Lincoln Chambers

Desperate Times 36-01

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“Who is he?!”

The sound of my own hard, furious, frankly wild voice was punctuated by the loud crack of the large tree reacting to the body being violently shoved up against it. I had Theia by the arms, having literally lifted the other girl off the ground before slamming her against the tree in my anger. I heard someone calling my name, but I wasn’t sure who. And quite frankly, I didn’t care. My only focus was on the girl in front of me, the girl who knew exactly what I needed to know.

“No more games!” I blurted while still holding her like that. “No more playing around, no more deals, no more tricks! Who is he?! He has Avalon, damn it! He has Avalon, so tell me who he is. Tell us who he’s possessing, so we can get to him before he kills her! God damn it, who is–”

A hand fell on my shoulder then, squeezing gently as Professor Dare spoke quietly from beside me. “Let her go, Felicity,” she urged while giving me a firm tug backward. “I know how you feel. Believe me, I do. But she can’t say anything if you keep slamming her against the tree.”

She’s right, Flick. Tabbris, back in my head after recalling to me basically the second after I had last screamed Manakel’s name, urged. She can’t tell us anything if we keep hurting her.

Dare could have made me stop very easily, of course. Probably about a hundred different ways, actually. To say nothing of what Tabbris could have done from inside my head. But neither of them did anything that drastic. In Professor Dare’s case, she simply pulled me by the shoulder while speaking softly, and I let the other girl go. Stepping back, I gave a quick glance around while Theia collected herself. We had company besides just Dare here at the edge of the Atherby camp. Abigail was there, along with Koren, Deveron, Gabriel, and a couple of his people. Sariel and my dad were together with Vanessa and Tristan, a bit off to the opposite side, while Columbus, Scout, Shiori, and Sean stood in a small group somewhere in the middle. I could even see others watching from off in the distance, their curiosity clearly piqued.

Gaia and Wyatt were back at Crossroads, in the exact spot where Avalon–or rather, the temporary duplicate of Avalon, had disappeared. Apparently Professor Kohaku was there too, as the head of Security. The three of them were looking for any hints or clues, any magical trace that might lead to Manakel. But I doubted they’d find anything. Our best lead was right here, where Gaia had taken the others and me an instant after she had shown up, which itself had been barely a second after the rest of my friends had come running up.

I had briefly, tearfully, explained what happened to the others. Then I had seen her: Theia. A red haze had settled over my vision, and the next thing I’d known, she had been against the tree with my hands clutching onto her arms while I shouted the demand for information into her face.

So they were all watching as I took a slow step back, tightening my hands into fast while I stared at the girl in front of me. “Who is he?” I demanded, my voice as hard as I could make it. “Who is he possessing? Tell us now. If you actually give a shit at all, if you’re not just faking all of this, tell us now. He has Avalon, goddammit. He has her. He’s going to kill her as soon as he can, as soon as the spell protecting her runs out. So tell us who he is.Tell us so we can save her!”

She has to t-tell us, right? I could hear the fear and worry in Tabbris’s mental-voice. She won’t really make us wait until we figure out how to fix her? That could take… that could take too long.

Swallowing hard, I breathed in and out, trying to collect myself. We won’t let it happen, I promised my partner, my sister. We’ll find her. I swear. We will find her. I don’t care what we have to do. We will get her away from that evil piece of shit. Somehow.

Tabbris was good enough not to point out the doubt and fear that had taken over my mind. Doubt and fear that she wouldn’t even have had to be in my head to hear in my words.

Shiori moved up inside me, joined quickly by her brother, Scout, and Sean. Even Vulcan came closer. All of them were watching Theia as well, though it was the Asian girl who spoke. “I know we already made a deal with you,” she pleaded with the Seosten. “But this is different. Avalon is going to die. She is going to die if you don’t help us. Please, you have to tell us something.”

Abigail was there then. She stepped almost directly between Theia and me, her expression pained. “Theia,” she started slowly while looking toward the girl in question, “they’re right. Avalon is in very deep trouble. If there’s anything, anything at all that you can–”

“Stop.” The Seosten was shaking her head. “Stop, you don’t have to say it. All of you are saying words that Pace-I am already saying. It’s distracting, it hurts. It hurts different from being hit. It still hurts. Theia-I know pain, but it’s different. Theia-I don’t like it. Please stop saying it.”

It was Scout who realized what she meant first. From beside me, the girl announced, “Guilt.” She straightened, brushing a bit of hair from her face as she continued. “You feel guilty.”

“Guilt,” Theia echoed. “Guilty. Pain. Pain in here.” Her hand found her stomach (Pace’s stomach, whatever) while she shook her head. “Theia-I don’t like it. Really don’t like it.”

“You don’t like it?” That was Columbus. The boy’s voice was hard, and it looked like he was about to say something else, but caught himself just in time. Whatever he had been about to say, it probably wouldn’t have helped the situation. And I knew exactly how that felt, because I was really tempted to say, or scream, a few things that wouldn’t have helped at all either.

Sean was there, moving beside his roommate and friend to put a hand on his arm. He leaned in to whisper something to him that I didn’t catch. Hopefully it would help the other boy somehow.

Professor Dare was the one who found her voice next. “Theia,” she started slowly, “I… understand a bit of what you’ve been through. I know what kind of life you’ve had, even if I don’t know the specifics. I know that you have no reason to trust what anyone says. But I promise you, we will not go back on our promise just because you give us what we need right now. Tell us what we need to know to save Avalon, please. We will still do absolutely everything possible to help separate you from Pace safely. I give you my word, Theia. Please, help us.”

Through all of that, Theia just stood there with her hand against her stomach. Her head was down, as she slowly shook it back and forth while visibly trembling. Whatever else I might have thought about the girl in my anger at the whole situation, I could believe that she did indeed feel guilty. She might not have understood what it meant or how to handle it, but she definitely felt it.

I’m sorry, Flick. Speaking guilt and pain, there was a lot of it in Tabbris’ voice. I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have left. I shouldn’t have–

Stop, I quickly interrupted. You couldn’t have done anything, Tabs. Believe me, it was too late even before I got there. You didn’t do anything wrong. Don’t you dare put that on yourself. Put it where it belongs: on Manakel. He is the piece of shit that we need to stop.

“Okay.” The voice was small, and quiet to the point of barely being audible. Theia had slumped a little in front of us, her shoulders and head down. “Okay,” she repeated, “We will tell you what we can.”

Even as my own eyes widened at that, Abigail snapped her gaze that way, blurting, “You will?”

The girl was nodding slowly. “Yes,” she answered softly. “Pace-I says… says that it is the right thing to do. Theia-I am… am scared. Theia-I do not believe that you will help us if you are not properly motivated, if we do not have anything to offer. But…. but Avalon is in danger. Manakel will kill her, and Pace-I…” She paused briefly before correcting herself. “We do not want that to happen. So y-yes. We will tell you what we know. We will tell you who Manakel is possessing.”

Oh God. It was going to happen. After everything that had happened that year, everything that we had been through, we would finally find out exactly who Manakel was. He had gone too far that time. He took Avalon, and that had finally pushed Pace into convincing Theia to talk.

“Who?” I pressed, my voice jumping an octave despite myself. “Who is that son of a bitch?”

And then Theia said the words that made my heart instantly drop into my stomach. The worst words she probably could have said in that very moment.

“I just told you.”

There was no confusion, no uncertainty. Only heart-wrenching anger and frustration. Because I immediately knew what that meant. “No,” I murmured, my head shaking back and forth in pointless denial. “No, no, no. You can’t–they can’t–no! No, damn it! You can’t have the memory spell on you! Wasn’t that the whole point of them trying to kill you to make sure you didn’t talk?! What–what–no, say it! Say it again!”

She tried. For ten minutes, the Seosten girl tried to tell us what she knew. She tried to write it down, she tried to hint about it, she tried everything. Everything. But it didn’t help. She couldn’t say or do anything that would lead us to know who Manakel was possessing.

