#RainbowSnippets: Stealing Myself From Shadows

Welcome to Rainbow Snippets!

Every Saturday or Sunday those participating post and share six sentences of LGBTQIA+ fiction on their blogs. It can be their own. It can be someone else’s. It just needs to be LGBTQIA+.

To sample different LGBTQIA+ stories, go to…

https://www.facebook.com/groups/RainbowSnippets

For my own, Christopher enters the Navel, once again noticing how different this place is than the Shadow Forest in Stealing Myself From Shadows

 

I crossed the threshold, spotting the wind chimes dangling on the other side of the door. A memory of similar hollow cylinders hanging like flowers tinkled in time for a moment. 

    I blinked, enjoying the sound, allowing my eyes to adjust to the darkness. For a moment I thought the shadows of the store would overwhelm me, but I was no longer on the other side. The darkness was no longer alive and hungry. It was simply an absence of light.

     Damian touched my shoulder, guiding me away from a shelf I was about to walk into. Even in natural darkness, he gleamed, his fair skin providing a little illumination. Did he appear like this to everyone or just me?

Like my style of writing? Want to read more? Here is a link to my published works…

http://www.amazon.com/author/kstrenten

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#RainbowSnippets: Stealing Myself From Shadows

Welcome to Rainbow Snippets!

Every Saturday or Sunday those participating post and share six sentences of LGBTQIA+ fiction on their blogs. It can be their own. It can be someone else’s. It just needs to be LGBTQIA+.

To sample other LGBTQIA+ stories, go to…

https://www.facebook.com/groups/RainbowSnippets

The holidays are over and I’m not feeling remotely festive. Not with all the cat concerns I’m facing in real life. Time to open a Door and escape into the Shadow Forest in Stealing Myself From Shadows. Only it’s not the Shadow Forest Christopher is in, but Omphalos. And now he’s face to face with the Navel, the odd shop on the main road through Omphalos…

  This shop had a dusty window, displaying a skull and a deck of cards lying on a bed of purple velvet. 

    The skull caught my eye before the sign. Weathered and in need of painting, it took me a moment before I saw the image of a rounded stomach and a belly button.

    “The Navel.” I felt my face color. The mysterious Gabrielle, soon to be my mother, had a sense of humor.

#QueerBlogWed: Tales of the Navel

On July 20, 2022, P.T. Wyant posted at ptwyant.com a Wednesday Words prompt. It involved a barrette, a wave, and a note.

This Tale of the Navel was the result…

The moment my fingers touched the barette, I saw the wave. 

I met her eyes for a moment. We both felt the force of the water lifting us up off our feet, making us part of its cresting power. Making us one. 

How could I have forgotten? All that stood out in my memories was the note left behind. 

I’m leaving. I’m sorry. 

Tears filled my eyes when I met those of the Navel’s proprietor. There was no condemnation in hers. Only compassion. 

“This is more than just a barette.” I clutched the small hair piece in my hand as if it was a treasure. 

For me, it was. I’d forgotten the wave until I touched this innocuous hair piece she’d once worn. She’d lost it at the beach. Perhaps in the very wave which caught us. 

“That barette is why you’re here.” Gabrielle’s voice was very gentle. “You were drawn to our door, searching for something you’d lost. Something you needed to remember.”

“How much?” I swallowed the lump rising in my throat, steadied my voice. “What’s the price for this?”

“You’ve already paid it.” There was no censure in this woman who hid her beauty and gravity behind a fishnet veil of smiley faces. “Haven’t you?”

Again my throat constricted. If only I could have taken my note back along with all my stupid words. 

“Yeah.” I got the impression that Gabrielle’s veil was something silly she had thrown up between herself and her customers to shield them from the light and power shining with her. Like a visor to shield us from the sun. “Yeah.”

She advanced to close her arms around me right when I began to sob. 

I’d wanted to forget the good times, to forget the wave. To convince myself I was better off without my long lost love. I’d succeeded. 

