Rendezvous 30-01

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Transporting an entire massive ship to some completely different part of the galaxy was an unbelievably impressive feat, for sure. There was no doubt about that. But honestly, I was pretty sure that in that particular moment, Larissa Mason would have teleported an entire continent out of her way without blinking if it had been standing between her and her daughter.

Staring at the woman now, I could see Sands and Scout in her. She wasn’t very tall, or imposing. She was quietly pretty, the same way they were. Not a bombshell, but more… classically attractive. Her eyes were green, with little flecks of brown in them that matched her hair. She wore what looked like dark gray cargo pants full of pockets, and a brown leather jacket of some kind.

“Sandoval,” she breathed out, more emotion filling that single word than I could have put in an entire book. Her eyes widened, and then she abruptly flung herself that way. Sands had time to make a choked noise before her mother hauled her up, and the two were embracing tightly.

“Mom, Mommy, Mom,” Sands was openly sobbing as she clung to her mother. Her words were pretty much babbling. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I couldn’t–I didn’t go. I didn’t go with you, I’m sorry. I should’ve gone, I should’ve gone with you, I could’ve been, I’m sorry, Mommy, it was dumb and I was trying to sleep but I wanted to go, I’m sorry, I wanted to see the whales, Mommy. Please, please.” At that point, the girl simply dissolved into completely incoherent stammering that itself faded quickly as she just held tight to her mom, burying her face into the woman’s shoulder.

“Oh, baby. My baby. Sandoval. It’s okay.” Holding her little girl close, Larissa kissed the top of her head and rocked her a little. “I’m here, my girl. My little Sandy. I’m here, I’m right here. I’ve got you, baby. I’ve got you. I’m here, my sweet little girl.” She kissed her daughter’s head again, nuzzling her tenderly. Both were crying.  

Maybe it should have surprised or confused me, at least a little bit, that the woman knew exactly which one of her twin daughters she was holding so quickly even after being separated from them for about seven years. But somehow… it didn’t. She was their mother. She just knew.

Turning away to give them a little bit of privacy, I tried not to think about my own mother. My mom. What was she doing right then? It had been months since I’d even been able to talk to her, and that had been through her monkey-figure. And before that, it had been… a sharp pang hit my stomach, and I gave a sharp shake of my head. Focus, Flick. Don’t be jealous. I was happy for Sands. Happier than I could possibly explain. Hell, she had spent most of the intervening years thinking that her mother was dead. To be reunited like this, it was… beautiful.

A voice said something beside me, and I looked over quickly to find Jokai there. Not that it was super-easy to see him, considering his skin kept taking on the coloration of his surroundings.

Biting my lip, I hesitated for a moment before asking inwardly, Hey, what did he say?

Oh, um. I could hear the emotion and longing in Tabbris’s voice. She missed her mother too. Hell, she had probably missed Larissa herself. H-he’s asking if he can go and tell the others that we’re safe for now, that we escaped. And that we should leave the mother and girl-child alone.

Smiling faintly, I gave him a little nod before holding up a hand for him to wait. Looking to the others, I announced, “We should probably check all those rooms we bypassed on the way up here. Unless…” Tabbris, translate for me, please? To Jokai, I asked, “Can you use anything up here to check how many living things are on the ship and see if we missed any guards?”

The response came quickly, and Tabbris translated. He says he already did that. It was um, it was one of the first things he did once we got up here, because he wanted to know if his people were about to be ambushed so he could warn them. He wanted to make sure they were okay. Oh, and he also turned off the ship’s security measures. The ones we didn’t destroy anyway.

From the look on the man’s face, he felt guilty about all that, like he was afraid that I would be angry with him for checking on his friends, or for turning off the security without being told to. As if it mattered what I felt. Shaking my head at that, I gave him a little smile that I hoped would manage to be reassuring. “Good,” I replied firmly. “Good job. See, that’s how we work together.” The words came from my brain in English, but by the time they reached my mouth, Tabbris translated them so that the chameleon-man could actually understand what I was saying.  

“Okay,” Isaac put in, arms folded over his chest as his three drones slowly revolved around him. “So for those of us who are out of the loop, that’s Sands’ and Scout’s formerly assumed dead mother, right? What the hell is she doing all the way out here, and… does that mean we have a way to get home now? Also, where the hell are we right now, and how far is it from those assholes? Oh, and while we’re at it, did she really just teleport an entire fucking spaceship and everything on it? Cuz I would really like to sign up for whatever god damn class teaches that.”

“It’s not a class, sorry.” The answer came from Larissa Mason herself, who stood there with her daughter’s back pulled tightly up against her front as she watched us. “Actually, it’s not something I could have done on my own. Not with the time frame that we were working with.”

Sands, clinging tightly to her mother’s arm, managed a confused, “But… but M-Mom, how are you here? How did you know to come, and how did you find us? What–what’s going on?”

“Oh, baby.” Brushing her free hand back through her girl’s hair, Larissa kissed her forehead. “It’s a long story. Let’s start getting everyone on the same page. I promise, I’ll explain everything.”

She looked to Jokai then, speaking briefly in Latin. Tabbris translated. “Sir, my name is Larissa Mason. I promise, I mean you no harm. This girl is my daughter, and these are her friends. I came to save them, but I am very glad to see that they have helped you and your people.”

After a brief hesitation, Jokai introduced himself, then repeated his request to go and talk to the other former prisoners to let them know what was going on. His voice was clearly nervous about talking to the adult Heretic, but he pressed on anyway, referring to her as Decanus Larissa.

Decanus, Tabbris whispered to me, it’s… it’s a rank in the Seosten military. A Decanus is the leader of a group of ten soldiers, a dec. They’re um, they’re basically like sergeants. I could still hear the longing in her voice. After so long away from her mother, seeing the woman who was supposed to have been pretty much another mother-figure to her before her disappearance had to be hitting Tabbris almost as hard as it was hitting Sands herself. It was obvious that she really, really wanted to reveal herself to the woman, really wanted to talk to her so very badly.

Don’t worry, Tabbris, I privately assured the girl. We’ll get a chance to talk to her. You’ll get to see her and let her know how you are, I promise. Let’s just find out what’s going on now, okay?

She hesitantly agreed, sounding embarrassed that I had picked up on just how badly she wanted to talk to the woman. By that point, Larissa had finished speaking with Jokai, telling him that his scans had been correct and that the ship seemed to be safe enough for him to go and talk to the other Alters. She told him to let them know that we would be in transit for a few days.

“A few days?” Isaac suddenly put in once Gordon, standing nearby, had translated the meaning. “Where are we going? Can’t you just… you know, poof us to wherever we need to be? Actually, we already teleported once. How come we’re not already where we need to be?”

Shooting the boy a look, I coughed before pointedly putting in, “I think what Isaac means to say is, we know that Professor Katarin got sent out here with you. Is he… is he close? Is he okay?”

The woman gave me a brief, searching look. Her expression changed for just a brief second as she met my gaze before getting herself under control. “Yes, Ulysses is alright. But he’s not here. We… “ She paused, considering her words. “When we got the message that you needed help, and where you were, there wasn’t time to get here normally, let alone with enough power to set off a spell that could transport an entire ship this size. That world that you were on has some powerful shields around it. It took pretty much all we had just to transport one person through with a strong enough mass transport spell to get this ship out of there. The others put everything they had into it. Even then, we couldn’t bring this ship all the way to where we are. We’ll have to go the rest of the way under the ship’s own power. Which, as I said, will take a few days.”

She gave a little smile then, clearly trying to reassure us as she hugged her daughter even tighter against herself. “Don’t worry. Like I said, Professor Katarin is fine. He exhausted himself with those spells, but he and the others should be recovered by the time we get back there.”

Right, so teleporting right past all the Seosten defenses and then transporting this entire giant ship somewhere else in the galaxy wasn’t something that Sands’ and Scout’s mother had done all by herself. It had taken a group effort from her, Professor Katarin, and Vanessa and Tristan’s father. And now we just had to be patient while the ship flew to meet the others. I could handle that, honestly. Aside from the sharp, painful reminder that Avalon and Shiori were still something like billions of lightyears away and that I was actually not any closer to having a way to get back to them, I really did need the downtime after what we had just gone through. Plus, it would give me a chance to talk to Larissa before things got crazy again. And I really needed to talk to her.

Jokai excused himself once more then, heading for the doorway with a brief promise that he would come right back and get the ship going as soon as he had a chance to talk to the others. Larissa assured him that we were far enough away from any Seosten ships that he could take his time, and that she would work on making sure the ship stayed undetected before we set off.

“I’ll, um,” Jazz started before hesitating. “I’ll go with him.” She gave Jokai a brief glance before straightening. “Not because I don’t trust him or anything,” the girl put in quickly. “Just because, you know, I can’t, um, do much up here anyway.” Looking self-conscious, her mouth opened and shut for another moment before she coughed and looked away, clearly uncomfortable.

“I’ll go with too,” Gordon put in. He nodded to his teammate, adding simply, “I can translate.”

Jokai babbled another long thank you, and the three of them started out. After a moment, Isaac shrugged and followed suit while muttering something about knowing how to read a room.

Which left Larissa, Sands, Roxa, and me. Sands was busy clinging to her mother, apparently trying to fit the million conversations that they had missed out on over the past seven years into a single five-minute time frame. I couldn’t blame her. If it had been my mother standing there in person after all this time, I probably would have been an even bigger wreck than Sands was. Hell, I would’ve been surprised if I managed to get coherent words out for the first couple hours.

Roxa stepped over close to me, dropping her voice to a whisper. “She was the one, wasn’t she?” the girl asked quietly, giving me a significant look while Gidget nosed up against my leg.

I nodded, reaching down to rub the cyberform cougar’s head absently. In turn, Gidget butted my hand before squinting at me pointedly. Realizing what she wanted, I quickly told Jaq and Gus to shift out of their weapon forms, before putting both of the mice on Gidget’s back. Before they could take off, however, I held up a hand. “Hey, don’t forget your brother, you guys. He gets to play too.” With that, I passed Herbie to them, letting the mice take the rock before they all went off to a corner of the bridge to do… whatever robot animals and pet rocks did in their downtime.  

“You are one really, really fucking weird girl,” Roxa pointed out with a raised eyebrow.

I shrugged, smiling despite myself. “I know, it’s goofy. But if we just forget how to be silly, if we’re all grr serious all the time, then… I mean, it kind of seems like what’s the point? I can be completely serious when I need to be. I’m not crazy or anything. I know what’s real and what’s not… usually. But in a situation like this, what does it hurt to goof around a little bit? It helps me remember that we’re different than they are. It helps me feel… well, sane. Maybe that’s dumb.”

“No.” Roxa shook her head. “No, I get it. You’re weird, but sometimes it’s good to be weird.”

Nodding, I glanced the other way before murmuring, “We should let Sands and her mom have some time alone. They deserve it.” God, did they ever deserve it. If I had my way, we would have walked off and left those two alone for a solid month before doing anything else, just so they could have the time they needed. Hell, while I was at it, I would’ve had Scout here too.

“Wait.” Larissa spoke up. She straightened, still holding onto her daughter tightly as she looked me up and down a little searchingly. “You’re… you’re Felicity, right? Felicity Chambers.”

“Wait, you know her, Mom?” Sands blurted before realizing. “Oh, from Professor Katarin.”

“And from something else,” her mother replied quietly. “Something that we need to talk about before this goes any further. Actually, there’s a lot that we need to talk about. But this is more important. I need to know if she…” She winced, looking to Roxa. “I’m sorry, this is going to sound unbelievably rude and wrong. But could you excuse us for just a few minutes, Miss…”

“Roxa,” the girl replied easily. “Roxa Pittman. And uh, it’s okay. I kind of know already. But I’ll step out in the corridor anyway, make sure nobody comes back in here while you’re… busy.”