Even Sariel tried. Putting her hand against the girl’s head, she focused for awhile before sighing. “Normally,” she informed me, “You would be correct. It takes very powerful magic to enact this kind of spell on an unwilling target that is not even present. But it seems that Manakel has managed to convince his superior… probably Metatron, to grant him the resources necessary for that. I may be able to break it, but it will take time. Weeks, probably.”

“That’s too long,” I blurted, my voice rising dramatically despite every attempt I made to control it. “That’s too fucking long. It’s–” Turning, I lashed out with a punch that put my first all the way through the same nearby tree that I had shoved Theia into before. “–too fucking long!”

Spinning back the other way then, the words came from my mouth before I could stop them. “If you just hadn’t played games before, this wouldn’t have happened!” I shouted at Theia. “If you had just told us what you knew! If you’d just helped us before they had a chance to put this on you, we’d be done with this already! Avalon might die because you had to hold back instead of telling us!” My loud, panicked voice was growing more hysterical. “Avalon might die because–”

Hands grabbed me, turning me around away from the Seosten girl then. It was my dad. He wrapped both of his arms around me, holding tight as he shook his head. “Easy, easy,” he urged while pulling me close to him.

I quickly grabbed on tight rather than following my first instinct to pull away. Burying my face against his chest, I felt my shoulders shake as tears flooded my eyes. If Avalon died. If Valley was–was killed after everything we’d been through, just because Theia hadn’t told us about who Manakel was while she’d had the chance… The anger, fear, terror, grief, and helplessness all warred around with each other inside me, and I simply held onto my father even more tightly.

“Daddy,” I whispered, my voice soft and fearful as I pleaded, “I can’t let her die. Please, please, I can’t lose Valley. It’s not fair. It’s not fair. I can’t let her die. We have to do something. We have to do something.”

I had no idea what kind of fear and helplessness my father was feeling in that moment as he held onto me, but it had to be something similar to what I felt at the thought that I could do nothing to actually save Avalon. I was helpless. Theia had been our best shot, except–

“The pixie,” I blurted, pulling back a bit while turning to the others. “The pixie that Tristan told us about. She was supposed to know something, right? Could she–would she…”

“She might be able to say something, considering they would know much less about her than they know about Theia,” Sariel confirmed hesitantly. “Any protective spell would be far less effective in that case.”

“She’s not awake yet,” Dare informed us with a visible wince. “She is still healing, recovering from her escape. Staying away from Avalon’s father and the other vampires while they were chasing her took a lot out of her. Too much. It’ll be… awhile before she can talk to us.”

“Damn it!” Putting both hands to my forehead, I cursed again before lamenting, “It’s always something. There’s always something stopping us from finding out the truth. One thing after another.”

Jophiel, I announced inwardly. Maybe we can get what we need from her, from them. They want our help, our cooperation? Well they’re not gonna get it if Avalon dies. Fuck them. Fuck them. They want us to work with them? They can’t let Avalon die. Damn it, damn it!

I felt Tabbris’ agreement. Y-yeah, we won’t cooperate unless they help with Avalon. Th-they have to help, right? They helped us save Mama, even if… even if they made us make a deal with them first. We… they-they’ll have to help find her… won’t they?

Before I could respond to that, Theia spoke up once more. “Wait,” she murmured. “Maybe we can help and be useful. Maybe we can still tell other things. Not direct identity things.”

I looked that way, my mouth opening. But it was Koren who spoke first. “You mean, you might be able to tell us things that eventually lead to Manakel, in a roundabout way. Clues.”

Theia was nodding. “Clues, yes. Like… where his secret hidey holes are and how to get to them. He might have left clues there about who his dancing puppet is, or other things.”

So, she did. With surprising speed and conciseness, the girl told us how to find three separate ‘islands’ that were apparently secretly connected to Crossroads, yet only accessible through specific spells. There were apparently even more than that, but those were the three that she knew about. Apparently, Manakel had supplies in all of them. And probably troops too. They would likely be guarded.

With a hell of a lot of luck, he would be holding Avalon in one of them too. But I wasn’t nearly naive enough to think that he would be that stupid. Not now. He knew that we might be able to get information out of Theia (or Lies, as he still obviously thought of her as), so keeping Valley in one of the hidden locations that the Seosten girl actually knew about would have been beyond idiotic.

But still, I could hope that there would be some hint or clue in one of those places that we could check out, which would actually lead to Avalon. Please. Please, whatever deity might be out there. Please let it lead us to Avalon.

“Three places,” Professor Dare was murmuring. “If there is anything to find, he’ll get rid of it the second he finds out that we’re looking in them.”

“So we need to check all of them at once.” That was Deveron. He had come forward, pointedly staying away from Sariel and keeping his gaze off her. “That means splitting up.”

Dare nodded in agreement with that. “Three groups to check three areas. I’ll take one group.”

Deveron immediately announced, “I’ll take another.”

Finally, Sariel opened her mouth. But she was interrupted by Gabriel Prosser, who stepped up. “And I,” he put in, “will take the third.” Casting a glance toward the woman he had interrupted, Gabriel added, “If you would be kind enough to accompany me, I would very much appreciate your help.”

“Right,” I spoke then. “So we go in three groups, tear these places apart, and look for anything that might hint at where Manakel is, who he’s possessing, or anything else that could be helpful.”

It was a good thing that I had that Amarok-stamina. Because it had been a very long fucking day. Just when I had thought that everything had settled down and I was back at Crossroads for the time being (or at least for the night), this had happened. Now we were going out to search these places, and I still hadn’t had any actual sleep.

Yeah, I was, yet again, grateful for that enhanced stamina. Not that it would have mattered. I couldn’t have slept at this point even without it. The thought of Avalon being out there, being… I shoved the thought of the other girl being hurt, or worse, out of my mind. Or tried to. Right now, I had to focus on what we could do. And that meant searching these secret islands for any information that had been forgotten and left behind.

Hold on, Valley, I thought desperately, trying not to let my worry and fear totally overwhelm me. We’re coming, I promise.

We are coming for you. I swear to God. We are coming for you. We’ll be there. We’ll find you. Somehow, we’ll find you.

Just hold on.

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Interlude 35 – Gaia, Sariel, Lincoln, and Tabbris

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“This place is incredible.”

The voice of Lincoln Chambers, subdued through awe and reverence, echoed a little bit throughout the cavern that he now stood within alongside Headmistress Gaia Sinclaire and the Seosten known as Sariel Moon and her daughter, Tabbris. The cave-like chamber itself seemed to be made of a combination of polished white marble and silver-gold crystal, with a few veins of violet ore of some kind mixed throughout. The few stalactites and stalagmites strewn here and there were mostly the same purple color, though there were a few white and gold ones mixed in.

The chamber was about twice the size of the Seosten transport that sat directly in the middle of it, right where Gaia had sent the thing so that it wouldn’t be found by the Crossroads Committee.

Sariel was nodding. “It is very beautiful,” she announced quietly, while holding her daughter.

For her part, Tabbris gazed around in obvious awe. “What is this place?” she asked in a somewhat trembling voice, as if she was afraid of speaking too loudly and disturbing the atmosphere.

Gaia offered a small smile, that clearly had some pain hidden behind it. Pain and regret. “It was created to be a sanctuary. A place to rest, reflect… and plan. It will work well for this. It is safe.”

Lincoln watched her for a moment, before clearing his throat. “So,” he began, “how do we do this? How do we figure out who to let out and how?” Pausing, he added, “And for that matter, why am I even here? I’m pretty sure you could all do this yourselves without my help.”

Chuckling, Gaia bowed her head in acknowledgment. “Perhaps, but you should not sell yourself short. You are a very intelligent and perceptive man. And you are quite good at analyzing information. Better than many that I have worked with. There is no mystery as to why Joselyn would be attracted to you, Mr. Chambers. So we will be quite grateful for your assistance.”

