Kiran hadn’t meant to summon her. It was just one of those days, when they headed up to the summoning stone and took a shot just for the thrill of seeing who showed up. The Order was packed, they’d summoned most of the biggest players in the worlds Alfonse knew of, and then some.
The whole multiverse thing was bizarre, but not much weirder than magic and pegasi and gods of destruction who babysat little dragon girls, so Kiran rolled with it the way they accepted everything else in Askr.
Summoning other versions of the Zenith natives, however, was never not gonna be weird. Especially when they managed to summon those who were otherwise enemies in their current time and universe. Sure, they summoned a lot of scary beings before (see the aforementioned gods of destruction), but not all of them had personally cornered them and threatened to rip their head off their neck.
But Kiran wasn’t planning on summoning anyone in particular, they were just bored and needed something to do. They were out of Firesweep axes anyway, so they loaded up Breidablik and hoped some Gerik in the multiverse would be willing to write a manual.
Light burst forward from the stone, outshining the white smoke flaring outwards. The light dimmed, and Kiran could make out a silhouette of butterfly wings, unable to match any of the features until the smoke disappated.
The newly summoned hero was curled up, legs drawn to her chest as she floated in the air, pink-gold butterfly-esque wings beating too slowly for anything in Kiran’s world to remain afloat.
Their heart lodged in their throat, as the girl’s limbs unfurled, and she stretched with a yawn, revealing more of her light pink dress. Golden hair spilled over her shoulders, long and impossibly radiant, and two pink flowers were tucked behind her pointed ears. A bow with blossoms and an arrow with a thorn-tipped head hung in the air beside her.
Kiran had an abrupt thought of Cupid, with the wings and arrows.
Green eyes blinked blearily at them.
“Hello!” the álfr beamed as brightly as her hair. “My name is Althaea. I am the ljósálfar of lucid dreams!”
Kiran could only stare, because despite the wings, the dress, the loose hair, the ears, the new name, they knew precisely who Althaea was.
Oh, they were in so much trouble.
Alfonse should have expected this, had considered it, had been through similar situations before, that a Sharena, this Sharena, who drank the nectar of the dream world, who sacrificed herself to save it, who gave up her humanity and turned into an immortal ljósálfar, condemned to the world of dreams forever, could be summoned to Askr.
She wasn’t his Sharena, but the sight of her, oblivious to him in a way his Sharena never was, still managed to knock the wind from his chest.
This Sharena glowed with that same ethereal quality Peony and Mirabilis did. Old texts in the library had called the ljósálfar “fairer than the sun to look at”, and they were right. This Sharena was indeed more vibrant than the brightest of stars, and like the sun, it hurt to look at her.
Kiran nudged him, and Alfonse fell back on routine. It was the same conversation had with every new Hero, to ease their confusion and explain their circumstances according to their origins. Every conversation with other versions of himself and Sharena and Anna, even those with Líf and Thrasir, had been simple. They knew of the power of summoning.
But this Sharena didn’t. As a ljósálfar she looked about the same age as his Sharena, as Peony and Mirabilis with that same unreal air about her. Her feet never touched the ground, and for once Alfonse found himself looking up to his little sister, although she made the effort to lean down. Her hair floated, somehow, in the space between her pink-gold gradient wings and her back. Her dress split into flower petals, and stem green shorts crept down her thighs in leaves. She had detached sleeves, her hands peeking through the same flower design as those in her hair.
She was beautiful, but she was not Sharena. She had a new name and no memory of her life, not with those girls she played with, not changing lives, not growing up to be his sister. She may as well have been a complete stranger.
And still, it hurt.
“Another world? How interesting!” The same excited face beamed at him, but those green eyes were too bright, too unnaturally luminous. His sister had always been so cheerful, a little childish, but this Sharena made him feel like he was a kid again, humouring his sister as she insisted on training with he and Zacharias, despite being years younger than both of them.
