After taking the train home from Burrow extremely late the day after Valentine's, Culvin decides to spend the rest of the night at Isaac's. He does not even bother getting up to go to school with him the following day. It is not until mid morning that he decides to get dressed again and return to Mr. Plasic's house where his mother and sisters are still staying.
Upon arriving, Culvin is struck by a desire not to see his mother. He knows he is supposed to be helping her get a new place for her to live along with Philla and Chessy but since visiting Emi in Burrow he has been rethinking his desire to actually assist her. "Why couldn't things have stayed the way they were before?" he grumbles while kicking a pile of snow off the sidewalk and into the street.
He never thought the day would come when he would miss the humdrum of everyday school life with Isaac. He also misses living in the same town as Emi. He heaves a long sigh as he accepts the fact that he probably would not have ever built up the resolve to ask her out if he had not lost Evelon and had is wonderfully dull vacation in this world thrown into chaos.
Living with Isaac and Emi was quite taxing but it was also fun at times. He had to be careful not to intrude on Emi while also trying to give Isaac time to himself. It was hectic but it was also fun and strange and just plain pointless everyday life. He will probably never get to live quite like that again. He is wracking his brain wondering if he will be able to adjust to life in a normal house with his sisters. Will they be able to become a family again.
As he finally musters the resolve to open the door to Mr. Plasic's house, he feels a heavy pang in his chest. He already knows what he is going to say to his mother but he wonders what his reaction will be when she gives her answer. Will he abandon the chance to start over with Chessy and Philla just to run off to see his girlfriend. He may have refused to hear her out when she was suggesting it but that did not mean he was not already considering it.
"Who's there?" his mother's dull voice calls from the kitchen. Culvin smiles as he recalls the fact that his father has a much more palatable voice, designed for singing and reciting poetry. His mother is by far the more manly of the two of them.
"What's so funny?" Mistel pokes her head around the corner of the wall that blocks the kitchen from the view of the entryway. She is holding a wooden spoon and wearing an apron overtop a tracksuit she borrowed from Mr. Plasic.
"You look ridiculous." Culvin covers his mouth while smirking.
"Mr. Plastic says that these are very comfortable," Mistel explains.
"He's just too lazy to dress properly," Culvin scoffs.
"You could be a little nicer. He is our host after all." Mistel places her hands on her hips.
"Clooney was your host too. I don't see you singing his praise."
"I earned my stay. I actually moved into the sanctuary for his convenience. Here, I'm just in Mr. Plasic's way all the time."
"Then you should stop using his kitchen for your experiments," Culvin scolds her.
"You were always very outspoken," Mistel sighs. "What happened to that little mama's boy who would do whatever I said and would call his father an idiot at my behest."
"Father is an idiot," Culvin restates the obvious. "As for the little boy who thought you were a hero; he grew up. He learned exactly what you were and why… and why you were." Culvin's voice becomes solemn. He is trying not to keep blaming his mother for her past mistakes.
The fact remains that he had to travel to another country and involve himself in a war just to get his sisters back because of her. Neither one of them made it back unscathed. He does not think he will ever forgive her. He just wants to accept that she really did believe she was making the best choice at the time. It was not like he was around to help her. He was busy playing rebel with his shady friends. He should have been there for his family too.
"What's wrong?" Mistel can recognize the distant look in his eyes. "I never know what you're thinking anymore. We've spent so long apart… I just…"
"How about spending some more time apart," Culvin suggests offhandedly.
"Excuse me?" Mistel is caught off guard.
"We obviously have trouble dealing with each other. Why don't I leave you to yourself and I'll… I'll head off to Burrow to…"
"Is this about that girl?" Mistel snaps at him. "God, Culvin, is she more important than your family?"
"What do you expect me to do for this family?" Culvin raises his voice as well.
"You're the one who brought us here. You have to take some sort of responsibility."
"No, Mom, you need to be responsible this time. Can't you see; I fixed your mistake. Not only did it never happen, I brought you to a world where you can start over. I'm even offering to lower the number of mouths you have to feed by one. I'm giving you the chance to be a proper mother again."
"Proper?" she scoffs. "This isn't proper. This is standardized. This world puts people in boxes and tells them to follow the dream of every shmuck going in the same direction. I'm not that kind of person, Culvin. I can genuinely say I'm not like anyone else in this world. I intend to keep at my research. It's the only thing that gives me peace of mind."
"You can't even take time to tend to your family?" Culvin accuses her.
"I'll tend to them in my way. I'll provide for you all with my talent the way I always have. I just need you to look after your sisters. They… they still don't really talk to me."
"They were so glad to see you," Culvin reminds her.
"They got over that initial feeling weeks ago. Now Chessy and Philla just talk to each other. Philla keeps saying that Chessy is her hero. She's the only one who came to find her. How can I compete with that?"
"You don't compete. You just do your job as their mother," Culvin shouts. "Don't try and take Chessy's position in Philla's heart. Just remember that you already have your own place. You and Dad and…"
"You," Mistel cuts him off.
"You'll have to get used to living without me sooner or later," he sighs.
"But not yet," Mistel pleads with him. "I can't do this alone. I need you. Those girls need you."
"You'll have Dad," Culvin reminds her.
"He's the worst problem of all. I still haven't figured out how to tell him that I can't really be in a relationship with him anymore."
Culvin stares at her in blank confusion for a moment. "Huh? What?" he suddenly shouts when her words finally reach him properly. "Wha-when?" he sputters. "Have you… have you both found other arrangements?"
"Don't be ridiculous," Mistel scoffs. "I wrapped myself up in my work and your father drunk himself silly. We haven't had any relationships in the past six years, not with each other or anyone else."
"Miserable?" Mistel tries to guess what he is going to say, or at least lead him in the right direction. "We're a pair of cowards. We haven't said anything to each other but… it's not like there's anything left between us. The sooner I let him go the sooner he can move on and…"
"Mom, he's not going to move on. He's head over heels for your. He's…"
"He's in love with the girl he met who used to chase around Doctor Rasik. I haven't been her in years."
"Why did you even bring him here?" Culvin asks.
"So I could keep an eye on him. If he found out we all fled to another world, he'd have drunken himself to death in a week."
"So this was saving him?" Culvin asks accusingly. "Bringing him here to watch as you get it on with Mr. Plasic."
