Corporal Kickwhiskers

Exodus 44-07

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To say that chaos erupted in that moment would have been doing it a disservice. Everyone. Everyone knew the truth now. Those who were old enough to have been there remembered the rebellion. They remembered which side they were on, and the choices they had made. They remembered the choices their loved ones had made, good and bad. They remembered it all.

Those who weren’t old enough to have been there knew the basics. They knew about my mother, what she had done. And they knew what Ruthers had done to end the war. They knew about Abigail and Wyatt, though I had kept their current identities secret, leaving only the knowledge of what had happened to them as children. Gaia and I had both figured they would want it that way, especially Wyatt. There was no need to expose them that much.

The point was, people knew the truth. And there were immediate effects. A nearly deafening level of noise burst forth from the crowd that had followed to see what was going on, as well as the hybrids and their friends that were already with us. I saw students shouting at each other, along with teachers. Several of the latter were physically reeling. One teacher turned and literally punched another hard in the face. A few of the students, including Rebecca Jameson, ran to join our group. Others tried but were stopped or slowed by teammates or faculty members. Then a couple of those teachers gave up and actually ran to join us. Professor Carfried was one of them, giving me a brief look of sympathy as he passed.

It was a dam that was breaking apart, and the leaks were people abandoning Crossroads. Not the majority. Most stayed, even if they looked confused, lost, and even disgusted. But enough came. Dozens more than had already been with us. Dozens who saw what Ruthers had done, who saw how the rebellion had been put down, and were disgusted enough to abandon what they knew.  

Nearby, Deveron was staring at me. His mouth was open, words failing him in lieu of a simple noise of flat astonishment and disbelief. Finally, he settled on a weak, “You did this… you… you erased the eraser. You made them remember Jos, you made them remember all of it.”

I nodded slowly, but most of my attention was on the Committee members. And more importantly, on Gaia. She had slumped as soon as the spell was cast. I knew it would take a lot out of her, even after preparing for it for months, at least. But it was enough that she literally swayed for a handful of seconds before passing out. Her unconscious form would have fallen, but Geta and Jue both caught her.

“Mom!” Avalon blurted again. She took another step that way before anyone could stop her. But Geta and Jue both looked to us, then to each other and the chaos around them before abruptly disappearing. They vanished, taking the unconscious Gaia with them.

Ruthers and Litonya, meanwhile, were first focused on trying to get to me. For some reason, they seemed a little upset. They each conjured these large ghostly hands that rose from the ground and tried to grab me. But Prosser was there. He conjured a shield with a raised hand, making the ghostly constructs bounce off as they lashed out for me. Ruthers followed up with a scream of anger as he hurled a literal ball of fire at the shield as though he had lost his mind.

“No, no! Mom!” Avalon squirmed free of Shiori, who had caught hold of her again, and made to dash around the shield.

Dare was there. The blonde woman… my grandmother… took Avalon by the arm with a firm, yet gentle grip. “We’ll get her back,” she promised. “We will. We’ll get her back, Avalon. But we have to go. We have to get out of here now, while we still can.” As she spoke, the woman gave Harper… or Lancelot, or whoever a brief, confused look. Probably because Harper was, at that particular moment, reinforcing Prosser’s shield against the combined power of Ruthers and Litonya.

“Avalon, she’s right!” I blurted, gesturing to where Nevada was already ushering the hybrid students, their friends, and the others who had just started to join us off the school grounds and to the beach. “We have to get out of here! They’ll call in more of the Committee, more reinforcements. We’ll come back for Gaia, for Sean, for anyone else, but right now we have to go!” Even as I spoke, my hand grabbed the hunga munga off the ground and I shoved it into a bag on my belt. I definitely wasn’t leaving that behind.

Reluctantly, Avalon nodded. She looked over to the others, hesitating before speaking up. “Right, we’ll come back. We’ll find her.” She seemed to be talking mostly to herself, shaking off her indecision. With another nod, she and Shiori supported me and we ran for the beach. Deveron took one last look back that way, clearly torn on what to do before he followed.

Dare was right behind us as well, along with Hisao. The two of them were doing something to fend off the stray attacks that got around the main shield that Prosser and Harper were maintaining. Every once in awhile, a laser, a bit of fire, an icicle, something would make its way toward us, and Dare, Deveron, or Hisao would block it. Without the three of them, I didn’t think we would have made it even with Harper and Prosser taking care of the bulk of the damage. There was so much fire and other attacks being thrown around, it felt like storming the beach at Normandy, except in reverse. We were running toward the water.

Everything was noise. Pandemonium the likes of which I had never seen or even imagined reigned. People were fighting in little pockets. Those who were working on running to the boat kept being delayed by random attacks from all sides. There were Crossroads people fighting other Crossroads people. Some were just trying to make everyone stop leaving, while others were picking up on fights that had been paused for years when the rebellion was erased from their memories. I saw teachers fighting each other, various adult Heretics brought in to try to control things, even people whose reason for being there I didn’t know. They just appeared. It was like having the rebellion brought back into their memories called them from wherever they were.

I saw Larees help a couple students get past one of the Crossroads security guys. But it was close. Even as the students ran onward, the guy nearly killed Larees with a swipe from his electricity-covered sword. But at the last instant, Misty caught him by the arm. She yanked the man up, hurling him a good forty feet away.

It was that way everywhere. Everywhere. I saw Sariel nail four different guys with four arrows all fired at the same time. I saw Athena appear through one of the portals that her knife created just in time to stab Excalibur through one of the fourth-year teachers, who was holding a handful of students pinned to the ground with some kind of summoned metal claw thing. Athena then cut through the claw to free the students, helping them up.

Everywhere was chaos, fire, blood, screaming. It was an all-out battle, the likes of which I had never seen.

And if it was this bad here, how bad was it in other places? What was it like in Eden’s Garden? What about Heretics who were out on patrols together with people they previously fought against? Would they get over it and deal with any real threats first?

What about the people who had originally sided with the Rebellion, and now had to deal with the memory of spending a couple decades fighting and killing the Alters that they had previously known were innocent?

Reaching the beach where everyone else had run, I saw the boat that had been mentioned. It was a large yacht set out a bit in the ocean, with a glowing energy bridge leading out to it. Around the bridge were several unconscious bodies of Crossroad people, and Kohaku stood at the base of the bridge, along with Larissa and Seller. Seller was there too.

That, seeing him, actually was enough to kick Avalon into full gear. She moved faster, and Shiori and I compensated to keep up. Seller met us partway, nodding as Avalon started to tell him what had happened to Gaia. “Don’t you worry, kid,” he assured her, “Gaia’s tough. She’ll last until we pull her out of whatever hole they drop her in. Right now, let’s get while the getting’s possible.”

