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Fantasy Spellbound: Revelation [CLOSED]

Sub Genres
Action, Magical, Realistic, Romance, School

rumxcoke

Elder Member
Across the room Lorenzo happily guided his adorable tease dressed in a tantalizing red cloak to the first game. The two took up bean-bags to shoot the target on a lever. When struck, it released the latch and the teacher sitting upon the paddle fell into the water tank. They earned several tickets as well as encouraging cheers from the students who were desperate to see Coach Earl get his due!

Next, they met up with Charlotte at a virtual knife-throwing game. The sisters, having a mother who built a career on staking hearts, knew just how to handle these weapons. Lorenzo found himself lacking in comparison. While Kaylee could strike a target like breathing when she had a bow, and she got more hits with a dagger than Lorenzo, this time around Charlotte shined as a natural flinger of blades. They parted on good terms though.

Thereafter, Kaylee and Lorenzo came to several more games. They built up tickets to get items they were interested in at the prize booth. Standing off to the side to enjoy a sampling of cotton candy before going to the Haunted House, both were witnessed to an intriguing moment in Lottie’s life.

It was after winning a ticket for an agility game that a shy Freshman came shuffling over in his Ash Ketchum costume, with a stuffed pikachu on his left shoulder, to speak with Charlotte. “Ahem,” he weakly coughed. “Sorry to uh, to bother you um—I’m Noah, and um,” his cheeks burned. He could barely look up at Charlotte. “Would you want to have a dance with—with me?”

The question came out so quietly that Charlotte nearly missed it. She stood, blank faced, for a good few seconds before it dawned on her what was happening. Wide mocha eyes took in the sight of the brave boy who fought his fear to talk with her. Had the time really come? Was she being seen as a woman? Then doubt came to crash onto her shoulders as her mind pointed out this was a Freshman; a baby, just like her, who might not know she was a Sophomore. She hadn’t met him before either, so there was a good chance Noah had only wanted to dance from watching her win so much. While not thrilled, Charlotte didn’t see a reason to shut him down.

“Sure, okay,” Charlotte sighed in agreement, taking his hand and leading them to the dance floor when a fast-paced song came on.

Cara, just coming to the snacks with Matt after several dances, cooed, “Aw, little Dove.”

Chuckling, Matt said, “Careful that she doesn't hear you.”

Arriving just in time, Paulo—between breaks from the Haunted House—and Elijah, who had been having a blast going around to ‘battle’ the monsters willing to play along, came for their own break.

Paulo asked, “Doesn’t hear what?”

Waving her hand dismissively, Cara said, “Nothing, Matt’s just being overly cautious. How have you guys been?”

“Great! We have a lot of fun pictures,” Elijah grinned. “Paulo and I ended up trying to make a chronological story, but we’re having trouble seeing how they all fit together.”

“Yeah, it’s been fun,” Paulo finished his drink and wiped his mouth clean. “But I gotta get back to the Haunted House now. Probably gonna ride the rest of the time that it’s open with Serenity. Danson is apparently annoying her since he decided to stay and keep an eye on the TARDIS he hid along the trail. See you guys!”

The friends said their farewells and Matt hummed ponderously, “Hey, we should find Tysha and get Charlotte, then go through the Haunted House. What do you guys think?”

Lorenzo shrugged and said, “Fine with me.”

“Sounds good,” Elijah smiled.

Cara sighed, “Okay, but this time if we fall into any portal, don’t just squeal in my ear. That hurt!”

Scoffing in mock offense, Matt protested, “I did not squeal.”

“Oh sorry, does ‘shriek like a little girl’ make you feel better?” Cara asked in false innocence.

“No,” Matt rolled his eyes. He muttered under his breath that Danson had a higher pitch anyway.

Speaking of the many-limbed devil, Tysha came laughing and tumbling over to them. “Hey guys!” She grabbed a cup to drink. “Whatcha up to?”

“Haunted House time!” Matt announced.

“Oh, Haunted House!” Tysha repeated happily, pausing to take a good swig of her cold beverage. “That’s great. When?”

“As soon as Charlotte comes back,” Elijah gave a nod.

The young girl did her best to make the dance with Noah worth the trouble he went through to request it, but as soon as it ended and they parted on good terms, she was glad to join back with her friends.

“You got a dance, girl!” Cara praised.

“Yeah, with a toddler like me,” Charlotte puffed, grabbing a snack or two, trying not to scrunch her face.

"Maybe he's just late to blossom too," Tallulah offered in defense of the Freshman who had been nothing but bright eyes for Charlotte. "Don't be so harsh on yourself, girl."

Even if Charlotte was less than pleased with her partner, Kaylee had to say she was excited for her sister to be asked to a dance. He might have been slightly younger than they were, but to her it still took quite a bit of courage to approach someone to ask for a dance. If anything, knowing she was a higher grade than he was made Kaylee respect the young man even more. Sure, he might not have been a chiseled, confident presence like Lorenzo was, but he still seemed nice.

“Enough about that though,” Charlotte said. “How are you guys doing?”

"The dance has been going great,” Kaylee offered, finishing off her punch and discarding the cup as she kept her place at Lorenzo's side. Just the thought of some of their more heated moments that were lost in the throng of bodies had her cheeks pink, though she played it off as she went on to what the group consensus was. "I think we're all going to head over to the Haunted House next." The party was still going and it only made sense to enjoy it while it lasted, although Kaylee already had thoughts of suggesting just what they do after the house.

Perking, Charlotte said, “Oh fun! Yeah, let’s do that—Wait, where’s Sam?”

Tallulah gave a nonchalant shrug at the question of his location. He was a nice guy and all, but she wasn't in charge of keeping track of him anymore.

Putting on the most serious face she could, Kaylee shook her head slowly. "We don't sit with Sam anymore."

Charlotte squinted in careful study of sister. Could this be a bluff?

Solemnly, Elijah said, “It’s a real shame.”

“I never thought he’d do something so…” Matt trailed off, shaking his head.

A break in the fellowship wasn’t something you didn’t tell the others! What could have happened?! Charlotte paled and gaped, turning to her sister and asking fervently, “What? What is it?”

Kaylee tried her hand at a Mean Girls impression before chuckling, "Kidding.”

Charlotte exhaled in relief first, then pursed her lips to try to stifle an amused grin at being tricked while the others had their fun laughing. She gave the closest of them a small smack on their shoulder. “Oh, to hell with you guys!”

Regaining his breath, Matt said, “Seriously though, does anyone know?”

Kaylee answered, “I think I last saw him at the games with a few of his friends. I don't think he's coming with?"

“Actually I think he might have been commandeered as one of the monsters for the Haunted House,” Elijah said. “Either way, he won’t be angry if we went since we can’t find him. Come on.”

On their way to the library they chatted casually about their night thus far. Lorenzo and Kaylee happened to mention Regina, Hugo, and Paisley. They reflected on their difficulties with Regina and the pantie-bra-rope they made for their revenge.

“—should have seen her face at camp,” Charlotte grinned.

“I did,” Lorenzo chuckled. “I was in the back though. It was very funny.” Not all of them were supportive of revenge pranks, but they had to admit it was amusing. Lorenzo certainly thought so! “Regina’s hot, but she does have a nasty side.”

If there was something that could put a more sour taste in Kaylee's mouth in so few syllables, she couldn't imagine what it would be. Even if there were undeniable physical features that some might find attractive (especially since her awful nose was surgically improved) that didn't mean Kaylee could ever find someone with such an ugly heart attractive.

The blatant praise of the physique of their frenemy only caught Charlotte somewhat off-guard. It wasn’t as if his opinion of Regina’s appearance wasn’t shared by many. It was just odd to hear him say so, and with no hint of caution. If anyone else had the same thought, they didn’t get to express it. Without paying attention they had already arrived at the Haunted House and passed through the threshold.

A ghostly wail in the distance stole their attention. The skittering of taps on wood painted images of spiders in their heads. Each of them naturally gravitated into a tighter group.

“Serenity and Paulo don’t mess around,” Cara muttered, feeling her body jolt when something woodshed overhead.

High above them were pale vaporous shapes swooping over, mouths agape in silent screams when they weren’t looking up, but any time a child glanced they pierced their ears with a shriek.

“Heads down!” Matt shivered, hoping he wouldn't be tempted to peek.

Lorenzo was thankful for his wolfish mask that worked like a visor. He also didn’t complain, keeping his eyes down all the same, what with his Little Red Riding Hood companion right beside him. The costume Kaylee wore gave him little reason not to comply.

Through the dips and highs of the Haunted House, they were all properly thrilled with the adrenaline rush of controlled fear. However, they still wanted to answer the big question.

“Did you see the TARDIS yet?” Matt asked them quietly as they turned a corner.

“Not yet…” Elijah answered.

They had gone through three whole scenes of horror and a single daring test of their nerves without a sniff of the tall police box. From what they knew from Serenity and Paulo, they had only two scenes left of horror and one more of daring before the trail ended.

“Wait,” Charlotte paused, seeing a bust sculpture of a familiar man in one of the scenes ahead of them. His shirt had a bow tie and he wore a fez hat. In his hand he held something long and metal.

They came to a stand-still. Matt asked, “What is it?”

“That’s the eleventh Doctor, isn’t it?” Charlotte pointed.

They peered past the statues of winged angels covering their faces in the graveyard to see it carved on the front of a tomb. Indeed, the ‘Raggedy Man’ stared out at anyone who passed with a knowing grin.

Everyone grew excited at the sight before them, even if it was from an old TV show. The frightening sight of the Weeping Angels was enough to root some in their place while others lunged forward to try and snatch up the sonic screwdriver. Less than familiar with the show specifics, but frightened nonetheless by just how eerie the statues were, Tallulah made the mistake of standing still before snowballing into something worse.

In a flash, the stationary statues flickered from their places when they were wholly unwatched. One of them happened to be halted just before they could reach Tallulah. The hands, tipped with Stoney claws, outstretched. Their faces were far from angelic; silent shrieking mouths lined with fangs, the apples of their cheeks bunched up their narrowed eyes between brows dipped angrily.

"These things are creepy!" Tallulah yelped, clenching her eyes shut before anyone could tell her not to blink.

The simulation did it's part for the angels to come and touch her, instantly dropping her from the scene by a portal in the ground and leading her to the end of the house for those who had passed.

More familiar after listening to exciting chatter for weeks, Kaylee snatched at Lorenzo's hand, yanking him so they were back to back.

Lorenzo inhaled sharply, glancing around, “What—,”

"Don't blink!" Kaylee commanded, using her peripherals to look at the statue. "We have to get closer but we can't let the angels get us."

Catching on to what Kaylee meant after finding Matt vanished when Lorenzo’s blink made him vulnerable to the angel just feet away, he decided to alternate between eyes so that he didn’t dry them out.

“Careful, careful!” Cara said as she formed a human wheel with all eyes outward.

Tysha had to chuckle, “Oh man, I can tell Danny had fun with this one!”

“Fun isn’t the word I’d use,” Charlotte spoffed. “More like sadistic satisfaction.” She kept her eyes on the angels in front of her as they stepped toward the sonic screwdriver. “Lorenzo, Kaylee—you guys alright?”

“Yes, we’re okay,” Lorenzo answered. “Should we follow you guys?”

“How far away are you?” Charlotte asked.

“Uuuh, I think—Oh shit!” Lorenzo’s heart jolted. The question distracted him enough that he forgot not to blink. A twisted-faced Angel now stood directly beside him, out of the visual scope of Kaylee. “I don’t know and I’m kinda panicking.”

Tysha said, “Just hold on. Maybe the screwdriver will do something.”

Slowly they shuffled over with only two close calls. Finally Charlotte was able to reach out and grab it. She didn’t know what to expect. Charlotte wiggled it around, tapped it, twisted, pressed buttons, and everything.

“Any luck?” Cara asked.

Charlotte huffed, “What do we do with it?”

“Point it at something!” Tysha said. “Think about the TARDIS.”

Doing so, in less time than she expected, they heard the familiar grind and whine of the blue police box. A portal opened and the TARDIS materialized.

“Woo!” Cara cheered. “Alright, let’s shuffle inside. Come on, we can do this!”

Artfully, they managed to shuffle all the way into the doors of the TARDIS, leaving behind the overgrown graveyard and the alien statues. Tysha made sure the door was fully shut before giving them the queue that it was fine not to worry about blinking now.

Each step to the screwdriver and then to the TARDIS had been torture to Kaylee. Never in her life had she wanted to blink so badly. The knowledge that her and her friends depended on keeping her eyes open was barely enough to get by. The times statues crept close her heart had thudded in her chest, worried they weren't going to make it all the way up until they were in the safety of the police box.

"Jeez, that was intense," Kaylee exhaled, running a hand through her hair. "I wonder how many made it through besides us?"

“I dunno, but that’s a problem for another day—Run!”

The trail ahead proved challenging. Dalek’s, Tin-Men, and many more monsters and aliens awaited them. There was a clever puzzle to undo, a possible appearance of River Song in the shadows, and a death-defying face-off with the struggles of morality. In the end Kaylee, Lorenzo, and Charlotte remained. Cara and Tysha were long since gone.

“This,” Charlotte panted, “Has got to be the best and worst experience I’ve had at a Halloween party.”

Lorenzo wiped his face of the sweat collecting under his fur. “You can say that again. I just hope we’re almost done.”

The last challenge apparently had to do with a simple choice between an apple or fishfingers and custard. They had to choose which to pack in the lunchbox of the holofigure of the Eleventh Doctor.

“I know which one,” Charlotte said, stuffing the fish-fingers into a baggy that she put into a paper bag, followed by a jar of custard. “There you go Doctor.”

The holofigure received it with a grateful smile, “Ah, thank you!” He said, before heading to the exit. Just before he left, he turned and said, “The TARDIS will bring you back to where you need to be. Have fun, good luck, and remember—bow ties are cool.”

As soon as the Doctor winked and left them, the children were treated to another grind and whine of sound. Once it stopped the door opened and familiar faces came walking in with gifts.

“Félicitations à vous trois!” Their Aunt Lauri beamed, carrying a package of prizes along with her husband.

"Congratulations indeed! Quite the clever and quick thinking from you all," Oliver joined in the praise as they approached the trio.

Similar to his wife, they both wore the black formal robes for the famed fictional school of Witchcraft and Wizardry, with a sweater vest beneath and house-appropriate colored tie. Lauri’s yellow and black couldn’t be mistaken for anything other than Hufflepuff. For the British Lion, there was no question as to his house of choice, proudly wearing the maroon and gold colors of Gryffindor. In his movements to meet the students who had completed the house, the shuffling had caused Oliver’s tie to run lopsided, something to be corrected when he had his hands to himself again.

Lauri laid out the options for their gifts on the table along with Oliver. She folded her hands and stepped to the side so they might have a look. Hazel eyes were drawn to the displaced tie at her husband's throat who stood on the other end of the table. She adjusted her skirt to keep her fingers from reaching over. A small smirk spread, though Lauri tamed it smooth while in the presence of children.

"Well then, what prize will it be?" Oliver asked.

Still dealing with the adrenaline from their run, Kaylee only gave their aunt and uncle a grin before peeking at their options. One basket that was a movie theme reminded her of the giftcard still sitting on a shelf at home, never used with Joss. Deciding not to waste a prize on that, she looked past and settled on an elaborate snack box filled with all kinds gourmet snacks and treats.

"I'll take that one, please," Kaylee requested.

"Or course, dear. A prize well earned! And if memory serves me correctly, for a second year in a row, as well," Oliver recalled, handing over the box to her. "Von Helsing competitiveness, no doubt."

[After: when he had his hands to himself again.]

Lauri laid out the options for their gifts on the table along with Oliver. She folded her hands and stepped to the side so they might have a look. Hazel eyes were drawn to the displaced tie at her husband's throat who stood on the other end of the table. She adjusted her skirt to keep her fingers from reaching over. A small smirk spread, though Lauri tamed it smooth while in the presence of children.

[End]

Without skipping a beat, Charlotte chuckled, “Dad would say it’s from his side of the family.”

Lorenzo had heard them say such things at least once before. While he waited for his turn, he genuinely examined Kaylee’s face and Charlotte’s for understanding—adopted children couldn’t inherit traits through genetics—but came away with no satisfying answer to his internal question, simply resigning to leave that as a head-scratcher.

“Ooo!” Charlotte pulled up a pair of ‘conversation cups’ with a bundle of chocolate strawberries nestled into one and a couple of tickets to a Zoo tucked into the other. “Look, this says I could pick any Zoo I’d want! And it can be up to three days. This is great!”

Students came from all over. It was only considerate to make sure that, wherever they end up on the weekends or summer, they would be able to use their tickets at their local Zoo.

Lauri smiled, “Oui, you and one other could spend a date—,” Seeing the Charlotte wince, it became clear she had no expectation to use the other parts of the prize. That required interest from a guy. “—or, you can just go with a friend. Either way!”

Confused, Lorenzo asked, “Wouldn’t you be able to do that anyway? Aren’t your parents rich?”

“Well, yeah, but we have to earn our own money. They’d only take us to someplace like this if it had to do with school or something,” Charlotte explained, tucking the gift to her chest. “But I’mma use this for fun.”

No note-taking or studying, no droning shuffle with a large group of kids, no chaperone to submit to, no arguing over which animal to see first—You didn’t just bop around, you had to have a plan! One that touched on each animal you wanted to see, looping back to the beginning, or to any final destination you desired. Anyone who didn’t do this? Fools. With the power of these passes Charlotte had ultimate control. That, and chocolate covered strawberries were yummy. These had a variety too; white, milk, and dark.

Lorenzo chuckled, shaking his head. He took his time to choose a prize. There were many exciting baskets, jars, and solo gadgets left. “Hmm, this is hard! So many. I wish I could just sample them all.”

The young man often had that opinion. Charlotte recalled Lorenzo saying something similar when he was around to hear talk about Danson wanting to be Elite, among other times.

“Well,” Charlotte pointed to some of the gift-cards. “There’s the ‘Of the Month’ subscriptions. You can sample a lot of kinds of things over time.”

Perking, Lorenzo bent over to take a look. “Ah, a ‘game of the month’ would be great.”

The card itself was less money than renting or buying a single game. It would be useful to test them before deciding to buy. The fact that he got this free from the prize-pack only made it better. A whole year of surprises and different experiences!

With the prizes selected, Oliver went to gather the remaining ones that were left for any future students who made it through successfully. "Excellent choices," he nodded to the young adults. "Well, you three had better meet up with your mates before it gets too late. The dance will only last so long!"

Kaylee slid her basket of goodies over her arm, nodding at their aunt and uncle. "eah, we should get going. Time to go boast to the others," she chuckled, expecting Lorenzo and Lottie to follow as she headed to the illuminated exit of the TARDIS, her ensemble unintentionally even more completed now with her wicker basket in tow.

With the prizes selected, Oliver went to gather the remaining ones that were left for any future students who made it through successfully. "Excellent choices," he nodded to the young adults. "Well, you three had better meet up with your mates before it gets too late. The dance will only last so long!"

Kaylee slid her basket of goodies over her arm, nodding at their aunt and uncle. "Yeah, we should get going. Time to go boast to the others," she chuckled, expecting Lorenzo and Lottie to follow as she headed to the illuminated exit of the house, her ensemble unintentionally even more completed now with her wicker basket in tow.

True to the character of the wolf in that fairy tale, Lorenzo tracked Kaylee with hungry eyes, and for more than what was in her wicker basket, out the door. Charlotte took a minute longer. She had pulled the cups up to read what conversations these things were meant to make. Apparently they centered around developing a rapport with whoever drank with you. She considered throwing them out, but in the end she decided they would be good for regifting.

Lauri stowed the last of the packages of gifts and prizes in the cabinet where she and Oliver tucked beside, so that students weren’t brought out of the exciting atmosphere of the TARDIS until they passed the final test.

Turning, she grinned to see the tie had yet to be fixed. “Ta cravate, mon Amour.” Lauri sat atop the ledge of one of the consoles and gave the silk a tug. “It is in need of attention.”

Misty grey eyes were quite used to watching his Lamb and her behaviors, and didn't miss a certain twinkle in her eyes. "Oh? Attention, is it?" his brows perked in interest as he stepped closer to her, gently nudging her thighs apart so that he was centered between them. "And what sort of attention would that require, mon Agneau?" Reaching up, Oliver let his thumb and forefinger play along the knot that was already threatening to be compromised.

Very aware that they were out of the line of sight of cameras and their duties to children were temporarily suspended, Lauri allowed herself this moment of sultry mischief.

“What is there to do, except to tie it?” Lauri feigned innocence, reaching up to the silk. “Why don’t I help—Oh woops, regardez ça.” It slipped easily from his neck, piling onto his hands, winding around his fingers. “Ah, tsc, tsc, tellement malheureux. You may have to fix it yourself.” Lauri’s hand rested on his chest. “These fingers of mine; so slippery...” she purred. Her fingers slid down to his buttons, plucking them from their slits one by one.

The Lion's tail would have switched back and forth behind him if he had one, watching as his favorite prey presented herself for the hunt. "Slippery hands indeed," Oliver agreed thoughtfully, the tie still draped in his hands as they dropped down to her wrists. "Et nous ne pouvons tout simplement pas avoir ça, n'est-ce pas? [And we just can't have that can we?" he asked in a low murmur as practiced hands tugged the tapered silk, weaving it about her wrists until a makeshift restraint was nearly made, though still loose.

“N-non, nous ne pouvons pas avoir ça…” Lauri breathed, watching him with as much electric desire as he had for her.

Keeping his gaze trained on her, Oliver bent down to take hold of the end in his mouth, getting a grip and giving it a slow, even tug until they tightened about her, hungry eyes eager to devour his captive.

TikTok

Lauri went to swipe her hands over his head to encircle him, but Oliver caught her wrists gently. She feigned a pout, struggling to appear displeased, failing entirely. Her hands raised above hers until they hooked to the knobs of the dials above her. “Oo, le lion a attrapé son agneau,” Lauri smiled seductively. She shifted where she sat, feeling that heat rise. Her legs tightened around his hips. “Whatever shall I do now?”

Oliver smirked down at his wife and her playful allure, clicking his tongue against the roof of his mouth three times as one had slowly slid down one of her arms. "Oh, I can think of quite a few things to do with you, mon Amour. Rien de tout cela ne peut être dit à propos des enfants," he whispered softly as his lips dropped to just beside her ear. “Dois-je vous ramener à la maison pour être dévoré, doux agneau?"

Letting out a pent-up breath that flowed warm over his neck, Lauri sighed with longing, “You quicken more than my heart, mon Lion. Cet agneau est à votre merci.” She strained provocatively against the tie. “Here, or home—Ne me tourmentez plus.” Lauri nipped at his lips and tilted her head back, so that her throat might entice him.

The odds of a student finding the entrance to the Doctor Who trail was slim. The Haunted House trail, including the TARDIS, would be closing soon anyway. Lauri would take that gamble.

While he might have thought of them scurrying off to home, the moment Lauri's neck was bare, any sense of waiting was long gone. Oliver’s hands found their way to her hips and the waistband of her skirt, ready to face the odds of being found if that meant a well-deserved snack of his wife. "Maintenant, laissez-moi vous montrer ce que ma baguette magique peut faire, ma petite sorcière," he breathed before tugging her close for a proper session of being devoured and shown all sorts of magic spells while under the excited rush of not wanting a student to find them.

All while the Gryffindor ravaged his Hufflepuff, some students of the Von Helsing Academy were getting caught, here and there, trying to do the same in the closets and unlocked rooms of the school. The janitor, Mr. Marsh, had insisted on making sure no one got the chance! He came with his broom to shoo the randy troublemakers back to the Great Hall or their separate dorms.

“Lorenzo, the janitor is glaring angrily at you,” Tysha noted, gnawing gratefully on a snack Kaylee offered her. Bitterness over losing out on the TARDIS trail was short-lived.

Turning to see, Lorenzo flashed a sheepish smile at the man and waved. “Eh, guess so.”

The man pointed his fingers at his own eyes and then towards Lorenzo before stalking off in search of more wily children.

“Why do you think he’s grumpy with you?” Serenity asked. She had joined up once the Haunted House closed down.

If he had an answer, they wouldn’t know. The announcer blared out, “Ghouls and Monsters, it’s time to say goodbye.”

“Aww,” the students grumbled.

Cara nudged Kaylee, “After party time!”

Serenity looked around. “Where’s Lottie?”

Professor Taliesin's face popped right beside the young girl, startling her. “Right here,” Charlotte’s feminine voice spoke through the stoic professors lips.

“Ah!” Serenity gasped, stepping away. “Oo, don’t do that!”

Chuckling, Charlotte flicked the face away. “Oh that’s good.”

“Having fun frightening people?” Elijah asked, mirthfully.

“Frightening, tricking—This is the best costume ever!” Charlotte clapped twice.

Heart settling, Serenity smoothed out her skirt. “I don’t know if I agree…”

“Alright guys,” Matt draped an arm around Cara and pointed out. “To the vaults?”

“Aye!” Lorenzo cheered his favor. He gave Kaylee a wink and a grin.

"Hmm?" Kaylee had been pulled from her thoughts by Lorenzo's sound of approval. She'd been caught up in the question from Serenity about the janitors disapproving looks that had gone unanswered. Realizing everyone was rearing to go to Hiraeth Hill. "Oh, yeah sure. Let's head to the portal."

The friends migrated along with the herd of students trickling out from the Great Hall. In due time they got to the vault, passed through the correct gate, and came out on the hilltop.

Danson practically pranced out. He waved his sonic screwdriver in the air. “We have returned to planet Hiraeth!”

Getting tired of her costume, Tysha peeled it away. Underneath she wore a simple black jumper. “It’s nice out tonight.”

“Lot’s of stars,” Elijah smiled. “Serenity, Paulo—You wanna use the telescope?”

“Sure,” they agreed in unison.

“Oh come on guys, we do that all the time. It’s Halloween!” Charlotte protested.

Lorenzo, who had stuck close by Kaylee, asked, “What do you have in mind?”

Spoffing, Elijah said, “Probably a game.”

“A game—Hey,” Charlotte playfully scrunched her nose at him. She hopped onto a log to enforce attention. “Why don’t we play tag?”

Serenity peered around. “I don’t know, it’s dark.”

“All the more reason. We can have fun and practice our skills,” Charlotte pointed out. “Come on. We’re all here, we’re dressed up. This will be great!” She smiled, slowly shifting mocha eyes on Kaylee. She may or may not have a wicked fright in mind for her, but she said nothing.

"Tag sounds like fun," Tallulah agreed, standing up from the spot she'd taken around the fire pit. "I mean, come on. There's nothing to be scared of."

"I don't know, after seeing the haunted house I feel like you guys can be pretty scary," Kaylee answered, having abandoned her thoughts. For now she'd enjoy the night, whether that was running around with friends or slipping away once more with Lorenzo when it wasn't too noticeable. "We should just make sure we don't wander too far from the pit." The blessings of the hill might have been safe but that didn't mean she'd be careless.

Pursing her lips briefly, Charlotte tamed her disappointment at the suggestion. “Aw, come on Kaylee. Why not run in the woods? It’s not like we can’t find our way back.” The way Charlotte looked at her sister reminded Kaylee of a predator.

"Running through the woods from you sounds terrifying," Kaylee spoffed. "I might be taller but you're ridiculously fast. But I guess you're right. We know the area and if we got lost we could help each other."

Charlotte’s lips curled. “Hehe, excellent,” she muttered under her breath. Before Kaylee could ask what she said, she jumped down from the log.

"Or leave each other at the mercy of All Hallows Eve!" Tallulah offered in a spooky tone, her voice rising and falling.

Elijah chuckled. “That phrase is best understood as ‘All Holy Evening’, you know. It’s actually a blessed.”

“Oh don’t ruin the creepy affect,” Charlotte nudged him.

“Just sayin’,” Elijah smiled, nudging her back. “How about we say ‘At the mercy of Samhain’? It’s the pagan Celtic festival. There’s monsters and fairies and everything.”

“No, that sounds like someone is saying ‘saw-win’,” Charlotte waved him dismissively before picking up her voice to gain attention when the others began to chatter. “Alright, rule time! Bonfire area is the sanctuary. The person who is ‘It’ will count to one-hundred. If you are found and caught you must join the hunt for everyone else. You can only try to return to sanctuary after racing at least one-hundred yards away. We can use our Lithes to know how far you went, so no cheating!”

“Can we hide in pairs?” Serenity asked tentatively. “I don’t want to wander alone in the woods.”

“Hmm,” Charlotte tilted her head. “Alright fine, pairs.”

Lorenzo smiled and looked down at Kaylee. “Promise not to leave me in the woods?”

With all the rules being doled out, one had to wonder just how long Lottie had been planning the game. Kaylee might have teased her if there was more time, but everyone seemed quite ready to go. Her attention was grabbed by Lorenzo and that one-dimple smile that made her heart quicken. Holding out her hand toward him, a single finger was extended. "Pinky promise."

Lorenzo grinned, hooking his pinky with hers. He often found this trait of Kaylee’s to be adorable. “Great,” he said with a grin, shifting his hand up to give her arm a touch. His hold lingered.

“Alright guys!” Charlotte clapped. “Who will count?”

“You,” Elijah said.

“Uuuh,” Charlotte shifted on her feet. “How about we choose from a coin flip? Or pick a number between one and fifty?”

“Numbers,” Matt shrugged.

“Okay, anyone closets to the number I write down is ‘It’,” Charlotte went to their log seat and scribbled down a number. “Alright, give me your picks.”

One by one they offered a number. After the round Charlotte pointed to Paulo, “You’re It!”

“Okay,” Paulo chuckled. He went to sit on a log by the fire and covered his face. “One, two, three…”

Lorenzo clasped Kaylee’s hand and scattered like the rest of them. Elijah and Serenity ran off left. Cara and Matt went right. Tysha, having no one to run with, went on her own. Charlotte trailed after Tallulah. She kept close, whispering to her as they vanished in the woods.

The chase was on and with it came the thrill of being caught. A light adrenaline helped them run faster, combined with their extensive physical training and left the wooded terrain feeling more like a walk in the park. Kaylee's hold on Lorenzo's hand hadn't left, using it to gently guide him when they came upon a turn to make.

"We should find somewhere to hide soon," Kaylee breathed, feeling they'd gone a safe enough distance.

“Here,” Lorenzo took them between a tilt of a wide tree.

It’s branches dipped like a curtain, obscuring a flat rock with enough room for them to fit three people comfortably. They could glimpse through the autumn leaves almost all the way around. Furthermore, the tree itself had a strong trunk easy to climb. In a pinch they could scurry upward. Their Lithe’s would certainly help with that too.

In the distance they heard an echo of giggles and squeals. Lorenzo felt the hair on the back of his neck prick. He didn’t say a thing, but Serenity’s story from their first night came to mind.

Those creepy thoughts didn’t last long with Kaylee right beside him. Lorenzo grinned as he watched her. When she noticed him staring he didn’t waver from his intention to enjoy the sight of her.

Catching sight of his lingering look, the corners or Kaylee’s lips twitched upward. Something about the playfulness on his face and mischief in his eye kept Kaylee's gaze and a growing curiosity. "What? Something caught your attention, wolf?"

“Sí, una princesa con una caperucita roja.[Yes, a princess in a little red hood],” Lorenzo said. He leaned over and shifted the edge of her hood to expose more of her face. His finger teased her cheek and ran down her neck to her clavicle.

Shakily she inhaled as his finger brushed against her, cornflower eyes widening as Kaylee felt her grin growing. "And just what do you plan on doing with her?" Her voice was quick to betray the calmness she was trying to portray instead of her growing excitement and longing. Memories of what had happened the last time they were in the forest alone had not been forgotten.

“I am a wolf,” Lorenzo said, shifting close. He was a breath away from her face. “And one who has not eaten for some time…” Lorenzo’s lips hovered over hers, following the curved of her cheek, and when he had come to her jaw, he pressed his nose against her neck abruptly. The vibration of his sudden, deep growl rippled through her.

Before she could stop it, a soft almost whimper left Kaylee from the 'attack' of the wolf, though her body was doing anything but protesting. That growing heat he'd been able to summon time and time again was back with a growing hunger, one hand slipping past the fur of Lorenzo's wolf hat and griping the back of his neck at the base of his hairline. "And you think I'll satiate that hunger?"

Unlike before Lorenzo didn’t go ahead and make moves towards her just yet; their previous encounters proved that he couldn’t gauge how far she was willing to go. It was best to let her set the pace and he would follow.

“Only one way to find out, Princesa…” he spoke in a low, husky tone. The softest pinch, not even enough to leave a mark, grazed her throat. Lorenzo kept himself in place, waiting for some kind of signal.

Whether it was the adrenaline that had started as they were running through the woods or the yearning sensation she found she had in his presence, Kaylee might never know. What she did know was that she wanted to feel that rush Lorenzo was talented at spiking in her. In the moment she found a surge of confidence that she couldn't explain, her body seeming to move on its own. Before she knew it, Kaylee shifted and moved to suddenly be in his lap, legs straddling his waist on a move she'd seen her Aunt Annabelle pull on Uncle Yonten more than one time when they'd been celebrating. This time there was no Wesley around to shoo them apart or scold that kids were watching. Kaylee’s heart was beating in her chest as she tugged his hat and let it fall to the side.

"Then let's start with a nibble," she breathed before feeling just bold enough that she could lean in and match his lips with her own.

Having thought they would have gone a little slower, and that he might have to help stoke that fire she seemed to be afraid to burn, Lorenzo was taken pleasantly by surprise. He easily matched her energy. The little tease had finally found her courage to take what he suspected she wanted all along. Lorenzo would not disappoint her.

Those hands that restrained from roaming let loose. One inched toward her velvet center. The other gripped Kaylee’s hip. In-between ravaging her mouth and neck, he glanced up at her eyes to make sure she was still on board.

Yards away Charlotte and Tallulah, having been providentially caught by Paulo, were tracking through the woods to find the Little Red and her wolf to help hunt, as per the rules. That, and for one other premeditated, wicked reason.

Chuckling darkly, Charlotte informed Tallulah, “Okay, so when they start to run away I want to make sure Lorenzo is far enough from Kaylee that I can knock him down. I’ll steal his wolf hat, take his face, and catch up with Kaylee. Then I’ll act all goofy and confuse her! I’ll have her run in circles and stuff, this will be hilarious. While I do that, you have to distract Kaylee so she doesn’t know I switched with him—What’s that sound?”

The unidentified noises gradually increased as the two girls moved closer to the tree that was shielding the heated young lovers. Tallulah took only a few moments to make her presumption known. "If I had to guess, I would say that's the wolf and red-hooded girl you're after, Lottie," she stifled a giggle.

Hidden from sight of the world and oblivious if they weren't, Kaylee found herself being quickly eaten by the blazing fire. Where she might have pulled away for them to cool off and breathe, her body had taken over the controls and pushed toward what it wanted. The logic of them moving too fast or being caught was gone. Now Kaylee just followed a natural desire, her own hands brave enough to wander his torso between them, little sounds of approval and encouragement slipping out between heated kissing and exploring

“Oh—OH,” Charlotte blinked in realization.

Such sounds were only glimpsed. Mainly movies were her point of reference, and once or twice her parents when they thought they were alone. The strangeness of hearing Kaylee, let alone Lorenzo who seemed to be enjoying her participation, struck Charlotte as odd. What came as more of a surprise—maybe not, depending on how well someone knew her—was that Charlotte took mild offense. One of these horn-dogs had initiated the throes of passion during her game. Or so she would claim is the reason why she found herself not pleased. There could be a guess that a part of her felt jealous. Whatever the reason, Charlotte contemplated breaking up this intimate scene with the face of a particularly frightening monster; a ghoul.

The change in her mood could be easily read. Charlotte didn’t hold back the shadow that passed over her face. Wordless, Charlotte moved forward just as Tallulah meant to speak. She crouched low and blended into terrain. Only Tallulah could tell where Charlotte had sunk into the darkness. The girl moved silently, even if she didn’t have to. Lorenzo apparently hit a good spot. His own noises and mumbles of Spanish were enough to distract them both from Charlotte’s approach. At some point she had to pause though, feeling a sense of embarrassment as she came closer. Annoyance became her greatest anchor to resume her plan of attack.

Meanwhile, Kaylee became aware of Lorenzo’s rising excitement the more her body gave into the sensations his fingers sent through her from between them. His free-roaming hand only encouraged her, slipping and sliding over her chest and thighs. They could sense they were not the verge of going one step further.

“RREEEEE!!”

Kaylee’s passion shattered into a thousand heart-stopping fears when the shriek of a familiar monster split the sky. Snapping their heads to the side, the face of a pale ghoul, mouth agape, pushed through the branches.

The world had just about fallen away along with any regard when the sudden appearance of one of her biggest fears reared its head as it slunk into sight. The building desire vanished and Kaylee leapt out of Lorenzo's lap, unashamed to admit that she screamed bloody murder. Years of training were suddenly lost and she could only think to put distance between her and it. The thick trunk or the tree called to her and with her aid of her Lithe she began a quick scurry up, yelling at Lorenzo to climb with her, though her words were drowned out by the deafening pound of her heart.

