For Everyone Who Is About To Tell Me That I Forgot To Capitalize Optio‚ It’s A Rank Roughly Equivalent To A Lieutenant‚ Not A Name.

Gathering Force 33-05

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“It worked?!” The echo of the twins’ words came in stereo, just like the original pronouncement had. Only that time, it came from Haiden, Roxa, and myself, all in unison. The three of us were staring open-mouthed at the pair. Hell, even Gidget seemed equally frozen in shock. If she could speak, I was pretty sure the cyberform would have been blurting those words alongside us.

“Oh my God.” That time, the words came only from one person. Haiden. He stood there, mouth working for another moment. Then there was a sudden blur of motion, and the man was on his knees between the twins. His arms went around them, hauling the two in close and tight. A sound of wordless joy, of sheer and indescribable relief and euphoria escaped him as he hugged both of his children to him, and I saw his shoulders shake with unconstrained emotion.

Taking a step back reflexively toward Roxa and Gidget, I found myself unable to look away from the utterly unexpected reunion. Vanessa and Tristan were clinging just as tightly to their father. None of them were talking, none of them could talk. They just clung to one another, tears falling freely as the three of them went through their first true, physical reunion in over a decade. Hell, it pretty much brought tears to my eyes just watching the three of them together. Haiden was a good man, a good father. He deserved to have his kids back.

Well, what he really deserved was the chance to raise them, but this… this was good too.

They made it, Tabbris whispered inside me, her voice as awed as I felt. They actually made it.

“Daddy,” Vanessa’s choked, sobbing voice emerged while she held onto the man so tightly that I thought I could see the strain in her arms. “Daddy, Daddy.” She tried to say something else, but the words wouldn’t come. She just kept repeating that, shaking violently as she hugged him.

Tristan was pretty much the same way. There was no embarrassment about being emotional. I didn’t think he even really noticed that the rest of us were there, honestly. His attention was centered solely on his father, hugging onto the man just as tightly as his sister was. And it occurred to me that this was actually Tristan’s first meeting with his dad since all that had happened. Vanessa had been able to speak with him directly through the possession bit at least, but this was Tristan’s first direct contact whatsoever. No wonder he was so affected.

Beside me, Roxa whispered, “Wow. How the hell did-” She stopped, clearly coming to same realization that I had. “Possession.”

“Uh huh!” Tabbris’s voice was audible, as the girl popped out of me to respond to that. Her eyes were wide, and she grabbed my hand excitedly while explaining, “Seosten don’t just mentally project to their last host, they can physically project to them too. And since Vanessa didn’t possess anyone else, the person she was connected to–”

“Was her father,” I finished. “And once she projected herself here, Tristan was pulled along for the ride by the anchor spell. Wow. I–” That was a pathetically inadequate word to express how amazing it was to see the twins suddenly pop up like this. But what else could I possibly say?

By then, Vanessa and Tristan had gotten to the point of trying to explain to their father what had just happened, while he in turn kept trying to ask questions. Yet every time any of them started to speak, it just turned into incoherent noise or simply repeating their names. They clung to each other, all of them lost in their understandably overwhelming emotions. Seeing Vanessa and Tristan reunited with their father like that, I could do nothing but smile like an emotional idiot.

That lasted for another couple of seconds, before three portals suddenly opened on all sides of the room. There were shouts, and figures came rushing through. Figures in body armor, with weapons drawn. They flooded through the portals, spreading out while taking up positions surrounding all of us as they barked orders to stop moving in several different languages.

Haiden was on his feet, that big sword of his in one hand as he swept his children behind him with the other, pivoting to take in the intruders. For a second, I honestly thought he might just lunge at the people who were pointing weapons at them right after they had just been reunited.

Roxa and Gidget were starting to move too, but I caught the girl’s arm. “Wait,” I blurted. “It’s-”

“Stop!” Athena’s voice cut through everything, silencing everyone at once before she had even physically appeared. The Seosten woman strode into the room a moment later, coming through the doorway at a brisk pace as she added, “Stand down. Everyone stand down, right now.”

