

Eyes widening, Tabbris stared at the older girl, taken aback by the suggestion. “Talking through you?” she echoed in a stammering voice. “You mean like taking control just to talk?”

Flick was nodding as if it was the most simple and obvious thing in the world. “Of course. I mean, you’re part of the team. And they’re going to know about you. The ones who don’t already, I mean. So, if we’re going to do this, they need to be able to know when you’re talking and when I’m talking. You deserve the right to have actual input. Especially with everything that’s going on. I want everyone to know just how cool and smart you are. But I guess I’ll settle for just our friends. You know, the most important people.”

While Tabbris gaped at her for a minute, not knowing what to say, Flick continued. “I’ve been thinking about it, and I’m pretty sure I have a good idea about how we can let people know that you’re talking instead of me. I’ve got my hair and face shifting power, you know? The one from the Rakshasa.”

When Tabbris hesitantly nodded, unable to find her voice, the other girl went on. “I’ve been messing with it a little bit since I got it. You know, messing with my hair here and there. It’s fun. But I think it could be useful for this too. See, what I was thinking was, I could start changing my hair color and length and all that a lot more. Just randomly changing it in the middle of conversation. Doing it a lot so that people don’t think anything‘s weird. But, here’s the thing. We could reserve a couple different colors just for you. That way, when you’re saying something, you switch my hair to one of those colors and people who know about you will know that you’re the one talking.”

Gulping audibly at that,  Tabbris offered a tentative, “But, I could just keep relaying messages through you. I don’t need some kind of credit or anything. Who cares?”

“I care,” Flick insisted. “And trust me, you deserve to get a little bit of credit where you can. I guess I can’t make everyone understand how awesome you are, but I can do this much. We’ll  just let the appropriate people know that when my hair is certain colors, you’re the one talking. And then, when we’re in a conversation and you have something to say, you can just, you know, say it. Simple, right?”

Tabbris’s eyes had somehow found a way to get even wider than they had already been, while a tiny squeaking noise escaped her for a second before she managed to speak actual words. “You mean just start talking with your mouth without making sure you’re okay with it?”

Flick met her gaze evenly at that. “Tabby, if you’re stuck in my body, you deserve to be able to interact with people as much as we can manage. All you need to do is maybe let me know that you’re gonna say something. I don’t know, like maybe say me or something inside so I know you’re about to talk. Or maybe a better codeword. I dunno, exactly. Just so that I don’t start saying something and then interrupt myself, you know? We still need to be subtle about it and make sure no one figures out what’s going on.

“The point is, you’ve earned a voice. Actually, you’ve learned earned a hell of a lot more than that. But a voice is the least I can give you. So, what colors do you want to be yours? We should probably make it more than one so that it’s harder to pin down you saying specific things with one color.”

Tabbris still wasn’t sure about the whole situation, but she hesitantly answered, “Um… white? White and um… pink?”

Flick grinned at her. “White and pink it is. Those can be your colors. And…” Stopping, the blonde girl tilted her head a little, clearly thinking for a few seconds before snapping her fingers. “Actually, now I have an idea. Watch this.”

As Tabbris obediently did so, the girl who had become her big sister in every way that really mattered seemed to focus for a moment. A second later, one of her eyes turned pink while the other became totally white without any visible pupil.

“It won’t work when we’re in a large group where people can’t really see my eyes very well,” she conceded, “but for small groups, we can mix things up a little. Switch between hair and eyes so that it’s even harder to keep track for anyone on the outside.”

Despite herself, Tabbris found a smile. “We should mix up the colors sometimes too,” she pointed out. “You know, change them every couple weeks or so, or something like that. Just so that it’s even harder to, um, notice.”

To be completely honest, she still wasn’t sure how she felt about this whole idea. But she did know that she trusted Flick without any question. And she would do everything she could to make help the plan work. Besides, maybe being able to talk sometimes and have people know it was her would be kind of nice?

Wait, was that selfish? Wanting credit, wanting to interact with people and have them know it was her, was that going too far? This was a slippery slope, which was part of why she was so afraid of it. Terrified, really. She didn’t want to become the kind of monster that so many of her species were, those who didn’t see other people as anything more than puppets to control. She never wanted to be like that. Never.

Flick was nodding. “Good point, yeah. We should change the colors every once in awhile just to be on the safe side.” She gave the other girl a wide grin. “And see, now we’ve got that settled. So we can talk about you walking around Crossroads.”

Tabbris did a quick, startled double take at that. If she’d had a drink, she would have sprayed it all over. “I can’t walk around Crossroads,” she blurted. “Maybe there’s some problems with the security, but I think most of them would notice a little kid like me. Even if I am invisible to their security spells. Which, actually, would probably make them even more suspicious.”

Flick giggled. “Uh, yeah, probably. but that’s my point. You don’t walk around as yourself. You walk around as me. You know, my body.”

Tabbris stared at her as though she had grown six new heads, each of them spouting complete gibberish. “Y-you mean t-take over your body and walk around? Like, when we’re not fighting, just, just… to walk around?”

“What I really want,” Flick informed her while meeting the younger girl’s eyes with her own, which had returned to their natural brown, “ is for you to be able to walk around as yourself. I want you to be free. But, this is the next best thing, for now. Sometimes, I can just, you know, tune out. Go inside my own head and daydream or whatever. Maybe you could work out a way with your mom about getting me in one of those virtual reality things to hang out while you have a chance to do your thing. Walk around, feed the sharks, go for a walk or go swimming. Hell, maybe just play video games with the others. You might be better at them than I am. You know, just do whatever you want to do.

“Like I said, you’ve earned it. After everything you’ve done for me, you the least I can do is let you take over for an hour or two each day. I’ve already got a bunch of extra hours in the day thanks to that Amarok. You can use at least one of them for yourself.”

Tabbris said nothing for a few long seconds. Instead, she simply stared at the other girl with big, round eyes that grew gradually more damp before she couldn’t see through them anymore. Blinking back those tears, the Seosten girl finally managed a weak, “Y-you… you don’t have to do that.”

Shaking her head, Flick corrected her. “It’s not about what I have to do, Tabby. It’s about what I want to do. Like I said, you deserve to be more than a prisoner while you’re hanging out in my body. And it’s not like I can’t trust you. Remember? You spent years proving that I can. You could’ve taken me over any time you wanted to. But you didn’t do anything more than you absolutely had to in order to protect me.” Reaching out, she touched Tabbris’s hair lightly. “I trust you, partner. And if the best way to let you hang out and do something you want to do while we’re at Crossroads is to let you borrow my body for a little bit, then you’re welcome to it.”

Once again, Tabbris had no words. Her mouth opened and shut a couple of times as she fought to find her voice. But nothing came. In the end, all she could do was lean over, wrapping her arms tightly around the older girl to hug her.

Flick returned the embrace just as tightly, smiling down at her. “Besides, I’m pretty sure we’re basically officially sisters now, and sisters are supposed to share. This is just… a little more sharing than normal. But since when was anything about either of us normal?”

The two sat together like that, quietly embracing. Tabbris pulled herself up into Flick’s lap, and they remained silent for a moment. Each was content to simply look out over the lake as its waves gently lapped up against the shore, quietly contemplating the situation that they were in and the lives that they had led up to that point.

“Flick?” Tabbris started quietly, almost reluctant to break the peaceful quiet.

The other girl’s voice was just as soft, “Yeah, Tabby?”

Swallowing, the Seosten child leaned back into her adopted sister. “Our… Our dad is really cool.”

The smile was audible within Flick’s voice. “Yeah. He really is.”

“Flick?”

“Yeah?”

“Our family is really weird.”

“… Yeah. It really is.”

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Homecoming 35-04

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As Tabbris stepped closer into view, reaching up with both of her hands to grab onto one of mine while staring up with those wide, innocent and openly fearful eyes, Dad had what was probably the reaction that I had least been expecting. After an initial blink or two of quiet confusion (which was expected), his mouth opened and he blurted a surprised, “Wait a second, I know you.”

It was my turn to blink in confusion, before I started to correct him. “Err, no, Dad, see this is–”

“You were in my bed.” Dad‘s voice it was quiet, calm, and contemplative as he watched Tabbris. Slowly, he tilted his head. “You slept beside me. I thought it was a dream. I thought it was a recurring dream,” he amended then. “I’d wake up, and you would be laying there pressed up against me. I just thought it was a dream about…” Trailing off a little, Dad shook his head. “I thought it was the dream about having another kid after Joselyn disappeared. I thought I just really wanted another little girl. I wanted Felicity to have a sister. I dreamed about having another little girl. So I… I saw you and you were… you were there.”

He was silent again for several long seconds. I had no idea what to say to that, and it was obvious that no one else did either. Slowly, Dad took a couple steps forward before going down on one knee right in front of Tabbris. “It wasn’t a dream, was it?” His voice was soft, yet absolutely certain as he met her wide-eyed gaze.

Tears of shame and regret flooded the other girl’s eyes then, and her lower lip quivered a little before she replied weakly, “I’m s-sorry.” Her voice hitched and cracked. “I’m s-so sorry. You were Flick’s daddy and I was scared and I didn’t know where Miss Larissa was and I didn’t know where anyone was and I was just by myself. I was by myself and I didn’t know what to do and you were there and I just wanted to pretend for a little bit. You hugged me and it felt re-really good but I shouldn’t have done it because you were Flick’s daddy not my daddy and I’m sorry.”

From the corner of my eye, I saw Sariel start to take a step toward her daughter with her hands out to pull the girl back to her. But Gaia, a look of understanding on her face, put a hand up to gently stop her. She leaned in, whispering something to the other woman. I wasn’t sure what she said, exactly, but it made Sariel hesitate, watching to see what happened next.  

And what happened next was that my father put both hands out, cupping either side of Tabbris’s face. His expression softened, as he gently made her look up at him through those tear-filled eyes. “You can’t cry,” he informed her, his voice as soft and tender as I had ever heard it. Gently, he wiped his thumbs over her damp cheeks. “It makes me want to hurt the person who made it happen. And I already get into enough trouble without literally beating myself up.”

Sniffling a little, Tabbris whimpered. “B-but, you were trying to hug Flick, and… and I… I stole–”

“You listen to me,” Dad interrupted with a shake of his head. “Love is a muscle, not some kind of limited resource. You make more of it by using it. You make it better by using it. You didn’t steal a damn thing from me, kid. I was just as lost as you were. You needed someone to hold onto, and so did I. Those nights, dreaming about you–thinking that I was dreaming about you, they were some of the best nights. The only bad part was when I would wake up and you’d be gone.”

