The rest of the month of December was filled with relief as things slowly returned to normal.
"You can't keep doing this to me!" Mae wailed the moment she was able to get her arms around Iris again.
"Ma! I said I was sorry!" Iris cried embarrassedly as Mae crushed her in a hug. Mae was, admittedly, being a bit overdramatic, but she didn't care.
"I don't care!" she cried. "I'm just so glad you're safe because I was so worried! Oh! Don't you ever do that again, young lady! Do you hear?" she continued to cry and shout and hug Iris to death, though she was careful not to upset Iris' ribs. But she continued to make a scene, babbling on about how Iris needed to spend a lot more time in the sun to make up for her week and a half in the dark. Storm, meanwhile, watched the whole thing in amusement. Or at least, she did until Mae dragged her into a hug of her own, alternating between consoling her, thanking her for saving Iris, and getting mad that she hadn't come home at all in Iris' weeklong absence.
"I hate you," Storm mouthed to Iris as Mae hugged her tightly. Iris only laughed in response.
But while Iris and Storm were getting their ears chewed off by Mae, Princeton wasn't fairing much better. His dads were both marvelously supportive of his self-discovery, but both his sisters had insisted upon actually coming out to visit and giving him a hard time about it.
"You didn't tell me first?!" Priscilla cried "And you didn't even at least call?! You jerk! I should've been first to know! And you didn't even call!" she stomped a foot, crossed her arms, and pouted like someone 10 years younger. "You didn't even call!"
"Yeah, seriously, dude," Pearl crossed her arms. "Not cool at all."
"Well sorry if I was busy trying to save Denbar!" Princeton said defensively.
"Seriously though, not even one little call to tell us you were still alive and not one of the people trapped down below?" Pearl sneered, but then Princeton saw the genuine fear in her eyes and he knew at once how scared she really had been.
"I'm sorry," he promised, defensive stance becoming submissive. "You're right. I should've called. But I was too caught up in everything else."
"Whatever," Pearl replied, but then when he initiated the hug and it took Pearl less than half a second to reciprocate it.
"Hey! No fair!" Priscilla interrupted the moment, butting her way into Princeton's arms. Princeton and Pearl both rolled their eyes but they allowed Priscilla to join the Cross Kids hug and listened her to continually huff out her indignant wrath.
"He doesn't call! He doesn't tell! He doesn't keep in touch! He doesn't keep promises! The nerve of him!"
But aside from awkward family reunions, everything else flowed pretty smoothly. Storm was welcomed back after her hiatus and Gale was more than happy to see her again, relieving his control at once.
"Welcome home!" he grinned, thumping the blond on the back.
"Thanks!" she responded, thumping him too.
"Ooof!" he cried as her slap actually pushed him forward.
"Baby," the blond snorted.
"Whatever," Gale grinned back, nudging her arm.
"How are our guest leaders?" Storm asked next. Gale's face fell. Oh, right. Storm had never gotten the chance to learn this, what with the mountain collapse and all. Barry and Angelina were dead, the first having pretty much been eaten alive by a Bellifer and the other dying when the mountain collapsed. It was a tough blow for Tanya, to say the least. To lose her deputy, a Gifted and, most importantly, her wife all within the same timeframe. Storm was especially sympathetic to that third plight, but was selfishly glad that she had not lost her wife the same way Tanya had.
"Aside from all that, though, Tanya's doing ok," Gale concluded at the end of the story, but it was clear from the pain on his face that Tanya was not ok at all. At the moment, her face was unreadable as she surveyed her soldiers dutifully. She might've looked composed then, but Storm hadn't seen what Gale had. She hadn't seen Tanya going hysterical in mourning. She hadn't seen Tanya screaming and crying, alternating between sobbing and throwing whatever she could at anything that would hold still for more than five seconds. It was only the fact that her soldiers still needed her that kept her from going entirely insane, though everyone could tell that she was close.
Storm grimaced in pain, having grown genuinely fond of the woman. Besides, she still remembered how close Tanya had been with Tempest. Any friend of Tempest was at least an ally of Storm's.