“You know what–” Cutting herself off, Larissa glanced from the other girl to me and back again, her expression searching before her eyes widened with sudden realization. “Oh, my God. You really do know. And you–” She snapped her gaze back to me, taking a step closer. “You know, and you’re okay. She’s okay? She talked to you, and you’re… and you’re both alright?”

I nodded quickly at that. “I know about her. We’ve been talking for a couple weeks now. It’s kind of a long story, but yeah. She’s okay. She’s really… she’s really helped a lot. She’s amazing.”

“Um.” Sands was squinting back and forth at us, her expression completely (understandably) lost. “Could someone throw me a freaking bone here? What the hell are you guys talking about? Who’s amazing? What–how do you know Flick, Mom? How did you–what’s going on?”

Roxa gave me a nod before stepping outside to watch the corridor out there, while Larissa turned her daughter around to face her. “Okay, sweetie, we need to show you something very important. It’s probably going to make you… it’s probably going to scare you. But I promise, it’s alright, okay? Felicity–Flick is just fine. Everything is fine, alright? I promise, it’s okay.”

“But what’s okay?” Sands demanded, sounding just as confused. “I don’t understand.”

“Sands,” I spoke up then, meeting the girl’s gaze. “Your mom’s right. This is probably going to freak you out. But I swear, there’s nothing wrong. It’s me. It’s always been me, and it’ll still be me afterward, okay? Just hear us out, and… okay,” I shook my head. “Literally everything we’re saying right now is probably just making her feel even more freaked out. So let’s just show her.”

Carefully taking her daughter’s arm so that she wouldn’t do anything crazy, Larissa nodded to me. “Go ahead,” she announced, “it’s long past time that we all met face to face anyway.”

Sands opened her mouth to ask what that was supposed to mean. Meanwhile, I focused inwardly. It’s okay, Tabbris. You can come out now. You wanna see Larissa, right?

Y-yes. There was an intense, incredible longing in the Seosten girl’s response. I do. I-I…Trailing off, I felt her nervousness and longing build for the next few seconds until she finally went for it.

Sands was talking. “Would someone please just stop beating around the bush and tell me what–” She stopped in mid-sentence then, as the glowing figure stepped out of me. Her mouth fell open in total and complete shock while she watched the glowing shape resolve itself into the little blonde girl, who stood there nervously shifting from foot to foot.

“Wh-wha–what–” Stammering incoherently for a few seconds, Sands finally blurted, “Your inner child is fucking tangible?!” Her hands flailed briefly. “I mean–wait, no. You’re a… you’re a Seosten. But–but–”

“Sands,” I cut in. “It’s still me. I’m still me. See? All me. This… this is Tabbris.”

“But you–you were possessed?!” I was pretty sure there was almost nothing that could have shocked Sands more in that moment. Nothing, that was, except for when her mother took a knee and held her arms out.

“Come here, sweetie,” she called to Tabbris. “It’s okay.”

That was all it took. The little girl, who had been shifting nervously and cringing with every word that Sands spoke, quickly darted that way. She leapt the last few feet, throwing herself at Larissa, who caught the girl and brought her close into a hug that was almost as tight as the one that she had given her daughter.

“I’m so sorry, baby,” she whispered to the girl as Tabbris clung to her and whimpered. “I’m sorry I wasn’t there. You’re such a brave girl. Such a brilliant, brilliant brave girl.” To her actual daughter, she explained, “Sandy, this is Tabbris. She’s… Sariel’s daughter. I don’t know how much you–”

“Sariel’s daughter, like Vanessa? I–” Sands stopped. “Never mind. I am so beyond confused and lost right now, but I don’t care. You’re sure she’s okay?” She looked over to me.

I nodded. “She’s definitely okay. She protected us. She helped us. We’d be dead or enslaved if it wasn’t for her. She’s protected us a thousand times over.”

“Then you know what?” Shrugging pointedly, Sands announced, “For now, that’s good enough for me.”

And with that, she stepped over and embraced her mother and Tabbris, hugging onto them both.

There were still a lot of questions that we had to get through, a lot of problems to deal with. I had no doubt that all of this was going to get much worse. We were nowhere near getting home, still lost on the far side of the universe, surrounded by one of the most powerful evil empires that had ever existed. But for this one moment, as I watched Larissa’s reunion with both her daughter and Tabbris, all I could think was one thing.

Everything we have to do, everything we go through. All the pain, effort, and work. Everything, for moments like this.

It’s all worth it.

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Sharkhunt 23-01

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Please note that there was a commissioned mini-interlude posted yesterday that was focused on Wyatt and Abigail. If you missed it,  you may wish to use the previous chapter button above. 

“So, wait, you’re seriously telling me that all these guys were built by one Heretic?”

It was Monday, January 29th, a couple of days since my staff had been upgraded and almost a week since the meeting with the Committee, and… and when I had killed Doxer. Not that it had gotten any easier to think about. It was a good thing I didn’t need much sleep, because every time I closed my eyes, I saw the older boy’s grapple tearing through his throat, and his look of surprise.

Luckily, I had plenty of distractions to keep my mind off it. Two of which were sitting on the arm of the couch in the rec room with me. Jaq and Gus, my new little cyberform mice, had spent the past week gradually warming up to me. They were still pretty skittish, but they listened to what I said and didn’t seem to act like I was about to rip them apart every time I picked the little guys up.

I’d asked about the fact that they seemed to be accepting me pretty quickly for someone who had killed their last master, and Professor Dare had explained that it was purposeful. The cyberforms were designed to latch onto and obey whoever their owner was, similar to the way that a baby animal imprinted on its mother. When the old owner died, the imprint programming would wipe and set up to latch onto a new one. They didn’t forget their old owner, they were just conditioned to accept a new one relatively easily after the old one died.  

Yeah, apparently unlike most of our Heretic weapons, cyberforms weren’t buried with their owner when the Heretic died. Instead, a sort-of fake stand-in was used while the real thing was passed to someone else. That… somehow made me feel a little better. The idea of burying these guys while they were still ‘alive’ just because their owner had died had made me kind of queasy.

Vanessa, Tristan, and Sean were in there with me, waiting for it to be time to go to class. The latter gave Vulcan a little scratch behind the ears (I still wasn’t sure how the metal creatures felt things like that, but they sure seemed to like it) while shrugging. “Sort of. I mean, at first it was just one guy that made the cyberforms. But a few other Heretics managed to work out enough of his blueprints and reverse-engineer them to make their own. That’s how they ended up in both Eden’s Garden and Crossroads. But yeah, I’d say about seventy percent of them were made by one guy.”

“But…” I paused, watching as Vulcan stepped closer to the couch. He lowered his head while making an inviting noise for the two mice to climb on. Jaq and Gus both looked at each other, then up at me as though waiting for permission. I gestured. “Go on, but don’t forget your brother.”

Immediately, the two of them hopped over behind where Herbie was sitting, carrying the little guy between them as they scampered onto the mechanical dog’s back. They had really taken to their new ‘big brother’, carrying him around all the time. Hell, the first time one of the others had reached for my favorite rock without permission had been the first time that I heard Jaq and Gus hiss as they put themselves in front of him. They were already fiercely protective of Herbie.

As the three cyberforms (and one rockform) bounded around the room together, I shook my head before continuing. “But why? I mean, don’t get me wrong, I love the guys, but…” Gesturing to the mechanical snake that lay stretched across the back of the couch, her head on Tristan’s shoulder, I finished, “Why did he make ‘robot animals that turn into weapons’? And how are they so life-like? I mean, Heretic technology is impressive, but these guys seem like they’re actually alive.

Vanessa spoke up then, her hand slowly stroking gently along Bobbi-Bobbi’s side as she explained. “The man who invented them is named Harrison Fredericks. He’s pretty much a recluse now, but about twenty-five years ago, he was part of an expedition to another dimension. See, there was this really powerful witch named Telsima–”

“Wait,” I quickly interrupted. “Witch. Those aren’t normal Strangers, right? I mean–” I coughed, shaking my head. “I mean they aren’t the kind that set off the Heretic Sense, because they’re…”

“Humans that were bonded with some other Stranger to become natural Heretics,” Vanessa finished for me. “Basically, yes. Usually it’s a human that’s bonded with a Stranger who gives no benefit beyond unlocking the ability to use magic. But that’s not quite right. Sometimes they set off the Heretic Sense, and sometimes they don’t. It depends on the Stranger they’re bonded with.”  

That made sense. After all, vampires set off the Heretic sense, and they were basically natural Heretics. Actually, was there any difference between natural Heretics and vampires beyond the fact that they apparently couldn’t do magic? I made a mental note to ask Senny about that.

“Okay,” I replied, “so there was a witch named Telsima, and some kind of dimensional portal?”

“A dimensional portal that she created,” Vanessa confirmed. “They killed the witch, but the portal was still there. So…. Crossroads sort-of set up an expedition to go through and see what they could find. Harrison Fredericks was one of the only two who actually made it back here. He said they had to fight some people over there that had… you know, powers, like Heretics do. Only they seemed to be human. The point is, there was one that had all these mechanical animals helping him. Fredericks killed him, and suddenly he could make the things. It was as if the guy he killed had a superpower specifically geared toward ‘building super-advanced cybernetic animals’. Then when Fredericks killed him, he inherited the same power with the same focus.”

“A human being who had the superpower of ‘build things’?” I stared at her for a moment after that. “So this Fredericks guy kills the alternate-reality human, gains his super-inventor power, and starts making all these guys until some of his plans get out and other Heretics manage to copy them?”

“Then he went into reclusion,” she finished with a little nod. “Pretty much, yeah. Sometimes he still comes out with new ones, but he sells them to the highest bidder, whichever side they’re on.”

Sitting back against the couch at that, I stared at Vulcan as he continued to take Jaq, Gus, and Herbie for a ride around the room. “Wow. And here I thought Heretic-society was just weird.”

“Oh, it’s definitely weird,” Tristan informed me with a quick smile. “Just weird with a purpose.”

Pushing himself up, Sean nodded. “That’s pretty much our motto, yup. Weird with a purpose. Anyway, you guys ready to go?”

Checking my watch, I saw that he was right. Stranger Truths was about to start in a few minutes. “Yup, let’s go from Professor Moon’s class to Nevada’s.” Winking at the other girl as she blushed, I reached down to pick up my three little buddies from Vulcan’s back, tucking them into the pocket of my uniform jacket before walking out with the others to head for class.


“So,” Nevada announced about twenty minutes later. “Who can tell me what one of the most important effects for a Heretic to protect themselves against is?” True to form, the bubbly young teacher was dressed in white shorts, a bright pink top with a white smiley face on it, and sandals. She looked more like she was ready for a day on the beach than to teach a class about monsters.

Across the room, Travis Colby raised a hand. “Uh, death?” he asked with a quirked eyebrow.

Nevada gave a laugh at that, along with the rest of the class. “Okay, yes, that too. But this is almost as important. Anyone?” Glancing around, she shook her head before finishing, “Mind control. See? Mind control is one of the most dangerous problems that a Heretic can face, because it turns all their power not just against themselves, but against everyone they care about. And in its basic form, mind control or something similar to it isn’t exactly a rare power for a Stranger to have. You’ve all heard the stories about monsters who can control people.”

“So what do we do about it?” That was Sands, her hand raised as she spoke. “Isn’t there a way to protect against being controlled, if it’s such a common thing?”  

Nevada nodded. “Yes, there is. By the time you graduate, most Heretics are given the chance to absorb several different powers that block most kinds of mind control. I believe it’s your junior or senior year when they focus on that kind of thing, mostly because you’ll be strong enough by that point to actually kill the Strangers who can give you that sort of protection.”

Jasmine’s hand shot into the air then, her voice pointed. “So someone like, say, the head of security for a place like this school should have every protection there is against mind control?”

I knew I wasn’t imagining the fact that almost everyone in the class not-so-subtly turned slightly to look at me, including Jasmine herself. They were all looking my way, their thoughts obvious.

“Okay, yeah.” Nevada gave a knowing nod at that. “Obviously, we all know what you’re talking about. The boy who invaded the school not-so-long ago with a vendetta against Flick here.”

