(Follows Thanksgiving in Durango)
Monday, December 21, 1998
Vin was awakened at the usual weekend time by the soft chimes of the alarm echoing through the Aerie. He lay under his covers, waiting as the bed curtains opened themselves and the lights slowly came up to a normal level. He took a deep breath and let it out slowly, savoring the fact that he was now officially on Christmas vacation – for two whole weeks! It made him feel tingly all over.
He smiled to himself, but then frowned slightly, remembering that he still needed to find Chris a Christmas present before he and the others went to Aunt Kathy and Uncle Daniel's house. So he only had until Thursday morning to find Chris something…
But how was he supposed to do that while he was still at school for the three days before the vacation, even if he was on vacation?
He'd have to ask Mr. Tiny about that today, when he went to the barns for his chores.
Children who were wards of the Academy stayed on campus for the holidays, unless they had friends or relatives who took them in. Aunt Kathy and Uncle Daniel had agreed to allow Chris and Buck stay on campus with the rest of Chris' team, who were all wards. But the seven boys would all spend the long Christmas weekend with the Larabees at their Durango home, just like they had at Thanksgiving.
Vin wasn't sure how it was that Ezra was really a ward of the Academy, since he still had a mama, but he remembered Chris telling him that Ezra's mama wasn't very good at it, so the school took care of Ezra for her.
"Vin, are you feeling all right, son?"
Vin sat up and looked at the reflection of Ms. Nettie in the mirror at the head of his bed. "I feel fine, Ms. Nettie," he said, then grinned a little. "I was just thinkin' 'bout Christmas."
The corners of Ms. Nettie's mouth curled up in a smile as she said, "That's understandable, but you need to make your bed and get ready for breakfast, young man."
"Yes, ma'am," he said a little shyly, and got to work.
Half an hour later, the seven boys were seated at their usual table in the great hall, which was nearly empty, with less than fifty children left on campus. They ate their breakfasts, then headed outside to do some chores until lunchtime.
Vin waved goodbye to the others and headed off toward the barns at a run. Kane, in a playful mood this morning, scrambled off Vin's shoulder and scampered through his shoulder-length hair to sit on top of his head, his wings stretched out as he leaned into the rush of wind.
Vin stuck his arms out at his sides and tilted them slightly as he ran along, pretending he was a hawk, flying high above the ground. He often had dreams like that, and he enjoyed them very much.
Tiny spotted them as they entered the barnyard and laughed as Kane launched himself from the top of Vin's head, executing a double back flip and landing on one of the corral fence posts where he hissed out a tiny bubble of flame that exploded like a miniature firework.
"I see he's in a mood today," the big man said, giving Vin a welcome hug.
"He's been tryin' t' find the present I got 'im for Christmas," the boy explained in a near-whisper the dragon could still hear. "But I got it hid real good."
Kane did look a little perturbed at that, and he circled three times and lay down with his back to both of them.
"I see," Tiny replied with a smile. "Well, it serves the ol' lizard right."
Kane flicked the tip of his tail, but otherwise continued to ignore them.
"Come on, Vin," Tiny said with a smile, "let's get to work."
"Mr. Tiny?" Vin said, stopping him.
"I still need t' get Chris a present for Christmas."
Tiny thought for a moment, scratching his chin. "Well, how 'bout you and me go to the Village after lunch then?"
"Can we?" Vin asked excitedly.
"I think that can be arranged," Tiny told him, his deep-set eyes twinkling.
"Thank ya, Mr. Tiny!" Vin said, giving the man a quick hug, then sprinting off to start his chores.
Tiny watched him go, chuckling. When Vin was gone from sight, he walked over to the fencepost and looked down at Kane. "You just wait until Christmas for that present, mister," he said, pointing his finger at the dragon. "It'll break his heart if you find that present early."
Kane huffed out a smoke ring as he stood on his hind legs, his scales turning a deep silver grey, his front legs reaching up to rest on two of Tiny's fingers.
"It won't kill you to wait – for once," Tiny said, peering at the tiny dragon.
Kane reared back and hacked a quick spark at the man's fingertips.
Tiny yelped and jumped back, shaking his hand. "Damn snippy lizard," he muttered as he stomped off, sticking the tips of his fingers in his mouth to suck on it.
Kane just curled up on the fencepost again, looking more than a little smug.
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
Vin finished all his usual chores at the barns, then raced back to the Aerie to shower and change before going to lunch in the great hall. He and the others ate, then headed out again, this time to follow whatever activity drew them.
Josiah said he was headed back to the library, and Nathan to the infirmary, since they both had more things to do. Buck and Chris grabbed their brooms and headed for the Western Hoops Field to practice, not wanting to lose their 'edge' over the break. Ezra didn't say where he was going, but his backpack was full of something. And JD finally decided to follow Josiah to the library – so he could find something to read for the rest of the day.
Vin hurried back to the barns where he found Mr. Tiny standing, talking to Lightwing. "Lightwing!" he called, running over to the winged-horse and throwing his arms around his neck.
Hello, Vin, Lightwing greeted the boy. I hear that you are going to the Village today. Would you like a ride?
"Really?" Vin asked, his eyes dancing with excitement.
Lightwing bowed so Vin – with a little help from Tiny – could climb onto his back. Once he was settled, Vin asked a little worriedly, "But how's Mr. Tiny gonna get there?"
"On my broom, of course," the man replied, grabbing his industrial push broom and climbing on.
They both lifted off into the air, Lightwing and Tiny racing toward the Village, the pegasus arriving a good minute and a half ahead of the big man, landing gracefully in the park where they waited for Tiny to join them.
"Thanks, Lightwing, that was great!" Vin said, sliding off the horse's back once Mr. Tiny was on the ground, then he smoothed down the horse's wing feathers his legs had ruffled slightly.
You are very welcome, Vin, and thank you, Lightwing said, bobbing his head in welcome as Tiny walked over to join them. How long do you think, Tiny?
"Oh, give us a couple of hours, okay?"
The flying horse looked over at the clock tower and cocked his head to the side, making an effort to determine when, exactly, that would be.
"Three-thirty," Tiny told him.
Ah, yes, I see it now. Very well, I will be waiting here at three-thirty, the pegasus promised, then lifted off back into the sky.
Tiny and Vin headed off, the boy exploring several shops before he entered Gambollini's Gaming Galleria. He walked slowly up and down the aisles, finally stopping at a glass cabinet that held lots and lots of Knights and Wizards figures.
One figure in particular caught Vin's eye. The blond man wasn't a knight, but he wasn't a wizard, either. He was dressed all in black, with silver gauntlets, and a silver helmet tucked under his arm. He carried a wand and a sword, and he looked kind of like Matthew and Daniel Larabee, but not identical to either.
It was easy for Vin to imagine that the figure looked just like what Chris would, when he finally grew up.
"Ah, I see you are admiring a very special player," a middle-aged man said as he walked up to join Vin.
"What is he?" Vin asked.
"He is an Avenger, a man on a very special quest – to avenge the deaths of innocents who have been killed by evil forces. He is both a knight, and a wizard, but one who only fights for good."
"How much does he cost?"
"Well, Avengers are very rare, therefore they are also expensive – one wand and seven swords."
Vin frowned. He didn't think he had that much left, but he pulled his bag of holding from his pocket and reached inside, thinking the amount as intently as he could. When he pulled his hand out, he saw that he was three swords short of the necessary amount. He sighed. "I ain't got enough," he mumbled sadly.
"Here, Vin," Tiny said, handing him the last three swords.
Vin looked up at the man. "But I can't," he said. "I can't pay y' back."
"Well, how about you come out and help me a little extra around the barns over the holidays, and we'll call it even?" Tiny suggested.
"Really?" Vin asked, looking about as excited as he did when he got a chance to ride Lightwing.
Vin's smile got even wider. "Okay!" He turned and handed the man the last of his money, plus the Swords from Tiny. "Here, sir. I want the Avenger, please."
"I'll even wrap him up for you," the man said, taking the money and then removing the figure from the case and going to the counter where he put it in a box and wrapped it with gold foil and added a green ribbon. "There you are, son. You've made a fine purchase."
"Thank you, sir," Vin said, accepting the wrapped box and placing it in his bag of holding, then returning that to his pocket.
Tiny checked his watch, then said, "I think we even have time for a trip to the Candy Store before we meet Lightwing. He loves the honey-cinnamon nuts."
They headed out and walked over to Lady Cynthia's Candy Emporium, Tiny getting some mints for himself, and the nuts for Lightwing. He also picked up a hopping toad filled with liquid chocolate for Vin. The boy almost lost his treat when he opened the box and the toad leaped out, but he caught it and popped it into his mouth pretty quickly.
"Mmm," he sighed as the hard chocolate shell instantly melted and the liquid chocolate flooded his mouth. "Thank y', M' T'ny," he said thickly.
"You're welcome, Vin," the man replied, chuckling as they headed to the park to find Lightwing.
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
As they were flying back to the Academy, Vin glanced up and saw an eagle circling in the air high above them. He felt what was now a familiar tingle in his body, and he sighed, wishing he could fly all by himself like that, too. Sometimes it felt like he could, if he just knew the right spell to make it happen.
When they landed, Vin ran over and grabbed the grooming bucket, giving Lightwing a good brushing while the pegasus enjoyed his honey-cinnamon nuts.
Vin stayed at the barns right up until it was time for dinner, then raced across the grounds to the great hall to join his friends, Kane back on his shoulder.
Wednesday, December 23,1998
Vin spent all of his free time at the barns on Tuesday and Wednesday. Chris, Buck, and JD stopped by there as well to help him. Tiny was delighted to have so many available hands to put to use, so he had the boys repaint the outsides of both barns, which went pretty quickly once Chris figured out a spell that had the brushes working by themselves.
Wednesday, after supper, Vin ran to the infirmary to give Mrs. Potter the present he had gotten for her. It was a book to add to her large collection – Rebel Spurs – which the bookshop owner had said she'd been looking for, but they hadn't had a copy in good enough condition until just the day before Vin's shopping trip.
"Oh, Vin, this is wonderful!" Mrs. Potter told him, then gave him a hug. "And I have one for you, too."
"Y' do?" he asked, surprised.
She nodded, handing him a wrapped package. The paper was bright blue with silver snowflakes on it, and the bow was gold, with more silver snowflakes. "Wow," Vin breathed, watching as the snowflakes seemed to fall through the blueness.
"Go ahead and open it," she said, smiling.
He carefully removed the bow and paper, finding a book inside the box he uncovered. "Vin Tanner's Favorite Books," it said on the outside cover, and when he opened it to the table of contents he found the titles of all the books he'd borrowed and read already – Black Beauty, 101 Dalmatians, The Starlight Barking, White Fang, Balto, Call of the Wild, San Domingo: The Medicine Hat Stallion, A Horse Named Seabiscuit, and several others – all of them about horses or dogs. He looked up at Mrs. Potter, his mouth open with delighted surprise.
"Whenever you want to re-read any of the books you've already read, you just run your finger over the title, and this book will be that book."
"Really?" he breathed.
She nodded, smiling. "And when you read other books that you like, those titles will be added to the list, too."
"Wow," he breathed out, giving the woman a big hug. "Thank you, Mrs. Potter!"
"You're very welcome, dear," she said. "And I have a new book for you to borrow, too."
"I was gonna ask ya if y' did," he said, taking the unwrapped book she handed him and studying at the picture of the handsome horse on the cover before he looked at the title – Justin Morgan Had a Horse. "I'll probably be done before classes start again," he told her.
"Well, if you are, I'll find another one for you," she told him, thinking that she'd give him King of the Wind next. He seemed to really like Henry's horse stories.
"Okay," he agreed.
"Now, you'd better get back to the Aerie, young man. You need to pack for your vacation!"
He nodded, saying, "Merry Christmas, Mrs. Potter!"
