Her hand jolts free, tiny fingers slipping loose from her grandfather’s reprimanding grip, and before she knows it she’s running, fists clenched at her sides, and it’s only when she remembers to stop that she gasps, stumbles—her mind catching up in one sudden moment with the rest of her, all twisted and wound tight.
The castle is big in a way she can’t comprehend. The halls all look the same, and the adults turn to her with pinched faces, their mouths pulled in identical, pitying concern, and when Chelsea dares to look up at them she feels unbearably small, so much she can’t stand herself, so she just—doesn’t.
She stumbles past a door, then another, both arms spread, and thinks it doesn’t matter if nobody wants to deal with a crying little girl—it doesn’t matter, because she doesn’t know where she is, and it’s not like anybody will find her here, anyway.
For a moment it’s just her and the room and the gnawing hole of guilt in her that doesn’t know how to stop growing. She wonders what she’ll say when she’s found, eventually, or if she’ll stay here forever, like she deserves. Her grandfather will leave her like her mother has left her and her father before that, too, because that older boy, the one who’ll replace her, he’s nothing like you, see? So much more quiet and well-behaved, learning all his tricks faster than you ever did, and you’ll bet he’d never cry, would never rush up to a stranger with tears in his eyes and running down his face, accusing him of stealing his only family away.
No, of course not. Only a child would do that.
The thought sinks, settling itself inside her. Plain and unvarnished and the truth. Her eyes are still wet, though her tears are drying already, and it’s okay, really. Scrapes heal and tears dry and people leave her. It’s okay because she’s a child and it’s what she deserves.
Chelsea drags her knees closer and buries her face in them. If anyone asks, she’s just a little bit tired from all the hide-and-seek, that’s all.
He’s there, of course, when she comes to. Standing over her, so she’s caught in his shadow, silver hair and pale eyes blinking disarmingly back, and Chelsea bristles awake in an instant, elbows drawn in a semblance of protection, though it does nothing to stop the color rushing to her face. She hadn’t even come up to his waist.
“Chelsea…” He stretches out one hand—patiently. Even his voice is an adult’s. Benevolent. She shrinks, drawing back without meaning to, and in her humiliation, it’s all too easy to look away. The pattern of the floor suddenly looks very interesting. “Thank goodness. I was looking all over for you."
She’s not fast enough to dodge his attempt to pull her up. She squeaks, eyes wide, feeling like how she’d looked when she was six and was caught reading something she shouldn’t have. Pink and flimsy.
“You didn’t need to,” she wants to say, confident and unapologetic, “I would’ve been able to find my way out alone.” Or, “I won’t lose. You’ll never replace me.” Or even, “You don’t understand a thing.”
Instead, “Grandpa must be furious with me.”
“Master’s just worried.” She doesn’t know why he’s smiling—but, ah, that’s right, she thinks. He must think this is all very funny. Just one silly little girl among thousands. She blinks, hard, then looks away again. “Come on. I promised him I’d look for you.”
She hasn’t much of a choice, so she follows. The walls and floors and corners all look as identical as they had before, but of course, he walks through them like the back of his hand, so effortlessly you’d think he lives here.
“I’m sorry I hit you,” she murmurs, at last. “I shouldn’t have…”
Chelsea had been looking at her shoes, so as to avoid the look on his face, but the smile is obvious in his voice, anyway.
“Mas—your grandfather, I mean,” he corrects, “he told me about you. I’m sorry about your mother. Nobody should lose both parents at such a young age.”
It occurs to her in that moment that he hasn’t let go of her hand. It must be because he doesn’t trust her enough not to lose her way without him. It must be.
But maybe she’s the worse one, because she doesn’t tell him otherwise.
“You shouldn’t be,” she replies, forgetting not to look up. “It’s my fault she’s gone, so…”
For a moment, he’s silent. “It’s all right. I shouldn’t say it, but… I miss my mother very much, too.”
She blurts out without thinking, “How old were you?”
“Eight.” His smile shifts minutely. “Just a year above you.”
“And you still miss her?”
“Some days more than others.” He looks straight ahead, and then she can only speculate what face he’s making when he says, “It wasn’t easy, at first. I used to think, ‘why me’? Blamed myself, even. But tragedies are nobody’s fault—and my mother’s passing was simply that. And besides, I’m not alone. I have my father, my teacher… and now, I suppose, you too. I don’t know if saying all this makes it any easier for you, but… Ah, sorry. I didn’t mean to make this about myself.”
They keep walking. Chelsea doesn’t press any further, despite the look on his face that suggests he has more to say. But. “Wait,” she jolts suddenly, “me, too?”
“Well, of course,” he laughs. “You’ll be here next week, after all. And the week after that, too. You didn’t know? Master was in the middle of explaining things when you, well…” His voice trails away into another chuckle.
The back of her neck heats up. And here she had been thinking she was going to be replaced.
“Anyway. I know you didn’t have the greatest first impression of me, but. I hope we can get along from now on.”
And she’d been so caught up in her resentment that she hadn’t even bothered to learn his name.
When Chelsea asks, all it seems to accomplish is to coax another bout of soft laughter out of him.
“I’m sorry,” he says, once he’s stopped. “How awfully rude of me. We should start over from the beginning, then…”