“He controlled Professor Kohaku,” Gordon announced flatly. “How did he do that? She’s head of security, shouldn’t she be immune to being controlled? If not, that’s a pretty big security hole.”

Beside me, Avalon spoke up. “She is immune, just like all the teachers are. He’s just… different.”

“Different how?” Gavin Rish asked, his hand in the air. “How does some little kid control our head of security? That just seems, y’know, weak.” He gave a shrug then, his eyes never leaving me.

“Never judge a book by its cover,” Nevada reminded them. “Just because the boy looks young and helpless doesn’t mean he can’t have one of the most powerful mind control abilities in the world. Appearances can be deceiving.” She let that hang for a moment before continuing. “But to reiterate, yes, graduating Heretics tend to take on protections from many forms of mind control. By the time they reach Professor Kohaku’s level, they’re immune to pretty much all of it. At least, all of it that can be protected against. Obviously, there are always exceptions. It’s like the Bystanders say about computer viruses:  every time there’s an uncrackable defense, someone will come up with a way to break it. It just so happens that the boy who came that night was… special, somehow.” She trailed off for a moment, obviously thinking about it before shaking her head. “Anyway, there you go. High-level Heretics are immune to almost every form of mind control, but no defense is always going to be one hundred percent effective. Remember that, the next time you start getting big heads. There’s always gonna be someone whose power can counter yours.”

Not content to let it go just like that, Douglas spoke up. “But who was he? What kind of little kid, even if he just looked like a little kid, could break in here and mind-whammy the head of security? And why would he do all that just to make everyone go after Flick? What was the point? And–”

“I heard he was Denuvus.” That was Shiori’s roommate, Rebecca. The tiny girl was one of the only people who wasn’t looking at me. Her attention was on Nevada. “You know, in disguise.”

“Don’t be stupid,” the always-charming Zeke blurted then, his eyes rolling dramatically at Rebecca. “Denuvus doesn’t exist. Or if he ever did, he’s been dead and gone for a long time. He’s just a bogeyman that Strangers use to threaten each other, and us. He’s not real.”

“Well, then you explain it,” Rebecca shot back at him. “Some little kid has enough oomph behind his mind control power to puppet the head of security? Either our security sucks, or he’s someone with an unbeatable mind control power. Oh, and guess what? When he took control, he said his name. He said his name, Zeke. Who the hell does that sound like to you?”

The boy shrugged. “It sounds like someone with a massive mind control power who heard the same rumors you did and decided to use them to give himself a scary reputation right away.”

That just made a bunch of people in the class start talking over each other. The Heretic-born were arguing about whether Denuvus could actually exist, while the Bystander-kin were trying to butt in to ask who the hell he was. Meanwhile, all I could do was sit there and try not to look like I already knew the answer to all that. Because of course Denuvus was real. Twister had already told me about how she had been killed by Fossor because one of the other Pooka had done a job for him by stealing some of Denuvus’s blood, and then tried to stiff the necromancer by selling it to someone else. Fossor had gotten it after all and used it to give Ammon his powers.

So Denuvus was real. They were right about that much. But now some of them thought that Ammon was Denuvus. And I had to pretend that I didn’t know what any of this was about.

Sometimes I didn’t know which was worse, all the questions I didn’t have any answers to, or the ones that I did have answers to but had to pretend that I didn’t. Growing up, I had been all about getting news out there, about exposing the secrets that people tried to hide. Now I was burying most of the secrets that I knew, and sometimes I didn’t really like how that felt. I didn’t like it at all.

Finally, Erin Redcliffe managed to speak over everyone else. “What do you think, Nevada?” She gestured toward our teacher while the rest of the class quieted down. “Does Denuvus exist?”

Something a little strange happened then. I swore that Nevada’s head started to nod before her expression twisted a little bit, like she was fighting against something. It only lasted for a brief second, before her smile returned. “Well, some people say he does, others say he doesn’t,” she answered noncommittally. “But we do know from what happened in the dorms that the level of mind control that Denuvus is rumored to have does exist. So we can–” She stopped then, head tilting a little. Again, it looked like she was about to say something, or trying to say something. But that moment passed as well, and she walked to the board. “Anyway, let’s start talking about the different kinds of protection there are against being controlled like that, shall we?”

There were still more questions about Denuvus, but Nevada mostly side-stepped them. She only answered what she had to, repeatedly pulling the class back to the main subject. Which was weird, since she never objected to us going off on tangents, particularly when they were at least semi-related to the subject. She never avoided questions like that, and I had absolutely never seen her act like she did when it had looked like she wanted to say something but then changed the subject. It worried me, because it felt like another problem when we really couldn’t afford one.

What was going on with Nevada, and why did she act so weird when Denuvus was mentioned?


“You sure you’re ready for this?” I asked Avalon hours later. It was just past curfew, as the two of us sat on her bed. My head was nuzzled against her shoulder as I held her hand.

Squeezing my fingers, the other girl snorted before giving the top of my head a gentle kiss. “Of course I’m ready, Chambers. You have no idea how long I’ve been looking forward to this.”

“That long, huh?” I teased, straightening up to look at her with a little smile while giving the girl a gentle poke in the shoulder. “Did you ever think you’d actually get the chance?”  

“I knew I would,” she answered flatly, though a tiny smile tugged at her trying-to-be-stoic lips. Despite herself, she couldn’t quite hold back her emotions. “I don’t give up that easily.”

“Oh,” I replied, giggling despite myself. “I guess we should go for it then.” She nodded once more, and I heaved myself to my feet, offering a hand to the other girl. As she took it, I helped her up and we went to the door. Peeking out, I looked both ways, then headed out while beckoning for her to follow.

Sneaking out of the dorm was easy enough. After all, I had a pass to be up and around all night long, past curfew. Which meant that between it and my item-sense, I could let Avalon know when it was safe to move around. Together, the two of us quickly headed across the grounds and to the edge of the shield where the path down to the beach was. With a quick look to each other, we stepped across and then waited for a moment.

Nothing. Gaia had promised that we would be added to the exceptions for the night, but I still let out a breath when we didn’t have a bunch of security jump down our throats. Nodding to Avalon, I walked ahead as we moved toward the predetermined meeting spot

“Hi, guys!” Shiori stage-whispered, practically giving me a heart attack while popping up out of the bushes just barely outside the range of my item-sense. She waved. “You made it.”

“Did you have a hard time getting past Rebecca?” Avalon asked, not having jumped at all.

In answer, Shiori glanced toward me before blushing as her head shook. “She–umm, she doesn’t know.”

I blushed as well. In preparation for this, the other girl and I had made it a point to sneak out now and then over the past couple of nights, always letting Rebecca ‘catch us’ sneaking back in while acting… well, embarrassing, to put it simply. If Shiori’s roommate did notice that she was out of bed tonight, we wanted her to think that we had just snuck out for another… date.

“Is it here?” I asked, looking around. “They said they’d leave it right out under that tree, but I don’t–”

Shiori held up what looked like a wooden pencil box with a combination lock on it. “Right where they said it’d be.”

She held it out, and I took the thing. Carefully inserting the combination that I had been given, I looked back to the others. “You guys ready for this?”

They both nodded, and I opened the box before quickly dropping it. As I did so, a brilliant blue burst of energy shot out, shaping itself into a portal that hovered there in the air. Together, the three of us moved through the portal.

Stepping out the other side, we found ourselves standing on the edge of a crystal clear lake, illuminated by the moonlight. There was a simple wooden cabin in the distance, with a dock that led out to a sailboat. But most importantly, standing directly in front of us was a man. A tall, handsome, dark-skinned man who stood with one hand resting lightly on the shovel beside him.

“Hey there. Good to see you again, Felicity,” Gabriel Prosser announced. “And these must be your girlfriends. Shiori and Avalon, right?”

Beside me, Avalon made a noise that sounded an awful lot like a high-pitched squeak. It was the single most surprising, strangest sound that I had ever heard come directly from my roommate.

“Uh,” I looked that way. “Avalon, are you…” I trailed off, staring. Not because there was a problem, not because we had suddenly been attacked or something had gone horribly wrong. No, I stared because Avalon had the single goofiest, absurd smile on her face. She looked utterly enraptured, like a little preteen meeting her idol.

“Oh my god,” I managed to get out.

“Avalon’s a fangirl.”

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Study And Scrutiny 20-01

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


“Valley, Valley, wait.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Mini-Interlude 15 – Flick and Avalon

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The following is a commissioned mini-interlude focusing on interaction between Flick and Avalon. I hope you enjoy. 

“So I guess this is it,” I announced a bit later while watching Avalon. “Almost a full month you’re gonna have that room all to yourself.” Smiling a little, I asked innocently, “Are you gonna miss me?”

The girl gave me a look. “Stop changing the subject. We’re here to squeeze a little more training in before you run off and find a way to drag even more trouble down on yourself than you already have.”

“Yeah, but still.” My smile broadened as I showed her my teeth. “Really, are you gonna miss me?” I bobbed my head a little toward the spot nearby where a familiar rock with googly eyes and a sword was perched. “Herbie told me he’s gonna miss you.” Dropping my voice to a whisper, I added, “I think he just really needs to hear you say it. He’s sorta sensitive about that kind of thing.”

“Sure,” the other girl replied. “I’ll miss your little pet rock. It’s the only thing in the room with a harder head than you.”

Giving a fake gasp, I brought my hand to my chest as if I couldn’t believe she’d say such a thing. “I am insulted. How dare you claim that anything in this known universe has a harder head than me. I mean, I still haven’t given up on my vow to make you call me Flick, and there’s only like… twenty minutes left before the semester is totally and officially done.”

Snorting, Avalon responded by coming after me with her staff. I brought my own up to block quickly, and we exchanged a short flurry of blows. I was getting better about noticing where she was attacking. Part of that was the skeleblineist power, of course. But it was also my own reflexes and the training that they had been drilling into me over and over again.

“Faster, Chambers.” The other girl’s staff slammed into mine hard enough to almost knock it out of my hands. “Get your guard up faster, and retaliate harder. You’re stronger than me, and you can keep going longer. Use that. A lot of people that you fight are going to have to pace themselves a lot more than you. They can’t go full strength, full speed as long as you can. So use that against them. You can hit harder, faster, longer. So don’t hold back. If you see the opening, go for it. If you don’t see it, force one to happen. If nothing else, let them wear themselves out against you, then hit them three times as hard.”

Taking a quick step back to gain some room, I flipped my staff around thoughtfully while watching her. It was nothing she and Deveron hadn’t already said a few times. I had the feeling that Avalon was trying to drill as many of these instructions and tips into my head as she could before I left for the holidays. It was almost like she didn’t really trust me to have a completely normal and safe vacation or something.

Smiling, I took her advice by taking a quick step forward before bringing my staff up to her shoulder. It was a feint, however, and I quickly reversed it, pivoting to put more force behind my blow as I aimed for the other girl’s leg. A couple months ago, I would’ve been too worried about hurting her to put my strength behind it. Now, however, I had enough faith both in my roommate and in our healing abilities to go for it. Holding back wasn’t going to do either of us any favors when it came time to fight for real.

I didn’t have to worry anyway, since Avalon dropped her staff down to catch mine just before it would’ve struck her shin. That, however, meant that she was in the right position. With my staff aimed almost straight up and down, angled just a little bit toward her face, I hit the button to trigger the tiny portals at the end before pulling at the sand that I could feel through them. A cloud of it flew up into the other girl’s face as she reeled backward, and I quickly took advantage by dropping my staff down to bring it against her other leg. That time, I connected and Avalon stumbled backward. Her hand blindly grabbed onto my arm in the process however, and I was yanked over as well. We collided, crashing to the ground with a pair of yelps even as our weapons slid away to roll across the grass away from us.

When the dust (and sand) cleared, I was lying on top of Avalon, who was on her back. Blinking, I gave her a Cheshire smile once I realized what was going on and what kind of position we were in. “Oh, look. Here we are. Now seems like a really good time to talk about that whole ‘missing me’ thing.”