"Merry Christmas, Vin," she replied, opening the door and watching him run back toward the dorm. She shook her head, wishing she had just a fraction of that energy at her age.
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
Once Vin was back at the Aerie, he found the presents he'd picked out for Ms. Nettie and Professor Ko-Jay. He had already given Mr. Tiny his earlier – a small glass sculpture of a flying horse that Vin thought looked a lot like Lightwing.
Mr. Tiny had said he loved it, and he'd put it in his kitchen window. His house was near the barns, and he said that, sitting there, the sunlight would catch it in the mornings while he drank his coffee.
It had made Vin feel good to know that the big man had liked the gift, and had put it in such a special place.
Going to Professor Ko-Jay's door, Vin knocked lightly and waited until the old man opened it and smiled down at him. "Good evening, Vin, can I help you?" he asked.
"Merry Christmas, Professor," Vin said, holding out a brightly wrapped package. "I got one for Ms. Nettie, too."
"Well then, come in, and we'll invite her down to get it," Ko-Jay said, walking over to his crystal ball and letting Nettie know she was needed.
A moment later, she joined them.
"Merry Christmas, Ms. Nettie," Vin said, handing her a small box that was wrapped in green and red foil with a silver bow.
"Why thank you, son," she said.
She and Ko-Jay opened their gifts. His was a pouch of high quality tobacco, and hers a small, animated statue of a badger. It came out of its den, glanced around and, seeing that there was nothing of interest going on, turned back around and returned to its den once more.
"Thank you, Vin," Ko-Jay said, "that was very thoughtful of you."
"It's okay?" Vin asked, looking a little worried. "I asked Chris' Uncle Daniel what I should get ya, and he said you'd like it."
"He was right," the old man replied with a pleased smile.
"Oh, good," Vin replied, looking much relieved. "I wanted t' say thank ya for all yer help with the ghost."
"Well, this is a very good thank you," Ko-Jay assured him.
Vin smiled, then looked at Ms. Nettie a little shyly.
"And this is just delightful," she told him. "Thank you, son."
That put the big smile back on Vin's face and he let out another small sigh of relief.
She leaned over and whispered in his ear, "I got you a little something, too, but it's waiting for you at the Larabees' house."
Vin's blue eyes rounded. "Y' did?" he whispered back.
She nodded. "Merry Christmas, Vin. Now, you'd better go get packed, young man."
"Yes, ma'am!" he said, bolting from the apartment, a big grin on his face.
The two adults watched him go.
"He is a thoughtful boy," Ko-Jay said, nodding to himself and looking pleased.
"Yes, he is," Nettie agreed, knowing he was going to like the present she had found for him.
Thursday, December 24,1998
The following morning, Vin awoke in the top bunk of the double bunk bed – the same one he'd used when he'd been at the Larabees' over the Thanksgiving break. He yawned and stretched, listening to see if anyone else was awake, but all he heard were a few soft snores coming from the other beds. Every boy was back in the same bed he had used the month before.
Vin's backpack was at the foot of his bed, propped between the end of the bed and the wall, so he sat up and opened it, pulling out the book Mrs. Potter had loaned him, and his glasses, reading for a little while before the others began to wake up as well. Then it was off to the bathrooms to get dressed before they settled around the table for Gild hotcakes, sliced peaches, and glasses of milk.
After breakfast they were put to work decorating the big Christmas tree that sat waiting in the living room. Vin watched delightedly as Josiah had some of the ornaments dancing around and hanging themselves on the thick boughs, and he wished he knew as much magic as the fourth year student did.
He and JD were in charge of putting on the tinsel – JD by throwing handfuls at the tree, and him, one strand at a time – while Buck and Chris were setting up a cool train set that would circle around under the tree.
Nathan and Ezra had put on the lights, and were now helping Josiah with the ornaments while magically stringing popcorn to hang on the trees in the front yard for the local animals.
When they were finally all done, Daniel and Kathy came out to see their accomplishment, then added a bright star to the very top.
After they all stood, admiring the tree for a while, Daniel stepped back and pulled out his wand, saying, "Pone dona sub arbore," and stacks of brightly colored presents appeared under the tree. He added, "Custodiant dona abscondito."
Vin cocked his head to the side as he saw what looked to him like silver metal cages appearing around each gift. Chris and Buck groaned loudly.
"What is that?" Vin asked.
"What does it look like?" Buck wanted to know, wishing he and the others could see what Vin saw.
"Like silver cages 'round all the presents," Vin said.
"That's because we don't want you finding out what your gifts are until tomorrow morning," Kathy explained, and Vin realized that what he was seeing was the magic to keep them from doing just that.
"Don't we get to open one tonight?" Buck asked, adding, "Please?"
"You know the rules, Champ," Daniel told him with a smile. "Presents are for Christmas morning…"
"…Christmas Eve is for the story!" Buck and Chris chorused together, but it was clear that they would have preferred presents.
"What story?" JD asked.
"The Christmas story," Josiah told him.
"But first we'll have some lunch," Kathy told the boys, who cheered and thundered to the dining room table where they made themselves sandwiches from the fixings that were waiting for him. After they had eaten, Daniel took them out to play Hoops for a while, giving Kathy time to tidy up the tree a bit – young boys not having the same regard for spreading the ornaments and tinsel evenly over the whole tree, including the back – and get dinner started. It still amazed her just how much a group of seven boys could eat.
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
After several hours playing Hoops, and dinner, the boys settled in the living room on the floor in front of the big fireplace hearth. Kathy handed out cups of hot chocolate with marshmallows.
On the brick hearth were several small figures, which began to move after Daniel pointed his wand at them and said, "In motu positae."
A disembodied voice began to read the Christmas story, and the small figures acted out the events described in the story until they were all finally gathered at a small stable, from which they heard the cries of a baby.
"Cool," JD said, his eyes alight with excitement.
Daniel pointed his wand at the figures and said, "Imitantia carmen," and the voice became music. As the popular Christmas songs were sung, their lyrics were acted out by appropriate figures on the hearth, much to the boys' delight. And when it was an hour past their usual bedtime, they were herded off to the basement.
Once in their beds, they lay awake, listening to see if they could catch the sounds of sleigh bells, but each one fell off to sleep before he had.
Friday, December 25,1998
Buck and JD were the first two up Christmas morning, and they quickly roused the others, who didn't seem to mind, except for Ezra, who protested the "ungodly hour."
"Our presents aren't going anywhere, you know," he muttered, trying to disappear back under his blankets, but Buck grabbed them and yanked them off the bed. "C'mon!" he said, grinning. "I want to go see what Santa left us!"
"Surely you are no longer under the mistaken impression that an aged, obese man delivers your gifts, are you?" Ezra demanded.
"Of course not!" Buck said, then grinned. "I figure he's the King of the dorm elves, and the Headmaster sends 'im to give us all presents from him and the rest of the staff."
Ezra blinked, nearly convinced that that was indeed what Buck believed, but then he saw the humor dancing in the older boy's blue eyes, and he sighed dramatically. "Oh, very well," he huffed, crawling out of bed and pulling on his housecoat before magically returning his blankets to their proper place before he followed the others up the stairs.
Daniel and Kathy were waiting for them, breakfast already on the table.
The boys wolfed down their meals, then clamored into the living room, the two adults following with cups of coffee in their hands. Buck took it upon himself to distribute the gifts, each boy getting eight apiece, except for Vin, who had nine – his extra one being the gift from Ms. Nettie.
Wrapping paper was quickly shredded, and bows flew about the room as the boxes were opened. The noise level swelled as the boys cheered and exclaimed over their new toys and other items.
Kathy leaned over and socked Daniel on the arm when Buck thundered, "Exploding pencils? Brilliant!"
"What?" Daniel yelped, trying hard to look innocent.
"Those are from the Exploding Tuffet," she growled at him.
He grinned a little sheepishly at her and nodded. "Yeah, they spent quite a bit of their money there, I'm afraid."
Kathy just rolled her eyes. "You remember what I told you?"
He nodded dutifully, but his eyes were alight with amusement. "I'll be doing all the cleaning up."
"You most certainly will," she agreed, nodding emphatically.
A couple of hours passed as the boys marveled over their acquisitions and showed them off to one another. Vin had opened everything except the present from Ms. Nettie, which he had hid under his pile of gifts so he could open it later, when he was alone.
He looked down at all the things his friends had gotten him and smiled. They were all wonderful, and reflected the personalities of the givers rather well, he thought.
JD had gotten him a tiny sofa for Kane. It was made of polished dark wood and had green silk upholstery that was embroidered with a gold, silver, blue, and red dragon. And from the way the tiny dragon was already lounging on it, he loved it.
Vin grinned and took the dragon's gift from his pocket and set it in front of Kane, who huffed smoke spirals from his nostrils – a sign that he was happy. Using his claws he opened the small gift, then pulled out the pewter statue and stared at it. Turning his head, he looked at Vin and puffed out two smoke hearts. He loved it.
Turning back to the statue, Kane imitated the pewter dragon's pose, then coughed out a tiny ball of flame that exploded like a miniature red firework.
The other boys laughed at the tiny dragon's antics.
Kane pulled the statue over next to his sofa and got comfortable, staring happily at the crystal the statue dragon was holding.
Vin had gotten JD a magical organizer, something the boy had said – numerous times – that he'd wanted, although Vin had no idea why. JD was more organized than all the rest of them put together. But JD had squealed with delight when he'd seen it, so he guessed he'd made a good choice.
Buck had gotten him a leather broom-handle charm that had a black horse dangling from it, and Vin couldn't wait to fit it on Peso's handle. Vin had gotten Buck a single dose of liquid luck, which the boy had been delighted to see. Again, Vin wasn't sure why Buck had wanted it – after all, he seemed pretty lucky overall – but he'd really tried to get things that he'd heard the other boys say they wanted.
He was a little worried that he'd done something wrong with that one, though, given the worried glances Aunt Kathy and Uncle Daniel exchanged, but they hadn't said anything, and Buck had already tucked the gift into his pocket – "for safekeeping."
Nathan had gotten him a Knights and Wizards figure, and like the one he'd gotten for Chris, this one looked like an adult version of Vin. The figure was dressed in leathers, and sitting astride a winged-horse with battle horns, and he was carrying a sword and a wand.
"The character's a Guide," Nathan told him. "He can fight with a sword, or a bow and arrows, like a Ranger, and he can track like a Tracker, but he also does magic, and is especially gifted with magic that involves nature and animals. Guides are always good, and they usually partner with another character who's on some kind of a quest for good."
"Cool," Vin breathed, looking the figure over. He glanced over at Chris, who was admiring his Avenger, and grinned. The older boy grinned back, both of them ready to go play with their new figures.
Vin had gotten Nathan a medical potions kit, which he'd talked about wanting. "Perfect!" Nathan had exclaimed when he'd seen it, so Vin was sure he'd made a good choice there, too.
Vin thought he might just like Josiah's gift best of all, though. The fourth year student had gotten him a book of magical signs and symbols, and he was already looking forward to trying to figure out what some of the designs in his classrooms and the Aerie were.
He had gotten the older boy a blown glass orb that would play whatever music the one holding it thought about. He heard Josiah humming under his breath all the time, and he'd hoped he'd like the gift.
And Chris really seemed to like his Avenger figure, too, for which Vin was grateful. In fact, Chris hadn't really put it down since he'd opened it. And Vin was sure that he'd never take off the gift Chris had gotten him – a bracelet that looked just like the one Chris' family had made for him, even if it didn't have any of the magic Chris' did. Still, it was a mark of their brotherhood, and Vin treasured that.
Ezra had already pulled on the sweater Vin had picked out for him. It was a dark but unusual shade of green that matched the boy's eyes, and it was made of the softest material Vin had ever felt. He knew Ezra liked soft things, and the shop-keeper had said the color was "rich," so he'd hoped Ezra would like the sweater, and he guessed he did, since he was already wearing it.
