They watched, fascinated. There was a wrenching sort of sensation as sky was replaced by void dusted with stars. A thought occurred to Tia, and Tony began to voice her whispered question, "translating" out of habit. He stopped, whacking his forehead with an open hand, as it occurred to them that that was no longer necessary.
"How is it we can breathe? And that the gravity's still working?"
One of the other two adults in the lifeboat, a woman slightly older than Rael, with short, brown hair and twinkling hazel eyes, turned from her workstation. "That's my job on board," she explained matter-of-factly. "Though any of us could manage it--it's not hard, once you've got the hang of it. But Rael's our communicator; I can't reach as far as he can. Ike, here, is our navigator. The best of us at visualizing places. "
Tia blushed, chagrined. "I'm pleased to meet you all, ma'am. I'm sorry I didn't ask for names, sooner."
"Keisha, Tia." The woman smiled warmly. "And believe me, feeling's mutual. There are some people on the Mountain who are going to be very happy to see you."
Tia smiled back. Rael put a gentle hand on Tony's shoulder.
"Father O'Day is all right," Rael said. "I looked in on him. He means to wait, before he comes to Witch Mountain, but he's safe. Just wants to make sure he's not being watched before he does."
“Then you don’t mind if he does?” Tony asked, sounding a bit nervous. “ We had to trust him. There wasn’t--”
“Tony.” Tia shook her head. “If they didn’t want any Earth people to know about them at all, for certain, they could have told us to leave him before we got to the lifeboat. And, and he wasn’t the first one, was he?” she asked in sudden realization. “The scouts who found this place had to learn to talk from somebody, if nothing else?”
Winkie, as if sensing Tony’s uncertainty, leaped down from the counter where he’d been watching, and came to them, rubbing against Tony’s ankles with a loud purr. Tony looked surprised, but leaned over to stroke the cat's fur, momentarily distracted. Tia hid a smile.
She’d told her brother that Winkie was clever, and special; not once had she ever claimed her little cat wasn’t sneaky as well.
“You’re right,” Rael admitted, giving Tia a wry smile. “Don’t worry about it, Tony. I promise you,
he’ll be as welcome as any of our own people.”
The silence in the lifeboat was a contented one, after that. The children explored the lifeboat's interior, curiously. There were few devices, as such; the Witch Mountain people relied more on their own powers than gadgets, though there were electrical panels that fed into a device that rendered their craft "invisible" to radar and other sensors, and auxiliary fuel tanks. The gadgets held Tony's interest.
Tia returned to the viewport, watching, drinking it in.
"Time to sit down and strap in. We're about to reenter the atmosphere," Ike's voice broke the quiet.
They took seats next to each other. Winkie curled up in Tia's lap, seeming unconcerned, as they descended.
Witch Mountain came into view. Tia drew in a happy, delighted breath. Tony was silent, but he reached out and took her hand, squeezing gently.
Some things didn't need to be fitted into words. Home, belonging, was one of them. They felt it, as soon as they caught sight of the snow-topped rocks that were the mountain's peak. Further down, they caught sight of houses, and people, like tiny dolls amid thick stands of dark green pines.
The lifeboat set down on a smooth, wide granite ledge, easily twice its size, and clearly meant for just this purpose. Tia could see a path leading away from the ledge, into what looked like a cave.
There was a white-haired, bearded figure standing there, waiting for them...
Then she and Tony were sprinting for the hatchway, outside bare seconds later, to fling themselves into the man's outstretched arms.
“Yes, it’s me,” replying in the same ultrasonic speech Tia used. “Thank the stars--”
Tia remembered the sound of his voice, though the years had aged him from the man she could recall. She gulped hard, clinging to him. Tears of mixed joy and bewilderment--and old heartache--stung her eyes. She wiped at them iimpatiently.
“How…? We thought you’d died.” Tony spoke after a long moment.
“For a long time, I feared the same thing for both of you,” Uncle Bene replied. They looked up to see him blink hard,
eyes suspiciously bright. “They gave me what was supposed to be a ‘burial at sea’. We weren’t all that far from land, though, and if you know the right way to talk to a shark, he can be very accommodating. But oh, thank the Creator…I couldn’t believe it when the others told me,” he whispered. The smile that lit up his face took decades from him, somehow.
It was several minutes before anyone let go, and even then, reluctantly. Tony winced, putting a hand to his head.
“Tired?” Bene asked, concern wrinkling his forehead. “You’ve both had a hard time of it, from what I understand.”
Tony nodded. “Deranian kept us running…” he fished out his harmonica, and blew a few notes. Discordant, dark, and angry. Sound of glass breaking, muted shrieks. The pebbles near their feet shifted into the air, rocketing in a few different directions, before falling to hit the ground hard.
The old man watched, seeming unafraid, or even surprised. He whistled softly, a series of notes like a cheerful bird’s song. The sound flowed over them, easing their aches and exhaustion.
The tightness went out of Tony’s posture. Tia breathed a small sigh of relief, seeing the anger leave his eyes.
“Come on,” Uncle Bene said gently. “Let’s go find you somewhere to rest. Everyone wants to welcome you home, but they’ll understand you need to catch your breath.”
He led them to one of the houses, a brightly lit and cozy-looking building, painted a soft white and blue. As they climbed the steps onto the porch, the door swung silently open before any of them could touch it.
Tony and Tia exchanged a quick, smug grin. Bene glanced back at them, one eyebrow tilted, and chuckled.
The interior was warm, and there was a pot of food bubbling on a stove, and more bookshelves than Hackett House had had in its entire library. Tony firmly herded Tia away from those, knowing that if she got to those books, she wouldn’t be dragged away for hours--”and if you don’t eat, neither do I,” he told her in a tone that told her arguing wasn’t going to work.
They could barely keep their eyes open after they’d eaten. Uncle Bene led them to the bed rooms upstairs, and let them each choose one.
Tony and Tia slept, untroubled.
She stirred , finally, hearing a familiar voice--no, four voices-- coming from outside the house. She peered out the window.
They must have slept for hours, she thought; the clouds were being painted red and purple by the setting sun.
Sounds of forest music, and people singing in harmony with it, blended in with the voices she’d heard. She glanced in that direction.
A tall, powerfully built man, wearing a priest’s collar, flanked by a pair of underfed black bears, stood in the little meadow before the porch. They were talking quietly with Uncle Bene.
She hesitated, then woke Tony, calling to him softly. He joined her, and they watched for a minute.
“C’mon. Let’s go check on those dumb bears,” he grumbled. “They’ll probably never leave, you realize…”
“Sounds good to me,” Tia replied. She hurried to catch up, as Tony strode briskly down the hall. Her feet skimmed over the floor, not touching it, before she stumbled, realizing what she was doing, and dropped to the floor. She decided that she probably should hold off on trying that, until they’d learned a bit more.
They were in their own sort of place, after all. There’d be time; she could wait--for a little while.