The library had never been in better repair since we had lived in it. Especially the globe. By the time summer rolled back around, we had patched all its larger holes and most of the smaller ones. We even found the means to convert many of those smaller holes into windows. The work we got done over those months was impressive.
But it was obvious that we could never repair the building enough for a suitable winter stronghold. Not long after we had returned and my brothers had taken a look around, they had shaken their heads sadly. There was entirely no way to fix the cracks in the walls or the holes in the roof. We could make minor, necessary repairs, but the library would never keep us safe during a blizzard.
"However," 15 had pointed out, "our underground burrow has never been the best place to spend a summer, either. Heat is trapped below with us, and there is no circulation. This wide, open library, with all its holes and flaws, is an excellent summer retreat."
"And your underground burrow is the safest place to spend a long winter," I had added, seeing where he was going.
"Then it sounds like we shall be heading back to the north, in the fall," 13 concluded merrily, glad that we would be staying together for the foreseeable future. "And when we do return, we shall be one more strong."
Indeed, we would be. Their progress was a little slower than ours had been, even with the aid of Annuls of Peracelcus; but, over the summer months, we all watched with pride and joy as 13 and 14 built their baby. She was to be nothing extravagant; but to her parents, she was a glorious treasure from the moment they began working on her. It was like watching 0 take shape all over again. And 14 was happy to carry her daughter safely inside her, just like 7 had, uncomplaining and proud.
20 was made of brown calico, the same as her parents. But she was the first Deka to not have black hair. Instead, they found a scrap of yellow fabric in the ruins and carefully stitched it to the top of her head. For her fastening, 7 happily recalled the pink buttons she had found, before we had decided that 0 would be a boy. Her little fingers and toes were made of gleaming brass. Everything about her was brown, pink and gold. Like with 0, she was perfectly precious before she was even alive.
They had chosen the name 20 after several days of consideration. But they decided that the other two small children we had had were round tens, so their baby should be, as well. And so, her name was 20.
It was sometime in early June, we think, that 7 and I led them to the first room to animate her. Before we even went inside, they could feel the pall that loomed over the house.
"This was your home," 13 commented in solemn awe. But to this, 7 shook her head.
"This was never my home," she answered. "It's the place where I was born, and where my children were born, and nothing else."
The Dekas didn't need much more than that to understand. Whatever healthy, understanding relationship they might have had with their creator, we had only a hole where ours should have been. It had been so long since I had thought of him at all—a little more than a year. It was so easy to forget that he had even existed once.
We led them up the stairs in silence. There wasn't much to look at, as always; but it seemed that another layer of dust and dirt formed over everything each time we returned. And 14 weathered the trip remarkably. The marvel of pregnancy hadn't worn her out like it had done to 7. When I pointed this out, they both laughed.
"Everyone's different," 14 remarked sweetly, gently patting her filled out belly.
"I'm glad it's been kinder to her," 7 added. "It was a trouble I would wish on no one else."
These women—they never ceased to impress me. How did they do all these things?
When we reached the fourth floor and headed for the first room, 7 suddenly broke away from us and wandered toward the bedroom across the hall.
"We could probably use the dumbwaiter again, to get back down," she called over her shoulder, and then vanished without another word, leaving me alone to help the Dekas set up the Source and its trappings once again.
I didn't begrudge her that. I didn't really want to touch the things, myself. But I was the one who understood them best, and she dutifully stayed out of it. While I helped them set the contraptions up again, we heard the creaking and groaning of the dumbwaiter across the hall. But 7 didn't return, even long after the noise faded away.
"Will she not join us for this?" 14 asked, concerned.
"No," I answered. "She's seen enough of this to last her whole life."
"Is it that terrible?"
"Yes, but it is worth it," I said with a smile.
It felt nothing but strange, having to stand to the side and watch the Source take their souls—one small fraction from each of them. I had never seen two at the same time, two ribbons of green energy flowing from the eyeholes of the mask, to be pulled into the talisman and projected out the other side as one. There was nothing I could do, or was supposed to do.
At the same time, though, it wasn't like watching the thing kill someone. That had been horrific, heartbreaking. I had thought if felt different when I had done this last year, not like it was trying to take my life entirely. And it hadn't hurt, like I had been sure it would; instead of even tugging or pulling, the Source had led that tiny piece of my soul by the hand.
I had wondered what it might look like… But I had never dreamed I would have to actually see it.
When the thing finished its work and they fainted, I wasn't so worried; I had recalled this, and left a pillow on the floor to catch them. There was nothing I could do to catch them, myself. In the meantime, I cut 20 down from the amplifier myself—my old knife was still where I had left it from last year, when I had done the same with 0.
