The cleric is moping.
Aelwyn’s been trying to avoid her—keeping out of rooms when she catches a flash of ginger hair, staying mindful to swallow her words and slip away when she barges in to see Aelwyn’s sister—but the sadness is seeping into the house anyway, clogging up Aelwyn’s lungs and making it harder to get the tangles out of her hair, get herself put back together and presentable when everything inside of and around her are echoing the same hollow feeling. Adaine doesn’t seem concerned, not about the cleric’s sadness, at least. She’s helping teach a divination class for freshmen next year, and Aelwyn is proud of her, but she also just got a sister and now Adaine is permanently buried in books and meditations. In the last few weeks, Aelwyn has seen more of the top of her head than she had in all of their years together, when two heavy doors separated them rather than the bottom of a bed and a rickety wooden frame.
It isn’t hopelessness that shrouds the cleric like a cloud of stardust, but rather a kind of tired apathy. Melancholy. A lugubrious weight to her shoulders and the droop of her brow. Aelwyn could keep finding new words for hours. She did go to Hudol, after all, even if she didn’t graduate.
Aelwyn is walking through the graves of Cravencroft Cemetery, letting her hands trail idly across crumbling stone that has long since borne the memories of those forgotten. Aelwyn is walking and she has decided not to think today, to instead leave all the shadows and cobwebs undisturbed in her brain and embrace the warmth of dusk at the end of the day. Aelwyn is walking and enjoying herself in a numb sort of way, and then she hears talking.
“Cassandra, I just… I don’t know, it’s stupid.”
A nebulous voice, soft and harsh and every single thing in between, floats from under a tree ahead of Aelwyn, “You are not stupid to miss those you care about, Kristen Applebees.”
“I just, like, I was the one who had to leave my family, but now she’s left me and I can’t deal with it.”
“You can, you are.”
“Kristen.” And it isn’t her name, but it still feels like a brush of lips against Aelwyn’s cheek, a gentle hand tipping her head up to look at soft light. “You are here right now, with me. You will be okay.”
“It’s so dumb. I’m just, just a dumb, stupid, selfish, horny teenager.”
Laughter, like the tinkling of bells, like the flutter of breath over lips, “We all have been and will be those things, Kristen. Or, most of them, at least.”
Quiet. An inhale of breath. Aelwyn’s fingers are still dragging slowly across gravestones, feeling the peace of death while listening to the breadth of life.
Huffing, “When did you get so wise?”
“I do things when you aren’t talking to me, you know.”
“Right. God things.”
“Can one of your god things be giving me a hug?”
“Yes, but you know I don’t actually exist here. I’m just a projection.”
“I know. Just, just let me pretend. I need a good hug.”
“I can do that.”
Aelwyn takes a step and crosses over from the untrodden weeds to a clumsily maintained dirt path. A few more feet along is the tree, an ancient oak-looking thing that’s been allowed to grow unmaintained for its whole life. Branches curve and twist overhead, leaving great whorls of cloud covered from Aelwyn’s view. A small granite bench, faded black words inscribed in a dedication along the edge, sits right next to the tree. They’re almost leaning on each other—the tree and the bench—supporting one another in a curve of wood and stone.
Lit up by the purple and orange light of a just-setted sun sits Kristen Applebees, arms stretched out and wrapped around a shape that is too blurry for Aelwyn to comprehend but the sight of which sits heavy on her tongue like Jawbone’s blueberry pie—sweet and warm and comforting. Kristen was or is crying, the tear tracks glinting on her freckled cheeks and hair even more frizzed than usual.
Pathetic, Aelwyn thinks, a sneer pulling the corner of her lip, and then she remembers that she does not have to be that person anymore, can choose not to be that person anymore. The sneer stays.
“I’m gonna go now,” the shape, the goddex, says, their unfocused hands caressing Kristen’s hair and cheeks.
“You can still talk to me, Kristen. I’ll always listen to you.”
“Okay… God stuff?”
The blur in Aelwyn’s vision clears out gradually, like she’s blinking awake after a long nap, and then Kristen Applebees is left sitting on a bench alone, fingertip glowing where it floats in the air.
Aelwyn is never one to wait for others, so she makes her presence known on her own terms, scoffing as she steps more heavily down the path. Dust is kicking up onto her boots and the cobwebs in her brain are airing out once again, and Aelwyn sinks her nails into the palm of her hand and dredges up just a little bit of acid from the pit of her stomach.
“What are you doing? Having a little seance?” She asks, the words made crueler by the way she addresses Kristen, surprising her at a moment of vulnerability.
Kristen starts, wiping furiously at her tear tracks. “I was praying.”
Aelwyn sniffs, “And that’s, what? Holy water on your cheeks?”
Kristen pulls her hands away from her face, looking at them like she doesn’t know what they are. “No, I was crying too.”
“Oh.” Aelwyn’s not used to people admitting things, and she would stumble if it were within her dignity. “Well. That’s a little sad.”
“Yeah it is.”
They look at each other for a moment, in the steadily dimming light. Aelwyn thinks that Kristen just looks like a young, sad, lost girl—hunched in on herself and drooping like a wilted flower. Aelwyn hates her for it. If either of them have the right to look like that, it isn’t the girl with a heart full of friends and a halo around her head.
“Why are you out here?” Kristen asks, finally. She’s still sitting, and Aelwyn is still standing, and they seem to be caught in a kind of stalemate, although Aelwyn isn’t sure what she would be giving up if she loses.
“I was going for a walk.”
Now Kristen’s nose is the one wrinkling up. Aelwyn feels her hackles rise in defense. “Kinda a sad place to be walking. Everything’s so dead.”
“It’s sad to leave it alone, too,” Aelwyn says, and then winces. That betrays too much, leaves too many questions answered. Aelwyn has learned, time and time again, that it is better to be short and biting and just on the sexy side of mysterious, than risk betraying true emotions.
“I guess we’re both sad, then, huh?” Kristen asks.
She smiles a little bit, the corners of her mouth shaking from emotion, and Aelwyn reflexively bristles again before realizing that she means it to be reassuring rather than judging. It’s… odd. This tenuous feeling of understanding in the air between them. Aelwyn isn’t entirely comfortable with it.
“You need more friends, if you’re just sitting out here talking to yourself,” she says, to bring this conversation back into her sphere of normalcy. Aelwyn sees the blurred shape of a goddex in her mind and has to blink, there must be dust from the road.
“And you need more friends if you’re just walking through a cemetery alone,” Kristen shoots back, but her smile doesn’t drop. “Cassandra is my friend, though. Not in the weird, like, Helioic way where it’s like, ‘Oh, God is your friend and he’s always watching so be careful what you think,’ but in the, well. I think Cassandra’s special. They actually have conversations with me. My connection to Helio was never that personal.”
“Did I ask?” Aelwyn flips her long hair over her shoulder.
Kristen must be having trouble seeing now, Aelwyn’s eyes are beginning to switch over to the washed out greys of darkvision. “No, but you’re still here, aren’t you?”
“And what’s that supposed to mean?”
Standing up from her bench, brushing her hand against the bark of the tree, Saint Kristen Applebees’ eyes flicker and glow in an odd, holy light—sort of like an old lightbulb struggling to turn on. Aelwyn subconsciously takes a step back. “I think it means that we’re both lonely. And sad, maybe. And we both want a friend.”
Aelwyn scoffs and takes another step back, “You have no reason to be those things.”
Kristen sighs, pushing her flyaway strands out of her eyes, “It isn’t about needing a reason, Aelwyn. I’m pretty sure you know that by now… See you back at the house, I’ll go a different way so people don’t know you were talking to me.”
“No, you don’t—” Aelwyn says before cutting herself off. She isn’t sure what she was going to say but it wasn’t anything safe.
“I get it, dude. It’s fine.”
And Kristen turns around and walks away in a streak of grey and blurred colors. The tiny pinpoint of light from her finger grows smaller and smaller and Aelwyn is left standing there, a breeze picking up and pushing her hair in gentle brushes across her face. The oak tree’s leaves rustle in front of her and over her head. Aelwyn can spend a few more minutes here. In these greys.
She sits down on the bench, smooths her hand over the granite, and wishes that she wasn’t alone. It isn’t the first time, to want to have someone by her side—in the prison in Fallinel, in the woods with her parents, in the years and years and years before then. But those wants were always for her sister, for a companionship that was already there, if tentative. Now. Now she wishes Kristen had stayed.
The wind rustles and somewhere, at the Manor, someone calls out for her from the backdoor. Aelwyn sighs and tucks her hair behind her ear and stands up.
As she’s walking away, she could swear the tree leans down closer to her, as if to say goodbye.
“Bro, there’s a door for a reason, knock before you— Oh. Hey, Aelwyn, I don’t know where Adaine is.” Kristen is sitting backwards on her bed, legs kicked up against the headboard and holding a book over her head.
She’s craning her neck uncomfortably to look at where Aelwyn is lurking in the doorway. Which is silly, because Aelwyn doesn’t lurk. Aelwyn knows what she wants and is loud about it and is not afraid to step into other people’s rooms.
“I wasn’t looking for my sister,” Aelwyn says, and knocks her hand against the door frame in a way she’s seen Sandra Lynn do nearly a hundred times since coming here.
“Oh. Well. Uh. Come in, if you want?” Kristen puts the book down but remains facing upside down, her hair arranged in an incredibly messy halo of ginger and browns. “Is everything okay?”
“Yes, everything’s fine.”
Aelwyn’s eyes dart over the posters on the walls—four different signed Cig Figs designs, one of the moon, and another that’s just tie dye and says “MYSTERY” on it in weird, swirly letters. Aelwyn’s pretty sure Kristen made the last one.
“You looking for, like, the sweet tea or something? Because I was supposed to make more I just haven’t gotten around to it.”
“Sweet tea? Do you really think I—” Aelwyn cuts herself off, blinking. “No. I wanted to talk.”
“Oh. Sweet. Um. About what?”
“That… thing you were doing in the woods,” Aelwyn is still resolutely not looking at Kristen. If she were more self-critical she might recognize that what she’s feeling is embarrassment, of a kind. She isn’t used to being so vulnerable, quite yet. She isn’t sure she likes it.
“Yes. Whatever. That.”
“Do you… want to pray?” Kristen sounds tentatively excited, like she’s nervous about showing how much Aelwyn’s interest means to her.
Aelwyn busies herself by inspecting Kristen’s trinkets. They’re arranged in haphazard piles across all flat surfaces of the room: little fragments of a palimpsest, half-finished friendship bracelets, and a small, wonky pinch pot that Aelwyn guesses was made by one of Kristen’s little brothers. There are other remnants of the bad kids in here, too. A stack of Riz’s business cards are collecting dust on a bookshelf, and there’s a ripped elven battle sheet that Fabian must have left here sometime.
