A/N: Well, folks. We have reached the end of our journey. Here's where the actors line up and take their bows. If I can think up a plausible sequel, I might be tempted to write one. Anyway, enjoy the final chapter of "The Secret"!
AngelsDaughter – Hello again! Me? Write a book on this story? Hmm…Tempting…Very tempting, but no. I have a few other ideas. ^^
BrianaLFBH – I intended to leave you guessing on whether or not it would end well. Bwahaha. Evil me.
Paradoxal Reality – Flatterer. Flattery will get you everywhere. I'm almost tempted to write a fic for you! ^.- And your stories are pretty cool! I also want to thank you for all your insightful reviews! You always seem to notice stuff that I don't.
Angelfire – Me thinks you should cut back on diabolical laughter. ^^
Arielle – Three…hours…? O.O!!! Wow! I'm flattered!
HazelIris – :::Girly scream. Flees from reviewer with torch and pitchfork.:::
Miss Matched – Heh. I liked how you tacked on your review to the ending of the previous chapter. ^.- And please don't cry!
Disclaimer: As I've said in previous chapters, Arnold and the gang aren't mine. All original characters are. There. I've said it. Moving on…Chapter 17: Lost Innocence and the Jade Heart
A pair of eyes opened slowly, painfully. Though most would have thought the white brilliance surrounding them was the clouds of Heaven, the former sleeper wasn't fooled. In his opinion, he had done enough in the past few days alone to warrant a free trip to Hell.
"Arnold!" Helga's voice called from somewhere to his right.
Blinking slowly, the blond boy turned his football-shaped head to see his friends and extended family seated on the floors and in the chairs of the hospital room/suite he had been placed in. His grandparents rushed to his side, tears flowing from their eyes as relief flooded their souls.
The elderly couple could remember every detail of the horrible sight of their grandson's eyes rolling back in his head and him collapsing to the ground. He had been so still that if it hadn't been for the very slight rise and fall of his chest and the weak beat of his heart, they would have thought him dead.
"You're all right!" Phil cried, hugging his wife and grandson close to him as if letting go would mean losing them forever.
Arnold gave a weak smile that quickly faded. He turned his gaze out the window as he remembered the entire experience: discovery, betrayal, kidnapping, attempted escape, attempted rescue, and…"McMillan is dead."
The entire group froze. No one had dared discuss that little aspect of the whole ordeal even outside of Arnold's room. The former CEO of McMillan Enterprises had died when his already weak heart burst due to complete terror.
"McMillan is dead," Arnold repeated to himself, "and I killed him."
His grandfather hesitated before rubbing his grandson's back, trying and knowing he was failing to reassure Arnold. "The police know the whole thing, Short Man. We had to tell them everything, so everyone's going to know about Empaths soon enough. The police are calling it self-defense." He hesitated before he asked, "How did you know?"
Placing a hand over his heart where a phantom ache still lingered, the boy answered, "I felt him die. I felt his heart explode as if it were mine. I felt his life slip away even as I fell unconscious. And self-defense or not, I still killed him."
Silence passed over the group until Arnold requested in a tiny voice, "May I please be alone?"
Reluctantly, the worried grandparents released their grandson, silently ushering the others out of the room. As soon as the door was closed, they leaned against it, listening for the silent sound of tears flowing out of Arnold's eyes.
In the silence and stillness of the hospital room, Arnold placed his head in his hands and silently wept. He shed the tears he could never cry in front of anyone for he wept not only for McMillan who had let himself fall prey to his own grief-induced madness, not only for Maya who had lost not only her mother but also her father, but also for himself. Invisible blood stained his hands now; blood that no matter how long and hard he scrubbed would still remain.
'In order to stop a monster, I had to become a monster,' some part of Arnold's pain-filled mind realized. 'For a few minutes, I became what I fought. And the worst part is that it was the only way to win.'
And so here he sat, head bowed as the sun set through his window, silent tears flowing in endless rivers from his eyes, knowing that his life could never be the same.
Maya stood facing the private jet, her companion as silent as she was. Neither had anything they could really say at the moment. There was too much to say and not enough to say.
Finally, she spoke, "My uncle is going to be taking over my dad's company soon since Dad willed the position to me and I'm too young to take over McMillan Enterprises." She paused. "There are going to be a lot of changes."
"I'm glad to hear that, Maya," a smooth tenor voice, once completely easy-going but now laced with care, answered. "I'm sure you and your uncle can make your father's company better than it was. He'd be proud of you."
"I'd like to think so." She paused again before she turned to face him. "Why did he go so far, Arnold? Why would he risk civil war?"
This time it was Arnold who paused, carefully considering his answer. "Have you ever heard the phrase 'The road to Hell is paved with good intentions'?" At her nod, he continued, "That happened to your father. I suspect that before he even met your mother, he wanted to improve the quality of Odd life. After your mother's death, his views on reality and his own dream began to twist and distort. In time, all his original dreams became what we almost saw come to life."
The brown-haired girl looked down at the ground. "What's going to happen to you?"
"I should be the one you asking that question."
"I asked first."
He sighed, muttering something about "tricky Odd females," actually forcing a giggle past Maya's lips.