"How dare you? Mr. Plasic has been a marvelous host. I hold him in too much regard to even suggest such a thing. I brought your father here so he could be a part of Chessy's and Philla's lives. I brought him here because it's my duty to look after him. Even though I don't love him anymore… even though I may never have loved him he is still my burden to bear."
"Wow, you think of Dad as a parasite. Well, I guess that's not a surprise. What about Chessy and Philla? What about me?"
"You know I don't think anything of the sort!" She stops herself just short of slapping him. "I wouldn't be begging you to stay otherwise."
"I guess not," Culvin agrees suspiciously.
"I am so proud of all three of you. I wanted so much more for you than your father and I…"
"Made sure that was going to happen." Culvin's face twists into a frown.
"What I did made those girls strong. They would not have survived their trials without me."
"They wouldn't have had any trials without you!" Culvin snaps. "You know what, I changed my mind. I can't in good conscience leave them alone with you. I have no idea what horrible experiment you will subject them to."
"I was experimenting on myself," Mistel argues.
"No, no you weren't. To you they weren't born yet so it didn't matter but to me… I had been waiting to meet my little sister for months. They were already real to me. They weren't just your daughters, they were Dad's too. You don't deserve them. In fact, I'm taking them with me to Burrow. You have until Isaac gets your ID ready to decide if you want to come with us or if you'd rather stay here with Mr. Plasic."
"What did you just say?" the confused voice of Khilm startles Culvin. "Is… is Chessy moving to Burrow?"
Culvin spins around to see the door open behind him. "Where have you three been?" he asks the triplets suspiciously. "What did you do?" He immediately notices that Eldrie is holding an unfamiliar doll.
"We didn't get caught," Jyp assures him. He does not know why he is bothering to justify himself to Culvin though.
"Whatever, we're leaving soon anyway," Culvin reiterates.
"Why?" Khilm demands. "Why can't you stay here?"
"We can't impose on Mr. Plasic anymore…" Culvin does not sound sure of himself. He turns to look at his mother with a disgruntled expression. "Well, some of us can't."
"Seriously, when did you get such an imagination?" Mistel growls at him. "My decision to leave your father has nothing to do with…"
"The Casters are splitting up?" Jyp interrupts loudly.
"What do we do?" Eldrie joins in shouting.
"Get some glue and a long rope!" Khilm instructs her.
"Can that really fix them?" Eldrie is skeptical.
"Are you questioning your big brother?" Khilm places his hands on his hips.
"I'm older than you." She copies his pose.
"Seems like she's remembering certain things," Jyp snickers.
Khilm seems like he is about to say something back when he suddenly turns to face Culvin instead. "You're not really taking Chessy away, are you?"
"I understand that you two became attached. I'm grateful for you looking after her, but… she's only just turning eleven soon. She's too young for… any of this. I need to take her away from here and… I need to get her mind off the Curtain World. I need to figure out what happened to Philla and how to fix it. She's not been the same since Rindhall. I think she had to pretend to be a grownup. No one there gave her special treatment. She needs a lot of coddling; that girl."
"We can help you," Khilm sputters. "We have to take care of our sister too. We can do it together. You're not going with either of your parents, are you? You'll need someone to look out for them when you're at school."
"I was actually thinking about enrolling them in school too," Culvin admits. "I know it will be difficult at first but I can always erase their mistakes." He stares at the red ring on his finger.
"Can that thing really do it?" Khilm asks.
"It'll take some practice but…"
"Mrs. Caster, you can make me one of those too, can't you?" Jyp interrupts.
"Jyp, you do know why I took your last spirit, don't you?" Mistel asks.
"I won't become possessed again. Markot was just too strong. This time I'll find a weaker spirit. I want to learn how to hypnotize people too."
"Wow, we sure have decided that bending this world to our will is the right course of action," Khilm grumbles. "What right do we have to mess with it like this? We're not better and more deserving than the people here."
"No but we are more aware of ourselves. The same way Clooney was able to gain control in the Curtain World by simply exploiting his knowledge of both worlds, we can do the same," Mistel explains. "It may not be fair to people who toile away their whole lives playing the game by the rules but I refuse not to use this knowledge I have. That would be just wasteful."
"How much knowledge does Clooney have of this world?" Khilm recalls his earlier conversation with Jyp. They came to the conclusion that a lot of the plumbing in the citadel must have been based off of this world.
Mistel's expression changes as she realizes that she has revealed a little bit more than she intended. "According to Doctor Rasik's notes, Clooney was originally from a place called New York. Upon asking Mr. Plasic about a location in this world that bears the same name, I concluded that Clooney must have been born and raised in this world."
Culvin flinches but does not say anything. It is not as if he never suspected it but he still finds it amazing. This means that the secession of Habalon from Rindhall was directly caused by interference from another world. He suddenly feels much more villainous manipulating this world with his abilities.
"So he just walked across the void and used basic knowledge from this world to take over?" Jyp is oddly angry. He feels like Clooney had no right to create the city in which he suffered throughout his childhood.
"It was nothing so simple." Mistel shakes her head. She does not exactly like the fact that her life of turmoil can be tracked back to Clooney's originally traipse into their world but she can not help but feel that he somehow earned the right by overcoming such incredible odds through intelligence alone. This is what it means to have a mind like hers; discovery comes first, thoughts and feelings come second if ever.
Culvin takes a look at the random beakers littering the kitchen in front of him and is suddenly struck by realization. There are dozens of scientific magazines and text books as well. There are even letters with return addresses from universities. "You plan to keep going with this research even in this world!" he accuses his mother. He knew she intended to try helping Ash and Isaac avoid being forgotten but he never imagined she would try to share her discoveries with other scientists.
"Mr. Plasic has been teaching me how to read this language. These are a fascinating people; so protected from the trials of the unseen. Some of them are mere years away from a breakthrough that would reveal our world to them. It's just like with Halfreed. He was just floundering until he accidentally stumbled on the truth. Then he worked his way backwards from that point and became the foremost in his field."
"You plan to replace him," Culvin gasps in disbelief.
"How can I not?" She holds up the very folder Culvin gave her back in the sanctuary. "It was a tremendous setback when I lost that crystal you gave me but it was worth it just to survive. I saved the knowledge I needed." She taps her own head. "It's all in here, Culvin baby, I'm this close to changing this world for the better."
