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"Hm? Did you invite someone, Laylen?" Marco asked in surprise, it was uncommon for them to keep guests past the evening hours and it was already getting wait.
"No, I haven't. Maybe it's one of the neighbors".
"I'll go see". Marco placed the knife and fork on the table and got up.
"Maybe it's big sis Zetsa!" Liz threw a guess.
"Zetsa said that she will return tomorrow. Don't eat and speak at the same time".
"Mm". Liz nodded and stuffed her mouth with a spoon for mash potatoes.
Waiting on the other side of the door, Zax could hear the discussion inside the house, the slight fatigue in his parents' voice and the meticulous gentleness in their tone with Liz. It was why he paced himself instead of rushing in, declaring that he is alive. He feared that the tragedy he caused to his parents, coupled with his sudden rise from the grave will be a blow to their physical and mental health.
The door opened without being asked "who's there" and he could see his father's silhouette gradually growing. He moved his hand, extended his index finger and poked his father's forehead before he could react.
The gap was wide enough to cross in. Zax's figure flashed, appearing next to the dining table. Waves of longing and the urge to embrace his father, mother and little sister surged in his heart, but he restrained himself, poked the foreheads of Laylen and Liz and exited the house.
The streams of soul energy meant to pacify the imminent shock, as best as they could without imposing on the three's souls.
Marco glanced on the person outside, his eyes and thoughts struggling to synchronize from reasons too many to mention.
"Za…" He was about to fully pronounce in uncertainty only the shut his mouth as the image of his wife and daughter sitting in the table not far behind surfaced in his mind.
"Marco?" Laylen tried to peek beyond his tall figure, yet failed to see past it. She did not question why, out of the blue, she felt calm, mildly uplifted like she had not being in a long time.
Marco did not respond, his eyes still adjusting as they observed and retraced the features of the son he thought he lost.
"Father", Zax spoke in a soft tone, not rushing to hug him or supplying a hast clarification. "It's me, I did not die ". His voice was not loud but neither quiet, so his mother and sister could hear him, too.
"Zax…?" Laylen's startlingly got up and cautiously advanced to the door.
"Zax…" Liz was the slowest to comprehend and even when the name sounded familiar she had yet to make a response, other than stop eating.
"Fa-" As Zax was about to repeat himself, Marco's wavering hands garbed his arms and squeezed hard as if to assess that his mind was not playing tricks on him, to make sure he will not disappear, again.
At the same time, Laylen also arrived. "Zax! Zax! Zax! Zax!" Her voice resonated mournfully, disbelievingly. The person at the doorstep looked closely to how she remembered her son, only a bit less muscular and overall big as he was, though slightly maturer with a compassionate look. "Zax!" She crushed into him with an overflow of tears running down her face.
Zax hugged his mother, not sure on the words that he should say, at least not in this particular moment.
Marco stepped back. The only way that he could get to his son was obstructed by his wife, and he was afraid that he will not be able to contend with her.
Zax walked in whilst Laylen caressed his face and looked at him with glistened, red eyes. "Why did you go? Why we were told that you died?"
"Mom, dad…" He reached out for Marco, his father, perhaps was not the most filial son, nevertheless he could and wanted to hug them both. "I'm sorry for worrying you". Inwardly he was astonished by the willpower he had to invest for his voice not to crack.
"You are back, all fine, my son is back!" Marco dropped the last shard of forbearance. Children meant to outgrow their parents and fathers are allowed to enter their sons’ embrace.
Zax's heart trembled, his countenance, which he did not let them see, was ugly. Only after holding them both did he understand how frailly they carried themselves in comparison to his initial speculation. If he had not used soul energy prior to showing himself… imagining the severity of what could have happened to them as a result amplified his guilt.
“Mom, dad, I’ll explain everything, I promise, I’m here and nothing can take me away, so please…”
They had their eyes on his face and they traced the gestured his chin made. It was pointing at the alone Liz in the dining table.
Reluctantly, their grip loosened as they gathered their bearing and then parted ways.
Zax breathed in. How come confronting with the tiniest of them all anxious him the most?
“Hi”, finding the words for a seven years old child happened to be a task more complicated than excusing the fact that he is not dead to adults.
Getting closer and closer, Zax stopped next to Liz’s chair. Her neck tilted up with a passive expression. She opened her mouths but whatever was about to come out was so slow, on the verge of getting stuck in her throat.
“Did you forget me?” Zax jokingly suggested with a tender smile.
Her little fingers withdrew into two hesitant fists. Her lips closed tight. She stared longer than was felt comfortable to and cut the eye contact by replying with a negative headshake.
Zax was relieved. It was one thing to leave for two years when she was five and another to reunite after she was taught and convinced that she will not see him anymore.
“I missed you”. He said, landing her a hand. “Stand up on the chair”. She stayed still and he recalled that she was not allowed. “Mom and dad won’t be mad”. He would have lifted her up himself if he was not scared that she will flinch.
“Sweaty, don’t be afraid of him, your big brother Zax returned home”. Laylen encouraged Liz as she was tacked in her husband’s arms.