Tabbris nodded her head quickly up and down. “Yeah, Mis— umm mist… I mean, umm… D-Dad.” Saying the word made the girl blush subconsciously, squirming on her feet before she found her resolve and met his gaze with another firm nod. “You’re really good at this.”

The sheer joy that Sariel clearly felt at her daughter actually finding someone to call her father, someone who accepted the title, was written across her face as she gave the little girl a nudge forward.

Tabbris quickly stepped that way, embracing the man tightly. It was a hug that Lincoln easily returned, his own smile broad as he stooped to pick her up. “Alright then,” he announced, “I guess the rest of the question remains, though. What are we supposed to do now? I mean, I assume we can’t just release all of them at once? They might be war prisoners, but we should still have an idea of which ones should be sent somewhere else and which ones might make for good allies.” It never entered his mind that any of them would be kept on ice indefinitely.  

Sariel started toward the transport then, before Lincoln raised a hand to stop her. “Actually,” the man started while setting Tabbris down for a moment, “could I… talk to you for a minute?” He gestured over toward the corner of the chamber where they might have a little privacy. Not that it mattered in Gaia’s case, as they could have been miles away and she could have heard them if she was of a mind to. But still. Habits were hard to break.

Biting her lip, the woman gave a slight nod, brushing her daughter’s hair before whispering for her to stay with Gaia. Then she walked over to the corner with the man.

Once they were far enough away, Lincoln turned to her. “First, I just want to thank you, again. If you hadn’t sent Tabbris to us, to my daughter, Flick would be a Seosten slave right now. You…” he swallowed hard. “You saved her from that. So thank you, so much. I can’t… I can’t tell you what it means to me that you made sure that I had my little girl, and that she was really my little girl.” His voice cracked just a little bit, and the man blinked away stubborn tears. “Thank you.”

Cringing a little at his gratitude, Sariel shook her head slightly. “I could not…” She choked, catching herself. “I could not let another of Joselyn’s children be taken. Not after–” Her eyes closed and she gave a brief shudder. “Not after what I was already responsible for.”

“Yeah…” Lincoln replied quietly, “that’s sort of the other thing I wanted to talk about, before we got too involved with all this other stuff. You need to do something for me.”

“Do something?” Sariel slowly looked up once more, frowning slightly. “There’s nothing I could do to make up for what happened, for what I helped bring to pass.”

“Make up for it?” Lincoln paused before shaking his head. “That’s not really something I can say, one way or another. It’s not up to me. But that’s not what I mean, anyway. I’m not talking about making up for it. I’m talking about moving on. I’m talking about being a better person now than you were before. And being a better person means being a healthier person.

“You,” he announced then, meeting her gaze, “need to talk to someone. I don’t know how the Seosten feel about therapy and all that, but believe me, as someone who thought his wife abandoned him and their daughter for a decade, it helps. It really helps.”

Sariel was staring at the man. “Therapy? I… I’m not–I don’t–”

“Yes, you are,” Lincoln interrupted. “And yes, you do. I know it might not feel like it. You might not feel like you’re worth the time and effort. But you are. And even if you don’t think so, you have a husband and three children who need you. This–everything you’ve been through, all that guilt you’ve been dragging around with you… you need to talk to someone about it.

“So promise me that you’ll go with me to talk to Gabriel, and let us find someone you can talk to, someone who actually has some idea of how to deal with this. If I know that man at all, I am absolutely positive that he’ll have someone in mind. Former Crossroads Heretics might not have all the same guilt that you do, but they’ll definitely have regrets about things they did in the past. Regrets that they’ll have needed to talk to someone about. That’s what I need from you. Before we go on with this, you promise that you’ll let him find you someone to at least try to help with everything you’re feeling.”

“I…” Sariel thought of her children, her beautiful, wonderful children. And she thought of Haiden. Slowly, the woman bowed her head in a nod. “Yes,” she agreed faintly. “I will… speak with someone.”

With that agreement made, the two of them returned to where Gaia was. Lincoln picked up Tabbris once more, before exchanging a brief look with the headmistress. For her part, Gaia simply smiled and gave him a slight nod of agreement with his actions.

By that point, Sariel was already walking up to the transport, ascending the ramp as it opened for her at a silent command from Gaia. “There is a prisoner manifest in the computer,” she announced. “It will tell us everything we need to know about the people inside and how safe it will be to release them.” Though her words were clinical, there was emotion in her voice at the thought of being able to free and interact with other people of her own species. People who, if they had been imprisoned by Kushiel, might actually feel the same way about Seosten methods as she did.

Gaia and Lincoln followed the woman up onto the transport. By that point, she had already moved back to the console at the rear. Her fingers danced over the controls, until a glowing holographic record sprang up in front of them. “Okay,” she announced then, “here it is.”

Shifting Tabbris a bit in his arms, Lincoln asked, “Actually, here’s a thought. How do we know we can trust what the computer says about them? I mean, if I was Kushiel, and thank God I’m not, I’d put fake information into that thing. Or just mix their data around. It’d make it harder to keep track of them, and much harder for someone to do… exactly what we’re doing right now.”  

“If it was just Kushiel, yes,” Sariel quietly confirmed. “But she had superiors to report to. Superiors who would have wanted to know where very specific prisoners were at any given time. She was sent war criminals and dissenters from all over the multiverse, and the people in charge of those prisoners could have, at any point, demanded an update on their progress.”

She glanced back to him then, her voice even quieter. “Plus, she needed to keep track of which treatments worked for which prisoners. She wanted to solve our pregnancy problems. Hard to do that if you keep mixing up who each prisoner is and what treatments they’re getting.”

Grimacing a little at that, Lincoln nodded. “Fair point. But it brings up another question.” His mouth opened again, before stopping as the man hesitated. His eyes glanced toward the girl in his arms as he tried to decide how to delicately ask what he needed to know.

“Are you pregnant, Mama?” Tabbris immediately asked for him. “That’s what Mi–D… Dad wants to know. Right?” She added the last bit with a curious glance toward the man.

Coughing, Lincoln nodded. “Err, yeah. Basically. If they were keeping you all pregnant, are you right now? Should we be making you sit down and take it easy? Actually, how many of the other prisoners here are currently, ah, expecting? Are we about to have a few Seosten babies too?”

For a moment, Sariel didn’t answer. She glanced away, her gaze on the floor as she took a deep breath before looking back to them. “No,” the woman replied quietly, her voice barely audible. “Very few of us are pregnant now. In preparation for the trip, Kushiel did not… our pregnancies were not restored after each of our most recent losses. Any that still are were simply those who happened to be actively pregnant earlier than the past couple of months and still maintained them.”

Lincoln was staring at her. “You mean… you mean you could all have been pregnant two months ago, and the ones who managed to keep the pregnancy longer than that is just a handful?” The horror in his voice was audible, and he clutched Tabbris to himself a little tighter.

Sariel’s voice was flat. “There is a reason that the Seosten are in the middle of population crisis, despite all of our technology and magic. No matter what we do, our developing children have a good chance of recalling to their closest genetic match and disappearing. Even cloning has been a failure, for the same reason. Birthing our children in artificial wombs does not stop them from recalling to their genetic parent. And as you have seen, it is very difficult to prevent that recall from happening in the best of cases. To stop a child from recalling to their parent is impossible. Hence all of our problems, and Kushiel’s decision to combat the population crisis through sheer numbers, impregnating other Seosten over and over again, constantly, for years.”

Horrified by that announcement, Lincoln opened and shut his mouth a couple times as he fought for something, anything to say to that. Then he stepped over, extending Tabbris, who opened her arms as Sariel accepted her. For a moment, mother and daughter simply stood there, together. Sariel’s eyes closed and she made a contented sound while her child clung to her.

Finally letting out a long breath as she opened her eyes, the Seosten woman gave a slight nod. “In any case, we need to know who is here, who we can trust enough to release now and work with. I’m afraid that… after everything that most of them have been through, it will be some time before they are able to help as much as you might hope for.”