Other students and teachers were already making their way over the bridge and onto the yacht. It was large enough to hold a couple hundred people, so it would be able to take us with no problem. At least, assuming one of the Committee or their people didn’t sink it.

Right, should probably get on the boat instead of daydreaming about ways it could fail.

“Guys, are we going?!” That was Jazz. She was there, skidding to a stop with Jokai, who looked as though he was hyperventilating from the terror of being where he was. Jazz waved at us impatiently. “Going’s good!”

“Going’s good,” I agreed. With a quick look over to where Haiden and Sariel were working with Vanessa and Tristan to help students onto the bridge, we started that way once more. Seller came with, slowing just enough to unceremoniously kick one of the Committee’s security guys in the face when the man started to get up, putting him back down.

Just ahead of us, Aylen was clambering up onto the bridge with a little help from Haiden. A few yards away, there was a blur of motion as something–or someone– blindingly fast came from the side.

The blur was stopped just as suddenly as Nevada suddenly appeared, swinging an oversized metal bat with both hands. The bat caught the blur, and I saw another uniformed Committee goon double over, his speed turned into a liability as he collided with the weapon. With a pained groan, the man slumped to the ground. His voice was dark, cracking a bit as he managed a weak, “Tr-traitors…”

In response, Nevada pointed the end of the bat at him. “You know what they say,” she replied easily, “one man’s traitor is another man’s person who thinks for themselves and doesn’t wholesale slaughter dozens of species just because they’re not human and a bunch of racist pricks said they were evil.”

A bright smile came then. “I mean, I’m sure someone has said those words in that order at some point. It’s a big universe.”

With that, she hit a button on the bat. The end opened, and some kind of mostly-invisible force shot out of it to collide with the man. He flew back a dozen feet before going down. That time, he stayed there.

Flick, go! Tabbris blurted in my head, snapping me out of staring at that. Shaking it off, I moved with Shiori and Avalon. We were at the bridge then, and Haiden helped me up onto it. Now that I was close enough, I could see where there had been stairs at one point. Apparently something had happened to them, hence the need for help to get up onto it.

Either way, the others quickly joined me. We retreated along the bridge, heading for the yacht where most of those who had chosen to escape the island were already waiting. I saw them, peering off the edge of the boat, either watching us (me in particular) or staring at the light show in the distance as Prosser and Harper kept the two Committee members busy.

There was so much fighting going on back there, or in spots around the beach. But most of it I couldn’t follow. It was the adults, the grown Heretics. They were keeping any pursuers busy so that the students who wanted to could all get on the yacht. I even saw Professor Carfried still on the beach. Glancing that way, I saw him use some kind of spell to turn a stone into a weird pink gas, which enveloped two different Crossroads people. They collapsed, but not before one of them shot him several times.

Of course, for a grown Heretic, being shot a bit generally wasn’t the end. It did, however, make the man stumble. He started to collapse to one knee, but Larissa was there. She helped him up and started pulling the man back to the bridge. Yet another Crossroads goon tried to take advantage of that, but was caught by Kohaku, who cleared a path for them.

Halfway across the bridge, something suddenly flew down out of nowhere and crashed into me. I heard the others shout my name, before I hit the water.

It was another Heretic, a grown man. I didn’t recognize him, but even as we came up out of the water, his fist crashed into my face.

“Bitch!” the man was screaming. “You fucking bitch!” Then he hit me again, and my head rocked backward as I fell back under the water. He was shouting something about me ruining everything, about me tearing his wife away from him. I couldn’t do anything. I couldn’t catch my breath. I couldn’t focus. He hit me a third time, all in rapid succession. Faintly, I saw some kind of forcefield behind us that he’d put up to keep the people on the bridge from helping.

His fist drew back to hit me again, before the man suddenly stopped, turning a bit with a look of confusion. His other hand released my shirt, and I started to sink before something caught me from below.

It was Sherman, my Bull shark. He came up from beneath me, rising until I was sitting on the surface of the water on his back. Sherman himself seemed to stare up at the guy who had hit me.

From behind the man, I could see where the others were standing. They’d fallen silent and were just watching.

“You look here, you little cunt,” the man snarled. “If you think your little pet shark is going to stop me from beating you into a fucking–”

“You’re wrong,” I interrupted. “I don’t have a pet shark.”

The man’s mouth opened as he looked straight at Sherman, but I finished before he could speak.

“I have a fleet of pet sharks.”

Brody hit him first. Coming up from below, the Mako shark bit the man’s leg, yanking him partway underwater. Just as the man started to lash out, Brody’s twin, Quint, hit him from the back, slamming into the man and biting into his shoulder.

He spun in the water, throwing himself back with some kind of power to escape them. Which was when Jabberjaw, my pretty blue and white shark, hit him right in the back, catching the man in his mouth and dragging him several feet before the guy managed to extricate himself.

Then it was Simpson’s turn. The eleven-foot long Lemon shark slammed into the man at full speed and kept going. She hit the guy so hard, so fast, that they were a good dozen feet away before he knew what happened. Even as he summoned a metal dagger and tried to stab her, she was already slipping away.

Floating out there in the water, the man gave a furious snarl. He floated up out of the ocean, hovering there about six feet up while pointing at me. “You! You stupid, pathetic, lying little–”

And that was as far as he got. Because I had one more shark left in my shiver. The one that was too big to come that close to shore, but could reach the area that the rest of the sharks had deliberately dragged or shoved him out to. And sure, the man was floating six feet above the ocean.

But Great Whites can jump.

Princess Cuddles flew out of the ocean at top speed. Her mouth opened, and even as the man continued ranting at me, he was suddenly… gone. With a splash and a spray of blood and… stuff that was worse than blood, my biggest shark went back under the water. Content and full.

“Oh holy mother of Gods,” I managed in a cracked voice, staring in shock at the spot where he had been. I barely noticed as Professor Dare floated down, catching me around the shoulders before pulling me back to the bridge.

“W-wait,” I finally got out, “my sharks!”

“Wyatt’s got it covered,” she promised. “Don’t worry.”

The others seemed just as taken aback as we finally reached the boat. Sands and Scout were already there. They were at the end of the bridge, helping people down onto the deck. They each took one of my hands as we made it there, and I found myself standing on the yacht, moving out of the way so that the others could join us. Retreating. Right now, all that mattered was getting away. We could do a headcount and figure out what to do next once everyone… or everyone who could… got out of there.

