Flick

Mini-Interlude 62 – Flick And Tabbris

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Flick?”

“Yeah?”

“Our family is really weird.”

“… Yeah. It really is.”

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Homecoming 35-04

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“But we know exactly who her father is.”

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Homecoming 35-03

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

For now.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

His face tensed. “What? What happened?”

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

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

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

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

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

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Homecoming 35-02

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“We will tell you,” he promised.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Interlude 34B – Wyatt

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“I’m sure you thought you’d gotten away with it,” Wyatt announced in a low tone. “I’m sure you were convinced that none of us could possibly see through your elaborate disguise. But you overplayed your hand. I see the truth. I see your evil intentions.” Slowly, the man paced around the target of his interrogation, his tone turning more accusing. “Were you planning on killing everyone on the island, or would you have warned the youngest to flee? How many were you willing to massacre to achieve your ends? How much blood is already on your hands!?”

“Wyatt?” The voice came from the back of the otherwise completely empty classroom, as Reid Rucker, the second in command of the school’s security forces, stood in the doorway. “Buddy? That’s a coffee cup.” He lifted a hand to indicate the thing that Wyatt had been pacing around, his voice somewhat audibly pained. “You’re interrogating an coffee mug, man.”

“Am I really?” Wyatt shot back immediately as he straightened to snap his hand into a sharp salute that bounced off his forehead. “Or is that just what they want us to think?”

Slowly stepping into the room, Reid raised an eyebrow. “What who wants us to think?”

Head bobbing up and down quickly, Wyatt elaborated… sort of. “They, they. The ones who could turn one of their elite assassins into a coffee mug. Infiltrators. Monsters. They’re all around us.”

There was no they, of course. At least, not in the way that Wyatt was implying (as far as he knew, anyway). And he wasn’t quite crazy enough to actually believe that the coffee mug on the floor was some kind of threat. But he also didn’t want Rucker to have any idea what he had actually been doing, which was scraping gum from the bottom of the desks. Gum which had been planted by him in the first place, after being enchanted to record any conversations that happened within a few feet that contained the names of Flick, Avalon, or any of the others.

It was unlikely, of course, that he’d actually manage to catch one of the Seosten or their allies being stupid enough to talk about it like that. But then, they had made stupid mistakes before. And this was more of a test run before he would plant his eavesdropping gum elsewhere. All he had to do was stick the wad of used gum somewhere, wait for awhile, then go back and collect it. Putting the first run of the gum here in the classroom under several desks was the first test.

But again, he didn’t want Rucker to know any of that. As attractive as the man might have been, he was not on the vanishingly short list of people that Wyatt actually trusted. That list was actually so short that it might have been better referred to as a sentence. And not even a long one, at that. He might have had a bit of a crush on the man, but he wasn’t stupid about it. Hence the quick ruse he’d set up about interrogating the coffee cup as soon as he’d detected the man’s approach and noticed him listening outside the door.

After that ‘explanation’, Reid gave a long, low sigh while shaking his head. That charming smile stayed on his face while he gave Wyatt a look. “Hey man, you let me know if you find anything interesting in your interrogation, okay? But for now, we should probably clear out of here. I think Professor Vandel is going to be in here in a few minutes to set up for some project he’s working on.”

Just as Wyatt started to nod, there was a chirping sound within his pocket. It was the sound of his phone (or one of a dozen he kept on hand, anyway) announcing a new text message. His hand automatically moved to pluck the phone from his pocket, giving the screen a brief look.

Got the milk, do we need eggs? That incredibly ordinary-seeming message had been delivered from a incredibly ordinary-seeming number. Clearly a mistake, a text sent to the wrong person.

Except that it wasn’t. Even as practiced as he was at hiding his true thoughts from all the people who would have killed him if they had known how much he actually knew, Wyatt still barely kept his expression passive. His eyes skimmed over the message before he shook his head.

“What’s up?” Reid, looking curious (though Wyatt didn’t know it if was natural curiosity/the man’s own friendliness or something far more sinister) asked while gesturing to the phone.