The dark-haired second year had gotten Vin a utility wallet, which could magically supply emergency money, maps, and identification if they were ever needed. It was made from soft, tan leather and there was a dragon, a pegasus, and a griffin tooled on the front fold that Vin thought looked really cool.
Each of the boys had also gotten a box from Kathy and Daniel, and when they opened it, they found whatever clothing they were in most need of. For Vin that meant a new pair of jeans, a nice, long-sleeved blue shirt, and a blue, white, and black flannel shirt to go over it. He left the extra underwear and socks in the box, too embarrassed to take them out in front of the others.
He had gotten the two adults a box of magical candies that the store owner had said would be "most appreciated by a loving married couple" – whatever that meant. The important thing was, the older woman had promised him that they would love the "thoughtful" gift. And given the smiles on their faces when they had seen the box of chocolates, she had been right.
The couple had also gotten them all the newest Knights and Wizards board to play on, which was twice as big as their old board, with lots of new landscapes, towns, and castles to explore. And as soon as they had all finished opening all their presents, Buck pulled the board over close to the tree and they settled in to play for a while.
Vin glanced over at his last, still unopened gift, and chewed on his lower lip.
Kathy saw him and came over, whispering in his ear, "Why don't you bring it into the kitchen and open it there?" Vin looked up at her as she said to the others, "Vin's going to help me bring in some wizard's coffee for all of you. We'll be right back."
"Wizard's coffee?" Buck echoed. "Yipee!"
"Come on," she said, taking Vin's hand.
He reached out and grabbed the last thin box, following her into the kitchen where she worked on the hot drinks while Vin carefully opened the box. Inside was a small, five-by-seven inch picture set inside a plain wooden frame. The picture was of two students, a boy and a girl, playing in the snow…
Vin sucked in a sharp breath as the figures smiled and waved at him. It was his mother and father, he was sure of that. He studied the image. She was pretty, with blond hair and large blue eyes, and a smile Vin sometimes saw in the mirror. His father had darker, reddish-brown hair, but pale blue eyes as well. His features were more angular than his mother's, and Vin guessed that girls might think he was 'handsome.'
Under the picture was a small card, and Vin picked it up and handed it to Kathy, asking, "Can y' read it? I don't have m' glasses."
She smiled and read aloud, "Dear Vin, I was able to find this picture of your mother and father in the Academy archives. This was taken at the beginning of October, just after an unexpected snowstorm. I thought you should have it. Merry Christmas, Ms. Nettie."
Vin felt the tears well up in his eyes, but he didn't feel as sad as he thought he should, looking at them. They seemed very happy and, as he watched, Michael Tanner turned his head and kissed his mother on the cheek. He could see the love she felt for him in her eyes, and he smiled and wiped his eyes.
"You'd better go add this to your pile of presents. I think they'll all want to meet them, don't you?" Kathy asked him.
Vin nodded and carried the picture back out to the living room, showing it to the other boys, all of who crowded around to see it.
"Your mom was hot!" Buck said, staring at the picture.
"Buck!" JD yelled, scandalized. "That's Vin's mother!"
"Yeah, I know," the thirteen-year-old said, rolling his eyes. "But it's true! I mean, just look at her!"
"She was a lovely young woman," Ezra agreed, nodding.
"Your father was handsome, too," Josiah told him.
"You want to play now?" JD asked Vin, who nodded, feeling a little embarrassed, but not knowing why.
"We have your figure on the board," Nathan told him.
Vin set the picture down with his other gifts, then smiled at the two figures and whispered, "Merry Christmas, Mama… Daddy," then he turned and hurried over to join the other boys in the game.
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
The rest of Christmas Day passed in a blur of games, good food, music, and magic – as some of the boys used their gifts from the Exploding Tuffet to wreak havoc on the family home, which Daniel dutifully cleaned up.
Vin's personal favorite was the Instant Winter Wonderland, which added three feet of snow to everything inside and outside the house, for about a hundred yards in all directions. The boys had a great time making snowmen, getting into snowball fights, and sledding down the stairs. Daniel left the outside snow where it was so they could enjoy it the following day, but he was careful to restore the inside of the house to "normal."
Magic really was the coolest thing Vin could imagine.
By the time they were ready for bed, they were all exhausted, and they tumbled into their bunks, falling asleep almost immediately, their presents strewn across their beds with them.
Saturday, December 26,1998
After sleeping in a couple of hours, the boys were up and playing again. JD treated them to his Circus in a Box, and they all sat and watched the acts in the huge tent until their stomachs were growling loudly.
Kathy cast a pause spell, and the boy ran back inside to get lunch before going back out to watch the rest of the show. Then they took turns jumping into their favorite acts.
Ezra joined the trapeze act, while Vin decided to be a tiger tamer before hurrying over to join the trick riders.
Josiah had himself shot from a huge cannon, and Nathan played a flute to hypnotize several large cobras that circled around him.
Buck and Chris both joined several others on motorcycles in a large steel cage, riding in circles so fast they were just a blur to the onlookers.
JD walked across a thin tightrope, then turned around and walked back. But halfway back he stopped and leaped into the big net under him, bouncing up and down several times while he giggled madly.
Kathy tried not to worry, but she eventually gave up, nibbling off most of her fingernails before she could call them in for supper. One of the tigers followed Vin inside and curled up next to his chair, watching the boy eating with hopeful curiosity.
Once everything was cleaned up and returned to the box – the tiger included, much to Vin's dismay –the boys hurried off to get ready for bed.
Chris caught Vin as he was coming out of the bathroom, whispering, "I'd like to go see my family tonight."
Vin nodded. "Y' want me t' tell Buck?"
Chris nodded. "We'll wait 'til the others are asleep."
Vin nodded a second time and headed down to the basement where he found Buck sitting on his bed, trying to decide if he wanted to use another of the gifts from the Exploding Tuffet before he went to sleep.
Vin walked over and looked down at the gags and shook his head, then said quietly, "Chris wants t' go see his folks, ya wanna come?"
"Yeah," Buck said, grinning. "When?"
"After everybody's asleep."
Buck nodded and started putting his stuff back into his backpack as the others came in, climbing into their bunks.
Once the lights were off, Vin sat up to wait, not wanting to fall asleep. Several minutes later, Chris whispered, "Vin, you awake?"
"Yeah," Vin replied, climbing down to join Chris in his bed. Buck was also there.
The three boys settled in, Chris and Buck lying side by side, Vin between facing the opposite direction between them, his feet pressed to the wall between their heads. He held each of their hands.
"Think purple, Buck," he told the boy, then closed his eyes and did the same.
A very short while later the three boys were standing on the purple path, but it seemed different from the last time they had come over Thanksgiving. It was almost like it was nighttime, dark shadows creeping close to the edge of the path, where all the purple flowers hung in the trees. They couldn't really see the pine trees at all this time.
"It's different," Buck said as he climbed on Vin's back.
The younger boy made it a few steps but then Buck was disappearing. A moment later he was gone.
"Hey!" Chris yelped.
"Where'd he go?" Vin asked, straightening up.
"I don't know," Chris said, looking a little worried.
Vin glanced around as he felt a cold chill race up his back. "We better hurry," he said, feeling scared, but not sure why.
Chris reached out and took his hand and they ran down the path toward the house. As they got closer it seemed to get lighter, and Vin looked up through the trees and flowers to the sky above. He saw something streak past them in the sky, and for a moment he thought it was the same creepy figure he'd seen when Benley Gaunt had tried to use the Killing Curse on them, but then it was gone and they were at the front porch of the house.
Chris knocked on the door, and a few moments later his mother answered it, looking very relieved to see that it was Chris and Vin. "Hurry inside," she told them, and they did.
Once inside, Vin slowly glanced around, seeing that the house looked more shabby and rundown than it had the last time. The Larabee family also looked more haggard and tired, each of them with dark circles under their eyes. He shivered.
"Where's Buck?" Sarah asked.
"He faded away," Chris said.
"I tried t' carry 'im like the last time," Vin said, "but it didn't work this time."
Matthew and Rebecca exchanged worried glances, then he said to them, "Boys, have a seat." He looked directly at his son and added, "We need to have a talk."
Chris and Vin both sat down on the sofa, Chris between his sister and little brother, Vin at the far end next to Adam. He noticed that the little boy felt ice cold where their legs touched.
Chris was frowning as he said, "What's wrong? Why didn't you decorate for Christmas?"
Matthew and Rebecca came over and knelt side by side in front of Chris. Rebecca reached out and took her son's hands in hers as Matthew said, "Chris, son, we taught you from the time you were a little boy that there were some things that magic couldn't do…"
Chris frowned. "Yeah," he said suspiciously.
"And one of those things was hold off death," Matthew added.
"But you're not dead!" Chris nearly yelled. "You're here. You're safe."
"No, Chris, we're not," Rebecca told him. "This was never supposed to be permanent. We just wanted a chance to say good-bye to you and Buck."
"Son, you need to listen," Matthew said. "We've been here too long."
"No!" Chris yelled. "No, I don't want you to go!"
"We have to, Scooter," Sarah said, using the nickname she had given him when he was Adam's age. "If we stay, we might get corrupted."
"I don't wanna go!" Adam wailed, grabbing hold of Chris, who gasped at the icy cold that invaded his body. He started to shake and his lips started to turn blue.
"Let 'im go!" Vin yelled at the little boy as he grabbed him and pulled him back.
"No!" Adam screamed, reaching for Chris again.
"Adam! Stop!" Matthew thundered and the little boy slumped back against the sofa, his arms folded over his chest.
The man looked back at his son, saying, "Chris, we need to say good-bye. You need to let us move on, before it's too late."
Chris looked distraught. He knew something was terribly wrong, but he didn't want to lose his family again. He'd just gotten them back. "But—"
"We love you, sweetheart," Rebecca said, reaching out to caress his cheek, but her touch was nearly as cold as Adam's. "But you have to let us go. If you keep us here too long, we'll turn into Shades."
"Shades?" Chris asked, his voice shaking.
"Evil ghosts," Sarah explained. "And if we do, we'll try and trap you here with us – forever."
"I want to be with you forever!" Chris told her.
"I know, baby, I know," Rebecca told him. "But we're dead, and you have your whole life in front of you. You have to let us go and live your life."
"I can't!" he cried, his throat getting so tight he couldn't speak.
"I want Chris to stay!" Adam yelled.
Vin was getting really scared, but he wasn't sure what to do.
"Son, you know we can't stay," Matthew said.
"Daddy!" Chris wailed, and threw himself into the man's arms.
Matthew held him, rocking him tenderly as he said, "We love you, son, very much. And we're very, very proud of you. We know this is going to be hard, the hardest thing you've ever had to do."
"No, Daddy!" Chris cried, but the sound was muffled by the fact that he had his face pressed tightly against his father's chest.
"You have to, son. Promise me."
Chris jerked back and scrambled away from his father. "No!"
"Chris, baby, please," Rebecca pleaded. "We don't want to hurt you, or Vin, but if you don't let us go, we will."
"We'll kill you," Sarah added. "We'll kill you both."
Chris looked like he was about to panic, so Vin bolted off the sofa and grabbed his arm. "We have to go," he said, blue eyes locking on Chris' green. "Now."
Chris didn't nod, but Vin felt him relax ever so slightly, and he turned and dragged Chris along with him to the door.
"Chris!" Matthew called. "You have to let us go!"
"Before summer!" Rebecca called.
"Vin!" Sarah yelled, her eyes catching Vin's. "You have to help him!"
"Come on," Vin said, opening the door and pulling Chris outside. It was dark around the house, strange shadows darting from tree to tree as he forced Chris along with him as he ran down the path, thinking fervently about the house they had left.
A moment later they were in Chris' bed. Buck was sitting there, waiting for them. "What happened?" he asked.
"Get out," Chris snarled. "Both of you!"