Slowly, Tabbris lifted her shaking hands, resting them against Dad’s wrists while his own hands stayed pressed lightly against her face, cupping it. I saw her give a full-body shiver while her mouth opened and shut, a sort of keening sound escaping the girl as she fought to find words.

“I didn’t… want you to… hate me.” That tiny, almost inaudible voice broke the silence, each word cracking just a little bit more until what she was actually saying was almost only understandable through context. Her hands clung to his wrists a little more tightly through that admission, like she was terrified that he would actually pull away, repulsed by her after all.  

“Hate you?” Dad’s own voice cracked then, as if the very idea that he could be capable of that was the most horrific thought that she could have entertained. “My girl, I could never hate you.”

His words, those words, made Tabbris give a little gasp. Her eyes widened slightly, and she abruptly broke. Those tears came back, but they were different this time. Her hands left his wrists, and the girl threw her arms around Dad’s neck, grabbing on tight while her sobs returned.

Dad stood, lifting Tabbris with him as he held the girl tight to him. As Tabbris buried her face against his neck and shook, he held onto her in a way that silently said he wouldn’t let her go until she wanted him to. His eyes found mine while he held her, and we exchanged smiles.

I wasn’t jealous. Yes, I had been away from my Dad for a couple months. I’d been waiting to be with him for that long. But Tabbris had been waiting years for him to know her, for him to accept her. She had waited her entire life for Dad to hold her like that knowingly and willingly.

After a few long moments of that, Sariel hesitantly stepped forward. She gave her daughter a wistful, tender look, and I could see the pain in her eyes. She wanted to have been there for Tabbris. She wanted to have been there for all of her children. But in the end, all she had been able to do for her youngest daughter was send her away, into a potentially hostile situation.

“I… should explain,” the woman started slowly, looking up to my father. “I should explain why I… sent my daughter to yours.”

But Dad surprised me again. His head shook as he easily replied, “I’m pretty sure I’ve got the idea. Let me make an educated guess. You’re Vanessa and Tristan’s mother too. The Seosten have been trying to fix their population problems and, as a prisoner, they weren’t too concerned with your rights. I doubt they have anything like a Geneva Convention or the eighth amendment of the constitution. So, experiments result in this pretty little bundle right here. Somehow, you got her out of that prison and sent her to Earth. Whoever you sent her to thought that she’d be safe with Joselyn, but Joselyn was gone so they put her in Flick since they didn’t have anywhere else that she’d be safe. She grew up protecting Flick from being possessed, since she was already possessed. I’m not sure how what had to be a toddler at most learned everything she’d need to know or kept quiet about her existence for so long, but I’m willing to bet that some kind of magic was involved. Maybe psychic tutoring or something, but that’s mostly a guess.”

With that, it was Dad’s turn to have everyone staring at him open-mouthed. I fought for several long seconds, but only a slight croaking noise from deep in my throat escaped. In the end, it was Gaia who found her voice first, and even she sounded a bit surprised. “Mr. Chambers,” she started slowly, “I admit, you continue to surprise me in many remarkable ways.”

“Yes,” Sariel agreed. “While you were not… exactly right on every point, you were incredibly close in many ways. I chose to send my daughter to yours from the start, after learning that your wife had been taken, because I knew that my people as well as other threats would be after her. It was the only thing I could think of that might protect her from them. And… and I knew that any mate Joselyn Atherby chose would be a wonderful father figure for my daughter to see. I… I don’t know who the father is. Kushiel never found that particular information relevant enough to share with her prisoners. I’m afraid that there is no way to know now. But I knew that my girl would have a good example in you.”

“You’re really, really not mad?” That was Tabbris herself, leaning back just a bit as she stared with wonder into Dad’s eyes while still clinging to him. Her voice was plaintive, still fearful of eventual rejection. It said a lot about how much terror she’d built up in her own head about being hated and pushed away for what she was. It wasn’t something that would just disappear so easily, just through a few reassurances. But I had a feeling that this moment was helping a lot.

“Mad?” Dad blinked. Reaching up, he took the black LA Times hat that he’d had from back when he worked there from his head and dropped it onto Tabbris’s. The hat was big enough that it instantly fell to cover her eyes. “Kid, the only thing I’m mad about is that I didn’t know you before. I–actually, there’s a lot of things I’m mad about. Beginning with you having to be in that situation to begin with. But as far as you’re concerned? No. You protected my daughter. If it wasn’t for you, she’d be a Seosten slave right now, wouldn’t she?”

“I…” Tabbris pushed the brim of the hat up with one, trembling hand as she glanced to me before swallowing. “They tried,” she admitted. “They kept trying.”

“Perhaps,” Gaia offered gently, “Mr. Chambers would like to have an opportunity to learn everything that happened while Felicity and the others were… away. Over a meal, of course. I’m certain you could all use something warm and filling to eat.” From the way she glanced toward Sariel with that, I was pretty sure that the headmistress was mostly referring to her. Which made sense. I doubted that providing good things to eat had been on Kushiel’s priority list.

“Eat?” Tristan sounded eager for that much, at least. Giving a hungry look around, he blurted, “What are we supposed to eat? Wait…” Frowning at the lake nearby, the boy demanded, “Is this gonna be one of those ‘teach a man to fish’ things like in the Bible?”

“That wasn’t in the Bible,” Vanessa corrected him in what sounded like it was automatic and unthinking. “Anne Isabella Thackeray Ritchie wrote the closest English version of that in 1885, but the exact original source is a little unclear. Definitely not from the Bible, though.”

“Don’t mind her,” Tristan informed the rest of us. “Now that I can’t forget things, Nessa’s using every excuse to try and shove as much useless information in my head as she can.”

An offended (and kind of hilarious) squeaking-gasp of indignation escaped the girl in question, as she gave a cute little stomp of her foot. “It is not useless! Having the correct factual information is never useless, you… you.. doddypoll!”

Blinking twice at that, Tristan gave his sister a bewildered look. “The hell is a doddypoll? You just made that word up.”

“Did not,” Vanessa retorted. “And see, if you had the factual information about it, you’d know what I was calling you. Doddypoll.” With that, she stuck her tongue out at him.

Gaia, who I was pretty sure knew exactly what a doddypoll was, smiled with what looked like genuine amusement. “In any case,” she announced, “it is not a ‘teach a man to fish’ moment, though you really should learn how to fish if you don’t already know, Mr. Moon. No, in this case, Gabriel has prepared a nice meal for all of you. If you are ready to walk over there? We can discuss more of this there. I’m certain that Gabriel will want to be involved in the discussion.”

Wyatt shook his head, however. “Abigail,” he put in. “I need to call Abigail,” the man announced firmly. “She should be here. It’s… it’s a family thing, isn’t it? She’s family. She should be here. And she should bring Miranda and Theia.”

The sudden joy I felt at the idea of seeing my sister and Miranda again was partially tempered by confusion. “Theia?” I asked. “Who’s Theia? I mean, I know I’ve met a lot of people this year. Too many to keep track of, sometimes. But I’m pretty sure there was no Theia.”

Wyatt started to answer that, but Deveron spoke over him. “It’s a long story. One that we should probably tell when they get here. It’s… yeah, let Abigail tell it.”

For her part, Gaia simply nodded. “Call them,” she agreed. “I assume Abigail still has the bone she was given that would bring her to this camp. Have them meet us here.”

Wyatt nodded, giving me a brief, goofy smile before stepping away while taking a phone from his pocket. As he started to call the others, I felt a brief pang. Avalon and Shiori. I wanted to talk to them too. I needed them to know that I was here, that I was safe. It was almost all I could do not to beg Gaia to bring them in.

But I knew why she wasn’t. There would be no way that I’d be able to pay attention enough to tell the whole story anymore if Valley and Shiori were here. I would instantly lose all ability to focus on relaying the stuff that they needed to know.

Still… “What about the others?” I managed to make myself ask while remaining as calm as possible about it.

From her brief smile, Gaia knew exactly what I had been referring to, and how hard it was for me not to demand their presence. “I have sent word to Avalon and the others,” she assured me. “They are aware that you are here and that you will meet them as soon as possible. I’ve told my daughter that you are safe, and physically well. She wishes to see you, very much.”

Swallowing hard, I gave a tiny nod. My voice was soft. “I wanna see her too.”

Dare’s hand found my shoulder, giving it a reassuring squeeze. “You will,” the woman promised. “You’re back on Earth now, Felicity. As soon as we get done here, we’ll get you back to them.”

“Speaking of getting back,” Sariel quickly put in, while I was slowly nodding. “My people who were on the transport, the prisoners–”

“They will not be harmed,” Gaia promised. “They are still frozen, still safe. I promise you. We can eat now, and then go over what should be done with them. You said something about a prisoner manifest back on the transport. Once we are done here, we can go over that together and find which people are safe to be released. Perhaps they will even choose to stay here, with the Atherby camp. It would do much to bolster their numbers on both sides.”

I could tell that Sariel wasn’t too opposed to that idea, while we left Gaia’s privacy/illusion bubble and made our way back through the camp. Our little group got a few stares from the people there, and Dad was greeted by name. Hell, so was I. They called out that they were glad I’d made it back, that it was good to see me. It was… it felt… strange, but in a good way.

Dad set Tabbris down partway there, letting her go back to her mother, who took her daughter’s hand tightly. Their little family walked together, whispering now and then as they carried on their own private discussion. About what, I didn’t know. It wasn’t any of my business.

In any case, Gaia was right, of course. Gabriel Prosser was waiting in one of the cabins for us, and he had a table full of food waiting. After greeting us, and introducing himself directly to Sariel (with a moment of brief, silent communication between the two that made me think that it wasn’t the first time they’d met in some way or another), he and Gaia stepped out of the cabin to have a conversation of their own. They said that they would bring Wyatt, Abigail, and ‘the others’ here to meet up with us as soon as they arrived.  

And with that, the rest of us all dug in. Because Gaia had also been right about something else: we were starving. As soon as my stomach noticed the meal laid out for us, it wouldn’t let me focus on anything else until I’d put away a full plate and a half.

Finally, however, I could think straight enough to start telling my dad the story about what had happened. I’d told it to Gaia and the others already, of course. But I was pretty sure I’d have to tell it several more times before this was all over. Especially to Valley and the others.

By the time I finished, again with a little help from the twins here and there, Dad was shaking his head in amazement. And more than a little worry. “I can’t believe everything you’ve been through this year,” he announced quietly. “Everything… I haven’t been there for you at all.”