“Either a wrong number,” Wyatt started, “or another attempt to embed a secret code phrase into my brain, so they can take over and control me. But I won’t let them.” Tossing the phone to the floor, he stomped on it hard enough to utterly destroy the device, sending small pieces scattering along the floor. A flick of his hand pulled all the pieces into the air, and Wyatt produced a small brown bag before letting the pieces fall inside. To Rucker, he added, “They keep trying. They think they can shove these messages in my head. But I don’t fall for it.”

It didn’t really make much sense, even to Wyatt. But he’d had to think quickly, and he was distracted by the actual meaning of that message. Besides, it wasn’t like most people really paid attention to the things he said anyway, after a certain point. As long as it sounded crazy so that they could easily dismiss it, that’s what mattered. And that definitely sounded crazy.

“Right.” Rucker shook his head, stepping back. “Well, let me know if they try again. Maybe we can track down where it’s coming from. And Wyatt, man…” He paused then, giving him a look as though he was trying to decide exactly how to say what came next. “You’re a good guy, okay? And you’re a great security guard. You’ve just gotta take a breath sometimes.”

“Breathing,” Wyatt agreed distractedly while nodding as he moved to the door. “Right, yes, I will keep breathing. Good advice.” He went through the doorway then, saluting one more time before setting off. He can feel the other man’s eyes on the his back as he strolled down the hallway. With effort, he forced himself to keep his pace even, right up until he turned the corner.

Then he ran. Sprinting down the hall and past a few startled students, Wyatt activated the spell on the bag that he had deposited the shattered pieces of phone into. A second later, he opened the bag, still running, and dropped the newly repaired and functional phone into his hand.

Highlighting the message that he had gotten and copying it, he pasted the words into a separate program on his phone, one that he had created himself. As the words went through the translation program, they came out as a set of coordinates. The coordinates of where Flick had apparently just appeared on Earth.

That was what the message had been. He’d had the phone connected to the spell back in his apartment. The second that it had registered Flick’s reappearance, the thing had encoded the coordinates and sent them to his phone in the form of an apparent wrong number. That little bit of obfuscation was just in case anyone else had been looking at his phone when the message had come in. One could never be too careful, after all. And given how many enemies they had to deal with, getting an open text broadly announcing where Flick was would have been stupid.

Flick. Flick was back. She was on Earth once more, apparently somewhere in southern Arizona, according to the coordinates he had received. The point was, she was back! Wyatt sprinted even harder, almost running right over a couple of students who were making out. If he hadn’t been using his stolen vampire speed, the man wouldn’t have been able to adjust course. As it was, the two twitterpated teenagers broke apart with a look of confusion, looking around in the wake of the blur of motion tearing past them so closely that they felt the rush of air.

Wyatt just kept going, turning the corner once more on his way to the nearby stairs. Taking those stairs three at a time, the man practically threw himself to the top. He went skidding around a corner, nearly falling flat on his face before his gawky legs managed to correct just in time (mostly thanks to the enhanced reflexes and coordination he’d inherited from all those dead vampires).

The whole time he had been moving, Wyatt’s fingers were flying over the phone, as he sent a text to Professor Dare. The message was simple, and would seem to have come from a random phone from somewhere back on Earth to any of the security staff (or other faculty) who looked at the record. It read simply, ‘Wanna see a movie?’ Totally innocent, as far as most people would be concerned. And far better than just sending something like, ‘Hey, Flick is back on Earth!’, like some kind of idiot.

Almost no sooner had he sent the message, than the woman in question abruptly appeared right in front of him. There had to be some kind of time-manipulation effect going on there, given how fast she had apparently reacted. Either way, she stood directly in front of him, her eyes wide. “Is it–”

“Shhhhsssssttt!” Throwing his index finger in front of his mouth, Wyatt hushed her frantically. Giving a quick, suspicious look around the admittedly empty-looking (but that’s just what their enemies would have wanted them to think) corridor, the man quickly activated several different privacy spells, layering them over one another in an intricate web before he was even slightly satisfied. Only then did he nod. “Yes, yes, the tracker on Felicity popped up again. Southern Arizona, almost to the border. She’s back. She’s back. How did she get back? Is it the little Seosten in her? Did they take over?! Is she Flick or is she a monster?!”

