Chapter 27: Clash

Despite the metaphorical keys of life now being in my metaphorical pocket, little changed at first. That was alright, though. I was mostly content with what I had at the moment. I called my friends in Twinbrook regularly, I went to school and met my local friends there. I read and wrote and ran and worked for Sabine, who was again her own, closed-off self. I started cooking for her sometimes. Her fingers had got clumsier with knives, even though they could still glide through contrabass and guitar strings and probably piano keys too without a problem. She complimented me on my average-at-best cooking skills and sometimes gave me tips on how to use spices better or how to make the best fried rice ever.

I tried not to ask about her condition, even as the spring went on and she kept looking frail. I knew she didn’t want me to. Heck, she even kept saying that out loud to me.

“It’s not the job of the young ones to fret about the old,” she said for the millionth time.

I didn’t know what I could’ve said to that that wouldn’t just make her irritated. So once I just asked:

“Could you teach me a few words of French?” instead.

She smiled really brightly then. After that, I started to learn French. Mostly because I could see how happy talking about her roots made Sabine. It was interesting too. I liked it.

When the grass was turning green and the leaves slowly started to show signs of budding on trees again despite the air still being rather chilly for Sunset Valley, Sabine seemed to become more energised. She could go for longer walks again, though still only with her walking stick. She didn’t seem to need so many naps, and she was more talkative again.

The change was more than welcome, and for a while I was happy to stop worrying about her and focus on other things. Like studies and life and our family. But there was still a small voice inside my head that kept reminding me that something was indeed wrong with Sabine. The worry popped into my head at random, when I was reading or cooking or being alone, when I was just relaxed enough to let my mind wander. I tried my best to stop it, to find distractions. At least sometimes it was easy. Like whenever Alvar and Kielo visited again.

They wanted Rem to leave with them again, but they were nice enough to stop for tea and a chat. I saw that Patrick was trying his best to be natural, even though I knew he was still bothered by the whole mess our family was in. By what Rem had said to him about the fair folk maybe wanting Rem away from us.

“So, what do you think will be in store for our son this time?” he asked amicably, but I noticed the way he stressed the “our son” -part. If Kielo noticed it too, she didn’t show it.

“I don’t know the specifics,” she said, “Something about more accurate visions, I think. That’s what Lumi said anyway.”

“I’ll go with him this time,” said Patrick. Kielo frowned.

“I uh… I don’t know if that’s…”

“Why not?” Patrick said sharply.

“I mean…” Kielo stammered, “Oh, sure. You can come. Of course you can.”

Mum frowned.

“Why would it be a problem?” she asked. Kielo shook her head and looked really awkward.

“It’s just… we don’t like outsiders in our place. You know that. But you… I mean, you guys are fine.”

She looked at me.

“How about the rest of you?”

I was about to say no thanks, but then I thought about magic and my lingering worries of Sabine, and about our family, and then I nodded.

“Okay.”

Mum hesitated, but then decided not to protest and instead put a slightly forced smile on her face.

“Alright. Looks like Mer and I will keep the house standing. But do come back soon.”

Kielo smiled.

“We’ll return them all again in time.”

Mum nodded. There was unusual hardness in her eyes. The kind that said “you’d better”. Kielo definitely noticed that. Alvar laughed nervously.

“Well, this is nice,” he said, “We should definitely come here more often.”

I glanced at him warningly. He didn’t look back.

We left for Twinbrook in the next bus, and the ride was tenser than it should have been. There wasn’t much small talk, which was usually fine by me, but this time the silence felt uncomfortable.

At least I wasn’t worrying about Sabine now. And as soon as I thought about that, I started to worry about her again. Of course. I turned to Kielo, who was staring out the window.

“Hey?” I said, “Can I ask you something? I was wondering how you guys heal when you get hurt or sick.”

“Sure,” Kielo said, “It’s not that different from you guys. Just less chemicals and more herbs. And we’re usually more resistant to diseases. Usually, but we have our limits, as you know.”

She looked around us, at the sleepy and bored passengers.

“Maybe we should talk about this later, though,” she said.

The silence returned.

