10,203 A.A.-Two weeks until the Summer Solstice
Joe pokes his head into Stein's tent. "You have some visitors, Commander."
"I've told you not to call me that." Stein looks up from the mountain of papers on his makeshift desk.
The lieutenant grins sheepishly. "Old habits die hard."
"Make sure to bury them next time," he says, finishing his report to the council. He sets down his quill. "Send them in." He takes off his glasses once Joe leaves and rubs the bridge of his nose. They were fighting a losing battle and the members of the council weren't going to be pleased with his report's honesty. He'd always suspected the but the council was made up of overly optimistic fools who refused to listen to logic. And now, with the now-mortal Excalibur's message from Azusa arriving in the midst of their frantic search to find the Avatar, there was no denying things were going very badly.
He had moved his troop back to the western coast of the Earth Kingdom in reaction to the Avatar's disappearance, hoping they could find something new to help them in their search for Kid. He puts his glasses back on. In truth, he didn't believe it would yield anything but he was running out of places to turn.
A familiar face interrupts his thoughts. "Long time, no see, Stein."
It takes a lot to surprise Stein but the sight of Sid, Jackie and Kim astonishes him. He rises to his feet. "How are you three here? Together?"
"It's a long story I'll explain later," Sid says. He turns behind him and pulls a boy with angry, tear-filled eyes. "You'll be more interested in hearing what Gopher has to say."
Stein recognizes the boy's strange aura at once. "And how did you capture this spirit?"
"Is he really a spirit?" Sid says interestedly. "Black Star had said there was something off about him."
"You promised you'd give it back after I talked," Gopher says sulkily.
"And so I will," Sid replies. "But I didn't specify who you needed to talk to."
"Is it all right if we wash up somewhere?" Kim interrupts. "I haven't had a proper bath in almost two months."
Stein gives them a nod. "I'll be wanting to hear your story later."
"Of course," Jackie says as they leave.
"Now," Stein says, gesturing to the cushions in front of his desk. "Sit."
Gopher doesn't talk when they're seated, biting his upper lip furiously.
Sid pokes him in the shoulder. "If you would like to see Noah again, you'll talk."
"Okay!" He wipes at his eyes, taking a deep breath before he begins to speak. "The Order is rounding up the spirit chains and the Avatar because Asura needs them to make a portal."
Stein interlocks his fingers and gazes at Gopher thoughtfully. "And where and when is he planning on making this portal?"
"Ember Island. On the Summer Solstice."
"Ahh." Stein leans back, staring up at the ceiling. His shoulders shake as he laughs. He wipes the tears from his eyes and clears his throat. "Just like old times."
"Glad I wasn't the only one who found the irony in that," Sid says. "Think it'll be in the same spot as last time too?"
"Oh, I have no doubt about that. And if we are to have any hope of making it there, we'll have to leave today," Stein's voice loses any trace of humor. "We'll be continuing this conversation later but what exactly is the status on the Avatar and chains?"
Gopher balls his hands into fists and frowns, lip jutting out resentfully. Then, he steals a glance at Sid. "The last I knew the Avatar and Black Star were traveling to Ember Island together and arrangements were being made for the other two."
Stein nods thoughtfully. All of the chains together was what he had been working to avoid all these years and it had all come undone in a matter of months. "Make sure to keep him somewhere safe, Sid." He dismisses Gopher with a wave of his hand. "After I hear your side of the story, you'll be free to leave. Unless you'd prefer to stay."
"I was never the man to back away from conflict. Especially when it's my family on the line," Sid responds, standing up. "Plus, it seems like you could use every person you can get in this fight."
He smiles faintly. "That's an understatement."