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Continued from >There Won't Be A Next Time

June 1st, 2011. 8:05 AM

 

"Tomorrow belongs to me." -Cabaret

Young Freedom missed graduation, but then again, so did everyone else. The ceremony had been postponed the minute the five young heroes had disappeared from view, for all that they'd reappeared only five minutes later on the other side of town with the broken chestplate of Omega's armor and a wild story to tell. There were debriefings to come, no doubt extensive ones that would exhaustively pour over every detail of the fight at the end of reality and all that had come before it: the death of the multiverse, the trip to four worlds, the appearance and disappearance of Rick Lucas, and finally the seeming destruction of the Lord of Entropy himself. But first, Bolt's speedy trip back to Freedom Hall after the reappearance of Travis, Martha, and Erin's cat on the Claremont lawn had meant the League teleporters were already working.

By the time the Young Freedom kids had given their hasty explanations to the startled Captain Thunder and headed inside for their debriefing, their missing loved ones, even Quo-Dis who was holding a very familiar orange cat, were waiting for them inside. For their part, Mark and Martha took a look at each other, Mark's look confirming what Martha had already known, and they simply embraced, the moment too sharp, too painful, coming after too much overwhelming emotion even for weeping. "I'm proud of you, Mark," Martha whispered fiercely. "So very proud."

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Erin took her cat back from Quo-Dis, freeing that notable up for hugs from Corbin, and held him up, looking into his calm green eyes. Oliver looked the same as always, gangly and orange, right down to the blue collar with its copper nametag. She studied him for a long moment while he purred smugly. "We are going to have a long talk later," she promised, then tucked him into the crook of her arm and continued hauling the giant chestplate alone to the debriefing. She hoped it wasn't going to take very long. She was starving and exhausted, she needed some aloe, and she wasn't entirely sure that her clothes weren't going to dissolve at any moment.

She waited until Mark and his mom had gotten a few moments alone before going up to him. "Thank you for holding the bag for me," she told him, looking at the battered but intact knapsack he still carried. Erin hesitated for a minute, then said, "I'm really sorry about your dad, Mark. He did some bad things, but he was a hero when it really counted. People will remember that."

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"Oh, uh, sure," said Mark after a moment's hesitation, handing the bag over to Erin. "I was glad to keep it safe for you," he said. "And...thanks." He didn't need to explain what for. "We'll...we'll see how he's remembered. At least he made sure we had this," he said, shooting a glance at the armor piece that Wander was still holding. "So no one will think we were crazy...He always thought you all were the best people I could know," he said, mostly telling the truth for all that Rick had never actually spoken to Corbin before the disastrous events of the day. "I was glad you all were there."

"And so was I," added Martha, looking fatigued herself as she leaned on her son. "Thank you for the world, and for bringing my son back to me."

From Erin's backpack suddenly spoke a familiar computer voice. "Hello? Is the Midnight rider there?" asked Redbird's tinny mechanical voice, muffled by the fabric of the pack. On the other end of things, Eve finally got through to her cousin in Paris: Faith sounded just fine, though she had many questions about graduation and about Mark!

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Corbin had trailed behind the others a bit, glancing back to make sure crowds weren't forming before they were inside, ushered away from prying, questioning eyes. He wasn't really in the mood to deal with the press right now. Thankfully, the presence of Captain Thunder meant they were quickly brought to a relatively private area. He gave a sad smile as he saw Martha Lucas and Travis Hunter alive and well; losses or no, they still had some things to cling to in life. He barely spared his teammates a glance as he saw Quo-Dis; he waited just long enough to let Oliver get handed off to Erin...

Before there was a trail of fire on the ground and he had suddenly enveloped Quo-Dis in a bone-crushing hug. He was crying tears of relief and joy as he kissed her long and hard on the mouth, before burying his face in her shoulder. His emotions, and fragments of his memories of the last couple of days, surged through their renewed mind-link. He finally managed a halfway-coherent thought, after over a minute of just clutching tightly to her.

-I didn't know if I'd ever see you again. There was fire everywhere, terrible dark fire. And for the last couple of days, I've been fighting monsters.-

He drew back a bit to look her in the face...And had to clench down the terror in his heart as, for one brief moment, he saw a version of her with dead skin and black eyes, leering at him while dark fire danced on her hands. He clenched his eyes shut and held her closer again.