Gaia interrupted then before the woman could continue with that thought. “Gabriel has already said that is people are prepared to take care of as many Seosten as can be safely released,” she promised. “He understands, as do his people, that all of you will need time to adjust.” She stressed the point of including Sariel in that, making it clear that she knew quite well that the woman wasn’t nearly as well as she had been trying to make herself seem through all of this.

Clearly flushing a little at that, Sariel turned back to the holographic display, setting Tabbris down in front of herself. “Here,” she announced softly, while touching one of the controls. As she did so, a light appeared over one of the nearby stasis pods, and the hologram in front of her switched to a long display of text. Clearly the record of the person within that particular pod.

“Her name,” Sariel began then while reading from the display, “is Larees of the Tleken Choir. She was arrested fifteen years ago for assaulting a superior officer on the planet of Divinstre, in defiance of orders to raze a city that had fallen into the control of local rebels. She spent seven years in a military brig, before being transferred to Kushiel’s care, where she’s been ever since. Fifty-seven attempted pregnancies in that time, six successes.”

Lincoln did a quick doubletake at that, mouth dropping open. His voice was choked. “Fif-fifty-seven… they impregnated her fifty-seven times in eight years and only six were carried all the way to birth?” If the man had been horrified before, this particular news almost destroyed him.

Sariel’s own voice cracked a little bit, despite her obvious attempt to keep herself calm and measured. “I… I’m afraid to say that is fairly average, though maybe slightly on the low end of successes. My own… stay with Kushiel was interrupted. After I rendered Larissa immune to possession in the wake of the Fomorian attack on her boat, I was transferred to Manakel’s custody and… care as he attempted to determine precisely how I had… done so.” The recollection of her time there made the blonde woman flinch a little bit, before she swallowed hard, clearly repressing it. “I… I spent several years there before being sent back to Kushiel to resume my previous imprisonment when Manakel was transferred to Earth to engage with his new mission.”

“Actually,” Lincoln began slowly then, “that’s a good question. How did you do that? I mean, if it’s something the rest of the Seosten can’t figure out, what the hell did you actually do? You said that it doesn’t depend on you not using your possession power on anyone else, right?”

Biting her lip then, the woman carefully replied, “It was mostly an accident, when it happened. The Fomorian would have killed Larissa, and I could not let that happen. So I yanked her back with me, through Seosten space. But it was a very long trip, and I… I could not hold onto her throughout it. I tried. I tried very hard to keep hold of her, but it was impossible. Yet… as I… well, mentally clung to her, something happened. My… my mental doppleganger, the one that I had created within my little girl, to teach and take care of her while she was too young to care for herself… there was a sort-of… echo or copy of it within my own head. Seosten memories are perfect, so everything that I put into my baby’s mind was still there in my own. And as I struggled to keep myself as attached as possible to Larissa, that echo was… deposited in my place. Essentially, I did the same thing to Larissa as I had done to Tabbris: I put a virtual, memory-based duplicate of myself in her mind.

“It was meant for Tabbris, of course. So the echo never… never fully awakened. It was never called on to teach or raise her, because it was in Larissa’s mind instead. As I realized what was happening, that I was pushing the virtual copy of myself into her mind, I gave it one instruction: to use a small portion of Larissa’s own magic whenever a Seosten attempts to possess her, to push itself into their mind just long enough to stop the possession. It happens over the course of nanoseconds. When a possession is attempted, my mental duplicate empowers itself with Larissa’s own magic, pushes itself into the attempted possessor’s mind, and commands them to stop trying to possess her. Mental magic.”

For a moment after that explanation, Lincoln just stared at her. “The weird part is,” he slowly announced, “I think I mostly understood that. I mean, it sounds like you got really lucky.”

“I did,” Sariel confirmed. “We all did. I did not expect that to happen, and as I said before, it required a lot to fall into place. I would have to create another new echo of my mind every time I wanted to do something like that, and I would have to have spent enough time possessing the person in question to actually know their body and their magic well enough to allow my echo to use it in that manner.”

“Indeed,” Gaia started then, “it was very lucky for everyone involved, particularly Mrs. Mason, that you were able to do that, even by accident. But for now, since that particular curiosity has been sated, I believe that we should return to our–”

In mid-sentence, the red-haired woman abruptly stopped short. Her gaze snapped up and to the side, mouth falling open as she blurted, “Oh no. No, no. Something is wrong.”

“Wrong?” Lincoln blinked at that, staring in confusion at the woman. “What happened? What do you mean? Is Felicity alright? What–”

At those words, Tabbris scrunched up her nose, clearly focusing on her own connection with the girl. As she did so, a horrified sound escaped her before she blurted, “Avalon! Manakel has Avalon!”

With that, the girl vanished. Whether it was a conscious or subconscious act on her part, she had instantly recalled to Flick, leaving the adults alone in that chamber to stare at each other.

Lincoln caught the Crossroads headmistress by the arm then. “What does that mean?” he asked quickly. “What happened?” he demanded.

Gaia, far from the powerful and untouched woman she normally appeared to be, looked as though she had been struck. Her voice cracked with emotion and fear that seemed foreign to the way she typically held herself. The very thought of losing the girl that she had adopted as her own tore through every last bit of emotional armor the woman had developed over her long life. “It means,” she began almost brokenly, “that we have to find her. We have to find her before the protection spell runs out.

“Because if we can’t… if we don’t… there will be nothing left to save her from Manakel.

“And she will die.”

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Homecoming 35-06

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For a few long, agonizing seconds, no one said anything. I was pretty sure most of us weren’t even breathing. A pin could have dropped and I was pretty sure that even those of us without enhanced hearing would have noticed.

It was Deveron who finally made the first move. But he still didn’t say anything. Instead, he straightened up a bit, opened his mouth as if he was going to speak, but stopped. His face twisted, and I saw anger there. I saw rage. The kind of rage that had been building for half a century. His hands closed into fists, and I saw that pitch black obsidian armor extend over them. It didn’t cover his face, however. His face continued to show that anger.

He took one step. One step forward. I wasn’t sure what he was planning to do. He probably wasn’t planning anything. But he took the step. Then I was there. I put myself in his way. I saw his mouth open, then he stopped. For almost ten full, long seconds, the two of us stood in silence.

Or at least, we stood in outward silence. There was a hell of a lot of silent communication going on between us. He was angry, and he had every right to be. But he couldn’t take that anger out on Sariel, no matter how at fault she had been. She had already paid enough for her sins.

Through those long seconds, neither of us spoke. And neither did anyone else. Heavy silence prevailed as he stared at me, and I stared right back at him.

And then he walked away. Literally, turning on his heel, Deveron walked away. I could tell that each step was an effort for him. His children had been taken from him. That had led to his wife being taken from him. Even if Sariel hadn’t meant for it to happen, that probably didn’t matter so much to him right in that particular second.

But it mattered enough for him to walk away. That was probably the only reason that he walked away. That was the only thing that stopped him from literally flying into a blind rage and throwing himself at the woman, whether I was there or not. And even then, I was pretty sure that it took everything he had, all of his willpower, just to keep walking.

Abigail and Wyatt hesitated. The two of them glanced to one another, and then looked back to Sariel. Lots of emotions crossed both of their faces, mostly Wyatt’s. Sariel, accidentally or not, had been at least partially responsible for the way he had been raised. The things that he had gone through, the pain of his childhood and all that had led to his incredible level of paranoia was partially the fault of the woman in front of him.

Abigail, meanwhile, had led a more normal and less terrible life. She had at least been given to a nice family in the regular, Bystander world. But even then, it meant that she had never known her real parents. The person she might have been, the family that she might’ve had, was taken away. And again, it had been, to at least some small extent, the fault of Sariel Moon.

Then, also without speaking, the two of them turned and moved to follow their father. They walked away, just like he had.

