“Fick! Fick!” The incredible delight in Sahveniah’s voice as the little girl came rushing up to me at the Atherby camp with her arms outstretched made my heart melt. I immediately crouched, opening my arms to let her jump into them before rising up while holding on to her. “Heya kiddo.”
Simultaneously giggling and babbling, the kid immediately started to tell me all about this pretty bird she had seen earlier. She was gesturing wildly, squirming in my hands while both of us laughed. Me with delight at just how cute she was, and her partly because she was always giggling, and partly from reaction to me.
It was Friday, May 4th. Otherwise known as Family Day. That was the day where students whose families were in the know about the whole Heretic thing could come and visit the school all day long. There were no classes that day, just special presentations. The teachers would talk to the parents or other family members, and some students gave special projects or whatever to show off. And speaking of showing off, there was even an exhibition tournament of sorts. You could enter one that was just for your grade level, or one that involved the whole school. And if you didn’t want to actually fight each other, there was a demonstration arena where you could simply show off what you had learned that year. The tournament was sort of a practice or first round version of the one that happened in the last week of school. There were areas where you could show off magic, or even a place for inventions from the Development track. The whole day was devoted to celebrating everything that had been learned that year in front of your family members.
The point was, it was a pretty big deal all around. Basically everyone had been talking about it ever since I made it back to the school. The kids whose family was able to attend had been nervously preparing for quite a while. Meanwhile, the Bystander-kin mostly had to be either jealous or relieved, depending on the person. Though Gaia had promised that there would be something for them soon as well. The Bystander parents couldn’t come to the island, of course. But the headmistress had arranged a sort of field trip in a couple weeks. We would be going to Washington DC, and anyone whose Bystander parents wanted to visit would be provided airfare and accommodations. Apparently there were a lot of Heretic things to see around there too, so I was looking forward to going.
Oh yeah, and that was also where the entrance to a particular blood vault happened to be, apparently. So that was bound to be… interesting.
For obvious reasons, my family couldn’t attend either today or that field trip. Or at least, my father couldn’t. Not only was he not supposed to know the truth about everything and so wouldn’t have been able to come anyway, he was also supposedly still missing. So yeah, him showing up to this would have raised a hell of a lot of red flags.
But this was also a special day for another reason, the reason I was here at the camp early in the morning, right as the sun was coming up back at Crossroads. This was the day when Avalon was finally ready to come back to the school. Correction, she had thought she was ready for days by this point. This was the day when she had finally been cleared to come back by Gaia and the others. Which I was almost convinced they had decided because they were afraid she would outright mutiny on them if they kept her shut in any longer. The girl had basically been going crazy all week long. If she had been forced to stay in bed rest for much longer, I couldn’t begin to guess what she might’ve done.
So yeah, to say that I was a little excited about the day would have been a severe understatement. I couldn’t wait to go back to Crossroads with her. There had definitely been something missing the whole time that she was stuck here. To say nothing of how long I had been out in Seosten space without either her or Shiori. At least I’d had the latter this past week. Without Shiori, I probably would have gone crazy with worry.
I loved them both so much. It was hard to think of the time before I’d known them and grown so close to both. They were a part of me now in ways I had not thought possible at the start of the year. I needed them, both of them. And it gave me a new appreciation for just what both Deveron and my father had been going through with my mother being missing for so long.
Fuck Fossor, that slimy, evil piece of shit. And fuck Ruthers, along with everyone else who had created this whole situation.
With Sahveniah in my arms, I moved over to where my dad and Tabbris were. “Hey, I take it you guys are playing babysitter this morning?”
Dad nodded. “Zadriek and the others are off on some kind of training exercise. Some of them were imprisoned for a lot longer than Sariel or Larees were, so they need all the training they can get to get back in shape.”
Tabbris spoke up then. “They let them exercise back in the lab, but not train.” She paused briefly before adding, “And I’m pretty sure they’re training like this because they really want to fight.”
“Fight!” That was Sahveniah, who giggled at the word. “Fight. Fick fight. Fick fight Fick fittle? Fit fit fat fattle? Fick fack fu-”
“Ooookay,” I quickly interrupted, reaching into my pocket with one hand to take out a bit of candy. I offered it to her, and she squealed with delight before popping it into her mouth.“Tank oooh, Fick!” She blurted muffledly around the candy.
“You’re welcome.” I nodded a little at that, shifting the little girl in my arms while returning my attention to the other two. “I’m not surprised they want to fight. Believe me, if I was anywhere near their shoes, I’d want a piece of Kushiel too.”
I saw the brief look of intense horror cross my father‘s face then before he pushed it away and shook his head. “Let’s just be glad they’re out of there now. Besides, as I recall, this isn’t supposed to be a downer day, right?”