Shoving her plate, Liz used the table as support and stood up all by herself. The top of her head about as high as Zax's sternum. Either she remembered or felt tense, a gleam in her eyes indicated an impending torrent of tears. Zax hoped it was the former, and that he will be able to hold back his own.
"Are you happy to see me?"
She nodded her head.
How much he will have to keep asking from her before she will open up?
"Can you say it out loud?"
"Yes". Was not exactly "out loud", but it was her voice.
"Can I hug you?" The deciding question, her response will determine if she see him as the brother in her memories or a stranger.
Nibbling on her lips, she faltered for a second before deceivingly delving into his torso. Her forehead bumped his chest, there she buried her face, while her arms tried to encompass as much of his as their short length could.
He caught her, her weight on his arms, in his heart, so immense he was forced to kneel down.
"Big bro Zax".
He heard a nearly inaudible chirp, but thought that he was just wishfully imagining it.
"Big bro Zax". She repeated. The second time Marco and Laylen heard it, too, including the minute hint of a wail.
"Big bro Zax". They were only three words, but they were filled with boundless emotion. "Aaaaaaah!" The wall in her heart, the dam of tears, they both shattered and she burst crying.
Zax stooped as his heavy shoulders shivered and the voice of a little girl made him surrender to the tears.
At a point her voice began to dim and her clasp weakened. It was a late hour and outside the Nightly Cover Formation darkened the cave and rekindled with an array of starry dots.
Marco and Laylen did not interrupt the brother and sister reunion. When Zax sat down on the couch with Liz still in his arms, they sat at the opposite side, quietly watching, till she fell asleep and cuddled up in his embrace.
"You have to promise not to speak a word of what I'm about to say to anyone". Zax agreed to divulge the details of his venture above ground to his parents, but knew he had to stress its confidentiality.
"Zax, if you can get in trouble by telling us then I don't want you to take a risk". All that Laylen cared about was that her son was home and well.
"Tell us". Marco insisted. "Someone one came and told me my son did good for the kingdom and now is dead". He was infuriated, his complexion turned fiery and it seemed like his eyes were about to tear up again.
Zax complied. He thoughtfully surveyed a radius of the apartment building. Not only he had to be careful with what he says, he also had to make sure no one that is not supposed to will find out that he returned to New Earth, much less alive!
There were no suspicious figures in the vicinity of his Soul Sense, not even someone with the capacity to notice it.
Lastly he checked if Liz is really asleep or just resting herself. She slept.
"I traveled to the world above ground". He opened in narration.
It was a long night, brimful with exhilarating accounts done by fairytale like recitation. From concerned parents, Laylen and Marco turned to attentive listeners, not wanting to miss the smallest of details, especially one there were proofs presented right in front of them, taken from nothing short of a magical ring!
The line of events constantly evolved and transformed across the emotional spectrum. Although Zax tuned down the scale of violence involved he still drew a vivid picture of hurdles and dangers. His parents were not naïve. Any citizen of Kingdom Earth, be they cultivates or not and regardless of class, knows about the dangerous of the "beasts' territory". His parents were not the exception, yet they allowed their eldest to take him there, whole years for his sake, at the time… Replacing Valgarel with Ercas Mir did not make much difference to them in terms of worriedness.
Naturally, subjects like Sinister Chain and other secretive matters Zax refrained from mentioning. The most that he said was vaguely how he removed the Curator’s Mark and illegally reentered the passageway to New Earth.
Funnily, the things that were most easily accepted were the descriptions of Zax's powerful feats. Marco and Laylen were already used to their children's Martial talent. Heck, Zetsa in her teens earned the sublime honorific of "Miss" after winning an intercave fighting tournament. That being said, they were still greatly moved, that is, by the little they could comprehend.
They still would rather for their children to have steady, secure jobs and settle down, perhaps even give them a litter of cute grandchildren. Sadly, the chance of this ever being the case was smaller than betting on a random person of their pick to attain Evolutionary Ascension.
"Let this be all". Marco asked and Laylen silently agreed. Beads of perspiration were visible on their faces and necks and their close stuck to their bodies. "The world you and your sister live in… is strange to me and your mother. We can't support your resolutions in fear that our lack of understanding will cause only harm". He lamented. Happy as he was to see his son, excited as the stories of above the ground made him feel, his inability to fulfill his fatherly duties were a stain rarely shown to others.
"Zax, you said that in half a year or so there will be a competition in Ercas Mir". Laylen noted somberly. "What does it mean about your stay? You… You can't leave again for years… not anymore! If not because the protection I and your father want for you, then for Liz’s sake… I won't allow you, or Zetsa, the opportunity to traumatize my little girl!"
Stroking her smooth long hair, sensing the warmth of her cheeks and the pulse of her heart, Zax could not help by think of the day she was born and how fragile she still is.
He had to return to Ercas Mir, it was inevitable. For one reason, the five powers know that Ariel led him out. Until he will have the strength he cannot suddenly show up after making them think that he died. For another reason, also related the five powers… they pose a threat of undetermined degree to the people of this planet, be they below or above ground. If he had to, for his family safety, he will gladly and honestly trade his life.
‘But I don’t want to hurt her, them anymore’. He was resolved to stand by this words. ‘Power! I must get stronger!’
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