It would be weird, Aelwyn supposes, to have remnants of other people in your space. Adaine, of course, lives in the same room as her, but Aelwyn’s things are decidedly Aelwyn’s things and Adaine’s things are decidedly Adaine’s things and not much detritus from the outside world makes it into their actual living space.
Easier to hide, when you know what is important, Aelwyn thinks before she is able to stop herself. She doesn’t have to hide her things anymore. No one is going to try and take what she cares about. And, just because something isn’t hers doesn’t mean it isn’t important.
Aelwyn tries to remember these things. She usually fails.
“Maybe,” Aelwyn settles on, in response to Kristen’s question.
“Oh, uh, sweet.” Kristen chews absentmindedly on her finger, staring in a weirdly intense way at where Aelwyn’s hands are skimming over her life. “To Cassandra?”
“I don’t think that’s your business.”
“Alright, fine, fine. Is there anything… specific you want to ask about?”
Aelwyn is aware Kristen is having to needle, aware because her own answers become vague and unfeeling when she is too interested in something. She refuses to recognize her interest in prayer because it is, in the end, a silly one. Abernants do not pray. They do not dream of a warm, blurry shape in a dim forest. They do not wish to feel the comfort of a goddex’s presence, because the only thing separating gods and Abernants is worshippers, and that is a problem solved by time and money and the power that comes from both.
Aelwyn isn’t sure she’s an Abernant anymore. She isn’t sure what she’ll do if that’s true.
“How do you do it? Are there rules?”
Kristen laughs at her, with a finger still raised to her mouth, half-chewed nail hanging. The laugh is short, a brief breach of these tentatively polite (from Kristen’s side, anyway) conversations that exist between them like a living, breathing thing. Aelwyn hadn’t entered this room to feed that sleeping creature, and she certainly hadn’t entered with the intention of being laughed at. If she’s being honest, she isn’t sure why she’s here.
Aelwyn looks at her rather witheringly, Kristen doesn’t balk. “I mean, it really depends on what faith system you’re following, who you’re praying to, you know. There isn’t one set answer to any question. It’s all, like, deeply personal.”
“Incredibly enlightening, thank you.” Aelwyn bites the words out with an eye roll, Kristen just chuckles some more, expression hopeful but still guarded.
Aelwyn hates her a little bit. Her fingers itch to grab the pinch pot that’s resting near her hand, to chuck it against the ground and shatter it into a million pieces. I lost everything, Aelwyn thinks, as she balls her fingers into fists at her sides instead. You should, too. You shouldn’t get to keep meaningless garbage if I didn’t get to keep my life.
A memory, unbidden, swims to the surface of her mind, as they have been doing since her sister revived this version of her. Aelwyn is ten and sitting at the kitchen table, doing her selected textbook readings on Celestial and Infernal for the day when Adaine comes home from school, because she is too difficult for mother and father to bother with tutors. Adaine is smiling, and she pulls a piece of too-thick paper from her backpack, showing it to Aelwyn with glee.
“Look,” the Adaine in her memory says, words whistling slightly between a gap in her teeth, “I got an award in school.”
The little Aelwyn in Aelwyn’s head reaches out and snatches the paper from her sister, and then sends it up into a swirl of cinders with a well executed Prestidigitation cantrip.
When Adaine cries, she is sent to her room for the rest of the day without food. Aelwyn kicks the ashes of her sister’s triumph under the sideboard.
In that memory, Aelwyn has not learned how to moderate her meanness yet. She will. She has to, when she realizes that bringing unwarranted suffering to Adaine just increases the pounding in her own skull, the heaviness in her chest. But at ten she hasn’t developed the headache yet.
“Hey, you okay?” Kristen Applebees, the living breathing person who she has not sent up into ash, has moved between the time Aelwyn was present and the time Aelwyn was in her head, and she’s got a hand on Aelwyn’s forearm.
Aelwyn shakes her off and steps away from the pinch pot. There is an emotion in her chest and behind her eyes that she valiantly beats down. “I’m fine,” she says, and her voice doesn’t shake at the end. It doesn’t.
“If, um, thinking about praying and stuff is freaking you out, it’s okay. You don’t… we don’t have to talk about that. If you want a friend, uh, I’ll be here even if…”
“It isn’t that.”
“Right, I know. You said you didn’t want friends, sorry.”
“No, you didn’t let me finish. I… How do you have so many things?”
“You left your family.”
Kristen blinks, and Aelwyn kicks herself. This isn’t how this was meant to go, this isn’t how this was meant to go. She’d been doing so well at keeping up her walls, and now everything was crumbling. And, for what? A half-fuzzy memory of curling paper? An ugly, unevenly glazed pinch pot?
Worthless, Aelwyn thinks, the word and bile pulled up alongside it aimed at herself, not for the first nor last time.
“I did.” Kristen says, finally, and reaches for Aelwyn’s arm again. Aelwyn lets her take it.
“How did you keep… how can you have things from before?”
“Before? Oh.” Kristen does that blinking thing again before looking down at the shelf that holds the pinch pot. “I just took, well, a few important things, you know? Things that weren’t from my parents. The rest of this crap is from my new family.”
“But aren’t you worried that—” Aelwyn cuts herself off, abruptly, unsure how to continue.
“I’m not,” Kristen says softly. “This is my home now. I won’t have to leave them behind again.”
Aelwyn bites hard on her tongue, tries to push the words and feelings deep, deep down where they belong.
“Here,” Kristen says, and reaches out to the shelf. She picks up the gross-looking pinch pot with thin spots and uneven fingerprints and cracks in the surface, and hands it to Aelwyn, before frowning and grabbing something else too. It’s an old, unfinished friendship bracelet, not unlike those Kristen always wears around her wrists. Blue and grey and purple colors make a swirling pattern of knotted string, the unfinished ends dangling in a bit of a tangled mess. Kristen puts it in the pot and hands the whole thing to Aelwyn. “There.”
“Er, why are you giving this to me?”
“I had, like, a sort of weirdly eloquent thought process about time and family, but, uh, well. I just want you to have it.”
“Alright,” Aelwyn says slowly. She does not thank her. She is not able to do that yet.
“So, yeah. There. You can put it on your windowsill or something.”
Kristen waits a beat, nods, and then flops onto her bed in a way that might have been intentionally poorly executed or just a case of tripping over her own feet. “You wanna go for a walk with me tonight, to the tree?”
“I’m busy,” Aelwyn says. She isn’t.
“Okay, well. The offer’s always open.”
Aelwyn nods, realizes she has no way to continue this conversation, and promptly marches from Kristen’s room. She is disappointed to realize that leaving upsets her. Disappointed, but not surprised.
The pinch pot is a heavy weight in Aelwyn’s hand. Her fingernail digs into one of the still-soft cracks in the side of the clay. There is a window, directly beside her bed—the top bunk, because Adaine likes to be close to her desk and Aelwyn is still averse to spreading out in this new place—and it will be a perfect home for this little misshapen lump of clay to look out over the lawn of Mordred Manor, over the edge of the forest that abuts it.
Aelwyn is glad that Adaine isn’t home when she takes the stairs to their room two at a time, and then uses a Mage Hand to make sure the pinch pot remains stable as she climbs the ladder up to her bed.
The treetops shake with an unknown wind as she places the pot delicately on her windowsill, wiping dust away with a disgruntled look and the edge of her blouse. Aelwyn sits back on her haunches and looks at it, a little lonely in the left hand corner.
Well, that’s okay. Aelwyn thinks, her gaze shifting to look out the window, at the cloudy sky and the bending branches of leaf-heavy trees. I’m lonely too.
Mordred Manor is quiet more often than not, even though there are so many people living in it. Aelwyn wakes early and goes to bed late. In the pre-dawn light, she quietly makes coffee in the kitchen with Lydia Barkrock and Sandra Lynn—none of them able to sleep past the sun’s rising. In the evenings, she sits on the couch and reads in the living space with Jawbone and a rotating cast of Bad Kids. Their sitting area is always quiet, once night falls, no matter how many people crowd into it, no matter how voices and laughter echo from other parts of the house. Aelwyn wonders if Jawbone talked to the others, if he told them to keep a limit on their volume around her. She doesn’t want to know.
Just because Mordred is usually quiet, does not mean it always is. Fig is home, for once, and the Cig Figs are throwing an impromptu concert and party in the yard. Jawbone had offered to close the house off to their guests, but Aelwyn had shrugged him off, not wanting to be any more of a burden than she already is.
Now, though, as she tries to make her way through a sea of sweaty teenagers, she cannot help but wish she’d taken him up on his offer. Or maybe even tagged along on his, Sandra Lynn, and Lydia’s weekend trip to Bastion City. Which would have been weird, but better than this.
She’d already made it to her usual evening spot, the corner of the navy couch against the back wall of their living room, only to find it occupied by an unfamiliar, smoking firbolg. Going upstairs again isn’t an option, because now she’s shown her face here, and if she disappears it’ll just be weird.
No one cares about you, anyway, her own voice whispers in her mind, almost a comfort, in this instance.
She could slip back upstairs. This is where she lives, and the chance of anyone noticing her return to her room is low, as the intrusive thoughts in her mind steadfastly remind her. She could do it. She won’t.
The lawn is almost worse than inside of the house. There are more teenagers here, more flashing lights, more noise. Aelwyn slams up the mental walls that keep the memories locked inside, in order to avoid slipping into that quasi-awake state of recollection as the last time she was at a party plays in the back of her head.
“Aelwyn! Oh my God, Aelwyn, hey! Aelwyn!”
Aelwyn looks, reflexively, at the sound of her name, and finds a barely upright Kristen Applebees, semi-propped up on Riz Gukgak’s shoulders.
Kristen’s waving at her, like she’s trying her hardest to fall over. Aelwyn has to bite back a smirk as Riz sways slightly and grimaces under the cleric’s weight.
“Kristen. Riz.” Aelwyn nods to each of them, holding her chin high as if she is having a good time and not at all freaking out right now.
“Aelwyn, you look so hot,” Kristen slurs, stumbling forward and mostly out of Riz’s grasp.
“Um. Thank you?” Aelwyn, in fact, doesn’t look any different than usual—a stained and oversized cardigan Jawbone gave her during her first week at the Manor, saggy joggers that she wouldn’t have been caught dead in before her fall from grace, or, maybe, her fall to grace, and her hair held up in a poor attempt at a bun to disguise the matted half at the back of her neck. She is, by all accounts, a complete and total mess.
“Doesn’t she look so hot, Riz?” Kristen goes on, falling forward and catching herself on Aelwyn’s shoulders.
