Scott Utell

Convalescence 38-08

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Eventually, Shiori (who had very quickly been protected by the dibs spell, of course) and I managed to extricate ourselves and Sahveniah from the room so that Avalon could get some sleep. She put on a brave face and was, of course, incredibly stubborn about it. But I could tell that even just sitting there eating food with us had taken a lot out of her. It was going to take some time for her to recover. Which was made abundantly clear by the fact that she didn’t really argue that much about it.

The three of us stepped outside of the cabin in time to see that the others had apparently already met the remaining kids. The three Seosten toddlers, Tabbris, and Theia were all there with Columbus, Sean, Scout, Doug, and Koren.

Of course, my very first thought was that if one of these guys got possessed, even accidentally, by one of the toddlers, it could be pretty bad. But even as my mouth opened to call out to them, Tabbris saw me and waved to show that everything was okay. She mimed writing a spell, and I realized she had apparently copied the dibs protection onto these guys as well.  

I should’ve known that my little sister wouldn’t make that kind of mistake. Hell, I’d done the same thing with Shiori back in the room, just to make sure little Savvy didn’t end up… well, just to make sure very bad things didn’t happen. And now that my reflexive worry was dealt with, I could actually focus on what the others were doing.

Because I apparently had not yet had my fill of weaponized adorableness, Grisiniel, the brown-haired boy, was currently hanging from Sean’s outstretched arm, making squealing sound as the boy raised and lowered it. Meanwhile, a few feet away, the red-haired Penemue was doing pretty much the same thing with Scout and Koren as they kept raising and lowering him by his hands, bouncing him up in the air and then down again.

And to put the cherry on top of the cute sundae, the other girl, Kemetiel, was sitting on Vulcan’s back. She was actually riding him around in a circle as if he was a horse.

I almost would have believed that this entire thing had been some big elaborate plot to kill me, because I seriously almost died just standing there watching that for a couple of seconds.

It was made even worse (read: better) a second later, as Savvy squirmed out of my arms and to the ground. With a happy squeal, the girl ran off to her friends, joining Kemetiel on Vulcan’s back. For his part, the cyberform dog proudly held his head high while trotting around in a circle with both of his riders.

I could see some of the camp inhabitants watching with curiosity. I had wondered if they would be afraid of the Seosten children. But while most did seem to at least be cautiously keeping their distance for the time being, I couldn’t see any outright hostility. Which made sense, considering they hadn’t been outright hostile to me, and the Alters on this world likely had more experience being hunted down and killed by Heretics rather than Seosten.

Besides, I couldn’t see how anyone could look at these kids for longer than three seconds and think that they were some kind of monsters.

As if in agreement with that, Columbus, who had been standing up away from the others, moved next to his sister. Lifting his chin, the boy murmured, “Well, they sure don’t look evil.”

“Right?” Looking over to the boy with that, I asked, “Did you get any sleep at all? We didn’t leave you that long ago.”

The boy’s response was a grunt before he shook his head. “I’ll sleep later. Right now, every time I close my eyes, I just see…”

He trailed off, but I knew. “Rudolph.” Saying the boy’s name, I sighed and lowered my head. “Yeah. I keep thinking about things we could have done differently, other choices that we could have made.”

“I should’ve been there.” Columbus’s voice was a bit hollow, showing me how much he had been dwelling on it. “I should have been the one who stayed behind to hold the zombies off. I could have done it without Sean, and if Manakel had still shown up, there would’ve been just me to put in that tube. He wouldn’t have had an extra to kill. Then all of us would still be alive right now.”

Shiori spoke up before I could say anything. “Or he just would have killed you anyway. We don’t know. Besides, Sean or I would’ve insisted on staying with you. Then one of us would’ve died.“

“I–” Columbus started before stopping. He sighed, lowering his head just look at the ground while murmuring, “I just didn’t want anyone to die.”

Before either Shiori or I could find anything to say to that, as if there was anything we could say that would matter, Theia approached along with Doug. Tabbris waved again and looked uncertain for a moment, but once I returned it and let her know I was fine, she stayed over with Scout, Sean, and Koren to keep entertaining the little ones.

“Good,” Theia started, “you’re here. Pace-I thought we should wait for you to test these Whisper spells.”

“Yeah,” the boy with her drawled, “and Doug-I agreed that waiting was a good idea.”

Briefly, I wondered how much of that was him wanting the rest of us have to see how well it worked, and how much with him being afraid that if it did work, Theia would run off with his favorite hat if he didn’t have someone around to stop her.

Either way, they were here now, and I nodded. “Well, I guess the easiest way to do it is just to put the hat on her head and see what happens?”

Making a face as if he couldn’t believe he was bringing it up, Columbus asked, “You don’t think it’ll just erase her or something, do you? I mean, we don’t know exactly how would the whole Lie thing works. If it shuts her out, but she can’t leave the body…”

Grimacing at that, I hesitated before shaking my head. “It didn’t do that to me when I possessed Scout before. It just let both of us control her body at the same time. Like one of those cars with steering wheel and pedals on both sides.”

“Yeah.” Columbus coughed. “In retrospect, we probably should’ve been a little more scientific and careful about that one to begin with.”

In the end, we left it up to Theia, and she chose to try it. So, Doug handed her his hat, though he looked a bit reluctant to let go of it. “If it works,” he started firmly, “we’re making you a different one. You don’t get to keep it.” He only let go of the hat once the girl nodded.

Still, she didn’t put it on yet. Instead, she stood there staring down at it and her hands before her head shook. “Not yet,” she announced firmly. “We want to wait for Miss Abigail. She should be here.”

Without turning around, I gestured behind myself. “Well, you’re in luck, because here she comes. With…” Turning to make sure, I nodded. “With Scott.”

Yeah, Scott and Abigail were approaching. The two had clearly been deep in conversation, but they stopped once they were close enough.

“I didn’t know there were children in that prison transport,” Abigail announced, nodding past us to where the kids were.

“None of us did,” I assured her. “Trust me, it was a surprise to everyone. Gaia and the others are working out which adults they can let out of the pods so we can try to get some answers about it.”

“They’re children.” I could hear the horror and revulsion in Abigail’s voice. “What could that… creature have meant to do with them at her lab here? What could she possibly–” She stopped herself then, unable or unwilling to continue that thought.

“Yeah,” I murmured under my breath, “Kushiel being a monster isn’t exactly front-page news at this point.”

In what was obviously an effort to tear her thoughts away from that dark pit of despair, Abigail looked to Theia. “What’s this?”

So we explained, giving the quickest rundown we could. And once Abigail had some idea of what might be about to happen… Theia put the hat on.

For a second, I thought nothing had happened. The girl’s head simply tilted a little, and then she looked down at her hand. She stared at the hand for a moment before her mouth opened.

“I… I can… talk. My… hand. My my my my hah-hah-handuh. My hand. My mouth. Talk. Talk!”

Suddenly, she sprang over to wrap both arms around Doug, hugging the younger boy tightly while he gave a strangled yelp.

“Well,” I started with a little smile, “I guess that makes you Pace. The real Pace, I mean.”

Apparently my speaking up then meant that it was my turn for a hug, since Pace threw herself at me next. That was followed by a hug for Shiori and Columbus as well. The latter even managed to avoid pushing her away, though he did stiffen a bit.

Then it was Abigail’s turn. She received the longest, tightest hug of all. I saw Pace’s (and this time, it really was Pace) shoulders shake visibly as she clung to the woman who clearly meant so much to both Pace and the Seosten possessing her.

Giving a broad smile as she finally leaned back, the Hispanic girl announced, “It’s me.”

Immediately, her face shifted just a tiny bit. It was almost entirely unnoticeable unless you were really looking for it. “And Theia-me. We are both here. Share and share alike.”

“Oh…” Gasping in clear awe, Abigial put both hands on the side of Pace-Theia’s face. “My God. You can talk. You can… you can… it’s really you. Both of you.”

Shiori was staring. “Wow. Well, it’s good to finally meet you? This is kind of weird.”

“You’re telling me!” Pace blurted. “I haven’t been been able to talk, or raise my hand, or sneeze, or—wait.”

In mid-sentence, the girl turned away from us. She took a breath, then move three quick stops over before her hand snapped up to hold onto the hat. With that, she proceeded to do a quick, perfect one-handed cartwheel, followed by a side-flip. Finally, Pace simply jumped up and down, releasing the hat so that she could pump her arms in the air while squealing. She clearly didn’t care about attracting attention or looking ridiculous. Which… yeah, at that point, I wouldn’t have either. She’d been unable to control herself for so long, who cared if people were staring?

That was apparently the cue for the four Seosten toddlers, who all scrambled over to start jumping up and down together with Pace, even though they had no idea what was going on. That didn’t seem to affect their excitement one bit, as they continued jumping up and down while pumping their arms just like she was. To say it was adorable would have been beating a dead horse by that point, but still. It was.

Reaching down to pick up Kemetiel as she finally stopped jumping, Pace grinned. “You have no idea how good this feels right now. It’s amazing. It’s like being locked up for year and just now being able to stretch my legs. I can move, I can talk, I can turn my head because I want to turn my head! I can blink! See? Blink, blink, blink.”

Nearby, Columbus murmured, “I can imagine.” He paused then as if deciding how to broach the subject before asking, “Does this mean that you and… Theia are actually…”

“Working together now, yeah.” The girl confirmed it with a nod before her face shifted a little.

“We are partners,” Theia put in, before clearly relinquishing control back to Pace again.

Koren approached with the others, her eyebrow raised. “We leave you alone for five minutes, and you show up again with a herd of chibi Seosten?”

Scott spoke up then. “You think that’s bad, you should’ve seen what she got into when she was six and I left her alone in the bathroom for three minutes. There was–”

My hand snapped down, covering his mouth as I growled, “Not another word, you.”

There was confusion written across Koren’s face (and she wasn’t the only one) at that. But before we could explain anything, I blinked around with realization. The rest of the camp, the ones who had been watching carefully, had withdrawn a bit more. There were less faces, like they were even more nervous than they had been a minute earlier. It couldn’t have been the Seosten toddlers. They weren’t doing anything wrong. So what–

And then I realize the truth. The people weren’t keeping their distance from the kids. They were staying back from the portal nearby where Gaia, Sariel, Larees, and Gabriel had all just shown up, flanked by a half dozen adult Seosten. There were four males and two females. All seemed a bit dazed and taken aback by everything. They wore the same clingy jumpsuit thing that the toddlers and Tabbris wore, and were looking around in a vague state of confusion and uncertainty while they were led through the camp, toward where we were.