Unfortunately, in her hurry, Kaylee had tipped Lorenzo backward. The young fellow rolled off the slate into the leaves gathering in time for winter’s approach. All they heard was a muffled yelp and muted thud.

Laughter erupted from the ghoul who clutched its stomach. The jerky motions of its merriment warped its features that adjusted to keep up the haunting facade. In-between blurs, it glitched, revealing an all too familiar face matching the giddy mirth of Kaylee’s sister, Charlotte.

Flicking away the ghoulish mask, Charlotte wiped at her eyes. “Ah, ha ha ha! You should have seen your faces!”

Kaylee had made it a good way up the trunk when Charlotte hadn't been able to contain her amusement. The realization that they were in fact not in danger quickly changed her confused facade to one of annoyance.

"Goddamnit Charlotte! You scared me half to death," Kaylee scowled down at her sister, shimmying her way back down the tree and giving her a healthy glare. "You're lucky I don’t haul off and start fighting you!"

Giving Lorenzo an apologetic look, Kaylee offered a hand to help him to his feet before she began cleaning off the leaves that he'd managed to pick up in his tumble. Lorenzo mumbled gratitude as he came down from the surge of panic and came to terms with the moment being ruined.

Charlotte couldn’t help but chuckle and roll her eyes, “Oh come on, it’s Halloween, Kaylee. Don’t be so dramatic.” She crossed her arms stiffly where she stood beside Tallulah. “Besides, I doubt you’d get farther in a fight in that dress than Lorenzo did up your skirt.” While it could be argued that her voice kept a steady, light tone, anyone with a practiced ear caught the pinch in her inflection.

The remark caught Kaylee's attention and she stopped in the middle of her efforts to clean Lorenzo to turn and face her sister. Cheeks reddened and her mouth opened and closed a couple times as if she was unsure just how she wanted to respond to that. For a brief second Kaylee considered telling her there was no need for her to be jealous that someone was trying to get up her skirt, but it was quickly shook away.

"Guess we're just lucky the most dangerous thing in this forest is your sadistic tendencies then," Kaylee said with a slightly forced smile that she was grateful for the darkness around them.

Pursing her lips briefly, Charlotte couldn’t decide if Kaylee was taking a shot at how short she was in comparison, and thus harmless, or if Kaylee meant to diminish concern over the implied threat Charlotte made regarding if they fought. Either way, the young girl didn’t take it well, saying, “Sadistic huh? Well maybe so, if you’re all there is for protection. What were you gonna do, squeal a ghoul away? But I guess it doesn't matter. You had a better plan; you don’t need to outrun the ghoul, you just needed to outrun Lorenzo.”

Wincing, Lorenzo cleared his throat, avoiding eye-contact as he picked up his wolf costume. He found interest in dusting off the fur. He did, in fact, fall prone when Kaylee freaked out, but he didn’t think it would do him good to enter into this squabble.

Kaylee's jaw dropped as Charlotte unleashed on her, no longer ready to keep things civil if her sister was so quick to pull out her claws. "Um excuse me? I can't help it that you thought this was a good idea and intentionally picked the one thing to terrify me," she placed her hands on her hips. "Did it annoy you that much to see us kissing?"

Before Charlotte could dismiss the first statement as Kaylee being overly sensitive, her sister struck a tender nerve. Gasping, Charlotte said, “Like I’d be jealous of that display of grunting and smashing mouths!”

Realizing things were getting heated fast, Tallulah slipped in-between the Von Helsing girls, holding up a hand to each. "Hey, hey! It was a prank, let's just calm down. Why don't we head back to the fire?"

“Well just be careful and let Kaylee walk ahead,” Charlotte said as she circled around to point in the direction of the camp, “We don’t want her to trip us if something jumps out of the woods.”

Brows furrowed and a scowl that could curdle milk shot across the woods. The words hurt more than anything else, but Kaylee wasn't about to let Charlotte know that. Instead, she spun on her heel and stormed off toward the fire.

"Wouldn't want to play this stupid kid game anyways," Kaylee muttered, only glancing at Lorenzo to make sure he was following this time around. In looking back to see Lorenzo picking up his pace, Kaylee could see in her periphery the stunned expression of her sister.

Tallulah winced at the back and forth, in slight shock herself. "Damn. Never seen you two fight. Is it always that cold?"

Without answering Tallulah, Charlotte sprinted towards Kaylee in a blur of shadow. She swooped her arms to loop around Kaylee’s neck. Though training fled before, now Kaylee ducked, just dodging the attempt to head-lock her. Charlotte went with the inertia. She tucked and rolled to her feet, quick to aboutface.

“Whoa!” Lorenzo knew better than to stick too close. He moved a good five feet from them.

Kaylee had been surprised, but she couldn't say it completely shocked her that her sister's anger had peeked out. "What the fuck, Charlotte?!" She asked as she slipped into a fighting stance, knees bent and prepared to deal with another attack. "What is wrong with you?”

“Take it back,” Charlotte demanded, her heart beating angrily. She raised her hands and curled her fingers tight.

It would have been a mature and smart thing if she listened to Charlotte's request, but in that moment Kaylee wanted nothing to do with being mature. "What's the matter? You want to play kid games and not have someone look at you like a kid? Maybe that's why only an oversized toddler wanted to dance with you when Elijah isn't giving pity dances."

Charlotte sprang from the ground in silent fury. Kaylee dodged the strike to her chest. Both engaged in quick movements that veiled the bubble of tears at the corner of Charlotte’s eyes and the forced anger that served to mask Kaylee's injured feelings from words that were truthful and painful. There were enough words said between the sisters that Lorenzo and Tallulah figured this might not end well.

Stepping closer to Tallulah, Lorenzo said, “When we get an opening just grab one. We’ll have to get them both at the same time if we want to prevent the other from taking a cheap-shot.”

It was possible, what with how fervently the two were trying to pin the other down. Kaylee had to do away with much of her skirt. Charlotte had gotten in too many hits because of the folds of fabric slowing her down. Once freed from the bustle of her costume, Kaylee matched Charlotte’s skill. Huffs, gasps, and grunts sparked among crashing into bushes and stone clacking against stone.

The downside of training together for years was that they knew each other as well as they did themselves. Every time Kaylee got close to a good grip on Charlotte she'd turn away and they'd have to start over. No breath was wasted on words, each too focused on their movements. At one point their tumbling ended with them slightly separated, and Kaylee was about to grab her sister's ankle and drag her back in range when a pair of arms around her caught her off guard, pinning her own arms to her sides.

"Whoa, that's enough brawlas," Tallulah urged, using her full body weight to keep her in place.

*Let me go," Kaylee grunted in protest.

"Not until I know you won't kill each other."

Lorenzo came to know the speed that Kaylee had been dealing with, only barely managing to hold Charlotte back when she made a step toward Kaylee. He wrapped one leg around hers and both arms latched tight around her upper body.

Wiggling to no avail on the ground, Charlotte eventually grew tired. Hair that came undone here and there skirted her face. She sniffed, “Let go.”

Like-minded with Tallulah, Lorenzo said, “Only if you don’t fight.”

After a seething moment of frustration and another bout of wiggling, Charlotte exhaled a huff, muttering, “Fine.”

Cautious, Lorenzo and Tallulah released the girls. They were in arms reach, just in case. Charlotte—bottom lip plump and clothes askew—swiped a long strand from her face, scowled, and then turned away. Her footfalls thudded through the woods until they faded entirely. No one knew if Charlotte would leave altogether or stay.

Sighing in sympathy for both sisters, Lorenzo offered Kaylee’s tattered cloak. “Want company on your way back?” There was always Tallulah in case Kaylee would rather have a girlfriend.

Kaylee watched her sister storm off and felt a pang of guilt hit her as the chance to breathe was presented. She had been quite outrageous with her behavior, something they'd have to confront at some point. For now, she tried to brush off some of the dirt and leaves that had gathered in her hair and clothes, before taking the cloak from Lorenzo.

"Yeah...sounds good," Kaylee nodded, though she sounded distracted. Brushing her cheek, a dampness told her she'd suffered a cut in the tumble, just enough to draw blood and would no doubt find a few more scrapes and plenty of bruises in the morning.

"I'll catch you guys back at camp," Tallulah nodded to them, figuring they could use a little space and also wondering if she could catch up to Charlotte.

Alone and walking slowly toward the fire, Kaylee glanced over at Lorenzo. "Sorry...for all of it, really. I abandoned you over a ghoul and then acted like a real ass with Charlotte." This apology would be much less painful than the one between sisters.

Keeping pace with her, Lorenzo said in a comforting tone, “It happens. I’ve had similar fights with my cousins. And as for the ghoul,” Lorenzo plucked a twig from Kaylee’s hair, “well, we’re still young, you know? It’s not like we’re supposed to hunt fairies and deal with Accursed people at our age.” They had prep in high school and, if they decided to pursue the career, they’d get into the real gritty work in the trade college. “You could always look at it as a chance to take this time to overcome the fear.” He added with a chuckle, “Maybe I can put on a ghoul face and try to seduce you next time.”

The thought made her spoff and shudder at the same time, shaking her head. "Ugh, please no. I'll do anything to work on getting over them, but I do not want to think of you as a nasty ghoul," Kaylee pleaded with him, feeling significantly better with his remarks. Looking down, she spotted his closest hand to her, slipping her own inside of it. "I'd prefer to keep you this way and just work on not turning into a scaredy cat when I get snuck up on."

Occasionally they held hands, but Lorenzo couldn’t recall exact moments. Most of the ones that came to mind were when it was practical. This felt somehow different. Or maybe for her it was the same, but not for him. Either way, he decided to go with it.

“Guess we’ll have to practice again sometime,” Lorenzo grinned, teasing a recreation of their heated moment. He paused just before they cleared the tree line to tug her closer. He brushed a smear of blood from her cheek and gave her lips a kiss. “Just let me know whenever you want to try again, Princesa.”

Just as she had before, Kaylee melted into the warmth of his kiss. "Mmm, well I won't say no to practicing more," she admitted, taking a moment to enjoy his bare chested presence once more. A realization hitting her made her make a face. "Although..after tonight I don't know if we'll be coming out here more. When mom and dad find out..." Her words trailed off while she was already imagining just how that conversation would go.

“Oh,” Lorenzo chuckled, this time a little nervously.

It all depended on how the news broke to the parents. Going into detail may be what Wesley needed to bar them from allowing certain young men dressed up as a wolf from attending future bonfire gatherings.

“Well then, in case I don’t get another chance,” Lorenzo murmured before gently slipping his arm around Kaylee to press her to his front, taking the opportunity to share a heart-fluttering kiss. When he parted enough to speak, he breathed, “Never mind...All that did is make me want more…” He grinned and that single dimple appeared.

Shuffling of shrubberies drew their eyes to a figure coming through the trees from the fire pit. Tysha’s familiar bouncy curls gave away who. She asked, “Are you guys alright? Charlotte won’t say a word and Tallulah said there was a fight.”

It took a moment for Kaylee to come away from the kiss and the grin that kept drawing her in, so that the fight resurfaced in her mind. "Um, yeah we're okay," she answered Tysha without pulling her eyes from Lorenzo. "Just a prank gone wrong. It'll be fine." Or so she hoped. Taking a hold of Lorenzo's hand once more with a lingering smile that said they'd find some way of continuing their practice sessions, she moved toward the direction Tysha had come from.

The three approached the fire pit where their friends were in concerned conversation. Elijah was doing his best to speak with Charlotte, but she was not fessing up. It happened that he laid down the offer to talk and got up to come to Lorenzo, Kaylee, and Tysha to get more insight.

“Hey,” Elijah greeted, hands tucked in his pockets. He observed the sorry state of Kaylee and could only imagine what they had done to each other. “Any developments?”

“Prank gone wrong,” Tysha repeated. It was basically what Tallulah had said as well.

Dropping his head with a shake, Elijah said, “I don’t understand it. She and I normally have an open dialogue.”

Lorenzo didn’t speak out of turn, but he did recall what was said before; pity dances to a charity case. “Just give her time...I think it’s something Kaylee and Charlotte have to work out anyway.”

“Maybe you’re right,” Elijah sighed. “Well, it’s late. I’m heading off then...Good night, and good luck, Kaylee.”

Seeing others shuffling to the portal, and noting that Charlotte was edging to do the same, Lorenzo figured it was best he left too. “See you around, Princesa.” He gave a kiss to the hand of hers he held.

"You better," Kaylee said with a smirk, feeling oddly more confident after their encounter even if it had ended in a slight disaster. The fact that he hadn't simply vanished had meant a lot to her in the end. For now though, flirtatious comments and kisses needed to stop, seeing him off to the portal before turning to face the elephant in the room.

Catching a better look at the damage she'd managed to cause during their wrestling, Kaylee winced. It was a moment she wasn't proud of in hindsight, with physical evidence they'd carry for a few days. Looking to the ground she kicked a small pebble as she began speaking. "I didn't mean those things I said, Charlotte," Kaylee kept her gaze down. "I was just mad and wanted you to be, too."

The anger inside largely diffused by the time they got to this point. For Charlotte it was merely a matter of coming to terms with giving her own apology. It sat on her tongue in wait, becoming a bitter taste the longer her spiritual tug-of-war between doing what felt self righteous and doing what was an act of love took.

The ambiance of the night filled in the silence between when Kaylee spoke and when Charlotte finally peered upward. Mocha eyes traced the scratch on Kaylee’s face and reminded her of the dark days of Hell’s Gate. The idea of losing Kaylee then was painful; the idea of losing her now would devastate her—and it would be because she did it. That realization shattered the emotional chains keeping her silent and still. Despite whatever remained of her negative feelings, Charlotte pushed passed them. She got up and wrapped her arms around her sister.

“I forgive you and I’m sorry,” Charlotte murmured sadly. “I got too invested in what I wanted from the game that, when I saw you guys, I felt ignored…” She trailed off, knowing the other things Kaylee had said rang true, but didn’t want to talk about her old complaint that felt more of a burden to mention than not. It hadn’t been the only reason anyway. “I never should have used the ghoul face, even if I wanted to play a prank. It wasn’t even my original idea.” It was apparent to them both it definitely had been chosen for such a purpose as to scare her the most. “You’re no heartless coward, Kaylee. I’m sorry for inferring it.” She pulled away to see her face to face, but kept a comforting hug in place. “Forgive me?”

The truce between the girls was visible relief on Kaylee's face. Even if she had been faced with potentially losing her privileges to come out to the hill, having her sister angry at her was the bigger threat. They'd find some other place to hang out if needed, but she wasn't going to just find another sister. Charlotte had been such a center piece of her life and not someone Kaylee was willing to lose over a dumb argument.

The healing aura of her embrace was welcomed and returned, exhaling softly and fighting off the verge of tears. "I will always forgive you, Lottie," Kaylee answered with a small sniff that turned into a wet spoff. "We should stop making Halloween nights so eventful."

Wiping her eyes, Charlotte said with a chuckle, “Let’s promise each other next year will be peaceful.”

Extending out her pinky finger toward her sister, Kaylee nodded in agreement. "Pinky promise," she swore, giving her sister another heartfelt embrace before parting away. "I suppose we should start heading home. Don't want mom and dad to start worrying."

“Yeah, you’re right,” Charlotte said, sipping from her pinky-hold to put out the fire.

The girls laced arms on their way through the portal. Despite their disheveled appearance they were smiling softly to themselves. It happened that, as soon as they entered the castle, the portal reopened behind them. Charlotte and Kaylee, curious, watched to see who came for a visit.

A familiar tall figure stepped in that the girls only saw on occasion. Frank Jackson, relative of Elijah, paused in mid-wave to see the girls all tattered. “Uhh, good morning you two,” he said, following up with, “Are you girls alright?”

“Yes,” Charlotte spoffed, tucking loose strands behind her ear. “We just had a small sibling conflict.”

Chuckling, Frank opened the door so that the three might all go through to the hallways. “Well, let’s hope that they get no bigger than this.”

“You and us both,” Charlotte nodded, walking out with her sister by her side.

Wesley’s voice broke through the moment, saying, “Ah, Frankie, good see—,” he dropped his coffee gaze onto his daughters. “—What the hell happened?”

While it had been easy enough to brush aside their encounter to Frank, the moment they were faced with their father, Kaylee wasn't sure they'd have that same confidence this time around. "Oh you know, Halloween tricks and pranks," she shrugged, hoping they didn't look like the complete disasters they'd turned each other into. "But everything is fine, just a little dirty. Would you like a cookie?" Her wicker basket still filled with goodies was held out to her father. A form of bribery or distraction? Perhaps.

What with Charlotte’s struggle to keep herself from snorting in mirth and Kaylee’s hopeful cornflower eyes, Wesley all at once knew he would rather handle this on a different day.

“Is that so?” Taking the cookie, Wesley said, “Well I’d like to hear all about it later. You two clean up and go to bed.”

Charlotte and Kaylee didn’t stay to see if he would change his mind. “Yes Dad. Night!” They’d have some time to work on what to tell him when it came down to it.

Frank chuckled deeply, “They’re good kids.”

Smiling, Wesley perked his brows once and motioned for Frank to follow. “Yes, they are.” He nibbled on the sugary confection while he walked. “How’s it going with Jada?”

“She’s been through a lot. Those two years away certainly took a toll on her. Today she managed to visit the chapel for mass and adoration,” Frank pulled out a little prayer card. “She gave me this.”

Wesley glanced over the image of a man of great strength sinking into a river from the weight of a toddler on his shoulders. “Saint Christopher, Patron Saint of Travelers,” he hummed thoughtfully. “She’s remembering more, isn’t she?”

“She is,” Frank tucked the card away. Jada remembered much of the day she, Molly, Oliver, and Lauri, with Kaylee, had helped break out that young boy. The infiltration, the escape, the chase, the drones that snatched her and the kid back to the compound. “Jada says after their successful escape they traveled towards Italy. They made it, but there’s a lot that is lost in the chaos. She doesn’t know where he went, only that she lost him near the end of Hell’s Gate.”

“Let’s hope she has a little something more to say, as she improves,” Wesley sighed, finishing off the treat.

The two had come to the elevator that would take them to the North Office. Frank pressed the button to summon their ride. “How have you been doing?”

“Tired, among other things,” Wesley admitted, stepping through the doors when they opened. He swiped his phone to command the elevator upward; the key to his everything. “Mainly from a cold, mind you, but I do feel a sense of exhaustion no matter how much sleep I get.”

Do you sleep?”

“Well, maybe ‘sleep’ isn’t accurate. I’ve resigned to simply rest my eyes for hours on end,” Wesley swiped a hand through his hair. “When I do fall asleep I’m restless. I have an abundance of nightmares. Rosy thinks it has to do with the biochemical relationship that my body has with the trauma it’s been through, Yonten says it’s probably karma rebounding onto me, and I’m sure you’d say it’s the devil.”

Spoffing, Frank said, “Not so fast, Wes. While I admit I do believe the ‘devil’ is a contributing factor to suffering, he can only tempt; we have to make the choice. So, while the devil might take every chance to agitate us, we ultimately decide what to do with that agitation. From where I stand that means offering the suffering up to Jesus, to use for the salvation of souls.” The doors opened and the two walked through down the hallway. “Whether or not he is, though, I think we can agree there might be some truth to what Rosy and Yonten suspect. Science has many studies done on the environment, its effect on the body, and how that damage can be passed on to children through the parents. Decendents of survivors of the Holocaust have been known to suffer from ailments related to the trauma of their grand-parents and great-grand-parents who were in camps.” They passed through the doors of the North Office. Frank took the usual glass of quality liquor. “And, while I’m not a Buddhist, I do believe our wrongs can come back to us in some fashion. One way is that when a man begins to improve, it is then that the devil comes to cripple his progress. So you can always take this suffering as a good sign.”

Wesley felt a headache come on. He took a bottle of alkaline water to drink. “Well, if true, then I can understand why a person would not wish to suffer improvement, and why your Jesus has few friends,” he said with a chuckle, taking a seat with Frank on the couch. “Enough about that though. I brought you here to ask if you would help me on a project.”

Resting back against the soft cushion, Frank took a sip of his liquor. He asked, with a mildly amused smile, “What is it about?”

“In a word?” Wesley pulled up images that coaxed Frank into setting his drink to the side and leaning forward in surprise. “Legacy.”
 

Soliloquy

♥Hopeless Chromatic♥
Thanksgiving 2025​

The following days Charlotte and Kaylee fell into step with normal school life. In some ways they grew closer. Even Elijah, having a heart-to-heart with Charlotte, came away with the feeling they had a deeper understanding with one another. For one thing, Charlotte decided she appreciated Elijah’s willingness to go as friends to parties, but at this point she realized it was more for others than it was for herself; afraid to appear undesirable, rather than taking a date because she wanted one. Come winter formal, Charlotte would go without a partner with her head held high.

Lorenzo’s propensity to wander around had become an expected aspect of his personality. That, and he did have sports. Like before he would spare a moment to hit up Kaylee when they crossed paths. Unlike before, Kaylee had the distinct feeling that Regina had some agenda in mind. There was more than one occasion where Regina would try and steer Kaylee in the direction where Lorenzo was last seen, never alone and with a wicked grin on her lips. Thinking it was weird but thanking her nonetheless, Kaylee would follow down the hallway and never seem to find him, although she did stumble into a few flushed teenagers now and then. She chalked it up to the wicked blonde just being her nasty self at first. It must have gotten into Kaylee’s head, because one day she swore she thought she tasted cherry-lime lip-balm on Lorenzo’s mouth. There was no time to investigate and it was likely a false seed planted into her head by Regina.

With Thanksgiving around the corner, Kaylee had every reason to look forward to a lovely evening with Lorenzo, if he was free to come. The family had grown curious about this new boy. As usual, the uncles were more than happy to greet a suitor—all said with wicked grins.

“Hey, after Thanksgiving,” Charlotte began as she stripped down for a shower after a heavy workout curtesy of Coach Earl, “Are you gonna offer Lorenzo to use the movie tickets from last year?”

The thought had been on her mind, though Kaylee shrugged. "I don't know, maybe? I've been hoping he'll start getting ideas like that or take initiative on his own. He's always ready to say yes to something I offer, hit he doesn't bring his own to the table. Is it weird that I want him to?"

Cara poked her head out from behind the shower curtain to say, “Not at all! But it just might be one of those things that he’ll have to learn.”

“He certainly stepped-up since Atlantis,” Tysha said. She sat in front of a mirror while she worked mango-scented Cantu product through her coils. Closing the jar, she glanced back with a smirk towards Kaylee. “I’ve seen you two kissin’ between classes.”

Serenity waited, dry and clothed, by the door. She had banged her knee earlier, saving her from the intense exercise that afternoon. “Maybe when you present it to him, you can hint to him that you look forward to his reciprocation.”

Tallulah had pulled on her school uniform and was working on her socks when she joined the conversation. "Yeah, though I wouldn't use the word reciprocation with Lorenzo," she pointed out as she buckled her shoes. "You probably have to make it more of a game for him to give you the response you want."

Kaylee couldn't help but make a face, though she knew the other girls weren't wrong. He did require guiding hands and words, even if it had gotten better over the past months. "Who would have known that boys are so much work to maintain?" She sighed as she tossed her soiled uniform in the chute.

“Oh man, are they ever,” Cara chuckled.

“Do you think boys think we’re difficult?” Charlotte asked once stepped out of the shower.

Serenity shrugged. “I mean, maybe some? They have that phrase ‘High maintenance’, don’t they?”

“Guess so,” Tysha said as she packed her bag and zipped it shut. Then she sat down beside Serenity to wait for the others. “But I don’t think I ever did much to earn that title. You guys don’t seem like that either.”

“Regina is I bet,” Charlotte snorted, grabbing a towel to dry off.

“Oh I’m sure. Hugo probably has a thorn in his side with her,” Cara said. She paused, taking a look at her friend. “Lottie, I think you’ve got yourself some hips there.”

Abandoning the towel, Charlotte padded quickly to a mirror. “Really?!” She lifted her arms and turned this way and that. “I think my chest is bigger too!”

It might have been a trick of the mind, but Charlotte was cautiously optimistic about what she was seeing; budding breasts and a rounder rear.

Chuckling, Serenity confirmed, “Yeah, I think your body is catching up. You might get your period soon.”

The thought bloomed excitement in Charlotte. She hopped up and down and clapped twice. “Oh if I develop by summertime I can finally wear a bikini!”

“And maybe a date, if you’re caught up by prom and one of these guys has the sense to ask,” Tysha pointed out.

Humming in thought, Charlotte said, “Maybe. I rather not get my hopes up too high this time. Besides, I think I’m gonna work on letting wisdom sink in; boys don't equate to a fulfilling time.” The struggle remained, though she was optimistic. Charlotte wouldn’t sneeze at an offer though.

“Ready you guys?” Cara asked, pulling on her backpack.

Kaylee shared in the rejoicing of her sister. This was something far more exciting than talking about her boy trouble. "Well, don't get your hopes up but also don't give up either, Lottie. You'll have boobs and bleed before you know it," she encouraged her sister as they moved to leave the locker room.

"Oh yeah, so much fun," Tallulah spoffed at them.

The group headed down the hallway, chatting away as they advanced. A wave of loud talking ahead grabbed their attention, looking up to see several of the guys from the academy's football team heading toward the dorms. One face in particular caught Kaylee's attention and she peeled from the girls to come up beside Lorenzo.

Seeing her approach, Lorenzo parted from the other guys as well. His smile emphasized that little lone dimple. “Aay, Princesa,” he greeted with a wink.

"Hey you," she couldn't help but grin. "How was prac-" Pausing, she sniffed the air, a pleasant scent causing her smile to spread. "Is that a new cologne? When did you get that?"

“Hm?” Lorenzo titled his head towards his collar. He grabbed the clean shirt, pulling it up against his face. Furrowed brows unknit as realization crossed his mind. Lorenzo straightened up, patting his shirt smooth. “Nah, it’s Eddie’s. We hit the shower after practice, it got pretty steamy in there,” Lorenzo’s casual, easy-going explanation rolled off his tongue. Trusting that satisfied the query, Lorenzo addressed her half-formed question. “Practice went great. We’re wrecking the other teams.” He slipped his hand against her cheek. “Is that all you want to know, Princesa?” His thumb stroked her softly.

Eddie's? It was Kaylee's turn for furrowed brows. Maybe he must have borrowed his cologne? Though that didn't explain what it was steamy. She was about to question further when he continued talking and her thoughts were lost, especially when his hand brushed her cheek. "I mean, if I have your attention...there is something," she decided to capitalize on the opportunity, letting her hand rest atop of his as he stepped closer. "I've been meaning to ask if you'll spend Thanksgiving with me. Dinner and such."

“Thanksgiving?” Lorenzo’s tone conveyed pure surprise. “At the castle?” The young man, who had been bold enough to hold Kaylee against a wall for a kiss earlier that day, felt his knees wobble at the thought of being hundreds of miles across the sea in a fortress controlled by Kaylee’s infamous father. “Uuuh—I don’t know…” Lorenzo’s hand felt clammy against her cheek. He slipped it back to wipe his palm against his pant leg. “I mean, it’s one thing to fool around here, but I…” he trailed off and shook his head. “I admit, I’m not brave enough to do that in Avostoska.”

Kaylee was only slightly surprised by his reaction, knowing that her family could be intimidating. "Well, I didn't think we'd be making out in the middle of Thanksgiving dinner," she spoffed, stroking his arm similar to how he tended to do to you. "But, I think if you did that, in return I could find somewhere for us to have time alone. Maybe Hiraeth Hill? We could continue what we started on Halloween."

Gears turned in Lorenzo’s head. Whatever connections he was making to calculate his decision soon came to the most likely conclusion that appeared to appease his confused mind. “Ah, I see,” Lorenzo said in knowing tone, and slipped his arms around her waist. “Then I will be a good boy for dinner,” he leaned to her neck and gave her a nip, adding in a low growl, “and a bad boy after.”

His words spurred on a whole wave of excitement that Kaylee was happy to cave in to. Whether they had both grown bold to take actions under the sight of cameras or it was just their hormones winning out would remain unknown for the time being. "Mmm, but it is good boys who get dessert," she smirked as she took a step back and waited for him to follow, a playful glisten in her eyes.

Lorenzo didn’t have to glance at a clock to assume they had time for some fun. “Mhm, they do,” he said with a grin. He stepped to her, grabbing her hand and tugging Kaylee against him. “And where do you think you’re going, mi pequeña postre? [my little dessert?]” That lucious mouth of his devoured Kaylee’s and his arms fastened themselves around her.

By the time Kaylee and Lorenzo parted ways, a faint trace of Eddie’s cologne marked her. None of the girls commented. They had all but gone to sleep by then. It wasn’t until the morning that they learned Lorenzo had agreed to come to Thanksgiving. They were all pleased with the development as well as eager to be told how the party would go, since so much was promised by the evening! This time Tysha and Jordan, her little brother, were going to a potential family; adoption, though not common, was still a hope.

At noon on Thanksgiving Thursday the school bell released the students of the academy for their three-day weekend. In the chaos of families taking their kids home or the remaining children helping to set up Thanksgiving celebrations for those who couldn’t make the trips back to their families, Kaylee and Charlotte were gathering up their stuff to meet up with Lorenzo at the portals. This included the lovable chinchilla who nestled into the hearts of any student who happened to come by Kaylee’s dorm.

Sitting contentedly on her favorite cushion, Chel’s little nose twitched in acknowledgement of Kaylee’s approach. Today her shuffle towards her favorite girl seemed slower. At the other end of her cage were more unchewed leaves than would be preferred. Teeth, every growing, poked out more than they should. Any longer and perhaps the chinchilla would be in need of assistance from Natalia.

Kaylee gave a sad smile to see the slow movements of her beloved pet. "Why hello to you too, my sweet girl," she cooed softly, reaching in to stroke her gently. *Are you ready for a trip home?" Tender hands coaxed the chinchilla from her cage into her comfortable travel carrier, where sweet dandelion leaves awaited, her favorite treat. They too would no doubt be left over by the time she was moved again, a sad fact that Kaylee was gradually accepting.

Charlotte wordlessly helped Kaylee by grabbing bags her sister was meant to drag. There was little Charlotte could do about the situation with Chel. Helping with luggage so Kaylee didn’t have to was a small act, but one done with great love.

Ready to go, the girls traveled to the vault. They joined once or twice with Paulo and Elijah, they came across Serenity once, and so on, until it was only them who came to wait by the portal doors for Lorenzo. It happened that they didn’t have to sit around at all. The young man was already there, talking to a young girl Kaylee recalled from weeks ago. The girl didn’t see Charlotte or Kaylee. It was Lorenzo who looked up with that signature dimpled grin.

“Aah, Princesa!” Lorenzo lifted his back off of the wall and untucked his hands.

Beside him, the girl looked over with a judgmental eye upon Kaylee. One that denoted her uncertainty and curiosity—a perfect stranger meeting Kaylee for the first time.

On the few occasions Kaylee had come upon one of Lorenzo's friends, none seemed to linger long. Paying little attention to this girl, she grinned as she walked up to Lorenzo, cage at her side as she leaned over to greet him with a soft kiss. "Ready to go?"

Lorenzo raised a brow and grinned in approval, saying, “Yeah, I’m ready.”

The girl, however, was flushed and shuffled uncomfortably on her feet. She forced a smile toward Kaylee and Charlotte, but turned to say to Lorenzo, “I’ll catch you later.”

“Bye, mi pequeña golondrina,[my little swallow],” Lorenzo casually waved, and in the moment Kaylee and Charlotte glanced back at the retreating girl, they did not see his wink to her.

Nicknames were not uncommon for them to hear; Swallow, Buttercup, Skipper—Random, but not uncommon. It puzzled Charlotte. She never knew how to tell if and when he would make a nickname for anyone. It had become a game to figure it out. Mentally she check-marked this girl’s name and set it on the shelf with the others.

Kaylee vaguely remembered him and the girl now that she heard his name for her. Maybe he was giving her another card like she'd returned at the amusement park. Trying not to dwell on it, she simply kept her position at Lorenzo's side as the girl walked off.

“Alright,” Lorenzo gave Kaylee’s arm that familiar squeeze. “Let’s go.”

Charlotte opened the portals. Thankfully Lorenzo helped with their bags since he joined them. As usual, a newcomer’s attention was on the architecture of their dwelling when first coming to Avostoska. Lorenzo murmured in awe of all the usual paintings, sculptures, spa’s, game rooms, and hearing about the various hidden passageways. Once or twice Lorenzo grinned and glanced at Kaylee with a knowing smile when he heard about these ‘sneak away’ rooms. When they arrived at their sleeping chambers he entered with caution. He knew who else lived in that castle.

“This place is huge. So much fancy stuff. High ceilings, wide hallways—A holodeck!” Lorenzo spoffed, looking around their little lounge between their own private bedrooms. “Must be nice to live like this.”

“I’m not complaining,” Charlotte chuckled. She excused herself to put her things away, leaving Lorenzo and Kaylee to handle Chel.

"It is nice," Kaylee had to admit as she crossed over to her room so that Chel could be in her mansion of a cage that was home. "The staff are always helpful although we try to do as much as we can ourselves. Mom and dad don't want us to lack any skill sets or be too dependent on others. Life is all about balance, after all." Removed from her travel carrier, Chel was treated to a few moments or cuddles and fur fluffing before Kaylee moved to put her inside the large cage where a soft cushion awaited her.

The little critter shuffled onto the soft lump and contentedly took a nap.

“That’s cool I guess,” Lorenzo admitted thoughtfully. “I don’t know if I would do that though. If I had the money I’d just let the staff do everything. More time for other activities,” Lorenzo said with a grin, slipping his hand onto Kaylee’s cheek and holding steady to give her a kiss.

A part of her thought that was a bit lazy, but only because of how she'd been raised. That thought didn't last long when he came in close to a feeling that she was getting very comfortable with. "I do enjoy other activities," she murmured quietly, leaning in with a growing smirk.

Well-practiced by now, the two enjoyed a frisky kiss. Across the way Charlotte opened her door, saw what was happening, and then slinked back into her room with a chuckle. Lorenzo had no intention of going far with this kiss. He still worried if the girls room was actually being surveyed by cameras, despite the pinky promise that no one was watching them. He did, however, spare no expense to heat things up for what he hoped would be the end of a perfect day on Hiraeth Hill.

Knock, knock, knock!

Breaking from their kiss, Lorenzo whipped his head to the door, taking a step back from Kaylee. He caught his breath and smoothed out his appearance as the door opened up. Just in time too. The very person he dreaded meeting poked his head through the gap.

“Well, well, well, if it isn’t the young Lord Byron,” Wesley stepped in, crossing to them with long strides. Lorenzo felt the walls enclose on him. “Welcome.”

“H-hello, Lord Von Helsing, thank you for having me,” Lorenzo offered his hand to shake, but the Fox didn’t make a move to greet. Awkwardly, Lorenzo tucked his hands back into his pockets.

“Mhm, indeed,” Wesley said, his smile emanating a predatory grin more than anything else. He turned to look down at Kaylee and his features slipped into genuine delight. “Good to have you back, Pumpkin” He offered a hug.

The heated excitement from their encounter was quick to vanish when there was a knocking on her door. Spotting her father, the pink in her cheeks wore away in a hurry and was replaced by the glowing adoration she had for him. "It's good to be home, Dad," she grinned, unashamed to embrace him in front of Lorenzo. "Lorenzo was just saying how much he's enjoying Avostoska so far." It couldn't hurt to add a bit of flattery on his behalf.

Wesley’s coffee gaze poured coldly onto the young man. "I hear you enjoy a great many experiences, Mr. Cortez, I wonder if you appreciate any one thing."

"Uuuh," Lorenzo nervously fidgeted.

As fate would have it Charlotte peeked out then. She spared no time running out to embrace her father. "Dad!" She giggled.

"There's my sweet Dove," Wesley rocked side to side. "Ah, something has changed. You're taller."

Charlotte beamed upward. "I am?"

"I'd say so," Wesley chuckled, parting to measure her. "Eye level with my elbows."

Excited, Charlotte said, "The girls said they think my body looks like it's developing too!"

That came to mind and did not elicit the exact same energy. Wesley smiled all the same. "That's wonderful," he said, motioning them all to follow. "Well, let's get going, shall we?"

The less than welcoming gaze from her father wasn't missed, and his words did bring up a few memories of Lorenzo voicing his preference in variety for things like work. Kaylee just couldn't figure out how her father would have known that, unless he chose to pay closer attention to security cameras. Deciding she wouldn't linger on the thought and miss the chance to enjoy Thanksgiving dinner, Kaylee focused on the excitement of Lottie's growing, though she did reach for Lorenzo's hand as they started off. "I think she's going to have another growth spurt before sophomore year ends. Maybe even end up taller than mom by summer!"

Chuckling warmly, Wesley said, "Perhaps." He bent briefly to Kaylee as he took Charlotte’s hand, "But don't let your mother hear that."

Charlotte giggled at the suggestion. The Tigress certainly had a tender spot in regards to her height. "Oh don't worry, we won't.”

“Good,” Wesley smiled. He mused aloud, “You know, your mother thinks of her petite figure as a disadvantage, but I’ve always found her adorably deadly.”