Theia looked torn, as if she almost kept saying something and then stopping. I somehow had the feeling that Pace was actually talking her out of speaking up. Strangely enough, it was actually that moment, the realization that she was actually listening at least somewhat to the girl that she had possessed, that convinced me she was being truthful about her claims.

Having moved beside me once more at some point in all of that, Miranda slowly breathed out. Her hand squeezed my arm, and I felt her tension. Or maybe it was just my own, since I had a lot of it to go around.

Throughout those tense few moments, Sariel had simply stood there as if she was ready to accept any retaliation that they chose. She made no move to protect herself or flinch away. Once the three of them had finally settled on simply walking away, her shoulders slumped a little, and her eyes closed. I saw her mouth the words, I’m sorry, though no sound emerged.

It was Gaia who finally spoke, though I hadn’t even seen her arrive. “Our actions,” the headmistress began in a quiet voice, “very often have unpredicted consequences.”

“I should have predicted that,” Sariel insisted. Her voice was flat, though I could see the pain in her eyes as she opened them to look that way. “I should have predicted what would happen, what he’d do. I should have known. I was blind. Because I would never have put such young children in that kind of situation, I didn’t entertain the idea that he would. For me, it was a mistake. For them…” Her eyes moved to where Deveron, Wyatt, and Abigail had been, and she visibly cringed once more. “For them, it destroyed everything.”

God, what could I say to that? What could anyone say to that? The whole situation was just so terrible. She clearly hadn’t meant what happened. Ruthers had taken her whispers in his ear completely the wrong way, far beyond what she intended. At least, and this was an awful thought in and of itself, but at least with Deveron, she had been targeting a combatant. Not children. But that didn’t make it any better for the people that her suggestion had affected. Hell, it could have been argued that her suggestion had led to the capture of my mother, which itself led to the continuation of the Heretic efforts to genocide every Alter species on Earth. What could possibly be said to make that any better, for anyone involved?

Nothing. The truth was that anything I could possibly have said would have sounded like meaningless prattle. Empty words with empty sentiment. There was no easy answer to this, no simple good guy or bad guy. Sariel hadn’t intended what happened, and she had more than paid for any unintended consequences. And yet, Deveron and the others had every right to be angry. They had every right to not forgive her. Fuck. This was… complicated.

Vanessa and Tristan had moved to stand next to their mother, as did Tabbris. My dad stepped up behind me, putting one hand on my shoulder and one hand on Miranda’s. From a glance toward his face, it didn’t look like he had any idea what to say about this either. I didn’t even know exactly how much he understood about the situation. But given what I knew of my father and how long he had been here, I was willing to bet that he had a pretty firm grasp of it.

“Sometimes,” Gabriel, who had appeared with Gaia, started, “the only thing that you can do, is give people time. And they might never forgive even unintended consequences. That’s their right.”

Sariel’s voice was barely audible. “I know,” she whispered, before kneeling. Wrapping both arms around all three of her children, she pulled them close, hugging them tightly. I saw her whisper something to them, but couldn’t make it out. I didn’t really want to. Whatever she was saying, it was meant for them, not for me. And the brief glimpse I had of the confusion on all three of their faces made it clear that… well, they needed to hear something from their mother.

Partway through that, Gaia and Gabriel moved to speak with them. Which meant that they were probably going to be busy for a few minutes, at least. Swallowing hard, I looked over to Miranda. The other girl was staring at me, biting her lip. When our gazes met, she asked, “Are you okay?”

“Yes,” I started, before shaking my head. “No.” I sighed then. “I don’t know. I don’t know what to think.” Glancing to my father, I asked, “What am I supposed to do? What am I supposed to say?”

“To be honest,” he replied simply, “I don’t know. Sorry, kid. It’s just… sometimes there is no villain. Just a bunch of heroes running headlong into each other on their way to opposite goals.”

I started to say something to that, but movement caught my eye. Theia was approaching me of all people. Or, wait, maybe she was approaching Miranda, since she’d actually apparently spent time with her. Yeah, that made more sense.

For a moment, she didn’t say anything, though it looked like she wanted to. Instead, the girl seemed to be having some kind of internal debate with her host that carried on for almost a minute before she carefully asked, “Pace-I would like to know… if the Roxanne girl is alive.”

“Alive?” I nodded. “Yeah, she’s alive. She’s doing–uh, pretty well, actually. I swear, if she stacks one more survivability power, she–wait, why are you asking?” For a second, I’d forgotten who I was talking to, and now I squinted at her a bit uncertainly.

Her response was a small shrug. “We have been talking, and after Pace-I’s words, Theia-I feels… responsible for what was done. It was… maybe not very… Pace-I says it was bad. Abigail said it was bad.” She smiled then, that feral, dangerous and unhinged smile. “Abigail is smart. She knows many things. Right and wrong things.”  

For a moment, I just stared at her, unsure of what to say to that. Pace and Abigail had told her it was bad? I–it was like she was a little kid who didn’t know a thing about actual morals or ethics or anything, and was learning all of them from scratch. Learning, apparently through a combination of actually listening to what her host said, and from my older sister.

And yet, she still wouldn’t tell us who Manakel was possessing. She wouldn’t tell us what we really needed to know. Instead, she was holding that back until she got what she wanted. Which, I supposed, made sense in her mind. Given what I knew about Kushiel, being her daughter, particularly as a Lie, had probably been really hard. I kind of doubted that Theia had had any actual role model or anything while growing up. Having something important that someone else really needed and holding onto it until she got something she really needed in return clearly made perfect sense to her. Manakel’s identity was her bargaining chip, and she would obviously cling to that with her dying breath until she got what she wanted.

This whole situation was just plain screwed up, to be honest. Totally screwed up. I couldn’t follow my half-siblings and their father because I had no idea what to say to them. I couldn’t go to comfort my new adopted sister, her mother, and her half-siblings because I had no idea what to say to them. And now I had a more-than-half crazy Seosten girl who was cooperating with her own host (whom she happened to be trapped inside of) trying to talk to me, and I had no idea what to say to her either.

Finally, I just settled on, “Whenever she gets back here, you two should talk.”

Behind me, Dad cleared his throat. “I take it,” he started slowly, “you’re one of the… people who have been trying to kill my daughter and one of her girlfriends all year long.”

“Yup!” Showing utterly no shame, Theia beamed at my father instead, giving him two thumbs up. “Your daughter’s pretty resilient. You should be proud. Theia-I am very good at killing people.”

Dad seemed completely disarmed and confused by that response, clearly having no idea what to say to it. His mouth opened and shut, but no sound came out.

“I know.” Miranda was nodding at both of us. “That’s my reaction to a lot of what she does too. But she’s serious about helping. I mean, she won’t tell us what she knows about Manakel and all that, but she’s still be useful to have around. And, you know, better to be with us than against us.”

Theia was nodding right along with that, brightly chiming in, “That’s true, we are a very annoying enemy to have. We wouldn’t want to fight us.” Her eyes crossed briefly as if she was trying to follow the logic in her own head before she gave a slight nod of satisfaction. “Definitely not.”

Giving up on knowing what to say to her, or them, or whatever, I instead turned to Miranda. “What was going on that made it take so long for you to get here? And why didn’t Seller come with you? Abigail said you guys were dealing with something, and that Wyatt left to help you handle it so you could finish up sooner.”

Grimacing, Randi shook her head. “Just a little enchantment problem that was faster with Wyatt’s help. We’ve been looking for solutions to Theia and Pace’s situation, which sort of… requires breaking into a few places that we’re not supposed to be anywhere near. Secure locations that are magically locked. We sorta… tripped a security measure in this guy’s vault and needed Wyatt to help deal with the situation. Seller’s finishing up with that. Plus I don’t think he feels all that comfortable coming here for some reason.”

Blinking at that, I tilted my head to squint at the other girl. “Are you saying you have adventures and a whole life when I’m not there to see it? I’m not sure how I feel about that.”