The tallest of the men, standing about three inches over six feet, looked like a more handsome version of Schwarzenegger as of the first Terminator movie. His body looked like it had been sculpted from steel, with incredibly defined muscles that were visible through that bodysuit. His short, dark-blonde hair and chiseled face were capped by these piercing blue eyes.

Yeah, Seosten were unbelievably gorgeous. That wasn’t exactly news. But still, this guy was something else.

Not that the others with him were exactly slouches. The other three men were less overtly muscular (two were more handsome in that boy band, androgynous sort of way), but still eye-catchingly attractive. As were the two females. One of the pair was my height, with short brown hair shaped into a crew cut, while the other was slightly taller than Avalon with very long blonde hair that was tied into a very tight braid that made me want to call her Rapunzel in my head.

The kids stopped laughing and jumping around when they saw the adults approaching. For a second, all four of them stayed completely still, just staring that way as they clustered together. I saw uncertainty written across their faces in that moment, as if they weren’t sure what was going on.

“It’s okay,” I heard Sariel announce to the other Seosten adults. “You can pick them up. You have my word, the spell will protect you from accidental possession. They’re your children.”

The reassurance was apparently all they needed. The Seosten moved to the toddlers. That big guy reached down, picking up Kemetiel with a look of wonder written across his face while she regarded him curiously. Beside him, the taller woman stepped up, raising a hand that shook nervously before she laid it against the girl’s hair.

Nearby, Penemue, the red-haired boy, was picked up by one of the other males who (of course) also had red hair. Next to him, the smaller woman had picked up Grisiniel, while one of the other males, who had the same sandy-brown hair as that boy, reached out to touch his shoulder and back in obvious disbelief that all of this was real.

Sahveniah, meanwhile, was approached and picked up to be held tightly by the remaining man. He was the shortest of all the males, though he still stood just a tiny bit under six feet. His skin and hair were as dark as hers, and he trembled a little before pulling her to himself.

Sariel had stopped near the rest of us, watching that reunion. Quietly, she nodded to the big guy and the taller woman. “Micah and Disetiel. Kemetiel is their daughter, though they’ve never met. None of them have ever actually met, actually, aside from perhaps passing in the hallway between cells and… well…”

She shook her head, moving on by looking toward the red-haired man with Penemu. “Forsenti. And the woman with Grisiniel is Xenaphiel. She is the mother of both boys there.”

“I take it the guy there with Sahveniah is her father,” I started with a nod that way. “But where’s her mother?”

“His name is Zadriek. And as to her mother…” Sariel paused before continuing. “If the records that we were able to dig up are to be believed, her mother is complicated.”

“Complicated?” Shiori echoed before I could say anything. “What kind of complicated?”

“The kind of complicated,” the woman answered, “where she was technically carried and birthed by an unidentified woman in Kushiel’s lab. But she was a surrogate. The actual mother, from whom the egg came… was Aletheia.”

Well, that made everyone’s eyes snap around. Especially Pace-Theia’s. She… or possibly they, as I could see both agreeing with that particular action, blurted, “What?”

“Not you,” Sariel started, “the original Aletheia. Somehow, Kushiel was able to obtain at least one of her… eggs, fertilized it, and placed it inside of the unidentified woman. Sahveniah, for all intents and purposes, is the original Aletheia’s daughter.”

“Wow…” I murmured the word under my breath, trailing off as I stared that way. “Wow.”

That same sentiment was basically shared by everyone, as we stood there, staring at the Seosten children and adults being reunited. Or, I supposed, just plain ‘united’, since they had never actually met before.

The dibs spell. This was because of the dibs spell. It was thanks to Sariel right here that these parents and kids could even be with each other like this. As far as I knew, most Seosten parents never had this kind of relationship with their children. They were shipped off to be raised by other dedicated schools, orphanages essentially, to avoid any kind of accidental possession problems. But now they could be with their kids. Because of that spell.

Wow. Just… wow. It was overwhelming, to say the least.

My mouth opened to say something else, when I noticed Scout. The girl was staring not at the kids, but at Sariel. She was staring in what looked like open wonder, while Sariel herself looked away with an expression of barely held regret and shame.

And then I remembered. Sariel was the one who had saved Scout from that Fomorian as a child, back on the boat. She had saved Scout. But in so doing, she had also taken Scout’s mother out of there. And, well, just how much the Fomorian being there in the first place was probably up to debate between everyone who felt guilty about it.

Complicated. That whole thing was complicated, and judging from the looks between both Scout and Sariel, they were going to need some privacy to talk it through.

But it wasn’t my business, so I looked to Gaia nearby. “What about the rest of the prisoners?”

The headmistress answered. “It will take time to go through them. But many will be able to be released, hopefully to stay here in the camp. Having so many Seosten to help bolster defenses and knowledge of the Empire itself will be invaluable in countless ways.”

She was right, of course. The kind of help that adding a bunch of loyal Seosten to the Atherby clan and having them actually work together would be incredible. But as Gaia had said, it would have to be done slowly and carefully. Because it was also something that could go wrong very easily.

“I see that you’ve tested it, then?” My attention was pulled away from those thoughts then, toward where Sariel was nodding toward the hat that Theia-Pace was still wearing. “And it…”

“Works,” they confirmed with a quick nod, before giving a broad smile. Pace, because it was clearly her, added, “I can talk. I can move. We have to share, but I can move. I can…” She shivered noticeably, before Theia took over.

“We must give it back. We will have our own as soon as possible. But we promised to give it back.”

“Uhhh…” Doug hesitated, looking torn before his head shook. “I can’t–damn it, you know what? Why don’t you keep it for now. Just for now. You uhh, you need it more than I do. Just until Grandpa Sulan gets here for the–” He stopped, clearly not wanting to finish that sentence. “Just until he gets here. Then he can help make something else, something just for you, okay? I can make them, but they’re temporary, not like… not like the hat. He’ll make you something you can have. And then I’ll want the hat back.”

For their part, Theia-Pace stared at the boy for a moment before giving a smile that was, again, clearly from both of them.

“Thank you, Douglas,” the two said in a voice that was singular, yet also somehow plural.

“I–” The boy flushed, shaking his head as he looked away. “Just don’t lose it.”

Everyone looked back to the rest of the Seosten then. By that point, some of the camp inhabitants had started to emerge, bolstered both by the sight of the parents with their children, and by the fact that Gabriel was there. They came closer, and I heard a few start to ask questions.

“You really don’t hold back, do you?” That was Scott, staring at me with those too-old eyes. “Look at all this. You’re just like your mom. Changing the world.”

My mouth opened, and then I paused. I thought about everything that was happening, everything that would happen.

I had no doubt that the Seosten would continue their efforts to either break into the vault themselves or use Avalon to do it. But this was the Atherby camp. She would be safe here, so that she could recover. The Seosten wouldn’t be able to get to her. Not in this place.

She had time to rest. Time in which, with any luck, Larissa and the others would manage to make their way back to Earth. Because Dries would be with them, and if anyone could change the spell that his wife had stored in that vault, it was him. Especially with all the help he would have. With Dries and Avalon, we would get into the vault and find Liesje’s spell.

“Change the world?” I echoed, giving Scott a wink.

“We’re going to change the universe.”

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Convalescence 38-05

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I was there, dropping to my knees to wrap both arms around the… the child who had not-so-long ago been my long-time (very much an adult) babysitter. Grabbing onto Scott, I hugged him tight while blurting, “You’re here! You’re–but–you’re here, and–and you’re–”

“Small?” he finished for me, returning the embrace with an obvious smile in his voice. “Yeah, that tends to happen when we have to go through childhood all over again. Unfortunately.”

Pulling my head back, I stared at him without actually letting go, finally seeing a few more details. Like the very noticeable rabbit ears. “Those–you didn’t have those before. I swear I would’ve noticed. I mean, after the Heretic thing, obviously, but I would’ve noticed!”

For his part, Scott gave a soft, light chuckle while those long ears twitched. “Yeah, well, Pooka tend to end up with different, random animal features whenever we… ahh, respawn.” He sobered then, looking at me with eyes that were far wiser and more understanding than the nine-year-old body they were attached to. “Are you okay, Flick?”

“Am I okay?” I echoed, sounding a bit hysterical even to myself. “Am I okay? You–you–” My mouth opened and shut as I stared at him, unable to even think straight in that moment, let alone say anything intelligible. After everything that had happened, everything that was going on, seeing Scott here right now had just pushed me all the way over the edge. I had nothing.

Scott let me suffer for a few long seconds before rescuing me with a simple, “I missed you.”

“Missed–” That single word escaped me before I suddenly shook him. My hands found his shoulders as I shoved the boy back and forth briefly. “I thought you were dead! I saw you on the porch and–and you were–and you–I thought you were dead, you stupid asshole! I don’t care if it was only for a few minutes! It was horrible! It was bullshit, it was–it was–I thought you were dead!” I was repeating myself. And I also sounded hysterical. Not to mention how it would have looked to an outsider, seeing me literally violently shaking what looked like an innocent nine-year old boy (complete with bunny ears). But I didn’t care. I’d been waiting months to yell at Scott for the horrible emotional nightmare that seeing him die had put me through.

Finally, I got control of myself again and stopped shaking him. But I was still trembling, tightly gripping Scott’s shoulders as I stared at the boy. My voice was a weak, tremulous whimper. “I don’t care if it was only for a minute. I thought you were dead. I saw you shoot yourself and I thought you were dead.” There were tears flooding my eyes, tears that I had thought I was done with already. Yet they came back with a vengeance. Because seeing Scott now, remembering what seeing his dead body laying there had looked like just reminded me of seeing Rudolph’s body. And that all-but destroyed my ability to hold myself together. “I thought you were dead.”

Scott’s expression softened, as he nodded understandingly. “I’m sorry,” he quietly replied while reaching up to grip both of my arms in his small, yet strong hands. “Flick, I am so sorry that you had to see that. I’m sorry we didn’t tell you sooner, as soon as you came back the first time. I should have. I should have come to you and told you the truth, about what I was, why I was there, all of it. I should have been up front with you about it. I wasn’t, and you had to go through that. I–”  He took in a breath before letting it out. “I’m sorry. I can’t begin to tell you how much.”

