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and i would break my family's heart

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Aelwyn Abernant is born in Fallinel, beneath the golden trees and above the gold-veined tiled stone and with the sound of wind chimes and immortal singers in her ears. All too soon, she is rocking in her mother’s arms, and then rocking in a ship, and then Aelwyn spends her toddling years in a mansion in Elmville. She is fed with a 100% natural waybread puree imported across the sea, and plays with crystalline arcane-focusing toys and porcelain dolls with hand-stitched silk dresses in the warm sunlight.

Her name is derived from Old Elvish. Aelwyn. Great future. That’s one of the first things she learns. Before she really even knows how to speak, or what those words are supposed to mean. Great future.

In the archaic tongue, the words for future and forever are the same.

Adaine Abernant is born three years after her. She is born in Clearbrook, in Elmville, with its arcanotech crystals and elemental engine-powered cars, with a high elven midwife attending the birth because the Abernants refused to step into St. Owen’s with the rest of the common folk, goodness, dwarves and goblins went there.

Adaine’s name is also derived from Old Elvish. Second-born.

Their parents don’t really feel like touching her. They let her cry in her crib, and when they don’t look at her, Adaine cries louder. Aelwyn is only three-and-a-half, but she thinks maybe her infant sister just wants to be held and maybe she’d quiet down. Instead, Father and Mother put the nursery in the farthest part of the mansion as possible, and they let the unseen servants change her diapers and the air elementals shake the crib’s mobile of stars and moons, and they leave her be.

“Children must learn to quiet themselves, Aelwyn,” her father says when she asks. “However else will your sister learn to behave?”

Aelwyn sneaks into the nursery when her parents are preoccupied. Adaine’s cries have slowly stopped, petering out into a quiet whine; she whimpers when she sees a face peer down at her from over the edge of the crib. Aelwyn watches as her sister hiccups once, twice, then quiets down. She has Aelwyn’s flaxen blonde hair, and her bright blue eyes, and when she stretches down to gingerly poke at her sister’s smooth, baby-fuzz skin, a chubby fist closes around her finger and Adaine coos.

Aelwyn is too young and small to pick her up and hold her, scared she might drop her if she tries, so she just stands there on her tiptoes and lets her baby sister clutch her finger. Aelwyn feels a little like she’s floating; she has to look down to double-check and make sure she isn’t. Adaine is just so small, fingers like grains of rice, nails tiny as crumbs. Her eyes are trained squarely on Aelwyn’s face as she breaks out into a toothless smile, a bit of spittle running down the side of her roly-poly cheek.

She cries whenever she sees their parents. She doesn’t cry when she sees Aelwyn.

An unseen servant comes in to feed Adaine and burp her. Aelwyn slowly leaves the room, feeling buoyed by a sensation she can’t quite put a name to. All she knows is that she wants to grow up older, taller, stronger, as fast as possible, because then she could hold her baby sister and Adaine wouldn’t cry and Aelwyn could put a hand on the soft dome of her skull and press her close and nothing could ever harm her.

*

Aelwyn attends Pinethrush Elementary, a private school in Clearbrook. The first few weeks don’t go well. She doesn’t understand why they have to waste time writing stories to practice their letters or sing stupid songs; she’s been able to read and write since she was three. All the other children seem to have known each other from nursery school or daycare, and even the ones that don’t manage to form packs of scrambling, knee-skinned friend groups by first recess. She doesn’t like them. They’re boring. All they talk about are trading cards and what snacks their mommies put in their lunchboxes, and they just want to play useless recess games that involve a lot of needless running around and tiring themselves out.

About a month into the school year, the boys split from the girls and decide they want to try and flip skirts or pull hair. The girls all shriek and run away. Some cry, but the teachers only tease that the boys must like them.

One of the boys in her class sneaks up behind her at recess and pulls hard at a braid. Aelwyn blasts him with a cantrip that sends him flying backwards into a bush. She aimed there on purpose so it wouldn’t hurt, but the air gets knocked out of him and he bursts into noisy tears anyway.

When her parents are called in, only Mother arrives, and she’s perfectly unperturbed. “Do you have any idea who this is?” she tells the principal, voice acid-calm and unflinchingly polite. “Aelwyn Abernant is the eldest daughter of the high elven ambassador of Fallinel. Under what circumstances do you think she’d dare submit to such coarse treatment willingly? You should be congratulating her for mastering such a spell at the age of six.”

“I—be that as it may, Mrs. Abernant—” the principal stutters, “—she’s attacked a child who was only engaging in harmless play, we have to make sure this sort of behaviour is dealt with—”

“If you even think of punishing my daughter, there will be consequences,” Mother says primly, and Aelwyn walks out of school and climbs into the back of the family car glowing, relieved that she didn’t get in trouble, victorious, she’s shown proof that she’s strong, she’s talented, that Arianwen Abernant can call her “daughter” and be grateful of her presence, that what she did was right.

