Choo

Mini-Interlude 39 – Avalon, Shiori, and Choo

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“You think it’s going okay out there?” Shiori asked Avalon as the two of them sat by the spot that had been set aside for Choo to live in. The little Jekern (who had grown enough over the past weeks to be about the size of a small puppy) was sniffing eagerly at the bowl that Shiori was holding. The bowl was a treat that the girl had retrieved it from its spot on the beach after she and Avalon left Flick to finish talking to Sands and Scout.

“I think it’s going about as well as it can,” Avalon answered. “Now what did you say you needed me for?”

“Oh, right.” Shiori’s head bobbed. “I need you to voice the big bad wolf.”

“… you need me to what?” Avalon’s voice was flat.

Setting the bowl down in front of the eager warthog-like creature, Shiori explained. “I promised Choo I’d tell him the story of the Three Little Pigs today. I need you to voice the wolf. Please?” She batted her eyelashes rapidly.

“You realize that only works on Chambers,” Avalon informed her. “And I have training to do, I’ve got too much to focus on to worry about–”

She was interrupted by a squeak. Looking down, Avalon found Choo nudging her foot, wide eyes blinking up at her imploringly before he made another pitiful, pleading noise.

“… fine,” she sighed, slumping a little. “One story. I’ll sit here for one story.”

“Yay!” Shiori cheered. “Great, now get comfortable, Choo. It’s time for your story.” She pushed the bowl closer to him, revealing the contents: fluffy popcorn, straight from the bag. Seeing the object of what he had been smelling, the little pig-Alter gave a loud squeak of joy before practically diving into it.

“Now,” Shiori started, “the story of the Three Little Pigs. Ahem. Once upon a time, there was a big bad, nasty, evil, terrible, smelly, violent old wolf.”

Avalon sat back against the side of the tree, remarking, “I feel like you’re adlibbing a little there, Porter.”

Shiori remained focused on Choo, whose snout was shoved fully into the bowl of popcorn while he happily munched, his eyes riveted on her. “The wolf was looking for a book called the Necroinkmikon.”

“Wait, what?” Avalon blinked over that way, taken aback. “Porter,” she demanded, “did you just say Necroinkm–”

Shiori nodded quickly at her. “Uh huh, but hang on, it’s not time for the wolf yet.” To Choo, she continued. “The Necroinkmikon was a book of magic spells that could make the Big Bad Wolf unstoppable!”

At her words, Choo shrank back a bit, ears flattening as he made a slightly fearful noise. But he didn’t stop chewing, leaning forward after a second to sneak another mouthful of kernels.

“Now, the Big Bad Wolf was the biggest, baddest, most dangerous wolf in the whole group of Devils. And he found out that the Necroinkmikon was being protected by three pig brothers: The Pigs Of Destiny. The Big Bad Wolf knew that the pig brothers were living in this forest. So he went in to find them, kill them, and take the book for himself!”

As Choo made a noise of fear and shrank back even more, she reached out to give him a reassuring scratch. “Little did the Big Bad Wolf know, but these were no ordinary pigs. No, these pigs had been training their entire lives to protect the Necroinkmikon. The wolf was about to be very, very surprised.”

The reassurance convinced the little Jekern to go back to enjoying his popcorn, and Shiori smiled a little bit. “The wolf crept through the forest, searching and searching for the pigs. Eventually, he found one of their homes, a house… made of straw. The straw meant that the little house was hidden from surveillance satellites and passing drones. But the wolf found it. So he crept slowly up to the straw house. And when he saw the little pig cooking his breakfast inside, he said…” She nodded toward Avalon.

For a moment, the other girl remained silent and stiff. But as Choo turned an expectant gaze to her and made an eager noise, she relented. “Little pig…” Avalon started reluctantly, “… little pig, little pig, let me in.”

By contrast, when Shiori voiced the pig, her voice was high and a bit squeaky, her best approximation of a small but confident swine. “Hah! Vile wolf! Here to get the Necroinkmikon, huh?! You’ll find nothing but pain and misery here, you contemptible, cowardly canine crook. Come and take it!”

Blinking twice, Avalon paused before realizing that both Choo and Shiori were waiting for her. “Um, okay then. Uh, if you don’t let me in, I’ll huff, and I’ll puff, and I’ll blow your house in.”

“Filthy wolf, you’ll get nothing from me,” Shiori called in her pig-voice, “but pain and total misery!”

Again, attention returned to Avalon, who finally shrugged. “Okay then, I guess I’ll blow your house in.”

“And he did,” Shiori continued. “The wolf took out his AK-47–”

“He did what?!” Avalon blurted.

“Oh, don’t worry. I know it’s old, but the 47 is totally still one of the best guns in the world,” Shiori informed her. “It’s super reliable. He knows what he’s doing. So the wolf took out his AK-47 and opened fire on the straw house, blowing it to smithereens!”

Choo had flattened himself against the ground by that point, and was watching with rapt attention as Shiori went on. “But when the smoke cleared and the wolf stepped into the remains of the straw house… he found… nothing! The little pig had disappeared, and there was no sign of the book of spells!”

Both sets of eyes turned to Avalon then, who worked her mouth a little bit awkwardly before coughing. “Err, uh, little… pig? Where are you, little pig? Show yourself!”

“And the pig did,” Shiori narrated, “but the wolf wasn’t going to be very happy about it… because the first little pig was a master survivalist. That’s why his house was made of straw, see? And he announced himself by nailing the wolf right in the back with an arrow! Of course, the Big Bad Wolf was too tough to go down to a single arrow, but it sure got his attention. He turned around, howling with pain, only to find the first little pig high up in a nearby tree! The little pig had his commando paint on, and the red bandana that he was given to commemorate his service in the military during the war.”

Military?!” Avalon blurted then. “Since when did the three little pigs serve in the military?”

Choosing to take that as the wolf speaking, Shiori countered in her little pig voice. “If you persist in this search, Mr. Big Bad, you’ll find only trouble, a myriad!” She adjusted her voice to be the narrator again. “And the little pig let loose with another arrow, and another! The wolf was under attack, and the survivalist pig had the high ground! So he had no choice but to flee deeper into the forest.”

“Ahem,” Avalon interrupted, lifting her chin. “A tactical withdrawal. Besides, if the pig had the book, the wolf would’ve seen it by then. Obviously, it wasn’t there. So there was no reason to waste time with Rambo Pig.”

Smiling broadly, Shiori continued. “The wolf looked deeper in the woods. He spent hours searching for any more pigs. Finally, he found a little log cabin, with smoke coming out of the chimney. When he peered through the window, he found the second little pig, cooking his lunch on the stove. Seeing the little pig, the wolf took a breath, and called…”

“Little pig, little pig,” Avalon almost immediately started, “Let me in!”

“But when the wolf finished making his demand,” Shiori intoned with a little smile, “he found that the little pig, who had just been standing in plain sight… had disappeared! One blink, and the little pig was gone. The only sign that he had ever been there was the still simmering pot.”

Pawing at the dirt, Choo snorted, sending sparks of electricity in the air as he charged around the bowl in circles, making it clear that if he had been there, he’d give that wolf what it deserved.

“Well,” Avalon shrugged. “If you won’t let me in, I’ll…” She paused then, lifting her gaze to the sky to shake her head slowly before continuing, “… I’ll blow your little wood house away with my AK-47.”

“And he did!” Shiori informed their enraptured audience-of-one. “The wolf put so many bullets into that cute little wooden cabin, that there was almost nothing left. Because not only was the wolf a terrible person in general, he also had no appreciation for classic architecture.”

“The wolf,” Avalon sniffed, “was a little too busy looking for the book of ultimate power to worry about a few logs.”

“But he didn’t find his prize there either,” Shiori announced. “And when he stepped among the rubble, he found no sign of the pig… until a tiny little fist punched him square in the back, hitting the wolf in just the right spot to make his muscles seize up. When the wolf turned, he found himself facing the second little pig… in his black ninja uniform!”

“Ninja?!” Avalon demanded, “I thought the pigs were soldiers… with bows and arrows.”

Again, Shiori interpreted her words as coming from the wolf. “My brother served his country, foul fiend,” she squeaked the words, “but Asia is where my studies convened.”  Switching back to her narrator voice, she continued, “And the wolf soon found that his gun would be of no use here, as the black-clad pig ignited his laser-sword–”

“Oh, now that’s not even–” Avalon started.

“–and cut the rifle into pieces with a single slash of his glowing energy-blade!” Shiori finished.

Coughing, Avalon gestured. “Well, uh, you said the book wasn’t here, so I think the wolf is leaving.”

“Of course, finding that the book wasn’t in the second pig’s house, he fle–err, tactically withdrew even deeper into the woods.” Shiori lowered her voice a bit then. “The wolf searched the forest for the rest of the day, trying to stay one step ahead of the two pig brothers while he searched desperately for the third house, where the book had to be.

“Eventually, he found it. As the moon rose up into the night sky, the wolf finally discovered the solid brick house, built right up against the base of the mountain, where it was protected on all but one side. The wolf had only one approach. And as he crept silently up to the house, he found that all the windows were closed and barred. There was no way to see inside.”

“Well,” Avalon sniffed. “In that case, I’ll just–err…” She paused. “The wolf doesn’t have a gun anymore.”

“That’s okay!” Shiori crowed, “he can just use his grenades!”

“The wolf has gren–” Avalon started before shaking it off. “Never mind, yes, the wolf uses his grenades.”

“And the house was blown to smithereens!” Shiori called, throwing her arms out to demonstrate while Choo made a squeaking noise of alarm. “But once again, as the smoke and debris cleared, the wolf found… nothing. In fact, the house seemed oddly empty. Because of course, it was a diversion, a trap!”

“A trap?” Avalon echoed. “A trap for what? Another ninja or a soldier?”

“Neither!” Shiori’s head shook. “The third little pig wasn’t a ninja or a soldier… he was a super-genius! The same super-genius who built his brother’s laser-sword–” Lowering her voice, she stage-whispered, “See, foreshadowing? Wasn’t that pretty–errr, I mean, he was a super-genius! And as the smoke cleared and the wolf found the empty house, the ground rumbled and shook beneath him.”

“If you say he made an earthquake machine, I swear…” Avalon started slowly.

“As the wolf turned around, grumbling about his terrible luck,” Shiori narrated, “he found himself facing not an earthquake machine, but the third pig’s newest invention: a twenty-foot tall mecha!

“You know,” Avalon intoned thoughtfully, “at this point, I really should’ve seen that coming.”

Shiori excitedly continued then, her voice rising into her pig-squeak. “Mr. Wolf, if you truly wish to find the book, face my steel chariot and take a look!” She narrated, “And as the pig finished speaking, a metal panel slid aside to show the wolf’s target: the Necroinkmikon was held in a bulletproof glass cage right in the mech’s chest, surrounded by a dozen guns, cannons, lasers, and flamethrowers!”

“Yeah, you know what?” Avalon muttered, “I don’t think the wolf needs the book that badly.”

“The wolf turned to flee,” Shiori announced. “Only to realize that he’d forgotten… the house was at the base of a mountain! He was trapped, facing the giant mecha ahead and the mountain behind. But even then, the wolf found that his luck had sunk even lower. To one side of the mech, a camo-suited pig, head adorned with his red bandana, appeared with his bow pulled taut. And to the other side, with a flash of smoke, the black-clad ninja pig appeared, his steadily humming laser sword held aloft!”

Switching back and forth between her squeaky pig-voice and her normal narrator voice, the Asian girl continued. “‘You think you’re still a threat–’ the first little pig called to the wolf, before his ninja brother finished, ‘we’ll put you down, no sweat!’ And as the wolf whimpered and backed up against the mountain, their genius brother announced, ‘Let’s go boys, and after we teach him an intricate lesson…’

“All three pigs finished together, their weapons bearing down on the wolf, ‘We’ll visit our delicatessen!’”  

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Study And Scrutiny 20-05

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“I wonder if anyone in my life was actually normal.”

It was Saturday afternoon, the day after the first track classes. I was in one of the protective spell practice chambers with Sean and the twins (err, the ones on my team), each of us taking turns practicing a freeze-bomb spell that Carfried had given everyone for homework. Or dormwork. Whatever you called it when you actually lived in the same place as the school. So far, Scout had been the only one of us who actually managed to get the balls from the spell to freeze the target correctly.

As I finished speaking, Sands looked over at me with a frown from where she was carefully inscribing the spellform on her next metal ball, intent on getting it right that time. “What do you mean, normal?”

Shrugging, I worked on my own ball. “I mean Scott and Calvin both turned out to be Alters. Miranda was recruited by Eden’s Garden. My mom was—well, you know. I wonder who else was around while I was growing up that was actually spying on me for Crossroads, or for Prosser, or for anyone else.”

