As her first mission as The Advocate draws to a close, Becca ties her loose ends and tries to resume a normal life -- well, as normal as life can get for a fledgling superhero. But a cryptic message from the Omnipresence forces Becca to rethink her place in the Multiverse, and brings about a meeting she'd never thought she'd see.
"Impossible is a word humans use far too often." -- Seven of Nine, Star Trek: Voyager
Since the Cat Goddess had taken steps to restore the timeline by returning the girls to their rightful place in it, Heather and I didn't have to wait until the boys were alone anymore. From the knowledge I'd gained about the spells used, I also didn't have to worry about magical fallout changing the transformation matrix. After a short break for lunch (and a chance to catch my breath), we took each of the transformed boys out of their daycare situations and brought them to Mrs. Graymalkin's studio.
Even though it was clearly safe, we ported directly into a time bubble in the center of the dance floor. Time would move very quickly inside the bubble while remaining slow beyond its walls, so no one would even suspect the toddlers were gone. And once they were all restored, none of their former daycare providers would even remember the little girls ever existed.
But the memories of the boys themselves were another matter.
"I can easily restore each of you to where you would have been if events had taken their normal course," I said to the group, sitting in a circle in the middle of the dance floor. "And all of you will have a complete set of memories of your old life up to the time you return, so you can hit the ground running. But you each have a choice to make before I begin. And I can't make it for you."
"A choice?" Mike asked, still cute as a button in a pair of pink OshKosh overalls and a white blouse with a Peter Pan collar.
I nodded. "I can put your lives right back on track, as I said. But I need to know whether or not you also want to remember the time you spent trapped as a three-year-old girl."
"You mean we can choose to remember . . . or not?" Tim, currently Tammy, looked confused. "Why would I want to remember any of it?"
"Because it's part of your history," Heather piped up, causing everyone to turn her way. "That means it's a part of you. We learn from the things that happen to us, good and bad, and that learning helps us grow."
"But . . . but it sucked!" In her bright yellow play dress, Tim looked about ready to cry. "I felt small and scared and weak and stupid and . . . and it went on and on! It felt like forever! Why the hell would I want to remember being trapped like this?"
"Because it happened, Tim." Mike's voice took his friend by surprise. "If you get rid of it, then it all happened for nothing. But if you hang onto the memories, then you'll always know you went through something really bad and came out the other side. Keeping the memories will make you stronger in the end."
"Or give me nightmares that won't go away." Tim crossed her arms and stared straight ahead. "Losing a slice of hell isn't a loss in my book, bro. I just want to get back to life the way it should have been."
Andrew, currently Annie, spoke up. "If I do decide to remember these months, how am I ever gonna deal with my sister again after what she did to me?" The toddler's party dress was pink and frilly, with a picture of Disney's Cinderella on the front. A pair of matching ruffled panties peeked out from under it.
"I did explain what happened," I said helpfully. "It really wasn't her fault."
Andrew shook her head, her pigtails whipping back and forth.
"I know what you said, and I understand it, up here," she replied, tapping her forehead. "But in my heart, I still remember how Libby hurt me for months, even if she doesn't remember it anymore. I know that lurking somewhere inside her is someone who could laugh as I cried, and I don't know how to deal with that."
"It was that Cat Goddess making her do that," Mike said, "You should know how easy it is to have your head twisted, man. The other day in daycare, I saw you trying to eat crayons! That wasn't you -- that was what they made you into when other people were around."
Andrew shook his head. "I just don't know."
"What about Travis?" Tim pointed to the baby Heather held in her arms. I sighed.
"Travis doesn't get a choice," I said softly. "Some things are too painful to remember. For him, all of his memories of this time will disappear. The new memories will fill the vacuum when the old ones vanish, and he can start again from there, just like the rest of you who choose to forget."
'At least, that's the theory,' I thought, a little uneasy. 'Whether it works or not . . .'
A long silence followed, and then I clapped my hands and smiled. "So who's first?"
All of the boys chose to forget the past few months had ever happened.
All of them, that is, except for Mike.
One by one, I cast each of them into the present they should have inhabited. Before I sent each boy back into his life, I checked first to make sure none of them had died or been seriously injured in the original timeline. It would have been pretty stupid to save them from life as a toddler only to send them to an accidental death or worse, trapping them in a body that no longer functioned at all.
