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Talon Two

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It begins, as most things with his son do, out of nowhere.

Cerrit is in the middle of inspecting the scene of a recent theft alongside a handful of Eyes of Avalir. Cultists, apparently, had stolen several shipments filled with artificer-made runes, yet there is no trace of magic having been used to commit the crime. The Senior Sightwarden's gaze is concentrated on the ground as he searches for the faintest hints of dust or hair left behind by the perps (if he's lucky, an entire footprint).

"Hey, Pinch, think I got somethin'," Oryn says, breaking the intense silence. Cerrit's head swivels around, and he clocks the shelf of jars next to his old partner. They look untouched at first glance but upon further inspection, there are tiny grains of powder scattered on the floor.

Cerrit opens his beak to say, "Good catch," or something to that effect when the Sending Stone in his pocket hums to life. He raises an apologetic finger at Orwyn to say one moment before answering the call.

"Tomahawk, this is Dagger," a familiarly phlegmy voice says. "Tomahawk, do you read me?"

He blinks. "Kir, is that—"

"Shhh! Pops—I mean, Tomahawk, you hafta use code names! Who knows who might be listening in?"

The other Eyes exchange perplexed looks, unsure what they should be doing with their boss occupied. Orwyn, on the other hand, snickers, being able to hear everything perfectly at his proximity.

Cerrit's eyes slide shut. "Alright… Dagger, did you say? What is it?"

He can practically hear the grin in his son's voice. "Well, Quiver brought one of her friends over, even though she said she was grounded for breaking a vase. The fancy one with the gold in it, 'member? So the two of them are in her room, and I'm listening to them giggling right now, probably about something gross like fashion. What are your orders, Tomahawk?"

By this point, Orwyn is howling with laughter. A few of the other Eyes chuckle along with him, having discerned the levity of the situation from their superiors' attitudes. Part of Cerrit plans to yell at them once this call is over, while the other part can't blame them. It is damn funny.

He puts on his most serious Dad Face, which only makes Orwyn's cackling even louder. "Good job reporting this, Dagger. I'll make sure to give Quiver a stern talking-to once I get home. For now, just make sure she doesn't go anywhere, alright?"

"I copy, Tomahawk. I have just the tool for the job, too—"

"Do not throw those water balloons at your sis—I mean, at Quiver again. You remember how mad, uh, Javelin was."

"Javelin…? Oh! Roger that, Tomahawk. No water balloons. Wink wink."

Cerrit sighs, recalling the mess Kir had made trying to prank Maya. Their house was drenched in water as a result of their fight, and Wrayne had cast a few Prestidigitations before saying, "I give up, darling. We'll let it dry by itself." He mentally prepares himself for the same scene once his shift is over.

"I mean it. I've got to get back to work now, but be safe, alright? I love you."

He receives a distracted hum in reply—probably because Kir is already thinking of loopholes to exploit—before the line shuts off. When Cerrit turns to the rest of the crew, he finds every one of them staring at him expectantly.

"What?" he demands. "Let's get back to work."

(Later, Orwyn slings an arm around Cerrit's shoulder and says, "I'm never lettin' ya live this one down, Pinch.")

 


 

Cerrit takes a sip of his coffee and skims the latest issue of The Herald's Tome. As popular as the morning broadcast is among the general public, he personally prefers this more digestible form of news—though he would never say that to Loquatius himself. The man would probably transform his face into Cerrit's, except with horse-like molars inside his beak, again. He shudders at the memory.

Today's paper features an interview with a member of the Ring of Silver, an editorial on the most recent city Avalir had passed over. Nothing particularly catches his eye in this edition.

"Agent Catha, reporting for duty! What are your orders, Sunbeam?"

Kir half-sprints, half-flies down the stairway, a blur of down with gray feathers around his beak. One of his wings is slightly misshapen from birth, but he has never let it bother him ("A casualty of battle, Pops!") Mischief glitters in his dark eyes, most certainly passed down from Wrayne, and Cerrit can't help but smile when he sees him.