Another enemy Heretic, this one in a security uniform, was suddenly on the boat, grabbing my shoulder. Before he could do anything else, Avalon drove her fist into his stomach so hard he stumbled back a step. Then Shiori lashed out with a kick that made him fall back off the boat.

Or… almost off the boat. He was in the middle of falling when Deveron snapped a hand out to catch him by the shirt. “Hi, Jackson,” he started before turning to heave the man one-handed across the entire width of the yacht, off the other side, and out into the water. “Bye, Jackson.”

“So, we all here?” That was Tristan, brushing a bit of weird green ooze off one shoulder as he panted. “Ready to go?”

“Wyatt!” I blurted, turning a bit, “where’s–”

“Here.” My brother stood a little bit away. He had Corporal Kickwhiskers on one shoulder, and was letting the little cat eat a treat out of his hand. He nodded to me, hesitating before offering a simple, “Thanks.”

Dare was on the boat then, smacking her sword against the bridge construct to make it collapse. “Time to go,” she announced. Giving me a very brief look, the woman headed for the front of the yacht, moving through people who were already shouting questions.

Those questions were turned toward me then, everyone asking what was going on, how I’d returned their memories or implanted the story of my mother in their head, and so on. They were all talking at once, dozens of voices, and I didn’t stand a chance of actually answering anyone.

Later!” That was Deveron, projecting his voice over everyone else to the point that a few people were rubbing their ears in pain. It was really loud. The man stared at them, starting to say something else. But before he could, Hisao took over.

“Yes, plenty of time for answers once we are away. I would say focus on keeping the boat clear would be a priority, hmm?”

He was right. There were still Heretics trying to stop us from leaving. A few had come partway out into the water and were doing various things to keep us there. I felt the yacht jerk a little as a couple used telekinetic powers to hold us. Another made semi-solid tentacles rise out of the water to wrap around the yacht. Yet more tried to board the boat, either teleporting up to it, climbing the sides, or sending various attacks up to either hit us or knock someone on the boat off. They had completely lost their minds.

It got worse, not better, as the people on the boat fought back. The whole yacht was being shaken back and forth violently, almost to the point of tearing itself apart. This was bad. What were we supposed to do?

Apparently the answer was ‘wait for Prosser to show up’. Because the man did. Suddenly standing there at the back end of the deck, the man made a single gesture, almost back-handing the air itself. Immediately, everyone who was trying to stop us went flying. They landed on the beach, and didn’t seem to be in a hurry to get back up.

“Enough of this!”

It was Geta. He was back from wherever he had taken Gaia with Jue. The large black man appeared right in the middle of the deck. His attention was centered on… well, the other large black man. He stared at Gabriel Prosser. “Did you not already do enough damage by refusing to join our cause? Must you aid in destroying it as well?”

In his left hand, Geta summoned a fuck-off enormous hammer. The head of it was basically the size of my torso. He rested the handle on one shoulder. In his other hand, he held a short sword upside down, or backwards, or whatever.

As everyone else scrambled away from the angry Committee member, Geta continued. “You will not destroy Crossroads. You will not allow innocents to be sacrificed to the monsters that plague this world. You will not drag these people along on your foolish quest to tear apart our civilization!”  

Against the tide of Geta’s blind rage, Gabriel Prosser spoke in a much calmer voice, his words simple. “As yet, you have said nothing that I disagree with, Counselor.”

Fire formed around Geta, blue flames that rose up his body. Lightning crackled throughout it. I saw bits of metal appear, even as tiny dots of purple-blue energy that looked almost like black holes sparked to life around his arms. He was summoning so much power, calling so much to himself, that I could feel a distortion throughout the ship, an indescribable level of energy was all pulled to one place. The air itself was thinner, and I felt myself pulled somewhat toward the former Roman emperor, as if he was a new gravitational body.

Through it all, Gabriel stood there, shovel resting lightly against the deck as he leaned on the handle. He didn’t move. He didn’t summon power of his own to match Geta’s. He did nothing aside from stand there and wait with sphinx-like patience.

When Geta moved, he took all of that power with him. In an instant, he crossed the entire deck, his hammer swinging hard while carrying a nuclear weapon’s-worth of energy within it. Whatever defense Gabriel mounted, he would tear through. Whatever protections he had, Geta had summoned enough power to smash it apart. He swung with the force and power of the sun, his hammer practically exploding through the air like a meteor entering the atmosphere.

And he hit… nothing. Oh, he was right on target. His hammer smashed through the spot where Gabriel was. Or rather, where he appeared to be. When the hammer went through ‘him’, however, the figure blew apart like mist. Gabriel wasn’t actually there. It was an illusion.

The Committee man swung his hammer so hard through that empty air that he came all the way around to face the way he had come, stumbling just a little. And he found himself facing the actual Gabriel Prosser, who now stood just behind him.

Without a word, Prosser swung his shovel with both hands. It connected with Geta, slamming into the man’s face hard enough that the impact sent a shockwave of force in every direction. Geta was sent flying off the yacht, out into the water. And then we were moving. Apparently the Committee Counselor had been holding us still, because as soon as the shovel collided with him, we were suddenly underway.

Harper was beside me then, dusting off her hands. She looked worn, but also exhilarated. “Well, that was pretty fun. I’ve been waiting to do that for awhile.”

“Who are you?” That was one of her teammates, Shiloh. She and the huge Asian boy, Eiji, were the only ones from Harper’s team that I had seen come along. The other three weren’t on the yacht, as far as I could tell.

Before Harper could respond to that, a  student I didn’t know, a friend of one of the hybrids, piped up. “Where are we going? What are we supposed to do now?”

Another nodded. “Crossroads is in a pocket dimension, we can’t go anywhere on a boat!”

“Oh ye of little faith,” Nevada tutted. She came into view, holding some kind of remote. “As if we wouldn’t have a plan for this. Everyone ready? Good, cuz Elvis is leaving the building.” After a very brief pause, she added helpfully, “Elvis is the name of my boat.”

Nevada pressed the button on her remote, and a burst of energy suddenly enveloped the yacht. It grew, along with a sound like breaking glass. Then we were gone from Crossroads.

And I was pretty sure it was going to be a long time before I ever saw it again.

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Study And Scrutiny 20-01

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Please note that there was a donation-fueled bonus chapter (the interlude for the previous arc, focusing on Nevada) posted a couple days ago. If you haven’t seen that yet, you may wish to click the Previous Chapter button above. 

“I’m sorry, Professor Katarin is what?!”

It was January third. The winter break was over, and tomorrow the new set of classes would start for the second semester. Tonight was the welcome back dinner where we’d get our new schedules and those of us who were going to change what track we were in would be able to sign up for it.

