Brody

The Third Degree 21-04

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Please note, there was a commissioned Mini-Interlude focusing on Flick sparring with a couple other classmates posted a couple days ago. If you haven’t seen that yet, feel free to use the Previous Chapter button above. 

For five seconds that felt like at least that many eternities, I did nothing. Nothing. I didn’t move, I didn’t speak, I didn’t even breathe. I just stood there, the words heard through my fox rebounding around inside my head. They certainly trust my host. They certainly trust my host. My host. My host. The Chambers child trusts me. And so do her little girlfriends. My host.

The words pounded their way through my head like a sledgehammer repeatedly hitting me, again and again. Even as the bile rose in my throat, the sense of betrayal making me physically ill, the words kept hitting me again and again. Host. Host. The woman was a Seosten. She was a Seosten, and she had been spying on me through… through one of the others. Not Shiori. Not Avalon. But any of the others. Any of them. Anyone I trusted. It could be anyone I trusted except for Shiori and Avalon. Any of them. The people I trusted. The people I’d confided in. The people I liked. One of them had been taken, puppeted by this Seosten in order to spy on me, manipulate me. She had taken over one of my friends, had stripped their freedom away and forced them to betray the rest of us. One of my friends had been enslaved by this… this… bitch.

And she… was coming this way.

Slowly, my own body turned to face back down the beach. Sand rose up around me in a thick cloud, the grains rubbing and grinding against each other as they spun to make a slight buzzing sound like an angry swarm of insects.

That was my first instinct. Attack. Fight. The Seosten was right there. She was right there. Who knew when I’d get this chance again. She didn’t know that I knew about her. She didn’t know that I’d overheard what she said. I could hit her right then and end this whole thing for good.

Except, was it even possible for me to take her down? She was a Seosten. I had no idea what they were capable of. I knew that one half-Seosten had a perfect memory and the other had been an Olympic-level gymnast since he was a child with barely any training. Were those ingrained abilities every normal Seosten had? Or was it a benefit of the half-human physiology mixing? I didn’t know. I couldn’t know. But what I did know was that they were incredibly dangerous. Dangerous enough to rule over a good portion of the universe for longer than human history. They were dangerous enough that the Fomorians, one of whom had taken several powerful Heretics to take down, couldn’t steamroll over them. So what chance did I have at taking down this Seosten before she either escaped or slapped me down and either killed me or took over my body?

Plus, even if I happened to win, I wouldn’t be ending it, would I? I’d heard what she said. There were two others involved in this besides her. At least two. There was whoever she was talking to, as well as that Manakel she’d mentioned. Even if I killed her by some miracle, there were still two others. Others whose identities would be a complete mystery to me. If I killed this Seosten, that was it. I’d have no other lead, no way of finding the others or getting any more information. The absolute best-case scenario of my starting a fight right now was throwing away any chance I had at getting more information out of her, of using this Seosten to find the others.

And there was another factor to consider: Vanessa and Tristan. What if this Seosten knew where their parents were? How… how incredibly selfish would it be for me to kill her just because I was angry, robbing those two of a potential chance to find their parents? How would I feel if I found out that someone who knew where Fossor was keeping my mother showed up and someone killed that person without even trying to get that information out of them?

So no. Attacking was a bad idea. Blinded by rage and indignation as I was, that was obvious. There was a good chance I wouldn’t kill her, and even if I did, I’d be throwing away both my chance to find out who the other Seosten were, as well as Vanessa and Tristan’s chance to find their lost parents. And considering how I felt about my mother… I couldn’t do that. I refused to.

But that left another problem. The Seosten was still coming. She wasn’t moving very fast, considering my fox could still see her from where it was sitting. Obviously, she was giving me plenty of time to get back to the school. But she was coming. And if she found me standing there, if she saw me like this… I had to assume that she’d realize what I knew. And then it wouldn’t matter if I wanted to start the fight with her. There would be one anyway.  

I had to go. I had to get out of sight. My first instinct at that point was to hide and try to follow her, try to see what person she’d possessed, which of my friends she had enslaved for this. Either me or my fox, one of us should follow after her to see what she did and where she went.