Randi stuck her tongue out at me. “Oh, so sorry. You’re totally right. We’ll make sure not to let anything important happen unless you’re there next time.”

Giving her a firm nod, I replied, “Good. Make sure you remember that.” Then I just hugged her tight. Because as complicated and hard to deal with as things might have been, she was still my friend, and interacting with Randi had a way of making everything better.

As we separated, Theia looked between both of us, then asked conversationally, “Are you going to kiss?”

“What?!” The high-pitched squeak burst from me, while I heard it in stereo from the girl beside me. Giving Miranda a brief glance, I turned back to the strange Seosten. “What the hell–why do you–why would we–what?”

“You are sexually attracted to females, like Pace-I am,” Theia innocently replied. “And apparently males, though we have seen little evidence of that. You already have more than one female that you are romantically involved with, and you are very close to Miranda.” After summing that much up, her head tilted. “What part of the question was confusing?”

My mouth opened and shut at that, as a noise escaped me. Luckily, I was saved from having to respond by my father, who cleared his throat. “Relationships don’t really work like that. Miranda and Felicity are friends. Yes, they’re close, but that doesn’t mean they’re–” He paused, seeming to consider his words for a moment before just settling on a simple, “They’re just friends.”

I barely had a chance to mumble a thank you to him before Gaia approached. “On the other hand,” she began, “Miss Chambers does have friends and girlfriends who are very eagerly waiting to see her back at Crossroads. And I’m afraid that I can only justify delaying so long before taking our wayward students there, lest our Committee representatives and the ears that they whisper into start to wonder too much about what we could have been doing.”

Grimacing a little at that, I gave a slight nod before glancing toward Tabbris and the others. “Um, give me just a minute?” With that, I slowly walked that way. They had already stood up and were waiting with Gabriel, who had a hand on Sariel’s shoulder. The woman herself looked shaken, and a bit lost. Yeah, it was… going to take a lot to get her through that.

Actually, I was kind of surprised that Gabriel hadn’t reacted worse to the whole thing. Though, come to think of it, as controlled as he was, maybe I shouldn’t have been. But still, Sariel’s actions had affected him a lot too, and the rest of the Atherby camp.

Then again, I supposed they were accustomed to accepting people that had done or at least been partially responsible for terrible things in their past.

“Time to go back?” That was Tristan, giving me a faint smile as he stood between and slightly behind both of his sisters. “Does that mean our vacation is over?”

Snorting, I retorted, “Some vacation. I wanna fire my travel agent.”

Then I sobered a bit, looking to Tabbris. “You gonna be okay here with Dad and your mom for a little bit?”

She looked scared at that prospect, quickly lunging forward to wrap her arms around me. “What if you need me?” the girl protested. “And we made up that whole system about communicating.”

“Hey,” I replied while hugging her back, “we’ll still use the system, don’t you worry. Trust me, we’ll have plenty of time together. But you need to get to know your mom, and let both your mom and our dad get to know you. I’ve got the dibs spell still, so I’ll be safe from anyone trying to trespass on your turf.”

“And,” Gabriel put in, “you’ve already been promised a bit of an education on how to protect your charge.”

It took Sariel a moment to respond to that little prompting. She was looking away, a slight frown on her face while clearly lost in thought. Finally, the woman seemed to realize what had been said, and gave a quick nod. Her lost, vacant look was replaced by a smile that was meant to reassure her daughter that everything was alright. “Yes,” she confirmed. “I will teach you how to place your own possession claim upon Felicity, so that she will be protected even if you aren’t right there. It will… take a few days.” Her voice was soft, cracking just a little with restrained emotion that she was clearly holding back to avoid upsetting her children with.

Sariel Moon needed a therapist. Like… really badly. Thankfully, I was pretty sure that plenty of other people had already noticed that fact. Like my dad, and Gaia, and Gabriel. They would do something about it. Especially since she and Gaia had clearly shared a conversation while Sariel possessed the headmistress.

Actually, that brought up a point. “Hey, I thought Larissa was protected because her body thought you were possessing her even though you weren’t,” I put in. “Did possessing Gaia screw that up?”

The woman shook her head. “No,” she replied quietly. “It is not… “ She coughed then. “I will explain how it works when the time comes. Suffice to say, though there is a… time-based limit to how many could be protected the way that I have protected Larissa, it does not require me to never possess anyone else.”

Well, that was confusing. Now I really had no idea how that whole thing worked. I really hoped that I could get some clarification on that soon, because as it was, I had a lot of questions.

Vanessa was hugging her mother then. “I can’t believe we have to walk away from you already,” the other girl lamented. “It took so long to find you, and now we’re already leaving?”

“You can come back.” That was Gaia, standing nearby once more. “We’ll set up a system to allow you to travel back and forth safely so that you can visit. And, thankfully, we already know that Crossroads is… uniquely and specifically prevented from noticing or tracking the presence of Seosten on the island. So your mother will be able to visit there as well.”

It was better than nothing, but I could still tell that they were reluctant to separate. The whole family embraced once more.

No. Not the whole family. Just the ones who were there. They were still missing Haiden. Even after everything that had happened, not everyone had made it back to Earth yet. Like Sands and Larissa. I was going to have to talk to Scout about how her sister and mother weren’t here.

Clearly, I still had a lot of emotional conversations ahead of me.

Speaking of which, I looked back to Gaia. “Are Deveron and the others going to be okay?”

“They will be,” the woman assured me simply. “Give them time. I will come back to check on them after taking the three of you back to Crossroads.” She nodded toward the twins and me. “Then Sariel and I will go over the Seosten prisoners and see what can be done about them.”

With a nod, I started, “What about Professor… umm… Professor…” Slowly, I turned, realizing that Dare hadn’t actually been around for a bit. Actually, when was the last time I’d seen her?

There she was. The blonde woman was standing a bit away from everyone, looking at a tall, reddish tree on the edge of the camp. Frowning, I stepped that way. “Professor?”

“Hello, Felicity,” she answered without looking back. “Are you ready to go?”

“Yeah,” I replied, “I think we are. I mean…” Pausing, I asked, “Are you okay?”

Turning back to me finally, the woman smiled just a little. “Yes. Sorry, I was just… thinking. And answering Scout.” Holding up her phone, she explained, “She called for help getting back to the school awhile ago, so I sent Nevada to get her. She’s with the others, and apparently very eager to talk to you.”

Wincing at that, I sighed. “She probably wants to know why I made it back, but Sands and Larissa didn’t.”

“Hey.” Dare stepped over, putting both hands on my shoulders. “They will make it back. Give them time.” With a wink, she added, “Now you’re stuck in the same position we were while you were gone: waiting.”

“Yeah, it sucks,” I retorted. “But,  you know, speaking of waiting, I guess we’ve made them do it long enough.”

So, I did the rounds one more time, hugging my dad and Tabbris, and thanked Gabriel for letting them stay. I thought about walking after Deveron, Abigail, and Wyatt. But in the end, I decided they still needed a little space and privacy together. I could always talk to them in a little bit.

Finally, it was time. Gaia opened a portal, gesturing. “Your friends are waiting.”

Friends. Sean, Scout, Columbus, even Koren… and more than friends. Shiori and Avalon. I would finally, after two months, get to see them all again. I felt nervous. And excited. And a little sick, sort of. Finally. Finally, I was going to be reunited with the others. I could explain everything that had happened. Maybe Tabbris not possessing me at the time would even help me convince them that I wasn’t being manipulated by her into accepting the possession.

Either way, it was a conversation that had to happen, and a reunion that was long-past due. So, with a deep breath, I moved to the portal along with Tristan and Vanessa.

Then the three of us passed through it, and, for the first time since late February, set foot on Crossroads island.

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Homecoming 35-05

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“Felicity!”

It was a minute after my little conversation with Tabbris about sharing my body. The two of us had just joined back up with the others, and the voice came from Abigail as she came straight through the portal that had been created to bring her in. My older sister swooped in, arms covering me as she pulled me into an embrace.

