Athena, Annelise, and Xander, like on their way out to New San Francisco, took their time driving back to Sunnyville. Only that time, they took a more southerly route home. Along the way they saw the Grand Canyon, visited the Petrified Forest National Park, and saw even more fae. There were knockers, miner fae that tap on the walls of old mines, in an old mine they came across; there was a kelpie, otherwise known as a water horse, grazing next to a lake; bogies throwing rocks at each other, and then the van, on the side of the road, and many more.
Still, some of the magic from their trip heading to California was gone. As expected, it just wasn’t the same without Dianna. And while they still had immense fun, and Annelise took many, many more pictures, they didn’t stop nearly as often, or do as many things as they had on their way out.
Annelise, meanwhile, kept the promise she made to Athena when she agreed to let Xander come. Athena never felt like just a third wheel. She was never overlooked, and her opinion was always taken into account.
Spending that much time with Annelise and Xander, meanwhile, allowed Athena to see how good they were together. She was able to see how they made each other laugh, and how they’d glance over at each other when the other wasn’t looking. Many of those moments were sickeningly sweet, making her want to barf, or at least pretend to, but she was also overjoyed to see Annelise so happy. And soon enough, all the reservations she’d initially had about Annelise giving him a second chance passed away. It was abundantly clear to her that Xander really cared as much about Annelise as he said he did.
In the middle of all the fun and traveling, though, Annelise still had a lot on her mind. For she still couldn’t help but wonder what she was going to do once she got home. Her disappointment of not receiving any clarity on the subject from the Seelie Lights was back in the forefront of her mind, regardless of everything that came after. She had been completely honest about that fact with her friends, and Xander. None of them, however, were much help on the subject until one night, when Athena was asleep on the back seat while Annelise and Xander were awake together.
Once again, she expressed her frustration on the matter to Xander. She just didn’t understand why it hadn’t worked out the way she wanted it to. She didn’t understand why her friends had epiphanies, and she hadn’t. And then, Xander said something deceptively simple, yet full of truth.
“Did you ever think that maybe you don’t need an epiphany?” He asked. “I mean, maybe you already know what you want to do.”
Never before had that possibility crossed her mind. Then again, the more she thought about it, the more unlikely it seemed. For the only thing she truly wanted to do, the one thing she wished she could do for the rest of her life, was exactly what she’d been doing for the past couple months: traveling, seeing the world, and taking pictures. That wasn’t exactly a job, though. Who would pay her to do that? So she dismissed that thought, hoping that maybe she’d just have another dream that would give her a clue on the matter.
Then, about a week after leaving California, they made it back to Sunnyville.
Their families were extremely relieved to have them back again, and showered hugs on the girls while Xander stood by awkwardly. Then Annelise introduced Xander to her parents, and Grandma Emily.
Her mother, having recovered from the shock of Annelise driving around the country with a boy, gave him a quick hug. Her father squeezed Xander’s hand so hard that it felt like it was going to break. And Grandma Emily merely reviewed him for a second, before declaring that he’d do for the work she had in mind.
In the weeks that followed Xander got to know Annelise’s family well, and her parents, and Grandma Emily especially, grew to like him. As planned, he helped out at Grandma Emily’s, doing yard work, and other odd tasks that needed done but Grandma Emily was too stubborn to hire someone to do for her. And Annelise enjoyed sitting inside with Grandma Emily, drinking lemonade and watching him work.
Athena, meanwhile, called the school to change her major and register for her new classes the day after she got back. It was a bit tricky doing it over the phone, but it was nothing she couldn’t handle. A much more formidable problem was convincing her father that it was the right choice. Normally, they saw eye to eye on just about everything. But when she told him that she was changing her major, and what she was changing it to, they argued like they never had before. Athena refused to back down, though, and eventually her father reluctantly accepted her choice.
Annelise and Athena talked to Dianna on the phone almost daily. They were pleased to hear that she was happier than she’d been in a long time, even if she did miss them.