Because she was a child. She would have been transformed as a young child, five or six years old. Alfonse could remember her clearly, a headful of golden tresses braided back, not yet so long as to pass her shoulders, sweet and eager despite their parents—
“You must make many friends here!” She clapped her hands together eagerly and beamed a too happy, too bright smile, looking between Alfonse and Kiran. "I'd love to meet all of them!"
Kiran tugged at the hood of their robes. Clearly, Alfonse wasn't the only one who found the situation unsettling. Althaea quirked her head at their silence.
“Kiran doesn’t say much,” Alfonse explained. “Please don’t take it personally.”
“Oh, I see!” Althaea kept her gleeful smile. “I’ve met many like them, it's okay not to talk! You don't need words to dream—or make friends!”
“The Order of Heroes is happy to welcome you," Alfonse continued with the generic introduction. His voice felt hollow and detached. He hoped Althaea couldn't tell. "If you wish to stay, you may. Whenever you want to leave, we will return you to the time you were summoned, though I'm afraid we cannot allow you to keep your memories.”
The last part tended to unsettle most, but they were only to observe and maintain the sanctity of the multiverse, not to interfere, not to cause any unnatural changes. They maintained that rule, even for those from Askr.
But Althaea simply smiled, nonplussed, and nodded. "It'll be like a wonderful dream, then, ephemeral and sweet. But I’m always happy to make more friends, even if they can't stay.”
She clapped her hands together once more, then swooped down and engulfed Alfonse in a hug.
His brain stuttered. It felt like Sharena’s hugs, but the fact that Althaea was floating, the foreign costume, the giggle into his shoulder that seemed to echo in itself, the fact that Althaea didn’t breathe—
Alfonse patted her on the flower adorned arm.
“You’re welcome,” he said, but his voice cracked just a little. Althaea pulled away, still floating, but there was a confused look in her eyes that broke her cheery demeanour. Alfonse turned away, steeling his expression. “Excuse me, I have something else to attend to.”
Kiran grabbed at his sleeve, but Alfonse shrugged it off and walked briskly out of the room.
He had to find Sharena. His Sharena, no matter what anyone said.
Líf did not care for other worlds. He knew enough, that there were infinite multiverses, all containing variations of their inhabitants, or lacking them. He’d seen many variations of his old self, of Thrasir’s old self, of their old lives. He’d met, on one occasion, his mother. He didn’t know if she recognised him, crouched away in the shadows when she made a courtesy call to the Order’s castle.
It did not matter. His world was gone, never to return, and no matter who the Kiran of this world could pull from other universes, the sight of them felt like cheapening his own memories. Sharena existing across many worlds did not mitigate the loss of his Sharena, and never would.
He was perfectly happy to remain solitary, training with those who bothered to ask, aiding the Order as a soldier and nothing more. The powers to contract Heroes and open the Asbrú were lost in a Zenith not of his own, but even if he could, his alternate self and Commander Anna respected the free will of heroes too much to let him bind them. It was insufferable.
The Sharena of this world was not his. The Kiran of this world was not his. The citizens of Askr he saw were not his. All of them belonged to another version of himself, young and naive and foolhardy. So, although Thrasir, the Veronica of his world, had found solace in her brother, and managed some sort of fondness towards her alternate self, Líf refused to allow himself to be dragged into the affairs of this world.
One day, eventually, he would return to Helheim, wandering in darkness for eternity. He was already haunted by the destruction of his own world, at his own hand. He felt no desire to mourn a second time when he inevitably left.
Heroes could never stay in Askr.
And yet, when he returned from training, he found this world’s Sharena curled up on his bed. She sat, miserable, eyes slightly puffy with tears, her knees pulled up to her chest and her cheeks pressed into the bone. Her armour had been discarded, like his own, leaving her only in the fabric of her uniform. Líf had seen this image a few times, but not since his Sharena’s death.
He stared at her for a moment. She didn’t meet his eyes, simply drawing her sleeve over her face and sniffling. For not the first time with this iteration of his sister, he did not know what to do. He could have demanded she leave, could have ignored her and walked right out until she left, but instead he let the door shut behind him and simply stood, staring at her in silence, until this world's Sharena finally spoke.
“I’m not your sister.”
