Gratitude

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The story was repeated on the way back. Unlike her siblings, Rowan's parents did not stay silent while she spoke:

"What do you mean you set fire to an old god's house?"

"A dragon saved you from the sun?"

"You swallowed a fish?"

Somehow, amid all their interjections, Rowan managed to answer their questions. But when they realized that the quiet boy with the black eyepatch who stuck particularly close to their daughter was Ethan Nakamura, not even Rowan's swiftness tempered their shock. Beneath the trees of the park near Rowan's apartment, her parents stopped, speechless at the reveal. Rowan and the rest came to a halt, waiting for them to remember how to speak.

"You're alive?"

Ethan glanced over at Rowan's mother, unwilling to meet her eyes. Clara Ma had always scared him more than her husband. She loved him like family as a child, but that meant she punished him like family too whenever he was coerced into another one of Rowan's antics. Under the shadow of the leaves overhead, he couldn't tell whether he was about to be murdered.

"Hi, Auntie Clara." He said softly. He braced himself.

Arms wrapped around him, and it wasn't until Ethan felt wetness on his neck that he realized Clara was crying for the second time today, the first upon seeing her daughter alive and well.

"Come on, Mom." Rowan said, mildly embarrassed. It had taken a lot of comforting before her mother was willing to let go of her back at the temple. The only difference now was that her father didn't share the same sentiments as his wife.

"Yes," Old Man Ma said, voice gravelly with dangerous disapproval. "Come on, Clara."

"Am I not allowed to hug a boy I've taken care of since he was born?" Clara snapped, turning on her heel, tears still streaming down her face.

"You can hug whoever you want," Old Man Ma folded his arms over his chest. "As long as they haven't done anything to hurt our family."

"Dad - "

"Rowan," he said sternly, glaring at Ethan, who was starting to wonder if he should be more afraid of him than Clara. "He caused you a lot of pain."

"He left because of his mother - "

" – who never cared for him the way we did, and still he decided to leave. Now you think you can waltz back into a life that you destroyed?" Old Man Ma barked at Ethan, who winced at the truth in his words. The guilt that stung him like needles when he listened to Rowan's siblings' protests at his return came back to haunt him.

"He didn't destroy anything. I..." Rowan bit her lip. "I overreacted."

"You weren't overreacting." Ethan and Old Man Ma said in unison. Ethan's agreement was enough to render Old Man Ma speechless, and Rowan's father stared at him, confused and indignant.

"I'm trying to help you out here!" Rowan said incredulously. Ethan tried to explain himself, but the words just wouldn't come, not with everyone staring at him.

"Even the boy agrees," Old Man Ma said, recovering his composure. "He shouldn't be back here. Actually, he shouldn't be back in general."

"Well, he is." Rowan fired back. "And I need him."

"For what?" Clara frowned. "You're not leaving again, are you?"

Her mother's terror at the prospect of losing her child again and reliving the last few days of hell made Rowan bite her lip. She glanced at Will, Nico and Billie, all of whom either shrugged or wore similar uncertain looks. "Maybe. Maybe not."

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