Except no. If I tried to follow her, she’d sense me. I had no doubt of that. And if I sent my fox after her, she’d probably sense the attention then too. Or, if she had even the briefest glimpse of the thing, she’d know exactly whose fox it was, and what had happened. She’d know.  

Worse, once she went onto the school grounds, the fox might just set off the Stranger alarms, which would force me to explain… well, a lot more than I wanted to right then. And the alert would obviously draw her attention. Which, again, would show her exactly what had happened.

No, I couldn’t follow her. I couldn’t do anything to let the Seosten know that I knew about her. The time would come. I’d get my chance. But throwing away the only advantage I had, the fact that she didn’t know that I knew about her, would be wrong. As understandable and therapeutic as it might have been to try doing something right then, it would be the wrong move. I needed to lay low and find a way to identify who she had possessed. Then I could lay a real trap for her.

But first, I had to get out of there before she got close enough to see that I had stopped for so long. Partly so that she wouldn’t realize that I had overheard, and partly because, despite every thought I’d had about what a bad idea it would be, I couldn’t guarantee that I wouldn’t attack her if she got close enough for me to do so. My logic told me one thing, but I knew that my emotions might just take over if they had a chance. So I had to get the hell out of there.

Turning on my heel, I ran not toward the school, but into the water. Splashing through the cold waves, I dove in as soon as it was deep enough before starting to swim out. I wanted to be far enough out of the way to avoid being noticed.

At the same time, I made the fox watch the Seosten gradually make her way up the beach. Cautiously, I got it to follow along through the jungle, all while trying to weave around a bit so that if she did have some way of sensing what was around her, the Seosten wouldn’t realize that the figure in the jungle was following her.  

It wasn’t exactly easy, working my fox through the jungle like that while simultaneously swimming in the ocean with my clothes on. I kept flipping my attention back and forth, like trying to watch two television shows at once. Fortunately, however, I didn’t have to actually swim by myself for very long. I’d barely made it the length of a couple swimming pools from the beach before a familiar presence rose up from the depths to bump against my legs.

Quint, the ten-foot long Mako shark, rose right up to the surface before giving me what was obviously a curious look. Immediately, I reached out and grabbed onto the shark’s side, pulling myself over onto it. “Hey buddy,” I whispered despite how far out we were. “Where’s your brother, huh? Are the others okay?”

Quint swam in lazy, slow circles while the rest of his shiver gradually arrived. I let them crowd around, carefully patting each of them in turn while mostly focusing my attention on my summoned fox. Because while I had been getting myself out into the ocean with my many-toothed friends, the Seosten had kept going right toward the school grounds. I had to figure that my thought about her having a way of sensing what was around her was true, because she only slowed down when she was near the spot where a few students were playing some kind of game in the sand. Staying just out of their sight, the Seosten stood still for a moment. Then, she vanished from sight. She was gone, invisible and undetectable.

And that was that. She was gone now. Obviously, she had a way of getting onto the school grounds without being detected. Which made sense. If the Seosten themselves had been so involved with the creation of Heretic society, they would have left ways for themselves to get around the security spells undetected, backdoors into the places we thought were safe.

Would I regret letting her disappear? Would I regret not taking the opportunity I had to jump the Seosten while I’d known exactly where she was? Maybe. I couldn’t completely dismiss the possibility. Maybe I’d never get that chance again. But given every thought I’d had about why doing so would have been a bad idea, I had to go with my gut. I had to trust myself. There would be another chance, a better one. Now that I knew that she existed, that she had taken over one of the people I was supposed to be able to trust, I could work with that. We could work with it.

With that in mind, I reached into the pocket of my soaked pants while sitting on Quint’s back. Carefully, I dug out the secure phone. Thanks to Crossroads ingenuity, the phone wasn’t hurt at all by being wet. Shaking it off a little, I quickly punched in the phone number that had been magically seared into my memory. Because honestly, if this didn’t count as a big enough emergency to warrant using it, then nothing ever would. I needed help.

