The Gift

Episode 15: Son of a Man, Part II

By Sulia Serafine

This is an ALTERNATE UNIVERSE fic. This is the sequel series to It Could Be Worse, which will end with season 4. NOTE: You can read it if you have not read ICBW. It's possible. You won't get the foreshadowing and the cameos, but you will, eventually. I'd explain them. Credit goes to Tamora Pierce. I'm broke, so you can't sue me. Any other copyrighted things that don't belong to me in here in fact belong to other very businesslike people. Could you believe that? I guess that's why I'm broke.

Author: T'is the end of my fanfiction, droogies. Horrowshow time, it was—but this devotchka is done and tired.

Life is a right uppercut to the jaw from a heavyweight champion.

Astoundingly painful and unexpected, that is.

As it was, I was currently seated in the passenger side of a car on the way to the house of Fal's Auntie Kel. Faleron was talking up a storm to Yvenne about his godmother. Apparently, she'd had one hell of a career in the DJPF. Famous criminals and scandals… and a brief stint in a foreign country doing a search and rescue. The last part had been told to him by his Uncle Cleon, so he wasn't too sure about its credibility. After all, who ever heard of a lost civilization in the mountains? The woman sounded interesting enough. I only hoped that her temperament was fair. I know I would be a trifle suspicious if my godson showed up on my doorstep with three strangers and a file full of conspiracy information.

My mind began to wander. I was still very pissed off at Yvenne, more so than Li. I didn't like the man, but he hadn't pursued my affections, had he? And Yvenne had and changed her mind. Alright, maybe I didn't love her, but I must have cared enough if I was still feeling so offended by the rejection! Was I not handsome enough? Did I not present a caring side when I actually bothered to look after Faleron? I didn't bother to glance behind me at her, though I snuck a glance in the side mirror.

"You said you knew my father," I began suddenly, to take my mind off my wounded pride. I turned to face Li's profile.

He drove with one hand on the wheel and his other elbow at the window. Li did not turn his head. Only his eyes, regarding me form the corner of his scope of vision. "I did."

"You knew him well?"

Li shrugged. "Like family, I guess you could say. A… stepbrother of sorts."

"You knew him in his heyday of gangster activity, didn't you? When he met my mother?" I knew I was pressing my luck, but it didn't hurt to try.

You don't want to walk this road so publicly, boy, Li's voice warned me in my head. I noticed that Yvenne and Faleron were starting to sit up and pay attention to what we were speaking about. I backed off and leaned against my door, temple pressed on the window. After they saw our conversation trail off, Yvenne and Faleron relaxed. They seemed a little disappointed, as if they wanted to hear the juicy details despite their supposed respect for privacy.

How old are you? I asked without turning to look at my driver.

Li smirked. How old do you think I am?

Old enough to be my father, I think. And Yvenne's, too. But you look so young.

There was a strange sound inside my head. After a moment, I realized that Li was inwardly laughing. Perhaps I had struck upon an old memory of his, a secret that was more ridiculous than it was damning.

At least I look younger than your father. Rightfully, I'm just a bit older.

I wanted to ask how it was possible that Li could look so young, but I knew he would not give me an answer. Then he would lose his captivating mystery. He would become another oddity in my life—and I'd known enough oddities and abnormalities at Styx to last me a lifetime. Whatever Li was, he was still helping me against his will. Key word: helping. He had broken me out of my own personal hell. He'd shot my antagonists and unwittingly set free my fellow prisoners.

Now if only I could get over the fact that he looked better than me.

You just need to get a nice set of clothes, Li mentally chirped from beside me.

I countered by sending a barrage of images showing where Li could shove his 'nice set of clothes.' Prat.

Five minutes later, I felt small arms hug my neck from behind my chair. I patted Faleron's elbow absently, my eyes still glued to the passing scenery. The boy was starting to get anxious the closer we came to his godmother's home. We would be parted when we got there. The boy had escaped his family for as long as he was going to. When his Auntie Kel saw him, she was going to send him home forthwith and that would be the last I would ever see of him.

I closed my eyes and let the boy's anxiety flow into me. I closed an invisible fist around it and squeezed. Like a coal into a diamond, I transformed it until I saw something so much better than what I had received. I could see his best future, the best of all the possibilities. And more than that, I knew it would certainly be the particular future to come true. I just knew this was his.