I never thought I’d miss those memories. I never thought it would hurt so much to get them back. 

I held onto Gabrielle, feeling more whole than I’d been in too long, unable to stop bawling. 

She just stood and held me. 

#QueerBlogWed: A Moment of Crossover

Quartz is getting impatient. He’s tired of being trapped in a crystal coffin, in a sleeping curse. He’s tired of his own story, Of Cuckoo Clocks and Crystal Coffins being put on hold while I’m concentrating on Stealing Myself From Shadows.

So when one of his favorite people in the real world posted a Wednesday Words prompt at ptwyant.com involving an origami star, a sheep, and windchimes, he decided to take over. Never mind the wind chimes at the Navel and Gabrielle’s greeting crawling their way into his cursed sleep…

Someone was folding paper into a star. Huh, pretty. Imagine being able to do that. A light shone inside. Maybe they’d put it in the sky. It would lead a bunch of star-struck worshippers to their true queen. 

Right. Only in dreams. 

Windchimes tinkled. A sheep bleated. Someone greeted me in one of those loud, ridiculously cheerful voices. “Welcome to the Navel, center of all things bizarre!” 

“Urgh, shaddap,” I growled, realized I was moving my lips. “Can’t a cursed dwarf sleep in peace? Like there’s anything bizarre about contemplating your navel.”

“Ah, the navel is the center of a person’s being. Therefore the center of the world.” The voice changed, becoming higher. More sing-song. Even more irritating. All too familiar. “Therefore if a person is important to you, their navel is the center of your world.”

“Right. Just what I need to get up. Ruddy romantic philosophy.” I opened one eye, my vision filled with the wrinkled, beaming face of kobold. “Why can’t you return use of my limbs instead, eh?”

“Peace, my darling demented dwarf.” Nimmie Not, my own personal demon reached out with impossibly long, bony fingers to tweak my nose. “To be honest, to claim to be the center of all things bizarre is unsufferable arrogance on the part of a wayward direction, but we can all make whatever nonsense we wish to out of it.”

“Nonsense being one of your favorite things.” I glowered at him, accutely aware of my sore back from lying too long on this crystal. “Forcing me to lie through yours is another.”

“Ouch! You wound me!” He clutched his chest, swaying above me, making me aware he was above me, on the other side of the crystal. 

The nose tweaking, it had been close, close enough to tickle like a mad will’o’wisp, but his fingers couldn’t touch me. Nimmie Not was outside my coffin, clear enough to see, kept away by rock. 

“So sad, so close, so far.” Nimmie Not sniffed the air. “I smell roses and briars. Her scent still clings to you.”

“She scattered flowers over me before she left.” Where had they gone. Maybe they’d been magical flowers, disappearing when my Fairest had. “Haven’t seen her. Haven’t been awake.”

“No, only dreaming the dreams of the perpetually grumpy.” Nimmie Not let out a sigh. “Your brothers miss you. Poor Garnet has torn out his beard.”

“I kept telling him not to, the silly lad.” I sighed, stared at the crystal. “And how is she?”

“She? What she are we speaking of?” Nimmie Not let out a sniff. “There are entirely too many princesses and witches wandering this Forest of Tears. I lose track of them all.”

“You know who.” I wasn’t moving my lips. Somehow I was talking. Somehow Nimmie Not was hearing. “How is she?”

“She? She has found a princess of her own to torment and curse.” The kobold let out another sniff, looking down his long nose at me. “She’s been having entirely too much fun with her victim to think about you.”

Aw, shards. Here’s hoping Nimmie Not was telling tall tales again. Alas, there was usually some truth in them. “Sounds like she’s happy.”

“How unhappy you sound when you say that.” The little man scowled, tapped his long fingers against the coffin. “Really, Quartz. When are you going to stop worrying about her? It’s not like she’s your actual daughter.”

“Yes.” Shards, the sadness welled up like a vein of silver uncovered. Why was it somehow beautiful? “She’s my daughter as much as she’s anybody’s. You don’t stop worrying about someone just because they’re not worried about you.”