-They tried to use your face against me. It almost worked. I'm so sorry...-

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"...acting as lodestones for transdimensional cosmic rays. Power sinks designed to overload at capacity," Trevor was explaining to his grandfather in matter-of-fact terms, sketching the general design of the reality bombs on the screen on his handheld tablet to illustrate the function of the cosmic lightning rods.

The original Midnight nodded in understanding as he examined the projectile weapon his protege had handed him for inspection. "Hnn. Would have used pressurized Night Gun," he noted frankly before a faint smile played across his face, largely hidden by his well trimmed beard. "Railgun is better."

As the tinny voice arose from Erin's backpack, Trevor schooled the grin threatening to form and arched an eyebrow. Slipping off his jacket he offered it with one hand to the young woman clad in the thought constructs of a very distracted underclassman. "Trade you for a Furion AI?" he offered. Picking up the metallic egg that housed Redbird's consciousness, he frowned slightly. "Hello. ...very sorry about Red Falcon. Hero." After a brief pause, turning the core over in his hands, he admitted, "Not sure where your audio and visual pickups are."

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"I can see in a 360 degree radius when I am not in a vehicle," replied the Furion AI. When Midnight took the little AI in hand, he felt a faint vibration from the metal as it warmed slightly to his touch. In a somewhat deeper voice than before, Redbird went on. "Red Falcon died fighting for right against the forces of ultimate darkness. If one must die, there is no greater way to perish. If you tell his story and remember his valor, his destiny will truly be complete. For myself, I hope I can continue that struggle here among the greatest heroes of the multiverse."

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Eve suffered through the incessant interrogation at the hands (well, mouth) her cousin but she endured. She was glad to hear Faith's voice, even if more than a handful of inquiries made her roll her eyes. She handled these conversations, and indeed the entire conversation, artfully, answering only a few questions, such as Mark's overall health, but deflecting and misdirecting Faith when her inquires came too close to topics Eve didn't even wish to contemplate; Mark's personal life was his own, Eve had a policy against delving too deep, and it was none of Faith's business anyway.

"... I'll visit before school starts... Yeah, I'll tell him," Eve said and then she made her goodbyes and hung up. The white-haired telepath glanced over at her friends, seeing them reunite with their loved ones, and smiled.

Then she turned on her heel and walked away.

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Erin shrugged gratefully into Trevor's jacket, even as her imaginary clothing gave a dangerous flicker. Corbin was really happy to see his girlfriend again! With Trevor's coat and fedora on, she looked like she was dressed up as Midnight for a costume party, though she didn't exactly have the taciturn hero's style. She rooted around in the backpack and handed the computer brain to Trevor, then took a moment to look again at the treasures she'd brought with her. They, and she, were truly all that was left of Earth-Z-Omega-1 now. She didn't know how to feel about that, but it wasn't a question for now.

Now it was just good to be alive and back in her new home, with her friends alive and safe. Oliver looked over her shoulder into the bag and purred a little louder, rubbing his head against her arm. She sighed and scratched between his ears, then caught sight of Eve trying to get away. "Hey Sage!" she called, "we're not done here!"

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Quo-Dis had no more idea what had happened than anyone else, but she was able to silently communicate with Corbin her own fears: the sky had darkened, the earth had shaken, and then suddenly all of Young Freedom and their families had disappeared! She was glad he was back, though, even if she had no context for interpreting the images inside his head, and hugged him close with special tightness. They didn't have long to talk, though, because by now the Freedom League (and Duncan Summers himself) had arrived for what promised to be a very long series of debriefings of everyone who'd been involved in the "Graduation Incident" at Claremont. Even Sage was swept up as she tried to sneak out, the Raven evidently having her own ways of catching slippery psychics as she deftly looked the teenager back into place as the costumed detective came in behind her.