It took us a few hours to get to the fairy forest again. At least now I roughly knew where it was, so the way didn’t feel endless.

The place looked the same as before. There was barely any snow, even though it still stubbornly lingered in Twinbrook. The fairy lights kept the place lit up with their airy glow, and the tree trunk/honey comb houses stretched towards the sky. Patrick looked around in wonder, as he had the previous time he had visited. I couldn’t help a feeling of wonder creeping in either. I wasn’t sure if it was my own feeling or if there was something in the air.

The little fairy kids, Kuura and Halla, came to greet us and wanted to show us their new treehouse. Patrick’s tense expression softened, and he said yes.

“Meanwhile, I’ll go take Rem to Lumi,” Kielo said, “Alvar, you can take care of them, right?”

“Sure,” said Alvar, “C’mon, da- I mean, Patrick, and Lynn.”

“Wait,” said Patrick, turning away from the kids, “Can we see Rem’s lessons?”

Kielo frowned.

“I’ll have to ask Lumi. She usually wants no distractions.”

“It’s fine, dad,” Rem said, “It’s mostly boring to watch. I just meditate and sometimes try to do some magic. And even the magic part isn’t that formidable.”

“I still want to be a part of this, son,” Patrick said, and Rem sighed.

“Okay. Kielo, go ask Lumi. I’ll… I’ll wait here with the others.”

Kielo looked at Patrick for a long while, but then she turned and disappeared among the curly trees and the flower bushes.

Kuura  grabbed my hand.

“Hey, Lynn! It’s great that you’re here!” she chirped, “You wanna see the treehouse? Alvar built it for us!”

“Okay, okay,” I said, “But we have to wait for Kielo first.”

“Nah, Aunt Kielo will find us,” Alvar shrugged, “It’s fine.”

“Oh… well, if you say so.”

Kuura and Halla led us to a large tree where there indeed sat a pretty treehouse. Patrick looked up at it and I saw pride in his eyes when he glanced at Alvar.

“You built this by yourself?”

Alvar shuffled his feet.

“Yeah. Well, most of it. Kuura and Halla and Marras – she’s at her herbalism lesson right now, I think – helped a bit. And Aunt Kielo too. Hey, check this out! This is the coolest thing here!”

He circled around the tree and showed us a heap of junk that actually looked a lot like…

“Wow,” said Rem, “Is that a real radio station?”

“Yup,” Alvar said, “Aunt Kielo found some antennas and started putting this together. She’s been sneaking around among humans a lot to figure out what to do.”

“Is it going to play any stations?” I asked and gave the dials a few experimental twists.

“Probably not really. It could be risky. We know a little bit about radio waves, and Aunt Kielo is worried that someone could track them here.”

He smiled.

“But it looks nice, and as long as she could get it working, it’s enough. Right?”

“We can even play with it!” said Halla, whose head was poking out of one of the treehouse’s windows, “It’s great!”

“Yeah, it sure looks like it!” said Rem, excitement shining in his eyes.

I fiddled with the buttons for a moment longer, but the radio station stayed quiet. Still, it was excitingly surreal to see such a large piece of our technology here in the depths of the technologically very backwards fairy forest.

“Oh, you already showed that,” said Kielo, startling almost all of us by appearing from some of the bushes. She looked at Patrick and then at Rem, smiling. I saw some sort of relief in her eyes and guessed that she hadn’t got herself into trouble by bringing Patrick here.

“Lumi said you can accompany Rem to his lesson,” she said.

“Thank you,” said Patrick. I could see that he was nervous. His shoulders tensed, something they almost never did.

Kielo glanced at me.

“I have to ask Alvar to take care of you, Lynn,” she said and then turned to Alvar, “She was curious about our healthcare. Maybe you can teach her the basics.”

Alvar nodded.

“Sure! I’m sure we’ll be fine!”

Kielo smiled at him and then escorted Rem and Patrick back towards the village centre. Alvar stretched his arms and then put his hands to his hips.

“So, healing, huh? It’s not all that special, really.”

