“Are you sure you don’t want me to come in?” Mide asks.
“Yup. I need to see how it goes when it’s just us. But if you said we should ditch this and go fight with sticks in the park or something instead, I wouldn’t complain, y’know?”
“Sticks? There’s a throwback.” Mide smiles a bit wistfully. “I’d like to take you up on that. I don’t want to throw you back into the tiger’s den. But you did ask me to give you a push if you needed it. So after, okay?”
“Fiiine. Yeah, okay, you’re right. I’m gonna go, then.”
Mide nods once and squeezes Shona’s hand. “Alright. If anything goes wrong, I’ll be waiting on the road until you give me the go-ahead to leave.”
“Thanks. Thanks again.”
Shona takes a deep breath — ooh, it whistles electronically even on the way down, that’s kinda fun — strides up her driveway, and unlocks the door.
“Benen? You’re back a little early,” Mom’s voice calls.
Shona grits her teeth, holding back a shudder at the sound, then slams the door behind her.
“Oh, now you’re slamming the door too? Hasn’t the poor thing suffered enough?” Deeper inside, there’s the rustle of a magazine being hastily put away, then footsteps from the den tapping her way. As Mom steps into the front hall, Shona smiles and waves. Mide said it would probably be best if people saw her before they heard her.
“Oh, finally! There you are!” Mom races down the hall, throwing herself into an embrace that makes Shona’s entire body seize up. She closes her eyes and focuses on the familiar scent of that amber resin perfume Mom loves. It’s… not a nice smell, or at least not one that makes her think of nice things, but nothing at all like the Harbinger’s rotten-trash stink. Her mask couldn’t hide that part.
“I didn’t know you’d… be back so soon. How are you doing? All better now, I hope?” She takes a half-step back, resting her hands on Shona’s shoulders. “And why didn’t you answer my calls? Mrs. Lachlan kept me updated, yes, but if you were under the weather, it’s my job to… well, do momly things! Worry about you, make you soup, all of that! And if I’d known you’d be back, I would’ve gotten dinner ready!”
Under the weather, huh. Yep. That’s exactly what it was.
“Sorry. Didn’t want to freak you out,” Shona says, keeping her voice as low as she can.
Mom gasps and jerks back as if struck. Her eyes glisten like glass as they go wide with… Shona can’t tell with what. Fear? Disgust?
“Yeah. See what I mean now?” she asks through a bitter smile.
“Oh, sweetie, no, no…” Mom takes a few seconds to collect herself, then wraps her arms around Shona, squeezing a lot tighter this time. “I’m sorry. You could’ve told me. I know things like this are going to happen sometimes.” She buries her face in Shona’s shoulder, wiping tears on her sleeve and stifling the pain in her voice. “So please don’t worry about making me worry, alright? All I want is to be there for you however I can. I’m only sorry I can’t have your back the way I used to.”
Shona bites her lip at that last part, but nods and returns the hug, patting her mom’s back.
“That’s fine. Thanks. And, uh. Sorry it took so long to check in with you.”
Mom looks up and grins through her tears. “Then keep me in the loop next time! The least you can do is let me fret over you!”
“I’m… sure. I’ll try,” Shona warbles.
“Anyway! Go ahead and get comfy! Do you need anything? I’d just bought some of those frozen fruit bars you like before your, mm, accident. They should still be good, if Dad didn’t eat them all while you were away…” Mom hurries off into the kitchen in search of snacks to throw at her.
Shona can’t help but smile a little.
For a while, a few years ago, Shona had been close with Ailsa, the girl who played Camellia’s best friend. They didn’t have a ton in common, at first, but what they did have obviously ate up a pretty big chunk of their lives.
Ailsa was always twiggy and tiny for her age. When Shona panicked over her first signs of puberty, what it would mean for the only life she knew, if anyone would ever like her again, Ailsa… taught her all the tricks her mom had showed her to hold back time.