Yeah, the truth was, being in the position I was in was quite thoroughly distracting. I could feel all sorts of… well, to put it simply, pleasant sensations by lying on top of my roommate. But since she’d been my roommate all semester and we’d been training together so much, I could at least keep my head enough by that point to tease her a little bit. Even if my voice did sound slightly more high pitched than it normally did. The important thing to take away was that I wasn’t a completely tongue-tied dork.

“Chambers.” Avalon’s voice was a quiet murmur that sent a shiver through me and made me start immediately rethinking that whole ‘not as affected by her as I used to be’ thing. “You need to get off.”

The response that immediately came to my mind at her choice of words must have shown very clearly on my face, because the other girl rolled her eyes and gave me a shove. “Don’t even think about saying it. And stop thinking it.”

“Can’t control my thoughts!” I retorted in a sing-song voice while shifting my weight on her. My smile still hadn’t faded. It was… actually kind of nice being in this position, and I wasn’t only referring to our physical situation. It was also nice to sort of be the one who was teasing her for a change. It didn’t happen all that often, and I was relishing it just a little bit. “Trust me, these thoughts, can’t control them. They go off and do whatever they want to. Can’t do a thing about it.”

Avalon’s breath seemed to catch slightly as I shifted, and there was something in her voice. “Get up.”

Grinning still, I sat up, but I didn’t completely get off of her. Not yet, anyway. “That’s okay,” I informed my brunette bombshell of a roommate with a wink. “You’ve already answered the question pretty well.”

She frowned at that, clearly more off-balance than I’d thought before murmuring quietly. “I have?”

“Sure.” Leaning down a bit, I stage-whispered close to the other girl’s ear, “Because we both know that if you weren’t gonna miss me while I’m gone, you would’ve thrown me off of you a long time ago.”

With a laugh, I pushed myself up finally, rising to my feet before offering Avalon a hand to pull her up.

She took it, her blush actually visible (much to my delight) before she got it under control. “You think you’re pretty hot stuff, don’t you?”

“Well,” I replied, “I do have a few great teachers. And they have been working their asses off to make sure I’m not a complete damsel in distress.” Sobering a little then, I added, “Thanks, by the way. Really. Without you, I—well I’d be in a lot worse shape than I am now.”

It took her a moment to respond, and her blush still hadn’t entirely faded. “Just don’t get too cocky. That’s how people get hurt. Or worse.”

My head bobbed up and down quickly. “Oh, trust me. No cockiness here. I know just how screwed I am if things go wrong. I’m gonna keep my eyes open, and I’m not even gonna tempt fate by talking about how it’s gonna go. It’s a vacation, but I’m not about to be stupid about it. I promise, I’ll be careful.”

Stepping back to bring my staff back up again, I added, “Now, you wanna squeeze in one more little match?”

Checking the back of her left gauntlet where she apparently had a clock installed, Avalon waved a hand for me to stop. “Time’s up,” she announced, her voice quieter than normal. “ Dare’s probably about to come looking for you any minute to take you up to the Pathmaker. Wouldn’t want to keep her waiting.”

“Yeah.” Smiling slightly, I shrugged at the other girl. “I doubt she’d take ‘let my roommate keep beating me up’ as an excuse.” I paused, frowning. “Then again, knowing this place… maybe she would.”

Reaching down to the water bottles at her feet, Avalon plucked them up and tossed one to me before taking a long, deep drink from her own. I tried not to get too distracted by the image, but from her smirk, she probably noticed.

Still, I gratefully gulped down some water (somehow I was pretty sure that I looked like a slobbering dog next to the effortless sexiness that came from everything Avalon did) before wiping my arm over my mouth. Which, if that failed to look dignified, my immediate burp afterward probably didn’t help.

Rolling her eyes, my roommate gave me a long look. “You are as charming and graceful as ever.”

“What can I say?” I asked with a small smile, spreading my arms apart questioningly. “I am who I am.”

For a few seconds, the two of us just stood there. It was obvious that neither of us knew what to say, but neither did we just want to walk away from each other. The silence was almost deafening.

“So this is it. Almost a full month.” I was repeating myself from only a few minutes earlier, I knew that. But I had to say something.

“Don’t get hurt, Chambers.” Avalon gave me an intense look. “I’d hate to have to figure out how to deal with a new roommate, since Gaia already made it very clear that I’m not allowed to have my own room.”

Coughing in spite of myself, I shrugged. “Yeah, well, maybe you could find a new roommate that doesn’t keep stealing half your death threats away from you, so you can have the attention to yourself.”

Her retort was sharp. “Don’t joke about that. Just–” Taking an obvious breath, she caught herself and finished with a simple, “Just be careful. Don’t do anything stupid. I… I don’t want another roommate.”

“What about that whole, having a room all to yourself thing?” I half-heartedly teased, watching her reaction. “Maybe I could pull some strings with Gaia, push for you to have the whole thing after all.”

Her shoulders (among other things) heaved up and then down as she sighed. “Don’t push it. Just go.”

I almost walked away. Almost let it go again. But in the end, I couldn’t just leave. “Avalon,” I spoke up, making her look at me again. “This—this vacation, I know I was kidding about it before, but really… it’s three weeks. Three weeks apart, and I just—I really need to tell you about how I feel about–”

“Chambers,” Avalon’s voice had a warning tone to it. “Don’t. I know what you want to say. But you can’t. We can’t. You know it’s complicated, and we can’t just… we can’t just act like it’s not.”

Meeting her gaze, I almost nodded. My head started to move. But then I stopped myself, holding my head still for a moment before shaking it instead. Seeing that, Avalon started to speak, but I interrupted.

“I can’t just keep avoiding it. This isn’t some TV show where we have to pad out time. We’re not about to get canceled if we don’t do the Moonlighting ‘will they/won’t they’ forever. Avalon, this is dumb. Maybe I don’t understand all of my feelings, maybe I don’t know how things are going to end up in a year, a month, or even a week, but who does at this school? All I know is that I really, really like you.”

There was, somewhat surprisingly, no judgment or even annoyance in Avalon’s tone as she replied, “Chambers, I’m not the only one you’ve been looking at. My not being there isn’t the end of the world.”

“You’re right,” I confirmed with a nod. “You’re not the only one. I don’t know how I feel about everything. Suddenly I’m noticing you, I’m noticing other girls, and I’m still noticing boys. It’s… it’s confusing, Valley. It’s so… so god damn confusing. Sometimes it feels like I can’t decide what I want. I feel like a kid in an ice cream shop. And I don’t want to hurt you. I really don’t. But I also don’t want you to feel like it’s impossible. If you don’t want… you know, you and me to go anywhere because you don’t want it, that’s fine. I can deal. But don’t just write it off because you’re trying to protect me.”

Avalon didn’t say anything at first. She just shook her head, looking away before turning back to me, emotion filling her eyes. “How am I supposed to let myself care about anyone like that? What am I supposed to do, Chambers? My father has been trying to kill me since I was taken in by the Garden. He’s not going to stop trying to take everything away from me. And now there’s this whole conspiracy, apparently because of who I’m supposed to be related to? If there was anyone that I cared about like that, why would I let them turn into more targets? What’s the point of letting someone you know you—you think about them that way if all it does is put them in danger? If I let them—if I let you in like that, you’d be another target, another thing for them to—to take away from me. I’d lose you.”

“How can you lose something if you don’t even–” I stopped, lowering my gaze briefly before looking back up to her as I amended myself. “–if you won’t even acknowledge that you want it?”

“It’s more complicated than that, Chambers,” the other girl insisted, arms folded across her stomach protectively. “I just—I don’t want you to be in any more danger than you already are. It’s not fair.”

I nodded once in spite of myself. “You’re right, it’s not. It’s not fair, because I’m already in danger. Avalon, I’ve got just about ten months before Fossor makes good on his promise to come after me.”

Fire flashed in her eyes then as she took a step to me, arms lowering to her sides as her hands closed into fists. “I won’t let him hurt you.” Her words were a snarled promise, with dark rage behind them.

In return, I took a step forward as well, closing the distance between us so that we were within arms reach of each other. Meeting her fiery gaze, I nodded. “And I won’t let anyone hurt you, Valley. But while each of us is so busy not letting anyone hurt the other person, do we have to hurt ourselves? Yeah, I’m in danger. You’re in danger. We’re all in danger. I’m pretty sure that’s never gonna change. But you know what else isn’t going to change? The fact that I think you’re—you’re just… really neat.”

Yeah, okay, the last bit of that came out far more lame than I meant it. I was flushing even as the stupid word ‘neat’ left my mouth, and I could see the smirk on Avalon’s face. Her own mouth opened, but I reached out to cover it with my own hand. While her eyes widened at the audacity, I pushed on.

“Yeah, I said neat. Because I ran out of adjectives in my head. You’re great, you’re beautiful, you’re brilliant, you’re amazing, you’re strong, you’re fast, you’re so—you’re Avalon. You’re Avalon, and I don’t have the words to describe you. I wish I did, but I don’t. You’re just… neat. And I–”

My own words were cut off then, as Avalon raised her hand to press against my mouth. And then we stood there, facing one another with our arms outstretched, hands covering each other’s mouths. Several long, quiet seconds passed while the two of us stared at one another that way. Slowly, Avalon raised her free hand to touch mine as it pressed against her mouth. Our fingers brushed, and I felt a tingle run through me that had nothing to do with static electricity or anything like it. It was something more.

Swallowing, I followed the other girl’s maneuver. Lifting my own free hand, I let my fingers brush over hers that was covering my mouth. Then I slowly slipped my fingers under hers, taking hold of her hand while she did the same with my other hand. Together, we lowered each other’s hands away from our mouths before our fingers seemed to instinctively interlock, our hands clasping one another.

My heart was trying to slam its way out of my chest. I felt sweaty, thirsty, silly. And yet, I couldn’t look away. My voice seemed to pipe up in spite of myself, squeaking a little. “This probably looks pretty–”

“Flick,” Avalon interrupted. “Shut up.”

My eyes widened then, and I looked up. “You called me–”

I felt her hands leave mine, moving up to take my arms instead to yank me toward her.

I felt her hands cup both sides of my head, fingers sliding through my hair.

I felt her breath on my face.

I felt my knees buckle, before her strength held me up as it had so many times already that semester.

I felt her lips on mine.

I felt… magic.

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A Strange Thanksgiving 13-07

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Honestly, I’d wanted to see Eden’s Garden for awhile by that point. I’d wanted to know more about the place since I’d first heard that Avalon had been a student there, and finding out that Miranda still was one had only increased that desire. It wasn’t that I thought they were the perfect solution to all of Crossroads’ problems, considering they let people like Trice and his groupies stick around. Plus, Miranda had made it clear that though they didn’t always kill Strangers on sight, they still weren’t exactly pals with them. They were willing to use Strangers, even work with them in some rare cases. But the non-humans were still always second class citizens at the very best, and more akin to slaves.

Still, I still wanted to know more about the ‘other Heretic school.’ The fact that they were willing to work with Strangers at all might mean that they could be reasoned with more easily than Crossroads.

And, to be completely honest, I kind of wanted to see some of the special creatures they kept around. I might have spent a not-inconsiderable amount of my free time during the nights drawing up incredibly elaborate Ocean’s 11 style plans about how to get into Eden’s Garden to see the unicorns and pegasi.

So yeah, I wanted to see Eden’s Garden. But not like this. Kneeling next to my niece while she kept frantically pumping her own mother’s, my sister’s, heart because some psychopath alien monster decided to play a little game? No. God, no. I just wanted this night to be over. I wanted to restart and have a chance to just come visit for the nice, calm Thanksgiving evening it was supposed to have been.

I wanted Koren to stop crying. I wanted her to be happy. I wanted her to proudly introduce me to her dad, alive and well. I wanted to see the man who had married my sister. I wanted them to maybe notice that there was something familiar about me. I wanted to see Koren’s life, her real, ordinary life that maybe wasn’t perfect (just like the girl herself), but was hers. I wanted… I wanted this to be a dream.