They all were paired off with League members for their interview: Edge with Captain Thunder, Cobalt Templar with Lady Liberty, Midnight with Raven, Wander with Star Knight, and Sage with Johnny Rocket, and each asked in no uncertain terms to explain everything they recalled about the Terminus incident, the various dimensions they'd seen, the destruction of all reality, the fate of Rick Lucas, and most importantly the demise of Omega thanks to hard fighting, clever strategy, and finally good marksmanship. Wander was, unfortunately, deprived of her trophy for the duration as it was very carefully taken away by Daedalus to be carefully studied: the armor of Omega wasn't just something they could leave laying around! The adults who'd been part of the trip all got their own meeting rooms too, though Oliver took this opportunity to scarper for a moment with all the knowledgeable people around. For his own part, Edge found himself made part of a very difficult conversation.

Rick Lucas had never liked Ray Gardener, regarding the Centurion's putative successor with a contempt that Mark had only realized in the last few years wasn't actually jocular at all. He'd never heard a good thing said in his household about Captain Thunder, which was one reason why he'd gotten along so badly with Bolt when they were both in school. To his surprise, and increasing disquiet, as the fatherly Captain Thunder talked him through everything he remembered, Captain Thunder didn't like Rick Lucas very much either, feelings that went beyond even the distaste some younger heroes had had for the League's partner in the 60s and 70s.

With a perspicacity that made Mark wish for his old oblivious days, he realized the problem. While Rick had seen Thunder as a pretender to the Centurion's legacy, Thunder had always seen Rick as an obnoxious hanger-on, a feeling only reinforced by the events surrounding Mark's temporary demise at the hands of Omega the previous year. From the tone of Thunder's questions, for all that he said nothing overt, it sounded like he suspected the whole thing had been just a creation of Rick Lucas' power. Mark was insulted: not just for the father who he'd left alone on a visibly collapsing world, but just as importantly for the team that had striven so hard and fought for, and then accomplished, so much over the last few spectacular, terrible days! He hoped things were going better for the others.

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Corbin let go of his lovely lover lady only reluctantly. He sent her a silent reassurance that he'd explain everything, the good and the bad, as soon as he could. He gave her one more superhuman hug before trudging off with Lady Liberty. On the plus side, the "sunburn" had finally stopped stinging.

The interview had been a bit of an emotional roller coaster, as Corbin had to essentially relive the last four days of time. Some of it was merely interesting, such as the glimpse at the alternate reality where everyone was obsessed with the 1970's. The tale of the future carried mixed emotions for the boy, with the thought of his death, but also of a heroic daughter who carried on his legacy. His voice was quiet as he described the horrors of Erde, small that their glimpse had been.

Finally, he described how eerie that night had been on EZ01. How he'd felt the surge of adrenaline as they fought through scores of Omegadrones, their team working together to destroy the Soldiers of Entropy. The strangely anticlimactic death of Physician Friendly, something he didn't so much as frown about. But then he couldn't help but shed a few tears as Lady Liberty handed him a couple of tissues as he described seeing a twisted version of the girl he loved. Part of him didn't want to talk about it, but he knew witholding information would be worse than just talking about it. Besides, Lady Liberty seemed like the sort to keep things in confidence. She waited patiently as he haltingly described the fight with the group of twisted loved ones.

Then a strange fire came to his eyes as he began to describe that final defiance against the Lord of the Terminus. How Red Falcon had given his life to give them a few precious minutes of stable ground. How he and Wander had hacked away at the Lord of the Terminus while Sage drew enemy fire and Edge burned Omegadrones from the sky. How Midnight had dealt that final terrible blow that gave trillions of destroyed worlds a tiny measure of justice. His eyes were hard, defiant even, as he asserted to the gentle Lady that they weren't lying, it wasn't made up, and how Rick Lucas was, in the end, still a hero.

"No offense ma'am, but are we done? I barely got to talk to my girlfriend, my parents are probably worried sick, my friends and I are tired, and...And Mark just lost his dad. I know this is a big deal, but he and his mother should get some time. The last thing he needs is hours of interviews or whatever. I mean, yeah, we're "just kids", but does this sound like the sort of thing we'd just make up?"

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Wander took Oliver with her into the briefing, not sure what else to do with him, not certain whether at some point he would start talking again and do the debriefing himself. He seemed content, though, to sit on her lap and purr while she related the circumstances of the past four subjective days. Star Knight was a police detective, if an alien one, and allowed Wander to deliver her report in the most detatched, cut-and-dry manner possible. Erin tried to think of it as delivering a report on a Doom Room scenario, rather than a life and death mission full of pain and fear and triumph.

