EPISODE 23: TECTONICS

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Hace Matthews. Satday, Aries 6th, 2348 AA. 7:21 AM. Arroyo (Old Town – Matthews’ Books).

It took a ton of persuading, but Hace managed to convince Cyphira, Glem, Dravnik, and Senice to hang out on Satday. He insisted that they needed to fit some fun in before the Chirothecam started, and coaxed them to spend the day off-campus and join his family for dinner. Instead of running their usual morning exercise route, they jogged down Calle Colorado as Old Town slowly stirred to life.

The streets were almost exclusively littered with latte drinkers and dog walkers, since most of the retail and restaurant properties had yet to open. There were tiered terraces and multistory buildings, connected by the city’s famous network of bridges, mostly present on Lake Street, Fair Oaks, and the main drag of Calle Colorado. Ironically, Old Town comprised the newest and trendiest parts of Arroyo, especially in terms of business turnover. And when one factored in the incessant renovations and ever-cycling public art installations, the name was especially ironic.

Matthews’ Books was situated in a two-story building at the farthest edge of the neighborhood. In a city renowned for its architecture, it was an oddity of humble aspirations. But the atmosphere inside was surprisingly airy, lit by broad windows and a generous skylight. The address was also just outside the polished, posh, and economically vibrant parts of Old Town. It’s ground-floor sold trending bestsellers and other reliable sells, as well as used copies thereof. The top floor was reserved for rarities and used non-fiction, while the basement housed a store room, break room, and employee bathroom. In Hace’s opinion, it was the ideal location for both relaxation and study. Chill vibes, even in the dungeon-like basement.

The five of them arrived before his aunt, mother, and their staff officially opened up shop. Sera greeted them at the front door, opening it just a crack and peeking out with a surly expression.

“Sorry, no solicitors,” she said.

“Oh no, ma’am! We aren’t selling anything. We were just hoping you had a minute to discuss our good lord and savior,” Hace said.

Sera chuckled and shook her head.

“Yeah, no. We shoot proselytizers on sight ‘round these parts,” she said.

“But who will teach you the ways of the Christ?” Drav objected seriously.

“Jesus loves you ever-so-much!” Cyphira pleaded, batting her eyelashes.

“We’re just trying to save your soul here, Sera,” Glem added.

Sera cracked up.

“Lost cause,” she said, defeated. She opened the door and gestured for the aspirants to come into the shop. They filed in, with Senice trailing at the end, a slightly apprehensive expression on her face. This was her first time tagging along with Cyphira, while everybody else had become something of a regular over the course of the last three years.

“Senice, this is my aunt Sera,” Hace explained, then turned to Sera. “Senice is Cy’s roommate. Unlike the rest of us, she’s actually kind of nice, so please return the favor.”

Senice stared at Hace.

“You make me sound so delicate.”

“I know. The worst part is he thinks he’s being smooth,” Sera said.

“Right?” Senice confirmed.

Cyphira, Drav, and Glem exploded with laughter. Hace flushed red. Jesus Christ, Aunt Sera.

“I think she’ll do just fine, sweetheart,” Sera said, clapping him on the cheek. She turned to the others and said “Coffee and doughnuts are in the breakroom. You can help yourself.”

“I don’t need tellin’ twice,” Cyphira said, leading the others toward the narrow staircase next to the register that led toward the basement staircase.

“Hey, Ms. Matthews!” Cy called as she passed the register, where Hace’s mother, Sivia, was counting money. Sivia looked up, with a Cheshire smile in her eyes.

“Hey, Cy, Doctor, Smoothtalker… Don’t know you!” she said, ticking her index finger at each of Hace’s friends as they passed by, but paused when Senice stepped forward. She stopped abrupt enough to pop on her toes, pivoting to face Sivia.

“Mom, this is Cy’s roommate—” Hace started.

“Hi! I’m Senice,” she said and reached out to shake Sivia’s hand. When Sivia shook it, she added lightly: “Apparently, I’m the ‘nice one.’ Even though I’m probably the only thing keeping Cyphira from sleeping with your son.”