Aelwyn is moved to another classroom, and none of the other kids want to play with her at recess, but she doesn’t care. She’s leaps and bounds ahead of her classmates in every homework assignment, every test, and the look of pride in her parents’ faces when she comes home with another perfect score is the greatest source of joy she’s ever known.

*

Adaine is four years old when she drops a plate and it goes to pieces on the ground. It might’ve been Aelwyn’s fault. She’d been showing her the mage hand cantrip and had been so delightedly surprised when Adaine picked up on it immediately. But Adaine gets distracted, or maybe her magic just isn’t strong enough yet—the spectral hand flickers, then disappears, and the plate shatters.

Both Father and Mother rush towards the source of the sound and they see their youngest daughter standing amongst a pile of expensive, hand-painted ceramic fragments, stunned, eyes welling up with tears at the shock of the loud noise and the distant awareness that she has done something wrong.

Aelwyn knows that can't be true, so she waits for the praise. For her parents to acknowledge the talent of her baby sister to have taken to a cantrip so young. No consequences come to the daughter of Abernants, especially not for taking initiative in wizardry.

But instead Father sighs, heavily, and disapproval laces his tone when he says, “Goodness, Adaine, what on earth are you doing? If there is a scratch in the marble, whatever will you do to repay us?”

“This is very disappointing, Adaine,” Mother adds, using that distant and prim voice Aelwyn’s only ever heard her use to outsiders. “Why can’t you be more well-behaved, like Aelwyn? You have an older sister right here to learn from, you ought to reflect on yourself a little more.”

Adaine shrinks from their reproach, chin quivering, head ducked down to stare at the floor. She fidgets, too scared to move, afraid she might step on one of the broken shards by her feet.

Aelwyn can’t move either. She’s just there, frozen and staring, because why aren’t her parents congratulating her? Why aren’t they giving her praise for figuring out a spell? Sure, she made a mistake—a mistake Aelwyn's never made, she's never broken a plate before, she’s always had a knack for doing something right the first time around—but Adaine still did magic, right? Why are they talking to her like she’s a bothersome pet? Why aren’t they looking at Adaine’s tiny bare feet and the cracked, sharp edges of the plate right there on the floor and why aren’t they immediately scooping her up, away from the harm, away from the danger? Why is it only Aelwyn who has to curl her hands into fists and press them hard to the sides of her pinafore to keep herself from moving?

Mother checks her pocketwatch and sighs. “Dearest, I must go, we have a meeting at Hudol in an hour.”

“Of course.” Father shakes his head at Adaine, disappointment in every motion of his head, and tears spill down Adaine’s cheeks. She’s too upset to even make a sound. “Well, someone ought to clean up this mess. Goodness, dear child, you really are more trouble than you’re worth.”

And then he sweeps off, following at Mother’s heels, and Aelwyn and Adaine are both standing there silent and stock-still, both terrified of something they can’t quite name.

*

Aelwyn is ten and Adaine is seven. Adaine is stubborn and mouthy, frustrated by rules, reading anything she can get her hands on and using its contents as tools to wage war against her parents. She constantly questions the things they say, why they do things that can hurt other people’s feelings, why do they tell her she can’t roll in the grass, why can’t she have sugar, why can’t she go play with the other kids?

Aelwyn tries to make her stay quiet, but Adaine just won’t. The disapproval in their parents’ tone and expressions seems to grow every day, with every instance of her coming home from school with a less-than-perfect score on her homework, every new example that their second born is not maintaining the same standard as their golden eldest. Eventually, Adaine's impulsive comments start getting her sent up to her room without finishing dinner. She does so with tears and lots of slamming doors, the upper floor shaking with the stomping of her feet. Like if she subjects herself to the punishment loudly enough and bodily enough, she might convince Mother and Father that they have done her wrong.

But they don’t. They return to their meal like nothing’s happened, and Aelwyn, who has taken to falling silent and still the moment she feels the change in the air, has to pick at her food with a sudden loss of appetite, a curling pit of dread and fear in her stomach that doesn’t settle for hours.

She tries to council Adaine afterwards. She’s the big sister, and she’s meant to be teaching her.

“But it’s not fair,” Adaine says stubbornly, tear tracks raw and pink where they dried into salt-crusts on her face. “It doesn’t even matter what I tell them. Everything they say gets used back at me. I can’t do anything right.”

“It’s about playing the part, little sister,” Aelwyn insists. She’s growing frustrated now, too, because Adaine is not an infant anymore, she’s too big for Aelwyn to hold close. “It’s about making the choice they want, fulfilling their expectations. You see me, you see what I say and what I do, and they never punish me. Why can’t you just follow in my footsteps?”

Adaine doesn’t say anything for a long moment. When she finally does, her voice is hard and choked up as she says, “You’re right. No matter what you say and do, they never punish you.”