Eventually, only Mike and Travis were left. Mike struggled to his feet and waddled over to me.
"I want to thank you, Becca," he said, as he gave my legs a hug. "You saved us all, and none of the other guys even shook your hand."
"Well, let me shake yours, hon," I replied with a smile, and he let go of me and reached up with pudgy fingers. "You're something really special, Mike. In an impossible situation like this, you hung on until I managed to find you. And of all of your friends, you're the only one with enough courage to keep the memories of your time as Missy. That makes you pretty special in my book."
"What doesn't kill you makes you stronger, right?" Mike looked down at his yellow sneakers with the daisies embroidered on them. "At least, that's what they say. But I'm not stupid, Becca. If hanging onto the memories gets too hard for me to handle, I'll call."
"And I'll come help." I picked him up and gave him a proper hug, then set him down on his feet. "Go win some games, Mike."
"I'll do my best." He smiled, closed his eyes, and I sent him back to the life he should have had.
I couldn't put it off any longer. This was the one thing I wasn't sure would work, since so much depended on what was actually going on inside someone else's mind. All of my efforts to try and find Travis inside Tina's tiny head were failures. I found nothing but a frightened -- and frightening -- silence, so I couldn't really tell if Travis was only hiding . . . or gone.
Still, I couldn't just send him off and hope my solution was successful. I took a deep breath, crossed my fingers, and restored Travis to his real life, as I did the others. But this time, I went along, to see if my solution worked. I needed to be there, to help coax Travis out of his shell if I could -- or bring him back to a life as Tina if I couldn't.
He was lying in his bed in his dorm room, snoring. Apparently, he had fallen asleep while studying, since books and papers were scattered around his sleeping form. I sat on the edge of the bed to watch him, waiting for him to wake up.
While I waited, my eyes roamed the room. The walls were covered with posters of alternative rock bands, and the floor was covered with discarded clothes and an empty pizza box. Over on the desk was a picture of Travis and a girl on the beach, their arms around each other. She was blonde and tan and pretty in her skimpy blue string bikini, and they were obviously very much in love. I reviewed the memories I had given him of the life he should have had, and saw that she loved him too, very much -- even though they went to schools hundreds of miles apart.
'That's a good sign,' I thought with a sigh. 'Having memories of a strong relationship like that to hold him here might make all the difference. Wanting to accept this reality could be a deciding factor, determining whether Travis wakes up as himself, or retreats again when he opens his eyes.'
Travis snorted once, and turned over slightly. I took another look at the picture and realized there was one more way I could help Travis come back.
I closed my eyes and readied a spell.
Travis woke slowly, slightly disoriented. The world seemed to rush at him, all of the past months assaulting him simultaneously, and he shook his head, trying to make sense of it all.
Then he felt a soft hand touch his cheek, and he opened his eyes to find Laurie sitting on the edge of the bed, her pale blue eyes filled with love and concern.
"Hey, boyfriend," she whispered, bending down to give him a soft kiss. "You were having a nightmare, so I came to help."
"Night . . . mare?" The words were hard for him to get out, almost as if he hadn't talked in months.
Laurie nodded and kissed him again. "Yes, hon. A nightmare. I'm here to show you there's nothing to be afraid of."
"Am I dreaming?" Travis's voice became clearer, more distinct. Laurie laughed and touched his nose with hers.
"Of course you are, silly. Why else would I be wearing a bikini in October?"
The boy reached up with one hand and pulled her face down to his for a long deep kiss. His other hand slid upwards, cupping one of her hips.
"You feel real," he said softly. "Mmmmm, feels nice."
"Well, you'll have to wait for the real thing, honey," she replied with a smile. "I'm just a figment of your imagination until Thanksgiving. See?" Laurie stood up next to the bed, twirled around, and was suddenly dressed in a sky blue harem outfit.
His confusion was written all over his face. "Why . . . why are you here?"
"Because I wanted you to know I love you. Call me, 'kay?" Laurie bent over and kissed his forehead. "I need to hear I love you, too."
Then with a smile and a wave, she vanished. Travis sat up with a start, looking around for his dream girl.