“Gabriel said that you were coming that night to talk about it.” Looking to him, I added, “He said that you would’ve told me everything then.”

Scott heaved a sigh, his face looking entirely too somber for as young as he appeared to be. “Yeah. Too bad it was just a little too late by that point.”

For a few more long seconds, I couldn’t even respond to that. I didn’t know what to say. I wanted to punch him, hug him, scream at him, laugh with him, shake him, cling to him, all of it at once. I didn’t know how to handle everything I was feeling, or what I actually wanted.

“I–” Closing my mouth and my eyes together, I took a long, deep breath. Then I let it out, along with all my uncertainty and confusion. I let all those negative emotions go, before opening my eyes again. Finally, I spoke up. “I’m really glad you’re here, Scott. I–I’ve been waiting to see you again. I’ve been waiting to– to–” Tears tried to take over again, but I pushed them away and focused. “You’re a big, stupid jerk, but I don’t care. I don’t care. You’re alive, and you remember.” Again, I hugged him tight, crushing the Pooka against myself. “You remember, and you’re here.” Yeah, I was babbling. But so what? Scott was a big stupid jerk. And he was there.

“Not so big right now,” the boy pointed out with a little smile once I pulled back once more.

“You could be two inches tall and you’d still be a big stupid jerk,” I primly reminded him.

It was amazing, how easy it was to fall right back into our same old habits. Scott had been a friend, a close friend, for… basically as long as I could remember. As we’d established between each other many times, he used to change my diapers. He was always there. Scott was almost as important to me as my father was. He was like a big brother to me, before I’d had a real big brother. Scott Utell was my brother in every way, shape, and form that he could possibly be. And he was here, finally. After months, he was finally here again, standing right in front of me. My brother was there, right there, for the first time in the months that it had been since I’d seen him lying dead on the ground. I could talk to him about everything that had happened over the entire year, about everything that had happened over my entire life. He was there, and I… I…   

I punched him in the shoulder.  

It wasn’t hard, of course. But still, Scott rubbed his arm, grimacing. “Ow. Hey, c’mon. I’m weak and fragile next to you now, you big bully.” Sobering then, he added, “But I’m glad to see you too.”

It was all I could do not to crush him in another hug. Instead, I shook my head quickly. “It’s my fault. I mean, it’s my fault that Ammon got to you. I should’ve found a way to warn you. I should’ve-”

“Hey, hey.” Scott’s hands moved to my arms once more. “No. You didn’t know that the Bystander Effect wasn’t a thing with me, so how could you have told me about it? What would you say, that there’s some psychotic little kid running around with mind control powers?”

Opening and shutting my mouth at that, I grimaced. “I still should’ve… I should’ve asked Asenath to get someone to watch over you. I should have known that Fossor and Ammon would know that we were close, that you were a way to get to me, I should’ve–”

“Let’s just say that there’s things both of us could’ve done differently,” the Pooka boy interrupted. “We all could have handled it better. Like I said, I should have come to you as soon as we knew that you were okay with having a vampire and another Pooka living in your house with your dad. But hey, I’m okay. Little shorter than before, but okay.” He gave me a little smile then.  

“I… I…” Wow, there was so much I wanted to say, so much I wanted to talk about. But I couldn’t think of where to start. “Do you wanna go for a walk?” I finally ended up asking.

“Sure,” he agreed. “Let’s go for a walk. From the sound of things, you’ve been a busy beaver.”

Mouth opening and shutting, I moved toward the steps leading off the porch, muttering, “Trust me, Scott, you have no idea.

“But give me a few hours, and maybe you will.”

******

“When I said you’ve been busy,” Scott started awhile later as the two of us walked around the edge of the lake, “I seriously had no idea. I mean, maybe I knew the broad strokes, but damn, Flicker. When do you sleep?”

“About an hour a night,” I retorted, sticking my tongue out at him briefly. “See why it was a good thing that I got that Amarok kill early on? Can you imagine how dead I’d be without it?” Pausing as those words struck me, I grimaced before adding, “And I mean dead in several ways.”

“I believe it,” he replied. “It must help with all that extra training you’ve been getting. I mean, Gaia, Avalon, Deveron, some with Wyatt, Gabriel a little bit, even Athena?” He whistled low, head shaking. “You’re getting some pretty top-tier tutoring there, you know?”

I nodded once. “Yeah, I’m–I guess you could say that I’m lucky as far as that goes. Which is pretty good, since I’m so unlucky in other ways. It balances out… sort of. If you squint.”

We walked in silence for another minute before I glanced back that way, watching my now much-smaller former babysitter. “But none of it seems to be getting me any closer to Mom. All this stuff going on this year and… and barely any of it has had anything to do with the piece of shit who kidnapped her, who’s been torturing her for… for all this time! Fossor’s out there, and he’s going to come after me eventually. He wants to add me to his collection.”

A brief flash of what looked like incredibly intense anger crossed Scott’s young-looking face at those words. I saw barely suppressed rage, though I wasn’t sure how much of it was at the idea that Fossor wanted to take me, and how much was at the reminder that he already had Mom. Either way, it took him a moment to respond through gritted teeth. “That’s not going to happen. You know Gabriel’s on top of that, right? He’s got people scouring everywhere for Fossor.”

“And they haven’t found him yet,” I pointed out before relenting, “I know, I know he’s trying. Everyone’s trying. But I can’t shake the feeling that this is going to be something that I have to deal with myself. I’d love it if tomorrow, or next week, or next month, Gabriel or Gaia or someone would suddenly say, ‘hey, we dealt with Fossor and here’s your mom, safe and sound.’ But I just don’t think it’s going to happen. Whatever–however this goes down, I’m going to have to face him again. And I’m scared. I’m really… really scared about how that’ll go.”

Grimacing, I shook my head. “Some birthday to look forward to, huh?”

Scott’s hand found mine, and he squeezed it firmly. “You’re not alone, Flick. Yeah, maybe it’ll come down to you needing to face Fossor. I won’t… I won’t try and say it won’t. You’re not naive enough to believe that. But even if you do, and even if no one else is around, you still won’t be doing it alone.” He paused briefly before looking to me. “You know what I mean?”

“I know,” I confirmed. “All the training, all the help, all the hints and tutoring and… everything. It’s all so that I won’t be completely alone, even if I am by myself.” Coughing, I added, “If that makes sense.”

“It does.” Scott was quiet then before he cleared his throat. “Just don’t do something stupid, okay? You know what he’s probably going to do. He’ll threaten your mom and use it to get you to agree to come somewhere away from protection. But if you do that, then the only thing that will happen is that he’ll have both you and your mom, and who does that help?”

I shrugged, unable to speak for a second. “I… but if he does that, if he threatens Mom–”

“He’s not going to kill her, Flick,” Scott insisted. “Look at how much he went through to get her, how important she is. He may be a piece of shit, but he’s not going to throw away the only leverage he has over you just like that.”

“He’ll hurt her though,” I pointed out, my voice cracking as I fought to keep control of it. “He’ll hurt her as much as he wants to. And he can get creative about it. I don’t just mean physically. He’ll hurt her any way that he can.”

“You’re right,” Scott reluctantly agreed after a few long seconds of silence. He sighed then. “But… you know it’ll be worse if you just let him have his way. Of all the ways Fossor could hurt your mom, believe me, letting him have you would be the worst. No contest.”

“It’ll be bad if I do and bad if I don’t,” I muttered darkly. Then I paused. “You knew Mom before everything happened, didn’t you? You were a part of her group, her rebellion.”

A faint, wistful smile crossed his face then. “Yeah,” he confirmed. “I was there. I remember… a lot of things. Some good, some bad. But your mother was–is amazing, Flick. You should be proud to be her daughter.”

“I am.” My voice shook slightly, but I nodded. “Believe me, I am. I just–how hard was it to sit there and listen to me–the things I said about my mother, the awful things that… and you couldn’t tell me the truth. That must’ve been… God, that must have been so hard, Scott.”

“It wasn’t easy,” he agreed. “But I knew that you’d find out the truth eventually. So really, it wasn’t nearly as hard to listen to it, as it was to think about how you’d feel when you…  when you understood.”

I had to look away at that point, as my memory insisted on piping in with details about all the things I’d said. And not just the things that I’d said, but things I had thought too. All while my mother was really suffering just to protect me. Everything she’d done, everything she had been through…

My head dropped, and I felt tears slowly filling my eyes. Not just because of Mom, but because of everything, all of it.

“She would have found a way to save Rudolph,” I announced in a voice that was so soft, I could barely hear myself. “She wouldn’t have split up, or she would have had a better plan. I-if it was her, if she was there instead of me, he’d still be alive.”

The shame was audible in my voice as I admitted that, as I spoke those words aloud. But obvious as it was, it was still nothing compared to the shame I was actually feeling. Rudolph’s death was wrong. I should have done more to prevent it. I should have been smarter, faster, better. But I wasn’t. I wasn’t good enough, and Rudolph had paid the price.

But I wasn’t going to let that make me spiral into an inescapable hole of depression. I just needed to work more. I just needed to train harder, think faster, and be better. Yes, we had beaten Manakel, but only with Sariel’s help. Which, well, made sense given he was a nearly ten-thousand year old guy that was basically a demigod. But still. I needed to be better.

“Flick. That’s not on you.” Scott was frowning at me. “You’re right, you’re not your mom. But if you think she never made a mistake, that she never took losses, you’re wrong. You’re just wrong, okay? I… I need to tell you some stories sometime.”

That actually made me smile a little. “Tell me stories about Mom? I think I’d like that.”

By that point, we had circled all the way around the lake yet again, and as I glanced up to the left, I saw the cabin where the others were sleeping. Or where they were supposed to be sleeping. There were two figures standing out on the porch, both of them clearly talking.

Columbus and Tabbris. The light from the moon and stars was bright enough that I recognized them immediately. The two were just standing there, chatting.

Well, that seemed like it was going… well enough.

“Flick!” Tabbris had seen me by then, and hopped off the porch to come running. She tripped partway, letting out a surprised squeak as she pitched forward. I went to grab her, but Columbus beat me to it. He appeared next to her, catching the girl by the shoulder.

He caught her. She was a Seosten and he’d gotten close enough to catch her.