Faleron was suddenly eighteen, and graduating from a special institution. Dominion Jewel Protection Force Academy, I realized. There was a short, but powerful looking older woman shaking his hand. She was Buriram Tourakom a Director of one of the Federal Investigation Departments. She was offering him a job, straight out of the Academy—a credit to his remarkable tactile skills and his ability to read and evaluate situations within the blink of an eye. He was the most intelligent one in his class. And he could have cared less that his entire family with the exception of him was now rather absorbed in politics. His father was even running for mayor of Tusaine. Eighteen year-old Faleron Jasson was more or less annoyed, but happy at his own independence from the family tradition.

Not too shabby. Not too shabby at all.

"You're going to be just fine," I whispered to Fal. His arms squeezed once before letting go. And then…

Holy shit… When his arms left me, it came to my attention what I had just done. Unlike the other times when I had only hoped that my gift would work, here I had commanded it on my own. I had willed myself to envision exactly what time and person I wished to see. And I had done it. I had complete control. I had complete control! Holy shit!

"It's about damn time," I heard Li mutter. I shot him a dirty look.

"What?" Yvenne piped up from behind.

I turned and shook my head. "Nothing." I paused. I could celebrate my superiority later. Maybe this would be a good time to… "Hey, Yvenne?"

"What now?"

"I'm sorry. About dragging you into this from the beginning."

Okay. So apologizing hadn't hurt as much as I thought it would have. At least I wasn't blushing. And at least she wasn't rubbing my nose into it. She actually appeared very pleased that I had finally lowered myself to a more respectable human level. We were friends, weren't we? A stupid thing like what we had argued about couldn't tear us apart, could it? I didn't expect her to accept my apology. But she did.

"I forgive you," she said, smiling from ear to ear. She made it look so easy.

I'm never going to get the hang of this friendship thing. Faleron laughed gleefully. He always hated it when we argued. Our happy little family was ten minutes away from being split apart forever. And we had finally started to come to an understanding. I frowned. I lifted my gaze to Yvenne. If I could pinpoint Faleron's future among a million possibilities, surely I could see what would happen to her.

I could always stop her if it didn't look too favorable. Steer her clear from Port Legann and Li. Even if Li was now super-protective suitor guy and would most likely pound me into the ground for it. I wouldn't let her go with him if I saw that it would be bad for her. I could be a cool guy like that.

My mind cleared. She was sitting at a window, overlooking a large green valley. There were gigantic mountains on every side. The sheep were roaming below. Yvenne herself was in a crimson dress with a low square neckline. A garnet and gold satin sash was tied around her hips below her bulging belly. One manicured hand rested comfortably on her tummy as she began to hum to herself. She was a bit older, perhaps closer to thirty. The room she was in was well furnished. There were voluminous drapes and velveteen rugs and so many other things that looked like they cost a fortune.

The heavy oak door opened. Li walked in, looking not a day older than how he appeared beside me in the car. He was dressed differently as well. He was wearing a long white muslin shirt and a wide leather belt. The belt buckle was made of gold. His boots came knee high and were polished black. He still looked smashing in whatever he wore (I feared he always would) and completed the suave image by swaggering forward. He bent down to kiss Yvenne once on the forehead and once on her belly.

I noticeably blanched and shut my eyes.

Are you pissed about the baby? Li asked me. He sounded concerned. Strange. I was starting to get used to his voice in my head. It would be a shame when we had to part as well. I resented him, but I felt kinship with him as well. He could read my mind. And I could see the future. We were peas in a mutant pod.

I leaned my head back against the window and ran my hands over my face in a tired gesture. No. I'm not pissed about the baby. The cool boots, maybe. The baby, no. She looks happy with the baby.

Li cast me a sidelong glance. She'd be happier with you.

Yeah, but I don't want to walk down that road either. Could you ever imagine me changing diapers and driving the kids' carpool? Don't think so. My self defense was denial. I didn't want to make anyone happy. I wanted to make myself happy. There's only one life to live here and I'm going to live it sans discomfort. Even if it meant letting her go. (I don't know what love means? What?!)I pouted. Come to think of it, how come I don't sense any of that discomfort for you? Where was that place, the one with the valley and the nice room? It looked like paradise.

You'll see it soon enough.