Once the basic facts were on the table, Star Knight went back and began asking questions, fleshing out details. That was harder to handle, but Wander did her best. She explained the strategy she'd used on Herr Arkeville and why she'd given him to Midnight I, then discussed the fight with Breakdown and her meeting with her own daughter from a different timeline. She opened the backpack to show her mementos without removing or commenting on them much. She just said she'd visited her home on EZO1, but nothing about what she'd found there or about how she'd pushed both herself and Trevor to, or maybe past, the limits of emotional endurance. She glossed over the fight with Friendly and the zombies, though she dutifully reported the fatality that she had caused, and discussed the fight with Omega as an exercise in tactics.

It was a tremendous relief, after more than an hour, when she was turned loose from the debriefing and allowed to go back to the main hall. Hugging the backpack to her chest, she waited for Trevor, hoping that they were done for the day. It had been a very long mission, for all that the morning sun was still shining here on the same day they'd left.

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For her part, Sage was not pleased with having to go through the debriefing. She had hoped that she would be able to slip away quietly, but Raven did an effective job of corralling the stealthy teen--and the presence of the Headmaster ensured Sage didn't leave in a flashier show of teenage defiance.

Sage gave the interview twice.

As she spoke to Johnny Rocket she opened up a link with his mind, and her speech was joined in perfect counterpoint by what the telepath felt, and saw and thought at each moment. Each moment was revisited in intricate and intimate detail, and the Speedster saw (and felt) it all for this was Sage, and she remembers everything.

Johnny Rocket felt the world die, as Sage did. He relived the cold satisfaction of Sage as she witnessed Wander take down Physician Friendly, and pain she felt when her cousin blasted her into the wall. And he felt the calm acceptance of death as he saw the battle with Omega through her eyes.

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Midnight sat silently on one side of a table in a spartan room while the Raven sat opposite, equally still. Moments stretched into minutes as the two dark clad vigilantes seemed to size each other up, for all any noticeable emotion was kept from their faces. Finally the quiet was broken by one of the Hall's staff arriving carrying a tray with a steaming pot of coffee and a pair of mugs. Looking between the seated pair, he reached to pour the beverage before hesitating, then finally deciding to simply exit with all haste, sweating profusely.

Helping himself to a mug, Midnight set it down as a soft tone came from within his jacket. Reaching inside, he removed his handheld tablet, the screen indicating that information had successfully been transferred. Removing a stick of solid state memory, he slid it across the table. "Audio and visual recordings from lens cameras," he noted, indicating the ruby tinted goggles of the mask hanging about his neck. "Complete biometric data. Passive climate, radiation and seismic readings. GPS readings where possible."

"I've taken the liberty of copying my own recordings to your computers," a resonant though robotic voice informed the Raven from the gleaming metallic egg sitting on the table on the opposite end from the coffee. "For corroboration."

Returning his miniaturized computer to his pocket, Midnight picked his mug back up and took a long sip, wordlessly raising one eyebrow at the Freedom Leaguer as he looked over its rim.

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That was evidently all Raven needed to hear, with a nod of approval and glance at the door she dismissed Trevor to study the data he'd brought back. That left all the young heroes to gradually congregate out in the hall, joined after a few moments by Duncan Summers and Travis Hunter: in a nice bit of synchronicity, evidently the former had debriefed the latter. Star Knight passed by to leave a spare Claremont costume for Wander, the nearby bathroom letting her get out of her incinerated outfit in a few moments. They had a few moments to chat, and reconnect, but there was no sign of either Mark or Martha for several minutes: finally, Mark and Martha left the last briefing room. Mark's cheeks were flushed and his arm around his mom, who was quietly and wordlessly dabbing at her eyes. Mark didn't quite look at his friends, looking instead like he was biting something back as Captain Thunder spoke to the team.

"It's going to take time to figure out exactly what happened today," said the Captain with a look at all the young heroes. "But I don't need an investigation to know that you all came together to save our world. Again. Summers, I hope you're giving all these kids a good recommendation when they graduate."

"Mm," replied the old man. "I'll have them all back for debriefings when you need them, Gardener. In the meantime, I'm going to take my students home."

"All right," agreed Captain Thunder, adding, "Daedalus wants Archetech to confirm what you've said about that armor," he added. "Which he agrees with, by the way. If one of you wants to run it over there, I think you've earned the right..." While the heroes talked, Mark and his mom were slipping off in another direction.