"That's exactly what Rasik said before he died. That's exactly what Clooney said before he declared war on the entirety of Rindhall."
"They did change the world," Mistel reminds him. "They were right."
"But they did it for the wrong reasons and they caused so much suffering," Culvin argues.
"There will always be suffering and chaos in the world… in the worlds," she corrects herself. "If I had the chance to be the cause of it or the person sitting back and watching someone else, which do you think I would choose?"
"I can't let you do this, Mom. This peaceful world; separate from the toils of the spirits. It's our isolation; our paradise."
"It's not safe. It's just jaded," Mistel argues. "One day it will have to wake up. It's maybe a decade away but it'll happen. I'm just trying to get ahead of the game by being the one to control the outcome." Culvin continues to shake his head at her. "You won't stop me," she assures him. "All you can do is try to slow me down by destroying my research but you won't. You know that this is too important to lose. That's why you brought it to me in the first place."
Culvin just stares at her blankly. "Go and get your sisters up. I need to talk to them."
"About what?" Culvin is confused.
"You're taking them to Burrow, right? It's pretty far but there is such a thing as long distance communication through electric signal manipulation in this world. I can use Mr. Plasic's internet thing to video chat with them every day if I want. Honestly, I don't know how busy I will be with my research. I'm glad you're taking initiative instead of leaving them in your father's care. I trust you so much more than him."
"Wait, you're abandoning us again?" Culvin blinks at her stupidly.
"Can't you see how important this is? I'm going to be in control of this world pretty soon. I don't have time to deal with a family."
"It's not a family, Mom, it's your family. You created it."
"I never wanted it," she admits bluntly. "I am so proud of you, Culvin and I am so glad you were born but I really wish I had met you through a friend or something. Being a parent is draining. It takes away your identity. I was a researcher before you were born and I chose to remain one after. You can hate me all you want but I refuse to let my life end at the beginning of yours. How dare you try and tell me I am not allowed to have ambitions anymore; not after I indulged everyone of yours when you joined that rebellion."
"I… I'm going to get Chessy and Philla up," Culvin responds meekly. He has no idea how he is supposed to argue. While he believes that Mistel needs to take a certain amount of responsibility for creating him and his sisters, he can not disagree that her mind is too great to have her research halted just so she can be a stay at home mother. Isaac has told him about astronauts and soldiers who live away from their families for years at a time. They have a job to do that no one can do for them and it is more important than just being close at hand. Anyone can have kids, not everyone can change the world.
"Is that it?" Jyp shouts at Culvin as he leaves the kitchen. "You're just giving in? She's convinced you with that selfish garbage?"
"Calm down, it's not like our mother," Khilm can tell exactly why Jyp is upset.
"No, he has a chance. Chessy and Philla could end up just like us."
"Hey!" Culvin stops in his tracks and turns around. He is glaring straight at Jyp. The younger boy looks like he is afraid Culvin may attack him. "It's not the same as your deadbeat mom," he speaks calmly. "She did not leave, she asked if she could go and I said yes."
"Is that what you're telling yourself?" Jyp scoffs.
"I can't stand in her way. I won't. I will not be responsible for everything Doctor Rasik started being forgotten. Chessy and Philla will grow up in six or so years and will probably not give a damn about her any more but in that time she will have fallen so far behind in her research. I'm not going to force her to live the next forty years in misery to take care of my sisters for a mere six. Especially when she's already proven to be extremely bad at taking care of them already. This is her choice and mine. Either go complain about your pathetic mother somewhere else or come help me."
Khilm's eyes light up. "Wait, does that mean…"
"You wanted to help me, right? There are three sisters here that need looking after and three brothers. Sounds about even, doesn't it?"
Khilm runs up to Culvin and hugs him without warning. Looking over the shorter boy's shoulder, Culvin can see his mother's solemn expression. She looks sad about her choice but not regretful. This really is what she wants. "If you have the time, at least try working on some crystals for these two," Culvin instructs her. "It would be helpful if they could at least do something."
"You're the boss, Culvin honey." She smiles weakly.
Culvin has to tap Khilm on the head to get him to let go before he can continue walking to the back bedroom where Chessy and Philla usually stay. Upon entering the room, both of his sisters look up from the television they were watching. "Culvi!" Chessy shouts while leaping to her feet. She runs toward him but trips when Philla grabs one of her ankles.
"He's here to see me, not you," she announces proudly.
"Nuh uh," Chessy does not believe her. "Culvin came to rescue me from the sanctuary all by himself. He left me to come find you in Rindhall," she reminds her sister.
Philla opens her mouth to argue but closes it immediately and instead helps her sister up. They both walk up to Culvin at the same time. "How was Big Sister Emi?" Philla asks. She has never met Emi but Culvin made sure to tell his sisters exactly where he was going on Valentine's Day.
"What about Big Brother Isaac?" Chessy pushes her fingers together shyly. She has met Isaac once, when he faced off against Leviathan for her sake. She has been curious about him ever since.
Khilm can see the look in her eyes. He quickly pushes past Culvin and takes the doll he stole out of his jacket. "Here, I got this for you." He pushes it into Chessy's hands.
Chessy is confused at first but her eyes quickly light up. "Whoa, she's so pretty," she gasps. The doll's hair is made of red yarn that Chessy immediately begins to pull on.
Philla watches her sister with a jealous expression. "Where's mine?" she finally asks.
No one realizes who her question is directed at for a moment. It is Khilm who first notices that she is staring past him at Jyp. Her young mind has come to the conclusion that if one brother gave her sister a gift then it must be the other's job to give her one. Jyp is not paying attention at all though. Khilm has to slap his elbow to alert him to the staring girl.
"What do you want?" he asks gruffly. She stares at him with wide expectant eyes; her hands are outstretched toward him and she is flexing her fingers with greed and want.
With a loud sigh he reaches into his jacket and pulls out the small round wall clock that Eldrie lost interest in when she received her doll. Tears flood Philla's eyes immediately when he hands it to her. "Why would you do that?" Khilm asks accusingly.
"It's… it's really nice. Thank you," Philla hiccups. She does not want to appear ungrateful but it is obvious she does not like it.
"Hey, don't worry, Philla, I'll get you something else later," Culvin tries to calm, her down.
"No, Jyp got me this. I'll… I'll keep it. I'm a big girl. I don't need toys. I was just wondering what time it was anyway."