“Yes, you have been,” I corrected him. “You’re my dad. Everything you taught me my whole life, that’s why I am who I am. That’s why I’ve been able to survive this. Don’t say you haven’t been with me, because you have. You’ll always be with me.”

Dad’s hand reached across the table, finding mine and squeezing it while he blinked moisture out of his eyes. A moment of silent understanding passed between the two of us, and for just a second, it felt like we were by ourselves again. Just the two of us, sitting at our kitchen table.

“She’s right,” Tabbris piped up then, pushing the hat off her eyes once more. “She… she thinks about you a lot, Mr… um… Mr… Chambers. All the time.”

For a second, Dad opened his mouth like he was going to say one thing. But he hesitated, settling on scooting his chair back a bit while gesturing. “C’mere, kid.”

Tabbris looked a little confused, but she gave her mother a brief look before sliding out of her seat. Slowly, she made her way around the table, taking the hat off her head and offering it to him.

Dad took it, but instead of keeping it, he carefully adjusted the size on the band, then put it back on her head so that it fit reasonably well. Then he took her hands. “You,” he started, “are just as incredible as Flick there, you know that? Everything you did, the things you had to deal with all by yourself… You’re an amazing kid.”

“She shouldn’t have had to.” That was Sariel. Her voice was pained, the loss in it audible enough that both Vanessa and Tristan were giving her worried looks. “I didn’t have a choice. If I didn’t send her to your daughter, if I didn’t send her here, they would have made her into a–they would have ruined her. I… I had to send her away.”

“You did what you had to do,” Dare quietly replied, “to protect your family.”

“She’s right,” Dad agreed. “You were in an impossible position, and you made the best choice that you could. You saved her, even if it was hard. But…” He looked up then, gazing across the table toward Sariel with the tiniest hint of a smile. “You were wrong about what you said earlier.”  

The Seosten woman blinked once, head tilting slightly as she replied, “Wrong? About what?”

Reaching down, Dad lifted Tabbris off the ground once more, setting her on his lap. “You said that there’s no way to know who her father is.” Slowly, he shifted the girl so that she could hold tightly to his neck, leaning in to gently kiss her cheek while she giggled from the touch of his beard against her face.

“That’s what you were wrong about,” Dad informed Sariel in a quiet voice while letting Tabbris cling to him. “Because we may never find out who contributed the paternal DNA that made her.

“But we know exactly who her father is.”

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Homecoming 35-03

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Just a quick note, the winner of our favorite joke tag contest will be announced in my first comment at the bottom of this chapter. Make sure you check that out! 

So, I began from where Professor Dare last knew, when Charmiene had knocked her out of the cab while abducting me. Gradually, I summarized the events of the past couple of months for my enraptured audience. Vanessa and Tristan filled in where they could once the story got around to them, but mostly it was me. I told them about being sent to that space station, and how we had escaped. I explained about the little rebellion we had started when we met Jokai, and I continued on through meeting up with Larissa and Haiden and all of that.

I told them the whole story of what had happened to Professor Katarin. It hurt. Saying the words like that, seeing their expressions as I told them what Isaac had done, it was one of the hardest parts. It had been bad enough telling the edited version of the story in front of Ruthers and the other Committee members, but this was even worse. I had to confirm that the worst parts of what I’d said before were actually true. Katarin was dead, and it was because of Isaac.

Pushing on from that, I told them the rest. I explained about how we had tracked down and captured Isaac, how I had ended up with Athena, and all that training.

Partway through the story, Tabbris hopped out of me and moved to her mother. The two stood close, Sariel holding her youngest girl against herself while her other two children stood on either side of her with their hands against her sides as though to stop her from disappearing again. Eventually, once I reached the point of getting ready to rescue Sariel. Vanessa and Tristan were able to chip in a lot more, and we told that part of it together. But for the most part, I told the story myself. Partly because they were thoroughly distracted with their family reunion. They helped out where they could, and we explained how the actual mission had gone.

Of course, we left out anything to do with Jophiel and Elisabet. Which… damn, had it really only been… less than an hour since our little conversation with those two? Because it felt more like entire weeks had passed. Everything that had happened in just the past couple of hours since the Sunstrider had arrived at Kushiel’s base, it was more than I could really grasp.

In any case, as much as I wanted to explain what had happened with Jophiel and Elisabet, as much as I wanted to have Gaia, Dare, Wyatt, and Deveron help us deal that that situation, we couldn’t. With the combination of the spells that the two had put on us along with the threats of what would happen if they found out that we had tried to break them, there was no conceivable way for us spill that secret. Not at the moment, anyway. As much as it sucked, as much as it made me want to scream and rant, I couldn’t. We had to keep our end of the deal.

For now.

Wyatt had summoned up a few glasses of ice water partway through and had handed them out to us so that we could keep talking. By the time it was over, I’d downed almost two full cups by myself. As I took one last sip off the water to finish it off, I let out a breath. “And then we found out that we were on Earth, and you guys showed up. Which, for the record, I’m really glad you did before Ruthers and the others. That whole… mess with the ship might’ve been a bit hard to explain.”

For a few long seconds, they just stared at me. I saw Dare open and close her mouth a couple times as she fought to find words. In the end, however, it was Gaia who found her voice first. “Miss Chambers,” she began slowly, “I have long since come to accept the fact that many of our students experience a great deal of… adventure while attending Crossroads, and experience more danger than we can hope to protect them from entirely. That said… please learn to pace yourself. You have three full years left at this school. Cramming so much chaos into your first couple of semesters is hardly necessary.”

Flushing deeply despite myself, I protested, “It’s not like I’m doing it on purpose.”

“Of course not,” Deveron agreed, shaking his head. “You’re just your mother’s daughter.” He then took his turn to embrace me once more. His hug was even tighter than Wyatt’s had been before I had started my story, and he added in a quieter voice, “I’m glad you made it back.”

For a moment after he released me, I thought that Professor Dare would take a turn. She looked a bit indecisive about it before finally settling on simply agreeing. “Yes, we’re all glad that you made it back.” To Vanessa and Tristan, she added, “And very glad that you two were not taken by the Seosten, as was feared for some time.”

“Sorry,” Vanessa weakly replied, looking embarrassed as she shifted a little on her feet. “It’s like I said, we didn’t mean for it to happen right then. I didn’t think it’d be that… um, easy to transport all the way out there like that. It was like… tipping just a little too far and then falling over.”

“It’s a good thing that you were there,” Gaia noted thoughtfully. “Otherwise, it sounds as though this rescue mission may not have ended successfully.” From the way she paused, slowing as she looked to me, I had the strangest feeling that she knew we were leaving out something important. Which, to be fair, wasn’t actually all that strange because… well, Gaia. But she didn’t push things. Instead, the woman simply looked to Tabbris then, while adding,  “And speaking of things that could have gone quite worse if not for outside aid, it seems that we owe you a great deal of thanks for everything you’ve done for Miss Chambers in her life. Even if we were unaware of it for so long.”

For her part, Tabbris blushed deeply. She clung to one of her mother’s arms, staring at Gaia with wide, saucer-like eyes. “I… I just wanted to help,” she announced quietly. “I’m sorry I hid for so long, and that I didn’t–”

Taking a knee in front of her, Gaia’s head shook. “Tabbris,” she started quietly as she made a clear point of using the girl’s name directly, “I meant no reprimand. You are, quite honestly, one of the bravest children I have ever had the great pleasure of meeting. And I assure you, I have met quite a few. The idea that you have worked so long and so hard to protect Miss Chambers, despite having every expectation that you would be hated and feared if you were discovered… it is extraordinary. You are extraordinary. And I count myself privileged to have met you now.”

Wyatt, looking fit to burst by that point, nodded his head rapidly while blurting, “Yes! Yes, very extraordinary. I have so many questions. How did you avoid detection by your own people? What spells did you use to protect Felicity? Did the necromancer show his face while you were watching over her? How many times did other Seosten try to possess her? How often did you leave her body? Did anyone ever see you out as yourself? Did other Heretics ever try to interrogate her to find out where our mother was? How many–”

“Easy, Wyatt.” Deveron smiled, shaking his head as he took his son’s arm and squeezed a little. “Let’s let the poor girl breathe a little bit. This is probably just as crazy for her as it is for us.”

Dare was nodding. “He’s right. But…” Her gaze moved from Tabbris, to her mother. “Are you alright?” Her voice was soft, and understanding. “You just came out of a… very long imprisonment. And being separated from your children, from your family, for so long under what must have been terrible conditions… “ she looked the woman up and down briefly, biting her lip before adding a quiet, “What can we do for you?”

From the look on Sariel’s face, Dare might as well have accused her of horrific crimes and threatened to make her pay for it. She dropped her gaze, smelling Tabbris’s hair and pulling all three of her children closer as though to steady herself so that she could find the strength to respond. “I… I don’t…” For a second, I thought her next word was going to be deserve. It seemed to be right on the tip of her tongue. In the end, however, the woman just finished with a weak, “I’ll be fine. I just… wish Haiden was here.”

“As do we,” Gaia assured her. “Though I’m certain that our wish does not come near equaling your own. But it is too bad that everyone has not yet made it back here. From the sound of things, Seosten space has not been entirely welcoming or safe.”

I started to say something then, but Tristan suddenly blurted, “Hey, that’s right. With all the blowhards back there, we totally forgot to ask.” His attention was on his sister. “Nessa, what happened with Dad and the others? You told them where we are?”

Quickly nodding, Vanessa explained what had happened when she had projected her mind to their father. She told us that the others seemed safe, and that they were going to find the rest of those banishment orb shards with the help of Apollo, Athena, and the rest of the Aelaestiam.

Once she finished, Sariel hugged her closer, her voice quiet. “Lucifer and Auriel… with Haiden…” She sounded dazed, like she was still trying to wrap her mind around that concept. Which was fair, since I was still trying to wrap my mind around the concept that she was actually there, that we had actually succeeded at rescuing her (as rocky as that particular road had been).

“They’ll make it, Mom.” That was Tristan, giving his mother a firm hug as he nodded encouragingly. “They’ll make it back here.”

“Speaking of making it back here.” That was Dare, a curious frown knitted across her brow as she looked to Sariel. “If you don’t mind the question, how did you get Tabbris to Earth? And how did you hide her from that witch long enough to do so? It doesn’t seem as though… as though the situation you were in would be conducive to hiding a child from your jailer.”

Sariel was quiet for a moment, while everyone’s eyes (including her children’s) turned to her. Finally, the woman let out a breath. “Hiding my brave girl was both simple and… complicated. I…” She looked away, clearly gazing into the past while explaining. “I knew that she was close to being born. In a few days, she would have come and… and they would have taken her away from me.” From the way the woman’s voice shook, I was pretty sure it wouldn’t have been the first, or the last, time that had happened.