“Oh!” Sivia said, amused. Then looked to Hace, and said, laughing: “Wow. That ship’s still anchored?”

Hace’s jaw dropped. His heart popped. His brain stopped. Senice wanted to laugh, but her expression made it clear that she also felt awful for him. She hadn’t meant for the teasing to go that far. She didn’t think his own mom would do him like that. Yup. Cool. Thanks.

“I’m kidding!” Senice said, uneasily. “I’m in his corner. He has a real shot. I think.”

Sivia just chuckled and gestured for her to go get some food. Senice bobbed her head in gratitude, and mouthed an apology at Hace before ducking downstairs. He stood there for a minute, digesting the situation.

“She seems good, today,” Sera said as she leaned against the wall next to him with her arms crossed, and her smile approving.

“Yeah,” Hace admitted. Most of him was still too busy being mortified to appreciate it… But he was delighted to see that his mother remembered all of the others. I wonder if the nicknames are easier or harder than their actual names? If I could figure that out, it might be an indicator of how well she is. Then he snickered at himself. Either way, today she has enough wit leftover to casually fucking murder me. Sivia stepped around the counter and approached Hace with a contrite smile.

“Too much?” she asked.

“A little,” he said wincing and nodding.

“I’ll dial it back,” she said, also nodding.

Hace gave her a hug and she returned it warmly, then he pecked her on the forehead. Since lapping her in height after his most recent growth spurt, it had become his favorite way to say ‘hello.’ Sivia pretended to hate it, either grumbling it was rude to point out her relative shortness, protesting that he was growing irresponsibly fast, and other faux complaints.

Her expression was fatigued—eyes bagged and bloodshot—and she seemed more than a little stressed, but it was still worlds’ better than the blithely spacey look that overtook her when she was in the throes of one of her episodes. She’s here. She’s engaging. She’s healthy. Today’s a good day.

“You guys need a hand with anything before opening? Stocking or shelving or something?”

He had helped out at the bookstore from age six until he left for the Athenaeum, sorting and stocking books. Whenever he stopped in, an odd sort of guilt kickstarted those old habits, as if he needed to make up for lost time.

He also loved books. Especially those that were battered and worn, tattooed with marginalia. Books that were stories unto themselves. When Glem asked what Hace’s second choice in disciplines would be, he answered Archivism, without a second’s consideration. Glem howled with laughter, as Archivism was technically a much more exclusive Discipline due to its steeper academic requirements—relative to Peacekeeping, anyway. But magical libraries and relic collections were perilous environments. Archivists saw the second most “action” after Keepers. They also preserved wisdom, which struck Hace as the next best priority after preserving lives.

“Need any help?” he asked, again.

“I’m telling you we don’t,” Sivia insisted. “Now go join your friends.”

Hace gave her a lazy salute, and walked down the stairs, following the sounds of his friends’ talking to the break room. Drav, Cyphira, and Senice were eating doughnuts, while Glem was sipping coffee.

“So… What’s the plan?” Senice asked Hace. “This is your show.”

Glem scoffed.

“Bold of you to assume Hace plans anything.”

“No agenda really,” Hace said, grabbing a glazed doughnut and taking a bite before continuing. “In the morning we either play games, watch stuff on Glem’s phone, read whatever we want, listen to music, or… yeah. Whatever really. Around noon we get lunch in Old Town, stop by the park, and then head back here ‘til closing. After that, we’ll head to my house and barbecue kebabs.”

“If you’d prefer to study there’s a desk on the top floor that’s nice and quiet,” Glem said.

“Not a matter of preference. At some point I need to review my data indexing contracts,” Senice said.

“Niet,” Drav said, swallowing the last of his doughnut. “We are playing Stult. I have scores to settle. That is the expression, yes?”

Hace, Glem, and Cyphira laughed.

“You’re still upset about the last time?” Cyphira asked.

“It was only my second time playing! You people have done this since the cradle and every round, you do some new bullshit to confuse me. How am I supposed to keep pace with such… chicanery!”

“What the fuck is ‘chicanery?’” Cyphira asked.