Vulcan made a noise that was half-whine, straightening up to move over so he could bump his nose against my leg. Smiling despite myself, I took a knee and rubbed his snout. “I know, buddy. Some of them were trying to help, or at least trying to make sure things didn’t get worse than they already were.”

Rearing back, Sean activated his ball and threw it to the other end of the small room. As it hit the wall, the ball exploded with a blue mist that seemed to get everything a bit chilly, but didn’t quite freeze.

“Well, shit then,” the boy muttered before reaching into the nearby box to take out another ball so he could start working on the spell again. “Really thought I had it that time.” Looking to me, he added, “I’m pretty sure there’s plenty of people you know that weren’t involved at all, Flick. It’s just that the only reason you have to interact with them anymore are when they get pulled into this stuff, or were connected to it from the start. The ones that aren’t connected at all, you just… won’t hear from.”

“That and I didn’t really get very close to anyone after my mom left,” I admitted. “There was Miranda, and she was my best friend. But I was pretty much focused on her. And when she had to move, it was just… I didn’t go out of my way to make friends. Mostly I just… stayed in the background, I guess.”

Taking my turn, I triggered the spell and threw the ball. It was my third try, and I was pretty confident. Then again, Sean had been pretty confident too and all he’d actually managed was a brief cold mist. So when the ball hit the wall and promptly created a thick sheet of ice about two feet across, I was surprised enough to let out a gleeful squeal. “Hey, I got it that time! High five for the winners, Scout.”

“Hey, hey, no fives until I can five too.” Sands caught her sister’s wrist, sticking her tongue out at me. “Hold your horses, Flick. I’ve got it this time. Then we can all high five together. And laugh at Sean.”

Snickering in spite of myself, I gestured to the nearby wall. “Go for it. The more fives the merrier.”

Sean, for his part, said something obviously pointed in Spanish before addressing Vulcan. “You see what I put up with?” He then watched as the mechanical dog walked to Scout and sat down. “Traitor.”

Sure enough, Sands’ next throw covered more of the wall with ice. Jumping up with her arms raised, she cheered before doing a front handstand. Holding it for a moment, she winked at me from her upside down position before falling back to her feet. “See?” the girl crowed, “Told you I had it that time.”

Giving both girls high fives, I nodded easily. “When you’re right, you’re right. Now it’s Sean’s turn.”

While he was working on the ball (clearly taking extra time because he didn’t want to fail to get it that time), Sands shifted on her feet. “Any luck looking into Avalon’s mother? You know…” She trailed off, obviously trying not to look too giddy or fangirly about the situation. “Heironymus Bosch’s granddaughter or… great granddaughter or… whatever.”

My head shook. “I still think we’re gonna have to go see the place they used to live. I mean, it’s been a long time, but maybe somebody there remembers her mom. Plus there could be records, a paper trail. She was living with Bystanders long enough for Avalon’s dad to meet her and all that, so there should be something to track her. Hopefully it’ll lead somewhere. We just need to find a good time to go.”

After biting my lip thoughtfully for a second, I teased, “You’re still kinda freaking out about that, huh?”

“That my teammate is related to the guy who founded our entire society?” Sands gave me a wide-eyed look before nodding almost frantically. “Uh, yeah, I’m kinda freaking out about that. Just a little bit.”

Scout giggled a little, but she was nodding too. Clearly, both of them thought it was a pretty big deal.

“Maybe you should come too,” I offered. “When we go look into her past, I mean. After all, you guys are the ones who stayed in the Investigation track. You could see something we end up missing.”

Grinning, Sands quickly replied, “You don’t have to ask us twice. Just let us know when you’re going.”

I shrugged at that. “Of course, but I’m pretty sure it’ll be obvious when we head out. Gotta get Gaia’s permission and all that so she can come up with an excuse about why we’re leaving the island.”

Scout leaned up then and whispered something quietly in her sister’s ear. Sands then promptly looked at me before giggling. “Yeah,” she replied with a nod. “If she ever actually talks to them about it.”

Doing a quick double-take, I blurted out loud, “Wait, huh? If who ever talks to who about what?”

Sands just scoffed at me while rolling her eyes. “Oh, I think you know,” she retorted pointedly.

“I think you know exactly what we’re talking about.”

******

“You’ve got another meeting with Gaia tonight, right?” Shiori asked a few hours later as the two of us walked along the beach together. “For your special extra tutoring stuff, I mean.”

“Yeah.” I nodded, looking back out to the water for a moment while feeling myself blush. Which was weird. We weren’t even talking about anything that sensitive, so why was I blushing like that? “But it’s different tonight. Vanessa and Tristan are supposed to be there so Gaia can try to transfer the anchor spell to her. You know, so he can be linked to his actual twin instead of some girl he barely knows.”

“He knows you better than most other students here,” Shiori pointed out before pausing. “He knows me better than most of them too. Which is fair, I guess, since we’re all pretty much in the same boat.”

Somehow, my hand found hers before I knew what it was doing. “It’ll be okay,” I murmured. “For all of you. Trust me. Trust Gaia. She knows how to keep this stuff secret. She’s been doing it for awhile.”

Shiori’s hand squeezed mine before she looked over to the water with a thoughtful murmur. “Speaking of boats, you went out to see your shark buddies, right? Cuz, you know, they probably missed you.”

“Oh, yeah.” I nodded quickly. “Trust me, that’s one of the first things I did when we got back. I used the breathing spell and went as deep as I could with them. They had all kinds of stuff to show me.”

Giggling a little under her breath, Shiori looked up and down the beach, staring back the way we’d come. “Okay,” she announced after a second. “I think we’re far enough away now. You see anybody?”

Looking back that way as well, I shook my head after scanning the whole beach for a minute. “Nope. Looks clear to me. No sign of anyone, including my shadow. Which is a real treat, let me tell you.”

Shiori snickered audibly at that. “You know, you could just ask Doug why he’s so interested in you.”

“I know,” I replied easily. “I could just ask him, but I want to see what he does first. I mean, if he’s…” Pausing, I lowered my voice reflexively despite the fact that we already would’ve been pretty thoroughly screwed if anything we said was overheard. “If he’s possessed or something, I don’t want to tip my hand just like that. And if it’s something like he thinks I’m connected to Roxa’s disappearance-”

“He wouldn’t be wrong about that,” Shiori pointed out with a raised eyebrow. As she spoke, the girl was already taking the container from her hip. Popping the lid off, she set it down and let Choo crawl out. The little lightning-pig sniffed the sand curiously until she dropped a fun-size snickers bar for him.

As the jekern pounced on the candy, I nodded. “Right, he wouldn’t be wrong. But I also can’t answer his questions. It’s not like I can say, ‘hey, your teammate’s okay, but she got turned into a werewolf by a psychopath. Oh, and on a related note, werewolves and every other Stranger aren’t automatically evil.’”

The two of us started walking again, with Choo jogging to keep up. The little pig kept looking both ways, up and down the beach while happily trotting between us with sparks playing around his snout.

“Yeah,” Shiori agreed after a few seconds of walking. “You’re right, you can’t exactly tell him the truth. He probably wouldn’t—umm, you know, take it very well. You think it’s just him, or his whole team?”

Biting my lip, I thought about it for a second. “I dunno. I mean, he’s the really obvious one. But maybe they’re all involved. I can’t see him keeping it a secret if he thinks I know something. I wouldn’t, in his position. But he’s the one that’s always staring at me. And he obviously switched tracks to follow me.”

“He could just think you’re cute and be really weird and shy about actually talking about it,” she pointed out. Immediate after she finished speaking, the girl’s face turned pink and she coughed. “I mean, did he say anything while you guys were working on your—what was that thing again?”

“Identifying a mystery Stranger and working out how to kill it.” I shook my head then. “And no, I mean nothing that wasn’t about that. He said we should work on more of it Sunday–tomorrow. So maybe he’ll bring up Roxa then. Maybe he just wanted to wait until he can get his whole team there.”

“If he asks about Roxa,” Shiori started while looking sidelong at me. “What are you gonna tell him?”

Wincing, I made a confused flailing motion. “I dunno. That’s why I’m waiting to see what he does.”

By that point, we had reached the spot of the beach that led up into Choo’s little hidey-place. As the two of us approached, Avalon straightened up off the log she had been sitting on and turned to face us. She was silent, but Choo went running right up to nuzzle against her foot while making excited noises.

“See?” I announced with a little smile at that sight. “He likes you almost as much as Herbie does.”

Her eyes rolled, but Avalon still reached down to let the jekern clamber into her hands. Picking him up, she failed to totally contain her little smile at his soft cooing. “You asked me to meet you guys out here, Chambers,” the girl reminded me. “So what’s going on? Tell me something bad didn’t happen again.

“Nothing bad happened,” I quickly assured her. “I mean, that I know of. Sure, bad stuff happened somewhere. Bad stuff happens all the time. Especially now that we know about Strangers and all th–”

“Chambers,” Avalon interrupted, eyebrow raised at me curiously. “You’re babbling. More than usual.”

Flushing, I closed my mouth for a second and took a breath to collect myself. I’d thought that this was a good idea. I knew it was something that needed to be done before someone ended up getting hurt. And yet, standing there like that with both of them watching me, I suddenly felt nervous and self-conscious.

“Um. Okay, yeah.” My head bobbed up and down, and I swallowed the lump in my throat. “I wanted to get both of you out here so we could–” In mid-sentence, I stopped talking and looked up at the sky.

Shiori poked my arm lightly after a moment of that, her expression pensive. “Flick? What’s wrong?”

My head shook quickly as my blush deepened. “Oh, um, nothing. I guess I just sort of expected something dramatic to drop out of the sky right then and interrupt me before I could finish talking.”

They both looked at each other, and I coughed before pushing on. “Okay. No more interruptions, no more excuses, no more… anything but dealing with this.” Biting my lip, I looked between them. Even then, despite what I’d said, there was the temptation to make an excuse and run away. I was… afraid. Afraid of rejection. Afraid of being abandoned again, of being left alone after putting myself out there.

Well screw that. I wasn’t going to let that fear define me. I knew why my mother was gone, and it had nothing to do with wanting to abandon me, or not caring. She had been taken away because she cared.

“I like you.” The words blurted their way out of my mouth almost of their own volition, but I kept going. “B-both of you, I mean. Shiori, Avalon, I like you. As friends, but… but more. I like you as more than friends. I like both of you. I know it’s stupid and weird and selfish, but I do. And I… I don’t want to hurt either of you. I think you’re both… hot and smart and funny in your own ways. I think you’re—I know you’re brilliant, you’re both… amazing. You’re the best, and I couldn’t get through any of this stuff without you. And I know it’s stupid. I know. You date one person. That’s the way it works. But every time I think about… about how happy I’d be dating one of you, I think about… hurting the other person. And I can’t—I can’t just… I’m selfish. I’m stupid and selfish and I can’t do it. I can’t hurt either of you. Which is even more stupid because I don’t even know for sure that you both even think about me like that. I mean I’m pretty sure since all that stuff happened, but maybe you don’t and I’m just babbling for no reason and making myself look even more stupid than I already did, which is saying something.”

Shivering a little, I cleared my throat. “I don’t know if I’m making any sense. I’m not even—I couldn’t even swear that the words are coming out in the right order. The-umm, the point is, I just didn’t want—don’t want to hurt you guys. I don’t want—I don’t want to hug Shiori and make Valley sad if she sees it. I don’t want to kiss Valley and make Shiori… think that I don’t care about her like that. Because I do. I do. I care about both of you, and the last thing I want to do… the last thing I want to do is hurt you.”

Shrugging weakly then, I managed to finish with, “But you guys really don’t feel that way. I just—I figured it should be out in the open before one of us—one of you got hurt. Now we can—we can just deal with it. So, you know, am I being stupid or…”

“You’re not being stupid,” Shiori said quietly. She gave a long sigh before looking at Avalon. “See? I told you she’d bring it up on her own.”

Blinking at that, I looked from Shiori to Avalon. “Wait—wait, you guys talked about this already?”

“Believe it or not,” Avalon started dryly, “we are capable of having a conversation without you, Chambers.”

I was still stammering at that, trying to find the right thing to say, when Shiori spoke up instead. “Avalon came to talk to me after… after you guys kissed.”

My head snapped that way, and I felt my cheeks turn pink. “She—she did?”

Nodding, Shiori spoke quietly. “At first I thought she was… umm… bragging. But she made me listen. She wasn’t bragging, she just… she didn’t want me to be hurt either. Like you. She wanted me to know what happened, and that she cared about you.”