He cut me off after that. He exited my mind and placed a block in front of the door so that I could not follow him out and into his brain. I was irritated at first at his dodging, but then I recalled my earlier wish to keep him mysterious. Yes, the mysterious Li would look so much nicer in my memoirs than Mr. Li who has a cushy office job and a gambling girlfriend.

It was the longest ten minutes of my life. But we finally pulled up to a community of houses separated by large yards and many trees. I was surprised when we passed by what looked like at first the neighborhood community center. I expected a couple of tennis courts and a swank swimming pool. There was a pool alright. But there was also a large looping dirt track and a row of motorbikes against the metal fence.

Huh.

"Auntie Kel promised to teach me how to ride one of those for my next birthday," Faleron commented when he saw the motorbikes. "One of the smaller ones."

"You couldn't get me on one of those things," Yvenne snorted. She directed her attention back to the road. "Now where is her house?"

"It's the blue one at the end. There's a stone wall around the yard."

We pulled into a long driveway and got out of the car. There was a woman at the side of the house coiling a green garden hose. When she saw them pull up, she took off her gardening gloves and set them down by the hose. Faleron grinned as soon as he saw her.

"Hi, Auntie! I'm glad we caught you on your day off. I bet Uncle Neal has already told you about me. I've come to turn myself in!" Faleron cheerily announced. "Oh, and we have some really important information that you have to see, too.

And with that, the boy bounded into the arms of his godmother, whose face was blank with shock and surprise. The woman was in her mid thirties, looking a decade younger just because of the vitality that radiated from her. Her light brown hair was short and wavy, a little messy from gardening. Her hazel eyes shone bright in a face slightly tan from working in the sun. Her body was of an athletic build—not bulky, but slim and solid. She brushed off her denim overalls, knelt down, and pulled Faleron close, scolding him lightly about having run off like he did.

"Guys! Come on, I want to introduce you to my auntie!"

We three remaining strangers tried our best not to look like evil intruders or child abductors as we came close. Apparently, we failed, for Kel stood up and scowled. Hers was a face not meant for scowling, but I felt nervous anyway. Women were tigers when provoked. If there's one thing I've learned on this journey, it's not to mess with them when they bare their teeth.

"What are you doing here?" she demanded harshly.

I blinked. "I'm sorry, ma'am, but we can explain—"

"She's talking to me," Li interrupted, pushing me back so as to put the safety of space between us and Kel. He turned to the woman with an air of exasperation and put on his best smile. It was obviously faked politeness. "Hello, Kel. You look stunning as always."

"And you haven't changed one bit," Kel replied, glaring at Li with a ferocity such as I have never seen in a woman (even Yvenne, and that's saying something, folks). She folded her arms across her chest and studied him from head to toe. "What are you doing here with my godson, Liam?"

"I'm not here with just your godson, but I'll get to that later. This is for you." And with that, he handed her the folder and the disks that we had stolen from Styx. She gave him a doubtful look, but took the materials into her possession.

Yvenne sputtered. "B-but… But… I thought your name was Li!"

As did I. I knew the man was a liar. Maybe the future I saw wouldn't come to pass after all, her and Li and the baby. Yvenne looked mighty annoyed for a single lie. He'd have to make it up to her after this whole thing was over. Arrive on her doorstep in Port Legann with a dozen long stem roses or something of the sort. I bet she'd fall for something like that. She secretly likes feminine things, and is bound to forgive a lie.

"Li is short for Liam. So it's not necessarily a lie." With the last sentence, he turned his vexed gaze toward me. I shrugged indifferently. Yvenne huffed and looked away.

Kel frowned. "Whatever. Liam, what are these for?"

"Just look at them would you? Honestly. It's as if you don't trust me anymore," Liam scoffed.

"I don't trust you."

"Well, break my heart into a billion pieces if you think you can, but does it look like I care anymore?"

"You'll always be a two-faced asshole. I can't believe how naïve I used to be," Keladry muttered as she opened the folder and began scanning the documents. Her brow was creased in concentration. Liam yawned and put his hands on his hips. After a time, she looked up again, her eyes a little wider in disbelief. She stared straight at Liam, who only smiled mischievously and blew her a kiss.

"So you'll pass it along, dearest?" His sarcasm in the face of certain-death-by-angry-woman was admirable. Maybe I was right about that kinship thing.

"I have to. You know how important this is," she replied. She sighed and finally turned her attention to Yvenne and me. "And who are these two?"