She stinks of cheap beer and weed and Aelwyn’s nose wrinkles as she pushes herself into Aelwyn’s space.
“I’m not even remotely attracted to women,” Riz says, “but sure, Kristen.”
Aelwyn looks over at him, alarm clear on her face, and he just mouths “sorry” at her.
“Aelwyn, Aelwyn,” Kristen’s words are too loud now, right next to Aelwyn’s ear. “Do you want to go for a, um, a fucking walk? Because you never go with me when I’m,” Kristen breathes in weird, eyes crossed slightly. Aelwyn is worried that she’s on something else besides what she can smell on her. “When I’m normal.”
“The tree? I want you to go to the tree with me.”
“Um. I don’t—”
“Come on, come on,” Kristen says, and Aelwyn has to physically lean away as she leans further and further into her space. “Riz, go away.”
“Rude,” Riz says and doesn’t go anywhere.
Aelwyn is privately of the opinion that Riz is usually the rude one, but she has to agree with him right now.
Kristen’s eyes look huge in the dim light of the party, pupils blown wide and eyebrows all quivery and pleading. Aelwyn has never had an expression like this turned on her before, she isn’t quite sure what to do. “Please, Aelwyn, I know I said I didn’t care but I do. I do so much. You hate me, you hate me that’s fine. But I care, like, way too much. Way too much, Aelwyn. Way too much.”
“I’ll go with you tomorrow, Kristen,” Aelwyn says, and it seems to be the right thing because Kristen leans back out of her face, smiling now.
“Yes, really. Are you stupid?”
“Yeah,” Kristen says, easily, too quickly.
Aelwyn immediately feels bad.
“Hey, you wanna go do drugs with me?” Kristen asks, narrowing her eyes and leaning forward to gently bump her forehead into Aelwyn’s cheek.
“No one says that,” Aelwyn snips, instead of explaining how she’d gone through withdrawal during her time in Fallinel and has no intention of ever living through that again, no matter how much easier that is to say than do.
“Well, do you wanna? Riz won’t do any.”
“Uh, I would like the record to show that I have already done drugs tonight, I just know my limits and refuse to succumb to your peer pressure,” Riz pipes up. Aelwyn tries so hard to refrain from sneering at him, she really does. She’s just not successful.
“No. I don’t want any of your little party drugs.”
“You’re no fun, Aelwyn. No fun.”
“Yes, well, I’m going to be the only one of you functioning tomorrow.”
Riz snorts, much too loudly, “I’m never functioning.”
Aelwyn rolls her eyes and snaps at him, “I can see that.”
“Hey,” Kristen continues her gradual lean, now landing with her head on Aelwyn’s shoulder, “don’t be mean to him.”
“Yes, yes, whatever.”
“No. Don’t be mean! He’s just… just looking out for himself.”
“Um, so I might go,” Riz says, clearly uncomfortable as Kristen pushes the topic.
Good, Aelwyn thinks. She’s not in the mood for an apology.
“No, no, no, Riz. I want to be with, with, all of my friends,” and then, out of nowhere, as if a switch has flipped, Kristen starts sobbing into Aelwyn’s shoulder, hands grabbing at her back and fisting in Aelwyn’s cardigan.
Aelwyn makes eye contact with Riz, who’s also staring wide eyed at them, and tentatively rests her hands on Kristen’s lower back. She pats her, awkwardly, and is sure she looks so completely emotionally incapable.
There’s too many things going on in Aelwyn’s head. The stress of being offered drugs, and desire to do them has set off the abjuration ward she’d placed on herself for this exact situation, which is quickly building up the walls of her fortress higher and higher and higher—laying grey stones atop each other and connecting them with burning red magic. Those walls aren’t helping her deal with the crying girl in her arms, something she’d be having a hard time with even without the spell.
And maybe it’s because she’s overwhelmed, and Riz is watching her, and she knows if she doesn’t react well he could tell someone who could tell Jawbone who could put his book aside while they’re sitting in the living room after dinner and start one of those, “So, Aelwyn,” conversations. Maybe it’s none of those things. Maybe she’s just done with being the mean girl.
Regardless of why, Aelwyn changes her patting into a full on hug, wrapping one arm around Kristen’s back and burying the other deep in Kristen’s hair. She holds her tightly against her shoulder, like Sandra Lynn held her on her first night at the manor when she’d awoken and seen the shadow of cat ears on the wall.
Kristen blubbers and snots and is, generally, extremely gross, and Aelwyn shuts out Riz’s huge yellow eyes by closing hers, sucking in a long sigh through her nose.
They’re at a crowded party, in the middle of a lawn that will probably be littered with plastic cups and detritus and torn up clumps of grass in the morning, but for that moment it feels like Kristen is the only person in the world with her. The sounds of the party muffle, so all she can hear is Kristen’s sobs, and all she can feel is the shake of Kristen’s chest against her own, and all she can smell is the cheap beer hanging around Kristen’s shoulders like a cloud and the faded scent of her strawberry shampoo.
Kristen is warm in her arms. Aelwyn is used to Adaine and the sharp points of elbows and glasses and limbs clambering together awkwardly from a lack of practice on both of their parts. Kristen feels built for hugs, body soft and comforting even as Aelwyn is the one providing the comfort—built for hugs unlike Abernants with their sharp smiles and their sharp eyes and their sharp, jagged, broken bodies.
Aelwyn squeezes Kristen to her chest and tries to absorb some of that warmth, that softness, into herself.
Thief, even when you pretend to give, honeyed words whisper in her ear, tone laced with Kalina and her mother and herself. Best to let them hurt, than take and take until they are nothing but a little shred of a soul. Until you are gorging yourself upon their kindness. Liar. Thief. Betrayer.
Comfort is not a thing that can be taken by force, Aelwyn. It cannot be stolen, a second, new but familiar voice speaks in Aelwyn’s mind.
And Aelwyn is pulling even further into herself, further and further until Kristen’s body is the only thing anchoring her to the world. She stands on the inside of her wall that is steadily being built, the top of which is so high it disappears into the clouds of her mind. The red of her abjuration pulses between the stones, like a living, breathing thing, and she breathes out a sigh of relief that it remains intact. And then, even as she stands there with tired but happy eyes, it begins to shift into a murky purple, the cracks between the rocks darkening and deepening, like they lead somewhere infinite, somewhere filled with mystery.
Stumbling a step back, Aelwyn raises her hands to strengthen the wards that must surely be failing, only for a hand to reach through the wall like it is not there. Where flesh should be is a sort of glass that catches and spins the light of Aelwyn’s mind, and the hand curves, like it is stretching, seeking something.
Aelwyn recognizes that glass.
“Cassandra,” Aelwyn says.
The mouth on the body in her head moves, the vocal cords hum the words. The body in the real world sheds a single tear and twines its fingers further into a head of ginger hair.
The hand keeps pushing through the wall, and then an arm, and then an entire goddex stands in the threshold of Aelwyn’s mind. The wall behind them pulses with that purple energy, red scattering to the furthest corners of Aelwyn’s mind.
“I could not have gotten through if you didn’t let me, Aelwyn.” Cassandra says, hair floating around them like melted glass on a cooling breeze. “But I apologize, anyway.”
“Kristen is worried about you. So I am worried about you. And I heard the voices in your head and felt your wall going up and became more worried.”
“Gods… feel things about humans?” Aelwyn asks, a bit dumbly, as she struggles to avoid taking another step backwards.
“I’m not sure about all gods. But I do. It can become tiring, but I think it’s worth it,” Cassandra frowns and tilts their head at her. “I can tell you’re tired from it, too.”
“I haven’t done a whole lot of caring yet.” Aelwyn sounds defensive but neither Cassandra’s facial expressions nor her body language changes, remains open, palms turned up.
“Yes, you have. Even if you cover that worry with anxiety over being selfish. It does not hurt to care, Aelwyn.”
“Why are you in my head?” Aelwyn asks now, heart hammering, palms sweaty, knowing that this topic should not be pursued at any cost.
“I told you, you let me in.” Cassandra’s frown deepens. “Do you not wish for me to be here?”
“I don’t want to be here.”
“Then why are you building a wall to trap yourself inside?”
“You say you made the spell to deal with destructive urges, but I have been watching and this wall was made long ago. You simply become aware of it when the spell is triggered again.”
“I don’t know what you want from me.”
Cassandra takes a step towards her and Aelwyn realizes that her heart isn’t rabbit hopping because of the presence of a god but rather what that presence means. No, this god looks too much like Kristen to be afraid of. They’d probably be warm, too, if they were to hug her.
“I want you to be happy, Aelwyn Abernant,” Cassandra says, and reaches out a hand to her. “And I want Kristen Applebees to be happy. And I think those two wants are not so different, in the end.”
Cassandra’s finger, the same one on Kristen’s hand that glows when it is dark or when she is using magic, connects with the middle of Aelwyn’s forehead, and Aelwyn is pulled from the landscape of her mind and back into her body with a single, gasping breath.
Aelwyn takes a moment to reorient herself, to get used to not just the feeling of Kristen in her arms but also others around her, and then she blinks her eyes open and pulls slightly away from Kristen Applebees.
“Come on, Kristen. Let’s go inside,” she says, and is both disgusted and delighted with the softness in her voice.
Kristen blubbers something that sounds like a lot of “but” and “friends” and “Tracker” and Aelwyn just looks over at Riz again, whose brow is furrowed in such deep concentration she’s sure he has a headache.
“Riz, will you help me bring Kristen to her room? And watch her once we get there?”
“Yeah,” Riz says, easily, and darts over to their sides, grabbing Kristen by the waist to help support her.
“Thank you.” Aelwyn doesn’t notice when she says it, too caught up in thoughts of Cassandra and thoughts of Kristen and the sudden sensation of having a body after being so wholly removed from it mere seconds ago.
Riz, inquisitive, watchful, smart in a sometimes stupid and dangerous way, does notice. And he carefully files the information away for later.
“Hey, uh, Aelwyn.” Aelwyn looks up from where she’s seated at the breakfast bar, the children’s mystery novel Adaine had given her propped open, reading glasses close to sliding off her nose from how far she’s leaning over it, engrossed in the story.
Kristen looks like shit, which is to be expected, Aelwyn supposes. Dark circles underline her eyes, making her resemble more of a raccoon than a human, and her hair is a greasy mess of lint and unkept frizz. Aelwyn remembers how, once they’d gotten her to her room, Kristen had refused to sleep in her bed, falling face first onto the floor instead. Aelwyn had left her in the evidently incapable hands of Riz, tired from the goddex and the hugging and the muchness of it all, and unable to stomach the feeling of putting Kristen to bed. She isn’t quite sure what it is about the act of wrapping a blanket around Kristen’s shoulders, of propping her head on a pillow and turning her on her side so she doesn’t choke during the night, but whatever it is still seems to be too much, too something, for Aelwyn to even think about.