She was pitiful, her voice cracking hard, but he despised that she dared use the familiar pronoun with him. She was right, she was not his sister.
“No, I mean I’m not your sister." Her teeth gritted and she glared into her knees, fingers digging at the fabric. "Not yours. Not my Alfonse’s. Possibly not any of the Alfonses here in the Order. I’m not a princess, not the daughter of King Gustav and Queen Henriette, I’m not—not who everyone thought I was.”
Líf frowned. Her words echoed in the room. Sharena had been different, returning from breaking the hold of the ljósálfar and dökkálfr over this world, but everyone had been affected by the dream state and his own head had felt rather numb.
“Explain.” He addressed her with the formal, the same he did for everyone, even Thrasir, because his sister was dead dead dead and he would never speak to anyone again the way he did with her.
Sharena sniffled, pulled herself together just for a moment, and spoke of changelings, of the fairies of dreams who spoke to her when she slept as a child, of another house, another family, with another set of siblings. Of switching places with another little girl, of being asked to be a hero, to shed her past for the sake of a future. Of running away, of leaving her friends behind, of being a coward and hiding in the castle, of stealing the princess’ life.
It was the longest he’d ever heard this Sharena speak, because he'd normally never allow himself to listen to her for so long. Her voice sounded so much like his sister’s, her mannerisms, her eyes, that it tugged at him to comfort her, to be her brother again. If he stayed, he could believe his Sharena was still with him, speaking of a nightmare.
This world’s Sharena fell into silence, but Lif still didn't speak. She wasn't his sister.
“Kiran summoned a hero today, she looked just like me, but she was a ljósálfar, with the wings and flowering hair and—and she was me and I—I just can't bear to look at her. She's who I was supposed to be. The one who didn’t run away, who didn’t steal the real Sharena’s life, who didn’t abandon her to a lonely life she didn’t deserve because I was scared!"
Her voice rose in frustration, in anger, in grief, in disgust of herself, and for the first time, Lif found something about her familiar that wasn't about his Sharena.
"All my life, all I’ve ever had was Alfonse and my lineage. Mother and Father never looked twice at me, if I’m not princess, what is left of me? You may have a different future, Alfonse—"
“Do not call me that name!”
“—but you lived our past! Who am I if I am not your sister, who is your Sharena if she is not your sister?!”
Líf didn’t know when he moved, but suddenly he was leaning over the bed, hands on Sharena’s shoulders, staring down at angry tears and blotchy red skin and messy locks and this girl felt so much like his sister it echoed in the space his heart had once occupied. He felt the instinctive urge to comfort her, to tell her her origins did not invalidate her lived experiences, to recognise the same despair and self-hatred that corrupted himself, but she was not his to comfort. His grip tightened until he could feel her bones beneath clothes and skin, but this Sharena glared up at him, green eyes shimmering under tears, daring him to do his worst.
“You are not my Sharena,” he said, his voice detached. “You do not know if her past resembles your own. I strongly recommend you refrain from speculation.”
Tears spilled, and before he knew it, the girl unfolded her knee to kick him in the ribs. He took a step back, blocking another kick with his forearm, as Sharena rolled off the bed and launched herself at him like she wasn’t nearly two heads shorter and completely mortal.
Perhaps in this world, she could stand a chance against her Alfonse in combat, but even though they were both unarmoured, unarmed, and he was bound by contract to Kiran and unable to harm any allies, he’d slain entire armies for Hel while the Order of Heroes were still hesitant to kill.
So he pinned her to the floor, non-lethal and too easily, a knee lodged in her back, incidentally catching some locks of hair so that even moving her head hurt. Sharena sobbed into the floor, though not from the pain of the takedown.
“I don’t know who I am,” she wheezed through the tears, scratching her fingers into the floor before curling them into fists and slamming them into the ground. “I don’t know who I am!”
