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we can't function alone

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To Luz, Knetwell was painted in various shades of gray. 

In other words, it was dreary.

Knetwell is, as Eda once described it in her best imitation of a posh tone, the snooty side of the Boiling Isles, located just off the northeastern side of Bonesborough; it was here the mass majority of the Isles’ most prestigious witches and demons resided. The town itself was styled in a monochromatic scheme of hard metallic steel shops and smoothly paved roads -a stark contrast to Bonesborough’s more dense, medieval-style. 

Compared to Bonesborough, where life was breathed into its very foundation and the people residing there, Knetwell is, for lack of a better word, dead. It's only source of life is found in the weak sunlight shimmering across the windows of every building; Luz surmised it wouldn’t be long before even that is gone -if the dark clouds rolling in were of any judgement. 

Even its people were listless. In Bonesborough, merchants were always shouting over one another to draw customers to their stands in the market (Eda having been one of them), but Knetwell’s merely observed the sea of passing bodies with a dullness in their eyes. Everyone moved with a set destination in mind in the town’s square; not a soul curiously peering into any of the small shops’ windows or the merchants’ stands to admire their wares. It was eerie.

Still, the artist in Luz catalogued everything in her sights for future references. It was clear to see Knetwell was crafted with a set purpose intended in its construction; Luz noted the certain sort of beauty beneath the functionality. It was an artificial one, of course, but if she squinted hard enough, she could almost make out its individual characteristics. 

Almost. She found the swankiness of it all ruined the effect, honestly. 

And speaking of swanky. In comparison to her jeans, black long-sleeved shirt, and black cloak, the hood drawn up to hide her ears from prying eyes, the sight of the well-dressed residents of the town bypassing her lent Luz a disagreeable sensation that she didn’t particularly care for. Their gazes seared her skin, as if they can tell by sight alone she doesn’t belong here. It added an unsettling feeling atop the uncertainty already swimming in her gut. It reminded her of the kids back home, who thought she was too weird to be around. 

Luz strolled closer to her only source of familiarity: Lilith. The older woman was by her side, a graceful sway in her long strides as they made their way through the throng of the mid-day commute. Luz traced the outline of the elder Clawthrorne’s profile with her eyes. Lilith looked... well, she looked like she belonged here amongst the influential. Gone was the oversized sweater and legging combo Luz had grown accustomed to - preferred even; replaced by a pristine white button down shirt tucked into a pair of black trousers that disappeared under a pair of equally pristine leather boots. A similar cloak to Luz’s was draped over her shoulders and held together by a silver raven brooch, though she kept the hood drawn down. It cut her figure nicely, Luz admitted; easily blending her in with the high society. Luz wondered if Lilith was previously living here before the Owl House. 

She might’ve asked if her thoughts didn’t trail off in a puff of air; her head snapping away from Lilith and in the direction of glittering bronze standing out amongst the shades of gray. There, perched on a cafe’s empty table across the street, was a bronze metal cobra; Luz got the creepy sensation it was following her with its beady eyes. She didn’t even realize she’d stopped walking until she noticed from her peripheral Lilith quickly turning left and heading up a street. 

Wait. In typical Luz Noceda fashion, Luz tripped over her own feet in her haste to keep from losing the older woman in the crowd, and she nearly careened straight into an older man’s path in the process. His snarled comment on her clumsiness was of little concern to the teen, too ensnared by the fear of being separated from Lilith to apologize in her usual manner.

She rounded the corner, the sight of an empty alleyway greeting her stirring the panic in the back of her head. Luckily, she caught the tail end of Lilith’s cloak disappearing around another corner up ahead. She raced after her, chest heaving as she cut the corner a little too harshly, before her brain short circuited at the influx of colors assaulting her senses. 

Her feet stalled in an instant.

The drab grays of Knetwell’s town square gave way to redbrick houses lined down the narrow street on either side; each one of them holding their own little charm that Luz had been seeking out back in the square. Not-a-one had a front yard to really speak of, but the potted plants housed on windowsills created the illusion of living out of the central part of town. And the clinking of windchimes in the wind drowned out the monotone voices of the bustling crowd that floated down from the alleyway at her back. It was such a stark difference Luz had to wonder if she was even still in Knetwell anymore. 

She spotted Lilith further up the street, her feet moving on instinct to rejoin her side. Except she barely made it one step before a pained cry was wrenched from her throat. 

Someone had grabbed her wrist.

Alarmed, Luz turned and her hood threatened to fall back at the sudden movement. Coming face to face with her assailant, Luz's eyes widened at the golden pair meeting her own with an anger burning in them. It was the older man she nearly ran into. Her mouth moved to speak, but his grip tightened around her wrist and she whimpered instead. 

He yanked her further back into the alley. Luz’s mind went racing in panic and fear. It clouded her thoughts to the point she couldn't even find it in her to reach for one of the glyphs stowed in her back pocket. She choked on a scream; Lilith’s name searing a path down her throat. 