"I'll...we'll catch you guys later," said Mark, his voice artificially cheerful, "at school tomorrow. We've got to, um, make some arrangements."

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Corin had spent a couple of minutes gingerly leaning against a wall in the hallway as they chatted. Lady Liberty had kindly healed his burns, but he was still tender, even with the conjured shirt. He took part in the quiet conversation as everyone compared their interrogations, but seemed rather exhausted, like all of them were. Add to that his distraction at the lack of Quo-Dis's presence, and he wasn't quite as "chatty" as he normally was.

When Mark and his mother finally appeared, he straightened up and stepped forward a bit, stopping at Captain Thunder's presence and words. He frowned as he noticed Mark's attitude and reaction to the man. He wasn't sure he exactly liked how the man worded things himself.

'How is it going to take them time to figure things out? We told them what happened! Gah. Is this what it's like, always working with these guys?'

Then he noticed Mark and his mom walking off. He took a single step toward his friend, sincerity lacing his expression (which was rather clear after he'd dismissed his mask) and voice.

"Okay. We'll see you tomorrow. If you guys need anything, at all, call me. Okay? Doesn't matter what it is."

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"Call us and let us know how things are going, all right?" Erin told Mark. Just like after their last Lucas-based interdimensional detour, she didn't know what to do or say that might help him at all, so she just let them go. She hoped Mark would at least feel better if he could drop his heroic facade, with none of his friends or colleagues around to see.

She turned to Captain Thunder, her face cool. "We told you what happened," she pointed out. "All you have to do is file the reports. If the armor's safe to carry around, I'll take it with me and deliver it to Doctor Archeville. I start work for him on Monday anyway." That was a truly weird thought, after all they'd just been though. Today her job was saving the multiverse. Monday it would be guarding a lobby against trespassers. Honestly, it didn't sound so bad. She looked at Trevor, cocking his hat forward on her head a bit. "Ready?"

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Midnight simply caught Gardener's eyes as the electric paragon looked from person to person and held the gaze, his expression schooled into perfect neutrality. He said nothing, nor did he prolong the unblinking eye contact long enough to force a reaction from the older man, but the glossy onyx and sanguine orbs pierced into the Captain's own just long enough to plant a seed of acute disquiet. That done he turned on his heel and began to leave. "Ready."

Travis stamped his cane on the floor with a flat snort before following suit, keeping pace with his grandson despite the need for assistance. "Car out front," The elderly hero spared a concerned glance at what was left of the Lucas family as they slipped away, shaking his head sadly.

"When time allows," the metallic egg nestled in the crook of Trevor's arm spoke, "there are... observances tradition to the Furions I would like to make." That elicited a taciturn but understanding nod from the soft-spoken youth as he reached out his other hand toward Erin.

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Outside, a moment's pause revealed they were collectively without a ride home minus their own innate superabiities! (Travis had been teleported over with the others, and the car Summers had ordered for them hadn't quite arrived yet) Before they could take plans to do something about this, a remarkable figure descended from the sky: glowing like blue, ethereal fire, the small woman was wrapped in a deep blue field of energy that hung low at her back like a coat and arched over her head like a mask and fedora. With glowing blue eyes, she looked for all the world as if someone had sculpted Midnight I's costume out of the holy fire of Cobalt Templar's ring. A moment later, she landed, and Hope spoke from inside. "I came as soon as I could. Midnight, can I offer you and yours a ride back to where you're going?"

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Despite the direct mind transfer of the details, the meat of her report focused on the actions of Cobalt Templar, Edge, Midnight and Wander. Sage was relieved when it was all over and she was allowed to leave.

She lingered for a time in the main lobby of Freedom Hall, remembering all too clearly the dilapidated and corrupted counterpart and the abbreviated fight with her cousin. Memory and reality blurred together as the telepath finally let her composure slip. To the rest of the world the sky merely got dark... but Sage and her friends lived through three days of hell; three days that she will remember in intimate detail.

Finally tearing herself away from her attacking memories, the young Martel quietly slipped from the building.