As he said the words, asking the questions that Dare clearly wouldn’t know the answers to, Wyatt felt a hard stone settle into his stomach. All this time, all of his precautions and tests, and his own little sister had been possessed!? Of course, the Seosten possessing that Pace girl that his other sister had all-but adopted… Theia, apparently, had said that the Seosten possessing Flick hadn’t been actively controlling her. But still! The fact that he’d had no idea, that this apparently young Seosten had hidden herself from him while possessing Flick, it was… it was…

It made him want to shake that girl’s hand and demand that she tell him absolutely everything she knew about detection and hiding spells, and everything else. Because if that girl was good enough to keep herself hidden for what had to have been a very long time… visions of an apprentice danced in his head. An apprentice who could actually teach him some things. Partnership! A worthy partner!

Of course, if it turned out that she meant Flick harm, there would be no apprenticeship or partnership. Because he would make sure that she never had a chance to hurt his family, or anyone else, ever again.

Dare was shaking her head. “We’ll find out, as soon as we get there. Find Gaia, I’ll pick up Deveron.” Her eyes focused on him. “Do not tell anyone else, okay? We need to find out what the situation is before we pull any more people into this. That includes Avalon and the rest of her team. And Koren. Nobody. If they know what’s going on, they’ll want to help, and… and we need to make sure that Flick is safe first. And why she’s not with the others.”

With that, the blonde woman waited just long enough for Wyatt to give a short nod before she disappeared once more. Wyatt had a feeling she was using that time manipulation again, to avoid wasting as many precious seconds as possible.

Although he couldn’t follow her example exactly, he could pick up the pace himself. Another brief sprint carried him straight to the entrance of the headmistress’s office.

Despite his rush, and excitement, the man didn’t go knocking loudly and wildly on the woman’s door just like that. He had a little more sense. Instead, Wyatt paused for a moment, head tilting a little as he listened. Of course, he wouldn’t be able to hear anything from within the office. Gaia was entirely too security-minded for that, something that he greatly admired her for. Not that there was any shortage of reasons that Wyatt admired the woman who had given him this job, but her attention to that kind of thing was a pretty big one in and of itself.

So no, he wouldn’t be able to hear anything happening with in the office itself. Anything that was actually said would be completely masked. But, he would know for certain whether the headmistress was actually in the office, since the privacy spell that she used gave off a very faint, yet recognizable hum when it was active. And it was only active when the woman was actually present. As he listened, Wyatt heard that distinctive hum. Gaia was definitely in there.

Schooling his expression as best as he was able, Wyatt raised his hand to knock. Just as he was about to, however, the door itself swung open, and he came within a hair’s breadth of smacking Peterson Neal right in the face before catching his swinging hand.

For his part, Neal took a quick step back, muttering a brief curse. His reflexive retreat made the man collide with the people behind him, who turned out to be those Committee representatives, October Atrean and Patrick Dinast, the ones who had been sent to keep an eye on things.

“Whoa,” October blurted, catching Peterson with one hand while looking past him to Wyatt. “We didn’t interrupt an impromptu boxing match, did we?” Beside him, the man’s partner remained silent, though his intense gaze seemed to stare through Wyatt as though trying to read his mind. Not that that was possible. Wyatt had at least seven active spells preventing something like that at all times. After all, he wasn’t a complete amateur at this kind of thing.

“No,” Peterson retorted, pulling himself from October’s bracing grip before pointedly straightening his suit and tie. “Only a rookie security guard who should watch what he’s doing.”

“Is everything alright?” The words came from Gaia herself, who had stepped into view. She paused at the sight in her doorway, before carefully asking, “Mr. Rendell, did you find another Ganesha in the toilets?”