The way their father talked about their mother somehow stirred in the girls a sense of pride and longing. One day they wanted their spouses to think of them as formidable as well as desired.

The four of them might as well have been the three. Wesley did his best to engage with his children alone. That was fine with Lorenzo. When Wes did happen to address the young man they felt a chill in the air. It truly puzzled Charlotte, who couldn’t recall their father having such a tepid manner towards Joss. Once or twice Lorenzo benefited from a reassuring squeeze from Kaylee’s hold on his hand that grew a little clammy whenever Wes looked his way.

At least the dinner would take the edge off of the awkwardness. A nice, quiet meal around a decent table. Maybe Inara might serve as a buffer between him and Wesley as well as Kaylee. There was hope Charlotte might step in to help him out too.

Lorenzo’s quaint vision shattered when they walked into the dining room to a chaotic horde of kids running back and forth, squealing and giggling uproariously. Adults criss-crossed in a chase for their little ones.

“It’s the new boy!” Little voices shouted. The onslaught of children forced Lorenzo a few steps back. Many small hands grabbed his, pulling him this way and that.

“Whoa, whoa,” Lorenzo wobbled when toddlers latched themselves to his legs. “I—I thought this was going to be a Thanksgiving with your family,” he swallowed in surprise.

Kaylee might have tried to save him from her father, but there was no way she could stop the flood of eager kids trying to meet him. She chuckled at his surprise, shrugging her shoulders. "It is my family," she pointed out with a smirk. "You said you had a lot of cousins, too. We tend to celebrate holidays and birthdays together."

"Kaywee, is this a boy?" Amelie asked with interest.

"Да он мальчик," Sigvar answered as he took interest in his shoes.

"Boyfriend?" Zasha questioned with narrowed eyes, hardly approving of such nonsense. Boys were gross, after all. Especially her little brother.

Lorenzo had missed the accusation, too busy keeping himself from falling and from causing any more trouble than he already had just by arriving at the party!

"Oh children, come along. Leave Lorenzo alone," Willow chastised lightly, Melody and Dorian quick to listen to their mother while some of the others needed more coaxing.

"Nia, get off that boy and come sit down to eat before I come tan your hide," Annabelle was far less gentle in her approach, using her no business tone that meant she'd show good on her word if she had to ask again.

“Ah, zsh,” Yonten’s noise of warning and correction for her delay in response preceded him going over and picking Nia up. The feisty little spice made him work to bring her to her mother’s side.

Other parents had varying levels of their own calls to their young. Oliver came over to scoop up his two older children, murmuring soft praises in french for their good behavior.

Alassiel watched from her seat with her baby as Andriy guided their girls to eat with them. Nora gave her father a small run before being caught up. The Santos boys lost interest as the herd thinned. It was the twins who Wesley had to pry from Lorenzo’s legs while Inara welcomed their guest.

"Happy Thanksgiving, Lorenzo," Inara offered. Her manner could be accused of pandering, as if she displayed politeness for the sake of Kaylee and for peace. "Come, make yourself comfortable. "

"Thank you," Lorenzo gave a nod. He kept close to Kaylee's side as they made their way to their seats.

Charlotte, following her father and the twins, looked around. "Where is Aunt Molly and Uncle Micha?"

Theo, helping Melody with her plate, answered, "Kids have the flu."

"Ah, mon non, that's too bad. I was wondering why they hadn’t shown up," Lauri sighed, turning to Oliver to murmur, "Well, she might already know."

Granya tilted her head, asking, "Know what?"

Lauri’s surprise faded as soon as her common sense reminded her that wolves had incredible hearing. “Oh uh, we just have some news we wanted to share with everyone,” Lauri smiled, taking Oliver’s hand in silent mutual decision to go ahead with the plan.

Down a few seats Theo inhaled sharply and looked at Willow. He sucked in his lips to keep from spoiling what they had heard Molly say the afternoon after Halloween as soon as she got the vision whilst having dinner with the Al-Zakhar couple. He did his best to keep quiet while the Blair couple finally announced what he had loyally kept to himself out of respect.

“Well, what is it?” Cory nudged, feeling his heart beat with anticipation. Little Amalie was squished against his chest.

Together, Lauri and Oliver beamed brightly, “We’re having another baby!”

A chorus of congratulations followed. Cory bounced Amalie’s little hand in cheer. Yonten raised a glass with the other men who favored their liquor, Jovan being the one who had brought the good stuff. Natalia promised to use the little vials she had to see if it was a boy or a girl, when they were ready. While Lorenzo had only come for the dinner, he added in his warm praise for their good news. Lauri and Oliver were very proud of their blessing, though they admitted this might be it for them.

Theo exhaled, clapping with a hearty laugh, “Ah, Na zdrov’ya!” He shifted to Willow with hopeful eyes.

Willow didn't miss the glance from her beloved, her lips pulled back in a wide smile, though she placed a finger on her lips to signal him to wait. This was a beautiful moment, and not one they needed to steal quiet yet. She let the Blair's accept the praise that rippled through the dining room.

Rosy was one who couldn't even stay in her seat, jumping up and rushing over to wrap her arms around Lauri. "That's wonderful news, you two," she said through happy tears, trailed by Ollie who was old enough to know just what this meant - another cousin!

Lauri returned the squeals and excitement with her soul-sister. They had been through so much and had such deep bonding through their trials that they felt the joy on a mental and emotional level.

"Well done, Oliver you sly dog. I thought you two were done filling up the house," Everest said over his quickly emptying glad while he held Nora to her seat with his free hand.

The sharpshooter was right to be cautious. Every other minute the quick-witted red-head would whale-breach to escape if she thought Everest wasn’t paying attention. Sometimes it baffled her how swift he was to sabotage.

"So did we, though it seems Fate had other plans in store for us," the Lion chuckled, giving Lauri's hand a soft squeeze.

"Is best kind of surprise," Andriy said as he looked over to Alassiel and Aenon in her arms.

Joao had to agree with his friends, the children certainly were blessings. Though he couldn't say they were looking for any further blessings after their trio had been completed with a darling daughter.

Charlotte and Kaylee, who were happy to congratulate, chuckled discreetly over just when the conception of this baby had happened! Lorenzo’s knowing spoff indicated the same and, just like the girls, kept it to himself out of courtesy.

"We are going to need a bigger table to fit everyone else at this rate," Gordon chuckled, pouring a glass of juice for an inpatient Zasha.

"Definitely need to add a couple of chairs at least," Willow said with a tugging smirk, holding in their own secret.

Wesley motioned to the rest of the dining hall. “I’ve got plenty of table-space left and I am happy to fill these seats with family and friends.” It was certainly better than doing so with business or rivals! That aside, Wesley caught on the false coy manner of Willow and leaned on his elbows with a grin. “I can’t help but be interested in your choice of words, Mrs. Al-Zakhar.”

Turning with bright, hopeful hazel eyes, Lauri tentatively touched her chin in wait for clear understanding. “Is it—Are you—,” she didn’t know if she could last long without knowing!

“You guys...” Cory looked between them, ready to give Amalie another spirited hug.

The others drew their eyes over to Theo and Willow. All but Granya and Liam were hanging on the edge of their seat. The she-wolf sipped her drink with a smile and her mate couldn’t help a wide, beaming grin.

Unable to resist, Theo blurted out with a thundering joy, “We are having baby number four too!”

Lorenzo was taken aback upon coming into this loving chaos, and he was sure he had seen the height of their boisterous energy when Lauri and Oliver made their coming offspring known, but he just didn’t expect that two babies on the way would strike up the merriest shouts of the night.

Lauri was quick to get up to hug Willow. Being pregnant with other women had a comforting dynamic that you couldn’t possibly understand unless you were one, and while having a baby at all was a wonderful moment in life, sharing those months with someone you loved who was in the same position made it all the better.

“Aaaww!” Lauri nuzzled Willow’s cheek in her hug. “Ceci est incroyable!”

Inara clapped twice. “Ohh, this is great! Congratulations!”

Full of pride, Theo gave nods to them all and hugs to who came up to them. “Thank you, thank you!”

“Woo!” Yonten poured the men another round.

Wesley stood up for attention at earring Theo’s gratitude. “I think it’s about time we give our thanks on this day—-For Willow and Theo, for Lauri and Oliver; for their children we love even now.”

Jovan grinned, raising his glass once he had it filled. “I am thankful for the life we have here; for the ones coming like little flames of hope; for the days ahead that promise a future, one that Lyov had been called to on that mountain.”

“I’m thankful,” Yonten added, “for the people who gave everything so the rest of us could have this future.” Thoughts went to Diki and Sigvar. He turned to grin at his wife and little children. “I am thankful for gettin’ the kind of wife who throws Molotov cocktails, and kids I’m proud to call our own.”

Annabelle smirked at his remarks, one hand resting on Jinpa's lap at her side while the other gave Yonten's leg a squeeze. "Damn right you are, Bunny. We got pretty fuckin lucky, didn't we?"

Grinning, Yonten confirmed with a lean to kiss his wife against her temple. He shifted to gently pinch Nia on her tiny chin since she was a little far from him. Jinpa, on the other hand, was right beside his sister. Out of all the children he got along with her the best. Jinpa booped Nia’s little belly and hugged his baby sister.

Theo, giving Willow a kiss, said with all sincerity of heart, “I am thankful for the people in our lives who took a chance on us. Who decided to risk everything on the hope that we were worth it. Who became my song that rang out four little beautiful notes.”

Tears welled in Willows eyes and she took hold of Theo's hand, knowing that this wasn't just another round of pregnancy hormones. No, his words really call out to her heart and soul. "I am thankful for Fate finding me my Russian Rogue and all the blessings that followed."

Amalia smiled, giving Gordon’s thigh a squeeze. “Thankful for chicken soup.” She leaned and rested her head on his shoulder. “I am thankful for my patient Rybka, and our two children.”

Natalia smiled, feeling that everyone was saying exactly what was on her heart. She gave Joao’s hand a squeeze. Lauri teared up, unable to speak clearly from how moved she felt.

Kaylee felt her heart fill at Charlotte's words, though she was determined not to get emotional in front of Lorenzo. "For family, fortune, and time together."

"Thankful for health of all," Andriy smiled upon his cotton candy headed daughters so patiently sitting in their seats. The after thought of the missing family made him chuckle and shrug, "Well, almost all."

"I am thankful for children who generally behave," Ellie said with a glance at Nora, "And a husband who behaves sometimes."

"Hey!" Everest's protests were short because she wasn't wrong, though he did decide to use his lips to stop further accusations.

"Family and friends that are just as close as family," Rosy added, looking from her beautiful children and wonderful husband before over to Lauri, once more filled with delight at their good news.

"And friends you meet in unlikely places," Emery had to spoff, sipping her wine as she looked across the table to Natalia and Amalia, thinking back to their run in years prior at a birthing class that went horribly. Her gaze didn't stay long though, head shifting so she could gaze at Nicklaus, a seat apart. Ambrose had insisted he take up a seat between his mother and the Romanian he'd began bonding with, often engaging with Nicklaus if his mother seemed busy and sometimes even when she wasn't.

After Jinpa, Kit, and Jasper offered their thanks for various blessings—Oranges and Nia, Inara and Wes, and school sports, Charlotte said, “I’m thankful for my siblings.” She turned a smile on all of them, starting with the twins. She happily received a hug from Kit and a high five from Jasper. As for Kaylee, she and her older sister gently bumped foreheads.

Smiling, Nicklaus slipped his hand over to hold on Emry’s free one. “For a broken road leading us on the right path.” Tucked at the far end of the table, nearest to them sat Ryuu, to whom Nicklaus turned to say, “And the people who walked along when they didn't have to.”

Ryuu inclined his head and raised his glass for the subtle gratitude in his favor. “May we have reason to give thanks for many more blessings in the years to come.”

With that, Wesley made sure everyone had a glass with something in it to drink. “To blessings.”

“To blessings!” They said in broken chorus of voices and glasses clinking.

The dining room cheers blended into familiar conversation aided by earpieces so that distance didn’t matter. Most were occupied with either the joy of expecting mother’s, and all that Lauri and Willow wanted to do together, or immediate seat-neighbors. Once or twice talk of coming birthdays rose, with some contemplating getting Micha a new pup. It had been years since they lost Bear to old age, along with the other familiars, such as Avril and Bandit, but they didn’t have to make pets into familiars to enjoy the companionship. Some discussed the changing political atmosphere. Kaylee and Charlotte picked up on some of the concerns they heard about from Elijah.

Cory said, “I think a landmass might solve some of these issues.”

“Maybe,” Inara shrugged, “but only some. The problem is the gods they service. I’m guessing a piece of land is just going to be a foothold for them from which they will try to conquer other countries. In essence, the same exact thing they did in Aarin and before Aarin.”

Frustrated, Yonten grumbled, “Why don’t they just ditch ‘em?”

Ryuu said, “That’s the thing though, they’ve been brainwashed and conditioned since birth. You really don't know what it will take to break those chains. I mean, think of Lyov. All that happened to him to motivate an exodus was an encounter of some spiritual kind on a mountain peak, but everyone else went through a whole ordeal with the Waryth before they finally decided to chance it.”

Nodding in agreement, Jovan said, “Change is not same for all. Some comes faster, some slower. Some need their hearts moved, others require physical proof.”

Wesley was no stranger to that notion. “Exactly. I don’t think I would have change as easily without those documents.”

Some of them at the table wondered just what would have happened to change Wesley’s mind, had the paperwork not been discovered. Before anyone might derail the conversation that way, others added in hope to their talk.

“We can do our part, though,” Natalia said. “Whenever I have the chance to share my story with an Aarinian who comes by my clinic, I try to help them understand that I am freed of forced service to a god, and that there are more like me.”

Inara asked, “How has that gone?”

Smiling, Natalia said, “Quite well. Of the people I was able to minister to, a man named Tenoch from the Nahuatl cult, defected from them.”

Of those who knew them better, they were compelled to gasp in awe, and for those who only knew them to be one of the three major Aarinian cults you heard in the news, they were rightfully intrigued. The cults Sydalsh, Nahuatl, and Aesir, were only as big as they were on Earth because they happened to have more numbers at the time of the end of Aarin; a roll of the dice. Even so, the fragments of lesser cults knew that how big a cult was didn’t mean they’d stay that way. Struggles for power resumed even after the center of the world collapsed.

Nuhuatl cult members were intimately rooted in what they knew to be Aztec religions. However the theological system formed, they always heavily featured Tezkatlipoka, Quetzalcoatl, Xipe Totec, and one Kaylee knew well, Huizilopochtli.

“Oh, c'est merveilleux!” Lauri perked happily. “How is he doing?”

“We are helping him get a new identity,” Natalia said, then sighed, “It’s difficult. He has to pretend he is still a member until he can get away.”

Jasper furrowed his brows. “Get away? Isn’t he already away?”

“Not yet,” Natalia shook her head.

Ryuu spoffed, “It is not easy to leave a cult. Not a cult, not a coven—Their power relies on control. This isn’t a choice, it is an enslavement.”

“Hmm,” Alassiel thoughtfully stroked her baby's head as he nursed. “Natalia, perhaps I can help? Maybe we can assist him in disappearing.”

While not in active duty, the Seamaiden still had connections. Some were quite powerful, aloof, hidden behind bars of condiment, and with all the time in the world to work on projects like this.

“Oh, that would be great,” Natalia nodded.

Smiling, Alassiel said, “Okay. I’ll come by sometime this week.”

“That’s wonderful, thank you,” Natalia said, helping Renata with her slippery spoon. Sweet potatoes can do that to a little girl's fingers!

All the talk gave Lorenzo reprieve from what he figured were chilling stares of parental obligation from Wesley. He kept as small and unassuming as he could during dinner. What conversation he made was with Kaylee and, on occasion, Charlotte. That is, until he couldn’t.

“Mr. Cortez, having a good time?” Wesley asked as he sliced his steak with his knife.

“Uh,” Lorenzo’s throat closed up briefly. “Yeah, thank you.”

Inara was quick to pay attention, lest her husband torment the young boy. “We’re sorry it’s a lot of old people chattering. Perhaps you and the younger children would like to visit the holodeck?”

“Oh uh,” Lorenzo looked at the time. “Maybe, for a little bit.”

“Leaving so soon?” Wesley questioned. “To where, I wonder?”

Giving Kaylee a glance, Lorenzo said, “Just thought a visit to Hiraeth Hill would be fun before heading to sleep.”

“Oh, what a great idea,” Wesley turned with a smile to his children. “Why don’t you three invite Jasper, Kit, and Jinpa? I’m sure they’d like to see it too. They’ll be joining the academy in the future, after all.”

While she might have spread a smile at talk of going to their tucked away place, Kaylee's excitement dropped at her father's suggestion. "I mean we can, I just worry that it's getting too late for the boys," she tried to suggest, even if weakly.

"Jin don't mind. Hell, let him go burn some energy in the woods and get a good night sleep after," Annabelle encouraged with a smirk, no fool to what a couple of teenagers might get up to in the woods.

Inara spoffed, using a napkin to cover the amusement threatening to overwhelm her face. Once recovered she cleared her throat and said, “Go play and come back when you’re tired.” She stood up from her chair. “Here, let me escort you as a show of goodwill.”

Two chairs slid, one being Wesley’s. “I don’t mind doing it, my Love. Sit, eat.”

Both stood. Inara chuckled, taking Wesley’s hand. “No, but I don’t mind the company.”

Defeated, Wesley had to shelve whatever it was that he meant to do without the watchful gaze of a Tigress. “Alright,” Wesley gave in. “Boys?”

Jinpa, Jasper, and Kit were wholly unaware of any subtext. They happily grabbed snacks in linen napkins and easily shuffled out of their chairs to join up. Charlotte, uncertain, but with a thought brewing that just might work, also got up, which prompted the other two to do so as well. Lorenzo, at a complete loss, decided to resign himself over to a regular evening. He took Kaylee’s hand—a thing he noticed she liked—and walked with her behind her parents and siblings.

Neither could hear what Wesley or Inara were saying to one another. Charlotte glanced back at Kaylee and Lorenzo, feeling a blush on her cheeks. The young Dove was never meant to tag-along, let alone all their siblings!

They reached the vault wherein the family and Lorenzo found themselves waiting for the portal to open. Once done, the little boys were quick to rush through.

“Wow, a big fire pit!” They heard Kit exclaim.

“Hey, Jin, catch!” Jasper’s voice spoke just before a thud. “Ha ha, too slow!”

Wesley stared down at his Dove. Charlotte got the sense that she should walk out into the camp first. She did so, saying, “Gonna be fun…”

Motioning out the portal, Wesley said, “Please, go on ahead Mr. Cortez.”

The young man didn’t need to be offered distance between him and Wesley twice. He let go of Kaylee and almost jogged through the portal. Now it came down to the moment of possibility that loomed since Wes and Inara walked with them.

“Pumpkin,” Wesley said, halting any intention for Kaylee to step forward. “What do you know about this boy?”

“Do you like him?” Inara asked as well, knowing she gave little room for Kaylee to reply to the first. “Are you pleased?”

Slightly annoyed that their time together had all but turned into a family affair that she didn't want, Kaylee nearly brushed aside her father's question. After all, it would be normal for a father to try and deem someone unworthy of their daughter. Still, he'd been completely open with her since she had began dipping her toes in the pools of dating. A part of her wanted to find out what made him ask, but her mother joining in left her slightly unsure.

"Yes, I like him," she answered first, because it seemed the only possible response. Why would she be dating someone she didn't like? "And there are things we have to work on, some things he does, but isn't that normal in a relationship?"

Inara nodded, “Yes, all relationships require work, self-sacrifice, affection—”

“—full disclosure, open communication,” Wesley added.

“Yes, that too,” Inara accepted that easily. Amber eyes flicked upward at Wes before dropping back to Kaylee. “We wouldn’t want to presume you aren’t making thoughtful choices.”

“We also don't want to presume that you don’t have all the information to make such choices,” Wesley chimed in.

Inara gave Wes’s hand a squeeze. “We also don’t want to accuse you or him of withholding form one another. Therefore, if you’re comfortable saying so, how is Lorenzo with communication? Is he open with you?”

All the times Kaylee had encountered Lorenzo came to mind—he never hesitated to answer a question, he never appeared to be startled or wary. In fact, Lorenzo was all too happy to see Kaylee no matter who was standing beside him. He would freely give her affection and it didn’t matter who observed them. The most recent being that new girl. It could be argued that Lorenzo was as open with her as a book.

Inara chuckled to see Wesley exhale throw his nose with restraint. The Fox knew Kaylee’s answer from before, but felt compelled to confirm all the same. In a gentle, paternal tone, Wesley asked, “What you have to work on aside, you’re alright with the way things are, Pumpkin?”

Her brows knitted, trying to understand what had him behaving so. "Umm, yeah? I mean things are going well between us and it's just gotten better over the past weeks." At least in her eyes. Something was continuing to eat at her and she decided she didn't want to let it go. "You don't like him, do you?"

“Nope,” Wesley admitted readily. “But I didn’t particularly like Joss either. I just find him pleasant in comparison.”

Inara spoffed, “Meri Jaan, I think you’ll find all ex-boyfriends are only pleasant in comparison against whoever you’re currently with once they’ve moved on.”

It wasn’t a lie. Wesley grinned and glanced away. “Maybe.”

“We’ll let you go,” Inara smiled, giving Wesley a tug.

“Or we can chat longer, up to you—,” Wesley said as his wife switched to pulling him instead.

The Tigress corralled the Fox away from the portal so Kaylee might join her siblings and her high school lover. Just in time too, because Charlotte was starting up a good energy-burning game for them, especially in regard to the younger boys.

Kit ran up and took Kaylee’s hand. “Come on, we gonna play!”

The fact that at least one parent openly didn't like him gave Kaylee a new feeling as she left her parents and stepped through to Hiraeth Hill. It wasn't as if she was having daydreams of the two of them getting married or anything, but she did want anyone she was seeing to at least be deemed acceptable. With that nestled in the back of her mind, she put on a smile for the sake of her brothers, accepting Kits leading. "Alright, let's play buddy," she agreed, looking around the clearing and giving Lorenzo an apologetic look. They'd have to be creative if they still wanted time alone.

Whatever nervousness Lorenzo felt before melted away when Kaylee returned. He exhaled in relief, inviting her to stand with him. His hand found its way with hers. The clamminess was gone. Even his dimpled smile returned.

“Alright guys,” Charlotte began, “We’re gonna play nerf-war.”

“Yes!” Jasper cheered.

Jinpa looked around. “You have nerfguns? Where?”

Smirking, Charlotte pulled open one of the many log seats. There were a few of them stuffed with nerfgear. “Choose your weapons!”

The children gathered up plastic armor, foam knives, and belts of nerfbullets for their nerfguns. Lorenzo toted a commander nerf elite 2.0 in his right hand. Jinpa and Jasper decided on Halo inspired weapons, each taking a UNSC MA40. Young Kit chose a nerfbow. He had seen Kaylee with bows and decided to copy.

“Everyone set?” Charlotte said, clicking in the magazine and fitting on nerf-grade glassware to protect her eyes.

“Ready,” Jasper grinned.

“You know the rules?” Charlotte asked Kit.

“No,” Kit shook his head.

“Alright, this is how it goes,” Charlotte knelt down to adjust the small quiver on Kit’s back, “you hit a person three times and they are in critical condition. If you get hit, you can use one med pack to bring back that point. You get three of them. As soon as you run out, and you get hit three times, you’re gonna bleed out and die in one minute unless someone gives up their med-pack to you. The goal is to be the last man standing. Understand?”

“Okay!” Kit wiggled from excitement. “Can we start now?”

“We have to hide in the trees first,” Charlotte chuckled. “Why don’t you count? Can you reach one-hundred?” That way the knew Kit wasn’t going to get lost.

“Yeah, I can do it!” Kit beamed, going over to sit on the log with his eyes shut. “One, two, three…”

Just as they scattered, Charlotte gave Kaylee a wicked smile. “Good luck.”

Kaylee knew all too well that the grin on her sisters face meant she was in for a rude awakening. There was just too much competitive heat in Charlotte's blood, and she knew she made a good target. All bets were off the table and the free for all was seconds away. "Good luck is right; they won't go easy on us," she warned Lorenzo just as they were ready to part ways, her gun held pointed at the ground. With a quick glance around, she managed an overdue kiss, smirking at him before turning to dart into the darkness.

Already having had a taste of Charlotte’s sadistic humor, Lorenzo could only hold on to the kiss from Kaylee as the single moment of peace. There was no way he could let his guard down. Not with Charlotte somewhere in the woods. That, and the other siblings. While Lorenzo had been through training at the academy, he was dealing with a family devoted to this lifestyle. One could just imagine Kit’s adorable, little body was still a force to be reckoned with.

“Wait for me!” Lorenzo swiftly followed Kaylee.

The voice of Kit faded as they embarked on their mission. One advantage they had was that Jinpa, Jasper, and Kit were unfamiliar with the terrain. Lorenzo and Kaylee moved like shadows through the branches. They kept a mental note of every nook and cranny in case they needed it. In the distance they heard the excited shout of ‘ready or not’, followed by disturbing silence mingled with muffled shuffles of leaves around them. The two would have to rely on hand signals for communication.

Sounds of dismay and cracking branches scattered the quiet of the approaching evening. A flutter of wings startled Lorenzo into aiming his gun upward. He couldn’t be sure Charlotte wouldn’t use a tree to get them.

A squeal of giggles of young boy fallen prey to a tickle monster turned their attention north. Lorenzo eased over to Kaylee, watching her back. “That’s not far away,” he whispered. His dark eyes traced over Kaylee’s lips. As much as he wanted to steal a moment for a kiss, he was rightly conditioned since Halloween not to blink at this point.

Kaylee nodded, having thought the same thing herself. "Not far and probably Lottie," she murmured her hypothesis, only tearing her gaze off the nearby trees for a moment. Being as close in the forest once more was undeniably thrilling, though she knew better than to indulge. "We should try to get her first if we can. The boys won't be as big if a problem, I think."

“Good idea,” Lorenzo nodded. He stared into cornflower eyes a moment more before finally moving in formation with Kaylee.

The two employed all of their training, moving through the woods like they were born for it. A thud halted their progress. Ahead of them was Charlotte sneaking closer to Jinpa.

Lorenzo looked to Kaylee. In silence he inclined his head in question to shoot.

Now was the most opportune time, so they'd have been fools to waste it. Kaylee nodded back at him, lifting her gun and outing it directly at Charlotte's back. They'd have to be quick because she was a slippery thing. "Now," she breathed, firing quickly in the direction of her sister and keeping her sight trained as her nimble body moved around.

Thunks sounded off, darts flung back and forth. Jinpa snapped his attention back to see Charlotte dodging foam bullets. He ran ahead and Charlotte scurried up a tree. Kaylee’s aim meant she had to use at least two medpacks.

“Ahah!” Jasper sprang up in the distance, shooting at the two, hitting both once.

Lorenzo pulled Kaylee down before another shot could land. They could hear a gasp following several thunks and then the crunching of feet fast fading. Perhaps Jasper was getting hailed upon by Charlotte from above? Kit’s giggles made it easy for them to know his position. Jinpa, on the other hand, vanished.

Easing up, the two used a med-pack each. They kept a close eye on the trees above them as they moved through the woods. A rustle alerted them to another presence. Jasper, recovered by two med-packs, found Jinpa. Before either Lorenzo or Kaylee could decide if they should take him out, movement and shouts exploded.

“Ah!”

Thunk, thunk!

“Gotcha!”

Thunk!

“Whoa!”

Thunk, thunk, thunk!

“Oo!” Jinpa huffed when he hit the ground. “Medic!” He dramatically pulled out his pack to use the last one. Jumping up, he shot at Jasper who dove into the brush.

Kit came into view. He held his bow in an awkward, exaggerated manner. “Gonna get you!”

“Oh no!” Jasper fell to a foam arrow. He clutched his heart and flopped on the ground.

Kit happily jumped onto his brother, who huffed out air in response to the weight. The young boy announced. “I got you!”

Lorenzo sank into shadow with Kaylee. Jinpa was down to one. Just where was Char—Thunk, thunk! Lorenzo dodged both shots, instinctively moving to block Kaylee. He aimed upward from where the foam bullets had come. He shot twice at the figure hidden in the web of branches.

Although they couldn't see her, Kaylee shot up into the branches hopefully. If they could get lucky she'd be eliminated and then they could work on the boys.

The darkness shadowed the body that dropped into the sea of brambles around them, but not before two more shots were made in mid-fall.

“Oh fuck,” Lorenzo touched his chest where a dart hit him. He turned to see Kaylee hadn’t been spared either. He could only hope their hits landed. Lorenzo used one of his medpacks for himself.

Thunk! A dart hit the trunk beside Kaylee’s head. Thunk! One caught Lorenzo’s arm. The two slipped deeper into the protection of the forest, though they wouldn’t be hidden for long at this distance. Lorenzo’s last medpack saved him from death, but they had more to worry about. A confusing volley of darts flung between Charlotte, Kaylee, and Lorenzo.

Click, click! Lorenzo’s gun emptied. “Oh no,” he breathed.

Just in that moment Charlotte took a bold move and sprinted toward them. A single dart shot through the air, aimed at Kaylee. The world slowed as Lorenzo lunged between them, his cry of defiance resounded through the air. Thunk! Lorenzo fell at Kaylee’s feet. A dart poked from his heart.

“Heh,” Charlotte sprang away when Kaylee’s gun shot in response.

Waiting to lower her gun until Charlotte was out of sight, Kaylee only dropped to her knees as the woods around them fell silent. Finally having a chance to digest what he had done, she felt her cheeks heating up. "Well that was a silly idea," she murmured, flicking away the foam dart. "You don't need to be shot over me." But there was still time. She pulled out her last med pack just as the clock tucked away, bringing him back into the game.

Lorenzo’s hand slipped over Kaylee’s cheek. “Worth it,” he said with a grin. “But I think I need a little more than a medpack, Princesa.” He lifted his head slightly to meet her in a kiss. “Ah, almost better,” he rumbled, enjoying two more of those life-giving kisses.

Thunk! Thunk! Shots snapped their attention to a small figure between tree trunks. “Ah hah!” Kit giggled in triumph.

“Oh man,” Lorenzo chuckled, hand on his thigh where a foam arrow hit. “You got me!”

“And big sister!” Kit said as he hopped. It was then Kit noticed that Kaylee had gotten hit on her cheek. Running over, he said, “Oh no, an owie.” Kit stuck a kiss to his pointer finger and then pressed it to Kaylee’s tender spot. “There.”

Although not the same as the kisses she'd shared with Lorenzo, there was still something touching about her little brother and his kind heart. She giggled, stealing him for a one armed brief hug before he could wiggle away back into battle. "Thank you, Kit. All better."

“Gonna find Lottie now,” Kit declared brightly, turning around the track through the forest for her.

Lorenzo shook his head, smiling. Shuffling up to his feet, he took Kaylee’s hand to help her too. In the distance they could hear Charlotte feigning death throes and the signature giggle of Kit’s victory.

“Alright guys!” Charlotte called out. “Time’s up. The winner is Kit!”

“Woo!” Lorenzo shouted out along with the others as he and Kaylee approached the bonfire.

"Way to go Kit!" Kaylee praised, ruffling up his hair once they'd all met back up around the logs and fire. "That was a lot of fun. We should do that again," she suggested as she began to remove her armor and help the boys do the same so it could be stored once more.

“Yeah, definitely!” Jasper said. He helped stow the gear along with Jinpa. Kit, being the winner, got to have a treat.

Charlotte fastened the log shut once they had put all of their nerfgear away. “Next time I’ll keep my eye on you, Kit.”

The little boy beamed through chocolate smeared lips. He asked in a yawn, “Can we do it again? Now?”

“No, it's bed time for you,” Charlotte said, cleaning his face with a wipe.

Jinpa asked, “Well...can we stay then?”

“Nope,” Charlotte was quick to shake her head. “Your parents are probably leaving soon too.”

That made sense. Jinpa resigned himself to going home. Jasper, on the other hand, stood up beside Charlotte to say, “Okay, but I for one—,”

Charlotte set her hands on her brother’s shoulders and began to walk with him towards the portal. “You gotta help Kit.”

The young boy in question sauntered after his sister, brother, and cousin. Lorenzo shrugged and followed them to the gate Charlotte opened. One by one the boys were pushed into the vault. Then, just before either Kaylee or Lorenzo could do the same, Charlotte held up a hand.

Lorenzo tilted his head. “What is it?”

“Remember? Mother said come back when you’re tired,” Charlotte grinned, going through the portal. She waved. “You two look wide awake to me. See you later.” At that, she closed the gate.

Kaylee was pleasantly surprised by Lotties actions, but she wasn't about to question a good thing. Left alone, she turned to Lorenzo, offering a grin as she took hold of his hands. "So, was meeting my family as absolutely horrible as you thought it would be?"

Riding high on the adrenaline of the game and the relief that he didn’t have to walk into Avostoska at this point, Lorenzo relaxed as they made their way to the logs. “It was unexpected, but not so bad,” he chuckled. “Honestly, I learned more about what’s been going on in the world from that dinner than I’ve heard from anywhere else.”

The struggles of the world only continued since the collapse of Aarin. It seemed humanity couldn’t catch a break. What made it all worth the work was what followed the talk of troubles in the world.

“I’m really impressed with your family, actually,” Lorenzo admitted with sincerity. “They’re really supportive of each other. It’s nice to see.” There was hesitation in Lorenzo as he distracted himself with lighting a fire. “I’m not used to that happening,” he spoffed, trying to hide the hint of embarrassment for that truth.

"It is nice," she agreed, trying to decide whether or not his own family was a topic she should talk about. "Mind you it wasn't always the same between all of them. Before Hells Gate a lot of them would have killed the others, believe it or not. But everyone grew past that and like you said really supportive. A pretty good family, I would say."

Lorenzo chuckled, sitting next to her. “I know, we’ve been learning about that in class since Freshman year.” He brushed his fingers against her cheek. “If they had a course on your family about you, I’d take it.“

Kaylee spoffed, shaking her head, though not enough to lose his fingers. "That wouldn't be a very interesting class," she modestly argued before a thought struck her and she offered a line smoothly, "But you're welcome to study me if you'd like."

Grinning, Lorenzo leaned towards that side, murmuring, “Just the kind of textbook I like…” his lips kneaded hers. The hand against her cheek slipped around to rest on the back of her neck. The odd angle, due to sitting side-by-side, made it harder to lay on her the kind of passion he had before. Lorenzo shifted one of his legs around the log, to face her better.

Heart a flutter, Kaylee was quick to slip into their routine of learning each other's bodies. Each time they kissed it seemed to accelerate faster and faster, though she hadn't often needed to reel him in. That night she happily matched his motions, putting one hand behind his head and burying her fingers in his hair. With her dress she couldn't straddle the log, though she did scoot closer to him.

The more they progressed in their kiss, the more thoughts of Halloween and that heated moment sprang to his mind, the more Lorenzo thought of their first session in the woods, the more he sensed heat rise in him. Dress or not, Lorenzo briefly broke their union to pull her leg as he had done with his own, over the log. He grinned to hear her soft gasp when he gripped her hips and tugged her against his front, both bunching her skirt and hooking her legs over his. For a time Lorenzo simply held her like this, replicating all the ways to hear her sigh as he discovered before. This meant finding that velvet center between her thighs. As soon as he began his work, Lorenzo leaned back a moment to watch her face.

His practiced movements and knowledge of her body was quick to show. She was soon lost to the rush of hormones he elicited in her, content to let him take control and tug her close. Sift sounds grew louder as he explored, until he found her most intimate center, inhaling sharply. Her body naturally began responding positively, but as curious as she might have been, it just didn't feel right. "Lorenzo, let's slow down," she breathed heavily.

At her command, Lorenzo eased the motion to a halt, so as not to be abrupt. Concerned he had been too rough, he only rubbed his thumb on the outside of her undergarments as you would a sore. “Have I hurt you, Princesa?” Lorenzo asked softly, giving her cheek a comforting kiss.

Kaylee let her forehead come to rest against his, catching her breath. Hurt her? Was it supposed to hurt? Tucking that aside, she shook her head slightly. "No, nothing hurt," she assured him, one hand finding his wrist. "I just think we should slow down is all."

Speed up, slow down. Lorenzo had to chuckle. He couldn’t make odds or ends of this quirky girl! He spared Kaylee the task to move his hand by setting them both on her hips where his hold was tender, yet firm. “I’ll go whatever pace you want, Princesa,” Lorenzo promised her. “I want you to be comfortable, I want you to have a good time,” he murmured, smiling. Thoughtfully he said, “You are like an angel, wings folded, balancing on the edge of a cliff. It is like...you can’t be sure you’re ready to fly.”

She chuckled nervously, worried that she might have gone and ruined the mood. Granted it could never be as ruined as Lottie sneaking up on them as a ghoul. "Well, it is quite the cliff," she pointed out, letting her hand trail up his arm from his wrist, thoughtfully tracing moles and other changes to his skin. "But I'm sure I'll soar when the time is right."