Faleron jumped at the chance to get back into the conversation. "This is Yvenne and this is Vinny! They're my best friends. We've had loads of fun together and Vinny even won me a stuffed Coldfang at an amusement park!"

"I wonder what she'll say when he mentions that you taught him how to be a miniature con artist," Yvenne mumbled just loudly enough for me to hear. I withheld the urge to retaliate. Minx.

Kel rolled her eyes. "Alright, alright. Come inside, all of you. I'll fax this to the station in Tusaine as soon as possible. Though I respect the local branch here in Irontown, I'm more confident that the main branch will get the investigation right."

"You might also want to call in a unit to go back to the scene before the suspects decide to scatter. I can give directions," Liam volunteered, looking smug as he did so. Both Keladry and I glared at him bitterly.

We followed Kel into the house. It was a one story home with a lot of floor space. I figured she must have been of high rank in the DJPF, for the house was furnished quite well. Only a salary of someone no lower than First Class could keep up the appearances in such a pleasant looking place. No, I take that back. The house was a little too big for just one salary to support it. I glanced at Kel's hand. Sure enough, there was a simple gold wedding band.

There was noise from down the hall as we entered the living room and sat down. Faleron grinned. He went toward the opening of the hall just in time to collide with two children not too much smaller than he. The taller one was a boy, the other a girl. They giggled and pushed each other as they battled to hug Faleron first. Finally, they just settled for hugging him at the same time. Faleron looked delighted.

"They're so cute!" Yvenne gasped to Kel. "How old are they?"

Though we were still strangers, Kel's pride in her children made her happy to share the information. "Conal is seven and Celeste is six."

Liam smiled. He crouched down and caught the children's attention. "Hello, Conal. Do you remember me?"

The boy was a towheaded child with pale skin and pale eyes. He smiled slightly and nodded. "Hi, Uncle."

Keladry came forward at once and picked Conal up. She balanced him on her hip as Liam rose. She glared at him. There was unadulterated terror in her eyes. "And when have you ever seen him before? I thought you didn't live in Mithros anymore."

"I don't," Liam confessed. "But I was visiting Tusaine on one of the days that your husband was there at the hospital getting Conal his vaccinations. Funny. He didn't have any problem introducing me to him. Not like you."

The last bit threw her off a bit. I could tell. People tend to get the deer-caught-in-the-headlights expression when it happens. Quite attractive. Not.

Faleron was desperately trying to unlatch Celeste's arms from around his leg. The little girl took after her mother in all features except her more aristocratic nose. It actually reminded me of someone, but I couldn't remember who. Hmm. "Hey, Auntie Kel, when is Uncle Joren going to be home?"

"I don't know. An hour maybe," Kel said absently. She put Conal down and went to the kitchen saying that she would fix them something to eat. Liam sat down on the couch beside Yvenne and held his arms out. Conal smiled and climbed onto his knee without any reservations. Yvenne made an awed sound. She was so easy to reel in sometimes. It was adorable, I agree, but I don't think it was that adorable. I don't care what Liam says. If Yvenne wanted a kid eventually, she'd be better off with him than me.

Liam observed me from the corner of his eyes. "Aren't you excited? It'll only be an hour."

"Why should I be?"

The hired killer with a child on his knee and a young woman against his side seemed a little confused. I thought you knew.

Knew what? I asked irritably. It's not like I can go inside your head and find these things out. You can only invade mine, jackass. Now why the hell should I care about Kel's husband?

Liam's expression became more serious. Gone was the cynicism and mischief and back was the grave faced killer who seemed—could it be?—more than a little worried. He continued to put forth a cheerful front around Kel's children, Faleron, and Yvenne. I could still tell that something was plaguing him. Something to do with this Joren that he refused to talk about. I sighed wearily. I wasn't going to get any answers.

I decided to damn it all. I would continue to exercise my Gift by using it right now to discover what (or specifically, who) had my dismal rescuer so spooked.

Here goes—

Liam gave a little gasp. His eyes widened and he glared at me hard. CRAP! I screamed inside. At once, I felt like he had fired a gun at my head. There was a pain that went straight through my skull, into my brain, and out the back of my head. Bang. Just like that. I cried out instantly, my eyes screwed shut. All I could see was red. I stumbled backward and tripped over an armchair, tumbling over and backward, feet over head, to the floor. Pain lanced up my arm and renewed the healing pain in my ribs. Yvenne rushed to me immediately, though I could not have cared less. I lied on my side, groaning.