“No.” Reproach filled his voice, brimmed in his bright black eyes as he fixed them upon me. “No, you don’t Quartz.”

If I could move, I might have flinched. There was no missing that double-meaning. 

“If you’re worried, get me out of here.” It was as close as I came to pleading with him. 

“I told you.” He crossed his arms, gazing at me with that reproachful face. “Breaking that curse and getting up is up to you.”

I snorted, even if it was just in my own mind. I didn’t believe him. Who would? 

From the first time I’d met him, he’d been full of mischief and tricks. Trying to convince me I was a Person of Importance. At least to him. 

Right. As if I’d ever believe that. 

Never mind a fool part of me wanted to. 

Conversations with Christopher: Gabrielle

The room is bigger than Christopher would have thought, looking up at the Navel from outside; a cottage with a shingled, slanted roof, vine-covered walls, and clear glass windows. 

He’s not outside. He’s sitting at a table in a room above the shop, listening to the rain tapping on the roof. 

Gabrielle sits nearby, golden loose, falling free over a dark blue robe covered with tiny smiley faces. She cradles a cup of tea in her hands, steaming rising from its surface. She watches the rain drops slide down the glass, leaving a trail which is splattered by a second drop and a third. All making their mark against the surface. 

Gabrielle: Yes, it will make its mark against the glass along with dirt and dust, yet the rain washes everything away. Leaving everything cleaner except for this window. 

Christopher: Omphalos is clean. Cleaner than many places I remember. I could almost believe we’re safe, having a roof over our heads. Watching all this rain come down without being soaked by its wet embrace, its damp kisses. 

Gabrielle: (smiling a little) Watching yet somehow apart. In the middle of the rain yet untouched by it. 

Christopher: (feeling a bit stung) Isn’t that why we do in the Navel? Watch our customers, remaining apart from them? 

Gabrielle: Is it?

Christopher: People come into your shop. We guide them to whatever they need. Once they have it, they leave. We may never see them again. Unless they come back, unsatisfied, wanting something else. Or the same something, again and again.

Gabrielle: Actually there’s only one regular customer like that. 

Christopher: I know. Hebe keeps asking for cup after cup. Only to smash it and come back for another. It annoyed Damian to no end. 

Gabrielle: And you think we’re untouched by this? Finding our customers what they want, guiding them to something they didn’t even realize they needed? Helping them in a way they cannot help themselves?

Christopher: No. (He releases a breath.) I suppose these were Damian’s doubts. Not mine. 

Gabrielle turns her attention from the window to fix her vivid blue eyes upon him. She lifts the cup in her hand.

Gabrielle: I don’t really need this tea. At some point I’ll have to look for a toilet, a privy, or a convenient hole, and pee a lot of this out. That’s part of life. Right now the cup is warm in my hands, warming my cheeks, soothing my stomach. It tastes sweet, giving off a flowery scent which clears my head. I’m enjoying it even if I have to pee later. 

Christopher: What do you mean?

Gabrielle: How valuable your time is in the Navel is up to you, Christopher. Damian thought he was wasting his here. Do you?

Christopher gazes at her smooth face, the smile playing at the corner of her generous mouth. 

Christopher: I may pay for this later. (The truth slips from his lips without thought.) I worry that you’ll pay for it, too, having a creature like me around. I worry that Damian is already paying for it. For bringing me into this life. I love it, though. I love being alive. I love walking through Omphalos, looking up at the sky, not worrying about what will swoop down from above because I allowed myself to daydream. I love being here, sititng here with you. (He ducks his head, feeling a little shy.) I love being your son. 

Gabrielle puts the cup down. She reaches for his hand. Hers is warm from the tea cup, her fingers strong. 

Gabrielle: If you love these things, it’s worth whatever price you…we…will pay for it. 

The two of them fall silent, listening to the rain fall. 