“Russian?” Hace asked.

“It is vocabulary!” Drav insisted, indignant. “English, or some other language English stole from.”

Senice laughed and nodded and Glem confirmed:

“He used it perfectly too. Means trickery. Hijinks. Shenanigans.”

“Ha! See? I am already better at this damn language than the two of you! And I would be better still if you didn’t mislead all the time!” Drav trained a finger back and forth between Hace and Cyphira and turned to Senice. “Do you know what this сука did to me the other day?” he asked, indicating Cyphira. “In artifice, I tried asking for the word for ‘screwdriver’ and she tells me it is ‘needle-dick.’ So, I ask Master Sanderson if she could please pass me her needle-dick.”

Senice brought her hands to her mouth in horror as everybody else howled with laughter.

“It’s not funny! Instant detention. No chance to explain,” Drav complained, and added “fucking chicanery,” contemptuously before chuckling with them.

The door to the break room swung open and Uncle Tibbon walked in with a quizzical expression on his face. Tibbon Bright wasn’t actually related to the Matthews, but he had been an integral part of the bookstore since Sivia and Sera’s father first opened the business thirty-six years ago, which was better than blood in Hace’s opinion. He was a jovial, portly man with thick glasses and a graying, ginger beard that made him vaguely resemble an old tom cat. Although Sivia was officially the registered owner of the business, Tibbon ran the store as a general manager increasingly frequently. He had a friendly sense of humor that endeared him to employees and customers alike, and his business savvy helped guide the Matthews sisters past the many pitfalls of bookselling after their father died of a heart attack at fifty-four years old.

“Hey Mr. Bright,” Glem said, and Cyphira echoed him.

“Hello everyone,” he said. “Sounds like I just missed one heck of a punchline.”

“Not really. We were just talking about Drav’s screwdriver,” Cyphira said casually, then immediately snorted.

Drav glowed crimson, swore in Russian, and a renewed round of laughter lit the room. Tibbon blinked twice and scratched his temple.

“You know, I was going to grab a doughnut, but I think I’d better not interrupt.”

There was even more laughter as Tibbon started to shrink back through the door, but Hace gestured for him to stay and passed him the pink box of doughnuts and pastries. The big man wiggled his fingers as he considered what was on offer, before finally settling on a chocolate éclair. Hace poured Tibbon a cup of coffee which he accepted gratefully, and took a large gulp.

“So, is this a party or a study group? The girls tell me you all have a big test coming up.”

Whenever Tibbon said, “the girls” he meant Sera and Sivia.

“The chirothecam,” Hace explained. “It basically determines what we get to do with the rest of our lives, so we’re hoping to relax a little bit before it kicks off week after next. But let me know if you need help with anything. I can jump on a register or whatever if things get busy.”

Tibbon emanated gratitude as he finished his éclair and waved away Hace’s offer.

“I appreciate it, son, but I think we’ve got things covered. Business hasn’t exactly been booming lately,” he added, frowning, then quickly shook his head. “You all coming to dinner tonight?”

The group collectively nodded and emanated affirmation, though Hace had not missed the crack in his typically chipper demeanor.

“Wonderful! Well, I’ll get out of your hair for now, but I’ll try to think up some embarrassing stories about Hace to share over the table. Your mom says she really roasted you upstairs!” He added, grinning.

“Oh God,” Hace groaned as Tibbon gleefully retreated. Glem and Drav stared at Hace with wicked eyes and hungry smiles. But Cyphira burst-emanated dismissal and said:

“Not exactly a rare occurrence, guys.”

The phrasing hurt, but Hace was grateful. She managed to shut-down the conversation. But was it intended as a mercy? Or another, seemingly preternatural fluke that conveniently prevented them from addressing their relationship status.

It’s been over a season, Cy.

Venday, 20th of Sagittarius, 2347 AA. Around 10:40PM. Arroyo Athenaeum.