Avalon had been nowhere to be found when I took my stuff to our room. Plus, Sands and Scout wouldn’t be back from their trip until later that night, and Sean was still with his uncle. Which meant that my entire team aside from Columbus was MIA at least for the rest of the day. So, I had decided to visit Wyatt at his apartment. Call me crazy, but I missed the guy over vacation. As an added bonus, Koren had already been there when I arrived (and believe me, the fact that I considered her presence a bonus would have flabbergasted the me from several months earlier). Unfortunately, they weren’t talking about fun things.

“Missing,” Koren repeated while sitting on Wyatt’s couch with her legs up under herself. She had Wyatt’s new pet cat, Corporal Kickwhiskers, perched on her lap as she scratched behind her ears. “Apparently he didn’t check in three days ago when he was supposed to, and they still can’t find him.”

Wyatt was pacing back and forth, obsessively muttering out loud to himself about all the bad things that could’ve happened to Katarin. The list was, unsurprisingly, exceedingly long and disturbingly detailed.

“But—but I don’t understand,” I stammered in spite of myself. “How could Professor Katarin go missing? He’s—I mean he’s a huge guy and he’s this awesome combat teacher. What could’ve happened to him that he couldn’t even get a message off about it? Where– where was he when he went missing?”

Koren looked toward Wyatt for help with that, and he shook his head while stopping in mid-pace to reply. “It wasn’t here, wasn’t on school grounds. Definitely not on the island. Other than that, they haven’t told us, won’t tell us. It’s all secretive, hush-hush. So we’re not supposed to know. But…”

“But?” I echoed curiously, my mind still racing. Could this have to do with the murder of Professor Pericles? Did they think that Katarin had had something to do with the protection on Avalon? It wasn’t necessarily that. There were, after all, plenty of other threats that the teachers had to deal with. And there was more going on than just the stuff happening to my team. Still, I didn’t like the timing at all.

“We bugged that Peterson Neal schmuck awhile back,” Koren put in before Wyatt could explain. There was undeniable pride in her voice as she explained, “Put listening spells on him so Wyatt can hear any time your name, my name, Deveron’s name, or uh, your mom’s name is said anywhere around him.”

My mouth opened and then shut before I coughed. “Oh. Uh, right then. I take it you heard something?”

Wyatt nodded, fidgeting back and forth. He produced some kind of pocket watch and looked at it before walking quickly to the door to peer out the peephole. Then he crossed back to where we were and checked something in what looked like a dictionary that had been sitting on the end table there.

Finally satisfied with whatever he had been checking through that, Wyatt answered. “Peterson was talking to his boss. Ruthers, not Gaia. He was talking to Ruthers and they mentioned your name.”

“They probably talk about me a fair bit,” I admitted. “But what does that have to do with Katarin?”

Wyatt fidgeted, his overly-pronounced Adams apple bobbing up and down a little as he swallowed hard. “Ruthers asked Peterson if he thought it had anything to do with you or your—I mean our mom. Anything to do with her. But Peterson said that Katarin ‘wasn’t on Chambers duty, he took a personal day.’ When Ruthers asked what that meant, Peterson told him that all he knew was that Katarin said he was going to be in Chicago for the week up until three days ago, when he was supposed to check in.”

“Chicago?” I frowned to myself. “I know that place. Why do I know that place?” Holding up my hand to stop Koren, I added, “Yes, I know it’s a big city. I mean I’ve heard of it recently. But when was it?”

“Deveron,” the other girl replied before I could think of it. “His fake family was from near there. Remember, he mentioned that he had a house all set up there for it and everything. But–” She frowned uncertainly. “You don’t think it’s connected, do you? I mean, Chicago’s a big place. There’s millions of people there for him to be visiting or checking on. And why would Professor Katarin be going to check out Deveron’s fake family’s house? He already knows the truth because he’s part of Gaia’s inner circle.”

I shrugged. “You’re probably right. Chicago is a huge place. He could’ve been going for anything. And if he was going to check on Deveron’s house, Gaia would know about it and probably would’ve said something to one of us. At least to you,” I added with a nod to Wyatt before frowning. “She didn’t?”

His head shook. “Gaia hasn’t been here very much since Ulysses was reported missing. She’s been gone most of the time. I saw her in the hall with Virginia and Risa, but they said there wasn’t anything new.” Pausing, he added, “Oh, and she was arguing with Ruthers on the lawn by the Pathmaker yesterday.”

That made me blink. “She was arguing with Ruthers? I don’t suppose you heard what it was about?”

“No,” Wyatt replied with a shamed sigh. “I couldn’t get close enough. They were using a privacy bubble. But they were definitely arguing. Ruthers looked really angry when they went into the building. And I don’t think they went anywhere together, because he came back out and went to talk to Peterson a minute later. But Gaia didn’t come back until really late. And she left early in the morning.”

“So what has she been doing?” I murmured. “Where’s she been? And what does it have to do with Professor Katarin? Maybe she’s looking for him and Ruthers thinks she’s wasting time or something?”

That didn’t sound right even as I said it, but I had no idea what else it could be. We needed to know more. Katarin was missing? For days, by this point. Was he… was he hurt or… or worse? Please, no. We couldn’t lose a second teacher in the same year. Losing Pericles had been bad enough, and I barely knew the man. If we lost Katarin too, after he helped train us for the past few months, it’d be… bad.

Koren was already shaking her head. “Who knows? I tried to ask your lovely roommate about it, but she’s been gone almost as much as Gaia has. And when she is here, she’s not exactly in a chatty mood.”

“Yeah, I haven’t seen her since I got back either,” I murmured under my breath, trying to focus on what was important without getting caught up with remembering what happened between the two of us back before I left for the holidays. Our first kiss. The very thought of it made me blush a little before I cleared my throat and looked back up. “But they both have to be here for the dinner tonight, right?”

Wyatt nodded. “The headmistress wouldn’t miss it, and I don’t think Avalon would either. They’ll be there.” He paused before reaching out to pick up the cat, which had been stretching up toward him. Tucking the fluffy gray animal under one arm, he began to pace again while absently petting it. “Maybe Gaia’s been looking for someone to take over for Katarin while he’s missing, and the argument she had with Ruthers was him trying to pass one of his handpicked choices onto her. He’s done that before.”

“I still can’t believe Professor Katarin’s really in trouble,” I murmured, slumping back against the chair as I stared at the floor. “He’s a big guy and—I mean, he’s a badass. What could’ve happened to him?”

There was silence for a minute as the three of us thought about all the many possibilities. Finally, I figured we weren’t going to learn anything else until Gaia got back. So I broke the quiet by trying to switch to a better subject. “Um, you guys went over to Garden for awhile to spend time with Abigail?”