A Ganesha in a toilet would have been impossible, of course. The enormous, elephant-headed Alters would have had a hard time fitting into the bathroom itself, let alone into the toilet. The words were a code, and just to make that code more realistic, Wyatt had officially reported being quite certain that he had found one a couple weeks earlier. If another week had gone by, he would have reported something else absurd that would have become their new code.

“No,” he automatically replied, “it’s flitting about somewhere. But I’ll find it soon enough.”

More code. If he had said it was still there, the translation would have been that Flick was still missing with no sign of her. If he’d said that he thought he’d actually caught the Ganesha, it would mean that he had Flick in hand (so to speak). And if he’d said that the Ganesha had gone home, it would mean that he knew where Flick was, but she was being held prisoner. This, saying that the thing was ‘flitting about’, meant that he knew where she was, but didn’t know the exact situation. And ‘find it soon enough’ translated into an appeal for Gaia to move quickly because he had no idea how much longer the girl would stay where she was.

“Wyatt,” Peterson Neal started then, “if you’re just here to bother the headmistress with another trivial report about one of your insane–”

“It’s okay,” Gaia interrupted. “Mr. Rendell and I need to have a conversation anyway. Thank you all very much for stopping by, and I will take your suggestions under advisement.” Stepping back, she gestured for Wyatt to come in. “If you aren’t too busy protecting our school, of course.”

“No, ma’am!” Wyatt promptly replied, putting himself at rigid attention. “I am at your disposal.”

Dismissing the other three, Gaia waited for him to step in before giving a wave of her hand that made the door shut. “Where?” she asked immediately, not needing to waste any time on frivolities, which he appreciated.

“Southern Arizona, ma’am,” he promptly answered. “Professor Dare is collecting my father–” That felt weird for him him to say. “– and will be straight back here as soon–”

There was a knock at the door, and Gaia waved it open to allow Deveron and Dare to enter. The young-looking man who was Wyatt’s biological father strode straight in, giving him a brief smile before starting with, “What the hell is going on in Arizona? Why is Flick there, and why aren’t the others with her?”

“We will find out presently, Mr. Adams,” Gaia informed him calmly, before pausing as her head tilted. “Hold one moment.”

She stood like that, silent for almost five seconds before letting out a low breath that sounded like an annoyed sigh. “Apparently we must find out very quickly. The Committee has been informed of Miss Chambers’ presence.”

What?!” Dare demanded. “How did they–what?”

Gaia’s head shook. “That much is unclear. Edward Teach was simply kind enough to send a message just now announcing the location of Miss Chambers in case we didn’t have it, along with the promise to delay the other Committee members for as long as possible. But they will be on their way shortly.”

“So we need to go,” Deveron announced then, his fists tightening. “Now.”

Nodding, Gaia looked to Wyatt. “Mr. Rendell, the exact coordinates, please?”

He provided them, and the headmistress created a portal. Together, the four of them stepped through, and into the desert. A desert that was littered with bodies. None of whom looked like Flick, to Wyatt’s great relief. They were soldiers clad in armor.

Ahead was a long, tube-like metal structure that looked somewhat like a tube or a cylinder, with a single ramp at one end leading up into it.

With a wave of her hand, Gaia turned herself and the rest of the group invisible to most senses, allowing them to slowly and carefully approach that ship. They passed all the bodies, Wyatt aching to check over them for anything useful. But there wasn’t time.

Then they heard voices. Flick’s voice, saying something about getting ‘her’ back, whoever ‘her’ was. That was followed by another voice, just as they reached the top of the ramp. It was a voice that was equally surprising: Tristan Moon.

“What I wanna know,” the boy was saying, “is where exactly this transport was supposed to go, and why it was aimed for Earth in the first place.”

They were there, past a line of what looked like cryogenic freezing pods full of figures, at the far end of the tube. Flick and Tristan. Wyatt could see them then, along with Vanessa Moon, though the latter was slumped onto the floor, apparently unconscious. Standing near them was another blonde woman, whose hair was cut quite short and who wore a clingy red jumpsuit. A smaller blonde figure, a child, stood between Flick and the woman, clinging onto the former in a tight hug while her eyes gazed with what looked like hero-worshipping adoration at the latter. All of them (aside from the unconscious Vanessa) seemed focused on a console that the woman was working at.