Aelwyn stares at her; whatever she meant to say dies in her throat. Adaine is glaring at her in a way that she’s truly never done before, something unidentifiably angry and unforgiving in her eyes, but before Aelwyn can say anything her baby sister jumps off the bed and flees, disappearing into another part of the manor. She’ll likely hide in some unused guest quarter until she’s found and scolded and punished once again.

Aelwyn reads about a type of magic called abjuration and finds it enticing. She likes the idea of shields and wards. Of blocking and numbing and hiding everything away, nice and safe.

*

Aelwyn isn’t sure how old she truly is when this occurs to her, but she knows that one day she thinks about her name and she thinks about Adaine’s, and how their parents named her to have a great future and they named her to be the second born.

When she was younger, she used to think that maybe they just didn’t know what else to call Adaine. Now she thinks it might be because they just didn’t care.

And she’s not sure how old she is when something inside her snaps. She’s not sure how many scoldings she watched Adaine receive, how many to-your-room-without-dinners, how many cold silences, how many times they spoke over her or ignored what she said or picked on a flaw until it grew into an insecurity. But one day she decides that Adaine is the second-born, which means she’s the second-in-line. She is the replacement. She is the contingency plan for if Aelwyn messes up, if she does something wrong and Mother and Father can’t find anything to praise her about anymore.

And she thinks of those disappointed looks, usually only directed at Adaine, turning towards her, and something dark and gaping writhes up inside her, bile rising up her throat—because who is she, if she is not perfect? Who is she if she is not the golden child? Who is she if Father no longer nods his head when she aces another test, if Mother no longer feels the need to smile when she outperforms her peers?

She’s desperate for an answer, and in her mind, she can settle on only one:

She would be Adaine.

Aelwyn isn’t sure how old she is when she decides that to be a catastrophic, miserable, devastating failure is to be Adaine Abernant, but what she does know is that she starts shaking away Adaine’s little hand whenever her baby sister reaches out for her, and she stops visiting her room to say some comforting thing after punishments, and she stops trying to give advice that goes unheeded anyway.

She’s studying abjuration now, and while it might not be a true spell, she’s still able to shield herself from all the uncomfortable thoughts, that unspeakable emotion that wells up inside her when she says something a little cold, a little mean, and Adaine shrinks away from her as if she’s been slapped.

She imagines her abjuration like it’s a shield around her insides, protecting all the soft and fragile things within rather than its shell without.

Aelwyn isn’t sure how old she is when she begins to make it a habit, but she’s fairly certain she’s thirteen and Adaine is ten when her baby sister starts to learn to not approach her anymore. To avoid her. To understand that no more kind words would be directed her way, no gentle touches. She was no longer an infant anymore, weak and helpless in her crib, and Aelwyn could no longer afford to give her handouts.

*

Aelwyn is fourteen and Adaine is eleven when she notices her baby sister start to have a shortness of breath sometimes. There are moments, when their parents are at their most judgmental (only a ninety-nine percent? Oh dear, Adaine, where was your head, what did you do to lose that last one percent, why didn't you try harder, do you not even care?), when she stumbles just a little too hard, gets pushed a little too far, and Aelwyn watches as Adaine’s eyes go glassy and she starts to sweat and shake. She’s not sure what could be wrong with her, but Adaine trembles and her breath goes laboured and uneven, and it lasts for a long time until she can force herself to stop.

Aelwyn thinks about mentioning it to Mother and Father a few times, worried it might be a heart condition or something medical. But sometimes it feels like even mentioning Adaine within any other context other than disdain feels too personal, like maybe they’ll start associating the two of them together.

And she cannot afford to have her parents associate her, their great future, with failure.

So she watches Adaine blink back tears and shudder and gasp, until eventually she learns to hide it better, to numb it all down. Aelwyn silently congratulates her baby sister on learning a bit of abjuration after all.

*

Aelwyn is fifteen and Adaine is twelve when her baby sister starts snapping back at her, bared teeth and snarls in her words.

That’s when she gets hit with Tasha’s Hideous Laughter for the first time. She isn’t too sure what caused the attack—their interactions have slowly become nothing more than snips and barbs, little self-satisfied quips that only serve to hurt them both, but neither of them quite remember how they used to talk before—but Aelwyn gets the last word in because she’s older, she knows how to talk circles around Adaine, she learned it from their parents—and then in her peripherals she sees Adaine moving her hands and muttering something (verbal and somatic components, good girl, you’ve studied this one the best you can).

Out of sheer instinct, she throws up an abjuration and rebounds it back on Adaine, who promptly collapses into painful bouts of cackling.

Their father passes by them and pauses, taking in the sight. All he says is, “Adaine, it’s most unbecoming of you to writhe on the floor like that,” before sauntering off.

Aelwyn looks down at her sister. Adaine, tears streaming down her face, uncontrollable fits of laughter wrenching out of her body to the point of near-immobility, glares up at her with an accusing, spiteful look in those blue Abernant eyes.