Mom was one of the first people to notice. She’d insisted on getting Shona help, made every effort to make sure she was eating right, and did everything short of start a public feud with Ailsa’s mother — she still didn’t want to torch the show, after all. At the time, Shona’d hated Mom for it the way she hated Mom managing anything about her life, but it was the right thing to do. If she hadn’t seen that then, she did by the time Ailsa quit acting and went into treatment, speeding the show along into its downward spiral.
As a Keeper, Shona pretty much didn’t have to worry about nourishment or nutrition as long as she ate enough to live. Immortal bodies running more on magic than anything else apparently took care of that for you, so if she’d still had that problem, she wouldn’t anymore. But Mom never quite kicked her habits from those days, when she’d taken every opportunity to find or cook things Shona was willing to eat.
Her phone buzzes. There’s a message from Mide, reading simply: ?
so far so good, Shona shoots back. Mom is trying. This could’ve gone a whole lot worse. Nowadays, the food thing is even kind of nice. And it’s really, really not her fault that Liadain’s disgusting monster stalker stole her face.
Even if it is her fault that she gave Seryana so much to say. So many old wounds to stick her grimy fingers into.
But not raw wounds, no matter how noisily some extra gross Harbinger screams about them. They’re all just shit that happened years ago. They have nothing to do with her new life. No one can tell her what to do, and she has literally forever for everyone to forget she used to be in a trashy bullshit kid’s show. This is fine. It’ll be fine.
“Well, he did eat a lot of them. Not the lemon ones, though. That okay?” Mom asks, smiling over her shoulder.
“Guess I’ll have to forgive him.” The lemon bars have always been her favorite.
“So,” Mom asks while Shona munches away on her glorified popsicle. “What’ve you been up to? Keeping busy, it sounds like.”
“Huh? Oh, yeah. Keeper stuff is… y’know. It’s a lot sometimes.”
“Anything you’d like to talk about?”
Shona fidgets with a piece of lemon ice on her tongue while she sorts through her thoughts, throwing all the ones she very much would not like to talk about into a dusty corner. Finally, she swallows and forces a casual smile.
“I made, uh, a work-friend?” she offers in the same way she used to talk about girls like Ailsa. “Maybe. I think so. Or if not, I’m gonna be her friend whether she likes it or not.”
“Oh,” Mom says, straight-faced. There’s an odd pause before she continues: “Oh, that’s great! Anyone I would know?”
Shona shrugs. “Doubt it. If you did, I’d be really impressed and she’d be really freaked out. One of those low-profile types.”
“Hm. Well, I’m sure I’ll have a chance to meet her sooner or later. You always were great at bringing people out of their shells,” Mom says, nodding a little too earnestly.
“Yep. Sure you will,” Shona snorts.
“How’d you find this mystery girl, then?”
“I mean, Keeper stuff? How’d you think? Mide and I, uh, showed her the ropes, then she… helped me out when I was in trouble.” Took a bullet for me was the first phrasing to come to mind, but it wouldn’t help either of them to get Mom thinking about how dangerous life as a Keeper could actually be. Or how Shona fired that bullet herself.
“I see,” Mom nods. “I see. So, about that. Stop me if I’m pestering. You don’t need to tell me everything about how you got hurt if you don’t want to. But have you been to… you know they have doctors for children in your situation, right?”
Shona tilts her head, stuffing her remaining half-popsicle into her cheek.“Yeah. And? I’m doing okay now. Why would I waste their time?”
“Well, I just thought it might be nice to get a professional’s idea about recovery, wouldn’t it? Maybe they’ll know about how long it should take for you to get better.”
Shona can’t help it. She bursts into a fit of distorted laughter.
“What?” Mom says, scowling.
“Sorry, sorry, I just would’ve taken you for one of those parents who’d dive the Sea and learn every possible thing about what happens when your kid makes the Promise, y’know?”
“I did, and I really don’t see what’s so funny!”
“I mean, you’re talking about MAGIC like I strained my voice singing or something!” Shona cackles.