Her back was shoved roughly into a wall. “I’ve never seen you around here before, child. What's your name? Who are your parents?" He snarled with suspicion rumbling in his deep baritone; his grip growing tighter with every word. "They did a poor job raising you, that’s for certain. Did they not teach you to respect your elders?" 

Luz didn’t hear a word he spat at her, her eyes frantically searching around her for any sign of Lilith. Her mouth opened, her tongue fumbling to voice her words, but she couldn’t speak past the lump in her throat. She was petrified, her entire frame trembling in fear. Tears burned her eyes. Have I always been this weak? Where’s Lilith? Did she leave me? Please, don’t leave me. She squeezed her eyes shut-

"I'd release her if I were you." 

-and abruptly snapped them open at the sound of the sweet, melodic voice. She whirled her head to face the source of it at the same time as the older man. 

A woman the same height as Luz stood at the entrance to the alleyway, clad in a burgundy dress that was cinched at the waist, accentuating her hourglass figure. Her abundance of green curls were tucked away by a wide brimmed hat the same color as her dress, and her eyes were the same shade of gold as the older man’s own pair, - seriously, what is with witches and gold eyes?- but they were so much warmer, like molten gold. A calm smile never once left her in the face of the brute sneering down at her. 

The man’s whole demeanor shifted at the sight of her. His lips curled into a sneer disguised as a smile. "This isn’t of any concern to you, Rime.” So poised was his tone Luz questioned if a snarl had really been present when he spoke to her seconds ago. “Don’t you have somewhere to be?”

The woman -Rime, Luz corrected- only smiled wider as she calmly replied. “Well, you’re right, it’s certainly no real concern of mine,” smooth like honey was the best description Luz had of Rime’s voice; the pitch higher and more feminime than the Clawthorne sisters’ more smokish drawls. Her chin tilted up as she went on, “but if I were you, I’d be concerned about her.”

Luz looked over the woman’s shoulder. Her heart leapt into her throat in sudden relief. It was Lilith. And either the older man recognized her face or was scared senseless by the livid expression she wore, by the cold fury in her heterochromatic eyes, by the violent intent bleeding out of her hurried pace, but his hand was wrenched from her wrist and was storming back down the alley before Lilith even made it halfway to them. 

The teen kept her eyes on him until he disappeared around the corner leading back to the town’s square. Might have let her gaze linger a little longer if her head wasn’t suddenly turned back around, a pair of cold fingers against her chin directing her to face Lilith’s concerned eyes. Luz almost leapt completely off the ground out of fright; a heat bloomed in her cheeks in embarrassment at her reaction. 

Not my fault Lilith is so damn fast, she groaned inwardly. 

“Are you alright?” Lilith breathed, a raw edge of panic in her voice. She was none the wiser to the flush creeping over Luz’s cheeks as her eyes and hands roamed over the teen’s body for any signs of injuries. “Did he hurt you?” Her panicking flat-lined into anger as she growled. “If he so much as-”

Luz intervened before Lilith could finish her threat. “Yes, I’m fine, everything’s fine,” she replied, regaining her composure, despite the throbbing in her wrist. She decided in a split second it was best to keep that quiet, because a promise of murder was in Lilith’s eyes. 

Anything Lilith might have said was stopped by a soft laughter. Like bells in the wind.

“Ah,” Luz could hear the smile in Rime’s melodic tone, her mahogany eyes gravitating to the woman like a moth to a flame. “I figured she must have been yours, Lily dear.” Her smile turned wry. “She has your flush.”

Unsurprisingly, it was impossible to miss the blush that crept onto the older woman’s cheeks. She let her gaze sweep over Luz one last time, seemingly appeased she found no harm to her charge, and took a step back from her personal space. Her sharp gaze cut to the other woman. “You could have lent her some assistance instead of just standing there.” The growl rumbled in her throat. That same threat was in her tone. 

Rime feigned hurt. “She was hardly in any danger,” a smile was in her reply, so much so Luz wondered if there ever wasn’t. “You were already on your way when I located her, and if something were to happen before you arrived, obviously I would’ve aided her.” Her smile turned coy. “Has motherhood turned you so distrustful of me, Lily dear?”

Lilith gaped at her. “You know she isn’t my child,” she spluttered. “She doesn’t even look like me.”

Rime’s coy smile turned gleeful, ever so slightly widening; ignoring Lilith as if she’s done it her whole life. “Then she takes after her father,” she exclaimed excitedly, clearly reveling in Lilith’s displeased anguish. “Or her other mother. I do recall men were never of your fancy.” 

Lilith flushed again. “She’s not mine, Elara.” 

“You keep telling yourself that, love,” Rime -or Elara - quipped. “But I must say, she is quite the cutie. Kudos to you, dear.” 

What, Luz’s eyes darted from Lilith to Rime, and back. Is happening here?