“You look like shit,” Aelwyn says, pulling the glasses off the bridge of her nose and resting them on the counter.
Kristen blinks at her and staggers over, picking up the glasses and squinting at them. “I didn’t know you couldn’t see.”
Aelwyn snatches them out of her hand, frowning. But, for some reason, she can’t quite find the acid to properly spit out, “I can see just fine.” She tries anyway.
“Alright,” Kristen says, a bit too easily. Aelwyn just frowns deeper.
Kristen Applebees has always been a bit of a mystery to Aelwyn, at first because she didn’t know her, and now because of her unpredictability. An unpredictability like her own, but different in enough ways to matter. That unpredictability might belong to a past version of Aelwyn, anyway. Or, no, she is that person again. Now. Because of her sister and the failsafe. Nevermind that it has been months since that failsafe was reinstalled, months and a nightmare forest and a sister and a house that is not quite a home but is not quite just a roof over her head, either. Oh, and Kristen. Whatever’s going on there.
Personal confidence aside, Kristen Applebees’s unpredictability rears its freckled head as she reaches out with the hand that had grabbed Aelwyn’s glasses. The blood roars in Aelwyn’s ears as a soft, calloused finger takes a lock of hair from where it had fallen in front of her face, and tucks it behind one long, pointed ear. Kristen’s hand stays there for a moment, tenderly holding the side of Aelwyn’s head, thumb skimming around to brush feather light over her temple. Kristen blinks and that glow from the forest—silvery bright and piercing—flickers for a moment, pinning Aelwyn in place.
Aelwyn isn’t sure she’s breathing.
And then Kristen drops her hand and turns away like nothing happened, walking to the fridge while sleepily scratching her back. “How’s your morning going?”
“It’s four in the afternoon.”
Kristen opens the fridge door and immediately turns away from it, peering out the window at where the sun blazes over the treetops, just beginning to flirt with the horizon. “Oh. I guess it is.”
Aelwyn huffs, fingers idly playing with her glasses.
“Oh, hey, what’s this?” Kristen asks, attention turned back to the fridge, reaching for a glass pan.
“Don’t take that out yet, it’s not ready,” Aelwyn snaps, fighting the urge to stand up and march over there, slam the door and stop Kristen’s gawking.
“Fine, fine. But what is it?” Kristen takes her hand away, going for the bag of stringed cheese sticks instead.
“Just a recipe Jawbone gave me.”
“It’s really pink.”
“Well, you don’t have to have any.”
“Awh, Aelwyn, you were going to share?”
“Evidently not anymore.”
“Holy Cassandra’s balls, are those marshmallows?”
Aelwyn chokes on a laugh, turning it into a cough when Kristen looks over at her with a smile.
Kristen grabs a carton of orange juice from the fridge, and Aelwyn can’t help but shudder as she opens it up and drinks straight from the carton. “What?” Kristen asks around a mouthful of juice, knocking the fridge shut with her hip.
“Other people live here too, you know.”
Kristen shrugs, swallows, and immediately chugs the rest of the carton.
Kristen’s eyes crinkle up. Aelwyn has always detested the phrase “twinkling eyes'' because eyes, simply, do not twinkle. But Kristen’s do, like the brightest stars in the sky. It’s entrancing, and, for a moment, Aelwyn forgets that Kristen apparently does not know how to drink things properly, that Kristen is the obnoxious friend of her younger sister. That Kristen has tried, again and again, to be Aelwyn’s friend, no matter how many times Aelwyn has pushed her away. That Kristen, for some reason, brought Cassandra to her, because she cares about her, even after only a handful of conversations and biting comments.
Kristen smiles, and Aelwyn realizes she is just sitting there, staring with her mouth open slightly, like some dopey gnome.
“Hey, you okay? You’re looking, er, more intense than usual.” Kristen says, and Aelwyn shakes the feeling away.
“I am not.”
Kristen narrows her eyes, and then just shakes her head. “Anyway, I wanted to tell you, like, not to stress about going to the tree with me or anything. I was really fucked up last night.”
Aelwyn swallows, and reminds herself of the words she has been practicing all morning. “No, I want to go with you. I made the, er, jello thing? I made that, so we could have a picnic. Later.” And then in a rush, because that is too much, and Aelwyn is in much too deep, and since when did she betray her emotions like this, “Although, I have much better things to be doing, so if you—”
Kristen cuts her off by leaning across the counter and putting her hand on top of Aelwyn’s. The sun from the window catches on Kristen’s curls, like a halo, and backlights her in a way that forces Aelwyn to focus on Kristen’s face, which is much too open and vulnerable. “Dude, I’m so excited. Like, damn. I was gonna try to make you let me down easy, but this is so much better.”
“You can’t make me do anything,” Aelwyn snaps.
Kristen squeezes her hand, and looks down at her book, “Is that any good? I only read cult classics when I was a kid.” Kristen cracks up at her own joke as Aelwyn just blinks at her, and then sobers up again, “No, seriously, though. I won’t hold you to anything you said last night. I get it.”
“Do you want the pink stuff or not?”
“The jello. Do you want it or not?”
“I mean, yeah, it has fucking marshmallows in it.”
“Then we’re going to the tree tonight.” Aelwyn pulls her hand out of Kristen’s grasp and puts her glasses on, opening up her book and ending the conversation.
She can feel Kristen watching her for a long moment, but she refuses to look up, and eventually Kristen wanders away.
Fig comes in a while later and doesn’t say much to Aelwyn before she leaves, two cereal bowls in hand and a smile on her face that’s reserved for Ayda Augefort. The day continues to pass, the sun inching its way across the sky. Aelwyn, sometimes, will imagine she is that sun, crawling across the same loop everyday. Or, really, not moving much at all, just making everyone think she is. Aelwyn’s hair is golden, her eyes shine, she was born for the sunlight, made to twist herself to others’ perceptions.
Aelwyn spends too much time staring at the sun. Burning her eyes until all she can see are black spots. Maybe that’s why she needs glasses.
There are two chapters left of her book when Kristen comes back, heralding the setting sun, holding her question mark staff in one hand and a blanket in the other.
Aelwyn slides from her chair heavily—she tends to forget to move around, gets too comfortable in one place and doesn’t realize she hasn’t changed seats for hours—and raises a finger at Kristen, “Don’t tell me I don’t have to go with you.”
Kristen raises her hands as well as she can, “Noted.”
Aelwyn goes to the fridge, takes out the sweetheart salad and a bottle of lemonade and a small container of turkey and crackers and cheese that she’d made that morning, hands shaking and head swimming and choosing, choosing, choosing not to think, stop thinking, it’ll all be okay, this can be easy, this should be easy.
Aelwyn wants so badly it hurts. She wants a friend. She wants someone other than her sister to look at her with something other than pity or anger.
Kristen doesn’t say any of the words Aelwyn had feared, any cooing or “you’re so sweet,” or half the other garbage that comes out of people’s mouths when Aelwyn, world renowned bitch, breaks her vow of iciness. Instead, she just stands there and waits while Aelwyn puts the food into a little basket with napkins and forks, and then follows her wordlessly out the door when Aelwyn leaves.
“I’ve never prayed with anyone before,” Kristen says, from behind her, once their feet are crunching along the dirt path towards the cemetery. “I mean, I’ve, like, prayed with a lot of people. But not like this. I guess Tracker… no, yeah, those don’t count.”
“Fascinating,” Aelwyn says, and tightens her grip on the basket and reminds herself not to think, to just exist here in this space.
“What I mean is I don’t know exactly how to do it. Or if it’ll even… be an it. We might both be on our own, once we start. Praying’s personal, anyway, like I said before. So, I just don’t know.”
“That sounds lonely to me.”
“Faith can be lonely,” Kristen says, and the saint’s words are bitter against the sky, alight with the fire from a raging sun.
Aelwyn sucks in a deep breath of air, blows it out through her mouth. “It shouldn’t have to be.”
The gravestones are lit up by slants of the setting sun, catching on the old etchings of names and lives. Aelwyn shifts the basket in her hands so that she can trail a finger over the tops of them, catching on the crumbling stone and dragging.
“Does that feel nice?” Kristen asks.
“I’m just touching the graves.”
“You don’t ‘just’ do anything.”
Aelwyn stops, turns around. The setting sun hits Kristen like bolts of fire, striking across her eyes and in a band over her chest and stomach and legs, split up by slats of darkness. Aelwyn blinks and the colors shift, merge, become a living second skin over Kristen’s body, turn her into the dark and light and everything in between.
“You’re a little nosey, you know that?” Aelwyn says, instead of anything stupid.
“It’s part of my charm.”
They stand there, staring at each other, one of Aelwyn’s hands still on the gravestones, touching the shadow, and Kristen’s hair set ablaze by the setting sun. What a beautiful painting we would make, Aelwyn thinks, and pays no attention to the pounding in her ears.
And then Kristen is stepping forward, as she always does, tucking her staff under her armpit so she can reach out again (again and again and again, she keeps reaching out, keeps pushing forward, keeps offering and smiling and being there), taking Aelwyn’s hand into her own, pulling it from the top of the gravestone with a care that must be, must be, imbued with some sort of magic.
“Come on,” Kristen says gently, and slides her fingers between Aelwyn’s. “Cassandra’s waiting. And I want that jello fucker to enter my body as soon as possible.”
Aelwyn is caught by surprise and laughs a little at that, just an exhale of air, “Could you phrase it any other way?”
“Nope. Now, c’mon.”
The tree stands serenely, just as it did on that day weeks ago, when Aelwyn visited it for the first time. Somehow, it seems to have grown closer to the bench at its base, or maybe that’s just a trick of the light. They look like they’re holding each other, almost, tucked up and in love and offering protection, support. Aelwyn sucks in yet another breath, and sits down on the blanket Kristen has laid out on the ground. The purple had hung in the air for a second before settling in a near perfect square, like it was holding its breath. It’s soft, when Aelwyn rests her palm on it. Much too nice to get dirt and leaves and scraps of bark on it.
They eat as the sun sets. Aelwyn, who had packed exactly two plates and two forks and two napkins and two cups, is a little surprised when Kristen starts to pick crackers off of Aelwyn’s plate, even though she has some on her own. Aelwyn, ever the older child, reacts by stealing a whole handful of Kristen’s cheese, which earns her a stolen cherry from her sweetheart salad and a freckled hand on her forehead holding her back while she tries to grab the fork from Kristen’s hand.
