"And we're here" TJ proclaimed as he pulled over.
It was an asphalt-less parking lot amidst the scrubland, some ten meters away from the beach. The days of Echo long behind them, Sydney and the kids liked the sea and TJ himself didn't feel comfortable around freshwater beaches, so they decided on a secluded spot with few people. Sydney managed to become a minor celebrity as he got contracted for the Elite World Wrestling, so TJ was concerned about crazy people harassing them, either for being two bisexual men raising a family or because of his heel career. That would most likely happen today, but it was a small enough cove that they could easily manage.
"That's it?" said RJ, looking somewhat apprehensive, "I hope don't have to walk a lot."
"Just a mile" Sydney said, much to his olinguito son's horror.
"Just a few feet" TJ said, rolling his eyes, "Its just hidden behind those bushes, just for us."
"Yeah right, for us and for the bugs we'll get on the way there" Jane said, compulsively preening her feathers.
"We could carry you on our shoulders, but you'd get ticks on your head" Sydney said playfully, the tip of his tail landing softly on Jane's head.
"Ugh" she cringed before swatting his tail, "Lets just go to another beach. I'm pretty sure Jin can hold it for a few more hours."
"But I'm hungry" the youngest kid whimpered softly, prompting Sydney to pick him up and cuddle him.
"I brought some mosquito repellent" TJ sighed, "besides they don't survive in salt water."
"Which means they get all over your dad, and then me" Sydney said, landing his tail on Jane's head again, "Tonight we'll be totally infested."
"I hate you so much" Jane said, swatting the tail again a bit more violently.
"Jane, don't say that" TJ sighed again, a bit more excitedly.
He opened the doors, kissing Sydney as he got up and put Jin on the ground.
"Trying to make my life harder by filling their heads with satanic bugs?" TJ said, half-playfully and half-tired.
"The world is a cruel place, love" Sydney kissed TJ on the forehead, "Gotta prepare them for that."
"Fuck!" Jane said as a rock made a small rip on her foot membrane.
"Language" TJ said, going in to examine her foot.
"Dad says it all the time" she said, the pain making her somewhat spiteful.
"Lady, I've been restraining myself long before you came into our lives" Sydney said, "and since you double crossed me you're grounded."
"No, I'm not."
"Indeed, you're not."
TJ rolled his eyes, before spraying some disinfectant.
The walk to the beach was indeed short. There were few people there, including a few kids that RJ immediately set out to talk with. Jane, by contrast, run towards the water, almost flying before she plunged into the waves. TJ always thought cormorants looked graceful when doing that, and that calmed him down after all the frustrations with her attitude. He and Syd set up the towel and umbrella, Sydney almost immediately laying down and pretending to be asleep, just to surprise Jin as he was playing with his tail. Some of the sand got into the sandwiches, so TJ decided to buy some ice cream for Jin.
"Any flavour you'd like?" TJ said, stroking his son's face.
Jin thought a bit.
"Ask him for pirate cocos" Syd mock whispered, staring at TJ's face playfully.
"Oh, so when I'm teaching them about Jesus is "indoctrination" while you trying to get them to like pirates is okay?" TJ said, attempting to be playful but sounding unintentionally judgemental in his own mind.
"You already got RJ, let me have Jin as my quartermaster" Syd said, putting a paper pirate hat on Jin's head, "You want to get all the treasure don't you?"
"Yeah, but I'm hungry" Jin said, looking at TJ pleadingly.
"Two scoops chocolate, sound good?" TJ said.
"Boo, traitor" Syd said, tickling Jin's sides.
TJ rolled his eyes, kissed them both, and went to the stand. As he walked there he saw RJ whimpering, his fur messed up and with a trickle of blood on his chin. The crucifix he normally wore was nowhere to be seen. Horrified, TJ quickly run up to him, and the boy hugged his father, crying into his chest.
"What happened?" TJ asked, but he could already tell what it was a mile away.
"T-they said I wasn't a real christian, that my dad was a b-bad guy and a f-f....they threw it into the sea. I want to go home."
"It's okay sweetie, we'll... uh..." TJ paused, not knowing what to do next.
"Any idea where those punks are?" Sydney said, surprising TJ.
RJ looked at his father gratefully, and weakly pointed towards their direction.
"Syd, please don't make a scene" TJ begged.
"Toby, those kids already made a scene by beating our son" Sydney said, trying to retain some patience, "I'm just going to get them to get RJ's cross back, alright?"
And before TJ could answer back, Sydney was already walking towards some very surprised children and teens. TJ tried to tune out whatever it was going to happen, and carried RJ in his arms to their spot. RJ, chubby as he was, was a pain to carry, but the stress helped TJ's mind to get busy.