"Morning, nestie," he says. "Hey, new set of code names this week. Where'd you get the idea, anyhow?"

Kir beams up at him. "Okay, so I saw this commercial on the Crystal Columns the other day for this movie that was coming out, and it was about these detectives that were solving a mystery, and they were unraveling lies and fighting scary people, and I was watching it, and I thought, 'Hey, that's kinda like what my Pops—I mean, Sunbeam—does,' so—"

He cuts himself off to take a huge gulp of air. If Cerrit doesn't intervene now, Kir will ramble on for another ten hours or until he loses his voice—whichever comes first—as he is wont to do. Being the responsible parent that he is, he finishes Kir's sentence for him: "So you were inspired."

He nods so fervently that Cerrit worries his head will fall off. "Uh-huh! Plus, plus, Uncle Or—uh, Nimbus always calls you 'Pinch,' so I figured I should give you a code name, too! Y'know, everyone at school knows that you're an Eye of Avalir, and all my friends think you're so cool! I wanna be just like you when I grow up, Sunbeam."

Cerrit smiles, even though the thought rattles him a little. Being an investigator is a dangerous, thankless field of work; he has seen good men die, time and time again. Flattered as he is that Kir wants to follow in his wingflaps, how could he wish such a fate on his own son?

He shakes himself. You're being overprotective, love, Wrayne told him when he first mentioned having these thoughts. Kir's still young. He has plenty of time to figure things out.

"I appreciate the thought, nestie," he says. "H-Has… Nimbus ever told you why he calls me Pinch, by the way?"

Kir shakes his head.

"That's good, that's good." Cerrit coughs. The story, while humorous in hindsight, is very embarrassing for him, and he'd rather not ruin the starry-eyed perception his son has of him just yet. "I'll tell you when you're older, so if your uncle ever mentions it… cover your eyes, got it?"

"You got it, Sunbeam!" his son chirps. Cheeky as Kir can be, Cerrit is fairly confident that his son won't let his curiosity get the better of him.

"Alright, Catha," he says. "Remind me whenever that movie is about to come out, and I'll take a day off of work so we can see it together. Sound good?"

Kir lights up, a grin spreading across his face, and Cerrit pats his head affectionately.

 


 

"Kshh! Horisal! Horisal, do you copy?"

Cerrit shifts the bundle of groceries in his arms to position the Sending Stone closer to his face. The code names are routine by now, and he has become a master at creating his own on the fly."

"Yes, Thunsheer, I hear you loud and clear."

"Ooh, Thunsheer, I like that! Agent Horisal, there's been a Code Red emergency, and we need you at home base rig—"

He doesn't let his son finish talking. The groceries bounce lightly when he drops them on the enchanted cobblestones beneath him, but nothing could be further from Cerrit's mind. The Senior Sightwarden's wings unfurl, kicking up huge gusts of wind as he flaps once, twice. On the third, he's airborne, racing through the sky above Avalir at a breakneck pace.

Over the pounding in his ears, he hardly hears Kir say, "Horisal? Pops? Are you still there?"

Cerrit arrives at home—a three-story house that, besides the various balconies from which the Agrupnins can take flight, is fairly unassuming—in under two minutes. He doesn't bother with landing; with characteristic expertise he navigates the wide hallways in search of his nestlings. Burglars? Arsonists? Kidnappers?

"Agent Horisal, is that you?" Kir calls from the living room.

He appears in a blur of white-and-brown feathers, hands hovering by the hawks he keeps at his sides at all times. But Kir and Maya look fine based on a quick assessment, if not a little disheveled. Cerrit relaxes minutely.

"Duscar tried to use Fireball on me!" Kir shrieks.

"I already told you, stop calling me that," Maya retorts. The scraggly molt on the back of her neck is raised in irritation. "Besides, Dad, you know I don't do evocation that much. I just thought it'd be fun if I pranked Kir with an illusion."