It was only for a second, like it had been instinct. As soon as Columbus seemed to realize what he’d done, he let go (making sure she was fully upright first), before taking a quick step back. Then he stopped. It was like he realized he’d made things worse by overreacting to being close to her, but wasn’t sure what to do about it.

For her part, Tabbris pretended not to notice. Though I could see a very brief flash of hurt in her eyes before she pushed it back. “Flick!” she repeated, moving to hug me.

I returned it, giving Columbus a thankful nod. “Hiya. Looks like you guys are getting along.”

“Let’s just say we found some common ground,” the boy replied easily. “I… who’s this?”

Still hugging Tabbris to me, I looked toward Scott before passing around introductions so that everyone knew who each other were.

Scott, for his part, raised an eyebrow. “I knew it,” he murmured. “I did see you around the neighborhood now and then, didn’t I?”

Blushing, Tabbris clung to me before nodding hesitantly. “Uh huh. You wanted to ask me where I lived. So I ran away.”

“You disappeared pretty quick,” Scott muttered. “I must’ve circled the neighborhood four times trying to figure out where you went. At least now I know how you disappeared like that.”

“Recall,” I realized. “She recalled back to me as soon as she was out of your sight.”

Columbus was clearly uncomfortable with all of this talk. But he put up a brave front, staying quiet while trying not to let it show too much on his face. He was making an attempt, at least.

Scott looked like he was going to say something else before abruptly pausing. His head tilted like he was listening with those ears of his before he looked to me. “Ah, Gabriel, the headmistress, and Sariel would like you to join them, if you’re not too tired. They’re at the end of camp, that way.” He pointed. “Something about the other Seosten prisoners.”

Oh. Oh, right. I started to nod, before turning as the sense of someone else approaching reached me.

Theia. It was Theia. Or Theia in Pace’s body, of course. She approached almost… hesitantly, coming out from behind the cabin with both hands out and down like she was showing us that they were empty. Even then, I couldn’t help but tense up a little bit.

“Theia-I would like to see Miss Sariel,” she started slowly, like she was very carefully working out what she was going to say. “If it is okay.”

“Mrs. Sariel,” Tabbris piped up then, a bit defensively. “She’s married.” As Theia looked to her, my little partner squeaked and moved behind me, peeking out from there.

“Mrs. Sariel,” Theia agreed, giving a little nod. “If it is okay, Theia-I and Pace-I–we would like to meet her. Miss Abigail is asleep with her… daughter.” Something brief flashed through her eyes. It wasn’t anger. It was… longing, maybe? Jealousy? I wasn’t sure. But it was there. “They are asleep.”

Biting my lip, I hesitated just a bit before nodding. “Sure, why don’t you come with. Columbus?”

“No.” He had taken a much larger step back as the other Seosten girl had appeared, and shook his head then. “No, I need to… I need to try to get some sleep.”

“Didn’t Theia-I knock you out once?” Theia’s attention was on Columbus, her head tilted curiously. “Theia-I am very certain that we knocked you out once.”

The boy stiffened a little at that, clearly thinking about that same first hunt that we had gone on, where Trice and his cronies had ambushed us. “Yeah,” he almost spat, “and later, you helped turn Roxa into a werewolf and put her through one of the most agonizing times of her entire life.”

Oh boy. My mouth opened to say that this wasn’t the time or place, but Theia was already nodding. “Yes,” she said quietly. “Theia-I have done many bad things. You have eyes and a brain, you know that already. I am no angel.” From the way she gave a crooked grin then, the girl clearly knew what kind of double-meaning her words held.

Then she sobered. “Theia-I have done bad things. Many of them. Some I feel bad for. Others I don’t. Maybe I should. Pace-I thinks Theia-I should. She is helping. Teaching. Explaining. But it is hard to understand. I do… Theia-I do think that… what I helped do to the Roxa-girl was bad. But it was not my decision. Not my choice. Theia-I was told to obey Lemuel, to do what he said. It was his decision. His choice.”

There was a lot there to unpack, but we couldn’t get into it. Instead, I just shook my head. “Let’s just be glad that she switched sides, no matter why she did it or what she did first, okay? What happened back then is between her and Roxa, and I have a feeling they’ll have a discussion about it eventually.”

Columbus looked like he was going to say something else about it. But he restrained himself. Instead, he looked to me. “Just be careful. And don’t go get in another fight, okay? We could use a few hours off.”

Teasing or not, he had a point. Wincing, I gestured. “I promise to do everything in my power to avoid it. Go sleep, Columbus. And… thanks. For everything.”

He paused, looking like he wasn’t sure what to say for a moment before simply shrugging. “It’s what we do,” he murmured. Then he walked back to the cabin, not once taking his eyes off of the two Seosten until he was inside.

“Well then,” I coughed. “Scott?”

“Go ahead.” He gestured. “I’ll still be here when you get back. Well, not here here, but you know. We can talk some more later.”

“Good.” I pointed at him. “Because we have a lot to talk about. You’re gonna tell me stories about my mom.”

That said, I gestured to Theia/Pace and to Tabbris before starting to walk. Together, the three (or four) of us started to head to the end of the camp. On the way, I glanced to the girl who had started out as such a threat. “Actually, I do need to talk to you about something. It has to do with… with what we talked about. About getting you out of Pace safely.”

Blinking once at me, Theia’s head tilted. “But Manakel is dead. He is no longer a threat. I am useless to you.”

For a second, I just stared at her, then I shook my head. “We made a deal. Besides, I want to help you get out of her anyway. Not everything is about–” Stopping myself, I sighed. “Just… we still want to help you get out, okay? I don’t exactly have the answer, but I do have something interesting.

“It’s about Doug’s hat…”

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Convalescence 38-04

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The second I set foot on the Atherby campground again, my father was already sweeping me up into his arms. He had clearly been told ahead of time where to wait for us, because I was already off the ground and being crushed against him by the time the feeling of being teleported away from the Crossroads hospital had faded. And that grip only got tighter after a moment.

Making a brief, strangled noise, I quickly returned the embrace. My own voice was soft, tired, and worn out. “Hey, Dad,” I murmured. “So, what’ve you been up to?”

“What’ve I been up–” Dad’s voice was choked with disbelief before he set me down, putting his hands on my shoulders to push me back so he could look down at me. “Do you have any idea how–what I was–how many–the kind of–” He kept trying to talk, but clearly couldn’t put actual words to it. He just kept repeating the same few syllables over and over for the next few seconds before giving up. At that point, he just yanked me back against him for another hug.

“Yeah,” I murmured quietly, enjoying the sensation. “I’m glad to see you too. Even if it does feel like we just did this.” The words were a weak attempt at teasing.

“We did,” he teased me right back. “See what I mean when I say you need to stop getting in trouble? We’re repeating ourselves now. Broken record already. Except, ahh, you brought new friends this time.”

He was right, the others were all behind me, having been sent along by Gaia once all of our meetings with the Committee were over (at least for the time being). There was still a hell of a lot more to sort out and get through, like how they were going to deal with the Kohaku situation. But for the moment, our part of it was over. So I had insisted on coming here to be with Avalon (not to mention Tabbris and my father). Shiori had also insisted on staying with me, and everyone else came with as well. Which meant that Sean, Columbus, Scout, and Doug were seeing the camp for the first time. It wasn’t Koren’s first time, but she was there too. And Deveron… well, I wasn’t sure how often he’d been here beyond the time just a day earlier. For all I knew, this whole place was new since he’d been around regularly. I had heard that the camp itself tended to move around a lot, just to keep things safe. Gabriel Prosser was Gabriel Prosser, but there was still no need to take unnecessary risks.

In any case, turning back that way, I nodded. “Uh, yeah. Guys, this is Gabriel. Gabriel, guys.”

Doug was doing a whole gaping fish routine, his mouth opening and shutting repeatedly. Slowly, he lifted his hand to point at Gabriel as if indicating him to everyone else. Gradually, a quiet whine escaped the boy, as his head tilted. That whine turned to a faint, “Y-you… you…”

Looking equally impressed, Scout gave a quick nod, her head bobbing up and down. “You,” she agreed, voice squeaking just a little while she clutched Sean’s arm tightly.

For his part, Sean also looked like he felt a little faint. I saw him swallow a few times, shifting his weight while using one hand on top of Vulcan’s head to steady himself. “It’s–it’s um, it’s good to–uh.” Swallowing yet again, he finally managed, “It’s good to meet you, s-sir.”

Clearly Gabriel was completely accustomed to that kind of reaction, because he just smiled a little bit before waving them off. “The pleasure is mine. Given everything you’ve managed to deal with in such a short time, I am more honored than you know to meet face to face. And I’m sorry we didn’t have a chance to meet back in the hospital. There were pressing issues to deal with.”

“Yeah,” I muttered, “like you getting to leave without dealing with the Committee. Lucky duck.”  

The man was clearly about to say something to that, before he stopped, looking toward Deveron. Something passed between the two men then, silent communication (which was probably literally silent communication considering I knew Deveron had telepathy and had no doubt that Gabriel did as well). They stood like that, meeting each other’s gazes for an almost uncomfortable amount of time before I cleared my throat. “Um, you guys know we can tell you’re talking about us, right? Or about me. Or whatever. We can tell.”

Clearing his throat at that, Gabriel gave a little smile that somehow looked both guilty and charming. The man still radiated power, and I could tell why the others all looked stunned into silence at his very presence.

Somehow I doubted that Doug would appreciate hearing that one of my first reactions upon meeting Gabriel Prosser for the first time had been to hit him.

“Yes, well,” the man himself was saying, “there is a lot to talk about, and even more to think about. But I would imagine that most of you are very tired. Your headmistress has said that you should stay here for the evening. Unless there are any objections?”

For a second, Doug seemed to forget who he was talking to. Looking away, he muttered a dark, “Yeah, sleep. Can’t wait to see what new and exciting nightmares come out this time.”

A look of sympathy and understanding crossed the man’s face, and he took a step forward before kneeling in front of Doug. “It’s been a rough year, hasn’t it?” He murmured the words.

I saw Doug’s mouth open and shut twice before he gave a tiny nod, clearly not trusting his voice. There was a lot of pain in his eyes as he met Gabriel’s gaze, fists clenching visibly.