There was a collective sound as every rifle, sword, and other weapon from the roughly two dozen men suddenly returned to its sheath or was slung over a shoulder. “Ma’am,” the guy who looked like he was in charge announced, “we detected an unauthorized invasion of–”

“I understand.” Athena’s voice was firm, but not outright rebuking. “You did well, optio. Very good response time, and you closed down all other sections before committing. You all followed your training, and did well. But it’s alright. Though these are unauthorized visitors, they are not a threat.” With that, the woman gestured. “Thank you all, you may return to your duties.”

The soldiers looked around at one another briefly, before somewhat awkwardly moving back through the portals. Through it all, Haiden stood with his sword raised, as if he didn’t entirely trust the situation. Finally, once they were gone, he lowered it, still looking a bit on edge.

“I apologize,” Athena began. “As you just heard, we have systems in place to alert us if there are any unexpected people on the station. I came as soon as I understood what was happening.”

Her gaze moved to the twins then, and I saw a slight smile play at the woman’s face. “Tense interruptions aside, I presume that this is actually a happy occasion?”

“Happy,” Haiden echoed before his sword suddenly snapped back into its place at his belt. He turned, pulling both of his kids in front of him with a broad smile. “Happy? These are… these are-” His words caught a bit then, stopping him from finishing that sentence for a few seconds until he finally managed, his voice choked with emotion. “These are my children. My–my kids.”  

“Sir Tristan,” Athena greeted them, giving a little bow. “Lady Vanessa. Meeting you is quite the honor, unexpected as it may be. But you are very welcome here.”

The two of them looked to her uncertainly, clearly holding tight to their father. Vanessa started, a bit hesitantly, “You’re a Seosten, a full Seosten… aren’t you?”

Despite myself, I made a noise at that, coughing as I stepped that way and spoke up finally. “Oh, she’s definitely a Seosten.”

“Flick!” Tristan’s eyes widened, as he seemed to really notice me for the first time since being reunited with his father. “You’re okay! I mean, we knew you were okay, or that you’d be okay, but knowing it and seeing it are different and–you’re okay!” His (frankly gorgeous and infectious) smile was enough to make any girl’s heart pretty much trip over itself. Good lord, that boy was attractive in ways that weren’t even fair. If anything, his Seosten-derived supernatural appearance had gotten even stronger since I had seen him last.

And beside him, Vanessa was clearly coming into her own as well. I had always thought of the quiet, brilliant girl as pretty. But seeing her there beside her brother after not seeing either of them for a couple months was making me realize just how attractive she actually was. It was somewhat different from her brother, more understated than his outright mind-melting hotness. But it was there nonetheless, and noticeable enough since the last time that I had seen her that I was pretty sure something had just kicked in within that short time. Vanessa and Tristan standing there beside one another was enough to make me swallow hard.

And with that, I suddenly felt really guilty. Yes, they were supernaturally attractive, like all Seosten. But as attractive as they might have been, they weren’t Shiori and Avalon. They weren’t my girls. I missed my girls.

Well, that was a pretty intense emotional rollercoaster. Wow. Apparently being distracted from thinking about the people I missed only worked for so long.  Physically shaking myself, I quashed those feelings and focused on being happy for the others. “Yup, I’m really okay,” I replied to Tristan before gesturing. “And this ‘full Seosten’ is… well, may I introduce you to Athena.”

Okay, that was worth it, just for the sudden, simultaneous doubletake that both of them did. Their heads snapped that way to the woman in question, over to me for an instant, then back again so fast that I thought they might give themselves identical cases of whiplash.

“Athena?!” Tristan blurted in shock. His voice rose, almost like a giddy fangirl’s as he snapped his head around once more. “Dad!” the boy blurted with an excited tone. “Dad! Athena! Athena! Flick! Dad! Wha– how did–but you’re–and you’re really–and she’s–and–”

Vanessa put a hand up to her brother’s mouth briefly. “Breathe,” she told him while looking to the woman in question as she lowered her hand. “You’re… not a prisoner?”