Wyatt gave a quick nod. “Yes, Risa approved my time off. I tried to suggest that I could work extra hours all this month to make up for it, but she wouldn’t hear of it. We went there for an entire week.”

Koren smiled just a little bit then, nudging the man with her foot. “It was almost longer than a week.”

“I have far more loyalty to Gaia than that!” Wyatt insisted, face as red as an apple. He made another huffing noise of disbelief before noticing my look of confusion. With a sigh, he explained, “That Unset man, Croc. He’s been trying to recruit me ever since we met at Thanksgiving. Especially last week.”

“He obviously recognizes talent when he sees it,” I murmured with a smile in spite of myself before teasing, “Maybe you should let Professor Kohaku know about his interest. Leverage it into a raise.”

Snickering at the look on Wyatt’s face, Koren stood up. “Hey, it’d give you a chance to spend more time with my mom—your sister, Uncle Wyatt. You had fun spending time together last week, didn’t you?”

Nodding, Wyatt gave the cat a few extra scratches. “It was nice to spend time with her. I…” He paused before giving a pained sigh. “I wish we could’ve grown up together. I wish I knew both of you a long time ago.” Looking away from us, he added in a quieter voice. “I wish a lot of things were different.”

Stepping over that way, I took his hand. “We’ll make them different, Wyatt. We can’t change the past, but we can save Mom. We can get her away from that piece of shit and… and fix things. Yeah, it’s not gonna be easy. Actually, even when we get her away from Fossor, there’s still Ruthers and all the crap that goes along with him. So yeah, it’s definitely gonna be hard. But we’ll figure it all out. Somehow.”

“Speaking of figuring stuff out,” Koren put in then, “can you please explain what happened back at your house? First there’s some kind of problem with your emergency beacon and we find out you’re in some kind of great big fight with a bunch of werewolves. Then everything’s fine. But then—then we get word on Christmas Eve that something horrible happened and one of your friends was—was dead and you might need some help, but then Professor Dare said that it was gonna be okay. She didn’t say much else, just that you’d explain when you were ready to and that we had to keep it secret. So?”

“Right… right…” Nodding along with that slowly, I looked at Wyatt. “I assume you told her some of the stuff about Wonderland?”

He shrugged. “I told her what I could see. Mostly that you were incredibly brave. I wanted to take the footage for her to see, but Gaia thought it would be better if it stayed with her and didn’t get out.”

“Yeah,” I agreed with a wince. “I’m pretty sure we don’t want Ruthers or his fanclub seeing exactly what happened back there. Something tells me they’d ask questions I really don’t want to answer.”

“But what’s a Wonderland?” Koren pressed. “And what—what about the rest of that stuff?”

“You’re right, I need to tell you all of it.” Sighing, I folded my arms. “I’ll tell you about the troll and the faeries and all that. First, I should probably start with the fact that Fossor and Ammon tried to get my old babysitter to kill himself to prove they can still hurt me. But it turns out, he’s a pooka.”

“A pooka?” Koren echoed, frowning. “Like the one that’s watching over your dad with the vampire?”

“Yup,” I confirmed, peeking at Wyatt while nonchalantly adding, “Oh, and I also met Gabriel Prosser.”

Honestly, the noise that came out of my poor brother at that point would have sounded more at home coming from a preteen girl who had just been informed that Justin Bieber was coming over for dinner. And the utterly bewildered look that Corporal Kickwhiskers gave him afterward was just icing.

Laughing in spite of myself, and using that to try to push away the confusion about what could have happened to Professor Katarin (praying to any power out there that would listen that he was okay), I waved a hand. “Okay, okay, settle down. I’ll tell you what happened. I’ll tell you all of it. But when I’m done, you guys have to tell me everything you did over at Garden, and all about how Abigail’s doing.

“Because to tell you guys the truth, I could really use some good news right about now.”

******

“Valley, Valley, wait.”

It was time for the welcome back dinner, and I had been on my way when I spotted my roommate right outside the doors to the building that the dining hall was in. So I took a few quick steps that way, calling her name before stepping into her path. I got as far as putting myself in front of her before stopping short. The words had been on the tip of my tongue all day, but actually being there, seeing her in person again after what happened, it made every thought drain right out of me, until all I could do was stand there open-mouthed, realizing vaguely that I should probably actually be saying something.

To her credit, there was a slight sign of amusement on Avalon’s face as she watched me silently for a few seconds before clearing her throat pointedly. “Were you going to say something, Chambers?” Her voice was dry. “Not that I’m not accustomed to being stared at, but you usually stand out more than that.”

“Was that–” I stopped, cocking my head a bit. “Was that a compliment?” From my pocket, I produced my special little rock buddy. “Herbie, mark the date and time. Avalon said I stand out more than most of the people who stare at her all day long. Which, between you and me, is a lot of freaking people.

“Did you–” Avalon started, squinting at the rock in my hand for a moment. “You gave him a hat.”

I straightened proudly while nodding. “It was Christmas, I had to get him something. It’s a newsboy cap. You know, for when he’s writing. After all, even the bravest monster slayer can have a poetic side.”

That was Herbie right now. A very handsome rock with googly eyes, a nice sword courtesy of Columbus, and a tiny newsboy cap that had belonged to a doll before I appropriated it for better use.

Shaking her head while clearly hiding her smile, Avalon looked up to me. “Did you need something?”

“I–” Suddenly I felt awkward again, shifting from foot to foot. Everything had felt so clear earlier. I wanted to see Valley. It had been a few weeks since we… since we had… My face heated up at the thought, and my tongue somehow managed to tie itself in even more knots. “I just—you were gone when I got back and so I thought you were—that after what—that we sort of—I thought you were–”

“I wasn’t avoiding you, Chambers,” Avalon replied, her voice softening. “I was with Gaia, at Garden.”

Well, that threw me. My mouth opened and shut. “With Gaia at Garden? What the hell were you doing with Gaia at Garden? Did something happen? Are they trying to–”

Before she could respond, one of the third year teachers approached and nodded toward the doors. “Inside, girls.” His face was suspicious, and his eyes didn’t leave Avalon until we walked all the way inside. Unlike other people who stared at her, however, I had the feeling this guy wasn’t doing so for his own entertainment. His eyes were riveted to her arm, where the Garden tattoo was.

Silently, Valley and I walked into the cafeteria together. Immediately, I spotted the rest of our team sitting at a table together. When they saw us, Sands and Sean both waved to get our attention, so we crossed the room to join them.