It rang three times before the familiar, steady voice spoke up. Even through the phone, I could hear the power and authority behind it. “Felicity, are you in immediate danger?” Despite the calm reassurance behind his voice, I could also hear the promise of imminent violence if I had been hurt. He was ready to charge straight in if I told him that I needed help.

And honestly, knowing that a man like Gabriel Prosser had my back like that helped calm me down a little bit.

“No.” Shaking my head, I answered quickly. “I mean, I’m not in immediate danger. It’s okay. I’m okay–sort of. But something happened.

“Something you should probably know about…”

******

An hour later, I was back out in the water with the sharks. This time, however, I wasn’t alone.

“Oh my God.” Shiori’s voice was quiet, hoarse and horrified. She looked about as sick as I still felt, sitting there on Sherman’s back as the bull shark lazily swam in circles. “You mean it could be–it could be anyone. Sh-she could be possessing… she could be po-possessing–” Her voice choked off then as the girl flinched, unable to finish what she had been saying.

“Porter,” Avalon finished. My roommate sat on Brody, her face knitted into a frown. “It could be Porter. Or it could be any of the others. Scout, Mason, Gerardo, either of the Moons, Fellows…” She looked to me. “All we know is that it’s someone that Chambers thinks she can trust.”

“Which doesn’t narrow it down to students,” I pointed out. “Sure, we can rule out Gaia because… uh, if she was taken over, we’d all know it. But other than that… it could be Professor Dare, Nevada, any of them. Even Klassin Roe. Who better to make me think I could trust him than the school therapist? It could even be Hisao. Maybe they got him after he showed up. We just–we don’t know. We don’t know… almost anything. Any of them could have been… taken.”

“We have to help them,” Shiori declared, looking up from the back of the shark. Her voice was still shaky and disgusted, but also resolved. “Whoever it is, whoever she enslaved, we have to free them. We have to, Flick. We have to find out who it is and… and get her the hell out.”

I nodded slowly at that, swallowing hard. “Yeah,” I murmured. “Don’t worry, Shiori. Whoever it is, we’ll save them. We’ll get that Seosten bitch out of them. We just have to do it the right way.”

There was quiet for a few seconds before Avalon spoke. “You said you talked to Prosser.” Even as she said his name, I could hear the undercurrent of admiration and awe for the man in her voice. It was like listening to any other person mention their personal hero. “What did he say?”

“Yeah,” Shiori quickly chimed in. “He’s this big, super-powerful Heretic, right? Please tell us  he has a way to figure out who the Seosten’s possessing and get her the hell out of them. Please.”

Flinching a little inwardly, I shook my head. “Yes and no. Well, actually no and yes, in that order. Sort of.” Frowning at how that was coming out, I waved a hand before the others could say anything. “They have one spell, a rune that can drive a Seosten out of their host and stop them from possessing anyone else for a short time.”

Shiori brightened at that. “Perfect. That’s perfect, right? It sounds like just what we need.”

“Like I said,” I replied, “yes and no. See, the spell has to be applied directly to the host. And it… um, it’s not subtle at all. It hurts the host the entire time it’s being applied and the Seosten will know exactly what it’s for. She’ll know what we’re trying to do from the moment we start it.”

Wincing, Avalon murmured, “So there’s no way to apply it while they’re sleeping. Wonderful.”

There was no easy way to put this, so I continued. “It gets better. Apparently any Seosten would know as soon as we start using that spell. Even if we’re not using it on the right person, they’ll sense the spell being used. It’s like a big, bright beacon going off.”

Shiori actually cursed at that. “You mean even if we do find the right person and use the spell on them, the other Seosten will know what’s happening if it happens anywhere on the island?”

“That pretty much sums it up,” I confirmed with a little nod. “Oh, and because that wasn’t bad enough, apparently Seosten that are on the same mission are usually connected. Which means they can also tell when one of their own has been… uh, exorcised like that.” 