"Aw, where's the ice cream?" Jin asked sadly.
"We'll get you ice cream on the way back" TJ sighed, "RJ, help me pack up."
RJ nodded and helped to shake sand off the towels while RJ closed the umbrella.
"We're leaving already?" Jin asked sadly.
"We have to sweetie" TJ tried to reassure him, "Its... complicated."
TJ swore to have heard some whimpers, so he tried to close his ears. Still, TJ doubted he succeeded, seeing as the chevrotain's ears twitched.
"RJ, take your brother to the car. I'm going to get Jane."
RJ nodded, occasionally stealing some glances to Sydney and the kids. TJ and him would have a serious talk about revenge, but for now he stared at the waves. They seemed eerily flat, and they briefly reminded him of Lake Emma. A sense of dread began to run on his spine, the sunlight on his fur feeling like a million little needles piercing the skin exposed by his raised hairs.
"Jane?" he shouted.
No answer. A small black head emerged from the water for breath, but disappeared again before she could hear him.
"Crud" TJ muttered, steeling himself for his watery punishment.
He run towards the waves, and slowly stepped into the surf. Sea water was cold and worst of all it moved, making him feel very nauseous. Worst, it lapped at his legs, almost as if dragging him towards a wet grave.
"Jane?" he shouted again, and got another glimpse of her, but still nothing.
He got further and further in, water up to his chest and freezing his heart. He began to loose footing and before long was paddling desperately, running purely on instinct.
"Jane?" he asked again, desperately trying to keep his head above the water while looking into the abyss.
He saw Jane darting beneath him, waving at him before disappearing again.
"Jane this is not funny!" TJ screamed, paddling more desperately to not sink.
He looked above, and the intense sunlight blinded him. Disoriented, he screamed and paddled erratically until he felt his foot hitting something. Not a rock, a person.
"Jane!?" TJ screamed again and looked dowards, watering entering his mouth and nose.
In the blurr he saw her floating, seemingly knocked unconscious.
"Oh no no no Jane!" he dove in after her.
It was all a blurr, not helped by water filling his lungs. Jane - or what he mistook for her body anyways - was floating away, towards the surface but further into the sea. TJ desperately tried to reach her, but failed every time. Strength was quickly draining from him, and as his mind began to blank he had some strange visions. First of a bright red, then of the monster he saw that day by the lake, then of Sydney and Chase's fight. Only this time, it didn't deescalate into a conversation, but kept going until Chase drowned Syd. Tears mixed with the sea, like TJ lost his daughter, his husband and their entire life together, and soon a death white began to fill his eyes like a searing light.
TJ woke to the sound of crying.
"Oh thank god you're alive" Sydney whimpered, hugging TJ and kissing him on the lips, pouring as much love as he could.
Soon, RJ, Jin and Jane joined him, and TJ felt meekly after them. He looked at Jane, who had a swelling on her head.
"Jane, you're okay?" TJ asked weakly.
"Yeah, I'm fine" she said, wiping her tears.
"S-sorry for that."
"Dad, I'm fine" she said, "I've lived through worse."
TJ cringed. Jane came to them almost dead, so in a way she had gone through worse. Realising that he was little better than her biological parents made TJ nauseous to the core, and he silently prayed for forgiveness.
They sat together in silence for a while. TJ had a sneaking suspicion that this was a hallucination, that maybe all of his life since Lake Emma was a sick dream, and it was finally time for him to wake up.
"Did you get your crucifix back?" TJ asked RJ, trying to desperately break the silence.
"N-no" he said, tears matting his cheeks.
"Not that I didn't make them look for it" Sydney said, pulling RJ to his side.
"Y-you didn't beat them up, did you?" TJ asked concernedly.
"Nah, but I'm pretty sure they pissed themselves just by looking at me" Sydney said proudly.
The kids laughed, and even TJ was tempted to snicker a little. He then felt bad about it, and in his mental state it only made his eyes well a bit more.
"Are you sure you're okay honey?" Sydney asked, stroking TJ's tufts.
"Yeah, just need some time to rest."
"And to think", he added mentally.
Once they got in the car, the kids quickly fell asleep, emotionally exhausted by the experience of nearly losing their father.
"Honey, could you please drive us back" TJ asked, "I'm still feeling a bit weak."
"Sure thing babe" Sydney said, kissing TJ passionately.
For a moment TJ felt reassured, the love turning into light that revealed the truth of their lives together. But as soon as Syd got in the car, doubt began to creep back into TJ's mind. He looked at the trees, the light of the setting sun looking like a Jack-o-Lantern's grin, and he decided he'd stay indoors for a while.