Like my style of writing? Want to read more? At my Amazon Author Page, here are all of my published works available for purchase…

http://www.amazon.com/author/kstrenten

Wednesday Words: Tales of the Navel

On March 9, 2022, P.T. Wyant posted a Wednesday Words prompt at ptwyant.com. It involved a delivery package, water, and nosy neighbors.

This made Madam Journey to stop by with her cart to deliver a package to the Navel…and collide with Juno.

There’s something to be said for moving. You keep moving. You don’t have to stay and deal with noisy neighbors. 

Don’t envy ‘Brie, having to live with a neighbor like Juno. Got a reflected storm in those eyes of hers, a sharp beak in that chirrupy voice, pecking and pecking. Ready to draw blood, scratch whatever you’re hiding out of you. 

She’s still a customer. Not that I work at the Navel. Not exactly, but I work with ‘Brie. I bring her deliveries. I’m just as glad that Juno doesn’t notice me when I do. 

“Oh, why if it isn’t the Wandering Madam!” She tittered behind a thick hand covered with rings. Meant to dazzle the eye, those gems sparkling from each finger. Made it hard to look at any one of them. “Just what are you bringing our darling ‘Brie in that quaint cart of yours?”

“Madam Journey,” I said with a short nod. Not that it was my true name. Wasn’t about to give to just anybody. Especially not greedy goddesses like Juno. Even if she was now just a nosy neighbor. 

Nosy neighbors could be trouble. Nosy neighbors in Omphalos were too often spies. 

“Just a package.” I held the wrapped parcel, not willing to give it to Juno. She wasn’t the right one for it. “The usual.”

“Is that so?” Juno tittered again, eyes daring from myself to the cart. “Nothing is ever usual at the Navel, is it, dear? ‘Brie herself claims it’s the center of all things bizarre, but what’s bizarre can become commonplace on a regular basis, don’t you think?

“Depends on the bizarre.” Not much of an answer. Juno didn’t need one. “Bizarre may be the people as much as the packages here.”

“Too true.” 

Speak of the bizarre. Juno’s daughter stood in the shop. How quiet she must have been, lurking behind one of the shelves. Almost as good as that beautiful monster ‘Brie kept around the Navel, passing off him as her son. 

Hebe stared at the package with a pinched, hungry face. She had the same watery gray eyes as her mum.

“That’s for me.” There was no question in her voice. She reached out for it with trembling hands. 

Too bad she was right. 

I unwrapped the parcel, revealing a cup which was almost a bowl. A youth appeared in onyx and black along the side. He himself offered a basin to someone unseen. 

“Every time you passed the cup to my father, I imagined you were passing it to me,” she muttered, almost too low for me to hear. Not that she was talking to me. “You took everything, yet I couldn’t bring myself to hate you. No matter how much you haunt me.” 

With slow reverence, she leaned forward to kiss the figure upon the side. 

“Hebe!” Her mother made a strangled sound in her throat, hand clutching at her chest. “Why? Why are you here? Must you claim another cup?”

“Yes.” Hebe held the cup with especial tenderness in her hands. “Don’t worry. It won’t last. They never do.”

She turned with her prize and strode out of the Navel.

“It does her no good!” Juno turned upon me with sudden fury. “Why must you continue giving her these trinkets that remind her of what she’s lost? Why feed her madness?”

I shook my head real slow, left and right. “I don’t know myself. Why don’t you ask her? I’m just making a delivery.”

Most of the time, it’s a good thing. Something someone needs. Something they’ve lost. Treasure pretending to be trash.

Sometimes it’s trash pretending to be treasure. Just trying telling that to someone who looks with eyes filled with angry worship. 

They’ve got to figure it out for themselves. When to stop collecting trash. 

You’d never know it, looking at me, a baggy woman pushing a cart that seems to be full of trash. The truth is, I gave up collecting trash a long time ago. 

Not that anyone believes it. Too many folks put too much stock in appearances.

You got to look deeper. Even if you do, it may not stop you from collecting trash. Not if you don’t understand the real reason why. 