“Ah, Princesa, I know you will,” Lorenzo said with a soft grin, rubbing the low of her back affectionately. He leaned forward to meld sweetly with her lips. The time could be right at any moment; that night, or a different one. Lorenzo decided to put the ball fully in Kaylee’s court. He rested his right hand on her thigh while the other paid attention to the areas he knew Kaylee appreciated. Between kisses he said, “You can decide how far I go, Princesa...Take may hand when you want to fly.” In the meantime Lorenzo would kiss her lips, nibble her neck, and murmur praises of her beauty.

Grateful for his understanding, Kaylee happily enjoyed their shared affection. There was no denying he was quite talented, and it made it easy to follow along and learn from. At one point she had even scooted closer to him on the log, her fingers wandering and slipping ho beneath the front of his shirt. She felt the contours of his chest and felt her heat growing remembering just how he had looked shirtless.

Lorenzo mimicked her motion, loosening her belt so that his free hand could reach easily up against her front too. She felt little swirls mirroring her own skin that she did to him. The space between them had diminished from when she hugged closer. A growing presence could not be helped. Lorenzo murmured, “Ah—forgive me, Princesa, I—I can’t help it…” his tone conveyed inner torment, both that he worried this might make her uncomfortable and what this build up was doing to him.

It took only a few moments for her to realize just what he was talking about. Her cheeks flared red, though she didn't retreat from exploring beneath his shirt. "Maybe it's best if we stop for the night?" She offered a truce quietly, even as she returned a few kisses on the curve of his neck.

Breathless, Lorenzo groaned softly at the fact that, once again, Kaylee brought him so far only to retreat. He said nothing, but she could see it in his body language the struggles that came with what essentially was a constant tease.

“Yeah, I should go,” Lorenzo swallowed down his internal ache. “Give me a moment…” He spoffed, needing to let go of her and shuffle her off of him so that his body could calm down without her kisses and touches to coax him along. How else could he get up and walk comfortably? At least until he could find release elsewhere. Once Lorenzo’s anatomy relaxed he stood up to smooth out his outfit, turning to Kaylee for a last goodnight. “I’ll see you Monday, Princesa?”

Kaylee felt torn even if her body wasn't displaying it as prominently as his was. Excitement didn't feel like a proper word to describe how he made her feel with his touch, nor longing for how that feeling grew. She nearly slid back against him to start up again before realizing that would only put them back in the same boat. To keep her hands busy she readjust her belt. "Yeah, Monday," she agreed after a slow exhale. "And maybe we meet up again here soon? We could...get a little closer to that cliff."

Shrugging, Lorenzo chuckled, “Yeah, why not?” He came up to cup her cheek. “But only if you really want to, Princesa.” He gave her a parting kiss, one that meant goodbye and goodnight. “See you around,” he said with a wink.

Was that what she wanted? Kaylee watched as Lorenzo disappeared through the portal as she tried to answer that question for herself. Of course she was curious, and with raging hormones they were bound to inch closer to it sooner than later. She just couldn't decide if sex was something she was ready for, and was also at a loss on who to ask. After learning that at least half of her parents didn't seem to approve of Lorenzo, she wasn't sure her mom was the best choice to talk to. These weren't thoughts she wanted to get back to her father regardless.

Standing up, she tamed the fire pit and left it as barely smouldering ashes before turning to the portal to leave. Avostoska awaited, Kaylee stepping through while her thoughts were still a buzz of her teenage romance and what it might become.

On her way to her room Kaylee heard the familiar strides of their families' trusted caregivers. Kazumi, scar-faced and calm-natured, came around the corner. The woman smiled upon seeing Kaylee.

“Had fun?” Kazumi’s scratchy voice mangled her words, but Kaylee had since become used to it.

Thinking of how the evening ended, she tried to play it cool though her flushed cheeks betrayed her. "Yeah, it was fun. We played nerf wars with Lottie and the boys," she tucked her hands behind her back, not unlike a child with something to hide.

Not missing a beat, Kazumi’s hand came to plop onto Kaylee’s head. The young girls noggin bobbed from the gentle wiggle. “Ah-ah, what’s the matter, eh? This boy need a visit from me?” She didn’t have to have Hye with her, but she wouldn’t refuse the company.

Kaylee gave a light-hearted scowl as she managed to dip her head and slide out from her hold. "No, no visits," she insisted, unable to imagine what Lorenzo would think of the assassin turned family nanny showing up. "Dad's already got him scared him, anyways."

“He is right to be,” Kazumi spoffed, adding casually, “though I doubt he knows the depth of why.” She resumed walking, joining with Kaylee down the same direction at a leisurely pace. “What is on your mind, Kay-Chan?”

Her earlier thoughts passed over the young woman as they strolled along. Kazumi wasn't a parent and over the years Kaylee had found her a good ear to listen to and not always as quick to pull a parental response on her. There were a few moments of silence before she found the strength to speak. "Things with Lorenzo have been getting...heated. Each time more than the last and I guess I'm just trying to figure out how I'll know I'm ready for, um, intimacy."

“Hmm. How to tell if you’re ready…” Kazumi trailed off, tilting her head in quiet thought. “I guess when the desire for it overcomes any hesitation? When you want it so badly, you can’t stand it?” She spoffed, “Can’t say I relate much. I don’t have those kinds of urges, I never had to deal with the emotional weight of it. I did it because I was curious. It was okay. Felt good, I guess.”

Kaylee's brows furrowed at Kazumi's words. That was completely to the contrary of what her mother and aunts had said before, putting a lot of emotional connection to the act. Not only that but they sure made it seem like a lot better than 'okay'. "I guess so," she shrugged, though interested in just how different the experience could be.

“Maybe if you try to figure out what it means to you, it would help.” Kazumi asked, “Is it just an experience to check off the list? Or do you believe there is something about sharing yourself that has meaning?”

Kaylee didn't answer immediately, chewing over the questions. Her mother and aunts had made it seem like it was a personal choice and a big one at that, but how did she know if she felt the same way too? "I mean, I know I want to eventually," she said factually, unable to imagine going her entire life without it, especially when everything leading up to it had felt good so far. "I guess it'd be nice for it to happen to someone who appreciates me, but I don't know if I view it as sacred or anything like that. Definitely don't want to wait until marriage, that just feels archaic."

“Ah, well, if it’s just an experience you want with someone who appreciates you, I guess it’s as simple as finding a willing friend. At that point there is no difference between Lorenzo or anyone else, as long as that one criteria is met,” Kazumi shrugged. “But if it has meaning, then I would say determine the value of it. Knowing the value of what has meaning changes everything about how you use it, share it, preserve it—Whether that is liberally indulging in it, giving it freely, or safeguarding it until you deem it worth expending. This probably has a lot to do with the archaic practice of marriage in many cultures across the world; practical use, in organizing many people into family units to prevent genetic deformities, or maintain order. There is also the case that it is so highly valued as a bonding phenomenon that to give it to one who has not vowed life-long devotion would be considered a denigration of it and a betrayal of the one to whom the vow was made,” Kazumi explained. “Sex doesn’t have emotional or spiritual meaning to me. I do not value it beyond any other physical action, especially the ones that put me in a vulnerable position. However,” she admitted, “since I do find meaning in relationships, which I value highly, I would do so for the sake of the person I trusted, if they find meaning and value in it.”

Kaylee listened intently as Kazumi shared her insights and advice. They were just about to her bedroom, and she had been given quite a lot to think over. Luckily, she didn't need to make a decision right that moment. "Yeah, I suppose you're right. I think I'll just kind of see where things go, maybe talk it over with Lorenzo," she decided for then.

Nodding, Kazumi said, “Yes, talking about it with the person you’re in a relationship with is important. Remember you don’t need to rush; give yourself time to come to a satisfying conclusion.”

She looked up at the older woman, giving her a grin just as they came to a stop by her room. "Thanks Kazumi. It means a lot to have you to talk to about this."

“I am honored,” Kazumi said, placing a hand to her heart, “for you hold great meaning to me; your value exceeds that which I have for myself.” She slipped her arms around Kaylee, giving her the bonding embrace children benefited from for comfort, for confidence, and for affection. “Goodnight, Kay-Chan.”

Accepting the hug, Kaylee grinned up at her. "Night, 'Zumi," she waved, using the name she had used when still struggling with the assistants full name as a child. Turning, she stepped into the joined sitting room between hers and Charlotte's room, planning to undress and pass out in a hurry.

Popping up from the couch, peeking out from a blanket, Charlotte immediately questioned her elder sister. “Did you do it?”

Jumping, Kaylee swore under her breath, shooting her a scowl. "You have got to stop scaring the hell out of me," she muttered, stepping away from the couch and toward her bedroom door.

Charlotte jumped over the back of the couch, her blanket billowing behind her as she trotted forward, chuckling, “One scare closer to being Holy, as Elijah would say.” She caught up with her sister, grinning from ear to ear. “Come on, did you?”

She had figured she wasn't going to get away that easily, though Kaylee kept moving so she had to follow after. "No, we didn't do it, Lottie," she answered as she slipped out of her shoes and turned to face her.

“Ah, okay,” Charlotte flapped her blanket. She had hoped the tea would have been hotter

"But...maybe we will. He wants to." That much was made very clear each time she pressed up against him.

“If Halloween was any indication, I’d say so,” Charlotte chuckled, turning to the door. She paused at the threshold, looking back. “What’s it like? To kiss someone like that—all breathless and stuff.”

Kaylee paused in her undressing, a smile spreading across her lips as she thought of it. "It's...amazing. Like breathing in each other and only wanting more. You get hot all over and just feel yourself gravitate towards him," she said as she leaned against her closet door.

Sighing with wistful longing, Charlotte squeezed her blanket tighter around her. “Aww, that sounds wonderful.”

Knowing she could confide in her sister, she looked up with pink cheeks. "He umm, Lorenzo was feeling my.." Pink cheeks turned to red and she nodded downward, eyes on her pelvic area for a moment. "That sent a flash of heat everywhere and I really wanted more."

Oh, the tea just got steamy! Charlotte stepped towards her, stifling a squeal, “Oooh! That’s right, the little nub.” Their mother and aunts had talked about it. But something about the way Kaylee phrased the last part of her sentence furrowed Charlotte’s brows. “Really wanted more—What, did he stop?”

"He did, but only because I said we should," Kaylee explained, undoing her belt and instantly hit with a reminder of Lorenzo doing the same earlier that evening and the sensation of his roaming fingers. "It felt like things were going fast and that we should stop them before we wound up naked in the forest."

The image that flashed in Charlotte's mind of the two of them made her giggle. She pressed her blanket to muffle the sound, which in turn muted her quick apology. “Sorry! It’s serious, I know.” Charlotte gained composure and said, “Yeah, I don’t know if I’d want to do that in the woods either.” She tilted her head in thought. “Don’t know where else you’d go though, if you did end up doing it. Sure as hell not interested in doing it here. That’s far more uncomfortable than the woods.”

Kaylee winced at that thought, quickly shaking her head. "Oh Lord, no! Can you imagine? If dad found out he would skin him alive," she said, knowing that might not be an exaggeration. "I guess Hiraeth Hill wouldn't be the worst place, although I would think I would want it to be comfortable. Maybe with a blanket or something? Romance would be nice."

“Like at the end of a date? Maybe on a cute holiday? Valentine's Day is popular,” Charlotte said, rocking on her heels in thought. “You still got those movie tickets, right? Decided on if you want to use them with him?”

It was probably cliche, but Kaylee was admittedly thinking the same thing. "Only if Valentine's Day doesn't come with snow still on the hill," she spoffed, preferring not to freeze for the sake of romance. "I thought I'd offer it to him when we get back from break or sometime before Christmas. And maybe that'll motivate him to plan something in return, you know?"

“Yeah maybe,” Charlotte spoffed, shrugging.

Lorenzo never came off as the most aware boyfriend. She wondered if he knew her favorite flowers were peonies, or that Kaylee loved kiwi, or even what songs she liked to listen to, or the goals Kaylee had in life. These were all details her parents knew about each other.

“Well,” Charlotte yawned, turning on her heel, her blanket trailing behind, “gonna go to bed. Night Kaylee.”

Left with her own thoughts as she too prepared for bed, Kaylee tried not to dwell on the earlier comments from her father. He didn't like Lorenzo, but also had nearly scared Joss to death on Halloween the year prior. Maybe he was just being an over protective father and would never find a young man he approved of. Hoping that he'd earn Wesley's approval at some point, she turned over in bed and managed to fall asleep, even though she was met with vivid dreams like never before, taking her back to the heated moment in the woods.

Thanksgiving break was over too soon, filled with a packed weekend spent with the different pieces of their family. Time with their brothers and cousins was enjoyed, along with a trip to the spa with the adult women, a celebration for the next babies to come. Sunday evening found Charlotte and Kaylee crossing the portal back to the academy once more, joined of course by a sleepy Chel.

The school year was approaching half over, which meant the heat of midterms was at the front of everyone's minds. Having decided that she was going to invite Lorenzo to the movies perhaps over Christmas break, Kaylee spent the first half of the week trying to get his attention when she wasn't drowning in assignments or studying. Her messages sat on sent for what felt like ages, though she didn't feel much better when they switched to read. Finally she decided she was going to find him in person during a rare moment of calm one morning. Tickets in hand, she headed down the hallway toward one of the study halls that Lorenzo was generally at on Thursdays at this time. Sending him a message to ask if he was free, she had been too focused on her phone and ended up running into someone.

"Ooof, I'm sorry," she was quick to apologize, looking up to see she'd bashed right into Kyle, though he was also on his phone.

"No, that's probably my fault Kaylee. Was a bit distracted," he admitted, tucking his phone away and looking her over. The tickets in her hand caught his attention and he nodded at them. "Planning on going to a movie? Or two since you have two tickets?"

Kaylee followed his gaze, caught off guard and spoffed, shaking her head as she slipped them in her pocket. "Not now, maybe on Christmas break I'll go see one."

"Just one? Does that mean you need someone else to use that second ticket?" Kyle grinned, a pleasing sight even without a dimple. "I don't have any plans on Christmas break, if you want someone to come with."

The offer was even more unexpected than his previous comment, and Kaylee looked him over with furrowed brows. It wasn't as if Kyle wasn't an attractive young man, having started his journey through puberty and already a pleasant sight. She just didn't imagine he'd suddenly be there offering for her attention. That and of course the obvious. "Uh, I was actually going to see if Lorenzo wanted to go," she explained, not wanting to be offensive toward his offer.

"Cortez?" Kyle spoffed and shook his head, only stopping when he realized she wasn't also laughing. "Oh, you're serious? Wow, um. Didn't think that was the kind of thing he did."

"Why wouldn't he? It's pretty normal when you're dating," Kaylee was quick to answer, unsure why she was explaining that to him.

"Dating? Lorenzo Cortez doesn't date people. He does plenty of things but dating isn't one."

The almost patronizing tone elicited a scowl from Kaylee, crossing her arms over her chest. "Well, he happens to be dating me."

A full snort of laughter left Kyle who wiped a tear from his eyes. He only stopped to see she still had a solemn face. "Oh, you silly girl. Of course you are dating him," he said, shaking his head and giving her a look that made her think of pity. "But I doubt he thinks the same. But it's whatever. Enjoy your movie and the relationship you think you're in, Kaylee."

Left dumbfounded as Kyle walked away, she struggled to go over what he said in her mind. What did any of that even mean? Of course they were dating! Brows still furrowed, she began walking once more, swimming in confusing thoughts and budding curiosities.

As fate would have it, Kaylee turned a corner and there stood the boy in question. He immediately noticed her coming towards him. Lorenzo’s dimpled smile faltered to see her so solemn. He couldn’t have that!

Reaching up, Lorenzo caressed her cheek in concern, saying, “Are you alright, Princesa?”

Kaylee's frown didn't disappear simply with his touch, too deeply impressed on her face. "I was just talking to Kyle on the way here," she murmured, reaching into her pocket for the movie tickets she had been so eager over minutes prior. Her gaze shifted from the tickets to Lorenzo and she decided she needed to simply speak if she wanted any answers.

Just before the question could form on her tongue Kaylee glanced to see a familiar new girl coming walking towards them. She held a notebook up in Lorenzo’s direction and, in fact, Kaylee might as well have not been present.

“Hey,” she instantly beamed, cheeks pink. “You forgot this.”

“Ah,” Lorenzo grinned, taking it back. “Thanks, little Swallow.” He shifted his backpack in front of him to put the wire-bound book away.

The girl lingered, giving Kaylee a cursory smile. The kind that you saw often on people sharing elevators or having to walk through the same door at once.

Lorenzo, finished and set his bag down, tilted his head and said with a grin, “Eh, you got a little pin of a swallow.”

It was obvious the girl grew excited to see his recognition, but she tried to play it cool. She tucked her hands behind her back. Coy? Or to emphasize her assets? Either way Lorenzo didn’t spare a moment to glance down where her pin was stuck to the top of her left breast.

“Oh yeah, you know—I’m your little Swallow. Thought you’d like that,” she said, giving her shoulders a little wiggle. “Well, see you around, Lorenzo.”

“Bye, Golondrina[Swallow],” Lorenzo winked as she walked away. He turned back to Kaylee, eyes full of that same concern for her well being. “Sorry for the interruption. What was it you were going to say, Princesa?”

The words were having difficulty forming after what Kaylee had just witnessed. She most definitely recognized the girl as well as the way he was acting toward her. It felt eerily similar and she didn't think she liked that. "Umm. I was going to say if someone asked you, would you say we are dating?"

Blinking in mild surprise, Lorenzo answered with a shrug, “Well, no…” He registered the expression on her face and Lorenzo frowned, feeling a pit in his stomach. “Oh Princesa...Did you— Did you think we were?”

Her heart plummeted at his words, arms dropping to her sides. "Well...yeah, I did," she admitted, feeling quite stupid as she stood there before him. "I mean, you came to meet my family and we've made out and things. Isn't that a part of dating?" She had to have missed something, some sort of a disconnect.

“I—I don’t know. I’ve never dated anyone before. No one has asked me. I haven’t thought to ask anyone,” Lorenzo admitted. His shoulders drooped, his lips pulled to the side in the way a young boy might if he felt awful and didn’t know what to do about it. “Ever since you hit on me at Atlantis I thought that you just wanted to explore, you know? Some girls are shy and want someone else to lead them into experiences.”

"Explore?" Kaylee repeated in disbelief. "I mean sure, but you don't just explore with random people. You were even the one after Prom that asked me to be your princess still. I don't understand how that isn't about dating."

“Well, yeah, I asked if you’d be my Princesa, but I didn’t ask if you’d be my girlfriend,” Lorenzo pointed out. “I have a Skipper, a Buttercup, a Swallow—I had called Eddie little Hopper, but he prefers just Eddie. They’re people I’ve kissed and thought would be nice to keep in contact with if they ever wanted to do that again,” Lorenzo said with a shrug. He pulled up his bag and slipped it over one shoulder. “I wouldn’t call it random. It’s just fun with cool people I like and regard with respect. Skipper is pretty funny, he’s always making jokes. Eddie’s always got my back on the field. And you, Princesa, well, I like your sweetness.” Leaning his free shoulder against the lockers, Lorenzo said, “You had a good time while we were gettin it on. Boyfriend or not, does it really matter?”

He didn't stutter or anything but Kaylee struggled to digest what he said. "What? You...you've made out with them?" She looked down the hall where Swallow had disappeared to, though she was long gone. "I just...you.. Do they all know? And they're just fine with you making out with others?"

“Well, at first I would have said yes—I know Swallow does. She’s kinda been grumpy when she sees you kiss me, but,” Lorenzo exhaled, adjusting his shoulder strap, “now that you’ve said you didn’t know, I might have to check.”

The feeling that she'd been an idiot for the past seven months wasn't going away. She may have had some uncertainty about what she wanted for intimacy, but one thing she knew right then was that she didn't want this. "Yeah, you probably should," she murmured, pocketing her tickets once more and looking down the hall. There was a heavy weight in her chest that she didn't want to think about it understand. "It was fun, but I can't do this. I don't want to just be a number and someone you go to if the others are busy." The pain only grew and she could feel tears burning at the corners of her eyes.

Face draining, Lorenzo tried to comfort her. “Prin—,” he stopped, knowing that wasn’t gonna be the best name to use at this point. “Kaylee, I— I didn’t think you were a number…” But how could he be objective? Steeped in what he called just a good time he was far too comfortable in his world, with all the best intentions, that the idea of someone perceiving it as anything else than harmless, frivolous, fun seemed alien. “...But I accept your decision.” He lifted from the lockers. “If you ever change your mine, I’ll be around.” Walking backwards a few steps, he added the only thing he could say at a point where he could do nothing, “Sorry, Kaylee.”

With that, Lorenzo turned around and continued onward to the next class. Later on Kaylee would see two slap imprints on his face. One a little larger and heavy handed than the other. The kind, you might say, comes with the strength of a young man who played sports.

The rest of the day, Kaylee could find little solace or even escape from her thoughts. She tried to focus on her studies, but the words simply melted together as black and white mush. He had said he was sorry, but it did little to comfort her and her hopes of what was to come. A couple hours after the confrontation, she thought back to the weekend prior and her father's comments. Communication and disclosure. Was this what he had been talking about? The possibility had her so drowned out from the world that she hadn't even heard the bell signaling the end of class.

“Kaylee?” Charlotte repeated, this time in a concerned tone. Behind her Serenity and Cara, gathering their books, looked their way. “Hey, what’s wrong? You’ve been out of sorts all day…”

"Hmm?" Cornflower eyes finally focused on her sister as Kaylee caught up to what was around her and quickly began stowing her belongings and slung her backpack on. "Just ready for the weekend." A painful answer even as vague as it was, though not a lie because she really wished she could stay at home in bed and avoid the chance of seeing Lorenzo in the halls again.


Frowning, Charlotte stepped back from the abrupt movements of her sister. At this moment the girls wanted nothing more than to comfort and figure things out, but being in public probably wasn’t where they should do it. They gathered their things and hurried after Kaylee.

“Hey guys,” Tysha said and she skipped over, halting only when she noticed the mood. She silently fell in-step with them, murmuring questions of what was going on.

“I don’t know,” the others had to say.

While Kaylee may have wanted to slip away without coming across Lorenzo, cruel fate did not disappoint. All the girls, along with Kaylee, saw him pass by with telling marks on his face. Their minds rushed with explanations. To make matters worse, Kaylee nearly bumped into two people she had seen with Lorenzo before, and more who she could have brushed off as acquaintances before learning of his hobby; a good fraction of the school.

Cara ran up to the clogged hallway when Kaylee found herself stuck. “Move it! Coming through!”

Students shuffled apathetically to the side. Charlotte and the other girls helped to make sure the pathway to the dorms were cleared. They followed Kaylee to their chambers and as soon as the doors shut they locked it. Quick to come to her side, the girls were ready with a tissue box.

“Kaylee,” Cara said seriously, “Did Lorenzo hurt you?” It was the first thing they had to address. The very notion fired them up.

Everything she had been keeping in all day came to a boil and began to spill out, starting with tears. She hadn't wanted to cry, but Kaylee seemed to have no say in the manner. Grabbing a few tissues, she dropped down to a sofa, letting her bag hit the floor with a thud. "I was just so stupid," she strained to speak, angry with how quick she fell apart.

Tallulah, who had just settled in for studying and was pulled into the motions as the girls shuffled into the dorm, frowned at the statement. Coming to join the others, she sat on the couch and shook her head. "You're not stupid, Kaylee," she insisted, looking to the others to try and understand what was going on.

"I'm stupid or blind that I didn't see what was going on," Kaylee was quick to argue, pausing to take deep breaths before she began hyperventilating. "He's been making out with them. That chick we saw before, some guys too. He - hiccup - he didn't even think we were dating. I was just s-someone to make out with."

Dumbfounded, the girls first murmured in surprise between each other. Times like these, as Natalia would say, needed a little tea. Serenity had the same opinion. She ran over to the electric tea kettle. She grabbed a raspberry hibiscus jar and readied a spoon of milk; Kaylee’s favorite.

“Wha— How?” Tysha blinked, puzzled. She ran the information she knew in her head and came out with no good explanation. “He took you to Prom, he kissed you— He literally asked you to be his Princess.”

Charlotte, who sat beside Kaylee, rubbing her back, sighed with a frown, “Oh no...It’s not what he meant by it, huh?”

The memory of their father trying to investigate just exactly what Lorenzo did and said that night after Prom came to mind. Just how different would their future be if Kaylee relayed the events verbatim? Would their father have suggested that they confirm Lorenzo did indeed ask her to be his girlfriend, and that it wasn’t just a kiss and a nickname for a friend-with-benefits?

Cara paced back and forth, arms crossed and scowling. “What a douche! How else could a girl interpret that? Did he think she was seducing him or something?” That came with a judgement scoff at Lorenzo. “As if he’s so special.”

“I don’t know,” Tysha huffed. “But I think he’d catch on at some point. He went to Atlantis with her, he FaceTime’d her at summer, he went to Thanksgiving—You’d think he could guess.”

“Sounds like he’s the idiot to me,” Serenity murmured sadly, coming to hand Kaylee her drink. She sat across from her.

"I'm telling you, boys are dumb," Tallulah said with a shake of her head, pulling over a blanket and draping it on Kaylee's lap for added comfort.

Kaylee murmured a thanks as she accepted the tea, sipping it slowly. The taste soothed her some though just drinking helped to slow her breathing down and calm her. "I just feel like I should have been able to see what was going on, you know?"

"You can't be hard on yourself, Kaylee. He should have told what his expectations were and made sure you understood and agreed. Communication is so important," Tallulah pointed out.

It was, and that thought made Kaylee wince, taking a break from her tea. "I think my dad knew..." She shared with the girls how he and her mother had pulled her aside at Thanksgiving.

This time around the other girls realized they needed a cup of tea. Serenity obliged. While she readied the kettle the others were reflecting on the information. Essentially the situation was a huge mess of assumptions and misconceptions.

Charlotte hummed in thought. "Knowing them, Dad likely only just got the whole of the information that night, or shortly before it. Perhaps too occupied with work to notice beforehand?" They knew he had a project in the works. Construction began on the East side of Avostoska.

"What about your mom?" Cara asked, receiving her tea.

Shaking her head, Charlotte said, "Mom doesn't pry like that, she tries not to invade our privacy. She probably didn't know the extent of it all until Dad brought it to her at Thanksgiving."

Elsewise their father would have surely taken Kaylee aside earlier. He had wanted to continuethe conversationthat night, though more to take time from Lorenzo than thinking she misunderstood. The touch and go between them and Kaylee likely had been a compromise between being respectful of her business and an attempt to get involved; Inara worried about crossing boundaries whereas Wes had no qualms with invasive tactics.

Exhaling, Tysha asked tentatively, "So...what now?"

Kaylee had just fully pulled the fluffy blanket up over her lap and taken a long sip of her tea when Tysha spoke. "Give up on boys forever because they're not worth it?"

"That's what I've been saying," Tallulah piped up, sitting herself cross-legged beside Cara.

"I mean, I told Lorenzo I'm not going to be around for his little mess around roulette," Kaylee rolled her eyes. "But I think I really am going to stop trying to find a relationship. School is more important and this sucks. I don't want to date someone only for Kyle Villarreal to show up seven months later and be the one to point out it's a lie."

“What? When did he do that?” Cara asked.

"Just before I asked Lorenzo about it," Kaylee answered. "We ran into each other in the hall and he saw my movie tickets." She said before going into detail of him offering to join her for a movie, her saying she was dating someone and Kyle's disbelief in that being true.

Tysha offered, “If it helps, we would have said something if we knew. We just aren’t all in the same classes or crossing paths this year. You didn’t take cheer this time. You might have found out earlier if you went to practices on the field.”

“Not gonna lie, I had unpleasant vibes from him since Prom last year,” Serenity said, sipping on her tea. “That name—Lord Byron—it belongs to a Regency era playboy nobleman.” None of them could say for sure if this was accidental or not, but it fit. She perked in cautious worry. “You didn’t….you know….Did you?”

Shaking her head quickly, Kaylee put that to rest. "No, we did not. We messed around a little in the woods, but nothing that far," she assured Serenity. "And I'm glad we didn't. I feel like now knowing what I know that he wouldn't have given it much meaning, you know?"

“Oh good,” more than one murmured.

While each of them had an underdeveloped stance of what engaging in that meant to them, they at least knew they were glad Kaylee didn’t share that under a false understanding. Charlotte in particular was happy that her clever trick to allow them time hadn’t culminated in it!

Serenity nestled her teacup on her lap. “I think you’re right, Kaylee. An undefined break from boys will do you good.”

“Yeah, let’s focus on work and dance,” Charlotte smiled. “Oh, that’s right. I heard from Elijah today that our competition at the end of the year against another academy like ours is approved. It hasn’t been announced, but he overheard Principle Minton.”

Kaylee was grateful for a distraction from her disaster of a love life. She perked up at talk of their dance competition, something they'd been hopeful for since their freshman year. "Really? That's amazing," she beamed. "Hopefully it gets announced soon so that we can work on a routine."

"That's great news," Tallulah celebrated with the other girls. "I'd say this calls for a toast, but tea isn't exactly a drink to toast with."

Taking up the kettle to pour more in anyone’s cup that needed it, Serenity said with a smile, “Tonight it is, I think.”

“To a successful dance competition,” Charlotte said, raising her cup.

“To passing our midterms,” Cara spoffed, doing the same.

Serenity held hers up, “To friendship.”

Tysha scooted closer, saying, “To becoming Guardians!”

"To finding our passions," Tallulah raised her cup.

Kaylee's was the last to go up in the air. "To finding ourselves," she said with a nod.

Porcelain clinked edge-to-edge. The girls all sipped with smiles and muted giggles for their impromptu toast. Some went ahead and finished their drink off in that sip. Others were content to nurse it.

“Now, enough about boys and all their drama,” Serenity said. “Why don’t we talk about what we want from life? We don’t do that often enough. I’ll go first,” she smiled, “I think I am interested in pursuing a medical position in the Guardian trade college.”

"Oh, that's a perfect job for you, Serenity," Tallulah remarked, the other girls murmuring in agreement. "I think I want to go work with some sort of public relations to the Awakened community. Someone to help smooth things over when those that don't quite understand or agree are involved."

“At this point Aquatic lost its luster,” Tysha admitted. “I’m leaning towards Terrestrial.”

Charlotte drew out a sigh of disappointment. “What? But you were so good!”

“Yeah, but I am no longer comfortable being in a liquid while fighting,” Tysha chuckled.

“I hear that,” Cara said. “I’m thinking Terrestrial too.”

“Not you too,” Charlotte huffed. “Everyone is doing Terri. It’s become the generic brand career of the Guardian community.”

Serenity chuckled, “I’m guessing you’re not gonna do Terri?”

“Nope,” Charlotte twirled the teacup with her finger through the loop. “I’m gonna be either Aquatic or Elite.”

Kaylee swirled around what was left of her tea. She was glad to hear others seemed to know what they wanted out of life, but also reminded that she lacked that sense of self-knowledge still. "I don't know yet, I guess. Probably something with protection against fairies," she said in a rather indecisive way, simply settling with the possible route she always thought her parents would most approve of.

“There’s plenty of time still,” Serenity offered. She began to pick up the dish wear and kettle. “At one point I wasn’t sure I wanted to stay at all.”

“Really?” Charlotte tilted her head.

“Yeah, I just wasn’t getting a sense of belonging,” Serenity said, rinsing off the teacups. “But then I hurt my knee and I went to the nurse. I got into an interesting conversation about biology, herbs, oils, and by the time I was ready to go I realized what I could do for the Guardian community that felt right.”

Smiling, Tysha said, “Oh, that’s wonderful.”

Charlotte hummed in thought. “I guess I should be open to changes, if they come.”

“In the meantime,” Cara said, getting up. “I think we should head to bed.”

They might have said there was plenty of time, but each year was ticking away and after this one they'd be halfway through with high school. Kaylee tried to keep a positive disposition even though things were going quite horribly. "Yeah, bed sounds good," she followed suit standing up, still not thrilled at another day in school before the weekend. "Maybe I'll say I'm coming down with something and stay in bed tomorrow."

“I can take notes and bring your assignments,” Charlotte said, looping arms with her sister. They were in almost every class together, save for a few, and those were ones the other girls could help with.

Cara gave Kaylee a gentle squeeze. “Yeah, we’ll get your things if you need it.”

"You guys are the absolute best," she sighed gratefully, leaning into Charlotte's arm and accepting being lead away. "I'll be more than happy to return the favor if you ever want to play hookie."

"I'll keep that in mind if I ever need a day off for cramping," Tallulah spoffed, returning the pillows to their normal places on the couch. "But for now, just take a day for yourself. A mental health day cuddling Chel and maybe watching New Girl."

"Now that's something I can get behind," Kaylee chuckled as they all began to head to their individual beds and give their goodnights.
 
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rumxcoke

Elder Member
As promised the girls covered for Kaylee. Charlotte toted Kaylee’s backpack with her to easily collect the required assignments. She had no issue explaining to Professor Marek or Professor Runa that Kaylee needed this day off for her health. Even Professor Lucinda, who could not bear to hear a negative word towards the arts, and had less patience for when students skipped, sent an impromptu get-well card to take with Charlotte for Kaylee. It was when she had to explain Kaylee wasn’t coming to class to their aunts and uncles that Charlotte found herself in a dilemma.

“Not feeling well? Aw, pauvre chose,” Aunt Lauri sighed and shook her head. She sat in her office to go over grades. A box of macarons sent to her from Oliver were dwindling. “Is it the flu?”

The seasonal illness had been going around. In Avostoska, where snowfall began to stick, staff were already arranging schedules around to compensate. However, it would be a lie that Lauri could find out pretty easy.

“Umm,” Charlotte hesitated, shifting from foot-to-foot. “Actually, Kaylee’s more heart-sick.”

“Oh?” Aunt Lauri paused in her work, looking up. “What happened? Is she alright?”

“She’s safe, just sad.” Charlotte chewed on her lip. “Um, I’m not sure what she’d want me to say….”

Frowning, Aunt Lauri set her pen aside and pulled out a small cardboard box. Into it she placed three little macarons. “Here, let her know I am hoping for the best for her.”

“Thanks, Aunt Lauri,” Charlotte said, putting it in Kaylee’s backpack. She turned around to leave.

“Lottie,” Aunt Lauri halted the young girl. “I trust that this is the truth, because I trust you and I love you. I am sympathetic for Kaylee’s situation, but be careful not to become comfortable with these kinds of reasons to withdraw. They can lead to rationalizing when it isn’t necessary. Here, where it is safe, is where you learn how to live where it is unsafe. Life will not be as kind.”

Charlotte nodded with a smile, saying, “We know. Thank you again, Aunt Lauri!”

“Adieu!”

With that, Charlotte ran off to other classes. When history came around and a request was made with her uncle for the assignments for Kaylee's sake, the British Lion perked a brow and peered at Charlotte over his glasses. There was a visible curiosity, though unlike his wife he opted not to press for details. Oliver expected that if it was something he needed to know, his niece would have shared with him. That, or a certain eavesdropping lamb would bring the information he needed to him.

"Well, I'm sorry we missed her today. I trust you or Kaylee will let Lauri or I know if we're needed," Oliver bid her a farewell with a nod and kind smile.

“We will, thank you Uncle Oliver!” Charlotte waved as she left.

The real dread came when Charlotte had to take Uncle Everest’s class. If she told Everest, their father would know by the end of class. They were like a married couple in that way, and—if legend be true—somewhere in South America they had legal papers to prove it. The young girl debated if she should ditch as well! There was no telling what might disrupt Kaylee’s rest and if Wesley might take some kind of action on Lorenzo, of if Inara would catch on before anyone did something dumb.

Charlotte hesitated at the door leading to the gun yard. Students who bumped into her were given shallow apologies. Although they could only use rubber bullets, Everest’s class was one of the most popular. They moved in a masse of excitement. As, one by one, the class for that period funneled through, her heart pounded in her ears.

Finally, Charlotte took several steps out, saw her Uncle Everest just walking up to the crowd of children, and felt her stomach drop. “Nope,” Charlotte muttered, resolved to ask for pardon later. She spun on her heel and hurried back through the door as if a hound of hell were nipping at her feet.

“Oof!”
“Ow!”

Backpacks tumbled to the ground. Legs upward, butts thudded against the stone floor. Charlotte and her victim groaned as they eased upright. Both rubbed their heads where they had collided with one another. Through parted fingers Charlotte recognized the new female student who recently joined their ever-growing dance club.

Charlotte bunched her fingers against her chin and said, “I’m so sorry, Morgan!”

“Ah,” Morgan exhaled through her teeth. She swooped back the cascade of her dark hair to reveal a faint bruise forming on her temple. “What were you thinking, running through the doorway like that?!”

Wincing, Charlotte shuffled to her feet. “That the hall was clear?”

The unintended aisailent offered a hand. Morgan briefly considered dragging Charlotte back down on her butt, but chose mercy. She gripped her hold and stood in one go. Awkwardly Charlotte gathered Kaylee’s back and, on her way to her own, felt an urgent need to make amends by doing so for Morgan.