Grinning through the hug, I tried to joke, “Boy, I should disappear for a little bit more often if this is the kind of—ow!”

Dad, who had just jammed his finger into my back, gave me a sharp headshake. “Don’t you even tease about that,” he warned. “We’ve got enough problems with you disappearing without making a game out of it.”

Pulling back a bit, Abigail gave me just as stern of a look. “Your father is right,” she agreed. “No more disappearing for you for at least a… a…  as long of a time as it is realistically likely.”

Tristan, arms linked behind his head, joked, “We’ve been back for like, what, an hour? I’m pretty sure we passed Flick’s safe zone for not disappearing again like fifteen minutes ago.”

“Jerks,” I informed them, “you’re all jerks.”

Abigail embraced me again, just as tightly as before. “Where were you? What happened? Where are the others? Are you okay? Wait, never mind the first question. I know where you were. But what happened? How did you get back?” Looking to Vanessa and Tristan, she added, “And what about you two?”

Even as she spoke, the woman was giving a significant look toward my dad and the others with him. It was clear that she was trying to silently ask them certain questions without being obvious.

“I know I was possessed,” I quickly put in. “It’s okay. We already talked about it, and… well…” Turning a bit, I gestured for Tabbris to come out. She stepped into view, holding tight to her mother’s hand while giving a nervous, shy little wave. Even then however, the girl couldn’t keep the broad, giddy smile off her face that had been plastered there ever since what my father had said.

There were a lot of reactions that I could have expected from Abigail. What I absolutely did not expect, was to see a girl step into view from the shadows, move right beside Abigail, and announce, “Yep, that is definitely the kid we saw before.”

“Lies!” I blurted, not out of disagreement with what was being said, but because I knew that the girl standing there wasn’t really Pace. My staff was in my hand, and I almost lunged that way before two things happened. First Deveron’s hand caught my arm to stop me. And second, Abigail stepped in front of the possessed girl.

“Flick, no!” My sister’s voice was sharp as she held up both hands. “It’s OK, it’s not what you think. And,” she added even more sharply, “do not call her that.”

Beside me, Deveron sighed while still holding my arm. “I thought you said you were going to keep her out of sight until Flick understood what was going on. You asked for a chance to explain it yourself.”

Biting her lip, Abigail glanced back to where Lies was before turning to me. “Yes,” she replied, “I told her to stay on the edge of camp and wait until I called her.”

Lies was grinning. “Theia-I’m a bad puppy,” she announced.

“What-what-what?” I was a broken record. Even more than I had already felt like after telling the same story a couple different times. “What the hell are you doing? She’s one of the bad guys.” I pointed at Lies, feeling like I had suddenly gone crazy. Or maybe everyone else had.

Abigail shake her head. “It’s more complicated than that, Felicity. Just calm down. First of all, she’s the only reason that the Seosten didn’t didn’t already know about you being possessed. Because she saw you with that choker. She knew that you were possessed. But she never told her bosses about it.”

Lies confirmed that with a little sing-song, “They were being mean. And besides, us girls have to have secrets, don’t we?“

My mouth open and shut a couple of times then, before I threw both of my hands out and blurted, “She calls me Present! Present! As in she wanted to present me as a gift to Doxer!”

The other girl’s reply to that was simple and matter-of-fact. “Doxer was Theia-my friend. Theia-I wanted to get him a really good present. And you’re a really good person. So you would make a good present.  You’re smart and cute and funny and really good with your stick. The best present!” She finished with a completely innocent-sounding, “It was a compliment.”

“A… a…” I stared at her, then to the others, then back to her before finally demanding, “What the hell is going on?”

So, they started to explain. Mostly Abigail. She told me how they had tracked down Lies–now apparently named Theia, and how they had come to an arrangement. They would look for a way to free Pace from her, a way of fixing her condition. And in exchange, once that was done, she would tell us everything that she knew about Manakel and the other Seosten. And they also told us about her mother. Kushiel. Kushiel was her mother. Which… Gah. It did explain a lot, but still.  

“What about Pace?” I asked flatly after they’d finished. “And where are Seller and Miranda? Weren’t they coming?”

“They’ll be here soon,” Abigail assured me. “They just had something else to deal with. That’s why Wyatt’s not here right now. He stepped out to help them, so they could get here sooner.”

Nodding a little bit, I focused on Li–Theia. “If you’re really trying to be good, why don’t you tell us everything you know right now? That might be a bit more convincing.”

Smiling cunningly at me, the other girl shook her head. “Can’t give away something for nothing. That’s a terrible strategy. Especially if we want to keep living. We know things. We tell you when we get help. That’s the deal.”

“How about Roxa?” I snapped despite myself. “Did she get help when you helped turn her into a werewolf and left her in the woods to die from it?”

“She’s not dead,” the easy response came once more. “She’s even stronger now, right?”

“That’s not the–” Stopping myself from pointlessly arguing with her, I shook my head. “The point is that if you really wanted to help, you could tell us almost everything we need to know right here, right now.”

Her gaze met mine. Or rather, her host’s gaze did. “And give away the only reason we’re still alive? Sorry. Theia-I am just not that trusting. We need help. Pace-I needs help. Help us separate. Help fix Theia-me.”

Before I could say anything to that, Sariel stepped forward. Her voice was quiet. “Do you know who I am?”

Theia seemed to really focus on her for the first time, and as she did so, Pace’s eyes widened. “Wh–you,” she actually stammered a little. “The Hunter. You’re–but… Mother…”

Sariel gave a slight nod to that. “My children and their friends are very resourceful. But the point is, you know who I am. And you know where I was. So please. Look at me, and tell me that you are being genuine. Is this a game? Are you leading everyone on, Theia? Or are you really willing to help if you get help in return? Can you help us?”

A moment of silent near-communication passed between the two of them briefly before Theia dropped her head in a tiny nod of her own. “Theia-I can help. Will… will help. But not until you fix us. Not until you separate Pace. It’s all we have.”

“I will.” Sariel’s voice was quiet, yet firm. “I will find a way to help you, Theia. I promise. And when we do, when we help you, then you have to be ready to keep your side of it.”

“Cross our heart and hope to die,” Theia promptly replied, before amending, “Well, maybe not die. But Theia-I’ve taken a needle in my eye. Does that count?”

God, no wonder that girl was so screwed up. Even just the simple hints that we’d gotten throughout her story about how her mother had treated her was just… Kushiel. She was Kushiel’s daughter, which explained so fucking much. And as much as I wanted to be furious with her for holding back, along with everything else she had done, I kind of understood the situation she had been in along with the type of person that she had been raised to be.

Actually, the fact that she hadn’t told Manakel about Tabbris was basically enough for me to forgive everything else, now that I’d had a chance to calm down and think about it.

“Um.” Abigail raised a hand. “Maybe she knows who you are,” she informed Sariel. “But I’m still a little fuzzy on it.”

So, it was our turn. I felt a little uncomfortable talking in front of Pace/Theia, still. But they were right. I would have been even more screwed if she had told Manakel about Tabbris. She had already kept that secret. If she was playing us, we were already pretty screwed. And Abigail trusted her. So, once more, I explained about what had happened out in Seosten space. For the third time in a short span, I went through everything. Actually, I was getting pretty good at summarizing by that point.

“You poor girl.” Abigail was addressing Tabbris. She had taken a knee as soon as things settled enough, and opened her arms for my little partner to rush into them for yet another hug. Throughout the explanation, she had been holding the girl and stroking her hair. “You were practically a baby. I can’t believe you had to do all that.“

Sariel, who had never looked more guilty than in that moment, cringed. “There was no other choice,” she spoke quietly, giving a brief glance toward Theia before she continued. “They had to protect each other. And it was better than what they would have done with her.”

Abigail looked a little hesitant at that, but gave a slight nod. “Well,” she announced, “at least that’s over now. You don’t have to be in danger anymore.”

