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 Mama and Papa walked Krel and Aja to their rooms. It was silent and Krel had yet to let go of Aja’s hands. She didn’t seem to mind too much.

Krel could tell his parents knew he didn’t believe their reassurances about his corebond, probably because Aja hadn’t either, but their continued silence told him that they were going to let the subject be, at least for the moment. He bet they knew he didn’t want to talk about it.

The family paused outside of Krel and Aja’s doors, the two children facing the entrances and their parents waiting behind them. They probably didn’t want to rush Krel. For that, at least, he could be grateful.

He took a deep breath and turned slightly, looking up at his parents half over his shoulder. They were smiling down at him, their gentle, sad smiles revealing their concern ( pity ) for him. He blinked, startled by the thought, but Papa was talking and he couldn’t deal with it at the moment.

“—so if you need anything, you know where to come to,” Papa was saying. Krel tried at a grin, but it felt fake. Mama gently laid a hand on his head, fingers slowly carding through his spiky hair.

“We love you, Krel,” she said, and bent down to give him a tight hug.

He sighed and his eyes fell shut, the vice-like grip around his core loosening a little in his mother’s embrace. “I love you too,” he mumbled into her shoulder, and she tightened her grip around him.

A few more sectons passed before she finally pulled away, smiling gently down at him. “Alright,” she said. “Rest up you two.”

Krel and Aja nodded and entered their own rooms, their parents walking away as the doors slid shut. Krel had barely gotten to his bed before Aja entered his room. “Are you going to be okay?” she asked immediately, rushing to his side and grabbing his hands again.

Krel sighed and gave her a weak smile. “Maybe? I don’t know.”

“Yeah,” Aja weakly laughed, imitating Krel’s expression. “I can understand that.” The attempt at smiling dropped off her face quickly and she let out her own frustrated sigh. “I was really hoping you wouldn’t have to go through this too.”

“It’s okay,” he lied.

“No, Krel, it isn’t,” Aja immediately countered. “I'm sorry that all this corebond stuff has been shoved down our throats. I don’t know why everyone makes it seem so important.”

“Yeah,” he said, hoping she’d drop the topic. He really, really didn’t want to think about it.

Luckily, she seemed to understand that, too. The two stood in silence for a few mekrons, thinking. Krel was glad Aja didn’t leave; it was nice to have someone present who fully understood his turmoil, even if they didn’t talk about it.

“You know, sometimes I wish I was never born a royal,” Aja said suddenly, catching Krel off guard. He turned to her, surprise clear on his face. She giggled at his expression and turned away. “Yeah, I know. That’s weird, right? Why wouldn’t anyone want this?” She gestured around them, at Krel’s room, but he knew she was talking about the palace, their status, their luxurious life. “Who wouldn’t want to be a royal, to be loved and admired and respected by all?” She brought her hands down to her chest and clasped them together. “To always be watched and be expected to be perfect?”

Ah. Now Krel understood.

“... I don’t think it’s weird,” he said a few moments later. Aja looked at him questioningly. “I mean, to not want this life. We’ve lived it after all. We’re the only ones who have any say in what this life is like.” 

Aja nodded. “Yes, exactly! I love Mama and Papa and I love being alive, but… I wish I was normal . I wish I could be whatever I wanted to be and do whatever I wanted to do without the stress of the entire world judging my actions! I wish I was able to just… leave…” Aja’s eyes widened minutely, her face relaxing as she realized something.

“Aja?” 

She turned towards him and gripped his upper biceps suddenly. “We can , Krel!”

“What?” he yelped. “Can what?”

Leave! ” she shouted, throwing her hands up in the air. She laughed, relief coating her voice. “We don’t want to be here for one reason or another, so what’s stopping us from just hopping on a ship and leaving? ” 

Krel stared up at her disbelieving. “What? Like, everything, Aja!” he protested. “For one we don’t know how to pilot any of the ships!”

“How hard could it be?”

“There’s no way we can reasonably get passed all the guards that will be there!”

“I’d like to see them try to stop us!”  

“Aja, we don’t have anywhere we could go.

