Chapter 60: Let Us Now Commence

"'Scuse me, Aristotle," Gracie giggled, moving the cat to the other end of the bed to finish stripping the sheets. "Oh, don't you lash that tail at me, Catto," she smirked, tossing the periodic table sheets and chemistry quilt in the laundry basket waiting beside the loft for her to make her way down to the basement.

As she went to get the other set of sheets out of the closet, the annoyed cat jumped down from the loft, stalking off. "Spoiled little lasher-butt," she laughed, kicking off the ground to get the musical staff sheets onto the bed, followed by a fleece blanket and a music quilt.

"Of course you have periodic table sheets, Gracie," Carlie laughed, seeing her roommate come out of her room with a laundry basket on her hip. "Only you."

"Duh. It's me," Gracie laughed cheekily.

Lexie smirked. "Hey – does that mean-"

"Nope," Gracie laughed, well familiar with that joke. "Not yet, anyway," she smirked, setting the basket down and ducking into the bathroom to grab her science-print towel and toss that in the wash as well.

"Come on, Gracie, everyone knows that chemists do it on the table," Lexie grinned impishly.

Gracie stuck her tongue out. "Only periodically, Lex," she snickered, putting a bottle of detergent in the basket and grabbing her laundry card. With that, she headed downstairs.

"It's hard to believe that there's only two weeks left in the term," Taybree observed, sitting down to dinner with her roommates on Saturday night.

"No kidding, Tay," Carlie agreed, slipping River a green bean under the table. "Where'd the year go?"

"I dunno, but the tail end of it is gonna be nuts," Gracie sighed. "I am up to my useless eyeballs in grading this weekend, and I've gotta work on a lab report and my final piece for Composition."

"Hopefully that at least means there's no final for that class?" Lexie asked.

"Thank God, it does," Gracie nodded. "I've got the composition for Music, finals for Orgo and Russian, and papers for Para Law and Para Genetics."

"I don't know how you can possibly keep up with everything, Grace," Carlie whistled.

"I can't," Gracie shrugged. "I've got the papers half-written; this is the last experiment I'll need to grade; Cam's taking a lot of the music for service until the term ends, and what I'm taking is all being done with the violin because I need less practice time for that than I do the organ. Even so, by the time we get through hell week, I'm gonna be spent."

"Sounds like it," Taybree agreed. "Please tell me you are getting a break at some point?"

Gracie nodded. "I'm heading over to Nick's on Friday for a cook-out – every spring, he and Eliza have all of their minions come over: welcome the new ones, say farewell to any who are graduating, all that jazz. And after Commencement, Devon's mom is insisting I come stay with them a couple days so that I can just chill and not have to worry about things like cooking," she smiled.

"Nice," Carlie grinned.

"Yep – if I can just survive the chaos, I can enjoy a summer of science. Just gotta keep reminding myself of that," Gracie chuckled. "How about you ladies? Any major plans?"

"Ana and I have to finish the last of the editing on our Cinematography project – it's really turned out amazing. We're just polishing the rough edges at this point and putting in the musical score"

"Please tell me we get a private screening?" Taybree asked hopefully.

"You know it," Lexie laughed. "I've got some final work to do on the portfolio for Studio Art, too. Stats is a final, Psych and Para Arts and Lit are papers."

"Russian History and Para History are just papers – I got that down," Taybree sighed. "But I've gotta somehow keep the Gaelic final from kicking my ass, and the Chem final scares me."

Reaching across the table, Gracie set a hand on the fox-girl's shoulder. "Taybree? You've got this. Trust me."

"Thanks, Gracie," Taybree smiled.

"Paper for Philosophy, finals for Engineering and ASL," Carlie nodded. "And Moses and Daniel warned me – the SCIC always goes to sheer bloody chaos during hell week. It's like every computer on campus smells the perfect chance for a catastrophic failure."

"Aristotle," Gracie groaned, moving the cat off of a lab notebook for the third time in the space of ten minutes. "Stop lying on the page."

"Shoulda named him after a scientist, if he likes chemistry so much," Carlie laughed, coming in with Taybree and River.

"Apparently," Gracie smirked, uncapping her pen and adding a note to the margin of Erin's lab notebook.

"Looks like you're up to your ears in grading there," Carlie observed.

"Mmhmm," the chemist nodded. "Almost done, though – this is the second to last one."

"Do I wanna ask how I did?" Taybree asked nervously.

"Yes," Gracie grinned, fishing through the completed stack for the correct one. "Just give it back when you're done squeeing so I can get it in the spreadsheet," she winked, passing it to the fox-girl.

Taking it, Taybree flipped through to the last page of the last experiment. "I… I got a 97?"

"Yes," Gracie laughed. "Yes, you did." She got no further before she found herself pinned to the futon by a tackle-hug at high velocity. "Eep!" she giggled.

"Sorry," Taybree laughed, her tail still wagging a mile a minute. "It's just… this is the first science class I've ever actually done well in. Thanks, Gracie."

"I didn't do anything special," Gracie laughed, hugging her. "I just showed you a way to think outside the box. You did the rest all by yourself."


"Come on in, Gracie," Nick called, looking up from his desk.

"Everything's in the spreadsheet," she said, coming in with the box of lab notebooks.

"Thanks," he grinned, teeking the box back behind his desk where the box with the Orgo notebooks was already waiting.

She raised an eyebrow as she noticed the open lab notebook on his desk. His lab notebook rarely left his research lab, and as a rule, he didn't need to pore over student lab notebooks this late in the term – he had lab asses for that. There was just one lab notebook likely to be open on his desk. "I'm sorry," she said with the faintest trace of a smirk, nodding toward Mitch's lab notebook.

"Don't remind me," he groaned. "It's a mess, and I feel the need for a shower just looking at the cover. But at least he's not stupid enough to come yell at me for it," he sighed.

Gracie nodded. "I'd be lying if I claimed not to be curious as hell, but if I'm not the one grading it, it's none of my damn business what's in it," she shrugged. "I'm going to be holding a review session during Dead Days," she said. "Just to confirm, I am okay to tell him to beat it if he shows up and decides to make an ass of himself?"

"Absolutely," Nick confirmed. "Quite honestly, I would understand your kicking him out if he dares so much as darken the door. If he needs review help, he knows where to find me."

"If he can be civil, I'm okay with letting him participate. Devon said he'd come sit in, just in case."

