Shay sat on the bridge. THE bridge. The "Used to be his home," bridge.
It was months after the fact and yet he kept coming here.
In all honesty, this world- Vella's world -was more interesting than he ever thought Loruna or anywhere else would ever be. Shellmound, the forest near it, Meriloft, the newly rechristened Steel-sugar Bunting... And there was so much more besides them! It was huge and vast and beautiful.
He thought he'd seen mountains until Vella showed him her favorite vista, and mentioned those "tiny hills" in the distance were a thousand times their height. He thought he'd known danger and excitement until he kept slipping on the huge ladder to Meriloft (a safer one was constructed by Mom and Dad after mentioning this). He thought he knew disgusting until Dad showed him what he started his Hull Patch Serum with.
But the changes kept going from there.
Meriloft collapsed from a cult society into a place among the clouds open to all that sold feather work that looked like it was made from angels. And somehow yarn made out of feathers that was remarkably soft. M'ggie had commented it was made with something called "down" before clamming up to "keep the family secrets goin'." Say nothing of the tourist business that grew because people wanted to walk upon the clouds and witness dawn from them. Whoops-A-Birdies were now used for guided swoops through the sky fluff- in Vella and Shay's special case two were set aside as personal rides -and cloudshoes were rentals and souvenirs.
Shellmound was fishing like it always had, apparently. However, Dad's Hull Patch- now shared with the residents -made sand castles last longer. The empty space of the Dead-Eye-God's temple (Shay always rolled his eyes at how they thought shy lil Alex was a god) had been turned into a new set of homes. A memorial for the efforts of Vella and Shay had been added to the beach, but it mostly seemed to be for the poor town's ego. "Important things happened here! We mean something!" And that kinda thing. Shay understood that.
Alex had stepped down from his whole "god" deal and accompanied Shay and his parents to Steel-sugar Bunting. The town renamed the place during a huge festival in honor of Vella, Ender of Mogs. The little baking community was once again rearing into the warriors of old that Alex had been so terrified of. Except they still made fantastic treats. The baking thing was just too lucrative to let go.
Mom and Dad had gone and accepted Alex into the Volta family, since his was all gone, and so now he proudly told Shay to call him "Uncle Alex". He still was a little nervous moving into his own little place in Steel-sugar Bunting, but it was right next door to Shay so he eventually mellowed out. Shay had to admit, since uncle Alex missed a lot of typical growing up he was mature in a few senses and yet still very much a child at heart. He was the perfect older brother, actually.
It was all so weird, and all so strange. The place he had known... For his whole life, really. It existed beneath his feet, but he could never set foot there again. Never. Even if he could it would be nightmarish and ruined sludge. Spaceweaver... The Yarn Pals... Grabbin' Gary...
Shay stopped himself. He didn't need those thoughts.
He adjusted the feather-wool snake on his shoulders, propping up the head with one hand and asking, "What do you think, Mr. Huggin' Gary?"
What did it think of the messy lie that was his life for so long? of the scary and uncertain but exhilarating future? of the guilt of treating his parents like computers for so long...?
Of how pretty Vella was when he saw her in her normal outfit for the first time instead of that muddy and torn Maiden's Feast dress, and then so gorgeous in a new dress for the celebration of the defeat of Mog Chothra (and many more Mogs to come) that she shouldn't've been real. How her eyes gleamed and her smile glowed when he offered to fence with her. How her laugh rang in the air, sometimes soft, sometimes mischievous. How her strength was boundlessly bigger than his. How she was blunt and to the point. No lies.
Shay realized the snake wouldn't answer any of that. He shook his head and wrapped it back around him. His birthday was today, and this was the best present he had gotten. Mom made it. She made it just for him, her little Shay. Mr. Huggin' Gary. The snake was the exact proportion to Mr. Huggy when he had first got him, and so the whole mass of yarn and stuffing could envelop him in this huge never-ending hug.
It felt like home.
Shay buried his face in his stuffed creature. He tried to imagine the halls of the Bassinostra. His room. The ice cream avalanche. The hexapals. Taco pill Tuesday. Splargh. Why did he miss all of that? Why did it fill him with a black hole of longing? Why did he keep coming back to this bridge?
"I really don't know, Mr. Huggin' Gary." He said after some more unhelpful introspection.
"Aren't you a little old for dolls?"
Shay turned, seeing Vella walking up to him. She sat down on the synthetic monster corpse that formed the bridge beneath them, letting Shay get the time to answer her question. Impatient as ever, she added anyways, "Your mom seems to forget you're fifteen now."