Aja opened her mouth to deny him again, but she paused. Then, she said, “Well, why should that stop us? It’s an adventure , Krel, we need no destination!”

But Krel shook his head. “Aja, I don’t know…”

“Come on, Krel!” Aja grabbed his biceps again and used another hand to guide his face to look at her. “Neither of us want to stay here. It’s not right for us. Why are you trying to convince me and yourself to stay in a place that only makes you sad?”

But does it make him sad? Sure, he’s had a few instances that have made him doubt his purpose, made him paranoid about finding his corebonded (something that is supposed to be an exciting, wonderful ceremony), made him start thinking strange thoughts about himself, his parents, sometimes even Aja too… but this was his home. He loved Akiridion-5, didn’t he? He’s known nowhere else. His parents were here, his sister was here, he… he didn’t know anything else.

… Maybe that’s the problem?

“I’m…” Krel started, staring into Aja’s patient eyes. For once in these long parsons, the grey didn’t hurt to look at. “I’m just scared.”

Aja let out a breath and pulled Krel into a hug. “I know. It’s… it’s scary to think about leaving. I’m anxious about it, too,” she whispered, then steeled her voice. “But I think this is right. If we can just get off planet, just experience something other than this royal life, then maybe… maybe we can find meaning other than being the bondless royal children of Akiridion-5.”

He hated that she made sense. He hated that she convinced him. (He didn’t hate her, though. Nothing in this or any world could do that).

“Yeah,” Krel said, giving a single, hard nod. “Yeah, okay.”

So they left.


And, well, they probably should’ve known that immediately leaving without a plan, or supplies, or thinking it through in the slightest would’ve backfired, but at the time they were riding the tails of exhilaration. They were finally doing something only for themselves, consequences be damned. They felt invigorated.

It was still disappointing, though.

Krel sat on the edge of his bed, staring at the floor, next to Mama. Papa was with Aja, probably having the same “I’m disappointed in you” speech Krel was sure was coming. For now though, they sat in silence.

He wondered if she was waiting for him to speak, maybe to apologize? Explain himself? He didn’t know what he would even say. Aja and I left because we feel inadequate as royals. We left because we were tired of being outcasted by our own culture, even if accidentally. We left because we just want to be normal.

Yeah. No.

Krel sighed and said, “If you’re waiting for me to apologize, we are going to be here awhile.”

Mama chuckled lightly, and when Krel turned to her she was shaking her head. “No, I don’t expect you to apologize. Even if you crashed a flier in the hanger.” There was a teasing glint in her eyes and Krel couldn’t help but laugh weakly. “And also, there is no law saying you two must stay in the castle at all times. Besides the flier, you did nothing wrong.”

“Then why stop us?” Krel asked. “Why didn’t you let us leave if we could whenever we wanted?”

“We don’t want you to get hurt,” Mama said, looking Krel sternly in the eye. “Neither of you know how to properly fly any of our ships and you could have gotten seriously injured or hurt someone else in the process. What you two tried to do was incredibly dangerous.” Krel looked away, his form brightening in shame. He knew that much was true, because even he’d tried to argue that to Aja, but he had gotten caught up in the imagined relief being away would bring. It was stupid of him.

“And…” Mama continued and Krel winced. “We wanted to stop you from doing something you’d regret.”

He paused and glanced back at her. “Regret?”

“This is your home, Krel,” she said. She lifted a hand and gently caressed Krel’s cheek, running her thumb over it. “Nobody is ever ready to leave their home. You are scared and confused, because something you’ve been taught would soon be with you turned out to be a little harder to find.” She was talking about his corebond. He wished she wouldn’t talk like he had one. “And so, you want to escape. But that won’t help, Krel. Running away never solved anyone’s problems.”

Hot shame filled him from the inside out and he quickly looked away, squeezing his eyes shut. Embarrassed, he choked out, “We don’t want to be royals.”

Mama was silent; he’d probably surprised her with that. He probably would’ve surprised anyone, besides Aja, by saying that out loud. When she spoke next, she sounded like she was barely keeping herself from sounding alarmed, “Krel, that isn’t something you can stop being. No matter where you go, no matter who you pretend to be, you will always be a royal of Akiridion-5.”