Only Hebe could figure it out. 

Her mother glowered at me, maybe thinking of all the nasty things she might have done to me if she was still a goddess, sitting on high in the heavens. 

Good thing she wasn’t. Not that I couldn’t have handled her, but I don’t go looking for trouble. Just things people have lost or are looking for. 

I nodded at Juno and made my way to the exit. 

#RainbowSnippets: Stealing Myself From Shadows

Welcome to Rainbow Snippets!

Every Saturday or Sunday, those participating post and share six sentences of LGBTQIA+ fiction on our blogs. It can be our own. It can be someone else’s. It just needs to be LGBTQIA+.

To sample different writers’s snippets, go to…

https://www.facebook.com/groups/RainbowSnippets

For my own, here’s another taste of the shape changing serpent I’m wrestling with, err, Work In Progress, Stealing Myself From Shadows…

 I shivered at the hand. I cringed away from those slender fingers. 

    “It’s all right.” The young man’s voice was soft, husky with reassurance. It sent a tingle down my back, reminding me that I had a back, a body. “This is your rebirth, Christopher.”

#QueerBlogWed: Tales of the Navel

I couldn’t remember if it was a love potion gone wrong or a love patron which was part of P.T. Wyant’s Wednesday Words prompt. Along with a snowstorm and a marble on February 16, 2022 at ptwyant.com.

I decided to do both. If there’s any place you can find both, it’s at the Navel…

I’d never seen snow before.

A spiral of snow flakes spun around the head of the slender individual who entered the Navel. 

The narrow spaces of the shop widened. Were they trying to accomodate our customer?

“Welcome to the Navel.” I could never manage my mother’s boisterous tone or Damian’s dazzling smile. My greetings always felt subdued as if I wasn’t sure if I was welcoming or not. 

The visitor took no mind. “Thank you. I’m looking for a love potion or perhaps a love patron? My beloved is giving me trouble.” 

Not a snowflake touched the ground. They continued to spiral around the visitor’s head like a spinning veil. A veil of snowflakes, how bizarre. 

Appropriate for the center of all things bizarre, something ‘Brie constantly claimed the Navel was. She was going to be seriously envious of that veil.

“A love potion or a love patron?” I was intrigued. “What’s a love patron?”

“Oh, I suppose it’s someone or something which empowers lovers.” The customer waved their arms out of billowy sleeves worthy of an arachnocratic lady, but this was no arachnocrat. This individual was far more androgynous, gazing with a remote expression at something which wasn’t there with stormy silvery eyes out of a dusky golden face. Their eyes reminded me of Juno’s or Hebe’s. “Rekindling old passions by patronizing time and intimacy lovers have allowed to slip away, but a potion might do the same.” 

“I’ll see what I can find.” Yes, this was bizarre, but bizarre was the Navel’s specialty. If this customer was here, something was waiting for them. I just needed to find it for them.

I turned around to find a boy my age standing there, a boy with lustrous dark eyes and a mop of glossy black hair. His short tunic reminded me of the attire in the Gardens of Arachne, but he wore a wreath of leaves, not flowers. 

In his hands, he carried a bottle filled with greenish-yellow liquid. 

“Um, hello,” I said, trying not to jump. I hadn’t heard him come up behind me.

“Hello.” He smiled, lowering his dark eyelashes. “The customer wished for me. I came. Take me to them.”

Too surprised to argue, I accepted his offered hand. 

Objects often came and went as they wished, responding to a customer. This was the first time a person actually appeared.

Hand and hand, we moved over the customer with snowflakes falling over their head. 

“You!” They lifted a hand to point a finger at the boy. “What are you doing here?”

“You wanted me. I am here.” The boy let go of my hand, lifting the bottle the level of the customer’s eyes. “Bearing your other desire.”

“Desire embodied, passion in a bottle.” The customer shut their eyes. The snowfall intensified upon their head, letting out a low howl. “Do you really think it’s that easy?”