In response to Tristan’s last words, Gaia waved her hand once more, dropping the power that had hidden them.

“Perhaps, Mr. Moon,” she started, “that is a question that we should be attempting to work out together.”

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Mini-Interlude 61 – Tabbris

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The following commissioned interlude takes place several months before the canon start/first chapter of this story. 

The blonde girl stared into the mirror, meeting her own expression as she announced, “So Dad says I need to get a job, something to distract me and keep me out of trouble. Which is clearly crazy talk, because getting in trouble is what distracts me.”

Although she was speaking aloud, the girl had no idea that there was another person listening. She was simply vocalizing her thoughts. Which was a habit that had thoroughly confused and even startled her young Seosten passenger when she had started doing it several years earlier.

Tabbris had briefly been convinced that the then-thirteen-year-old had somehow figured out that she was possessing her. Only a quick, somewhat panicked perusal of the girl’s surface thoughts had put that to rest. Still, whenever her unknowing host spoke to herself, it was hard to completely dismiss the thought of that she was actually addressing the girl inside her.

Or maybe Tabbris just desperately wanted someone to talk to her. Her mother’s recorded lessons that popped into her head now and then were something, but it wasn’t the same as having a real conversation. And that sometimes made it difficult to resist the urge to respond.

But that would have complicated things a lot more than they already were. Even more complicated than the fact that the woman who was supposed to meet her when she first woke up had never shown up. Years after the fact, Tabbris still had no idea what had happened to Aunt Larissa. And she was growing increasingly afraid that she would never find out.

Or maybe she was afraid that she would find out. Because by now, the answer had to be very… very bad.

“Okay,” Flick announced then, the sixteen-year-old girl’s voice snapping Tabbris’s attention back to present, “If Dad wants me to get a job for the summer, I guess I could go look at that theater. They were supposed to be hiring.”

And I think there’s something hinky about that owner guy. He’s creepy. I don’t care how much he’s donated to charity.

That last part came through the girl’s thoughts, as she was apparently unwilling to risk vocalizing the real reason that she wanted to get the theater job, since it would seem to go against that whole ‘staying out of trouble’ reasoning that her father had in the first place.

Pivoting away from the mirror, the girl grabbed her keys from the counter and headed out of the bathroom before taking the stairs two at a time. At the bottom of the stairs, Flick took a quick look around as though to make sure the house was empty before heading out through the front door. She locked it behind herself and was just heading down the sidewalk when she suddenly paused. Slowly, the girl took a couple of steps off the sidewalk, moving to the mostly empty flower garden. She stood there, staring down into the dirt, and Tabbris had the sudden thought that Flick might somehow be able to see the invisible magical runes that Tabbris herself had been placing on the house once a month ever since she had been old enough to do so.

The runes did a lot of things, including alerting Tabbris if anyone unexpected entered the house. They also drove off most minor threats that might be sent by the Seosten or other threats, though they would do nothing against anyone as powerful as the Seosten woman who had come a while back.

Tabbris’s Mama had been right about what their people would do, because that powerful and clearly very old Seosten woman had very obviously been there to possess Flick. She’d tried multiple times that night while Flick herself slept, even going as far as working her way around the room and the house itself to find and disable most of the protective spells that Tabbris had up at the time. The woman had clearly assumed that there was some kind of spell protecting her target, and had been furious when she hadn’t been able to find it.

Tabbris remembered that night. That long, terrible, awful night. She had laid there awake within Flick’s sleeping body, waiting for the moment that the Seosten woman’s anger might translate into violence.