It took her by surprise, the jolt of envy she found herself feeling as she watched their interaction, that is; so unaccustomed to Lilith at ease around another soul that wasn’t her sister, that wasn’t her. She frowned, unconsciously shifting closer to Lilith’s side, her eyes narrowing at the other woman she so suddenly didn’t want to like. It was hard not to, too. Rime -or Elara - just radiated a warmth Luz wanted to bask in. Was that why Lilith was so at ease around her?

“Oh, how rude of me,” lips still curled into a smile, Rime set her sights onto Luz, the warm amber of her eyes effortlessly drawing the teen in. She really, really hated that. “My name is Elara Rime,” she held her hand out toward Luz. “And you must be Luz.”

Luz ignored her hand. “How do you know my name?” She asked her slowly, voice edged in hostility, with an undertone of suspicion. 

“That would be me,” Lilith answered, her eyes widening at the sharp look Luz threw her way. “I sent a message letting her know we were headed here, remember?” 

Luz looked at her curiously; then it clicked. “Wait, you mean she’s...” Her words trailed off as she locked gazes with Elara. The woman was still smiling. Still warm. It had to be the work of magic. There’s no way it was possible for someone to be so cheery all the time. 

“The very one,” Lilith confirmed. “Meet Elara Rime, renowned healer of the Boiling Isles.”

Elara mocked curtsy. “It’s my utmost pleasure to be at your service.” She shot up, quickly heading back out onto the street. She called out to them over her shoulder. “Shall we?” 

Luz was lost for a moment -sincerely and utterly confused. "That’s who’s going to help me?” She let herself stare blankly at the other woman before gazing up at Lilith. “You sure you got the right healer? She seems very...”

“Eccentric?” Lilith supplied.

...bubbly.” Luz finished. 

Lilith stifled a laugh. “Well, yes, I suppose bubbly works, too.” She turned on her heel and started walking, and Luz scrambled to keep up with her. She was not losing her again. “Actually,” Lilith added, slowing her pace for the teen to rejoin her side. “She reminds me of you.”

Luz stopped in her tracks. Really, how was she supposed to respond to that?

 

//

 

Stepping into Elara’s house was like stepping into a different world. 

Elara Rime’s home was very much like the woman herself: warm and inviting. They were met with a floral-like scent and aged wood, mixed with the warm aroma of something that resembled a steaming cup of earl grey tea. The floral scent, Luz realized, came from the house plants meticulously scattered around the living space, from hanging down the ceiling to covering any flat surface available to them, like the wall-to-wall bookshelves and the end tables on either side of a couch; even the coffee table wasn’t safe from their mass invasion. One wall, the wall that faced the outside of the redbrick houses street, was entirely made from glass, and the view it granted was ethereal; the everblooming garden in the backyard something straight out of a fairytale. 

The dark furniture and mahogany hardwood floors gave the space a richly warm feeling instead of dark and depressing -even as the dark clouds blocked the sun and kept any natural light from filling the living room. Unlike the Owl House, Elara’s home was more like an open-floor concept, the dark granite island with its dark wood cabinets separating the small kitchen from the rest of the main area, and a staircase at the end of a small hallway that wasn’t far from the front door led to what Luz assumed were Elara’s bedrooms. Breathing in the smells of various flora and tea leaves, Luz felt like a warm blanket was draped over her and all her worries were smothered down and silenced. 

Luz shuffled awkwardly into the house and looked around with wide eyes, while Lilith strolled further into the space like she’s been here a thousand times. “There’s something else I failed to mention in my message about Luz.” She explained as her jaw clenched, her lips thinning into a frown. 

“Unless you’re going to tell me she’s actually your illegitimate child with a lover, which I’d be hurt you didn’t tell me about,” Elara quipped over her shoulder as she strolled around her granite island to enter her small kitchen. “I already know she’s human.” She grabbed a kettle and set it over the stove, a flame flickering to life with a wave of her finger. “Anyone care for a cup of tea?”

She said it so casually Luz felt her mouth drop open in shock. Lilith, meanwhile, pinched the bridge of her nose -most likely in exasperation of the illegitimate child comment-, but showed no other sign of being surprised. “How did you know?” Luz asked, a fearful expression on her face. Did my hood fall? Were my ears showing? She flicked her gaze to Lilith, hoping beyond hope the older woman wouldn’t be mad at her for the blunder. 

Elara waved her hand. “It’s quite simple, sweetie,” she chortled. “What other reason would there need to be of a message sent, briefly explaining to me Lily dear has a child in need of a healer’s services, refrain from going into too much detail, and risk being arrested by bringing her here to Knetwell just to see me?” She met Luz’s gaze before flicking to Lilith. “Lilith is a skilled potionist; so, logically, the only reason there could be she’s unsure if our healing brews won’t kill you because your system is different from ours.” 

Luz gaped at her. Just gaped. Mouth still wide open.

“Am I wrong?” Asked Elara, coyly. 

Lilith responded for Luz. “You’re not,” she mused, her lips curling into a warm smile Luz is floored by. It’s wiped away just as quickly as she added, “Luz’s human biology concerns me. I don’t know how the remedies will affect her, and you’re the only healer I know who’s studied human medicine.” 