Exchanging a quick hug of greeting with the twins and Sean, I nodded to Columbus before taking a seat. Immediately, Vulcan pushed his way up by my leg and I reached down to give him all the scratches and nuzzles the silly metal dog wanted. “Hey guys, how were your trips?”

Sands was beaming. “Oh god, you guys. We saw so much. Heretics in Europe are insane. Seriously, there was this clocktower, and–”

“Hey, look.” Sean interrupted, nodding past us toward the door. “The headmistress is here.” Glancing to me, he added, “You heard about that?”

“That she’s been gone a lot, yeah.” I confirmed before frowning as I looked that way. “And that Professor Katarin’s missing. Did… did you guys know anything about that?”

Gaia, meanwhile, had entered the room and stopped to say something quietly to one of the other teachers. Peterson Neal approached, but she waved him off with a stern look before heading for the front.

“Dad mentioned it,” Sands confirmed quietly. “He said Katarin missed his check-in. They sent someone out to find him, but there was just… nothing. It’s like he dropped off the face of the known worlds.”

“Speaking as someone who actually did that a couple months ago,” I put in, “I hope he’s okay.”

Gaia, by that point, had reached the front of the room. She waited a moment before starting to speak. Her words, as usual, somehow reached every corner without her seeming to actually raise her voice at all. And she’d barely started before all other conversation stopped.

“First, I’d like to extend my hope that all of you had a fine vacation and that those of you who celebrate them had some wonderful holidays.” She paused then, looking down for a moment before raising her gaze to look over the room. “And I promise, I won’t speak for very long. I’m sure you’re all very hungry and you’d like to get through the important parts of the evening. But… there is something important that I need to say.

“As most of you have probably already heard, one of our very dear and esteemed teachers, Professor Katarin, is… missing. I assure you all, there are many extremely qualified investigators searching for him as we speak. Believe me when I say, whatever happened to Professor Katarin, he will be found. And if anything bad has happened, the perpetrator… well, they will be found as well.”

Straightening then, the woman focused on me briefly before her gaze moved on. “However, until that happens, we cannot simply leave his place empty. There must be a combat teacher, and someone to act as track adviser for the first year Hunter students. Thankfully, a very special man has volunteered to fill that position for the time being. A man whose… unique perspective on many things will be a boon to all of you, if you choose to embrace the opportunity.”

Back where the rest of the teachers and staff were, I could see Peterson Neal shaking his head with a barely disguised expression of disgust and annoyance. That confused me. Who could Gaia be bringing in to substitute for Katarin that pissed Ruthers’ stooge off that much?

“I’m sure you’ll all have a lot of questions,” Gaia continued while lifting a hand to the door. “But for now, please join me in welcoming our temporary Hunter Track Advisor and Combat Instructor–”

She said the name, but she didn’t need to. Not for me. Because I knew the man that stepped through the door and into the cafeteria then. I’d met him before. I also knew why Gaia had been at Garden with Avalon, and why Peterson was so openly annoyed.

It was the guy from Eden’s Garden, Miranda’s teacher. Hisao. Our substitute teacher… was Hisao.

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Mini-Interlude 14 – Wyatt

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The following is a commissioned mini-interlude focusing on Wyatt and his efforts to protect his newly discovered family (even if they remain oblivious to those efforts). It takes place earlier in the same day as the most recent regular chapter. 

The sound of Elvis Presley’s Jailhouse Rock filled the small kitchenette of the apartment that Crossroads had provided Wyatt Rendell for his security position at the school. In the midst of the lyrics about Spider Murphy and Little Joe, Wyatt himself worked his way across the room to the counter near the fridge. His steps were short and awkward, as his feet were crammed into shoes that were more than a little too small for him. As a result, his movements looked more like a mincing tiptoe than a stride.

Two cat litter boxes lay on the floor next to the counter where Wyatt was moving. A small gray cat (really little more than a kitten at the moment) of the breed known as the British Shorthair sat beside the boxes, his deceptively simple-looking collar hiding a baker’s dozen worth of enchantments that ensured no one could shapeshift into the cat, possess the cat, or mentally control the cat without setting off several alerts that had been set up. Rather than look impressed or proud at the collection of magic he was carrying around on his neck, however, the cat simply looked profoundly irritated. Most likely because, rather than hold their namesake, the litter boxes were filled with a combination of dirt, sand, rocks, twigs, and other assorted debris.

“I know, I know, Corporal Kickwhiskers,” Wyatt assured his recently acquired roommate over the sound of the music while stepping directly into the litter boxes, one shoe in each. “I need to empty yours! And I will! As soon as the watch is ready.”

Suiting action to words, the man bent over the counter while plucking up a pair of jewelers glasses. Fitting them onto his head while shuffling his feet back and forth so that the too-small shoes they were partially stuffed inside of would take up more of the contents of the litter boxes, the man settled the many-lensed devices onto his head. Flicking all five additional lenses down over his right eye, he carefully picked up an expensive-looking silver watch. Holding the watch in one hand, he picked up an electric engraving tool with the other and set it against the metal backing. After a quick glance toward the nine different photographs of a similar watch that were taped to the wall above the counter, Wyatt carefully began to inscribe words into the back of the watch to match those in the photograph.

For Services Above And Beyond – G. Ruthers

Once the inscription was finished, and the music had long-since moved on to Gene Vincent and His Blue Caps performing Race With The Devil, Wyatt straightened and stepped out of the litter boxes. Turning to the nearby wall, he kicked out a couple times to knock the loose material off the shoes. Then he mince-stepped across the room with the watch, slipping it into a pocket of his too-large jacket before bending down to pick up a third litter box, this one actually filled with what it should be (as well as several distinctly smelly things that made it clear just why the perturbed feline had all-but vocally demanded it be cleaned). Turning with the box, Wyatt dumped it into a nearby waist-high trashcan which appeared to be empty, sans even a bag. Then he tapped his hand against it and triggered the enchantment, transporting the contents into the bottom of the ocean.

That done, he deposited the box back where it belonged and took a moment to fill it once more with the kitty litter. Then he beat a hasty (if awkward-looking) retreat from the room while Corporal Kickwhiskers made a mad dash for the newly-filled box.

In the living room of the apartment, Wyatt kicked off the too-small shoes and slipped on his own proper ones. Bending down, he plucked them off the floor, holding open his jacket pocket before dropping them inside. Not yet done, however, he also reached to the nearby counter and picked up a collection of hairbands, a simple button that belonged to one of the uniform jackets, and three different armbands. All were deposited into that single pocket where the shoes had gone, though it appeared to be flat once more as he patted it on his way out of the apartment.