Buck jumped at the tone, but he scrambled out of the bed.
"I'll tell ya t'morrow," Vin whispered to him as he climbed out as well.
The two boys returned to their beds. Vin lay down, listening to the muffled sounds of Chris as he cried.
Sunday, December 27,1998
The following morning Daniel and Kathy took the boys back to Wizard's Peak. They all had a great time, except Chris, who was quiet and withdrawn the entire day. Vin told Buck what had happened while they were on one of the rides together, and Buck then explained Chris' mood to the others, one by one.
It was obvious that Kathy and Daniel also knew something was wrong, and they kept a close eye on Chris. It wasn't until the end of the day, when Kathy and Vin were riding together on one of the roller-coasters, that she was able to get the story out of Vin.
Leaning closer, she wrapped her arm around the boy and said, "Ms. Nettie told me about the bracelet, and we knew this might happen."
"He don't wanna let 'em go," Vin said sadly. "They're his family."
"And so are we," she reminded him.
"It ain't the same," Vin mumbled.
"I know, but we are his family, and we'll all be there for him." She gave Vin's shoulders a squeeze. "I think you should tell Ms. Nettie what happened."
The boy nodded. He'd already come to that conclusion as well, but he wasn't looking forward to it.
"You're a good friend, Vin," Kathy told him. "A good little brother."
Vin looked up at her. "Chris ain't gonna think so."
"Maybe not right away, but he will, eventually."
Vin wasn't sure he believed her, but he knew he had to tell Ms. Nettie, especially if she already knew about the bracelet and Chris' family. He'd already seen what a bad ghost could do…
The day ended with a stop at one of the better restaurants in the Village, then the boys returned to Durango, packed up all their presents and belongings, and returned to Horsefeathers for the remainder of their vacation.
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
Vin hoped that Chris might come visit him after lights out, but the blond didn't come. Lying in the darkness, and knowing his bed curtains would keep him from being overheard, Vin called, "Ms. Nettie, can y' hear me?"
A moment later the mirror above Vin's head began to glow softly. "Vin, are you all right, son?" the older woman asked.
"No, ma'am," he replied. "I gotta talk t' ya."
"All right," she replied. "Reach up and touch the mirror with both hands," she instructed him.
Vin pushed back the covers and stood up on his bed, turning so he was facing the mirror. He leaned forward and pressed both of his palms to the cool surface. He felt an unusual tingling pass through his body and then he was standing in Ms. Nettie's apartment. She was waiting for him, wrapped in a thick housecoat.
Seeing her worried expression, he bolted forward and hugged her, getting a hug in return.
"Vin, what's wrong?" she asked, guiding him to a comfortable sofa near the fireplace. They sat down and Vin told her what had happened when they had visited Chris' family.
When he was finished, Ms. Nettie leaned back with a heavy sigh. "This isn't really a surprise for us," she told Vin. "No one, and no magic, can cheat death – not for very long, anyway."
"What's gonna happen?"
She thought for a moment, then said, "I'm not exactly sure, Vin. Each time something like this has happened, it's played itself out in a unique way. But the end result is always the same – if the souls don't move on as they were supposed to, they become corrupted and turn evil. When that happens, it can be very dangerous."
"Would they hurt Chris?"
"They wouldn't want to, but they might. When a soul is corrupted it's as if the person goes insane."
"Like Benley Gaunt did?"
Ms. Nettie nodded, but said, "Although that was a different kind of situation. As I said, each one is different. But a corrupted soul will become evil and they will harm even those they loved in life."
"What do we have t' do?"
She sighed again, and it sounded sad to Vin.
"We can't really do anything," Ms. Nettie said. "Chris is the one who must let them go so they can move on before it's too late."
"What if he don't want to?"
She hesitated, then said, "Then there is a good chance that they might drag Chris to the place they created, and they might all be stuck there forever."
Vin shivered. He didn't want anything bad to happen to Chris.
"Don't worry, you said that they said he had until summer to make his peace, and we'll all try to help him."
"Okay," Vin said, but he didn't sound all that convinced. He'd seen how angry Chris had been, and how withdrawn.
"Don't worry, Vin, we will get this sorted out."
"What'll happen when he goes t' see 'em in January?"
"I'm not sure," she admitted, then slipped her arm around him and pulled him into a hug. "Did you tell Kathy and Daniel?"
"I told Aunt Kathy," he replied.
"Good. I'm sure they will try and talk to Chris about it as well."
"He's too mad t' listen right now," Vin sighed.
"I know," she said. "Now, you'd better get back to bed."
Vin's eyes rounded slightly as he realized he was on the second floor – where the girls all stayed. "How?"
Ms. Nettie smiled slightly and pulled her wand from her coat pocket. "Like this," she said, pointing it at him and then saying, "Reverto."
A moment later Vin blinked and found himself back in his bed. "Thank ya, Ms. Nettie," he said.
"You're welcome," she replied in the mirror. "Now, good night, young man."
"G'night, Ms. Nettie," he said, snuggling into his blankets and closing his eyes. He hoped all the teachers could help Chris say good-bye to his family, but he knew it wasn't going to be easy.
Monday, December 28,1998
The following morning at breakfast Vin realized that there were fewer than twenty students left on campus now, and just the seven of them from Hawks Gild.
The boys ate a hearty meal, then headed off to do their chores, and play.
Vin watched Buck and Chris heading off together and frowned. Chris hadn't said anything at breakfast, and he hadn't smiled a single time since they had gotten back from the visit. He hadn't really talked to anyone either, except Buck, and then just in quiet whispers.
With a heavy sigh, Vin turned and ran toward the barns, wondering what he was going to do to help Mr. Tiny do today, and hoping that Chris might be in a better mood later in the day.
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
Vin spent the entire day at the barns, helping Mr. Tiny as he worked with all of the magical and non-magical animals. They cleaned, brushed, fed, and exercised lots of them. They stopped for lunch, of course, which was delivered by Ezra, who brought his own out to the barn as well to join them.
"Where are the elves?" Vin asked the second year boy.
"They're on vacation as well," Ezra stated. "Mr. Jones and I, as well as three elves who have decided to remain here for the holidays, are now all alone in the kitchen."
Vin nodded. "So, what's for supper?"
Ezra scowled. "Do you have any idea the amount of work that goes into making a meal, even for twenty people?"
Vin shook his head.
"Well, it's considerable, I can tell you that," Ezra huffed.
The younger boy thought for a moment, then said, "Well, yer doin' a good job," he offered. "Breakfast was good, an' so's this."
Ezra blinked, then grinned slightly and shook his head. "Yes, well, Mr. Leavereaton has not seen his way clear to allow me to actually create a meal on my own, or even a single dish, but he has allowed me to stir and mix his own creations."
Vin smiled. "Ya did a good job mixin' 'em up then; tastes good."
Ezra rolled his eyes, but he clearly enjoyed the praise.
When they were finished, Ezra collected the trays and dishes and magically sent them back to the kitchen to be cleaned, then he stopped to play with the griffin cubs for a few minutes before heading back to the kitchen to grab his stuff and head out to the library.
After Ezra had left, Tiny took Vin to the smallest of the three barns, which was slightly removed from the other two, larger, structures. The big man used it for animals that were either too dangerous for the children to be around, or for new arrivals, giving them time to adjust before they joined the other creatures in the two large barns.
Vin followed Tiny to one of the last stalls, but stopped short at the sight that greeted him. The creature looked like a horse, but one that was starving to death, its bones readily apparent under its hairless skin. And its wings looked more like a bat's than the beautiful feathered wings Lightwing possessed. In fact, it looked to Vin as if the animal was an odd mix of horse, dragon, and bat. Pure white eyes turned to stare at him and he shivered slightly, taken aback by the expressionless orbs that still seemed to see right into him. And yet, he didn't really feel afraid of the creature.
"What is that?" Vin asked quietly.
Tiny looked a little surprised when he turned back to look at Vin. "You can see her?"
Tiny shook his head, looking somewhat sad as he replied, "That's a thestral, Vin. It's another kind of winged horse."
"Looks like more 'n just a horse," Vin said, walking closer to the stall.
"Yeah, they do," Tiny admitted. "And most folks don't care for 'em, since they think they're bad omens – harbingers of death, and that kind of nonsense."
"Are they?" Vin asked, stroking the mare's nose when she lifted it over the edge of the stall and gently snuffled the front of his shirt.
"No," Tiny said, "but only those who have seen death, and fully accepted the concept, can actually see 'em."
"What do people use 'em for?" Vin asked, gently stroking the mare's nose.
That put a slight smile on Tiny's face. "Well, they're an alternative to a broom, if you can see 'em, or stand the idea of riding something you can't see, and they're smart, too – understand what you're saying, just fine – and they have a great sense of direction. When Professors Wells or Professor Ko-Jay sends a student out to the desert to do their spirit guide quest, they always go on a thestral – so they'll be able to find their ways back to Horsefeathers when they're done."
"Cool," Vin said, reaching up to rub between the mare's ears. There was no forelock, like you'd find on a horse, just a few soft hairs. "What's her name?"
"Miriam," Tiny replied. "She's gonna have a foal in the spring, so I wanted to keep her close, make sure she eats plenty."
"Yer gonna have a baby?" Vin asked her.
The thestral nodded her head, then swished her long, thin tail. It kind of looked like a rat's tail, but there were a few long, wispy hairs that grew from it.
"What does she eat?" the boy asked.
Tiny hesitated, then said, "Thestrals prefer blood, but they also eat carrion, and small rodents."
Studying the animal, Vin decided that Miriam was oddly beautiful, in a delicate, almost unearthly kind of way he had no words for. He smiled and continued to stroke her neck as Tiny entered the stall and rubbed her down with a soft cloth, then went to get her something to eat.
Vin walked around her, talking softly and running his hand over her skin, which was soft, like a snake's. He could see the bulge in her belly and knew that was her baby.
"Yer gonna be a mama soon," he said softly, and the thestral bobbed her head.
Vin smiled. "Don't you worry," he told her. "Me an' Mr. Tiny will take real good care 'a ya an' yer baby."
The mare dipped her head and gently rubbed his chest with her nose. Vin giggled.
Tiny returned with a bucket that was full of freshly killed rats, and the mare made quick work of them, swallowing them down whole like a bird of prey might. By the time she was done, he had gone and returned with another, smaller bucket, this time filled with blood. Vin wasn't sure where Mr. Tiny had gotten that, but she seemed to enjoy the treat.
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
Monday night, after dinner, the teachers gathered in the conference room just off Headmaster Travis' office. They each had a cup of coffee and they quickly settled around the oval table. Each of the faculty had a worried look on their face, except Professor Conklin, who looked rather bored.
"Any thoughts on how we might proceed?" Travis asked the others.
"I think it would be best if Raphael spoke to him," Ko-Jay stated, looking across the table at the younger man.
The Defense Against the Dark Arts instructor nodded. "I can do that, but I do not think he is ready to hear anything I have to say."
"No, probably not," Nettie agreed, "but if you start saying it now, and keep saying it, maybe he will hear it in time."
Chanu leaned forward slightly and added, "Maybe we all need to start saying it. Chris Larabee is a stubborn young man."
That put a small, slightly sad smile on Travis' face. "Yes, you're probably right, but let's allow Raphael to speak to him first. Chris respects him, and in his heart that boy knows the truth. If that doesn't produce results, then I'll speak to him myself." But he was sure he wouldn't need to. He knew more about Raphael's past than the others, and he suspected the younger man would be able to get through to Chris.
The others nodded.
"And if that doesn't work, then we'll all get on him," Travis added.
Yosemite nodded and added, "He's in a world of pain right now… poor little kid…"
"You have a big heart, my friend," Raphael said, giving the big man's back a sympathetic pat.
"Thanks," the grounds keeper replied, sniffing back a tear. "I'll talk to Tiny, too, let him know what's happening."