What the… I looked blearily up at Liam on the couch with Conal still on his knee. He looked surprised at himself, a little panic stricken. For all his cool and collected attitude, I was sure that he had not meant to attack me with such a force. What he had done, he'd done on instinct. Frightened instinct.

"Vince, are you okay? Vinny, talk to me!" Yvenne shrieked. I must have looked like road kill.

Faleron was at my head now, looking down into my face. I waved him away and, groaning again, rolled onto my back. My head throbbed, my arm hurt, and all I wanted was some painkillers.

What the hell was that for?

At least Liam looked guilty. It was a hasty reaction. Forgive me. But you cannot look into the past of someone you've never met before. You would not have much control over what you would see—and I fear that it would be too gruesome and blood-splattered for you to handle. Trust me, I was there.

Thanks for the migraine, then. Ugh, you owe me, man.

He smiled at me. I rolled my eyes and sat up. The sudden movement made my head spin and my ribs ache. I must have moaned, because Yvenne urged me to lie back down. I was not used to being fussed over. She checked my splinted arm and my other bruises. I let her. I was in such bad shape. If I had been a horse, someone would have shot me and put me out of my misery. Sheesh, I was an eyesore.

Keladry came back into the room, having heard my cry. She saw me on the floor and immediately shot a dirty look at Liam. "What did you do to him?"

Whoa. How did she know?

"I didn't do anything to him. The young man is a little clumsy now and then. He just aggravated his current injuries," Liam protested. He winked at me, the wink hidden from Kel's view by Conal clinging to Liam's neck.

Yvenne helped me eventually sit up. She and Faleron got me back on my feet and onto the armchair that I had just fallen over. Meanwhile, Kel was still scrutinizing me as if she'd just noticed something. My head hurt too much. If it didn't, I would have tried to pry my way into her thoughts. If Liam could do it, why couldn't I? I was always evolving, wasn't I? Revealing new powers and such? Ow, ow, ow. Oh, man, I needed some aspirin.

"Have we met before?"

"No," I replied, gingerly touching the back of my head. Definitely felt like someone had broken a beer bottle on it. I half expected a lump the size of a fist there on the back of my noggin.

"Are you sure?"

I frowned at the woman. I would have shaken my head 'no' if I didn't think that doing so would cause me to topple over again out of disorientation. "No, ma'am. We've never met."

Liam smiled sneakily as he set Conal back on his feet and whispered something in his ear. The little boy giggled and put his hands over his mouth. What did Liam say? I wondered. Conal ran past Yvenne and his mother to me. He climbed onto my lap. Utterly confused, I didn't stop him. When he was perched atop my knee, he reached forward and gently pinched my nose. Then, using his other hand, he pinched his.

"Conal, let go of this nice young man's nose—" Faleron reproached softly. Liam laughed in the background.

What's the big idea? I shot at my fellow freak.

Just wait for it.

Kel gasped, startling Yvenne beside her. She looked back and forth from her son to me. What? Did I have something stuck in my teeth?

Conal let go of my nose and stood up on the armchair. He leaned over and giggled again as he started playing with my hair. At first, I felt very indignant at having someone even touch my hair without my permission, but he was only a little boy. And besides, there was something about him that felt… familiar. Maybe Yvenne was right. I had a fatherly instinct of some kind, first with Faleron and now with Conal. Huh. But I don't want kids. These two just happen to be… different.

In the meantime, Faleron had given up on detaching his little godsister's arms from around his leg. He let her cling to him, attempting to appear more adult and mature than he ever could have looked. One small fry hanging onto another small fry.

"I'm going to call Joren…" Kel started. She licked her lips nervously. "And I have to fax those papers and call the local station. Liam, come here and give me the directions." Before he could reply, she retreated to the kitchen.

Liam sighed and got up. He rubbed Yvenne's arm as he went by. Yvenne herself was still thoroughly bewildered by everything that was going on around her. She sat down in Liam's spot on the couch. Faleron joined her slowly, cajoling Celeste to move with him to a seat. If I had been another person, maybe a father, I would have considered the scene cute. At the moment, I was somewhat irritated.

Conal had finished playing with my hair. In comparison, his was even lighter than mine. Normal, I guess. Kids' hair darkens as they grow older, doesn't it? I studied him intently as he sat back down on my knee and returned my scrutinizing gaze. Weird. It was like looking into an adult's eyes. Unblinking, cold blue eyes. This continued for a few moments before I snapped out of it and looked away. From inside the kitchen, I could hear Liam whistling.