“Keep an eye on things, Corporal!” he called back to the cat. The answering meow was more annoyed grumble than enthusiastic agreement, but they’d work on that. Frankly, he was considering it progress that the cat responded to his words at all.

Turning back, Wyatt shut his door. Then he proceeded to engage all seventeen of the locks that he had attached to it, as well as the half dozen alarm spells. There were more inside the room itself that would react to any presence other than his own and his new feline roommate.

The cat hadn’t been his idea. He had been a gift from his niece, who thought he needed company in his apartment. Koren. Koren Fellows was his niece, and her mother, the woman currently staying at Eden’s Garden, was his sister. He had a sister. A twin sister.

More than that, he had a family. The very concept itself was… confusing. It made him feel things that he hadn’t actually felt since he had been a young child. Discovering that the people who had taken him in and posed as his parents were spying on him for an unknown party (now obviously revealed as Gabriel Ruthers) had pretty much erased the whole idea of family pride and love from his mind.

And yet now, now he had found out that he had a real family out there. And it was just as awkward and strange as Wyatt often felt he himself was. His father appeared to be much younger than he was and (thanks to possessing the appearance of an incubus) didn’t look at all like him. His twin sister had been raised as a Bystander and was now at Eden’s Garden being tutored in Heretic ways as an adult. Meanwhile, his half-sister and his niece were both first year students here at Crossroads. And their fathers were Bystanders.

Had been, in Koren’s case. Her father was… dead. Killed by the Fomorian and then erased from their memory. The tragedy of it, the idea that his niece couldn’t even remember her father, made him feel… anger. And that in and of itself was a strange feeling for Wyatt Rendell. After growing the way that he had, he hadn’t really felt genuine ‘anger’ that way in… well, longer than he could remember.

But when he thought of what had been done to Koren’s now-erased-and-deceased father, he felt it.

At least his half-sister’s father was still alive. And hopefully would stay that way, considering the protection that Flick had arranged for him. Not that she’d told him that much about it, but he’d looked into the situation himself just to be sure that she wasn’t about to lose her own father. Finding the vampire there, he’d thought the worst, but further investigation had revealed the truth.

So that was his family. A niece and half-sister as students, a father as a slightly older-yet-still-younger-than-he-was student, a sister who was a Bystander living at Eden’s Garden, a mother who was the prisoner of an evil necromancer, a Bystander brother-in-law who had been killed, and a Bystander stepfather who was some kind of reporter and who was being babysat by a vampire.

In a way, he liked it. Not the parts where his mother was a prisoner and his brother-in-law was dead, of course. But the chaotic absurdness of the rest of it. Having a completely normal family where everyone fit the exact storybook roles would have confused him, maybe even driven him off. But this? This weird, awkward, totally confusing mish-mash of positions and relations actually helped. The convoluted mess of it made the whole thing feel more real and approachable. It felt comfortable, in some small, strange way.

Or maybe he was just weird.

But comfortable as it may have felt, the last thing he was going to do was slack off when it came to the danger that surrounded them. No sir. Not now, not ever. Not when he actually had something to lose. And he knew for a fact that there were goblins (the metaphorical ones were more dangerous) waiting to snatch all of his family away, and ruin all of this.

The threats surrounding them were almost innumerable. In addition to the standard problems facing any Heretic, there was Gabriel Ruthers himself (who had already abducted Wyatt and Abigail as babies in order to force their mother into prison before erasing her entire identity), Fossor (who currently had their mother imprisoned and clearly wasn’t going to settle for just one), the Fomorians (who obviously weren’t going to stop trying to find a way to use one of his family members to break the spell that prevented them from returning to the planet), the Seosten (who were somehow involved in all of this, he just knew it), Trice and the others from Eden’s Garden (who were trying to kill Avalon Sinclaire and had made enemies of his half-sister and her team in the process), including the werewolf girl (who somehow didn’t show up as a werewolf to Heretic-sight), Fahsteth (the mercenary Stranger who had poisoned Avalon as a child and somehow led to all of this), and whoever was secretly behind both him and Trice’s group (who had arranged the murder of Zedekiah Pericles as well as the current condition of their own ally, Professor Giselle Tangle).

And there were probably more that his frenzied thoughts weren’t thinking about, but before he could sort them out in his head, his feet had already carried him straight to his first target.

“Mr. Adams!” he bellow-squeaked, his voice cracking a bit in mid-word despite his best effort to sound like a proper authority.

Deveron. Father. Dad. Papa. All those words and more worked their way through his mind as the boy-man-person-student-father in question turned away from the conversation that he’d been having with several other students. For a half-second, Wyatt saw an expression of emotion and… longing in the handsome boy’s eyes before it vanished back behind his cool mask.

“Telling you, man, I didn’t do anything,” Deveron-Father all-but drawled. “What’s wrong now?”

“A likely story. I’m onto you.” Shaking his long, awkwardly bony finger at the boy who was his dad, Wyatt stepped forward. “Hands out, knees apart. And don’t make any sudden movements. You all, stay there, or you’ll be tried as accomplices.”

Sometimes, making a point of having a reputation for being… well, the way Wyatt was had its advantages. The boys that Deveron-Father had been talking to barely batted their eyes. They did, however, roll them pretty extensively. But, as awkward and dumb as they thought the interaction was, it was not suspicious.

Stepping close, Wyatt carefully patted his boy-father down, checking all of his pockets in the process. While checking his left jacket pocket, he surreptitiously slipped a folded note there while simultaneously extracting one.

Even with privacy spells, it would still look strange for him to interact too often with a normal student. Yet he really wanted to talk to his father. So, the two of them had set up a system of drops and encounters like this in order to pass a constant stream of notes back and forth to one another. It allowed them to almost-converse regularly.

Wyatt didn’t stop there, however. While continuing his pretense of patting the ‘boy’ down for contraband, he straightened and slipped the previously prepared jacket button from his own pocket. With dexterity belying his awkward appearance, he slipped the button directly over its identical counterpart on the front of Deveron-Dad’s uniform jacket and triggered one of the simple spells he had placed on it. The button immediately switched itself for its twin, attaching itself to the jacket in its place, while the normal button was deposited in Wyatt’s hand and quickly discarded back in his pocket.

The spells on the button would warn Wyatt if anything happened to Deveron to put the man-boy in danger. It was the third uniform jacket he’d altered that way. Pretty soon, he’d manage to tag all of his father’s clothes similarly.

And yet, even then, Wyatt still wasn’t done. Stepping around behind the boy, he clapped him on the biceps, one for each hand. In that same motion, he attached one of the armbands that he had prepared. As soon as the band closed around the arm, its magic triggered and the band became invisible and intangible to everyone except Wyatt himself.