Reaching up, the man rested a hand on his shoulder, squeezing it. “I’m very sorry about your friend, Douglas. What happened to him was unfair, and it shouldn’t have happened. He was a good person, a strong and brave person. Believe me, I looked into him when Felicity there was being tutored by him, and when all of… when all of that went down. Everything I saw convinced me that Rudolph Parsons was a remarkable friend, and would have been an incredible man if he had not been murdered. I will always count his death as a loss for humanity at large, and myself personally for not having had the honor of meeting him directly.”

Doug was clearly struggling for words there for a few long seconds, before he gave a visible shudder while managing a weak, “No offense, sir. But Rudolph would have liked to hear that. And that’s the problem.”

Gabriel’s head shook easily. “No offense taken. I would have liked him to hear it as well.”

He straightened then, keeping his hand on Doug’s shoulder. “What we can do is try to make as few people go through what you have, what he did, as possible. That’s all we can do. But for now, all of you have done quite enough. Fancy and Oscar will show you where you can sleep.”

“Avalon?” I quickly spoke up. I wasn’t going anywhere except to where Valley was. Not after everything we had just been through.

Nodding at that, Gabriel replied simply, “We’ll take you to her, while Oscar and Fancy show the others to a cabin.”

The little smartly dressed Kobold himself had shown up by that point, grinning as he tipped that top hat of his to the assembled group. “Roighteo,” he announced in that clearly put-upon accent he’d taken from cartoons or something. “We roight love playin’ poisenal tour guide t’buncha wee ones, don’t we, buddy?”

Beside him, the enormous eight-foot tall warthog-faced Orc lumbered up into view before giving a broad smile. “Sure ‘nuff. ‘ey there. Pleased t’meetcha.”

“You’re… Fancy and Oscar?” Columbus managed, staring at the rather mismatched pair.

“Betcha can’t guess which one’s which,” Oscar drawled with a wink.

It was Shiori who piped up then, “They started calling him Oscar after Sesame Street got really big.”

Looking confused at that, Columbus pointed out, “But he doesn’t have a trash can. And he’s not furry.”

“Yeah,” Oscar himself agreed with a slow, lazy shrug. “Ah don’t get it either, tell ya truth.”

Swallowing hard, I looked to the others. “Get some sleep, guys. You… you deserve it after everything that just happened. I mean, you deserve a–” My voice cracked. “You deserve a lot more than that. But I don’t–I can’t…”

Sean shook his head. “It’s okay, Flick. We know. This’ll all be here later. Dunno what we’ll do with it, but it’ll be there. Right now, I feel like I could sleep for a week.”

They headed off then, except for Koren, who was staying to meet up with her mother, and Shiori, who lagged behind. Choo was beside her, sitting back on his haunches while looking eagerly back and forth between us like an excited puppy. He, thank God, didn’t seem to have any actual injuries from being kicked across the room. And he seemed pretty proud of the collar that Percival had given him. He kept trying to show it off to anyone who looked at him twice, tilting his head back and doing this thing where he wiggled back and forth to draw attention to it.

“You’ll be okay?” Shiori asked a bit pensively, watching me before looking back toward her brother.

“I’ll be fine,” I promised, gesturing. “Go with Columbus. I’ll talk to you in the morning, I promise. Get some rest.”

We hugged briefly. Or at least, it started brief. I started to let go, but for a second I couldn’t do it. I had to hold onto her a bit tighter. Swallowing, I waited to catch the girl’s gaze before kissing her. She returned it, and there was a yearning there that I had to pull myself back from.

“Love you,” I whispered, nuzzling her briefly. “Go. Sleep.”

“Stay with Avalon,” she replied, giving me a little smile. “It’s her turn.”

Then she started off, jogging to catch up with the others. Which left me standing there with Koren, Gabriel, and my dad. As soon as I saw all of them looking at me, my face went red.

“Fliiick and Shiori, sitting in a tree–” Koren started in a sing-song voice that was interrupted as I stuck my hand through a portal and swatted her lightly upside the head. “Ow!”

“Yeah,” I shot back, “and don’t forget that I can push that tree over on you if I want to.”

She made a face at me before immediately paling, a sick look overtaking her. “I–I’m sorry, I…”

“It’s okay,” I replied quietly. “It’s easy to just… forget about everything that’s going on. Too easy sometimes. I feel guilty about it too. I feel guilty about… a lot of things.”

We exchanged brief looks then, before Koren gestured. “My mom’s gonna be here soon. She texted.” Idly waving her phone, she added, “If you want to wait and see her–”

“I’m sure she wants to talk to you first,” I assured her. “I’ll see her soon enough. Make sure she knows I’m okay and that if she wants to come find me, she can, okay?” When the other girl nodded, I hesitated before adding, “What about the pixie? The one that told you about Manakel being part of security. We owe her a big thanks too.”

“She’s in Gaia’s office,” the girl informed me. “Pretty sure she’ll still be there whenever we get back.”

With that settled, Dad and Gabriel walked with me toward the other end of the campground. On the way, my father looked to me. It seemed like he wanted to say something, but kept hesitating, like he wasn’t sure of himself. Finally, he settled on, “They let us know everything that happened–well, as much as they could put together. Sariel filled me in with… with how it ended. He’s dead. The bad guy–”

“One of the bad guys,” I corrected. “One of them is dead.”

“One of them,” he agreed, looking a bit sick briefly before visibly forcing himself to move on. “But they also said that… that you–”

“I got his necromancy.” As I spoke, I couldn’t look at him. “I brought Rudolph back. I mean, I made him come to the room where we wer–” Turning, I fell to my knees right there by the side of the walking path and threw up again. My stomach heaved, and I lost… well, there wasn’t a lot left in there to be honest, so it was mostly dry heaving. Tears had started flowing again.

Dad knelt there with me. I had been trying to hold it together, but then… then I just lost it. He embraced me, and we just sat there like that for a little bit. I babbled explanations, rambling about everything from how I’d figured out that Avalon was there, to all the fighting we had done, to seeing Tabbris in the fox facepaint and how guilty that made me feel, to bringing Rudolph to the room and feeling even more guilty, and onward. And not even in that order. It was random rambling that couldn’t possibly have made any sense. But Dad still knelt there, holding me while he let me talk until I was done.

“I’m sorry,” I murmured, clinging to him. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry.” I didn’t even know who exactly I was saying it to. Him? Avalon? Rudolph? Everyone I had failed or not done the exact right thing at the exact right time for?

Either way, Dad just held onto me, murmuring soft reassurances until I was ready to stand up. Once I did, I felt even more embarrassed at the sight of Gabriel waiting a few feet away. “I… sorry.” Repeating myself, but at least that time I knew what I was apologizing for.

“It’s quite alright,” he assured me, shaking his head while nodding to my father. “Would you like some more time alone?”

“I… I want to see Valley,” I murmured despite myself, taking a moment to embrace my dad even tighter. “Can we talk in the morning? I promise to be more… coherent.”

With a tiny smile, Dad nodded, gesturing. “Go with Gabriel. And Flick? Get some sleep. You still need it.”

I went the rest of the way with Gabriel. The large man walked with me, waiting until we were close to the cabin he had been leading me to before he spoke again. “I have someone who can help teach you about your new ability.”

My mouth opened, but then I stopped myself from saying what impulsively came to my mind. I wanted to say that I didn’t want training with it. I wanted to never use it again. But that was stupid. I knew that. It was emotional. It was… I needed to wait. I needed to let my head clear.

So, instead, I just gave a tiny nod. “We’ll see. I… is she in there?”

“Yes,” he confirmed. “She’s mostly just relegated to bed rest. Which means not leaving that bed for any longer than it takes to use the restroom or clean up. There are spells on it that speed up the healing process. So don’t let her leave there, okay?” With a wink, he added, “It’s your job to make sure she stays in bed.”

Returning the smile hesitantly, I nodded. “Don’t worry, I’ll take that seriously.”

With that, I walked into the cabin. The front door opened into a small hallway. There was a dark bedroom to the left, a kitchen straight ahead, and then to the right there was a short walk before it opened up into a larger room. That was where Avalon was. The bed was in the middle of that room, with a television in the corner, the fireplace a bit to her right, and a big dining table a bit behind her. It looked like there had been a couch where the bed was, but it had been moved.

There were also lots of spellforms drawn around and on the bed itself.

And there was Valley. She looked… better than she had in that office, but was still clearly hurt and weak. Except when she saw me, then a bit of color came back to her face as she reflexively smiled.

“Felicity…”

I wanted to cry. I wanted to plead with her never to get hurt again. I wanted to… do a lot of things. But I also wanted to make things better. I wanted to be there with her in the now, not spend all our time weeping about the past.

So, I made myself tease her instead. Because that’s what we did.

“If you don’t stop getting beat up,” I informed the beautiful, amazing girl lying in that bed, “I’m gonna change your nickname to Crashtest Dummy.”

“Call me a dummy again, Chambers,” she retorted with a sniff, “and see where it gets you.”

Slowly smiling, I leaned in closer while whispering softly, “Okay… where does it get me now?”

Avalon gave me a tiny smile then, seemingly making the room just a little bit brighter in the process. Her voice was even softer than mine had been. “You wanna know where it gets you?” She almost purred the words, making my knees shake as my heart did a few jumping jacks.

Instinctively, I leaned closer. Though whether it was to hear her gentle whisper better, or to kiss her, I really wasn’t sure. Either way, I found my own lips only a few short inches from hers. I saw the soft, wonderful smile cross Avalon’s face… just before there was a slight pain in my hand. My pain tolerance power took care of most of it, but I still felt it, gasping as I looked down to see the other girl’s hand in mine, two of her fingers shoving into a pressure point in my palm.

“Ow,” I remarked. “That is not where I thought that was going.”

“Told you,” Avalon sniffed while releasing me with a wink. “That’s what it gets you.”

Making a show of rubbing my hand and pouting at her, I asked, “What do I get if I don’t call you a dummy?”

That beautiful smile that made my knees weak came back, along with a hint of a mischievous glint in her eyes as she reached up with her hand to take my ‘injured’ one once more. Slowly, she drew it to her lips, giving the palm a gentle, tender kiss that drew a weak whimper from me.

“O-oh…” I murmured softly once the kiss faded, as Avalon drew her lips from my hand. “I think… um…” I swallowed hard, trying to think straight. “I think I might like that one better.”

“Is that right?” Avalon’s whisper came then, as she used her grip on my hand to give me a slight tug closer. Weak as I felt, it was easy. I found myself inches from her once more, before the girl added a tender, “Maybe you’ll like this even more.”