“Have you broken any plates over anyone’s head yet?” Annelise asked her.
“Not yet. I’ve wanted to a few times. There are a lot more Tyler’s out here than I expected,” Dianna answered.
“Nothing’s happened with any of them, right?” Athena asked.
“Of course not. I learned my lesson the first time,” Dianna answered. “Not all the guys are like that, though. There’s this one guy, Henry, who comes in a lot and writes, like, weird code stuff on his laptop all day. It’s kind of strange, but he’s nice. He always wants to know how I’m doing, and leaves good tips.”
“So is there something there?” Annelise asked.
“What? No. I mean, he’s a good customer, but that’s all.”
“Bet something happens there,” Annelise whispered to Athena, covering the phone.
Athena nodded back.
So August rolled around with the sound of cicadas, and the heat and humidity of hell. The days passed pleasantly and without event until, at the end of the month, the time for Athena and Xander to leave for school was upon them. Once again, Annelise was shocked by how quickly the time to part ways seemed to creep up on them, especially considering how slowly time seemed to pass most days.
So, again, she found herself faced with goodbyes.
After Athena told her father goodbye, she drove to Grandma Emily’s house, where Xander and Annelise were waiting for her.
Grandma Emily and Xander shared a fond hug, and she made sure he knew that he was welcome back any time. Then she gave him and Annelise some privacy.
“I’m going to miss Grandma Emily,” Xander said as he and Annelise loaded his bags into the van. “She really is awesome.”
“I told you,” Annelise said.
They finished loading up the van a minute later. It felt strange to Annelise to see Xander and Athena’s bags in there, but not hers.
“I’m going to miss you most of all,” Xander said, pulling her into a tight hug.
Annelise never wanted to let go. After everything they’d done, everything they’d gone through just to be together, saying goodbye was absolutely heartbreaking.
“We’re not going to become like you and Melissa were, right?” She asked, just needing some reassurance.
“No. Of course not. I’ll be back here as often as I can. I’ll come back so much you’ll get sick of me being here.”
They shared a kiss, and then Xander moved back so Annelise could say goodbye to Athena.
“I’m going to miss you,” Athena said, also giving Annelise a hug.
“I’m going to miss you too,” Annelise said. “So the three musketeers have finally broken up completely.”
“Not for long, or forever. Just for a while,” Athena said. “And we’re going to talk all the time too.”
“As often as we can. Remember, you said we’d geek out about the fae together.”
“And I meant it.”
“Keep him in line for me,” Annelise told her friend, nodding at Xander.
“Easily,” Athena replied. “Well, we should get going then,” she said, giving Annelise one last hug, struggling to hold back tears.
“Bye Athena,” Annelise said.
“Bye Annelise,” Athena said.
With that, Xander stepped forward again, and gave her one last kiss.
Once again, Annelise never wanted it to end. She wished that it could be just after the Seelie Lights again, with everyone still together, and the entire summer ahead of them. But it wasn’t.
“I love you,” Xander said to her when they broke the kiss.
And like that, the tears Annelise had been trying to hold back flowed from her eyes. It was the first time he’d told her he loved her. And now they had to part.
“I love you too,” she said through her tears.
To that, even though there were tears in his eyes too, Xander smiled.
“I’ll see you later,” he said.
“You better,” Annelise shot back.
Without another word, Athena and Xander got into the van, and started the engine. Before setting off, they waved at Annelise, and Annelise waved back.
Then, at last, they pulled away, and drove out of sight.
A minute later, when Annelise stopped crying and wiped the tears from her eyes, she was nearly unable to believe that she was alone in Sunnyville. Dianna was in California. Athena and Xander were going to school. And she was alone. And she missed all of them.
Once again, she wished that she, and Dianna, and Athena were together again. She wished that she could go back a few months before, when they’d just graduated and were setting off on their road trip. But she couldn’t. Their summer of light had ended at last. It was time for real life to begin. Whatever that meant.