He let her cry into the ground. A voice in the back of his head, one that sounded much younger, much more compassionate, screamed at him to let her up, to hug her and reassure her because what the fuck is wrong with you she came to you because you’re Alfonse because you’re her brother because she needs someone do something—
“Alfonse has so many people,” her breaths sped up, gulping air between words. “He and Kiran and Fjorm and Eir and Zacharias. Who am I without this life? Who am I if I’m not—“
Líf had heard enough. Sharena never should have come to him. Thrasir would be more sympathetic than he. Hel would be more sympathetic than he. There were plenty of heroes who had discovered they were not who they thought they were, and Sharena had been emotional enough to choose him.
That was her mistake. He’d rectify it solely to get her out of his sight. And to quash the heavy feeling of guilt.
He picked her up easily. She startled out of her tears for a moment, unbalanced and disoriented. He doubted his skeletal frame was comfortable, but it would be a quick walk to Alfonse or Anna or whoever looking like this.
Líf flung open the door and set down the hall, tuning out Sharena’s indignant questions.
Líf really wasn’t Alfonse. Somewhere deep down, Sharena had always known that. He left her flowers when they were in Helheim, but those had never been for her. All he ever did was to assuage his own guilt, and to bring back his Sharena, he would have killed her too.
And yet she still tried, because who else was there to ask? Her alternate selves were always fused at the hip to an alternate Alfonse, and Alfonse himself...
She’d never realised how little she knew of herself, without Alfonse to connect her, without another person to tie herself to. The heroes were friendly, she always had Matthew and Raigh and everyone else, but one day they would return to their worlds.
No one could ever truly stay in this world. Alfonse knew that. Anna knew that.
Líf’s body emanated no heat. He lacked his cape and armour, but the hard skeletal frame beneath it was as inhuman as always. His bones glowed under the false skin. Líf wasn’t human, wasn’t Alfonse, wasn’t her brother. His steps were just as rigid as his hold. He held her like a burden.
She closed her eyes as they exited the barracks. People would be staring, most likely. Possibly enough to intervene, and she didn’t want to see their faces.
“Líf, what are you doing?!”
Líf turned sharply towards Alfonse’s voice, jostling her. He took quick steps, and Sharena opened her eyes in time for Líf to shove her into Alfonse’s arms.
“She's your sister, not mine,” Líf said, then spun on his heel and stalked away, ignoring Alfonse’s shouts.
Sharena wriggled out of Alfonse’s shaky hold and put her feet on the ground, and Alfonse’s arm came up to steady her.
“Are you all right?” Alfonse asked, hands on her face. “Are you hurt?”
“Of course not,” Sharena said quietly, tugging his arms down. “I just bugged him too much, I guess.”
“Sharena,” Alfonse’s hands slid down to her shoulders, just like Líf’s had, and Sharena couldn't help but tense up. “Is this about Althaea?”
“I don’t...” Her eyes began to burn again. “I can't—“
Alfonse wrapped an arm around her shoulder, his free hand pressing against her elbow, and guided her away from the heroes milling around, back towards the other section of barracks. They walked down the halls for a few minutes, Sharena blinking away tears and Alfonse squeezing her comfortingly, rubbing circles with his thumb, until they reached Alfonse’s room.
She curled up on the bed again, picking up a pillow and hugging it over her chest. She pressed her face into it, staining it. She just wanted to sleep, but sleeping meant dreaming, and who knew what she would dream of now?
Alfonse sat down next to her and brushed a hand through her hair. Sharena wanted to lean into it, to seek reassurance and familiarity, but it felt like greed. She didn't deserve this Alfonse, she didn't deserve a role and love she had stolen.
“I don’t care if you’re not my biological sister, Sharena.”
“Mother will. The Asbrú will. Askr will. If Mother were to die, if you died without heirs, I wouldn’t be able to open the gates without royal blood, any children I had would have to be—”
“Don’t think about that, Sharena,” Alfonse pulled her into a hug, carding his fingers through her hair in a soothing motion. Her head fell into his chest and she listened to the rumble of his voice. “Don’t worry about that right now. It’s not blood that makes us siblings. We were raised together, we depended on each other, you will always be my sister and I will always be your brother.”
“You don’t mean that.”