Then she kissed me. Really kissed me. And my thoughts vanished. Vanished, that was, save for one thing that I really needed to say, the only thing in my mind then.

“I love you, Valley.”

“I love you too, Felicity.”  

******

Eventually, we both fell asleep together like that. I woke up after a couple of hours, raising my head just enough to look through the nearby window. I could see a tiny sliver of light over the lake in the distance as dawn approached. Everything looked so peaceful and serene.

For awhile, I just laid there with my arms around the sleeping Avalon, enjoying the moment. I liked being here like this with her more than I could describe. It felt… right.

On the other hand, I didn’t want to wake her up or disturb her rest. She really needed rest. I didn’t need anyone to tell me that much, after everything that she had been through. I was kind of hoping that she’d sleep most of the day. Seeing her the way she’d looked up in that hospital office… I never wanted to see her like that again. It had scared me more than I could admit.

Carefully, as I tried not to wake up the girl beside me, I slipped out of the bed. For a moment, I just stood there, gazing down at the beautiful vision lying there. Even weak and clearly beat to hell, Avalon looked so absurdly amazing that it made my heart start to do somersaults. I couldn’t resist very gently reaching out to brush my finger ever so softly over her cheek. She shifted a little, and I lifted my hand before stepping back. Time to go before I accidentally woke her up.

Making my way out of the cabin as quietly as possible, I slipped my shoes on before gingerly closing the door behind me. For a few seconds, I just stood there, looking out at the lake while listening to people running around in the distance. I took that in, letting the very early morning breeze brush over me. It felt nice. Not as nice as being with Valley. But still nice.

Rudolph. The thought of him, the memory of his dead face, all of that blood flooding his shirt, hit me like a bucket of cold water. I saw him back in that room with Manakel. And I saw him standing there after all of it was over, when I had accidentally summoned him.

The thought of Doug’s suddenly happy voice as he cried out the boy’s name, only for that to be just as quickly dashed made my head drop with shame. A much colder chill that had nothing to do with the breeze hit me then, and I closed my eyes tightly. Rudolph. Damn it. Damn it. It kept hitting me. Just like Professor Katarin. They were dead, and I would never… never really see them again. Never talk to them again. They had been murdered by monsters. Even if one of those monsters was dead, even if Manakel would never hurt anyone again, that didn’t bring Rudolph back. Even if Isaac never broke out of Athena’s prison, that didn’t bring Katarin back.

Maybe I had necromancer powers. But I didn’t know how to use them. And even if I did, that wouldn’t change things. Zombies, ghosts, whatever, none of it actually brought the person back to life. Death was permanent.There was nothing anyone could do about that. And it sucked.

“Hey, Flick. Your dad thought we should talk.”

The familiar… yet not familiar voice made me start a little, as it came just as the sense of someone moving within range of my power reached me. I turned, blinking away the tears in my eyes briefly before looking at the figure who stood there at the other end of the patio, watching me with an understanding that belied his apparent youth.

Apparent, because despite the fact that the boy who stood there looked as though he couldn’t possibly have been older than about nine or so, I knew the truth. I knew that he was much older than that. Just like I knew that we had a lot to talk about.

“Oh my God.” The words left me in a rush even as I found myself moving that way, every other thought dropping out of my head.

“Scott!”

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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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Tis The Season 19-03

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Someone was screaming. Only the pain in my own throat revealed who. Me. I felt detached from what was happening, like I wasn’t the one standing there with blood and… and more spread over my face. Like I wasn’t the one frozen in shock at the sight of… of Scott, or what was left of him. A dull, yet somehow almost deafening echo rang through my ears. Part of that was the sound of the incredibly loud gunshot, while part was psychological. Standing there, staring, frozen, screaming. I was broken.

Scott. My babysitter. The guy I’d pretty much grown up with. He’d always been there. Always. Even before Mom disappeared, Scott had been there. Besides Dad, Scott was my one and only constant. He was more than my babysitter. He was my friend. And more than that. He was almost like a big brother. Actually, he was the closest thing to a brother I’d ever had before I’d found out about Wyatt’s existence.

And now he was… he was… dead. On the floor. The hole—the blood—the—him. In my shock, I stood there frozen as more people suddenly filled the room by the door. Professor Dare and Asenath, both there within a second or two of my scream. The latter went through the open front door and into the yard beyond to look for the threat, while Dare went to one knee by the body, her hand outstretched.

But there was nothing she could do. I knew that from the start. Scott’s head was—the hole—oh. I hadn’t stopped screaming. Not that more than a couple seconds had passed, even if it felt like hours in my mind. Everything was going slow. The crash from the kitchen that had to be my father reacting to the gunshot and my scream couldn’t have been more than two or three seconds removed from the actual event, and his pounding footsteps brought him into view a moment later, which itself felt like hours.

Dad was yelling my name. He stopped short at the sight of me, before his eyes went to the floor. A look of incomprehension, followed by dawning horror filled his gaze, and Scott’s name leapt from his lips.

Professor Dare rose, moving so fast she was up before I knew what was going on. Pursing her own lips, she blew out some kind of purple dust. As it struck my father in the face, he slumped to the ground.

Despite myself, seeing Professor Dare blow dust into my father’s face that knocked him out, in the horror of the situation, made my hand reflexively move for the weapon canister at my hip. Before I could get it out, however (not that it would’ve done anything), she caught my arm. Her voice was gentle, yet firm. “Flick,” she said quickly. “Your father is okay. He’ll be okay, I promise. Come here.”

Before I knew what was happening, she pulled me away from the front door, toward the kitchen. My feet moved automatically to follow after her, and whenever my head moved to look over my shoulder at the body, Professor Dare stopped me with a hand to keep me looking at her as she continued to back up. She forced me to keep looking into her eyes while pulling me out of sight of the… of Scott’s body.

“Flick,” she started once we were out of the way. “Sit.” Pulling me to a seat, the professor made me sink it before snapping her fingers. A glass from the nearby cupboard leapt to the sink and filled itself with water before going to her waiting hand, and she held it out to me. “Drink this, please. Slowly.”

Instead, I just stared at the glass in my hand. It started to slip away, almost falling to the floor before she caught it. Professor Dare went down to her knees, and I saw something in her expression. Something more than professionalism. That time, her voice cracked a little bit as she put both hands on my shoulders. “Flick, please. I—I can help you. But I need to know what just happened. I need to talk to you, and you can’t talk until you drink. The person at the door, that was… your friend, wasn’t it?”

I went briefly blind as liquid filled my eyes. Tears, I realized through the haze. And through those tears, I would have slipped off the chair and fallen to the floor, but Professor Dare held me up, supported me for just a second until she took me from the chair entirely. Her arms went around me, embracing me tightly. “I’m sorry,” she whispered close to my ear, emotion shredding her voice. “I’m so sorry, Flick.”

That lasted for… I had no idea how long. She held me as my face hit her shoulder and my sobs took over. All I could do was shake and sob, unable to even try saying anything. After a few long seconds, my limp hands rose before wrapping around her, and I slumped there half on the floor, clutching the blonde woman as tight as I could as my tears continued to pour out freely, soaking through her shirt.

At some point, Asenath returned. I heard her quietly tell Dare that there was no one out there, and that Twister was doing a quick search of the neighborhood. There was also something about somehow convincing the neighbors that the gunshot they’d heard had actually been a car backfiring as it passed.

Finally, through the hard lump in my throat, I managed, “Fossor. It was Fossor. Ammon. He—Scott–”

“It was him.” There was hatred and anger in Dare’s voice, something deeply personal. “Flick, I’m sorry. I–” She leaned back, looking me in my tear-blurred eyes. “I—we didn’t know you were on the phone. We didn’t hear any of your conversation until the very end. Fossor was using some kind of spell to block it. We heard your friend show up and then you suddenly stopped talking. Then we heard the phone fall and you started to say ‘turn around.’ Then you screamed. We came as soon as—but it was…”

“Too late,” I finished for her, my voice cracking painfully. “Even your time stop, the—you couldn’t–”

She shook her head. “It takes a second to start up. I heard the gunshot and… and we had to get to you.”

Falling back against the legs of the chair as I sat on the floor, I slumped weakly. “It was a Christmas present.” My voice felt dull and empty. “Fossor said it was a Christmas present. He made—he got Ammon to make Scott—to make Scott…” I couldn’t get any more words out. The tears took over again.

Senny was by my side on the floor as well by the time I caught myself once more. Her hand took mine, and I could see the pain in her eyes. “Flick,” she started, her voice full of self-recrimination. “I’m sorry. I didn’t know. It—like she said, we heard him show up and then it was just quiet. I thought you were–” She hesitated, shoulders shrugging helplessly. “I’m sorry, I should’ve known something was wrong.”

My head shook, but I couldn’t find my voice for a few seconds. “Scott— he’s… his… he’s just… laying there. We—you can’t–” My gaze turned pleadingly toward Professor Dare for a moment. “Help?”

“Oh, Flick.” The pain came back to her eyes. I’d never seen the woman look so… helpless and emotional. “I’m sorry. There’s nothing we can do for him. I wish there was. He’s gone, Flick. He’s–”

She said something else, but I didn’t hear it. I couldn’t hear it. The roar was back in my ears, and my head dropped. I saw the floor, then nothing. Tears took over yet again. I slumped down, falling onto my side as I shook. No, no, no. Scott. Please, please. God, why. Why did I have to lose him too? Fossor took my mother, he’d kidnapped her and kept her away over half my life. He was going to try to take me in less than a year. My whole life revolved around dealing with that. And now he had killed Scott.

Eventually, I managed to sit up and take the glass of water, drinking from it almost mechanically as my eyes continued to stare at the floor. A million thoughts whipped through my head like a tornado. Most were less than half-formed, and many consisted of more vague emotions than coherent ideas. Kill Fossor. Kill Ammon. Kill them both. Destroy them. The rage boiled up in me, overwhelming the grief.

“Scott,” I finally managed after sitting there for what felt like hours. “We–” My throat cracked, and I took another drink of the water. “He can’t just disappear. He des–” Tears came back and I squeezed my eyes shut tightly briefly before giving a shudder. “He deserves better than that. His family deserves better than that. He was adopted, but—but they loved him. We have to—they have to know. Not everything, but… but please, please don’t let them think he killed himself. He was murdered.” The tears were coming back full force as I spoke. “They can’t think their son killed himself. Please, please.”