"Maybe Uncle Joren won't call my parents so quickly and I can stay here a bit longer," Faleron thought aloud.

Yvenne stroked his hair. "That would be nice, I guess. I wish I could stay longer, but I'd like to get to my new place in Port Legann."

I wanted to tell her that she wouldn't end up in Port Legann for long, but there was no sense in freaking her out on our last day together.

"My name is Conal," the boy on my lap whispered.

I'd almost forgotten he was there. I turned to him and smiled slightly. "I'm Vinny."

"Are you gonna stay with us?"

Stay? Why in the world would I stay? "I don't think so, little man. I have to go home, too."

"Where's your home?"

In a loony bin.

"I don't know yet," I chuckled to hide my discomfiture. "But that's what I need to find out."

"I want you to live in the other room," Conal insisted, tugging my hand. I suppose he was referring to the guest bedroom. He beamed at me.

Yvenne made another cooing sound. "How cute!"

"Don't start," I warned her. I was not in the mood for her "You'd make such a good father!" speeches.

Kel and Liam reentered the room, the former quite bothered. She stopped in her tracks when her eyes rested on me and Conal sitting together. Liam laid a hand on her arm and whispered something into her ear as well. She broke her gaze and nodded to him. They continued into the living room.

What exactly are you telling this family? I asked.

Nothing, nothing. My old buddy will be here in a few minutes, so just sit tight.

It's hard to when you won't tell me anything!

Well, I'm a little flabbergasted that you haven't figured it out yourself.

For the next ten minutes, we made idle chitchat. Faleron recounted the majority of our adventures, though he wisely neglected the latest kidnap and rescue ordeal. Kel voiced her opinion on Cleon's decision to let us go. Unlike Neal, she also seemed to understand that there were other factors involved that could have justified his decision. She also apologized for Neal's roughness, arresting Yvenne and all. Apparently the whole law enforcement community of northeastern Mithros was involved with each other as one giant family.

What a scary thought. Maybe I should go back to Carthak after all.

At last, I heard a noise outside. It sounded like a motorcycle. Kel was on her feet in an instant. She went to the front door and opened it as quickly as she could, running outside to whoever had just arrived. Liam began to grin. What the hell was he grinning about? Figure it out for myself, huh? Can't he tell that I'm a little distracted right now? I couldn't figure anything out even if I wanted to. I winced as Conal accidentally bumped into one of my tender ribs.

"Who is that?" Yvenne asked no one in particular.

"Must be Uncle Joren," Faleron guessed. He turned to Celeste. "Hey, Celeste! Your dad's home! Want to let go of my leg and go see him?"

The little girl gave a squeal of delight as she ran out the door after her mother. Faleron rubbed his leg and released a sigh of relief.

After a few moments, Kel came back into the house with Celeste balanced on her hip. She pressed her cheek against her daughter's forehead as she continued to speak quietly to the person following her. Liam started to laugh a little crazily, earning himself wary looks from both Yvenne and Faleron. I made a mental reminder to smack him at least once before he left. His secretiveness was really starting to get on my nerves.

A man only a few years older than Kel walked in. His almost white blond hair was a little long though perfectly straight, brushing over his eyebrows and covering the tops of his ears. His blue eyes matched Conal's, though in an adult's face, they gave the illusion of being more ominous and foreboding. It was easy to see that Celeste got her nose from her father. He had a regal, but dark look about him, despite the ghostly pale skin, that probably made strangers pee in their pants. And his mouth… His pale lips looked like they did not like to smile.

I'd seen him before.

And apparently, the feeling was mutual. He halted his steps just as his wife had done before. He stared at me, unmoving for several moments. A shiver went up my spine. I gulped and unconsciously tightened my hold around Conal. The pain in my ribs was forgotten and disappeared.

"Hey, Joren. Brought you a present," Liam almost sang tauntingly. "Do you like it? I could always take it back and ask Dad for a better model." What the hell? Was he talking about me?

"Never tried, never tested, but strong."

Where the hell did that come from?!

"Don't fuck around with me, Irons. Is this for real or not?" Joren demanded. His voice almost made me jump.