The upper classmen of the Glamour and Illusion Club did not disappoint with their enchantments of the Junior Assembly Hall. The ceiling and walls had been replaced with an endless expanse of darkness, studded with innumerable snowflake shaped stars, accented by a very convincing glamour of the aurora borealis. The floor was made out to look like snow and ice. But most impressively, the illusion made people’s breath visible as if it were frigid, despite the temperature being in the low sixties.

Surprised they went through all this trouble for our second-to-last dance.

The Holiday Dance was the only official dance at the Athenaeum that undeclared aspirants were allowed to attend. Once they had declared their Disciplines, they would attend seasonal balls at lavish locations like the Valmont Estate, the Empyrean Hotel, and the Remington Library. Their cohort’s general consensus was that the holiday dance was dumb, since the Declaration Ball was half a year away, following the conclusion of the Chirothecam. That was a much more suitable occasion for celebration.

Hace and Cyphira wore their dress aspirant uniforms, since neither of them could afford formal, or even fancy, asfalis clothing like most other aspirants. For most of the night, everybody stuck together, shunning the dance floor in favor of joking and talking. The food was excellent.

But then Alinore Valmont, of all fucking people, marched over and demanded that Drav dance with her. Drav was dumbfounded and scared shitless—and Hace could tell that Valmont nearly gave herself a stroke by asking him, despite the haughty expression—but he went along with it. Then Glem asked Senice to dance, mostly to make Drav feel better. And that left Hace with Cyphira alone at the table. He gave her a wry smile and offered his hand, not knowing what to expect. She rolled her eyes, emanated long-suffering acquiescence, and then they started to dance. It was mostly a group thing at first. Friends dancing with friends. But as the night went on, and the room grew hazy with the breath illusion, more serious couples formed.

Hace was shocked and delighted when Cyphira didn’t move to trade away when the first slow song started playing. It was a melancholy, slow cover of ‘Such Great Heights.’ They looked at each other for a second, both neutral faced, then he put his hand around her waist, and she laid her head on his chest. As their bodies slowly swayed and drifted, Hace’s mind frayed, synapses splitting endlessly with questions, elation, and fear. At first, he kept his emanations “affectionate,” like he would toward Glem, or Senice, or Drav. But he directed them quietly and exclusively at Cyphira.

At first, she was quiet. Both voice and wyrd. But then she said, barely above a whisper:

“I know how you feel about me.”

Hace stopped breathing but he kept dancing. He looked at Cyphira in the eyes, his face stoic. She continued:

“I know you know I’m not stupid. And I need you to know I am not trying to be a bitch,” she pleaded.

Hace nodded solemnly and swallowed but said nothing.

“I just. I don’t know if I feel that way about anybody yet. I’m… I feel like part of me is broken. No, it’s more like just enough of me works to know that… you are good for me. But I want to be good for you too—”

“You are the best part of my life right now, Cy,” Hace insisted.

She gave him a smile that his heart would never completely recover from. Her face was caught between bliss and anguish. He had given himself to her, and ended up hurting her as much as he made her happy.

“I need time,” she said. “I decided that if I can… do this… be somebody’s ‘somebody’ with anybody, I can do it with you. But I’m honestly not sure I can yet.”

Happiness and warmth returned to Hace’s entire being. He released the breath he’d held since they met at assessments.

“I’ll wait,” Hace assured her. “As long as it takes.”

She smiled again, but this one was muted. Guarded. Possibly hopeful. Possibly doubtful. But she laid her head back against his chest, and for a few seconds, things were perfect. The final song finished far too quickly.

Satday, Aries 6th, 2348. 11:40 AM. Arroyo (Old Town – Matthews’ Books)

Yeah, it was awesome for the rest of that year. But after three months passed without development—or even any acknowledgment of what happened at the Holiday Ball—the days suddenly started getting heavier. She’ll have an answer for me at the Declaration Ball. I mean, if she doesn’t, I will keep waiting, but I also will ask her if she’s still considering me. Us. Like, give me a damn hint. I don’t know if I’m playing tricks on myself, or if you’re playing games with me, or what.