"Whoa," he whispered. "Weird dream. I must really miss her." He reached up to touch where she had kissed him, and noticed his cell phone sitting on the nightstand. "I've got to tell her about this!"
I hovered over Travis near the ceiling, invisible but smiling. As he reached for his phone, I breathed a sigh of relief and ported back to the dance studio.
The girls were home. The boys were home. Travis was going to be just fine.
And that, as they say, was that.
But as usual, they were wrong.
After the defeat of the Cat Goddess and the return of the boys and girls to their respective lives, my own life began to settle into something approaching normal -- well, normal for me, anyway. Leander and I continued to spar magically and talk of tactics in the heat of battle; Mrs. Graymalkin and I would dance and talk of strategies and the ethical uses of magic. Heather would sit in on both sessions, listening intently and occasionally taking part in the discussions.
Surprisingly, Heather's attitude towards Leander changed once I told her what had happened during the duel. Over time, she came to accept Leander as an older sister, and began to spar with both Leander and myself during the practice sessions. After watching Mrs. Graymalkin and I, she discovered an interest in learning ballet, and began her own set of lessons in both dance and magical defense at the studio.
Outside of classes, Heather, Amy, and I became a well-recognized trio, spending all of our spare time together -- except when Heather was with Jeremy and I was with Tommy, of course.
I met Dom at a Starbucks one afternoon after school, and I brought her up to speed on what I could do with magic. We thought about ways I could help her do her job, and we talked about how she could help me do mine.
"I'll keep my eyes open for anything . . . magical," she had said, taking a sip of her latte before shaking her head in amazement. "I can't believe I just said that."
A few days after the duel, my first period arrived, accompanied by swollen breasts, cramps, mood swings, and the expected mess and smell. Still, even with all that, my menses was a cause for celebration as all the females in the Barnes household gathered to acknowledge my first steps into womanhood.
As Jack, I had been barred from being part of Emma's "first-time" ceremony, it being a "girls only" event. But as Becca, I was the star, and I soon discovered that this day had been anticipated and prepared for far in advance by my former wife and daughter.
I learned many things that day. I learned that chocolate was a gift from the Goddess to make the time easier to bear (this time, it was also a gift from Emma in the form of a five pound bar of Hershey's best). I learned of the value of massages and heating pads and baths; and both mother and sister revealed to me the mysteries behind what to wear and what NOT to wear during that time of the month.
I also learned that feminine hygiene products were definitely my friends, and was told that finding exactly what was best for each girl was a personal decision. Mom gave me boxes of several different types of napkins, tampons, and shields, and I was encouraged to experiment until I could find out which brands and what combinations felt right to me. She and Emma told me what they thought worked best for them, and tried to answer whatever questions I had about periods in general -- although they were quick to point out that every woman's experience was different.
Heather hung on every word, looking from me to the boxes and back again. When Mom announced it was time for us to go for ice cream, she and Emma went off to get their coats. I rose slowly from the bed and walked over to Heather.
"Are you okay, sis? You look a little stunned."
She looked up at me and smiled. "I'm fine," she replied. "It's just . . . I know it's coming for me, too. And I don't regret choosing to stay this way, not for an instant. I love being a girl. But still, it's a big thing, to have this happen to you every month." She cocked her head and gave me a curious look. "You seem to be handling it well, though."
I shrugged. "It's just a part of my life, hon. I was a girl, and now I'm a woman. I wouldn't change a thing." I winced as another cramp hit, and then gave her a small smile. "Well, maybe I would, a little, but it's not awful, really. Just . . . awkward and messy. This is part of who and what I am, and who and what I always wanted to be. I'm happy."
Heather took my hand and squeezed. "Me, too. Thanks for everything, Becca."
I reached out and gave her a big hug. "I hope you say that again when it's your turn to be the guest of honor," I whispered. I heard her giggle, and we headed for the front door where my Mom and my sister were waiting.
It was hot for October, and I was taking advantage of the spring-like temperature to wear something fun -- and for me a little symbolic. It was the first outfit I'd chosen when I woke up as my teenaged self almost a month ago -- a scoop neck pale green tee shirt with a thin white button-down blouse over it; a short dark green skirt that fell just above mid-thigh, in a very light fabric with several layers of ruffles; and white sneakers with gray trim over white socks. My hair was loose this time instead of held in a ponytail, and I wore just enough make-up to make me feel pretty.