“It is a delightful past-time of mine.”

How I will never know.”

“Well, you’re caring for a human child now. I’d start learning, if I were you.”

“Right,” Lilith muttered. She faced Luz, her soft smile effortlessly surfacing. “Elara’s the best for a reason, Luz,” she promised, stepping closer to the teen to squeeze her shoulder in reassurance. “You have nothing to fear with her.” 

Luz nodded. “I’m not afraid,” liar. “I’m more worried about how Eda’s going to take this.” That was at least the truth. 

Lilith said nothing for a moment, her features a blank mask, but Luz saw the grief flare in her eyes. “You let me worry about Edalyn,” she said, squeezing her shoulder one last time before letting her go. “Now, I have some business I need to take care of,” she turned on her heel to head back to the door; to leave Luz alone with the always smiling healer. “I’ll return shortly to collect you, Luz.”

Leave? She’s leaving? Why do you keep leaving me? In one swift motion, Luz was by her side, her fingers instinctively cinching themselves around the sleeve of Lilith’s shirt in some childish need of comfort. “Do you have to leave?” It was meant to be a question, but Luz heard the begging in her tone. Please don’t leave me alone with the psychiatrist. That’s what she is, right? She briefly wondered if the Boiling Isles even had psychiatrists.

Lilith blinked in surprise and looked down at her, staring at her as if she sprouted an antenna at the top of her head. She might as well have with how needy she’s being. “I can stay,” she deliberated after a moment of considered thought. A disappointment briefly flashed in her eyes; something stung Luz in the chest by the idea Lilith was disappointed in her. “If you need me here, I can stay.” 

She wanted Lilith to stay. Dios, did she ever want Lilith to stay. But she didn’t want Lilith to think of her as weak; unable to fight her own battles. She wanted to be strong for her; prove she was capable of functioning alone. And with that, she released the older woman’s shirt and took a forced step back. She shook her head, tilting her chin down.  “No, I got this.” I don’t, I don’t. Stay.

Lilith’s brow furrowed in concern and her gaze flitted around the room before settling back on Luz. A thumb and finger hooked under her chin, coaxing her head upward, until her eyes met Lilith’s heterochromatic pair. Her expression softened. “If you do find yourself in need of me,” she murmured softly, releasing Luz’s chin to grab ahold of her uninjured hand. “I’m only a call away.”

Luz slowly looked down at her hand, and her eyes widened as Lilith’s fingertips left her skin to reveal the sight of a little white raven resting in the palm of her hand. She carefully cradled it like her life depended on it. “Merely squeeze it and say my name, and I’ll be by your side in a flash.” She instructed, leveling one last affectionate smile her way before her features sharpened. “And you,” she growled, the threat rolling off her tongue as she looked at the other woman over Luz’s shoulder. “If anything happens to her, trust me, you will not like the consequences.”

“She’ll be fine, Lily dear,” unaffected, Elara waved her off. “She’s safe with me.”

“You better pray she is.”

With the click of the door, Lilith was gone. Luz was left alone to stare down the person responsible for fixing her. 

 

//

 

“So,” Elara cheerily announced after a long silence; brushing off Luz’s scowl like she’s seen it all before, which is entirely possible if she knew Lilith, who was the queen of scowls. “What’s your secret?”

Luz stared at her, utterly baffled. “Uh, my what?” 

“Your secret to Lilith, sweetie,” Elara elaborated, rounding her island with two mugs of steaming tea in her hands. “It’s not an easy feat worming one’s way into her heart.” She set them down on the freed space of her coffee table before glancing back at Luz. “As I’m sure you know.”

Luz nodded. “She doesn’t make it easy,” she said, eyeing the other woman with a curious expression on her face. Lilith’s warm smile had awoken a barrage of questions the teen wanted answers for. She’s never seen it before. “She likes to be difficult about it.”

“Emotions and Lilith have never seen eye-to-eye, I’m afraid. To most, she’s too much of a challenge. Why bother to love someone they believe doesn’t have the capability to love them back?”

Luz wasn’t sure what she should say, so she just kept her mouth shut. A shrug was her only response. How does one even answer that? Luz wasn’t even certain herself. To Luz, loving Lilith was as natural as breathing -once she got past her defensive barriers, that is; saw the mirrored image of herself in the depths of Lilith’s soul. She saw someone who wanted to be loved. And love her Luz could do. How couldn’t anyone else see that?

Elara’s smile was unfazed by the noncommittal answer as she stepped closer. At Luz’s flinch, she paused before lifting a hand, palm up. “I’m sorry, may I see your wrist? Targon’s grip looked pretty tight back there in the alley. I just want to make sure it isn’t sprained.” 

She cringed. She had hoped everyone forgot about the incident in the alley. “You’re not going to tell Lilith, are you?” 

“I will only promise if you let me take a peek.”