In the end, the woman had simply left (though she and others returned now and then, as though checking to see whether the girl was still immune to their possession). But still, if she had tried anything, what could Tabbris have done? If she tried anything more substantial than breaking spells, hissing curses, and repeatedly attempting to possess the (unknown to her) already possessed girl, Tabbris would have had to… had to…She would have had to do something, though even to this day, she wasn’t sure exactly what that something would have been. She could wake Flick up, and even take over. But from there, what could she possibly have done except maybe run away in that brief moment of the woman’s surprise? Even then, would she actually have gotten very far? And what about Mr. Chambers? The man was the closest thing to an actual father that Tabbris had ever known. Even if he had no idea she existed, she had… pretended, sometimes. When she was too lonely, when she missed her mother too much to stand it for even a second longer, Tabbris had very occasionally slipped into the man’s bedroom and curled up with him. Just for a little while. In his delirious, sleep-filled mind, the man had sometimes wrapped an arm around her while believing that she was his daughter.

For those few minutes once in a great while, Tabbris let herself feel loved and protected. She let the man’s arm around her fool her into thinking that there was anyone on the entire planet who would care for her, that there was anyone who loved her like that.

Those few minutes were worth the days and weeks of guilt that inevitably sprang up afterward. Mr. Chambers wasn’t her father. He didn’t know she existed. She was taking the love that he had for Flick and abusing it. She was bad. She was so very bad.

And yet, sometimes… she still couldn’t help it. Being alone here on this planet, constantly watching out for threats, being vigilant every night, it was… hard. It was so hard.

But she had to do it. She had to be a big girl. She had to be brave. She had promised, promised Dream-Mama through the memories that had been implanted in her head that she would help protect Felicity.

Aunt Larissa was supposed to be there to help. But that didn’t matter. Tabbris could do it. No matter how hard it got, no matter how lonely she was, she would not disappoint her mother. She would make Mama proud of her. So that one day… one day, when Mama was free, she would know that Tabbris had done everything she’d asked her to.

That day would come.

It had to.

After those few seconds where Tabbris briefly thought that Flick had somehow been able to see the spells that she had put up, the other girl instead bent down a bit more to grab a coin that had fallen into the dirt from somewhere. “Hah,” she announced aloud, “I knew that dollar coin was around here somewhere. But how’d it get all the way out here?”

Tabbris knew how. Some ghosts had been trying to work their way into the house a few days earlier, and she had needed a quick spell to stop them. The dollar coin sitting on Flick’s dresser had been first thing she had been able to find that would work.

At least the ghosts were gone for now. Tabbris would have to find something else to put the blocking spell on before they came back again. Somehow, she was pretty sure that Flick would know something was going on if she found that coin out in the flower bed again.

She could have simply erased the older girl’s memory of it, but… Tabbris tried to avoid using that as much as she possibly could. Any time that there was literally any other way of handling things, she would do it that way rather than tamper with memories. Even the little bit that she was forced to do, the girl felt horribly guilty about.  

Bad. Someone else could have done a better job. If she was older, smarter, stronger, she could have protected Flick the way that her mother wanted her to.

No, the way that she wanted to. Because over these past years, Tabbris had come to truly care for her host. She would never let anything happen to Flick. Not if she could help it. She would work as hard as she possibly could to make sure that the Seosten never enslaved her like they had been trying to do. Not just because her mother had wanted her to, but because she wanted to. Flick was a good person. She didn’t deserve what they would do to her, didn’t deserve to be forced into becoming what they would turn her into. She was good, and Tabbris would help her as much as she could. Even if Flick never knew about it.

Sometimes, Tabbris liked to pretend they were actually sisters. Because then Flick could talk to her. Flick could tell her stories, and tease her about her friends at school, and Tabbris could tease her about boyfriends (and girlfriends, because who did Flick’s subconscious think it was fooling?), and they could talk about teachers that Flick had had before Tabbris would have them… And Mr. Chambers would be her father. His proud smile, his hugs, the way his beard tickled, it would be meant for Tabbris too. She could have a family, one who knew that she existed. One that would care about her.

But that was just pretending.

“You know,” a voice spoke up from the sidewalk nearby, “if you really need change that badly, I could spot you a few bucks.” As Flick turned that way, she and Tabbris both saw the man standing there, thumbs hooked through a couple of the belt loops on his jeans. “Hell, might even go up as high as a tenner if you promise to rake my yard or something.”

