During Thanksgiving Break Last Year
Water filling her nose and mouth, clogging its way down her throat. Her eyes stinging as she fought. Or rather, tried to fight. Her arms and legs refusing to listen to her commands, dead weight attached to her torso. Whatever drug had been injected into her making it impossible to control her limbs. Unable to struggle in any way other than moving her head. The hand at the back of her head forcing her face into the water. Helpless. Pathetic. Going to die like this.
Abruptly, Avalon jerked upright as much as her still somewhat paralyzed limbs would allow. Her eyes snapped open as a cry escaped her, and she blinked around what turned out to be a clean and quiet hospital room that she recognized as being inside the main building of Crossroads Academy. The room was mostly dark, save for some light coming from the nearby corridor.
“It’s okay.” The voice came from the side, and Avalon’s gaze snapped that way to find a familiar figure sitting in a chair next to the bed. It was Gaia. The light from the hallway partially illuminated her face, but left most of her expression hidden in shadows. She continued in that same gentle voice. “You’re safe here, Avalon. We pulled you out of the water in time.”
For a moment, the girl said nothing. She looked down at her arm and strained. It slowly lifted, but felt very awkward and slow. Her fingers were clumsy. It felt like she was wearing thick mitts. They were numb and unresponsive. Focusing hard, she was able to close her hand and then open it. But far too slowly to be of any real use. Her feet and toes were the same way. She was pretty sure there was no way she would be able to support any weight on her legs just then.
Gaia waited for her to work her way through that before speaking. “The poison will wear off in time. But I’m afraid you will likely need the support of crutches for a little while to get around. Not for too long, but at least a bit. Even with your own regeneration and our healing, that was an incredibly potent magical poison. The fact that you survived the attack at all is honestly…”
“Thanks to you, right?” Avalon’s voice felt thick, and came out harsher than she meant it. She adjusted her tone a little bit and exhaled before continuing. “I’m sorry. I mean, I didn’t do anything. I would have died if it wasn’t for you swooping in to save me. I know I owe you. Like I owe you for taking me in, for taking all the political heat from Garden for all this. Just like I owe-”
Gaia put a hand up, head shaking. “No, Avalon. You don’t…” She hesitated, and the other girl could see some strange emotion twisting her face, but it was hard to read through the shadows. Not that Avalon was that great at reading those kinds of emotions at the best of times, anyway.
“Hey, it’s okay,” she assured the headmistress. Her voice still felt weak, but she tried to inject it with something approaching confidence and control. “I’m alive. I survived the bad guy, again, thanks to you. You did your job. You did your duty. So thanks, seriously. I guess somehow, someday, I’m going to have to find a way to pay you back for all this. Taking me in, putting yourself between me and all those people at Garden who want me dead, not to mention whoever these new assholes are. I just–I know I owe you everything. Hell, I… I still owe you for showing up and saving me when I was a kid. If it wasn’t for you, I’d–” She cut herself off, because the emotions that rose up at the memories of her own childhood in general, let alone how it had nearly ended, were bad enough at the best of times. When combined with the still very strong terror of nearly drowning, they were entirely too much. She couldn’t deal with them.
So, Avalon shoved them away, focusing on what she was saying. “I owe you so much. I’ll pay you back. I don’t know how, and I don’t know… I don’t even know why you’re doing all this, really.”
“You don’t… know…” Gaia’s voice started haltingly, her gaze staring at Avalon. That half-shadowed expression was back, the one that Avalon didn’t understand. “Oh, my girl…”
Before the headmistress could say anything else, and before Avalon could read her expression any better, there was a voice from the doorway as someone stepped into view. It was Professor Kohaku. “Gaia,” the woman started, “sorry to interrupt, but may I speak with you for a moment?”
There was a brief pause before the headmistress nodded and rose to her feet. She gave Avalon a glance, looking for a moment like she was going to say something again before simply reaching out to put her hand on top of the girl’s. Avalon could barely feel it. But she did feel a rush of warmth that filled her arm and spread through her body. It lasted for a second or two after Gaia had removed her hand and stepped out into the hallway with her subordinate.
Lying back on the bed and staring at the ceiling, Avalon tried to shove the horrific memories of nearly being drowned out of her mind. It didn’t work. They rushed up on her just from laying down. She had to sit up again. She couldn’t even stand laying on her back, not without starting to hyperventilate. Jerking herself up, she tightened her hands into fists as tightly as she could (not very tight at all) and closed her eyes, trying to focus on pushing those thoughts away. Belatedly, she realized that she could hear the voices coming from the nearby corridor.