"I admire your patience, Gracie," Nick observed, shaking his head. "But if he gives you any trouble, please tell me, okay?" he requested. "You shouldn't have to deal with any more of his abuse."

"I'm done tolerating his bullshit," Gracie nodded. "I shouldn't have tolerated it for as long as I did." She glanced at her watch. "Gotta run – I've got orchestra practice. It's the time of year when Pomp and Circumstance takes up permanent residence in one's head," she smirked. "See ya tomorrow, Nick."

"See ya then, Gracie."

"Nicky," Eliza said, poking her head in the back door. "Could you please grab me that extra bag of charcoal out of the garage? I want to isolate the veggie patties and the veggie dogs to the smaller grill, because I don't know if Gracie can eat them."

"On it, Lizie," Nick confirmed, moving a plate of burgers far enough back on the counter not to be counter-surfed by the dog as soon as he left the room.


"Eowyn, don't even think about it," Nick chided, seeing the golden retriever looking longingly at the counter, her tail wagging eagerly, as he made his way out of the kitchen. "Sam, Abby, get down from there," he said, looking up toward the ceiling as he passed through the living room on his way to the garage. "If you two want to play quidditch, go out to the back yard."

"How'd you know, Dad?" Meg laughed, coming down the stairs.

"'Cause I got mad dad powers," Nick laughed as Sam and Abby came to a landing. "Also, because your sisters have all the subtlety of a brick bat," he chuckled.

"Here you are, hon," Nick grinned, planting a kiss on his wife's cheek as he teeked the bag of charcoal down on the picnic table.

"My hero," Eliza laughed, standing on tiptoe to kiss him back.

"Say, have you seen Double Trouble?" he asked. "I caught 'em playing quidditch in the living room and told 'em to come out here if they wanted to engage in those shenanigans."

"Uh, not in about forty-five minutes or so, no," she said, shaking her head.

Nick rolled his eyes. "You thinkin' what I'm thinkin'?"

"Mmhmm," she sighed. "Cue the tattle in five… four… three… two-"

As if on cue, the screen door slammed, accompanied by the sound of a crying child. "Mooom… Daaad… Sam and Abby are playing quidditch downstairs, and the ball hit me in the face."

"Knew it," Nick groaned, turning to see that his eldest now had a bloody nose. "You take care of Jo, Lizie – I'll go deal with Sam and Abby."

"Ten-four," Eliza nodded. "Come on, honey – let's go get you a tissue and some ice."

Coming down the steps to the basement playroom, Nick was unsurprised to hear the telltale sound of balls bouncing around and two giggling five year olds. As he reached the bottom of the steps, he found two metallic hula hoops taped to the ceiling, and the twins darting around the room – one on the broom and one on the mop – with two glittery purple mermaid Nerf balls, a My Little Pony playground ball, and a rainbow soccer ball. Engrossed in their game, neither twin had noticed him yet. "Samantha Elaine and Abigail Marie!" he said sharply. Both girls promptly found themselves teeked right out of the air and brought to stand in front of their father as their cleaning paraphernalia clattered to the floor.

"What, Daddy?" Abby asked, trying and failing to project a sense of innocence.

"What did I just tell you girls less than half an hour ago?" he asked, looking each of them in the eye.

"...To go out in the backyard if we wanna play quidditch?" Sam suggested hesitantly.

"Correct. And what did the two of you do instead?"

"We snuck down to the basement?"

"Yes," Nick nodded. "Now, do you know why I told you to go play in the backyard?"

"Because it makes a mess?" Abby suggested.

"That's true, and inconvenient," Nick replied. "But the reason I told you not to play inside was because somebody could get hurt. Jo got hit with a ball, because the two of you didn't listen when I told you not to do something."

At that, both girls immediately looked more contrite – they hadn't even seen their big sister come into the room, and certainly hadn't intended to hit her. "We're sorry."

"Good," Nick nodded. "Now, first you two are going to pick up the mess in here before somebody trips," he told them both – the flying balls had dislodged toys from the shelf and upended a stuffed animal hammock. "Next, you're going to go apologize to your sister. And then, because you've shown me that you can't follow instructions playing by yourselves today, you're going to come sit at the kitchen table with me while your sisters play outside until the minionry gets here."

"But Daddy-"

"Sam, if you argue with me, you're going to forfeit dessert tonight too," he told her. "Do I make myself clear?"

"Yes, Daddy."

"Good," he nodded, walking over to the pink hula hoop and standing on tiptoe to pull it down from the ceiling before teeking the turquoise one to his hand along with the broom and the mop. "Now, get these toys picked up."

As Nick came up from the basement with the twins, he found Jo sitting on the kitchen counter, pinching her nose with a tissue while Eliza cleaned up the blood drips that had gotten on the floor.

"I think it's stopped," Jo remarked, cautiously removing the tissue.

"Good," Eliza nodded. "Don't sniffle, though, or it might start again."

"Okay, Mom," Jo nodded, sliding down from the counter and throwing the bloody tissue away.

"Now, Sam, Abby?" Nick prompted the twins.

"We're sorry, Jo," Abby told her.

"Yeah – we didn't mean to hit you," Sam added.

"It's okay," Jo nodded. "Hug?"

Nick smiled slightly as he watched the three girls hug. It wouldn't do to let the twins see him grin, under the circumstances, but he was very pleased to see the three of them making up.

"You need to go change your shirt, Jo," Eliza said once they were done. "Bring me that one afterwards so I can hit it with peroxide so the blood doesn't stain."

"Okay, Mom!" Jo nodded, scurrying up the stairs.

"Walk, don't run," Nick called after her – Jo trying to run on the stairs was a frantic call to Uncle Toby looking for a place to happen. "As for you two," he continued, turning toward the twins. "Take a seat, young Skywalkers," he told them, nodding to the kitchen table. Stepping over to the small desk he and Eliza used for charging laptops in the kitchen, he took two sharpened yellow #2 pencils from a beaker, then raided a drawer and extracted two sheets of paper from a color-coded folder. Stepping back over to the table he handed each of the preschoolers a pencil and an alphabet practice worksheet.

The reply was a collective groan, with strong notes of pout, and a whiny finish.

"Do not even start with me," he told them firmly as Eliza picked up a plate of hot dogs and a plate of burgers and headed back outside to start the grill. "You did something I told you not to do – this is the consequence."