“How am I supposed to talk about it when you haven’t told me anything? You’re clearly still hurt, aren’t you? Did one of those monsters do this to you? I can’t protect you from everything anymore, I know that, but I still need to make sure you’re staying healthy! Whatever that means now!”
“Oooooohhh,” Shona says, the sound coming out as a low whistle. “Now I got it. I’m not hurt, Mom. It’s Emergence. Same as my cool new eyes. It’s not going away, but it’s not a problem. I’m not in pain or anything.”
Mom glances down, wringing her hands. “Oh.”
“What? You don’t like it?”
“I…” Mom purses her lips very pointedly.
“‘Cause I do. I think it’s great. So you don’t need to get all weepy and worry about comforting me. I’m fine. But, uh, thanks. It was a nice thought,” Shona adds, the best peace offering she can think of in a hurry.
“I’m… are you saying you… did this yourself?”
“I mean, It’s not like I went and got a tattoo. I didn’t plan it out or anything. Stuff like this just happens to us over time. And it’s really, super not a big deal, okay?” Shona fidgets with her popsicle stick between her fingers, holding back the urge to snap it or burn it to dust or do anything but stand here and drown in the shame on Mom’s face.
Mom smiles beneath wet eyes and reaches out to run a hand along Shona’s arm, gently. It feels like a hot iron pressed into her skin.
“But your real voice has always been so lovely. Everyone loves talking to you. What are they going to think now?” she says, visibly fighting back tears all the while. Her voice breaks on the last word.
“They’ll think wow, there goes one of Claiasya’s chosen heroes! Listen to her awesome metal voice, I wish I could sound like that! And if they don’t, why should I give half a shit what they think?” Shona growls.
“Shona!” Mom gasps, aghast as always… but all she does about it is sigh and shake her head. “What about what you think? This is… it doesn’t sound healthy, Shona. You know I wouldn’t fret like this if things were really okay, but is this really how you want things to be for the rest of your life? Is that how you want to sound on your wedding day?”
“Hey. Hey, Mom? Do you know, like, what a Keeper IS? Were you thinking there’d be some point where I retire and go back to normal boring everyday life?” Shona lets out another dry, crackling laugh. “And yeah! If there’s one thing I know about you, it’s that you’d never, not EVER, pick out some random shit you don’t like me doing and decide it’s the worst thing that’s ever happened to anyone! Like, my wedding day? For real, that’s the best you’ve got? D’you think Faolan Fianata spent a lot of time whining about how chilly it was to kiss Lady Iona? If you’re losing it again just because I’m never gonna grow up to be you, fucking save us some time and say that already, okay?”
“FINE! You’re right! I’m sorry, Shona! I’m sorry that the only thing I’ve ever done is hurt you!” Mom wails. She collapses forward, thumping a fist limply into Shona’s arm. Shona takes a frantic step back, pushing her away. It’s the least, gentlest thing she can possibly do.
“I’m sorry I’m not happy to see my sweet little girl dragged out of the life we worked so hard to build and sent off to fight monsters! I’m sorry I’m not CELEBRATING when you come home hurt! I’m sorry you don’t have a GOOD mother who’d wave goodbye with a smile and save a nice spot on the mantle for your ashes!”
That snarling, tear-streaked face used to tower over Shona. That voice used to fill her nightmares. It has again, since Seryana, only now she sees it scarred, broken, burning. That perfect mask Mom wears until someone pushes her just a little too hard, reduced to piles of lightning-charred flesh over and over and over…
And Shona… laughs. She throws back her head and laughs and laughs and laughs.
Mom stares silently up at her. Her face is twisted, but not in the same old sneering, shameful way. She looks more like she’s backing away from an armed intruder. “What? You… do you like that? I-is that all you need me for now?” she sputters.
“It doesn’t matter,” Shona says.
“What?” Mom repeats.
“Yeah! It really doesn’t! I don’t have to deal with this shit anymore. I thank the Goddess for that every night.” Shona steps away, grinning like an idiot, and heads for the door. “So I’m gonna go. Bye.”
