And so they were. Lyric squeaked and clapped her hands, Johnathan grunted, and Adam pulled into the long driveway carefully, avoiding the beach ball little Danny threw at the van. Napalm yanked the van door open eagerly, just as his nephew and niece reached them. “Uncle Aisling!” Danny yelled, launching himself into Napalm’s arms.
Napalm “oofed” and staggered backward. “Dude! You got so big!”
Danny rolled his eyes. “Well, duh!”
Napalm pried Danny away to give the little girl bouncing behind him equal time. “Omigod, Meg! You were, like, a toddler when I saw you last. You’re so big now. You’re both so big now. What’s your mom feeding you?”
“Ellie!” Napalm nearly tackled his sister. “God, Ellie… it’s been so long.”
She hugged him back fiercely. “It has, kiddo.” She pushed him back to look him over. “You are way too skinny. You’re going to have to have seconds tonight. Maybe thirds.”
“Twist my arm, why don’t you.” He looked over at Tessa. “Ellie’s lasagna is nature’s perfect food. Seriously. Oh! Dude. Tessa, this is Ellie. Ellie, Tessa.”
Tessa half-gasped. Ellie was clearly L’Arathi, with the typical grey-in-green eyes – but otherwise, she actually looked much like Tessa herself, down to her bangs and long ponytail. Ellie seemed to notice it, too; she gave a little laugh as she shook Tessa’s hand. “Hi, Tessa. Has he driven you clinically insane yet?”
“Not yet, but he’s working on it!”
“No kidding. I have these two and I teach high school, and that’s still more relaxing than dealing with my baby brother on a daily basis.”
“I’m right hee-ere,” Napalm mock-whined.
Ellie snorted. “You take it as a compliment, and you know it.”
Napalm gave an elaborate bow. “And you love it, and you know it.”
Ellie rolled her eyes. “And do I get introduced to your other friends?”
“Oh! Yeah. Um. That’s Adam. And the guy leaning against the van trying to look cool is Johnathan, and this-“ Lyric was just emerging from the van, and he took her hand to help her- “is Lyric.”
Lyric looked up, obviously intimidated. Ellie shook her hand – and nearly pulled back, startled. She recovered quickly, though, squeezing Lyric’s hand with both of hers. “Hi, Lyric.”
“Hello,” Lyric whispered.
Meg tugged at Lyric’s other hand. “Hi!”
Lyric looked down at her, bewildered. “Hello,” she repeated.
“I like your dress,” Meg grinned.
Lyric smiled hesitantly. “Thank you.”
“I’m blowing bubbles. Do you want to blow bubbles?”
“I-“ She cast a desperate look at Napalm, who moved toward her. “Part of your world?” she asked hesitantly.
Napalm nodded. “Yes, hon. You – you can do anything you want to here.”
Lyric smiled at Meg. “Pretty bubbles in the air.”
“Okay, come on – I have more bubble wands in the garage.” Meg tore off towards the garage; with a last look at Napalm, Lyric followed.
“Will she be okay?” Ellie asked softly. “Does she need supervision?”
Napalm shook his head. “She’s cool.”
“She’s so broken.”
Napalm smiled wryly. “You saw that, huh?”
He shrugged. “Lyric can handle herself. I mean, not like she should be able to. But she’s fine with Meg. I mean, she’s older than Meg, even as Lyric. She’s okay.”
Ellie rubbed her arms. “This is what you do, huh?” she asked Tessa.
Tessa nodded. “This is what I do.”
Napalm looked at the two of them and decided that he was dismissed. He joined Adam in pulling luggage from the back of the van, and Ellie gestured for Tessa to follow her to the chairs on the front porch. “I miss him,” Ellie said.
Tessa nodded. “He said you practically raised him.”
“Yeah… our parents were kind of on the old side when he came along. He was a surprise! And as wired as he is now – just imagine him as a kid!”
Tessa rubbed her temples. “I’m not sure I want to.”
Ellie laughed richly. “No. No, you really don’t. But he was a cool kid, even so. He just did not fit in the family, you know? Our brothers are so… frustrating. They used to beat on him; I found some… creative ways to stop them, though. And I sort of adopted him. Me and my friends.”
“Hm. Explains his taste in music, sort of. All the stuff that was before his time…”
“…He got from me, yeah.”
“So you guys were really close.”
Ellie leaned forward, forearms on thighs, looking out on the front yard. Napalm had abandoned all pretense of maturity, literally rolling on the grass with Danny. “Yeah. Yeah, we were.” She looked over at Tessa. “He loves what he’s doing with you guys. This…” she laughed. “’Napalm’. This superhero shit.”
Tessa grinned. “Yeah. I promise… you don’t have to have a codename and a secret identity to hang out with us!”
“Oh, I’m sure. Aisling spent a big chunk of his childhood running around the house with a towel tied around his neck for a cape! When he found out that he really had ‘superpowers’…” She shook her head. “Wow. That was – he couldn’t decide whether to be terrified or overjoyed. It doesn’t surprise me that he ended up going with ‘overjoyed’ – that’s Ais. He’s a happy kid. But God – he was so scared, that first night. He called me. I had to come get him in the middle of the night. It took like an hour before his babbling about it started to make sense, and really, it took him accidentally throwing some sparks around for it all to really be coherent. Just – wow.”