But it wasn’t. And I wouldn’t meet Koren’s dad. He was gone. The Fomorian had discarded him like so much trash. It was a waste, and the thought made me want to cry. My eyes burned with unshed tears while I fought to hold it together. I couldn’t fall apart. Not right now. Koren needed me to keep it together. She needed me to be there so she could keep pumping her own mother’s heart. Because if I lost it, if I let myself go, she wouldn’t last much longer. Even then, I saw the hysterics in her eyes.

Seller had already pulled a piece of wood from his pocket. It looked like a chunk out of a tree, including the bark. Before I could say anything, he broke off several smaller bits from it and pushed one into my hand, another into Wyatt’s hand, and the other two into Koren and Abigail’s pockets. “Okay, hold onto those and brace yourselves.” To Koren, he added, “You’re about to get really dizzy. I’m told it’s like going over the loop in a roller coaster. So stop pumping when I say three and pump again as soon as we land. Got it? Right. Remember, no one moves or says anything. One, two, three.”

At the last number, Seller slapped the larger portion of the wood he was holding against the ground, and the world spun wildly around us. He was right, and the warning didn’t help. Unlike when I had been transported by Crossroads, the Eden’s Garden teleportation left me feeling briefly nauseous. My stomach flipped over on its end and I physically reeled backwards while a choked yelp escaped me.

Apparently Wyatt was either more accustomed to that sort of thing, or had some kind of power that helped deal with nausea, because he was on his feet much faster than I was. I sensed someone moving and dragged my attention up to see him standing up and turning toward a group of figures that still looked like blurry outlines for another few seconds. Finally, I blinked it away and focused on what turned out to be a handful of scary looking men in dark red armor. Half of them were carrying what looked like shotguns, while the other half had these pike-things with blades at one end and what looked like a tennis racket at the other, though rather than string, the grid part was made out of tiny lasers.

They also didn’t exactly look all that happy to see us. Seller was already standing in front of them. His voice was a low whisper as he murmured to the man who appeared to be in charge. That one’s armor had what looked like a large, jagged bear print across the chest in black marking. His eyes were just as hard as the the rest of them as he stood there staring at us while Seller continued to talk to him rapidly.

Now that my eyes were focused, I saw that we had ended up in a room about twenty feet across on all sides, with a ceiling that was about twice as high on one half of the room as it was on the other, going up at a slant. There was only one door out of the room, and it was being blocked by the armored men.

Meanwhile, Wyatt had positioned himself directly between the scary guys in their armor and Koren, Abigail, and me. The juxtaposition between those big red-armored men and scrawny little Wyatt with his too-big nose and overly-pronounced Adam’s apple was striking. And yet, after everything that had happened so far, I was pretty sure I’d rather be protected by Wyatt than any of those guys. The me from several months earlier when I first met the man would have been incredibly surprised, to say the least.

My attention finally made it to Koren herself, and Abigail. Neither looked like they were doing that well. Koren was breathing hard, tears staining her face as she pumped her mother’s heart. Abigail, meanwhile, looked like she was barely hanging on. She wasn’t focusing on anything. When I waved my hand in front of her eyes, it looked like she was trying to follow it, but gave up or forgot about it after a few seconds. She was clearly drifting, conscious but in some kind of heavy, possibly drugged, daze.

Now that I was looking at her up close, I could see the resemblance to Wyatt. It wasn’t completely obvious. Abigail was around the same height and had similar facial features in several respects. She looked kind of like a shorter, brown-haired Shelley Duvall from The Shining. God, I wanted to touch her. I wanted to talk to her. I wanted to tell her everything about her mother, our mother. I’d wanted a sister for so long, more than I had ever really consciously acknowledged after Mom disappeared. And now, now she was lying there so helpless and broken. It felt like if I touched her, she’d shatter entirely.

I tried to talk to Koren, tried to say anything that might help her focus or at least freak out a little less. But by the time I managed to get any actual words to come out, Seller was already done with his conversation. He was standing over us again, lowering his sunglasses with a finger to look over them at me. “Okay. I’m taking Abigail and Koren here up to show the Victors what’s going on. With any luck, they’ll approve the emergency apple. These guys,” he indicated the red-armored men, “are called the Unset. They’re not allied with any tribe, and hold no loyalty to any but the Victors themselves, who have agreed to allow you safe passage for the time being. So stay with these guys, do what they say, and don’t go wandering off. They’ll watch over you right here until we know what’s going on.”

Poor Wyatt looked completely torn, glancing between me and Abigail. I took pity on him, touching his arm gently while addressing Seller. “Take Wyatt with you. She’s his sister, even if they’ve never actually met. He deserves to be there, no matter what… ends up happening. I’ll be fine with these guys.”

Wyatt actually looked like he was about to object in spite of himself, but I shook my head at him firmly, repeating, “I’m fine. I’ll just stay with these upstanding slabs of muscular meat and be a good little guest. This isn’t about me, anyway. She’s your twin sister, Wyatt. You really do need to be there.”

“Right then, come on.” Seller crouched next to Koren and Abigail, gesturing for Wyatt to join him. “We’ve got special dispensation to transport directly into the medical lobby, and a couple of the Victors will meet us there to… discuss the situation. But I need you to scooch in close if you’re coming.”

Hurriedly, Wyatt stepped over to me. He pressed a glass ball into my hand. “Anything bad happens,” he instructed, “you break this, okay? You break it, and it’ll bring me. It’ll bring me right to you. You’ll be safe. I won’t let anything happen to you, little sister. You break it and I’ll be there. I promise. Promise.”

Smiling as much as I could, I took the ball and nodded. “Go. Go with them. I’ll be fine.”

The poor guy still looked torn, but he stepped over to join the others, crouching down close to them. Seller did something, and all four disappeared, apparently off to whatever the medical lobby was.

I watched the spot where they’d been briefly, then straightened while turning to face the Unset. “Hi, guys.” I waved. “I’m Flick. I know this is a weird situation, but I don’t suppose you can talk to me?”

The one that Seller had been talking to looked at me severely for a moment. He was an enormous guy, as big as Professor Katarin. He looked Native American, with arms that were as big around as tree trunks. When he spoke, it was in a serious, gravelly tone. “We aren’t mute. Or deaf.”

The one behind him added in a voice that sounded just as serious at first. “Or eunuchs. If you were wondering.” He paused for a three count then, before adding dryly. “The new ones always wonder.”

That set the rest of the group actually chuckling a little bit, before the first one gave me a quick bow of his head after his lips quirked in a very short, quickly muted smile. “You can call me Croc. The eunuch behind me there is Price. And those three are Kimmer, Isosceles, and Truant. ” Raising an eyebrow after introducing all of them, he added with a very slight smile, “You look a little surprised.”

Flushing, I shook my head a little. “I dunno. I guess… I guess you’re not exactly what I expected.”

Croc actually chuckled a little at that. “That’s fair. We’re not silent, mindless automatons, Flick. We take our jobs seriously, and we obey our Victors. But we’re also not heartless. From what Seller said, you’ve had an awful night. I’m sorry about that. We all are. And for what it’s worth, I hope the Victors agree to save the woman.”

Swallowing hard at that, I nodded while murmuring, “So do I.” Pausing then, I blinked away the tears that threatened to take over my eyes again, forcing myself to focus on the now rather than the ‘what-if.’ When I spoke, my voice shook a little in spite of my efforts otherwise. “Y-you saw her. Do you think they’ll… they’ll make it in time? The Victors, how long will it take them to make a decision? I mean, I mean… Koren’s literally pumping her heart for her. And she wasn’t responding, she’s drugged or, or… magically cursed or something, I don’t know. But if they wait too long, if the Victors can’t decided in time, she might… might…” I couldn’t get the words out past the thick knot that had settled in my throat.

A heavy hand settled gently on my shoulder, and I glanced up to find Croc giving me a smile that looked almost too gentle and soft for his face. “I don’t know what they teach you about us over at that school of yours, but most of us aren’t actually monsters. And that goes for the Victors too. They won’t wait too long. Besides, the doctors we have down there are top of the line. They’ll make sure she’s taken care of until the time comes. I know you’re worried about her, but believe me, she’s in good hands.”

I nodded, and Croc paused before speaking again. “If you have any questions, I can try to answer them. Assuming, of course, that you don’t ask for any secret information. It might take your mind off everything for a few minutes.” He started to say something else then before pausing. Stepping past me, the big guy crouched down to pick up something from the wooden floor before holding it out. “Was this yours?”

Glancing that way, my eyes widened. “Herbie!” Hurriedly, I reached out to take the little rock. “Sorry, he must’ve fallen out of my pocket when we teleported here.” Holding my buddy in one hand, I checked on his sword. Columbus had fixed it so that the weapon could raise up or lower against the side of the stone so that it wouldn’t stick me when it was in my pocket. It didn’t seem to have gotten bent or damaged, so I quickly put him away again before looking up to find the Unset all watching me.

Their stares made me flush a little. “Sorry,” I murmured. “It’s—he’s… the rock I threw through the portal when I first found out about… magic and all this stuff. It’s probably dumb, but I just… it feels like… I mean…” I trailed off, unable to find the right words.

Croc shook his head. “The last thing you need to worry about now is justifying yourself to us, Flick.”

My mouth opened to say something else, but before I could find the words, there was a brief knock at the door. It was just two taps, and then the door opened. Another of the Unset, female this time, poked her head in. She focused on Croc before twitching two fingers at him. When he walked that way, the woman leaned close and whispered something too low for me to make out.

Croc murmured something back before turning to me. “This girl says she knows you.” Stepping back then, he moved his big arm just far enough out of the way to allow someone’s face to come into view.

“Miranda!” I blurted, surprised at the sight of the girl. I hadn’t expected her to be able to show herself, especially not this soon. “What are you–” Hurriedly, I nodded to the Unset. “Yes, I—we were friends before she was recruited here, and we met again awhile ago back in our home town. It’s okay.”

At least, I hoped it was okay that they knew about that. But then, Croc seemed pretty cool. And apparently the Unset didn’t pay attention to Tribe rivalries or politics, only to what the Victors said. Maybe that would help. But how had Miranda known I was here?

The Unset stepped out of the way then, allowing the other girl into the room. She came straight to me, and we hugged briefly. Part of me still wondered if we should be more subtle about the whole thing, but after everything that had happened, the rest of me didn’t really care that much. I hugged my friend tight before stepping back. “Randi, how did you—I mean… what… what did…?”

Croc cleared his throat from nearby. “The room’s been secured and if anyone else enters or leaves, we’ll know. Stay here and we’ll give you some privacy for a few minutes.” Looking back and forth between us, he waited until we both nodded before gesturing for his men to step out of the room with him.

As soon as they were gone, I blurted, “How did you know I was here? What’s going on?”

“Seller,” she answered softly. “He sent me a message, told me where to find you and what was going on. He thought you could use a friend.”

I blinked at that. “I didn’t… know he knew about you.”

Miranda flushed a little. “I—uh, yeah, he came to me awhile ago and gave me some advice about following Trice without being noticed. I guess he’s been watching over me a bit.”

Hugging her again, even tighter that time, I fought past the lump in my throat once more. “There’s… there’s so much to… I can’t even… he… he told you what happened?”

“His message did,” she confirmed quietly. “I’m so sorry, Flick. Your friend’s mother? Do… do you really think the Victors will let her join?”

I started to point out that Koren and Abigail were more than my sister and niece before remembering that Miranda wouldn’t remember it even if I told her. Sighing, I instead just said, “There’s more to the story, but there’s a magic curse thing stopping me from telling you.”

She blinked at me before taking that in stride. “Well, I’m really sorry. I hope, um, I hope she’ll be okay.”

Glancing around then as though making sure the room was empty, the other girl added, “But I really need to show you something. I was going to call you tonight anyway, after I heard it.”