Everything in her feels cold and damp, like she’s been standing out in the rain too long. She can hear herself, distantly, saying, “Goodness, Adaine, you’ll have to try a little harder than that if you want to pull a grotesque little prank on me,” and she sounds so much like Mother that she hates herself a little.

*

Aelwyn is sixteen when she starts sneaking out to parties under the guise of study sessions. It’s just too easy; her parents trust her enough that they’d never suspect her to do anything otherwise.

She wears tight clothes and smears on mascara and tries alcohol for the first time. She bluffs her way into the Black Pit and downs shot after shot until she’s heaving in a grimy toilet. The music is so loud it rings in her ears even after she leaves, when she’s stumbling back home and crawling in through her window, when she’s wiping makeup off her face and hiding her clubbing clothes under her bed.

The rush is addicting, more so than drugs or alcohol or flirting or dancing. It’s the knowledge that perfect Aelwyn Abernant, the untouchable eldest daughter who can do no wrong, is out there indulging in everything her parents had always forbidden them to do, and that knowledge thrills her deeply down to the bone. It’s exciting in a sickening way, in a horrible gut-churning way, when she feels the burn of whiskey down her throat or dragon snuff searing her nostrils and she thinks about how it’s mine, this is all mine, Father and Mother never wanted this or asked this of us but I can do it because I can, and no one can stop that.

She gets good at hiding hangovers during breakfast, and learns a cantrip to hide how bloodshot her eyes are. Adaine squints at her suspiciously sometimes, but she only needs to say something nasty and her baby sister becomes thoroughly distracted coming up with a retort.

It does nothing to fill the emptiness inside her, but Aelwyn can’t help herself. She just wants to drink and relax that ever-present ache in her chest and tightness of her shoulders, just for a little while.

*

Aelwyn is seventeen, Adaine is fourteen, and her baby sister fails the entrance exam into Hudol.

She wants to laugh about it, but she can’t. She’s there when the examination ends and Adaine bursts out of the hall weeping, tears streaming down her face, hiccupping and gasping in that way she normally remembers how to hide. Whatever nasty little remark she was going to make about Adaine’s chances of success die in her throat.

Adaine clambers into the back of the car, still choking on the sobs, promptly curling up into herself to press her forehead to her knees.

Aelwyn is frozen, glancing quickly at Father and Mother where they’re sitting up front. What are they going to say? What will they do? She can’t move until they move—can’t speak until she’s sure of what they expect, what they want—until she knows exactly what sort of person she has to be to make them not hate her, too.

But neither of them say anything, and neither of them look at Adaine, and somehow that’s even worse. Father makes some vague comment about the weather, Mother responds with an equally bland mention of some elven politics, and that’s that. It doesn't matter that their daughter is falling apart behind them. The car pulls out of the parking lot and they’re driving back home.

Aelwyn tries not to move an inch, but she can’t help risking a look at Adaine’s trembling form. Something about her looks so small, like if maybe Aelwyn brushes a finger against her knuckles her baby sister will close a fist around it like before, all those years ago.

It’s all those abjuration spells you’ve been practicing, she tells herself. You just want to put a shield up on everything.

But she doesn’t move, because she’s pretty certain that the way Father and Mother are ignoring Adaine’s clear distress is the punishment in and of itself. Aelwyn falls into a familiar pattern; she lets her mind go blank, her fingers go numb, and she puts up a placid, unassuming smile to show that she’s not bothered, she’s not feeling, it’s okay, don’t look at Adaine, look at her, she’s still here, she’s the golden child, she’s perfect.

She can hear Adaine crying in her room for hours.

*

“You make me crazy!” Adaine shrieks. “You make me fucking crazy!”

Aelwyn has never seen her baby sister look so unhinged or so alive. Two bright spots of red flush her pale cheeks, those sharp blue eyes gleaming so bright they almost look like stars. She’s so furious and so frantic that she forgoes magic entirely to punch Aelwyn in the face, which of course it doesn't hurt that much because they're wizards, but also what the fuck?

Her stupid baby sister, fourteen and angry and confident in a way Aelwyn’s never seen her look at home, her friends at her side, backing her up—friends who don’t seem to care that Adaine is so stubborn, so mouthy, always so determined to be right and know everything and fight everybody who tries to tell her the way the world works, friends who don’t seem to care that sometimes her eyes go dull and she shakes and breathes hard and sweats and can’t think or speak properly—even Aelwyn never had friends, never quite understood what the point of them were, what’s the use in connecting with people who can’t do anything for you that you can do yourself.

But they beat her—they ruin her—they finally make her a failure, they destroy everything Aelwyn was meant to do perfectly so she could be her family's great future, and what makes it worse is that Adaine hits her with Tasha’s Hideous Laughter and it fucking works.