Professor Dare’s hand touched my cheek as she nodded. “They won’t. I promise, Flick. They… his parents will know he was a hero. I won’t let them think that he—that he did that. It won’t be okay, but that’s the very least we can do. I’ll take care of it. I’ll move him and—and make sure that no one thinks he committed suicide. Will you–” she paused, looking hesitant and, again, emotional. “Will you be okay here with Asenath for a little bit? I’ll be back as soon as I can, but I’ll need to call some help.”

Sniffing once, I nodded before cringing. “My dad. What about when he… when he wakes up?” It felt sick to talk like this, to talk at all after what happened. I knew that both Dare and Asenath had lost people close to them many times. This wasn’t anything new to them. But it was new to me. It was Scott.

“His memory will have to be adjusted before he wakes up,” Dare informed me quietly and patiently. “It’s the only way if you want people not to believe that Scott killed himself, if you want to change it. He can’t remember seeing him there. He can’t remember hearing you scream or—or any of it. We can set it up differently, but your father can’t remember any of that. It’s that, or let things stay as they are.”

Swallowing hard, I nodded. “If I can’t tell my dad what really happened to Scott, I don’t want him to think that he killed himself. I can’t—no. Please. I can’t let Fossor do that to him. And he’d never—never let me go back to school if he knew that I saw Scott—that I saw Scott–” My voice broke once more.

“I’ll take care of it,” Dare promised while giving my hand a squeeze. “Stay here with Asenath, okay?”

Weakly nodding, I lowered my gaze and stared at the floor again. In the background, I heard the two of them murmur to each other for a second, before Dare left the room to into where Scott’s body was. After a short time there, the front door opened and then closed again as she went to… handle things.

For a few minutes, neither I nor Senny said anything. We just sat there. My eyes stayed locked onto the floor while my hands clenched and unclenched. It was all I could do not to break down yet again. But the anger in me was still steadily overwhelming the grief. My voice, when I finally spoke again, was hard. “I hate him.” I spat the words harshly, because being angry felt better than being sad. Being angry felt productive. Being sad felt helpless. “I hate that son of a bitch. I’m going to kill him. I’m going to kill them both. Ammon and Fossor. They deserve to die. They’re monsters. They’re both monsters.”

“They are,” Senny agreed. Her voice was as gentle as her hand against my arm. “Fossor is evil. The kind of evil that.. that shouldn’t exist. I’m sorry, Flick. I’m sorry you had to see any of this, that you have to deal with that piece of shit. You deserve to be happy. You deserve to have a regular family.”

“I don’t want a regular family,” I snapped despite myself as the anger twisted inside me a bit more. “I want my family. I want my mom back, with the gifts and abilities that she earned. I want my dad to know the truth. I want to know the truth about the world, and I want to help people. I don’t want to go back to being clueless. I want to take my father into the truth. I want him to know everything, and I want my mom back, and I want…” Stopping, I shook my head violently. “But I can’t have that. Any of it. Not now, anyway. But no. I don’t want normal. I want the truth. I want my family back together, with the truth. I want to save people with my mom, with my dad. That’s what I want, not ‘normal.’”

Before Senny could say anything to that, the front door opened again. There was a brief sound of footsteps before Twister came into the kitchen. She was carrying a small computer pad, which she held out to me. “Flick,” the girl said quietly while meeting my gaze. “You should look at this. Trust me.”

I took the pad with a frown of confusion before turning it around. On the screen there was a video playing. A video of a young, familiar boy playing with a truck on the floor in some kind of big room. There were a few other kids around, but he was in the center frame, and immediately recognizable.

The anger boiled up again, and I almost threw the pad even as the tears returned. “Bastard! Why’d Fossor send a video of Scott as a kid? How did he even get a video of Scott from years long ago?”

“Flick,” Twister said gently, head shaking. “It’s not from years ago. Look at the calendar on the wall.”

Confused, I looked at the pad one more, my eyes searching. Sure enough, there was a calendar there. A 2017 calendar, which was set to December. And all around the room, there were Christmas decorations.

The truck that Scott-that eight year old Scott was playing with on the floor… it was a Christmas present.

Twister’s voice cut through as my brain completely locked up. “It’s a live feed, not recorded. He’ll start getting his memories back over the next few months. Then his tail should come in. Probably doesn’t have the ears, or you would’ve noticed as soon as you saw him after the whole Heretic thing. Tails you can hide though.”

“Pooka.” I managed, as a tidal wave of emotions tore down every wall in my mind. “Pooka.” Turning, I went to my feet so fast the chair behind me fell over. I didn’t care. “Scott—you’re saying he—he’s a… He’s a Pooka?!” My voice was a shout. Still didn’t care. “Scott—he’s not—he’s a—he’s a Pooka?!”

The Stranger sense didn’t recognize Pooka, didn’t register them as Strangers at all, or anything non-human. The thoughts were coming to me in a jumble. My grief wanted to turn into delight and relief, but it was hesitant, terrified that this was some kind of mistake or lie. I couldn’t deal with that. Couldn’t deal with losing Scott and then having that hope dangled in front of me only to be yanked away again.

“Why didn’t you say anything before?” Asenath questioned while I was busy staring at the screen where the eight-year-old Scott was making engine noises as he ran the truck up over a green couch.

Dead. Not dead. I didn’t know what to think. I didn’t know what to feel. Could I be happy? Could I be relieved? My body, my brain didn’t know how to switch emotions that fast. I wanted to sob again. I wanted to cry and scream and laugh and… and everything in between.

“I didn’t know.” Twister shrugged. “Not like we recognize each other on sight. But—yeah, that’s him.”

Scott. Scott wasn’t dead. He was, but he wasn’t. He was a Pooka. He was still alive—sort of. He’d get his memories back in a few months. He was a kid again, but he was alive. He wasn’t dead. He wasn’t–

Tears, these ones of much better emotions, flooded my eyes yet again. It took me a second to find my voice, but when I did, a question came. “I—but if you didn’t know, where’d this pad come from?”

“Guy gave it to me when I was checking the neighborhood,” she explained. “Said he wanted you to know that Scott wasn’t dead, that he was sorry he didn’t get back soon enough to help.”

“Get back soon enough to…” I echoed in confusion, my eyes moving from the pad to the girl and back again. “I don’t… Scott’s a Pooka. He—oh my god. He was here on purpose. He grew up with me. They put him here to… to watch Mom. And then to watch me. He knew the whole time. He knew all of it. He was watching me, probably… protecting me. He was—he… but who? Who put him there?”

“I did.” A new voice spoke up. All of us jumped, even Asenath. Turning, we saw a man standing there. A tall, broad-shouldered black man whose form filled the doorway he was standing in, and whose aura seemed to fill the entire room, the entire house.

“And it’s probably time that we talk,” Gabriel Prosser announced.

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Tis The Season 19-02

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As a quick note, there was a brief mini-interlude focusing on Rudolph and Roxa’s old team posted a couple days ago. If you haven’t seen that yet, you may wish to hit the Previous Chapter button above. 

“The amount of stuff you can get used to in such a short time is kind of amazing if you think about it,” I murmured under my breath, only half-aware that I was speaking out loud. It’s not like there was anyone around for me to talk to. It was daytime on Christmas Eve, so Asenath was sleeping. Shiori had gone back to visit her adoptive parents and Columbus until the next day, and Twister was watching over my dad while he spent some time in the newspaper office doing story research for a few hours.

Which left me alone. But it wasn’t that bad. I’d spent a lot of time alone before Crossroads happened. It gave me time to think and get my head on straight. Not to mention shop. Yeah, I sort of still needed to pick up presents for my dad and some others. Which felt bad, but I did have a lot on my mind lately.

Besides, it wasn’t like this town ever got that busy, even at Christmas. There were crowds, but it wasn’t anything like the kind of stuff I’d seen on the news about bigger cities. And the fact that I didn’t have to find a place to park was one less problem to deal with. I just walked into the store and started browsing.

“And what kind of stuff is that, Miss Chambers,” an unexpected voice cut through my daydreaming, making me jerk around in surprise. My item-sensing power had been telling me about people passing by the entire time I’d been standing in front of the shirt display, but this one hadn’t just kept walking.

“Scott,” I blurted, recognizing my former babysitter-turned-deputy immediately, as soon as my brain caught up with my reflexes. My hand stopped moving for my weapon canister and I tried to relax.

Not fast enough, apparently. Scott Utell, standing there in civilian clothes rather than his deputy uniform, raised an eyebrow at me. “Whoa, nice defensive posture there, little lady. Been taking classes up there in that fancy pants private school you abandoned us common folk for?” His tone was lightly teasing.

Flushing a little bit before using the face-shifting power to make it go away, I straightened and tried to change the subject. “Sorry, you just took me by surprise. What-uh, what are you doing here, Scott?”

Lifting the bag that he was holding (my power told me there were a few books, a dvd, two shirts, a game, and some kind of action figure inside), Scott shook it a bit. “Shopping. Why, what’re you doing? Oh, and by that, I mean what are you doing that’s making you get used to a lot of stuff in a short time?”

Shrugging while thinking of an excuse, I replied, “Oh, you know. That fancy pants school. Easy to get used to the crowds and all those rich kids. Then I come back here and this feels like the strange place, even though I grew up here. It’s kind of—um, easy to forget how small and… quiet it is around here.”

I didn’t even have to make any of that up, honestly. It was strange to come back to this quiet, sleepy town after everything that had happened. Granted, it wasn’t really because of spoiled rich kids, but still.

“Yeah, I suppose it would be.” Scott lowered the bag before nodding toward my own empty hands. “Doesn’t look like you’re having much luck with the whole shopping thing, though. What’s the matter, not enough options? Used to those giant four story malls with a whole special store for everything?”

Coughing, I shook my head rapidly while trying not to blanch too much. “No. Please no. Let’s just say I’ve had enough malls for the time being. Just a nice, quiet department store is good enough for me.”

Scott looked interested. “Sounds like there’s a story there. And the Flick I know loves sharing stories.”

It took a bit of effort, but somehow I managed to keep my voice at least somewhat casual.“Sorry, Scott, I’m not really in the mood to talk about it. I just—sort of want to focus on the normal stuff right now.”

That eyebrow of his went up again. “Normal stuff, huh? As opposed to—wait, don’t tell me. You ran up there and found yourself a bunch of trouble, didn’t you? I should’ve known. You help bust the closest thing Laramie Falls ever had to a drug kingpin, I can’t imagine what kind of stuff they’ve got up there.”