Looking to Avalon then, I swallowed hard. “You… didn’t want Shiori to be hurt. You knew…”

“Of course I knew,” the other girl retorted before giving a little shrug with one shoulder. “And I knew how I’d feel. So I told her.”

“We talked about it,” Shiori put in then. “And we figured we’d wait and see what you wanted to do.”

“Up to a point,” Avalon cut in. “If you waited much longer, I was going to force the issue.”

Coughing, I ran my hands all the way back and down through my hair. “Oh. Um. Right. So… what do we do about it?”

The two of them looked at each other again. After a few seconds of silence, Shiori spoke up. “Well, um, maybe we should get it all out in the open.” She looked to me then. “I like you, Flick. I mean—I knew I liked girls for a long time. And I kinda had a crush on Roxa for awhile. But you—I like you. I think you’re—umm, great. I–” Her head bobbed up and down quickly as she blushed. “Really great.”

Clearing her throat, she looked to the other girl. “Um, your turn.”

Silence reigned for a few long seconds. Silence, that was, save for the sound of Choo cheerfully snuffling against the girl’s hands.

Finally, Avalon breathed out and straightened up to meet my gaze. “Okay, fine. Chambers—Felicity… I… I like you, okay? There, I said it out loud.”

Unable to help myself, I teased, “Are you about to spontaneously combust?”

“You know what?” she half-snapped. “You can–” Stopping herself, she sighed and slumped down a bit. “I’m sorry. I just—this is supposed to be easy, but it’s not.”

I shook my head at that. “I don’t think it’s supposed to be easy. Not even in the most normal of circumstances, and… well, let’s be honest, this isn’t.”

The three of us nodded silently to each other for a thoughtful moment before I continued. “So, I like you, and I like you.” I nodded to each of them in turn. “And—well, I guess you like me. And you like me. But you guys don’t…”

Shiori shook her head quickly. “No—I mean sure, she’s hot.” She glanced sidelong to Avalon. “Really hot. But I don’t think about her like that. I don’t mind being friends, and she’s really good with Choo, but… no, I don’t want to like—date her or anything.”

“And I don’t want to date her,” Avalon confirmed. “I’m barely okay with the idea of liking you, Chambers. I’m not adding something else on top of that.”

“Right, right.” I bit my lip. “So… what do we do now? I don’t think it’s—I know it’s not fair that I can’t decide—God, could I be any more selfish? I just—I don’t want to hurt you guys.”

“You’re not asking us to marry you, Chambers,” Avalon pointed out flatly. “Look, I—it’s like I told Porter over there. Heretics aren’t exactly known for being strictly monogamous. They live such… varied and different life spans. Someone could live sixty years and their wife could live five hundred. The point is, they—they have more than one romantic relationship at the same time, all right? Not everyone, but enough that it’s nothing new.”

My mouth opened and shut. “I—you mean date both of you at the same time? How… how does that work?”

“That’s what I said,” Shiori put in, blushing just as much as I was pretty sure I was. “And I’m still not sure exactly how I feel about it.”

Avalon sighed. “Chambers, I don’t know—I don’t know how good of a… of a date I’d be. I really don’t. I… freak out, I pull away, I… I do stupid things. You deserve to be with someone who can—who can be comfortable with all that stuff. But I’m selfish too. You say you’re selfish? So am I. So I don’t want to just let you go. I want to try. I want to… to try. But I want you to be able to do all that stuff that makes me uncomfortable too. So yeah, sometimes you and I can do stuff. And other times you and Porter can do stuff. Other than that… maybe it won’t work out. But at least we gave it a shot.”

“At least we gave it a shot,” I echoed, smiling just a little bit. “Have there ever been more romantic words?”

Her free hand snapped out, punching me in the shoulder, and I yelped in the midst of snickering. “Oww—sorry not sorry.”

Rubbing my shoulder, I smiled a little while looking back and forth at them. “I… guess we could see what happens. And if anyone gets too uncomfortable with it, we just… reevaluate. That’s all I want, is for everyone to… to talk to each other. So what do we call this whole… dating both of you thing?”

“Call it whatever you want,” Avalon answered. “I just—I just want you to be happy, Cha—Felicity. I want to… try. So if you want to, we can… try.”

“Trying sounds good,” I agreed, biting my lip. “I guess this whole thing makes me really lucky, no matter how it turns out. Just—both of you being interested in me, even if it doesn’t work out, it really… it really could do a number on my ego, you know?”

“Oooh, oooh!” Shiori perked up suddenly. “I–”

“Oh God, don’t say it,” Avalon interrupted, hanging her head. “Please don’t say it.”

She said it. Face bright, Shiori cheerfully announced, “I guess some people have amorous feelings, but you get a-more-us feelings.”

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Winter Wonderland 18-04

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Please note, there was a commissioned mini-interlude focusing on the staff reacting to the Fomorian situation back at Thanksgiving posted a couple days ago. If you haven’t seen that yet, you may wish to click the Previous Chapter button. 

Somehow, through sheer force of will, I stopped my hand from grabbing my weapon canister. I had a feeling that, regardless of what Asenath had said in our defense to get Shiori and me in here, pulling a weapon on one of their leaders wouldn’t go over that well. I’d ruin the tentative peace that Senny had obviously put a lot of work into preparing before our arrival. And I didn’t want to do that, no matter how much the sight of the drug-pushing slimy little weasel that used to be my boss raised my hackles.

He looked just like he had the night I’d helped Scott bust his side business. Tall, probably about six and a half feet, with shockingly red hair bursting out in every direction from his scalp. He looked like Carrot Top on stilts. With, of course, about a hundred pounds of extra weight. He was not a thin man.

“How?” I demanded in a flat voice while tightening my hand to the point that my nails were digging into my palm. It hurt, but it was a pleasant distraction from my own confusion. “How are you here?”

Apparently the smirk on Calvin’s face could grow bigger. “Well,” he drawled with obvious amusement. “You see, when two adults really like each other, or sometimes when they’re just bored and horny, th-”

“Oh, shut up.” Just because I couldn’t hit him without causing an incident didn’t mean I was going to be passive, especially when he was being gross. I’d put up with enough of that back when he’d been my boss. I wasn’t about to roll over for it now, no matter how important he was suddenly supposed to be.

“Flick?” Shiori looked back and forth between us, uncertainty written over her face. “You know him?”

Before I could say anything to that, Calvin spoke up. “Oh, we know each other all right. Little Flickster here used to be my employee. Not that she was that good at listening to instructions.” Shaking his head lamentingly, he added, “Can’t even tell you how many times I tried to point out that she’d get a lot further in life if she just wore slightly tighter pants.” Calvin shook his head slowly before abruptly snapping his fingers as if he’d forgotten. “Oh, and then she had to go and be an annoying little snitch.”

Asenath was abruptly between the two of us, facing Calvin. “My friend here is playing nice because she doesn’t want to scare everyone that’s already worried about having a Heretic around,” the vampire informed him darkly. “But the thing is, I’m not a Heretic. So I don’t feel the same need to limit myself.”

The man paused, his eyes flicking toward me as that smile of amusement faded just a little before returning. He stepped back, hands raised in surrender. “All right, all right, I can tell when someone’s sense of humor isn’t firing along the same cylinders as mine. Take it easy, I’m not starting anything.”

“Good,” Senny replied coolly, her gaze staying on the man as he stepped back. “Then I won’t finish it.”

In the background, I noticed that most of the pixies had flown away to hide in the corners of the store, getting out of the line of fire. Some had even flown away completely, abandoning the place through a back entrance as well as a couple of holes in the wall that led who knew where. Away from here.

Namythiet, however, just flew up off the emerald saber-toothed kitten, landing on my shoulder. “Wit was the Sept before. Wit was a good Sept. Not like his son.” She gave the man an annoyed scowl.

“Wait,” I interrupted, blinking. “Wit was his father’s name?” Looking to the steadily smirking man, I murmured in realization, “Witson. You used the last name Witson in Laramie Falls. Wit’s Son.”

Without taking my eyes off the red-haired man, I explained to Shiori. “Calvin owned and managed the movie theater I used to work at. And some other places in town. He was a real big-shot. Not big enough to stop the cops from busting him down so hard he had to sell the place and disappear after he got caught slinging his drug crap on the side, though.” Smiling faintly at him, I added, “Isn’t that right?”

“Don’t flatter yourself so much, kiddy,” he retorted. “You think I couldn’t beat a simple drug charge? That’s peanuts. I could pay that fine and be back on top within a month. I left cuz my old man kicked the bucket.” Jerking his thumb over his shoulder to indicate the rest of the mall, Calvin continued. “So I had to come back here and take up his old position. Help lead this place into a new and brighter future.”

“Aww,” I managed to sound sickly-sweet. “They must be so relieved to finally have a sleazy, greasy, drug-pushing slumlord around to show them what they’ve been missing with all their more-than-weekly showers and vaguely functioning brain cells. I’m sure you’re showing them just how much you bring to the table. Though they might want to try counting the silverware before they let you leave the table…”

It was probably stupid to antagonize and belittle the man like that. But the fact was, seeing him took me completely by surprise. And when I’m surprised, I tended to say things I shouldn’t. Not that I didn’t say things I shouldn’t when I wasn’t surprised, but it was slightly more prevalent while I was reeling.

He gave me a look of annoyance before masking it with a smile that failed to fully reach his eyes. “Now that you know all about Alters and our world, you should really be thanking me, you know.”

Thanking you,” I echoed in disbelief before staring at the man for a moment. “Why, exactly, do you think I should thank you for… anything? What, I should be grateful that you didn’t use whatever power you’ve got to hurt Scott or me when we caught you? For all I know, you did try something and the Bystander Effect just erased it.” The thought itself made me queasy, even though I was pretty sure things had gone down the way I remembered them happening. I just couldn’t be completely positive.

“Nope.” Calvin paused before waving his hand. “Well yeah, that too, I guess. But what I mean is, you should thank me for the drug thing. You know, the thing you had to play super girl scout and stop.”

Before I could demand to know why the hell I should thank him for that, Asenath spoke up quietly. “He’s a Bebarlang, Flick.” She looked over her shoulder at me. “Better known as a psychic vampire.”

“A psychic vampire?” Shiori repeated, head tilting as she stood beside me. Choo and Clubber had perched themselves on either side of her feet, peering up at us curiously. “Does he use tarot cards?”

Senny shook her head. “Not that kind of psychic. And not exactly a real vampire either. His kind aren’t related to mine at all. They feed off psychic energy instead of actual blood. Whenever someone dreams, they give off a sort of… aura that the Bebarlang can feed off of, if they’ve touched the person recently.”

“That’s why you gave out the drugs yourself,” I realized. “So you could touch the people that were getting them. But I’m still not exactly seeing why I should thank you for feeding off innocent people.”

Calvin spread his arms innocently. “Guy’s gotta eat, you know. And you should thank me because I used drugs. See, most Bebarlang feed by forcing people to have nightmares. Terrible, nasty, awful nightmares. The ahh, terror spices up the psychic energy you give off. It’s really quite delicious. Think of it as flavoring. Otherwise, eating that stuff is just bland and nasty. So we make it better with a little fear. Any emotional energy works, really. Fear is just the most common. So they scare people, give them nightmares and then gorge themselves on the yummy energy they give off when they dream.”

He smiled at me. “But I didn’t wanna scare people. Too much work, too much… chance of attracting attention if a bunch of humans start having nightmares all the time. So I figured out, get people high and hallucinating, and the energy they give off is just… oh, it’s incredible. If you were a Bebarlang, I’d say you’ve gotta try it. But hey, if you happen to kill one of them, maybe you’ll get the chance after all.”

Scowling at his choice of words, I took a moment to consider what he was talking about. “You’re saying you got people high so that you could feed off them, instead of forcing nightmares on them.”

“Just call me an altruist,” Calvin drawled, his smirk widening. “No one really got hurt, and I got to feed without traumatizing them. I’m not a complete monster.” Leaning slightly closer (though Senny was still between us), he added, “You can’t fault a guy for having to eat to survive, would you? After all, you’re supposed to be the kind, understanding Heretic. What do you want me to do, starve to death?”

God, I wanted to snap at him. I wanted to lash out, because he was just so… smug about it. But I stopped myself, and thought about what he was saying. My first instinct was, of course, to point out that he was still feeding off of people’s energy against their will, without their permission. But that was stupid. They couldn’t give permission because of the Bystander Effect. And how much did they need the so-called ‘psychic energy’ they were giving off? Was it just stuff that would fade out anyway?