“What do you mean?” Tabbris looked confused. “Flick’s still going back to Crossroads, right?”

Abigail looked just as confused. “Well, of course,” she replied. “But you don’t have to. I mean, Flick can be protected from possession in other ways now, like that Dibs spell you were talking about. There is no need for you to be in that kind of danger anymore. You can stay-“

Tabbris pulled away from her. “If she’s going back,” she announced firmly, “I’m going back. We’re partners. She needs me.” As she spoke, the girl’s lip was poked out a little stubbornly.

In the background, I heard Tristan whisper, “Told you it was gonna be a thing,” to Vanessa.

Dad was nodding. His eyes were on Tabbris. “Honey,” he started, “Abigail’s right. You don’t have to be in danger like that. You’ve done an amazing job. But—”

It was the wrong thing to say. Tabbris suddenly disappeared from where she had been standing, only to reappear right beside and partly behind me with both of her arms around my waist. She had used her recall to put herself with me, though not completely inside. Not yet, anyway. Her head shook. “No! You can’t make me leave Flick! She needs me! I–I need… I need Flick. We’re partners.”

Her voice turned plaintive and desperate then, gaze turning up to me as she repeated the same thing. Only that time, it was a question. “We’re partners?”

I didn’t hesitate for a second. “We’re partners,” I confirmed, before looking up to the others. Abigail looked confused. Dad looked pained. And Sariel looked… tortured. Like there was so much that she wanted to say, but didn’t know how. And so much pain locked in her memories.

“You can’t make her do anything,” I informed them. My gaze turned slightly to Sariel. “I know you didn’t have a choice. I know that you did the only thing you could do to keep her safe, and to keep me safe. It wasn’t a fair situation. But it happened. She grew up with me. She was never a little kid. She saved me more times than I think she’ll ever actually tell anyone about. She should have had a chance to be a little kid, yes. But she didn’t get that chance. And forcing her to leave me now, taking her agency away from her and making her do what you think is right for her, that’s wrong. After everything she’s done, after everything she’s been through, she’s earned the right to make the choice herself. I’m not saying it’s a good situation. But you can’t take the choice away from her. Not after everything she’s done.”

Turning slightly then, I looked down to the girl at my side. “That said…” When she looked  up at me with those wide eyes, I touched her face. “I’m not gonna make you do anything either. You’re right. We’re partners. And I couldn’t have gotten this far without you. I’d be lost if I didn’t have my little sister when I need her. But… it’s okay… not to be together all the time.”

Lip quivering a little, Tabbris whimpered. “Wh-what do you mean?”

“I mean,” I explained, “you deserve a chance to spend some time with your mom, Tabbris. You and me, we’re partners for life. I’ll be there for you any time you need me. And I know that you’ll be there for me. But your mom needs you too. And so does our dad. They deserve a chance to see you, to know you like I do. I’ll always be there for you to jump to. We’re connected. You can hop back to me any time you want to. And I’m not going to make you do anything. You deserve the choice. But I think you should spend a little time here, with Dad and your mother.

“I will always need my partner, my sister. But they need you too. And you need them. Why don’t you give it a little chance. I’ll be okay. And if I’m not, if I need you, you know I’ll find a way to let you know.”

“I… I can help with that.” It was Sariel, glancing toward Theia briefly before she spoke up. “I can show you what I did, to make sure that no one would ever be able to possess Larissa, as long as I’m alive. I can show you how to mark her so that it looks like you’re possessing her, even when you’re not. Even when you possess someone else. So you’ll be able to communicate with her any time you want to, no matter what happens. They won’t be able to possess her, as long as you’re alive. And I can teach you a spell so that you’ll be able to transport between her and here any time that you want to, at will. So you can visit here as long as you’d like to, pop over to where she is for a little bit, then come back, whenever you like.”

“Y-you can teach me that?” Tabbris stammered, staring up at her mother while still clinging tightly to me.

Sariel nodded a bit then, giving her daughter a tiny smile. “If you’ll let me, there are a lot of things that I can teach you.” Her voice sounded a little hopeful.

Head bobbing quickly then, Tabbris agreed. “O-okay. Okay. Um, w-we can do that, Mama.” Her gaze turned to me then, as she added earnestly, “Are you sure you don’t need me for a little while?”

My own head shook. “Partner, I’m pretty sure I’ll always need you. But I can get along for awhile without you. Consider it a vacation. I mean, you’ve been on the job your whole life. Literally. Take a break to be with your mom and dad for a little bit. Get to know them. Let them get to know you. Especially your mom. If I need you, I’ll let you know.

“And besides,” I added then, “from the sound of things, your mom’s gonna be able to teach you a lot more stuff so we can be even more dangerous together. Right?” Shifting a bit, I held my hand up for her.

“Right.” Quickly, Tabbris slapped my hand, giving me five. “Okay, Mama. I’ll… I’ll st-stay for awhile.” She gave a tentative smile then, the crisis averted.

Nodding, Sariel looked toward Theia. “And I’ll help you too. I don’t know if I have an answer for your situation. But I will help, any way that I can. Between all of us, who knows, we may figure something out. Our people haven’t, but… well, they refuse to listen to any outside aid or suggestions. Maybe humans will see something that our scientists haven’t.”

“Flick!” It was Miranda. She and Wyatt had just arrived, apparently. My old best friend tore across the grass as she ran to me, throwing herself my way with a laugh. “You really made it!”

Grinning, I returned the tight embrace. “Randi! Took you long enough.”

Her eyes rolled, as she leaned back to stare at me. “Took me long enough? You were the one that took a two month vacation.”

“Oh, trust me,” I retorted, “I’ll tell you all about that ‘vacation’ in a minute. But maybe I should start with–” My hand started to gesture toward the nearby Tabbris, who had just barely stepped out of the way.

“It’s okay,” Randi informed me. “We heard most of it. Abigail’s been wearing a… uh, phone-spell, basically. It let us hear what you guys were saying. You don’t have to explain it again.”

Blinking once at that, I recovered quickly. “Oh, thank God,” I blurted. “I’m beginning to think that I need to write it all down and just hand out copies to everyone.” Smiling then, I hugged her again. “You look good.”

“Eh, lots of exercise,” the other girl replied with a wink before stepping back, her gaze moving to Sariel. “So… Artemis?”

“She’s my mama!” Tabbris, sounding incredibly tickled and proud about that fact, announced while hopping over to wrap both of her arms around one of her mother’s. “And she’s brilliant and perfect.”

“I am not perfect,” Sariel quietly protested.

“She’s modest,” Abigail put in then, smiling as she stood beside Wyatt. “She’s a very good person.”

“No.” There was torture, pain, agony in Sariel’s denial that time, as she stared at the two of them. “No, I’m not. I’m not a good person. It’s my fault. It was my fault.”

“What?” I blinked at that, confused as to what she was talking about and where it was coming from. “What do you mean? What’s your faul–”

“It was me,” she interrupted, her pained gaze locked onto Wyatt and Abigail. “I didn’t know how he’d take it, but it was me. I… I told Ruthers, back then… I told him that if he wanted to beat Joselyn, he had to take someone that she loved and make her stop to protect them.”

Her gaze flicked toward Deveron then. “I meant you. Not you-you, because we didn’t know who you were then. Her lover. I meant Joselyn’s lover, her husband. Not her children. I didn’t mean her children. But that’s how he took it. He took my words and he… that’s what made him think of taking her children. So it’s my fault. It’s my fault you were abducted. So I’m sorry. I am so, so sorry.

“Because everything that happened to you, it’s my fault.”

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Homecoming 35-04

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“But we know exactly who her father is.”

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Homecoming 35-03

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

For now.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

His face tensed. “What? What happened?”

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

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

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

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

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

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Mini-Interlude 61 – Tabbris

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That day would come.

It had to.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But that was just pretending.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*******

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Good morning, brave girl.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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