“I’d still like to see what you guys do,” I said. I didn’t know what use it would be for me or Sabine. Because as much as I liked to pretend that I’d let Sabine take care of her own possible illnesses because she so insisted, I still wanted to do something about it. Alvar shrugged.

“Okay. Well, we’d best get to it, then.”

He circled around the tree where Kuura and Halla were playing and looked up, shading his eyes with his hand.

“Hey, Halla! Kuura! You want to go with me and Lynn to check out our gold fruit trees?”

His only response was a muffled giggle, some whispering, and then…

…a bucket of water that was dumped on him. Alvar shrieked and jumped like he’d been assaulted by a swarm of ants.

“HEY!

I clapped my hand over my mouth, mostly to stifle the mix of a shout and laughter that threatened to escape. Alvar wiped his face and then glared at the treehouse.

“Oh yeah, very funny. Ha ha. Okay, fine, I’ll go with Lynn alone, then! You two play nice while I’m gone!”

“We will!” Kuura and Halla said in unison, and Alvar shook his head and rolled his eyes.

“Yeah, right. Come on, Lynn.”

He led me along the river and talked like a tour guide at some kind of health museum while we walked:

“The fair folk is naturally resilient to many illnesses, but sometimes some viruses can strike them really badly. We have our own healers – led by a shaman – who take care of the sick and injured. So I guess it’s kind of like what you guys have. Just with less… sterile white rooms.”

He stopped at one of the particularly large trees. He pointed upwards at its magenta leaves and golden fruit.

“That’s gold fruit. It’s a real superfood. It’s used both in our food and as an ingredient in most of our medicine. It’s really effective with healing most of the fair folk’s ailments. The fair folk used to search for sites where this tree grew and usually built their villages around them. Nowadays they’re more focused on hiding, so they carry some saplings to the appropriate site.”

“Does that miracle fruit heal just fairies?” I asked.

“It’s less effective on humans,” Alvar said, “But we also have our own versions of antibiotics and stuff nowadays.”

“How do they treat you?”

“Pretty much like another fairy,” Alvar said and then paused before adding, “Well, I think our scouts have stolen some medical books from humans after I came here.”

I looked up at the tree.

“So it’s not like in the stories,” I said, feeling more than a little disappointed, “There’s no magical cures that can fix everything.”

“At least not around here,” Alvar said. He frowned, “Is someone you know sick? Is it one of you guys? Is that why father seems so sad?”

“Oh, no… that’s not it,” I said, “He and Rem have been a bit on edge because they’re afraid that the fairies are gonna steal Rem from us.”

I chuckled nervously, trying my best to act optimistically dumb. I couldn’t keep my smile up for long, though.

“But that’s just… they wouldn’t really do that, right?”

“Actually, they might,” Alvar said, “Not without Rem or his family’s consent, of course. They’ve learned their lesson.”

He frowned again.

“Well, at least I hope so. I’m sure Kielo won’t allow it, at least.”

He sighed.

“I hope this doesn’t get out of hand, though. This whole thing. I just… I’ve been thinking about this a lot. I like you guys. I’m not asking to butt into your lives or anything, but… It’s nice, spending time with you.”

He crossed his arms over his soaked sweater. His shoulders tensed too, and I could tell he was sad.

“I’d like us to be family… or at least something close to it. So that… so that we could keep being honest instead of hiding from everyone.”

“I’d like that too,” I said.

Alvar stood silent for a moment, tense and nervous. Then he spoke very haltingly:

“Can you… can you keep a secret?”

“Yes,” I said.

“Kielo and I went to see my real mum after the… after the incident.”

I frowned.

“I thought you said it’s better you didn’t. That she’d probably flip out – which I totally agree with, by the way.”

“Um… yeah. Well, we did go, and…” Alvar shifted nervously, “She flipped out.”

“Ouch.”

“She almost attacked Kielo,” Alvar went on, “I was afraid she was either going to kill her or have some kind of stroke. So we… Kielo wiped her memories of that evening.”

I stared at him.

“Seriously?”

Alvar nodded.

“Neither of us was happy about it, but it had to be done. To protect us.”