In the end, I nodded. “You’re right, it is better for you to do it that way instead of terrifying people and feeding off their nightmares.” Before his smile could grow anymore, I held up a hand. “But you know what? You’re still an asshole. Because you dealt to teenagers, kids. I saw the people who came into that theater, the people you dealt to. They weren’t exactly of legal age. You could’ve dealt your shit to people who are at least old enough to make the choice for themselves. But you didn’t. At least, not all the time. You gave that shit to people who were too young to even buy cigarettes. So don’t try acting all benevolent now. You helped get kids hooked on that garbage. Probably because they’re easy targets, and great repeat customers, since they won’t exactly know where else they can go to get their fix.”

Far from looking abashed, Calvin just gave a casual shrug. “Hey, I said I wasn’t a complete monster. Never claimed to be a saint. I doubt you’re Miss Perfect anyway. I mean–” His gaze turned into that familiar leer. “What’d you do for Deputy Boy Scout to get him wrapped around your little finger?”

The disgust I felt at his insinuation right there was enough to nearly make me dry heave. Or worse. And I almost completely forgot my private vow not to hit the guy and cause problems in this place. Honestly, it was probably more my shock that he would imply such a thing that stalled me long enough so I didn’t lash out more than any sense of decorum or diplomacy. I was too surprised to punch him.

Shiori, on the other hand, went to lunge at the man. The little Asian girl’s eyes were wide as she brought her hands up and took a step forward, only to have Asenath catch her around the waist.

“Easy, Reathma,” she murmured. “He wants to get a rise out of you. I heard one of the Septs voted against allowing you in, even after hearing the whole story. I guess we know which one it was now.”

“Ooh, feisty.” Calvin looked intrigued as he watched Shiori. Then he paused, looking back and forth between us for a moment with a curious expression. “And oddly defensive. Wait a sec, are you two–”

Asenath’s hand lashed out, smacking the man in the chest hard enough to make him stumble back into the nearby wall with a grunt. Her head turned to stare at him. “Like I said, I don’t have to be nice.”

“Is there a problem here?” The voice of the bird-man, Quing, interrupted. He was standing in the doorway, his eyes focused not on Calvin, but on Shiori and me, while his hand rested on the hilt of one of his knives. “I was told your Heretic friends knew how to behave themselves in civilized society.”

Namythiet flew off my shoulder, hovering directly in front of the security man’s face. “He started it!”

“It’s okay, Quing.” Calvin waved the annoyed bird-man away. “The little one’s right, I had it coming. And it wasn’t the Heretics who did the shoving anyway. They’ve been perfectly behaved little angels.”

Pausing, he looked back to me with narrowed eyes. “For now, anyway. But keep an eye on this one. She likes to think she’s smarter than she is. And she doesn’t know when to leave well enough alone.”

His expression abruptly turned to a smile, and he waved casually at us. “See you soon, Flicker… and friends. The rest of the Septs are really interested in meeting you. Hope you don’t disappoint them.”

Then he was gone, whistling as he walked out into the mall. I watched his big bushy red hair vanish into the crowd before muttering under my breath, “I really don’t like that guy.” Wincing as soon as the words left my mouth, I looked to Quing. “Err, sorry. I guess that was rude for one of your leaders.”

Quing just watched me with those sharp eyes for a few seconds before giving a shake of his head. “You can say whatever you want. We aren’t totalitarian monsters. Criticize as much as you wish. But raise a hand to any of the people under my care, Sept or not, and I’ll make sure you never raise a hand again.”

“I’ll defend myself,” I replied to him without breaking his gaze. “That’s it. I don’t want to cause any problems, but I’m not going to just roll over and be a punching bag either. Respect goes both ways.”

The bird-man gave me a short, sharp nod before pivoting. “Come,” he muttered toward us while starting to walk back out. “He was right about one thing. The rest of the Septs are waiting to meet you.”

Biting my lip, I looked at Namythiet, who was still hovering in the air nearby. “How about we have that tour after this meeting? Assuming we don’t get kicked out on our hindquarters by the time it’s over.”

The little pixie’s head bobbed up and down rapidly. “Good luck!” she chirped. “I’d come with, but I’m not allowed in the Sept Hall.” Visibly pouting then, she added, “Like it’s my fault I had to chase the Zezaflies in there before. What was I supposed to do, just leave them alone? They’re Zezaflies!”

Well, that definitely sounded like a story that I really wanted to hear more of, but Quing was already impatient, so I looked to Shiori. “Ready to meet the leaders of this place and play Heretic Diplomats?”

Nodding, Shiori crouched down to rub Choo’s face before presenting him with a little bag of salted pretzels, which he immediately started to devour. “Stay here, okay? Play with your new friend.” She gestured to Clubber before looking toward Namythiet. “I mean, if that’s okay? I don’t think the little guy’s ready to sit around a meeting room with a bunch of important bigwigs.”

The pixie smiled brightly, landing between Clubber and Choo. “O’course!” she chirped. “We’ll have fun.”

Leaving them to it, Shiori, Asenath, and I followed after Quing. The bird-man led us through the mall, and I got to see dozens more Alters either openly staring at us, or trying to pretend they weren’t. Most hid behind things, making sure there was something between us and them. Others went as far as to quickly shut doors as we passed. Some, mostly little ones, watched us with more curiosity than fear. A couple even tried to approach, only to be quickly yanked back by their parents or guardians. These were people who were accustomed to being hunted by Heretics, and they weren’t exactly ready to believe that we weren’t about to start killing them any second.

Eventually, we arrived in front of one of the mall’s anchor stores. According to the sign above, it had been a Sears. But the ‘a’ and the ‘r’ had been crossed out, and a ‘p’ and ‘t’ had been spray painted above them. Septs.

We walked inside, passing about half a dozen more armed guards that watched us with clear and obvious suspicion before reaching the escalator. Even more guards stood at both the top and bottom, and we had to pass between them to ride the moving stairs all the way to the top. They were not fooling around here.

At the top, in what looked like it had been the entertainment section, we found seven comfortable armchairs set up facing us. Behind and around them, a semi-circle wall of televisions and computer monitors had been set up. Most showed a different view from somewhere in the mall, or the surrounding parking lot, though a few displayed various familiar TV shows and movies.

In those chairs sat seven figures. The one on the far right was Calvin. He lounged there, watching his fellow Septs more than he was watching us.

Beside the man, to his left, sat a rock-like figure. He looked sort of like the Thing from the Fantastic Four, only dull gray instead of orange. And his head had long, gleaming silver hair that looked like strands of metal. Next to him sat a Rakshasa, one of the cat-people. Beyond that, I saw a male that I thought was a vampire, a centaur who was actually standing behind the chair that was supposed to be his, an older, yet still somehow regally beautiful female figure with blue skin and white hair, and a very small (though not as small as Namythiet) guy that looked a bit like a garden gnome.

“Heretics.” The Rakshasa spoke from her seat, cat-eyes watching us intently. “Asenath tells us that we should listen to what you have to say, that we will be interested in your claims of peace and alliance.” She paused, looking left, then right at her fellow Septs before focusing on us again. “Is this true?”

Something caught in my throat. I stopped, biting my lip as a rush of thoughts and doubts ran through my mind. What if I said the wrong thing? What if telling them anything was a bad idea, and it somehow got back to Ruthers? I wasn’t sure how, since he wasn’t the type to listen to Alter rumors anyway. But still… doubts and uncertainty plagued me long enough that the Septs started to whisper to one another, their doubts clearly magnifying.

I had to. Clearing my throat, I straightened as much as I could. “Your—umm… Septs? I’m sorry, I don’t know the… the right term…” Shaking that off, I tried to quell my nerves. Just do it, Flick. Just talk. Tell the truth. “I could tell you about myself, about my friends. But honestly, we’re not the ones you need to hear about.”

“What you need to hear about… is a woman named Joselyn Atherby.”

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Winter Wonderland 18-03

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A sneezing sound interrupted before I could say anything in response to Senny’s announcement. A familiar sneezing sound, that immediately made my head snap over toward Shiori.

Sure enough, Choo was sticking his head up out of a container on her hip that she had just opened. The little warthog-like Jerkern was looking around with obvious interest, head turning this way and that.

“You brought Choo?” I asked, surprised at the appearance of the little guy. “How?”

Shiori blushed, rubbing a couple fingers over his head. “I couldn’t just leave him alone for three weeks. Even if Avalon visited him, he’d get lonely. So… she talked to Gaia and found out that as long as he’s in one of these containers like they give us for our weapons, he’s technically not on school grounds because of the whole extra-dimensional pocket thing. If it stays closed and he never pops out, the security spells won’t detect him. So I put him in there and it let me take him through the grounds to the portal to go home. I was about to tell you about it, but then Senny talked about her big surprise with bringing us here, and I sort of got distracted.”

After hesitating slightly, I smiled and reached out to rub under the Jekern’s pig-like snout. “I get it. Wouldn’t want to make you think Shiori abandoned you, would we, little guy?”

In response, Choo sneezed sparks of electricity over my hand, then gave it a quick, curious lick.

“I think he’s hungry,” I informed the other girl as the little lightning-warthog continued licking my palm.

Shiori snorted, reaching into her pocket. “He’s always hungry.” Pulling out a raw carrot, she offered it to him. “Here you go, buddy.” Her smile grew as Choo proceeded to start chomping happily at the thing.

While the other girl was busy feeding her pet, I focused on looking around once more. “So this whole place is just, like, one big hiding place for Alters?” I murmured quietly, marveling even more as I looked around at all the little stores again. Everything looked simultaneously incredible and normal. The Alters here may have looked strange to me, but the things they were doing were just ordinary, like they were normal people trying to live their lives. Of course there were things I wouldn’t see in the Bystander world. They were selling magic, I saw one silver-skinned figure literally step through a solid wall before continuing on their way, and those pixies were still flying around. But at the heart of it, when you looked past all the uniqueness, they were just… people, people trying to live.

“It’s more than a hiding place,” Senny replied, watching the same people that I was. Her voice was soft and contemplative. “It’s a home. Like I said, it’s a place they don’t have to worry about being hunted.”

I felt the approach of someone with a gun and plethora of bladed weapons, along with a notepad, radio, and some jingling coins. Turning that way, I found tall (though not nearly as tall as Buddy) humanoid-bird figure with dark blue feathers and a beak. He looked like Falco from Starfox, and he was wearing what looked like a more official security outfit than Buddy. He did not, however, look quite as friendly.

“She’s right,” he spoke up flatly, in a voice that sounded far more gravelly than I would’ve expected it to. And whenever his beak closed far enough while he was talking, there was a sharp clacking noise. “People don’t have to worry about being hunted here. So you endanger that, and I’ll make sure you-”

Then Senny was there, hand on the bird-man’s chest to stop him from stalking closer. “Easy, Quing. You heard the Septs. Felicity and Reathma are allowed to be here. I already told you, I trust them.”

The bird-man, Quing, apparently, stared over her shoulder at the two of us. “Never said they weren’t,” he ground out with obvious annoyance. “Wouldn’t dream of going against the Septs’ decision. Nope.”

He gave us another look that clearly screamed that he wasn’t going to stop watching us before stalking past. As he did, I noticed that he had a pair of wings separate from his arms. They were folded tight against his back, but rustled with annoyance as if he could barely control himself from lashing out.

Once he was far enough away, I looked to Senny. “That man is not happy about us being here, is he?”

“Quing was the most outspoken voice against it,” the vampire explained quietly, her eyes focused on the pixie shop. “He sees himself as responsible for everyone’s safety. Buddy is the physical and visible deterrent, and Quing is the… subtle one, the one who watches threats and points Buddy at them.”

The big troll himself spoke up then, sounding just as pleased and optimistic as before. “Quing is laser. I am missile. Quing point, I blow up.” Grinning happily, he put his hands together before moving them apart like an explosion while mimicking the sound. “Boom. No more of dze bad guys. Buddy System.”

“Like the military,” Shiori put in. “He paints the target like a laser, then you fly in like a missile and… well, you destroy them.” She glanced toward me before adding, “Makes sense. Isn’t he a Lavinsi?”

“He’s a what?” I blinked, trying to remember if I’d heard that name before. It didn’t sound familiar.

Shiori blushed. “Oh, right, sorry. We learned about them in the Hunter’s track. They’re bird-men with all kinds of vision powers. X-Ray, telescopic, heat, all that stuff. And they’re really, really good at reading body language. A lot of powerful Alters use them as bodyguards because they can tell if someone’s about to attack or even if they’re doing something subtle, like about to use poison. Or even if people are lying. They’re so good at reading body language and facial expressions that a lot of people used to think they were telepathic. Until…” She trailed off, cringing as her expression fell from eager to ashamed. “Until Heretics killed enough of them to figure out what kind of powers they were getting.”