“Dude,” Kristen laughs, snorting as Aelwyn darts out and grabs Kristen’s lemonade glass, knocking it back like a shot. “We need to do this more often.”
“What? Fight?” Aelwyn accompanies her question by stealing yet another cube of cheese.
Kristen smacks at her wrist, “You know this isn’t fighting. I know you know that. I meant hanging out. You’re fun.”
Aelwyn smirks, “I don’t think I’ve ever been called that before.”
“Well, it’s true.”
Rolling her eyes, Aelwyn plucks the last cherry from Kristen’s plate and pops it into her mouth, licks her fingers. It’s a little hard to miss Kristen’s startled laugh, the way she pulls further away from Aelwyn and scratches at the back of her neck, the way her face is noticeably redder than usual, even in the dimming light.
Aelwyn arches one eyebrow, “How’s Tracker doing?”
“Oh.” Kristen says, and blinks. “Okay, I think. It’s a little… we’re having a hard time talking.”
“No. Just. In general.”
“I can’t actually tell if we’re dating anymore,” Kristen says, laughing humorlessly this time.
Aelwyn, suddenly uncomfortable by a conversation she started, clears her throat, splays out her hands. “Are you ready to do this?”
Kristen’s eyes snap back to hers, “Do what?”
“Praying? You know, the whole reason we’re out here.”
“Oh. Yeah. Yeah!”
“What did you think I meant?”
Aelwyn narrows her eyes and then smirks, purposefully this time. She knows what she looks like with this expression, because she used to wear it so often. Now, though, she changes it slightly, lifting her head up so her chin is raised and she has to look down her nose a little at Kristen, not in condescension but in challenge, “Come on, Kristen Applebees. Pray with me.”
“Um, okay. Yeah. Okay.”
They put the food away, quietly, and Kristen scoots around so they’re facing each other.
Aelwyn is suddenly afraid. She’s been afraid this whole time, she’s been afraid her whole life, but right now, as Kristen’s eyes begin to glow in front of her and Kristen’s hands slide heavily into her’s, she is truly, truly terrified.
“Hey,” Kristen says, softly, leaning a little bit closer. “Just breathe.”
“I, uh,” Aelwyn stumbles over her words, eyes darting over to the bench, above to the tree’s branches, down at the blanket, “I don’t know how to do this.”
“Aelwyn?” Kristen squeezes her hands and pulls Aelwyn’s eyes back to her, keeps holding on tightly as they stare at each other in the dark. “Just breathe.”
Aelwyn breathes and stares into Kristen’s eyes. They glow steadily brighter as the sun sets, glow and glow and glow, and Aelwyn lets herself be lost in them. It’s a softer light, than when she stares at the sun, warmer somehow, too. Like Kristen’s hands, palms pressed against Aelwyn’s, fingers wrapped loosely around her wrists. Aelwyn stares and holds her hands and thinks.
Aelwyn remembers the expression on her mother’s face, terrified and broken and unable to understand how her perfectly crafted plans went wrong. The mother who had forced her to kidnap girls, forced her again and again to target her sister, to be better, to be perfect. Aelwyn remembers her father, dead on the ground. The father who had done all those things her mother did, but was not afraid to back up his biting words with violence. Aelwyn had been bloody, sure, when she escaped her sister's friends in Kei Lumennura. She was bloodier when they found her in the forest. She refused to think about what caused that.
Aelwyn thought, and Aelwyn thought, and the warm glow of Kristen’s eyes kept her anchored, kept her sitting there on the ground under an ancient tree, rather than slipping away behind her walls. And that’s when Aelwyn began to wonder. To doubt. To accept that doubt, about herself, about her parents, about all of the many choices she made to wind up here, holding a cleric’s calloused hands.
After a few minutes of staring in silence—a silence that would have made a past Aelwyn’s skin crawl enough for her to run, run away—Aelwyn blinks, just like normal, and when she opens her eyes, one of her hands is being held by a palm of glass rather than flesh.
“Hi, guys,” Cassandra says, smiling at them. They had shifted them, so that Aelwyn is seated more beside Kristen than across, and Cassandra sits in front, holding one of Aelwyn’s and one of Kristen’s hands in each of theirs.
“Hey, Cassandra, how’s it going?” Kristen asks, and Aelwyn pulls her eyes away from the goddex’s face to look at how Kristen’s smiling, easy and happy and with her god.
“Good, good. I’m glad you brought Aelwyn today,” Cassandra smiles just at Aelwyn now, squeezing her hand gently. “We talked last night, I hope I didn’t pressure you into anything.”
“Can I not simply do things because I want to?” Aelwyn huffs, and then bites down on her tongue.
“I’ve already asked her that, like, way too much already,” Kristen explains to Cassandra. Aelwyn cuts her a glance.
Cassandra just laughs, relaxing their shoulders and slumping down a little. “Ugh, it’s good to talk to you guys. How’s the picnic going?”
“Awesome! Do you want some of Aelwyn’s jello-thing? It’s literally giving me a religious awakening.”
Aelwyn elbows Kristen again as her literal deity laughs at the blasphemy. She shoves down the gratification, the little spark of something warm and happy and pink-tinged in the very center of her chest, in favor of looking up at the canopy of branches.
“I don’t think I can technically eat in this form?” Cassandra asks, like they’d know better than them.
“It’s okay, you can tell me about it if you want.”
So, Aelwyn sits there as Kristen describes the way the sweetheart salad tasted; the crunchy bursts of pineapple and cherries and the soft sweetness of the marshmallow and the way Aelwyn had stolen all the good parts from her plate.
“You started it!” Aelwyn snaps, but it’s not really a snap, not like how she usually speaks. She’s indignant, sure, because Kristen had started it, but not… cruel. Aelwyn didn’t know she could feel defensive without biting, without immediately going for the throat. Even when Adaine pushes her too far, Aelwyn lashes out, sharp claws and long teeth and an acid from her tongue. Kristen, though, can poke fun at Aelwyn and smile that insufferable little smile that means she’s getting away with it, and all Aelwyn can dredge up is a smile back.
It’s… maybe a sign that Aelwyn is healing, somehow, finally. Maybe. Beginning to, at least. And it feels so fast, rushed, like this cannot possibly be happening when just yesterday she was struggling to hold a conversation with anyone who wasn’t her sister, but then Aelwyn looks at the glassy stars on Cassandra’s cheeks and realizes that she’s been building to this for months, been clawing and tearing her way to a place where this is possible. And now she just has to embrace it, just has to let it happen. If she can.
Whatever the case, Aelwyn wants Kristen to keep smiling at her like that, wants to keep sitting here in the dusk with their hands tucked together and a goddex just chatting with them. Every time Cassandra laughs at their bickering, Aelwyn’s chest warms with something she didn’t know she’d been missing. And every time Kristen gesticulates wildly with her hands, even though they’re still being held by the two others in their little circle, Aelwyn has to catch herself so she doesn’t smile too much.
There’s a lull in the conversation, Kristen getting distracted by a blade of grass that wound up on the blanket and trying to nudge it off with her foot, and Aelwyn can feel Cassandra’s eyes watching her. It should be odd, because Cassandra doesn’t actually have eyes, just smooth curves of glass where eyes should be, but it isn’t, because, for some reason, a piece of Aelwyn unfurls under Cassandra’s gaze.
You don’t have to have all the answers, those eyes say. You shouldn’t have all the answers. You should be nothing other than yourself, and you should always question who that self really is.
Aelwyn’s breath gets caught in her throat on the exhale, and she realizes that, deep within her mind, Cassandra is standing beside her, holding her hand while they stare at Aelwyn’s wall.
“Cassandra,” Aelwyn says, both in her mind and under the tree.
The Cassandra in Aelwyn’s mind turns and looks at her, the Cassandra before her is already gently smiling at her, both of them squeeze her hand. “Yes, Aelwyn Abernant?”
“How do I pray to you? When you are not here to talk to?”
“Kristen, how do you pray to me?” Cassandra asks, still watching Aelwyn.
“Oh, uh. I don’t know. I guess I just ask you my questions and sometimes you respond. And sometimes you don’t and I figure it out for myself, while explaining it to you. And I ask you for things, sometimes, but not like I used to with Helio. There’s no… blind faith.”
“Does that help?” Cassandra asks.
“I still don’t… Just tell me how to do it. If there’s a specific way, or a specific rule.”
“Let me tell you something, Aelwyn,” Cassandra says, leaning close. The Cassandra in Aelwyn’s head extends their other hand and holds Aelwyn’s shoulder, curving them together. “If you consider it prayer, then it’s prayer. I don’t have any rules like that. There isn’t anything wrong with gods who do, but that’s not me.”
Aelwyn can’t help the way her brow furrows, or the way her hands tighten painfully on Kristen’s and Cassandra’s. That is a nothing answer, worse than a nothing answer. Aelwyn needs to be told what to do, so she can accomplish it when she is eventually left alone. She needs to. “I just, you won’t tell me what to do? I have to— Once you’re gone and can’t tell me anymore, I have to know what to do. I can’t be left, I, I can’t pray to you when you don’t tell me how.”
Kristen is the one who moves now, withdrawing her hand from Aelwyn’s to run it up Aelwyn’s arm, over the curve of Aelwyn’s shoulder like Cassandra is doing in Aelwyn’s mind, hesitating before moving to hold the side of Aelwyn’s head. She doesn’t break their point of contact, and Aelwyn knows that if she were to pull away, whatever summoning spell is happening right now would be broken.
Aelwyn leans her head into Kristen’s hand.
Aelwyn hates herself for it. And then she remembers that responding to others is not a weakness. It does not mean defeat to repay the comfort shown to her.
Aelwyn lets her eyes slip shut.
“It’s okay, Aelwyn.” Kristen’s voice is quiet, but sure. Brave. Aelwyn wonders if this is how she speaks to her moon cleric, and she understands why Tracker fell for her as swiftly as she did. “You don’t have to be alone anymore.”
Aelwyn opens her eyes, turns and stares unblinking at Kristen. A single tear rolls down her cheek.
Aelwyn is adrift.
Aelwyn is floating.
Aelwyn is not here anymore, she is not behind her wall, she is nowhere. She is gone. She is lost.
The tear draws a sad line down Aelwyn’s skin, catches on Kristen’s thumb, traces the curve of Kristen’s hand, gets lost somewhere around her wrist.
The cool glass of a goddex’s palm and the warm glow of a saint’s eyes.
The comfort of a hug inside of her mind, where she has always, always been alone and suffering.
“Okay,” Aelwyn says, clears her throat when it is too full of emotion. “Okay.”
“I think my time is running out,” Cassandra says, softly, eyes flicking to the steadily darkening sky.
