Chapter 20

A/N: Remember, I did those pesky little two chapters at a time deal.  So go back and read 19 before this one, because this is the VERY LAST CHAPTER. Arg, I'm so nervous about it too! *shakes* It's not as good as I would have liked, but I think this is how it should be.  It's been swell, gang!

****

"Uh...hi," I responded, and Tad gave another sigh of exasperation.

"Yo," Knack responded, and he was almost smiling, almost scowling. He looked half-pleased to see us, half-annoyed to see us. It had been a week since I'd seen him...He looked the same, really. Knackly. Still had the same blonde hair and still looked grumpy. "Look, here's the plan-"

"Plan?" Tad echoed. "We have a plan? I had a plan, too, buddy, and you just ruined it!"

"And what was you plan?" I demanded from Tad, who didn't respond, just whistled innocently, and then I turned to Knack. "And what's your plan?" I paused, and looked around. "And how did you GET here? It's not midnight?"

"Elf thing," he responded curtly, and continued. "Look, Elsie's still alive."

"Whoa, what? There was a possibility of her being dead?" I asked, slightly panicked, and Tad behind me nodded.

"Well, last time we saw her she was being carried off by evil guard goons by a teenager who had just killed his own mother," Knack reminded me, and Tad and I chorused, "oh, yeaaah..." "Anyway," Knack continued loudly, over us, "I'm going to rescue her."  This seemed to be a grand idea to Knack, who presented this as if he was going to find a cure for cancer, or win the Olympics.

That made me smile, slightly. "Of course you are!" I cried, and I looked back at Tad, who rolled his eyes, though he was grinning. "Since you are in love with her-"

"Hey, whoa, back off," Knack yelped, jumping back again, just like before, making me grin.

"-cooking," Tad and I finished together, making him grit his teeth and glare.

"So, anyway, I came, because...because..." Knack sighed, throwing up his hands. "Good lord, are you going to make me say it?"

"She made me say it," Tad confided, with a glare at me.

I grinned. "Not that you did," I reminded him.

"I want you two to come with me," Knack finished with a grumpy, embarrassed look. "Not that I like you. But I can't go alone, and you two know the king and all-" Tad and I both snorted. "And plus, now..." He grinned, suddenly, surprising me. It wasn't a smirk, or a mocking grin like he always wore, but a true smile, and one I'd never really seen before. "Now it's tradition, that we go together," he finished. "You and the brat."

"Mina is a brat," Tad agreed.

"I meant you," Knack clarified.

"Right, figures," Tad muttered, giving me a pointed look.

"What about Flier?" I asked, curious. Honestly. Some people don't really think things through, seeing as Tad and I live an in entire other world, with a seven-day limit on how long we could stay, and Flier lives there, and has virtually no limit.

"Flier came with us last time to rescue his girlfriend, who we successfully got murdered. The last thing he wants to see is...well, Darnell. But we're the second to last thing, I'm sure," Knack responded.

Made sense, I suppose.

"You're asking us," I said, in a slow, even tone, "to come with you, leaving our home when we just got here, to go back to the place where our best friend murdered someone, back to where I'd least want to go ever again, just to rescue a cook who I've known for about five to six days?"

"Pretty much, yeah," Knack responded, looking mean again.

I had to think about it. I truly did. I mean, I never, ever wanted to see that castle again, that place where Mina had fallen against me, blood pouring out of her, where Darnell had looked at me so calmly and said goodbye, where Tad had tried to attack Darnell. I never wanted to see Darnell again.

But Elsie was different. Elsie, who had led me through this without asking anything in return, who'd made us dinner every night even though we complained about it constantly, Elsie who had followed us to the ends of the earth and was willing to scream at a murderer to kill her, for us. I had to do this. For her.

Besides.

It had been pretty damn fun, until the whole betrayal, murder, and depressing bit.

"Okay," I said, and Tad looked at me in surprise. "Well, why not, Tad?" I demanded, and he opened his mouth, but I continued. "Shut up. I don't want your reasons. I'm going."

"Damn you," he said, but he was smiling. "Me too."

Knack rolled his eyes. "Figured you'd say that, stupid idiots. That's why I can't stand you lot. Always being so..." He searched for the word. "Friendly," he finished, folding his arms and glaring at us.

"Be back here at midnight," I instructed Knack, and whirled on my heels and began to walk home.

"Renee, where are you going?" Tad called after me, obviously confused. "We have school! It is Tuesday!"

"I'm going home," I told him. "I'm not leaving without saying a proper goodbye, and I'm not leaving without packing a few necessities first."

"A few necessities?" repeated Tad and Knack together, and shot confused looks at each other. I wondered idly if they were finally bonding, or if this was just a universal confusion about girls.  I rolled my eyes, and continued.

I stopped, suddenly, and turned around. "We're not taking Mina," I said, and they both started.

"What?" Tad cried. "Without Mina! If Mina wasn't going, I wouldn't have-" He broke off and grinned. "I'm teasing. Why not?"

I didn't say anything for a minute. Her falling backwards, her crying out, her blood kept flashing through my mind. "She's not coming," I repeated quietly. "She shouldn't have come the first time. She's only nine. She didn't deserve to get shot."

Knack nodded, but wasn't quite paying attention. Tad winced, and then nodded his agreement. We both knew how much it had hurt her, physically and emotionally.

I ran back home, my mind filled to the brim with excitement, worries, and confusion.  I had no doubt I should do this. It might seem strange to you, with both Tad and I being so gung-ho about this, doing this huge, horrible tragedy again. But, I suppose, each of us thought that this was just another chance to get it right.  I could talk to Darnell, again maybe. Maybe slap him across the face.  Now that I was calmed down, I wasn't as hysterical about it as I was.  I was able to see what he'd done, and how...mean he'd been.  But he was still my friend, no matter what, and I still needed to see him.  Plus, Elsie.  Elsie had been our everything on the way there, and she deserved to have us look for her just as hard.