Something cold settled into my stomach. I stared at Alvar’s back and thought about them trying to patch things up with Donna and then just magicking away her memories. Sure, Donna had seem a bit unstable and I could imagine her not listening to reason, but… she was Alvar’s mother and they just mind-wiped her like it was nothing?

“So yeah, I really hope this works out with you guys,” Alvar said.

I shuddered. I wanted to say something, to yell at Alvar and call them out on what they had done, but the words got caught in my lungs.

They were still there when I marched through the village to find Kielo, Patrick and Rem. Lumi was with them, and she looked at me angrily when I stomped into view. Alvar caught up with me, looking very worried.

“Lynn? Wait, I-“

“What did you do to Donna?” I hissed, glaring at Kielo.

Kielo blinked at me and then looked at Alvar with a stern frown on her face. Alvar sighed.

“You said you could keep a secret.”

“Not about this!” I snapped, “You wiped Donna’s memories because your meeting with her didn’t go according to your plan?! I thought you guys had got better than this!”

Kielo shook her head.

“It wasn’t like that, Lynn. It was self-defence. She would have tried to take Alvar away from me. She was this close to attacking me when he said no!”

Patrick stared at me, and then at Kielo with a horrified look on his face. Rem was trying to look everywhere except at the others.

“Kielo… you hurt Donna?” Patrick said very quietly.

“She’s perfectly fine!” Kielo snapped, “She just doesn’t remember me or Alvar visiting her!”

“So you erased her memories of her meeting the son she has been missing all this time?” Patrick raised his voice, “Do you know how hard it was for her? Thinking her son was gone? We thought something had snapped in her, but she…”

His eyes suddenly widened.

“Oh, gods… she was right all this time.”

“Dad…” Rem said in a very small voice, “You couldn’t have known. Even I didn’t know, and I’m supposed to see the future… I’m supposed to be these people.”

“You are not staying here, son,” Patrick said, and then glared at Lumi and Kielo, “Or are you going to erase our memories too?”

“You don’t get it, do you?” Lumi said coldly, her icy eyes darkening, “We have to stay hidden. It’s the only way we can be sure we’re safe. We’ve seen what happens if we go out there. We’re also not going to just let people do whatever they want to us! So we don’t go around mind-wiping people without good reasons. What Kielo did was perfectly acceptable in that situation.”

She closed her eyes and took a deep breath.

“But we’d prefer not to harm anyone,” Kielo cut in before Lumi could continue, “And we don’t want you gone or… forgetting us. Rem is free to choose whatever he wants regarding all this.”

She sent a sharp glance Lumi’s way. Lumi ignored it and kept looking coldly at us.

“How bad would it really be if some people found out?” I had to ask, “I mean, sure, people can be ignorant and stupid and they do lots of bad things, but…”

“So do we?” Lumi guessed, “Was that what you were going to say?”

I bit my lip. Yeah, that had been pretty much it, but they didn’t need to know that.

“Calm down, everyone,” a serene voice spoke from behind me, “What is the meaning of this argument in the middle of such a lovely day?”

I spun around to face the peace-and-love-preaching voice and saw Matriarch Milia, who managed to look majestic wherever she went. She was wearing a long lace gown that looked like plants had decided to grow around her into the shape of a designer dress. Her eyes were still too green.

“We are not here to make enemies out of you or rip families apart,” said the matriarch as if she had been listening in on our argument. To be fair it wasn’t that hard considering the volume of our voices and the small size of the village, “But we also wish that you wouldn’t presume to know our situation enough to start thinking you could arrange our lives better than us.”

She looked at Patrick and smiled again.

“Hello, Mr… Patrick Monsoon-Farley, was it? I hear your son is shaping up to be quite a promising shaman.”

“I… thank you,” Patrick muttered, all his previous fight gone. I suppose forest queens who wore design plants would make any treehugger quite impressed.

“We appreciate you staying quiet about us,” said the matriarch, “We like this place, and we wouldn’t want to leave.”

She looked at Rem.

“And in return, we’re doing our best to help Taru’s… and your son.”