"Daddy… we're all done."

"One sec, girls," Nick told them. Setting the plate of sliced onions aside next to a plate of sliced tomatoes, he took off his respirator and put his glasses back on before stepping around behind the twins –– if they'd been deliberately sloppy, he'd hand them another worksheet, and continue until they got it right. But he was pleased to see that the entire alphabet had been first traced and then written, both uppercase and lowercase, with quite acceptable results for their age. "Good job," he told them.

"Can we go outside now?" Abby asked hopefully. Eliza had left the back door open to speak to Nick more easily, and Jo, Meg, and Kate could be heard through the screen door, laughing and playing on the swingset.

"No," he told them. "I told you that you were going to stay inside with me until the minionry gets here. Girls who don't listen, don't get to be outside around the hot grill. That is my answer, it will not change." Stepping back over to the desk, he retrieved a jumbo box of crayons, a few coloring sheets, and some blank paper. "Here you go."

The girls brightened at that. "Thank you, Daddy."

"You're welcome." Stepping back over to his cutting board, he picked up his knife and diced a tomato and an avocado.

"What are you making, Daddy?" Abby asked, picking out a picture of a unicorn.

"A couple of pasta salads," he replied, teeking over two bowls of rinsed and cooled pasta. "One's bacon ranch, and the other's caesar."

"Can we make Lebanese Salad?" Sam asked hopefully, starting on a picture of a stegosaurus.

"No, not tonight," Nick answered, adding the avocado and tomato to one bowl along with some grated carrots and some crumbled bacon, and black olives, capers, and parmesan shavings to the other bowl.

"Why not? Is it because we got in trouble?" Lebanese Salad was one of Sam's very favorites, and a usual staple of Finley family cook-outs.

"No, I'm not going to tell you that you can't have healthy food because you got in trouble," he chuckled. "Junk food, sure, but not stuff that's actually good for you. We're just not having chickpeas tonight," he explained, adding dressing to both bowls. "One of the minions is allergic, so if someone accidentally mixed up the spoons, she could get very sick."

"Like how you and Uncle Toby can't have white medicine?" Abby asked. "And if we take it, Mommy has to be the one to give it to us?"

"Exactly like that," Nick nodded, stirring the ranch salad by hand while teeking a spoon in the caesar one.

"What else are we having?" Sam asked.

"Burgers, hot dogs, bratwurst, baked beans, basalmic green beans, potato chips, corn on the cob, watermelon, and pie – we've got cherry and blueberry."

"Let's see," Gracie mused, hovering above the Java Jambalaya, peering at a printed email in her hand – Nick and Eliza's address, complete with a street map. "If that's Main, and that's Pine…" She laughed as she heard an excited childish squeal. "Or I could just do this the easy way," she giggled, flying toward the sound.

Glancing up as he set a plate of watermelon down on the picnic table in a shadow that hadn't been there previously, Nick grinned at the sight of a familiar figure. "Down here, Gracie," he called.

Flipping two handsprings across thin air, the redhead came to an easy landing inside the picket fence around the Finley backyard, sticking it perfectly. "Still got it," she giggled.

"Nice," Eliza laughed. "Heya, Gracie."


Gracie turned to see Jo, Meg, and Kate on the castle-shaped wooden swing set, staring in awe and fascination. Winking, she took a slightly overly theatrical bow.

"Can you teach us to do that?" a hopeful voice asked from the back door as the screen door slammed.

"And can we come outside now Daddy?" Abby asked, catching herself just in time. "You said til the minionry got here…"

"I suppose one minion technically fulfills the requirement," Nick chuckled. "Do you promise to listen to what Mommy and I tell you?"

"We promise!"

"Then yeah – come on out, you two," he laughed.

"Can you teach us to do that, Gracie?" Sam asked again.

"'Fraid not," Gracie chuckled. "One, I do it by aeromancy – I don't think it'd even work for teek-based fliers," she explained. "And two, I'm pretty sure it'd give your Mommy and Daddy a collective coronary," she smirked.

"Mmmhmm," Eliza nodded, flipping burgers.

"God, yes," Nick laughed. "These two are little adrenaline junkies – Miss Samantha, in particular," he chuckled. "We've already had to have a discussion today on how 'house rules quidditch' does not mean 'playing quidditch in the house'."

Gracie tried hard to keep a straight face, but didn't really succeed at it. "I'm sorry, Nick, I'm trying not to snicker at that…"

"Much appreciated," Nick smirked. "It only encourages them."

"Say, Gracie – can you eat veggie burgers?" Eliza asked.

"Possibly," the young chemist replied. "It depends on the brand – some, I can; others, I can't."

"Gotcha," the physicist nodded. "I did keep them separated from everything else, just in case.

"Thanks, Eliza," she said. "In that case, I'll refrain from playing Schroedinger's cat, and just stick to being carnivorous," she grinned. "I'm carrying an EpiPen, but… let's not."

"Agreed. Everything else should be safe," Nick told her. Spying several familiar faces over the picket fence, he walked over and opened the gate. "Caleb, Diego, Amelia, Keiko, Frances – come on in," he grinned. "Is that you, Raine?" he laughed, hearing an approaching skateboard around the corner.

"You know it," the rainbow-haired physicist laughed, rounding the corner and cruising to a stop on her board.

"Raine?" Keiko blinked.

"I'm the minion who never left," Raine chuckled.

"Eowyn, leave it," Eliza said firmly, spying the dog nosing around the picnic table.

"Where's Celebrian?" Raine laughed, putting a veggie burger and a veggie dog on a plate along with some green beans.

"Inside, sulking on top of the fridge," Nick smirked, spitting out a watermelon seed. "The vet had to prescribe her an antibiotic for the feline equivalent of pink eye, and she's still hot-pissed at me for making her into a purrito to get it into her when I got home from campus."

"Ah, the feline 'woe befall you and all your army' effect?" Caleb snickered, going 'typewriter style' on an ear of corn.

"Yep," Nick nodded. "She'll get over it – I expect to find her curled up on my pillow by the time I crash for the night."

When at last pie had been duly eaten and various science nerds were mostly laughing and chatting (and Eowyn was trying hard to look innocent while she licked baked beans from the plate Nick had set beside his chair), Nick and Eliza got to their feet. "And with that, folks, comes the formalities," Eliza chuckled.