I was sitting outside of the Starbucks, sipping on a vanilla bean frappuchino and waiting for my Tommy to come meet me. While my eyes followed the many passers-by, I was actually thinking about how I could use my time-bending abilities to do my job and still have a life.
'Perhaps I can "time share" with myself,' I mused. 'By going back over my own time line every night, I can patrol the whole world for eight hours and still get a decent night's sleep. Or, since time passes at a different rate in Akomachi's home, I could sleep there for hours and have it register here in minutes. Maybe a combination of both . . . ?'
My mind was spinning with possibilities when I heard a male voice behind me. It spoke in a tone I had only associated with eulogies in the past.
"You have failed, Advocate," it said. "Your task remains incomplete."
I turned my head to discover an older boy standing behind me -- late teens, maybe early twenties. My eyes traveled up his body to take in the faded denim pants and matching jacket, the black tee shirt, the short dark hair and matching goatee, the simple earrings with a matching stud shining in the side of his nose. His dark brown eyes were filled with concern, and he moved forward and sat down across from me.
"Advocate," he said earnestly. "The job is not yet done. The Multiverse is not as it was."
I took my straw out of my mouth and eyed him thoughtfully. "And you are?"
"I am The Envoy," he replied, leaning forward. "The messenger of the Omnipresence."
"God needs a messenger?" I smiled. "What, Her Infinite Majesty can't pick up a phone?"
"The Omnipresence is nearly infinite, it is true." The Envoy shrugged. "When confronted with infinity, humans tend to go a bit -- insane. So a messenger is needed, yes."
"And your message to me is 'the job is not yet done.'" He nodded. I stopped and took another sip. "If we're talking about the same thing, I'm afraid I have to disagree. Just the other day, I looked at my 'To Do' list and it seemed to me that all the boxes had been checked off. araNyamArjAra gone, girls and boys all free and happy. Life is good. So what's left?"
"One box remains unchecked. Hunter Thomas." The Envoy's eyes flashed, and he raised his voice a touch. "He remains Heather, and that cannot stand. The Omnipresence would like you to restore the boy so the work can continue. That is why your task is incomplete."
"You want Hunter back?" I smiled and shook my head. "Oh, no. I'm sorry, but I'm afraid I can't do that."
He looked surprised. "Why not?"
"Because it would be wrong." I sighed at the look of confusion on his face. "Look, as The Advocate, it's my job to protect people, not to hurt them, right?" The Envoy nodded. "So as it stands now, Heather is happy, well-adjusted, and deeply in love with my brother. For her, Hunter is nothing but a bad memory. If I return her to the hell she used to live in, I will hurt her -- and Jeremy, too, even though he probably wouldn't remember it. So Hunter isn't coming back. Not now, not ever. Message or no message, Heather stays Heather."
His mouth opened in disbelief. "But . . . but this message comes directly from the Omnipresence!"
"Oh, I believe you," I replied calmly.
"Then you must comply." The Envoy tried to look stern and disapproving, but in the body he wore, it came out looking more like someone had gotten his espresso order wrong. "You have to."
"No, I do not." I took another sip of my drink. "The Omnipresence gave me free will, and I choose to exercise it. I won't hurt anyone just because someone tells me to, even if that someone is God." I looked upward. "And I won't hurt people I care about just to make Your work easier for you. Considering who you are and what you can do, you certainly don't need my help."
The Envoy's voice shook, and both of his hands became fists. "You will show some respect, Advocate."
I put down the nearly empty cup and readied a defensive spell. The tension in the air was palpable, but all of it was coming from him.
"Or what?" I smiled. "That sounded suspiciously like a threat, messenger. Someone should have told you I don't deal well with threats."
"I am The Envoy," he repeated. "You would not dare to attack me."
"What I will or will not dare is not up for debate." I looked him in the eyes. "Push me too hard and you'll find out just how far I'll go."
He smiled. "I am not afraid of you. The Omnipresence will protect me."