Luz sighed dejectedly. “But it doesn’t hurt.” Lie, was hissed in her ear; nonetheless, she acquiesced to the healer’s soft command and lifted her arm for inspection. “He didn’t grab me that hard.” Lie, lie, lie.  

“Be that as it may,” Elara said, that ever present smile in her voice unwavering in the face of the teen’s disgruntlement. “I’d rather not have Lilith storming into my home in the middle of the night because her child was, in fact, hurt here in Knetwell and I did nothing.”

Luz watched as her hand gently coiled around her wrist; her touch ever so careful as she examined the finger shaped bruises on her wrist, which revealed themselves when her sleeve slipped down. She paused, her feather light touch stilling, and a coy smile shaped her lips. “Or maybe I do. She’s adorable when she’s angry, isn’t she?”

Luz dragged oxygen into her lungs; then burst into laughter. She wheezed, so surprised by the comment she nearly choked on her bubbling laugh. This she wasn’t expecting. She expected her wrist to ache when Elara twisted it in a different direction -it didn’t. She expected Elara to jump straight into discussing Luz’s problems -she wasn’t

“Yeah,” she replied, continuing to laugh. “I don’t know what’s cuter: her angry face or King’s squeak of rage.”

Elara released her wrist, the loss of her warmth leaving behind a numbed sort of tingling sensation. “So Eda still has King living with her?” She grinned and drew away. “Well, good news is your wrist isn’t sprained. But it is bruised; so I’d take it easy if I were you.”

Laughter halted, Luz gaped at her. “You know Eda?”

“Of course,” she replied. A  dark leather wingback chair was set adjacent to the couch; Elara gracefully settled into it, her tiny figure dwarfed by the massive chair. She indicated the couch with her eyes to Luz before continuing, “our parents were close friends and neighbors, so naturally we were friends.” 

“You were friends?” Perched at the edge of the couch, Luz’s posture was hunched, hands in her lap, shoulders slanting in an unsettled manner. Her eyes darted around the room as she kept the door in her sights in case the conversation shifted in a direction she wasn’t yet prepared for. “But Lilith called you an acquaintance of hers.” 

She winced when she realized how callous it sounded. Way to be rude, Noceda

“Did she now,” Elara replied lightheartedly. “Leave it to Lilith to call over twenty years of companionship an acquaintanceship.” A slight look of amusement crossed her face. “Then again, I considered them a field study for the longest time. The Clawthorne sisters are a very interesting duo.”

“Sure, if you call destroying a room anytime they argue interesting,” Luz said dryly. She can already see the Owl House in shambles when they return home. 

“They still do that? I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised.”

“You mean this is normal!?!” 

Elara laughed, the sound still like bells in the wind. “I’m afraid so, sweetie. I’d say they’ve hardly changed.” She briefly paused to set her mug on the armrest of her chair. “Well, if you disregard the curse, the lies, the years of isolation from each other. Then, yes, they’re the same.”

Luz blinked, unsure. “They told you what happened?”

Elara’s smile was sympathetic. “No, sweetie, they didn’t,” she answered. She tapped her chin with her finger; her gaze shifted skyward. “I had my suspicions, though.”

“What, uh,” Luz ventured, cautiously. “What confirmed them?”

“It was, hm, Lilith’s eighth year in the coven, I believe, when she showed up on my doorstep at three in the morning,” Elara leveled her with a conspiratorial look. “She wanted everything I had on curses and their cures. If that had been the only thing, I could’ve played it off as simply her sisterly obligation to help Eda. But she was also suddenly so curious about human mental illnesses. It didn’t take me long to realize cursing her sister was all Lilith’s severe anxiety needed to spiral out of control.” 

Luz stared at her openly, not saying a word. A repeat of she knew, she knew, she knew blaring in her head. 

As if she were psychic, Elara stated, “I’m a healer. I was naturally gifted, even as a child, and I hated it then, to be honest. I could see Lilith was weighed down by her expectations to be perfect; by her fears of being left behind,” she exhaled softly, “but I couldn’t help her.” 

What?!” Luz sprung forward from her spot on the couch, the momentum pushing her too far and smacked her knees against the edge of the coffee table. Her untouched mug of tea rattled against the wood. “I don’t understand,” she shook her head. “If you were so gifted, why couldn’t you help her?” Could this have all been avoided? Did they really have to suffer?

There’s a long pause from the other woman, her demeanor cool in the midst of Luz’s turbulence. “She wouldn’t let me. To Lilith, her fears and anxieties were a weakness.”

“That’s not an excuse not to help her!” Luz looked at her, a defensive rage creeping into her mahogany eyes as she snarled, “you’re one of them, aren’t you?!”

Elara’s expression didn’t waver, but her eyes sharpened ever so slightly. “I’d tread carefully if I were you, dear.”

She went ignored. “How dare you call yourself her friend!” A warning rang in her head as she growled. Her hands balled at her sides as fury exploded within her. “When you’re one of those who thought she was too much of a burden to love!”