Ugh. And the thing with Senice upstairs… Worst. Wing-woman. Ever. Senice had approached him in their third year when his crush on Cyphira became too large to ignore, and offered to be his woman on-the-inside. Unfortunately, Cyphira rarely confided in her, even though Senice was her next closest friend after Hace.

Though, to be fair: Glem is the only other person I have talked to about Cyphira. Nobody else knows what she said that night. Unless Glem told Drav. Then everybody knows. No. Then Cy would know and she would have killed me for betraying her trust. Hace breathed a sigh of relief. Then winced. I should not have betrayed her trust in the first place. I just… I needed to talk to somebody. I felt like I was gonna die, and I think she’d understand that if I had to tell anyone—

“Ground control to Kosmonaut Matthews,” Drav drawled.

“Again,” Glem intoned, annoyed.

Hace looked up in a daze at Drav, Glem, and Cyphira, then back at the cards in his hand. Oh right. Stult. Even though card games were Hace’s opus, he was barely there. In my defense, we’ve been playing for like four hours, because Drav apparently either has a gambling problem or a masochistic streak. So he’d let his mind wander, torturing himself about Cyphira and the Chirothecam in alternation.

I need to chill out. That’s the point of today. I’m going in strong. I will do well enough in the fighting tournament to be admitted to Peacekeeping on the merit of my existing grades. But I want it all. I want to have the right to join any of the nine disciplines. I want to show these stuck up—

“Did you become a fucking dusthead when we weren’t looking? Make your play dipshit!” Cyphira snapped.

“Sorry!” Hace apologized, considered his pull for about three seconds, then drew.

Stult, derived from Latin’s ‘Stultia,’ or ‘foolishness,’ was also known as ‘Witch Poker.’ The players used a four-suit deck divided by elemental suits, with values ranging from aces to tens, followed by nobility: Jacks, Maids, Queens, and Kings, and a single wild card: the Fool. The goal was to form standard poker hands, from pairs to royal flushes—without ever touching, or even revealing your cards to your opponent.

Each Stult card had an energy signature in its Inherence that would allow a skilled magic user to identify it in the midst of a deck, sight unseen. But while the one player attempted to draw a specific card from the deck—‘The Blade’—the other players—‘Blades in Waiting’—could use their wyrds to interfere with the Blade, in any way they saw fit. In casual stult, they could even meddle with the Blade’s kinetic sorcery, to make him draw the wrong card, accidentally reveal the drawn card, or, most spectacularly, make him knock over the deck, resulting in an instant loss. But more formal variants of Stult played for money forbid kinetic interference in favor of spoofing or warping the signature Inherences of cards. Making an ‘Ace of Waves’ seem like an ‘Ace of Clays’ or a “Deuce of Waves.” Betting occurred after every card was drawn and in the hand of the Blade. Many games featured arcane anteing rules that Hace found conceptually fascinating, but tedious in practice.

“Alright. You raising?” Cyphira asked.

“Uh… Five pretzels,” Hace said.

“Out,” Cyphira said, folding.

“Call it seven,” Glem said, raising again.

“You won’t scare me off this time, Matthews! Ten pretzels!” Drav declared.

With the last card drawn, and the pot full, they revealed their hands. Drav had three of a kind. Glem had a Maid-high straight. And Hace had a full house. He smiled and shrugged apologetically before emptying the pot of pretzels into his personal bowl. Glem clicked his tongue in disgust and Drav roared with frustration. Cyphira laughed.

“A theory,” Drav stated, holding up a finger. “Hace’s opus is not card games as he claims.” He thrust the finger out in accusation. “It is fucking cheating at Stult!”

“He wins a lot, but I like to think he would do better if really applied himself to it,” Cyphira said.

“I’m confused,” Hace said, grinning. “I just won, but I am bad at stult, or bad at cheating at Stult?”

“Yes,” Drav and Cyphira agreed.

“Also, just a shitty human being in general,” Glem added.

Hace stopped shuffling, and used sorcery to fire the deck of cards at Cyphira, Drav, and Glem in sequence. Cyphira was reclining on the couch that Drav was leaning against, and yelped when the first card hit her nose. Then she started laughing.