“I can sit with her, so she feels safe,” Kohaku was saying gently. “I know how you feel about nearly losing her, Gaia. You know I do. And you know I would never let anything happen to that girl. You’re the headmistress. The school still needs you. Trust me, I’ll stay with her.”
There was a brief pause before Gaia’s quiet, yet firm voice came. “You do know what it’s like, Risa. You and I have both been through that same terrible loss. We have each buried a child long before their time. We have each been helpless to–” She cut herself off abruptly and there was a few seconds of silence before the woman continued. “We have each lost those we love with everything we have. That’s why you know I can’t leave her right now. You are right, I do trust you. I trust you, Risa. That’s why I know the school will be in fine hands for a few hours, or a few days, or whatever it takes. You, Virginia, and the others will have everything under control. If something dramatic happens, I will be here for you. But for the moment, I am off-duty.”
Another minute or two passed where the other woman gently attempted to persuade Gaia to at least take a nap for a few hours to recharge. But the headmistress held firm, and Kohaku eventually simply replied quietly, “You must really care for that girl in there. I’m glad she’s okay.”
“As am I,” Gaia agreed softly. “And I will ensure she stays that way until she is able to raise a hand in her own defense once more. Thank you, Risa, for your concern and for being there both today and whenever I need you. I would be very lost without you and the others by my side.”
Again, there was a pause before the head of security quietly exhaled. “Of course. Anything you need, whenever you need it. You know that. This school is only as strong as it is with you, Gaia. We all need you. But she needs you just a little bit more right now. Take all the time you need here with Avalon. The rest of us can cover things until both of you are ready to come back.”
“Thank you, Risa,” Gaia murmured. “You will always be one of my dearest friends.”
“And you will always be one of mine,” Kohaku replied, before adding, “And my greatest teacher.”
From the way the shadowed forms, barely visible through the partially closed door, moved then, Avalon was pretty sure they were embracing for a moment before releasing one another. Apparently, that was the end of the conversation. Because Gaia stepped back into the room, closing the door behind her that time. One hand began to glow gently to give the room some light, while her other hand touched the door and she murmured a spell that apparently locked it.
With a wave of her first hand, Gaia sent the gently glowing light up to the corner of the room before moving to sit down in the chair again. As she began to pass the bed however, Avalon spoke up. “Why?” Her voice choked up even more on that single word that it had earlier. It was really all she could do to force the word out through the thick lump that had formed in her throat.
Pausing where she stood, Gaia slowly looked over to her. “Why what?” she asked quietly.
It took Avalon a few seconds to find her voice again. She pushed herself slowly to a more upright position, back against the pillow by the headboard. Then she met the older woman’s gaze through the light cast by the glowing orb. “Why don’t you go take care of the rest of the school? The other students are your duty too. You know you can have someone else sit here with me if you think I’m that incapable. Professor Kohaku even said she would. You trust her, you said so yourself.”
Again, there was a pause. Then Gaia took a step over and sat, this time on the side of the bed rather than the chair. “Yes,” she agreed. “I trust her as much as I trust anyone. As I said to her, Risa is one of my dearest friends and has been for quite some time. I believe that she would do anything possible to protect this school and to protect and teach any of the students within it.”
Not breaking her gaze, Avalon quietly insisted, “But you don’t want her to sit in here with me while you do headmistress things. Why? Why do you want to be here with me so much? You know I’m not going to die now. You could have someone else protect me. Why aren’t you?”
Rather than answering verbally right away, Gaia reached out and took Avalon’s hand. She interlaced their fingers and squeezed before gesturing with her other hand to make the orb in the corner brighten just a bit. It grew light enough for both of them to see each other’s faces much better than they could previously. Bright enough for Avalon to see that expression from earlier, the one she couldn’t read. Even in the stronger light, it was still fairly inexplicable.
“I trust them with this school, with everything I am responsible for,” Gaia informed her, voice shaking just a bit. Which was a strange thing to hear in and of itself. The headmistress of Crossroads Academy never… shook. She was never that emotional. Before she knew what she was doing, Avalon’s hand tightened against the older woman’s.
Gaia glanced down at their interlaced fingers, exhaling slowly before looking up again. She continued with, “I trust Risa and the others with all of that. I trust them with everything I am responsible for. But you are not–” Her voice cut off for a moment, clearly unable to continue until she had taken a deep breath. “Avalon… you are not simply something I am responsible for. You are not just something I need to take care of, not just something… someone I am shielding. You are–you have always been–more than that. So much more. From the very moment I saw you with your father and Fahsteth that night all those years ago, you have been more than that.”