“Do you?” The boy countered, advancing upon the customer, still brandishing the bottle. “You still found the path to the Navel. You still found me here.”

“Is this a place where one’s wayward loves find themselves drawn back to their abandoned lovers?” The walking snowstorm took a step back. “You may be carrying a love potion, but just how are you a love patron?”

“Why not?” The boy stopped, holding his ground. “Why must you be the one to support me? Why can’t I support you? Why can’t a beloved be a love patron?”

“It’s not how it’s done.” The customer shook their head. “It’s a lover’s duty to guide, protect, and support their beloved. Just as it’s a beloved’s duty to inspire and reinvigorate the lover with his beauty.”

“The way it’s done isn’t my way.” The boy held his head high with dignity and pride. “I want to care for you. I want to banish the storm hanging over your head. Won’t you let me?”

He still offered the bottle.

Silent, unsure if I should say anything, I watched the snow fall upon this strange customer before they reached for the love potion. 

“I was going to trick you into drinking this,” they confessed to the boy. “Perhaps I am the one who needs a draught of liquid passion.”

They raised the bottle to pale lips. No frost or ice touched the vessel, although the snowflakes gathered upon the hands holding it. 

They took a drink. A greenish-yellow light ran through their slender form, illuminating it with their swallow. 

The cloud overhead disappeared. Color entered the strange customer’s cheeks, no longer obscured by a veil of snow. 

They drew a shuddering breath, began to cough and gag.

“Ah, you’ve poisoned us!” The customer raised a hand, warding off the boy. “This is a trick!”

“No trick.” The boy smiled sadly, but there was a dangerous glint in his eyes. I’d seen such a look on Damian’s face. “It was a love potion, but it’s also poison to monsters incapable of love.”

Relish and sorrow in equal measure filled his voice when he looked upon the customer, clawing at his throat. 

I had the strangest premonition, a vision of Damian standing where this boy stood now. Gazing at the Lady Duessa, clawing her own throat with many hands. Looking at the woman who’d dominated his life with the same regretful triumph. 

“What have you done?” I whispered. I took a step closer to the customer who’d fallen to their knees.

“Don’t touch them!” The boy moved between me and the fallen stranger, catching them in their arms. “I would not share this monster with any other prey for I’ve both loved and hunted them for too long.”

“What do you mean?” I gazed at the boy, cradling the robed figure with especial tenderness. “Did you just poison them?”

“I wanted it.” The customer gazed at the boy in hungry adoration I understood only too well. “A love potion or a love patron to bring you back to me. To make you mine completely, even if it meant dying in your arms.”

“I know.” How gentle and merciless the boy’s manner was. “I was more than willing to be yours if it kept you from feeding on the lives of any other young beloved who might catch your eye. If it meant you were mine and mine alone.”

He bent down to fasten his lips to the customers. The two of them seemed to melt together, becoming one beautiful statue of marble. There was no telling where the lover ended and the beloved began. 

The snow began to fall over both of them, right in the Navel. Obscuring them, making them disappear. 

For a moment I saw a pale-haired young man I’d remembered in flashes, holding a dark-haired boy. The boy looked up at him with adoring green eyes. 

Those eyes changed color. Many hues swam in the irises. I saw myself, lying in the arms of Damian, gazing down at me with tender ruthlessness. 

The snow vanished, not leaving a melting flake upon the floor. 

I wiped away my tears, not sure why I was crying.

“Welcome to the Navel,  center of all things…Christopher!” Gabrielle appeared in the silver disc upon the floor, her welcoming expression turning to one of worry. “What’s wrong? I thought there was a customer. Are you all right?”

“Don’t worry.” I brushed the tears away, managed to smile. “There was, but I handled it.”

I wasn’t sure if that was true. 

#QueerBlogWed: A Tale of the Navel

On January 26, 2022, P.T. Wyant posted at ptwyant.com a Wednesday Words prompt. This involved a top hat, ribbons, and a rabbit.