“They would have taken her from me,” Sariel continued in that somewhat cracked, almost broken voice. “But I had a plan. A plan to get her out, at least. And it revolved around my cellmate.”

Vanessa blinked at that. “You had a cellmate?”

“Of sorts,” her mother confirmed. “Beauthrek was a Disidien, a species that gives off a sort-of… passive calming aura that is especially effective with children. They tend to work well as nursemaids or teachers. It was part of Kushiel’s attempts at countering the terror and emotional turmoil of being imprisoned, which tended to make pregnancies fail more often than they already do normally. Beauthrek was kept in a constant state of unconsciousness, what amounted to a medically-induced coma. After all, Kushiel didn’t need her for any action she could take. She only needed her passive aura.”

“Just when I think I couldn’t hate that bitch any more than I already do,” I muttered under my breath, “she finds a way to surpass herself.”   

From the look on Sariel’s face, she felt about the same. Continuing, the woman explained, “We would be left alone in the room for hours at a time, particularly in the middle of the night. Just the two of us. Three with my little, growing baby. So, that night, a few days before she would have been born… I possessed my own child.”

What?!” Belatedly realizing that the outburst had come from myself, I shook my head. “You–you what? I thought she was… I mean I thought you were… I thought–”

“She was inside of me, yes,” Sariel confirmed. “Which meant that we were in physical contact. I believed that, as Seosten infants are capable of possessing their parents, the entire reason that the population of our race is in such dire straits to begin with, the situation would also work in reverse. And I was correct. I was able to possess my own unborn child. Our… physical connection through the umbilical cord was severed, and I was possessing my own baby.”

My mouth hung open, as I stared along with everyone else. Someone, maybe me, mumbled, “This is really fucked up.”

“Normally,” Sariel continued, “a literally just-born infant would not be able to do anything of use. But I was an Olympian. My ability to boost is very strong. Boosting my own infant child would not have allowed her to fight in any meaningful way, of course. Even that could only do so much for her undeveloped muscles. But it did provide enough strength that I was able to pick her body up from the bed that I had been strapped to for the evening and eventually, over the course of an hour or so, traverse the distance to the other bed on the opposite side of the room. I took my baby up onto the bed, and made her possess Beauthrek. Once we were there, I used my own… experience with memory-alteration to… essentially program my baby. She would lay still and silent in her host. Once every twenty-four hours, provided the room was empty aside from Beauthrek and myself, she would rise from the bed, walk to where I was strapped down, undo the straps, lay down, and then come out of her host.

“Each night, as I was freed, I would play with my daughter for a couple of hours there in the dark room. I did everything I could to help and teach her, including long hours spent possessing her myself in order to instill what became my… virtual self, the memory manipulation that would aid and teach her everything that I wanted her to know once the time came that she was sent away from me.”

Kissing the top of her little girl’s head, the woman concluded with, “When the time came to send her to Earth, I possessed her long enough to instill a mental command for her to possess me for a very brief time before stopping. While she was possessing me, I maintained control and projected myself physically to Larissa. Once the time limit was up and she stopped possessing me, I gave her to Larissa, and she took her to you.” The last bit was added with a nod toward me.

Except, shouldn’t the fact that she had possessed her own child have sort of… eliminated Sariel’s connection to Larissa? It hadn’t, since she clearly used it after that. I already knew that much. But… how? How had she have possessed Tabbris, yet still held onto that connection with Larissa? Was it an Olympian trick, or one specific to the woman herself?

Now probably wasn’t the right time to ask. Still, I really wanted to know.

For a long few seconds, no one said anything. Honestly, I couldn’t think of anything to say. The idea that Sariel had possessed her own child while she was in her womb, had essentially given birth that way, and then had done all of that just to keep her child out of Kushiel’s hands was… was… holy shit.

“Holy shit.” Deveron echoed my own thoughts, mouth open as he stared at the Seosten woman. “That was, um, resourceful.”

“Resourceful?” Tristan echoed, sounding as shocked as the rest of us. “That’s not just resourceful, that’s… that’s… Nessa, what’s a good word for–”

“Fucked up,” was his genius sister’s simple, blunt response. “Really, really fucked up. And kind of super-amazing.”  

“One does what one must for our children,” Sariel murmured, hugging all three of them closer to her. “No matter what that is.”

“Indeed, we do,” Gaia confirmed, clearly making a point of changing the subject (probably to give the overwhelmed-looking Sariel a break). “And now that we have satisfied some of our curiosity,” she announced with a little smile toward me, “… or enough for the time being, I believe there is someone else who is owed just as much of an explanation and a reunion, and who has been waiting incredibly patiently given the situation.”

With that, the woman waved her hand, and we were suddenly transported somewhere else. Instead of that beautiful forest, we were by a familiar lake, with a familiar man standing there, pacing back and forth anxiously until the second I came into view. Once I was there, he spun, eyes widening before he sprinted those few steps as a wordless cry of joy escaped him.

My own arms opened just in time, before my father swept me off the ground and pulled me close to him.

Dad. I was in Dad’s arms. After two months away, two months of not knowing when or if I would ever see him again, I was in my father’s arms.

“Felicity!” Dad bellowed, holding me as tight as he could. “You’re back! You’re–you’re safe. I mean… you’re…” He pulled back a little, staring at me. “Are you… really…?”

He knew. Like the others, he knew that I had been possessed. In his initial delight at seeing me, he’d forgotten for a moment. But now he wasn’t sure what was going on. If I wanted to have a real reunion with him, I needed to show him the truth. He needed to understand.

“It’s me, Dad,” I assured him. “It’s really me. It’s always been me.” Glancing to the others, I squirmed free, taking both of his hands. “Dad, I need to tell you something, okay?”

His face tensed. “What? What happened?”

“Dad, calm down.” Squeezing his hands, I shook my head. “It’s okay. I’m okay. I just… I need you to meet someone. Someone very important. But you have to be calm.” Glancing over to Gaia, I asked, “Is it safe to explain?”

The woman gave me a slight smile once more, nodding in confirmation. “Gabriel is aware of our presence, but for the others, we are covered by an illusion,” she assured me, gesturing to where everyone else in the Atherby camp, which was about a hundred yards or so away,  was going about their business. “It is safe here.”

“Safe for what?” Dad was shaking his head. “I got a message to come stand out here and wait, that you were back and that you’d be here as soon as you could. What are we hiding? Who do you want me to meet?”

Stepping back slowly, I gave a slight nod, repeating, “It’s okay. I’m okay. Everything is okay.” Looking behind me, I extended a hand to the little girl who was clinging to her mother.

“Tabbris… come on. I think it’s time for you to officially meet Dad.”

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Homecoming 35-02

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Gaia’s voice was the first to break the brief silence that followed Ruthers’ announcement. “Why Gabriel,” she began in a flat voice, “I am pleased to see that you take the disappearance of several students so seriously, but I am a bit surprised to see it taken quite this seriously. A couple of those students reappear and half of the Committee is suddenly involved? Are you very certain that none of you had anything more important to attend to?”

Meanwhile, I was busy glancing over every Committee member that was there, and noting that Elisabet wasn’t among them. Because, of course, she was a billion light years away, dealing with all that. I did wonder where these guys all thought she was. But there really didn’t seem to be any way to bring it up naturally, like, ‘Hey, where’s that Spanish woman? I really liked her. She’s so on top of things, it’s like there’s two of her.’ Yeah, real subtle.

Litonya, the Native-American woman with the face lined with some serious wrinkles spoke then. “It is about far more than a few disappearances, Sinclaire, as you are well aware. It is about the fact that the same people who abducted Miss Chambers and her peers were able to mount a country-wide assault, and even attack the school itself, as a distraction to allow that abduction.”

Geta, the black guy who had been some kind of Roman emperor, gave a firm nod. “Not only that,” he rumbled in a deep voice, “but they also somehow took two more students weeks later.” His head nodded toward Vanessa and Tristan. “And took them straight from the school grounds itself without security being able to detect it happening.”

Teach, old Blackbeard himself, added, “The point is, it’s a pretty big deal. Probably not quite big enough for all six of us, but, you know, we were curious.”

Reading between the lines there, I was pretty sure that Ruthers had been coming out here with just people that he could trust to be on his side of things, but Teach had come to make sure that things stayed fair. And I was incredibly grateful for that. After everything we had been through, the last thing that we needed was for things to go nuclear right now.

Ruthers spoke then. “Either way, we are here now. And there is a far more important subject then the question of why we chose to come.” He looked toward Tristan and me then, and I could have sworn that his bulldog expression actually softened just a little bit. “Miss Chambers,” he started, “Mr. Moon, are you all right? What is wrong with Miss Moon?”

”Uh,” Tristan started while glancing down at his sister in his arms, “she’s fine. She’s just exhausted. It’s been a long trip.”

It was Sophronia, Zeke’s mother, who jumped on that. “What exactly was this trip, as you say? Where have you all been, and how did you escape? Where are the others? Are they still alive? As you can see,” she finished with a slightly thoughtful look, “we have a great many questions.”

Before anyone else could say anything, I finally managed to get a word in. “We were taken by a bunch of bad guys who wanted to find a way to use Heretic students against Crossroads. That’s why they went through all that effort to make a distraction. They wanted to get us young because we’d be easier to handle. They’ve been training us, making us fight in this arena thing since they took us. They thought they could turn us into their soldiers.”

Yeah, I may have done a little thinking ahead of time about how to explain our disappearance. And this would help to cover the fact that we had new powers and skills that we shouldn’t have had it all we were doing was sitting in a cell or something. It wasn’t perfect, of course. But we didn’t need perfect. We just needed something believable enough.

Ruthers was watching me, his hard expression also curious. “And the others,” he began, “are they dead?”

He’s worried, Tabbris piped up with obvious surprise. He’s worried about the others. He’s afraid that they really are dead. He cares about them.

It wasn’t quite a complete surprise. After all, I had been telling the truth back when I told the man that I could sympathize with the position he had been in before. The man could be an asshole, and I blamed him for a lot of things. Kidnapping my older brother and sister was at the top of the unforgivable list. But I also didn’t think that he was a completely irredeemable bastard with absolutely no good points. I could believe that he thought he was doing the right thing, even if it made him come off as a piece of shit. And I definitely believed that he could be worried about the fate of several students, since he had run the school for many years before moving up to the Committee.