“Your brothers don’t have any Dasaroi abilities, right?”
“Right. And I just have a little bit of telepathy. Which is what he had, too, growing up… the other reason we were close, of course. Our brothers… we just didn’t have a whole lot in common with them, you know? But yeah. We both thought he was just like me, and then all of a sudden he’s lighting things on fire with the power of his mind. And then you showed up…” She cast Tessa a sidelong glance. “Thank you.”
“For, I don’t know, getting there so soon. For helping him learn to control it. I mean, shielding his thoughts, I could teach him. But this? No.”
Tessa nodded. “It’s what I do. I mean, I’m no great guru. I can’t do everything myself. Not by a long shot. But I can get people to people who can.”
Tessa closed her eyes briefly. “Lyric. Yes. I’m taking Lyric to my friend Jason. See if he can help.”
“Is he in… Shayara?”
“No, no. He’s got his own place, out in Utah. Aisling’s told you all about Shayara, huh?”
Ellie laughed. “All about Shayara, all about the Dasaroi. It just seems ludicrous in a way, you know. Thinking that we’re not really human, not entirely. Hard to believe.”
“But you do, don’t you?”
“Yeah, I guess so. Most days. Some days it just seems like a fairy tale. But some days… I guess my awareness of it all is really strong. And I have dreams. I understand that a lot of us do.”
Tessa nodded. “You should visit the city.”
Ellie looked back at the kids, then at Tessa. “It’s said that a lot of us feel a pull to Shayara. The stronger we are, the stronger the pull. Well, I don’t feel much of one at all, and I’m fine with that. I’ve got a life here. I’m not like Aisling. Not like you. I’m not a superhero, Tessa. I’m a mom, and a teacher. I can’t leap tall buildings in a single bound. I can just tell when my students are trying to cheat on an exam, and who’s on the line when the phone rings.”
“You don’t need to be as strong in your gifts as Aisling is, in order to live there…”
Ellie smiled. “Tessa – I like it here. This is where I belong. And seriously – I’ve heard that half of you guys in Shayara send your kids elsewhere for schooling, because of the whole political turmoil thing. That things are unstable. That’s no place to raise my kids. And they’re my priority, y’know? I mean, maybe one day, Danny will shoot fireballs out of his hands too, or Meg will, I don’t know, fly. Or maybe they’ll just have that little bit of telepathy. Or maybe nothing at all. But no matter what… they’re my kids, and this is how I’m raising them. Where I’m raising them.” She squeezed Tessa’s hand. “Not everyone is a superhero.”
Tessa nodded, squeezing back. “I… I think I forget that, sometimes. It’s true that there are so many of us living outside the city… but then, there are so many of us who don’t even know what they are. Like you, before I found Napalm. I guess I just figure that everyone will want to come to the city, eventually.”
“Yeah. I guess not.”
Ellie grinned. “Besides – I can do you good out here, you know? Watch out for kids who suddenly get weird powers. Help them if I can. Refer them to you if I can’t.”
“That’s a good point. Usually, the kids we get from out here in the real world are a lot more like Lyric than like Napalm.”
“Yeah. I mean, if a kid suddenly starts ‘hearing voices’, and no one in his family knows what he is – what they are – well, they call that schizophrenia. They lock you up for ‘hearing voices’, sometimes. Medicate the hell out of you. There are kids we get from institutions who are just terrified of their natural abilities. Who’ve been crushed by the ‘treatment’ they’ve received. Napalm was incredibly lucky to have you.”
“Was Lyric in an institution?”
“Yeah. She was.”
“What happened to her?”
“We don’t really know how it all started. The personality she was born with is apparently long-gone. We don’t know what made her split. Her more adult personalities genuinely don’t seem to know, and the kids don’t talk about it. There’s one who’s about two years old who we’ve been told would know more than the others, but she won’t even look at us, much less talk to us. So… we don’t know how that happened. All we know is that her father institutionalized her about four years ago. Never visited. Nothing. She…” Tessa sighed. “She’s so scared all the time. Aisling is doing his best to help her, and he’s doing a great job.”
Ellie smiled. “He’s great with kids.” She pointed to the yard, where Napalm was currently chasing Danny, arms extended, moaning “Braaaaaaiins…”
Tessa nodded. “And he’s got a great heart.”
Ellie nodded back. “He does. He really does.” She cast a wistful glance back at the yard, then looked back at Tessa. “Bring him around more often, okay? I miss him. And hell – this could be good for the rest of you, too. Meg likes Lyric. And… well, they’re skinny! And you’re skinny! We’ve got to fatten the lot of you up. Speaking of which…” She stood. “Come on, let’s set the table. Almost dinnertime.”
Tessa rose with the help of Ellie’s offered hand. “Thank you.”
By silent mutual agreement, they remained standing on the porch for just a few moments. Just watching the kids play.