Culvin looks over his shoulder at the digital clock on the wall above the television. "Two-forty-five," Chessy whispers to him, assuming he wants to know the time but can not read the clock.
"Yeah, two-forty-five," he whispers back, trying to shut her up. Philla hugs the clock against her chest and smiles oddly.
Both Culvin and Khilm are now staring at Jyp angrily. "What'd I do?" he grumbles.
As the boys bicker amongst themselves. Eldrie walks over to Philla and holds out her doll to her. It is already much dirtier than Chessy's, even though it is brand new. Once of its arms has been torn slightly and it appears Eldrie tried chewing on its leg.
"Eww, it's just like Chessy's," Philla wrinkles her nose.
"Mine." Eldrie points at the clock.
"No, this was… this was… given to me by Jyp," Philla announces proudly. She is still hiccupping but she is no longer crying. It seems she has decided that she likes the gift simply because Jyp gave it to her.
Eldrie decides to interrupt the arguing boys to tell them as much. When she points it out to them Jyp is relieved but Culvin is not. He does not understand why it being a gift from Jyp should matter.
"I don't know, man," Jyp grumbles. "Why don't we just ask her." He walks over to Philla and poses the question to her.
"Chessy has Khilm," she announces sweetly.
"So you think I belong to you?" he asks in confusion.
"It seems she didn't want a gift so much as someone to treat her nicely," Khilm laughs.
"Why me though?" Jyp complains. Once again Philla's lip starts to tremble.
"Will you two stop messing with my sisters?" Culvin growls at the brothers.
"Seriously, why do you keep dragging me into this?" Jyp groans at Khilm. "Why don't you just take care of them both." Jyp's suggestion is met with intense glares from both Chessy and Philla. They absolutely hate to share. "Why me?" he repeats.
"You two better watch yourselves," Culvin warns them. "If either one of my sisters ends up hurt because of you…"
"It not my fault she cries so easily." Jyp points at Philla.
"I'm not crying." Philla wipes her eyes.
"Right, right, you're a big girl," he sighs. She moves closer to him and stares up at him expectantly. He looks at Khilm for instructions. Khilm walks over to Chessy and pats her on the head. Philla continues to stare at Jyp. "Um, there-there." He touches her hair lightly. She smiles happily. Jyp tries to smile but he is still confused.
"Girls, come on, we need to talk to Mom." Culvin tries to lead his sisters out of the room.
"We're not girls, we're Chessy and Philla," Chessy announces.
"Well, you are both my sisters so…"
"No, we're not sisters, or girls or anything together. We are separate."
"Seriously?" Jyp snickers. He can not believe how selfish these sisters are. They hate being grouped together so much that they refuse to answer to any plural reference.
"Just come on already." Culvin pushes both brothers out of the way so he can take his sisters by their hands and lead them out into the living room.
Mrs. Caster is busy writing something on a notepad and she does not even look up. "How's it going, girls?" she asks absently mindedly.
"No, Chessy and Philla!" Chessy wails.
"Right, right, I forgot, you two are spoiled brats," Mrs. Caster sighs. They both puff out their cheeks in annoyance. "Has Culvi already told you about moving?"
"Yeah, we're leaving Mr. Plasic's soon, right?" Philla recalls.
"Yes, and you are moving to Burrow," Mrs. Caster adds.
"What?" they are both shocked. "We're moving to Big Sister Emi's city?" Philla is excited.
"Your brother is smitten," Mrs. Caster chuckles.
"Culvi," Chessy pretends to be disappointed in her brother.
"When are we leaving, Mommy?" Philla asks.
"You girls will take the train as soon as Culvin gets that friend of his to use Lishes to set everything up."
"And you?" Philla refuses to let Mistel dance around the question.
"Culvin, I thought you'd explain this to them first," Mistel sighs.
"Girls…" Culvin starts to talk to them but Chessy holds up her hand as soon as he tries to refer to them in plural. "Chessy, Philla," he says their names finally. Chessy smiles and lowers her hand. "How would you feel about moving with just me?" he asks.
"Why?" Philla asks coldly.
"What about Mommy and Daddy?" she raises her voice.
"You know they're not as responsible as me," Culvin tries to explain.
"You're not responsible either," Philla is once again not easily deterred from her questions.
"Baby, don't make this harder on your brother," Mistel scolds her.
"Shut up, Mommy, you're sending us away again."
"Mommy wouldn't do that," Chessy gasps.
"She would. She does it all the time. She does not love us," Philla wails.
"Of course I do, I just… I love my work too and… and it's more important right now."
"Wow." Jyp tries his best not to smirk. In his mind, Mistel is almost a worse mother than his own.
"Don't laugh at Mommy," Chessy shouts at him.
"Hey, it's her fault," he snaps back. Chessy runs at him and bites his hand without warning. "Youch, what is wrong with you?"
"Don't hurt Jyp!" Philla shoves Chessy. Culvin has to catch her by the shoulders.
"Mommy, tell Philla she's wrong. Tell her you won't abandon us," Chessy whimpers.
"No, Chessy and Philla!" Chessy shrieks before running out of the room.
Culvin moves to follow her but Khilm stops him. He goes after her himself. Upon entering the bedroom again, he finds Eldrie sitting on the floor chewing on the hair of her doll. He is concerned slightly but when he spots Chessy burying her face in the futon that she and her sister sleep on, he ignores his own sister for his crush.
"Go away," she mopes when he pats her on the back.
"You know, it's not just going to be your sister and your brother with you," he informs her.
"You're coming too?" She turns her head so she can peak at him.
"And Jyp and Eldrie," he informs her.
She stares past him at Eldrie with a sour expression. "She's kinda stupid," she whispers. Eldrie looks up at her as if she heard. She does not respond though. Chessy doubts she understood what she said.
"We're all having a tough time," Khilm continues trying to calm her down. "This is no different than when you stayed with us, Materil and Aldredge. It's not permanent it's just…"
"When will it be permanent? When will we stop moving around?" she whines.
"I don't really think it ever stops," he admits. "Life is constantly changing. "That's just how it is."
"Well I don't like it. I just want to stop moving. I was in the village with Daddy, then I was in the citadel with Mommy, then I was at the dojo with Levi, then with the old lady with you and Materil. We went all the way to Rindhall and then back through the void. I want it all to stop." She holds out her hands to him and shows him the marks that she received from the mantis's blood.