He didn’t care , though. He didn’t care how long it took or how far away he had to go, he just wanted out . He wanted away from the whispers and stares that tell him he’s not good enough, he wanted away from the judgement over his technical prowess ( it’s not becoming of a prince, leave that knowledge to the engineers, scientists, technicians, can’t you be more athletic, more outgoing, more like Aja ?) , he wanted away from the talk of corebonds and love and how he didn’t fit into the role he was made for. He felt broken and wrong here, and what was worse was that it was entirely his fault.

His fault for listening to the rumors about his corebond, about how he was second to Aja, about how he was just a plan B . His fault for keeping it hidden from his parents, letting it fester and mutate into something hideous inside him. His fault for internalizing it, believing every single word uttered by others about him, until he sometimes even hated his parents for giving him life. 

He himself is to blame for the poison in his home and like a coward he wanted out .

He didn’t say that, however. Any of it. He simply breathed in, then out, and said, “Okay.” 

Krel didn’t know if Mama believed him. She smiled her political smile, which hurt, and hugged him, which took the hurt away. She caressed his cheek again and said, “I love you,” to which he said it back. 

He watched her go, saw her reaching a hand towards his papa and turn away, before the door closed. He sighed and slumped forward, holding his head in his hands. 

Mama didn’t understand. She didn’t understand how it felt to be the second choice, to not have any meaning besides being a fallback plan. She didn’t understand how it felt to not even be that correctly. It might have not been as bad if he actually had a corebond. Then, at least, he could’ve done something right, could’ve been the best backup ever. Maybe he wouldn’t even have that terrible pit inside him that ached whenever he thought about corebonds. But no. The universe dealt him a bad hand. He was a bad prince, a bad second son, and a bad Akiridion. He was alone.

… Well, that’s not entirely true.

Once he felt the dark, twisting badness untangle from his core, he got up and went to his and Aja’s door. He leaned against the wall beside it and slowly slid to the ground.

He had Aja. Aja was just like him—she may be the first born, and she may be the prefered choice to both their parents and Akiridion-5, but she didn’t think that. She understood, at least partially, what he felt. 

“Hey, Aja?” Krel whispered. It felt like the words echoed in his empty room.

“Yes?” Aja answered from her room. Krel smiled weakly, the fact that they both decided to sit by the door for comfort warming him.

“I, um…” he hesitated. “I was wondering if you’d, um…”

“What is it?” Aja prompted, though she didn’t sound impatient.

Krel took a breath. “Can we… make a promise?”

“A promise?”

Krel nodded even though she couldn’t see him. “Yes. A promise to… to always stay together against whatever the universe decides to throw at us.” Aja was silent and Krel felt a flare of panic, so he continued, “I just mean, since we’re the same and we don’t know anyone else like us and probably never will, that we should always be there for each other, since… we don’t know who else would.”

“I would love to, Krel,” Aja said, sounding fond and loving and the warmth inside of Krel increased. She understood. She would never hurt him, even unintentionally. She didn’t think she was the better child, didn’t think herself superior to him. She thought he was a genius, thought that was such a wonderful thing. She was the best sister he could have ever asked for.

“Okay,” he said. Krel’s face hurt from how hard he was smiling.  “Okay, great!”

Aja giggled. “Alright. I promise I will always stick by your side, no matter what happens.”

Krel nodded. “And I, too. No matter what it is, we do it together.”

And they did.

They stayed connected at the hip, metaphorically, for the next few keltons. They had been close before, since they’d only really had each other for company, but there was a deeper connection to their bond now, one that rivalled the corebond itself. They clung to one another like they were each other's life lines, thinking naively that they were the only two in the whole universe that understood the pain of having no one at the end of their red string.

Over that same time, Krel and Aja tried many times to run away, but their escape plans were always either thwarted or sidetracked. Sometimes they were caught by Zadra or Vex, sometimes circumstances made them return back home. Every time, their parents would talk with them, try to convince them not to leave again. Sometimes it would be Mama talking to Krel, sometimes it would be Papa, sometimes both of them talked to Krel and Aja together. It never worked, though. Krel could tell Mama and Papa knew that, could see it in their eyes. He wondered how they justified it to themselves, how they rationalized their children’s multiple attempts to run away.