"Believe me, the males are just as tricky. And stubborn to boot." Her features turned grave, aging her face several years before its time. "But if you must know, I'm moving out to Colorado with my uncle. He's going to set up the new McMillan Enterprises Headquarters there. Since we're starting over, he wanted to get it started on the right foot."
"And the workers here?"
"They'll still work here if they wish. This is still McMillan Enterprises Headquarters. Besides, my uncle's going to turn that place into the headquarters for this part of the country. You know, spread out the authority a bit. Make the different sections of the company mostly self-sufficient but still under a main branch's control."
The pair of young Odds watched workers loaded luggage onto the plane. In the week they had known each other, many things had changed. Even their own personalities had been forced to undergo changes. Arnold himself had been hounded by the press for details on Empaths and his Empathic ability. If it hadn't been for Dr. Bliss' offer to give the reporters what they wanted, they might not have left him alone for a long, long time.
"So what's going to happen to you?" Maya finally asked again.
"I'm going back to school, catch up on what I missed, and try not to scare anyone out of their wits simply because I have the ability to kill people with a thought."
"It wasn't your fault," she cut in. "You didn't know he had a weak heart."
"It's still no excuse. I have the feeling that with enough fear, anyone can die of fright. We Empaths manipulate emotions, so technically we can kill without laying a finger on someone." He paused. "Or at least, I can."
At this grim thought, the two fell silent once more. Neither one of them was the child they had once been. Both had come far closer to adulthood than kids their age should have.
"Before I leave, I want to give you something." She reached into her pocket and pulled out a box. "I know guys don't normally wear jewelry, but I thought you might like it."
Opening the box, Arnold saw a jade heart attached to a gold chain. He glanced at her.
"I bought it originally because of the color and I thought we might become something more." She stated this simply, not in the least bit embarrassed. "But times have changed. That heart has a new meaning now. And my feelings have changed. I realize that I built a fantasy of you that I fell in love with. The real Arnold is someone who's just as wonderful but not what I expected, and I love him like a brother."
"And I think of you as a sister, Maya. I'll miss you."
"And I you."
Joe waved to her from the plane. He had already said his good-byes to the blond boy and would be going with Maya to her new home.
Gazing deeply into his once brilliant emerald but now pale jade eyes, she raised her hand in a farewell so ancient that it had been engraved in the very souls of the Odds. Never taught even to younger generations, it was known – like all Odd traditions – as if by instinct. Not a single non-Odd knew this farewell, and no Odd was willing to reveal any of their archaic traditions to a non-Odd. "Farewell, Heartbrother."
He responded in kind. "Farewell, Heartsister."
She did not look back once. She would have no regrets meeting the boy who had turned her life around though she would sorely miss him.
Rhonda and Nadine chattered with a pair of girl Odds on the steps of PS 118. A month had passed since the incident, and things had started to return to normal. Some Odd children even transferred to the school, bringing the Odd count up from one to six. And five of those Odds were busy talking with friends on the steps of the school.
"And then she said – " The cheerful redheaded Odd froze in mid-sentence, her face turning grave and respectful.
The other Odds also fell silent and still, their respectful attention riveted on something else now. Rhonda, Nadine, and the other non-Odd children looked around anxiously, wondering what had struck them silent.
Arnold stepped quietly off the bus, his feet making no sound as they hit the pavement. Five pairs of eyes watched his every movement with utmost reverence. On his head rested his little blue hat. Around his neck lay the jade heart.
Arnold had changed during that time. His smiles became few. When he did smile, they were cautious as if he were afraid if he let himself be content, the universe would strike down whatever had pleased him. Though the reporters mainly backed off now, some still pursued him, constantly reminding him of what he had had to do and forcing those rare smiles to retreat.
He still offered advice to others though he now offered services only an Empath could provide in addition to that advice. Deftly twisting emotions to ease others' pain or help alleviate fear as he soothed them with his words allowed him to help more people than ever before. It took some trusting on the "client's" part in order to let the Level 5 mold their very emotions into something he could work with, but after the first five minutes or so, the person he helped usually relaxed enough for him to work without fighting against that person's distress.
But he knew he held a double-edged sword, an easily abused power that no one could block except another Empath. Cautious about how to use his abilities, he created a very strict set of morals and guidelines for himself. If Arnold could do anything about it, he would not do anything to abuse his power.
Yet not everyone saw things his way. Other people claiming to hold Empathic ability had stepped forward and been revealed as frauds when Arnold had seen right through their lies, but Arnold had promised Dr. Bliss that he would help train any other true Empaths that sought either him or her out.
The Odds followed Arnold with their gaze as he walked up the steps and into the school. Even if most non-Odds would never know it, they knew he had saved their lives. How this information spread among the Odds, only the Odds knew and their lips were sealed. In any case, Arnold was someone to be highly respected and revered.
When the redhead and her brunette friend turned back to Nadine and Rhonda, the rich girl asked, "Why'd you all do that?"
"Because Arnold saved us," the brunette answered simply. "All of us. Therefore, he is the most respected Odd alive."
"He gave up so much, Rhonda," the redhead explained, "and now he has to live with any regrets about how he acted and what he lost. Like gypsies, there are no children among the Odds, just people waiting to be tainted. Arnold is now one of those many tainted, and the least we can do is honor him for his sacrifice."