It was all happening so fast.

Too fast, it seemed. I couldn't make a logical decision with such a short time to decide, and I didn't.  I didn't think it through, I didn't consider the possibilities.  I wanted to go.  I can't even tell you why I wanted to, needed to, go so badly.  You must think I'm an idiot, for wanting to go again.  The reasons didn't concern me.  I just had to go.

I stormed into my house. Last time I'd left, everyone was off at work. This time, my mother was home, since my younger sister was sick. They looked up, startled, when I came in, threw down my backpack, and walked over to them.

"Here's the deal," I said firmly, as my mother stuck the thermometer under my sister's tongue. "I'm leaving again. I don't know for how long, but one of my friends is in trouble, and I'm not coming back until she's safe. I know I just got back, but this is really important to me and if I don't go," I took a deep breath, "I'll regret it for the rest of my life."

"She's just trying to get out of a math test of something," my sister managed around the thermometer, which beeped defiantly.

"Renee, you can't be serious!" My mother stood up. Like I said, my mother is a very no-nonsense person, not about to fall apart at a crisis. A bit of my opposite, I realize. "You're NOT going gallivanting around again! Last time, Mina got shot."

I winced. I was hoping she'd forget that little detail. "Mom, last time was different. I promise, no one will get hurt." Frankly, I was going whether she liked it or not. I wanted to rescue Elsie. I know that I should have been cowering that the thought of seeing Darnell again, and I was, but this suddenly seemed like the Most Important Thing. I was beginning to understand. My life was not going to end because Darnell wasn't the most savory individual. If anything, shouldn't I give him hell? "Anyway, I'm going, and you're not going to stop me!"

"Renee!" My mother cried, and I glared at her. She grabbed me by the shoulders and shook me. Not hard, not no-more-wire-hangers-hard, but a bit hysterical, and my sister and I both stared at her. "I can't...I can't lose you again."

I hugged her, hard, and she hugged me back, and I could tell she was shaking. "Mom," I whispered, "she's my friend."

"It doesn't matter," she murmured, "Darnell was your friend, and look what happened."

I winced. Ouch. And she didn't even know the half of it. I couldn't tell her the truth, but I couldn't lie to her. I knew I'd hurt her, hurt her so badly when I left.  I was being selfish and stupid, and here I was, repeating it, hurting her just as badly.  But I couldn't just stay.  "Mom, I promise, I'll be home in...seven days."

"Two."

"Mom, I don't know how long it's going to take!" I cried, not wanting to get her hopes up.

"As soon as you can," she whispered, and when I separated from her, I was quite startled to see she was near tears.

My sister stood up, stomped over, and slapped me across the face. I fell back, startled, but not hurt much. I put a hand to my cheek. It stung, and I stared up at my sister in disbelief. "What was THAT?" I demanded angrily.

"You can't just walk in here and then walk out!" My sister shouted her hands on her hips in anger. "You don't know what it was like, being here with mom worrying about you! With dad worrying about you!"

I winced. This was true. Yes, I had a responsibility to Elsie. But, obviously, maybe my family was more important right now. I hadn't bothered to truly talk to them, and now maybe this was my punishment. There was no way I could leave them again.  I was being selfish. My mind kept changing, my thoughts flustered and confused about which path was the right one.  "All right. I'll stay," I muttered, looking away.

"No," my mother said, looking up. "Go." My sister and I looked at her. "I can see it's something you have to do." I gaped at her.

"N-no, Mom, it's okay, our other friend can-"

"I want you to go," she said, very clearly, very firmly. "And when you come back, you're not leaving this house ever again."

I smiled at her. I didn't question her decision. I don't know why she let me go, and my sister didn't either. But must have known it wasn't just about seeing Elsie, it was going back, facing my fears, and growing up a little.

As I bounded to my room, I heard my sister question, "What's so great about Milwaukee anyway?"

***

Midnight hit fairly quick. When I was walking to the place I met Tad, I was shivering. It wasn't that cold outside, but I was fairly terrified of what I'd find, or worse, what we wouldn't find.

On my walk, I considered many things.

Why I was doing this, for one. But I've already gone through that, and if I have to go through it again, I don't know what I'll do. Why my mother had let me go. Why Tad was suddenly professing his love, almost as suddenly as I'd professed mine.

But I guessed nothing would be completely normal, not ever again. Adventures have a way of repeating. Not the same adventure, not exactly, but the same idea, same people, and same friends. They have this funny way of sneaking back into you, crawling around and getting you ready to have another go. Everything was going to keep going, and no matter which way you look at it, there's usually an adventure hiding behind a corner. I knew then that there'd be more adventures, here or there, magical or not, with and without Knack, Elise, even without Tad.

Knack and Tad were waiting for me, the stars above them and Tad grinning broadly at me, but a different grin than he usually had, one that made me blush and mumble a bit.

"Ready?" he asked, and I knew that no matter what happened, this time I was. Truly ready.

"Let's go," I replied.

And it started again.

A/N: Not really a sense of finality like you wanted, Hershey, but that's as good as it's gonna get.  I'll be honest, I have ideas for sequels, spin-offs, etc., etc., but unless someone really, really wants me to do one, I doubt I will.  I mean, I know what happens to them. They're my characters! I know who they end up with, what happens in ten years, even.  (Pulled a bit of a J.K. Rowling.) But I might leave them be for a bit.  So, basically, I'm asking for advice. Should I let them be?  They seem kind of content as they are...