"Caleb, Andrea, Dan – c'mere," Nick grinned. "If y'all thought you were getting out of this without a little sap, you were sorely mistaken," he laughed.

"I'm pretty sure we all know you both better than that," Andrea giggled.

"I should hope so," Eliza smirked.

"Thanks for all the help, you guys," Nick told them. "Thanks for all the hard work. Thanks for being a part of discovering new things."

"Enjoy the next adventure," Eliza smiled. "Work hard, play hard, laugh hard, cry hard, and enjoy the discovery wherever the next road takes you. But we do have a little something to send along with you," she grinned as her husband teeked something to his hand.

"Sometimes everyone needs a sounding board at their desk," Nick told them. "And professors have a way of getting tetchy about that at two in the morning. So we thought we'd make sure you always had someone willing to listen when the percent yield is bupkis, the NMR spectrum is a diaster, or the equal but opposite reaction seems to be kicking you in the butt," he smiled, handing each of them a scientist action figure – Dmitri Mendeleyev for Caleb, Marie Curie for Andrea, and Albert Einstein for Dan.

"And for those times when the instrument is slow to run and needs to be babysat or entropy has reared its ugly head, one all-nighter survival kit," Eliza smiled, handing each of them a mug with a cat superimposed on an atomic model, reading 'Think like a cation and stay positive', and containing a bag of ground coffee beans.

"You guys are the best," Caleb grinned.

"It takes one to know one," Nick laughed, clapping the younger man on the shoulder.

Once the three graduating seniors had sat back down, Eliza continued. "Gracie, Keiko, Anders – you've all got your lab keys at this point, but you're not getting out of this without a little sap, either," she laughed.

"The honest truth is that scientists say 'what the frak?' a lot more often than we say 'Eureka'," Nick smirked. "So, for those times when the reaction didn't go, or the calculus is a hot mess, or you never want to hear the words 'coefficient of friction' again – have some lab fuel," he grinned, producing three more mugs – one reading 'Everything has an answer, and that answer is usually physics' and the other two reading 'Research + Time + C8H10N4O2 → Science'. Two contained bags of coffee, the third held a box of cranberry vanilla tea bags that caused Gracie's face to light up like the sun. "Welcome to the team, you guys."

"Here we go," Salome nodded, taking two folders of essays from her desk and putting them into her backpack. "I swear, some days I'd forget my own tail if given half a chance."

"Absentminded professor?" Sarai giggled.

"The stereotype certainly applies," the chaplain laughed. "In this case, compounded by the fact that I have two offices – the one over at Kensington is pretty much just a desk and a place to charge a computer or meet with a student. But I was over there this afternoon, and forgot I'd left a couple things in here," she explained.

"Do you leave things over there too?"

"Oh yes. I don't usually have to go back for them, though – most of the time I can just text Raff and ask him to pop in and grab it on his way out."

"Gracie must be in the chapel," Sarai mused, hearing the piano start up.

"Certainly sounds like her, or possibly Cam," Salome agreed. "Probably Gracie, Cam usually practices at home. Not one of the pieces for this week's service, anyway," she mused.

"Oh – what is it?"

"I don't recognize it," Salome replied, shaking her head. "Gracie's been known to improvise, and I believe she's also taking a composition class this term," she shrugged, pulling her keyring from her pocket to lock the office door behind them.

As the two of them stepped out into the hallway, the music abruptly stopped, accompanied by a frustrated groan. "I think this calls for a superhero who doesn't wear a collar," Salome chuckled, ducking back into the office. She emerged with the ceramic jar that always sat on the corner of her desk. "Campus Mom to the rescue," she chuckled as she and Sarai stepped out to the chapel proper.

They found Gracie sitting at the piano, scrawling on a piece of staff paper. "No, Gracie, that needs a syncopation," she muttered to herself.

"It sounds like someone could use a snickerdoodle," Salome winked, walking up with her cookie jar.

"Could I ever," Gracie agreed, helping herself. "Thanks, Salome – you're a lifesaver."

"Any time, Gracie," Salome chuckled, passing Sarai a cookie as well. "Whatcha playin'?"

"No permanent title yet," Gracie shrugged, nibbling her cookie. "For the moment, I'm calling it The Wind. It's the composition final," she said wryly.

"I think the working title fits," Salome nodded. "I can hear the wind in the harmony."

"Thanks," Gracie replied, finishing her cookie and wiping crumbs on her jeans. "Now let's see if that running syncopation fixed the hot mess going on in the melody," she laughed, playing again.

"I love it, Gracie," Salome smiled once her organ student had finished.

"Much more what I had in mind," Gracie agreed.

"I'm a little surprised you're not writing it for the violin," Salome mused.

"I'd planned to," Gracie shrugged. "My muse wasn't cooperating, so I switched instruments."

"Is that the musician's equivalent of writer's block?" Sarai asked.

"Partially that," Gracie nodded. "And partially symptomatic of being in a college orchestra at this time of year and trying to write for my primary instrument – every time I tried to write something for the violin, I wound up with something that sounded remarkably akin to Pomp and Circumstance," she smirked.

Salome cracked up. "I'm sorry, Gracie," she laughed. "That is such an earworm."

"Tell me about it."

"I'd kinda like to learn to play piano," Sarai mused.

"Well, definitely not this week," Gracie laughed. "It's the last week of the term, and I'll be doing well to remember my own name by Friday. But I could probably show you some things this summer, if ya want."

"Really?" Sarai's eyes lit up.

"Sure," Gracie laughed. "I'll be around, and I'll certainly be playing – I play like most people breathe," she grinned. "And forcing myself to read music more is probably good for me."

"You don't read music?" Sarai asked.

"Not usually," Gracie replied. "I can, but I don't. Partly sheer unapologetic laziness on my part, and partly because my eyes are so bad that it's fewer headaches not to use sheet music when I don't need it. But I'm planning to take more composition, which means that I'm gonna need to get over myself," she shrugged.

"We should probably let you continue with the composition and go get the little kids," Salome observed. "But I'd love to hear the full version of that once it's finished."

Gracie giggled. "I can arrange that, literally and figuratively."

"Well, well," Salome laughed, stepping into the preschool. "If it isn't Double Trouble."

Nick and Toby turned around. "Oh – hey, Salome," one brother grinned. "Hey, Sarai."