“I got it,” Morgan said quickly, grabbing up her backpack before Charlotte could touch it. The sense of rudeness compelled her to say, “But thank you…”

A little nervous that Morgan might ask the question again, and knowing now that Charlotte couldn’t quite leave without a word, lest she further tarnish her character, she simply smiled and pulled on her bag. When she righted herself, Morgan was already heading into class that began a minute ago. In the middle of gauging what to do, mocha eyes caught the distinctive glance of steely blue.

“Too late now…” Charlotte grumbled.

Resigned, she sauntered out to the gun yard with two bags and no sister. Charlotte could tell her Uncle was curious, but she hoped the inevitable question would be saved for after class. Preferably Charlotte could escape before he got the chance. Anything new could be jotted down and relayed to Kaylee later with ease. Most of the work he had them do could be done at home. Hye, for example, was nearly on par with their uncle. Normally one to compete, strangely, their Uncle Everest never really challenged the assistant.

Charlotte stuck to the back of class. This happened to be where Morgan often stood. The two uncomfortably worked side by side. Near the end, when they had to sit at a table to properly service their weapons, Charlotte’s eternity of anxiety got derailed.

“You’re Charlotte Von Helsing,” Morgan’s voice pulled her attention.

“Yeah,” Charlotte nodded, pulling apart the gun they were given. “We’re in dance club together. And apparently gun class.”

Looking at the extra bag, Morgan asked, “Did something happen to your sister?”

Well, it wasn’t Uncle Everest at least. “Uh, yeah, she’s having a rough day. Didn’t feel well. I’m comin’ in clutch.”

Morgan nodded, taking up a pipe cleaner. “So, did you forget to bring something to class, or…”

Sheepishly, Charlotte said, “Uh, no. Actually I hoped I would skip telling my uncle.” Curiosity bloomed in the brief silence that fell. Having been the one to knock Morgan over, Charlotte decided she deserved a little more of the truth. “Yeeeeaaah, so I wanted to ditch because I wasn’t feeling up to telling my uncle about why Kaylee didn’t come today. My father and Uncle Everest have this,” she raised her two prominent fingers of both hands, air quoting, “Bromance” She went back to her gun, “Basically, they were an old married couple in another life and tell each other everything. Kaylee’s not feeling well, but I can't just say that to him, he’d want to know what’s up, and the reason isn’t the kind you get a nurse note for...”

“Mm,” Morgan nodded in understanding. “Must be why Lorenzo is gone too.”

“What?” Charlotte perked. “Wait, where’d he go?”

“Took a day off, so I hear,” Morgan shrugged. “Guess I know why now.” Mocha eyes widened and Morgan assured, “Don’t worry, I won’t snitch.”

“Uhh—wait, wait,” Charlotte spoffed nervously. “No, no, no—Kaylee and Lorenzo are not together.”

“Oh,” Morgan blinked, confused. “I was sure I had seen them making out. They were electric.”

“Yes, that’s true,” Charlotte muttered. “But they will no longer be doing so.” It was the safest explanation she could give. “I don’t want to say too much. Kaylee didn’t make it clear what she wanted and I didn’t think to ask.”

Morgan acknowledged with a nod. A silence fell between them as they finished reassembling their weapons. Charlotte glanced up occasionally in thought. Mocha eyes often strayed to the vague bump on Morgan’s forehead. Sensing the feeling of guilt linger even as they put away their guns, Charlotte parted to speak, which caught Morgan’s eye.

RING!

Charlotte darted for her bags and inhaled, saying quickly, “Do-you-wanna-have-lunch-with-us-on-Monday?”

“What?” Morgan asked, poking out her left ear.

“Uuuh,” Charlotte slumped on the bags, trying to head out and speak to Morgan as students interrupted them. “I said do you want to—,”

"Charlotte," a firm, familiar tone fell in the middle of her sentence, a tall shadow was cast over Charlotte, belonging to none other than her gun-slinging uncle. "Come aside for a moment, I have a question for you."

There was little room to argue and Everest stood so that an escape was out of the question. Charlotte felt the weight of the bags on her back as if they were in cahoots against her.

“Yes Sir,” Charlotte offered a hesitant smile. She looked over to Morgan who stood, silent and staring at Everest. “Come sit with us at lunch on Monday, if you want.”

Morgan broke from her trance and said to Charlotte with a nod, “I’ll think about.” The young girl turned, the faint clink of the contents of her bag followed her.

Clearing her throat, Charlotte walked after her uncle. To lighten any possible moodiness, she quirked a grin that reflected one of a Fox. “Any chance your question has to do with how amazing my shooting skills are?”

The faintest smile slipped at the corner of Everest's lips, though he cleared his throat and chased it off. "While improving, I don't know if I'd be so liberal as to jump to 'amazing', Lottie," he said as he folded his arms over his chest.

“Fair,” Charlotte accepted with a tilt of her head and a one-shoulder shrug.

"I'm more curious as to where Kaylee is today. Her bag is here but she's nowhere to be seen."

Acknowledging to whom she spoke, Charlotte said, “Ah well, you know, the best place to be when you're not feeling well is home.” A factual statement no one could argue against. “Just doing my duties as a loving sister, gettin’ her assignments and all. It’s too bad, really. We love your class Uncle Everest.” Truth was accompanied by a warm smile, but as she hadn’t practiced long enough to hone it, the tentativeness came through. “I’ll let Kaylee know you missed her!”

One thick brow rose to convey Everest’s lack of satisfaction with her response. "So Kaylee is sick? Neither Wes nor Inara told me she was going to be at Avostoska today," he observed aloud. "It's also odd that she'd be sick and you're completely fine since you're practically inseparable."

“Immune systems,” Charlotte said, skipping only half a beat. “We were actually learning in class how some people have such strong immune systems they can be surrounded by patients with chickenpox and never get it. So, it’s conceivable that, despite being around other sick people, I might not get sick myself.” Charlotte added with confidence. “I can assure you that what is afflicting Kaylee isn’t contagious to me.”

Everest had to swallow down his amusement, seeing all too well that she was in fact Wesley's daughter with a smooth tongue. "Oh? And just what is it that's afflicting young Kaylee that you won't be able to catch?"

Giving herself a moment more to think, Charlotte looked down and kicked off an earwig trying to hitch a ride on her shoelace. The thought to shrug it off as impolite to speak of the ill didn’t sound like it would work here. Adults in their family were given implied permission to do just that. Mocha eyes peered upward as if she were a six-year-old hiding a broken candy jar behind her back.

“Uhh, you might say she’s having some heart trouble,” Charlotte flashed a smile with an even weaker hold on confidence and hinting to uncertainty.

"Heart trouble?" Initial concern soon faded when a second glance at his niece didn't seem to convey that there was an emergency taking place. Everest’s brows took a moment to unfurrow, unaccustomed to talk of this nature with his own children far too young to be caught up in anything similar. "Oh? Heart as in with a boy? The Cortez lad who was at Thanksgiving? Do I need to have a talk with him?"

Cheeks pink, Charlotte shook her head. “Uh, no—I mean yes, it’s about Cortez, and no, I don’t think you have to speak with him…” she adjusted the straps on her shoulders. “They had a misunderstanding, and Kaylee needed an early weekend.”

While he might have kept a professional stance as this was his employment, that didn't mean Everest wasn't afraid to take a personal approach if someone was involved with his family. "A misunderstanding, huh? Was he getting handsy with her?" Clearly her reassurance wasn't going far.

Realizing how she sounded, Charlotte knew it would only get worse if she wasn’t clearer than crystal. Or so she hoped. “Oh—Oh! No, no, he never did anything she wasn’t comfortable with, I mean to say there was a literal misunderstanding in communication.” Charlotte’s cheeks burned with embarrassment and she hoped Kaylee wouldn’t hate her. “Okay, so—,” she exhaled slowly, “—apparently Lorenzo had no idea Kaylee thought he was her boyfriend until yesterday.”

The pieces all came together and he exhaled in a knowing manner. After the encounter at Thanksgiving, Everest had been updated by a worrisome father Fox who had his kits to protect. A watchful eye on the school cameras had caught Lorenzo with lips locked on a couple other students, as well as him frequenting a few closets and coming out disheveled, earning the bane of the janitor. Everest had been given instruction not to interfere, but merely to serve as an extra set of eyes on ground level. Still, he regretted to hear things had worked out so bumpily.

"Hmm, makes sense that he's been nowhere to find today," Everest said mostly to himself, shaking his head. "And she's not in classes today because she found out and is unhappy?"

“Yes Sir,” Charlotte nodded. She frowned lightly. “I didn’t know how much she wanted me to talk about it. I’ve been trying not to bring too much attention to it, in case she’d feel like her business became gossip.” Honestly more comfortable now that it was all out on the table, tension left her body. Deciding to dive-in at this point, she said, “Kaylee feels real bad about not picking up any of the signs. Says she’s done with boys for now. So, she’s going to focus on dance club and school with me and the girls instead.”

"Probably best she is done with boys, especially if they're going to behave like that," Everest murmured, shaking his head. "Besides, you don't want your studies interrupted like this. She doesn't make skipping a habit so this time may be fine, but it's going to be easy for her to fall behind if it becomes a recurring event."

Charlotte readily nodded, “Yes Sir.” Aunt Lauri had mentioned the same, and even if Charlotte didn’t know for sure, she wondered if somehow the Lamb had learned of the more detailed news. That thought aside, Charlotte felt compelled to ask, “Uncle Everest, should we have said she wanted to stay home?”

"I am unsure if that would have been any better received," Everest admitted, glancing down the range before back at his niece. "I'm just quite surprised that your father didn't mention anything about it to me."

“Well...Dad has been busy,” Charlotte offered, shuffling her feet and confessing, “...plus, I did have Kaylee roll up her Lithe and stick it in her backpack with her passcard and phone…”

All three items meant if Wesley checked the convenient overview map alone he would see Kaylee’s marker had been going to the usual places at school all day. Identical synchronization of the sister’s paths never diverging would have revealed their ruse. So, Charlotte insisted on the backpack being passed between girls to create the illusion of an ordinary day. That, and they texted each other using Kaylee’s phone.

Being preoccupied with his project, as Charlotte stated, the gamble that Wes would take an alert for granted, rather than investigate, was worth taking. What the Fox didn’t know, he couldn’t tell the Marksman.

Though he knew he shouldn't give them any ideas or praise this sort of behavior, Everest had to admit he was impressed. She had thought quite extensively about just how they would pull this off, more than most would.

"Clever girl," Everest had to concede with a brief smirk, though he cleared his throat. "Though perhaps you can redirect those evasive skills to something more productive, Lottie. Something your father would approve of.”

Charlotte liked to think what she did would be approved, even if discouraged for this particular situation, and the simple remark confirmed her thoughts. She’d take it!

“Yes Sir,” Charlotte said with a smile, taking that as an opening to get going. “See you around Uncle Everest!”

As Charlotte lugged the bags with her on her way out Everest swore he thought he saw a shellac shine glint off the side of her backpack. The girl was gone before any investigation could be made even if the gunslinger had thought to do so.

On her way to the dorms, to pick up whatever she was missing for Kaylee, Charlotte didn’t get the chance to say much to whoever of their friends was around to hear. Kaylee had little time in the day to start on any homework before the weekend if Charlotte didn’t leave soon. So, the young Dove went straight to the vaults thereafter.

Slipping into Avostoska unnoticed would be impossible. Likely, Everest had altered Wesley to his daughter's shenanigans. It was only a matter of when he would come to them. Charlotte wanted Kaylee to hear it from her first.

“Kaylee!” Charlotte called, hustling through the doors of their lounge. She didn’t think to drop the bags as she went to Kaylee’s room. “Kaylee, I have something to tell you!”

Kaylee looked up at the sound of her sister's arrival. She'd been laying on her bed which was currently littered with chocolate wrappers and a few balled up tissues, propped up on a pile of her pillow with a tablet in her hand. Whether those tissues were the result of an emotional moment on the shows she had been watching or just letting herself be sad for a few minutes, no one would have to guess. Realizing she looked like a mess, Kaylee quickly began picking up the wrappers.

"What is it, Lottie?" She asked, trying to make her garbage pile seem less sad than it felt.

Coming through the door, Charlotte walked right up to the edge of her bed. “Okay, so, I didn’t think to ask what you’d want me to say, so I tried to keep your business quiet. Aunt Lauri—oh yeah, she says she hopes you feel better and sent this,” Charlotte plopped Kaylee’s bag on the end of the bed and took out the macaron box. The card from Professor Lucinda was there too, so that was handed off as well. “Anyway, Aunt Lauri and Uncle Oliver were fine with a vague answer, but Uncle Everest was not.”

Charlotte went on to relay how that went, starting from indecision, knocking Morgan over, feeling bad about it, nearly giving someone the impression Kaylee and Lorenzo went to be ‘alone’, inviting Morgan to lunch, giving Everest time to pull her aside, and the talk between her and her uncle.

The news that they'd been found out wasn't taken well, even if it was to be expected. Charlotte had been thinking above and beyond to bring Kaylee's trackable items, but there were just too many chances of people who knew them personally asking questions. Offering her sister one of the macarons while she nibbled on the other, Kaylee shrugged her shoulders. "Well, not much we can do about it now. Dad will come talk to me when he wants to," she accepted. "But this Morgan, does she seem nice? Or is the entire school going to know what's going on by Monday?"

“Uh, well, she did seem nice,” Charlotte reflected, quietly thanking Kaylee for the treat. She sat down on the bed. “It’s true we don’t know for sure though, we haven’t even really talked to her. She’s so quiet in dance club. I can’t read her body language yet.”

Charlotte pondered the way Morgan had stilled when Everest came over to them. The way she lingered her gaze. Many students were enamored by the fact that the same people making history were the ones to teach them. Everyone had their way of dealing with that feeling. Charlotte imagined what she saw might be Morgan’s version of being star-struck.

All while Charlotte sat there, chewing on her thoughts as well as the macaron, a slim brown insect propelled by many little legs creeped over Charlotte’s shoulder strap onto the front of her shirt. Its thin antenna twitched.

Resigned to the fact that she wouldn't have much privacy with her family name, Kaylee nodded, hoping this new girl was as nice as she seemed. Kaylee had just opened her mouth to speak when the tiny movements of a stowaway caught her attention. "Uh, Charlotte...there's a bug on you..."

“Hm?” Charlotte followed Kaylee’s gaze to her shoulder. Wide mocha eyes flew open before her mouth did. “EEK!”

A wild flailing and slapping commenced. The insect managed to dodge each swipe, somehow finding its way on the covers. In a panic, it raced away from Charlotte towards Kaylee. One to play that she wasn't afraid of bugs until they were on her, Kaylee let out her own yelp. The bug may have been tiny but it was still creepy! She began swatting at the blanket where the bug had disappeared under.

“It’s infected!” Charlotte shouted, scrambling with Kaylee to get off the bed.

They couldn’t very well allow it to have its reign in the young girls bed. She and Kaylee grabbed the blankets and pulled them off, quickly abandoning them to one side just in case. There, in the middle, sat the bug.

“Sandal swat!” Charlotte suggested.

Each grabbed a single slipper. If there was anything they learned from their mother, it was how to wield the flat footwear. Coordinating together, the girls came at the spindly insect. Wack, wack! They battled the speedy critter until finally—WACK! It stuck to the sandal Kaylee held.

“Eew,” Charlotte scrunched her nose.

A deep, warm voice said, “Well done.” There stood their father in the doorway, leaning against the threshold with arms loosely crossed, and a grin on his face. Just how long had he been there?

Cornflower eyes were ripped away from the gross mess the bug had made on her slipper to look up to her father. A reminder of just what had happened prior to the battle against the bug and what he was likely there for made Kaylee drop the bug-crusted slipper and put her hands behind her back. No amount of Charlotte's brilliant planning was going to explain why she was still in her pajamas or the mess now all around her bed from the blanket being torn off.

"Heh. Probably shouldn't take two future Guardians to kill one bug, though," Kaylee murmured.

Shrugging his free shoulder, Wesley said, “Don’t feel too bad. Your Aunt Rosy is a grown woman who hunted worse, and she still screams at the sight of a bug nearby.” Giving a nod, he said, “Sit. We have some talking to do.”

Charlotte tossed her sandal back in its place. She figured she should leave the two alone, but as she approached the door her father didn’t move out of the way. In fact, he straightened with his hands on his pockets, standing dead-center. Charlotte turned on her heel and sat on the chair nearby when her father motioned to it.

“Sorry Dad,” Charlotte murmured, hoping that beginning with an apology might soften any blow to come.

“Good,” Wesley said, shutting the door quietly and taking a seat in the other available chair. “Now then. I know that you stayed home for a specific reason,” he looked at Kaylee, then poured warm coffee eyes onto Charlotte, “and I learned how you achieved it,” he leaned on one elbow and stroked his chin with that hand, the other drummed on the armchair, “What I don’t understand is why neither of you thought to ask.”

With the bed bug-free, Kaylee slowly sat down on the foot of it. She kept glancing over at Charlotte, both glad that her sister was present and also feeling terrible that she'd been dragged into this. Kaylee’s eyes shifted to her father as he spoke, squirming uncomfortably in place when it was clear this would be a painful discussion.

"Because it isn't really a reason to miss classes," Kaylee shrugged. "I wasn't sick, just a little miserable. But it's my fault Lottie is involved. Any punishment for lying should be mine alone."

Wesley first addressed the issue of Kaylee’s co-conspirator, “Taking the consequences of both of your actions will not allow Charlotte to learn from her experiences if she is spared them. She had made the choice to go along with it.” That said and done, Wesley went on to what he believed to be the problem. “It is the responsibility of a parent to safeguard, guide, and nurture their children. This includes their emotional state.” He paused, considering how he might phrase his next words. “I hope there is never a topic, no matter how embarrassing or painful, that you don’t feel comfortable or safe to come to me with, Pumpkin.” It went without saying this included Charlotte, but she wasn’t the focus right now.

Shifting from where she sat on the bed, Kaylee let her hands fall into her lap folded together. That felt like a loaded question even if it wasn't phrased as one. She did feel comfortable with her parents, there was no doubt in that, but something had stopped her. Lifting her gaze up to her father, she offered a weak smile. "I guess I just didn't want to be known for making such a large mistake. Especially when you said that you didn't like him," she admitted.

“Then that is the fault of mine, that I had made an environment wherein my children were fearful of my disappointment in them,” Wesley got up from his seat and knelt before her. He took her hands, so much smaller than his own, and said in a gentle tone, “As any father might, I will worry about you and your future when I don’t know how well you’ll fare down the paths you take, but that is an aspect innate to parenthood.” He brought up her hands and kissed them. “But understand, I will never be disappointed in you or ashamed of you, Kaylee.” It wasn’t often that their father used their given names. The weight of his words hung on it. “You, like your siblings, mean the world to me. I love you with all my heart.”

The fear of being reprimanded or made to feel like a disappointment was quick to vanish as she was enveloped in his sincerity. Kaylee kept hold of his hands as they dwarfed her own, feeling tears start up yet again that day, though for a different reason. Wesley's love meant so much more to her than living in a castle with servants. It felt so unconditional and true, something she could only wish to have in a romantic partner some day. Squeezing his hands, she sniffed back her emotions, giving him a slightly wet smile. "And I love you and I should have known I could trust you, Dad. I'm sorry I didn't talk to you or Mom rather than just hide in my room."

Enveloping his eldest in his arms, tucking her beneath his chin. The familiar scent of the lab and his favorite whiskey mingled pleasantly with his natural, comforting musk,

Wesley murmured, “There’s my girl. All is forgiven, darling.” He rubbed her back. His gentle touch conveyed his desire for their safety and for them to thrive.

Sitting in wait, Charlotte did her best not to blubber. She held it in as long as she could until little sniffles caught her father’s attention. Wiping her eyes, Charlotte repeated her earlier plea, but with much more meaning this time, “I’m sorry Dad…”

“I know,” Wesley smiled. “Even if there is a chance that we may not see eye-to-eye it is important to come to us. It is also important to encourage your siblings to do so, and if there is danger, it might be necessary to come to us in place of the sibling who should have done so themselves.”

Sniffing, Charlotte said, “Yes Sir.”

“Come here, my Dove.” Wesley lifted an arm. Charlotte got up and fit right in among the two. “Now then, the two of you have had a long and troubling day. What do you say about a sleepover with your friends?”

As always, there was a sense of sanctuary found in her father's arms that none other could compare to. Wesley felt and smelled like home. Maybe not to anyone else, but to her nothing else mattered. Kaylee didn't budge from his embrace, taking deep breaths to keep herself calm even as they were joined by Charlotte. Sniffing and dabbing at her eyes with a tissue she'd managed to nab, Kaylee nodded to her father's question. "A sleepover sounds good. We can vent and get it out of our systems."

“I’ll send for them,” Wesley said with resolve, tucking hair behind ears and gently padding cheeks for comfort before he got up. “You two set up whatever you need.”

Charlotte nodded, saying, “Night Dad.”

“Goodnight, my Dove,” Wesley responded, smiling when she gave a brief hug. “And good night to you, Pumpkin. Feel better.”

"I already am starting to feel better, thanks to you, Dad," Kaylee said with a small smile, coiling her arms about him once more for a tight hug.

As soon as their father exited Charlotte and Kaylee got on their phones to let the girls know they were invited. Then they hustled into action to prepare. Servants came to their room to refresh snacks, help shift furniture, and bring in linens for the girls so they could sleep comfortably. It was just about when the last friendly staff member walked out the door that Charlotte and Kaylee heard the familiar chatter of their friends.

“Hey guys,” Tysha greeted holding the door open so the others could enter.

Serenity came to hug Kaylee, “Oh, we were thinking about you all day.”

"Surprised you're already up for visitors," Tallulah remarked as she also set down a bag along with her backpack, giving her friend a hopeful smile.

Cara dropped her backpack by the couch. She had work to do still. “How did your rest go?”

"I definitely feel better, at least for now," Kaylee answered from Serenity's embrace. "But, it might still suck once I have to run into him."

"If you prefer, I can accidentally run into him in the halls. Give him a good hip check into a locker," Tallulah offered with a giggle, reaching into the bag she'd brought and pulling out a package of chocolates. "Mom said she's going to send a heartache box for you but in the meantime, a girl can never have too much chocolate and calories don't count if you're crying.”

Charlotte plucked a chocolate like the mischievous little sister she was, scampering away to settle in on the couch with her stolen morsel of coco goodness.

“Lottie,” Serenity scolded.

“I had a bad day too!” Charlotte weaseled a smirk, sinking into her covers.

Reminded of the brief encounter earlier that day, Tysha asked, “What exactly happened? You ran off so quickly.”

“I had to, I needed to get to Kaylee before Dad did,” Charlotte explained.

While Charlotte nibbled on her chocolate she divulged the events of the day, as she had done when she came to Kaylee. Occasionally they interrupted for clarification and comment, especially when they were told Lorenzo hadn’t come that day and that Charlotte invited Morgan to lunch with them on Monday.

“And you thought sitting at the back of the class would spare you?” Tysha chuckled.

“It might have worked!” Charlotte defended. “But you know, Morgan—also, there are far more bugs at the back of the class than at the front.” She shuddered. “Kaylee and I had to squish one that snuck home with me.” Putting that hideous memory aside, Charlotte said, “Then Dad came in and talked with us.”

The girls grew solemn. Serenity asked, “How did that go?”

"Better than expected, though I could have made it even easier on us," Kaylee filled in. "He basically said that we should know we can come to him and be honest, or that if one of us isn't the other should keep him informed. So not in trouble, but still a lesson learned."

Tallulah nodded, glad her friends hadn't put themselves on Wesley's bad side. "Sounds about like what my mom would say. 'You're not in trouble, but I'm disappointed that you didn't think you could tell me.’”

“Wow, that’s not what would have happened in my house,” Serenity muttered.

“Mine either,” Cara chuckled. “I would have gotten grounded or my phone apps restricted. Something to that effect.”

“Really?” Serenity tilted her head. She sat back in quiet thought.

“Yeah, why? What would your parents do?” Cara asked, grabbing a bag of chips.

“Well Mom doesn’t do much. Maybe a light word on how I should have behaved,” she said with a shrug. “Punishment is Dad’s domain.” A faint blush of embarrassment touched her cheeks. “Kaylee, Morgan is in your dance club, right? What’s she like?”

Curiosities were tucked away with the subject change and Kaylee shrugged her shoulders, finishing off another chocolate. "Honestly, I don't know. I haven't interacted with her much and she seems to be pretty reserved," she relayed what she'd had a chance to see. "We may just have to wait until Monday for a chance to get to know her. That is if she does end up joining us for lunch."

Tysha, lost momentarily in thought, pulled her eyes from Serenity to say, “I see her sitting at the front in classes we share. Kaylee’s right, she is pretty reserved. Looks like Reggie likes her too.”

“Spill,” Cara spoffed. They’d want to know if a potential thorn in their paw might come to prick them.

“Oh just little things,” Tysha shrugged. “He’ll talk to her all pleasant before and after class if he can. He tries to do that with me too. Super uncomfortable, because I know he’s just trying to recruit me and, I dunno, maybe more?”

“Recruit you?” Charlotte perked a brow.

“Yeah, didn’t you hear?” Tysha chuckled. “His little gathering has a name now. ‘Awakened Support Association’. For all the students who are proud Almaeri users.”

Serenity frowned. “Like...a coven?”

“Oh no,” Tysha shook her head, rolling her eyes. “No, when I asked that Joss said ‘all were welcome’, which isn’t the same for a coven, but you could tell that’s probably just what Reggie said to say so they don’t get shut down. At least I think so.”

“I can’t tell who I like least,” Charlotte said. “Joss or Lorenzo.”

It was Kaylee's turn to spoff. "Definitely Lorenzo. Joss' biggest fault is too much faith in his ‘friends’, whereas Lorenzo's is being ‘friendly’ with everyone. Either way, I'm just glad that so far Reggie hasn't started up a fight this year. Maybe his club is a way for him to keep his cool."

"That or he's building to something worse." Tallulah shrugged with her somewhat dark statement. "Maybe you should join so you can find out what's going on, Tysha," she chuckled as a joke.

The girls joined in on the mirth over the outlandish idea. Tysha exhaled with exasperation, “Oh hells, I don’t even want to know what would have to happen for that!” She reflected on all their previous encounters. “And to be honest, Reggie is eerie. Not in the creepy way either, and I think that worries me.”

“What do you mean?” Charlotte asked.

“He’s like…” Tysha sighed, thinking about how to phrase this. “He kinda sounds like he makes sense. He’s been pretty venomous before, and that’s clearly an abrasive fault, but when he’s all calm and talks almost gentle, it’s kinda strange—Like a quiet charisma…”

Serenity pondered aloud, “Huh, well, I guess I can see that. He was never imposing or rude when we all hung out. Just an observer most of the time. I do recall his frowns towards Danson.”

“Oh yes,” Cara chuckled. “I do recall those.” She nudged Tysha with her foot. “You and Danny ever getting back together?”

Shaking her head, Tysha said, “Nah, we’re just good friends. To be honest, I am not seeing a lot of options out there right now.”

Charlotte chuckled, “Maybe swing for the other team then. Morgan’s pretty.”

Serenity’s cheeks pinked and she grabbed herself a handful of yogurt raisinettes. “Hey, what movie are we watching tonight?”

Burying her face behind her phone, Tallulah shrugged, skimming through a few sites for ideas. "I didn't have anything in mind. Anyone else? Preferably nothing sappy if we can."

"Agreed. Maybe a good rom-com?" Kaylee offered, refraining from another chocolate less she upset her stomach or see herself growing sloppy from too many sweets. She also looked through a few lists for movies before one caught her attention. "What about this one? 'How to be Single'. Seems appropriate for most of us right now."

“I haven’t seen,” Tysha admitted. “Is it good?”

Cara hummed in thought, “I think I had. It was good for a watch. Wanna give it a try?”

“I’m up for it,” Charlotte said.

The other girls were on board, grabbing pillows and blankets to get comfortable. Snacks bags bounced between them. Occasionally they paused for a bathroom break, and much commentary was had about the characters—namely, who was who in the movie.

“I feel like I want to be either Robin or Alice,” Cara said, grabbing her toothbrush, “but I am afraid that I’m a Josh.”

“You are not Josh,” a few of them scoffed.

“Lorenzo is Robin,” Tysha chuckled.

Spitting out her paste and water, Charlotte snorted, “No, Lorenzo is David. Robin knows herself and she’s fun.”

“Who do you think you are?” Tysha asked, washing her face.

“No one!” Charlotte spoffed, braiding her hair. “I haven’t had any experiences. I relate to nobody. I’m probably Alice.”

“Kaylee is an Alice,” Cara said, heading out to the piles of blankets and pillows with the rest.

“Is not,” Serenity shook her head. She pulled her comforter over herself. “She’s a Lucy. She’ll find her special someone if she wants, but as we know, we can be as content as Alice not to.”

“Good enough for me!” Tysha yawned. “Alright, I’m ready to pass out.”

“Me too,” some of the girls agreed.

A chorus of good nights followed. The girls snuggled in their bedding and fell asleep amidst spontaneous, tired chatter, and the noise of one or two of them already snoring.

~oOo~

Come Monday the girls were ready to offer their comfort and support to Kaylee if and when she needed it. Lorenzo did, in fact, come to school that day. He had a significant drop in his vibrancy. It couldn’t be decided if he had learned any kind of personal lesson, or if somehow his parents found out and descended a discipline his way. Whatever the case, the girls were happy to put thoughts of him aside for lunch.

“Do you think Morgan will come?” Serenity asked.

“Morgan’s coming?” Elijah perked.

“I don’t know,” Charlotte shrugged. “I made the invitation.”

Danson chimed in, “She’s odd.”

“How so?” Charlotte asked.

“She like, scrounges through the plants during Lauri’s class, it’s weird,” Danson said.

“Well, maybe she’s just shy and quirky,” Elijah offered. “You know Jacob Davenport? One of the kids on the waitlist? Well, I bumped into him not long ago. He heard Morgan was coming here. He said he’s seen her around the training compound open to waitlisters. He and Doug say she’s pretty quiet. She really only ever hung out with some other waitlister. They were both pretty focused and quiet.”

Danson asked, “Did she molest bushes there too?”

“Shh,” Tysha nudged him. “Here she comes.”

Morgan, tray in hand, walked tentatively towards the table lined with all the people she didn’t know. Her steps slowed in indecision.

Any questions about just what was being done with plants and their pieces were pushed aside, looking up at Morgan as she joined. She didn't seem that odd to Kaylee, just quiet which didn't mean to be a bad thing. A warm smile came from Kaylee in Morgan’s direction, nodding to a spare spot on the bench beside Tallulah and Serenity. "Hello Morgan! Feel free to take a seat."

"Yeah, it'll be a lot easier to eat that way," Tallulah agreed, deciding they could investigate bizarre behavior at another time.

The humor tempted the corner of Morgan’s lips. She spent only one more moment in thought before taking the seat next to Tallulah. No one said a word, but they did detect a hint of an earthy fragrance from Morgan.

“So, did you take a stroll through the botanical gardens today?” Danson asked, inhaling sharply when he felt a kick from under the table.

Morgan tilted her head in question, but didn’t bother to investigate when Charlotte spoke. “Glad you came. If you don’t know already, that was Danson, this is Matt and Cara,” she flicked her pointer between them to indicate the relationship dynamic of the two, “this is Paulo—you know Elijah and Kaylee from dance—and then Tysha, Serenity, and she is Tallulah.”

“Hello,” Morgan gave them all nods. She did not make a move to speak right away, being someone who felt content in silence, but the others were obliged to make conversation, so she decided to put forth some effort too. “How has the day gone for all of you?”

Tallulah, picking at a bowl of fresh fruit, decided she could be the first to answer, willing to be the front line if necessary to a new face. "About as well as a Monday can go," she shrugged, wiping her fingers free of the sticky juices. "Assignments are thinning out a little, but that's just because of upcoming midterms so I don't know if I can call it a win."

"I'll take studying over assignments," Kaylee decided for herself. "There's still pressure but I feel like I can work at my own pace, you know?" Cornflower eyes shifted to their newcomer. "What about you Morgan? How are you adjusting to the academy?"

“I’m doing well,” Morgan said. They could tell she wasn’t sure of what else to say. There was only one common shared interest she knew to speak of, so she went with that. “Dance club has been fun.”

Elijah said, “Yeah, you’re pretty good. Did you always love dance or did you just come across it?”

“My Nana said my parents were professionals. They worked in Hollywood as choreographers,” Morgan said, busying herself with her sandwich. “I probably have the talent from them.”

Tentatively, Tysha asked, “Oh, when did you lose them?”

“When I was four,” Morgan answered.

“I lost mine during Hells Gates,” Tysha said, hoping this would make Morgan a little more comfortable.

The young woman offered a solemn murmur of condolence. The mood had fallen and it was clear no one was ready to walk down a painful path at noon on a Monday, especially when this was their first meeting.

There were few moments when Kaylee considered her life before becoming a Von Helsing. While there was no doubt in her heart that Wesley and Inara were her parents or that Charlotte and the boys were her sibling, her brain did bring up logic now and then that there was someone before. Hearing Tysha's story again and now Morgan's nearly surfaced the thought that she didn't have one of her own. Memories from her youth were fuzzy and never made sense when she tried to go over them, almost anything aside from Lottie before Hell's Gate was like peering through a fog. Sipping her juice, Kaylee pushed back those thoughts before they could break out, focusing on meeting a potential new member of their group.

“They’d be proud of you and your dancing, I’m sure of it,” Elijah said with confidence. Morgan winced, but said nothing against him. He went on, saying, “I don’t know if you’ve heard the rumors, but we’re expecting an announcement soon that we’ll be competing against other schools for a dance competition.”

Morgan perked. “Really? Which schools?”

“We don’t know,” Elijah shrugged. “They got to announce it soon. Maybe after midterms.”

Charlotte said, “That makes sense.”

Paulo, pouring himself water, asked, “Are any of you thinking about what you want to do?”

“Well, we don’t know the guidelines yet, but I wouldn’t mind doing something with Kaylee,” Charlotte gave her sister a playful nudge.

"Hell yes, we could," Kaylee lit up, grinning ear to ear. "We would take that competition by surprise." Looking over to Elijah and Morgan, she decided she could offer, "That and we could do a small group, too. The academy has a lot of really good dancers to showcase, after all."

"Sure do, " Tallulah agreed, happy to support her friends. "You can bet I'll be right there on the sideline cheering you girls and Eli on."

Their friends were quick to join in the support of that statement. Elijah in particular said, “We really got a good chance at winning. And I mean in the face of the great talent I’ve seen before.”

Cara set down her cup of orange juice in a thud in the spirit of excitement. “Yeah, these other schools better recognize, we Foxes are a force even on the dance floor.”

“Whatever you guys need, let me know, I’ll see what I can do,” Serenity said. She, being a part of the drama club, had benefited from their loving attention and now it was time she did the same for them.

“Come on guys,” Charlotte said, finishing up her meal. “Let’s toss ideas before lunch is over. We can test out on the quad.”

Morgan’s lips parted in wordless wonder. She looked between the boisterous bantering friends and found nothing but sincerity. Smiling ever so softly, she said, “That sounds good to me.”

"Perfect! Let's get to work - I could use a break from thinking about midterms for a few minutes," Kaylee chuckled.

With everyone equally excited for the competition, even those who wouldn't directly participate in the event, everyone put their heads together. Despite her first day among them, Morgan was included as well as everyone could, making sure she had a chance to share her own thoughts and contribute to the group. Kaylee pulled out her phone to begin researching ideas for routines and Tallulah determined she needed to be in charge of the song choice. By the time lunch came to an end, they may not have completely picked out their dances, but they did have a good start to where they'd go once the competition was officially announced.

Heading to their dorms, Charlotte and Kaylee had only good things to say about Morgan’s talents. The knack for choreography certainly passed from parents to daughter. They were eager to meet up with her soon and secured another invite for Tuesday.

Morgan came, as promised, and the friends were happy to continue to encourage her presence until she became a regular at their table. Although originally dance club had been what hooked her into their presence, Morgan lingered for the company. She kept to herself for the most part. It would be a trait she did not quite shake. Reserved, Morgan stayed the emotional distance of an arm length. They knew so little of her despite the time spent with her. She met them at lunch, spent time with them on the quad, occasionally sat with them in class, and sometimes joined in the dorms, but did not come to the hill, nor did she accept a passcard for the castle.

Winter Formal was a unique experience. Morgan did come to the dance with the friends since Charlotte and Kaylee were proudly going stag. The usual mix-and-match of dancing between the friends was expected. What came as a small surprise was that Kyle did ask to dance with Kaylee at some point—just before Joss could come up to speak with her. There was nothing to complain about, though clearly Kyle was not an expert like Kaylee. Joss did not return to engage in conversation with Kaylee again. They couldn’t tell if it was a personal choice or if Reggie may have been perturbed by Joss meeting up with Kaylee only after dancing with a man Reggie did not like. That aside, Kaylee would find peace in not having to speak with Lorenzo. The young guy certainly hadn’t lost steam! The young Lord Byron had not one, not two, but three interested students floating around him. At any time he caught eyes with Kaylee he blushed and went about his business.