"Maybe." I grinned and settled back in my chair, crossing my legs at the knee. "I've heard she doesn't act directly down here these days. If she did, I would imagine she'd just change Heather back to Hunter herself, if Heather is too much of an obstacle to the great plan. But her acting directly might cause more harm than good, if I remember correctly. I guess if it comes down to it, we'll know for sure how far God will go to keep you safe . . . won't we?"
The Envoy took a deep breath and let it out slowly. "I am not here to fight you, Advocate. The Omnipresence requests that you honor her wishes and return Heather to her rightful form as Hunter."
"I appreciate that. But I will not comply. You could tell her so, but I'm sure she already knows. She is omniscient, after all."
"Hey, Becca!" I felt Tommy's hands on my shoulders, and I tilted my head back to give him a kiss as his lips came down to meet mine.
"Hi, Tomcat," I whispered before he stole another kiss. "You're right on time."
"Oh?" He raised his head up to look at the boy across the table. "Ready to go, then?"
"More than ready!" I snagged my purse, threw it over my shoulder and stood up. The Envoy watched me, confusion in his eyes. "You will excuse me, won't you?"
He looked confused again. "What?"
"Your message has been delivered, and I've given you my reply. Our business is concluded, and I have other places to be."
I picked up my empty cup and threw it in a nearby trashcan. Then I flashed the Envoy a brilliant smile. "Have a safe trip home, now!" I slid my arm around Tommy's waist, and walked away.
"Was that guy giving you any trouble, babe?" Tommy asked, his arm around my shoulders and his face half-buried in my hair.
"Him? No, not at all," I replied, happy to be with him again. "He was just acting like so many other teenaged boys these days."
"Absolutely," I nodded, turning my head and burying my face in his chest so Tommy couldn't see me grin. "He thinks he's Heaven-sent."
That night, I stared up at the bottom of Heather's bunk, listening to her soft snores and thinking about my response to the Envoy in the Starbucks.
'Before the duel with the Cat Goddess, I told Dom it was hard to say no to God,' I mused, 'but it turned out not to be so hard at all. Should it be that easy for me to tell the Creator to take a hike? Is that a good thing? What am I becoming, if I can do that without even stopping to think about the consequences?'
'But you did think about them.' I swung my legs over the side of the bed and stood up. 'You just thought about the consequences for Heather and Jeremy if you did what God asked you to do. You put them first, without even thinking that maybe God knew better than you. Do you think so much of yourself after one victory -- that your judgment is better than hers?'
I padded over to the bedroom door, pulled on my robe over my lavender "Hello, Kitty" pajamas, and made my way down the hall and into the kitchen without turning on a light. My new "C' cup breasts moved a bit more than they used to, swaying and bouncing slightly as I walked silently through the kitchen to the living room. Part of me savored the feeling of finally having breasts of my own, but the part of me that had grown up Becca wondered if bigger really was better. I was still thinking about returning them to the more comfy "B" cups they had been before.
What little moonlight filtered through the cracks in the living room curtains made it easy for me to find the sofa, and I curled up on it and stared at the overstuffed recliner across from me. It had been my chair -- well, Jack's chair -- before all of this started. 'Daddy's chair,' my Becca self protested. I nodded, giving her history the weight it deserved, since it was my history now as well.
The recliner remained in its place in the living room, but I had noticed an unwritten rule that kept everyone from sitting in it. It was like a strange suburban version of the "Missing Man" formation Air Force pilots fly to honor fallen comrades, as if everyone saw it as a placeholder for the missing man in the family -- or kept it as a reminder of the empty place Jack left behind.
I was dwelling on the emptiness of it, thinking again about that meeting in the parking lot that took me away from them all. Which made it all the more surprising when Mrs. Graymalkin suddenly appeared, flickering into existence in my old recliner and filling the chair as if it had been made for her.
"That was a very interesting choice you made today, Becca," the older woman said softly, her eyes never leaving mine. "Not surprising, but interesting."
She was wearing a white blouse and the long black skirt she had worn to the commitment ceremony, but her grey-streaked hair was loose and fell in soft curls down over her shoulders.
"Thank you, Ma'am . . . I think," I replied, keeping my own voice low. "Sorry to wake you. Was I thinking too loud again?"