He throws his arms around her and hugs her head close to him. "I'm sorry," he whispers into her ear. He has no idea what else to say. He can not assure her that this will be the last move for a while. It is not a matter of making things easier on her; it is a matter of her just getting used to it. He knows it is not fair but there is nothing that can be done. There is no grand speech he can give, no reassuring words of wisdom. All he can do is hold her tight and let her know that he is there for her.
"Do you want us to walk home with you," Madison asks Ash as they clop down the front steps of the school, along with their third friend Aisha.
"Why?" Ash asks with a somewhat forced smile.
Madison is more concerned by the part that is not forced. "Well, you finally decided to open up to us about the Pixie Realm, sorry, the Curtain World, and then we just all laughed at you."
"I'm not upset that you didn't believe me. I'm more glad you can even remember what I said," Ash explains her slightly cheery mood.
"Still, we could make sure you make it home to Aaron and don't end up slipping off into another dimension by accident," Aisha suggests jokingly.
"She's always wanted to meet your brother," Madison whispers behind her hand.
"She'll have to fight Cassie for him," Ash announces jokingly.
"I just want to know the face of the guy who was willing to take in a random pixie with no proof that she was his sister," Aisha explains.
"Wait, you said you didn't believe me earlier," Ash argues.
"As did the whole class. However, did you see the guilty look on Andrew's face when he joined in laughing. He was hiding something, to be sure. I don't really know if I believe you're from another dimension but I believe some of what you say. You have gone into detail about the hardships of having a brother who does not remember his own sister a lot. You've definitely lived those parts of your fantastical story."
"So how do you explain her brother simply forgetting her?" Madison asks. She had not realized how much of Ash's story her friend actually believed, if any at all, until now.
"Easy, he's really never her before. She really is a random stranger who convinced him they were related because he's just that weak minded," Aisha explains confidently.
"Oh my god," Madison gasps.
"Wow, that would really suck," Ash is just as shocked.
"Your reaction suggests you don't agree with my idea," Aisha sighs.
"Of course not. Only I know the truth." Ash smiles smugly.
"Yeah, and that's the real problem, isn't it? We have yet to hear the proper story from Andre, Andrew, Aaron or any of these boys who all have names that start with A. You must suck at making up names for your delusions."
"All of them are real people," Ash grumbles. "The names I supposedly make up are Louvina and Chasp."
"So you say; but once again, your mind, your provably delusional mind, is the only source of information."
"You think I made the whole thing up," Ash grumbles.
"I don't know, but I do believe that you believe it really happened. You're not lying because as far as your messed up mind is concerned, it really did happen." Ash stares at her with her mouth agape in shock. She did not expect such bluntness from her friend right after they met again for the first time in months.
"Sorry, but the fact that you hung out with Emi and Cans more than us last semester means that we were not your first choice for friends. The least you can do is accept any and all criticism," Aisha explains. "You've got to worm your way back into our group before you can talk back."
"Considering how many people avoid us, I don't think we should be so judgmental," Madison tries to argue.
"She was best friends with Cans!" Aisha raises her voice and adds emphasis to Janet's nickname. Aisha and Madison are actually the ones who first used the name around Ash. She adopted it from them. All three of them pale in bust size compared to Janet Parker and therefore will never be quite alright with her as a person.
"Well, she's back with us so let's hang out together all the time, just like back in middle school," Madison is eager to get back to acting like normal students. She thinks Ash's delusions are an interesting part of her and has no qualms about being her friend, as long as she is not dangerously insane; however, she wishes they could do normal things too. High School at Chester only lasts three years and she wants to enjoy them to the fullest.
"We can't hang out today, but we can at least greet your brother and…" Aisha trails off when the three of them reach the bottom of the school steps.
"Looks like we're gonna have to walk you home a different day," Madison sighs.
"Sorry." Ash feels incredibly guilty as she walks away from her two friends and toward Isaac who is waiting for her by the front gate.
"Am I interrupting something?" he asks while turning to nod at the two friends who escorted his girlfriend straight to him. They both wave at him awkwardly. They do not know how to react to the fact that their mentally ill friend is in a relationship when they are not.
Ash waves to them cheerfully, putting them at ease. "No, we were just discussing the best time for them to come over. I need to show them all the stuff you bought me at the concert. They are both really big Adrian Cash fans."
"Ugh, it's infectious," Isaac grumbles.
"You don't have to worry. Adrian's always been a loner since his first band kicked him out. He's finally joined another one and it's obvious he's smitten with the other lead singer," Ash sighs.
"Oh, you thought I was actually worried that you'd leave me for him," Isaac almost laughs.
"What? No, I just thought I'd try to put your mind at ease."
"Ash, I'm not an idiot. The whole point of celebrities is for them to share their talents with the world. That face of his you love so much, is the façade he gets paid to present. You're not in love with him, just the persona that was perfectly designed by a dozen different handlers and marketing campaigners. I don't have a thing to worry about."
"Wow, you made me feel like Adrian wasn't real and I'm the one who just got laughed at for talking about nonexistent things in class," Ash sighs.
"What do you mean?" Isaac is suspicious.
"Oh, you don't have to worry about it. More people just know that Ash Vrook is off her rocker. Not your concern at all." Isaac wants to comfort her but she already seems pretty pleased with herself. He does not know that her real intention was to test if she would be forgotten again, which she was not. As far as she cares to think for today, her efforts were a success.
"Where are we going?" Ash asks as he takes her hand and leads her off the school campus. They are headed in the opposite direction from her apartment yet not toward his either.
"I promised to meet with Culvin after school," he explains.
"Oh yeah, I forget he was someone we knew," Ash pretends to be annoyed that her walk home with Isaac has been subverted for the sake of his friend.
Isaac laughs while patting her on the head and moving her knit hat around so that he messes up her hair beneath it. "You can be so mean when you're being selfish."
"I'm always selfish," Ash reminds him. "Also, don't touch me." She swats his hand away.
"You're going to have to let me touch you eventually. What's the point of dating if we never even act like it."
"Making sure you don't date Sasha," she answers instantly.
"I have no doubt that you would spend years pretending to like me when you actually despised me just to keep me from dating Sasha," he agrees. "I fear for whomever she takes as a boyfriend. I have a feeling you will be quite harsh when trying to convince him to dump her."