“Wow, okay. Yes. This is productive,” Glem said, holding up his palms in the face of the barrage.

“Very mature,” Senice said. She observed them from her far seat at the breakroom table, where she had been studying away from the rest of the group.

Drav frantically started snatching cards out of the air with sorcery, shooting them back at Hace and Senice as well. Cyphira opened fire next. Glem claimed to be “out,” citing “healer’s neutrality,” “conscientious objection,” and “pacifism,” but he got absolutely snowed with cardboard anyway. By the end of the brawl, even Senice was shooting at him.

Then somebody started laughing. Hace and Drav started trading insults. Soon, the entire room was howling with laughter, and the card war ended in a breathless ceasefire.

8:43 PM. Arroyo (Old Town – Matthews’ Residence)

They got lunch after playing cards, and spent most of the day wandering the streets of Old Town. Glem decided he wanted to go shopping, even though he and Senice were really the only ones with money to spare. Not that the others minded. Hace actually enjoyed trying on clothes, now that his relative poverty was hidden behind an aspirant’s uniform. Around four, they made their way back to Matthews’ Books and studied until closing time at seven.

After that, the group divided themselves between Sivia’s Pershing Star sedan, and Tibbon’s McArthur Horizon SUV, then drove to the Matthews’ humble house in western bungalow heaven. They grilled beef, chicken, bacon, salmon, and vegetables on the barbecue, and ate until they were stuffed.

As night settled over the yard, Hace and his friends decided to watch a movie in the living room to cap off the night. He carried the plates in from the table, making a game of it by balancing everything in one ridiculous column, supported by muscle and stabilized with wyrd. He was able to back his way into the house through the unlocked door, but stumbled as he backed into the kitchen. Sivia stood roughly in the middle of the room, her back to Hace.

“Ack! Uh, mom? Can you grab the top plate?”

Sivia said something that Hace couldn’t make out, and he assumed she was talking to somebody on the phone. He carefully put the plates down, subdividing the tower into less precarious portions. But when he’d finished, his mother had not moved, or even acknowledged his presence.

Ah shit.

“Mom?” Hace asked.

Sivia murmured faintly with the cadence of conversation, her eyes fixed on something Hace could not see. Something that might not even exist.

“Mom,” Hace repeated, taking her by the shoulders and coursing his wyrd into hers.

As their energies met, he heard unintelligible whispering through her wyrd. It was definitely a faen tongue, possibly elvish. Kaleidoscopic imagery—butterfly wings, a wall of briars, a glass castle, and other things that were too obscure to make out—surged through his head. It only lasted a second, but Hace flinched back and Sivia blinked.

“Hey,” Sivia said, her dark blue eyes seizing on his.

Hace swallowed.

“Hey. I think it might be time for you to go to bed,” he said sadly.

Sivia nodded, also melancholy, but ultimately accepting. Even though her conscious perception of the world flickers in and out, she has no illusions about her condition. She can tell when it’s about to get the best of her. Simply keeping up with reality in the face of the routine seemed to wear her down.Hace wondered if the presence of his friends, and the burden of meeting a new personality exhausted her more quickly than usual.

“Thanks for coming home,” she said, taking his hand and squeezing it. “And thanks for sharing your friends with me.”

“Thank you for hosting us,” Hace said, and gently kissed her on the forehead.

She swatted him on the chest.

“Rude.”

He chuckled, and looked at the dishes in the sink.

“I’ll ask Tibbon and Sera to finish these. Go watch your movie with your friends.”

“Okay,” Hace said.

 “Good luck on your test. No need to call if you get too busy.”

“I’ll call,” Hace assured her. “Love you.”

“Love you too, sweetheart.” 

Hace walked back to the living room, lights dim, air filled with the scent of microwave popcorn. The group seemed to have settled on The Matrix for their viewing pleasure. On the screen, a trio of black suited agents approached a battalion of Keepers and Asfalis cops.

“‘No lieutenant, your men are already dead,’” Hace said in perfect sync with Agent Smith.

“Memorized this much?” Senice asked.

“I mean. Haven’t we all?” Hace asked defensively.

