Kids can be adorable. Not all the time, but when you find a four year old hiding in your closet and staring at you with wide open eyes its hard not to find them at least a little cute.
“Good morning Peri!” I said, sitting up on my bed.
“You sleep a lot.” my sister said with perfect seriousness. Her expression said she’d just noticed this and had decided it was the most important thing in the world. From past experience I knew that would last maybe a minute at most before something else caught her attention.
“I have really good dreams.” I told her, matching her seriousness and fighting to keep a grin off my face.
“No. I had a nightmare.” she replied, reminding me that she wasn’t at the age where she’d fully worked out how a conversation was supposed to flow. Also, at four the world more or less revolved around her, at least in her mind.
“Those aren’t fun are they?” I asked.
“No. It was bad. And now I got a monster under my bed.” she said.
“Did you tell Mom or Dad about it?” I asked.
“Mommy said I could sleep in here.”
“That’s ok. But I don’t know how comfy my wardrobe is. Why don’t we go talk to the monster and see what he wants?” I suggested.
“He wants to eat me.”
“Oh they say that but they’re lying. Kids taste terrible. You’re too bony for them.”
“I don’t wanna.” she said, unconvinced by my explanation.
“How about if I ask the monster under my bed to go talk to your monster then?” I asked.
“You have a monster under your bed?” Peri asked. She leaned out of the wardrobe, looking to catch sight of it.
“Sure. Who do you think keeps me safe at night?” I said. I leaned over the bed and peered under it. “Belle, can you come out and say hi to Peri, I don’t think she’s had a chance to meet you yet.”
In response to my request a small puppy made of shadows and smoke wiggled out from under my bed. With it’s floppy ears and wiggly tail, the shadow puppy gave Peri a serious run for her money in the adorable department.
“Hi Peri, nice to meet you.” Belle said in a diminutive voice that matched her tiny stature. “You’re back sooner than I expected Jin. Are things going ok?”
Belle wasn’t really a “monster under the bed”. She was Way’s “familiar”. Way had formed Belle from a piece of herself to act as her loyal attack beast. Like Way though, Belle had become something more once the two of them were freed to grow as they wished. Their relationship had grown too, from
“master/servant” to “big sister/little sister” with Belle taking the role of the protective older sister. Her relationship with me had changed as well, although in that case it was more from “predator/prey” to “co-conspirators” (since we usually teamed up to make sure Way was taking care of herself).
“Yeah. Way sends her love and thanks for watching over me.” I said, passing along the sentiment Way had expressed earlier.
“You have a puppy!” Peri screamed. I winced in response to that. I’d known Peri was puppy crazy for a bit but I thought she’d gotten that out of her system when she started to fixate on ponies. I guess nearby puppy cuteness beat out hypothetical pony cuteness though.
“I’m not a puppy. I’m just in disguise.” Belle said, saving me from my faux pas.
“You look like a puppy.” Peri said, insisting on the reality she saw in front of her.
“Do you want to see how else I can look?” Belle asked.
“Yes.” Peri said. For someone who was sleeping in my wardrobe because she was afraid of the monster under her bed, there wasn’t much in the way of fear that I could see in her eyes.
Belle drew in her breath, inflating her puppy chest until she looked so full she might burst. Then she sneezed. The jerking spasm of the sneeze shook her from her puppy body to the body of a girl not much bigger than Peri. Where Peri’s skin was a lovely dark brown, like my step-father and brother, Belle’s had the same black of darkness and smoke as her puppy form.
“Ooo. Do it again!” Peri squealed.
“Belle’s not a doll Peri. And you’re supposed to be say ‘Please’ remember?” I told her.
“PLEASE!” Peri insisted.
“It’s ok if you want to take a break Belle.” I offered.
“No, it’s ok. You’re awake now, so I can take care of Peri for a bit. How long will you be here?” Belle asked.
“A little over an hour I think. We’re taking a bus ride back to our apartment and I’m snoozing for the trip.” I told her.
“You’re not snoozing. You’re awake.” Peri said, understandably confused at the direction the conversation had taken. Belle was aware of my mission on Earth-Glass with Way. Peri on the other hand was a little young to fully grasp the kind of things I could do. On the other hand there were some simple ways to describe it.
“Yep – I’m awake here. We’re talking about a pretend place.” I told her.
The idea that I was in two worlds at once was something I’d seen adults struggle to grasp. I think the only reason I didn’t have a hard time with it was because I’d experienced it before I had to think about it too much. Technically I wasn’t limited to two worlds, but I didn’t have much talent at fragmenting my consciousness so I tended to focus on just one place at a time. That meant that I effectively spent a lot of time “asleep” at home, but as a teenager that wasn’t unheard of. Where I lost out on social time on my “Earth”, I made up for it by making friends on other worlds and being awake, somewhere, at all hours of the day. That was sort of counter intuitive given that I was a “dream” lord but I’d grown accustomed to a lot weirder stuff than that.