"Yeah, like I said, she didn't take well to losing Edward, but she was definitely glad to see Iskala and Quincy again," Gale smiled at the memory. Seeing at least two of her Gifted come back had incited the first real smile from Tanya since before that treacherous mountain battle. Of course, she had wept for Edward, and then for Barry and Angelina again, but her relief at having Iskala and Quincy was powerful enough to make her forget her grief at least for a couple of hours. It was better than nothing. Besides, maybe Quincy and Iskala could help her get her life back on track.
"Speaking of which, how is Iskala?" Storm asked off-handedly. The last time she'd seen the feisty woman, she had been in the hospital, her eyes wide and staring, but entirely empty and unseeing. She knew Quincy was ok, but what of Iskala? Poor girl. Edward's death had broken her, and maybe irreversibly so. And Storm knew that empty, haunted look. It had been the one she and Mae had worn when she thought Iris would never snap out of her Gifted state, it was the one Rusty had worn whenever he mentioned Clover, it was the one Gale had worn when he'd seen what had happened to Tempest. That thousand-yard stare was something Storm was too used to, and seeing it upon Iskala had been disturbing. Storm may not have known Iskala very well, but she still wanted to know if the girl was doing any better.
"She's… Well..." Gale made a weak noise in the back of his throat and Storm knew at once that the way Iskala looked now wouldn't have been too different from what she remembered. She felt sympathetic for Iskala. She really was such a brave and brilliant soldier. It wasn't fair for her to have to be going through this! And it really was quite tragic. But, at the same time, Storm didn't have time to personally look after the girl or share some kind of heart-to-heart with her. Storm could only hope that Iskala would recover eventually before turning her attention back to more important things in Camp Heath. There was still a bit left to do in the Bellifer department, after all.
Even though the last majority of the Bellifers did die in the cave collapse, there were still a few loose in the underground and squads had to be sent into hunt and kill them before they could start reproducing. The Bellifer reproduction cycle might've been slow, but no one wanted to let them live. And then of course, Camp Greene and Reed needed to be repaired so that their soldiers could go home again. That took a combined effort from both the army and Denbar itself. And it was even harder with it being the middle of December, the world coated in snow and ice. But still, no one wanted to wait around if they had to and it was all hands on deck as soon as possible, soldiers and civilians alike coming out to help.
"Were we really that bad to them?" Storm joked when Tanya sent another hoard of her soldiers up north to try and fix Camp Greene.
"They're just trying to go home," said Gale. "Now that they know the danger is over for real this time, you can see they're reluctant to stay."
"Yeah," agreed Storm. "But I can't blame them. Their pride must be sore from having to leech off of us for like two months."
"Really," Gale snorted despite himself. "I've never met a more stuck up camp!" and the two shared a brief laugh at Camp Greene's expense.
But even though Camp Greene had already stayed two months with Camp Heath, it still took a few more to fix everything. And Camp Reed had an even harder time. Along with it being far more difficult to fix a mountain, the poor camp ended up suffering a bit of a setback. It all happened when someone let Clemont lead one of the construction teams because the foolish young man had tried to create a whole bunch of demolition bots and every single one of them ended up exploding. Luckily, though, the damage had been superficial, just like with Tunnelby.
"Idiot," Storm remarked when she heard that Clemont had nearly blown up Camp Reed's mountain again.
"Don't be too hard on him," Iris replied good naturedly and Storm only rolled her eyes.
"I just can't believe that, with a track record like his, they keep letting him build robots," she insisted. "How has he not been fired yet?"
"He tries," Iris defended again. "So just try to not be so mean about him."
"Make me," Storm replied immaturely, in far better spirits ever since Iris came home.
"Ok," Iris played along, then she pulled the blond in for a kiss. Just as planned, it shut her up for a good long time.