Both of the other girls stared at me, Avalon grimacing. “Which means we can’t just take every person one by one and use the spell until we find the right one, even if we go away from the island to do it. Because as soon as we do find the right one, her partners will know what happened.”

“Yup,” I replied. “So we can’t identify them before using the spell, they’ll know what we’re doing as soon as we start doing it, and even if they’re not the one we’re using it on. And even if we get the right one, the other Seosten, who could be anybody, will know. And then who the hell knows what they’ll do.” 

Avalon nodded slowly, frowning as she obviously thought for a moment before speaking up. “So we have to find out who this Seosten is possessing, then use her to find the others. Then use the spell on all of them at once before they hurt anyone else.”

“That’s the best plan I thought of too,” I confirmed while shrugging. “Prosser said he’d teach us how to use the spell, and–”

“Teach us?” Avalon interrupted. Her eyes were… okay, wow, her eyes were wide as she she stared at me. “Us. As in meet us. As in meet him. He wants us to meet him. And talk. And–”

“Wow,” Shiori snickered despite herself, leaning closer to me. “She’s really into this Prosser guy. Are you sure she likes gi–”

That was as far as she got before Avalon’s hand caught her arm and yanked the other girl off the shark. Shiori fell into the ocean with a yelp that was punctuated by a heavy splash.

Simpson quickly swam up from below to pick her out of the water, and the Asian girl stuck her tongue out at Avalon. “We both saw you blush.”

Coughing, I gestured. “I think the point is that we know for sure it’s the Seosten that are after Avalon now. I mean, why else would they be trying to stop us from talking to Fahsteth? Plus, that definitely explains how someone was able to kill Professor Pericles without setting off the security alert. The Seosten were possessing someone.”

Avalon nodded. “Which means they’re the ones who want to get into Bosch’s vault.”

Shaking her head, Shiori pushed her hands back through her soaked hair (as I told myself not to be distracted by the sight) to clear it away from her eyes. “But why? What’s in there that’s so important?”

“I don’t know,” I admitted quietly. “But whatever it is, it’s important enough for them to go this far trying to get to it. So it’s probably something that can fuck their whole race over. Maybe even expose the truth about how they’ve manipulated the Heretics for so long.

“And honestly, that sounds just perfect to me.”

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Family Reunion 12-08

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“You know,” Sands started after a solid ten seconds of silence (at least from our table), “I’m honestly not sure which I’m more surprised by: the fact that Vanessa is Tristan’s sister, or that Gaia clearly didn’t know about it. I mean, obviously she would’ve pulled her in first to talk in private if she knew, right?”

“Right,” I agreed as the others just nodded while staring at the reunion going on right in front of us. There were murmurs from the surrounding tables, and I could hear a few people asking each other where this kid had been if he was related to Vanessa. This, of course, was met with other people authoritatively declaring that of course they weren’t siblings. Obviously, Vanessa and this boy were long-lost friends. Maybe even boyfriend and girlfriend. Sixteen seconds. Sixteen seconds and some of my classmates were already shipping the two of them together over a freaking hug. Just… wow.

“She definitely didn’t know,” Columbus muttered before nodding toward the front. “Look at them.”

Glancing that way, I saw Gaia standing there while Professor Dare and Andressa McKay, the elderly Head of Admissions, spoke quietly to her in either ear. Behind them, a couple of the third-year professors were standing nearby, clearly waiting impatiently to talk. There was definitely a quick meeting going on. But it stopped abruptly as the headmistress spoke a single quiet word. Then she spoke up louder, interrupting the flurry of whispering that had been filling the large room. “Never allow it to be said that you will ever be so old and experienced that nothing will ever surprise you again.”

A broad smile crossed the woman’s mature, yet beautiful face then. “And never allow it to be said that Crossroads does not appreciate a good, old fashioned family reunion. As… unexpected as it may be.”

With that, she began to clap a few times, prompting others to join in. I could tell that Vanessa was already embarrassed by her outburst. But I could also tell that she didn’t really care all that much. The girl was clinging to her brother while people applauded, and a few of those nearer to the siblings offered their own congratulations. Obviously, there were some hold-outs. More than a few people simply sat there, looking around at the ones who were clapping like we should be embarrassed. But for the most part, it was now taken for what it was: a brother and sister being miraculously reunited.