Avalon couldn’t speak. She couldn’t really breathe that well, and it had nothing to do with the remnants of the magical poison. She just sat there staring at the woman sitting beside her.
Gaia went on after a moment, her voice thoughtful. “I made Bernlak send me pictures of you growing up. I made him tell me stories about how you were doing. I think I spoke to him more regularly in these past few years than I have throughout many years previously. Always about you. I had to know how you were doing. I had to know that you were okay. I was so proud to hear about the first time you walked the thin branch without any help, the night after you saw the Turul. Or about how he found you practicing your form that night in the grove, when the two of you stayed there until dawn just to make sure you were ready for the next test. Or when you met Salten, by the bend in the river.”
“Why did he–why did you want to know any of that?” Avalon asked in a quiet, vulnerable voice. She couldn’t help it. None of this made sense. None of it fit what she had thought for so long.
“I wanted to know everything about you, always,” Gaia informed her. “Because as I said, you were always more than a duty. Avalon… Valley, I did not adopt you simply to protect you from harm or retaliation. I did not adopt you merely as a political maneuver. My adoption of you only made legal what I have felt for a very long time, since that night with Fahsteth and the creature who called himself your father.
“You… are my daughter. You are my child in every reasonable way. You are Avalon Sinclaire. You are whoever you want to be, whoever you wish to grow up as. But you are also my daughter. And while I will entrust this entire school to Risa and the others, you are more important than that. You are the most important person in the world to me. You come before everything else, and you always will. You are not a responsibility. You are a joy. My joy. I love you. I have always loved you and I will always choose to protect you above all else.”
That whole not being able to breathe problem had gotten worse. Avalon stared at the woman, barely able to see through the thick curtain of tears that blinded her. “I–you can’t–that’s… I… but Gaia, you’re…you’re too… I’m too…”
What was she trying to say? She didn’t know. The words just forced their way out of her mouth without any rhyme or reason. There were no thoughts. How was she supposed to think after that? How was she supposed to do anything at all?
In the end, there was only one thing she could conceivably say, one single, short word that encompassed everything she was feeling. But she couldn’t say it like that. With effort, Avalon pushed herself over, almost falling as she tried to move closer to Gaia, until the other woman caught her. Then, unable to hold herself up any more, she slumped that way. Her head fell against Gaia’s shoulder, and she felt an arm around her side, holding her close, being there for her as the woman had been for so long. And so much more fully than the girl had understood, until now.
The word came as Avalon’s eyes closed, as she let herself be held like that. It came with all the meaning and feeling behind it that she had never truly understood before, not until now.
“Mom…” Standing in the station that served as her new school, Avalon stared through the viewing screen that was pretending to be a window. Through it, she could see an image of the Earth taken from the moon.
Somewhere… somewhere down there, Gaia was trapped. Or maybe she was on some other world. Avalon didn’t know. She had no idea where the woman was being held right now, only that she was moved often and kept in a deep, enforced slumber. She was held prisoner and Avalon could do nothing about it. She hadn’t been able to help her the night she was taken, and in all the days and nights since, nothing had changed.
Standing there, she wondered if this was how the other woman had felt whenever Avalon was put in danger, whenever she was nearly killed by the Seosten and their minions or puppets. Was this how she had felt from being unable to find who was responsible for all those attacks for so long?
“Mom… I’m sorry,” she said quietly, voice barely reaching even her own ears. “I’m sorry I haven’t found you. I’m sorry I can’t–I can’t save you right now. I promise we will. We’ll find you and we’ll get you out of there. I swear.”
Realizing that her hand had tightened into a fist to the point of hurting herself, the girl slowly relaxed her fingers, spreading them out as she stared down at her hand. She thought of that first night when she had finally realized just how much the older woman cared about her. And just how much she, in turn, cared for Gaia herself. The first time she had called the woman her mother and truly, genuinely meant it in every possible way.
“We’ll find you, Mom,” she promised, looking back through the ‘window’ to the Earth floating in the distance. Her voice grew slightly louder, slightly stronger. “Wherever they have you, whatever they’ve done to hide you, it won’t be enough. We’ll get you out of there. It’s our–it’s my turn to help you. And I won’t fuck it up. I swear, I won’t fuck it up.
“Mom… I know this is stupid because you can’t hear me, but… please hold on. We’ll be there.”
Touching the screen, Avalon disabled the view. The false window went blank, and she could see herself, the reflection of her face. She could see the expression there, and finally, in that moment, understood exactly what she had seen on Gaia’s face all those months earlier. She had felt it before, of course. But it took until now for her to finally fully understand what that expression, half-hidden in the shadows had been.
“I love you too, Mom.”