The others, of course, spent time on the hill after the dance. Morgan, again, did not join. Come midterms the others were too busy to worry about whether or not Morgan was feeling truly welcome. Many things were forgotten while tests were being done—Regina, Lorenzo, the dance completion—and it wasn’t until they returned from Christmas and New Years break that they were all together again.

Monday, January 5th, 2026​

Charlotte and Kaylee, along with Tysha who shared her holiday with them and her little brother, came barreling into hugs and animated displays of familiarity and affection with their friends in the Great Hall. A simple ‘hello’ and ‘how did your holidays go’ were the greetings of the past. The companions had evolved into a level of closeness that required odd and quirky voices, unnecessary handshakes, and sometimes wordless conversations through facial expressions emphasizing eyebrow movement. Morgan, who did not participate, concluded that they had a decent holiday.

“Welcome to the year 2026,” Principle Minton’s voice boomed. The students settled into their seats and turned their attention forward, listening to the usual talk that came with returning. It wasn’t until he neared the end that the energy in the room boomed. “Lastly, we have some exciting news for the school in regards to a student movement from our clubs.”

Elijah and the girls quickly shared glances between each other, with a murmure of ‘Is this it?’

The Principle went on, “Thanks to the passions encouraged in VHA, we are proud to say that the petition for a friendly dance competition between schools has been approved and is in motion. The dance club can expect to be addressed about the specifics after school.” A cheer rose up for those students that appreciated such events outside of sports and academia such as a math team. “We hope this serves as an example to others who wish to see the same for their passions. In the meantime we can show our dance club support.” Principle Minton began gathering his notes. “Now then, I still expect quality work! Guardians, get to your classes.”

A chorus of chatter and movement followed, with many excitedly talking about the end of the day. They’d have to do homework, true, but thankfully the majority of their work on the first day back were easy assignments.

As soon as the kids got enough done with their school work they wished their dancers well and Elijah, Kaylee, Charlotte, and Morgan were off to their club room.

“Last one there is a side-chick for Lorenzo!” Charlotte chuckled darkly, running ahead.

The excitement for their official competition was only temporarily stopped by the remark from her sister. "Hey! Not making the mistake again!" Kaylee called after her before gripping the straps of her backpack and racing after Charlotte.

It felt good they had come far enough to joke about it, and just as they'd promised each other, boys were not on their mind. School and dance were now their priorities, having decided there was nothing wrong with being single.

Morgan, who hadn’t been with them as long, still didn’t want to have that tease hanging over her. Charlotte was known to nickname the loser of her races. On the other hand, Elijah didn’t mind taking the fall.

Coming up to the door last, Elijah took Charlotte’s chuckles in stride. She tugged on his hand, saying, “So when’s your first date?”

“Better be somewhere special. Side-chick or not, I demand to be pampered,” Elijah chuckled. They all knew he was the farthest thing from swinging for the other team, but he had a merry heart and a healthy humorous bone. “Now get in the club, we might miss something.”

The four of them shuffled into the club to find it teaming with more students than expected. Everyone talked so loudly it was a wonder anyone could hear themselves. On top of that, they could barely reach the area where they dropped their bags. Charlotte kept her hold on Elijah and Kaylee, afraid the crowd would swallow her.

Speaking in a higher volume than what he would have, Elijah said, “Looks like we’ve got some inspired students?”

“Hah,” Charlotte snorted. “More like glory-hogs!”

One of the new faces caught sight of the four standing at the edge. She giddily welcomed them.“Come on over—Hi, I’m Amanda. Isn’t this exciting? I hope there’s a prize!”

Morgan said bluntly, “Prize or not, I’m here to dance.” She could believe they’d be glory-hogs, but it looked like they were after more than prestige here. She wondered what was going to come of all their work and patience.

Clearly the young girl, probably a Freshman, did not get warm vibes from Morgan. She hesitated, her mind buzzing with uncertainty.

Elijah offered a smile, “Which is to say, we’re all really excited!” He gave his fist a cheerful shake. It appeared to set the girl at ease, though she didn’t stick around.

Charlotte chuckled, “Well, I guess we should have seen this coming…”

Kaylee made a face as the four stood closer to each other to have a small barrier against the growing crowd. They'd been working hard together all year and the year prior, and for others to swoop in and try to steal that from them was annoying. "This better not impact who gets to compete," Kaylee said, just loud enough for the other three to hear her. "But I guess we'll just have to wait and see what system there is.”

“Alright, competitors, please lend me your attention! Please quiet down!” Professor Cecilia Knight, the drama teacher, had come to fulfill the role as a guide in the process. “Please just—th-thank you. Okay,” she pulled up a clipboard, “I realize that some of you are concerned about how we will decide which of you will be entering in the competition. There will be auditions. Details about what we’re looking for in a video of your talents is on the board over there. Feel free to take a picture. There is information on troubleshooting if you have problems. Deadline is Thursday after school. By noon on Friday you can check the link to see if you’ve made it on the team.”

All of the students of these academies had to be physically fit. That was a big green check-mark for any dancer too. The four could at least count on their natural talents for an advantage in regard to rhythm, precision, style, and other qualities of a dancer. That, and the Von Helsing siblings had access to equipment that will aid them in presentation.

“Oh,” Charlotte turned to Kaylee with a grin, “We have a studio that would be great for this.”

Elijah leaned over, asking, “Mind if I use it too?”

“Sure! You’re all welcome,” Charlotte smiled.

Morgan said with a shrug, “I’m fine using my phone.” She pulled out said device to take a picture of the board that the others were crowding. “I’ll send you guys the image.”

While she went to do that Elijah asked, “What are you guys gonna send in for your audition?”

"That's a good question," Kaylee said as she watched the group flocking over to the board where the requirements were posted. "I suppose we're doing individual submissions, which is too bad. I feel like we could showcase our dynamic together better, Charlotte." She enjoyed dancing as much as likely anyone in that room, but dancing alone always felt so different than with a partner or group.

Huffing, Charlotte leaned on her sister. “Yeah, I wonder what that’s about.”

Elijah said, “Well, the submissions are preliminary. I think this might be their way of making sure most of the original club gets in, so it’s less that we have to showcase our best and more to allow for the serious dancers to stake their rightful places.”

“I hope,” Charlotte grumbled. There were more students than she could count in that room.

BING! Morgan’s message popped up just as she came weaving through bodies. “Short-end of the criteria is five-minutes or less, single set, one song, no props, and simple outfit. Pretty basic.”

“Do they mention what the dance completion will want?” Charlotte asked as she scrolled.

“No, that will be announced at the club on Friday after school, for anyone who’s gonna participate,” Morgan said, turning away, “I’m gonna grab my bag and head to my room to research for a solo. See you around.”

“Bye,” Charlotte sighed, absentmindedly putting weight on the hold she had on her sister’s arm. “Soooo, you guys wanna do that too?”

Elijah said, “Probably. I still have a worksheet to do. You guys gonna text what your ideas are? Maybe if I don’t come up with something I can take inspiration from you two.”

Kaylee was on board with the others as well. "I think doing some research and picking out at least music won't take too long," she nodded, giving her sister a light nudge. "Homework is pretty light tonight, but probably won't go to the studio until tomorrow unless something really sticks out as a good idea."

“Sounds good,” Elijah started their walk to their bags. “I’ll catch up with you guys later then.”

“Bye Eli,” the girls said in parting.

The two immediately started going through ideas that they could submit to the teacher. By Wednesday night the four managed to choose a song, work on their choreography with Morgan’s input, and produce a decent video for the submission.

Elijah happened upon a song that he felt resonate in his soul. ‘The Search’ by NF hit an emotional spot for him. It described the kind of struggle he viewed every human went through.


Although she knew it wasn't nearly as bad as it could be, Kaylee felt her song choice fit the dynamic events in her own life since coming to high school. Not only that, but the song was a mix of fast and slow tempos, allowing her to mix things up and display her talents better.


Charlotte decided to showcase her skills in ballet. Hopefully they might see a use for such abilities. Like her sister, she chose a song by Halsey called ‘Castle’. It amused her, since she did, in fact, already live in one with her family.


Morgan took a little longer to come forward with what she picked. ‘Bad Guy’ by Billie Eilish offered a variety of mood. Perhaps the professors would recognize the range.


Come Friday the four were a little nervous. They heard there were dozens of videos to go over. There were bound to be students just as skilled as them. All up until lunch the children were feeling the pressure rise. As soon as the bell rang and they got their food, they were eerily quiet, chewing and glancing at their phones, until finally they each of their phones were notified of an update.

Charlotte scrambled to get into the app. She clicked away along with the others to find her name. Throughout the Great Hall they heard the cheers of students who were excited to find themselves listed.

“I’m in!” Elijah beamed, holding up his phone.

Gasping, Charlotte stood up like a shot. “Me too!”

Morgan smiled, staring down at her screen. “So am I.”

Scurrying for her phone, Kaylee nearly dropped it right on to her plate, narrowly catching it in time. Cornflower eyes bounced side to side as she skimmed down the list, her heart dropping as she got nearly to the bottom and hadn't seen her own name. "I didn't..." Her voice trailed off as she tried to figure out just what she had done wrong. Just then she happened upon her sister's name, the tip tops of letters showing just beneath it. One more scroll and she jumped up out of her seat. "I made it, too! We all made it, guys!"

“Woo!” The other’s hollered.

“Gotta text Mom and Dad,” Charlotte sat back down. Her thumbs went flying over her screen.

Elijah happily did the same. “Man, I can’t wait to get started.”

“This day is gonna be a long one,” Morgan muttered.

True, the hours stretched longer the closer it got to the last bell, but as soon as it rang the four were off to the dance club. Their friends wished them the best. This time Morgan came in after the other three, making her the rotten egg.

“Oh good, it’s not crowded,” Charlotte exhaled.

Professor Knight stood at the front of the room past a dozen or so students. Most of the dance club stood among them. It surprised Charlotte that some hadn’t made the cut. The certainty that this was a way to make sure the original members would get the chance wavered. Perhaps they were more serious about winning than expected.

“Alright, students,” Prof. Knight didn’t have to yell this time. “Listen up and listen good. We’re participating in the first hope-to-be-annual dance contest. Word around is they’re calling it the Guardian Dance Competition, or GDC.” Apparently this didn’t please their drama teacher, but she kept her opinions to herself. “We will be competing against three other schools, all academies training future guardians to hunt fairies like ours: Bryce and Wilson from Vermont, Ridgewood from New Hampshire, and Vahnata from Montreal, Canada.”

The last drew the most surprise. Vahnata, meaning ‘Unity’ in Aarin, was a school founded recently by people born and raised in the center of the world. Some believed this was a step in the right direction with public relations between those foreign mages and the population on the surface. Others wondered if this was simply a move for power. However you took it, they wondered how this came about.

“Excuse me,” a student raised their hand. With permission, they asked, “Does this mean magic will be allowed?”

“A small amount of magic for ambience and setting is authorized. There will be no direct magic used to enhance the ability of the dancer,” Prof. Knight assured them.

Another hand raised. “What cults or cultures are in the school? I mean...We’ll be crossing paths with them at some point, won’t we?”

Professor Knight sighed, “I know you might be concerned about some of the more colorful behaviors from their unique and varied traditions, but I promise you that the schools have agreed on ways to make mingling smooth.”

The children wondered what sorts of precautions they took to ensure the competition ran smoothly. Aarinian’s still holding on to their old ways of life had trouble dealing with a world wherein people were far freer and with no forced obligation to subjugate themselves to magical beings. Not unless they chose to.

“Maybe we can ask Dad,” Charlotte murmured.

The professor went on, “For now we will focus on the tasks at hand.” Knight pulled up a chart and a list of categories. “Each school will provide one candidate for each section. There is a group, a trio, a duo, and solo. The club will vote for the routines they like best. Any questions?”
 

Soliloquy

♥Hopeless Chromatic♥
The revelation that they would be one of four schools to compete had murmurs of excitement racing about the room. Everyone could already predict just how intense things were going to be, even without knowing anything about the other clubs and their skill levels. Making a mental note to do some research and see if anything could be unearthed, Kaylee raised her own hand as well. Once acknowledged, she posed a question, "If one of the smaller groups doesn't have anyone in it who is Awakened, can someone who isn't dancing be tasked with the ambiance using Almaeri? And if so, do they have to be a member of our team?"

“Ah, good one,” Prof. Knight tapped her clipboard with her pen, “You are free to petition anyone capable of Almaeri to use their talents for your dance, even if they aren’t on your team. It is up to them, but I am sure someone here would be willing.”

Morgan hesitated before offering, “I can do it, if any of you need it.”

Pleasantly surprised, Charlotte asked, “Oh, you’re Awakened?”

“Yes,” Morgan confirmed softly.

“Any more questions?” Prof. Knight queried.

There was a muted look of shared surprise on Kaylee's face, though she did her best to shake it away quickly. They'd never thought to ask her if she was Awakened, and she hadn't offered it on her own accord. Then again, it'd been an experience that those who were didn't always announce it. Kaylee wondered if it was just a subconscious shelter of the truth or if there was a fear being around families of esteemed hunters not to give out information if not requested.

In the back a hand went up followed by the question of, "So when is this competition going to be? How long do we have to pick out who's dancing and rehearse?"

“The schedule will be put up on the school dance club forum as soon as it is agreed upon,” Prof. Knight explained. “Rest assured there will be at least a full month, if not more, for brainstorming, research, and rehearsals.”

This time Elijah, once prompted, asked, “Where will this be held?”

“That too is still being worked out. The schools are trying to secure a location that will be convenient for everyone, especially since Vahnata will be coming from Montreal,” Prof. Knight answered. “If you haven’t already, you may select to be notified of updates.”

A familiar student’s hand went up and, without permission, asked excitedly, “Are we able to express our full creativity with—.”

“No nudity, Claireson, if you want the ‘full spectrum of art’ to be ‘properly’ honored, go to a different school,” Prof. Knight’s curt interruption stole away the light from the students eyes. Mirthful snorts fluttered around them who remained in perturbed silence. “Any other questions?”

While there were still some chuckles and amusement at just how well the other student's behavior was known and predicted. It didn't seem like there were any additional questions for the time being, especially when it was clear a lot would be taken in stride with information passed to the students once it was available.

Kaylee gave her sister a light nudge, learning in to ask softly, "So, still want to try and get the duo spot then?" Likely to be highly sought after, they'd want to do extra planning to try and secure it themselves.

“Hell yeah,” Charlotte grinned, clasping hands with her sister. “We’re gonna be epic.”

“Hmm, well if you two are definitely gonna duo, then maybe Morgan and I can grab a third for ours and take the trio spot,” Elijah said, turning with a smile to Morgan. “What do you say?”

Shrugging, she answered, “Fine with me. We should look now, before they’re all taken.”

“Okay,” Elijah said. He gave Charlotte a semi-elaborate one-hand shake and Kaylee a wave, since she was a body farther from him. “Catch you guys later!”

“Bye!” The sisters said, and took their bags with them to head home.

With the excitement of the competition looming in the near distance, dance became a consumption of every ounce of free time. Kaylee found she had to force herself to finish her studies first before moving on to planning with Charlotte. Their friends thankfully seemed to understand that with little time to work, hanging out would have to wait or be minimal. Thankfully there wasn't even a slight temptation of Hiraeth Hill that was still covered in a winter wonderland and kept them indoors where it was cozy.

Time in class seemed to take the longest to pass. It took full self control to focus on lectures and digest information needed for assignments, but the girls managed to do so. Their final class of the day was always the biggest challenge, knowing they were close to freedom, but a call for a project to build dioramas of ritual sites wasn't unwelcomed. Kaylee assumed she and Charlotte would pair with each other, meaning they could talk dance while they worked. That plan was quickly thwarted when the professor announced that everyone would be working with someone they had not yet partnered with that year. Charlotte, frustratingly, got Hugo. The level of discomfort she emanated could be felt across the room. No one could decide if this was better or worse than Tysha ending up with Reggie or Elijah being placed with Carlos Costello, an intense self-professed Bible-Believing Christian. While a person might venture a guess that two followers of Jesus would get along, this assumption proved absolutely false. Christian love of your neighbor apparently stopped where theological disagreement began. Elijah, at least, did his best not to engage in hostility and deflected attacks to provoke him into reacting aggressively with as much love as he could muster.

Frowning, Kaylee looked around the room as everyone was quick to disperse and find someone they didn't despise to work with. Unexpectedly, she was approached by Kyle with an offer to work together, one she happily took less she be paired with Regina or worse.

The projects were due in two days time, which meant they earned priority for the young Guardians who had rather full plates. Rather than offering passage to Avostoska to someone who was amiable at best, Kaylee suggested they work after class in one of the study rooms contained within the academy library. The space was enclosed to give single or small groups of students an environment to work in, though one wall was glass to make sure such places weren't used for those with less than academic purposes and frisky hands. Walking past one could easily see Kyle and Kaylee at work, occasionally leaning in together to work on the tiny model they had been assigned.

It happened that a wayward glance met cornflower eyes with a familiar set of dark—The kind that held a certain sparkle in the shine of a closet light bulb. Joss, who lingered a heartbeat more, turned to take a cubicle with his partner, Morgan. They quietly resumed their design.

Kaylee hadn't realized that she'd frozen in her movements as she made eye contact with Joss. There were so many times that questions seemed to bubble up from his actions and she wanted to understand more but also knew he wanted her to give up something she couldn't. The wonders of what might have been if Reggie hadn't stepped in were growing just as she was proded.

"Kaylee? Uh, Earth to Von Helsing," Kyle repeated, losing his patience quickly when she wasn't answering him.

"Oh, sorry," she apologized, reaching for the hot glue gun he had asked twice for and needed to attach the next piece.

"It's whatever. Should be used to you being pretty oblivious by now," he murmured as he carefully placed down their altar and held it in place to dry.

Kaylee frowned at what was a pretty clear jab at her. "Um, okay... I don't know if I deserved that."

Shrugging, Kyle moved his hand and gave the diorama a shake to ensure it stayed in place. "Think what you want, but the fact is you couldn't see just a tool you were chasing after even when you were being warned," he gave her only a side glance before reaching for more of the scenery they had prepared.

"Warned? Just who tried to warn me?" A genuine question because she didn't think that was accurate at all.

Kyle's eyebrows went up in disbelief, setting down the glue gun to look at her. "Really? Because I literally was trying to warn you when this all started back at the Atlantis field trip. Even Regina was trying to make you see what he was doing but you were blind to it."

That earned a spoff from Kaylee, even rolling her eyes. "Yeah right. The only thing Regina has toward me is a level of hatred I don't understand."

"Sounds dramatic," he was quickly losing his interest. "You can think what you want, but you pretty much walked right into this."

Not wanting to fight because she just wanted this project done and over with, Kaylee turned to her phone. A text on the screen from Charlotte was asking if she thought their parents would let them skip dining with everyone and just have food delivered for more time to practice dance. She wasn't sure just what the answer would be, but it brought to mind another question. Her phone had just sent a message back about who they'd ask to do the Almaeri-effects for their duo when Kyle loudly cleared his throat again.

"I hate to be that guy, but I really need you to stop messaging boys for five minutes and finish this thing with me." He was being as even toned as he could.

There was a small glare from Kaylee. "It's not a boy, it's my sister."

"Oh, so much better," he turned back to the diorama. "I'm sure the two of you are planning your next trip to the Hill for your shenanigans. Just be mindful of the gnomes."

That was a lot for her to unpack. "Shenanigans? And how do you even know about Hiraeth Hill?"

An annoyed sigh that his work kept being interrupted left him, but Kyle still responded. "Everyone knows about your special little group and their trips to the hill through another one of your father's portals," he flashed her a look near pity that she would be so naive to think otherwise. "And Cortez had no problems talking about just what happened there. I still don't get how so many of you were blind to his.. behaviors."

Deciding they needed to change the topic as she had bright red cheeks, Kaylee went back to something else he'd touched on. "And what about the gnomes?"

"There was some fight between gnomes regarding an abandoned greenhouse not far from the Hill," he explained, deciding it was safe to go back to work. "During the right the greenhouse ended up being destroyed."

It was slightly disheartening news that she hoped had somehow miraculously not made it to their parents. If things seemed too dangerous, she worried he wouldn't let them keep their little hangout spot. Pushing those thoughts and any of Lorenzo aside, she leaned in and have the project her undivided attention, if for no reason other than to simply be done with it.

The clock struck four when the classmates could count their project finished. Kaylee and Kyle chose to recreate Bohemian Grove’s Owl Shrine, located in redwoods of California. A towering rough-hewn shape of an owl carved from stone overlooked a fire pit atop a wide set of stairs that led to a large shallow pond. Several figurines crowded the foot of the blaze, drawing a circle of blood chalk all around it. Five figures stood aside in wait with their ruby-hilted daggers and frightened animals.

It had long since been speculated that this site had to do with Almaeri practices, but only a few had managed to get close enough to know, and they were not long to live thereafter. Now it was one of the shrines barred from use and the public. Ritual shrines were too intimately connected by portals to ever be trusted. All they needed were the right people to open them to whoever was on the other side.

Done with the day at school the sisters were quick to find each other. Charlotte exhaled in relief to be back, saying, “Oh damn, Hugo is a big creep. He insisted we sit next to each other because he thought that would make it more efficient or something. I mean, it’s the scoot for me. Felt like he was an inch closer each time I glanced.”

The comment reminded Kaylee of the unanswered text she had seen when she glanced at her phone. "What? That is creepy," she murmured, face scrunched in distaste. "Although maybe that means he likes what he sees? A compliment I guess even if an unwanted one?"

Shuddering, Charlotte said, “Ugh, I really hope not. I don’t want the first person to find interest in me to be Hugo.” Though she couldn’t deny that her development, slow as it was, progressed further since November. Perhaps her features had become defined? Maybe the high pitch in her voice had faded? Charlotte muttered, “Didn’t think about the fact that weirdo’s would also look my way…”

“Hey guys,” Elijah’s exhausted tone greeted them. Dark circles hung below his eyes. Small hairs escaped the once tightly braided corn-rows.

“You alright?” Charlotte asked.

“Hah, I want to say yes, but to be honest, it’s been a nightmare,” Elijah forced a spoff to sound more light hearted than he felt. “Carlos is trying to get under my skin. All I wanna do is finish this project.”

Grabbing his arm, Charlotte held on to comfort, asking, “What happened?”

“So, from the list we chose hedgestone,” Elijah went on, holding up the textbook in question, “This literally is all I am using—What the teacher taught and gave us—and it’s the exact same he has, but when it comes to drawing out the glyphs, he goes ‘Oh, I can’t do that, it’s a sin’, and I am like, ‘Okay, I understand. We can just do a small corner and say it’s just not finished yet’, and he’s all ‘Okay’, so I basically just draw a bit of it without looking at the book and he mutters ‘Not surprised, really’, and I ask ‘About what?’ And he goes ‘How good you are at that’, and it just starts this long back and forth about how he’s always suspected I’d know this stuff and it has to do with my theology. Tells me Catholic’s are the ‘Whore of Babylon’ and stuff,” Elijah annoyedly waved the book, “Frggin’ this is the same exact book he has, what does he expect? I paid attention in class, dangit! It’s not like I go home to some shrine for Mary and draw these circles on the ground!”

So many alternate cuss words were used that Charlotte had to hold in a snort of mirth. “I dunno, do you?” She gave him a subtle nudge.

That tempted a sigh trying not to give in to her humor. “Nooo,” he spoffed, this time far less forced. “But Carlos probably thinks so. He leaned over at one point to boast, saying ‘I don’t worship Mary; we don’t have false gods and goddesses’ and I’m like ‘Uh okay? Neither do I’ and—ugh, that didn’t stop it, or help. He has no regard for the difference between being reverent and worshiping.” Elijah dropped his book into his satchel. “I am quite done with the day. Did you girls have it any better?”

“Hugo was creepy, and—,” Charlotte realized Kaylee hadn’t said. “How’d it go for you, Kaylee?”

Like Charlotte, Kaylee had struggled not to chuckle at Elijah's experience. She had no doubt this Carlos was pushing his buttons full force which had to be behind irritating, but she also felt it was quite frivolous to compare religions, especially those so similar. She did give him a sympathetic smile though, knowing they were all on a boat of discomfort. "Well, Kyle may as well have called me a sinner, too," she rolled her eyes, taking Charlotte's free arm. "He took the time to point out how oblivious I was with Lorenzo, insisting he tried to warn me since Atlantis, and just seemed overall annoyed. Oh, and apparently he knows about our trips to Hiraeth Hill, though the most he had to say about it was to mention some gnome attack nearby."


Scoffing, Charlotte said, “He can stick-it. Anyone can make these kinds of mistakes.” Sad as it was, Charlotte said, “Guess it was bound to happen, but,” she perked a brow, “gnomes?”

Elijah thoughtfully hummed, “Oh, I think I heard something about that. An abandoned greenhouse or whatever.” He smiled. “Want to check?”

“Maybe next time, when it’s not snowing,” Charlotte said. “We should focus on the competition.”

“You right,” Elijah agreed. “How’s it going for you girls?”

“Amazing,” Charlotte grinned. “We have some wrinkles we have to smooth over, but overall we’re doing great. I wanna keep it to ourselves though. It’s gonna be a great surprise.” She asked, “What about you?”

“Our trio is doing pretty well. We’re trying out a couple songs to this dance they have, seeing which one fits best. I don’t know if I like this order of choosing a song to the dance. Feels a little risky, but I’m willing to try.” Elijah and the girls came to the split between dorms. “See you guys Monday!”

"See ya, Eli!" Kaylee gave him a wave as they continued on. The weekend couldn't have been more welcomed for either of them. Dropping off books she could to lighten her load, Kaylee moved to extract Chel from her cage. "So, did you get a chance to see if dad will let us skip dinner to practice? He might give us a one time pass, I hope."

“Lemme check in a sec,” Charlotte said, unpinning her braid from her head. The weight of her coil sometimes made her neck ache. Then she’s grabbed up her phone. “Ooh, looks like tonight is Guy Night. It’s babysitting time.”

It had been weeks ago that the adults discussed the option. Fair was fair. If the girls got one then it only made sense! Kaylee and Charlotte had to make good on their promise.

"Ugh that's right," Kaylee sighed, not because she wasn't excited to see all the kids, but more because she had been excited for a chance to practice. "Well, maybe if we get all the little ones calmed down and tired out we still have a chance to rehearse a bit. We mostly just have to keep an eye on the wily girls so there's no repeat of their escape." Thankfully, Willow and Lauri weren't horribly far along either and Alassiel was no longer bursting and even had a chance to recover from birthing Aenon. The chances of them embarrassing themselves seemed slim.

“Yeah, true,” Charlotte said with a smile. She pulled her gear together and walked with Kaylee out the door. “I’m thinkin’ maybe we can have them dance with us too. Make it a fun game so they’re entertained.”

“Guys!” Tysha ran up to them down the hall. Tallulah followed close behind. “Guys, wait!”

Looking behind, Charlotte said, “Hey guys—oh how did your projects go?”

"It wasn't the worst," Tallulah shrugged her shoulders. "I was working with Lana, which was fun although she does seem to enjoy gossiping more than working. It just took awhile to get used to is all."

“Awkward,” Tysha chuckled with a roll of her eyes. “We just wanted to see if you’re available to hang out.”

“Sure, why not?” Charlotte smiled, linking arm. “We’ve got kids to watch tonight.”

“Oh fun,” Tysha beamed. “Who are we babysitting?”

“All of them,” Charlotte spoffed. “All the adult guys, Jas, Jin, and Kit are all gonna spend time together. So us women are steppin’ up to the plate.”

"Oh that's a lot of kids, but that's also a lot of fun," Tallulah agreed to join them. "I do love seeing all the De'Levigne babies. They're so cute and smell so good."

"And Aenon is no exception," Kaylee added with a grin, loving those cute little sea maidens. "But you two should join us, because then we don't have to worry about anyone getting into trouble since a couple of our aunt's are pregnant after all."

Tysha nodded, “Definitely!”

The four arrived in no time to Avostoska, bags and Chel in tow. They dropped by the girls’ room to toss their bags down and get a good amount of homework done, some rest, and food before the men left. They discussed their midterm results, the competition, the strange unknown items that clinked in Morgan's bag, and they giggled to know that Reggie was still trying to schmooze Tysha after all this time.

“Alright guys, ready?” Charlotte asked, stretching from her minimal nap.

“Yep,” Tysha said, standing up to smooth out her outfit. “Kaylee, are you gonna bring down Chel to the cage in the Great Common?” They knew the old girl needed observation, but she was curious if Kaylee might spend these three hours away or not.

"I'll bring her with us. The kids sure do love her," Kaylee decided, picking up her carrier and small exercise ball. With Chel comfortably on her fluffy cushion and the teenage girls ready to go, they set off from their bedroom chambers to the main commons.

"You know, I can never get over just how big your guy's family is," Talluah remarked as they made their way. Contrary to the Von Helsings, they knew she didn't have a single cousin, sibling, or other living relative aside from her mother. "And you all get along? It seems almost surreal."

Charlotte chuckled, knowing this wasn’t the case. She had had plenty of fights with Jasper as a little girl, last Halloween she and Kaylee got into a physical altercation, and then there were the two major points of contention between her and Kaylee that came to mind; tattling to their father about Kaylee’s crush on Ryuu and Charlotte’s toilet-seat-cover disaster. But, far be it from Charlotte to pass up a chance to tease her sister.

“Well, I do,” Charlotte feigned innocence. “Kaylee is the trouble-maker at home.”

Kaylee spoffed, rolling her eyes at such a claim. "Oh, right, you never do anything wrong," she dryly answered, nudging her sisters shoulder. "I'll keep that in mind the next time we wind up facing dad for one of your ideas."

"Okay, small arguments aside you still seem to get along for the most part," Tallulah giggled and corrected herself. "Although maybe it'll change once all your cousins get older."

Charlotte made a face, saying "I hope not. I can't imagine what would have to happen for that to be true." Curious, she tilted her head, asking, "Why do you suppose so? Did that happen to yours?"

"Nah, my mom is an only child and father is a mystery she'll never talk about," she shrugged it off. "I just figure statistically with that many people there's bound to be some who don't get along, you know?"

"Hmm, maybe," Kaylee gave her the benefit of a doubt that such a thing was possible. "But for now everyone seems to get along, even if some of the girls are a but rowdy and drive their parents up a wall."

The talk of statistics quieted Charlotte into thought. What were the odds that her family had differences? Deep, meaningful, serious, differences that could cut a division between them? This curiosity stuck with her all the way to the Great Common wherein children raced back and forth after a large white cat and the womenfolk hummed in chatter until the doors opened. Toddling over to Kaylee, the calmer cotton-candy babies were happy to fawn over Chel.

“Hey, y’all made it!” Molly grinned. She had Colt on her lap with a book in her hands.

Snapping to the present, Charlotte smiled and said, “Yep. A promise is a promise.” Even if they were hopeful for dance.

Coming around for a greeting hug, Inara said, “You girls get your work done?”

“Yes ma’am,” Tysha answered. The little left they had to do wasn’t worth mentioning. “Oof!” She barely recovered from children running behind her after Finn. “Looks like you guys are having fun!”

“Oui,” Lauri chuckled, watching her little ones playing ‘catch the cat’, while she relaxed next to Willow.

Granya, amused by the children tumbling onto Finn when ‘caught’, said, “Helps get that energy out.”

Spoffing, Amalia said, “Where is end of energy? I don’t see it.”

Alassiel smiled, “Well...they have to hit bottom at some point, right?”

Observing the giggling mass of children, Natalia had to shrug. “I suppose we shall see.”

"Hell, I swear Nia runs and causes problems in her sleep," Annabelle spoffed, shaking her head as she kept a keen eye on the rugrat in question. She did have to say it was odd not having Jinpa around, but the men were due for a night of their own, and as much as she hated to admit it, her little boy was growing up.

"Same with Nora. Our little hellions are unstoppable," Ellie had to agree, sipping her drink she'd allowed herself seeing as they had back-up for watching all the kids.

A small tug on her shoulder caught her attention, looking over to see John standing there with wide, hopeful eyes. "Mama, can I go with dad and the other boys?"

Heart melting, she leaned in to give her son a kiss on his forehead. "My sweet boy," she cooed softly, toying with his bright hair until it laid flat. "Maybe next time, we'll see. When you're older it'll be more fun for you, dear." He seemed to accept this offer, that or just grew distracted with the pile on Finn, racing over to add to the capture.

"Better enjoy while he's so compliant," Emery spoffed, watching as Ambrose joined the De'Levigne girls to sit at Chel's cage, cooing at the little creature.

Willow had to shrug, leaning back on a sofa with her feet nestled on a footstool with Aria seated on her lap just before the smallest bump. Across the room, Dorian was playing with his older sister, as they often did. "I don't know, I think we have some pretty well-behaved boys."

"She's right, all the wild children are girls," Rosy chuckled, amused by the truth in it all. "But that's why we have you four here. Future Guardians can help handle some of these strong-willed little ones, I would wager."

Natalia smiled, her dark eyes lingering on her boisterous boys. “Sometimes Luci and Zac can give me a spirited wrestle, but overall I think that’s true about the girls.” She cuddled Renata to her chest. “Well most.” Her cutie was quite like her; calm and gentle. Not to mention Willow’s girls and the De’Levigne oldest three. Luna had broken the mold when she was coaxed by her cousins, but nothing tremendously terrible. “I think I’d bet on the twins, Nora, Nia, Beretta, and sometimes Melie.”

“Sound about right,” Molly spoffed. Her girl was up with the others, chittering away and giggling over stuffed animals and play sets. Beretta was the owner of a make-believe gunstore.

The doors opened and several carts of food were rolled in for them. Charlotte, Kaylee, Tallulah, and Tysha helped the mother’s corral the kids to the small tables thy set up in the Great Common. It had been decided that moving from room-to-room would be tricky. Best to keep them in one spot. The girls helped the pregnant women especially and the ones with babies in their arms.

“C’mere,” Charlotte guided Dorian to his chair beside Willow.

Tysha buckled Astrid into her seat next to Lauri. “There we go.”

Nora insisted on walking herself to the table, only to spin on her heels and make a run for the hallway through the open door. Her short legs slowed her escape. A couple of the other mischievous girls took notice. The twins glanced and grinned, darting forward. Beretta, by either Fate or a good guess, was caught up by Molly before she was able to take one step.

With the wheels in motion for them to break free, the other girls jumped up to their call to action. Nia, who hadn't been secured down, slid out of her seat like a little serpent and ducked under the table. Annabelle, knowing her devilish daughter was up in a hurry, longer strides taking her around the table, though her first attempt to scoop her up was a fail. "Oh no you don't, little lady," the dragon called as she chased after her.

While Astrid was already taken out of the escape plan by the evil booster seat straps, Amelie had not. After all, she was seldom one to cause any trouble or get in mischief. Eyes glistening excitedly, she wiggled herself to the floor and set off as fast as her littl legs could carry her. "Amelie!" Rosy tried to warn her, but was immediately stopped when she had to catch Ollie from trying to follow after his big sister.

"I got her!" Kaylee called as she went to try and head off the toddler. Ahead of her, they could see Nora tossing handfuls of nothing back at anyone who was getting close to her. Tallulah had taken off after the twins who let out squeals of excitement.

"Whoa there," Emery just managed to get a hand on Ambrose as he unclipped his seat. "Remember, if you want to hang out with the big boys you need to behave, little man." The prospect of going where Jinpa, Jasper and most importantly Nicklaus had gone was enough to freeze him on his tracks, letting out a small sigh and nodding his head.

Charlotte tackled one of her little sisters. “Got Thing-One!”

Nora, dodging her mother, while muttering ‘Boom, boom!’ each time she flung her empty hand, thumped right into a leg. “Oof!” Her small voice puffed as she bopped onto her bum. Looking up, she blinked to see two familiar figures.

“Heh,” Kazumi grinned briefly, only to purse her lips and perk her brow. She reached down and picked up the ginger girl, handing her over to her mother.

Just behind her Hye uncrossed his arms and pointed to the tables, wordlessly commanding the children to mind their parents. The assistant’s mood brooked no argument. One by one the toddlers solemnly shuffled to their seats. The smallest hesitancy was seen from the rowdier children, but none would cross the stern caretakers. They were quick to lament being locked into place at the table.

Exhaling, Inara said, “Thank you!”

“Don’t thank us too soon,” Kazumi chuckled. “We came here to ask for three nights off.”

“Done,” Inara agreed, but only after strapping both her twins into their seats. “Where to?”

“Singapore,” Hye said. “We’re visiting an old friend.”

“Well be safe and come back in once piece,” Inara smiled, giving them both hugs.

Charlotte, once she had helped tie Beretta in, ran over with her sister to say a goodbye. “We’ll miss you!”

“It’s three nights,” Kazumi pointed out, as if that would make their absence easier.

"Still, three nights without you are three nights to miss you," Kaylee agreed with her sister, giving each of them a hearty embrace. "But I hope you have a good trip."

Tallulah had just finished strapping in Amelie, who had guilty chocolate eyes and was avoiding her mother's disappointed gaze. "Phew, these kids sure give you a run for your money."