Gaia didn’t let that sit for long before crossing the distance to where Vanessa and Tristan were. After a few words about giving them an opportunity to catch up, she left the room with the two in tow. Most likely, I assumed, to have a private discussion about what she knew about Vanessa’s… special situation.

Slumping back in his seat, Sean muttered in obvious amazement. “Vanessa’s half-Seosten. I guess that sort of explains her super special memory power. But… damn. That’s just… wow.” He was still stunned. Which, for someone who obviously prided himself on taking everything casually, probably said a lot.

“Yeah…” Deveron started slowly, shifting a little in his seat. “Okay, so one of the first things you should probably know. This… might be confusing, but that girl, that half-Alter. She’s actually not the–”

“–not the only only one,” I interrupted. “Yeah, we sort of know that part already. Thanks though.”

The guy stared at me for a few seconds, clearly taking that in before sitting back with a stunned expression on his face. “You already know one. You’ve already met one of the half-breeds here.”

Raising an eyebrow at him, I snarked, “Gee, you know what you could’ve done to find out what we knew and when? It’s this brand fangled new invention. Now, I know you’re old so you might not be quite as hip, but bear with me cuz I think you’ll like this one. They call it talking. It’s where you know something that someone else needs to know, and the two of you communicate that information with words.” Putting my hand against the side of my face, I adopted a shocked expression at the very idea.

Wincing, Deveron shook his head regretfully. “You’re not gonna let that go any time soon, are you?”

“Not planning on it,” I confirmed before frowning. “But how do you know about the half-breed thing?”

He smiled easily then. “Because I’m the one that recruited the Djinni who altered the Edge to allow half-breeds to become Heretics. They were actually technically the first half-Alter Crossroads Heretic. And no, I’m not going to tell you who they are. Not because I still want to keep secrets, but because that’s not my secret to tell. It’s theirs. I can say that Gaia was involved in making sure that happened.”

I sat back at that, blinking a couple times. In the end, Columbus was the first to find his voice. “So, Gaia knew that the Edge would accept half-Alters after… whoever changed it. She knew that she made a plan with someone to make that happen. But she just forgot that it was you she was working with?”

Deveron dipped his head in confirmation. “Joselyn’s allies made that happen. They—we didn’t know who to trust. Not when it came to Jos’s life. Gaia didn’t do anything to stop them from erasing her, so I didn’t know if I could trust her with this, with my family. I… didn’t know about the blood plague.”

Setting my fork down, I straightened up. “Look, I… I need to go. It’s been a long day, and I just need to… I just need to think. I’m sorry, I’ll talk to you later, okay?” Looking to Deveron until he nodded, I pushed myself up from the table and started to walk away after murmuring an apology to the others.

I just needed to get out of there. It was too much. The meeting with him, Koren, and Wyatt, Tristan falling out of the sky, finding out he was Vanessa’s brother and that she was half-Seosten as well, I needed to clear my head. I needed to take a walk out in the fresh air and just… think for awhile.

******

“And you two look pretty alike except for this mark on your nose, so I’ll call you Brody and Quint.”

It was about an hour later, and I was treading water in the ocean. The sharks that had saved Shiori and me earlier were surrounding me. I honestly wasn’t sure how I knew they were the exact same ones, but somehow I was just certain. The six sharks were swimming in circles around where I was, occasionally coming up to bump their noses against me. They were like cats rubbing up against a leg for attention.

My attention (and by extension, that of the sharks as well) was drawn then toward the girl who was standing in the shallows, watching us. Smiling a little in spite of myself, I started to swim that way. Or at least, I started to. After two strokes, the nearest shark bumped up against me until I put a hand on his top fin. Then he began to cut through the water much faster than I could have gone, bringing me right up to the shallows. Once we were there, I gave him a pat before straightening up. “Hey, Shiori.”