I shook my head at that. “No,” I answered, “they’re not dead. At least…” I swallowed hard, the lump in my throat suddenly quite real. This part I hadn’t even had time to tell Gaia, Dare, and Deveron.

Speaking of the latter, he had been standing somewhat behind me with his hand on the back of my shoulder. Every time Ruthers spoke, I felt his nails digging into the muscle of my back a little bit, as if he was very, very close to throwing himself at the man, damn the consequences. Which, of course, would have been a very bad idea.

Dare had noticed my expression. “What? What happened?”

Right, this was hard. I took a breath and let it out again before starting. “It’s Professor Katarin. H-he… he’s…” Again, I had to swallow. “He’s… gone. He’s dead.” My voice sounded hollow to my own ears. Saying the words that flatly, with that kind of finality, it brought back the same feelings that I’ve had right after it had happened. I felt sick, like I wanted to throw up again. There was a cold, empty pit in my stomach. And it only got worse when I saw the shock in Professor Dare’s eyes. Of all the things that she had been expecting me to say, that was probably pretty low on the list.

Gaia too seemed taken aback, her eyes widening just a little bit before she spoke a single word, ”How?”

“Yes,” Ruthers, who looked just as surprised, agreed. “How? Are you… quite sure?”

Biting my lip almost hard enough to make it bleed, I gave a slight nod at that. It was so hard to talk through the lump in my throat. But I forced myself to. “He was… betrayed. He didn’t see it coming. But he… he died a hero. He died protecting innocent people. There was a chance. He… he could have survived. But a bunch of other people would have died, so he stayed. And because he stayed, because he chose to stay, he couldn’t protect himself. So he died.” The words sounded empty, and I didn’t really recognize my own voice. But I said them anyway. They needed to know. Later, I would tell Gaia and the others the full story. But right now, even the Committee needed to know that Ulysses Katarin had died a hero.

“What monster was responsible for it?” The flat question came from Sophronia, as the auburn-haired woman met my gaze. I didn’t know how, but I had the feeling that the she suspected that the answer was more complicated than it just being a normal Stranger.

So, I answered. “It was Isaac.” My voice was as flat and hard as I could make it with those words. Maybe I couldn’t tell the whole truth about what had happened out there, not yet anyway. But I could at least make sure that everyone knew about what a complete piece of shit that son of a bitch was. I could make sure that they all knew he was an utter psychopath.

“What?” That was Geta, frowning heavily. “You mean Ulysses died saving Isaac Acosta?”

Resisting the urge to snarl my answer, I shook my head. “No, I mean Isaac killed him.” In response to the surprised looks, I explained, “He was a traitor. He’s the one that sold us out and helped those people abduct the rest of us. He killed Paul Calburn before all that happened, probably weeks earlier, and helped them replace him with that Fetch. He probably helped them abduct Professor Katarin back when he first disappeared too. Katarin tried to help us, and Isaac took advantage of that. He used one of their cannons. If Katarin had moved, it would have killed a lot more people. But he took the hit himself instead. That’s why he’s dead. Because he let himself get hit so that other people wouldn’t.” By the end, despite my attempt to sound as clinical and detached as possible, there were tears in my eyes and I could barely speak.   

In the background, I could see Deveron and Professor Dare reacting. Both looked like they had been punched hard. Dare’s mouth opened and shut, the horrible agony barely hidden behind her eyes making me desperately wish that I could have told them in private. Even Gaia still looked hurt.

Litonya was the first to find her voice. “Is it possible that you misunderstood, and that the boy was actually replaced as well? If there was one Fetch, or another of those… creatures that is capable of taking over and controlling the body of–”

“No,” I quickly snapped despite myself. I didn’t want Isaac getting off from something like that. “Believe me, it was him. I don’t know how they turned him, or what they did. But he’s a traitor.”

“If they… these people who abducted you, managed to go as far as to turn a human against his own…” Ruthers looked like he wanted to believe that I was lying, but couldn’t quite bring himself to. “If they could do that, they must be a hell of a lot more advanced than most of the Strangers on this planet. This is a coordinated, planned effort.”

“Of course it was coordinated.” The words came from Calafia, who had already moved to stand over some of the dead soldiers. The woman, whose rescue of my father from the werewolves (to say nothing of her efforts in removing the Bystander Effect from him) I still didn’t fully understand, frowned while looking down at them. “These are very advanced armor and weapons,” the woman noted. “And very uniform. This is not a ragtag force. This looks like a proper military. So yes, we are dealing with a coordinated threat, a genuine assault on our world. And it is probably one that has been in the makings for quite some time.”

“You.” Geta was looking at Tristan. “How did you and your sister get wrapped up into things? You didn’t disappear with the others. You disappeared later, and from the school itself, no less.”

Tristan’s answer came without a second thought. “Nessa and me, we were trying to figure out what happened to our friends. So we ended up looking through all their rooms, just in case there was something to find. Anyway, eventually we got to Isaac’s. There was this kind of… roundish metal thing under his bed that opened and closed. You know, sorta like a clamshell? Anyway, it must’ve been some kind of teleporter, because we opened it and the next thing we knew, we were surrounded by a bunch of those soldier guys on some random moon. And they were not happy to see us, I can tell you that. They took us down to where Flick and the others were.”

Wow. Okay, apparently Tristan had been working out what to tell people too. That or he had come up with that off the top of his head. Either way, it was pretty impressive.

The Committee members all exchanged brief glances with one another, seeming to communicate silently before looking back to us. Ruthers was the one who spoke once more. “How, precisely, did you escape from these people? And where are the others?” His eyes drop down a little bit to the girl in Tristan’s arms. “And what exactly is wrong with Miss Moon?”

“N-nothing.” That was Vanessa herself. She shifted a little, opening her eyes. “I… I’m okay.”

“She was–” Tristan started, while carefully letting the girl down onto her own feet.

“Miss Moon?” Litonya interrupted, clearly wanting to see what Vanessa would say without prompting or help from her brother about what had already been said. “What happened?”

Fortunately, if the Committee thought they were going to catch us in a lie, they would have to try harder. Because Vanessa simply answered, “The three of us were supposed to fight in one of those arenas again. But we saw one of those clamshell teleporters on a table. I saw them use the thing before, and I remembered what they did. So… we went for it. We managed to lock the door and I used it. I… guess it took a lot out of me though. I—” She gave a long, loud yawn before shuddering. “It was hard.”

Either she had been awake for a lot longer than we thought she was, or maybe one of the others like Deveron had telepathically fed the answers to her. I wasn’t sure which. Either way, the answer fit everything that Tristan and I had said so far. But I couldn’t tell if Ruthers was happy or annoyed about that fact. His face was fairly unreadable.

Geta, however, openly scowled while indicating the dead bodies on the ground. “And how did these get here?” he demanded. “Are we to assume that you killed them when they followed you here?”

“No.” That was a Professor Dare. “We did.” She nodded to the rest of us. “When the tracking spell that Headmistress Sinclaire placed on Miss Chambers after her previous… experiences let us know that she was back, we came immediately and arrived just in time to stop these… soldiers from taking the children back.”

“Unfortunately,” Gaia herself added then, “there were a few who escaped. And they seem to have taken the teleportation devices with them.”  

“And,” Teach noted, “as all of these men are dead, we won’t be getting any answers out of them.”

Calafia shook her head. “I wouldn’t be so sure about that. Even corpses can hold a wealth of information. My people can autopsy them, and find out more than you would think.”

“Fair enough,” Teach agreed. “And my people can take the armor and weapons and see what we can find out about how it was made. Maybe there’s a recall function, or a map in one of their pants.”

“Keep me updated on what you find out,” Geta instructed. “I’ll talk to Oliver, compare notes with him about all the worlds we know about.” To Vanessa, Tristan, and I, he added, “We’re going to need you to describe everything you can about this… moon that you were on. We’ll compare it to our records, and see if we can work out where you were.”

That was right. From what I remembered, Geta was the Committee member in charge of colonizing and exploring newly discovered worlds, while Oliver was the one who worked with colonies that were already established. The two of them worked together a lot.

“Unless,” Litonya put in then, “you believe that the others would have been killed already, after your escape.” The old woman’s gaze met mine intensely, like she was trying to see right through me. “I can’t imagine what kind of guilt that thought might make you feel.”

I met her hard gaze without blinking. “They’re alive,” I replied flatly. “Those guys went through a lot of effort to catch us. And they put even more effort into training us to fight for them. They’re not gonna just throw all that away, especially when they don’t think that we can tell you anything important. They’re arrogant pieces of shit. Believe me, they will never believe that we could find them again.”

“Well,” Ruthers announced, “we’ll just have to teach those creatures how wrong they are.” He looked to the three of us then. “But right now, you look exhausted.” Belatedly, the man added, “And your classmates would probably like to know that you are well. I know that Liam would like an update about his daughter. Unless…” His eyes narrowed a little. “… there’s anything else you’d like to tell us right now?”

I knew what he was doing. Ruthers had probably been all-but convinced that my mother had had something to do with us disappearing. He probably thought that I had recruited the others or something. But now that we were here with a bunch of heavily armored soldiers that looked like they had come from some sci fi movie, I wasn’t sure what he was thinking. Or how he was somehow justifying it to still be Mom’s fault. Maybe he thought she’d been spending all these years raising an actual military or something. It wouldn’t surprise me. Either way, he was very obviously trying to see what he could get out of me.

“Honestly, it’s a jumble right now,” I replied. “I still can’t believe we actually got away, and that you guys all got here so fast. I’ll probably think of something else to tell you in an hour, or a day, or a week. It’s all just… it’s a mess in my head right now.”

Calafia was already nodding to that. “Perfectly understandable. I will send my Runners to speak with you soon. Try to sort out your thoughts. Anything that you can tell us, anything at all, might lead to the other students. Particularly if it can be put together with anything that’s found during the autopsies or the inspection of their equipment.”

Tristan nodded quickly along with me, while Vanessa responded. “Don’t worry, we want to find our friends as much as you want to find the people who did this.”

“And with that,” Gaia cut in before any of the Committee members could say anything, “I believe it is time to take Miss Chambers and the Moons back to the school.”

“We will be in touch,” Ruthers assured us, while I heard Calafia in the background calling in a squad to pick up the bodies. “One way or another.”  

I didn’t know what to say to that, so I said nothing. Gaia gestured, creating a portal for us to move through. As I started to follow the others, however, Ruthers stepped over to take my arm. “Oh, Miss Chambers…”

For just a second, I thought Deveron was going to take a swing at him. I heard him grunt behind me, his entire body tensing before he stopped. Mostly because Professor Dare had put her hand on his opposite arm.