"Sometimes," Willow agreed with a shrug of her shoulders. "But they always make up for their mischief."

"Ain't that the truth," Ellie spoffed, wagging a finger at Nora who had tossed another imaginary bomb once she'd been restrained. "But you girls will understand that once you have kids of your own. They know an exact equation of how often they can act up without getting in real trouble. Like it's an art form."

Annabelle smirked, tussling Nia's red hair. "No idea where they would have gotten that from or anything," she chuckled.

“I could guess where Nora got her little quirk from,” Inara chuckled. “Did you see her tossing bombs?”

Letting go of Hye and Kazumi so they could head off after a final wave, Charlotte said, “I used to want to be a demolitionist, just like Aunt Ellie

Tysha almost asked what Ellie did as a person proficient in blowing things up, but the question died on her lips as soon as her brain reminded her she was in the presence of ex-Hunters. She sipped her drink to cover any facial betrayal of her attempt

“You wanted to do anything Aunt Ellie did,” Inara chuckled, sitting back down beside her twins. “You wanted to marry someone like Everest for a while there. You wanted your beau to come when you were just as young as Aunt Ellie, sitting out on the front lawn, when your guy rolls up.

The people at the table join in the mirth of the truth. Charlotte spoffed, “Yeeaaah, I did. I think Aunt Ellie and Uncle Everest’s meeting was dreamy. I imagined they went on all kinds of exciting dates, bombing and shooting. But I think you only were with him once or twice, right Aunt El?"

Ellie nodded in agreement, making sure each of her children was settled in with their plate and cup. "We had a couple of missions that happened while we were seeing the other, but in the end we decided that it's better if we keep work and pleasure separate," she explained. "No need to let us get distracted when there were.. things to be done."

Tallulah had shifted with the same level of discomfort as Tysha had when talk was shifted to former hunting habits. While she had been young before Hell's Gate, she still had some memories of the fear her mother would have when whispers of a hunter were about

Willow, having caught on to the girls outside the family grown quiet, cleared her throat. "Perhaps this isn't the best dining room table talk," she offered her sister-in-law, also not a fan of being reminded of their past.

A blush of understanding colored Charlotte’s cheeks. She had forgotten. Her childhood had been, in a sense, enclosed in the normality of Hunter life. Fortunately the age she learned about the truth meant she could easily adapt to the reality. Unfortunately that particular age meant she didn’t shroud any of her past in the same veil of darkness as the others. It dawned on Charlotte, in this moment, that she had no latent revulsion. Not towards the ex-Hunter’s of her family, not towards the memories of her childhood growing up in a Hunter household, and neither did she feel the same sense of discomfort she saw on the faces of those around her. Yet, all at once, she felt a sense of shame.

“Uh,” Charlotte cleared her throat, forcing a smile. “Yeah, uh—,” she fished around a second for an appropriate subject, “Our dance is going well

Lauri happily chimed in, “I have seen them practice, they are quite good.

Amalia and Molly were quick to be invested. The Southern Bell said, “You’ll have to show us what you have so far."

For the former hunters, it wasn't always easy to look back on what had been a life of one understanding and way and digest it as being wrong. At the time, they'd simply taken action that was deemed necessary and true. Of course in recent years they'd been working to make retribution for their actions, but that wouldn't erase history, a fact no one had any misconceptions of.

Rosy was one who was painfully consciously aware of the choices she had made before Hells Gate, and even though Molly and the others had sworn she was forgiven, it still impeded her dreams at times. Taking a sip to clear her thoughts, she nodded with the other two. "Agreed! Even if it isn't the final product, we'd like to see."

Kaylee lit up, excited to see how much support they garnished from their family. "We could put on a small performance after dinner," she offered with a pleased grin.

“I wanna dance too!” Beretta tugged her mother’s hand.

“If you do a good job eatin’ yer dinner, and only after they do their show,” Molly tapped her plate.

Inara agreed, seeing her twins were eager to do the same. “Dinner first.”

The other mother’s set down the same rule. A shift in focus on their food instead of hassling their mother’s rose a chorus of clinking forks and the thud of cups. In the end the older children had finished first, getting their desserts, while a few of the younger ones were hard-pressed to do the same.

“Now go on, eat,” Molly insisted to Colt. She cut the last chunk of his food into four pieces. She split them into two piles. “You can pick which side you want to finish.”

Amalia perked at watching Molly and Colt. She had some trouble with Sigvar at times, like now. She did the same and offered her son a choice. To her pleased astonishment Sigvar, feeling that he had some control, chose to consume one of the piles of food without the usual struggle. Sigvar got his dessert soon after.

“Alright, Aenon,” Alassiel popped his mouth from her breast and adjusted her shirt. She set him in the high chair next to her, saying loudly so her girls could hear, “Now you wait a moment while I help Nell, okay?”

The baby, completely unaware, sat in contentment with a full belly. Nell, hearing her mother give them the same respect as her newest infant, felt the familiar warmth of consideration. It had been a practice of Alassiel and Andriy since their second child had been born to make sure their eldest knew she was still important, and that she wasn’t the only one who had to wait for baby. Baby, sometimes, had to wait for her too. It helped prevent resentment between siblings from an early age.

Nell leaned back so that her mother could serve her a piece of chocolate silk pie, saying, “Thank you mommy.”

“You’re very welcome, anuada [Dew drop],” Alassiel said with a smile. “Once you’re done we can all go by the hearth.”

Dessert, unlike dinner, didn’t last long on their plates. Luna might have tried to persuade her mother for a second helping, but ultimately she was turned down. Too much sweets would upset her belly. Lauri, on the other hand, may have slipped in a macaron or two more than she normally would have eaten without being seen.

Soon the family shuffled from the tables without as much turmoil as they had anticipated. Charlotte and Kaylee, far from the doors, centered themselves by the hearth for dramatic effect. They took a lounge blanket and draped it over Charlotte who bent slightly forward. Then Kaylee walked to the corner of the room. It wasn’t clear at first what the girls had planned, but as soon as their song came on and Kaylee went over to yank the blanket off, they were all ‘oos’ and ‘awes’ for the performance the girls were putting together. Kaylee and Charlotte intermixed their show with pauses and ‘oops’es, on account of them not having perfected it yet, but in the end the room cheered.

“Woo!” Molly clapped. “Now that’s clever! You go, girls!”

Amalia grinned, “Da, very good!”

“That’s wonderful you two,” Natalia praised, adjusting Renata on her lap.

Oliver flopped on his mother, trying to imitate the scenes he just saw. “Doo-doo, doo-doo-doo!” He mimicked the beat of the song.

“Incroyable!” Lauri beamed.

“You two will do great, I know it!” Tysha whooped.

Proud, Inara acted out giving them trophies. “To the best duo, I present Kaylee and Charlotte!” She urged them forward. “Would you like to make a speech?”

Kaylee 'accepted' her award, lifting it up to the crowd. "Thank you everyone! I'd like to thank our mother for sharing her passion for dance with us and always encouraging us," she began, beaming. "Our entire family has always been supportive and there...for us..." She trailed off, something seeming not quite right. The cheers from their performance had seemed a bit quiet, at least given how many were in the room. Cornflower eyes drifted around everyone seated one more time before it struck her. "Some of the girls are missing." Pillows took up their places next to their mothers, a smart little distraction.

The sudden revelation made Tallulah sit up in surprise. They were supposed to be there to help keep an eye on the kids, and had obviously done a shabby job of it. Wincing, she began to take count of who had vanished. "The twins, Zasha, Beretta, Nia," she rattled off.

Lilith tugged lightly on her mother's sleeve, pointing with her free hand at the pillow beside her. "And Nora, mama," she added her sister to the count.

"Son of a-" Ellie began but stopped herself, standing up from the lounger she'd been sitting in.

"We can find them," Kaylee quickly offered, even though they were quite out numbered. "Do the girls still their tracking baretts?"

"Yes, and they have them on their shoes!" Inara said, calling on Pascal to help locate them.

"They are heading to the botanical palace, my Lady," Pascal said

Lauri gathered Luna before she could do the same. "We'll keep these littles in check," she said, assuming any mother who was pregnant like her and Willow or any with infants like Alassiel would stay. "You guys go

Charlotte tossed her fake trophy. "There are three routes from here that they'd probably take. We should split up

"Yeah, we should--" Tysha squinted the cage. "Kaylee, didn't you bring Chel down?"

"Oh no..." Kaylee's heart dropped to see that Chel was in fact missing. While she didn't expect any of the children to intentionally cause her harm, she did know that more than one tended to be on the wild and rambunctious side, and accidents could easily happen. Picking up her pace she headed to the door out of the commons, wishing she would have something to track her pet like the kids had, but never expecting the aging animal to go far.

"Don't worry Kaylee, we'll find her," Tallulah said with a pat on her back.

"She's right, honey. I'm sure if we find the girls we'll find Chel," Rosy agreed, trusting those behind with her children as she joined the search party. Annabelle, Ellie, and Emery were also a part of their numbers, quickly deciding how to split up.

"I think we send a couple extra down the path their trackers currently are showing and then split up in pairs for the remaining two paths," Ellie suggested. "Just in case they get slick with hiding the baretts again."

Inara wished Hye and Kazumi were still around. At least they had Granya to help. She turned to the young woman and asked, “Could you cut them off from the Botanical garden?”

“Da,” Granya said. “I can take one or two of you with me too.”

Charlotte volunteered, giving a small hop, “Oh me!”

Admittedly, riding a wolf in any extent was something that Kaylee had dreamt of doing for some time. Granted, it didn't seem right to simply ask your cousin for a lift, but when it was offered she wouldn't say no. "I'll come too," she agreed, stepping close.

Shifting into her honey-brown wolf, Granya lowered herself to allow the two to jump onto her back. Tysha, Tallulah, and the other’s split into their groups: Molly and Tallulah with Rosy, Annablle and Ellie with Inara, Emery and Tysha with Amalia.

“We’ll see you soon,” Charlotte said.

The girls gripped the thick fur of Granya’s pelt to keep steady. The wolf leaped into action, causing the sisters to bend forward. At turns the girls pressed their legs tight against the wide back of Granya’s wolf-form. They could feel the muscles beneath them, like corded steel, shift and ripple. A grin spread over Charlotte as the wind rushed through her hair. Riding animals was always enjoyable. Riding a wolf made her feel like she was in a storybook.

Just as they came around a corner they spotted the little crowd of gremlins totting toward the doors of the garden a ways down the hall. The vast botanical glass palace stretched nearly an entire side of the estate. Its paths were winding, branching, and even ascended up to catwalks to better appreciate the variety of flora artfully designed for calm and wistful contemplation. All the better to run around in and play. Especially if they could find the fountains.

“Halt!” Charlotte shouted.

The little girls paused and peered over. Surprise lit their faces to see the wolf and their eldest cousins and siblings.

“How dey find us?” Desara touched the side of her hair where nothing was keeping her tresses pinned. Clearly confused, she looked around and saw that none of them still wore their barrettes, and yet they were found.

“Maybe shoes?” Lyra tapped her heels. The little lights that sparkled delighted her. Could they be a ploy to keep her from taking them off? Or maybe her shirt? The little tag at the back of her collar? What of her small bracelet? Could they ever really know?

Nora, who held Chel, squealed, “WUN!” And bolted through the threshold.

Granya skidded only in time to prevent two of the girls from getting into the gardens, but four were already scattering between the dense plants and hanging vines.

Kaylee watched as the girls were split up, Zasha and Beretta blocked from the gardens and making a run for it down the hallways, while the twins, Nora, and Nia disappeared into the green setting. Hopping off Granya, she looked between the three directions, trying to decide which way to go. "We should go after the girls in the garden and try not to lose sight of them," she suggested, taking a step toward the large greenhouse but seeing if anyone else had a better plan.

Shifting into her natural form, Granya said, “Da, we can do that. Zasha and Beretta will be stopped by the others whichever hall they choose.” She added under her breath, “Assuming they haven't’ stolen access cards.”

“Pascal,” Charlotte’s command materialized the holobutler. “Shut down access passes.”

“My apologies, my Lady, but you need permission to exercise the authority to restrict passcard usage,” Pascal reminded her. Any other time they had those adults to do just that. “But I can let Lady Inara know.”

Though Pascal would do so, and Inara would shut down the cards being used, they would learn that Zasha and Beretta had already bypassed their mother’s by that time. This opened up several hallways of possibilities, the kitchens being the most popular destination.

“Fine,” Charlotte frowned. “Where are they in the gardens?”

“Here are their current locations,” Pascal pulled up an image of green dots. They met up into a cluster and then broke away, scattering into different directions. They came to a stop in the thickets of the garden.

“Pognali [Let’s go],” Granya said, setting off to one green dot while the sisters did the same with others.

Charlotte, following the direction of the image, weaved through trunks and hopped over thin streams of bubbling, clear water to the glowing emerald marker. She slowed down until her footfalls were as soft as the beat of an owls wing. Creeping through the shroud of ivy, she saw the pink of Nora’s shirt.

“Aha!” Charlotte leaped out and tackled. Her arms looped around a shrub draped with the soft fabric of Nora’s top. Charlotte sat up, bewildered. A foot away a pair of shorts were discarded next to a pair of shoes. “Oh no…”

Giggles snapped Charlotte’s attention. From whence did the burble of mirth originate? To her left? To her right? Charlotte grabbed the footwear and garments. She bundled them and tucked them under her arm before wrestling through the forestry. She just broke through the line of vegetation to a winding path when she saw a red headed girl in the shadows of branches and boughs.

“Hey!” Charlotte called, running across the path to her. In a babble of laughter Nora vanished again. “Come back here you!”

“Hee hee!” Voices behind her faded

“Huh?” Charlotte turned around. That could have been either of the twins. “Ugh,” she sighed. “Kaylee! Granya! Can you hear me? I think they’re over here!”

Kaylee, who had followed the direction of Pascal toward where one of the green dots had last been seen, moved as quietly as she could. A quick lunge into the bushes and she came up empty handed, but surrounded by the clothing that was last seen on Nia. "What the?" It only took a few moments to realize that the girls had she'd their clothing and shoes in the hopes of losing their tails. "Clever girls," she murmured, scooping up the shorts, shirt and shoes and running in the direction she heard Charlotte's voice.

"Can't catch me," Nia's voice echoed in the trees, though Kaylee struggled to tell what direction it was coming from.

"I bet I can," the older girl taunted back, making a decision and turning down a lightly treaded path through the shrubbery and trees, eyes out and alert to find the little mischief maker.
 

rumxcoke

Elder Member
Faint rustling of foliage and padding feet criss-crossed all around them. Once or twice the seekers were sure they had come upon a little girl, only to see them vanish in the tangle of the garden. At some point all three seekers bumped into one another at an intersection.

“They’re sneaky little buggers,” Charlotte spoffed. She saw the other two had shoes and outfits with them. “And smart.” Charlotte wondered just what trouble the other two girls were giving the adults in the hallways, seeing that they hadn’t joined them yet.

Granya nodded, “Da. We will have to hunt them. I will track, you two will need to triangulate with me to catch them. One at a time.”

“Alright,” Charlotte agreed.

In addition to that, they decided to put aside the clothes of the girls so that the littles couldn’t use the green dots against them if they happened to snag them back. Then they followed Granya’s nose until the she-wolf signaled to get into formation. Silently, Charlotte and Kaylee took opposite sides with Granya between them. They creeped around the perimeter of the fountain, hidden in the leaves, watching Nia and Nora play with Chel by the water.

Kaylee felt relief to see that Chel was still completely fine, even if being held hostage by two nearly naked little girls. Stepping up from her side, she waited for their signal, before rushing up to the fountain, arms out and aimed at Nia. Whether it was that the girls were too distracted by Chel or they'd been sneakier than they thought, but Kaylee's arms wrapped around the little devil child and scooped her up. "Got ya!"

A look of disbelief crossed young Nia's face, squirming in her older cousin's hold. "Nooo! Leh me geo!" She demanded, though Kaylee would be doing no such thing.

The capture gave the ginger girl a heads up. Seeing Charlotte and Granya, Nora made a split-second decision just as her cousins encroached on her.

“Oop—Hey, get back here!” Charlotte swiped just as Nora rolled over into the fountain with Chel in her arms. “You little dickens!” Charlotte splashed in after her.

“No, no, no,” Nora breathily exhaled as she waded as fast as her diapered butt could go.

Charlotte lunged forward. Her hands grasped Nora, but her feet slipped. “Whoa!” The cousins awkwardly wrestled until Charlotte managed to stand with one arm around Nora.

“Ugh, ugh!” Nora wiggled. “Lemme doh!”

“Nope,” Charlotte said. Droplets of water flung from the shake of her head. “ You’re coming with us, and so are your little friends,” she muttered while peering around for the chinchilla.

Chel happily swam to the lip of the fountain closest to Kaylee. She clawed at the ledge and squeaked for attention. An old girl like her wasn’t as spry as she used to be, a time like this called for a helping hand.

Keeping a hold of Nia with one arm, Kaylee scooped up her beloved pet and held her to her chest. "Oh, I'm so glad to see you old girl," she murmured. nuzzling her. Turning her attention to Nia, she clicked her tongue in disappointment. "And you, young lady, are in a lot of trouble."

The nearly naked toddler hardly seemed phased by the statement. "Feh, whaever," she rolled her eyes, still kicking occasionally.

Keeping Nia and Chel close, Kaylee walked back from the fountain to where the girls' clothing had been hidden, beginning a painfully slow process of dressing her with one arm. Chel sat patiently at her feet, thankfully, and once the feisty child was fully clothed, Kaylee picked her up surf-board style, tucked under her arm while holding Chel in her other. "Okay, so the twins are still in here. Do you think you can get them both Granya or should we ask the others to send someone to help?"

“I will find them, you go,” Granya said, turning to do just that.

Dripping wet, Charlotte got out of the fountain with Nora. “We better get going before they find some other way to run off.”

Nora did share a mischievous glance with Nia when their eyes met, but at this point the two were far from strong enough to get out of the iron hold of their cousins. They could only hope that Lyra and Des were fighting the good fight. As for Zasha and Beretta? Charlotte and Kaylee were surprised to see the turmoil in the Great Common upon entering the room.

“Beretta Genevieve Baranov, I will bop your butt,” Molly warned with a flick of her hand, “if you don’t get down!”

The little girl, huddled on top of the mantle over the hearth with a cookie jar clutched to her and Zasha, peered down at her mother and weighed her options. She and Zasha had gotten to the kitchens, made out like bandits, and stole the container of confections that spilled a trail behind them to the Great Common. This had erupted a cheer and chaos from the other kids who made it difficult for any of the mother’s in the room to grab the girls. The only safe place to munch their stolen goods had been the tall mantle. A few vases had to be sacrificed for comfortable seating. Just how much trouble would she endure if Beretta gave up now, versus later?

Amalia joined at Molly’s side. She reflected Zasha’s glare, but with an edge that came from her life experience. “Спустись, маленький Змей, и я не буду резким.[Come down now, little Serpent, and I will not be harsh.]”

Zasha watched her mother carefully, trying to determine whether it was worth the drop down to avoid punishment. She knew from plenty of previous encounters where her mother got the best of her that she could be stern with her words and her hand when needbe. Keeping her gaze trained, she reached into the jar and pulled out a cookie, taking a bite without breaking eye contact.

"You're playing with fire there, little girls," Emery said as she shook her head.

Kaylee, having just dropped Chel into her cage, delivered a pouting Nia to Annabelle who enacted an iron one-armed grip, murmuring that she was lucky her father wasn't going to hear about this.

Putting her hands on her hips, Kaylee looked up above the hearth. "Want me to crawl up there and get them down?"

Charlotte placed Nora—saggy diaper and all—next to her mother and came to stand beside Kaylee. “We could both do it. One on each side.”

Amalia crossed her arms. “If they have to bring you down, we will be leaving,” she warned. It had already happened before; fun with her cousins cut short by being taken home. The threat would be fulfilled.

“That’s a good idea!” Molly set her hands akimbo. “Now what do you think of that?”

Beretta, with a cookie in each hand, wondered if this was a fate she would have to endure too. “Mamma, I don’t wanna go home—If I come down, can I stay?”

“Yes,” Molly nodded. “If you get your little butt down now, then you can still stay. But no more cookies!”

Frowning, Beretta felt the impulse to shove the cookies in her mouth weigh on her. It felt like shouldering massive backpacks or her brother, when he landed on her. Struggling, Beretta put one cookie back and held the other. Voices argued to eat it! It can’t really be serious. Not really! Just a bite!

“Berettaaaaa,” Molly warned.

“Hmph,” Beretta dropped the cookie into the jar and shifted towards Charlotte who outstretched her arms. The girl slipped off and with a plop she landed safely. Upset, but far from the consequences of the worst punishments, Beretta met back with her mother who brought her to the couches for a good scolding talk!

Zasha…” Amalia said with a swing of her voice and a perked brow.

Kaylee stood, arms out and waiting for Zasha to obey her mother. Little Amelie pulled away from her mother to poorly skip to Kaylee's side, stroking up a pose that looked a lot like Amalia and taking the same tone. "Zasha..."

Several of the adults and Kaylee had to duck their heads to hide chuckled and smirks of mirth, quickly recovering less anyone else tried another escape move. "Come on Zasha," Kaylee coaxed a final time.

Deciding it wouldn't be worth it to be the only one sent home, spawn of Serpent and Stallion let out the biggest sigh her little body could handle before scooching herself off the ledge and dropping into her cousin's arms. "Никогда не весело [never any fun]," she murmured as she was passed off to Amalia.

"Okay I think that means all rugrats are accounted for?" Emery asked, looking around just in case.

Inara shook her head, “My twins—.”

“Right here,” Granya walked in with one girl on each hip.

Coming to them, Inara took both and scolded in Hindi. Whatever she said, they frowned and lamented as if they were victims of cruelty. “Look at the mess, just look,” Inara insisted to them, though they complained they hadn’t knocked any vases over or stolen any cookies—though anyone could see they wished they had!

Molly sighed, “Sorry about that, Inara.”

“Oh, it’s alright,” Inara was quick comfort. She sat with her twins locked down at her sides. “We pay our servants very well.”

The staff in question came right in to service the room. Replacements were put on the mantle, shards were swept, and the cookie jar was on its way to the kitchens, all while the mother’s were busy settling down their munchkins.

Charlotte had to run upstairs to change and dry her hair. It didn’t take long. She walked in, grinning to see some of the mother’s still shaking a finger at the girls, and said, “And we give the guys a hard time.”

“Oh don’t say a word, hon,” Molly huffed with a smile she couldn’t force away.

Amalia spoffed, “Da, will not hear end of it.”

Chuckling, Natalia said, “They are fond of gloating.”

“Hah, if only,” Inara sighed. “Oh Wesley would be the worst.”

Alassiel smiled. “I think Andriy is kind of adorable when he boasts and teases.”

“Oui, but he is a mellow fellow,” Lauri pointed out with a giggle. “Even Cory is not one to pass an opportunity to be smug.”

“Probably a family trait,” Inara snorted.

Tysha looked around, asking, “Sooo…We say nothing?”

"We won't tell them a word," Rosy said, stroking Ollie's hair.

"Exactly. What they don't know, won't hurt them or be used against us," Ellie agreed with a spoff.

Everyone was settling in to enjoy the last bit of time they had until the men would be returning from their night of celebrating manhood. Warm chatter filled the air while the children played closely nearby.

After a few minutes, Willow eased herself up out of her chair, much to sweet Aria's objections. "I know, I'm sorry my dear. But mommy needs to go use the restroom. Do you want to go sit with Auntie Lauri?"

Tallulah, who had been nearby perked up. "I can watch the kids for you," she offered with a grin, already scooting over so the kids could circle around her. Recognizing her from their babysitting night in October, the Al-Zakhar kids were quick to warm up.

"Thank you, Tallulah dear, I'll be right back," Willow promised, setting off for the nearest bathroom in a bit of a hurry.

Melody scooted close to Tallulah until their knees lightly bumped. "Do you have any toys, Lulah?" she asked, wide eyes hopeful.

"I'm afraid I don't have any toys," she admitted, though glanced over her shoulder in thought. Everyone else was currently highly engaged in their own thing. "But I can show you something better."

"Ooo show, show!" Melody cheered excitedly, wiggling about.

Spotting three leaves that had fallen off one of the escape artists who'd gone off to the gardens, Tallulah picked them up in her hand, cupped them and brought them up to her lips. "Make a wish and one...two...three..." she blew into her hands.

Once they opened, three glittering tiny butterflies had replaced the leaves: one one pink, one blue and one purple. They fluttered their wings, hovered for a few seconds before gently exploding into little clouds of glitter.

Aria clapped in delight. She had no concept of how magic animated material and took them to be real, living insects that transformed into sparkles. “I want one,” she said, thinking of Chel in her cage and how much she would love a pet.

Enthralled, Dorian pointed in question at the farce butterflies, “Dis ‘aughty?”

Anyone with their own babies had a much easier time deciphering what they tried to communicate. Dorian’s inability to annunciation distorted his meaning to Tallulah’s ears who rarely heard him speak.

Tallulah's brows furrowed gently in confusion, not sure what she was missing. "I'm sorry Dorian, can you say that again please?" She requested politely.

“Dis ‘aughty?” Dorian did so, as any baby would at his age who knew that, sometimes, adults just didn’t catch on like they should.

The doors of the Great Common swung open at this point. A chorus of happy claps and shouts for ‘Daddy’ filled the air. Children padded with haste over to their fathers. Dorian was no exception. He abandoned Tallulah to run up to Theo with his sisters.

“Ах, мои песенки![Ah, my little songs!]” Theo grinned wide, kneeling down to embrace them all. Melody was tucked close to his left side, Dorian found himself clutching to his Dad’s arm that he lifted to raise him, giggling, in the air, and when Aria came over Theo bent forward to shower her with kisses.

Cory, Oliver, Yonten, Everest, Wesley, Nicklaus, Joao, Andriy, Micha, Liam, Gordon, and Jovan followed in after. They too greeted their families with enthusiasm and delight. Ollie held tight to Cory’s neck, Luna extolled the details to her imaginary games to Oliver, the Tides turned to their father Andriy, Amalia watched with a pleased expression while Zasha found herself in Gordon’s arms—Some were less interested in greeting. Lucius and Zac pleaded to know when they could come with the guys next time, Nia quite quickly became a daddy's girl, knowing fully well that her mother was still not happy about her escape, Nora tried to rifle her father’s pockets after the pretense of a hug to grab his passcard, and Beretta held close to Micha so she might persuade him to bake cookies when they got home.

Wesley looked around the room even as he held his twins. “Not bad, they’re all here.”

“Every single one,” Inara nodded, coming to greet him with a kiss. “How was your night out?”

“Marvelous,” Wesley grinned. He gestured to the little boys that had come along with them. “Why don’t you tell them what you did?”

Kit, Jasper, and Jinpa were grinning from ear to ear. They came around to the front. Jasper said, “We teamed up and took out each of them!”

“I was medical-man,” Kit said to Inara. “I healed fallen guys!”

Smiling, Inara leaned to give her sweet boy a kiss atop his brow. “Oh I bet you saved so many.”

“I got Uncle Everest's butt. Twice!” Jinpa said, lifting two fingers to his mother to illustrate. He earned a scruff of affection on his head from his father.

"That's my boy," Annabelle praised her son, grinning from ear to ear. So far it seemed like everything was going smoothly and the little mishap would stay a buried topic that the menfolk wouldn't find out about.

Willow returned just then from the bathroom, lighting up to see a familiar scruffy face that she steered herself directly toward. She managed to work around their small pile of children and give him a warm receiving kiss. "Good, you came home in one piece. I wouldn't want you handicapped from Wes' dumb ideas when we'll have four little ones soon enough."

“Uh, Da, I survived…” Cheeks pink, Theo decided not to let her know he had chosen paintball. Wesley held his tongue. The Fox did, however, give Theo a knowing tilt of his head.

"All the more reason to be grateful for the holodeck," Rosy chuckled, folding herself into Cory's side while Ollie and Melie each hugged a parents leg.

"Very true. We've only grown in numbers and I imagine repeating a night like the infamous Crosse wedding wouldn't end well," Oliver chuckled, hoisting up all three of his children.

Ambrose, having listened intently to the talk of what the 'big boys' did, felt even more left out. His hand found Nicklaus' pant leg and he tugged it lightly. "Can I come with next time?"

“Today’s game was a bit rough for growing men,” Nicklaus said, crouching down to meet the kid eye-to-eye. There was something about speaking at an even level that Nicklaus found important. “Perhaps next time, but it’s really up to your mom.” He set his broad hand tenderly against Ambrose’s head. “We did miss you, micutule [little guy]. Especially me.”

Ambrose lit up at his words, cheeks pulling back and two big dimples showing. "We could pway togeter at home, with my toys!" He was hopeful, bouncing from foot to foot. Nights Nicklaus came over were his favorites.

“We’ll get popcorn and make it a sleepover,” Nicklaus grinned, falling into conversation with Ambrose about just what they would watch.

Silently, Amalia nudged Emery with her elbow and gave her a grin. Since October the two had ‘gone steady’ and it seemed the slow and careful pace had been fruitful. Nicklaus never pressured his way. He always considered Emery and Ambrose first, choosing patience and letting go of what he wanted in favor of the other two. There was a downside. It took effort for Emery to get Nicklaus to make his wants known at times when she wanted him to be forthcoming, even for simple topics like lunch or what movie to watch. Flirting could go on forever if Nicklaus didn’t get a blunt indication that Emery had long since reached her heat point and needed immediate satisfaction. Hints that Ambrose would benefit from spontaneous trips regarding Nicklaus’s interests, so the boy might bond closer, were lost on the man. But, overall, and compared to others, Nicklaus’ good nature shined brightly.

Wesley said, “Perhaps next time we can do a Guys Night out with all the boys, even the little ones. Maybe play a game more suited for smaller sizes with less guns.”

“Yeah, that’d be great,” Cory grinned, looking down at his boy. “We can be on a team, Ollie.”

“Team!” Ollie repeated happily.

The Santos boys looked up at their parents. Natalia, shifting Renata on her other hip, gave a nod. The two were happy to join in on the excitement of the idea. Sigvar was quick to babble on about what he would want to do for teams. Perhaps work beside Colt or Sirius.

Another Guys Night? Inara glanced around. “Hmm…”

“What is it, my Love?” Wesley asked in gentle earnest. “Do you have reservations? I figured you might not, since your watch went so well.”

The way his last word swung up caught Inara in a pause. Or did she imagine it? Wesley hadn’t been nicknamed the Fox for nothing. Yet, it could still be coincidental and not a sly tease. “Well we survived, obviously,” Inara agreed.

“With nary a hiccup too,” Wesley said, swiveling lackadaisically. “Not a scratch, not a thrown diaper, and not a single kid missing.”

“Mhm,” Inara coughed. “So, yeah, I think we could manage another….Right girls?”

"I don't think it'd be a problem as long as Lauri and I aren't too far along," Willow offered, knowing they had no reason they could share as to what difficulty they might have. Granted, if the boys were gone, it'd be that many less to keep their eyes on.

"And we could come help as long as school allows," Kaylee piped up.

Tallulah caught on quickly that they were there for a cover-up. "Exactly. We love a chance to lend a helping hand out for all these little cuties."

Annabelle leaned into Yonten's side, one hand latched on Nia's shoulder and the other resting on Jinpa. "I think another night for the guys is aight, so long as we girls get the favor returned and soon. We are long overdue, don't you think?"

"Wasn't it just the other month?" Everest spoffed, earning an elbow in his side from Ellie.

"Hardly. We haven't had a real girls night since before school started, Everest James, so don't play that game."

"Can skip Guy night and help with kids," Andriy offered, nestled around his family.

Alassiel, briefly gaining insight on how to respond from the glances between her and the other women, said, “Oh, moya Vyshnya, that is very sweet, but, we can manage.” She didn’t know if another fiasco might occur or not, but some of the stubborn females wouldn’t admit they might need the help. “I would want you to enjoy yourself with the guys.”

Yonten spoffed, “Come on, homie, you heard ‘em.” His smirk held a mischievous edge. “They’re ganstah; handled these hoods like the O.G’s they are—Right Nia?” He gave his little firecracker a flurburt to her cheek.

“Da, don’t need us old guys get in the way,” Micha spoffed, gesturing to their youthful, strong bodies. “Have fun with us, Andiry.”

“Exactly!” Wesley said, and they had to imagine his signature flick of his fingers since both hands were occupied with his twins on his hips. “What say you, old Bear?”

Jovan looked between the men and the women, trying to decide just how much it was worth getting involved in the subtle back and forth. Choosing to claim the right of a grandpa, he said, “Good luck, good night.” Then turned to give his daughter and her family a farewell.

“Спокойной ночи, папа. [Goodnight, Papa],” Natalia murmured in a half-armed hug.

Jovan gave his grandchildren each a hearty embrace and little Renata a gentle pinch to her tiny chin. Then he grasped Joao’s hand in respect and the kind of mild affection only a grumpy old bear could spare. “See you all later, eh?”

“Good bye!” The others were happy to say, and some offered their own warm, brief holds. All the little ones who considered Jovan like a grandpa were not forgotten before the old man, whose hair turned whiter each day, left the castle.

Inara grabbed the opportunity to say, “We should discuss Girls Night and Guy’s Night some other time.”

Luna, settling her head on her father’s shoulder, said in a yawn, “Mais je veux jouer …”

“I know, ma petite lionne,” Lauri smiled, cupping a hand on her belly while the other held Sirius’. “But it is quite late. You are all tired.”

Shaking his sleepy head, Dorian argued, “I not tired.”

Theo chuckled, giving his son a pat on his back. “Maybe not right now, but you will be in a moment. The moon is getting high back home.” He grinned and offered, “I can tell you a story.”

Perking, Dorian said, “Oh, stowy? Like wast night?”

Cheeks pinked again. In a moment of passion Theo had made a literary decision that may have involved a magical trick or two. Sometimes art needed such sacrifice. Even if not everyone agreed.

Alassiel, briefly gaining insight on how to respond from the glances between her and the other women, said, “Oh, moya Vyshnya, that is very sweet, but, we can manage.” She didn’t know if another fiasco might occur or not, but some of the stubborn females wouldn’t admit they might need the help. “I would want you to enjoy yourself with the guys.”

Yonten spoffed, “Come on, homie, you heard ‘em.” His smirk held a mischievous edge. “They’re ganstah; handled these hoods like the O.G’s they are—Right Nia?” He gave his little firecracker a flurburt to her cheek.

“Da, don’t need us old guys get in the way,” Micha spoffed, gesturing to their youthful, strong bodies. “Have fun with us, Andiry.”

“Exactly!” Wesley said, and they had to imagine his signature flick of his fingers since both hands were occupied with his twins on his hips. “What say you, old Bear?”

Jovan looked between the men and the women, trying to decide just how much it was worth getting involved in the subtle back and forth. Choosing to claim the right of a grandpa, he said, “Good luck, good night.” Then turned to give his daughter and her family a farewell.

“Спокойной ночи, папа. [Goodnight, Papa],” Natalia murmured in a half-armed hug.

Jovan gave his grandchildren each a hearty embrace and little Renata a gentle pinch to her tiny chin. Then he grasped Joao’s hand in respect and the kind of mild affection only a grumpy old bear could spare. “See you all later, eh?”

“Good bye!” The others were happy to say, and some offered their own warm, brief holds. All the little ones who considered Jovan like a grandpa were not forgotten before the old man, whose hair turned whiter each day, left the castle.

Inara grabbed the opportunity to say, “We should discuss Girls Night and Guy’s Night some other time.”

Luna, settling her head on her father’s shoulder, said in a yawn, “Mais je veux jouer …”

“I know, ma petite lionne,” Lauri smiled, cupping a hand on her belly while the other held Sirius’. “But it is quite late. You are all tired.”

Shaking his sleepy head, Dorian argued, “I not tired.”

Theo chuckled, giving his son a pat on his back. “Maybe not right now, but you will be in a moment. The moon is getting high back home.” He grinned and offered, “I can tell you a story.”

Perking, Dorian said, “Oh, stowy? Like wast night?”

Cheeks pinked again. In a moment of passion Theo had made a literary decision that may have involved a magical trick or two. Sometimes art needed such sacrifice. Even if not everyone agreed.

"Story time!" Melody agreed with her brother, tugging on her father's sleeve.

Willow perked a brow and gave her husband a stern gaze. "A story, but not a story like last night. That was Daddy being naughty last night," she chastised before explaining it to her children. "He shouldn't be putting on magic shows for you kids, because he promised mommy not to go using his Almaeri."

Easy to side with his mother, Dorian wagged his finger at Theo. “No be ‘aughty, Daddy.” He tapped his head. “You get owie’s here.”

Tallulah perked up as Dorian's words finally made sense. The young lad had recognized what she had done as using Almaeri and compared it to his father and what they called being 'naughty'. Cheeks a light pink, she was quick to busy herself with cleaning up a few pillows that had been thrown about.

Gordon, with Zasha hoisted up on his hip nodded towards the door. "If we aren't planning anything tonight, mates, I think we are going to head out to get the kids to bed."