“We might stick around out here for a little longer,” Kristen says, like she knows that Aelwyn can’t go back into the house just yet.
“Eat more food for me,” Cassandra squeezes both of their hands. “And Aelwyn, I’m so glad you came with Kristen tonight. I hope I can talk to you more.”
They fade from Aelwyn’s eyes and Aelwyn’s mind, but Aelwyn is not left alone, because Kristen is still holding her.
Aelwyn watches Kristen, whose eyes are glowing in earnest now, lighting up and catching on the splash of freckles across Kristen’s nose. Kristen stares back, and then pats Aelwyn’s cheek gently, extricates herself before suddenly leaning over, curling up into a sort of ball on the blanket and nestling her head in Aelwyn’s lap.
“What’re you doing?”
Aelwyn huffs, hesitates for a moment, and then lays her hand against Kristen’s head, runs her fingers through the strands of hair. They sit in silence for a while. It’s truly dark now, but Aelwyn feels safe. She’s never feared darkness, only the loneliness it often brings. Because Kristen is with her, Aelwyn knows that will not happen tonight.
“I’m not making you uncomfortable, am I?” Kristen asks, quietly.
“My leg is asleep, yes.”
“No. I mean. I’m not pushing too much? I don’t want you to spend time with me because you feel like you have to. Or because you feel bad for me.”
“Why would I feel bad for you?”
“I don’t know. Because of Tracker, maybe?”
Aelwyn scoffs, twists a curl of ginger hair between her fingers. “You’re much more pleasant to be around now that she’s gone.”
“What?” Aelwyn pauses a moment, collecting her thoughts. She never used to do that, ‘collect her thoughts.’ What does that even mean, when you have everything parceled exactly where it should be? When you don’t think at all? “I… appreciate being the center of attention.”
“Yeah, well, we all know that.”
Aelwyn hits Kristen lightly on the head.
“You never spoke to me, before Tracker left. And now that she’s gone, it’s pretty much all you do.”
“I have other friends.”
“I am well aware.”
“...I guess I can see what you mean.”
“You know I want to marry her?”
Aelwyn cocks an eyebrow, realizes Kristen can’t see her, and doesn’t say anything anyway.
“I do. I know I should, at least. You know, she’s the whole reason I really figured out I’m gay, and I love her, and I already told her I want to marry her, and we’ve been through so much together.”
“Yes, well, first relationships tend to be like that.”
“You’ve dated someone? Fabian doesn’t count.”
Brown hair and dull hazel eyes and tan skin and short pointed ears and a venomous smile to match the bile in Aelwyn’s heart.
“In a word, yes.”
“Who was he?”
“Dead now. It doesn’t matter.”
“I said it doesn’t matter, Kristen.”
Aelwyn can tell Kristen is pouting, but she still hasn’t moved, so Aelwyn doesn’t stop playing with her hair.
“Do you want to sleep out here?” Kristen asks.
“You mean in the dirt?”
“Come on, it’ll be fun. We have a blanket.”
“Awh, why? It’s not—”
“The forest,” Aelwyn says, quickly cutting off whatever Kristen was going to say.
Aelwyn laughs sharply. “Yes.”
“...So, sleepover in my room, then?”
“Do you ever take no for an answer?”
“Not really, no.”
“Well, you’ll have to learn.”
Kristen sighs. “That’s okay.”
“Two more minutes.”
Aelwyn huffs, cards her fingers through Kristen’s hair. “Very well. Two more minutes.”
The sky is dark, and Kristen’s eyes are shut, blocking out their glow. Aelwyn tips her head up, maps the maze of just-that-much-darker branches over her head, feels the breeze cupping her cheeks.
Cassandra? Aelwyn thinks into the night.
No one answers.
Okay. That’s— Okay. I’m, um. This is a lot. I don’t know what I’m doing. I don’t know why I’m doing this.
Kristen’s hand moves to rest on Aelwyn’s knee, beside where her head is cushioned, traces her thumb across the skin there.
Okay, Aelwyn thinks, and shuts her eyes, face still turned up to the sky. Okay.
The dull thunk of a coffee cup startles Aelwyn from her half-sleep at the table, and she looks up to see Sandra Lynn’s tired smile already staring down at the wood.
Aelwyn nods to her, hand clutched around her own mug.
It’s grey, as only dawn is, with just a hint of yellow trickling in from the open window in front of them. They don’t turn the lights on for these early mornings. That would defeat the purpose of tracking the sun.
“Rough night?” Sandra Lynn asks, voice raspy in a pre-coffee fog.
“Nightmares,” Aelwyn says, simply.
“Is Lydia awake?”
Sandra Lynn grins ruefully and takes a long drag of her coffee. “Give her fifteen minutes.”
Aelwyn takes a sip of her coffee, drags a hand through her hair. It’s much too long, hanging past the small of her back now, and portions of it are matted or choppy from the damage of nearly a year without taking care of it. Sandra Lynn had offered, at the very beginning of all of this, to take her to a hairdresser, or to cut it herself, but Aelwyn had refused. Refused and snapped at her and spent a whole week’s worth of mornings laying awake, staring at the ceiling, instead of sitting awake in companionable silence.
There had been some sort of block, there. To admit that she needed that piece of her gone, that it was too damaged to grow healthily without restarting. She still hasn’t quite… said it out loud. Vocalized the desire for her hair to be gone. But she’s beginning to accept it in her own mind, beginning to feel certain bricks loosening in her wall.
Aelwyn’s been returning to the tree by herself, for two weeks now. She goes in the early morning when the birds are chirping, or the late afternoon when the sun is blazing, or early evening when the house is full and bustling and pressing in around her. The holy hour of dusk, though, she saves to share with Kristen. Nothing about Cassandra’s faith is official, but something about the fading arcs of sunshine, the pale greys and purples and blues of a bleeding sky, is special enough, necessary enough, to be shared.
Those trips, though, even when she does not pray and instead just sits on the little granite bench below the towering oak, are doing something. Helping something.
And Aelwyn is thinking more.
About her life. About the people in it and the people who used to be in it.
“Sandra Lynn?” Aelwyn asks, clears her throat, steadfastly looks out the window even as she feels Sandra Lynn’s eyes turn to her. “Thank you.” She says it clearly, succinctly, still not looking at her.
Sandra Lynn reaches out her hand and touches Aelwyn’s forearm. “You’re welcome.”
“Adaine please turn the light off.”
Aelwyn leans over the edge of her bed and contemplates whether or not it is worth wasting weeks of effort to cast Tasha’s Hideous Laughter on her sister. Adaine looks up at her, glasses flashing in the Light cantrip, and Aelwyn’s mind immediately jumps to their mother, who had looked so similar when lightning flashed in their father’s hands. Adaine smiles apologetically and the image is gone. Aelwyn had never seen their mother smile like that.
“I just have two more pages left to proofread.”
“You’re taking this class much too seriously,” Aelwyn grumbles. “It’s Freshman Divination. At Augefort.”
“It’s important, Aelwyn. I’m their peer, I can’t go in without adequate preparation.”
“Then consider this argument, dear sister. I’m tired. And the light is keeping me up.”
“Oh, boohoo, you just came back from your nightly jaunt in the woods with dear old Applebees.”
Aelwyn narrows her eyes and sticks her tongue out. “Turn off the light.”
“Ugh,” Aelwyn groans and flops back into her bed, throwing an arm over her eyes. “Not worth the effort.”
She hears Adaine sigh and pushes down her smile. The heavy textbook Adaine has been working from snaps shut, her notebooks rustle and thunk around, and then the light is… shifting closer, fucking Helio and Sol.
“Adaine,” Aelwyn whines, as the bed creaks and Adaine scales up to the second level, Light cantrip hovering directly next to Aelwyn’s face.
Aelwyn sticks her hand out and shoves Adaine away.
“I’m trying to sleep.”
“And now I am too. Scooch over.”
Aelwyn huffs, sighs, causes a general hullabaloo, but ultimately scooches over to the windowsill as Adaine climbs into bed beside her. She bumps up against the pinch pot with her elbow and has to tamp down the immediate panic the noise of ceramic clinking against glass causes. She’s not sure what she’ll do if that ugly little pot breaks.
“Oh, it’s cozy up here.”
Aelwyn pokes Adaine in the side. “We have the same size twin bed.”
“Yes, but this is so much closer to the ceiling.”
“And yours is so much closer to the bottom of mine.”
Adaine cuddles up, grabbing onto Aelwyn’s arm and wrapping herself like a koala. They’d never held each other, never hugged, like this before returning home. Comfort used to mean weakness, used to mean risking more suffering than it was healing. And because of that, comfort, now, is something revolutionary.
Aelwyn loves her sister. And she will keep loving her sister. But it’ll be damn hard to remind herself of that if Adaine doesn’t turn the light off.
“Adaine, please. This,” she gestures at where Adaine has smooshed her face into Aelwyn’s shoulder, “is fine. This,” a middle finger directly at the light, “is not.”
“Aw, but Aelwyn, I want to see your face when I ask you about Kristen.”
“How is she?”
“Oh, even better, how’s Tracker?”
“If you just came up here to gossip, then you can leave.”
“Is it gossipping if I’m talking to the person I’m gossipping about?”
“I’m not Tracker. Isn’t that who you were just speaking of?”
“Ah, and does Kristen remember that?”
“What?” Adaine pulls away, smiling, “I’m only teasing.”
“I know that, just… don’t meddle.” Aelwyn feels like crossing her arms. Like pouting, maybe. Which isn’t fair, Adaine is the one who pouts. She’s the youngest. Aelwyn has always been cool, collected, distant. Well. “Used to be” is probably a better way to phrase it. “What are you, a bored fishwife?”
“You’re no fun. Off in the woods, doing who knows what, and you won’t even tell me about it?”
“There’s nothing to tell.”
“I highly doubt that, dear sister.”
Aelwyn looks at Adaine for a long second, at the way she’s smiling in a near exact replication of Riz Gukgak’s shit eating grin, and feels a smile of her own curving her lips. “I am friends with Kristen.”
“And I’m so proud of you for that,” Adaine says seriously, squeezing Aelwyn’s arm. “But also I want all the juicy details.”
Aelwyn smiles, wraps her arm around Adaine’s shoulders and pulls her a little bit closer. Adaine snuggles up. “I’m serious when I say there’s not much to tell.”
“Tell me anyway.”
“Alright…” And Aelwyn tells her about most of it. She doesn’t go into detail about the actual prayer, what Kristen has revealed in their private moments together, what Kristen has cried about. But she does talk about the way the branches of the tree draw streaks across the sky, and the way Kristen’s hands feel in her own, and the way Aelwyn knows what true peace is whenever she looks at Cassandra’s face.