It felt strange to me, handling her before her parents. What a marvelous doctor I had become…
And so, as well as productive, that summer was as much an adventure as the previous one. With two little ones running around—thick as thieves, as we had hoped they would be—everyone had to be on their toes. But it was a good, happy summer for all of us. Especially, we all noted, for 11. With no trace of the monster that had possessed her for long, she became a marvelous older sister. She surprised even herself when she realized that a kindhearted, attentive and patient person had lain dormant beneath that ugliness, unknown for all that time.
"She's never been so happy," 15 commented. "That thing had held her captive for as long as I've known her; I had given up hope that she could ever change. But now… I barley recognize her anymore. As her uncle, I am unendingly proud."
One morning, as the sun rose over the ruins, we were all woken by an unusual and unexpected sound outside. It was like the singing of… birds? Yes, indeed. The first flock of small songbirds had flown into the city, making themselves right at home, as we had. None of us were as overjoyed by their return as 7 was. She had dreamed of that day for so long. Over a night and a dear, her deepest, dearest wish had suddenly come true.
And surely the birds were only the beginning.
"Where there are birds, there will be cats soon, at least," 4 had pointed out ominously.
And where there are cats, there will be dogs to chase after them," 3 continued. "They love to chase cats."
"And where there are dogs and cats, there are sure to humans to catch them eventually."
To all this, 7 huffed indignantly. "No cat is catching any of these birds on my watch. I won't allow it."
Anyway, the day that any humans wandered into these treacherous ruins was probably a long way off. Maybe even years, still. But that suited us perfectly. The city would be ours to rule over for a long time to come.
When the seasons began to change from blazing hot summer back into fall, we moved back to the north early. The Dekas were anxious to see that we were prepared for winter, when it came. It took them all the time they could get to make sure they were ready, when the blizzards blew in every year. And 20 had never before seen the burrow where her brother and sister had grown up. But she had never weathered a winter like the rest of us had, and didn't understand why we were leaving the only home she knew she had.
"Why do we have to leave?" she insisted as we walked back. "I like our home just fine!"
"You wouldn't like it when the winter storms roll in," 13 explained to her. "We all love our home in the library, but it isn't a safe place to be during a blizzard. Your uncle, aunt and cousins will all tell you that."
"That's right," 0 chimed in. "Snow is icky! I hate it! It's cold and wet, and it makes mama cry!"
"Don't frighten her, baby," 7 said quickly, changing the subject. "When it snows again, 20 will decide for herself."
"But it's true, mama. You cried and cried all the time. You hated it, too."
"Maybe, it won't be so bad this year," she insisted, silently imploring him to stop focusing on how much she had cried that winter. "And remember, we say 'as well', not 'too'. It's irreverent as well confusing."
We had all changed a lot. But there were still some things we Primes simply weren't ready to move past yet. We had explained it to the Dekas before, and they understood plainly. There were still a few things in their own history they couldn't put aside yet, either. Perhaps only time and more adventures could cure that. Perhaps they could never be cured at all.
0 and 20 couldn't understand this. These silly-sounding but sensitive spots had become a part of who we were. They had shaped the way we lived our lives every day. But we had been there to see those terrible things happen. We wouldn't have wished our little ones to be a part of any of that, but they would never understand why we did some things the way we did, out of pains that might never mend.
Bless their small hearts, they tried to figure it out. Whenever an opportunity arose and they asked hard questions, there was never a particularly gentle, easy way to explain it. How was I born? What was it like? What else do those buttons do? Where are the missing numbers? What happens to your soul when it dies? Will you have to die? Will mum have to die? Will I have to die? When? How? Tell me! I wanna know!
They are so very small, and they will never get bigger than they are. No matter how many questions they ask and how many answers we give them, they will probably never understand. And frankly, we don't mind. 0 and 20 will remain young and innocent forever, the way we made them to be. No matter what else may change, they, at least, will remain the same. At the end of the day, all they need to know is that they always have us to guide and protect them from danger, and to love them.
They don't need to understand what it means to love someone like we love them. All they know is that we do, and that they love us, as well. They've said themselves they don't know why they love us so much—they just do. They are so full of love; it comes so naturally to them. We can't ruin it by trying to explain how complicated it really is. Maybe we need more people who just act on it, instead of understanding it.
The year drew to a close once again, as it always did, and the world was blanketed in another ocean of snow. But this time, we were all safe in our new winter home. Yes, the burrow was more crowded than ever before; but we preferred thinking of it as cozy. With so many of us so close together, it was never cold inside for a second. After the disaster that had been the last winter, even 7 didn't mind the limited space. Cabin fever still got the better of her sometimes, forcing her out into the snow; but she found that she didn't mind it so much, in moderation.
"It is almost pretty, this way," she commented one day when she came back in. "Only five minutes at a time, though. It is not my favorite thing in the world."