"Good idea," Nettie said. "He'll need to keep an eye on Vin. That boy will no doubt try to come up with a way to help Chris on his own…"
"The road to Hell is paved with good intentions," Conklin grumbled.
"Oh, Cravinis," Mrs. Potter scolded him, "how can you be so heartless?"
The older man huffed and folded his arms over his chest, but he didn't reply.
David Nichols coughed softly and glanced around at the others before he said, "We should probably start to put some safeguards in place… just in case."
"I'll set some wards tonight," Professor Brice offered.
"David and I as well," Raphael added.
Travis nodded, then glanced over at Tastanagi and his son, Imala.
"I'll do a chart, see when the greatest danger will be," Imala offered.
"Thank you," Travis replied, then looked at the older Brightwing.
"I sense danger," he replied, "but I also feel the conclusion will be a positive one," the older man finished.
"Thank goodness for that," Eban Levi breathed. He trusted his oldest friend completely, so if Tastanagi said it would end well, it would.
The other professors looked more than a little relieved as well.
"Let's get those wards set then," Travis said, glad that they had nearly a week before classes resumed to convince Chris Larabee that he had no choice but to let his family go.
And they were probably going to need every moment they had.
Tuesday, December 29,1998
Vin saw Professor Martinez walk over to where Chris and Buck were working with Mr. Yosemite. The two professors spoke for a moment, then Professor Martinez said something to Chris.
A moment later Professor Martinez was walking away with Chris, his hand on the boy's shoulder. They were heading toward the Defense of the Dark Arts building.
Vin watch them go, wishing he could run over and join his friend, but he had promised to rub the mama thestral down for Mr. Tiny, so he took a deep breath and started off toward the barns, not stopping again until he got there.
He wondered what it was Professor Martinez wanted with his big brother.
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
"Come into my office, Chris," Raphael said, opening the door and allowing the boy to enter first.
The blond walked in and glanced around. He'd only been in Professor Martinez's office once before, and that had been in his first year, when he'd tried to do a stunning spell without permission. He slid into a chair and asked, "Am I in trouble?"
"No," Raphael said as he walked around his desk and sat down, then changed his mind and got up, walking back around to take a seat in the empty chair next to the one Chris sat in. "Chris," he said, "we need to talk about your parents."
The professor watched the boy's spine go rigid, and knew this wasn't going to be easy. Taking a deep breath, Raphael amended that by saying, "I want to tell you about my father…"
Chris glanced up at the man, then looked away, wishing he could escape, but knowing he couldn't.
"My father died when I was about your age," the professor said. "He, too, found a way to… forestall the inevitable." He waited to see if Chris would say anything, and when it was clear that he wasn't going to, Raphael went on. "At first I was just glad that my father was still there with me, but then, slowly, over the next two years, I noticed that he was changing…"
"My parents aren't changing," Chris said in a huff, folding his arms over his chest and trying not to listen.
"Not yet, perhaps," Raphael said, "but they will, just as my father did. I didn't notice it at first, but after a time I could no longer remain so blind. Everything around him began to grow dark and sickly. I heard sounds, like the beating wings of bats in the shadows when I would go to visit him. And the shadows themselves began to grab at my pant legs. He grew darker as well. His anger would explode, and he would yell at me, tell me that he was sorry I was his son…"
Chris' head came up despite his resolve not to listen. It was impossible for him to imagine that the professor's father would be anything but proud of him. He was an amazing teacher, and someone who risked his life to fight the Dark Arts.
Raphael shook his head sadly. "He called me terrible names, and told me that he hated me."
Chris shivered. He wouldn't imagine hearing that from his dad, or his mom, or even Sarah or Adam. "He really did?"
"Yes, he did," Raphael replied. "After a while his physical appearance began to reflect the way he was acting, what he was saying… He began to change. His teeth became fangs, his fingernails like claws. Then, one day, he tried to kill me."
Chris heard himself gasp in surprise, but he refused to say anything. His parents wouldn't try and kill him. And neither would Sarah or Adam.
"But still I refused to believe what I was seeing before my own eyes…"
Raphael fell silent and Chris fidgeted in his seat for a couple of minutes before he finally had to ask, "What happened?"
The professor's lips pursed as he thought about how he ought to continue, and when he looked at Chris the boy could see that there were unshed tears standing in the man's eyes. "He became a Shade, Chris. And once he had, he was able to leave the place where he was staying… Three people died."
Chris swallowed hard. "Died?"
Raphael nodded. "My mother… my older brother… and my baby sister."
"Your dad killed them?" Chris asked, confused. How could that be true?
Raphael caught Chris' eyes and held them as he said, "When a soul becomes a Shade, they can no longer love. They cannot even care. All they want to do is to destroy life, and they will kill whoever they can lure to them. Your family will become Shades as well, if you cannot allow them to crossover to whatever waits for them."
"But I can't!" Chris argued, his own eyes filling with tears.
"I know it won't be easy," Raphael told him, "but we will all help you, and so will your friends."
Chris shook his head, determined that the tears would not fall.
"Chris, if they become Shades, they will not be limited to that bracelet. They will escape it, and then they will be here, at Horsefeathers. Do you want to see anyone here get hurt, or killed?"
"They won't hurt anyone!" Chris yelled, the first of his tears spilling down his cheeks.
"Yes, they will. Shades do not care. All they want to do is to kill, to capture souls and control them in the land between the living and the dead."
"They won't!" Chris argued.
"I did not want it to come to this, Chris, but you need to see what will happen…"
Raphael stood and walked over to a cabinet, opening the two doors. Inside, on a shelf, was a blue and white glass bowl. He took it out and walked back over to his desk, setting it down in the center. He glanced over at Chris as he said, "This is a pensieve; do you know what that is?"
Chris nodded. He'd heard about the strange device that could allow a person to see the memories of another. The boy squirmed nervously as he watched Professor Martinez return to the cabinet for a bottle of silvery liquid, which he poured into the bowl. Then, taking his wand, the man placed it against his temple and muttered something so softly that Chris couldn't make it out.
A moment later, the professor drew the wand away from his head, and a thin silvery wisp of… something trailed from the tip.
Raphael touched the tip of his wand to the surface of the liquid in the bowl and the silvery fluid turned a bronze color, swirling around the inside of the bowl.
"Come over here, Chris," Professor Martinez instructed.
Chris rose reluctantly and shuffled to the desk.
"You just need to bend over the bowl and stare into the liquid," Raphael told him. "It will draw you into my memory."
Chris swallowed hard, and inched closer to the swirling liquid. He glanced up at his professor, and Raphael nodded for him to continue. "I don't want to," Chris growled.
"I know, but you need to see the truth to embrace it."
With a deep breath, Chris leaned over and stared into the swirling liquid, seeing the start of a blue-black vortex beginning to form in the center. He was mesmerized by it and he leaned closer. A moment later, he was standing inside a house he'd never seen before. Nearby, a woman and three children were huddled near a fireplace.
"No!" the woman screamed. "You can't have them!"
"They are my children!" bellowed another voice, and Chris jerked and turned to see a nearly transparent figure of man, who looked haggard and in pain. He was slowly drifting across the room toward the woman and the children, and Chris knew immediately that he was a ghost.
"Not anymore!" the woman shouted back. "You are dead, husband! Leave us alone!"
"I miss you," the ghost said, sadness making his face turn a silvery grey. "Don't you want to be with me, Amada?"
"No!" she wailed, trying to force the children behind her. "Not like this! One day I will die as well and then we will be together."
The ghost drifted closer, eyes narrowing, face turning an angry shade of greenish grey. "But I love you!"
"You are dead!" she spat at him. "Go where the dead go and leave us!"
Those words sent the ghost into a rage, and he flew forward, wrapping his arms around the woman. She screamed, but it was already too late. Her life was drained from her in seconds, and her body slumped to the floor, dead.
"Mamá!" the little girl cried, reaching out for her mother.
"No, Catalina!" the older of the two boys said, grabbing the girl and pulling her back, putting himself between her and the ghost. He reached for his wand, but the ghost fell upon him as well, and he screamed and writhed for a few seconds before he, too, fell to the floor dead.
Chris, who had been rooted to the spot by surprise and fear finally raced forward, yelling, "Stop it!" But he passed right through the ghost as if he wasn't there.
The ghost floated closet to the last two children. "Catalina," he called, "come to papa."
The little girl looked up at the ghost, tears on her face. "What did you do to Mamá and Alejandro, papa?"
"Come to me, Catalina, please," the ghost cooed.
The little girl started forward, but the remaining boy grabbed her shoulder and stopped her.
"Raphael, let me go!" she said, jerking free.
And as soon as she was free, the ghost moved closer.
"Stay away from her, papa!" Raphael yelled, pulling his wand from his pocket and pointing it at the ghost.
"Raphael, I just want you both to come with me…"
"Stay away from her!"
But the ghost drifted closer to the girl, and when it was close enough, it reached out for her.
"Papa!" Catalina cried and reached for his hand.
"Revertetur ad mortuis!" Raphael yelled, pointing his wand at the ghost, but it was too late; Catalina's hand had slipped into the ghost's. The little girl shrieked and her body jerked with a terrible spasm. The ghost bellowed in rage, dropping the girl and starting toward Raphael.
The boy's eyes rounded in panic, but then hardened with determination. He pointed his wand at the ghost a second time, saying, "Recesserimus Aeternum!"
The ghost let out a sound like nothing Chris had ever heard, and then was gone. Catalina lay on the floor beside her mother, dead as well.
Chris didn't know what to do. He took a step toward Raphael, who had dropped to his knees on the floor, his face in his hands as he sobbed…
But then he was back in Professor Martinez's office. Chris was shaking and he looked up at the older man. "Was that…? Was that what happened?"
Raphael nodded once, his eyes still bright with the tears that refused to fall.
"That was your father?"
Raphael nodded once more.
"None of us can cheat death for long, Chris. No one. It does not matter if you are good or evil. Death cannot be cheated. It can be held off, for a time, but there is always a price to be paid. The dead are not meant to stay among the living. The longer they dwell, caught between the worlds, the more corrupt they become."
Raphael shook his head. "Your family has lingered for over two years. As they near three they will begin to change, and after three they will become Shades. Once they are, they will try to kill you, and Vin, if he goes with you to see them. It is not because they are evil, Chris, it is because no one can cheat death. You have to let them move on before that happens. If you do not, they become Shades that cannot move on, and when they are destroyed – and we will destroy them; we will have no choice – they will be gone forever."
Chris felt his whole body start to shake with a combination of anger and grief. "No!" he cried.
"You know it is the right thing to do. You know they want you to let them go."
"But I love them!" Chris wailed.
"I know you do," Raphael said, squatting down in front of the boy. He took the blond's shoulders in his hands. "I know you love them, Chris, and that is why you have to let them go. They will go on to whatever comes next for them. They will be dead, but they will still be. And you will see them again."
Chris burst into tears. In his heart, he knew what he had to do. He knew that he was not meant to have his family in his life, but he didn't want to let them go, either. He loved them. But he knew they wanted him to release them. He knew they loved him, and they didn't want to hurt him. But it had hurt so bad to lose them the first time, and he wasn't sure he'd be able to lose them again.
"I don't know how!" Chris spat angrily.
"I know you don't," Raphael said, "but we can help you."
Chris threw himself at the older man, wrapping his arms around Raphael's neck and sobbing.
Raphael hugged him tightly and let the boy cry himself out.
Several minutes later, the two were sitting side by side on one of the many benches outside the Defense of the Dark Arts building, looking out across the campus.
"I don't want to," Chris said softly, then sniffled.
"Will you show me how?"
"Yes, but we will need Professor Ko-Jay's help as well."
Chris didn't reply, and the two sat for several minutes before Raphael asked, "When?"