"I was actually gonna text you and Raff when I got home," the other twin added. "We were just hatching plans to run a D&D 5e campaign over the summer, and we thought you guys might be interested."

"We're thinking probably Fridays at our place," the first twin finished.

"We're definitely interested, but in the interest of avoiding geographic mishaps, which of you is which?" Salome laughed.

"Oops – sorry," the first brother laughed. "I'm Nick."

"Good thing we don't happen to be wearing matching shirts today," Toby laughed. "It drives everyone nuts when we do that."

"What's D&D?" Sarai asked, curious.

"Dungeons and Dragons," Nick explained. "It's a role playing game."

"It's… a group of people telling a story together," Salome explained. "With a little help from dice to decide how things happen." She smirked. "MAGI would have hated it."

"Oof, yeah," Toby agreed.

"The setting is a bit similar to Tolkien," Salome nodded.

"You and Jay are welcome to play too, Sarai," Nick grinned. "There's plenty of room for more."

"Storytelling and Tolkien?" Sarai giggled. "I'm in!"

"Awesome," Toby smirked.

"Better bring an appetite," Salome chuckled. "If Jay is involved, you know there will be copious homemade snacks."

"Eight players, eight kiddos, including a speedster, running around – I don't think appetite is gonna be a problem," Nick laughed.

"Don't say that too loud," Salome giggled. "Jay's response is likely to be 'Challenge accepted.'."

"Thanks for coming along, Dev," Gracie sighed as the two of them made their way down the hall holding hands.

"Of course, Grace," he smiled. "And hey, with me TAing next term, I'm sure the example is good for me."

"That presupposes that I actually know what the heck I'm doing," she laughed. "That assumption might be somewhat flawed."

"So, how are you surviving dead days?"

"Better with the dragon's flight," she smirked, sipping her tea. "But I think I'm doing okay. Law paper is done, genetics just needs editing. I'm still polishing the composition piece, but I could turn it in now if I had to, and even with another month, I'm not sure that I'd ever really be done with it. Now if I can just keep from handing Nick a blue book in Russian this time, I should be golden," she laughed.

"That actually happened?" he laughed.

"Nick and Svetlana Feyodorovna both tell me it did," Gracie nodded. "He ended up taking it by her office and having her translate it."

"Not gonna lie, that's kinda impressive."

"Thanks," she smirked. "How about you? Surviving dead days?"

"I think I'm okay – mostly done with composition, English paper's written. Classics paper needs editing. Just gotta survive the finals for Chem and French."

"Here's to surviving freshman year," she giggled as they reached the lecture hall where her review session was being held.

"A guard dog? Seriously?"

Devon looked up to see Mitch standing near the door.

"Woof." The bark was low and deep. Three students turned to find a large black wolf coming up the corridor behind them. "You rang?" Zach asked dryly.

"What? Dude – you're not even taking chemistry," Mitch protested.

"No – I took it last year. But I trust you to act like a decent human being around Gracie about as far as I could yeet your sorry ass."

"Thanks, Zach." Gracie looked directly at Mitch, though she did not look him in the eye. "Look, Mitch – I'm done tolerating your bullshit. Quite honestly, I'd prefer not to be in a room with you again, but I have a job to do. If you can keep it civil and treat everyone in the room – including me – with respect, you can stay. If you can't, I'm texting campus security and your ass is out of here. Choice is yours."

"Nicely done, Erin," Gracie grinned. "Does anyone have any further questions on stoichiometry?"

No hands were raised.

"All right, how about RedOx chemistry?"

Again, nothing.

"All right – I think we're done," Gracie nodded. "Feel free to email me if you have questions between now and the final. Don't forget to bring extra calculator batteries – they always choose the worst possible time to go."

Raffi had grabbed the Dungeons & Dragons source books from a shelf in the living room and walked Sarai through the basics of character creation – drawn to the ability to use wild shape, she'd decided on a half-elven druid. Salome had taken her down to Gnomes and Knick-Knacks in town – she and Raffi had oodles of polyhedral dice on hand, but there was nothing quite like having one's own. "Oh – hi Jay," Salome waved, as they encountered the young umbramancer, ogling the dice. "Expanding the dragon horde?" she teased.

"Shiny Math Rocks," he grinned, rubbing his hands together. "Shiny Math Rocks goes click-clack. Needs more, precious. All the more."

"Can't argue with that," Salome laughed. "Though I'm going to have to restrain myself – the number of dice sets I have lying around is ludicrous as it is," she chuckled. "See any dice you fancy, Sarai?"

"Ooh, the teal and black swirl with silver numbers are pretty," Sarai said, pointing.

"Yeah, they really are," Salome agreed.

"My treat, Sis," Jacoby grinned. "Shiny Math Rocks goes click-clack."

"Oh, all right," Salome laughed, happy to let Jacoby play the doting big brother. "But I'm getting each of you a miniature."

"Aw, thanks Mama," Jacoby smiled, hugging her. Resistance would be futile – Salome would insist on spoiling both of them.

"Of course," she winked. "It never feels quite right having a mini who doesn't fit the character," she giggled, perusing to find one for herself as well.

"What are you playing, Salome?" Sarai asked.

"I've got a halfling bard this time," Salome grinned. "But I've played most races and classes at one time or another. Bards are among my favorites, I enjoy having the chance to ham it up in character. My big thing is that I don't play paladins or clerics."

"Why not, Mama?" Jacoby asked, curious.

"Because I already do that for a living," she laughed. "I play D&D for the chance to try something new."

Seeing as it was a gorgeous evening, three families had gathered outside in the Finley backyard. Nick had put a playpen out in the grass for Rosie and Kyrie, and Callum, Kate, Sam, Abby, Meg, and Jo were on the swingset. Meanwhile, teens and adults had gathered around the picnic table. "Oh, heads up – don't be alarmed if anything suddenly turns pink, purple, rainbow and/or sparkly," Eliza remarked off-handedly.

"Wait, what?" Cam laughed.

"Miss Kaitlyn has discovered an illusion ability," Nick explained. "And she is very pleased with herself."

"You don't say?" Jacoby laughed. Usually a pale sort of 'frozen body' white-blue, the young umbramancer was currently best described as 'bedazzled', sparkling like he had had an unfortunate accident in the craft aisle. He grinned as he entered the yard from the house. "Sorry I'm late, I couldn't find a good sized container for my cookies."