“Somehow Drav and Sen haven’t seen it,” Glem explained.

“Oh. Never mind. Mandatory viewing then.”

Cyphira gestured ‘no shit,’ and Drav shushed them with irritation, literally sitting on the edge of the couch with anticipation. Hace pulled up a chair and lost himself in the familiar story, keeping his hands busy with various card shuffles. It was one of his favorite movies, and it had kindled an early interest in philosophy after his mother explained all the allegories behind the gunplay, leather outfits, and dark sunglasses.

About halfway through, Hace got up to pee. He passed by the dining room and saw Tibbon and Sera discussing something in hushed tones over a thick binder. They didn’t seem to even notice him. Business stuff, probably. After relieving himself, he started to walk back when he felt a sudden urdic tension in the air. He paused by the threshold to the kitchen and dining area, straining his ears to hear what his aunt and uncle were talking about.

“I… I don’t know, Tibbs. This is just very sudden.”

“I’m just sayin’,” Tibbon began. “The real estate landscape is like plate tectonics, but it plays out about a million times faster. And yes, the land may be worth more tomorrow, or the day after, but I’m old, Sera. I want to retire. And your sister needs help now. These are the numbers. You know we can’t sustain this.”

What the hell? The ground beneath Hace’s feet suddenly seemed unsteady. Uncle Tibbon wouldn’t mislead us. If the store’s in trouble, he wouldn’t mince words about it, and he’d give us the best advice possible. But anger suddenly swelled in Hace’s wyrd. Why didn’t you talk to my mother too? She was fine earlier. So why are you approaching Sera alone?

“I need a few days to think this over,” Sera said, trying to evade him.

“Sure. Sure. But try to be quick about it. I don’t know how long the buyer will be interested at this price. And you know convincing Sivia will take some time too.”

“Then we’ll miss out,” Hace said, stepping into the room. His emanations were firm, but calm, despite the fury he felt. You went behind my mother’s back. “It’s that simple, Uncle Tibbon. And since this is a family decision, I think it would be best if all of us were involved. Don’t you?”

He deepened his urdic respiration and his wyrd’s passive pressure nearly quintupled, making it about as loud as a loud asfalis emanation, but constantly, effortlessly flowing out from Hace. And I’m not even trying to be scary yet. But the display of power was more than sufficient to achieve the desired effect. Tibbon froze, mouth slightly agape.

Sera rushed forward to Hace’s side.

“Nobody’s selling the store without talking to you first, sweetheart,” Sera insisted, chuckling nervously.

“Oh no! Of course not,” Tibbon agreed, laughing. But his voice was tinny. Forced. Hace saw ugly things in Tibbon’s eyes when he first walked into the room. Anger. Condescension. But he seems to have realized his mistake. On behalf of what you’ve done for this family, I will reserve judgment and keep this civil. All the same? I think it’d be best if you leave, uncle. Holding my tongue and temper have never been strong suits.

Hace inclined his head firmly, and spoke with forced neutrality.

“Good night, uncle.”

Tibbon nodded his head in return.

“I suppose it is about that time, isn’t it?” he said with an uncomfortable chuckle. “Are your friends ready to go then? Finish your movie?”

“It’s a nice night. We’ll walk back to campus,” Hace said, a touch colder and sharper than he intended.

Tibbon opened and closed his mouth, nodded his head, and walked out of the dining room. Hace watched him step into the entryway, and he didn’t look back at Sera until he heard the front door open and close. His aunt looked shaken and he asked if she was alright with an emanation.

“I’m fine, Hace. I’ve just never seen you like that before. Your wyrd has always been strong but…” she shook her head. “Now it’s something to behold.”

“Oh,” Hace said, suddenly embarrassed by his behavior. I scared her too. Jumping to intimidation was petty. Unbecoming of a Keeper. “I, uh, I meant did Uncle Tibbon make you uncomfortable? Sounds like this isn’t the first time he’s tried to pressure you into selling the store.”

Sera took a deep breath and sighed.