Wincing, I let the girl in my arms down so she could run over to Tabbris to start babbling at her about the bird she’d mentioned before. Then I focused on my dad. “I am really sorry you can’t come to this,” I murmured while stepping over to embrace him. “I’m gonna miss you all day.“
Returning my hug, Dad promised, “Don’t you worry. Later, all of us will have our own little family day.”
Unable to restrain myself, I grinned up at him while asking, “With blackjack and hookers?”
Well that, quite obviously, was the cue for Sahveniah to spin on her heel back toward me while blurting, “Backjack hooker! Hookie hookah hooker!” Seeing our reactions, the girl laughed even louder and repeated herself.
“See?” Dad informed me. “This is why the Roscoes didn’t want to let you babysit in seventh grade.”
Huffing at that, I stuck my tongue out at him before changing the subject. “I better go get Valley. Professor Dare should be back soon to pick us up. Looking toward Tabbris, I asked, “Ready, partner?”
Because of course, I wanted her to be there for Family Day. If I couldn’t have my dad, I sure as hell was going to have my sister.
She agreed, and the two of us promised to come back out and say goodbye to Dad and Savvy before we left. Then we headed into the cabin nearby.
As expected, Avalon was waiting inside. And by waiting, she was pacing back and forth like a lioness. She was also already wearing her uniform, and wow. I had almost forgotten how good the other girl looked in it. For a moment, all I could do was stand there and stare.
Her head snapped up when we came in, and the girl blurted, “There you are! What’d you do, walk here from Crossroads?”
Snickering, I moved that way to embrace the girl tightly. “I figured we should get back to the school fashionably late so that you can make an entrance,” I teased.
Her eyes rolled at that even as she hugged me back. “Trust me, Chambers, they’ll notice.”
Given all the questions I had been asked, and the comments I had overheard, she was definitely right. Still, I winked at her. “You might say they remember who you are.”
Shaking her head, Avalon muttered, “I just bet they do.” She straightened then, shrugging. “But you know what? I’m pretty sure I can deal with anyone today, as long as it means I can get out of here.”
“Yeah,” I replied, “Everybody knows you were going a bit stir-crazy. But hey, that’s done now. As soon as Professor Dare—”
In mid-sentence, and almost right on cue, there was a brief knock at the door. As Avalon acknowledged it, the door opened and Dare herself stepped inside.
“Okay, girls, everybody ready to head back for a busy, busy day?”
The three of us looked to one another before I turned back to Dare and shrugged. “Sure, though it’s not like any of us have family going to this thing. I mean, besides Abigail. But she’s there for Koren. They are still going to let her come, right?” There had been a little bit of back-and-forth about whether someone who was technically a new Eden’s Garden Heretic would be allowed to come to this thing.
“Yes,” Dare assured me. “And with her, Koren, and Wyatt there, you will have plenty of family. To say nothing of Deveron and your friends.” She paused then, her voice softening. “But I am sorry that your father cannot be there. And, of course, your mother.”
Forcing myself to shrug, I replied, “Trust me, it’s not the first school event that Fossor has made her miss.”
Then I physically shook myself. “But hey, we’re here for happy things, remember? Avalon’s finally coming back to school. Let’s stick with the good parts of today.”
The others agreed, and Tabbris hopped into my body before we went out to say one last goodbye to the others, for the time being at least. I hugged Dad and Savvy once more, while Avalon thanked Gabriel for helping her get better and for giving her a safe place to recover.
Then it was time to head back. Dare made a portal, and we headed through, back to Crossroads once more.
After passing through the portal, we appeared on the beach, a good distance from the actual school grounds. The rest of the team was already waiting, and as we went through, Avalon was immediately embraced by Scout. She had seen her back at the camp throughout all this, of course. But still, there was something good about having Avalon back with us at Crossroads. We had lost Rudolph. But Avalon was back, and that made things feel just a little bit more right.
Everyone else wanted a hug too, and the proof of how much Avalon had missed being here was evident in how well she endured that. Still, by the end of it, she stepped back and grimaced. “Okay, yeah, I’m back. Let’s not be stupid about it. Move on.”
She looked to Doug then, reaching into the inside of her blazer before taking out a familiar item. It was Doug’s hat, and she flipped it to the boy. “Theia has her own thing that works now. She said to tell you thanks. Actually she said a lot more than that, but that’s about the sum of it. And no, I am not going to pass her kiss to you.”
Catching his hat, Doug blinked up at that. “Wait, does that mean that she actually—” In mid-sentence, his survival instinct kicked in and he thought better of that, judging from the look that the other girl gave him. “Never mind.” He settled for simply jamming the hat down on his head once more, letting out a breath of relief that told me just how much he had missed it.