"That's quite the look," Salome chuckled as the effect faded – Kate didn't have the attention span to keep it up for long.

"Kate," Eliza reminded her youngest. "Things, not people."

"Okay, that makes me a little bit sorry that I'm mind-blind," Cam chuckled.

"Wait, what?" Sarai asked, confused.

"The medical term is 'telepathic null'," Cam explained. "Kate's ability works by telepathy. But... teeps can't read me, and any other trick like illusion or adaptive camouflage that needs telepathy to work, won't work on me. So I can't see Kate's glitter-bomb," she chuckled.

"Pity," Sarai giggled. "It's cute."

"Whoa, Jayjay," Raffi laughed as his son set his bag down. "How many cookies did you make?"

The umbramancer set down the three large plastic containers, cocking his head. "Ahh... finals week has me a little stressed so…" he coughed. "There's six dozen cookies here… chocolate chip, oatmeal with coconut and m&m's, chocolate cookies with walnuts, my German chocolate cake cookies – so, chocolate cookies with that coconut filling smeared on top, with half a cherry on each cookie…" he lifted off a box, "oh right, and my mint-chocolate cookies, and snickerdoodles."

"Good thing the doc's cleared me to run again," Toby laughed. "I'm gonna need it."

"Good to know. I have a orange-cream cake, and a batch of root beer float cupcakes with several names on them…" Jacoby coughed, a little embarrassed.

"You have my undivided attention, bro," Sarai giggled.

"I've got a pasta bake with your name on it, sis," he laughed, "ricotta and spinach stuffed pasta shells in pesto with mozzarella and Parmesan melted on top." He sighed. "After all my studying, I have no idea how I have the energy to cook."

"I don't either, and I'm pretty notorious for cooking on no energy myself," Salome observed. "Take care of yourself, Jayjay."

"That's why I'm here, Mama. Getting out of the dorm and getting fresh air," he nodded, sitting down at the table and resting his head on his arms. "Ugh."

"Nearly through hell week, Jay," Raffi assured him, wrapping a wing around his shoulders. "But I think some role play shenanigans will give you a much-needed chance to chill for a bit."

"Yup. Been looking forward to this all week!" He hugged Raffi, sighing but cheerfully smiling. "Oh yeah. I got some salty snack mix too, and a dip for chips."

"Is the snack mix saltier than Sal's mouth?" Cam teased.

Salome smirked. "Doubtful."

"I mean, if it was that salty I'd have just put a salt shaker on the table," Jacoby grinned. "But no. It's got pretzel sticks, honey roasted peanuts, rice and wheat cereal squares… the usual," he shrugged.

"Oh, yum," Eliza nodded.

"I thought so," he grinned. "So, I've been wondering who's playing what?" The umbramancer pulled out his player's handbook and a dice bag, along with a folder for his character, and the mini that Salome had gotten him.

"I was just gonna suggest we go around and talk about that," Nick chuckled. "You said you were takin' the wiz, Tob?"

"Y'know, Nicky, it's usually considered impolite to discuss that in mixed company," Toby smirked.

Reaching over, Nick playfully smacked his twin in the shoulder. "Smartass."

Toby raised an eyebrow. "You're only just now figuring that out, bro?" he smirked. "But yes, I've got the wizard. Specifically, a high elven bladesinger named Enrias Siannadel. His familiar is a large black smartassed raven named Llewellyn, who likes to introduce himself to people by stealing anything shiny they're carrying and then asking if he can have their eyeballs if they die in the dungeon."

"Ha," Nick snickered. "We're gonna have a field day with that bird."

"I've got a Tabaxi monk named Saila," Cam grinned. "How about you, Jay?"

"Well, I spent a lot of time thinking about that," he smiled, "But I got inspired by this-" he held up the currently unpainted miniature, "– I went with a tiefling Paladin of Eldath, Goddess of Peace. He is Garrett Erikson, though he is also known by his nickname Silver Eyes."

"I like it," Salome smiled. "How about you, Sarai?"

"I've got a half-elven druid," Sarai smiled. "Caelynna Selene."

"Ooh, wild shape," Nick grinned. "That's always fun."

"I've got a halfling bard," Salome smirked. "Jessamina Maphaver. Known as Jessa to her friends. Small of size and smart of ass. Also, her riding dog, Gus."

"And I've got a dwarven cleric of Moradin," Raffi grinned. "Tarryn Jadehammer."

"And last but not least, Akra Batiq – dragonborn artisan locksmith."

"So, a rogue," Nick smirked at his wife.

"She resents that baseless accusation. She is an artisan tradeswoman – an expert manufacturer of traps, locks, and alarms, with a stall in the marketplace and all. But she is, on occasion… shall we say, a freelance subterranean locksmith?"

"So, in other words, she's a rogue," Nick laughed.

"Technically," Eliza smirked.

"Freelance? I thought you all had a 'union'," Jacoby laughed. "You have the 'trade language' after all."

"Mmm, the guild dues got too ridiculous."

"Oohh, now there's a plot hook if I ever saw one," Jacoby grinned. "I mean, I doubt they liked you going freelance."

"Not as pissed as they probably were when I insisted on earning an honest living when I did it," Eliza laughed.

The banter was interrupted by a distinctly feline hiss – Celebrian had been grooming in the sun on the back deck and was rather alarmed at suddenly finding herself sparkly. She quickly skittered inside through an open window. Nick facepalmed. "Kaitlyn Elizabeth," he said firmly. "We do not prestidigitate the cat."

"Number Three thousand five hundred and forty-seven on the itemized list of 'things I'd never thought I'd say' – by Nick Finley," Jacoby whispered to Sarai, grinning.

Smirking, Toby teeked a guitar over from where he and Nick had been enjoying some jam time before Sal and Raff had arrived and started strumming a riff made famous by the Red Hot Chili Peppers. "Rainbow sparkles from toddler try to steal your meow's elation. And little girls with giggling cause hisses of frustration. And if you want these kind of screams it's Prestidigitation…"

Salome smirked. "I thought I was playing the bard…"

Nick groaned. "Seriously. Not. Helping. Bro."

"I'm her uncle," Toby smirked. "It is my solemn duty to be a bad influence."

"Two can play at that game," Nick laughed. "You're raising a high-level teek. But if I get a call from the preschool about my kid singing nerd lyrics to the tune of Californication, I'm siccing 'em on your six foot eight ass," he teased.