“It isn’t. But right now? He’s right,” Sera admitted. “We’re deep in the red. We still have enough money to pay our people and our bills for the next year, but if business keeps trending downward… without some kind of grant or loan, we can’t keep operating.”

Hace’s heart beat cold. Matthews’ Books was never a wealthy business. It lacked the fame of Westmarque Bookstore, which was literally world-renowned, and close to the heart of Old Town. Matthews’ Books didn’t have the same support network of big-name bookstore chains, either.

“Why didn’t you tell me?” Hace asked, wounded.

“Sweetheart, I only found out about how bad our financials are tonight. Your mom hadn’t approached me about it yet, but this isn’t something that could slip her mind. She knows we’re in trouble. Or maybe she is just that confidant that we can ride out this storm.”

“Can we?” Hace asked.

Sera took a deep breath and shrugged.

“I know she wants to continue the business. Same as me. It isn’t prestigious, and the pay is shit, but it’s challenging, interesting work and it brings people joy.”

“Then let’s try to ride it out,” Hace said, decisively.

“I wish it was that simple. We have to think about what is right for our people too. Tibbon pointed out your mom’s episodes are getting more frequent. And Tibbon himself…He wants to retire. He’s sixty-eight. He doesn’t have a spouse to take care of him. His knees are bad. And obviously, given how much of himself he has given to the shop, he would receive a stake in the business if we decided to sell. It would be enough to let him retire, get your mom some long-term help, and I can go to a state college or something. We’d even have enough left-over to pay the staff severance.”

Hace wrestled with this for several seconds before speaking up:

“It was wrong of him to wait for mom to have an episode,” Hace said. “She was good earlier today. Earlier this evening. He could have talked to you both then.”

“Yeah,” Sera agreed. “This was not a fun way to end the evening. And I do appreciate you stepping in. You actually kind of reminded me of my dad.”

Hace furrowed his brow, unsure how to take this. He had mixed feelings about the grandfather he had never met.

“How so?” Hace asked.

“Well, he wasn’t exactly hotheaded. Like, he didn’t go searching for fights. But whenever something bothered him, he couldn’t keep his mouth shut. Especially if he felt it was somehow unfair or immoral. He was also very protective of your sister and me.”

Not protective enough. Hace thought. Any parent who lets their child be seduced by the fae is a failure. Regardless of the child’s age. But by every other metric, Hace had to admit he sounded like a decent man. His wife, Sileah, died of breast cancer when Sivia and Sera were ten and six. He kept the business open and food on the table without any truly stable support apart from Tibbon.

And Sera’s right. We owe him a debt as well. But there were days when Hace was certain that Matthews’ Books was the only thing his mother was fighting for. It was her heritage, and her legacy.

“Hey Hace, did you get lost or do we need to call you a doctor?” Cyphira called from the hallway.

“I’ll be right back!” Hace called back, unable to think of anything witty.

“Go with your friends,” Sera insisted. Hace hesitated, still conflicted. Sera took his hand. “You know I wouldn’t keep this from you. But you’ve got enough on your plate with your Chiro. Trust your mom and aunt with this one.”

At length, Hace nodded, and walked back to the den.

Glem had fallen asleep in the recliner and was snoring slightly. Senice sat at one end of the couch, with Cyphira’s head in her lap, and her legs outstretched across the rest of the couch. At some point, Drav had migrated to the floor in front of the couch, engrossed in the movie. Only Cy took note of Hace’s expression as he entered. She gestured for him to take a seat on the floor next to Drav, and he obliged.

“Everything okay?” she whispered.

Senice looked over then, also concerned. Hace wanted to shrug it off. It was the closest he could come to lying. And he knew that if he did, Cyphira would drop the subject like it was stone dead. She understood the desire for privacy. But this was big. He needed some comfort. Some advice. 

“Family stuff,” he said, as if it were only a light exasperation. Senice turned back to the movie, but Cyphira continued to study him with her golden eyes. He gestured “I’ll tell you later,” and directed a small emanation just for her, bearing reassurance. “I’m gonna be fine.” Cyphira nodded, and they went back to watching the movie.

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