This Tale of the Navel, a freebie story for Stealing Myself From Shadows was the result…

A rabbit emerged from the top hat, only to be chased around by the angry chicken who leaped out of a bag with a wicked cackle. 

I scooped up the rabbit in my arms and hid behind a shelf, trembling along with my furry bundle. I didn’t like the hen any more than the rabbit did. 

“Enough!” Gabrielle clapped her hands together and glowered at the chicken. “Stop picking…or pecking…on people. Christopher and the rabbit have as much right to be here as you do.”

The chicken strutted back to the bag she’d come from. She let out a defiant squawk before stepping on it, returning to being an inanimate object. 

“This is why I almost never wear anything tailored.” ‘Brie smoothed the ribbons dangling from the top hat and glanced at me. “Come on out, Christopher. Let’s send the bunny home.”

I carried the rabbit, petting them reassuring before setting them down on the counter where the top hat lay on its side. They sniffed the opening before moving into the hat. 

Hat and bunny disappeared from sight. 

“That’s unusual,” I ventured. “Anything which comes to the Navel usually stays until the right person claims it.”

“The hat and the rabbit were memory ghosts from the past.” Gabrielle smiled, looking a little sad. “Here for a moment, long enough to rouse the chickens, only to disappear.”

“Why?” I glanced over with some unease at the motionless chicken standing on the bag. It was frightening enough when it didn’t move. 

“I’m guessing it has something to do with whomever the chicken and the bunny were once part of.” Gabrielle tapped a finger to her lips. “Everything in the Navel represents a memory, a thought, or an ideal. Something someone lost.”

“Or cast away.” I doubted the chicken’s owner wanted her. She was too mean. The way she glared at everyone with her beady eyes showed an angry temper. 

“Or cast away.” ‘Brie smiled over at the chicken, eyes softening. Yes, she had a soft spot for the feathered menace. I wasn’t sure why. “Those fragments find form and a home here before someone claims them.”

“Why do you do this, ‘Brie?” Damian had asked the same question many times. I didn’t mean it as a challenge. I was truly curious. “Why are you here at the Navel, helping people find those fragments?” 

“Sometimes you lose something before you realize its value.” Gabrielle closed her eyes for one moment. They were very bright when she opened it. “The Navel gives us a second chance to reclaim that something. What we do gives me hope.”

“Did you lose something?” I reached out for her hand. “Something you’re hoping will turn up here?”

“Yes.” She took my hand and squeezed my fingers. “I’m still waiting, but I haven’t given hope. Besides I’ve been surprised by what has turned up or who. Surprised out of my sadness a few times. Like when Damian brought you home.”

“He was trying to make you happy.” Something tightened in my chest. “He was planning to leave, but he didn’t want you to be alone.”

“No one can replace someone else.” She smiled with some sadness. “This doesn’t mean I’m not happy you’re here. Or that you’ve helped fill the void left by Damian’s absence.”

“Me, too.” I squeezed her hand again. “Thank you, ‘Brie. Thank you for welcoming me into the Navel.”

“You’re more than welcome.” She released my hand. “You’ll always have a home here, Christopher, until you tire of this place. Or its rules grow too restrictive.”

“What makes you think I’m tired?” I studied the wrinkles on her forehead, around her mouth. “I’ve never been happier anywhere than I’ve been here.”

Except Damian wasn’t here. He’d left both of us, taking some of the happiness with him.

Gabrielle nodded as if she knew exactly what I was thinking. “Happiness tends to be fleeting. You may find yourself chasing yours outside the door and far from here.”

“I won’t,” I protested, but something stuck in my throat, making it hard to get the words out. 

Wouldn’t I? The truth was, I didn’t know. 

I was waiting for Damian to come back. What if he didn’t come back? 

There might come a time when I’d stop waiting. When I’d try to find out wherever he’d gone. 

I glanced up at Waiting for the Rebirth, its riot of color streaked with white. Those streaks might be paths, paths leading through the shadows in a forest. 

Paths which Damian could be walking right now.