"She kinda does," Shay admitted, "but it's how she shows her love. She's a little distant because she spent so long running the..." he hesitated, "ship."
"... Ship. Yeah." Vella agreed. She patted his snake, "So who is this lil fella? Reminds me of a little jerk I met outside of Curtis's place."
"Oh, I remember him!" Shay remarked, "The snake where you needed to-"
"Blow the horn!" They exclaimed together. Shortly after they fell into a fit of giggling.
Shay stopped his laughing to catch his breath and answer her question, "I named him Mr. Huggin' Gary."
"After Mr. Huggy?" Vella asked.
Shay quirked an eyebrow, "How did you know-"
"I looked around your Junk Room and guessed." Vella said nonchalantly, "I needed to convince Hope I was you."
"... Hope?" Shay asked, "You mean my mom, right?"
"Yeah." Vella shuffled around a bit, awkward. If there was anything Shay had learned she wasn't good at interpersonal things. Pastries and cakes and monster killing? No biggie, that was where her forte was.
In fact she was the one who had made the marble cake for his birthday. Careful swirls of chocolate and vanilla for galaxies and nebulae with little white sprinkles inside the cake for stars. All that was covered in smooth and delicately colored fondant dusted with edible glitter. On top was perfect royal icing piping saying "Happy 15th Birthday Shay!" in a font so crisp and flawless he was surprised it was by hand. The little hexapal made from chocolate that held out candles on a small tray looked almost like a whole new miniature model instead of edible decor.
She must've been thinking about the cake, too. "Did you like it? your birthday cake?"
"It was amazing." Shay whispered, as if his voice had been cowed by the awed memory.
Vella punched Shay's shoulder, a gesture he had learned was her way of showing affection, "Good. I was ready to kill another Mog after that." Another catchphrase and quirk she had developed, saying she was more than ready to go out and do things. She was stoked, pumped, energized etc.
Vella, never, EVER, let anyone forget that. She didn't let herself forget it. She was so proud that she killed Mog Chothra and all of its future kin. Vella, Ender of Mogs. Shay was willing to step aside and let her get that recognition, because if she didn't wreck his ship none of this would've happened. If anything she'd be...
"I'm sorry." Shay muttered to her. For the millionth time, and yet it still didn't feel like enough.
Vella made a note to make another notch in her tree, the one she had woken up by countless times before that fated day everything changed. She now had a branch set aside to carve in every apology Shay gave to her. That was... She paused to recollect which number it was. 376 or so. In only six months.
Shay couldn't let it go at all. It was an issue that annoyed Vella because it was like flavors in a filling had come out just a teeny bit wordlessly wrong or a soufflé that kept bursting because the batter wasn't right or... Well it was a problem she couldn't fight or fix. Only Shay could find his solution and it irritated her to no end. She wanted to grab him, slap him, something violent to snap him out of this funk. Shove smelling salts under his nose so that he wouldn't look around this place with such a sad and distant look of wonder and delight. Look her in the eyes for once instead of at his stupid space boots. Be a person. Not a memory.
"It's okay, Shay." She sighed for the 376th or so time. Vella knew what she wanted to do was not the way of going about things. Patience, Vella, patience. "Neither of us had any idea what was going on. No one did."
Shay hugged his "Mr. Huggin' Gary" a little tighter. Vella remembered Mrs. Volta knitting it when Shay wasn't around, insisting that she should keep it a surprise and that it would help him feel better. And it did; earlier today his eyes hungrily drank up the facsimile of his old life and shined like searchlights. He held it between himself and his mother with a quiet and genuine hug for a long time. And now here he had gone off to mope like the usual routine (at least once a week he was gone), but with the snake by his side. He was quiet, and sometimes avoided talking about things, but it was clear Shay appreciated the gift.
Vella felt a twinge of jealousy at the thought he loved it more than the cake that she slaved over for more than a day. Through the night, actually, baking and decorating, scrapping cake after cake. No, for at least a month just from testing how the batter and fondant and icing would turn out. Just so it would be ready, just so it would be absolutely perfect for him.
The jealousy was incredibly shallow and vapid. She knew that. The snake- as much as she hated to admit it -had been painstakingly knitted together one row at a time by his mother in her free time, starting about a week after things quieted down and kept secret all the days leading up to this one. Not to mention it was a remnant of his old life; of course it would mean more to him than anything else.
Yet it was a stupid snake that made him look like a person again and not her cake.