“He is a Lavinsi,” Asenath confirmed. “And Heretics killed most of his family, including his son. That’s why Quing hates them so much. It’s why he doesn’t trust you. I’m sorry, it’s just… the way things are.”

“It shouldn’t be,” I replied flatly while looking after the the way the bird-man had gone. I wondered if he had been a part of Mom’s rebellion. Or would he not have trusted her that much? How different would his life be if Ruthers and his ilk hadn’t erased everyone’s memory? How different would this entire place and everyone in it be if the rebellion had continued, if they hadn’t had their minds wiped?

A heavy hand settled over my shoulder, large enough to practically encircle my entire torso. When I glanced that way, I found Buddy giving me another smile of encouragement. “You are not dze same as dze odzer Heretics. I have seen dzem. Fought dzem. Lost some. Von some. You are not like dzem.”

Taking in a long, deep breath before putting my hand over one of the troll’s fingers to squeeze, I nodded. “I’m trying not to be. Thanks, big guy. Sorry your partner isn’t happy about us being here.”

“Quing will feel better soon,” the big troll assured me while moving his hand. “You vill change mind, not for arguing, but for not doing dze bad sings dzat he sinks you vill do. Dzat is how to change mind.”

Smiling, I gave him a quick pat on the arm. “You’re a smart guy, Buddy. They’re lucky to have you here.” Then I glanced to Asenath. “He mentioned the Septs. Isn’t a Sept like a clan or something?”

“Yes, but not in this case,” Senny replied. “The name Septs comes from the Latin word Septem, or Seven. There’s, you know, seven of them and they’re basically the leadership for this place. Actually, they’re kind of the leadership for a few different places, but this is the biggest one. The rest are all little settlements scattered around here and there. The Septs mediate disputes, pass judgments, establish and interpret the rules, and all the rest of that stuff. They’re the judges and the leaders, and their territory covers… hmm, maybe about a quarter of the United States? A little less. Mostly in the North-West.”

“Does that include Wyoming?” I asked, curious about how this whole thing was set up. “And how do they decide who the Septs are. Is it an inherited title like royalty, or do they fight for it, or… what?”

Senny nodded again. “It covers most of Wyoming, yeah. The edge of their territory is right around the south-eastern area of the state. It comes down around most of Utah, then up through Nevada and cuts through down through most of California. For the most part, they control Wyoming, Montana, Utah, Nevada, California, Oregon, Washington, and Idaho. But there’s obviously disputes. You know, some groups just don’t like following the Septs’ rules, yet they want to live there. It gets violent sometimes.”

She trailed off then, looking away like she was remembering something before shaking it off. “Anyway, like I said, there’s seven of them. As for how they’re chosen, it’s a mixture. Three of the positions are sort-of inherited. Basically, the last person in that position designates a successor. It’s usually one of their relatives, but sometimes it’s a friend or a student. Then the next three are voted in by every ‘member in good-standing’ every ten years. Basically, if you live in this area, follow the rules and aren’t considered an enemy, you get to vote. So three and three, half inherited, half voted on.”

“And the last one?” I asked, even more curious by that point. This was obviously a lot more thought out and civilized than people at Crossroads or even Eden’s Garden would’ve given them credit for.

“Tie-Breaker,” Senny explained. “That’s what the seventh member of the Septs is called, it’s their title. That’s the one that’s earned through battle. One day a year, the Tie-Breaker can be challenged to a fight. If the challenger wins, they become the new Tie-Breaker, the new seventh member of the Septs.”

Shiori whistled low. “And here I thought you guys just sort-of all ran around doing your own thing.”

Chuckling, Senny shrugged. “For the most part, we do. The ones who don’t live here or in one of the smaller settlements mostly do our own thing. Especially those of us who don’t really stay in one place that often. I move in and out of the Septs’ territory a lot. But there has to be some kind of organization. It can’t all just be complete anarchy, even if there’s some who would actually prefer it that way.”

Shaking her head, she gestured before starting off. “Come on, we’ve been standing here long enough. Let me show you around before we meet the Septs. They’ve been wanting to talk to you for awhile.”

I blinked, glancing toward Shiori before starting to follow. “They want to talk to us? Um. How much do they know? I mean, you called Shiori your sister, so… did you tell them about, you know, me?”

Senny paused before looking over her shoulder. Her face was serious. “Not all of it. I didn’t tell them about your mother or any of that. I figured that was yours to share if you want to. It’s kind of a big deal. But I did tell them that you were different, that you had a connection to a group of Heretics that don’t think that all of us are evil, and that there’s more to it. If you want to tell them the rest, that’s up to you.”

I hesitated, thinking about it. From what Avalon had explained (after learning from Gaia), since I wasn’t actually targeted directly by the original memory spell, I could tell them about my mother and their little rebellion. The mnemosyne magic wouldn’t stop me, because I was just sharing a story rather than a specific memory. I had learned about Mom’s rebellion myself, which meant there was a rather big loophole. If I chose to, I could tell these Septs that there had been a major Heretic-Alter alliance against Crossroads and Eden’s Garden before their memories were erased. But was telling them that the best idea? My instinct said it was, but I didn’t want to jump into it without considering the consequences.

So I thought long and hard about it, while Asenath began to show us around the place they called Wonderland. We started by going into the store where the pixies were flying around, doing their little shows. Most of them immediately flew away, pretty much hiding behind safety screens or completely disappearing from sight. But a few actually fluttered up a bit closer, clearly curious to see Shiori and me, even if they were still obviously nervous and incredibly skittish about the whole situation.

Well, most of them were obviously nervous. One, however, came flying straight up to hover in front of my face. She was a tiny thing, with bright violet wings and dark blue hair. She was wearing what looked like leather armor, and she had a needle-like sword sheathed at her side. When she spoke, her voice was high-pitched and excitable. “Hello!” She waved with both hands. “Hi, I’m Namythiet!”

“Oh, uh, hi.” Leaning back a little to see the winged figure a little more clearly (she was hovering very close), I examined her. All of them were tiny, of course. But somehow, this one looked even smaller. Going by her face and build, my guess was that she was still a young pixie, maybe in her early teens. Assuming pixies had ‘teenagers’ of course. The point was, most of the others I had seen in the store looked like women (albeit incredibly small ones), and this one looked like barely more than a child.

“Namythut, you said your name was?” I asked, hesitantly holding my hand up with a couple fingers out for her to perch on if she wanted to. I wasn’t sure what the etiquette for that sort of thing was, so I hoped it wasn’t rude.

If she was offended, the tiny pixie didn’t show it. She just landed on my fingers before straightening up. Now that I had a close look at her, I estimated her size at about four and a half inches. Meanwhile, the adult pixies that were hovering in the background, watching us with obvious uncertainty, mostly topped out at about six inches or so. It looked like human heights, except with inches instead of feet.

“It’s Namythiet,” the little pixie corrected me. “Nah-Mee-Thee-It. Namythiet. And you’re a Heretic.”

There was a collective gasp from the other pixies, as if they were afraid that having it stated flat out was going to send me into some kind of murderous rage, or like they thought I’d somehow forgotten about being a Heretic, and reminding me would make me suddenly realize I was supposed to kill them.

“Oh, don’t be such big babies,” Namythiet snapped over her shoulder at the rest of the pixies. “Senny says they’re nice, so they’re nice. You think Senny’s stupid or something? She wouldn’t bring bad Heretics here.” Turning back to me, she puffed herself up a bit proudly, hand settling onto the hilt of her little sword. “Besides, if you guys cause any trouble, you’ll have to deal with me and Clubber.”

Shiori piped up from beside me, “Is that Clubber?” She nodded to the sword at the pixie’s hip.

Giggling, Namythiet shook her head. “Nope. That’s Clubber.” She lifted a hand to point off to the side.

The two of us looked that way, only to find what looked like the world’s smallest, greenest saber-toothed tiger. The thing was obviously still a kitten, its emerald fur bright against the white cushion it was sitting on. It yawned at us, showing off impressive fangs for its size.

Choo had popped out again, and after making sure it was all right, Shiori carefully took him out of her little container and set him down on the cushion beside Clubber. The Jekern and the tiny saber-toothed tiger proceeded to sniff and investigate one another.

“So you and Clubber protect this place, huh?” I asked Namythiet.

The little pixie bobbed her head rapidly. “Yup! Dozeran’s teaching me how to fight. I’m his apprentice!”

“The tie-breaker,” Asenath explained. “Dozeran’s the current tie-breaker of the Septs.” To Namythiet, she added, “You wanna help me show them around? You spend more time here than I do.”

Perking up, Namythiet hovered up off my finger, hands on her hips. “You mean it? You want me to come with?”

I had to smile at her enthusiasm. “Sure, if you’re not too busy keeping the riffraff out of here.”

“Eh,” she waved a hand dismissively. “They can get along on their own for awhile. Clubber!” Whistling, the little pixie flew that way before landing on the saber-toothed kitten’s back. “Let’s go, boy!”

With that, Clubber hopped to the floor with the pixie on his back and pranced to the doorway, with Choo following along behind. Shiori and I looked at each other, giggling in spite of ourselves before we trailed after them.

“So!” Namythiet called up from her mount once we were all back in the mall proper. “Whattaya wanna see first, huh? What’re you interested in, big-Heretic-people?”

“Yeah,” a strangely familiar voice spoke up from nearby. “I’m kind of interested in that too. What are you interested in… Heretics?”

I turned that way. My Stranger-sense, which had been quiet for awhile after giving me the initial screaming warning about all the Alters around me, kicked in again to inform me that the figure standing a few feet away was, in fact, also not human.

“Septer,” Asenath greeted the figure with obvious surprise. “We didn’t expect to see any of you until I brought them to the meeting hall.” To us, she added, “Septer is the title for any member of the Septs. This is one of the inherited positions. His name is–”

“I know his name,” I retorted flatly. I hadn’t looked away from the man, had barely blinked. “And he knows me.”

Calvin. The man who had been my boss at the theater, the one whose little drug ring I had helped dismantle as one of the last things I’d done before being recruited by Crossroads. The man who had pretty much run or had heavy investments in half the businesses in Laramie Falls before I helped Scott take him down so that he had to sell off almost all his holdings.

My drug-dealing, skeevy old boss was one of the Septs. He was one of the people in charge here. He was an Alter.

Well…. shit.

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Mini-Interlude 9 – The Team

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Please note that the following commissioned mini-interlude takes place before the events of the current arc, during the week between Thanksgiving and the trip to the hospital.

“Do we have to do this out here?” Sands groaned the question as she and the rest of their team, plus Shiori, walked along the beach far away from the rest of the school. “I already promised not to say anything about the… you-know-what.”

“He has a name,” the Asian girl pointed out a little primly. “It’s Choo. And trust me, Sands, you are gonna love the little guy if you give him a chance. He’s so adorable.

“Yeah,” Sands grunted. “An adorable little murder–” Stopping herself, she breathed out hard. “Sorry.”

Shiori flinched noticeably, but shook her head. “It’s okay. I know you’re trying. And at least you’ll remember to keep him a secret.”

Ouch. Sands didn’t even have to look toward Sean to know that the boy had flinched. Shiori was pretty pissed off at him for spilling some kind of secret to his uncles without permission. But hey, she’d agreed to have him come out with them, so maybe she was starting to get over it a little bit.

After three more steps, Sands made a face. “You know, guys, I really don’t like this. I think I’m just gonna head back. This is… it’s a bad idea.”

She started to step away, but found one of Avalon’s crutches blocking her path. “That’s the privacy generator talking,” the other girl said simply before nodding toward Shiori.

In response, Shiori practically skipped up a bit past the jungle line, digging around in one of the trees before coming back with a device that looked like a walkie-talkie with an antennae on each of the four corners, and a snowglobe attached to the bottom with three little smoke stacks in it.

Under Avalon’s guidance, Shiori went around pressing the globe part of the device against each of their ears in order to spit some of that produced smoke into them. Once Sands had her turn, the urge to leave the area immediately faded. Mostly, anyway.

Then Shiori pivoted on her heel, calling, “Choo! You awake, little buddy?” Immediately, there was a high-pitched, squirrel-like squealing sound before the bushes rustled. In the next second, the animal in question burst into view, running straight for the girl who had called him.

It was a Jekern, and even knowing it was coming, Sands still had to restrain the initial reaction from her Stranger-sense going off. She took a reflexive step back, eyes following the tiny warthog-thing as it raced straight to Shiori and perched there on her foot. Then the thing’s eyes looked around at all the new people, and the soft squeaks of delight it was making turned into growls, while tiny bursts of electricity flickered around its mouth.

“Hey, hey, it’s okay.” Shiori bent to pick it up, cradling the monst—thing. “These guys are all friends, Choo. Friends. Here, see?” She held it out toward Sands. “You can take him.”