"Something like that." Mrs. Graymalkin stood up and walked over to the sofa. As she sat, she turned sideways to face me, curling herself into the opposite corner of the couch. "Maybe feeling too much would be a better description."
"Well, blowing off a request from the Omnipresence tends to make one feel . . . uncertain." I gave a small laugh, wrapped my arms around my middle and hugged myself. "It was easy to do at the time, but now, all the questions start."
"Questions?" My dance teacher remained curiously serene. "Are you having doubts about your message?"
I shook my head. "Not about the message, but how easy it was for me to deliver it. I didn't hesitate, or deliberate. I didn't even think about what would happen to me if I refused. I just said no. To the Creator of . . . everything, I said no."
"Why did you say no? Not out of pride or stubbornness. It wasn't because you thought you knew better, surely."
"You know me better than that." Mrs. Graymalkin nodded, her attention unwavering. "I said no because I know God doesn't truly need Heather to suffer." I looked down at my painted toenails. "Whatever her plan might be, God is more than capable of working around having my little sister stay my little sister. And she certainly doesn't need me to hurt her. People suffer as part of the big plan every day."
I looked back at my teacher. "Someday I'm going to have to do somebody some serious harm. I know that. It's part of the job. But when that day comes, it will be because I have no other choice. Asimov once said that 'violence is the last refuge of the incompetent.' I'd like to believe I'll always be smart enough to avoid bloodshed if I think hard enough. So maybe there's a bit of pride there." I grinned. "Me and MacGyver. What a handsome couple."
Mrs. Graymalkin didn't smile, just nodded. "I noticed you went out of your way to convince araNyamArjAra that she was wrong," she said, "instead of just destroying her as the Arbiters would have wanted you to do."
"In her way, she was 'people' too." I shrugged. "She just didn't know it until I showed her. Like anyone, she has the right to be wrong without getting a death sentence for it."
There was a long silence, then Mrs. Graymalkin smiled. I sensed something was different an instant before she opened her mouth, and then the other shoe dropped.
"I chose you well."
Suddenly I was very glad I was sitting down. The world seemed to spin, just for an instant. When it stopped, nothing had changed -- and everything had changed.
I was sharing a sofa with God.
She still looked like Mrs. Graymalkin, but it was pretty clear she wasn't. She was too still, too centered, too serene in her movements and thoughts to be merely human. And she exuded an aura of power that was unmistakable -- and slightly frightening.
"The messenger was an Envoy," she said calmly. "That means he was acting as an emissary from one sovereign to another, since your free will makes you the master of your own fate. The message was phrased as a request and not an order, because to order you to do anything would be in direct opposition to the free will I have worked so hard to encourage."
The Omnipresence looked at me and raised an eyebrow. "And you need not fear reprisals of any kind, Becca. I already knew your answer before you gave it."
"Oh? Then why ask the question?"
"Because the message itself was a test."
I felt confused and frustrated, and both feelings rose up in me. "That makes no sense. You already knew the answer!"
"But you didn't," she replied. "And I felt you should. The test was not for me, child. It was for you."
My jaw dropped, and I could barely speak. "Why?"
"So you could see what I already knew." She leaned forward and placed her hand on my arm. "That you would defy even me if you thought the cause was just."
I sat there, stunned. 'She wanted me to say no??'
The Omnipresence rose gracefully, turned and walked to the curtains. They parted as she approached, and pale moonlight outlined her borrowed form with a shimmering aura.
"You are everything I could have hoped for in an Advocate," she said softly, staring out into the yard with a small smile playing on the edges of her lips. "Willful and smart, brave and true. And you have chosen your allies well. You have introduced something new and vital to the plan -- a force for good, backed with strength, wisdom, courage, and heart. Your very existence -- you and your family and friends -- is proof that humanity is more than the Arbiters could ever imagine, and with your help, your kind will rise to meet the future, and conquer it."
I opened my mouth to protest her praise, and she waved a hand at me without looking. "Modesty is a virtue, Becca, but you have no need to embrace it so forcefully. I know what you are. You do, too. Embrace that, instead." My mouth closed with a snap, and I saw her smile. "Good."
Still smiling, the Omnipresence turned from the window and stood over me in the semi-darkness.