Picking up Sigvar, Amalia gave a general goodbye to the room while following Gordon out. She murmured to her son to do the same. The little boy piped up sleepily, “Спокойной ночи…[Goodnight]”

“Yeah, little guys’ gotta get big boy sleep, right Ollie?” Cory grinned, taking him up. “Bye guys!” He wrapped the other arm around Rosy’s waist.

The Blairs were not far behind their favorite couple. Lauri, keeping a hold on Oliver, assured them she’d take it easy at work since she had progressed in her pregnancy, and their children were all too happy to send off kisses as they walked out.

Yonten, already cradling Nia against his chest, jut his chin. “See yah, homies.”

“Bye, Jin,” Jasper grinned, raising his closed hand. Kit did the same.

Jinpa gave Jasper and Kit fist-bumps. “Bye guys!” He said, then turned to take his mother’s hand while his family walked to the vaults.

“Night,” Wesley nodded, staying present like a good Host while the rest were gathering up to leave.

Guiding their Tides, Alassiel and Andriy offered their farewells with a smile. Molly and Micha’s Baranov family walked alongside the Al-Zakhar’s when they left. Nicklaus helped Emery out by picking up the drowsy Ambrose. Nora tried twice to slip away, but her parents had been a step ahead. They barely noticed that Granya, Finn, and Liam had already left.

Natalia lingered a moment with her family to check on Chel. She hummed and said, “She came back unscathed from her adventure, but I would like to see her sometime next week.”

"Adventure?" Joao questioned with interest, looking from the chinchilla to his beloved wife. "Chel went on adventure?"

The faintest blush passed over Natalia’s cheeks. She inhaled, ready to be more honest than what Inara and the girls preferred—a terrible liar in the face of a man she trusted far too much not to spill tea—but thankfully she didn’t have to.

Thinking fast, Kaylee gave an answer that wasn't exactly a lie. "She managed to slip out of her cage earlier tonight but we were able to find her."

"Oh? Old girl still has fight in her," Joao remarked, nodding his head as he gently rocked Renata against his chest. "Has been companion for you for many year, Kaylee."

Nodding, the teenage girl was mostly grateful that the topic had shifted from Chels disappearance. "Just let me know when you'd like to see her though, Aunt Talia and I'll bring her by."

Smiling, Natalia said, “I will. Goodnight girls.” Though she waved, she did not move to leave just yet.

Charlotte took that opportunity to give her Aunt Natalia, Uncle Joao, and her little rowdy cousins a goodbye hug. Jasper, Kit, and the others were welcome to do the same before they were seen off and left the adults behind them.

Solemn, Natalia asked the Von Helsing’s, “Ваши дети говорят по-русски?[do your children speak Russian?]”

“Nyet,” Wesely shook his head, relying on his translator. His twins perked, curious and ignorant.

Turning her dark eyes up at Joao, Natalia requested, “Wait with the children for me at the vaults?” There would be no question of whether or not she would catch him up; his wife hardly kept a thing from him. “I will be right there.”

"Claro, meu esquilo. Estaremos esperando por você," Joao nodded, adjusting his hold on Renata and holding a free hand out to Zacarias. "Come along, boys. Mama will join soon." He led them away from the commons with a final nod of his head to the others.

Kaylee was now eager to see just what Natalia had lingered to say, wondering if they'd be able to be around without being noticed. With Chels cage in hand she lightly nudged her sister in the side.

What with Tysha and Tallulah gone, the girls would need to fill them in on the tea later. For now Charlotte quietly acknowledged her sister and, when they were out of sight and mind, they slipped through the corridors to where they could just hear their Aunt speaking with their parents. Any further and they would be wasting their time. The girls had to rely on their devices for translation, which gave a delay of information.

“—won’t be long,” Natalia cautioned, hands folded at her front.

Inara sighed sadly, “Are you sure?” She leaned against her husband who couldn’t quite wrap his arms around her because of their twins.

“Yes,” Natalia nodded. “Chel is old for a chinchilla, and luckier than most, but her spirit’s hold is weakening. Either by the end of this week or the next, she will pass.”

Kaylee's hold on Chel's case tightened as her aunt's words. Yes, she knew it was going to be soon, but this was very, very soon. She could feel her throat tightening and tears threatened to fall while she turned to look at her sister. "A...a week?" She asked in a strained whisper, not wanting to believe she'd heard correctly. Maybe the translation of the suit had failed.

Wide mocha eyes couldn’t help but blur. Charlotte instinctively wrapped her arms around Kaylee and Chel. There were no words she knew that would help. All logic and all reason slipped from her fingers; helpless in the face of an inevitable. Grim waited patiently at the door.

Sniffing, Inara said, “There’s nothing that can be done? Nothing at all?” The implication of what she was asking wasn’t lost on the Vet.

“No,” Natalia answered softly.

There were few things that Almaeri, Fae, or so-called gods were incapable of achieving. Resurrection of any kind would be a sign of more than the power of a creature. Nothing less than a Being of pure omnipotence could accomplish it. Necromancy, a mockery of life, was the closest they had seen.

In a gentle, concerned tone, Wesley asked, “What do you suggest?”

Pausing in deep thought, Natalia said, “Encourage activities for Kaylee and Chel. Take them out for a day in the sun, have a photo shoot, allow them to spend these moments together before the end.”

“How will we know?” Inara asked, wiping her eyes. “Will it happen quickly?”

Natalia felt relieved to say, “Thankfully no. She will slow down. She will lose her appetite first. Then she will become drowsy, sleeping often. And then…” The little critter would simply not wake.

Charlotte, silent tears streaming, looked over at her sister. She felt her heart throb in her chest. Just how much more pain was Kaylee feeling?

Kaylee stayed in Charlotte's embrace for several long minutes. Her heart was aching in anticipation of the loss she now knew was creeping up on her. "What...what am I going to do without her Lottie?" And more importantly, how was Kaylee going to focus on anything now that she'd been loaded with weights of preemptive pain.

“I—I don’t know,” Charlotte swallowed a knot in her throat. “C’mon…” she urged her sister to leave with her. Their Aunt had finished speaking with their parents anyway.

It wasn’t likely they would get a visit from Wesley or Inara that night. Hye and Kazumi had left, so they had the twins to care for, and their parents were probably taking this time to go over how to handle the upcoming death with grace.

The sisters got to their room in due time. Instinctively they knew there was only one place for Chel to go. Not back in her elaborate cage, but with Kaylee to her room. Occasionally the chinchilla would sleep on her pillow beside her head. There could be no other recourse tonight.

Charlotte helped Kaylee get ready for bed. When her sister had to brush her teeth, or put on her nightgown, she held Chel safe on her lap. Once Kaylee was free they both lay on her bed with Chel between them.

Through tears that would not relent, Charlotte, while also petting Chel alongside Kaylee, said, “She’s the best girl.”

"Yeah, that's the best thing we can do. Give her a good last few days," Kaylee sniffed, lightly stroking Chels head with her fingertip. "Get you plenty of sunshine and good food, for being the best girl, Chel. Would you like that?"

Chel, sensing their distress, chittered with concern. She nuzzled their faces. Small squeaks of comfort emanated from her to them. The girls took that as a yes, though they knew she was only thinking of them and the sadness she sensed. The chinchilla insisted they come closer to her. Charlotte gently pressed her cheek to her back and Chel’s fluffy head tucked warm against Kaylee’s face.

At some point the sisters fell asleep. Chel felt a sense of accomplishment having, in her mind, finally brought peace to them. They woke easily to check on their furbaby. She still breathed soundly. This brightened their mood enough to prepare for breakfast without delay. After all, their parents had no idea they had eavesdropped. A topic Charlotte decided to bring up.

“Should we say something?” Charlotte spoke once she slipped her head through her shirt. “Or do you think we should just….see if Dad ends up finding out?”

Kaylee, who was getting dressed but keeping one eye trained on Chel the entire time, considered Charlotte's question. "I don't think they'll be upset that we eavesdropped," she said after a minute. "And I also don't expect Dad to keep it a secret; he'd say something before she passes. Maybe we just let them do their thing now and when him and mom try to tell us what Aunt Talia said, we can admit we already know."

Nodding, Charlotte finished getting herself together. She paused in her walk to the door, lingering on Chel. Mealtimes were now numbered. Every moment had a countdown. So, Charlotte asked, “Do you think we should eat with her? Or bring her to breakfast with us?”

"She's coming with," there was no hesitation in her response. "Anywhere I'm allowed to bring her, she's coming from here on out. Simple as that."

Without another word the girls took Chel, a tiny bell with a ribbon, and a couple of chinchilla snacks before snuggling her into a cross-shoulder carrier. Chel snuffled happily at Kaylee’s hip, tinkling her toy and enjoying the feeling of Kaylee’s thumb stroking her back.

Upon entering the dining hall the girls saw their mother helping the twins with their breakfast. Jasper was in a discussion with their father about dirt-biking with the De Lafayette boys and Jinpa, which teetered on the edge of being denied since Inara didn’t like the idea of her son and nephew zipping down muddy slopes. Neither had paid attention to them coming to the table. Kit, as always, contentedly observed. It was he who peered up from his bowl of oatmeal and fruit to greet his oldest sisters with a smile.

“Morning,” Kit said sweetly.

Charlotte felt some of the sorrow lift at seeing her gentlest sibling. “Good morning,” she said, taking her seat by him with Kaylee on her other side.

“—sit down for now, Jas, we’ll finish later,” Wesley said, turning with a smile for his eldest who had joined them, saying, “And good morning to you.”

“You’re a little late,” Inara noted the time, inadvertently getting yogurt on her finger as she helped Desara with her meal. “What took you?” She asked, sucking away the residue.

“Oh, stayed up a little later than we should have,” Charlotte admitted with an apologetic look before plating her food.

A part of Charlotte had wondered if her parents knew they had listened, or if they might hint somehow to the knowledge they learned from last night. So far they appeared normal.

Squeaks and snuffles caught the attention of the family. Wesley raised a brow, noticing the soft diagonal satchel band across Kaylee’s chest. “You brought Chel,” he said thoughtfully. It was rare Kaylee took her little friend around since she had gotten older. “How is she doing?”

Kaylee was grateful Lottie had answered for them, pouring herself a tall glass of orange juice. "She seems to be doing okay," she offered, looking down and stroking her just above the nose. "I thought it might be nice to spend time with her and get her some fresh air. I don't do that much since starting at the academy and she deserves better."

“That is wise, I think,” Wesley decided. He casually cut into his eggs-benedict without the slightest twitch of abnormality. “Chel is getting old. I suppose school does get in the way.”

Inara, on the other hand, did linger soulful amber eyes on her daughter and her furbaby a heartbeat longer than she probably should have. “Oh you know what would be fun? What if you took Chel out on a picnic?”

“It’s snowy, my Love,” Wesley pointed out. Too true, even now they could see soft snowfall.

“Maybe here, but there’s always Seabrook,” Inara said. “I’m sure our family there would be happy to welcome them at Pine park.”

“They would, but that’s a tradition for Monday’s,” Wesley reminded her.

Charlotte held her forked sausage in mid-air, watching her father. Wesley didn’t miss a beat. He even leaned back a moment to study Inara, who gave him a flat look, as if he was as in the dark about her seemingly odd suggestion as anyone else. Truly, nothing he expressed or said was any different than any other day. If Charlotte and Kaylee hadn’t overheard, she was convinced they wouldn’t know a thing was off.

“Unless,” Wesley said slowly, going back to his food, “Kaylee and Charlotte feel strongly that this is important to do now. I’m sure the family wouldn’t mind an impromptu romp at the park.” Warm, coffee eyes flicked between the girls. “That is, if you’re not too tired from staying up.”

Cornflower eyes watched her parents curiously, wondering just what they'd discussed that the girls had missed. She was curious if her father already had a feeling that they'd overheard or if he suspected something else was afoot. Giving Chel a small treat before preparing a bite of her own food, she considered his offer.

"If it wouldn't bother anyone, a trip to Pine Park does sound nice," Kaylee admitted. It had been sometime since she or Charlotte joined the family for a park day, given how busy they were with school and their other activities. Even with the portals cutting out travel, there was simply not enough time in their day. "We aren't too tired for a trip."

Jasper glanced between his parents. “So wait, they get to go to the park and I can’t dirk-bike?”

Inara said, “First of all, we didn’t outright say no—,”

“So it’s a yes?” Jasper perked.

“Don't interrupt your mother,” Wesey cautioned, taking a sip of his coffee.

Jasper sat back, putting food in his mouth to save himself.

Resuming, Inara said, “—but we didn’t outright say yes either.” She sighed at her son's grumble and forceful spearing of his roasted breakfast potatoes. “Who is going exactly?”

“So it’d be me, Jinpa, Enzo, Jean-Luc, and Laurent. Jean’s dad, Louie, would be driving us there,” Jasper explained, adding in a coaxing tone, “Aunt Lauri’s favorite brother.”

Inara’s frown fought to stay stiff, but knowing Lauri’s trust in Louie relieved some of her worry. “How long?”

“Just the afternoon. I promise I will be back before dinner,” Jasper said.

After a moment more of hesitation Inara sighed, “Oh alright—But don’t do anything dangerous!”

Erupting from his seat, Jasper tossed back an assurance everything would be fine, which didn’t quite vow adherence to his mother’s command. But it was too late to press for acknowledgement.

Chuckling, Wesley said, “Bold in the face of adventure. You only have yourself to blame for those traits.”

“Mhm,” Inara cocked a brow. “And I can blame recklessness and persistence on you.”

“Guilty,” Wesley said with a grin, hand on his heart.

“Daddy,” Kit piped up. “Can I dirt-bike too?”

Inara, quick to answer for them both, said, “Nope. You’re going to the park with us. You’ll have plenty of fun. It’s very warm there, you can swim.”

That brightened the young boy’s mood. “Oh, swim! I love swimming. Maybe I will see a seal.” It had happened before.

“In the meantime finish your food,” Inara urged him.

Charlotte, just to make sure, asked, “So, we can go to the park?”

Inara nodded. “Yes, of course.” She gave Wesley a small nudge. “Text them.”

“Will do,” Wesley said, pulling out his infamous phone for just that. “There we go.”

It didn't take long once Wesley's message was sent that answers began to trickle in from the different family units. While Theo and Natalia were unable to attend with their work continuing on a Saturday, the Al-Zakhar and Santos families themselves would be available for a day at the park. Willow was promised extra hands from Liam and Granya who were always eager to do what they could to help the families that already had their little ones. Though none of the Santos children had tendencies to misbehave, their grandfather would be there with their father, meaning any thoughts of sneaking off along the beach were quickly thwarted. Those were two very strong and watchful men.

By midafternoon, the caravans had arrived at Pine Park. Kaylee walked with one hand holding young Kit while Chel's cage was in her free arm, leaving her mother and their beloved Inara and Charlotte to handle the twins.

Joao met Jovan in the parking lot, extracting the boys first with firm words in Portuguese to stay still while their sister was unloaded. The dark-haired little beauty that was a stern miniature version of her mother was gently passed off to her waiting grandfather, happy coos following. With his daughter in the most capable of hands and a son hoisted up in each arm, Joao headed down toward where the others were gathering.

Molly, flanked by Colt and Beretta, was the first stop for Willow and her little train of happy little ones. Beretta held a melty ice cream cone in her hands. Colt chopped on the stump of his, having scarfed down the icy treat in the car ride over.

“Hey honeybun,” Molly greeted. She cast a bit of shade over her eyes with her fingers. “Mighty warm for winter today, isn’t it? Real bright too.”

"Oh, it's always so wonderful to be out in the sun," Willow remarked, letting Melody help her lay down a blanket for their family while sweet Dorian had brought along a pillow for his mother to be more comfortable.

"It is beautiful today," Kaylee had to agree, settling down with Kit and making sure Chel's cage was on a nice, flat surface.

“Good for swimming,” Kit said, happily adjusting his goggles and snorkel onto his face. He had come in full gear.

Inara, setting Desara down beside her, smiled at her son. “Very good for swimming. But remember, you have to go with someone.”

The ocean still contained creatures of Aarin. Few places in the world were safe from the possibility of fairy activities. The presence of people on land made it harder for monsters to live boldly (unless you were a gnome, in the case of the Al-Zakhar household), but the sea was an entirely different matter.

“My son and I will take turns,” Jovan said, in reference to Joao. It may have taken him a few months to adjust to his daughter with such an older gentleman all those years ago, but as soon as he did Jovan embraced the Brazilian. “Lucius and Zacarias want to swim too. Will keep eye out for fairies.”

Molly said, “Yeah me and my little munchkins are gonna take a dive too. I’ll help watch. But they gotta have a snack first.”

Feeling much better, Inara nodded. “That would be good, thank you.”

Kit stood up, his trunks patterned with happy little seals, and waited patiently for Charlotte to inflate the round seal floaty he had gotten long ago from one of his favorite uncles.

“Here you go, Kit,” Charlotte fitted it over his head, wiggling it down to his waist. “All ready!”

“Thank you!” Kit said, then turned to Jovan and Joao since Molly still wanted her kids to have some real food after that ice cream. “Can we swim now?”

Zacarias began to fit his feet into the small flippers he brought with him in anticipation. They matched his trunks—Seahorses. Lucius, who did away with themes and just wore any old swim gear they had around, was just as eager. He even took a few steps toward the shore with eyes trained on his father and grandpa; a runner at the starting line, ready to bolt once the call went off.
 

Soliloquy

♥Hopeless Chromatic♥
The demand that they would have to eat before they could go into the water was one that earned a slight scowl from Colt. Still, he knew there was no way of getting away from his mother's firm rules on the subject. With only a brief grumble, he sat down before the snack his mother presented, hunched over and began eating as quickly as his little hands and mouth could go. After all, the sooner he was done eating the sooner he could get to the water with the others!

The Al-Zakhar children, obediently seated around their mother, had occasional glances cast toward the ocean. It was a beautiful sight, and though the adults may have been afraid of it, the enchanting waters called to the young ones. Melody shifted in her seat, looking up at her mother with the softest smile. "I can help watch Aria so Dorian can swim, mama," she offered, knowing her brother would want to go in as soon as he was told he could.

"We can head into the water for those who are ready," Kaylee offered, settling Chel in the shade so she wouldn't overheat but could still watch everything. "I'm sure you'd like to join the boys, Melody. We can all go, no need to stay behind when there are other adults who can watch your sister."

Joao, who had been focused on securing Zacarias in his own water wings and flippers, caught the movement from the corner of his cool eyes. "Lucius Pippin Santos, se você der um passo em direção àquela água um momento antes, vou garantir que fique seco o dia todo," he threatened without turning his head or making eye contact. "You must wait for your brother."

Exhaling, Lucius halted. He put his weight on one foot tucked his hands behind his back like a certain Squirrel Maiden when Natalia was restraining herself, watching his father and grandpa taking forever to move onward!

Meanwhile Molly urged her child to do as she said. The demand that they would have to eat before they could go into the water was one that earned a slight scowl from Colt…

Happy to go with whoever would take him, Dorian got up as soon as his floaties were approved to grab Kaylee’s hand. “Swim!” He hopped.

Charlotte scooped Dorian up so Melody might take Kaylee’s hand. “Aaah, gotcha!”

The twins were not going to be left behind. Granya and Liam insisted Inara take a rest with Willow and Aria. Grateful for the break, Inara popped open a cool water for her pregnant friend and helped also by holding Aria for Willow when she needed to adjust her pillows for comfort.

Now that everyone was heading off to the seashore, and with the green-light from his father, Lucius ran ahead. Kit followed in a hurry. Zacarias, on the other hand, took his time walking with his father. Jovan decided to sit with Renata at the shallow end where she could touch the wet sand and dally between the ripples that were as challenging to her as the real waves farther off.

Charlotte and Kaylee did their duty to keep Dorian and Melody safe and happy, sometimes filling in where Joao or Jovan, or Molly, who soon joined them with Beretta and Colt at her side.

Content to sunbathe and catch up, Inara held Aria’s waist while she chatted with Willow. “How’s it going with the gnome?”

The question pulled Willows gaze off the shoreline and over to her longtime friend. Just the mention of their unwanted pest made her cheeks flush and eyes roll. "I don't know what to do with that little bastard," she admitted, shaking her head. "He is crafty and vengeful. We thought he was gone when things were quiet for a week and a half; no disturbances, no damage to the garden and we let our guard down. He shows up out of nowhere, destroys almost half the garden and my brand new bed of roses - all in one night, Inara! Ohh, I am at my wits end and so is Theo. He keeps saying he can handle him in one try, but I keep telling him not to use Almaeri. Pretends he listens but I know when he's not, just like the bedtime story for the kids. It's almost like he just can't stop using, like everyone else pretty much has."

Inara offered an empathetic touch to Willow’s hand. “That’s awful,” she murmured. Hesitant, Inara asked, “How often would you say he gives into this struggle?”

"Do you mean how often I know he's given in?" Willow pointed out as she took a sip of the cold water she was given. "I've seen him use maybe once or twice a month. But...there are a few times where there's been questionable behavior. I was pretty sure he was doing some but when I asked him he's insisting he didn't do anything." There was a certain skepticism in her voice that she didn't try to hide.

“Hmm,” Inara took a moment to think. She entertained Aria with a toy as she pondered another, potentially sensitive, question. “Would you say he has any kind of uplifted mood after he does?”

A question she could have expected made Willow rearrange a pillow. "Yeah, he does," she nearly sighed. "Not nearly as bad as that time he came home after finishing off that witch who was terrorizing the hospital, but there's definitely something there."

Seagull's cry filled a brief silence before Inara found the words that needed to be said. “Maybe I am overly cautious, but...This could be a sign of addiction.” Before the notion could be waved away with examples of how well Theo did at other times, Inara pressed, “Yonten would know more, but this sounds like the kind of behavior he exhibited when he was struggling with drugs.”

The concerned wife held her response for a few moments, watching as Aria retrieved a small shell from the ground beside her and ran her tiny finger over it in wonder. "If...if it is that, what can we possibly do to try and intervene? None of us can physically stop him and I've tried to just simply tell him it's for the best if he stops. I love him Inara, with all my heart, but I want him to take of himself. I'd fight that damn gnome for years of I had to."

“Well, I wouldn’t recommend throwing him out of a plane with a parachute on,” Inara spoffed, attempting to lighten the mood. “Have you ever talked about Binding? I think Jovan did it and I heard Natalia might be considering it too. Risky as it is, since fairies are still around, it might be best for Theo’s situation.”

"Not in awhile," Willow admitted. "I may need to bring it up again. Hopefully at a time he's going to be receptive otherwise it will come down to throwing him out a plane." Not that she would ever consider doing such a thing to the man she loved.

“Sometimes I wish I could do the same with Wes,” Inara spoffed, helping Aria toddle over to Willow, “if it meant it would do him any good. The man is doing himself no favors when he interacts with the people who determine how long he will stay under house arrest.” She shook her head, a reluctant smile spreading. “He’s already earned ire for the mishap last school year at Halloween. If he behaves, he may get out by the end of their Senior year.”

"That'd be excellent if he can manage that," Willow said with some skepticism, accepting Aria into her arms and settling her on her lap. "Though, Lord knows if he'll manage to get himself in more trouble with that tongue of his by then. Mind you, my fingers are crossed, and I do hope he'll come through. We need our men around as much as we can."

Inara couldn’t agree more. “Yes, especially with what I’ve heard happening around.” She glanced at the girls at play and leaned to speak in a low voice to Willow. “There have been reported assassinations of ex-Hunters by Awakened people they have wronged in the past. As the saying goes ‘Lord knows I’m regretful’, but what’s done is done. Sometimes that doesn’t mean much to those we’ve hurt. I just don’t know what I would do if…” she trailed off, lingering amber eyes on her children. “I can only be grateful that we have a compassionate, loving family.” People who would step up to care for the orphans.

Reaching over, Willow gave Inara's hand a gentle and encouraging squeeze. "Of course, we are all so fortunate," she insisted, not wanting to delve too deeply on the topic of what might happen to any of their family. "And here's to hoping that it would stay that way. We're all here to watch each other's backs and I can't foresee that changing any time soon."

Bop! A small ball rolled right against Willow’s leg. It immediately caught the attention of Aria who extended her arm to grasp at the rubber sphere. A tired young mother chasing her wild one-year old gasped for air as she approached.

“Colleen!” She panted, setting her hands on her knees. The woman offered the women an apologetic look. “So sorry! She just ran off when the ball flew.”

Inara chuckled, “No worries. Colleen looks like she’s getting along wel.” True, the girl and Aria appeared to connect easily over their shared interest in the ball. “Why don’t you take a seat a moment?”

The temptation to wave the invitation lasted only as long as she could stand. The young woman plopped down and fanned herself. “Thanks.”

“No problem,” Inara smiled, offering some water. “This is Willow, her baby Aria, I’m Inara. We’re here with some of the family to get in some summer sun.” No need to go into a long, elaborate expiration of who was who at the beach at this point.

“A lot a sun to get—I’m Sara,” she thanked them for the drink.

"A pleasure to meet you, Sara," Willow cheerfully nodded, keeping an eye trained on Aria and her new young friend. "Are you from the area? It seems like Colleen is quite content and adjusted to the wonderful Texan heat we have here year-round."

Spoffing, Sara exhaled, “Am I that obvious?”

“Well, you don’t entirely seem natural under the heat,” Inara chuckled. “Don’t feel too bad. I lived in India most of my life and now I live in Belarus.”

“Oh, talk about cold,” Sara felt a shiver that did little to actually take the edge off the heat of her body. “I’m from SoCal, in La Jolla, by the coast.”

“Ah, Pracific sea breeze,” Inara noted.

“Yes, quite cooler than the gulf,” Sara said. “I miss it. Sunny days, but not too hot. Trips down to Tijuana for the best churros you’ve ever tasted. Not to mention the greatest Mexican food you could eat.”

Inara struggled not to grin. She had heard the same from southern Texans about their proximity to Mexico. Not about to get into a back and forth about which area had the most delicious, authentic Mexican cuisine, Inara asked, “What brings you to Texas?”

Hesitant to get into it, but seeing the company was pleasant enough, Sara said, “Well, Jared and I—my husband—had talked about moving out here with my parents a while back. I honestly never wanted to leave, but...California has changed a lot in five or so years.”

Willow sat up slightly, intrigued by the West Coast talk. Even if it'd been years and years since she trapezed the Pacific line and she rarely had anyone in the vicinity, she still had her own curiosities. "I'm guessing that's since Hell's Gate," she commented, not needing a full response as it was a common assumption. "Just how bad has it gotten lately? It's been awhile since I've had any news from around there."

Not seeing any visible representation of the political beliefs these women held, and clearly holding back a wince—perhaps reliving some memories—Sara’s shoulders tensed as she took a chance and said, “Just certain changes in curriculum for public school have us worried. My husband and I aren’t particularly religious—well, I grew up Seven-Day Adventist, but I haven’t practiced since I was twelve—and we were hoping to put our kids through public school so they didn’t have to be in an environment supporting any one religion. I’m fully fine with other people living their lives the way they want, and I am actually not against a child practicing their religion quietly in class or something, but, well, as it turns out, the Department of Education in California approved a 900-page ‘Ethnic Studies Model’ curriculum that is heavily rooted in appealing directly to the Aztec gods.”

Any attempts or plans to avoid political talk were quickly thrown out the window. Their families were decidedly more tolerable toward the different cultures and religions that were present since the earth opened up, however after experiencing the great battles first hand, there was a certain displeasure toward that belief in particular. Willow frowned openly, though she soon realized she was doing do and sipped her water to clear her face. "Now...is this curriculum more for historical purposes and teaching or are they encouraging or insisting upon practicing and putting those beliefs on children? If you're familiar that is, Sara."

The amiable response released the stiffness in Sara’s posture. She answered, “It was only historical at first. I even advocated for the changes to the curriculum in the beginning. However—Oop!”

Dorian, who had come running to show Willow a seashell, tripped over Sara’s leg. He paid no mind though. His hand held the curved purple carapace upward.

“Sorry!” Charlotte called out, walking ahead of Kaylee and Melody. “The kids just wanted to show you the little shells they found.”

Melody, who had one hand on her older cousin's hand and the other with a large soft pink conch, trailed around eagerly after her brother. "Mama, I found a conch!" she declared happily, mindful not to end up toppling over the random woman's legs while coming over to Willow. "It has swirls."

"Yes it does, my beautiful little song," Willow agreed with a small chuckle, pulling both of her little ones into her lap so they could show her their findings. "My apologies, Sara. Dorian can tend to focus on what's ahead and misses what's around him; something I'll say comes from his father. Thankfully, Melody is slightly more aware, though that could be an age factor."

Kaylee had to smirk, knowing it was a pretty accurate description. She took up a corner of the blanket by the kids and her sister, interested in the woman and child who were now present. "Hello, sorry for the intrusion. I'm Kaylee." It only felt appropriate to introduce herself.

“Oh, and I’m Charlotte.”

Happy to give a warm nod to the both of them, since Colleen plopped into her arms, holding her ball up to show her new friends, Sara said, “Good to meet you all,” adding politely, “and no worries, I take no offense.”

“Mind if you finish what you were saying?” Inara asked.

“Oof, where was I?”

“You said you had wanted the changes to the curriculum at first,” Inara offered.

“Oh right,” Sara straightened up. “Yeah, I had been fine with people making room for their beliefs in class as a tool for learning history, but they restricted the religion to only Aztec religion, and then they said they wanted the children to pray to the gods. They have chants and everything.”

“Can you opt out?” Inara skied.

“Nope,” Sara frowned. “You either pray to Huitzilopochtli and the other three, or you are dealt consequences. Now they say it’s just praying, but, with how they jumped to prayer, and made a requirement, well…I can’t say I wouldn’t be surprised if they pushed for further—,” Sara shielded the innocents of the kids around her by only implying her worries, “—further ‘authenticity’, if you know what I mean.”

It didn't take long for them to figure out just what the adults had been conversing about. Kaylee frowned at the talk of the Aztec god, one she knew too well for her own liking. She tried to focus her attention on the children, but found her curiosity got the best of her. "If I may ask, where is this happening?"

"Sara is filling us in on the curriculum she's witnessed in the west for all school districts," Willow explained. "Charlotte and Kaylee are currently at an academy for training and it's good they're aware of what's happening around the world."

Not catching on, Sara asked, “Training?”

“To be Guardians,” Inara said with a proud smile, and followed with a brief description.

Brows raised, Sara said, “Wow, that’s brave. I heard about that when I was back in SoCal. Although, you won’t find many fans at the Golden Coast.”

Charlotte asked, “Really? What did they say?”

“Well, you hear a lot in the media about Guardians being really just a secret tool for oppression,” Sara said.

“What? How does that make sense?” Charlotte perked a brow. “We’re fairy hunters. We take down evil beings who want to harm others.”

“Yes, but a lot of gods associate with fairies to preserve their territories,” Sara said with a shrug. “Hunting them implies that the gods they’re tied with are of the same evil. So having Guardians, as they say ‘parading as saviors with an agenda’, this is taken as a kind of self-righteous crusade against people of differing cultures. So, they reduced it to: you say fairies are evil, you’re saying we are evil.”

“That’s a stretch,” Inara huffed and crossed her arms. “They’re conflating the god and fairies with the people. I’m sure we can all agree that wearing gold bangles or a bindi isn’t the same as sacrifice on a shrine.”

Sara had to nod. “I agree. You can still enjoy the music, the good food, the dance—You don’t need the god and fairies. Their culture might be influenced by their presence in the past, but it’s not like the god and fairies are required to be around for you to appreciate and celebrate the uniqueness of cultures and heritages.”

There could be no denying that Inara grew up poppin’ hips and hoppin’ around in traditional garb without having Kali, Shiva, or Rama towering over her. “I certainly enjoyed all aspects of my Indian heritage, not knowing the gods were below my feet.”

“Yeah,” Charlotte said. “So what’s the big deal now? Why are they saying we’re accusing them of being evil, just because the gods and fairies are evil?”

A shake of the head was all Sara could really offer. “I don’t know. Money? Politics? Power? Those are all classic motivations.”

Kaylee, helping the children with opening up juice boxes, continued to listen as Sara caught everyone up. It was interesting to see just how much the world was changing around them. Granted, she was sure that her father likely was keeping tabs on things like this for his own needs, even if he wasn't sharing such knowledge with them. "I don't know...that just sounds like a lot of excuses," she murmured.

"That may not be fair to assume," Willow gently argued, not wanting there to be a large argument to take place.

"Maybe, but it sounds like another piece of the puzzle for those who were talking about making their own continent in the ocean," the younger woman offered. "It could be far-fetched, but it just feels like they're setting things up for something." Though maybe her thoughts were just too based on all the learning and textbooks she'd been buried in.

It became increasingly clear that ‘separation of church and state’ went out the window in such a short time since Hell’s Gate. None of them could say Kaylee’s suggestion wasn’t impossible. As well-intentioned as the leadership claimed the changes were, requiring all students attending California public schools to recite prayers to the Aztecs gods, and only them, certainly revealed a bias. Just where would that road end?

“Mommy,” Colleen tugged on Sara’s hand, breaking the thoughtful silence. “Nummies.”

“You hungry baby?” Sara smiled, pulling her child to her. She shuffled to her feet. “We’ll go find Daddy and get some lunch, okay?”

“Yay!” Colleen clapped.

Sara waved to the unexpected amiable strangers. “Well, I hope I haven’t dampened your day too much. Thanks for the rest and the company. Goodbye!”

“Bye, have a good day,” Inara said with a smile. She turned to the baskets they brought. “Lunch is a good idea.”

Charlotte grabbed some snacks they had to nibble on while her mother pulled out sandwiches and hotbox lunches for those who requested they bring them. She said, “Mom, does Dad know about what’s going on in California?”

“Likely,” Inara said, handing Kaylee a warm lunch with a side of cool kiwi. Her container was decorated with flowering peonies etched in the steel. “He hasn’t told me about it, but that’s not entirely surprising. There’s a lot your father deals with in a day and some of it I rather not hear about.”

Inara couldn’t stomach some of the imagery that came with learning about the horrors that happen to children. She trusted her husband enough to know something was being done to help the young and vulnerable. Inara didn’t need descriptions. If the schools in California were pushing this agenda she was sure he would let her know if he realized it could directly affect her own children. In the meantime Inara focused on her work with vampires. Rehabilitation centers, research to reverse the curses, local support groups, and much more.

Kaylee accepted her lunch and set it beside her, glancing over at the little ones who were currently lining up for finger food snacks from their mother. She still had a few questions from their talk regarding the west coast, but also didn't want to ruin the day with just negative talk. Instead, she decided to keep things light.

"So, do you guys think you're going to have a new baby brother or baby sister?" She asked the young Al-Zakhar, Melody immediately popping up with a strawberry in hand.

"A sister!" There was clear hope, even if she got along well enough with her brother.

Dorian, still young and looking up to his older sibling, shouted “Siswer!” Did he mean it? Who could tell? Melody said it happily, so he might as well.

"We will just have to wait and see," Willow chuckled, breaking off bits of sort cheese for Aria.

"If want to know, Talia always ready," a reminder sounded as Joao returned with his boys on each arm, ready for a break even if they weren't.

"Oh I know, and Theo and I talked about it. But this is definitely the last one, so we may just let it be a surprise," she shrugged, although curiosity had certainly been growing.

Charlotte grinned, “Any bets?”

That earned several hesitant chuckles. “Oh, I think we’ve been done with bets since Nora.”

Ah, the infamous party where someone bested their Uncle Everest in a marksmanship contest. Everyone woke up from their drunken stupor to learn that, due to losing, the name ‘Xena’, after the warrior Princess, had to be one of the names of the third Crosse child. To this day Everest has kept a tight-lip on just who had outgunned the gunslinger. Wesley, unfortunately, did not have the footage for that night. Avostoska had been under heavy rewiring and construction at the time.

Jovan chuckled, “Still mystery?”

“Yes, and it’s driving everyone nuts,” Inara spoffed. “Ellie is still salty about it too.” She leaned to Willow to murmur quietly before Granya—coming over with Liam, Molly, and the other kids—could hear her, “Not quite as easy to hide as a painting.”

Willow had to hide a laugh behind her water, shaking her head at the clear truth. She'd have been quite miffed herself if she found out that Theo had gone and wound up naming one of her babies, especially something so unorthodox. "I'm pretty sure that Ellie either had that thing burnt when the men weren't looking, or tossed it into Aarin before everything closed up."

Kaylee considered asking just how bad a painting could be, having only seen glimpses from the Crosse wedding that took place in her youth. There were plenty of rumors of the bromance between her father and closest uncle, but just how much truth there was remained unknown. Though she couldn't say she was highly upset about that. "Well do you and Uncle Theo have any names picked out for either gender?" she decided to ask, seeing as she had only barely overheard the two women talking of the infamous wedding gift.

"Well, we're certainly going to keep up our little musical theme," Willow beamed down at her trio of sweet notes about her. "I've tossed around Harmony for another girl and maybe Coda as a boy. Nothing is set in stone though, at this point."

"Coda?"

Chuckling, Willow nodded. "It means the end of a section of a song. As in the last of the Al-Zakhar children," she said with confidence.
 

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