Weakly, I gave a slight nod, my voice quiet despite my attempt to sound casual. “You’d be surprised.”

“Maybe I would,” Scott acknowledged, his eyes watching me for a moment. “But if you change your mind and decide you do want to talk about it, well, my ears are always open. Keep it in mind, okay?”

If only it was that simple. “Yeah,” I murmured. “I’ll keep it in mind.” Straightening then, I cleared my throat. “But for right now, I’m gonna hijack you so you can help me find something good for my dad.”

“Hijack me, huh?” Scott shook his head with obvious amusement. “Don’t I have to be a boat or a truck or something to hijack me? I think the word you’re looking for is kidnap, Miss Super-Reporter.”

“Eh.” I shrugged with a faint smile, enjoying the (relatively) normal conversation. “I blame any failures in my vocabulary on you making up words when we were playing Scrabble. I mean honestly, tviuckt?”

Scott chuckled, giving a totally not-at-all innocent shrug. “Way I see it, that just taught you to check your sources before accepting whatever someone tells you. See? Told you I was a great babysitter.”

I rolled my eyes at that, catching his arm. “Right, good excuse. Now come on, help me go shopping.”

******

“Oh, hey, Professor Dare.”

It was later that afternoon, and I had just opened the door at the sound of the bell to find the blonde woman standing on our porch. She wore a nice red coat as an obvious pretense to caring about the weather, though I was pretty sure it didn’t actually bother her, and was carrying a leather briefcase.

“Felicity,” she greeted me with a warm smile, one that felt more open than she normally was at school. “I hope I’m not too early. I wanted to get here soon enough to help out a little bit rather than just eat.”

Behind me, Dad spoke up. “Oh, we never object to help around here. Especially when it comes to anything involving food.” He stepped over, extending a hand as I moved aside. “Lincoln Chambers.”

Taking his hand, Professor Dare smiled. “Mr. Chambers, it’s a pleasure to meet you. I’m Virginia Dare.”

After the brief handshake, Dad paused, head tilting a little curiously as he regarded her for a second. “You know, Flick said your name before, but now I’ve just gotta ask. Did your parents happen to be–”

“History nerds,” Dare confirmed for him with a chuckle. “My mother. She couldn’t resist the chance to name me Virginia. Sometimes I think it’s the only reason she actually married my father, for his name.”

She lied so well and simply that for a second, I forgot what the truth was. Dad, meanwhile, chuckled as well. “Well, I’m just glad they gave you an interesting name. It must be a good conversation starter.”

As he spoke, Dad stepped back out of the way with a gesture. “And please, come on in out of the cold.”

“It does tend to attract questions from the right kind of people,” Dare acknowledged while moving inside. “Ones that know their history. And those are the best ones to have a conversation with.” Her head nodded toward me. “Like your daughter. I find conversations with Felicity are never boring.”

Dad patted my shoulder briefly. “She doesn’t like to blend into the crowd, that’s for sure.” His voice was embarrassingly fond before he shook his head, thankfully not launching into an entire ‘proud father’ spiel about me. “Right, mind if I take your coat? I’ll just put it up in the closet out of the way.”

As Dare shrugged off the coat and handed it to him, Dad started to take it before pausing. He glanced back to her, that thoughtful look back on his face as he gave the woman another quick once over. “You know,” he began slowly. “You look really familiar. Have we met before? Maybe down in Los Angeles. I used to work there before coming out here, and I still fly back now and then to visit some friends.”

Shaking her head at that, Professor Dare replied, “I don’t think we’ve actually met, no. If we had, you would’ve remembered the name. But I have been to California. Maybe we passed by each other.”

Dad seemed to consider that for a moment before nodding. “Maybe. I just could’ve sworn I–” He paused and then shook it off. “Never mind. Let me put this away.” Waving the coat, he stepped over to the closet. “Flick, why don’t you show Professor Dare around a little bit before we worry about food?”

I started to do that, stepping away with her. Once we were far enough away, I whispered, “Is he actually wrong, or has he met you before?” Glancing to her, I added pointedly. “Like say, around here.”

“You don’t need to whisper,” Dare replied in a normal voice. “Your father won’t hear anything we’re talking about.” She looked over to me then before nodding. “And yes, he probably did see me around now and then. Actually, I’m surprised you didn’t recognize me too. After… after your mother disappeared, Gaia thought it would be a good idea to have some of us check in on you now and then. Just in case anything happened. I tried to stay in the background, but… well, there aren’t many people in this town. And,” she added almost as an aside to herself, “Maybe part of me wanted you to see me.”

“Wanted me to see you?” I echoed uncertainly, mulling that briefly before shaking my head. “Why?”

For a few seconds, her only response was a long, low sigh as she watched me. Then Dare raised her hand to lay on my arm. “Because I missed your mother, Felicity. She was… she was a very good student. She challenged the others, made the people around her better. I was hoping she might actually become a teacher. Then the underground movement became a full scale rebellion and… well, that was never going to happen. But I still had a chance to talk to her now and then. I um—I volunteered to come here because I missed that. I missed her. Same reason I volunteered to pick you up for school in September.”

That made me remember that I wanted to ask Professor Dare exactly what had been going on when I was left alone in an almost empty field with just the bus and that door. I wanted her take on what was up with that, though it obviously had something to do with making sure Mom wasn’t secretly with me.

Before I could say anything about that though, we reached the top of the stairs and I saw my bedroom door open. Asenath was standing there, hand against the doorjamb as she watched our arrival curiously.

Seeing her, Professor Dare paused, voice going silent. Her face softened, and she stared for a moment with obvious emotions swirling through her expression before murmuring, “Gods, I see him in you.”

Equal emotion flickered in Senny’s gaze before she brought it mostly under control. In that moment, I realized that as old and experienced as she was, in some ways, the other girl was still a little girl waiting for her father to come back. She was a little girl who missed her daddy, and hearing someone who knew him say that they saw him in her had to be wrecking her. After all, I knew how it felt to have someone say that they saw my mother in me. Especially after everything that I had found out about her.

Finally, Senny found her voice. “Papa talked a little bit about a girl he used to take care of. I was little, so I can’t remember all of it. But he said she was like a daughter to him, that she was… that she was like my sister. I just… he said she wasn’t a vampire, so I thought she’d died a long time before. I didn’t—I…”

She trailed off like that, clearly unsure of what to say as she stood there staring at the blonde woman.

Clearing my throat after a second of that, I gestured. “Right. Here, I’ll give you guys some privacy and let you talk for a bit. Take your time, use my room and get to know each other. I’ll just be downstairs.”

After looking back and forth between them for a second, I smiled to myself while moving back to the stairs. Heading down, I heard the quiet murmur of their conversation before it faded to white noise.

Dad was in the kitchen, reading the recipe that I’d managed to get Twister to write down for us. He’d wanted to try his hand at making an actual Christmas Eve dinner rather than just calling for takeout or grabbing a frozen family dinner at the store, so I told him that Asenath’s mother (the one that he thought had cooked dinner for us back when I’d visited for my birthday) had sent the recipe for him.

My mouth opened to ask him if he needed any help (with, of course, added teasing about him burning the place down), but before I could, the doorbell rang. Waving a hand as he straightened up, I called, “I got it!” Then I jogged through the hall to the entrance, wondering who it could be. Professor Dare was already there, and Senny said that Jiao wouldn’t be around until the next evening, at the earliest.

Peering through the peephole briefly, I blinked at the person there before opening the door. “Scott?”

“Hey, Flick.” He stood there, in uniform that time. Like earlier, he was holding a bag in one hand. “I’m not interrupting or anything, am I? I just thought I’d stop by and do a little Christmas present delivery.”

“Oh!” Quickly stepping back, I shook my head. “No, come in. Sorry, I just thought we were doing that tomorrow. Gimme a second, I’ll run upstairs and get yours.” Turning, I called, “Dad, Scott’s here!”

I’d taken a few steps toward the stairs when the house phone rang. Dad called from the kitchen to ask if I’d grab it, so I stopped and grabbed the handset off the wall before hitting the button. “Hello?”

“Are you having a nice time at your last Christmas with your father, Felicity?”

The voice… the words… my blood ran cold and I stopped short. Fossor. Fossor was on the phone. He had actually called me. What kind of sick—but I knew the answer to that. Him. He was the kind of sick freak who would find that amusing. My first instinct was to throw the phone against the wall, to break the damn thing or get it as far away from myself as possible. Even just hearing that son of a bitch’s voice freaked me out and made me start shaking almost immediately. I started to snap off a demand about what he wanted, but the words died in my throat. I couldn’t speak, not through any magic of his, but because I was afraid. Afraid of why he was calling.

He continued, clearly amused by my response (or lack thereof). “I asked you a question, young lady.”

Finally, I found my voice. “What-” It cracked a bit and I caught myself. “What the hell do you want?”

“As I said,” he replied smoothly, “I wanted to see how you were doing, and if you were making the most of your last Christmas with your father. It is important to spend the time with family that we can, don’t you think? Almost as important as it is to listen to your father and do as you’re told. Do you listen to your father, Felicity? Or is obedience to the male role model something else we’ll have to work on?”

I couldn’t help it, the words came reflexively before I knew what I was saying. “Yeah? Well it doesn’t seem like Ammon tends to listen to you all that much. Last I saw, he likes going off on his own a lot.”

If he was annoyed by those words, the man’s voice didn’t show it. “Yes, Ammon has been disciplined for his misbehavior. Children will be children, after all. I’m sure you’ll understand when the time comes. But there are times that he does as he’s told, and relays the instructions that he’s told to relay.”

The instructions that he was told to relay? I wanted to hang up. So much of my brain was screaming at me to just hang up. My hand was tight around the receiver, and I had to stop myself from using enough of my strength to snap the thing in half. Finally, I managed a somewhat weak, “What?”

Fossor’s response was a simple, “Don’t you want to turn around and open your present?”

“Turn aro–” Dropping the phone, I pivoted back the other way, toward the door. My mouth was already open, starting to shout, to scream.

Scott stood there. The bag was on the floor, wrapped presents strewn at his feet. In his hand, my old babysitter, my friend, held his service revolver up with the barrel against the bottom of his chin.

“Merry Christmas, Felicity.”

Then he pulled the trigger.

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