Hugo pulls me into a quick embrace before giving Banner a firm handshake. He turns his attention back to me, and gives a warm smile. I smile back, easily. I feel as though the stresses of the morning are slowly melting away, but they leave a tight knot in my stomach. It's a knot that's been there for years, I always feel it when I'm nervous around people. It only subsides when I know the people I'm with inside and out. On one instance, before a mission, I felt so sick and anxious it actually caused me to rush to the bathroom and lose my breakfast. Kay had to stand in there and calm me down for several minutes before I was able to proceed with the mission.
"Naomi?" Hugo asks, knitting his brows together. I realize that while I was digging through my memories, something I do much too often to be healthy, he had been talking to me.
"Sorry," I scramble for an excuse. "It's so..." Crap. "I'm starving." I lurch towards a cabinet and give a sigh of relief when it's the one that holds the bowls.
"Naomi always goes into a nearly comatose state when she's hungry," Banner chuckles. It's not a lie, but I can tell he only says it to save me from my lame excuses.
Everyone shrugs it off, and they make room for me at the table. Banner excuses himself, claiming he's too smelly and sweaty to join us at the table. After he leaves, I go about pouring my breakfast and taking the greatest care to cover each grain with milk. All the while, I search my brain for something; anything, to talk about.
"Did you enjoy your run, dear?" My mother asks, and I'm momentarily taken aback by the profound normalcy of the question.
"Yeah, it was nice." Should I add something on? Probably. "Everything looks so much the same."
"I guess it does," my mother comments, putting on a thoughtful expression. I appreciate her supposed interest in my flat answer.
I sneak a glance over at Hugo, who it sitting right next to me, refilling his glass. How strange it feels to be sitting at the same table as if it was another ordinary day!
Anthony winks at me from across the table, and I fight the blood rushing to my cheeks. I content myself with stuffing way too much cereal in my mouth and attempting to look normal while simultaneously mimicking a squirrel that is gathering nuts for winter.
I remember something important and decide to test it in the quiet air. After a few more seconds of munching on my cereal, I take a sip and discreetly swish it around my mouth to make sure I have nothing in my teeth.
"Does Sergeant Wigman still live in town?" I actually know that he does, I checked before I left Bluevale, but it would be nice to have a conversation.
Instantly, everyone tenses around the worn table. "Yes, I believe so," Mother answers me. "Why?"
I pretend not to notice everyone's eyes boring into my soul. "Actually, it's tradition to meet with the Valer that recruited you. You know, sort of like paying your respects, I guess is a way you could put it." My spoon scrapes against the bowl, piercing the sudden silence.
"Paying your respects?" It's Anthony who speaks, looking at me with such fierceness I falter for a moment. I understand what question he's asking, I've been asked questions like it time and time again.
"Sergeant Wigman ended up shaping a huge chunk of who I am," I explain. "By recruiting a young girl to Bluevale, he inadvertently taught me some of the most important lessons I will ever learn. Bluevale made me who I am, or rather, showed me who I want to become, and Sergeant Wigman is the one who opened to door."
It's silent for a few seconds, stretching on for an eternity, and then everyone starts shooting questions at me at the same time. I hold up my hands in surrender, and Mallory finally stops everyone.
"Hang on, give her some room!" She laughs at my terrified expression. "Don't worry, we'll all get to ask our questions tonight at the big dinner. For now, just let her eat her breakfast in peace."
"Big dinner? Tonight?" I ask, the knot in my stomach teaching itself new tricks.
"My family is invading the house tonight to come and see you," Hugo tells me, his face reflecting a trained look of politeness. Seeing that makes me internally flip a switch and realize that tonight has abruptly turned into a diplomacy mission instead of a reunion.