It made him uncomfortable to hurt their parents like that, and he knew Aja felt the same, but it was never enough to deter them from trying to leave. This life just… wasn’t for them. That was something they agreed on wholeheartedly.

Until one delson, they didn’t.


It began when Krel and Aja were fifteen and sixteen respectively. Aja was of age to be crowned Queen-in-Waiting. The coronation delson would probably be announced soon. Naturally, they were planning on running away again.

“You know, last time we were really close!” Aja was saying. “The only reason it didn’t work was because of that chance guard coming by. I think we should chance it again.”

Krel was skeptical though. He looked up from where he was rubbing Luug’s belly. “I don’t entirely like the idea of going through with a plan that already failed.”

“I promise, it will work this time!” Aja insisted. “Everyone will be concerned with the coronation, anyway! They won’t be watching the perimeter as closely.”

Krel rose an eyebrow. “Unless they knew of a certain prince and princess’s past attempts at escaping.”

Aja at least had the wherewithal to look abashed. “I suppose you are right. Perhaps we could—”

There was a knock on Aja’s door. The two glanced at each other in confusion before Aja called, “Um, come in!” 

The door slid open and their parents walked in one after the other. They looked excited, happy. Krel felt something hard form in the bottom of his gut.

Luug jumped off the bed and ran circles around their parents’ feet, the latter two chuckling at the excitable pet. Krel slid to the side of Aja’s bed, hunching over a little as he waited for the coronation planning Mama and Papa were going to start; that was the only reason he could think of for why they were there. He wondered why they bothered; they had to know both she and him were going to leave regardless. 

“Aja, Krel,” Papa greeted and the two greeted him back. Aja sat beside Krel with Luug in her arms, looking way more innocent than what their earlier scheming warranted. Krel bit back a laugh.

“We’re here to discuss the coronation,” Mama started, smiling warmly down at them. “It is important you understand what all will be happening that delson.”

Here it comes , Krel thought and fought to keep himself from outwardly reacting. He’d always known this was coming, that eventually Mama and Papa would officially decide that Aja was the one they wanted to rule Akiridion-5 when they were gone, but it didn’t make it hurt any less. 

It doesn’t matter, he chided himself. We’ll both be gone by then anyway.

“We would have come to tell you the plan earlier, a least by a couple of weeks,” Papa said, “but our advisors were still trying to talk us out of the whole thing. They were begging for us to stick to tradition at least once . No worries, however, we finally convinced them we wouldn’t be swayed.”

Mama laughed a little, as did Papa. That didn’t really make sense to Krel, because why would they need to convince their advisors of having their first born be the heir? What was more traditional than that? He was missing something.

“Anyway,” Mama continued, still smiling. “It will be a relatively short ceremony—” Mama and Papa launched into an explanation of all that would happen that delson. Mostly everything was planned out, even things before the ceremony proper. There were going to be performances both before and after, including demonstrations of combat after the actual coronation.

Krel shifted in his seat as he listened. Where was he going to be in all of this? Would he stand with his parents and watch his sister be crowned Queen-in-Waiting? Would he be with the other nobility, watching from the side lines? Would he be down in the waiting room, there to wish her luck before she went out?

Krel shook his head to clear his thoughts. We won’t even be there, it doesn’t matter.

“Is something wrong, Krel?” Papa asked suddenly and Krel startled. 

“Um—” His family was staring at him, curious. Ah kleb, say something! “I was just wondering, um… Where will I be in all this?” 

Mama and Papa blinked in unison, obviously confused. They shared a glance, then Mama said, “What do you mean, Krel?”

Ah, well this was a little embarrassing. Krel’s form brightened. “Ah, I mean… where will I be standing while Aja is crowned Queen-in-Waiting?”

“Well, beside her, of course,” Papa said, still looking confused. “Where else would you stand during your coronation?”

It didn’t click. Krel stared blankly up at his papa as he tried to process the words, to make sense of them. His coronation? With Aja? Both of them, together? But that would mean… That doesn’t… Why would they…?