Alfonse stilled and his hand stuttered, before resting flat on the back of her head. His voice shifted colder. “Who told you that? Líf?”
Sharena pulled away, but Alfonse kept his hand on the back of her shoulders. She wiped at her face, unwilling to meet his gaze. Her sleeves were soaked with snot and tears and the skin around her eyes were searing from the constant rubbing.
“I just. I don’t believe it doesn't matter.”
“Then I will,” Alfonse said, as though it were simple. “I’ll believe it enough for both of us.”
Despite the circumstances, Sharena choked out a laugh. Alfonse smiled, and she leaned the back of her head into his shoulder. Alfonse pressed a kiss to her forehead. Sharena remained still. She didn’t deserve this brother. She didn't deserve this life. She had one, and it was lonely and cold and she had damned the real Sharena to that life and stolen her birthright, her brother, everything.
Sharena gripped Alfonse's shoulders, fingers seizing the fabric of his shirt. She stared at him, wide-eyed, her voice cracking.
“But I stole her life! The Sharena you knew, you still knew her before we played in the world of dreams, before we started changing places. Don’t you resent me for that? Don’t you hate me for it? For condemning her to my life? It should be her you grew up with, her you’re in the Order of Heroes with, not me. I could be anyone, some peasant on the outskirts, someone from Embla or Nifl or Múspell. I may not even be from Zenith.”
Their eyes met. Alfonse’s wavered in their sockets, and Sharena waited for his rejection. He had to, because there was no way she could deserve such forgiveness. Perhaps she’d gone to Lif first, precisely for the rejection, to confirm all her fears. He held no love for her, and would not lie to her to spare her feelings. Because Alfonse...
“You are my sister, regardless of your origins. You were a child, Sharena, you were afraid, you ran. I cannot condemn you for the fear of a child.”
Alfonse was always too forgiving of her.
"But I was a coward—"
“Enough, Sharena,” Alfonse’s hold on her tightened and he pulled her back in to press another kiss to the top of her hair. “Get some rest. We can deal with this later.”
The will to protest faded as she sank into the embrace. Everything felt heavy, everything felt empty, and Alfonse was warm, and they were...
She fell asleep in her brother’s arms.
The Order of Heroes didn’t have many lucid dreamers, most of them were bound to other entities, but that was okay. Even if she couldn’t play with them, she could always wander into their dreams and tweak a few things. Just because Peony was the álfr of sweet dreams didn’t mean she couldn’t help a little.
The Peony of this world didn’t know her, but there was something sad in her eyes when they were introduced. Other people stared at her too, though she didn’t really know why. Maybe it was the wings. She’d seen non-álfr with wings, they were all big and fluffy though, or scaly and rigid.
It was strange, operating outside of a dream. She kept trying to change her surroundings, to manipulate it the way she would in Ljósálfheimr, but they remained fixed and unchanged. She found it fascinating. She actually had to fly places now!
It didn't take very long to realise why everyone was staring. There were two girls who looked a lot like her, one wearing a long, fitting fabric dress with flowing sleeves, and the other looking like a bunny rabbit. They were both quite cute, though they regarded her with a delighted bemusement. They each came with people she assumed were other universe versions of Prince Alfonse, the nice boy who’d explained everything to her. No wonder he'd looked at her so strangely, eyes all over her body, but not in a selfish way. Compared to this mortal girl, she did resemble her quite a bit. It must have been quite a shock.
“Sha-re-na,” Althaea sounded out the name on her tongue. “That name...”
“Where is Sharena?” The Alfonse dressed as a rabbit asked. “The one of this world and time.”
“I haven’t seen her in a while,” the Sharena dressed in what Althaea was told was a ‘kimono’ from one of the worlds Askr had access to. “Not since we all woke up from the dream.”
“Oh, a dream?” Althaea’s curiosity peaked. “What sort of dream?”
“Um,” Sharena’s face pinched. “I guess it didn’t happen in your world. We all got tied up in a fight between Ljósálfheimr and Dökkálfheimr.”