"Joren!" Kel hissed. She gestured to the children, upset that he'd cursed around them. She sighed. "Hey, kids, come with me into the kitchen. Yvenne? Fal? Would you two like something to eat?"

They followed her without protest. Joren touched his wife's back as she passed by, a small gesture of affection that struck a chord within me for whatever reason. Yvenne gave me an encouraging look, urging me to be brave. I didn't know what I needed to be brave for. The man seemed menacing, but I didn't think he would actually hurt me. I just met him for crying out loud! Though… sheesh… I know I've seen him somewhere else before.

You're really dense today, aren't you? The pain clouding your mind, boy?

I glared at Liam. He now had his feet up on the coffee table, ankle crossed over ankle, while he spread his arms out along the top of the couch. Smug bastard.

"What's your name?" Joren asked me. He set his motorcycle helmet down on the table and stared me down. His hard appearance of leather jacket and black jeans intimidated me. It was an alien feeling, this intimidation. It made my mouth dry and squeezed my intestines in a vise.

"I'm Vinny."

"Coram Vincent Winston," Liam elaborated, winking in my direction. That's it. Definitely punching his lights out before he leaves.

Joren exhaled deeply. His gaze faltered for a moment. For a brief second, I saw a flicker of remorse wash over his face.

Liam, is he…?

I told you I was taking you to your father's house, oh ye of little faith.

"Hello, son."

I don't believe in fairy tales. I don't believe in gods. I don't believe in fate. But there's a heaven and there's a hell.

"H-hi."

This was one fucked up version of heaven.

But good first impression, don't you think?

"Is Dad here?" Joren asked Liam hoarsely.

Liam shook his head. "No. He went back home before someone saw him and reported him to the DJPF." He shrugged. "But he did ask me to tell you to come visit him sometime. When the kids are a little older. We're in need of a giant family reunion, don't you think?" Liam stood up. "Well, I'm going to see what Keladry's cooked in the kitchen. After so many years, Joren, I hope she's finally learned how to cook. When I dated her and snogged her senseless, she preferred to eat out."

"Would you leave so I could talk to him?" Joren yelled, very peeved. I made a mental note to inquire about the 'dating Kel' bit from Faleron later on.

I stood up as Liam exited, still whistling and strutting like always. Jeez, it looked like Yvenne would have her arms full with that guy. I wished my arm wasn't in a sling. I probably looked like a wimpy dork.

My father cleared his throat. "So, uh, what have you been up to?"

It wasn't a picturesque reunion. For that I was kind of glad. It seemed that neither of us was inclined to mushy sentimentalism. We weren't accustomed to displaying our feelings. I could just tell. My aloofness must have come from him. My… my everything must have come from him. It was almost like looking in a mirror. I see now how Mom could have been so shocked. We did look and act alike. Too alike.

"I looked for you and mom after I broke out of the hospital."

"Hospital?"

"Your wife has the documents. The DJPF are on their way there now to take control of all the children they've kidnapped."

He nodded. What an unbreakable stone gaze. "I… see."

"And, um… I met Mom. And Coram and Kimmy. They told me to say 'hi' for them."

This seemed to catch him off guard. His eyebrows rose slightly and all he managed was another, "I see."

I bit my lower lip. My heart wasn't pounding. My palms weren't sweaty. This was the most anticlimactic moment in my life, yes sir. Next time, I'll make sure I bring a tickertape parade and a marching band. For cryin' out loud…

"Dad?"

"Yes?"

"Who is Liam?"

"Liam Irons? He's… kind of like my stepbrother. Your grandfather 'adopted' him to piss me off."

We have a vindictive family. Makes a lot of sense.

"Dad?"

"Yes?"

"Did you look for me when you found out about me?"

He nodded slowly.

"Oh." This is it. Might as well take the leap now that I'm here. "And Dad?"

"Yes?"

"What are we?"

He moved toward the couch and I followed. We sat down together, my father scratching his chin contemplatively. As I examined his face, I was surprised to see how youthful he looked. He could have passed for my older brother if he wanted to, though he must have been past his mid thirties. I subconsciously fidgeted, curious as to what he would tell me. I'd been waiting my whole life for this. Not for "I love you, son" or "I missed you, son." I wasn't into that sort of thing. And as Yvenne already told me, I hated the world and I didn't know what all that love and beauty in the world meant.

"We're fallen angels, son."