“What?” Krel finally whispered. Aja was still beside him.

“You and Aja will stand next to each other and be crowned King- and Queen-in-Waiting at the same time,” Mama explained, looking mildly concerned. 

“I don’t…” Krel shook his head, his insides fluttering. “It’s… my coronation too? I’m… also your heir?”

His parents let out similar, startled laughs. “Wh—of course, Krel!” Papa cried. “What ever made you think otherwise?”

Krel tensed, flashes of past overheard rumors and conversations from various staff members ringing in his ears. “I—well—um—”

Their faces softened, looking almost sad. Mama leaned forward and placed a hand on his knee. “You both were always going to be our heirs. There was never a doubt in our minds about it.”

Papa’s hand landed in his hair and Krel’s eyes flickered up to him. “We’re sorry you were made to think otherwise,” he said. “We should have been more clear long before now that you were always going to do this together, as brother and sister.”

Seklos and Gaylen. That vice-like chain squeezing his core relaxed; he felt like he could finally breathe again. He wasn’t hurtling toward that blackhole anymore. He caught onto something, wrapping himself around it desperately, and it stopped his descent into oblivion. It was warm and safe and felt like home. 

“Oh,” he said, dumbly, because he didn’t know what else he could. He had so thoroughly convinced himself of his own uselessness that being told the opposite felt like being reset, felt like error codes flashing across a terminal. It just… didn’t make sense.

Mama and Papa smiled at him again, a look of understanding in their eyes, like they suddenly understood everything that happened in the last few keltons. Maybe they did. Maybe it made sense to them, maybe they thought he and Aja only ran because they thought only one of them would rule, maybe they thought he and Aja wouldn’t run any more now that they knew better. 

They want me, he suddenly thought and it came with the realization that everything he’d been using as an excuse to leave was wrong. Despite everything—that he’s bondless, that he wasn’t the perfect prince, that he had run away time and time again, surely breaking their cores—they still wanted him. He was good enough in their eyes, always had been.

His parents were talking again, finishing their explanation of the coronation delson, but Krel wasn’t paying attention anymore. He spent the remainder of the conversation in a daze and was only jolted out of it when Mama and Papa hugged him and Aja goodbye.

“We’ll see you tomorrow, alright? Rest up,” Papa said after pulling away, and with two identical, fond, and loving looks, the two left.

Krel watched them go, getting lost in his own head again, when Aja elbowed his side. “I almost feel bad letting them make all of these preparations for a ceremony that’s going to be canceled, right, Krel?” Aja laughed.

Krel forced himself to laugh along, surprised to find he was hesitant to agree with her. Hadn’t he been thinking that exact way not ten mekrons ago? Where did all of his certainty that they’d be far away go?

He needed to organize his thoughts, that was all. His parents turned his whole world view around on him and it’s confusing him. He just needed some time to think. Then everything would go back to normal.


 

Things most certainly did not go back to normal.

That is to say, Krel didn’t. His parents continued on with their coronation planning, bringing Krel and Aja along for their input. Aja kept up her own planning for their escape, now needing to coax Krel into coming up with ideas and routes. The staff kept whispering, the gray still hurt, Luug was disgustingly adorable as usual. But Krel was not normal.

The idea of running away just… didn’t seem right anymore. It was like someone had rearranged the wiring in his core and shifted his preferences and thought process. He was hesitant when talking about escaping with Aja, he found himself almost excited when his parents talked about the coronation festivities. He was so torn between the two conflicting ideas it exhausted him to even think about.

And think he did. He spent so much time stuck in his own head, even Aja was starting to worry about him. He could see it when they were alone together, when her spoken brainstorming would slowly taper off and she would hesitantly ask if he was okay. He couldn’t even talk to her about it, because he didn’t even know where to begin.

It sat wrong in him to think about running away. Did that mean he didn’t want to anymore? But why was that? Did it really only take his parents saying they wanted him and had always wanted him to change his mind? Was it always that simple? Or did he never actually want to go, and he was just going along with Aja because he was so lost, so unsure of his purpose?