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Corbin walked outside with the others, a slight frown lingering on his face from the goings-on inside. He glanced around, realizing at about the same time the others did that they had not easy transport home. Normally this wouldn't be an issue for him, but he was bone tired right now. He felt like he could sleep for a couple of days right now. He wasn't sure how well he'd be able to keep a construct for their whole group up, or for how long.

Of course, that's when Hope showed up, seemingly copying his abilities. He blinked owlishly, not quite comprehending the situation at first. He looked down at his ring, and conjured a bit of fire from it, as if to test that it was really still there, and still working. Then he looked back at Hope, before giving the group a sheepish look.

"Heh. Um. Right. Did I forget to mention I might have given the Midnight we saw on Erde a tip on where to find some help? And by "help", I mean "that world's version of my ring"? Cause...uh. Yeah."

He turned back to Hope, giving her an embarrassed grin.

"So...Am I on the money about that?"

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Hope cocked her head and stared at Cobalt Templar, evidently not comprehending. "...okay, evidently we've got a lot to talk about," she said, her blue aura flaming a little like someone had turned up the gas on a stove. "You can start by filling in exactly where you've been," she said to Cobalt Templar with a friendly sort of sharpness. "But it's very late. Let me at least take you home, Mr. Hunter and Mrs. Lucas," she offered to Martha and Travis, seeming to know quite well where both was.

"No thank you," said Martha, still hanging onto Mark. "We'll...we'll be getting home our own way." She turned and looked at Mark, who gave the others a pained look. "I'll talk to you guys tomorrow." And then he and his mom vanished in a puff of black bubbles for the trip back to their house in Ashton. It had been standing closed for a while now, but that was for son and mother to deal with just then now that father and husband were out of their lives for good.

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Trevor regarded Hope silently for a long moment before finally blinking. Adjusting the way he was carrying Redbird's core computer, he slowly extended one closed fist toward where Corbin stood, the broad-shouldered underclassman looking a little bashful that his plan had actually come to fruition. "Hnn. Nice." He didn't want to get into it just then, partly due to who was listening and how much everyone needed to finally rest, but he was heartened by the implication that Erde's version of his grandfather had apparently lived to fight another day, successfully at that. He owed Cobalt Templar one for that.

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It took Erin a moment to parse what she was seeing and what it meant, after all, it had been a long few days. Eventually she cocked her head to one side, smiling slightly. "Huh, interesting. Hope we didn't do anything to screw this place up while we were gone. She looks good with the powers, though." Louder, loudly enough for Hope to hear, she called, "Yeah, we could use a ride. It's been a long few days, or few hours, or whatever." Looking over towards Trevor, she asked, "Your place?" That had been the plan for after graduation, at least for a few days, but things hadn't exactly gone according to plan.

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Corbin can't help but give Trevor a grin as he gave a fist-bump to his friend. He had a pretty good idea of what might have happened, but his historian's instincts told him to wait until he can get the story from the source. Unfortunately, weariness overrode his inquisitiveness as he stretched a bit, a yawn splitting his face. His right arm rested around Quo-Dis, who thankfully wasn't squeezing his tender skin too tightly. He glanced at the others, a sheepish expression on his face.

"As much as I want to hear this story, I'm plum tired."

He gives Hope a small smile and a nod.

"Tell you what. We'll swap stories tomorrow, after everyone's had some rest. Don't worry about giving us a lift, I think we can make our own way."

By "us", he clearly meant himself and Quo-Dis. He sent her a quick thought over their link.

--Is my house fine by you?--

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Eventually everyone got moving again; whether it was Blue Moon (as she introduced herself) accompanying the Hunters and Erin back to Midnight Manor just long enough to see them there safely, Quo-Dis coming back with Corbin to his family's place, Eve back to the Martels, and finally the Lucases to their home. They had time and place to relax, and the comfort of showers, regular meals, and their own beds at the end of the day: not to mention uninterrupted company with their sweethearts. Oliver had chosen to go with Erin to the Midnight Manor, and prowled there for a while in the darkness before slipping away to give her some peace. The next morning, a talk with the school revealed that their graduation ceremonies had been rescheduled for one week later, all the families and guests having been teleported home in the emergency. Perhaps the most interesting news was that all of them, even those students who had not been particularly gifted academically, were graduating from Claremont Academy with the distinction of summa cum laude.
 

~FIN~

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