At least it had nothing to do with science. No talk of antibodies or DNA. No neurosurgeons or child therapists. Just a pretty piece of irony. He went on to tell me about my adopted grandfather, Derek, and my real grandmother Celeste—for whom my half-sister was named for. He said I would meet my real grandfather some other day, when they went to visit him. For some reason, an image of Enishi Yukishiro flashed in my mind. I wondered what that creep had to do with this. Joren then told me anything I wanted to know about his life—his brief undercover operation for two years in Tusaine as Jack Winston, his life in Gala… I just sat back and listened like a wide-eyed child.

The days that followed were like a dream. Liam and Yvenne took off for Port Legann. It was a little disquieting though, to know that Liam was properly my uncle and that if he married Yvenne, she would be my aunt. Weirder things have happened… Liam promised me he would locate Baker and bring him along with them. The DJPF raided Styx Hospital and took the children into custody, finding over two hundred matches for ads from the Department of Missing Children. It was all over the news. Kel had me sign a form so that the media couldn't stalk me for interviews. They would have enough people to interview anyway. The majority of Gray Men in the hospital and around Mithros turned themselves in when they discovered that everything was over.

I got their names and planned on speaking to any of them that I could find. I don't know why. I just wanted to.

I moved into the guest room permanently. I was troubled at first. I had been a drifter most of my life, hustling and stealing where I could. And I was, after all, the "other woman's lovechild." Kel, who had kept her maiden name Keladry Mindelan, had very little problems accepting me into her home. I suppose she and my father had talked about me before. They called Julia to tell her that I was safe and that I could visit her anytime I liked. Julia made Kel promise to get me a proper education. A high school diploma and college, whatever they could get me. I wanted to tell them that I was smart enough—street smart and book smart. Hell, I was a freaking genius with a killer smile. But the planning gave Kel something to do with her spare time. I think she just likes accomplishing goals and tasks, no matter what type. I liked her.

She loved my dad. How could I hate someone who loved monsters like us? She's… strong. I don't know how, but I look at my dad and I see the way that he gazes at her when he thinks no one else is looking. Whatever promises he's made or broken to get here, he knows that this final product was worth it. She was worth it. It terrifies me a little. Sometimes I look into his eyes and I see an indescribable horror that will live within him always. A horror—an evil—that he wants to set loose from within him. Something that will tear everything he is and everything he loves into shreds. But he'll hold it in and hide it until the day that he dies because he would never hurt her. Again, anyway. Yukishiro was right, I suppose. My mother simply wasn't the one.

Faleron stayed with us for two days, sharing a room with me. His parents came up to Irontown after that. Though for all Faleron's complaining that his parents were never home and were now more entrenched in politics than they'd initially intended to be, it was plain to see that they loved their son and that they realized they had been doing him an injustice shipping him off every summer to a horrible school vacation. The kid would be okay. I just wondered what his parents would think when he'd finally tell them he wanted to enter the Academy early.

My arm healed very quickly. It made Joren smile. (This was a truly phenomenal thing, Kel told me. Joren like to smirk and he liked to be a badass, but he only legitimately smiled when his family was around.) He asked me if I had any scars. I showed him my burn scars from Styx experimentation. He told me in a subdued voice that he used to have burn scars, too. So, vain little me asked if he could show me how to remove mine.

"Just keep them. To remind you who you are."

"I'm Vinny Winston, Dad. I'm a cocky, image-conscious prick. Call Yvenne and ask her. She'll tell ya."

He smirked slightly and thumped me on the back. "You'll be more than that. Dom and Neal will come up here and they'll call you an imposter until you learn to ride a motorcycle."

"You're going to teach me? On Grandpa Derek's motorcycle, maybe?"

"If you want to learn."

I had spent my life only seeking knowledge.

Instead, I found beauty.

Author's note:

And here I end. Forever? Yeah, for this universe. I might finish that Rival Schools fic that I'd put on hiatus last year. I'm really trying to plan out an original story that I could eventually publish. If you guys have ideas for poems or short stories for ICBW and The Gift, though, I'd be glad to put them on my mailing list. A farewell tribute, if you want.

I don't know what else to say to you guys. Your support has been fabulous. I would have gone into high school making plans to become a pharmacist rather than a writer had it not been for people telling me that my writing was good enough. The course of my life has been altered forever. And I owe it all to you.

I hope you all find your own beauty in life.

Sayonara

Sulia Serafine