One night, I was putting my own three children to bed—in the room that was once 10's, but was now definitely theirs. Though 0 and 4 were asleep in a few seconds, 3 stopped me suddenly before I turned out the light.
"This winter is a lot better than the last one, huh, papa?"
"I can't begin to say," I agreed.
"I just thought of something," he continued. "There's this story I remember from a long time ago; 2 read it to us, out of a Bible in the church."
"Oh really?" I asked, amused that he was telling me a bedtime story, for a change.
"There was a father who had two sons that he loved very much. But the younger son ran away and made a mess of his whole life, and nearly died because of his mistakes. Even though he knew his father would never forgive him, he decided to return home. He knew that he wasn't worthy to be anyone's son; but he thought maybe his father might hire him, and he'd at least have a job and a healthy life again."
"So what happened when the son went home?"
3 smiled. "His father saw him coming from a long way off, and ran to meet him. The son begged forgiveness, but he didn't really expect it… But his father welcomed him home. He even threw a party to celebrate his return! The lost son was a part of the family again."
"That is a wonderful story."
"There's a little more, though," he went on, his face falling a little. "There was an older son, remember? He had stayed faithfully with their father all that time. And when he came home and found out that his brother had returned, and their father had thrown a big party for him, the older son was mad."
"Because his brother had behaved so badly, and made so many mistakes, and their father had rewarded him for coming back. But the older son had stayed, and been so good and worked so hard, and his father had never celebrated his work like that before. The older son was really angry about that."
"What did their father say about that?"
"That it was right to celebrate the younger son's return. He had been lost; but then he saw that all the things he had done were wrong. And instead of giving up hope, he came home and asked forgiveness."
"It takes a lot of courage to do something like that. I think we should celebrate the things we've lost and found again, maybe more than the things we already have."
"We're kinda like that father and son, aren't we, papa?"
"We sure are, son," I agreed, patting his head. "We sure are."
"Do you think that 4 was ever mad at me, like the older brother who stayed with his father?"
"No," I answered, shaking my head. "She was just as happy to see you safe as the rest of us were. She was never mad at you like that. She missed you so much, and she worried about you all the time; she could barely speak, all that time you were gone. The older brother surely missed his lost brother, just the same. When we lose something precious, we always hope we'll find it again."
He smiled again, and yawned. "I love you, papa."
"And I love you, son," I answered, leaning over and kissing his forehead. "Now go on to sleep, and dream of the springtime."
"And cats," he added, shutting his eyes. "I've always liked cats…"
And in seconds, he was fast asleep, most assuredly dreaming of cats. He had always dreamed pleasantly, and in color, no matter what might have been going on in his waking life. No monster would keep him down, now. It didn't dare come back, while I was there to guard him. I walked out, turning off the lights, leaving my children with their dreams.
I walked quietly down the hall to my own room—and old storage room that 7 and I had cleaned out and claimed for ourselves. She was already in bed, waiting for me; when I climbed under the blanket, she snuggled up safely beside me.
"Any plans for the spring?" she asked sleepily, only half awake.
"Not really," I answered, wrapping my arms around her. "There's still plenty to do. As long as we're all together, I'm sure we'll stay busy."
"We'll figure it out, then," she mumbled into my shoulder. "We always do."
"We will, my love," I agreed, hugging her close. "We certainly will."
And here we are, about six months from where we started, and another epic is complete! I've never wrapped one up so fast!
A particular thank you to the following peeps, who followed me every step of the way:
Barn Owl Girl—my number one fan, an excellent addition to the fandom, and always a most cheery presence in my life. For more fun, check out her epics, 10, Seven Days, and her work-in-progress, Deception. All are terrific!
PoppyECM.6-13—the apparent ringleader of my British groupies, a delightfully manic young lady. We need more spirits like hers in the world in general. She and her gang are a ton of fun; they have a C2 community, a collection of the fandom's silly oneshots. Check it out!
Thomas Holmes II—my brother in Christ, and a highly intellectual young man. Our discussions on Christian symbolism as seen in 9—and in this very fic—are worthy of publication, I believe. He has a 9/Sonic the Hedgehog crossover in the works, which I can't wait to read.
MoonPhantom9—kinda lost them, at some point… Notorious for leaving great reviews. I miss seeing them in my inbox. :'(
And also, thank you to the 500-plus folks around the world have been following this story so faithfully. I decided to check the traffic stats on this story, and WOW WAS I AMAZED!
YOU LIKE ME! YOU REALLY, REALLY LIKE ME! 8D
To commemorate the completion of Prodigal, I have officially opened up anonymous reviews to all the folks who would like to review, but are unable to because I've had the option locked up. There are so many of you have clearly enjoyed this story—it would be wasteful to leave your comments unheard.
Leave your comments, flames, and praises if you will. I look forward to reading them all! Thank you, thank you, everyone!
—Freida L. Right