But at the same time, he was anxious about the coronation. He worried about the audience’s reaction, about the combat demonstration, about the aftermath. He wasn’t ready to be a king, didn’t think he would ever be ready. Once upon a time he would’ve said he didn’t even want to be one, but now he’s hesitant to even think that! The whole thing made him tingly and on edge, but he would often catch himself smiling even as he trembled. 

He didn’t know what to do, who he could turn to. Before, he would talk to Aja about his troubles, because he knew Aja would understand, and she would do the same to him. But he didn’t know how she would react to this. She obviously hadn’t changed her mind in the slightest about Mama and Papa’s decision, if her constant planning was anything to go by. She still wanted to run away. She still didn’t want to be a royal. And Krel…

He didn’t know how he felt anymore.

And he knew he should’ve brought it up with Aja sooner, but he wanted to figure it out himself so he could properly explain himself and so Aja would understand fully too. She was quick to jump to conclusions, she could be brash and impatient, and he didn’t want her to lash out and misunderstand him if he didn’t explain just perfectly how he wasn’t exactly totally feeling up to running away again—

But that understanding never came. Long weeks and a single escape attempt that he himself thwarted by sheer bullshitery passed and suddenly the delson was here and he had completely  klebbed himself over.

He spent the mekrons before stasis foolishly hoping Aja would get cold feet and back out of the plan so that he didn’t have to back out on her , but he knew even while he wished it that that was impossible. 

The first thing he felt after the sleepy confusion that comes from waking up unexpectedly was cold dread. Aja whispered, “Come on! Wake up! It’s time to leave!” in his ear, sounding just as excited as she always did before they attempted to run. She was not-so-gently shaking him, something that did nothing for the fluttering and aches that had so quickly taken residence inside him.

“I’m—I’m up,” he forces out, pushing himself up onto two forearms.

“Good morning, little brother~” Aja sang, then giggled. “Happy Coronation Delson.”

Krel awkwardly laughed along with her as he sat up fully. It was now or never, he had to tell her he didn’t want to go through with it, he had to somehow explain—

“Come on, we have to leave now!” Aja said. She grabbed his arms and hauled him to his feet. Luug was running around excitedly, no doubt leeching energy off of Aja’s own excitement. She threw Krel’s cloak around his shoulders and started pulling him towards his door.

Kleb, this is bad , he thought, because his mind was blank. He couldn’t form an explanation, couldn’t even think of how to start. The door was getting closer and closer, he was losing time, but there was no safe way to say this, no way of telling her without stumbling and messing up and having her misunderstand, think he was abandoning her, he just needed time

“Wait,” he gasped and they stopped.

She turned to him, surprised. “What is it? What’s wrong?”

“I—um—” Of all the times for his genius to fail him, of course it would be when it mattered most. He was never good with words, Aja would usually just understand but there was no way she would immediately understand the conflict swirling around inside him, it didn’t work like that, she wasn’t a mindreader . “I just—”

Her face had changed while he fumbled. Before it’d been curious, maybe even a little worried; he probably had his anguish written all over his face. Now, though, there was a realization in her features, one that matched horribly with the disbelief that was in her eyes. Oh no no no kleb, it’s not what you think, Aja, I just—

“You’re bailing out on me,” Aja whispered, her words spreading the cold dread inside him all over his body. She pulled away from him, whipping around to face him fully, and took a half step away from him. Luug stopped his prancing about, whimpering at the sudden mood shift.

“No, no, of course not, Aja,” Krel tried to amend, not even trying to hide the desperateness from his voice, “I-I just need more time to think about everything, I’ve been so confused and jarred, I just need a little more time to sort this out—”

“We don’t have time, Krel! This is our only chance to finally leave! ” Aja snapped, the disbelief in her eyes being replaced by anger and, worst of all, hurt. “What’s so confusing about this? I don’t want to be Queen-in-Waiting, you don’t want to be King-in-Waiting; I thought we’d worked through this already.”