“After you heard what?” I was grateful for a chance to think about anything but what was happening with Abigail.

“This,” Miranda answered while taking out a phone. “I noticed Trice and his group skulking away earlier, so I slipped this into his bag with the recorder app on.” Noticing the look I gave her, she added, “Hey, don’t worry. It’s not my phone, it’s a disposable one, and it won’t lead back to me. I wiped it clean. Anyway, listen. There’s more before all this about them talking to each other, but this is where it gets interesting.”

She hit the button, and I heard a voice that I recognized as Trice’s. “Fuck, there you are. How long were you planning on making us wa–” His voice choked off abruptly.

“Shut up,” another voice hissed in a whisper, too low for me to make out anything else about it through the recording. And yet, listening to it, I swore there was something familiar about the voice. “I don’t have time to listen to your complaints. She’s sleeping right now, but if I’m not there when she wakes up, you know what’ll happen.”

“Hey, hey, we get it.” That time I recognized Doxer’s voice. “We all get it. Right, Pacer?”

The response was a high giggle before the girl’s voice replied easily, “Keep choking him. He’s turning funny colors. I wanna see if he can go fuchsia. I like fuchsia. It’s a funny word.”

But the other person, the one with the familiar voice that I couldn’t place, must’ve stopped choking Trice because I heard a sudden, loud gasp of breath. That went on a couple times before the boy himself muttered, “Fuck, we got it. But we’re running risks here too. So why ain’t you sent that bitch over here yet?”

The voice shot back, “I told you, I’m working on it. First we have to find out where they’re hiding that stupid old man.”

“Pericles?” Doxer put in. “I thought he was six feet under already.”

“He should’ve been,” the voice snapped. “Especially considering everything I did to make sure of it. But the Headmistress’s little bitch still has whatever protection thing he put on her. Which means I can’t do anything to her without blowing my cover and ending up with half of Sinclaire’s lapdogs falling on top of me. Whatever he enchanted, it’s invisible and intangible. Even she probably doesn’t know it’s on her. But it’s there, and until it’s gone, I can’t fucking touch her. Which means there’s two fucking choices. Either strip her down and do a full on search–”

Doxer’s voice was lecherous. “I volunteer for that job.”

“Or,” the familiar-yet-distorted voice pressed on with obvious annoyance, “we make sure Pericles is dead so that his magic fades, then get dear, not-so-sweet Hannah before they have time to fix the problem. Like I said, I can get her through the shield, but not with whatever extra protection the old man stuck on her.”

“What if it wasn’t him?” Trice demanded. “I mean, you said you’re pretty sure you killed him.”

“It was him,” the voice snapped with obvious irritation. “Believe me, I may not have been able to do the entire identification spell, but I got the first name, and there’s only one person on that island named Zedekiah. It’s the old man. He’s alive, and they–”

My hand snapped out to stop the recording, my eyes wide. “No… he’s not…”

“What?” Miranda blinked up at me.

“Professor Pericles… they killed him to get at Avalon, because they thought he put some kind of protective artifact on her,” I spoke slowly. “Because, whoever that was heard the name Zedekiah connected with the spell. But Professor Pericles wasn’t the only person named Zedekiah. Or, not the only person that an identification spell would think of as Zedekiah.”

Wyatt, I thought, remembering what Deveron had told me just that evening about his son’s real name.

Professor Pericles was a mistake. The person they really wanted to kill to achieve their little goal… was Wyatt.

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Family Reunion 12-08

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“You know,” Sands started after a solid ten seconds of silence (at least from our table), “I’m honestly not sure which I’m more surprised by: the fact that Vanessa is Tristan’s sister, or that Gaia clearly didn’t know about it. I mean, obviously she would’ve pulled her in first to talk in private if she knew, right?”

“Right,” I agreed as the others just nodded while staring at the reunion going on right in front of us. There were murmurs from the surrounding tables, and I could hear a few people asking each other where this kid had been if he was related to Vanessa. This, of course, was met with other people authoritatively declaring that of course they weren’t siblings. Obviously, Vanessa and this boy were long-lost friends. Maybe even boyfriend and girlfriend. Sixteen seconds. Sixteen seconds and some of my classmates were already shipping the two of them together over a freaking hug. Just… wow.

“She definitely didn’t know,” Columbus muttered before nodding toward the front. “Look at them.”

Glancing that way, I saw Gaia standing there while Professor Dare and Andressa McKay, the elderly Head of Admissions, spoke quietly to her in either ear. Behind them, a couple of the third-year professors were standing nearby, clearly waiting impatiently to talk. There was definitely a quick meeting going on. But it stopped abruptly as the headmistress spoke a single quiet word. Then she spoke up louder, interrupting the flurry of whispering that had been filling the large room. “Never allow it to be said that you will ever be so old and experienced that nothing will ever surprise you again.”

A broad smile crossed the woman’s mature, yet beautiful face then. “And never allow it to be said that Crossroads does not appreciate a good, old fashioned family reunion. As… unexpected as it may be.”

With that, she began to clap a few times, prompting others to join in. I could tell that Vanessa was already embarrassed by her outburst. But I could also tell that she didn’t really care all that much. The girl was clinging to her brother while people applauded, and a few of those nearer to the siblings offered their own congratulations. Obviously, there were some hold-outs. More than a few people simply sat there, looking around at the ones who were clapping like we should be embarrassed. But for the most part, it was now taken for what it was: a brother and sister being miraculously reunited.

Gaia didn’t let that sit for long before crossing the distance to where Vanessa and Tristan were. After a few words about giving them an opportunity to catch up, she left the room with the two in tow. Most likely, I assumed, to have a private discussion about what she knew about Vanessa’s… special situation.

Slumping back in his seat, Sean muttered in obvious amazement. “Vanessa’s half-Seosten. I guess that sort of explains her super special memory power. But… damn. That’s just… wow.” He was still stunned. Which, for someone who obviously prided himself on taking everything casually, probably said a lot.

“Yeah…” Deveron started slowly, shifting a little in his seat. “Okay, so one of the first things you should probably know. This… might be confusing, but that girl, that half-Alter. She’s actually not the–”

“–not the only only one,” I interrupted. “Yeah, we sort of know that part already. Thanks though.”

The guy stared at me for a few seconds, clearly taking that in before sitting back with a stunned expression on his face. “You already know one. You’ve already met one of the half-breeds here.”

Raising an eyebrow at him, I snarked, “Gee, you know what you could’ve done to find out what we knew and when? It’s this brand fangled new invention. Now, I know you’re old so you might not be quite as hip, but bear with me cuz I think you’ll like this one. They call it talking. It’s where you know something that someone else needs to know, and the two of you communicate that information with words.” Putting my hand against the side of my face, I adopted a shocked expression at the very idea.

Wincing, Deveron shook his head regretfully. “You’re not gonna let that go any time soon, are you?”

“Not planning on it,” I confirmed before frowning. “But how do you know about the half-breed thing?”

He smiled easily then. “Because I’m the one that recruited the Djinni who altered the Edge to allow half-breeds to become Heretics. They were actually technically the first half-Alter Crossroads Heretic. And no, I’m not going to tell you who they are. Not because I still want to keep secrets, but because that’s not my secret to tell. It’s theirs. I can say that Gaia was involved in making sure that happened.”

I sat back at that, blinking a couple times. In the end, Columbus was the first to find his voice. “So, Gaia knew that the Edge would accept half-Alters after… whoever changed it. She knew that she made a plan with someone to make that happen. But she just forgot that it was you she was working with?”

Deveron dipped his head in confirmation. “Joselyn’s allies made that happen. They—we didn’t know who to trust. Not when it came to Jos’s life. Gaia didn’t do anything to stop them from erasing her, so I didn’t know if I could trust her with this, with my family. I… didn’t know about the blood plague.”

Setting my fork down, I straightened up. “Look, I… I need to go. It’s been a long day, and I just need to… I just need to think. I’m sorry, I’ll talk to you later, okay?” Looking to Deveron until he nodded, I pushed myself up from the table and started to walk away after murmuring an apology to the others.

I just needed to get out of there. It was too much. The meeting with him, Koren, and Wyatt, Tristan falling out of the sky, finding out he was Vanessa’s brother and that she was half-Seosten as well, I needed to clear my head. I needed to take a walk out in the fresh air and just… think for awhile.


“And you two look pretty alike except for this mark on your nose, so I’ll call you Brody and Quint.”

It was about an hour later, and I was treading water in the ocean. The sharks that had saved Shiori and me earlier were surrounding me. I honestly wasn’t sure how I knew they were the exact same ones, but somehow I was just certain. The six sharks were swimming in circles around where I was, occasionally coming up to bump their noses against me. They were like cats rubbing up against a leg for attention.

My attention (and by extension, that of the sharks as well) was drawn then toward the girl who was standing in the shallows, watching us. Smiling a little in spite of myself, I started to swim that way. Or at least, I started to. After two strokes, the nearest shark bumped up against me until I put a hand on his top fin. Then he began to cut through the water much faster than I could have gone, bringing me right up to the shallows. Once we were there, I gave him a pat before straightening up. “Hey, Shiori.”

“Hey, Flick,” she returned the greeting with a casual wave. “Water you doin’?”

Knowing the other girl as I did, all I had to do was look at her expression. “Did you—yeah you did.” Snorting while she giggled, I said, “You seem to be doing okay with the water after what happened. Not the pun. That was bad. But with the whole being in it part. I thought you’d avoid it for longer.”

Her head shook. “Actually, I was planning on coming out there, not just standing here. But I chickened out. I guess I’m just gonna be a big baby when it comes to water for awhile. I just make bad puns when I’m nervous. Well, okay, I sort of always make bad puns. But they’re usually worse when I’m scared.”

“You have every right to be a big baby about it,” I assured her. “Besides, you’re standing in the water almost to your hips. You’re not being that much of a baby. Actually, you’re being braver than I would.”

“That’s doubtful,” she snorted before looking toward the sharks. “You were naming them, weren’t you? I heard a little bit of it. Could I umm, know their names so I can thank them for saving us earlier?”

“Oh, sure.” Smiling, I gestured to the two who looked alike. “I looked them up online too, so I could know what they were. Those two are Mako sharks. I called them Brody and Quint. That yellow one over there, it’s a Lemon shark. I called her Simpson. The one right, aww, hi buddy.” Leaning down, I reached out to pet the one who had just swum closer. “This one’s a Bull shark. His name is Sherman.”

“What about that sleek blue one over there?” Shiori asked, pointing. “He looks pretty.”

Grinning, I nodded. “Oh he’s definitely pretty, and he knows it too. His name is Jabberjaw. You know, cuz he’s blue on top and white on the bottom.” Raising my hand to wave at the circling shark, I called, “Yeah, you know we’re talking about you, don’t you, Mr. Vanity? You know you love all the attention.”

Shiori giggled (still an incredibly adorable sound) before waving to Jabberjaw. Then her attention turned to the final shark. The biggest, who couldn’t come as close as the others. “What about the big guy out there?” she asked, still swallowing a little nervously at the sight of him. “What’s his name?”

“That,” I announced while taking another step into the water and waving my hand under it toward the one in question, “is a female Great White.” Smiling broadly, I looked over my shoulder. “Her name is Princess Cuddles.”

“Princess Cuddles,” the other girl echoed slowly while staring at me with a slowly widening smile of her own. “You actually named the enormous Great White shark… a relentless underwater killing machine who happens to be one of the biggest non-Stranger predators that are still alive on the Earth today… Princess Cuddles.”

Laughing, I nodded while swimming out a little bit, just far enough that Princess Cuddles could come up to get her side rubbed. God, she was enormous. My best guess was that she was over two thousand pounds and around twenty feet long. “What can I say? She’s just too adorable. Aren’t you, pretty girl? Yes you are, yes you are.” I clung to the massive shark, letting her take me under the water and around in a brief circle before surfacing once more. I was sitting atop Cuddles by that point, grinning at the other girl.

“So,” Shiori went back over them. “Brody and Quint, Simpson, Sherman, Jabberjaw, and Princess Cuddles.”