"Are you kidding, I'll buy him the wedding ring myself if it'd get her away from you," Ash assures him.
"You really are silly. Sasha is just teasing you and me," he laughs again.
"If I liked Sasha enough to feel bad for her, I'd hit you," Ash sighs. "No wait." She suddenly swats him on the side of the head with her gloved hand. It is not extremely hard or soft.
"She's deserves at least that much. I am so lucky you are so dense."
"I really don't understand you sometimes." Isaac shakes his head. He is either incredibly stupid when it comes to Sasha, or he is purposefully refusing to believe the obvious.
The pair walks along the sidewalk with caution. There is a thin layer of snow that has been pounded into the concrete by a thousand people's feet throughout the day while they were in school. It is not slippery anymore but they are still careful.
They talk to each other about winter and about plans for the future. Ash even admits Aisha and Madison's interest in seeing the Curtain World. Isaac writes it off as pointless due to the fact that neither of them will be returning to the horrible place any time soon. Ash agrees with him but adopts a slightly depressed expression. She may not have had the best time in the Curtain World but it definitely was not all bad. Griffon and Bailiff still remain as a solid example of what parents should be like, despite the fact that Darcy, Sasha, Emi and Culvin have convinced her that all parents must be evil.
When they finally reach their intended destination, Ash recognizes the location. They are in a rather large park that lies halfway between Isaac's apartment and Chester high and also a dozen or so blocks south. Ash has done little exploring of Edgeburn Heights except for searching for arcades to watch people with more money than her play at. She only knows the park through word of mouth.
"This is the place where you learned how to control Lishes better, isn't it?" she recalls something Isaac told her.
"Yeah, Culvin helped me practice how to grow the plants in this area. I made a special cove in the center of the park that no one can enter without either a chainsaw or the power to move vines." One of Isaac's eyes glows green as he says this.
"Are you going to show me your and Caster's special boys' cave?" Ash giggles excitedly.
"Why do you have to make it sound like that?" Isaac groans. He is not sure why Ash seems obsessed with the idea of paring him and Culvin off when she is supposed to be his girlfriend.
"Are you sure Caster wants you to show me your special place?" Ash asks.
"This is probably the last time we will come here. I have no more reason to train with Lishes."
"Right, you're never going back to the Curtain World," Ash sighs loudly. She is thinking about the lonely and longing feeling she had when she left the void. She can not believe it but she has had dreams about what might have happened if she let the opening to the void close before she left with everyone else. Her own mind scares her sometimes.
"Come on, we can take the scenic route through the park on the way." Isaac offers Ash his hand again. She stares at it as if it is unfamiliar for a long moment before finally grabbing it. She is obviously lost in thought about something but Isaac can not figure out what.
The park has been transformed from a collection of grassy hills with thirty foot tall trees canopying the best picnic spots into a snowy wonderland of undisturbed white, covering all of the benches and tables built throughout. They look like forgotten relics, buried for months and only to be dug out by the passing of time and the warming of the city, not by people.
However, some people have made the decision to sweep the snow off of some of the benches so they will have a place to sit. The cobblestone path that winds in-between the hills has been shoveled by someone who regrets their city council assigned job. There are a few trails of footprints that lead away from the path and into the hills. There are young kids with sleds playing on the mounds of white fluff.
"We should have brought a sled," Ash mutters to herself.
"I know you look like a kid but do you really want to act like one too?" Isaac teases her.
"I was in the middle of the desert for a month. I never thought I'd miss snow."
"I thought you were in the sanctuary and then you were in Rindhall," Isaac recalls.
"And what lies between the two? We had to walk or ride the whole way there and back, remember? I've seen enough sand for a lifetime." Ash's face becomes sullen when she realizes how pleased Isaac is to hear it. He obviously never wants her to return to the curtain world.
Finally, after walking for several long minutes in the biting cold, they reach a group of trees with heavy brush surrounding them. Culvin is waiting for them, leaning against one of the trees with his arms crossed. "What took you guys so long?" he asks in a slightly annoyed slightly joking tone.
"We were being a stupid couple," Isaac admits while blushing.
"If you're going to get embarrassed then don't say it," Culvin scolds him.
"Hey, Caster," Ash barely greets Culvin.
"Hey, Vrook." He nods at her in acknowledgment. It is no secret that the two of them do not exactly get along. They are both important people to Isaac for completely opposite reasons. They have nothing really to say to one another. Their strained relationship is further hampered by the fact that Culvin has not quite forgiven Ash for stealing his rare spirit from him.
"So what was the point of this fieldtrip?" Ash asks. She is trying not to sound like she is in a hurry to leave but she is cold and uncomfortable.
Rather than answering her question, Isaac waves his hand at the tree behind Culvin. His friend has to leap forward when the tree starts to tilt off its axis. "The roots beneath it are shifting," Isaac explains to Ash.
"I could guess that," she tries not to be impressed but the gaping expression on her face reveals the truth. Eventually the brush around the tree starts to recede as well, leaving a small gap for them to slip past.
The moment they enter the area beyond the massive tree, Ash's eyes widen. She stares at the small cove of snow covered objects. She can guess that they are roots and shrubs and other things that Isaac created but she can not see them as they are hidden by the snow. The canopy above them is thin and lacking leaves, allowing light to slip in. It must have been much darker when Isaac and Culvin were training several months prior.
"I don't know if I like the fact that you two were here alone together every day while I was in the Curtain World," Ash teases them.
"You and your delusional mind." Culvin shakes his head.
"So, I'll ask again. This is nice and all but why have you brought me here? And how did you construct this without anyone noticing?" Ash directs her questions at Isaac. She is still not able to make eye contact with Culvin.
"I first practiced hypnotism on the people who came by this area regularly," Isaac explains. "That was the whole reason for coming to a park. We needed a large number of test subjects. Once I perfected getting people to ignore this spot, I just went to work pulling roots up out of the ground and making them grow branches and leaves until I had enough practice to wall the place off entirely. After that we had our privacy… and not in the way you're thinking." He points at Ash accusingly.
Culvin raises a confused eyebrow. He does not talk to Ash enough to know that she often teases Isaac about the idea of them being a secret couple. When Culvin realizes that Isaac has been distracted from Ash's original question of why they are here to explain how he built this place, he decides to be the one to tell her. "We're here to say goodbye," Culvin announces ominously.
