Sometimes Icarus worried about his younger cousin Idris, who had always been quiet and withdrawn, but even more so after his sister's most recent prank.
So when an outbreak of simfluenza at school incapacitated most members of Icarus' Burrows&Beasts group and their weekly game session was about to be cancelled, Icarus invited Idris to join him and Ralph at the comic book store above the arcade.
Ralph, the ever prepared game master, had an easy campaign and a few basic characters ready for situations just like this one.
What they hadn't expected, however, was that cheerleading practice was also cancelled that day due to that very same outbreak of simfluenza, and so Ivy had tagged along too.
Idris had taken on the form of Gruuk, an orc bard, well versed both in the art of combat and conversation.
After Gruuk had delivered the final blow in their last encounter and Ralph's kind encouragement, Idris was really growing into his role and listened raptly as Ralph delivered some more exposition.
"As you walk up to the wizened old man you just saved from the wolves, he spreads his arms in greeting and smiles at you." At this point, Ralph broke into a deep theatrical voice as he took on the persona of the old man. "'Brave adventurers, I owe you my life, which is a debt I can never hope to repay. Let me, however, attempt to aid your journey by sharing with you secret knowledge I have guarded for many decades. I am weary of my task of guarding this secret and shall pass it on to you... All I ask is that you take an oath to keep it to yourselves, as this knowledge is not only secret, but dangerous!'" Ralph cleared his throat and continued with his normal speaking voice again, "So, what do you do?"
Icarus stayed true to the character of his elf paladin, keeping his face solemn as he raised a hand to his heart and bowed his head. "I swear, wise one."
Next up was Idris' turn. "I swear," he squeaked, barely able to contain his excitement.
And then Ivy, the rogue.
“Okay, I stab the guy in the face,” she said.
“You what?!” Icarus was outraged. “Why would you do that?”
Ivy shrugged. "What? I thought you could do whatever you wanted in this game.”
Icarus turned to Ralph. "Well, aren't you going to make her roll for it?"
Ralph, obviously dumbfounded, mumbled, "No point. She's got 20 dexterity."
"And the enchanted daggers of Insta-Killening," Ivy reminded them.
"I should have never allowed that." Ralph sighed, rifled through his notes and finally dug his fingers into his mop of hair, defeated. "The old man was a key part of the quest... I can rewrite things, but it'll take a while."
Icarus groaned. "Great job, Ivy."
“Whatever. This game is lame anyway and it stinks like nerd sweat in here. I know a more exciting place we could go.” Ivy gazed conspiratorially at each boy in turn. “Unless you guys are scared.”
Ralph glanced at his watch. "I've got to get going. Might as well get a head start on my homework."
Ivy scoffed. "Maybe now he'll think of something less lame to spend his time on. So? Do you want to see the place?”
Playing Burrows&Beasts had been the entirety of Icarus' afternoon plans. He threw up his hands in defeat. "My schedule's wide open."
“Great!” Ivy looked excited. “Let’s go!”
They’d arrived at a plain looking building, distinguishable as a bar only by the weathered sign hung on the second floor of the ramshackle structure. Devil’s Crossroads Saloon, it read. All in all, not the most inviting of places.
But before Icarus could protest, Ivy had strutted up to the rickety building and through the saloon doors, Idris on her heels.
If such a thing was even possible, the place looked even worse inside than it did from the outside. The creaky floor was strewn with sawdust, presumably to soak up spilled drinks, and—judging by the smell—vomit.
The patrons seemed just as rough as the bar itself. A burly man in a leather jacket was hurling darts at a dartboard with so much force that the wooden planks of the wall rattled with each impact. Another man, wearing a similar jacket, was perched on a bar stool and turned to scowl at the newcomers.
Ivy seemed unperturbed by all of this as she strutted up to the bartender and chirped, “Grandma Sherry, long time no see!”
Icarus gaped. He’d heard his aunt mention Ivy’s paternal grandmother on a few occasions—mainly to say that she wasn’t invited to family gatherings—but he’d never actually seen her. At first glance the grumpy woman behind the bar looked much too young to be anyone’s grandmother, but upon closer inspection, her deeply lined face and gray roots betrayed the image her heavy makeup and revealing attire were supposed to portray.
“What the hell are ya doing here, girl? This ain’t no place for kids,” Sherry Gibson chided. And then, in a quieter hiss, she added, “An’ I told ya not to call me that.”
Ivy raised an eyebrow and smirked. “My bad, Sherry,” she intoned, making the absence of the word grandma ring loud and clear. ”We were just looking for someone who apparently hangs out here, so I thought you might be able to help…”
“I ain’t helpin ya with nuthin’, kid. Does yer dad even know where—“
But before Sherry could finish her question, Ivy had spotted something and sped off, closely followed by Idris. Icarus lurched after them, intending to get them to leave as quickly as possible, but he stopped in his tracks when he saw who Ivy was headed for.
The man was tall and bore a lazy stubble on his angular face, but the similarity was unmistakable. Evidently Idris saw it too, because he was gawking at the man like he’d seen a ghost.
The stranger with the familiar face raised both his hands when Ivy approached him. “Hey, you’re cute and all, but I don’t go for jailbait, darlin’.”