“No,” Sands started to shake her head. “It’s fine, I–”

“It’s all right, Sands.” Flick put a hand on her back and squeezed. On the other side of her, Scout did the same. So, she let out a long, silent sigh before reluctantly accepting the… thing.

Its electricity tickled her hands, almost making her drop the damn thing before she got a better grip on it. “Hey, hey, stop that!” Sands scolded it.

She held the thing up to her face, staring at it. The thing stared right back at her.

Then it sneezed, and electricity shot through the air, making Sands jerk backward with a yelp. She tripped, landing on her backside in the sand.

And something was licking her face. Squinting, Sands realized that as she fell, she had clutched the little… thing to her chest on the way down. Now he was licking her.

“Ugh, stop that, it’s gross.” She scowled at him. “Besides, you made me fall down. I knew you were bad news.”

He just licked her face again, squeaked, and shook his entire back half in a way that looked suspiciously like an attempt to wag his tail.

“You’re supposed to be a vicious monster,” Sands informed him flatly. “A nasty, man-eating beast.”

He proceeded to latch onto the collar of her shirt, tugging at it with a playful growl as he shook his head back and forth like a puppy playing tug-of-war.

Sands’s voice was idle. “See? Now you’re trying to eat me.” She let herself fall fully onto her back, arms spread out above her dramatically. “Woe is me, for the great beast has defeated the mighty huntress. Now he’s going to eat meeeeeeee.”

Choo promptly abandoned her shirt and jumped up to start licking her face enthusiastically, sending tingles of electricity through her in the process that tickled even more than his tongue did.

“Nooo!” Sands squealed, jerking a bit. “I sa–” She laughed, squealing again. “I said eat, damn it, eat! Not l-” Another fit of giggles escaped. “Not lick! Eat, you damn th-aaahhhaaa!”

Finally, she managed to get the little guy off her face, setting him down on the sand before rolling over on her stomach. She held him out at arms reach, panting as she fought to catch her breath. “You… monster…” She panted again in between each word. “You’re… gonna… kill… me…”

The pig looked quite pleased with himself at that, and Sands scoffed. “Oh, you think that’s funny? How about if I get you, huh? What if I get you?”

In response, Choo shook his hindquarters as though getting ready to pounce. Sands deliberately let him slip free, then rolled over as the little pig lunged at her. “Gaaaah, noooo, not the f-aaaahhhh! F-face again!”

It took her another minute or so to extricate herself once more. Straightening with Choo perched on her lap, Sands looked up to find everyone else still standing where they had been, watching with various levels of amusement.

“Aww,” Shiori was smiling. “He likes you.”

Flushing with embarrassment, as well as a few other feelings, Sands cleared her throat. “Right, well… whatever. Like I said, I won’t say anything about him. So are we gonna play cards or what?”

“You guys play,” Shiori gestured. “I’ve gotta feed the little guy, so I’ll just watch.”

She took Choo as well as the bag of food she’d brought and proceeded to do so. Meanwhile, Sean and Columbus produced a card table and folding chairs from the bag they’d brought with them, and Scout brought out three decks of playing cards while everyone was setting themselves up at the table.

“Okay well, you are definitely gonna have to explain how to play this,” Flick remarked while idly shuffling a deck of playing cards. Her gaze was focused on Sands as she raised an eyebrow. “Cuz I’ve never even heard of any game called, uh, what’d you say it was called again? Jahdoozeflug?”

Sands snickered in spite of herself. “Gesundheit. And speaking of German words, so is the name of the game. It’s called Jagdausflug.” She pronounced it slowly and carefully for the others. “It means ‘hunting trip.’ You know, like hunting Strangers. This German Heretic guy made it up about fifty years ago while he and his partners were on some kind of long stake-out, waiting for something called a Nachzehrer to show up.”

Sands and her sister had promised to teach them this new card game, with the added rule that no one was allowed to bring up anything too serious. Everyone had agreed that they needed a break, and since they really couldn’t do anything else until they were able to go to the hospital on Saturday, this was a good time for it.

“Sounds nasty,” Columbus remarked after taking a quick sip from his cola before glancing toward his sister. “You sure you don’t want in on this, Shy?”

“It’s okay,” the other girl assured him as she sat there at the end of the table with Choo perched in front of her, eating enthusiastically from the plate she had produced. “Go ahead, maybe I’ll get in on the next one.”

Shrugging at that, Columbus looked back to Sands. “Okay, so, how do you play?”

Before she replied, Sands found herself half-glancing sidelong toward Avalon. The regally beautiful brunette was seated beside her, eyes ostensibly focused on the table. Except that every once in awhile, the girl would glance up toward the one person in the school that seemed capable of holding her attention: Flick. And whenever Avalon herself looked away, Flick would glance that way. They each seemed to be trying to memorize the other’s features without getting caught looking.

God, they were weird. They were roommates. If they liked each other, why didn’t they just say something already? Avalon obviously didn’t care what anyone at the school thought about her, and Sands was pretty sure that Flick didn’t either. So why were they being so… beat-around-the-bushy about it? She wasn’t into girls, but if she had a chance to be with someone and live in the same room as them, she wouldn’t waste it.

A foot tapped against hers, snapping the girl out of her brief moment of contemplation. Sands’s eyes flicked that way to find Scout watching her pointedly before her eyes moved to indicate the rest of the table. As Sands looked around, she saw that everyone was paying attention to her, waiting expectantly.

Right, maybe that pause hadn’t been quite as brief as she’d thought.

“Sorry.” Clearing her throat, the girl reached out to pluck the cards from Flick before putting her hand on a couple other decks that lay nearby. “So first, you play with one full deck for every two people that are playing, rounded up. There’s six of us, so we need three decks.

After picking up the three decks and indicating them, Sands continued. “Then we take the decks and shuffle them all together. Everyone draws five cards, don’t let anyone else see what they are.”

She waited then while everyone took turns drawing cards until each of them had a hand of five. “All right, red cards are Strangers, black cards are Bystanders, face cards and aces are Heretics. You start by going around the table, beginning in the first round with the person to the dealer’s left. Everyone takes turns drawing as many cards as they need to in order to have six in their hand.”

She nodded to Avalon, waiting for the girl to take a card from the pile. Then each of the others in turn took one, until it came back to Sands and she picked up her sixth card.

“Right, again starting with the person to the dealer’s left, she points out the person she’s attacking. So, Avalon, who do you wanna target?”

The other girl was silent for a few seconds before nodding across the table. “Gerardo.”

Sean grinning back at her in response. “It’s nice to feel wanted.”

Coughing, Sands gestured. “Okay, each of you lay one card on the table, face down. Wait, not yet. You need to know, it’s basically like a game of Paper, Rock, Scissors. Strangers, the red cards, beat Bystanders, the black cards. Heretics, you know, jack, queen, king, and ace, beat Strangers. Bystanders beat Heretics because, well, something had to.

“So each of you pick a Heretic, a Stranger, or a Bystander and put it on the table face down. Once you’ve both chosen, turn the cards over.”

Sean and Avalon each put down a card, looked at one another, and then turned them over. Avalon had a red six, while Sean had put down a jack.

Sands nodded quickly then. “Okay, Sean wins that round, because he put down a Heretic while Avalon put down a Stranger. So he takes the Stranger card and the Heretic card and puts them in a pile on his side of the table.”

Once the boy had done so, she went on. “Then the next person to the left of the first one targets someone. So, uh, Flick?”

The blonde girl targeted Scout, and each of them put down a card. Once the cards were turned over, Flick’s red four beat Scout’s black nine, and she put both into a pile beside her.

“So we go around like that,” Sands explained. “Until everyone’s had a chance to target someone. Then we start with the person to the left of the person who went first the last time. In this case, Flick. Everyone takes turns drawing as many cards as they need to get to six in their hand. Then Flick chooses who to target, and we do the whole thing again.

“We keep doing that until there’s no more cards to draw. Then we keep going without drawing until no one has any cards left in their hand. Once that’s all done, everyone takes their piles, the cards they won in the battles. You add up each number. Jacks are worth eleven, queens are worth twelve, kings are thirteen, and aces are fourteen. Add up everything, and the highest total wins the game.”

So they started to play. As the game got underway, Flick nudged Avalon. “See? You can still have fun, even though Katarin won’t let you work out until you’re all healed up.”

In response, the other girl grunted a simple, “Don’t push it, Chambers.”

And yet still, whenever one of them wasn’t looking, the other one would practically stare at them. Not to mention the way Shiori looked at Flick whenever she thought she wasn’t being watched. It was all Sands could do not to tell all three of them to get a room and get it over with, even if they had to take turns.

Her gaze found Choo as the little guy squeaked to get her attention before wagging his tail once more. Sighing, Sands slowly reached across the table, scratching under his chin. “Fine, you big monster. Maybe you aren’t so bad. At least you don’t make things weird like some people.”

“Like who?” Shiori and Flick promptly asked.

Smirking in spite of herself, Sands continued to scratch Choo until the little guy sneezed. “Nobody,” she replied quietly, hiding her smile. “Nobody at all.

“Now are we playing, or do you all surrender to my inevitable win?”

“You mean your inevitable terrible, humiliating loss,” Columbus corrected her. “Cuz it’s my turn, and I’m coming after you.”

“After me, huh?” Sands raised her chin challengingly. “Sure your cards are up to it, little man?”

“Oh, me and my cards are up to it,” Columbus assured her, putting a card face down on the table as he spoke. “So put one down, little girl.

“Let’s see what you’ve got.”

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Family Reunion 12-02

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“Are you sure this is gonna work?” Shiori asked Avalon pensively about an hour later, her face tense with worry and uncertainty as she looked between my roommate and her newfound pet on the ground.

We needed to make sure that Choo was safe in the jungle. It was just too easy for the little guy to get into trouble in there, especially since we couldn’t be sure we’d be able to easily go into it without being seen often enough to take care of him. He needed a safe space to live, but we couldn’t exactly take him onto the school grounds with us without setting off every single alert that had ever been invented.

As for the beach, well, other Heretic students spent a lot of time there wandering around unescorted. And letting one of them find him while they were wandering around the beach would pretty spectacularly defeat the entire purpose of taking him out of the jungle for his own protection.

So the jungle it had to be. But we weren’t just going to leave the poor guy there to fend for himself. Luckily, we had come up with a solution to that particular problem. Or, to be specific, Avalon had.

“Yeah, Porter, I’m sure.” Avalon’s reply came without the girl even looking up from the device that she was tinkering with using a solid light screwdriver that she had conjured from one of her gauntlets.

The thing that she was working on looked a lot like one of those big old walkie-talkies, except that it had two antennae on each side (so basically one on each corner) and the bottom of the thing had what appeared to be an upside down snow globe attached to it. Except instead of a model of a town or a building and fake snow inside the globe, there were three tiny smoke stacks that kept pumping up and down. First one of the stacks would extend fully, puffing out a little white cloud. Then another would extend while that first withdrew. The second little smoke stack would spit out its own tiny cloud before drawing the one that the first had sent out into itself. Then it would sink back down again and the third smoke stack would push out to repeat the process before it went back to the first one once more.

It was kind of fascinating to watch, even if I didn’t have the slightest clue why it was doing that. Or how the little stacks managed to suck back up only the cloud that the previous one had sent out, not the ones that they themselves produced. Even after staring at the thing for going on ten minutes, I couldn’t figure it out beyond acknowledging yet again to myself that Heretic stuff was really freaking weird.

“This,” Avalon continued after shutting down her gauntlet-created screwdriver and turning the little device over in her hand, “is something I was working on to get a little privacy whenever people start getting too pushy and annoying. When you turn it on, this part right here,” she gestured to the speaker area, “will start giving off a very specific sound. The pitch is too high for anyone to hear it themselves, but it’ll still affect them. Long story short, it makes the person or animal not want to be around the sound. All we have to do is set the range of it, and any animal or wandering student that comes near will get the urge to leave without ever really understanding why they don’t like it around this spot.”

Shiori started to smile before blinking. “Wait, there is a way to stop it from affecting specific people, right? Or Choo himself. Keeping him safe is one thing, but I wouldn’t want to make him hate it here.”

Avalon rolled her eyes, snorting a little before answering. “Yes, Porter, there’s a way to stop the sound from affecting specific people. It’d be pretty damn useless if it didn’t. I wanted privacy to avoid being annoyed, remember?” She turned the device over to show us the globe on the bottom. “Come here.”

After Shiori stepped that way, Avalon lifted the device. Her hand moved to the other girl’s chin, turning her head a little before putting the orb near her left ear. She pressed a button on the radio part, and I saw a bit of the glass open up. The next time one of the tiny smokestacks sent out a little cloud, it left the orb and went into Shiori’s ear, making her gasp. She then duplicated the same thing with the girl’s opposite ear before releasing her. “There,” Avalon announced. “You’re attuned to the sound now.”