The warmth in gold eyes was snuffed in an instant. Luz was stopped cold by what replaced it.

Devastation. Helplessness. Yearning. Devastated by the vacant gnawing of a feeling to see someone she thought would never come back to her, because there was no replacement, no substitute to block the emptiness in her. Helpless because, with all her knowledge and power, it was useless if someone didn’t want it; if they’d rather suffer alone. A hollow soul yearned to be occupied again by another; to fill the hole left in the wake of a desire for someone to stay with her; to not leave her alone.

Lilith. With a sudden clarity, Luz understood

Luz opened her mouth, either to rebuke her words or apologize, but Elara merely held a hand up, halting her words in an instant. Taking a sip of her cooling tea, she eyed Luz over the rim of her mug. The disarray of emotions Luz caught sight of locked themselves away once more behind the slowly resurfacing warmth in her eyes. She set her mug down. “If I had chased her, pushed her too far, do you think she would’ve still sought me out at her worst?” She leveled Luz with a blank stare. “Would you?”

No. The panic and pain engraved in jagged lines on pale flesh flashed in Luz’s mind. She squeezed her eyes shut to block it out. “I guess not,” she relented. Her shoulders sagged in defeat as she settled back down at the edge of the couch. Guilt gnawed away at her insides. “Why was it so important to her to be better than Eda?” 

Elara hummed in thought. “Did either of them ever tell you what an Old Blood is?”

Luz blinked her eyes open, a look of bewilderment twisting her features. “A what?”

“An Old Blood. It basically means blood of an old witching family. There are nine families-”

“Like the nine main covens?” Luz interrupted. She winced the second she realized it.

Elara was amused, her smile full of mirth; all traces of her earlier anguish gone , like it had never been there. “Very clever, sweetie,” she praised. “It’s how Emperor Belos first enacted his coven system when he came into power. He appointed the heads of the families as coven leaders in his new order, because not only were the families old as time itself, they were the most powerful witches and masters of specific forms of magic.”

Woah,” Luz gasped. 

Elara nodded. “I don’t know what was offered for them to so blindly follow the emperor, but I know it was one they couldn’t refuse. Perhaps the word of the Titan was enough to sway them?”

Luz frowned. “But if Belos only came into power fifty years ago…”

“The families are still heads of the main nine covens, yes.” Elara affirmed, rolling her eyes. “A rigged system, if you think about it.” 

Luz blinked. “But what does that have to do with Lilith?” She murmured, brow furrowing. 

“The Clawthornes are one of those families,” she informed, chuckling at the shocked expression Luz could feel sprouting on her face. “Unfortunately, in the last two centuries, the Clawthorne’s bloodline had been dwindling; their future generations nothing more than average witches compared to their ancestors. They were ostracized by the other families;therefore, they were not appointed as head of a coven.”

“Then who took their place?”

“A fraction of the Blight family, I believe.” Another sip of tea. “I’m sure you can imagine the betrayal and the embarrassment the Clawthornes must have felt to be left in the dust.” Elara hummed. “They’ve held onto that resentment for fifty years; so when it was known how gifted Lilith and Eda were with their magic, they were pushed beyond reason to be better.”

Luz was reminded of Amity and the weight she carries to be perfect. She impulsively clenched her fists.

Elara continued, “Lilith and Eda are the first in over two centuries to be born with so much power running through their veins.” Her smile was still affixed to her face, as sharp as knives. “Two girls with adoring parents were suddenly nothing more than property to establish themselves as one of the elite once more.”

“What happened?” Luz whispered.

“Naturally,” sighed Elara, shaking her head. “Eda rebelled. Their parents knew she couldn’t be swayed from her path.”

The teen slouched into the couch. “Lilith wasn't, though.”

“Correct. She was malleable. All she wanted was her parents love and respect again; so she pushed herself to be perfect for them. The perfect daughter, perfect student, perfect witch. Which meant joining the Emperor’s Coven, the best of the best. It meant Eda couldn’t beat her.”

“That wasn’t fair to her,” Luz seethed. “Lilith is powerful. Did she really have to be better than Eda to earn their approval?”

“Fraid so, sweetie.”

Why?”

“She was the eldest,” Elara explained, as if that was reason enough. “It was seen as an embarrassment to be weaker than her younger sibling. No matter how much she may wish it, Lilith won’t ever be in the same league as Eda. It’s a fact, and it’s one she can’t face. It was her downfall in the end.” 

“The curse.” Luz stated evenly. 

“Yes,” Elara replied, as calm as the grave. “She let her insecurities get the best of her. She lost sight of the love she held for her sister; forgot her sister only ever wanted to follow in her path. Cursing Eda damaged a crucial part of Lilith to such an extent I don’t even think I can heal it.”

“She didn’t deserve this,” Luz swore vehemently. “Eda didn’t deserve this.”

“No, they didn’t.”