“That’s right,” I looked back in the water before asking, “Or just Cuddles, for those that are familiar with her. She’s not too hung up on royal qualifiers for her friends.” Grinning, I added, “I umm, I know you had a bad experience. But do you wanna stay awhile anyway and play with these guys? They won’t let anything happen. Neither will I.”

“I know…” the other girl spoke quietly before smiling a bit more. “Sure, I’ll stay out here with you.

“Let’s play with the sharks.”


So we spent some time out there with my new not-so-little friends. There were some other students in the water, but none of them wanted to come very close even after I assured them that they were safe.

That was okay though, it gave me time to just play with the sharks and Shiori. Though I did get tongue-tied a bit at the sight of the thoroughly soaked cute Asian girl. Especially when she came up out of the water and shook her hair out before laughing because Simpson poked her in the back. It was… wow.

Eventually, the two of us left the sharks to dry off, pull our clothes on over damp swimsuits, and head back inside. As we went, Shiori asked, “Do you think they’ll be okay? I mean, do you think they’ll start fighting as soon as you’re not in a certain radius?”

“You mean because they’re different species?” I asked as we passed a group of second years playing frisbee. When the other girl nodded, I shook my head. “I’m not sure how I know… but I know they won’t do that. I think… I think this power, whatever it is, it sort of… changes them? They’re a pack now. Or a frenzy, or a school… or a shiver, whatever, there’s lots of names for groups of sharks. They’re different species, but they’re also my shiver, my pack. So they’ll stay together, look after each other.”

Shiori was staring at me, eyes widened a bit. “Really? Holy carp, that’s cool. I mean, kind of terrifying in a way, but also really cool. Do you think they’ll recruit more sharks while they’re out there?”

My head shook again. “I’m pretty sure I have to actually be out there. This… shark summoning and taming power or whatever you call it has to do its thing while I’m there.” Reaching into my pocket then, I produced my extra-special little rock buddy. “And I didn’t forget about you! Thanks for watching over my stuff, Herbie.”

Glancing sideways toward her then, I added, “Speaking of awesome pets–” Giving the rock in my hand a guilty look, I amended, “–ahem, and partners, of course, did you manage to get out there to feed Choo?”

“Yup!” she chirped, grinning back at me. “I took a whole plate out there for him. You should’ve seen the little guy chow down. And he was a little lonely, so I played with him for a few minutes.”

Then she sobered, pausing a little. “Vanessa…” Biting her lip, Shiori hesitated before pushing on in a much quieter voice. “She’s… like me, isn’t she? I mean, not just like me, but she’s… you know…”

I nodded. “Tristan is, so she must be too. It explains the super memory, I guess. Though I don’t know if Tristan has anything like that. He didn’t say.. but it could be different for each offspring or something.”

She was quiet for a few seconds, clearly thinking about something before speaking up slowly. “Someone should probably talk to her.” Shifting on her feet, Shiori hesitated, glancing to me. “Right?”

“I think that’s what the headmistress is doing,” I pointed out. “At least, part of what she’s doing, anyway. But if you mean someone like her, yeah. It might help if someone else talked to both of them.”

Again, she paused. For a few long seconds, Shiori looked indecisive. Then her head bobbed once more. “I’ll do it. I’ll talk to them.” Offering me a little smile, she added, “Talking to you, before, it really helped me. And if I can help her the same way, just… let her know there’s others that are… like her and her brother, I think I should.”

Before I could say anything to that, a figure came running up out of the shadows, pointing at me. “Aha! There you are! I knew I’d find you!”

“Hey, Wyatt,” I gave him a little wave. “What’s up? Is everything okay?”

He coughed, straightening a little. “Ahem, ahh, I think you should come with me, Miss uhh, Chambers. There’s a few things about your record that we need to address.” His eyes glanced toward my companion.

“It’s okay, Wyatt,” I assured him before looking that way as well. “Shiori’s a… friend. She knows everything. You can talk in front of her.”

He blinked at that, squinting at the girl a little while looking her up and down. His voice was cautious. “Are you sure about that?”

Shiori, for her part, returned his uncertain look for a couple seconds before seeming to come to a decision. Her voice was quiet. “You can trust me, Mr. Rendell. I know you’re probably nervous about me knowing your secrets. I know I would be. So… “ Taking in a breath before letting it out, she met his gaze evenly, her voice very low, so quiet I could barely hear her. “My real mother is a vampire. So… now you know my secret too.”

Wyatt reeled backward at that, eyes widening as he looked from me to her and back again. When I nodded, he made a noise of confusion before returning his stare to the girl. Scanning her up and down, he managed a weak, “Well, do you… does that mean that you…” He opened his mouth as if showing off fangs and hissed a little. It looked kind of ridiculous and silly.

Shiori flushed hotly, head shaking incredibly fast. “No,” she blurted. “I don’t…drink blood or anything.”

“Well,” Wyatt straightened, looking her up and down. “In that case, Miss Porter, consider your secret safe. I will do everything I can to protect the friends of my… family.” As he said the last word, the man made this goofy, endearing grin that made me want to hug him.

Then he turned on his heel and started to walk away. “Come along then,” the man ordered in what was obviously his best approximation of a stern voice, clearly for the benefit of anyone that might notice him talking to us. “I need to have a nice long discussion with the two of you about appropriate use of school facilities.”

We looked at each other, shrugged, and trailed after him. The short, lanky man led us up across the grounds and into the main building. Guiding us through a confusing maze of turns down various corridors, we eventually reached a simple-looking, unlabeled wooden door. Taking a key out of his pocket, Wyatt tapped it against the side of the door three times in what looked like specific locations. Then he turned the knob and opened the door. Instead of going in, however, he immediately shut the door, tapped the key three more times in different locations. Then he opened it again and gestured for us to go in.

We did so, crossing the threshold to move into what turned out to be a tiny office whose space was mostly taken up by a large rickety desk. There were two simple folding chairs in front of it that took up all the room before the door, and a somewhat nicer chair on the other side. The desk itself was covered with papers and an ancient computer that looked like it belonged to the early 80’s. I couldn’t see any way for Wyatt to actually get to the other side of the desk without crawling under or over it.

“Oh,” the man spoke quickly. “Before you sit down, turn in a quick circle and say, ‘The mice are meesing out.’”

Shiori and I looked at each other before following his instructions. I felt silly, but I wasn’t going to question it at this point. For her part, my companion giggled at the meesing out part.

Finally, Wyatt shut the door behind himself before squeezing past us. He went right through the desk, passing through the solid object like he was a ghost before turning to collapse in his seat. Once there, the man waved eagerly to the folding chairs. “Sit, sit. Oh, you’re not in trouble, by the way. I just had to say that in case of spies.”

“I uh, I got that,” I confirmed before taking one of the chairs. “Are you okay, Wyatt? Nothing… umm, nothing happened, did it?”

His head shook rapidly. “No, no, nothing. I mean yes, but… but no, I just wanted to give you something. Or somethings.”

Before I could ask what he meant, the man leaned over in his chair, fishing around on the floor before coming up with a box about a foot across. It was covered in white wrapping paper with rocket ships on it. Plopping it down on the desk, he slid it to me. “Open it,” he requested, smiling eagerly.

“Oh, um, okay, sure.” Taking the present (it wasn’t very heavy), I carefully tugged the wrapping paper off. There was a cardboard box underneath, and when I opened that up, I found a little stuffed frog.

“What… aww.” Taking the toy out, I stared at it. The thing was adorable. It had this cute smile on its face and the bottom of its feet were yellow. “Wyatt, you… is… is this a late birthday present?”

“One of them,” he confirmed. When I blinked up at that while hugging the frog to my chest, he gestured. “Look at the card.”

There was indeed a card inside the box as well. Taking it out without letting go of the frog, I opened it up and read aloud. “Dear Felicity—hey that’s me. Dear Felicity, I hope you have a hopping good first birthday. Love, Wyatt. Wait… first… birthday?”

In answer, Wyatt reached down again, taking out a second box which he plopped down on the desk again while taking the first box away. “I missed them,” he announced. “That’s bad. So I’m making up for it.”

Slowly, I opened the box, reaching in to take out an enormous coloring book and large box of crayons. The card read, “Dear Felicity, happy… they say the two’s are terrible, but I bet yours are going to be colorful. Happy second birthday.”

“Oh my god.” Covering my mouth, I stared at the card, then up to the man. “Wyatt, did you…” I was blinking tears out of my eyes. “Did you get me a… a birthday present for every year that you missed?”

“We should hurry,” he urged with a quick nod. “There’s still fifteen more to get through, you know.”

“Wyatt, I… I…” Words failed me. I didn’t care anymore. Standing from the chair, I pushed the box aside and climbed onto the desk. Leaning over, I wrapped my arms around the man… my brother, as tight as I could.

Yeah, it looked silly. But you know what? At that point, I really didn’t care.

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Family Reunion 12-01

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“Right, well, you kids have fun,” Koren announced to Shiori and me as we stepped out onto the grounds a minute after our brief meeting with Wyatt. “I’ve got some… things to think about.”

Glancing at Shiori and then back to my niece (which was still weird), I spoke quickly. “I still need to know what you told Gaia about what you saw. I need to know what Ammon did in the lighthouse.”

Koren raised an eyebrow before shrugging at me. “Sure. Why not. Meet me around the back of there after lunch. Then I’ll tell you what I saw. And you can tell me all about my grandmother.” After giving Shiori a quick glance, she added, “And, preferably, let me know who else in this school already knew everything about my family before I–” She stopped in mid-sentence, letting out an audible breath. “Never mind, just… I’ll meet you behind the light house after lunch. Is that good enough for you?”

I nodded, and the other girl took off without another word. Which left Shiori and me alone, since the twins were spending some time with their dad, and the boys were sleeping, apparently. I suppose that’s what happened when they were up late working on Columbus’s super-special telescope thing before spending the rest of the night dealing with Ammon and the aftermath of all that. They needed a nap.

As for Avalon, she was… actually, I wasn’t entirely sure where Avalon was. The last I knew she was with her mother, but that had been awhile ago since I’d spent the past couple hours being interviewed by the actual investigators (rather than my interaction with Ruthers) about what had happened.

Strangely, it wasn’t Kine who spoke to me, but a couple other Runners who seemed much less… personable. They kept sending question after question at me, often before I had time to answer the previous one. And they backtracked, repeating the same questions in different ways or requesting seemingly irrelevant details like what color shirt Ammon was wearing. All different ways, I knew, of figuring out if someone was lying about their story. They were trying really hard to catch me in a lie.

But I kept my story straight, telling them everything I could about what happened. Afterward, Gaia said she would talk to them as well. When I left, she, the Runners, and Ruthers were all talking in her office.

Which meant that I really needed something to take my mind off what kind of discussion they were all having, especially since I hadn’t had a chance yet to talk to Gaia about what Ruthers had said (and what he knew). So spending a little time with Shiori felt just right. Even if I had no idea what we were doing.

“So would you mind telling me where we’re going?” I asked her as soon as I realized we weren’t heading toward any of the buildings. Actually, we were moving past everything. “Or is it a surprise?”

“Uh,” Shiori paused, thinking about it for a moment. “It’s kind of a surprise. But just um, trust me?”

I nodded easily, following after the girl as she led me across the rest of the grounds. After another few seconds, I blinked. “Wait, are we going to the beach? I thought you’d uh, want to stay away from the ocean for awhile. You know, after…” I trailed off uncertainly, thinking about what had happened earlier.

Shiori just shook her head at me. “It’s not the ocean’s fault. I think I’d be more likely to have a phobia of innocent-looking little boys, not the ocean. Besides,” she added then, “we’re not staying on the beach. We’re going to the jungle. I just want their security to think that we’re going down to the beach.”

She had a point. Still, I was confused. Why were we going to the jungle? “Better not let Wyatt find out,” I teased lightly. “He’ll think that I’m not going on that jungle tour with him tomorrow anymore.”