“What? Ew!” Ivy wrinkled her nose. “No, listen, I need to ask you something. Does the name Huxley Mason ring a bell? Because…”
Engrossed in her one-sided conversation, Ivy did not see her grandmother behind her, talking on the phone with obvious agitation.
Icarus did notice, however, and he had a pretty good idea who she was calling. His mind was racing frantically, trying to work out what to do. Ivy wasn’t likely to listen to a polite request to leave, but Icarus could just grab her arm and drag her outside… though if Icarus was perfectly honest, he wasn’t sure he’d be able to. Ivy's frame was deceptively lean, but her rigorous exercise routine meant she was all muscle. Another option was to just take Idris and leave, but Icarus was loathe to leave Ivy alone with all these strange men.
Icarus had just made up his mind to try and reason with Ivy, when the doors behind them swung open so violently that they hit the walls with a loud thud.
Theo and Huxley had to have been in the area, because they appeared mere minutes after Sherry’s phone call.
“Ivy!” Huxley was furious. She leapt between her daughter and the man in the leather jacket like a tigress protecting her cub. “What the hell do you think you’re doing here?”
“I was just—“
“Out! Now!” Huxley watched Ivy scamper off, then turned her fury on the man. “And you! Stay the hell away form my children!”
At this, realization finally dawned on the man’s face. “Wait, these brats are yours? So that’s what the girl was talking about… shit, I should've known, that girl's sass is just like you. You’re saying they’re all mine?”
“What, are you stupid? Of course not,” Huxley fumed. Then she paused and chewed on her lip before quietly adding, “Only the youngest.”
The man gave Idris one glance, scoffed and turned back to Huxley. “You can say what you want, sweet cheeks, but if you’re here to squeeze me for child support, get in line. I got nothing to do with you or your brood and if you’re hurting for cash, it’s your fault you decided to keep the brat.”
That was the last Icarus and Idris heard of that conversation, because at this point, Theo dragged them outside where they joined a defiant looking Ivy.
Then she made her way upstairs to talk to Idris, who had quietly retreated to his sleeping nook.
Huxley sat on the bed beside him. “Hey buddy, are you alright?”
Idris shrugged and kept his gaze on his feet. “So that man... was my daddy?”
Huxley let out a long exhale. “Yes. I’m sorry, sweetie. I know I shouldn’t have kept it from you, but…” She sighed again. “I really didn’t want you to find out like this.”
“Do I have to go spend afternoons with him now like Ivy does with Theo?”
“No, of course not, sweetie. You never have to see him again, promise.”
“Because he doesn’t want to be my daddy, right?”
Huxley bit her lip, but she had kept the truth from Idris for far too long already. She wasn’t about to start lying to him now. “Right.”
Idris was silent for a moment, cradling his feet in his hands as he rocked back and forth slowly. Then, in a whisper, he asked, “Do you still want to be my mommy?”
Huxley gasped and almost choked on her next words. “More than anything in the world, sweetie!”
Finally, Idris made eye contact. “Then everything is alright,” he smiled.
"It's funny," Grace told Huxley, with an expression that said it was anything but, "Adam always joked about my paintings...he was kind about it, but I know he thought they were terrible. And now that I'm actually good at it, I keep wanting to call Adam to show him... but he's not here."
Huxley gave a sad smile, remembering Grace's early attempts at painting and Adam's good-natured jokes about them. Grace's paintings had certainly come a long way from the days of gems such as Our Home On Fire and The One-Eyed Bunny.
"It's tough, losing your loved ones," Grace continued, "especially the one you swore to spend your life with." She paused to wipe a tear from the corner of her eye. "Please look after your little sister, alright? She's in so much pain."
Adam may not have been around to admire Grace's new paintings, but his former presence was felt all around the house.
His carefully cultivated veggie garden was still growing strong.
With Grace getting on in years and physically unable to tend to a garden this large, she was incredibly grateful that Huxley had taken it upon herself to keep her stepfather's memory alive.
It had taken a long time, but Grace and Huxley's once frayed relationship had finally smoothed out.
Unlike Ivy, who had been grounded “indefinitely” by Huxley, Icarus had gotten off with just a few additional household chores, which he accepted without complaint. The added chores still left him enough time to spend afternoons with friends, or, increasingly, on dates with Annie.
Icarus had never even dreamed of bringing a date to the arcade, but Annie loved it just as much as he did.
She beat Icarus at just about every game they played, which was perhaps partially due to the fact that Icarus couldn't take his eyes off her.
He couldn't help himself! She was just too cute when she really got into a game.
"I thought you were a gamer," she teased playfully after beating him at yet another round of Spacebloopers.
"I guess I was distracted," he admitted with a grin that left no doubt as to what he was referring to. Annie's cheeks flushed prettily.
While some chose to spend the sunny afternoon indoors, Huxley, Grace and Idris made use of the good weather by playing a few rounds of sim gnubb in the back yard.
Huxley kept a close eye on her son after the incident at the biker bar, looking out for any signs of trauma from his recent misadventure. As it turned out, however, the one she should have been worrying about was her elderly mother.
Grace had just been preparing a throw when her arm suddenly went slack and the baton tumbled to the ground.
“Mom? What’s—“ Huxley’s question was cut off by a gasp when Grace’s knees gave out and she followed the baton to the ground.
There was nothing that could be done. Old age had claimed Grace, and she welcomed the reaper with open arms.
“Take me to him,” she said.