With a slight smile, Athena shook her head. “Thankfully, no. Though that rumor does seem to be making the rounds very thoroughly, doesn’t it?” She bowed her head once more. “As I said, it is very good to finally meet the two of you. I have been looking forward to it.”

“You’re not the only one.” Haiden’s voice cracked a little. “You guys, you’re here. This… this is unbelievable. How did–” Quickly, the man turned both of the twins to face him. “How?” he demanded, though his voice made it clear that he was almost too overjoyed to really care.

“I… I wanted to find you so much.” That was Vanessa, the blonde girl’s voice just loud enough to heard. “I didn’t want to sit things out anymore. I wanted to help. And… I kept feeling this… tugging, as if I could be somewhere else. And when I focused on it, I kept getting this hypnic jerk. You know, that feeling you get when you’re about to fall asleep, but then it feels like you’re falling so you physically spasm. It was like that, like falling. Only it felt more like I was almost… jerking myself off the planet. I told Tristan, and he said I should… lean into it.”

“And I suppose,” Haiden started with a tiny smile that told me he was trying and failing to be at least somewhat reprimanding, “that neither of you thought to tell Gaia what you were about to do.”

The twins both looked guilty at that, Vanessa protesting, “I didn’t think it would actually work that fast. It was just… an impulse. Tristan said I should lean into it, so I started to. I thought we’d have to try it a few times first before anything really happened. But it was really easy. I just felt like I was flying or… being thrown. Then… then we were here. We… didn’t really think it through.” She sounded horribly guilty at that admission.

“Hey.” Her father pulled her back, kissing the top of the girl’s head as he straightened up. “You’re here. My baby bird’s here. You’re both here. That’s all that matters. My kids.” He sounded unbelievably proud as he spoke those words, putting both arms around the two of them tightly.

Holding her father’s arm with both of hers, Vanessa looked to Athena. “Uncle Apollo said that you tried to stop them from using the Bystander Effect.”

“We both did,” the woman replied, her voice a bit sad. “Though clearly not strongly enough. Perhaps if we had worked together from the start, and if–” She stopped abruptly, heaving a sigh before putting on a slight smile. “But that is in the past. We should focus on the present, and the future, on what is and what is yet to come.”

“She’s right.” That was Roxa, finally speaking up as she moved next to me once more. “We’ve got enough stuff to deal with that we can affect, without worrying about what we can’t.”

“Roxa!” Tristan grinned, giving the girl a wave. “Hey, look, you got sent to another alien planet, and it wasn’t my fault this time.”

Snorting at that, Roxa retorted, “Oh, I’m pretty sure we could find a way to blame you for it if we really tried.”

The others all chuckled then, while Vanessa, still holding tight to her father’s arm, quietly asked, “Who’s that?” She lifted her chin, gesturing behind us.

I turned, finding Tabbris. My little partner was nervously shuffling back and forth on her feet, biting her lip as she glanced up at us.

My mouth opened, but before I could say anything, Haiden spoke up. “Sweetie,” he called, “could you come here?” The man had taken his arm from Tristan for a moment, extending it to her.

Her eyes found me, and I gave her a quick, encouraging nod before stepping out of the way. So she went, moving slowly past Roxa and me before making her way to where the others were.

“H-hi,” she started, in a voice that was barely audible, her nervousness palpable.

“Guys,” Haiden announced, still giving that proud, papa bear smile. “This is Tabbris. She’s your half-sister.”

Well, that was enough to make Vanessa audibly choke, her eyes bulging as she jerked her head that way. Meanwhile, Tristan blurted, “Half-sister?! Like, like you–you and–”

“Right.” Haiden looked abashed. “I probably could have phrased that better.” Clearing his throat then, the man gestured. “Tabbris is your mother’s daughter. She was sent to Earth through Larissa to protect…”

“Me.” I waved a hand. “She was possessing me before. That’s why I was immune to Seosten possession, because of her.”

“She was poss–she–” Tristan worked his mouth, looking visibly (and understandably) stunned. “I… um. Wow. We missed a lot, didn’t we?”