“Hey,” I pointed out, “at least you managed to come back on a special day. Everybody oughta be pretty distracted as it is.”
Columbus immediately spoke up. “Yeah, I didn’t even know these people took Star Wars Day that seriously. This is pretty impressive.” Seeing the blank looks that he got, the boy gestured. “You know, Star Wars Day? May The Fourth? May The—” he sighed then, waving it off. “Never mind, Philistines.”
With a tiny smirk that told me she probably understood more of that than she was letting on, Dare gestured. “If we are done here, there is something that Gaia would like you to see before today’s festivities begin. Shall we?”
Looking toward Avalon then, I asked, “You sure you’re ready for this?”
Clearly thinking about all the people who were going to react to her reappearance, the girl made a face before giving me a slight nod. “Let’s get it over with.”
So we went with Dare. And sure enough, the moment we stepped foot on the school grounds, there were people staring. It was still early enough that it wasn’t a whole huge crowd of people yet, but they were definitely there, and they definitely noticed Avalon. I could see them whispering or muttering to one another while pointing our way, and figured that the other girl could actually hear them. I just hoped they weren’t being too stupid about what they were saying.
And speaking of being stupid about what they were saying, we were only halfway across the school grounds when another familiar figure approached. Zeke. Great. This ought to go swimmingly.
The boy stopped a few feet away, and seemed to hesitate for a second before clearing his throat. “Uh. Hey.”
He waited then, as if to let one of us respond. Getting nothing but blank, silent looks, he plowed on. “Look, I uhhh…” he trailed off then, working strangely unsure of himself. Actually, this whole thing was strange. What was he doing? Had he hesitated because Dare was standing there? If so, why had he approached in the first place?
“If you need some time to collect yourself for whatever comment you’re going to make,” Avalon dryly remarked, “I can come back later.”
Quickly, Zeke shook his head. “No, I just—” he stopped, sighing. “Look, I know this is gonna sound like some stupid thing that my mother is making me say like a dumb little kid. But it’s not. It’s… I just wanted to say that I’m glad you didn’t die, okay? Whatever the fuck is going on, you’re, uhh, you’re a good fighter. I still think you’re a b—” he stopped himself with a brief look toward Dare before amending it to, “I still don’t like you. Like, at all. Your whole group is still weird and… whatever. The point is, I didn’t want you to die. I didn’t want to Rudolph to die either, but…” He went quiet, actually looking emotional for a couple of seconds before getting it under control.
“Whatever, that’s all I wanted to say. I’m glad you’re not dead. You’re good at fighting, and you’ll be a good Heretic. I don’t have to like you to acknowledge that. And, uh, the world would have lost a lot if you had died like that.”
He paused there for another brief second, looking supremely uncomfortable before turning on his heel to stride away without another word. The rest of us all watched him go in silence.
Finally, I raised a hand. “Um. So, acknowledging and including literally everything else that’s happened this year, is it me, or was that the weirdest fucking thing ever?”
The response actually came from Professor Dare. “It is definitely up there.”
Scout looked to her. “Are we sure his mom didn’t make him say that?”
Dare nodded once. “He was telling the truth when he said that Sophronia was not behind it. And that is not something I can see her doing anyway. She would know that such a forced gesture would be meaningless. No, I believe that was all Mr. Leven’s initiative.”
“Like I said,” I put in, “weirdest fucking thing ever.”
Columbus spoke up, clearly only partially kidding. “Are we sure he hasn’t been possessed?”
“I’m pretty sure the Seosten are usually better at staying under cover and in character than that,” I pointed out. “And besides, no Seosten would be stupid enough to be that obvious like that with us in particular. They’d know that we’d find a way to check.”
The others all muttered agreement, and there wasn’t much else to be said about it. It was weird, but hey, I wasn’t going to complain about Zeke acting like an actual human being. After all, there were enough problems to deal with as it was.
So, we followed Dare to the main building and up to Gaia’s office. Just as we reached the entrance, I blinked and looked to the woman. “Actually, why did we just have to walk all the way across the grounds in the first place? Why didn’t we come straight to this place when we went through the portal?”
In response, Dare smiled while opening the door. “Well, because they wanted to let you all have a little reunion of your own for Avalon’s return before distracting from that.”
I started to nod before blinking blankly. “Err, they?”
“Yeah, what can we say?”
The instantly familiar voice came not from Dare, but from inside the headmistress’s office.
Sands, standing by her mother, by her and Scout’s mother, finished with, “We thought we might be a little distracting.”