“Wow,” Adaine says, finally, once Aelwyn finishes. “That sounds amazing.”
“It is. I don’t think I… I don’t think I deserve it.”
“What don’t you deserve?”
Aelwyn breathes out a sigh, tightens her grip on Adaine, and mumbles up to the ceiling, “Kristen’s kindness. Cassandra’s support. I’m not even their cleric, and still they— I can tell Cassandra loves me? It’s odd.”
“It’s not odd. I’ve met Cassandra once, but I think they’re just like that. As close to a person as a deity can get.”
“Yes. I suppose that’s true,” Aelwyn says, smiling at the memory of Cassandra snorting and choking on their laughter when Kristen told a particularly good story. Gods don’t normally do that, but, of course, Cassandra is anything but normal. They’re… brilliant.
“I worry,” Aelwyn starts, clams up.
These words are hard to say, but Adaine is looking at her patiently and it’s just the two of them in their little tower room. Safe. Comfortable. If Aelwyn can bare her soul before a goddex and a nosy ginger, she can certainly tell her sister one of the lighter worries that is riding on her back. “The, er. The Kristen and Tracker thing. I don’t want to… I would rather remain Kristen’s friend. Than hurt anything like that. Anyone like that.”
“Kristen loves Tracker,” Adaine starts, pauses, thinks for a second. “But I can tell she loves you too, now. And I don’t know what’s going on in her head, but you shouldn’t be worried about something you can’t control. Kristen will make her choice. And you can’t help your own feelings, either.”
“Did you…” Aelwyn trails off. Swallows. “Did you know I’m gay? Before?”
“No,” Adaine says, quietly. “I didn’t. But then I see the way you look at Kristen and I… I know.”
“Damned insight bonus,” Aelwyn grumbles, and Adaine laughs, tucks her face into Aelwyn’s neck. “You’ve always been too smart for your own good.”
Aelwyn squeezes Adaine’s arm. “I’m proud of you, you know. For being so smart. Even if you stick your nose into my personal business.”
“Thank you,” Adaine whispers. “I know it isn’t something I should want or need, but the… you telling me that means a lot.”
“It’s the truth. And I’ll say it as many times as I have to for you to believe it.”
“I love you, Aelwyn. I’m proud of you too.”
“Adaine,” Aelwyn buries her nose in her sister’s hair, closes her eyes. “Turn off the light and I’ll say it back.”
“Fine. Gossipping’s over, anyway.” The Light cantrip is extinguished.
“Love you,” Aelwyn whispers.
Adaine squeezes her closer.
And they lay together, curled up around each other in the top bunk of their bed, underneath posters charting the somatic positions of various arcane incantations. Aelwyn relaxes, piece by piece, until she’s sleeping, her little sister held tight and safe against her chest.
“Aelwyn!” Kristen barges into the living room, and Aelwyn and Jawbone look up from their respective corners of the couch.
“Hey, Kristen, you feelin’ okay?” Jawbone asks, but Kristen’s already barreling straight for Aelwyn, grabbing by the hand and forcefully tugging her from the couch.
Kristen’s eyes are red-rimmed, and her hand holds onto Aelwyn so tight it hurts. Aelwyn lets herself be pulled forward into a hug, wraps her arms gently around Kristen’s back.
“What happened?” Aelwyn asks, and tamps down the vicious feeling in her chest that wants to hurt whoever made Kristen feel like this.
Kristen isn’t crying, but she is shaking slightly, and mumbles something unintelligible into Aelwyn’s shoulder.
Jawbone stands up, closing his book and gesturing to the kitchen. “I’m gonna make you girls some hot chocolate.”
Aelwyn nods sharply at him, before refocusing all of her attention on Kristen. “What is it?”
“Tracker…” Kristen blubbers, still not really crying, just breathing like she is. “We’re taking a break.”
“Oh. I’m sorry.”
“But, the thing is, I just, I don’t know. I can’t fucking handle these fucking emotions.”
“I know,” Aelwyn says, rubs what are hopefully soothing circles into Kristen’s back. She still isn’t great at comforting, but with Kristen, ever since that first hug at the party, it feels easy. Natural.
“I love her,” Kristen says, and the tears start now.
“I hate being gay.”
“Don’t say that,” Aelwyn says, forcefully, pulling Kristen away so she can look her in the eye.
“I do. Because what… what am I without her?”
“You are Kristen Applebees. You know who you are,” Aelwyn says, and her voice doesn’t sound entirely her own, rather like it is refracting and multiplying through the facets of a glass gem.
Kristen takes Aelwyn by the tops of her arms, and tugs her down so they’re both sitting on the couch. Tears roll down Kristen’s cheeks, and a past Aelwyn would have scoffed at how easily this cleric is pushed to hysterics, but she is not that Aelwyn anymore. Has not truly been that Aelwyn for a long time now. So, instead, she melts a little, traces patterns on Kristen’s skin with her hands.
“I thought, for the longest time, that I would only be queer enough if I could force myself to be with another person,” Aelwyn says, softly.
“Wait. What?” Kristen asks, eyes snapping immediately to Aelwyn’s.
Aelwyn huffs out a laugh, swallows down the anxiety in her chest. “At first that meant ignoring it, with the boys and the booze. Trying to maintain that image of perfection my parents expected, even at times when I was rebelling. And then,” Aelwyn clucks her tongue, sighs, rolls her eyes, “I fucked Penelope Everpetal.”
“I know. Surprising.”
“I mean,” Kristen blinks, “I guess I could see it?”
“Yes. Well. It happened.” Aelwyn closes her eyes against the memories. The feeling of random boys at random parties trying to shove their tongues down her throat. The feeling of pushing Penelope up against that wall and not caring if it felt good or not, just knowing that it was more right than anything she’d tried before and that her heart, at least, wasn’t hurting as much as the rest of her for those few moments.
The memories come anyway, swimming to the surface as they are so apt to do. Kristen, even in her distressed state, can recognize this now, holds tightly onto Aelwyn’s arms as Aelwyn lives through the feelings and the sinking in her stomach over and over again.
“Sorry,” Aelwyn manages, once it has mostly cleared up and she can open her eyes again. Once the monsters have left.
Except, no. Those memories are not monsters, not meant to torment her. There is a reason her wall is mostly purple now, rather than that angry red. There is a reason these memories are coming to her more easily. And there is a reason why she feels lighter, now, having remembered and addressed those old emotions, despite the pain she felt in the moment.
“It’s okay,” Kristen says. “It’s really okay, Aelwyn.”
Aelwyn doesn’t meet Kristen’s eyes, maps her freckles instead. They’re everywhere, splattered across her forehead and cheeks and chin and down her neck, under the collar of her shirt. If Aelwyn could, she would connect each of those marks, turn Kristen’s skin into a constellation of little dots. She lifts her fingers up to Kristen’s cheek, trails them across the markings.
Kristen sucks in a breath.
Aelwyn leans forward and, heart beating furiously, kisses Kristen’s other cheek. Lightly. Right over the densest patch of freckles. Right over the track of tears. Right over the beautiful stars of Kristen’s skin.
“Aelwyn,” Kristen says, slowly, and Aelwyn pulls just far enough away to meet her gaze again.
“You know who you are, Kristen Applebees. And that is not contingent on Tracker, or, or even Cassandra. Or me. You are who you are. You have nothing to prove to anyone but yourself.”
Kristen sighs, tips her head forward so her forehead is resting against Aelwyn’s. “I’m so grateful you’re my friend.”
Aelwyn lets her eyes slip shut, drags her fingers across Kristen’s cheek and imagines that there is a whole universe there—stars burning and empty space expanding and eons and eons of love and pain and stardust connecting everything.
In Aelwyn’s head, the landscape of her mind is changing. A tiny sapling grows, where a section of wall has dissolved into nothing. And Cassandra sits on a little granite bench, placed directly before the growing tree.
“Aelwyn,” the goddex says, and Aelwyn’s eyes snap open, even as they remain shut and her head stays pressed against Kristen’s.
“Hi, Cassandra,” Aelwyn says, standing beside the bench and the tree and looking through the hole in her wall.
“You’ve come so far in such a short amount of time,” Cassandra reaches out, takes Aelwyn’s hand and guides her to sit down on the bench.
“There’s still so much to do.” Like haircuts and apologies and being able to exist in the world without hurting this badly.
“There will always be more to do,” Cassandra says, easily. “But look at this.”
Aelwyn surveys the world beyond her wall, how the grass continues on as far as the eye can see, rolling and shifting in a light breeze, patches of wildflowers scattered throughout.
“Look at what can grow when you give it the space to do so.”
Aelwyn looks down at the sapling.
“And you’re helping others, too,” Cassandra says.
In her body, Aelwyn’s hands hold onto Kristen even tighter.
“I’m so proud of you.”
“Everyone keeps saying that,” the Aelwyn in Aelwyn’s mind says.
“Because it’s true. It’s true.” Cassandra reaches out, tips Aelwyn’s chin up so she has to look at where the wall disappears into the clouds around her. “This is hard to knock down. This is hard to face. But you’re doing it. And you’re not alone. And I’m so proud of you.”
“I don’t want to hurt anyone anymore,” Aelwyn says, quietly, and there is something both light and heavy in the pit of her stomach, the bottom of her chest. “I want to… I don’t know. I want to keep helping. I want to keep getting better.”
“You are strong, Aelwyn. You can protect, if that is what you wish.”
Aelwyn turns to face Cassandra, face her glassy skin and kind smile and impossibly young and wise eyes. “Okay,” Cassandra says, and that smile softens even more. “I can help you with that.”
“Thank you,” Aelwyn says in her mind, mumbles the words into the air in front of Kristen Applebees.
“You’re welcome,” Cassandra and Kristen say at the same time, and Aelwyn lets out a shaky breath.
Cassandra leans closer, “Be kind, Aelwyn Abernant, and patient. Protect the weak. Protect yourself. And that doesn’t mean building up walls. That means letting people in.”
“Okay.” Aelwyn breathes out. “I will. I promise.”
Cassandra smiles, leans forward and presses a kiss to Aelwyn’s forehead, sends Aelwyn spiraling back into her body, into where her body is pressed up against Kristen’s—forehead to forehead.
In Aelwyn’s mind, her wall crumbles even more. And lets in more sunlight for a little sapling, already curving towards a lonely granite bench. Lonely. But not for much longer. Because a tree is growing and the walls are falling and the world is expanding into a beautiful, wonderful thing.
Aelwyn’s fingers twist around the old strands of her half finished friendship bracelet. Or. Well. Kristen’s half finished friendship bracelet.