She tosses a scrap of fleece from her knapsack into the air. At the peak of its ascent, a bead of red streaks from the fleece and explodes into flame. Cerrit, of course, is unfooled, but Kir yelps and scrambles away from the mild heat.

"See!"

"You brat—"

"Okay, okay," Cerrit interjects. "First of all, Maya—"

"Duscar," Kir corrects. "Remember, there could be bad guys watching us!"

"—no more messing with your brother using magic. It's a little unfair."

"Dad!" Maya protests. "It was harmless! Kir does worse all the time."

Cerrit shakes his head. "I'm putting my foot down here. Those are the rules of the house. Now…" He turns to Kir, whose smug expression melts as he realizes his punishment is about to be handed down. "Thunsheer. You know you can call me or your mother whenever you need, but don't say it's an emergency unless it actually is one. Today, I was only shopping, but you could be interrupting something important next time."

Kir sags a little. "Okay… but this was a Code Red! Duscar was trying to betray me!"

"You know what I meant. I just worry about you two," Cerrit says. His expression softens. "I take emergencies seriously, and I want you guys to as well. So do that for your dad, got it?"

Maya sighs. "Fine."

"Considering that an order, Horisol!" Kir says with a salute.

"Great. Now, go have fun with whatever, alright?" He pats both of his nestlings on the shoulder. Kir preens at the attention, and Maya only ducks after a slight delay. Good eggs, the two of them.

Then, Cerrit heads to the kitchen to prepare dinner before remembering that he left the groceries behind.

 


 

Another day at the Hawk's Nest comes to a close. Frankly, Cerrit would have stayed longer given the opportunity, but Orwyn had strongly advised him to wrap things up (as usual—Cerrit often gets so wrapped up in his work that he forgets how much time has passed.

As he meanders through the air, relishing the warmth of the setting son and the occasional gust of wind through his feathers, he pulls his Sending Stone out of his pocket. Before he can call his nestlings, however, it hums to life in his hands.

"Hey, Citrine," he hears his daughter say. "You done with work yet?"

Cerrit hums back. Admittedly, he's a little surprised that Maya's calling him, aloof as she is, but the company is not unwelcome. "On my way home now. But Citrine—what's up with that?"

Maya sighs. "Pyrite blackmailed me into using these stupid code names. If I don't, he's going to share some things that I, uh… really don't want made public knowledge."

The Sending Stone in his hand shifts colors to indicate a different speaker. "I'm just using the information available to me," Kir chimes in, "but Amethyst had to go and tattletale!"

"Oh, yeah, this coming from the snitch?"

"I get it, I get it." Cerrit jumps in before their argument really gets going. "Crystals, huh? Good choice, if you ask me."

A smile, albeit subtle, creeps into Maya's response. "I know, right? I picked Citrine for you since the color reminds me of your feathers. And Kir is Pyrite because he's the only person dumb enough to mistake it for gold."

"What? You told me it was 'cause it's cool!"

"Yeah, well—" Cerrit visualizes Maya inspecting her talons smugly— "I lied."

Kir only squawks in reply.

"Anyway, uh… what did he tell me to say? Return to headquarters ASAP, Citrine. Brumestone made crab tempura skewers for dinner, and it smells real delicious, so if you don't get here soon, we're gonna eat it without you."

"I'm coming, don't worry," Cerrit answers. "Save some for me."

"I got you, Da—Citrine."

"Thanks. Love you, Maya. Tell Kir I love him, too."

"Agh, you're so cheesy, Dad! But… you too." After a brief pause (during which he assumes Kir is whispering something), she adds, "Over and out."

With that, Cerrit stuffs his Sending Stone back into his pocket and picks up his pace. His heart soars, both at the prospect of his beloved Wrayne's cooking at the conversation between his children. As much as they butt heads, there's always something comforting about coming home to them after a day's work.

 


 

"Ooooh!" Kir trills under his breath.