"Goodbye to this place?" Isaac asks with a voice of concern.
Culvin takes a deep breath before answering. He does not want to draw this out. "I'm leaving Edgeburn Heights," he spouts while wincing. He expects Isaac to be furious.
"Oh," Isaac is understandably surprised. "Burrow, right? You're going to see Emi."
"I know it's selfish, but…"
"It's not selfish." Isaac shakes his head. "Actually, I'll feel better knowing someone is there to look after her. More like, I'm glad. I can't believe it. You've really fallen for my sister hard, haven't you?"
"I don't know, but I don't want to just give up or pretend this never happened. I have to at least try to work things out with her. We did not part on the best of terms last time. I kinda wonder what she's going to say when I show up at her school and tell her that I moved to Burrow."
"She's going to hit you, man," Isaac is blunt. "She's going to slap that grin off your face."
"What?" Culvin grabs his own cheeks. He did not realize he was smiling. "Why am I so excited?"
"Why wouldn't you be?" Isaac cracks a grin as well.
"I don't really understand, but does this mean I won't have to see you around at all?" Ash asks.
"Can't you be a little bit nicer?" Culvin pretends to be offended.
"Fine. Congratulations, Caster. I really hope you make Emi happy. She's not easy to please but there is something about you she likes. Keep it up."
"Um, thanks," Culvin is taken aback. His cheeks are already red from the biting cold but now he has the shy expression to match his embarrassment. This is, after all, the first time he has done anything like this. He still has the mind of a child when it comes to romance.
"So what shall we do on our last day together?" Isaac asks in as cheery of a voice as he can muster. The same feeling that Ash had when she learned all her friends had moved away is now hitting him.
"Show us all the tricks you practiced," Ash suggests. She is eager to see the cool side of her boyfriend. He is, after all, not much more than a video game nerd without his supernatural spirit abilities.
Isaac looks to Culvin for permission and receives a simple nod. He walks forward into the center of the cove and turns around so that he is facing his two companions. They wait patiently as one of his eyes begins to glow green. He holds out his hands and points his palms at the ground. Slowly two large spikes begin to rise in front of him, they are normal roots but they are less dirt covered than they usually are. The ground is slightly frozen so they are popping up cleaner.
They spin and spiral and twist around each other, spreading out from the base in a similar way to the top of a tree; only flatter. Eventually they wind themselves and curve until their tips are tucked back into the flat circle. Isaac has just created two round tables made of pure wood.
Ash starts to clap and cheer as soon as she realizes what Isaac has done. "How come you are never this precise when fighting?" she shouts at him.
"This takes more concentration. I'm just trying to survive in those situations," Isaac explains. "I don't have time to concentrate on every twig."
"Are we going to have a picnic here?" Culvin asks while chuckling.
"That would be amazing, but I really hope not." Ash is shivering as she speaks. "It's cold and we didn't bring any food. We can do this next summer if you have time to visit." She actually looks Culvin in the eyes as she speaks this time. Telling him to take care of Emi for her has somewhat boosted her confidence to talk to him properly.
"Yeah, I'll bring Emi back at least once this summer," he assures Ash and Isaac. "I don't know if she'll understand this place all that well but… I really want her to see it."
"So this is where you practiced so you could come and rescue me," Ash sighs contently as she looks around the cove again.
"I kept at it every day," Isaac informs her. "Not a day went by that I did not think of you."
"Thank you." She runs over to him and stands on the tips of her toes so that she can kiss him. She still struggles though and only gets the bottom part of his lip. They are both numb from the cold and can hardly feel it.
"We should get inside soon." Isaac tilts his head back so he can see the sky. It is already starting to get dark as it is covered by grey clouds.
"Wait a moment." Ash suddenly dashes off. She has trouble clopping through the thick snow that seems to have gathered more than in the surrounding park. Perhaps the trees and brush have kept the wind from blowing it away. She runs over to each of the many snow covered objects and sweeps the snow off of them, one at a time.
It is a time consuming effort. She wants to see them though. She wants to imagine what was going through Isaac's mind as he forged each one. She can almost guess what order they were created in due to the amount of control exhibited over them when they were formed. He got better and better at keeping the rising roots intact or in shaping the greenery that grey on them to form new trees and bushes.
"Come on, make something else," she calls to Isaac as she continues to trot through the snow. He can tell that her boots must be soaked through with melted snow and her legs must be frozen as all she has on are some thick winter leggings and a skirt. The longer she keeps moving though, the longer she can pretend she is not cold.
Over the next hour, Isaac creates all manor of plants and wooden objects to impress both Ash and Culvin. They clap and cheer and comment on how he never seems to run out of existence. After Ash becomes tired of moving around, the cold starts to set in. "We should really get inside soon," Culvin suggests. "I know we normally walk, but we should take a heated train."
Ash nods instead of answering. Her teeth are chattering too much for her to speak properly. The three of them trudge through the snow to reach the same tilted tree they entered by. Isaac walks through first and turns around, expecting the other two to be right behind him. Before Culvin can step through, Ash taps his arm. She is too short to tap his shoulder.
He turns around with a confused look on his face. "Are you sure?" she asks in a wavering voice.
"Am I sure I want to go to Burrow?" he tries to guess the meaning of her question.
"Are you sure you want to give up on the Curtain World?" she clarifies.
"Who said I was giving up. I just…"
"You are going to live near Emi. You aren't going to be near Isaac. Isn't he the only person with a spirit that can lead us through the void now?"
Culvin looks down at the ring on his hand. "What's that?" Isaac spots it. "Didn't you get that from the sanctuary when we came to get Andrew and Eldrie?" he recalls. "Why are you wearing it?"
"Well, Grol is…"
"The spirit's still in there?" Isaac is shocked.
"You still have your spirit," Culvin accuses him.
"That's different. I need… well I don't really… I can't just discard Lishes. We'd have to figure out a way to put him back to sleep."
"And if the need ever arises to do so, we'll have two spirits to assist us." Culvin holds up his hand and wiggles his fingers proudly.
"You haven't really given up, have you?" Isaac sighs.
"You haven't either, right?" Culvin asks. "Deep down you know you will never really be completely free of it. Your father's curse."
"Stop it!" Isaac raises his voice.