Deveron wouldn’t know about the band, itself covered in even more protection and alarm spells, similar to the one he had prepared for Avalon (the same reason that the people after her were apparently trying to kill him, even if they didn’t know that he was their target… yet) any more than he would know about the button. But Wyatt would know. And it made him feel just a little bit better to have more layers of protection on his father. More redundancies for when things turned sideways and everything went to hell.

Why the button if he was already going to put the armband on his father? Back-ups. Always back-ups. Never rely on one solution. Never.

“Ehhh you’re clean, this time.” He announced while stepping back. “But I’m watching you, Adams. I’m always watching you.”

“That sounds really creepy, dude,” Deveron-Dad retorted while giving him a mock-salute. He turned to head back with the other students, casting a glance over his shoulder before giving Wyatt a surreptitious wink.

Then they were leaving, and Wyatt felt the watch on his wrist vibrate as the silent alarm went off. Not from any of his myriad of defensive spells, but simply the one he had set for the current time. Giving his watch a quick glance to confirm, he about-faced and almost sprinted back across the grounds. He had to be at the right spot at the right time, had to be there, had to be there. Run faster. Don’t see the students staring. Now slow down. Slow down, have to look natural. Slow down.

Easing to the right pace at the last second, Wyatt turned the corner of the cafeteria building just in time to see the doors open as a small figure practically lunged out of them. Koren shoved her way through the doors, laden down with a tray that was piled high with pudding bowls.

At the same time, a male figure was moving up toward the doors. As Koren shoved her way out, the tray slammed into the man, sending bowls of chocolate, tapioca, and vanilla pudding all down the front of his clothes.

Not bad, but he was going to have to teach her how to look more subtle.

“Oh my god!” Koren blurted, managing to avoid sounding rehearsed (appropriate considering the hours they’d actually spent rehearsing). “Professor Neal, I’m sorry! I’m so, so sorry!”

Peterson Neal, the so-called Head of Student Affairs (and less commonly called Head of Being Ruthers’s Stooge and Official Buttsmoocher) recoiled with a curse. “Miss Fellows!” he blurted. “Watch where the hell you’re going. Do you have any idea how–”

“I saw that!” Wyatt interrupted, charging that way. “Attacking a teacher, attempted assassination! It’ll be the gallows for you, missy!”

“The—what?” To her credit, the girl managed to look equally horrified and confused. “It was an accident. I was just–”

“Save it for the Runners.” Wyatt snapped around. “Will you be pressing charges, Professor? I saw the whole thing. Her murder spree was only thwarted by your quick reflexes and cunning.”

“Murder spr—no,” Peterson managed a bit distractedly. “I just—slow down, Fellows.”

Koren’s head bobbed up and down rapidly. “S-sure, yes, sir. I’m sorry, I—here I can…” She stepped forward and started to rub the man’s shirt down with napkins from the tray, mostly simply managing to rub the pudding into his shirt in the process.

At the same time, Wyatt moved to the man. “Stop it, assassin,” he snapped in mock-anger. “You won’t succeed in your attempts, I’m onto you!”

While ‘threatening’ the girl, he took hold of Peterson’s wrist, lifting it to press his card into the man’s palm. “If you change your mind about pressing charges, I’ll be glad to put this little miscreant in her place.”

Then, while the man was being assaulted by the sensation of Koren rubbing pudding into his shirt, as well as the feel of his wrist being held and the card being pressed into his hand, Wyatt smoothly undid the latch of his watch and replaced it with the one that he had just finished preparing. It held all the same enchantments that Peterson’s old watch had (that had taken a long time to work out) as well as a few new ones, such as one that would allow Wyatt to hear whatever was said when the names ‘Flick’, ‘Felicity’, ‘Chambers’, ‘Koren’, ‘Fellows’, ‘Deveron’, ‘Adams’, ‘Joselyn’, or ‘Atherby’ were said.

He was going to find out what Peterson talked with Ruthers about, and just how much the former headmaster knew about what was going on. The only trouble had been finding a way to slip the enchantments onto Peterson without the man realizing what was happening. For that, Wyatt had needed a partner. Enter Koren Fellows, his niece. She had come to him asking for tutoring in the kind of things that he did. So, they had come up with this plan.

Shaking both of them off, Peterson snapped for Koren to get to where she belonged. Then he gave his soiled shirt a distraught look before turning to march back to his own apartment to change. He never even gave Wyatt a second glance.

Once the man was out of sight, Koren straightened, glancing toward Wyatt. “Did we get it?”

“Yes,” he replied, giving his niece what he hoped was a proud, encouraging smile. But it was probably far more goofy and awkward than it was endearing, despite his best efforts. “You were decent.”

Then he nodded down at her shoes, where he had made sure to flick some of the pudding from Peterson’s shirt. “You missed some. Here, let me clean them off.”

“Decent?” she echoed. “I kicked ass, and you know it. I should be an actress, not a monster hunter. A monster-hunting actress.” Kneeling down, she untied her shoes and pulled them off, one after the other. “You can really get pudding off them?”

Nodding, Wyatt whipped a paper bag from his pocket. Dropping both shoes into the bag, he triggered a spell on it. Except, in this case, rather than a spell to clean the shoes, it simply switched them with the other set in his pocket, the one he had just finished breaking in and dirtying up to look similar enough to Koren’s real shoes that she wouldn’t notice the difference.

“See?” he announced then while tugging the new shoes (with their own protection and alarm spells) from the bag and handing them back to the girl. “No pudding.”

“Thanks,” Koren bent to tug the shoes on, focusing on tying them. “How’s Corporal Kickwhiskers doing, anyway?”

“He didn’t pee on my bed today,” Wyatt replied while reaching down to help the girl back to her feet. In the same motion, he clapped another of the armbands against her bicep, letting it vanish from sight and become impossible to either feel or detect before he released her arm.

“See? Told you, you guys belong together.” Koren grinned at him. Not up at him, despite the difference in their ages. Hell, she was an inch taller than he was, so she was practically looking down at him. Funny, he’d never really cared too much about his height, and yet now… it was just another reminder that he’d never had a chance to actually get to know either her or Flick while they were young and small. The two were practically adults when he met them.

How many birthdays had he missed? How many conversations would he never have with them? How much had been taken away from him by Ruthers? Not just his own childhood, but the opportunity to experience his family’s.

Koren extended a hand, holding it out with her palm up. “We make a good team.”

For a moment, Wyatt simply stared at her offered hand. Emotions and thoughts, far too numerous to count or even try to understand, ran through him. Finally, however, he brought his own hand down to slap hers.

“We do.”

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