“Well, that depends, Scott,” Flick drawled in reply. “When you say ‘yard’, do you mean the square foot of grass you have outside of your apartment, or that giant park across the street from it. Cuz that last one might be a bit much for ten bucks.”

“You saying I should go up to twenty?” Scott shot back, grinning at the girl he had babysat for some time.

And Scott, now Deputy Utell, had been a lot more than that. Tabbris had done enough secret spells around him to know that he was no normal human. And while practicing her ability to recall right to Flick from anywhere, she had gone as far as the man’s apartment and had seen him transform into multiple animals.

He was a Pooka. That much Tabbris was pretty sure of. Why he was watching Flick, however, she had no idea. Except that he didn’t seem to have any hostile intentions. She’d made quadruple certain of that. For one thing, she had enchanted a soda can so that the liquid inside would taste incredibly bitter to the person drinking it if they harbored any ill intentions toward the person who had given it to them. She had then put it in the back of the fridge, along with a minor compulsion not to take or notice it until the time was right. Then, the next time that Scott had been over, she’d given Flick a very slight compulsion to make that be the soda she gave him.

Scott had drunk it, and shown no ill effects. That combined with the other spells that Tabbris had used to test him were enough to convince her that, whatever his intentions, he didn’t mean any harm.

Dream-Mama had told her about the group that Mrs. Chambers had worked with, the rebellion. Maybe he was one of those people, keeping an eye on their former leader’s daughter.

“Pshh,” Flick was informing the man then. “I don’t need your chump change, I’m gonna go get a job at the theater on Seventh.”

“Cal’s place?” Scott passed briefly for turning to gesture over his shoulder at the squad car sitting there. “Come on, I’ll give you a lift there and back. I need to pick up some razors anyway, and there’s that Walgreens next door.”  

Tucking the coin into her pocket, Flick moved that way. “Sure, and on the off chance that anything actually exciting happens in this town and you have to race to a scene–”

Scott interrupted while getting back into the car. “I’ll slow down juuuust enough that you don’t kill yourself when I kick your ass out of the car before heading off to it.”

*******

A while later, Scott’s car dropped Flick off again in front of her house. Mr. Chambers’ car was in the driveway, which meant that it was probably about time for dinner. Flick waved at her former babysitter before heading in as the car drove off.

On the way inside, the girl passed someone else was walking along the sidewalk just outside of the house. The older boy, tall and dark haired, offered Flick a soft smile and the vaguest hint of a wave as they passed each other, adding an absent, “Evening.”

Flick, for her part, returned the simple greeting and kept going without a second thought. Tabbris, however, mentally froze. She felt briefly paralyzed for two particular reasons. First, because they had seen that same person over a year earlier when he had been outside the school. Only he had been somewhat older then. Not overwhelmingly so, but still visibly older.

An older brother, maybe? Except no. Tabbris didn’t know exactly how she knew it, but she knew that that was actually the same person, even if he looked younger now.

And even if she hadn’t known it, there was still the second reason he stood out. The fact that Flick dismissed the man from her memory a few seconds after meeting him wasn’t just the normal result of passing a stranger and forgetting what they looked like shortly afterward. No, in this case, the man had actually been using some kind of power, spell, or something that actively erased his specific features from the girl’s memory. Flick would remember that she’d waved at someone, but not exactly who they were or what they looked like.

Why? Was he another one of those watchers? There had been something, however brief and mild, hidden in the man’s expression when he had looked at Flick. Tabbris didn’t know what it was, but she knew that there was some kind of emotion there. What was she supposed to do? Was this a good thing, or a bad thing? Was he a bad guy? What could she do? What–

“Good morning, brave girl.”

Tabbris was back in the dream-house. She was pretty sure that it was the same house that her mother had lived in with her husband and Tabbris’s half-siblings, just before everything had gone wrong. None of the others were ever there, of course. Not aside from pictures, anyway. She had spent the first several years of her life mentally growing up in this dream-space. Her mama, or at least the dream-version of her, had raised the girl, had played with her, had taught her everything she knew. And now, whenever she had a real problem or thought that triggered an answer from the memories that her mother had implanted, she was brought back to what was basically a virtual reality space so that she could learn more.