Gracie sighed as she looked through the blue book one last time. No apparent flawed stoichiometry or reaction mechanics pulling in protons out of nowhere. And it was all in English this time. Whether it was good enough remained to be seen, but at least Nick wouldn't have to go find Svetlana Feyodorovna to translate. Sighing, she got to her feet and set the blue book in the pile on the lectern, then picked up her backpack and her model kit and left the room. She brightened as she saw a familiar face waiting for her.

"You look like you need some tea," Devon smiled. "Wanna go find some?"

"Very much yes, on both counts," she nodded. "I just need to swing by the department lounge first – I told Taybree I'd meet her there to hand her a model kit."

"Sounds good," he agreed as the two of them headed down the hall. They found the fox-girl pacing nervously.

"Did someone order a set of nerdy tinker toys?" Gracie asked, holding up the clear plastic box, secured by a hair elastic.

Taybree's sigh of relief was audible. "Gracie! You're a lifesaver."

"Glad to help," Gracie smiled. She set a hand on her friend's shoulder. "Taybree? You've got this."

"Thanks, Gracie," Taybree smiled.

"Quite the party in there," Carlie smirked, passing through the hall with River.

"Ain't no party like a chemistry party," Gracie giggled. "Engineering final?"


"May the mass times acceleration be with you," Devon winked.

"Always," Carlie grinned.

"Oh my gosh oh my gosh oh my gosh!"

Gracie looked up from her book at the sudden squee – her roommates were busily packing up to head home but with her staying on campus for the summer, she had been enjoying the much needed opportunity to decompress after hell week. Her solitude was interrupted, however, as Taybree came into the room carrying a blue book. "Is that the one for Nick's class?" Gracie laughed. Gaelic was less likely to make the fox girl squeal like that.

"Yes!" She opened it to the last page, revealing that she'd gotten an A. "He put 'em in campus mailboxes."

"That's awesome, Tay," Gracie laughed. "One sec, though – if we're gonna continue at this octave, I need to grab earplugs."

"Sorry," Taybree said sheepishly, blushing a deep red.

"No worries," Gracie assured her, sticking earplugs in. "Serves me right for not wearing them in the dorm," she laughed.

"I actually got all of the stoichiometry questions right, too."

"I knew you could do it," Gracie smiled, giving her a hug.

"Not without you, I couldn't."

"Nonsense – I just showed you a new way to look at it. The rest was all you." Gracie was interrupted by a ping from her email client. Grabbing the laptop and pulling it up, she burst into a fit of the giggles.

"What?" Taybree smirked.

Gracie turned the screen around. The email was from Nick, with the subject line 'Thanks, Gracie'. "Sveta and I had a bet going as to whether I'd need to come find her again," Taybree read aloud. "She now owes me bliny." There was an attached photograph of the last page of a blue book – all in English, and Gracie had also wound up with an A. "Nice," Taybree grinned. "What's bliny?"

"Russian pancakes – they're a bit like crepes," Gracie replied. "Putting honey or caviar on them is traditional, but they're also really good with fruit or chocolate."

The computer pinged again. "That one must be from Svetlana Feyodorovna," Taybree observed, handing Gracie back her computer. "The subject line's in Russian."

Pulling it up, Gracie dissolved into hysterical laughter.

"What?" Taybree laughed.

It took a full minute for Gracie to stop laughing enough to talk. "I bet Nick that he would need me to translate another blue book," she said, translating aloud. "I lost. Come by my office tomorrow at one – there'll be bliny."

Salome and Raffi had gotten a sitter for the little kids, but Sarai had become friends with several graduating seniors over the course of human pinball and other campus shenanigans, so Sal had checked with some students likely to be attending and found Sarai some friends to sit with for Commencement since Sal was speaking and Raff would be sitting with the faculty – Sofia and Amelia had been happy to have some teenage company.

Sarai now sat with Salome in her satellite office on the Kensington campus as Salome dug out the full academic regalia she only wore once a year. "What do the red stripes on the sleeves and front mean?" she asked curiously as her foster mom put on her gown.

"The stripes signify that my degree is a doctorate," Salome replied. "The color specifies what kind. The tassel on a tam or mortarboard and the border of an academic hood match the stripes. Red is theology, ministry, or divinity – divinity, in my case. I could also wear blue, because I also have a doctorate of philosophy, or just black."

"Really – you have two?"

"Dual degree program – I graduated from seminary with both degrees," Salome nodded, zipping the gown. "The doctorate of divinity is what qualifies me to preach, the doctorate of philosophy is what qualifies me to teach."

"How many colors are there?"

"In existance? A couple dozen. In common use for doctoral degrees, the number is much smaller, because a Ph.D will always be philosophy blue, regardless of what field the degree is in. So someone like Raine with a masters of science in physics would have a science gold tassel, but Nick and Eliza both wear philosophy blue because they have doctorates of philosophy that happen to be in chemistry and physics. Baqi and Eliana both wear red as well, because they both have doctorates of theology. Toby and Cam wear green for the medical doctorate, and Monty wears purple for the doctorate of jurisprudence. There's also the option to wear a gown in the colors of the institution that conferred the degree – in my case, though, that would really clash, so I stick to the black," she laughed, putting on her hood.

"What do the colors on the hood mean? I mean, on the inside?"

"Those are the colors of the institution that conferred the degree," Salome replied.

"Could you wear the gown with the stripes on Sundays? Like, if you wanted to?"

"If I wanted to," she nodded. "Many Presbyterian ministers who have a doctorate rather than a masters do. I don't mainly because I find it a bit pretentious," she chuckled. "Also one of a number of reasons why I tolerate being called 'Reverend Stephens' even though it's not technically correct, but I don't let anyone on campus get away with calling me 'Dr. Stephens'," she smirked. "Besides, the sleeves on this thing are big enough to smuggle a couple of yappy little lap dogs, and it's uncomfortable," she laughed.

"Why else don't you let people call you Dr. Stephens?"

"It gets me confused with Raffi," she smirked. "Who would also really prefer not to be called Dr. Stephens," she laughed, putting on her tam.

"Not the flat, square kind?"

"Doctorates can wear either, but I can't get a mortarboard to stay on around the horns without an unholy number of hairpins," Salome smirked. She looked up at a tap on the open door. "C'mon in," she called.