The melodic voice fraught with acidity stole the breath right out of Luz’s lungs. The warmth in her eyes was suddenly a wordless fury. A danger lurked in their depths so profound Luz felt it in her very bones. Elara’s ever present smile abruptly fell. Even only knowing her for a short time, Luz still got the impression the look was wrong. Terrifying.

Then, as if it never left in the first place, the warmth resurfaced again in her eyes. A sympathetic smile tugged at her lips as she intently held Luz’s gaze for a while. “I now see how you won Lilith over,” she mentioned after a moment of silence. “Now, any other questions before we begin?”

“Actually,” Luz said, sitting up a bit straighter. “I do have a question. About the families?”

Elara studied her with a thoughtful expression; then waved a hand for her to continue. “Sure, sweetie,” she hummed, a curiosity brimming in her eyes. “What is it?”

Luz’s gaze fell to her lap, a frown tugging her lips down. “When Lilith was telling me about how the coven system worked, she never mentioned the nine families. Why?”

Elara hummed in thought. “Perhaps she thought you knew?” Rolling her eyes, she balanced her mug on her lap; fingers carefully wrapped around it. “Then again, the conversation could’ve led to her connection to them, and denying the existence of the families is a specialty of the Clawthorne sisters.”

Luz propped her elbows on her thighs, her head held by the palms of her hands. “I guess that makes sense,” she mumbled, a forlorn note in her voice. “Do the families only specialize in one form of magic like the coven system entails?” 

“As if,” Elara scoffed. “They’re always one-upping each other with the next generation of witches. I don’t even know what coven a Blight isn’t established in.”  

“Oh,” Luz nodded. That, at least, made sense to her. "And the High Council? They're members of the families?"

Elara snorted in contempt. "Unfortunately, yes."

"Doesn’t it basically mean no one outside of the families can ever hope to be head of one of the nine main covens?”

“Like I said, truly a rigged system,” Elara said with a smirk; then shrugged her shoulders. “I wouldn’t say it’s an impossibility, though it’s unheard of anyone outside of the bloodline being born gifted in magic as powerful as the families.” 

Luz pondered over her words for a minute before a thought struck her. “What about you?” She asked.

Elara tilted her head to the side, her golden eyes full to the brim with amusement. “What about me?”

Luz’s smile twitched at the corner. “Lilith said you’re the best, right? Wouldn’t that imply you’re pretty powerful? Are you a member of one of the families?”

“Well,” Elara said, drumming her fingers against her mug in thought. “Yes and no. The name Rime isn’t associated with any of the nine families' bloodlines, but a Blight’s blood does run through my veins from my mother’s side.” 

Luz straightens from her hunched position. “So, what you’re saying is,” Luz grinned, her teeth white against her darker skin. “A forbidden love story is afoot?”

“I wouldn’t really call it a story,” Elara chuckles. “My mother simply fell in love with someone beneath her station,” she explained. “She was casted out of the family and the Blight name was removed from her when she married my father.”

“I bet they’re regretting that now,” Luz snickered. “What, did they think you wouldn’t have potential if your mom didn’t marry who they wanted her to?”

“I can’t say for certain,” Elara mused before her expression evened out. “Not to be boastful, but my sister and I are truly the most gifted to be born in our respective fields.”

Luz’s eyes widened. “You have a sister?” She asked in shock. 

Elara huffed out an amused breath. “I do. I have four sisters, actually, but they’re not in the same bracket of power as the two of us.”

Woah. Is she a healer like you?”

Elara made a face. “Titan’s, no. Breaking things has always been more her specialty. "Now, speaking of healing,” she rounded on Luz with a comforting smile. “I believe we’ve dawdled long enough. Shall we begin?”

Luz gasped and straightened at the vocalization of her nightmare come to life: facing herself. There was a long pause. Luz’s terrified silence was enough of an answer. I’m not ready. I can’t. Please don’t make me.

But it was now or never.

Luz kept her eyes focused on the ground, tracing faint rings of age on the floorboards, before she nodded her assent. 

“When did it first start?”

Abruptly, panic flared -partly because Luz wasn’t yet ready for this discussion and mostly because she knew if she started she couldn’t pretend anymore -and, just like that, all the warmth in the room was swallowed up by the blackhole known as Luz’s anxiety. No matter how much she resented how weak her broken mind has made her, how much she regretted wedging a distance between her and Eda, some part of her was still holding on tightly to the idea that one day she’ll wake up whole again; that she won’t ever have to face the truth because she’ll be fine, like it was all just a bad dream. 

Her mind raced. One of her options was to lie, lie, lie like she’s been doing with everyone important in her life since she made the choice to destroy the portal. It’s not like Elara would know the truth, right? Luz was a stranger to her. She couldn’t possibly see through her. Except she aided Lilith in the past. Every circuit in Luz’s head screeched to a halt at the reminder. Elara aided Lilith. Without the elder Clawthorne even knowing. Elara knew without verbal confirmation the guilt that ate away at Lilith when she cursed her sister, saw with her own eyes the fractured pieces of her soul, and she stayed. And if Luz’s hunch is right, which she’s confident it is, is still in love with her.