Oh, fuck you, Aelwyn thinks as she collapses into peals of awful, painful, unladylike laughter, looking up at Adaine’s flushed, triumphant face, fuck you, I hate you, why couldn’t you just do as you’re told, when did you get so strong, when did you get so brave, fuck you, I can’t believe you got me, I hate you, I love you, you’re just a baby and you bested me, fuck you, I’m so proud of you.

*

Aelwyn is eighteen, maybe, or maybe she’s nineteen, she can’t remember. It’s been so hard to think, lately. All she wants to do is stop moving, to lie down and trance or stop breathing or die but she can’t, she has to keep moving, she has to keep crawling on hands and knees like a dog and she hasn’t showered in months and hasn’t tranced in months and—

Adaine. Where is Adaine? How old is she, is she fourteen or eight or six or is she an infant, will she be small enough for her to hold now? Why didn’t Aelwyn hold her? She should’ve held her, should’ve put up abjurations around her, the strongest ones she knows how to cast, so Father and Mother can’t hurt her anymore, why didn’t she shield her, why didn’t—

They only give her a break long enough to eat and drink, once a day. Aelwyn’s having trouble figuring out how long it’s been, how many days and years and centuries they’ve kept her in the tower. Is she dead? Did she die here? Where is Adaine, is she safe? Did Father get to her? Did Mother?

Adaine is there, but maybe she’s not, but her voice is a comforting ghost in Aelwyn’s head and she does her best to explain how sorry she is, how much she wishes she could’ve protected her instead of protected herself, how sorry she is that she was too scared.

Her baby sister’s voice quavers even as she tries to be strong. I’m here to rescue you.

That’s silly. What can a baby do to save her? But it’s sweet that the ghost in her head is trying so hard to make her feel better, and Aelwyn is just so tired, so she does what she can to help the ghost.

There’s a part of me hidden away, she wants to tell her, if only her mouth could form the words, I think I had it buried. But I know you’ll find it. It’s okay if you don’t want to. I wouldn’t want to, either. It’s okay. It’s okay if you have me stay like this, small and fractured, so I can’t hurt you anymore. I wouldn’t blame you at all.

*

Aelwyn is nineteen and Adaine looks so grown, so strong and brave, where did that shaky panicky little baby sister go? She sees someone powerful and ferocious and intelligent, glaring at Father, mouthing off like she always does, and if Aelwyn wasn’t so tired and so miserable and so numb and empty inside she would’ve been so proud.

She wishes Adaine would just look at her with the same anger and resentment and simmering hatred that she used to. She doesn’t like this new Adaine, the brave strong girl with nothing but disdain when she looks at their father and nothing but compassion when she looks at her.

She’s done nothing to deserve it—has actively tried to dissuade her of it, in fact—so why does Adaine keep looking at her as though she cares?

And then her baby sister's voice is in her head, demanding her to reconsider, questioning her loyalty to their parents—Aelwyn doesn’t, can’t, won’t understand. What she owes to Father and Mother is the debt of life, of being their child, of being clothed and fed and sheltered and kept safe, and what else can she do to repay that debt except be useful and do as she’s told? What sort of failure would she be, what sort of disappointment, if she were to be like Adaine, so tenacious, so determined to fight back, to forge her own way in the world and turn her back on the people whom she owed everything to?

She does as she’s told. She fulfills expectations. She gets Father’s nods and Mother’s smiles and none of them treat her the way they treat Adaine, so surely she was doing everything right? Surely she’s earned love the only way she knows how?

Expectation without love, what is that?

Despite the fact that you have not earned it, I do love you.

Will you be my big sister?

And she can’t think about it, she just can’t. Because what is the alternative? To admit that what Father and Mother had done to her was just as awful as what they did to Adaine? To admit that she has been wronged, that she hasn’t been treated as well as—as she deserved? What did Aelwyn deserve, then, if she was being given an equally terrible upbringing by their parents, and yet she turned her back on her baby sister and treated her just the same?

But she doesn't have the time to make sense of it, because Father wants to hurt Adaine, wants Aelwyn to crawl through her mind so Father can break her, punish her for not being a better second-born, for not being a better replacement daughter, and he can’t—Adaine isn’t—she’s just a baby

When she sees Father raise his hands up at Adaine, Aelwyn locks eyes with her through the cage and comes to two realizations all at once:

Despite the fact that she has not done anything to deserve it, she is loved.

And despite the fact that she has done everything in her power to pretend otherwise, she loves her sister.

She takes a bolt of lightning from Father, right through the chest, a final sign of her failure to be the daughter he wanted. Distantly, dimly, a part of her wonders if this is proof that what Adaine said is true. Because even with expectation, what parent would try to hurt a child they loved? How could they bear it? Aelwyn destroyed herself and numbed herself time and time again to shield her psyche from being completely ruined by how she treated Adaine to save her own skin, and as pain laces through her body and she’s thrown through the air, she knows with all her heart that Father and Mother would never feel the same.