She did the same to me, sending that weird smoke stuff into my ears (it tickled) before it was Choo’s turn. The poor little guy was so confused about what we were doing, he kept trying to turn his head to look at the glass orb thing (especially once he caught sight of his own reflection). But Shiori managed to distract him with a bit of candy, and Avalon got the stuff in his ears. Clearly he thought it tickled too, since it made him sneeze several times in a row, each sending tiny sparks of electricity shooting off.

Then it was done, and Avalon found a hole partway up the nearby tree where she could secure the device. It was shielded from the elements there, and way from where Choo might, well, chew on it.

“There,” the girl announced after flipping a switch on the back of the device and hopping back down to the ground. “I gave him just enough room to explore a little bit. As long as you build him some kind of barrier to stop him from going too far, he should be safe in this area. The radio will make sure anything that isn’t attuned to it leaves pretty quick. So just give him food and a place to sleep and he’ll be fine.”

She started to say something else then, but was interrupted as Shiori abruptly grinned and threw herself that way to embrace the other girl. “Thank you, Avalon!” she managed while hugging onto her tightly. “I know you didn’t have to help this much and that you’re this cool, aloof, and untouchable badass that probably wants to strangle me for hugging you right now, but thank you, thank you, thank you.”

For her part, Avalon blushed slightly before working her way free of the girl, looking a little awkward. “It’s fine, Porter. Like I said, protecting innocents is our job. And maybe I miss some of the animals from Garden, like Salten. Whatever, it doesn’t matter. The point is, it’s not a big deal. Calm down.”

Chuckling at the two of them, I cleared my throat. “I guess we should set up those barriers to make sure the little guy stays where he’s supposed to. It’ll be lunch soon, and then I’ve gotta meet Koren by the lighthouse so she can tell me exactly what she saw when Ammon went in there. Which should be fun.”

“Hey, that reminds me,” Shiori turned to look at me while scratching Choo behind the ears. “How did you tell her the truth about your mom and all that? What about that whole memory erasure spell thing?”

It was Avalon who answered. “Gaia explained it to me earlier. There are two spells. First, there’s the one that erased the memory of Joselyn from everyone that was involved, and stops the ones who were shielded by the spell from talking about her. Anyone who finds out the truth from some other source, or just figures it out based on other evidence, can share what they know. It’s like… a person censored by the spell would be someone who had personal knowledge and was trying to share an actual memory. The spell won’t let them. But someone like Chambers who just happened to figure it out isn’t sharing an actual memory of the specific censored person. She’s just telling a story, so it gets past the spell.”

“Let me guess,” I put in. “The other spell is the one that stops us from sharing what we found on those papers in the security room. Specifically, the bit about Mom having other children. Which, I guess means Koren is immune to it for… some reason? Wait, is it because we’re related or something?”

“Because she’s related to the subject of the spell,” Avalon confirmed. “That’s why she can retain the information without going to some other world to share it like you did with Porter over here.”

“I guess that makes sense,” I murmured before adding under my breath, “At least as much as this Heretic magic stuff ever makes sense.” Clearing my throat then, I looked to the other two. “So, building Choo his safe area? I bet we can find him a couple little bowls for water and food.”

Shiori nodded before looking down at the Alter-warthog as he tore ravenously through the last of the candy she had given him. “Yeah,” she replied slowly. “Only… maybe not so little.”

******

After refueling in the cafeteria, I left Shiori and Avalon to continue setting Choo up with his new food and water bowls and all that stuff. Meanwhile, I made my way across the grounds (passing even more people who were just staring at me and whispering to each other) to where the lighthouse was.

A couple of the security guards were stationed in front of the entrance. I didn’t know their names, but both of them were watching me pretty intently as I moved past them. I just waved, not even bothering to hide my curiosity. Not looking curious at that point would have looked a lot more suspicious. They clearly had to expect everyone, especially me, to want to know what was going on in that place.

Once I was well past the pair and out of their sight, I doubled back around, taking the long way to loop up to the back of the lighthouse. Koren was already there, sitting in the grass while eating a taco.

“There you are,” she whispered while pushing herself up and brushing taco crumbs off her hands. “Come on. And be quiet,” the girl added the last bit with a nod toward the front of the building.

Before I could ask what she was doing, Koren produced her Hunga Munga and stepped back. She looked up to judge the distance, then hurled one of the throwing axes up high. As I watched, the thing actually passed through the wall of the lighthouse. As it did, she held her hand out with the other weapon. “Grab hold,” the girl instructed flatly. “And stay quiet until we’re sure it’s clear.”

Unsure of what she was doing, I reached out to hold onto the handle of the axe anyway, fitting my hand just under hers once she choked up on it a little. As soon as I did, her thumb moved to push something higher on the handle. An instant later, the air around me swirled before we were abruptly standing somewhere else. Now, the two of us were inside the lighthouse, about halfway up the stairs. The second Hunga Munga was floating there in mid-air, suspended without anything visibly holding it up.

Tugging the handle of her other weapon out of my hand, Koren reached out to take the one that was floating. She tucked the two of them away before silently gesturing for me to move up the stairs. Together, the two of us hurried to the top of the building before carefully and silently closing the door.

Finally, I breathed out and looked across the wide platform toward the light fixture itself. I kept my voice as quiet as possible, speaking under my breath. “You followed Ammon all the way up here?”

Koren nodded before pointing back to the entrance. “He didn’t bother shutting the door when he came in. I was there, hiding at the top of the stairs and he came over to this thing. Then he, um,” she looked back to me, actually looking a little hesitant for a second before pressing on. “He used his power on it.”

I blinked at that, opened my mouth, then blinked again. “He did what in the who where huh now?”

The other girl smirked just a little at my reaction before admitting, “Yeah, I thought it was fucked up too. It’s like I said, he used his power on the light thing.” Gesturing to the contraption in the middle of the platform, she added, “He said, ‘My name is Ammon, take me back to where I was before.’ A second later, he wasn’t there anymore.”

I stared at her, squinting in spite of myself. “But who was he talking to? His power works on living things, doesn’t it? Who, or what, could he use his power on in here that could—oh my god.”

Koren just raised an eyebrow at that. “Oh your god, what? What the hell did you just figure out?”

Slowly, I turned my attention to where the light fixture was. “… it’s not dead,” I managed weakly.

“What’s not—wait.” Koren stepped that way, looking at it, then back at me. “The skull. You’re trying to say that the skull in there, the one they’ve been using to give Heretics their powers, isn’t fucking dead?”

“I—I’m not sure,” I admitted with a tiny shrug. “But think about it. My mom—your grandmother somehow figured out a way to repeatedly get past all their security and onto the grounds no matter what they did to stop her. Now we know that it had something to do with this.” I gestured to the light fixture. “Which means that there’s something about this thing that no other Heretics figured out in all the time they spent examining and fiddling with it. I’ve been trying to figure out what Mom could have done that was different than anything else any of the other Heretics ever did with this thing.” Staring at the other girl intently, I went on excitedly. “She spoke to it. She talked to it, Koren. That’s what she did that was so different, and why Ammon was able to use his power on it. She talked to it. She… I don’t know, convinced it to help her? Made friends with it? I’m not positive, but I’m pretty sure that has to be it.”

“The skull,” Koren repeated dully, looking from me back to the thing. “The skull inside that thing… is alive.” She sounded a bit dazed before slowly shaking her head. “That’s… that’s…” Trailing off, the other girl seemed to consider for a moment before finally shrugging. “Sure, okay, whatever. I guess it’s no more fucked up than half the other stuff they’ve told us about since we got here. Why not a skull of a reaper thing that’s not actually dead after all. A skull that isn’t dead, and that somehow made friends or allies or whatever with my grandmother while she was playing rebel leader. Let’s go with that.”

Looking away from the girl and to the thing itself, I took a step that way. “Maybe we should try talking to it? It might be able to… I dunno, help?” Trailing off uncertainly, I gestured. “Worth a shot anyway.”

Before I could actually do anything else, however, the sound of footsteps on the stairs drew both of our attention. It sounded like several people, and we could hear loud arguing going on. Koren immediately stepped over to where I was, producing her Hunga Munga again. She reared back, throwing the first one off the platform and off into the distance before holding the other one up for me to grab onto.

The footsteps and voices were getting closer. Just before they reached the doorway, Koren activated her weapon. Instantly, we disappeared from where we were, and found ourselves a few feet up in the air above the ground. We sort of Wile E. Coyote’d there for half a second before proceeding to continue falling, crashing down into the grass on the far side of the building. We rolled with the impact, sliding along the ground before ending up laying on our backs, looking up at the sky while we caught our breath.

“Nice… weapons…” I finally managed in between panting.

“Still getting used to them,” the other girl admitted. “Katarin said that people who are really good with them can… like… use them to teleport around the battlefield. You throw one, teleport after it and catch the thing in mid-air before throwing the other one. There’s a rhythm to it, I haven’t–”

In mid-sentence, Koren fell silent, looking a little embarrassed as she sat up. “I mean, I’m working on it.”

I nodded before turning to look back up at the lighthouse. “Something tells me it’s not going to be quite as easy to get in there anymore. They’ll probably set up guards to make sure Ammon can’t come through like he did. Even if they don’t understand how he did it.”

“Yeah,” the other girl muttered. “Guess you’ll have to find a way to talk to Bob later.”

I blinked at that. “Who?”

“You know,” she gestured. “The skull that you—you know what? Never mind.”

Pushing herself up off the ground, Koren stared at the lighthouse. She looked indecisive at first before glancing toward me. “Right, well, I did my part. Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to call my family back again and pretend to be surprised when they tell me all about whatever excuse the headmistress used to get them to move.”

“Good luck,” I offered uncertainly, hesitating briefly before adding, “I’d still like to meet your mother. I mean, just… to meet her.”

At first I thought Koren was going to snap something insensitive. But she stopped herself, shrugging a little. “Yeah, I’ll see if I can make up some kind of excuse for a visit. I dunno.”

She stood there awkwardly for another few seconds before pivoting to walk away.

“See you on the hike tomorrow!” I called before she got too far away.

“It’s gonna be… interesting.”

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Family Reunion 12-01

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“Right, well, you kids have fun,” Koren announced to Shiori and me as we stepped out onto the grounds a minute after our brief meeting with Wyatt. “I’ve got some… things to think about.”

Glancing at Shiori and then back to my niece (which was still weird), I spoke quickly. “I still need to know what you told Gaia about what you saw. I need to know what Ammon did in the lighthouse.”

Koren raised an eyebrow before shrugging at me. “Sure. Why not. Meet me around the back of there after lunch. Then I’ll tell you what I saw. And you can tell me all about my grandmother.” After giving Shiori a quick glance, she added, “And, preferably, let me know who else in this school already knew everything about my family before I–” She stopped in mid-sentence, letting out an audible breath. “Never mind, just… I’ll meet you behind the light house after lunch. Is that good enough for you?”

I nodded, and the other girl took off without another word. Which left Shiori and me alone, since the twins were spending some time with their dad, and the boys were sleeping, apparently. I suppose that’s what happened when they were up late working on Columbus’s super-special telescope thing before spending the rest of the night dealing with Ammon and the aftermath of all that. They needed a nap.

As for Avalon, she was… actually, I wasn’t entirely sure where Avalon was. The last I knew she was with her mother, but that had been awhile ago since I’d spent the past couple hours being interviewed by the actual investigators (rather than my interaction with Ruthers) about what had happened.

Strangely, it wasn’t Kine who spoke to me, but a couple other Runners who seemed much less… personable. They kept sending question after question at me, often before I had time to answer the previous one. And they backtracked, repeating the same questions in different ways or requesting seemingly irrelevant details like what color shirt Ammon was wearing. All different ways, I knew, of figuring out if someone was lying about their story. They were trying really hard to catch me in a lie.

But I kept my story straight, telling them everything I could about what happened. Afterward, Gaia said she would talk to them as well. When I left, she, the Runners, and Ruthers were all talking in her office.

Which meant that I really needed something to take my mind off what kind of discussion they were all having, especially since I hadn’t had a chance yet to talk to Gaia about what Ruthers had said (and what he knew). So spending a little time with Shiori felt just right. Even if I had no idea what we were doing.

“So would you mind telling me where we’re going?” I asked her as soon as I realized we weren’t heading toward any of the buildings. Actually, we were moving past everything. “Or is it a surprise?”

“Uh,” Shiori paused, thinking about it for a moment. “It’s kind of a surprise. But just um, trust me?”