He watches as Maya leans toward the girl with webbed hands to whisper something. She giggles back, bluish skin darkening with embarrassment. His sister, flirting ? With (if his covert reconnaissance is accurate) a top-ten student from the Sorcerer's University? Oh, this is juicy; he can't wait to tease her when she gets ho—

The Sending Stone attached to Kir's hip flares to life, casting bright blue light on the tree branches around him. He scrambles to hold it aloft before Maya and her maybe-possibly-100% Triton crush notice the disturbance.

"Talon Two," Pops says. "Talon Two, come in."

He remembered! Oh, Kir will make an expert agent out of his dad yet. "Wingspan, Talon reporting in."

"Talon Two, I need you to listen here. Listen to me very carefully. I need you to find your sister and meet me at home."

He glances over at Maya. Fortunately, she and the blue girl are too engrossed in their conversation to hear Kir's. "Wingspan," he answers, "who do you think you're even talking to?"

Kir tells him about what his sister is up to, because of course Pops needs to know all the details! He's always emphasized the importance of observation. But just when he's about to talk about how cool the decorations at this party are—he expected Dancing Lights, but there are these flames that turn into different shapes!—Pops interrupts.

"Kir, listen to me," he demands. "Get Egghead and tell her it's an emergency. You know what we talked about before. This is important. Please get her and come home as fast as you can. Do you copy?"

He freezes. Kir has rarely heard his dad take this tone before: panting, harsh, dead serious. Even when he spilled ink on those important documents in his office, it wasn't like this. Pops's voice is steady, sure, but there's a slight tremor beneath.

If he didn't know better, Kir would think he was scared. (But nothing can scare his Pops, right?)

"I copy, Dad," he says softly. "Is everything okay?"

There's a long pause before the reply. "Everything's fine. Remember, code names."

"Sorry, Wingspan." Kir stumbles through his memory of secret agent jargon, grasping for something a little more comforting in its familiarity. "Roger that; mission objective set. Gather Egghead and rendezvous at home base. Over and out."

"Out."

Kir's throat tightens. In his five (almost six!) years of living, he has never heard his father not end a call with those three words.

He swallows hard before he adds, "I love you, Dad."

"I love you too," Pop answers, immediate but shaky. Kir's stomach plunges like the first flap in flight, only instead of the euphoric swoop after, there's only falling.

The moment the line shuts off, he hops out of the tree and sprints toward Maya and the Triton girl. His hands shake violently. Try as he may, he'll never be as brave as his Pops.

 


 

Cerrit spends weeks in radio silence.

He keeps a tally by carving notches into his belt, but the days bleed together. Seldom does he sleep during this time; instead, he finds an air current to coast along at night and prays the darkness is enough to hide him from the enemies around. With the Hawk's Nest gone, with only smoke and ash and ruin below to keep him company, every ounce of his devotion is dedicated to keeping his promise.

In one of the rare instances where he does land—not of his own volition, mind, but the winds have gotten too strong for even him to fly, so he decides to rest before continuing his journey on foot—he takes out the Sending Stone. The feeble thing cracked from the blast of energy created when two Primordials were directed away from Exandria. Cerrit thinks if he were more arcane, he could fix it. If he were more like—

(In this rare little instance, he thinks of the Ring of Brass. No one is around to witness the Senior Sightwarden as he mourns his second family.)

Cerrit holds the stone aloft anyway, as though it would work if he just willed it. Some days he speaks into it, recalls a story from work to Kir or tells Maya about his day or asks Wrayne about the constellations he sees overhead. They won't hear it, of course, but it eases his worries nonetheless to imagine someone listening.

"I love you," he murmurs. A lone eisfuura keeps moving.

Dawn paints the sky in brilliant hues, scarlet (blood, blood, so much blood) and gold (Nydas and Patia and Loquatius and Laerryn dead) mingling with vibrant violet (friends made monsters, and where does that leave me?) It's under this light that Cerrit staggers out from a charred forest and approaches a laboratory in Gwessar. He stares at his outstretched hand when he reaches for the door and thinks, talons.

Cerrit Agrupnin is so, so tired.

"Dad?"