“No you don’t! You’re staying right here until we-” Mom’s hand clamps around her wrist and tugs.
“Don’t you fucking touch me.”
The words reverberate pleasantly through the room — not shouted, only amplified, not some burst of force to shove her away. But they do their job. Mom’s grip loosens. Stumbling footsteps back along the tile floor.
Shona doesn’t bother looking back.
“Cool. Have a nice life.” She smashes the door violently into its frame on her way out, wipes her eyes, then turns and bolts to the road. Mide, waiting on a bench in the front yard, rushes to join her.
“Shona, hey, are you…” she starts to ask. Her face falls as soon as their eyes meet. “Oh, no. What’d she do this time?”
“She says if I want to keep running away from the awesome life she built for me to fight monsters, she’ll save a nice spot for my ashes.” She chokes on the last words. “That’s pretty much a quote.”
Mide is silent. Her eyes widen, then quickly narrow as she glances around Shona. Her fists clench at her sides… until she sighs, loosens up, and wraps Shona in a gentle hug.
“Hey. Fuck her,” Mide says, quietly but hard-edged. “With… with a pommel or something horrible, whatever’d make you happiest.”
“I don’t care! She doesn’t fucking matter!” Shona yells.
Mide flinches at the sudden burst of noise in her ear, but only a little. She nods and squeezes a little tighter. “Alright. You’ve got places, okay? Places and people. You don’t need to go back there.”
“I‘m not. Maybe ever. I don’t wanna just crash with you guys forever, that’s not really fair, so. I dunno. I’ll sign up for Church housing, I guess? Not sure why I didn’t do that earlier.”
“Sure. Yeah. We can figure that out, and you’re still welcome for as long as it takes. Seriously, sometimes I think my parents just want to adopt you.”
“Thanks. I, uh, don’t think I could really ask them that, but it’s nice to know,” Shona sniffles. “I don’t wanna go back just yet, though. Let’s go fight something.”
Mide tenses up.
“Hey. Buddy. I get it. I was right there when Aisling said all that stuff. You’re looking out for me. Really, thanks. But I’ve taken ‘the longest break I reasonably can,’ kay? Now I need to do something that matters.”
“I… don’t know if we should right now.”
“Listen. Right now, if I don’t find something at least as awful as that complete raving bitch and smash it, I think I’m gonna have to blow up my house with her inside instead. And I’m not quite sure if Dad deserves that. So.”
“Enne? Hey, do you think that’s okay?”
“Mide, please don’t make this a whole thing, alright? I’m really not in the mood.”
Almost instantly, a fluffy pink cloud-seal dives up from beneath the driveway as if it were the surface of the ocean, does an awkward little wiggle-twirl in midair, and plops into the grass on his stomach. “Hellooo, really not in the mood! I’m Enne!”
“Huh?” Shona mumbles.
“What? I am! See?” The Messenger silently thumps a flipper-paw to his chest in emphasis.
Mide folds her arms, smiling wearily. “Where’d the dad joke come from? Do you guys even have a dad?” she asks.
“I mean, no, but I know lots of kids who do! One of my other friends always laughs when I do those, and it’s real hard getting her to laugh!” He shakes himself out and balances on his stubby tail, proudly puffing up his fur. “Can I help you two with anything? Advice? Cuddles?”
“Think we’re good, thanks,” Shona answers.
“Shona’s spontaneous Emergence thing,” Mide says at the same time. “Is it safe for her to get back to Keeper stuff yet?”
Enne hop-scoots up to Shona, bonking his nose into her foot. “Ohhhh yeah! How’s that been? How’re you feeling, Shona?”
Shona meets his bright, beady eyes with a sideways smile. “…I mean. Magic-wise? Pretty much fine. It’s been like a week, I haven’t done anything active, I feel… pretty much the same. Not that I really felt different in the first place.”