Peri, on the other hand, was still in the process of figuring out how one world worked.
“Can I go to the pretend place?” she asked.
“Sure, there’s a lot of old guys there with cigars, just like grandpa.” I told her. Psychological warfare against a four year old used to seem cruel and unnecessary. That was before I’d spent my first five minutes with one. Experience has taught me that using any and all tricks I’d picked up as part of my diplomat training was completely fair game when it came to dealing with children and family members in general.
“Yuck! I don’t wanna go there.” Peri announced.
“Aww, but they’d love to pinch your cute little cheeks!” I teased.
“No! No! No! I’m not going to go!” she said and pulled the door to the wardrobe closed.
I met Belle’s eyes and giggled silently.
“I’ll keep her entertained when she comes out.” Belle said.
“Are you sure it’s ok?”
“Yes. I feel better when I have something to do.” she said. “Maybe we’ll look into the monster under her bed too.”
“Monsters under the bed” were, for the most part, just kiddie stories in my world. We had all sorts of weird things, but by and large the world was more mundane than the news made it out to be. Alien invaded fairly often for example but a lot of people had never even seen one much less had to fight against a ‘Reptoid from Beyond The Stars’ (one of the aggressor races that kept coming back for rematches a lot).
I nodded my thanks to Belle and slipped out of bed to head downstairs. I might be a super powered, reality altering dream lord, but my body on this world still needed to eat unless I wanted to patch it up with magic constantly. That was doable there were as many consequences to eating magic as there was to eating regular food and food tasted better.
I shuffled into the kitchen in a zombie-like search for sustenance and found my Mom working on a design for a new sewage treatment system on her holo-computer while she mixed the batter for a pineapple upside down cake. How those two thoughts lived together in her head was something I didn’t really want to think about.
“Oh, you’re up! How are things going with Way?” she asked.
Early on I’d thought I’d have to take the classic approach of hiding my powers from my parents. That particular bit of idiocy hadn’t lasted longer than 24 hours though. The first day I’d had my powers had been an eventful one. By the end of it, my Mom knew who I was and had accepted me for what I’d become. As simple as that sounds, I’m not sure I could have made it through the years that have passed since then without the simple act of her standing with me that day.
One of the nice side benefits of being open with her, was that I could keep my Mom in the loop on the things that were going on in the dream worlds. It felt a lot less like I was living a double life when I was able to share all that was happening to me with the people that I loved.
“She’s doing pretty good. I’m sleeping on her shoulder now actually. We had a bit of break in the case we’re working on.” I said.
“You’re trying to track down a missing person right?”
“Missing or possibly dead. Though I’m beginning to think it might be ‘dead’ unfortunately.”
“I hired a detective to help us and someone killed him. Then they tried to kill us.”
My mother stopped her mixing and turned away from the hologram where she was reviewing the sewer plans.
“I can’t tell you how weird it is to hear your daughter say that and know that you don’t need to worry about her.” she said looking at me like she expected to see fresh bullet wounds somewhere on my body.
“I know. Though, to be fair, James could say the same thing.” James was my brother, also known as the superhero Aegis. He was Athena’s Champion on Earth and was, for the most part, invulnerable. We weren’t actually competing to see who could get shot at more often but my Mom seemed convinced that we were.
“His powers I understand a little better than yours.” she said.
“Says the Champion of Gaia.” I retorted. Like I said, the first day I had my powers had been a little hectic. Among many other unexpected events, I’d wound up bearing Gaia’s Sacred Laurels, the emblem of her chosen champion. Then I’d passed them onto my Mom for safe keeping. I hadn’t actually meant to make her the champion of the planet’s raw life force but sometimes crazy things like that just happen.
Being Gaia’s Champion had turned out to be a fairly simple deal. The Earth reacts slowly to change, so there wasn’t much day to day work to be done. Gaia’s Champion was needed to stand against any cosmic level threats to the planet but there was a long line of heroes that those threats would need to get through first. Including my indestructible brother James and me.
Since neither of us had any interest in seeing our mother get into a knock down, drag out brawl with world destroying super villains or alien invaders (and since we had the power to prevent that from happening) Mom’s life as Champion had been reasonably peaceful. She wasn’t one to “rest on her laurels” (James made that joke far too often) though so she’d turned her attention to improving the global systems we had in place for dealing with humanity’s impact on the world.
Gaia, as the personification of all life on the planet, didn’t actually care much about humans one way or the other. We were a tiny species that hadn’t been around all that long in the grand scheme in things. We could render the planet “uninhabitable” tomorrow and life would change and adapt and largely forget we’d ever existed. There weren’t many Earthlings that wanted that to happen, but there also weren’t many who could see how to prevent it either. With Mom’s help that was changing.