The other girl smiled sidelong at me, though it was a little nervous. “Don’t worry,” she promised. “We’re not going that far. They were only a couple hundred feet past the treeline when I left them.”

“Them?” I asked, as we stepped down onto the always gorgeous beach. But Shiori wouldn’t say anything else about it. Probably because there were about a dozen other students on the beach playing some big volleyball game or swimming out in the water. She remained silent as we walked past them.

Also mostly silent were the other students. Most of them were second years, though there were a few from my own grade mixed in. They all turned to stare as Shiori and I passed, stopping their game to watch and whisper to one another. I picked out a little bit of it, mostly centered around pointing out that I was the one the ‘intruder’ had been after, and that it wasn’t the first time something had happened.

I ignored it. What else could I do or say that wouldn’t just raise more questions? I just looked back at them, then turned away and kept walking. Maybe I should’ve said something, made a joke, or somehow eased their minds. My mother probably could have, knowing what I knew about her. But I had no idea what to say. I was better in smaller, confined and more personal groups. Being stared at and whispered about by people I didn’t really know made me uncomfortable. It reminded me of how people had acted when Mom disappeared. The crowds at school, even as young as I was, had been all but unbearable.

No one said anything directly to me, or stopped us, so we walked on down the beach. Shiori was silent until we had passed far out of their line of sight along the beach. Finally, however, she glanced toward me while biting her lip. After a few seconds of that, the girl asked, “How do you feel, Flick?”

“You mean about the fact that everyone obviously wants to know why some Stranger kid managed to infiltrate the school grounds and mind control a bunch of students for the sole purpose of attacking me?” When the other girl nodded, I let out a long, low sigh. “I dunno. I mean, obviously I wanna beat Ammon’s head in until it collapses for being a psychotic, evil little piece of shit. But other than that, I… I don’t know. Part of me just wants to tell everyone the truth. About Ammon, about Mom, about what the other Heretics did to her to end their little civil war and all the rest. Part of me wants to get all of it out in the open so there’s no more secrets. I mean, I know it’s a bad idea. Especially right now. But I still kind of just want to get all of that out in the open.” Coughing then, I added a little more quietly, “I’ve wanted to be an investigative reporter pretty much my whole life. Just like my dad. This whole keeping secrets from everyone thing, especially secrets that are this big, goes directly against that.”

Shiori flinched slightly at that, shaking her head a bit sadly. “I’m sorry, Flick,” she said quietly while moving her hand to take mine. “I guess I’m one of those secrets, huh? I mean, my whole… situation.”

I quickly interlaced our fingers while shaking my head. “Not like that. I don’t like keeping that secret because I don’t want anyone to think that you must be evil just because of who your mom is. You shouldn’t have to hide like that, and you shouldn’t have to be afraid of anyone finding out. It’s not fair.”

She didn’t say anything to that at first, remaining contemplatively silent for another few steps before finally speaking. “I’m just glad the people I care about know that I’m not evil. And,” she pointed out with a tiny smile, “I even got a new sister out of the deal. That’s—” Stopping in mid-sentence, she gasped. “Oh—oh crap, I should probably call her, huh? Senny, she should, um, know what happened.”

I nodded to that. “Yeah, she’ll probably kill both of us if we don’t let her know what’s going on. As soon as you show me what this big secret is, you can borrow the phone that Gaia gave me and call her.”

After giving a quick, grateful nod, Shiori pointed. “In here, it was right off from that boulder.” She gestured to a large, jagged rock sticking up out of the nearby water. It sort of looked like a tiger’s head.

The two of us left the beach after making sure we were alone. The treeline was thick with gnarled branches and fallen logs, with what looked like a man-made barrier of rocks in a sort-of wall that was clearly meant as a visible division between the safe beach and the more dangerous and wild jungle.

My first impression after stepping over the wall of stones and squeezing between an enormous tree and its fallen neighbor was that there had to be some kind of environment shield over the beach as well, because the jungle was even hotter. Not to mention the humidity. My shirt was almost immediately soaked through. It was almost like walking through the spray of a waterfall. And the sounds… I’d thought the jungle noises were loud before. Once we crossed that knee-high rock wall, the noises were unbelievable. There were insects, birds, monkeys, and every other possible creature (and no doubt impossible ones too) calling back and forth at one another. It was incredible. Everywhere I turned, there were more sounds. Creatures were warning each other about our presence, or alerting their pack to new prey. Or maybe just chatting (as much as animals did that sort of thing). The screams, squeals, and other noises reminded me of seeing movies with those crowded markets where everyone was shouting at each other.

It didn’t go on forever, but seemed to rise and fall now and then. As the two of us made our way quickly but carefully through what appeared to be a very narrow path, the jungle noises came and went, ebbing and flowing. They never really disappeared entirely, but I could definitely tell the difference between the ‘quiet’ times and the much louder ones. One of the main constants was the steady drone of insects.

Whatever Shiori wanted to show me may have been only a couple hundred feet or so away from the beach, but moving that far through the thick jungle foliage (while keeping an admittedly paranoid eye out for snakes either on the ground or hanging from branches because I am sometimes a ninny) made that seem like a much longer distance than it would have been over open ground. Shiori moved more easily than I did, seeming to instinctively know where to step. She flowed ahead like water, or, probably more accurately, some kind of native predator. I doubted she realized what she was doing.

I was just about to ask how much further we had to go when a figure stepped into view from around the tree in front of us. My eyes snapped from staring at the mossy ground for the ever-elusive snakes or other creepy crawly things, and what I saw made me do a quick double-take before blurting, “Avalon?”

My roommate was standing there, watching me briefly before her eyes moved to Shiori. “He’s awake.”

I blinked, confused as I looked back and forth between them. “He who? Wait, you mean Avalon was the one we were meeting? You guys talk to each other?” Somehow, that surprised me, and I blushed.

“Yes, Chambers,” Avalon spoke dryly, “Believe it or not, I am capable of having a conversation that you don’t actually witness.” She was mocking me, but I could see the amusement behind her eyes.

“I needed help with… the thing we’re about to show you, but you were busy with those investigators,” Shiori pointed out. “And Columbus was asleep. So I sort of went to Avalon instead. Actually, she helped a lot.” She gave the other girl a quick, grateful smile that just made me blush a little more.

Then, of course, I focused on the important part. “Okay, so what’s this thing that she helped you with?”

Again, the two of them exchanged brief glances. Then Avalon stepped aside while Shiori led me up and around the tree that the other girl had been waiting behind. I followed, unsure of what I was about to see. “What, did you make some kind of new friend that you can’t bring onto the school grounds?”

Before Shiori could answer, there was a high, tiny squealing noise that sounded an awful lot like a mouse or squirrel’s attempt at mimicking a threatening growl. Something shot out of the hollow at the base of the tree that we had just come around, before stopping in front of Shiori’s feet. The thing positioned itself between the two of us, bouncing on all four legs as it glared up at me and continued to make that adorable little squeaky growl that I belatedly realized was its attempt at being intimidating.

I stared down at the thing, my mouth opening and shutting while no actual words emerged. Inwardly, my Heretic sense was confirming that yes, this was indeed a Stranger. It wasn’t quite screaming at me or anything, but it was definitely making itself known.

Before I could find anything to actually say, Shiori had crouched to pick it up before straightening. The thing nestled in her hands, its growl turning briefly into a slight coo before it looked back at me and hissed. Tiny sparks of electricity came from the thing’s mouth, looking almost like someone testing a stun gun.

“That… that’s…” I stared a little more before managing to continue. “That’s one of those Jekern things.”

Shiori nodded, bringing her cupped hands up to whisper a little soothingly to the thing while it continued to glare at me and make those hissing noises. “Shh, it’s okay, Choo. She’s a friend. Friend.”

“Choo?” I echoed uncertainly, blinking from the tiny, adorable pig-thing to the girl holding him.

She looked briefly embarrassed, shifting her weight. “Well, yeah. See, his name is Porkachu. That’s what I started calling him, anyway. But then I figured that calling him ‘Pork’ might be a bad idea, cuz… well, yeah. So I’ve been abbreviating it to Choo. It’s shorter, and he eats like… a lot, so it fits that way because he’s always, you know, chewing. Plus there’s the way he–” In mid-sentence, the little guy jerked his head back and then forward, giving a loud sneeze that sent sparks of electricity spraying out everywhere. “–sneezes. See? So he’s Choo.”

Choo, for his part, shifted on his little legs while staring at me. The reassuring noises that Shiori was making (I wasn’t sure if he understood her words or not) at least seemed to calm him down, but he still looked a bit wary. At least until Avalon lifted her own hand with some kind of food crumbled up in her palm. The tiny electric-pig thing leaned in to sniff briefly before happily eating out of her hand.

“Something on your mind, Chambers?” Avalon asked, her voice flat as she watched my reaction.

“You um,” I coughed a little. “I just didn’t expect you to get along with something like him so quick.”

She didn’t respond at first, staying quiet while Choo continued happily eating out of her hand. Finally, the girl spoke in a soft voice that was different from her normal tone. “We kept animals at Garden, what they call ‘acceptable Strangers.’ Basically it’s just magical animals that they can use in some way to help the cause or get something out of them. They’re slaves, basically. But I…” She bit her lip visibly before going on. Her voice was a murmur that made me unsure of whether the girl even realized that she was still talking out loud. “There was this little Peryton fawn that I helped raise. His name was… I mean, is Salten. Seller promised he’d take care of him when I had to leave, but…” she paused before shrugging, looking uncomfortable. But she still didn’t move her hand away from the tiny piglet.

“What’s a Peryton?” I asked after a moment, when it was clear that she’d stopped talking.

Avalon glanced up at me briefly before answering. “Sort of like a Pegasus only with a deer instead of a horse. When it’s grown up, it looks like a stag with the wings and plumage of a bird.”

“You had a… a deer Pegasus?” I stared at the other girl in awe for a moment. “That’s… oh my god, that’s–”

“Don’t say it, Chambers,” Avalon warned.

“That is so-”

“Do not even think about it.”

“–freaking adorable!” I all-but squealed, moving to grab my roommate by the arms. “Did you get to fly on it? Did you? Did you? Did you?”

Oh wow, Avalon was actually blushing by that point. She looked at me, lifting her chin while I held onto her arms. The two of us stood there like that for a long few seconds, staring at each other. “Chambers,” she finally said quietly while raising an eyebrow. “First, yes. Second, breathe.”

Exhaling sharply and then inhaling at the reminder, I felt my own blush rise before focusing on the situation at hand, turning my attention to Shiori while somewhat reluctantly letting go of Avalon. “And you have a pet electric-pig thing.”

He sneezed at me, sending sparks into the air.

“Choo,” she confirmed with a little giggle. Then she looked guilty. “I couldn’t kill him. We killed all the other ones, but he was hiding and he was just… scared. He was terrified, Flick. I couldn’t kill him. And I couldn’t let anyone else do it either. I just… I couldn’t.”

“Don’t worry, Porter,” Avalon interrupted before I could speak. “Like I said before, we’ll keep your little pet safe.”

Shiori’s eyes turned to me then, and I didn’t hesitate. “Of course we will.” Reaching my hand out very slowly, I let the little guy sniff them curiously. Once I was sure he was calm enough, I reached into my pocket and produced my own little friend.

“Choo, meet Herbie,” I introduced the two with a smile. “Don’t worry, Choo. He’s the strong and silent type, but I’m sure you guys’ll get along just fine.”

The girl gave a beaming smile then that made my heart flip itself over a few times. “Thanks, you guys, for, you know, keeping it secret. And for helping. I know it’s dumb, I just… I needed to protect him.”

Avalon’s voice was quiet. “He didn’t do anything wrong. He was scared and innocent and you saved him. You’re talking about protecting the helpless, Porter. Which, I’m pretty sure, once you strip past all the bullshit that’s built up over the years, is what we’re supposed to be doing here. Protecting the innocent.

“Anyone who says anything against that… fuck them.”

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