Chris glanced up at the man, then sighed and looked back across the landscape. "Dad said before summer… Sarah's birthday is in April…"
The older man nodded. "That is a fitting time."
"It won't hurt them, right?"
"No," Raphael told him, "they will not feel any pain."
"Okay," Chris said, but his voice was nothing more than a tired, defeated chirp.
Wednesday, December 30,1998
Chris spent the next day with Raphael and Ko-Joy, so Buck went with Vin to the barns, since JD had told him he was being too noisy in the library.
As the two boys cleaned up after the animals, Vin asked, "Buck, do ya think Chris hates me now?"
"Hates you?" the older boy echoed. "Why do ya think that?"
"He hasn't talked t' me since we got back from seein' his family."
Buck paused. "What's been happening?" he asked, remembering that night very clearly. What had Chris been doing to make Vin think he hated him?
Vin told him how Chris had been avoiding him, and how he hadn't come to visit him once since that night.
Buck sat down on the edge of the water trough. "Man, that's…" He didn't finish the sentence, just shook his head.
"I think he hates me," Vin said glumly.
Buck shook his head. "No. No, he doesn't, Vin. He's been lots happier since he met you."
"Look, Chris and his family were close – as close as you can get. Like me and my mom was, too. So when they died… He lost a lot."
"You did, too," Vin said, "when yer mama died, I mean."
Buck nodded. "But Mama told me when I was real little that she did some dangerous things, and someday that might get her hurt, or killed…"
"What'd she do?" Vin asked.
"Don't really know," Buck replied, his forehead furrowing. "She wouldn't tell me what she did, just that it was dangerous. She promised me that she'd make sure I was taken care of."
"Is that why ya went t' live with Aunt Kathy an' Uncle Daniel?"
Buck nodded. "Aunt Kathy and my mom were best friends. They went to the Academy together, with Chris' mama, too. Aunt Kathy and Uncle Daniel are my godparents."
"I don't got any godparents," Vin said. "If I did, I wouldn't have got sent t' live with Mr. Madden."
"Probably not," Buck agreed. "But now you've got Aunt Kathy and Uncle Daniel, too."
"I guess," Vin said, but he wasn't at all sure that was really the case, even though they were really nice. "But they already got you an' Chris."
"And Ezra, and Nathan, and Josiah, and JD, too," Buck added with a grin.
That made Vin smile, too. "And me?"
"Yep, and you, too."
"But if Chris hates me, they won't want me t'—"
"He doesn't hate you," Buck interrupted him. "He just hurts a lot inside right now. And Chris is kinda mean when he hurts inside."
Vin thought on that for a moment, then asked, "How can we make it feel better?"
"I don't know," Buck said sadly.
"Ya think Ms. Nettie might know?"
"Maybe, but Chris is… I think maybe we need to leave him alone for a little while. If he's talkin' to Professor Martinez, maybe he'll start feeling better soon."
Buck nodded. "Hey," he said, "let's go play with the griffin cubs!"
"Okay!" Vin replied, racing after the older boy. He hoped Buck was right, and Chris didn't hate him, but he knew he wouldn't believe it until Chris started treating him like a little brother again.
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
A couple of hours later Ezra joined them for lunch, and the three boys ate, then stretched out on the brown grass in the sun, soaking up the meager warmth. They talked about the animals, and Vin told them about the thestral. Buck and Ezra both wanted to see the creature, so Vin took them to the small barn, saying, "Ya gotta be real quiet an' nice t' her. She's gonna have a baby."
"We will," Buck assured him as they entered. "Wow," the dark-haired boy breathed when he saw Miriam.
"They're rather… unique-looking, aren't they?" Ezra said, not daring to get too close to the stall, even though Vin had gone right in with her and was rubbing her face.
"I think she's pretty," Vin said. "Not regular pretty, but pretty in her own way."
"Yeah," Buck agreed, moving to the stall and reaching over to run his hand over her shoulder. "Wow, she's really soft."
"Yeah," Vin agreed. "C'mon, Ezra, come say hello."
"I shall remain right here, thank you," he replied.
"She won't hurt ya. Will ya, Miriam?"
The thestral shook her head and turned milky eyes on Ezra, who jumped slightly where he stood.
"Oh, c'mon," Buck coaxed, slipping into the stall and walking up to the mare. "Vin said you're gonna have a baby," he said to the thestral.
She nodded, then sniffed his hair and chest, acquainting herself with his scent. She nibbled at his shirt pocket, where he had stashed the cookie from lunch for later. He laughed. "You want some of my cookie?"
She nodded again and made a sound that was half-whinny and half-keening noise.
Buck laughed again and took out the oatmeal-apple cookie, breaking it in half. He offered her a piece on his flat palm, and she daintily took it and ate it. He popped the other half into his mouth and chewed as well.
"Mmm, good, huh?" he asked, although his voice was muffled by the food.
The thestral snorted at his lack of manners.
Ezra had made it over to the stall, but he refused to enter. He stared at the thestral as if he expected her to attack one of them at any moment, but he finally worked up his nerve and slipped into the stall with the other two boys. He closed his eyes as Miriam sniffed him as she had Buck, then rubbed her nose on his chest.
"See, she likes ya," Vin told him.
"I'm pleased to hear that," Ezra replied, reaching up to run his hand along her neck. "I thought thestrals were… well, bad luck."
"Mr. Tiny says that kind 'a talk is hogwash," Vin stated matter-of-factly.
"Ah, well, then we know it is," Ezra replied drolly.
"Mr. Tiny don't lie," Vin defended the man.
"No, I didn't mean to imply that he did, it's just…"
"What?" Buck asked.
"Well, Mother has always said that—"
"Your mother?" Buck cut in. "Well, then we know it's true…"
Ezra rolled his eyes. "Yes, well, I know she has her issues with the truth, but—"
"Thestrals ain't bad luck," Vin stated, putting an end to the discussion. "They're smart an' can tell direction real good. That's what Mr. Tiny said."
The boys stayed with Miriam for a little while longer, then Ezra sent their dishes back to the kitchen and headed back as well. Buck and Vin went back to their chores, comparing the merits of various kinds of flying animals to brooms.
Thursday, December 31,1998
Buck had wanted to talk to Chris yesterday about Vin, but it hadn't seemed like a good time. So, when they were both assigned to chores in the kitchen hothouses, he knew he would have the chance.
"What've you and Professor Martinez been doin'?" Buck asked Chris as they worked side by side in the hothouse. There were two sets of three hothouse buildings, one for the Herbology classes, and the other where they grew much of the fresh vegetables that were served in the mess hall.
Chris shrugged, but didn't reply as he weeded.
Buck huffed out a breath and said, "Just 'cause you feel bad don't mean ya gotta take it out on the rest of us, ya know."
Chris let the breath that caught in his chest at those words out through his nose, then he drew in a deep one and said, "His dad became a Shade… He killed his mom, and his sister and brother."
"Wow," Buck breathed, surprised, "that's awful."
Chris nodded. "Saw it happen."
Buck's eyes rounded larger than Chris could remember ever seeing. "You did?"
"In a pensieve," Chris explained. "He says that's what my family will do if I don't let 'em move on."
"Are ya gonna?"
Chris nodded, but he couldn't say anything, the very thought made him want to cry.
Buck nodded, looking sympathetic. "I'm sorry you gotta let 'em go… Guess me and Vin do, too, huh?"
That put a surprised look on Chris face. "I— I don't know. I'll ask Professor Martinez."
Buck nodded again, then said a little sadly, "Wish my mama could've done something like that…"
Chris felt like he'd been punched in the gut when he heard that. He'd forgotten about Buck's mom, and the losses that the other boys had also experienced. None of them had gotten the chance to see their moms again, and he'd gotten to see his whole family… "Me, too," he said in a near-whisper. "She was cool."
"Buck grinned. "The coolest."
They went back to weeding for a few minutes, then Buck said, "Vin thinks you hate him."
"What?" Chris replied, looking as surprised as he felt. "I do not!"
"Well, ya might want to tell him that," Buck replied. "Ain't like you've been a ray of sunshine since we got back from Aunt Kathy's and Uncle Daniel's, you know. You ain't said hardly anything to anyone."
Chris frowned. "Been thinking…"
Buck nodded. "I know, but remember when Ms. Nettie told us how talking about bad feelings can make you feel better…?"
"I know," Chris replied, "but… I don't know who to talk to. And I have been talking to Professor Martinez."
Buck shoved his hands onto his hips. "Well, you could talk to me, you know. We're best friends, right?"
Chris blushed. "Yeah."
"Well, then? That's what best friends do!"
It was Chris' turn to nod. "Okay."
The blush deepened as Chris said, "Yeah, but not right now, okay? I'm trying to figure out how to say goodbye."
"I love 'em, too," Buck added, his voice going a little thick.
"I know you do," Chris replied, then offered a small, sad smile. "They added that extra bead so you could come visit. Mom used to say she had twins…"
Buck giggled. "Yeah, I remember." He cleared his throat and asked, "You think maybe you could ask them to look for my mom when they go? Tell her I said I love her?"
Chris nodded. "I'll tell 'em, I promise."
"Thanks," Buck replied, then he sucked in a deep breath and said, "So, you wanna go play some hoops?"
Chris gave him a small smile. "You think Mr. Yosemite will notice that we're not done yet?"
"Yeah," Buck moaned, "he'll notice."
"Then I guess we better finish this first."
"Oh, okay," Buck agreed in a whine, "but then can we go play?"
"Sure," Chris agreed. Buck had always been able to help him out of what his mom called his "funk," and he was glad Buck could. He'd have to be sure to talk to Vin, too. He didn't hate the younger boy, but he was a little mad that Vin had ever taken him to see his parents. Not that he didn't want to see them… It was all kind of confusing. Maybe he'd go talk to Professor Ko-Jay first, then go talk to Vin…
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
Chris found Professor Ko-Jay in one of the Herbology hothouses. The blond walked up to the man, waiting as the older man continued to mumble something as he repotted an odd-looking plant in a clay pot.
When he was done, Ko-Jay looked up and smiled at Chris, saying, "What can I do for you, Chris?"
The boy rubbed the toe of his shoe in the dirt and said, "I, uh… I need to ask you something."
"About your parents?" Ko-Jay questioned.
Chris nodded, not really surprised that everybody seemed to know what was going on. It was like that for all the students when they had a problem.
"What do you want to know?"
"Uh, do Buck and Vin have to say goodbye, too?"
"Well, they have gone and visited them, have they not?"
"Then the answer is yes, they will also have to let them go, although it will not be in the same way that you do."
That made Chris frown. "But Buck—"
"Oh, I'm not saying that they don't care about them, Chris, just that it is a different kind of relationship, and so it is a different kind of saying goodbye."
Chris looked up and met the older man's eyes. "Oh… okay," he replied.
Ko-Jay smiled kindly at the boy. "You are very brave, Little Cub," he said, using the name he had given Chris in his first year at the Academy.
"I don't feel very brave," Chris mumbled.
"I know, but that does not change the fact. Now," he added, "would you like to help me transplant a few more of these Beating Hearts so they will be ready when classes start again next week?"
"Uh, yeah, I guess so," Chris agreed, knowing that the older man wouldn't press him anymore, unless he brought it up himself. But he didn't. Instead, he asked Professor Ko-Jay about his upcoming vision quest in the summer, and they chatted about that for a couple of hours while they worked.
When it was close to dinnertime, Chris left the hothouse, running back to the Aerie to shower and change, then he headed out to the great hall to meet the others for supper.
The other boys were already there, and he slid into his seat between Vin and Buck, flashing small smiles at both of them.
JD dominated the discussion as they ate, arguing some finer point of magical theory with Josiah, who wanted to know how he had gotten access to the books where he'd read about that, since they were not in the first year section.
JD, they discovered, had managed to wrap Professor Dubonnet around his little finger, and she had given him access to all the books except those in the Restricted Section. He was having a blast, reading his way through the shelves.
