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Oki, welp hi everyone who chooses to read this! artsynatalia on Instagram got her hands on a copy of the paperback FLASHBACK edition earlier than the due date, and she posted screenshots of it on her story. I've just copied it all down here, except for the preview, because it was super long -- I might be able to do it sometime this weekend if I have more spare time, though. Anyway, obligatory disclaimer -- none of this belongs to me. All of this is by Shannon Messenger, author of the KOTLC franchise. Anyway, enjoy! :)

THE TALK

“Lord Alden,” Lord Cassius said, dipping his head in what could barely count as a bow before he stepped aside to let Alden enter the Shores of Solace – aka his used-to-be-secret-getaway-though-no-one-actually-wanted-to-go-there-with-him home. “I thought the Council ordered all of you Vackers to the Tribunal Hall today for the big verdict. It’s all I’ve heard about these days. People do love a good scandal – and this is the best our world has seen in ages.

“The sentencing isn’t until this afternoon,” Alden explained, ignoring the rest of Cassius’s jab as he made his way towards the mother-of-pearl walls. His teal eyes looked rather impressed as they skimmed over the fancy furniture and enormous ocean-view windows – but his gaze softened when he focused on the blond boy sprawled across one of the couches. “I was hoping I’d find you here.”

Keefe pulled himself to his feet, making sure to brush all the crumbs from the butterblast he’d snacked on for breakfast onto the otherwise pristine floor. “Is everything okay?”

Alden nodded. “But I’d love a quick word with you if you don’t mind. Perhaps somewhere a bit more private?”

“Or I can lock Lord Nosypants in a closet,” Ro offered, striding out of the shadowy corner flashing a pointy-toothed grin.

How the pink-haired, heavily armed ogre princess could make people forget she was in the room was one of life’s great mysteries.

“Let’s save that fun for later,” Keefe decided, leading Alden to the one place at his father’s house where he felt like he could breathe: a wide outdoor patio facing a glittering black sand beach. Cushioned swings swayed in the salty wind, and Alden sank into one of them, watching the turquoise waves crash against the shore long enough for Keefe’s brain to put together a pretty extensive list of scary things that might be happening.

Clearly Foster’s ever-worrying ways were rubbing off on him.

“Sooo…,” he said, dragging out the word as he plopped onto the swing next to Alden. “What’s going on?”

“Nothing bad,” Alden assured him. “I’m just hoping you’ll be willing to attend the tribunal today.”

Ro groaned. “Nooooooooo! Then I have to go, and everyone’s going to be all smug and sparkly and give boring speeches about how brilliant they are – and I’m not even allowed to stab anybody!”

Keefe ignored her. “I thought it was family only.”

“It was. But I’ve convinced the Council to make an exception, because Fitz is going to need a friend today.”

Yeah, that was kind of an understatement. Keefe was pretty sure Fitz was going to go into rage-monster mode if the Council gave Alvar anything less than a life sentence. And if Alden felt the need to bring in reinforcements…

Keefe slumped back against the cushions. “Does that mean you know –“

“What I know,” Alden interrupted, “is that I’m doing everything in my power to get my family through this.”

Which wasn’t really an answer.

“The thing is,” he added quietly. “my son is far more likely to listen to you than he is to me. Especially under the circumstances.”

“Okay, but if you’re looking for a voice of wisdom, you’d be better off asking someone who’s a bit more… shall we say, responsible?” Keefe felt the need to point out.

“I agree. Which is why I’ve arranged clearance for Sophie to attend as well.”

“Perfect!” Ro jumped in. “Then you don’t need us!”

“Actually, that’s why I do.” Alden’s eyes dropped to his hands, his fingers twisting the edge of his embroidered cape. “You and I both know, Keefe, that my son doesn’t necessarily excel at controlling his temper. And… I don’t think either of us wants to see him channel any of that anger at Sophie. So if you’re there –“

“Hang on.” Ro made a time-out gesture. “Are you seriously asking Keefe to be the punching bag during your pretty boy’s little temper tantrums?”

“Of course not! I’m asking an empath to watch for moments when his best friend is getting close to losing control of his emotions, and to keep him from saying or doing anything he’ll later regret.

“Or you could just leave our pretty little blond girl out of this one,” Ro reminded him.

“No, I can’t. Fitz… needs her.” His eyes shifted to Keefe, and there was something tentative about his expression.

Something nervous.

“He needs her,” he repeated gently, taking a long breath before he added, “I think you know that. And… I suspect you know how Sophie feels too.”

Unfortunately, Keefe did – and he was always trying hard not to think about it, because it made him want to punch things.

“Hate to break it to you guys,” Ro informed them, “but Blondie doesn’t know what she feels.”

“Perhaps not,” Alden conceded. “But that mostly has to do with the fact that my son has yet to make things clear. Once he does…”

He didn’t finish the sentence, but he didn’t need to. Keefe was well aware of all the miserable mushiness he had ahead.

The hand-holding.

And cuddling.