Complex interactions were something she’d been trained to understand as a chemical engineer. With the mantle of Gaia’s Champion to help feed her information and connections to research labs around the world, she was steadily improving our ability to mitigate the impact we had on the planet. It wasn’t about “being one with nature”. We’d always been “one with nature”, it was one of the most complex technologies that existed and it surrounded and permeated our lives. Mom’s view was that the key lay in understanding that technology and learning to work with it rather than ignoring the consequences of what we did and assuming the biosphere would sort it all out on its own.
“It sounds like you’re close to wrapping the case up?” Mom asked.
“Maybe. We still haven’t found who we’re really looking for though.” I said.
“The missing person?”
“No, there’s a dreamweaver there. Or a nascent one. That’s why Kari asked us to look into it.” I said. To say Kari was a classmate would have been correct but to say she was the 3rd Musketeer along with Way and I would have been more accurate. I’d met Kari two years ago and had helped her develop her powers as a dream lord. Peri was my sister by blood, but Kari was my sister by choice.
“That’s like what you are right?”
“Not exactly. You have dreamwalkers. Those are folks who can travel between world but not change things. Then you’ve got dreamweavers. They can’t travel from world to world under their own power but they can edit reality on the small scale. Then you’ve got dream lords. We’re basically just limited by our imaginations.” I explained.
“That still seems hard to believe. It makes it sound like you’re God.”
“Not even close actually. I’m simplifying things a lot too. There’s plenty of stuff that is difficult for me to do or has consequences that I’m not willing to endure. Honestly most of my training with the Parliament over the last few years has been teaching me when not to use my powers and the other ways that I can work out problems that I run into.”
“I still wish I could go with you and see you in action. It’s strange to see you sleeping so peacefully and then hear later how you were fighting for your life against a sea monster or something.” my Mom said.
“Well, I’m usually not fighting for my life. Usually it’s other people I’m trying to keep alive. Though I’m not doing a great job of it at the moment. One person dead and another nearly killed.” That had rattled me a bit, but with my meta-awareness in full effect it wasn’t as bad as it could have been. “The Amazing Jin” was a “tough as nails adventure girl” so I could draw on her innate mental fortitude while I was playing that role. As normal Jin, the violence I’d been exposed to was a bit freakier. On one level it helped that I knew I was inherently safe and on another level I had meta-awareness to see that while Shurman’s life was over, his spirit endured. Without those resources to draw on, I knew I would have been a basket base long ago.
“And even though its a dream, they still seem real to you don’t they?” Mom asked.
“As real as anyone here. To them, we’re the impossible dream, the fairytale land that they could only find in comic books, just like to us they might as well be in a black and white movie.” I said.
“Are you going to be ok? Not physically, but, I mean, this seems like a lot to put on two girls your age, even if you do have special powers and training.” my mother said.
“I think so. I’m hoping we can get out of there as soon as possible actually. We can’t really talk there like we can normally and it feels weird.” I said. My Mom looked at me with appraising eyes. She couldn’t actually look into my soul, but it felt like she was doing a good job trying to.
“How are things looking for your next semester with the Parliament? You’re going on to your apprenticeships next right?” she asked.
My heart dropped past my stomach and into the bottom of my feet at the mention of that. Apprenticeships are a part of the Parliament’s advanced curriculum. They’re a chance to learn about the roles that you’re interested in via actual experience. Way and I had both been accepted into the program based on the academic and practical work that we’d done leading up to it. Our “grades” on both were pretty high and we’d managed to get connected with two very experienced and well regarded mentors.
And that was the problem. Way’s interests and talents lead her towards the Diplomat Corps’ “Guardian” program. They were the ones who acted as security and enforcement for the worlds that were under the Parliament’s protection. My own talents pointed in another direction though. I was bound for the “Envoy” program. We were the ones who dealt with nurturing worlds that weren’t yet ready to join the Parliament and coordinating with worlds that knew of the Parliament but chose to remain outside it.
It wasn’t uncommon at all for Envoys and Guardians to work together and that was exactly what we planned to do. There was just the small matter that the apprenticeships usually ran for four to six years, during which time we’d be traveling far and wide. Forget seeing each other every day, we’d be lucky if we saw each other once a season, or maybe even once a year.
I hated it.
A part of me didn’t want to go through with it. I didn’t want to be apart from Way for that long. Another part of me though couldn’t bear the thought of holding her back.
Way had grown so much since I’d first met her. I knew if she had the chance to become a full fledged Guardian, she’d blossom into one of the best that there’d ever been.
For an impossible girl, I hated feeling like I was in an impossible situation, but for all my power the one thing I couldn’t change was who we were. And so I sat caught in a trap of my own making, feeling like I was going to split in two without the aid of a magician’s box or a giant sawblade.