Kill him good, baby sister, is the last thought that goes through her mind, before all grows dark.

*

Aelwyn is nineteen and Adaine is fifteen when her baby sister is killed right in front of her. The world shrinks to a point, her baby sister’s fallen body the center of her universe. The battle raging around her is meaningless—there is no sound—

It’ll be okay, she thinks, her friends are here, they love her, they’ve treated her so much better than I ever have, they can do something, they can—

She looks up and, through her tears and her grief, she sees her stupid fucking mother’s face, calculating and distant, everything done up clean and precise and hidden by her spectacles, and the ice is growing in her numb fingers before she even realizes it.

Fuck you too, Mother, she thinks, and she blasts a cone of freezing magic directly at her.

*

Aelwyn is nineteen and Adaine is turning sixteen, and she watches as her baby sister makes a home for herself in a way neither of them have ever had before.

Mordred Manor is not at all like the old Abernant home that burned to the ground. It’s dusty and old, built with cramped hallways and dozens of too-tiny rooms. There’s a chapel and cemetery within its grounds, despite the fact that there’s a literal official cemetery just down the hill. She is assured most thoroughly that the house is severely haunted. A goth ghost is one of Adaine’s close friends.

Sandra Lynn and Jawbone take in strays like it’s their job, apparently.

It doesn’t matter that neither of them really know her, or that she was working for the Nightmare King and before that Kalvaxus and before that she made Adaine miserable, and they should all clearly care about Adaine more than her, so why are they being so nice?

They take one look at her and build bunk beds for them to share a room, and Mordred Manor is hers.

The house is crowded and noisy, always so noisy. There are approximately a million irritating teenagers running around the house, at least five of them having assisted her baby sister in humiliating her a year earlier. At all hours of the day, there’s someone digging through the fridge and slamming something into the microwave, playing shitty music on their crystal, singing off-key in the shower. There’s a constant stream of cars and bikes in the driveway as friends come to visit, to do homework, to study and horse around, an unending torrent of people pressed up against each other, elbowing each other, talking loudly over each other as they set up picnics on sunny days in the backyard, as they argue over putting ice in the blender to make smoothies, as they debate how one plays Fantasy Monopoly properly (there’s a firm line divided between for fun, for real money, and for stripping). There’s a steady cacophony of ruckus as Fig and the Cig Figs rehearse loudly in the garage, the low thrum of a bass guitar echoing dully against Aelwyn’s eardrums, reminding her of the heady scent of alcohol and parties long since past.

Aelwyn is discombobulated in this hectic, chaotic space. There’s nowhere big and quiet to hide in this house, not like in the Abernant mansion. She always feels like she’s in the way, never quite sure where she should be, where she’s allowed to go, what she’s supposed to do.

But she’s amazed that Adaine doesn’t.

Adaine navigates this mess like it’s second nature to her, like it’s home. She hip-checks Kristen to squeeze past her and grab a bottle of orange juice. Riz clambers on her back to reach the bowl of chips and she lets him. She talks to ghosts and cracks jokes and listens to her friends rant about conspiracy theories and arcane analyses and song choices without tiring.

She smiles wide, and laughs louder. Occasionally, someone makes a reference to shrimp or crab and a whole room of teens meet each other’s gaze and burst into hysterics.

More importantly, Aelwyn watches as Adaine hugs Jawbone every morning, leaning into his embrace, giggling when Jawbone presses his snout to her forehead for a snuffly kiss and his fur tickles her cheek. She watches as Sandra Lynn, sometimes so fragile and self-destructive and unsure of herself for an adult, other times just such a mom that there’s no other choice but to listen to her, fusses over Adaine’s hair and smiles when Adaine leans into her shoulder.

Aelwyn does her best to fit into this odd, jumbled-up pattern of chaos, determined to find a pattern somewhere.

For the most part, it works. She may be a little more awkward, a little stiff, but she learns to gently lean over people to get at the coffee pot, and how to sit curled up at the edge of a couch, and Zayne (who is, actually, quite nice for a ghost) shows her to a hidden spot in the cemetery where she can go and breathe when it all becomes too much.

She and Adaine don’t fall into being sisters immediately. There’s years of bad blood between them, and old habits die hard. Sometimes Aelwyn says something stupid and mean, just because that’s all she remembers how to do, and Adaine isn’t back home being cowed by the combined force of their parents anymore, so she snaps something back. Sometimes it's just an outburst, and then it's over. Sometimes the fights are vicious. Sometimes it descends into Tasha’s Hideous Laughter and Ray of Sickness.

But when it does, Sandra Lynn and Jawbone are quick to pull them apart, reprimand them both separately (but gently, which is weird, because if they truly were disappointed in them they didn’t need to talk about “appropriate behaviours” and “sibling squabbles”, they just had to ignore them and be silent and Aelwyn would get the message), and then insist that after a fifteen-minute cooldown they both meet back up and apologize.