"There is one thing you still regret, even with all the good you have done," she whispered. "The pain your first encounter caused to the people you love more than life itself. They've come out stronger because of it, but it has taken its toll. Your wife left lonely and alone, sleeping on half the bed every night for fear of finding the other half empty and realizing her own other half is gone. Your children left without their father -- moving forward as best they can, but always with that space where their Dad used to be echoing in their hearts."
I felt the tears rolling down my cheeks, and I nodded, afraid to say anything.
"I do not act directly in this world, and for good reason. The Multiverse is a work in progress, shaped by every decision I make as well as every decision made by every sentient creature in it. Every direct action I take could cause thousands of years of delay in achieving our goal . . . or move us forward by the same amount. With all of my knowledge and power, I can't predict how a single intervention will change the landscape or by how much. It's something to do with a sort of universal free will -- what you people call the Uncertainty Principle."
The Omnipresence kneeled before me and took my hand. "But I can act directly, if I so choose. And for all you have done, and all I know you will do in defense of all who need it, I have decided. I will do what must be done to make you and yours whole again. So mote it be."
Shocked, I shook my head. "I can't ask you --"
She reached out and touched my lips with a finger. "You can ask, but you wouldn't. And you haven't. But I can offer. And I do accept on your behalf. Because you've earned it, and will earn it time and time again in the years to follow." I opened my mouth to protest again, and she shut it with a thought.
"Child," she whispered, "I cause so much pain in pursuit of a goal I cannot possibly explain to you and your kind, because you are not ready to know. Please, let me ease your own, in spite of the plan."
I looked down, then nodded.
Leaning forward, the Omnipresence kissed my forehead and gave me a smile. "Thank you. It might be confusing for a time, dear, but in the end, remember this. You truly are your father's daughter. And everything will be just fine."
"But this . . . is it really happening?" I looked up at her, scarcely daring to hope. "I mean, humans aren't supposed to be able to meet God, right? Facing the infinite is supposed to drive you mad!" She nodded. I sighed. "Then I must be asleep. This is just a dream . . . isn't it? I'm only dreaming."
"Of course you are, child," she replied, rising to her feet. "It's how I get around that pesky insanity thing. But sometimes, for very special people, dreams really do come true."
The Omnipresence took a deep breath. "However, the dreamers must always wake up first -- otherwise their dreams never see the light of day." She clapped her hands briskly. "So it's time for you to wake up, Becca, and face a brand new day." She clapped again. "Come along, child! Time to --"
"-- wake up, hon."
There was a hand on my shoulder, shaking me gently. But it was the voice that shook me more. I hadn't heard it in weeks, and I never thought I would hear it again.
But there it was.
"Becca, baby, it's time to wake up. It's morning."
I opened my eyes to see a tall figure silhouetted against the light from the living room window. The curtains had been drawn back, and the sun streamed in behind him, casting his face in deep shadow. But I didn't need to see his face to know who it was.
Who it had to be. Who it couldn't possibly be.
"D ... Dad?" My voice quavered, and I heard him laugh the way I had laughed a thousand times before -- back before my shopping trip, and the meeting that changed everything. "Daddy?"
"Yes, baby," he replied, and I could hear the smile in his voice. "It's me . . . you . . . us."
I squealed and launched myself up into his arms, wrapping him in a hug so tight I could hear his joints crack. "Oh, God -- Daddy, you're back!"
Jack moved his mouth closer to my ear. "To everyone else, I never left, elf. I've always been here -- and you have, too." He kissed my cheek.
I pulled back and looked into his eyes. They were just as I remembered them from the years I spent staring back at myself in the bathroom mirror. "How . . . what . . . who are you?"
"From what I can tell, I'm sort of an echo of you, Becca," he replied, hesitating. "I'm everything you are and were, combined with the past everyone here remembers. I remember being you -- and raising you. I'm your Dad, yet at the same time, I'm you. And you are the me who raised Emma and Jeremy and went on to become The Advocate. We are one, and yet -- we're not." He ducked his head and scratched behind one ear. "It's . . . complicated. I'm still trying to sort it all out."
"Well, welcome to our new life . . . Dad. Confusion is just part of the status quo." I smiled and hugged him again. "I don't care how it happened. I'm just happy you're back."