“But that’s just it!” Krel argued, his hands gesturing wildly. “We had worked it out and we agreed, but now ever since Mama and Papa told us we’d both be the heirs, I’ve just been so torn and—” 

“Ever since Mama and Papa…?” she mumbled and Krel nodded vigorously, thinking she was getting it.

“Yes!” he said. “Everything is so weird and jumbled in my head now, I just don’t understand and—” He shook his head. The sentences he tried to formulate in his head sounded like disoriented klebso. 

“Oh,” she said, suddenly quiet. The earlier fire in her eyes had been dowsed, leaving behind a sad kind of acceptance. “So you were only coming with me because you thought you weren’t an heir?”

“I—er,” he stumbled. Something wasn’t right. Why did she look so calm all of sudden? Why did she sound so… empty? “I mean, not exactly, but—”

“But that’s basically it?” Aja interrupted him, now sounding scarily defeated.

“That’s the thing, I don’t—” he started and felt a flare of annoyance when Aja interrupted him again.

“Look, Krel,” she sighed, “I think I understand.”

He blinked, skeptical, because he’d barely even started explaining, and he didn’t even understand it himself. Regardless, he felt relief blossom from his chest. “You do?”

Aja nodded. “At least partially.” She took a breath and melted where she stood. “You don’t want to leave. You want to go through with it. Being told you were an heir changed your mind about running away.”

“Well, I mean, kind of—” Krel started.

“No, it’s fine, Krel,” Aja interrupted again. “I can’t make you come with me, just like you can’t stop me from leaving.” She grabbed two of his hands and squeezed, a gesture that used to be comforting, but now froze his insides further. Cold realization spread over his features as Aja smiled sadly. “I am sorry I made you feel so trapped.”

“Wait, Aja, you didn’t—” She released his hands as he spoke and scooped Luug up into her arms. She walked to the door despite his pleas. “ Please , wait!”

Aja’s hand hovered over the scanner, hesitating. She sighed. “Krel, I can’t stay here. This isn’t the life for me, I don’t… I don’t want this.”

“I—I know that,” Krel said, desperate. “But you can’t just—Aja, you can’t just leave me alone here. Nobody—nobody else understands, I need you. Don’t leave me .”

She turned to him, her hand dropping away from the scanner. “What about me, Krel?” she said, her earlier anger leaking into her voice. “Don’t I get a say in my actions? I don’t know what you want me to do! I’m not going to force myself to go through with something I’ve never wanted to do just so you can be comfortable. I’m not going to put myself in the very situation I’ve been running from for keltons now just because you’ve become indecisive .” She looked back to the door and hugged Luug tighter. He whimpered. “My mind has always been made up. I’m leaving. Good luck at the ceremony.”

“But—But what about our promise?” Krel tried. It was perhaps a low blow, but it was the only thing he could think of to convince her to just wait a secton. He didn’t know what else he could say to make her stay with him. He knew it was wrong, to try to guilt her into staying, but he didn’t think he could handle going out there without her at his side. He cursed himself for being torn over something that had been so simple before. He didn't want to be alone, but he couldn't just make himself leave. He couldn’t force himself to do something he didn’t want to either.

Aja paused, but still opened the door a secton later. She stepped through and looked over her shoulder at him. She looked just about as anguished as he felt. “I’m not the one breaking our promise, Krel.”

Something shattered inside him. Whatever it was fractured under the pressure of his despair, its fissures running through his entire being. A terrible, horrible hurt filled him, taking residence in every strand of energy that made up his being. He ached and ached from head to toe, feeling as if he was burning from the inside out. It shackled him where he stood, holding him captive as disbelief and anguish and betrayal swelled from his core. In the span of three sectons, Krel realized what heartbreak felt like.

(he flipped and flew through open space. the stars around him were so very far away, taunting him with their glimmering gray. his momentum was endless; he only seemed to go faster and faster as he hurtled towards the huge, dark, all-encompassing black hole. then, after keltons of that terrible, weightless horror, he felt himself finally be swallowed whole.)

His door slid shut behind his sister, cutting off her fleeing figure from view. The last thing he saw of her was her fluttering cloak as she rushed off into the early morning—to adventure, to happiness... to freedom. He realized that might be the last time he ever saw her.

And he broke.