“Dad, Lynn… could we maybe talk about this later?” Rem said, clearly super uncomfortable about the whole thing, “I mean… I was about to go meditate, so…”

“I don’t think this is the best time for that,” Lumi sighed, “Maybe we should call it a day. Just go. All of you.”

She looked at us with narrowed eyes and then pushed past us towards the matriarch’s palace/gazebo. Matriarch Milia shook her head and smiled like an amused mother watching her kids do something endearingly dumb.

“Well, I’m sorry about all this… perhaps it’s indeed better that you come back later.”

“But I…” Rem started, but then sighed, “I’m sorry too.”

Matriarch Milia nodded.

“I’m looking forward to seeing more of your progress. And you all.”

She smiled too sweetly at us.

“You’re all welcome here in the future as well.”

I realised that I could only breathe freely when we were out of the village. Patrick shook his head.

“Wow. That was… much less pleasant than before.”

Rem was fuming, though. He clenched and unclenched his fists and his eyes seemed to go from honey-yellow to almost dark brown. Kielo walked us to the edge of the swamp and didn’t say a word. Her eyes had darkened too. I idly noticed again how similar Rem and Kielo’s eyes were, even though Kielo was now in her fairy form.

Kielo almost didn’t want to leave us, but Rem kept apologising until she apologised too and disappeared into the bushes. Then Rem turned to us.

“Why would you do that?” he asked.

“They just confessed they attacked Donna,” Patrick said defensively, “I don’t know if-“

“Well, I’m not happy about that either!” Rem snapped, “But… I believe them when they said they had no choice. They don’t want to be found and Donna… she wasn’t all right in the head.”

“And why do you think that is?” I had to ask, “Maybe because her baby was stolen.”

Rem blanched, and I knew I shouldn’t have said it. Sometimes I could be the most tactless person ever.

“Rem, I-“

“I never said it was a good thing!” Rem shouted, “I hate what they did, and I hate myself for making that happen!”

Patrick and I had frozen in shock. Rem sighed.

“I know they might want me to stay, no matter what they say, but that’s normal, isn’t it? I mean, I’m one of them too! I just… I want us to stay together, no matter what happens. I don’t want us and them being mad at each other.”

There was an awkward silence, because none of us knew what to say. Patrick reached out with his hand, but Rem stepped back, away from him. The silence grew so much heavier in that one movement.

Finally Rem put his hand to his head and sighed again.

“Let’s go home. My feet are freezing.”

To say that the evening was tense would be an understatement. Patrick and Rem tried their best to explain everything to mum without starting to yell at each other. And when mum heard what had happened, she almost flipped out too. At some point Patrick even contemplated calling Donna and asking if she was alright. And then Rem really did start yelling at him. I sat on a vacant couch with Merrill trying to crawl over my shoulder and tried my best to not get too involved in the argument. I had a feeling that my voice would just make things more cacophonic.

“You can’t call her! We can’t tell her about-“

“She deserves to know!” Patrick snapped before Rem could even finish his sentence.

“Maybe, but I believe the fair folk when they said they had no choice! The damage had already been done ages ago!”

“What would you even say to Donna, Patrick?” mum asked, trying to sound calmer than she was, “It could just make things worse.”

“I… I know, but I can’t just… and what about the fairies? Can we just let them keep doing this? They’ve always been so ambiguous, and now…” Patrick sighed, “I don’t know anymore.”

“They’re family,” Rem said quietly, and I imagined he kept repeating that phrase so that he’d eventually believe it, “And Alvar’s there too. I don’t like this either, but I don’t want us to start fighting without at least trying to understand.”

“And I hope you understand that we worry about you,” mum said, “This whole arrangement has been tricky from the start, and now-“

“I know it’s tricky!”

“I don’t think we should contact them in a while. Or let you stay there until we get this sorted out,” Patrick said.

“WHAT? But I want to learn…!”

Merrill looked at me questioningly.

“Why fight?” he asked, his voice almost shaky, “They never fight!”

I nodded and stood up, lifting Merrill up with me.

“I know, Merry,” I said, “Maybe we should go upstairs for a while. I’ll read to you.”

“But why they fight?”