“Mhm, mhm!” Enne nods eagerly. “You usually don’t when it goes like that, I think!”
“So, is there like, a test? Something she can do or you can do to see if she’s back where she needs to be yet?”
“Mmmmmmh….” He flops to the ground, doing a few little rolls back and forth with a flipper pressed to the chin he doesn’t have. “Okay. Here’s what we do. Shona, I need you to put me on your head, alright?”
“Can I even actually pick you up? We go through this every time.”
“It’s fine, it’s fine! Just take it slow!”
With a shrug, Shona scoops Enne up and doesn’t so much lift him as wave him upward. It feels more like directing a puff of warm air than holding an animal. It takes a bit, but soon he’s settled on top of her. He crawls through her hair and down her back, poking and mouthing her at random, making little noises like a kitten excited for dinner between ethereal, tickly touches, then squirms around her side and into her arms, spreading his flippers wide as if asking for a hug.
“Uh, so what exactly was that for?”
“Nothing, really! I just wanted cuddles!” He giggles, nuzzling into her. “I tricked yooou!
Shona snorts out a low, gritty, involuntary laugh.
“See? Seeeee? I got you! I could see you weren’t feeling so great, so I had to get you! Clap clap clap for me!” Enne moves to give himself a round of applause, but his tiny flippers don’t quite reach each other.
“Sure. Good job, li’l guy.”
Mide shoots them both an uncertain look. “So, uh…”
“Oh, the test? I don’t think that’s a thing. Sorry, Mide!” Enne admits with a sheepish scratch of his cheek. “But if it helps, I think you should be fine! That whole thing is mostly just about… when things get weird with your power, you don’t wanna jump RIGHT into it and push it to get weirder, y’know? I mean, unless that is what you want to do, that’s fine too! But for my kids it usually isn’t! So as long as you’ve had some time to calm down, some distance from the thing that stretched it out in the first place, you get a clean bill of health from Dr. Enne!”
Shona grins. “Good doggie. See, Mide?”
Enne wriggles in mock protest. “I’m not a doggie! I’m an Enne!”
“Well. Alright, then,” Mide says with a shrug, smiling at the little guy despite herself. “If he’s sure, and you think that’s what’ll help most… you know I have your back, Shona.”
“Thanks,” Shona says, as gently as she can. “And thanks, Enne. We’re gonna go blow up a Harbinger, kay?”
“Good luuuck!” Enne cheers. He hops out of Shona’s arms, waves once more in midair, then pops out of being before he hits the ground.
“So,” Shona says, throwing an arm around Mide’s shoulder. “Wanna see if you can find anything interesting? I know I’m dragging you along, so you get first pick.”
“Sure. When you pick it usually turns out like the bathroom ghost incident or something, anyway.” Mide pulls her phone from a skirt pocket and starts tapping away.
“Listen, how was I supposed to know how that would turn out? Did you guess what was going on there? Would any sane person? Of fucking course they wouldn’t!” Shona throws a playful kick at Mide’s leg. Without looking up, Mide easily parries with the sole of her shoe.
“Okay, let’s see… oh. Whoa.”
“Hmmm?” Shona cranes down to peek at Mide’s screen.
“I didn’t even make it to Flow. There’s a Lighthouse alert. Someone on the west edge of town found, uh, ‘a hole in the planet filled with crawling, limbless things.’ That’s what it says.”
“Who? Is this a call for backup?”
“Doesn’t say. Just some guy. They found him screaming about it not too far from the place it’s supposed to be.”
“And he SAW it and just ran off? Lucky guy.”
“Seriously. So, that sound alright?”
Shona pounds a fist into an open palm. “Look, all I want right now is to find some big, horrible thing and blast it. That sounds perfect. And if someone else shows up for the alert, awesome! Can’t be any more of a mess than our last team-up!”
So off they go, leaving Shona’s once-home behind. Good riddance. Before too long, they put the map away, instead simply following the tuneless alien song pricking at Shona’s ears in the distance.