She tapped her fingers against the bridge, chasing the thoughts away for now. She then remembered a moment from the crazy fiasco they shared, and asked, "Hey Shay, how did you lose your front teeth?"
"What?" Shay asked. He peeked out of Mr. Huggin' Gary's embrace some more.
"How did you lose your front teeth?" Vella asked again, a little more firm and subtly demanding, "I licked a moving egg beater."
Shay shrugged, "I can't really remember... I was really little." He then chuckled, "Licking an egg beater?"
"Licking an egg beater." Vella confirmed. "There was some frosting still on there. If you think what I came up with was good you should try my mom's buttercream. Totally worth it."
"Mom never let me do anything terribly dangerous." Shay said.
Vella shrugged. She knocked on the bridge, "That was then," she waved her arm forward, "this is now, Shay."
"You're saying I should do something dangerous?" Shay remarked.
Vella stood, wildly gesturing, "I'm saying THIS is NOW!" She couldn't help it; the dam had burst, "I'm saying you need to start living in the present, Shay! I'm saying that you need to stop doing all this and just accept the fact that your old life is dead!"
Shay's face contorted into the most terrible expression Vella had ever seen. The hurt was clear, but underlying it was the admission that what Vella had said was true. Vella's hands had balled into fists. She sighed. "You..." Vella hated words sometimes, "You've always told me the ship was nothing remarkable. That you hated how boring it was on there. W-why are you so attached to it still?!"
Shay, to her surprise, gently set his snake down. He curled up on himself instead, "I-I don't know..." Vella leaned back when he snapped at her, "Y-you try living your whole life on a ship that was your only home, and then you find out it's all a lie a-and... And..." Shay's anger didn't last long. He flopped to the ground as if the hard material beneath him was his bed.
"I... Don't hate it. Here, I mean." Shay murmured. He tried explaining, looking away from Vella once more, "I-it's kinda like... I mean I just wanna go home, and home's not here anymore. It's like you got to a friend's house, and you really love it there, but then you wanna go back to your house. Except then it turns out it burned to the ground while you were gone, and you have to stay with your friend for the rest of your life. It's not terrible, but it's not a perfect fit and you know it."
He took a struggling breath. This was difficult for him, and Vella empathized; if only this whole mess was easier to talk about. "I keep thinking it'll be right there, and I can go right back, but I can never go back. It... It hurts. I just wanna feel like I belong, but I never can, I'm a puzzle piece to a different set that's been lost forever. It was boring and stupid on the Bossinostra, but I wanna go back because it's all I've ever known. And it's gone."
Vella let the words sink into her skin, let them linger like tattoos. It would hurt, wouldn't it? She bent down and held out her hand, "Hey, Space Boy," the nickname she never used in his company until now, the one she always kept to herself in her head or used with other residents. "you wanna come down to earth for a sec?"
Shay looked at her hand. Vella said, "You got friends. We like you. Yeah, you'll never be able to go to what you called home ever again, but you've got a new home." She wanted to keep it at that, sweet and to the point, but she couldn't help but also say with a shoulder punch, "Don't forget that, you dummy."
Shay accepted her hand, "I-I shouldn't, but-"
"No buts." Vella told him, "It's a new start for you, start acting like it, ok? I don't know if you'll ever really get over it, but you need to start that." Once again her mouth moved too fast for her head, "I mean you've apologized for all this over three hundred and seventy times."
Shay laughed, "You counted?"
"I did. It was stupid." Vella replied. She looked at the sky, "Your Whoops-A-Birdy in town?"
"No. I send it away and whistle for it when I'm done here. Or curfew is coming up." Shay said. He attempted a whistle, but not before Vella made her own shrieking rush of wind. A violet bird with a large nest swooped past the clouds and landed next to the two teenagers, and made an impatient squawk for them to get a move on.
Vella hopped on and held out her hand once more, "Come on, Shay, the world's pretty neat. You just gotta let what you lost go and appreciate what you got." Shay climbed in behind Vella, and the bird took off.
The flight was relatively silent; Shay holding out his arms and pretending to fly, Vella making sure the bird didn't do anything stupid. Vella then asked, "You know, you think we could play hooky for a little touring? I don't think you got to explore much while I was in your ship."
"I was too busy helping uncle Alex." Shay said, "So, yeah, I didn't take in the sights very much. I haven't been taking them in. Helping mom and dad and society and all that. It's all kinda a blur."
Vella smiled, "We can start on that."
The Whoops-A-Birdy swept off into the sunset.
"I left Mr. Huggin' Gary."
"... Fine, we can go back for him."