"You're a part of the Curtain World now, just like me. I'm going to Burrow, I'm going to spend the next few months, maybe years, raising my sisters but I'll never forget. A part of me will always wonder what happened to Clooney and to Barburo. I need to know."
"It must be so nice to have a driving force in your life that points you in the right direction," Isaac sighs. "I have no doubt that you are destined for something great. If your mother really does keep at her research and invents something that can help you, just maybe you'll end up taking over the Curtain World but… leave Ash and me out of it. Leave my sister out of it too."
Isaac turns to walk away again. He stops when he does not hear the sound of crunching snow behind him. Neither of his companions is following him. He turns around with a solemn expression. Ash is staring at him with water in her eyes. He shakes his head, begging her not to say anything.
"I need to know what happened to them," she tries to explain. "I need to know about Hambil and Bailiff and Griffon. I need to know about Kapil and Targone and Cauldron. I need to see Col and Mil and even Huck." Ash is trembling now. She is still finding it hard to speak through her chattering teeth. "I need to see Louina and… and Andre again. Isaac, we have to go back."
Isaac closes his eyes and pounds his fist against his forehead. He could completely ignore Culvin's desire to return to the Curtain World. He can not ignore Ash's. He hears her approaching him. When he opens his eyes again, she is standing right in front of him. "We have to go back," she repeats in her trembling voice.
He sucks in a large breath before finally speaking. "You're not going to let me out of this… are you?" he directs the second half of his question at Culvin.
"We need you," Culvin speaks up. "If I was the leader of our party when we first met, you're the leader now."
"I almost lost you in that world once," Isaac reminds Ash.
"So don't lose me again," she responds coyly.
"This is not a joke, you two," he snaps at them.
"It kinda is," Culvin laughs. "We're just a bunch of kids but we hop worlds like it's nothing."
"We'll be going through that void again," Isaac argues.
"With a smaller group, we won't give off so much existence. We won't attract something that big as easily," Culvin explains.
"But we could," Isaac reiterates.
"We'll bring more plants and we'll huddle around you," Ash suggests.
"Will you two listen to yourselves? Why, when we could have completely normal lives?"
"We're not normal," Culvin's voice becomes stern for a moment. "We've seen things that no normal person could remain sane after seeing."
"Some of us did go insane," Ash adds.
"We can't just pretend to be normal."
Isaac glances back and forth between the two of them. They, along with Emi, are the most important people he has. "This won't be the same as before," he assures them. "No more wandering in there without a plan. I doubt Clooney will welcome us again. We are our own faction with our own agenda. We will train to learn what the sand spirit of yours can do," he points at Culvin.
Ash's eyes light up immediately. "Wait, does that mean?" she gasps.
"You are such a pushover," Culvin laughs while shoving Isaac affectionately.
"You two are just so needy," Isaac counters.
"That's why you love us." Ash hugs him around the waist.
"I think I liked it better when you two barely talked," Isaac whines.
"Well, get used to it. If Ash is my only comrade, then I'll gladly accept her."
"Oh, I can't wait to see Louina again," Ash cheers.
"I thought she was not the Anara you remembered," Isaac reminds her.
"She's not, but she's still a little girl in the middle of a dangerous war. How can I leave her alone. Egad, how can I leave her in Andre's hands. Her virginity is in so much danger."
"I was about to ask why you did not trust your best friend to take care of her but now I think I'll pass." Isaac rolls his eyes.
"This is so amazing. It's like we're part of a secret guerilla force," Ash squeals in excitement.
"See, you two think this is such a game."
"Well then, play it like a game, Master Orlan," Culvin suggests.
"Are you sure? Ash can tell you how grueling it can be to be in my party. We are on top through perseverance and dedication. There are no shortcuts."
"You're talking to the person who tried to attack the entire sanctuary with a newborn rare spirit and an unidentified nature spirit," Culvin reminds him.
"Yeah, and I had to save your butt. You wouldn't last two seconds without me."
"Well, I guess I'm glad I met you then." Culvin finally exits the cove. Ash and Isaac step back several feet before Isaac closes their entrance by tilting the tree back into place.
"We'll be back here, right?" Ash feels the need to reconfirm her permission from Isaac.
He moves her hat around on her head again, intentionally messing up her hair like before. "We'll be back. Even if I said otherwise, I never regretted learning of the Curtain World. It is, after all, how I got to know Culvin."
"It's how you proved you weren't just a video game nerd," Ash adds.
"That part wasn't necessary," he grumbles. "Weren't you cold?"
"Yeah, freezing," Ash admits through chattering teeth.
The three of them make their way to the train station. They board the first one that arrives, not caring which direction it is going. They will make it to one of their houses eventually.
They spend their time on the train discussing their plans for the future again, this time with a few revisions. They talk about how many times they will visit Culvin and Emi in Burrow and how many times they will have to come back to Edgeburn Heights in exchange. They make plans for spring break and summer vacation. They even discuss different upcoming performances of Emi's and Darcy's and when they will be able to see them. Isaac and Ash make dozens of plans for upcoming conventions.
By the time the three of them go their separate ways, they are extremely motivated about their lives as a whole. While all of them started the semester feeling alone and slightly depressed, they have grown to rely on one another and to interact with people from two worlds. It may not have all been a good thing but it was better than never getting out and living in the first place.
When Ash hits the buzzer for her apartment, she is not surprised to hear Cassie respond. She enters the building and takes the elevator up to her proper floor. "Oh my god, where have you been. You're soaked, let me run you a bath," Cassie is shocked when she greets her at the door.
At the same time, Isaac has just entered his own apartment. He is slightly surprised when he sees his mother's coat hanging by the door. She is sitting at the kitchen table with her smart phone propped up so that she can video chat with someone. "Hold on, Emi, I think your brother just got home," Millie stands up to greet Isaac with a hug.
Across town, Culvin has just walked into Mr. Plasic's living room. Eldrie is playing dolls with Chessy on the floor while Philla is instructing Jyp where to hang her clock on the wall. Mr. Plasic himself is in the kitchen, talking and laughing with Culvin's mom. Khilm is sitting on one of the bar stools, watching Chessy fondly and sometimes glancing at his brother to laugh at his dismay.
As Ash strips out of her wet clothes, her brother enters the living room. A single phrase escapes her lips when she sees him. It is the same one that Isaac greets his mother and Emi's video chat with, and the same one Culvin announces to his entire household. "We need to talk."