Nathan and Ezra chimed in occasionally, but Chris, Buck, and Vin focused on their food, Buck telling Chris in whispers about how he planned to "get lucky" with Amanda Lynn over spring break.
Chris just rolled his eyes and shook his head, but Vin decided that there was no reason not to believe Buck. After all, he'd gotten Buck a vial of liquid luck for Christmas, so if the older boy wanted to get lucky, he could do it easily enough by drinking the potion. Although why he'd want to get lucky around Amanda Lynn, when she all but wrapped her arms around him and clung to him all day already, Vin couldn't fathom. Maybe he wanted to escape from her clutches for a while…
"Hey," Nathan said, interrupting JD, "what are we gonna do for New Year's?"
JD grinned. "I've been savin' my Fireworks-in-a-Box from Christmas. Do ya want to see 'em?"
"Yeah!" Buck replied. "That'll be cool!"
"I think we'd better ask Professor Wells, or Professor Ko-Jay," Josiah said, sliding out of his chair and walking over to the raised platform where the professor ate. The others, who were all watching, cheered when they saw her nod.
Josiah hurried back to their table and slid into his chair, saying, "She said we can watch from nine to nine-thirty, and they'll shift lights-out to ten for everybody!"
"Cool!" Buck said, standing up halfway and glancing around the big hall to see who was there. Amanda Lynn was away with her family, and he didn't see any other girls who didn't already have a boyfriend. He dropped back into his seat with a heavy sigh.
"What?" JD asked.
"Ah, I just wanted someone to cuddle with," he grouched.
JD looked confused. "Vin's always cold, you could cuddle with him," JD offered helpfully.
Buck made a face. "Uh, not that kind of cuddling!"
JD rolled his eyes and made a face of his own. "You mean kissing!"
"Nothing wrong with kissing, short stuff," Buck shot back.
"Eew!" JD replied, making a face.
"Come on," Josiah interrupted before the two were hopelessly lost in another argument, "let's get finished and get some homework done."
"Homework?" Buck nearly wailed, and some of the students at other tables laughed at his reaction.
"We go back to class on Monday," Josiah reminded them sternly, "are you all done with your homework?"
"No," Buck moaned.
"Well then, let's go get you closer to done," the oldest boy said.
"Josiah's right," Chris added, looking pointedly at his best friend.
Buck huffed out a dramatic sigh, but he didn't fight the inevitable. Besides, he really did have to pass Potions with a B if he wanted to go on to a career in Magical Law Enforcement. And he did want that. But it would be so much better if he could do it without homework!
Friday, January 1,1998
All seven of the boys were glad that the Academy ran on a Sunday schedule whenever they were on vacation. They had all enjoyed the fireworks last night, but getting to bed at a slightly later time meant that they were all a little tired the following morning, even if they did get up an hour later than they would have on a normal school week.
But, after breakfast, they all headed off to do their chores before lunch. The faculty watched them go, then headed to the conference room off the Headmaster's office.
Once they were all settled, Headmaster Travis asked, "Go, how is it going?"
"Chris knows he has to let them move on," Raphael stated. "He has picked a time, and we are talking about the ritual a little each day."
"He also came to ask me if Buck and Vin would need to be a part of that ritual, and I believe they will," Ko-Jay offered. "They have traveled that path and spent time with the family. Buck was emotionally close to them before they died, but Vin has made more trips to see them after."
Travis nodded. "I agree, all three boys then."
"I think we might want to include the other members of Chris'… team, for lack of a better word," Nettie added.
"'Team'?" Conklin echoed, then snorted with derision and added, "Oh, please, Nettie, you can't be serious. More like a pack if you ask me."
Nettie's eyes narrowed slightly. "They are a team, Cravinis, you mark my words. One day they will be doing just what Chris has planned for them."
The older man rolled his eyes, but he didn't dare challenge her.
"The ritual will take place over the spring break," Raphael told them.
"Then I suggest that we all make sure our own travel plans are flexible," Travis told them, "just in case."
There were nods of agreement, except for Conklin. "I object," he stated. "I have had plans for this spring break since last year. I don't see why—"
"I'm sure that will be fine," Travis said, cutting him off. He knew with certainty that they boys wouldn't want the old sourpuss to be a part of the ritual. In fact, he doubted very many of the adults would actually take part, besides Nettie, Ko-Jay, and Raphael, although he planned to be there as well, and he wanted at least three others on standby, just in case. "How often will you be meeting with Chris?" he asked Raphael.
"Every week, although every other week it is with Buck and Vin as well, and Ko-Jay," he replied.
"I'll start sitting in on the group meeting next month," Nettie said. "And we can add the other boys in closer to the date of the ritual, three weeks out?"
Ko-Jay and Raphael both nodded that they were fine with that.
Raphael glanced over at Headmaster Travis and added, "I told Chris that he will have to be supervised when he goes to visit his family in January. I hope he will be willing to forego that trip in February and March, but I have a feeling he will go in January, February, and March, whether or not we want him to."
"Yes, I should think so," Travis replied with a small smile. "We'll have to be a little more careful each time."
The teachers nodded that they agreed.
"Well, it's gone as well as we could expect," Travis concluded. "Now, about Kate and Maddy…"
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
Chris walked slowly toward the barns, wondering how he was going to convince Vin that he wasn't mad at him, and that he didn't hate him. He sighed, pausing to watch several hippogriffins racing across the grounds. When they were out of sight, he pushed on.
When he reached the first barn, he checked inside, but he only saw Tiny.
"Well, hello," the big man greeted him. "I haven't seen you in a while."
Chris felt his cheeks start to burn as he nodded.
"You looking for Vin?"
"Yeah," he replied.
"He's in the small barn taking care of a pregnant thestral."
"A thestral?" Chris echoed.
Tiny nodded. "Miriam. She'll be your mount when you do your quest this summer."
"Can I go see?" he asked, more curious than he cared to admit.
"Don't see why not."
"Thanks," Chris said, heading off for the small barn. When he got there, he knocked on the door, then pushed it open and called, "Vin?"
"In here!" the younger boy called.
Chris walked in, noting the animals that were in their stalls, and made his way to the back of the barn where he found Vin in a stall, rubbing down the pregnant thestral. He shivered slightly when he saw her, but he walked up to the stall door.
Vin smiled shyly at him as he continued to rub the animal down with a piece of sheepskin. "Hi, Chris. This is Miriam. She's gonna be a mama in the spring."
"I can see that," Chris replied.
The two boys fell silent for a few moments, then Chris said, "Uh, Buck told me you thought I was mad at you."
Vin gave a small half-shrug in reply and continued working, making sure he wasn't looking at Chris.
"Well, I'm not, you know," Chris told him. "And I don't hate you, either. You're my little brother."
That had Vin looking at Chris, although still rather shyly as he said quietly, "But it's 'cause 'a me that ya gotta say goodbye to yer family."
Chris shook his head. "No… no, it's not. They made me this bracelet so I could come say goodbye… I don't want to, but I know I have to."
"'Cause they'll be Shades if you don't?"
Chris nodded. "They wouldn't want to hurt anybody. They just wanted to see me and Buck and say goodbye."
"I wish Buck had gone the first time…"
"I'm glad you went," Chris told him.
The blond nodded. "I'm glad they met you. Now they know I have another little brother, and Buck's like my brother, too. So even when I say goodbye, I still have a family…"
"We're all your family, right?" Vin asked, quickly adding, "The team, right?"
Chris nodded and gave him a small smile. "Yeah, they are. And Aunt Kathy and Uncle Daniel, too… I know I'm a lot luckier than you, or Buck, or JD. And Nathan's mom is gone, and his dad's in prison…"
"And Josiah's dad hates him and Hannah," Vin added, shaking his head sadly.
"Wait 'til you meet Maude," Chris told him.
"Ezra's mother… She's… well, you'll see."
"You want to come help me?" Vin asked hopefully.
"Okay," Chris replied, opening the stall door and stepping inside. He walked over to the thestral and allowed her to learn his scent. When she nibbled at his blond hair both boys giggled.
"That means she likes ya," Vin told him.
"Or my shampoo," Chris replied.
"You rub her down some more an' I'll go get her some breakfast," Vin said.
"What does she eat?" Chris asked, not sure if he knew.
Vin made a face as he said, "Rats."
Chris returned the gesture. "Rats, huh?"
Vin nodded, heading off. He was back a few minutes later with a bucket.
Neither of the boys watched as the thestral gulped down the stunned rats, although Chris saw just enough to think that it looked a lot like how an eagle ate its prey.
When Miriam was done, they moved on to other chores, Chris spending the day with Vin at the barns, helping out and playing some with the griffin cubs, who needed whatever exercise they could get.
They ate lunch there, with Tiny and Ezra, then went back to work.
Chris laughed himself to tears watching Vin following the miniature unicorns around their fenced-in enclosure, picking up hairs and poop that the sixth years would need for Potions when classes resumed. The little horned horses preferred to do their business in private, so Vin had to sneak up on them to get the manure fresh.
At the end of the afternoon they raced each other back to the Aerie to shower and change before supper in the great hall, where they saw that more of the students had returned, including all the Hoops players for all the Gilds, except Inez, who wouldn't be able to get back until Sunday night.
"How are we gonna practice tomorrow without a Seeker?" Buck wanted to know as they ate.
Chris shrugged, then glanced over at Vin. "Maybe Professor Chanu will let Vin sub for her."
"Me?" Vin nearly squeaked, he was so surprised at the suggestion. First years were not allowed to play on the teams.
"Sure!" Buck said, grinning widely. "You're gonna go out for the team next year anyway, so this would be like an early audition!"
Vin wasn't so sure it was a good idea, but the others did, so he let it slide. It was really in Professor Chanu's hands.
The conversation turned to debate on the level of difficulty represented by kitchen magic, and Vin tuned it out, watching Chris from the corner of his eye. He was so relieved to know that the older boy didn't hate him, and that he was still Chris' little brother, but he really wished that there was something he could do to help Chris and his family.He just didn't have any idea what that might be. After all, he was just a first year…
He was pretty sure there was someone he could ask, but he was too afraid to try talking to Benley Gaunt again. He would just have to do what the professors told him, and try to make Chris happy.
Saturday, January 2,1998
The last Saturday of their vacation was like an ordinary Saturday when classes were running, so there was homework and chores to be done before three in the afternoon, when nearly everyone who was back on campus turned out at the two hoops fields to watch practice games.
Buck and Chris headed straight for Professor Chanu and, after a few minutes, he waved at Vin to come join them.
Vin clutched Peso's handle tightly in his hand as he jogged over, his heart racing with excitement. He tried to tell himself that it was just like playing Hoops with the team at Aunt Kathy's and Uncle Daniel's house, but he knew there was lots of other people watching.
Professor Chanu smiled at him and said, "So, you want to try your hand at playing Seeker?"
"I— I guess so," Vin said, then swallowed nervously as he forced himself not to turn and look at all the other students settling in to watch.
"He plays Seeker when we play at home," Buck added quickly.
"Okay then," Professor Chanu said, "you've seen enough games, and you've played, so you have the basic idea. Just stay up high, with your back to the sun, so you can see the Snitch," the coach told Vin. "Then, when you see it, go get it."
Vin nodded and climbed onto his broom, flying up and around the field until he found what he thought was a good spot to wait.
A few minutes later, the practice game started. Vin glanced across at the Buffalo Gild Seeker, then turned his attention back to looking for the Snitch. But it was hard not to get distracted by the game, especially when either Buck or Chris had the Quaffle, since they almost always scored when they did.
With the score tied at seventy, Vin caught sight of a flash in his peripheral vision, and he was turning toward it without even thinking, then he was off, streaking after the tiny flying ball with single-minded determination.
Vin didn't really think about what he was doing, he just concentrated on what he wanted, which was the Snitch, and his broom kept him on the trail of the ball, inching closer and closer as they flew along.