"Me, too, baby. More than you know."
I looked up at him and chewed my lower lip. "And Mom? The other kids? They never suffered?"
"They never even knew I was gone. That we were gone." I could hear his voice rumbling in his chest, and I felt insanely happy.
"Same as before, mostly. You saved her, and we saved you." His eyes went glassy for a minute, and he smiled. "Although this time I got in a few good punches before someone pulled me off Heather's Dad." He thought some more. "Also, it's apparently much easier to move a guardianship through channels if there's a Mom and a Dad waiting on the other end of the process. Heather should be completely safe from anything her father or his family can do in time for Thanksgiving."
"Something to be thankful for." I giggled, and I felt him laugh. Then I thought of something. "Daddy?"
He smiled. "Yes . . . daughter?"
"Do you still want to be a woman?"
He went very quiet, and I just held him and waited for his answer. Finally, he spoke.
"Yes, I do. You know it's not something that's ever going to go away. It will always be a part of who I am." He sighed and shook his head. "But I did have a beautiful month as Becca, and I remember it all. That's going to have to be enough to hold me from now on."
I remembered what it was like before, living from day to day in the wrong body, sad and frustrated. I felt tears begin to start, and I hugged him tighter.
Jack reached out and touched my chin with his finger, raising my face until his eyes met mine. "No tears, little one. I know why I'm here, and I'm fine with it. This isn't a punishment, Becca. It's a blessing. It fixes the mistake we made in that parking lot so long ago, and I can be with my wife and children again -- be the husband and the father they need. I'm okay with that, really."
Jack smiled. "But if I do need some girl time once in a while, I think I've got an 'in' with this really talented mage, right?"
I grinned back. "You bet, Daddy!"
"Good." He let me go, spun me around and gave me a slap on the bottom. I squealed and turned, mouth open for a yell, and he raised a finger. "Now you're making us late, baby! Or don't you want to share a breakfast with your dear old Dad anymore?"
"Breakfast?" I cocked my head, thought a moment, and screamed. "OhmyGOD! It's Sunday!"
"Yes, it is!" Jack picked up a magazine from the coffee table, sat down and put his feet up. "And you've got five minutes to get dressed and get back out here, or I'm going alone and eating both breakfasts without you."
"Try me, young lady. You of all people should know I never bluff." He grinned and glanced down at his watch. "Four minutes, forty seven seconds. Forty six. Forty five."
I made it with twenty three seconds to spare.
But he still ate my hash browns.
And this is where it ends, for now. In life, stories never really end. Even when someone dies, the other characters just pick up the tale and move on. Still, lives have chapters, too, and mine is no exception. This chapter is done -- the long strange trip to the end of my beginning has finally come to a close.
I won't tell you what happened next -- at least, not now. That really is another story. But in the interest of giving something back to those who follow after, let me leave you with a few well-earned words of advice -- lessons learned by someone who managed to make one bad choice and a whole slew of good ones; dodged more than a spell or two; and fell right into a life and a job she loves.
Family can be friends, if you never let the fact that you're related come between you.
Friends can be family, if you take them into your heart and make them so.
Enemies can become allies, then friends, then family, if you really get to know them -- and have the courage to let them know you in return.
Love conquers all -- or at least makes defeat easier to handle when there's someone else's arms to catch you when you fall.
And finally, nothing is impossible when you put your mind to it.
All it takes . . . is a touch of magic.
This novel is dedicated to the memory of Joan, known to many by her pen name, darla raspberry.
She was my friend, and became family when I let her into my heart, where she took up permanent residence. Joan touched my soul with her wry commentary, her odd sense of humor, and a talent for storytelling she tried hard to deny, even as she showed everyone how good a writer she truly was. Her longest work was an extended serial that brought you into the life of her protagonist, and took you along to watch her grow and make her way in the world.
As Becca said just a few paragraphs ago, "In life, stories never really end. Even when someone dies, the other characters just pick up the tale and move on." That's what we all have to do, now that Joan's gone. And we will, because time keeps turning the pages whether we want to stop or not.
But we'll never forget those who leave us, because love doesn't fade with time.
My sister, you are missed. And you always will be.