Lilith trusted Elara. Trusted her enough to sacrifice the possibility of another fallout with her sister in the hopes she can heal Luz. A wave of guilt gripped her in its hold, because she knew with certainty Lilith had already broken Eda’s fragile trust in her by bringing Luz here without her knowledge. All because she made her promise not to say anything. To keep this a secret from her. Luz stupidly, stupidly thought Eda was better off not knowing all the jumbled mess scrambling around in her head. She never wanted Eda to feel responsible for her problems, but what if all it’s done is hurt her? Hurt them?

Deep breath. “It was the week after we saved Eda from petrification that I think I really started noticing. Usually, I bounce back when the going gets tough, but when it started getting harder to care about anything, when being happy suddenly felt like a betrayal to my mami, I was slowly realizing I wasn’t bouncing back anymore. That was okay, though. Time heals all wounds, right? Except it wasn’t. I was getting worse. It was like a weight was pressing down on me and I was breaking under the pressure.” She was a little shocked at how easily the words tumbled out of her -with how much she fought with herself, she thought the words would remain lodged in her throat. But then again, Elara effortlessly dispelled the iron cage. Must be a healer thing, Luz mused. 

Inhaling again, she continued. 

 

//

 

It had been well over an hour before she realized Elara hadn’t uttered a single word. Luz wasn’t sure that she’d even moved; however, the emptied contents of her mug suggested otherwise. Elara merely listened, not a speck of judgement in her eyes, as Luz stumbled over her words to find the right ones. She never interrupted Luz, even when the teen knew she was running on quite a few tangents; she merely patiently waited for Luz to find her way back on track. She never pushed and allowed Luz to steer the conversation into dangerous waters all on her own. It was easy. Simple. Freeing

Luz wasn’t sure what she was expecting when she agreed to come here. If she were expecting anything at all, really. Of all the possibilities she thought of, this was probably the least plausible of them. Talked. That’s all she did, and yet she felt lighter. The weight bearing down on her was lifted and tossed overboard. She felt like herself. She was aware enough to know, though, it wouldn’t last. But for the moment, this single moment in time, she could finally, with certainty, say she’s fine

“So,” Luz said, a bit awkwardly. “Can you fix me?”

Elara stared at her with a peculiar, unreadable expression. “To fix implies something is broken.”

Luz blinked at her. “Aren’t I?” She asked in a small, timid voice. 

“The real question here is,” said Elara, and then more gently, “do you think you’re broken?”

Baffled, Luz frowned at her. “I…”

Elara patiently waited for her to finish her thought, but Luz wasn’t sure what she should say. A part of her wondered if this was a test. On what, she didn’t know; all she did know was she couldn’t fail it. She was broken, right? She didn’t function the way she was meant to, and when something doesn’t work as it should, you take it somewhere to fix it, right? That’s why Luz was here: to be fixed because she’s a defective product. Then why was Elara looking at her like that?

Not with pity. But sympathy. Understanding. Like she’s seen this a thousand times.

“I see,” Elara offered evenly, her eyes searching Luz’s intensely. Whatever she was looking for didn’t seem to particularly agree with her, her lips pursing in contemplation. “I have a few ideas,” she started as she leant further back in her chair. “The first matter we should discuss…” she trailed off at the sound of the front door clicking open. 

Luz whirled her head in the direction of the sound, her eyes lighting up at the sight of Lilith. She sat up immediately in her seat, practically vibrating on the couch as the older woman drew near. “That was fast,” she remarked once Lilith settled down next to her; then frowned when she noticed the slightest wince as she did so. “Did something happen? Are you okay?”

“I’m fine,” Lilith murmured. Some of the tension fled from her frame as she sunk further into the back of the couch. “How has it gone with Elara? She hasn’t bored you with her stories, has she?” A tiny grin touched her lips. “She likes to talk. A lot.”

“You wound me,” Elara sighed, feigning hurt. Past the humorous vibe she effortlessly gave off, Luz noted the laser-like focus she had on Lilith’s side, as if she can see through Lilith’s clothes what is ailing the older woman. “Besides, I know you just mean ‘have I told her any embarrassing stories about you’,” a coy grin crossed her face. “Not yet, love. And I might not have if you hadn’t so generously commented on my communication skills.”

Luz felt her own grin tugging on her lips, despite the concern she felt for Lilith. “There’s embarrassing stories?”

Plenty.”

Lilith ignored them both, raking a hand through her hair. “Spare me, please.” She pursed her lips together into a thin line and studied Elara carefully before asking, “I need to know, will you be able to help Luz?” 

Elara held her gaze briefly before landing on Luz. “I can,” she confessed; Luz felt like a weight was suddenly lifted from her shoulders -even when Elara continued with, “It’s not going to be easy, let me instill that now, but we can manage this better with the proper steps.”

Luz nodded resolutely. “What do I need to do?”

She was finally prepared to face herself.