“How terrible!” Althaea’s eyes went wide. “The worlds of dreams are meant to be peaceful! Or at least, Ljósálfheimr is...”
“Well, it was all a dream,” rabbit Alfonse interjected. “Honestly, I don’t even remember much.”
“We'll all forget it eventually,” kimono Alfonse answered. “I imagine only those of this time and world will remember it clearly. They're the ones who are meant to be here in this world.”
“Interesting,” Althaea mused. “So even though you're Prince Alfonse too, you can't affect this world the same way?”
“Well it’s not our world,” rabbit Alfonse said. “The Asbrú, the path between worlds, doesn’t recognise our authority, and someday we will return to our own worlds as well.”
“I see...” Althaea tilted her head. "That's fascinating!"
"The Alfonse of this world could tell you more," kimono Alfonse said. "Our worlds differ sometimes, I can't be sure if everything I know applies here."
"But it's fun to see what's different!" Rabbit Sharena chimed in happily. "It's like one of those spot-the-difference games!"
Althaea giggled in turn. There was something about Sharena that felt familiar.
"I'll go find him, then! It was very fun to chat with you!"
The two pairs of siblings waved farewell, and she flew away in search of the ones of this world.
She found Alfonse dreaming. He must have been taking a nap, but she was certain she could still reach him. It was easier, being so lightly asleep.
He was dreaming of his childhood, of sneaking out of the castle walls with Sharena and running around the city. They laughed together, hand in hand. In the logic of a dream, they were in a field, and Sharena tying together flower stems and Alfonse braiding the petals into her hair. They were sweet and innocent, simply enjoying each other’s company.
Then Alfonse tensed, then looked up right at her. She was right, he was just lightly asleep enough to know he was dreaming.
Sharena vanished and the flowers fell to a heap on the ground. Alfonse stood, and he was an adult once more.
“Please don’t do that,” Alfonse said, his carefree grin falling into a forcedly polite smile. ”It’s rather disrespectful.”
“I’m sorry,” she answered, sweet and gentle. She settled into the field, tucking her knees beneath her, allowing Alfonse to look down at her, and gaze out at the field. She could spot what she figured was the Askran city in the distance. “It’s quite a lovely dream. A memory, isn’t it?”
“Yes. It is.” Alfonse said. “We were... foolish to do so, Mother and Father were furious, but we had fun.”
“Such are the whims of children,” Althaea clapped her hands together. “Happy and innocent.”
“I would appreciate it if you left now, please.” His voice gained the same tone as his smile. He didn't want her here.
Althaea cocked her head at him. “There is nothing I haven’t seen in dreams,” she said. “There’s no need to be embarrassed.”
“That’s... really not what I mean.” Alfonse’s face tinged pink. “I simply prefer to have my privacy.”
“I understand,” Althaea dipped her head. “I suppose I shouldn’t be treating everyone in this castle as children. Adults don't have the same concept of shame.”
Alfonse bristled a little.
“Leave, now, please.”
Althaea nodded, and floated back into the air. She waved a hand and Sharena reappeared, looking her present age, and the field bloomed with ever more flowers. Alfonse marvelled, as Sharena continued to weave a crown, unaware of the ljósálfar. Althaea prepared to slip out, her eyes drifting closed, when Alfonse called out.
She opened her eyes. Alfonse had picked one of the flowers.
“This is... the flower in your hair and on your outfit.” Alfonse said, rolling the stem between his fingers. “What is it called?”
“It’s a hibiscus,” Althaea replied cheerfully. “It likely exists in this world, as Ljósálfheimr derives from your dreams.”
“I see.” Alfonse frowned. “Thank you.”
“Sweet dreams, Prince Alfonse.”
Althaea faded out.
Alfonse turned to Sharena, as she beamed and held up a crown of gold and white flowers. He smiled, and let her place it on his head.
“You will always be my sister, Sharena,” he told her. “No matter what is told.”
His dream Sharena smiled, engulfing him in a hug. They both smelled of flowers and grass.
“I know,” the dream said. “I know we are.”
Alfonse savoured the moment.
Hopefully, this too would come true.