“Hey, Flick,” she returned the greeting with a casual wave. “Water you doin’?”

Knowing the other girl as I did, all I had to do was look at her expression. “Did you—yeah you did.” Snorting while she giggled, I said, “You seem to be doing okay with the water after what happened. Not the pun. That was bad. But with the whole being in it part. I thought you’d avoid it for longer.”

Her head shook. “Actually, I was planning on coming out there, not just standing here. But I chickened out. I guess I’m just gonna be a big baby when it comes to water for awhile. I just make bad puns when I’m nervous. Well, okay, I sort of always make bad puns. But they’re usually worse when I’m scared.”

“You have every right to be a big baby about it,” I assured her. “Besides, you’re standing in the water almost to your hips. You’re not being that much of a baby. Actually, you’re being braver than I would.”

“That’s doubtful,” she snorted before looking toward the sharks. “You were naming them, weren’t you? I heard a little bit of it. Could I umm, know their names so I can thank them for saving us earlier?”

“Oh, sure.” Smiling, I gestured to the two who looked alike. “I looked them up online too, so I could know what they were. Those two are Mako sharks. I called them Brody and Quint. That yellow one over there, it’s a Lemon shark. I called her Simpson. The one right, aww, hi buddy.” Leaning down, I reached out to pet the one who had just swum closer. “This one’s a Bull shark. His name is Sherman.”

“What about that sleek blue one over there?” Shiori asked, pointing. “He looks pretty.”

Grinning, I nodded. “Oh he’s definitely pretty, and he knows it too. His name is Jabberjaw. You know, cuz he’s blue on top and white on the bottom.” Raising my hand to wave at the circling shark, I called, “Yeah, you know we’re talking about you, don’t you, Mr. Vanity? You know you love all the attention.”

Shiori giggled (still an incredibly adorable sound) before waving to Jabberjaw. Then her attention turned to the final shark. The biggest, who couldn’t come as close as the others. “What about the big guy out there?” she asked, still swallowing a little nervously at the sight of him. “What’s his name?”

“That,” I announced while taking another step into the water and waving my hand under it toward the one in question, “is a female Great White.” Smiling broadly, I looked over my shoulder. “Her name is Princess Cuddles.”

“Princess Cuddles,” the other girl echoed slowly while staring at me with a slowly widening smile of her own. “You actually named the enormous Great White shark… a relentless underwater killing machine who happens to be one of the biggest non-Stranger predators that are still alive on the Earth today… Princess Cuddles.”

Laughing, I nodded while swimming out a little bit, just far enough that Princess Cuddles could come up to get her side rubbed. God, she was enormous. My best guess was that she was over two thousand pounds and around twenty feet long. “What can I say? She’s just too adorable. Aren’t you, pretty girl? Yes you are, yes you are.” I clung to the massive shark, letting her take me under the water and around in a brief circle before surfacing once more. I was sitting atop Cuddles by that point, grinning at the other girl.

“So,” Shiori went back over them. “Brody and Quint, Simpson, Sherman, Jabberjaw, and Princess Cuddles.”

“That’s right,” I looked back in the water before asking, “Or just Cuddles, for those that are familiar with her. She’s not too hung up on royal qualifiers for her friends.” Grinning, I added, “I umm, I know you had a bad experience. But do you wanna stay awhile anyway and play with these guys? They won’t let anything happen. Neither will I.”

“I know…” the other girl spoke quietly before smiling a bit more. “Sure, I’ll stay out here with you.

“Let’s play with the sharks.”

******

So we spent some time out there with my new not-so-little friends. There were some other students in the water, but none of them wanted to come very close even after I assured them that they were safe.

That was okay though, it gave me time to just play with the sharks and Shiori. Though I did get tongue-tied a bit at the sight of the thoroughly soaked cute Asian girl. Especially when she came up out of the water and shook her hair out before laughing because Simpson poked her in the back. It was… wow.

Eventually, the two of us left the sharks to dry off, pull our clothes on over damp swimsuits, and head back inside. As we went, Shiori asked, “Do you think they’ll be okay? I mean, do you think they’ll start fighting as soon as you’re not in a certain radius?”