Looking at Ruthers’ hand, then his face, I schooled my expression to be as even as possible. “Yes, Counselor?”

Those eyes tried to bore straight into my soul. “If there is anything else that you think about, anything you want to tell me… I will listen.”

“Thank you, sir,” I carefully replied, restraining every smartass remark that popped into my head right then. “I will.” Then I added, “And my father, sir? I was told you guys would try to find him.”

His gaze narrowed just a little bit, though I couldn’t tell what he was thinking. “I’m afraid we have no more information than we did before.”

“Oh.” Swallowing hard, while pretending to be upset (it wasn’t hard to pretend, since I had plenty of other things to be upset about), I nodded slightly. “If you do find anything…”

“We will tell you,” he promised.

Thanking him in a mumble, I pulled away and joined the others in moving through the portal to go back to Crossroads.

Except we weren’t at Crossroads. Instead, the portal had taken us to a clearing in some kind of forest somewhere. It looked pretty, with the setting sun just visible through the branches above, which made the multi-colored leaves glow beautifully.

“Where–” I started, looking back to the others, just in time to find myself hauled up into a tight hug by Wyatt. The man was stronger than he looked, strong enough to make me gasp.

“It’s alright,” Gaia announced with a tiny smile as Sariel stepped out of her. The two women exchanged brief glances, and I was absolutely certain that they’d had a long, private conversation while all that had been going on. I wasn’t sure how much the Seosten had been able to tell Gaia, but it was probably quite a bit.

Though not enough, apparently, as the headmistress looked to us, to me. “Now we have some privacy and time so that you may explain exactly what happened while you were away. I know that you are eager to see your friends, and we will make that happen as soon as possible. But we also need to know what we are dealing with, before there are any other interruptions.

“So please, start at the beginning, and tell us what happened out there.”

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Interlude 34D – Scout

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The door of the Chinese buffet opened, and Liam Mason ushered his daughter (the one who wasn’t lost in space, anyway) inside. “Come on, kiddo,” he urged the girl while gesturing. “Let’s see how many egg rolls we can stuff ourselves with before we burst, huh?” That bit was added with a wink, before the man moved to the nearby cashier to pay for their upcoming meal.

Scout, meanwhile, silently watched her father from just inside the doorway. He had been acting strangely all day long, as if he really wanted to say something but couldn’t stop beating around the bush about it. He was overly interested in everything she said. Not that he was really ever not interested if she spoke, but now it seemed a little odd. And this trip to eat out in the regular world seemed like it was totally planned, despite the fact that he was clearly trying to act as if it was actually an impulsive, out-of-the-blue idea. Something was definitely going on here.

Once their meal was paid for, the two made their way back through the half-full restaurant, heading a for a rear table. Liam took a seat in a booth before smiling at her. “Hey,” he started, “this is fun, right? We’ll have to bring Sands here as soon as…” He trailed off before giving a slightly forced smile. “… as soon as they get back.” That time, his tone was slightly brittle.

During the years that she had spent in almost complete silence, her sister doing the talking for her, Scout had come to realize that people would often say more than they meant to if you just didn’t talk at all. People were uncomfortable with silence, so they tried to fill it up. With that in mind, the girl simply sat there and looked at her father without outwardly responding at all.

Sure enough, it only took a few seconds of silence on her part before her dad started speaking again. “I know you’re worried about Sands, but it’s going to be okay. We’ll get her back, and then… And then we won’t let anything like this happen again. I promise. We’ll fix this.”

And just like that, Scout knew more than her father clearly wanted her to right then. She knew that this trip had something to do with Sands being missing, and she also knew that her father wasn’t working alone with it. He had said we, as in ‘we won’t let anything like it happen’ and ‘we would fix this.’ He had obviously planned this lunch with someone else. But who, exactly?

To give herself time to think about that, the girl stood up and nodded to her father before moving to pick up a plate and fill it with the food. As she made her way through the line, Scout pondered those questions. Who was her father working with, and why had they brought her out here to get lunch? Was it to get her away from Gaia? That sounded about right. If her father wanted to press her about something, doing so away from the island was probably the best way to do it.

Those thoughts and more worked their way through her mind while she loaded her plate, making her way back to the table where her father was already waiting. His own plate was only about half-full, as if he too had been distracted by other thoughts beyond simply his own hunger. He also seemed to be lost in thought, looking off into the distance with a slight frown.

When Scout took her seat and put the plate in front of herself, the man seemed to snap out of it, almost jumping a little before catching himself. “Oh, hey, kid.” With a grin that was a little too put-on, he reached out with his fork to take a bite off her plate. “Mmm. See, that’s why I should always send you out first. You find the best stuff. I didn’t even see this, where was it?”

The two of them sat like that, eating lunch for about five more minutes before a voice spoke up from nearby. “Liam Mason?”

Turning slightly, Scout blinked at the man who stood there. Ruthers. Gabriel Ruthers. The former-Headmaster turned Committee Counselor raised an eyebrow at them. “Now this is a surprise,” he announced, holding a plate of food in one hand. “I know I said you should bring your daughter out here sometime, but I didn’t expect you to do it so soon.” He gave a wink then. “You didn’t actually take that suggestion as an order, did you?”

Coughing, Scout’s father shook his head. “Of course not,” he replied before gesturing to the girl across from him. “Just thought the kid looked hungry, and this was better than cooking. What’re you doing out here? There’s not a problem, is there?” The last bit was added with a glance around, as though he was worried that Ruthers’ arrival heralded some kind of attack.

“No, no.” Waving that off, the older man simply chuckled. “Believe it or not, even Committee members have to eat too. Sometimes, anyway.” He glanced around before continuing. “I like this place. That’s why I told you about it. Believe me, if there was a problem, I never would have let you bring your daughter here.” To Scout, the man extended his hand. “Hey,” he greeted. “I know you’re worried about your sister. But I promise, we are doing everything we can to find her.”

“And the others,” Scout added for him, her voice so quiet it was barely audible. She met the man’s gaze, neither blinking nor looking away as he stared down at her.

“Of course,” Ruthers agreed easily with a slight nod. “We’re working on tracking down everyone. Whoever took Sandoval and the others, our people will find them.”

“I’m sure they will.” Liam took his daughter’s hand briefly, squeezing it before gesturing. “Why don’t you join us, sir? Maybe you can tell Scout a little bit about how the search is going, just to make her feel a little better about it. You know, if you don’t have other lunch companions that we’d be stealing you away from?”

Chuckling a bit, Ruthers shook his head a bit ruefully. “No,” he replied, “I’m afraid I am on my own today. Or I was, before that invitation. If you’re sure this isn’t just a father-daughter date. I wouldn’t want to barge in on something like that. After all, a child’s relationship with their father is too important to waste.” That was added quietly, as the man glanced away with a slight frown.

“Nonsense,” Liam insisted while scooting over in the booth. “Have a seat, sir, we’d love to have you. I know you probably don’t get to take a break very often. You might as well enjoy it.”

Ruthers took the offered seat, and just like that, Scout had two men sitting across from her. Just as they had clearly planned. There was a moment where the two glanced at each other before starting to eat. After a few silent, thoughtful bites, the Committee Counselor tapped his fork against the plate briefly as he regarded the girl across from him. “Maybe I should start by asking what kind of questions you have about what has been happening. I’m sure you have plenty.”

Sure, Scout was sorely tempted to start, why don’t you start by telling me just how incredibly stupid you both think I am to actually believe that this was an accidental meeting?

Honestly, it was absolutely insulting. The fact that her father actually thought that she would believe this hadn’t been planned out, that they could actually have possibly run into one of the Committee members just by chance and have him join them for lunch was almost outrageous.

But she didn’t say that, of course. She had more control than that. Instead, the girl simply asked, “What do you know about where they are?” Belatedly, she added, “Or about who took them.”

Ruthers’ resulting wince looked completely honest, and she believed that he meant it. “I’m afraid that we don’t know very much about any of it,” he answered quietly, his gaze meeting hers. “We’d like to know a lot more, but… unfortunately, answers seem to be in very short supply. We do know that Eden’s Garden does not have them. The rest of the Committee and I have called in enough threats and favors that I firmly believe that they did not have anything to do with the disappearance of Sandoval or the others. It seems to be the work of some…” He paused briefly before continuing. “… some new force. One which, unfortunately, clearly knows a lot more about us than we know about them. That, or it may possibly be an old enemy working in new ways.”

“An old enemy, sir?” Scout echoed, as though she didn’t already know exactly what he was talking about. Not for the first time, the girl was grateful for the watch that Gaia had given her that disrupted lie-detection powers (similar to Flick’s ring), and blocked most of the (already rare) mind-reading powers that were out there. Because of that, Scout wasn’t as afraid of this little ambush-meeting as she might have been otherwise. Not that she was comfortable with it, but still. The watch definitely helped.

For a moment, Ruthers kept staring at her. He took a long, slow pull from his drink before abruptly coughing as he shot it a brief, betrayed glance. Seeming to realize belatedly that it was just water, the man plucked a handkerchief from his pocket and laid it over the glass briefly. When he pulled it away, the water had turned to an amber color. Whiskey, Scout realized after remembering what Flick had said about her meeting with him before. The man had turned water into whiskey.

His drink suitably changed, Ruthers took another pull before smiling faintly with satisfaction. “Yes,” he finally answered, “it probably won’t surprise you to know that Crossroads tends to gather enemies who disagree with our methods or our intentions.” Pausing then, he set the glass down while meeting her gaze. “I don’t suppose you’ve heard of anyone like that?”

Without batting an eye, Scout simply replied, “Who would want to stop Crossroads from saving people, sir? Those would be bad guys.”

Smiling broadly, the former headmaster nodded once. “Of course they would be. But we’re afraid that people with… let’s say too much stolen information about our school might have come out of the woodwork after laying low for a few years. If they’re the ones who abducted your sister and the others, we need to find out as soon as possible. Which means,” he added pointedly, “that you need to tell us if there’s anything important you might have been keeping to yourself.

“Now, I know,” Ruthers quickly continued, “being loyal to your team and your friends is a big deal. Believe me, I understand that. But so is loyalty to the cause, loyalty to Crossroads. I mean, if you knew that your sister was going to do something very dangerous, but she made you promise to keep it a secret, would you?”

They were clearly waiting for an answer, so Scout gave them one. “If I knew that Sands was in trouble,” she started slowly, “I would tell everything I knew to everyone that I trusted.”