Zelda Donovan is sitting by herself on the stoop of Mordred Manor, while her boyfriend and the rest of the Bad Kids chase after each other with a deflated bloodrush ball and a water gun. Aelwyn cannot for the life of her figure out what the rules of this game are, because Adaine is using magic and Kristen is trying and failing to run in a full suit of borrowed armor and Fabian is just throwing the ball at whoever’s head is closest and Gorgug is scooping people up at random and Fig is just slapping whoever gets near her and Riz is holding the aforementioned water gun and, seemingly, winning. Aelwyn has learned, though, that it’s best to just go along with most of her sister’s friends’ shenanigans. But, if Riz decides to turn that water gun on the stairs, Aelwyn can’t be held responsible for her retaliatory actions.
Zelda’s fingers nimbly weave together strands of thread taped to her water bottle, looking up at the lawn every so often and smiling softly.
Aelwyn’s heart is pounding, her hands are shaking slightly. She sits down beside Zelda.
“Oh. Um. Hi, Aelwyn,” Zelda says, and Aelwyn tries not to take it too personally when Zelda’s eyes harden a little.
“Hello. That is looking nice,” Aelwyn nods to the knotted threads.
“Thanks. I’m, um, I’m making it for Sam.”
Aelwyn nods, remembers what Sam’s palimpsest looked like, remembers the betrayed look on her face when she found Aelwyn kissing Penelope right before she was trapped, the rush of vindictive justice that had filled her chest at that horror, at that anger. Because Aelwyn deserved to be looked at like that. Aelwyn deserved to be hated.
No, Aelwyn thinks. I do not. I am not hated.
“Do you mind if I—?” Aelwyn asks, unfurling her fist and showing Zelda her mangled piece of bracelet. “Would you show me how to finish it?”
Zelda bleats a little, reaches out and tentatively takes the bracelet from Aelwyn’s hand. “Are you sure you don’t want to make a new one? This is a little old, the threads might break.”
“Okay. I can… Yeah. I can show you. It’s not too hard. Just, um, here, just. I’ll give you something to practice with first, if this one’s important?”
Aelwyn matches Zelda’s gaze, watches the way Zelda’s horizontal pupils dart back and forth between Aelwyn’s eyes.
“Kristen gave it to me,” Aelwyn says, and is relieved when that makes Zelda’s shoulders relax a little.
“Oh. Oh. As like, um, are you two like, um…?”
“No. We’re… friends.”
“Okay, nice. Okay. I just, uh, you know, she says how hot you are all the time and I, um, you know, gifts and stuff and, like, you guys spend so much time together. Now. Which is totally a friend thing, haha! Just. Yeah. Sorry. I’ll stop now.”
“Okay. Here, let me just finish this row and then I’ll show you.”
Aelwyn watches the Bad Kids while Zelda finishes up and gets new thread ready. Adaine waves at her in the middle of a casting, and Aelwyn smiles back, and then Kristen, in all of her clumsy, armored glory, whips around too fast to see what Adaine is looking at and takes a tumble down the hill.
Aelwyn covers her laughter with a cough, and catches Zelda smiling at her. “What?”
“Oh. Nothing. It’s, like, good to have friends. I’m happy for you.”
“Alright,” Aelwyn says slowly.
“Okay, here, I’m all set.”
And Zelda explains how to weave the threads together, making a four shape and pulling the strands through and working her way down the line and then taping some practice thread to Aelwyn’s shorts so she can work on it easier. Aelwyn fumbles a few times, and it looks all lumpy and wrong, but Zelda is brightening up more and more the longer they work together, and helping more and more, and eventually Aelwyn makes a row of mostly even knots.
“The old thread will be more brittle,” Zelda says, motioning to the Kristen bracelet. “So you have to be really confident.”
Aelwyn huffs as she tangles a portion of the thread, “I’m always confident.”
“It’s, like, okay if you aren’t. Here, just, loosen up on it. Confidence doesn’t mean force.”
Aelwyn sighs but stops pulling the threads quite so tight. The knots form easier.
“Can I ask, are you, like, making the bracelet for Kristen?”
“No. For myself.”
Adaine shrieks on the front lawn’s battlefield, and Aelwyn immediately starts, begins to pull on her magic, until she sees that her sister had only been hit by a water gun to the back of the head.
“Aelwyn!” Kristen calls out, waving wildly, armor clanging.
“Hi,” Aelwyn says back, offering a little wave.
“What’re you doing out here?” Still shouting.
“Watching you lose,” Aelwyn smirks, but she doubts if Kristen can see it.
“Ah!” Kristen says, affronted, and then gets a whole face of bloodrush ball and topples backwards down the hill.
Zelda giggles beside Aelwyn, which makes Gorgug look up from where he’s pinning a now unarmed Fabian—like he has some innate knowledge of when she’s being cute. He smiles dopily up at them, and gets taken out by a flying tackle from Adaine.
“Yes, little sister!” Aelwyn calls out, clapping.
Adaine flips her the middle finger from where she’s now tussling on the ground with Fabian and Gorgug.
“I don’t know that I can help you if we’re rooting for different sides,” Zelda says, going back to her bracelet.
“Are there multiple sides?”
“Yeah, um, see. Adaine’s trying to take out— Oh, nevermind. Now she’s working with Gorgug against Fabian. I guess I can help you still.”
Aelwyn huffs out a laugh. And then, as she’s feeling all light and distracted, she takes a deep breath and switches out the practice mess of thread and knots for the final, important one.
Cassandra, Aelwyn thinks, as she carefully untangles the dangling threads. I know this is stupid, and unimportant compared to everything. But, please. Guide my hand.
It’s not stupid. And it’s certainly not unimportant, Cassandra’s voice floats through her mind, glimmering like a far away star.
Aelwyn takes a deep breath, spreads the threads out, and begins to tie the first knot. A dull glow emits from the thread, as it is pulled tight together.
“Woah,” Zelda breathes beside her.
Aelwyn doesn’t say anything, just trails her fingers gently over the thread. She blinks, as a shock of pure warmth and comfort floods through her—racing from her fingertips down her arms and up to pool in her heart.
“Woah,” Zelda says again. “Aelwyn, you’re glowing.”
“Shh,” Aelwyn says, hushed. “I need to focus.”
Zelda scoots a little further back, staring at her wide eyed.
And Aelwyn begins to weave the thread.
Her veins glow with that light. When she moves her hand, patches of skin illuminate as if something is holding them, keeping them steady. The world falls away as Aelwyn works, slipping into the background and fading like watercolors spreading across a page.
Aelwyn works and Aelwyn works and only when the last knot is pulled tight does she blink and realize that the lawn has fallen under a hush.
She looks up from her hands, neck and back aching, to find her sister and her friends sitting on the lawn, watching her with rapt attention. They blink, as she looks up at them, and startle.
“Can I help you?” Aelwyn asks. Her veins continue to glow.
“How did you do that?” Adaine asks, pushing herself up from the grass.
“That was a charm effect.”
“I’m usually immune to those,” Fabian says, quietly, standing too.
Aelwyn avoids looking at him. “I didn’t cast anything.”
“You did,” Kristen says, and Aelwyn’s eyes immediately snap to her.
Kristen is kneeling, in her poorly-fitted armor, hands hanging slack at her sides. Her hair is red and orange and the fire of a softly setting sun. Her cheeks pink and bright and Aelwyn is pulled to her, is standing from the steps and walking across the lawn before she even realizes it. She hears Zelda squeak behind her, feels the confused eyes of the rest of the Bad Kids on her, but all she can see is the way Kristen’s eyes are glowing in defiance of the daylight.
“Um,” Riz says, and Aelwyn ignores it. Walks to stand directly before Kristen.
“You called on them,” Kristen says, quietly, looking up at Aelwyn.
Aelwyn shakes her head, reconsiders. “It was stupid.”
“It can’t have been. Aelwyn, look at you.”
Aelwyn stretches out her arms, watches the way the light floods her veins.
“You look like a star,” Adaine breathes, beside them.
“I was just making a bracelet,” Aelwyn says, desperate now.
“It’s okay. It’s okay, Aelwyn. It must have been important. Cassandra must have thought it was important,” Kristen says.
Aelwyn reaches out.
Takes Kristen’s hands in her own.
Watches the way the light in her veins begins to meld into Kristen’s.
“I didn’t cast a spell.”
“It’s a different kind of magic,” Kristen says, slots their palms together. “It’s from Cassandra. I could feel it.”
“How did I get a spell from Cassandra? I can’t— I’m a wizard.”
Fabian scoffs and there’s the dull sound of someone punching him in the shoulder.
“It’s okay, Aelwyn. You don’t have to have all the answers right now. You just…” Kristen trails off, glowing eyes wide. She doesn’t have pupils when she’s like this, and it should be eerie in the way Cassandra’s eyes are eerie. But, much like Cassandra’s eyes, the light is just a warm hug instead. “You’re beautiful,” Kristen says, breathlessly.
Aelwyn’s heavenly, bright heart is pounding so hard she’s sure the corpses in the graves can hear it.
“Gay,” Fig says through a cough, and another shoulder gets punched.
“I just, wow. Um. You’re beautiful.”
Kristen is kneeling before her, holding her hands, eyes glowing and armor gleaming. Aelwyn swallows. Lets go. Gently takes Kristen’s head in her hands instead.
“Woah,” Gorgug says quietly.
“Fuckin’ homo— ah,” Fig gets pushed down the hill.
“It was stupid,” Aelwyn says again. “The bracelet, it’s… it’s not… it didn’t deserve this.”
“Cassandra didn’t give you magic for the bracelet, Aelwyn. She gave it for you. You just, you hadn’t called on her until today.”
“You deserve it,” Adaine says. “You deserve it. I’m so proud of you.”
Aelwyn looks at Adaine for a moment, still so startled. Confused. Unsure. And then freckled hands and a glowing finger come up and cover her own hands where they cup Kristen’s face.
“Hey,” Kristen says. “Just breathe, Aelwyn. Just breathe.”
Aelwyn rubs her thumbs lightly against Kristen’s flushed cheeks.
And Aelwyn leans down and kisses her. Right on that lawn, in front of their friends, before the creaking house on the soft, grassy hill. Across from the forest and next to the road. By the cemetery with its crumbling graves and heavy memories.
And a short walk away from a giant oak tree, curved around a small granite bench. The oak tree’s leaves rustle against the beauty of the sky, wisps of clouds moving swiftly.
The sun begins to set.
Dusk will be here soon, as it is every day, and will be every day, for as long as the world keeps turning.
And a star glimmers on the front lawn.
Aelwyn kisses Kristen Applebees, lets her eyes slide shut, and feels all that warmth and love that has been building in her heart, in her blood, finally boil over.
The last stone in her wall disappears from her mind, leaving nothing but open fields and possibility.