Coughing, I nodded. “A bit. But I’m pretty sure we missed plenty back on Earth too.”

“Yeah,” he murmured, looking like he wanted to say something else right then. “Trust me, there’s a lot to go over.”

“Sister…” Vanessa spoke up, her eyes never having left Tabbris. “Mom… Mom sent you to Earth? You were there. You met us. You met Tristan before, and… and you were… “

Tabbris was squirming, arms wrapped tightly around herself as she managed a weak, “I’m sorry. I wanted to say something, but Mama told me to hide. Mama and Aunt Larissa, they told me to hide and I didn’t know what to do. I was–I was trying to… I was trying–”

She was cut off as Vanessa stepped that way, suddenly embracing the other girl. “You were alone,” she said quietly. “You didn’t know who to talk to, who to trust, who would believe you. You were alone and you were trying to do the right thing. You were trying to do what your mom said.”

Right. Maybe Vanessa did understand what Tabbris had gone through, I realized. She had been on her own as well, left alone in a system that repeatedly told her she was crazy when she tried to tell them what had happened to her family, to the point that she had finally stopped trying to tell them. She had learned to keep quiet about what she knew as a matter of self-preservation. So yeah, maybe she did understand the other girl pretty well, when it came right down to it.

Tabbris, who had frozen up briefly as Vanessa had moved to her, slowly returned the embrace. “I… y-yes.” As I watched, she hugged her older sister even tighter. “I wanted to talk to you guys. I really did.”

“Well,” Tristan put in, taking his turn to hug the girl as Vanessa finally released her, “we’ll just have to make up for lost time, squirt.” Physically lifting the girl off the ground, the boy held her tight, grinning as he added, “And now I’ve got a neat little sister to torment.”

Haiden cleared his throat. “I’d be careful with that if I was you. She’s got an awful lot of people around here that might just knock you on your ass on her behalf if you push it.”     

“Yeah,” I cut in. “Like me. And her.” Jerking a thumb toward Roxa, I added, “And you know we could kick your ass.”

Tristan just winked at us. “I dunno, with you guys, that might be worth it.”

“Okay, okay, ew.” Vanessa interrupted before we could retort. “Subject change, please. Drastic, drastic subject change.” Pointedly, the girl pulled Tabbris back to herself while announcing, “There are a lot more important things to talk about right now.”

“Talk?” Haiden’s head shook at that. “To hell with talking. Come here.” Once more, the man wrapped his arms around them. That time, he embraced all three of them, hugging the trio tightly as his eyes closed. I saw tears leak out. Tears of joy. Tears of unbelievable, unbridled, unrestrained joy. He looked happier than I had ever seen him. He had his kids. His children were finally there with him. Regardless of anything else, regardless of the rest of the situation, he had that. He finally, after all that time… had his children. And he was hugging all three of them as if he might never let go again.

“Mom.” Vanessa’s voice cracked a little as she broke the relative silence after a few more seconds of that. “We still have to get Mom back.”

Haiden gave a slight nod, his own voice as firm as I had ever heard it. “We will. We are going to get your mom back. I promise. We’re working on it, just gotta be a little more patient. Athena said it should only take four or five more days.”

“Actually,” Athena put in, drawing everyone’s attention to her. “You may have to be less patient now. With three blood relatives rather than only one,” she added while gesturing toward Tabbris and the twins, “breaking through the blocking spells that Kushiel uses to hide her laboratory would be much easier. If Lady Vanessa and Sir Tristan are amenable to lending their blood for the next casting of the spell, we should have the location very soon.”

“Amenable?” Tristan echoed her words. “Lady, we’re not just amenable. We’re awomenable and achildrenable too.”

Hanging my head amidst the chorus of groans, I informed Athena, “If that joke was so bad that it drives you back to siding with the rest of the Seosten, I think we’d all completely understand.”

Tristan scoffed at that. “Oh, I see. So the reunion is over now, huh?”

“No, son,” Haiden announced in a tender voice as he pulled the boy back to him once more.

“This reunion is just getting started.”

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