“Of course you would,” Ruthers replied with an easy smile that looked at odds with his normal expression. He took another pull of his drink, finishing the rest of the whiskey inside before starting to continue. “I’m sure that if you–”

Whatever the man had been about to say then was interrupted, as a woman that Scout didn’t recognize moved up to the table. She leaned close, whispering something into Ruthers’ ear. Scout picked out the words ‘Chambers’ and ‘detected’ before the man lifted his hand, using some kind of power that prevented her from hearing anything else that was said.

After a few seconds of that, the man abruptly stood up, with a nod to the woman who had come to speak to him. He gave Scout and her father a brief look. “I… something has come up,” he informed them simply. “I’m afraid we’ll have to have a bit of a raincheck for lunch.”

Liam, who looked surprised enough for Scout to actually believe that this wasn’t part of their plan, quickly asked, “Is everything alright?”

“Of course,” Ruthers replied, a little too quickly. He nodded back to the woman who had interrupted. “Just a little situation that needs to be attended to. Nothing for you to be concerned with. You know how these kind of things go. Never a moment’s rest for people in charge. Actually…” He paused, looking to Scout as though he was tempted to tell her something, before going with a simple, “there may be good news coming sooner than you think.”

With that, the Committee Counselor rapped the table twice with his knuckles before turning on his heel to walk away, leaving father and daughter sitting by themselves once more.

“That was… odd,” Liam muttered, a frown furrowing his brow. “I thought we were…” Pausing then as though realizing he’d almost said too much, the man gave a sharp shake of his head. “I thought we were having a nice lunch.”

Shaking that off, he looked to his daughter, pausing a little at the look on her face as she stared back at him. “Are you alright, baby?”

Chambers. Why had that woman said Flick’s name? And what was that about detecting something? Did something happen? What would have made Ruthers run off like that? It had to be something big. And it clearly involved Flick. But how? What had happened? What did the Committee find out?

Unlike some of her peers, she’d yet to actually try alcohol. But for just a moment, Scout almost wished that Counselor Ruthers had actually left some of his whiskey behind. Steeling herself inwardly, she met her father’s gaze before answering him with a simple, “I’m not a baby. And I’m not stupid.”

“Stupid?” Liam echoed, having the nerve to look surprised. “Of course you’re not–”

“Stop.” Meeting her father’s gaze, Scout shook her head once. “Just stop.” Her voice was flat, as emotionless as she could make it.

As her dad fell silent, the girl took a long, deep breath. This was hard. Probably the hardest thing she’d done. But she pressed on, raising her eyes from the table to meet his. “I’m not stupid,” she repeated before pressing on over her father’s open mouth, before he could interrupt again. The words came quickly, words that she had thought about and almost said for weeks now, but had always held back. Now, however, nothing could stop them. Being lied to like this, her own father helping to ambush her with Gabriel Ruthers in an attempt to either convince or trick her into betraying her friends… it brought everything out in a rush. For a girl who had spent so long not talking, the words flooded out in a tsunami.

“You love me. I know that. I know that you love me.” The statement tasted like ash in her mouth. But she pressed on. As much as it hurt, as awful as it felt, she pushed on. “But you don’t respect me. When… when you love someone, you trust them. You don’t manipulate them. You don’t lie to them. You don’t try to trick them into revealing secrets that they’re not ready to tell you yet. You don’t betray the people who trust you, just because you think you know better than they do. Part of… of loving someone, of trusting them, is giving them a chance. It’s accepting that they might know more than you do about something.”

That was straying very close to what was obviously things she shouldn’t know about (and which she was fairly certain that her father suspected she did know), but Scout avoided saying it out loud. As long as there was that certain level of deniability, her father wouldn’t risk openly asking what she knew. He wouldn’t take that plunge.

“You’re my dad. You’ve taken care of me since I was a baby. You were always there for me. Especially after Mom… after Mom was gone. You’re my daddy. You’ll always be my daddy. But you made a choice. You… keep making choices… that show that it… doesn’t matter how much you love someone. It doesn’t matter how much someone loves you. You will never… trust them the way that they need you to, the way that I need you to. You love and protect and take care of me. And I’ll always love you for that. Always. But you don’t trust me. You don’t believe in me. You lied to me. You tried to trick me with this stupid lunch, because you still think I’m a baby.  

“You don’t love someone by controlling or tricking them, Dad. You love them by trusting them. Even when it’s hard. Even when it goes against what you think you know. You listen to them. You give them a chance. You love them by not by betraying them when they trust you. And not by… by ambushing them with someone like Counselor Ruthers. You tricked me. You lied to me. If you wanna know something, either ask me. Or ask yourself why you think I wouldn’t tell you the truth.”

“Scout, baby, I–”

“I’m not a baby,” she corrected once more before the man could continue. “I’m not a baby.”

Visibly shaking and unable to stop it or control herself any more than she already was, the girl pushed herself into a standing position. “I’m going to call Aunt Ginny to take me back to the school.”

Looking like he had been struck, Liam managed to shake his head faintly. “Ba–Scout, wait. Look, we can still have a nice lunch. It can be our day. Just you and me, I promise.”

“No.” Scout shook her head, swallowing the hard lump that had formed in her throat. “We can’t. I… I can’t. Dad… I’m sorry. I love you. You know that.” She reversed the statement that she had started this with. “You know that I love you. I’ll always love you. Always.

“But I don’t respect you.”

With that final statement, coming in a voice that cracked with each word, the girl turned on her heel. And then she walked away, blinding tears flooding her eyes as she left her father sitting there.

Alone.

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Interlude 34C – Haiden Moon

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“Raaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaarrrrrrrrrrrggggggggh!!!”

With that earth-shattering (if they had been anywhere near Earth) roar, an ogre’s massive and meaty fist, blood dripping from the knuckles, swung through the air with enough force to pulverize the side of a cement mixer. The impact would have turned almost any normal being into little more than dust, scattered around the ground where the poor fool had been standing.

It was stopped, in turn, by a much smaller hand. Haiden Moon stood with one arm outstretched, his long coat flapping behind him a bit from his own motion in stepping forward to meet the ogre. His hand, dwarfed by his opponent’s, completely stopped it cold. He grunted from the impact, his arm rocking backward just a little bit as if from the force of firing a rifle. But the reaction on the ogre’s side was far more dramatic, as the energy from that punch that had suddenly stopped almost cold had to go somewhere. In that case, it manifested in the form of the ogre’s arm breaking in multiple places. Bits of bone all along the arm tore through muscle to poke visibly out of the skin, like dozens of tiny grayish-red stalagmites popping out of the ground.

In the face of the ogre’s utterly bewildered expression, unable to comprehend the agony of its shattered arm, Haiden gave a humorless smile. “Hi there,” the man announced. “Normally I’d have a great joke right now. But I’m right in the middle of trying to save my wife, and you’re in my way. So–” With his other hand, he flipped his shotgun around and up, putting the barrels against the ogre’s neck before pulling the trigger. “Consider that my punchline.”

Turning away from the falling, decapitated body, the man cast a quick glance around him. He and Larissa had finished with the soldiers in the ship before making their way down into the tower where they had sent the kids. There, they had found Sands, Roxa, Gordon, and Jazz (with Gidget, of course) fighting to stop more reinforcements from following Flick and the twins through the tunnel into the lab. But now there were no more soldiers. At least none that were standing and ready to fight. Most of their bodies littered the floor, some of them having been killed by the kids while the rest he and Larissa had finished off.

Satisfied that there were no more threats, the man stored his weapon and strode purposefully to the tunnel. No more delays. He was going to catch up with his kids, and find his wife, right now.

“Mr. Moon,” Sands called while quickly putting herself in front of the man. “Wait!” She had both hands up. “You can’t go through that tunnel yet.” Quickly, the girl explained about the traps that the other soldier had told them about, and about the badges that were needed to get through safely. Once she got her point across, Larissa cast a glance toward the fallen soldiers and flicked her hand. A second later, a handful of the appropriate badges came flying to them.

“Everyone okay?” the woman asked while quickly passing them out. “Jasmine?”

The black girl rubbed her shoulder while taking the offered badge, grimacing a little in pain that she was clearly trying to hide. Blood was visible on her temple, as well as along the front of her shirt from a blow that had put her on the ground for a while before her healing had caught up with it. “I’ll be fine,” she muttered under her breath. “Don’t slow down on my account.”

“We should hurry,” Gordon announced while ducking under the outstretched arm of the large, frozen-solid figure who had made the mistake of grabbing the boy. It looked like a statue, intricately carved from ice down to the smallest detail. It wasn’t simply a block of ice encompassing the figure. It was as though the attacker had been completely turned into ice. Roxa, breathing heavily and liberally soaked through with blood (most of which came from other people) to the point that it looked like she had gone swimming through a pool of it, gave a sharp nod then. “He’s right, we need to go. We’ve gotta catch up with Flick and the others.”

They had a point, there was no time to waste. And the adults didn’t dare leave the kids behind again. There was no telling what other troops might come out of the woodwork. So they had to stay together. With that in mind, Larissa and Haiden quickly made their way through the tunnel and up through the lab itself at a swift jog. They saw the damage that had been done, following it onward while picking off a few more stray soldiers on the way. There was no stopping, or even slowing down. The two adult Heretics mercilessly picked off every figure that made the mistake of trying to stand in their way.

Eventually, they made their way to the observation room above another chamber. They arrived just in time to see Athena and Apollo below, facing off with Kushiel in an otherwise empty room, a moment before another figure, covered in an identity-obscuring cloak, appeared. The new figure caught hold of Kushiel, and the pair vanished. Clearly, the figure had been some kind of stooge that the psycho bitch had employed to extract her from a dangerous situation.

Rather than bothering to waste time taking the nearby stairs, Haiden raised a hand and disabled the power running into the forcefield ‘window’ in front of them. As it flickered out, the man hopped through, his coat billing behind him as he dropped down into the chamber below, landing easily. Behind him, he heard the others following suit, while he focused on the two Olympians. “Where is she?” he demanded. “Where’s my wife and kids? Where are the others?”

Apollo, for his part, looked pained as he quietly explained what had happened. At least the part that he knew about. Apparently, Felicity, Vanessa, and Tristan (with Tabbris, of course), had made their way into the strange transport that had been parked in the now-empty middle of the chamber. A moment later, the doors had closed and the transport had disappeared.