And…

Ugh, if he had to watch them kiss, he was going to vomit all over his boots.

Alden placed his hand softly over Keefe’s, waiting for Keefe to meet his eyes before he told him, “I realize that all of this is… complicated for you, given how you feel about –”

“I’m just gonna stop you right there,” Keefe cut in, pulling his hand away and jumping off the swing. He paced to the far end of the patio, relieved that his legs pulled it off with some swagger. “Leave the feelings-reading to us Empaths, okay? Cause you’re wrong. Like, super, super wrong.”

“No, I’m not.”

Keefe was dying to ask him how he could be so sure – and if that meant Fitz had figured it out too. But that would mean admitting it, and the only way he was going to get through this conversation was to deny, deny, deny.

Alden sighed. “Sorry, I know this conversation is difficult – and I’m not trying to meddle –”

“Um, I’m pretty sure this is the definition of meddling,” Ro argued.

“No, it’s the definition of caring.” Alden stood and made his way closer, wrapping an arm around Keefe’s shoulders. “You may not be my genetic son,” he said quietly, “but I’ve long considered you part of my family.”

Keefe had to remind himself to breathe.

Part of him wanted to pull away and run. The other part wanted to lean back and see what it felt like to not have to stand on his own. But he was pretty sure that either way, he’d end up getting hurt.

So he just stood there, stiff and silent, watching the frothy water smooth the dark sand into a shiny, black canvas.

It wasn’t fair that the beach got so many do-overs.

“I’ve never told anyone this,” Alden murmured, “but long ago before I met Della, there was… another. Someone I was convinced was my perfect match – and the matchmakers agreed. But, as it turned out, she… preferred a close friend of mine.” He let the words hang there for a beat before he added, “So I’m no stranger to your situation, Keefe.”

“There’s no situation,” Keefe insisted.

“Maybe there isn’t. But I’m going to pass on some wisdom to you anyway. I’m a father. It’s what I do. And don’t worry, I’m not about to give you a long speech on how someday you’ll find your true match like I did – though you will.” He pulled Keefe slightly closer, giving his shoulder a gentle squeeze. “The wisdom I want to give you is simply this: If you really care about them, let them be happy.”

Let them be happy.

Those words made Keefe want to vomit even more than the idea of Fitzphie smoochfests.

“I know,” Alden said gently. “Believe me, I undersand exactly how heartbreaking that is to hear. But take it from someone who ended up losing two valuable friendships. There’s only one way this ends –”

“Uh, no there isn’t!” Ro snapped. “We’re talking about teenagers! Stop acting like any of this is a done deal.” She waited for Keefe to meet her eyes before she added, “It isn’t.”

Alden sighed. “I suppose only time will tell. But that doesn’t change where we are today. Today, Sophie and Fitz are both going to need your help. So the question is, are you willing to be their friend?”

Keefe opened his mouth to answer, but Alden shook his head, drawing Keefe into a hug before he stepped away.

“That’s all I came here to say,” he said, pulling his pathfinder out of his cape’s inner pocket. “I hope I’ll see you at Tribunal Hall in a few hours. But I’ll leave that up to you. Think about what I’ve said, okay?”

Keefe managed a shaky not as Alden held the crystal up to the sunlight and glittered away.

“That guy’s got a lot of nerve,” Ro grumbled. “You know what that was, right? He’s trying to get you to back off so he can keep his spoiled son happy – and he’s totally using your daddy issues to make you play along!” She held out her arm, pretending she was wrapping it around an imaginary person’s shoulders. “I’ve long considered you part of my family – what a stinking load of garbage! He’s just trying to get rid of the competition. So what you need to do now is –”

“I’m going to the Tribunal,” Keefe interrupted.

Ro rolled her eyes. “Of course you are. That’s what you do – sabotage yourself over and over because it’s easier than putting yourself out there!

“I’m not sabotaging anything! Sophie’s not some prize that Fitz and I get to fight over. She’s a person. And she has her own feelings – and no one knows those feelings better than I do!”

Ro blinked, and he realized he’d shouted that super loud.

Loud enough that he was pretty sure his father had heard every word.

But it didn’t matter.

Lord Cassius wasn’t the type of person to go for a heart-to-heart.

Keefe’s hands curled into fists and he sucked in a deep, slow breath before he said, “I’m going to the tribunal. Because two of my friends are going to be there. And they’re going to need me. You can whine about it all you want. Or you can stay here…”

“Oh, I’m going,” Ro warned. “And there will be an abundance of whining.”

“Bring it on,” Keefe muttered, heading for his room to get changed. He tried to slam the door in Ro’s face, but the ogre princess had annoyingly fast reflexes and managed to block it with her elbow.

She sighed. “Fine. I’ll leave you to your sulking. But just… promise me something, okay? Don’t give up.”

“I’m not,” Keefe said.

And he meant it.

He wasn’t giving up.

He was just… waiting.

Being the best friend he could be.

Trying not to wreck anything.

And hoping, hoping, hoping that someday things would change.

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