“You mean because they’re different species?” I asked as we passed a group of second years playing frisbee. When the other girl nodded, I shook my head. “I’m not sure how I know… but I know they won’t do that. I think… I think this power, whatever it is, it sort of… changes them? They’re a pack now. Or a frenzy, or a school… or a shiver, whatever, there’s lots of names for groups of sharks. They’re different species, but they’re also my shiver, my pack. So they’ll stay together, look after each other.”

Shiori was staring at me, eyes widened a bit. “Really? Holy carp, that’s cool. I mean, kind of terrifying in a way, but also really cool. Do you think they’ll recruit more sharks while they’re out there?”

My head shook again. “I’m pretty sure I have to actually be out there. This… shark summoning and taming power or whatever you call it has to do its thing while I’m there.” Reaching into my pocket then, I produced my extra-special little rock buddy. “And I didn’t forget about you! Thanks for watching over my stuff, Herbie.”

Glancing sideways toward her then, I added, “Speaking of awesome pets–” Giving the rock in my hand a guilty look, I amended, “–ahem, and partners, of course, did you manage to get out there to feed Choo?”

“Yup!” she chirped, grinning back at me. “I took a whole plate out there for him. You should’ve seen the little guy chow down. And he was a little lonely, so I played with him for a few minutes.”

Then she sobered, pausing a little. “Vanessa…” Biting her lip, Shiori hesitated before pushing on in a much quieter voice. “She’s… like me, isn’t she? I mean, not just like me, but she’s… you know…”

I nodded. “Tristan is, so she must be too. It explains the super memory, I guess. Though I don’t know if Tristan has anything like that. He didn’t say.. but it could be different for each offspring or something.”

She was quiet for a few seconds, clearly thinking about something before speaking up slowly. “Someone should probably talk to her.” Shifting on her feet, Shiori hesitated, glancing to me. “Right?”

“I think that’s what the headmistress is doing,” I pointed out. “At least, part of what she’s doing, anyway. But if you mean someone like her, yeah. It might help if someone else talked to both of them.”

Again, she paused. For a few long seconds, Shiori looked indecisive. Then her head bobbed once more. “I’ll do it. I’ll talk to them.” Offering me a little smile, she added, “Talking to you, before, it really helped me. And if I can help her the same way, just… let her know there’s others that are… like her and her brother, I think I should.”

Before I could say anything to that, a figure came running up out of the shadows, pointing at me. “Aha! There you are! I knew I’d find you!”

“Hey, Wyatt,” I gave him a little wave. “What’s up? Is everything okay?”

He coughed, straightening a little. “Ahem, ahh, I think you should come with me, Miss uhh, Chambers. There’s a few things about your record that we need to address.” His eyes glanced toward my companion.

“It’s okay, Wyatt,” I assured him before looking that way as well. “Shiori’s a… friend. She knows everything. You can talk in front of her.”

He blinked at that, squinting at the girl a little while looking her up and down. His voice was cautious. “Are you sure about that?”

Shiori, for her part, returned his uncertain look for a couple seconds before seeming to come to a decision. Her voice was quiet. “You can trust me, Mr. Rendell. I know you’re probably nervous about me knowing your secrets. I know I would be. So… “ Taking in a breath before letting it out, she met his gaze evenly, her voice very low, so quiet I could barely hear her. “My real mother is a vampire. So… now you know my secret too.”

Wyatt reeled backward at that, eyes widening as he looked from me to her and back again. When I nodded, he made a noise of confusion before returning his stare to the girl. Scanning her up and down, he managed a weak, “Well, do you… does that mean that you…” He opened his mouth as if showing off fangs and hissed a little. It looked kind of ridiculous and silly.

Shiori flushed hotly, head shaking incredibly fast. “No,” she blurted. “I don’t…drink blood or anything.”