He’d barely finished before Haiden was in his face. The Heretic caught the Seosten by the collar, shoving him back against the nearby wall. “What?!” he demanded, outraged. “What the hell do you mean!? You let them go?! They’re gone! We were this close to finding Sariel, this fucking close, and now you’re telling me that not only do the Seosten still have her, they’ve got my kids too?! And not only that, they’ve also got Flick, which means they’ve got Tabbris! What the hell were you doing?! How could you let that happen?! How the fuck did you let that happen!?” Even as he shouted, a part of Haiden knew and recognized that he was being irrational. After all, what was Apollo supposed to do, not engage with Kushiel? She would have killed them all. He knew that. But in the moment, the thought that he’d lost his entire family just when he’d been so close to actually bringing it back together was too much. And Apollo was a handy target for the emotional rage that spilled up and out right then.

it was Larissa who stopped him, which was probably a good thing, as she was one of the few that he would’ve listened to in that moment. Putting her hand on his shoulder, the woman gave him a tug backward. “Haiden, stop,” she urged. “Wait, we might be able to figure out where they went. We’ve still got all these computers. We can look through them and figure out where that thing was aimed. But we need to hurry, before–”

Dad?

The voice in his head made Haiden jump. Reflexively, he spun around. But of course, there was no one there. Or at least no one that hadn’t been there before.

Then it came again. Dad! Dad, I’m here. I’m–

“Vanessa!” the man abruptly blurted, interrupting the others, who all looked at him. “Vanessa, are you okay?”

Then she appeared in front of him, his beautiful, wonderful, brilliant, amazing little girl. For a second, the man nearly tried to grab her. But he realized quickly that she wasn’t really there. She was visible and audible, yes, but none of his other senses detected her. She was mentally projecting herself to him from where that transport had taken her.

“I’m okay!” the girl’s head was bobbing up and down quickly. “We’re okay. We–Dad, we’ve got Mom!” The sheer, unbridled and unrestrained joy in the girl’s voice made Haiden want to embrace her even more. To say nothing of what the actual words did for him. “We’ve got her, she’s awake, she’s out, she’s safe! She saved us! Dad, Mom’s awake, she’s out!”

“Oh my God.” Despite all his strength and power, Haiden had to slump back. He grabbed the wall, catching himself as his mind raced. In the background, he saw some of the others cringe, clearly misinterpreting his reaction since they couldn’t hear Vanessa’s side of things.

So he found his voice. “She’s out,” he managed weakly, the shock and tumultuous series of emotions taking their toll. “Sariel, they have her. She’s awake. She helped them. She’s out. She’s… she’s…” Swallowing hard, he shook that off while doing his best to ignore the burst of enthusiastic relief and cheers that came from the others. “Where?” the man quickly asked his daughter. “Where are you? Is Kushiel there? We’ll come get you. We’ll get you right now, I swear.” With each word, his voice grew louder and faster. He had to get to his family. He had to put them back together. It had been too long. No more. They couldn’t wait any longer. Sariel. The thought of having her back in his arms, of being with her after all the time that had passed, it made him physically ache. He needed his wife. He needed his children, his family. And now they were so close. “Tell me where you are, sweetie. We’ll come to you.”

“Um.” Vanessa shifted on one foot, visibly blushing. “You might not believe this, but we’re, uhh… we’re on Earth, Dad.”

Of all the hundreds, or maybe even thousands of locations that Haiden might have guessed that his daughter would give as to where they were, that was pretty much the absolute last one on the list. He stared at her once the words came, mouth opening and shutting before he finally shook his head. “You’re where?” He needed to hear it again, needed to know that he hadn’t misheard somehow.

Sure enough, Vanessa confirmed with a knowing nod. “Earth, Dad. That transport sent us and the rest of the prisoners to Earth. We don’t know why yet. But we’re safe, for now. Mom’s okay. We’re all together, and we’ll figure out how to contact Gaia. What about you? How will you–”

“We’ll get there, baby,” Haiden promised his daughter firmly. “We’ll be there as soon as we can, I promise. We’ll have to find the rest of those shards, or… something. We’ll get there, okay? You stay with your Mom and brother, and your little sister. You hear me? You stay with them and keep each other safe. We will find a way to get back to Earth as soon as possible.”

Earth. How the hell were they on Earth? What had Kushiel been planning? Despite his joy that the Sariel was awake and with their children, Haiden still felt a little apprehension about why that psychopathic bitch had been taking her prisoners to Earth of all places.

His beloved little girl gave a quick nod. “Yes, Dad. I promise. We’ll stay together. Dad, it’s Mom. She’s okay. She’s alive. She’s… she’s…” Tears were streaming down her face, just as the same filled Haiden’s own eyes.

“I know, baby,” he murmured, aching to take his daughter in his arms. But he also didn’t want to. Because that would mean that she had projected herself to him, which would also yank Tristan along with her. And as much as he may have wanted to hug his children, the last thing he wanted to do right then was take them away from their mother.

So no, they would stay there on Earth. And as Haiden had promised, he and the others would make their way to them. His family would be together again. They were so close now. And Sariel… Sariel was there. She was awake and with their twins, and with Tabbris.

“Dad,” Vanessa was talking again. “I’m gonna go back. I don’t want–” She hesitated, clearly feeling guilty about what she had been about to say: that she didn’t want to accidentally project herself physically to where he was and away from her mother.

“It’s okay, Nessabird,” he promised. “You stay with your mom, alright? Keep each other safe. Like I said, I’ll be there as soon as possible. Check in when you can, but you stay there. Mom needs you guys more than I do right now.”

Head bobbing, Vanessa sniffled a little. She clearly didn’t like the idea of leaving her father, even if it was to be with her mother. She wanted the whole family back together as much as Haiden did. “Okay, Dad. Be careful! And hurry, okay? I love you. We love you.”

“I love you guys too,” the man assured her. “And I’ll be there as soon as possible. We’ve got help now. Check in when you can, and take care of your mom.”

He could feel the connection already starting to fade. Vanessa couldn’t hold it for long, especially when she was trying to avoid being physically drawn to him. Resisting the urge to push for her to try and stay longer, he simply repeated, “I love you, Nessabird. Take care of your mom. Be safe!”

She promised once more, repeating her own love for him before the connection broke apart and the image of his brilliant little girl vanished. Once it did, the man slumped a bit. “They’re on Earth,” he muttered under his breath. “They made it to Earth and Sariel’s awake. They’re safe, for now. But…”

Earth?” That was Sands, who was standing there open-mouthed. “How? Why?! What the hell was that crazy cunt planning to do on Earth?!”

“I wouldn’t say was,” Larissa noted quietly. “I doubt this will make her change her mind about it.”

Apollo nodded. “She’s right. I don’t know what Kushiel wants with Earth, but I guarantee she hasn’t changed her mind just because of this setback. And whatever it is, it won’t be good for humanity. We need to get you back there.”

“But to do that,” Athena put in, “we need the rest of the shards from that banishment orb. Which should be easier to find with the data from the computers here. If Kushiel doesn’t either know where all the shards are or have good leads on them, I’ll eat every sock in the Aelaestiam fleet.”

“Right.” Haiden cleared his throat, focusing on moving forward, rather than dwelling on how close he had been to being with his entire family together. “So we take everything we can from their computers and get the hell out of here.”

“You could go back right now, couldn’t you?” Gordon was the one speaking, his eyes on Apollo. “I’d be shocked,” the eternally calm boy announced, “if you didn’t have a way back to Earth, even without Jazz.”

“I may have a trick or two for that,” the Seosten man confirmed before shaking his head. “But I’m not using them. Not yet. You think I’d leave Sariel’s husband stranded out here? To say nothing of my chosen champion.” His hand gestured toward Jazz with a wink at the girl. “No, I’ll be right here helping you get home.”

“As will I,” Athena added, her brow furrowed in thought. “Whatever purpose Kushiel has in setting up a lab on Earth, it cannot be good. We will look for data about that new project in the computers here, but either way… a field trip may be in order. Once, of course, we have ensured your ability to reach the planet yourselves.”

“We find the shard and put the orb back together,” Apollo promised, “and we can get you back there.”

Haiden’s head gave a sharp nod. “Then let’s get a move on. Whatever Kushiel’s up to, I’ll tell you one thing she’ll be doing: trying to get Sariel back. So I’m not just gonna sit here and twiddle my thumbs while she hunts down my family.”

“Of course.” With those words, Athena turned and used her own communicator to call up to the Aelaestiam fleet. In a few brief orders, the woman called for a series of retrieval teams to be sent down in order to strip everything usable out of the facility, and to take as many prisoners as possible. They would take everyone as prisoners to start, working their way through them to see who could be released, who could be recruited, and who would need to remain imprisoned. As tempting as it was to take all of the Seosten’s enslaved troops and free them in one mass release, they had to be a little smarter about it and know who they were dealing with in each instance. That would take time. Beyond that, there could (and likely would) be actual Seosten hiding inside any of the other troops or slaves, which would also take time to sort out.

Once that was underway, a portal was created to take the group back to the Sunstrider, where Jokai and Dries waited. As they arrived, Jazz moved to her Eulsen boyfriend, embracing him tightly while Jokai returned it with a noise of approval and relief at her safety.

Dries, meanwhile, started by shaking his head with a frown. “No new Seosten woman?” he asked before doing a quick doubletake. That frown grew deeper, and he blurted, “Felicity, and the half-Seosten. Where are they? Where are they?” The repeated question was louder, becoming a demand as he took a step forward. For all of his issues and aversion to conflict, the man actually looked ready to hit someone if they didn’t tell him where Felicity and the other two were.

Quickly, Sands and Roxa explained the situation, telling the man that Flick and the others were on Earth, and that they were going to find a way back there as soon as possible. With, of course, the aid of the Aelaestiam. Which would ensure that it wouldn’t take nearly as long to find the remaining pieces as it had taken Haiden and Larissa to find what they had by themselves.

Once they finished, the man slumped back a little. His expression was uncertain. “Earth. They are… they made it home.”

“And so will we,” Larissa assured him. “All of us, okay? You’re going home, Dries. You’ll meet Avalon, I promise. We just need to work a little bit longer.”

The man met her gaze for a moment before giving a little nod. “Yes,” he murmured then, “find the shards, fix the orb, and get home.”

Turning away from that scene, Haiden gazed at the nearby viewscreen, taking in the sight of the damaged and destroyed ships all around them. The rest of the Seosten fleet had fled, but they would be back with reinforcements. Hopefully after the Aelaestiam retrieved what they needed and they all managed to leave.

Either way, the battle, for the moment, was over. Sariel and their children were back on Earth. It may not have been the reunion he had been hoping for, but it was something. He couldn’t be upset about the fact that his wife and children were together, no matter how much he wanted to be there himself.

And he would be. He would find his way back to them. Soon. He would be with his family once more.

No matter how many fucking armies he had to tear to the ground to make that happen.

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