“Mama!” Smiling brightly, Tabbris leapt to hug her dream-mother. She wasn’t real, of course. And there were certain limits to how she could interact with the girl. But it was something.

She also always said ‘Good morning’ no matter what time it was in the outside world.

So, Tabbris told her dream-mother what had happened. When she was done, the virtual representation of her mama pursed her lips thoughtfully. In reality, all of the implanted memories/lessons that her real mother had left her with were being scanned through until something useful was found, which would then be presented to Tabbris with the shell of a conversation.

Finally, Dream-Mama spoke. “He could be a scout from either Crossroads or Eden’s Garden, investigating Felicity just before a potential recruitment. That does tend to happen toward the beginning of the summer. His presence last year might have been the very early steps of that. As for his younger appearance, there are any number of answers for that. He could be a shapeshifter, or he could have been de-aged by something. Or he may possess the ability to alter his own age.”

“But what do I do, Mama?” Tabbris pentively asked. “I dunno if he’s good or bad. What if he wants to hurt Flick? Those ghosts still come sometimes. What if he’s part of that?”

“I will show you a few more protective spells that might help,” Dream-Mama assured her. “And if you see the man again, you might… nudge his appearance into Felicity’s mind, just enough that she will pay more attention to him. You should not have to do anything more overt than that, unless he presents an actual threat. Remember the first rule?”

“Be prepared,” Tabbris instantly recited. “Yes, Mama. If he’s a bad guy, I’ll be ready.” She stood a bit taller then, lifting her chin. “I won’t let him hurt Flick.”

“That’s my good girl,” Dream-Mama praised, pulling her into an embrace. “Now, you enjoy dinner with Felicity and her father, and then I’ll teach you those spells later, while she’s relaxing, okay?”

Tabbris agreed, and then she was seeing through Flick’s eyes once more. Only a few seconds had actually passed in the real world, enough for the girl to reach the front door and step inside.

The smell of pancakes reached them almost immediately, as Lincoln Chambers himself stepped backwards into view to wave with the spatula in his hand. “Good timing, kiderific. I was afraid I’d have to eat these things all by myself.”

“Afraid, or hoping?” Flick shot back to him.

“Depends,” the man drawled while pointing to his daughter with the spatula. “How much trouble did you manage to get into today?”

“Pshaw,” Flick sniffed. “Pshaw, I say. Trouble? Why, I went out and got a job, so there, Mr. Doubtful.”

“Oooh, a real job?” Her father grinned. “That might be worth a whole two pancakes.”

Rolling her eyes, Flick headed that way, though she was skipping a little bit. “Sure, maybe if they’re the size of the entire stove.” Even as she bantered with her father, a smile spread across her face. And it wasn’t just because of the pancakes, which she (and Tabbris) both loved. It was also just from seeing her father. And yet, even that love was tempered by the never-far-off thought that her mother had abandoned him, had abandoned both of them.

Or so Flick thought. Every thought she had about her mother was negative, tainted by the thought that Joselyn had purposefully run off on her family. But Tabbris’s mother hadn’t believed that, and neither did Tabbris. Someone… some very bad person, had taken her. She didn’t know who, or why exactly, but it was probably the same person who kept sending ghosts to try and spy on Flick.

The temptation to try and… subtly hint about that to Flick, to make her feel better about her own mother and give her the benefit of the doubt had been… one of the hardest to resist. After all, it would make Flick feel better. It would be the truth. It would help.

But no. No. Tabbris had decided a long time ago that even that would be too much. She would still be changing Flick’s mind unfairly. She would be controlling her. And Tabbris refused to do that except when she had to. Forcing the girl to think a certain way, or even simply ‘adjusting’ how she thought like that, even with good intentions… she wouldn’t do it.

If Tabbris understood one thing, it was what it felt like to have an amazing, wonderful mother who would do anything for her… including letting her go, no matter how much it hurt her personally.

She really hoped that someday, Flick would understand that too, and would realize just what kind of person her mother really was. 

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