Aelwyn isn’t too good at this part. She’s seen another, broken, part of her apologizing to Adaine before, she saw it in her baby sister’s mind, but that part of her is gone and Aelwyn is as she always was, cold and haughty and a little bit too sharp everywhere.

But Adaine is good at apologizing. She wraps her arms tight around Aelwyn and whispers a sorry into her hair, and Aelwyn slowly does the same, her own sorry nearly inaudible in its foreignness.

And maybe for Adaine that’s enough, to apologize and forgive and move on. Aelwyn spends hours afterwards in a part of the house as far from everyone else as she can (Tracker, in an odd moment of companionship, shows her some hidden passageways that she can tuck herself away in for a while), thinking about what she said, hating herself fresh all over again for never treating her baby sister like she deserves.

*

“Siblings fight all the time, kiddo,” Jawbone tells her after a spat. Aelwyn’s never been called kiddo in her life and it makes her feel small and held and she’s not sure what to do with that. “It’s part of being family. Nobody’s perfect and harmonized all the time.”

They were, in Aelwyn’s house. Father and Mother moved as one, synchronous, like hands on the clock. And Aelwyn trotted at their heels, determined to be the same, knowing that saying as they say and doing as they do is how she will be loved and needed and safe.

“Listen,” Jawbone continues when she doesn’t respond, “sometimes siblings will get mad and they’ll fight. Sometimes they’ll say shit they don’t mean, just in the heat of the moment. And that’s something y’all will have to work on, living together, but it never means that the other person doesn’t care.”

“What if it’s too late?” she asks him, hating the way the tremble in her voice betrays how fragile she feels. She hopes he won’t notice, but given the way his wolf ears twitch, he must’ve picked up on it right away. “What if I can’t work on it fast enough and she decides it’s not worth it anymore?”

Jawbone mulls over this for a moment. He scootches closer to her and puts an arm around her shoulder. She doesn’t lean in, but she likes the feeling of warm fur and a cozy knitted cardigan against her. Maybe it’s because this man is a guidance counselor, but Aelwyn’s never felt like she could admit all her deepest insecurities and pathetic feelings to someone before and trust fundamentally that they won’t be used against her.

Is this what a father’s meant to feel like? she half-wonders. It seems too odd to be true.

“If people don’t care, they wouldn’t put in the effort to argue,” he eventually says, then snorts out a little bark of a laugh. “And judging by how heated Adaine gets, she puts in just as much effort as you.”

Aelwyn bites back a small smile. She still doesn’t melt against Jawbone’s side like Adaine or Kristen or Tracker or Fig—that’s too loving, too familiar a move, one she isn’t sure she’s allowed to do yet—but she does move a little bit closer, allow herself a little more comfort.

Jawbone smells like coffee and wolf hide and the citrusy thing he uses whenever he cleans the house. Aelwyn’s never been so happy to stay home before.

*

The first time Sandra Lynn moves to hug her, Aelwyn flinches. She doesn’t mean to, and she’s not stupid, it’s not as though she thought Sandra Lynn was actually going to hit her or something—but maybe it's easier around Jawbone because he just looks so completely opposite to her parents, and Sandra Lynn might be a wood elf but she's still an elf, so she sees the pointed ears and movement towards her and those abjurative instincts kick in and she winces.

Sandra Lynn freezes, and Aelwyn’s mind goes haywire. Wrong choice. That was the wrong choice to make, she did wrong, how will she remedy this, quick, think of something to say—there was dust in her eye, she thought she saw a bee, she thought, she thought, she thought—

“Hey, it’s okay,” Sandra Lynn says, softly. She doesn’t move back in for the hug, but she very slowly presses her hand onto Aelwyn’s arm, giving her all the time in the world to move away from the touch. Aelwyn forces herself not to.

“I apologize to be such a nuisance,” Aelwyn says, because that’s the sort of thing Father and Mother would’ve liked to hear, even though it’s probably not what Sandra Lynn would like. It’s all she knows. “Jawbone said he’s looking into finding a proper therapist for me. I’ll be fixed in no time, and then I can find somewhere else to …”

She’s not sure what else there is to say. She falls silent.

There’s something tremendously, painfully soft in Sandra Lynn’s eyes when she gives her arm a gentle squeeze. “It’s not about being fixed. And listen, no one’s gonna stop you, but me and Jawbone … we have a great big house, y’know. You can stay here with us as long as you’d like.”

A lump grows in her throat, and she can’t do anything except nod her head, jerkily. She knows it’s rude not to respond, but if she so much as opens her mouth she’s terrified something will happen that will make her weak, will make her vulnerable and pathetic and make Sandra Lynn look at her the way Father and Mother looked at Adaine every time she cried and—she knows Sandra Lynn wouldn’t, because Sandra Lynn has problems with her own child but she at least loves and cares and tries and that’s more than the Abernants could ever say, but still—even if Sandra Lynn won’t know it makes her weak, Aelwyn will know, and Aelwyn can’t

“How long’s it been since you had a good, long hug, Aelwyn?” Sandra Lynn asks her seriously.