Then at last, the end of December hit, and even though it was bitterly cold, the warmth of friendship filled the air and excitement kept things hot as the apprentices of July finally became soldiers. Princeton was among them. His shadow powers were still very weak, having only been active for about a month, but he had been practicing long and hard and it was clear that he was immensely proud of them and himself. Iris felt the same way. He was such a great boy and she was proud that he had not only finally found himself, but that he was getting to enjoy the same honor she had enjoyed nearly a decade ago too. The soldier ceremony!
Tanya and Storm both officiated, the apprentices winning a double honor before becoming full soldiers. Princeton was presented last, but his ceremony was definitely the largest due to the massive cheers the young man got from both camps. Quincy was nearly beside himself and Emma and Maggie, who had insisted upon watching via computer call, were equally in ecstasy. Princeton himself was pretty stoked, but what made his night the greatest was what Iris did…
"Before we close this ceremony, I would like to thank Princeton personally, in front of all of you, for all of his brave and noble deeds!" she cried. Cheers echoed the dining hall. "I am proud to be his mentor, but not just because he has displayed excellent character and an awesome Gift, though he most certainly has!" she continued. "What makes me proudest of all is how much like me he is. I say, let it be tradition that every purple-eyed Gifted apprentice of Camp Heath go save their mentor by sneaking out of camp at least once!" the tiny brunette finished. Cheers, this time coupled with laughter, filled the dining hall. Iris could see Storm masking a laugh behind her hand, trying to look more annoyed than amused.
It was then that Iris stepped down, but before the celebrations could start, Avalon interrupted too, suddenly showering Princeton in hail.
"Hey! What was that for?!" Princeton demanded, sputtering from the cold while everyone else howled with laughter.
"All hail!" Avalon replied with a smirk, cyan eyes glowing like twin fires.
"What?" Princeton repeated, angrily wiping the hail from his shirt.
"All hail!" Avalon repeated, then eir smile widened and ey raised eir arms and voice. "ALL HAIL, THE PRINCE OF THE SHADOWS!" ey cried, then the whole rest of the dining hall echoed the call, laughing at Avalon's clever puns. Princeton, meanwhile, continued to try and look annoyed at Avalon, but he began to blush and quail under the cheers of his comrades and he quickly took his seat beside Quincy, head still down.
"Well, not bad, Prince of the Shadows," Quincy teased as the smaller boy blushed.
"Oh, not you too!" Princeton moaned, but Quincy only laughed, slapping Princeton's back heartily as the celebrations began.
But following the party, when everyone was finally sent off to bed, Iris had one last thing for her ex-apprentice. A box.
"What is it?" Princeton asked as he took the box from Iris.
"Open it and see," Iris replied with a smile. Princeton did so and his purple eyes widened when he saw what was inside. It was a small dagger, entirely black, with two purple gemstones on the hilt, though one was a darker shade than the other. It was her graduation gift to him.
"Is this one like-?" he began, still staring into the little box at the black blade inside.
"Just like mine," Iris patted her hip, her silver version of the same sword hanging from her waist in its dagger form.
"It's beautiful," Princeton took the black blade from the box and pressed the hilt. The blade extended. "Wow!"
"I'm glad you like it," Iris responded gently as he waved it around happily.
"I love it!" he promised. Iris smiled at him.
"Good, I'm proud of you and I want to thank you again for saving me," she said.
"Well, it's what we do here at Camp Heath. We save our mentors and go AWOL from our camps multiple times in the first six months alone," Princeton responded with a laugh, then the two parted there, one going to her little cabin on the edge of the training forest while the other moved into his new home in the soldiering cabin. It started hailing later that night, but Princeton was fairly sure that it wasn't Avalon this time, though one could never tell with someone like em. Either way, though, it was a very good night.
AN: I'm sorry this took so incredibly long to get out, but I've been working on other things. Now I'm formally announcing an indefinite hiatus on this story. IDK when I'll get back to it, but I promise I will finish it eventually. For now though, peace out!
End of Part 1. I have two more planned, but this is where things get a bit shaky. IDK why, but I had a really tough time writing the rest of this story. Plots refused to come to me, and "frustrating" doesn't even begin to cover it!