"You two about ready?" Raffi asked as he stepped in, already in full regalia himself.

"Yep – better head on down to the quad," Salome nodded. "Sophia said that she and Amelia would meet us there." She smirked. "Hold still a sec, hon," she told him, stepping around behind him. "You're a bit askew," she grinned, rearranging his hood over his wings.

"Thanks, Sal," he grinned. "Come on – time for a whole bunch of pomp and circumstance," he laughed. "Literally and figuratively."

"Huh?" Sarai giggled.

"That song Gracie was complaining about having stuck in her head last week," Salome laughed. "Believe me, you'll know it when you hear it." She was just about to lock the door behind them when she snapped her fingers. "Oops!" she laughed, ducking back in and grabbing her speech off the desk. "I probably could wing it, but I'd rather not."

"Do you always speak at graduation?" Sarai asked.

"Every third year, generally," Salome shrugged, taking out keys and locking the door. "One of the chaplains traditionally gives the charge to the graduating class, but we rotate who. Last year actually would have been my year, but with the heat, Kyrie was making me sick as a dog, and combining that with full regalia I was afraid of needing to make a hasty and undignified exit or else causing Toby to need to jump out of his seat in a hurry, so Ellie and I swapped," she explained. "So, go figure, since I wasn't speaking, Kyrie remained on her best behavior throughout the entire ceremony."

"Of course she did," Sarai giggled.

"She mastered the lost art of trolling from a very young age, that one," Raffi chuckled.

"There was a running bet on whether you'd show up in raptor shape," Caleb grinned as his co-valedictorian made her way over to where the procession would be lining up.

"Mmm, I'll admit that I thought about it," Dinah smirked, putting on her cords and S.U.P.E.R. stole. "But it's too much of a nuisance finding a mortarboard that fits, and it'd require either a teek or some finagling with the podium. Human will do," she chuckled.

"Drat," Leah laughed, walking up with Aaron. "I was betting you'd go raptor."

"My apologies, Leah," Dinah snickered. "I might have to at least get a raptor-y photo op later. Because I can," she smirked.

As Dinah stepped up to the podium, valedictory address in hand, her heart skipped a beat as she saw a very familiar but very unexpected face sitting with her parents, her brothers, and Harry – her former commanding officer. How had Tucker even known? She blinked back tears and swallowed a sob – for at least the next five minutes, she needed to be able to speak coherently. "Never in my life have I been described as a traditional anything," she began. "That includes student. As a number of people here are aware, I'm former active duty military – now active reserves. I have seen places and people and situations which most students never have. I have stomped around as a dinosaur in places just about as far from where we now sit as it is geographically possible to be. And when I came to Glenwood, I found something I had been missing, or perhaps I lost something I had been carrying for far too long. It's like the sound of the refrigerator – you don't hear it until it is not there, and then you stand in the kitchen, ears ringing in the deafening silence. When I came to Glenwood… I found peace."

"You've all spent the last four years studying," Salome continued. "This being a liberal arts institution, you've studied everything under the sun. Some of you, I have had the pleasure of teaching. And thus, I can say with some confidence that each of you has spent a lot of time studying people who changed the world – whether by scientific discovery or political acumen or prowess in battle or creativity in the arts. But what we sometimes forget is that it is not necessary to make history in order to change the world. In fact, I say with utmost confidence that each and every one of you will leave this place today, and go on to change the world. Some of you may go on to cure cancer, or create social justice, or compose works of art that will be studied generations from now – and that's great – but all of you will surely change the world by existing in it. The world leaves its mark on each of us, and we just as surely leave our mark on it. We change the world simply by laughing and crying and living and loving in it."

She looked around at the graduates. "And therefore, it falls upon each of you to decide how you will change the world. You have the power, by your words and actions, even the most seemingly inconsequential, to make this world a better place. The goal of Kensington and S.U.P.E.R. these last four years has been to give you the tools to be the change you want to see. Your task is to go out and build tomorrow – one brick, one discovery, one act of kindness at a time."

Propping his cane on the lectern, Old Ben stepped carefully onto the podium. "Dean Henderson – do the presented candidates meet all of the qualifications for the degree of baccalaureus superno required by Samson University for Paranormal and Esoteric Research and the state of Missouri?"

"Yes, they do, Chancellor Samson," Leah confirmed, speaking up because he had the microphone.

"Then it gives me great pleasure to confer upon them the degree of baccalaureus superno." He smiled broadly. "Congratulations, ladies and gentlemen." With that, he ceded the podium to Kensington's president.

With that, Patricia stepped up onto the podium. "Dean Wright, do the presented candidates meet all of the qualifications for the degree of baccalaureus artium required by Kensington College and the state of Missouri?"

"Yes, they do, President Anderson."

"Then I am pleased to confer upon them the degree of baccalaureus artium, with all of the rights and privileges granted thereby. Congratulations, ladies and gentlemen."

As Dinah went looking for her family after the ceremony, Harry found her first. "Congratulations, Destructo-Tail," he laughed as his fiancée promptly found herself tackle-pounced.

"Why thank you, Stripey-Pants," she giggled, hugging him. "Hard to believe it's finally happened."

"Hard for you to believe, maybe," he laughed, managing to kiss her without being poked in the eye by the mortarboard. "Not hard for me," he chuckled. "Love you, Dinah."

"You two are adorable," said a very familiar voice from behind – Tucker had walked up, along with Dinah's family.

"Maybe just a little," Dinah giggled as she got caught up in a round of bear hugs.

"Congratulations," Tucker grinned at last, once the hugs and photos and tears had finished for the moment.

"Thanks," Dinah smiled. "How did you even know, Tucker?"

The Colonel just laughed. "Now what good is a top secret security clearance if you can't even surprise an old friend?"

"I'll concede the point," she giggled. "But don't be surprised if I return the favor someday when you retire."

"Fair," he chuckled. "So… what now?"

"A mildly anticlimactic side-step to the real world," she shrugged. "As of eight am Monday morning, I go from being the crime lab's student intern to being the newest lab technician, at least until the next time General Nehsaier needs me to go put the fear of God, T. Rex, and the uniform code of military justice into some unfortunate soldier or airman. And given that I'm working for the crime lab, they fully understand that nothing takes out an engine block quite like a thagomizer, so I'll still be caping up when needed. Beyond that? You heard the Madré – time to get out there and change the world."