I don’t know. Maybe at a party, when I was pretending to be someone else who wasn’t me. Maybe Adaine, but we were in a battle and that might not count as—not them. I don’t think they ever.

She forces herself to respond. What comes out is a thin, reedy intake of breath, all wet and ragged and useless.

Sandra Lynn has her in her arms before the exhale can come out as a sob.

Aelwyn is fully crying into Sandra Lynn’s arms, dampening the collar of her shirt, melting into the embrace. Sandra Lynn Faeth smells like pine and fresh earth, the crisp starched scent of linen dried in the sun, a bit like her griffon mount, and it’s nothing like Aelwyn’s experienced before in the almost overwhelming cleanliness of the Abernant mansion but she kind of likes it. It’s grounded in a very real way that all the unseen servants and air elementals in the world can’t emulate, can’t fully scrub away.

Sandra Lynn holds her and doesn’t let go until Aelwyn starts to pull away, still sniffling.

“I … thank you,” she mutters. “I would appreciate it if you didn’t … didn’t tell the others.”

“That what? That you cried?”

She knows it’s a stupid thing to be ashamed of. Doesn’t change the fact that she feels the shame regardless. “Yes.”

“Honey—” oh, there it is again, an odd little nickname that makes her feel small and comforted, “—none of them are gonna give a shit if you cried. Do you know how many times I’ve had a kid run into my arms blubbering or upset about something or another? Even Fig, now that we’ve made amends, she has to put her head in my lap and rant about band tours at least two or three times a month.” She notices the way Aelwyn’s shoulders are hunched and adds, quickly, “I won’t say anything, of course I won’t. Do you want some ice cream?”

“I’m nineteen,” Aelwyn says bitterly, sniffing hard and rubbing at her cheeks with her shirt sleeve. “I’m not a child.

Sandra Lynn only laughs; it’s a warm, butterscotch-y kind of laugh, like wind in hair. Despite being on all accounts every bit of a confused, jumbled mess as her charges, Aelwyn is starting to understand why everyone seems to gravitate around her anyways. This suburban-wild wood elf mother in high-waisted jeans, so unlike Arianwen Abernant, so much fuller.

“Oh, Aelwyn,” she says as she goes to grab tubs of ice cream from the freezer, and Aelwyn’s certain she’s never heard her name spoken with such fondness before, “of course you still are.”

*

“Jawbone asked if he could adopt me,” Adaine tells her one day, eyes bright and full of tears. Aelwyn’s seen her cry for years and years, but never like this. For one, she’s never seen Adaine cry and smile at the same time. “I said yes. I don’t know if I’m going to change my last name or not—I mean, Adaine O’Shaughnessey doesn’t sound that bad—but I said yes.”

“That’s good,” Aelwyn says. She feels—she’s not sure how she feels. “I’m really—very happy for you, Adaine.”

Adaine bites her lip. She seems uncharacteristically shy. Then she says, “He also—he was wondering about maybe asking you. He didn’t yet just because you’re still recovering, and you’re already technically an adult and all that—but he can be your legal guardian too, if you wanted.”

She doesn’t know about that. If she would—she likes Jawbone, and she likes Sandra Lynn, and she knows that in the few months she’s been living in this house she’s felt more loved and cared for and appreciated than she ever had before. But she doesn’t know if she’s ready to call Jawbone dad like Adaine is. She doesn’t know if she’ll ever be ready to put the pressure of parenthood on someone else again.

“I’ll think about it,” is what she settles with saying, although it’s nowhere near close to conveying the true depth of her emotions.

There's a brief pause, then Adaine is on the ladder and clambering up to the top bunk, and before Aelwyn can really do anything she has an armful of baby sister, Adaine squeezing up next to her and wrapping herself around Aelwyn like a koala bear.

Her hair is fully in Aelwyn’s face, tickling her nose in a way that almost makes her want to sneeze. The bunk beds aren’t big enough to fit two, so Adaine is mostly squashed on top of her and her elbows and knees dig painfully into Aelwyn, and it’s truly very uncomfortable—

But Adaine clings to her as happily and securely as an infant being held by someone they love, sniffling into the crook of Aelwyn’s neck, and she wouldn’t move for anything in the world.

“He said I’m easy to love,” she mumbles around a sob, half-muffled by Aelwyn’s shirt.

She wonders if anyone might, someday, say the same about her. She remains unconvinced. Everything about her is difficult. Difficult and unfriendly and uncomfortable, too many wards, too many shields. For now, however, she squeezes her eyes shut tight as tears fill them, tears like the ones Adaine’s bursting with, her heart full of something painful and sweet that she can barely name.

“That was never in doubt, baby sister.”