I nodded easily, following after the girl as she led me across the rest of the grounds. After another few seconds, I blinked. “Wait, are we going to the beach? I thought you’d uh, want to stay away from the ocean for awhile. You know, after…” I trailed off uncertainly, thinking about what had happened earlier.

Shiori just shook her head at me. “It’s not the ocean’s fault. I think I’d be more likely to have a phobia of innocent-looking little boys, not the ocean. Besides,” she added then, “we’re not staying on the beach. We’re going to the jungle. I just want their security to think that we’re going down to the beach.”

She had a point. Still, I was confused. Why were we going to the jungle? “Better not let Wyatt find out,” I teased lightly. “He’ll think that I’m not going on that jungle tour with him tomorrow anymore.”

The other girl smiled sidelong at me, though it was a little nervous. “Don’t worry,” she promised. “We’re not going that far. They were only a couple hundred feet past the treeline when I left them.”

“Them?” I asked, as we stepped down onto the always gorgeous beach. But Shiori wouldn’t say anything else about it. Probably because there were about a dozen other students on the beach playing some big volleyball game or swimming out in the water. She remained silent as we walked past them.

Also mostly silent were the other students. Most of them were second years, though there were a few from my own grade mixed in. They all turned to stare as Shiori and I passed, stopping their game to watch and whisper to one another. I picked out a little bit of it, mostly centered around pointing out that I was the one the ‘intruder’ had been after, and that it wasn’t the first time something had happened.

I ignored it. What else could I do or say that wouldn’t just raise more questions? I just looked back at them, then turned away and kept walking. Maybe I should’ve said something, made a joke, or somehow eased their minds. My mother probably could have, knowing what I knew about her. But I had no idea what to say. I was better in smaller, confined and more personal groups. Being stared at and whispered about by people I didn’t really know made me uncomfortable. It reminded me of how people had acted when Mom disappeared. The crowds at school, even as young as I was, had been all but unbearable.

No one said anything directly to me, or stopped us, so we walked on down the beach. Shiori was silent until we had passed far out of their line of sight along the beach. Finally, however, she glanced toward me while biting her lip. After a few seconds of that, the girl asked, “How do you feel, Flick?”

“You mean about the fact that everyone obviously wants to know why some Stranger kid managed to infiltrate the school grounds and mind control a bunch of students for the sole purpose of attacking me?” When the other girl nodded, I let out a long, low sigh. “I dunno. I mean, obviously I wanna beat Ammon’s head in until it collapses for being a psychotic, evil little piece of shit. But other than that, I… I don’t know. Part of me just wants to tell everyone the truth. About Ammon, about Mom, about what the other Heretics did to her to end their little civil war and all the rest. Part of me wants to get all of it out in the open so there’s no more secrets. I mean, I know it’s a bad idea. Especially right now. But I still kind of just want to get all of that out in the open.” Coughing then, I added a little more quietly, “I’ve wanted to be an investigative reporter pretty much my whole life. Just like my dad. This whole keeping secrets from everyone thing, especially secrets that are this big, goes directly against that.”

Shiori flinched slightly at that, shaking her head a bit sadly. “I’m sorry, Flick,” she said quietly while moving her hand to take mine. “I guess I’m one of those secrets, huh? I mean, my whole… situation.”

I quickly interlaced our fingers while shaking my head. “Not like that. I don’t like keeping that secret because I don’t want anyone to think that you must be evil just because of who your mom is. You shouldn’t have to hide like that, and you shouldn’t have to be afraid of anyone finding out. It’s not fair.”

She didn’t say anything to that at first, remaining contemplatively silent for another few steps before finally speaking. “I’m just glad the people I care about know that I’m not evil. And,” she pointed out with a tiny smile, “I even got a new sister out of the deal. That’s—” Stopping in mid-sentence, she gasped. “Oh—oh crap, I should probably call her, huh? Senny, she should, um, know what happened.”

I nodded to that. “Yeah, she’ll probably kill both of us if we don’t let her know what’s going on. As soon as you show me what this big secret is, you can borrow the phone that Gaia gave me and call her.”

After giving a quick, grateful nod, Shiori pointed. “In here, it was right off from that boulder.” She gestured to a large, jagged rock sticking up out of the nearby water. It sort of looked like a tiger’s head.

The two of us left the beach after making sure we were alone. The treeline was thick with gnarled branches and fallen logs, with what looked like a man-made barrier of rocks in a sort-of wall that was clearly meant as a visible division between the safe beach and the more dangerous and wild jungle.

My first impression after stepping over the wall of stones and squeezing between an enormous tree and its fallen neighbor was that there had to be some kind of environment shield over the beach as well, because the jungle was even hotter. Not to mention the humidity. My shirt was almost immediately soaked through. It was almost like walking through the spray of a waterfall. And the sounds… I’d thought the jungle noises were loud before. Once we crossed that knee-high rock wall, the noises were unbelievable. There were insects, birds, monkeys, and every other possible creature (and no doubt impossible ones too) calling back and forth at one another. It was incredible. Everywhere I turned, there were more sounds. Creatures were warning each other about our presence, or alerting their pack to new prey. Or maybe just chatting (as much as animals did that sort of thing). The screams, squeals, and other noises reminded me of seeing movies with those crowded markets where everyone was shouting at each other.

It didn’t go on forever, but seemed to rise and fall now and then. As the two of us made our way quickly but carefully through what appeared to be a very narrow path, the jungle noises came and went, ebbing and flowing. They never really disappeared entirely, but I could definitely tell the difference between the ‘quiet’ times and the much louder ones. One of the main constants was the steady drone of insects.

Whatever Shiori wanted to show me may have been only a couple hundred feet or so away from the beach, but moving that far through the thick jungle foliage (while keeping an admittedly paranoid eye out for snakes either on the ground or hanging from branches because I am sometimes a ninny) made that seem like a much longer distance than it would have been over open ground. Shiori moved more easily than I did, seeming to instinctively know where to step. She flowed ahead like water, or, probably more accurately, some kind of native predator. I doubted she realized what she was doing.

I was just about to ask how much further we had to go when a figure stepped into view from around the tree in front of us. My eyes snapped from staring at the mossy ground for the ever-elusive snakes or other creepy crawly things, and what I saw made me do a quick double-take before blurting, “Avalon?”

My roommate was standing there, watching me briefly before her eyes moved to Shiori. “He’s awake.”

I blinked, confused as I looked back and forth between them. “He who? Wait, you mean Avalon was the one we were meeting? You guys talk to each other?” Somehow, that surprised me, and I blushed.

“Yes, Chambers,” Avalon spoke dryly, “Believe it or not, I am capable of having a conversation that you don’t actually witness.” She was mocking me, but I could see the amusement behind her eyes.

“I needed help with… the thing we’re about to show you, but you were busy with those investigators,” Shiori pointed out. “And Columbus was asleep. So I sort of went to Avalon instead. Actually, she helped a lot.” She gave the other girl a quick, grateful smile that just made me blush a little more.

Then, of course, I focused on the important part. “Okay, so what’s this thing that she helped you with?”

Again, the two of them exchanged brief glances. Then Avalon stepped aside while Shiori led me up and around the tree that the other girl had been waiting behind. I followed, unsure of what I was about to see. “What, did you make some kind of new friend that you can’t bring onto the school grounds?”

Before Shiori could answer, there was a high, tiny squealing noise that sounded an awful lot like a mouse or squirrel’s attempt at mimicking a threatening growl. Something shot out of the hollow at the base of the tree that we had just come around, before stopping in front of Shiori’s feet. The thing positioned itself between the two of us, bouncing on all four legs as it glared up at me and continued to make that adorable little squeaky growl that I belatedly realized was its attempt at being intimidating.

I stared down at the thing, my mouth opening and shutting while no actual words emerged. Inwardly, my Heretic sense was confirming that yes, this was indeed a Stranger. It wasn’t quite screaming at me or anything, but it was definitely making itself known.

Before I could find anything to actually say, Shiori had crouched to pick it up before straightening. The thing nestled in her hands, its growl turning briefly into a slight coo before it looked back at me and hissed. Tiny sparks of electricity came from the thing’s mouth, looking almost like someone testing a stun gun.

“That… that’s…” I stared a little more before managing to continue. “That’s one of those Jekern things.”

Shiori nodded, bringing her cupped hands up to whisper a little soothingly to the thing while it continued to glare at me and make those hissing noises. “Shh, it’s okay, Choo. She’s a friend. Friend.”

“Choo?” I echoed uncertainly, blinking from the tiny, adorable pig-thing to the girl holding him.

She looked briefly embarrassed, shifting her weight. “Well, yeah. See, his name is Porkachu. That’s what I started calling him, anyway. But then I figured that calling him ‘Pork’ might be a bad idea, cuz… well, yeah. So I’ve been abbreviating it to Choo. It’s shorter, and he eats like… a lot, so it fits that way because he’s always, you know, chewing. Plus there’s the way he–” In mid-sentence, the little guy jerked his head back and then forward, giving a loud sneeze that sent sparks of electricity spraying out everywhere. “–sneezes. See? So he’s Choo.”

Choo, for his part, shifted on his little legs while staring at me. The reassuring noises that Shiori was making (I wasn’t sure if he understood her words or not) at least seemed to calm him down, but he still looked a bit wary. At least until Avalon lifted her own hand with some kind of food crumbled up in her palm. The tiny electric-pig thing leaned in to sniff briefly before happily eating out of her hand.

“Something on your mind, Chambers?” Avalon asked, her voice flat as she watched my reaction.

“You um,” I coughed a little. “I just didn’t expect you to get along with something like him so quick.”

She didn’t respond at first, staying quiet while Choo continued happily eating out of her hand. Finally, the girl spoke in a soft voice that was different from her normal tone. “We kept animals at Garden, what they call ‘acceptable Strangers.’ Basically it’s just magical animals that they can use in some way to help the cause or get something out of them. They’re slaves, basically. But I…” She bit her lip visibly before going on. Her voice was a murmur that made me unsure of whether the girl even realized that she was still talking out loud. “There was this little Peryton fawn that I helped raise. His name was… I mean, is Salten. Seller promised he’d take care of him when I had to leave, but…” she paused before shrugging, looking uncomfortable. But she still didn’t move her hand away from the tiny piglet.

“What’s a Peryton?” I asked after a moment, when it was clear that she’d stopped talking.

Avalon glanced up at me briefly before answering. “Sort of like a Pegasus only with a deer instead of a horse. When it’s grown up, it looks like a stag with the wings and plumage of a bird.”

“You had a… a deer Pegasus?” I stared at the other girl in awe for a moment. “That’s… oh my god, that’s–”

“Don’t say it, Chambers,” Avalon warned.

“That is so-”

“Do not even think about it.”

“–freaking adorable!” I all-but squealed, moving to grab my roommate by the arms. “Did you get to fly on it? Did you? Did you? Did you?”

Oh wow, Avalon was actually blushing by that point. She looked at me, lifting her chin while I held onto her arms. The two of us stood there like that for a long few seconds, staring at each other. “Chambers,” she finally said quietly while raising an eyebrow. “First, yes. Second, breathe.”

Exhaling sharply and then inhaling at the reminder, I felt my own blush rise before focusing on the situation at hand, turning my attention to Shiori while somewhat reluctantly letting go of Avalon. “And you have a pet electric-pig thing.”

He sneezed at me, sending sparks into the air.

“Choo,” she confirmed with a little giggle. Then she looked guilty. “I couldn’t kill him. We killed all the other ones, but he was hiding and he was just… scared. He was terrified, Flick. I couldn’t kill him. And I couldn’t let anyone else do it either. I just… I couldn’t.”

“Don’t worry, Porter,” Avalon interrupted before I could speak. “Like I said before, we’ll keep your little pet safe.”

Shiori’s eyes turned to me then, and I didn’t hesitate. “Of course we will.” Reaching my hand out very slowly, I let the little guy sniff them curiously. Once I was sure he was calm enough, I reached into my pocket and produced my own little friend.

“Choo, meet Herbie,” I introduced the two with a smile. “Don’t worry, Choo. He’s the strong and silent type, but I’m sure you guys’ll get along just fine.”

The girl gave a beaming smile then that made my heart flip itself over a few times. “Thanks, you guys, for, you know, keeping it secret. And for helping. I know it’s dumb, I just… I needed to protect him.”

Avalon’s voice was quiet. “He didn’t do anything wrong. He was scared and innocent and you saved him. You’re talking about protecting the helpless, Porter. Which, I’m pretty sure, once you strip past all the bullshit that’s built up over the years, is what we’re supposed to be doing here. Protecting the innocent.

“Anyone who says anything against that… fuck them.”

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