“Well,” Wyatt straightened, looking her up and down. “In that case, Miss Porter, consider your secret safe. I will do everything I can to protect the friends of my… family.” As he said the last word, the man made this goofy, endearing grin that made me want to hug him.

Then he turned on his heel and started to walk away. “Come along then,” the man ordered in what was obviously his best approximation of a stern voice, clearly for the benefit of anyone that might notice him talking to us. “I need to have a nice long discussion with the two of you about appropriate use of school facilities.”

We looked at each other, shrugged, and trailed after him. The short, lanky man led us up across the grounds and into the main building. Guiding us through a confusing maze of turns down various corridors, we eventually reached a simple-looking, unlabeled wooden door. Taking a key out of his pocket, Wyatt tapped it against the side of the door three times in what looked like specific locations. Then he turned the knob and opened the door. Instead of going in, however, he immediately shut the door, tapped the key three more times in different locations. Then he opened it again and gestured for us to go in.

We did so, crossing the threshold to move into what turned out to be a tiny office whose space was mostly taken up by a large rickety desk. There were two simple folding chairs in front of it that took up all the room before the door, and a somewhat nicer chair on the other side. The desk itself was covered with papers and an ancient computer that looked like it belonged to the early 80’s. I couldn’t see any way for Wyatt to actually get to the other side of the desk without crawling under or over it.

“Oh,” the man spoke quickly. “Before you sit down, turn in a quick circle and say, ‘The mice are meesing out.’”

Shiori and I looked at each other before following his instructions. I felt silly, but I wasn’t going to question it at this point. For her part, my companion giggled at the meesing out part.

Finally, Wyatt shut the door behind himself before squeezing past us. He went right through the desk, passing through the solid object like he was a ghost before turning to collapse in his seat. Once there, the man waved eagerly to the folding chairs. “Sit, sit. Oh, you’re not in trouble, by the way. I just had to say that in case of spies.”

“I uh, I got that,” I confirmed before taking one of the chairs. “Are you okay, Wyatt? Nothing… umm, nothing happened, did it?”

His head shook rapidly. “No, no, nothing. I mean yes, but… but no, I just wanted to give you something. Or somethings.”

Before I could ask what he meant, the man leaned over in his chair, fishing around on the floor before coming up with a box about a foot across. It was covered in white wrapping paper with rocket ships on it. Plopping it down on the desk, he slid it to me. “Open it,” he requested, smiling eagerly.

“Oh, um, okay, sure.” Taking the present (it wasn’t very heavy), I carefully tugged the wrapping paper off. There was a cardboard box underneath, and when I opened that up, I found a little stuffed frog.

“What… aww.” Taking the toy out, I stared at it. The thing was adorable. It had this cute smile on its face and the bottom of its feet were yellow. “Wyatt, you… is… is this a late birthday present?”

“One of them,” he confirmed. When I blinked up at that while hugging the frog to my chest, he gestured. “Look at the card.”

There was indeed a card inside the box as well. Taking it out without letting go of the frog, I opened it up and read aloud. “Dear Felicity—hey that’s me. Dear Felicity, I hope you have a hopping good first birthday. Love, Wyatt. Wait… first… birthday?”

In answer, Wyatt reached down again, taking out a second box which he plopped down on the desk again while taking the first box away. “I missed them,” he announced. “That’s bad. So I’m making up for it.”

Slowly, I opened the box, reaching in to take out an enormous coloring book and large box of crayons. The card read, “Dear Felicity, happy… they say the two’s are terrible, but I bet yours are going to be colorful. Happy second birthday.”

“Oh my god.” Covering my mouth, I stared at the card, then up to the man. “Wyatt, did you…” I was blinking tears out of my eyes. “Did you get me a… a birthday present for every year that you missed?”

“We should hurry,” he urged with a quick nod. “There’s still fifteen more to get through, you know.”

“Wyatt, I… I…” Words failed me. I didn’t care anymore. Standing from the chair, I pushed the box aside and climbed onto the desk. Leaning over, I wrapped my arms around the man… my brother, as tight as I could.

Yeah, it looked silly. But you know what? At that point, I really didn’t care.

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