"Go, Vin!" he heard Chris yell.
"Go, go, go!" hollered Buck.
Vin loved flying, and he really loved flying fast, but when he reached out and felt his fingertips brush the wings of the Snitch, he knew he'd won the game for Hawks Gild, and that felt better than flying, even flying fast.
The eruption of yells and clapping from the onlookers reminded him that he had an audience, and he blushed madly as he dove for the field to show the referee that he had indeed caught the Snitch.
He was still blushing as they all headed back to the Aerie for a study period before dinner. Buck kept pounding on his back, saying, "That catch was magnificent!"
"Yeah, you're as good as Inez is!" JD told him, dancing along in front of him.
Vin grinned, but shook his head. "Naw, she's awesome."
"You're good, too," Chris added, and that made Vin feel like he could fly back to the Aerie – without his broom.
When they reached the dorm they put their brooms up, then went to grab their books and settled on the patio, talking more about the practice game than their homework until Professor Ko-Jay wandered past and suggested that they get to work. With a few grumbles, they did.
Vin was all done with his homework, except for Potions, so he and Buck sat together to work on that, both of them forced to ask JD for help when they got stuck. They didn't finish, but they were both much closer when it was finally time for them to head off to eat.
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
When they got back to the Aerie after supper, they all settled in the day room to play some Knights and Wizards until it was time for them to get ready for bed.
Lying in his bed as the lights went out, Vin allowed himself a satisfied sigh. The day had been a lot of fun, and he hoped that – maybe – next year, he might get picked to be the backup Seeker. He knew Inez was a better Seeker than he was – right now – but maybe when he was a third year he could challenger her for the position…
"Hey, Vin, you awake?"
Vin's blue eyes opened and he said, "Yeah, 'm awake," then felt Chris climbing up onto the bed. He smiled.
"I… I just wanted to tell you that when we go see my folks at the end of the month some of the professors are going to watch us, just in case something bad happens," Chris told him as he settled under the covers.
"Oh, okay," Vin replied. "Are they goin' t' go visit, too?"
"No, but Professor Martinez said they'll know if there's trouble, and they can help us if there is."
"Okay," Vin said again.
The two boys fell silent for a little while, then Vin said, "Guess what."
"What?" Chris replied.
"Them things I see on the bed curtains is a silence spell, so nobody will hear anybody snorin' I guess."
Chris laughed. "That's probably a good idea."
"An' the pillows have a sleep spell on 'em," Vin added. "That's what I kept hearin'."
"How'd you find out?"
"The book Josiah gave me for Christmas," Vin told him. "I've been lookin' stuff up."
"Find anything really interesting?"
"No, not really," Vin admitted. "Just lots of different kinds 'a locks so we can't get into places an' things."
"Hmm," Chris said, "I wonder what they don't want us to see."
"Not sure," Vin replied.
"Maybe we'll have to find a way to pick the locks, so we can see what it is…"
"Is that a good idea?"
"Probably not," Chris admitted, "but it might be fun."
Vin giggled. "Maybe, but Monday we have t' go back t' class, an' then we'll have too much homework to do that."
"Yeah, you're probably right," Chris said disappointedly.
"Maybe in the summer?"
"Good idea," Chris replied. "Just don't lose that book."
"I won't," Vin promised. "Oh, an' Kane's back."
"Where'd he go this time?"
"Not sure," Vin said. "But I'm glad he's back."
"Yeah, me, too. So," Chris said, "we're all good, right?"
"Uh-huh," Vin agreed. "Yer m' big brother?"
"Yep, and you're my little brother."
"Can y' stay tonight?"
And the two boys quickly fell asleep, both as happy as they could be.
Sunday, January 3,1998
The day before they went back to class, they were excused from their regular chores. So, after breakfast, all of the students went back to their dorms to finish off any remaining homework they had, and to help clean the dorm.
The cleaning took place first, then the students settled on the patio, or in the day room, and got to work. As usual, JD was the first to finish all of his work. Josiah and Nathan were next, then Ezra and Chris. Vin and Buck were the last to get done, both of them struggling with their Potions homework until all the others were helping them.
Their bellies had just started to grumble when they smelled something wonderful. They walked around the patio until they found Ms. Nettie and Professor Ko-Jay grilling burgers and hotdogs for lunch. Kitchen elves arrived and prepared tables laden with additional food for them.
The campus was protected by the weather bubble, so they ate, watching snow falling beyond the magical dome.
The seven boys were sitting at a table of their own, and around bites of cheeseburgers and French fries, Josiah reminded them, "It won't be long before exams."
"We have tests?" JD asked, suddenly very interested in what the older boy had to say.
Josiah nodded. "Every year, near the end of the school year, there's a big exam."
"And certain years the exams count more than other years," Nathan added.
"What about the first year?" JD wanted to know.
"Not so much," Josiah told him. "They're just EYEs – regular end of year exams."
"Mine will be P-MAEs," Ezra said. "Preliminary Magical Aptitude Exams. If I do well, and I see no reason I should not, I will be able to take the more advanced versions of classes in my third year."
"And we'll have B-MAEs," Nathan added, "Beginning Magical Aptitude Exams, which are really important, since what you score determines the kinds of study programs we take."
"Josiah, are yours important, too?" JD asked.
The oldest boy shook his head. "No, not this year. They're just ordinary EYEs. But next year it'll be the I-MAEs – the Intermediate Magical Aptitude Exams – and those are really important, but not as important as the A-MAEs at the end of your last year."
"Advanced Magical Aptitude Exams?" JD guessed.
"Yep," Chris said. "Those determine the kinds of jobs you can hold."
"Or what degrees you can apply for at Horsefeathers University," Josiah added.
"Everybody has to get at least Bs in all their classes," Chris warned them, determined that they all qualify for careers in Magical Law Enforcement. He looked pointedly at Buck, then at Vin, and added, "Even in Potions."
Both boys groaned.
"It'll be worth the effort just to get out of Conklin's Potions class," Nathan assured the pair.
"Says you!" Buck groused. "You always get As in your classes!"
"Yeah, well, that's because I study a lot," Nathan replied. "But I'm a little worried about Divination this year."
Chris nodded that he agreed with Nathan.
"Wait 'til next year, when you have to take Arithmancy," Josiah told them. "I'm worried about that one."
"Potions," Buck and Vin chorused together.
The others looked at Ezra and JD.
"Mundane Cultural Studies," Ezra admitted. "They're so… non-magical!"
The other boys laughed.
"That's the point, isn't it?" Chris asked.
Ezra shrugged and the boys' attention turned to JD.
"What?" he asked.
"Which class are you worried about?" Buck asked him.
"Worried? None," he replied. "I'm doin' good in all my classes."
"Smarty-pants," Buck teased.
"Well, you better be glad I am, or I couldn't help you with Potions!" JD shot back.
"JD's helping you with Potions?" Chris asked.
Buck had the good manners to blush as he said, "Uh, yeah…"
"A first year?" Chris added.
Buck folded his arms over his chest and huffed out a breath. "He's smart!"
JD beamed as he crowed, "Buck said I'm smart!"
"And a pain in the butt!" the older boy added quickly.
Nathan looked at JD and asked, "How can you do third year Potions work?"
"Buck let me read his book," JD said with a shrug. "It's not that hard."
The others rolled their eyes, knowing they wouldn't have been able to skip two grades like that. But then they all knew JD was the smartest one on the team.
The conversation turned to Hawk Gild's chances against Spider Gild in next weekend's actual Hoops game.
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
After lunch they put their books up. They had free time until dinner, so they drifted off in various directions – Josiah and JD to the library, Nathan to the infirmary, Ezra to the kitchen, and Chris and Buck to the Hoops field – for a final practice before classes resumed.
Vin headed to the barns, wanting to check on Miriam. Kane went with him, riding on his shoulder as Vin ran the entire way. He waved at Mr. Tiny and went straight to the small barn, rubbing Miriam down, then getting her a bucket of rats. When she was settled in her stall, sleeping, he went back outside to find that Lightwing was there.
"Hi!" Vin greeted, running over to the corral and asking, "Do y' want me to brush you?"
I would like that very much, Lightwing replied.
"I'll be right back!" Vin called, sprinting toward the supply shed to get the brushes.
Tiny watched the boy go, then looked back at Lightwing.
Yes, I see what you mean, the winged-horse said. Vin's aura is certainly getting brighter. It is only a matter of time now.
Tiny nodded. "That's what I thought, too. I've already talked to Nettie about it, so she'll keep an eye on him in class, and in Transfiguration Club."
A good idea, I'm sure, my old friend.
Vin came running back and went to work, brushing Lightwing from front to back, and top to bottom. Tiny returned to his work, and Kane curled up on one of the fence posts to sleep in the sun.
When Vin was done, Lightwing said, Now, let's go for a flight, I need to stretch my wings.
"Me, too?" Vin asked.
Vin waited for the pegasus to bow down, then scrambled up onto his back. A moment later they were in the air. Lightwing soared up high, staying just inside the weather bubble as he made a circle of the grounds. Vin, he said as he flew, have you ever felt a tingling inside that you cannot explain?
"Sometimes," Vin admitted. "Is somethin' wrong with me?"
No, nothing is wrong, my young friend. But if you ever feel that tingling start, and it does not go away, right away, you need to go find Professor Wells. Do you understand?
"Yeah," Vin said, "but why?"
Professor Wells will be able to explain it to you much better than I can, the winged horse replied. And if you cannot find Professor Wells easily, then go see Tiny.
"Okay, I will," Vin promised, a little worried, but he didn't feel any fear or anxiety coming from Lightwing, so it was hard for him to stay worried. But he was curious. Maybe he could get Mr. Tiny to tell him what was going on…
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
After his flight with Lightwing Vin brushed the winged-horse down again, then put up the brushes.
He found Mr. Tiny feeling the griffin cubs and said, "Lightwing said if I get all tingly I gotta talk t' you or Ms. Nettie."
"Yes, you do," the big man agreed.
Tiny checked his watch. "Would you look at the time? If you don't get going, you're going to be late for supper."
"We'll talk about it another time," he told the boy. "It's nothing to worry about."
Vin huffed out a breath, but he knew the big man didn't want to talk to him about it, and it was almost time for supper. "Okay."
"Good lad," Tiny said, reaching out to ruffle Vin's hair. "Now, off with you."
Vin turned and started running toward the Aerie, hoping he would have time to shower before he went to supper. "C'mon, Kane!" he called.
The tiny dragon woke and huffed out a smoke ring, then launched him into the air, racing Vin back to the dorm.
Vin found Buck and Chris in the showers, too, cleaning up after their practice. They dressed and headed for the great hall together, meeting up with the others there. Supper was a wonderful roast beef, and every time one of them said something about how good it was, Ezra looked proud.
Finally, Josiah asked, "Did you do this?"
"I did," Ezra admitted.
"Wow," JD said, "that's amazing! It's really good."
"No, not really amazing," Ezra replied, trying to sound humble, and failing, "just a rather august use of some basic kitchen magic."
"Don't know what that means, but it sure is good," Buck told him. "Keep up the good work, Slick."
Ezra rolled his eyes at the nickname, and the others laughed.
"Guess working in the kitchens suits you," Nathan said.
Ezra glowered at the older boy. "Work does not suit me, but the majority of work in the kitchen is magical work, and I do seem to have a talent for that."
"Can you make us some cinnamon rolls for breakfast?" JD wanted to know.
"I am a magical chef, not a waiter to be given an order," Ezra huffed at the boy, making the others laugh again.
Vin glanced around the table, still grinning. They really were a family, and he was glad that he was a part of them. Tomorrow everything would go back to normal, except for Chris meeting with the professors about his family, and him needing to report his tingling to Ms. Nettie or Mr. Tiny. But that was close enough to normal, and perfect, for him.
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