“They’re just a bit upset right now because of some things that Alvar’s family said,” I tried my best to make it sound like a convincing explanation, “It’ll be fine.”

Merrill stared at me still, eyes wide. Mum glanced at me and nodded as if in thanks. I took Mer upstairs and we found his favourite book and sat down to read. I tried my best to close my ears off from the sounds coming from downstairs and tried to immerse myself in the world of Jimmy Sprocket.

I read until my voice was about to give out and Merrill was getting sleepy. I helped him out of his clothes and into his pyjamas and carried him to bed. The arguing downstairs had finally quieted somewhat.

“See?” I said and tried to smile convincingly, “They stopped arguing. It’s fine.”

Merrill gripped my hand.

“Is someone trying to take Rem away?”

I cursed the whole situation in my mind.

“No, Merry,” I said, “We’ll stay together.”

I hoped I was right.

“They said about forgetting,” Mer said, “I never forget my family.”

“I know. Me neither,” I said, “Don’t worry. We’re safe here.”

For now, it was still okay to lie because the lies weren’t too bad.

“Good night,” I said.

“’Night.”

I walked out of Rem and Mer’s room and saw that mum was waiting for me.

“How was it?” I asked, “I tried to keep Merry occupied.”

“You did great,” mum said and smiled. She looked sad even through the smile, “We agreed to sleep on it and think about it more tomorrow.”

She sighed.

”We can’t really jump to conclusions, but we can’t just let this go either.”

“Yeah,” I said, my voice thick.

Mum spread her arms. I hugged her and could almost feel safe.

“We’ll figure things out,” she said, “And no one’s ever going to break us apart.”

I nodded against her shoulder.

I couldn’t sleep that night. I should have showered and gone to bed hours ago, but I just couldn’t. I knew it would be no use anyway. I didn’t know what to think about any of this. A part of me agreed with Patrick that the fair folk was again doing something too questionable to just let go. And maybe our whole arrangement of trying to keep friendly ties to the people who had ruined several human lives out of selfishness really was stupid to begin with, as I’d sometimes already feared. But I also wanted to let Rem have his biological family, his teachers and the abilities and ties that belonged to him.

So far we had just let the fair folk do as they pleased and keep us on our toes, however. They kept saying that they listened to us and that we were free to do what we wanted, but it didn’t feel that way. If they could just easily wipe our memories with magic whenever they wanted, they could basically take Rem away and make us forget. They were stronger than us if they really wanted to be.

I shuddered at the thought. I thought about all the things we’d been through as a family. To think that all that could be just… wiped away was… I couldn’t even properly think it. It just couldn’t happen.

And I wanted to believe that it wouldn’t. Because a part of me really wanted to trust the fair folk, especially Kielo and Alvar and Kuura and Halla. And yet…

I looked at my computer and thought about all the stories I’d written throughout my life. I thought of the notebooks where I’d written my thoughts and even handled some of the events that had happened to us. They were stories that would never be published; stories hidden in notes and hard drives. If I kept backing them up, they would be there to help my memory for years and years to come. Maybe longer than I lived.

I slowly opened my computer.

I wanted to trust them.

But on the other hand, I wanted to be prepared and feel better about all of this.

So I thought about it for a long while and then started typing:

It all started with the wedding. Or maybe much earlier. Maybe it started when mum met Patrick Monsoon. Or maybe it started when my mum and the dad I have no memory of decided they didn’t want to see each other anymore. Heck, maybe it started when my so-called brother was born – even though I didn’t even know him when that happened and I had no way of knowing he would somehow slink into my life…

It was unpolished and probably not very good. But what did it matter? No one besides me would read it anyway.

Author’s Note: Clumsy meta moment ahoy? Or something like that. Hi guys, it’s been a while. I’ve had a lot of schoolwork and I’ve been working on my other stories. I like to keep this one at a leisurely pace because I feel like I need to digest these chapters in my head a lot before I start writing. So bear with me.

Also did you know I started a new story as well?! It’s an Ambrosia Challenge -story done with The Sims 4 and it’s called Forget-Me-Not! If you haven’t checked it out already, then maybe do that if you’re interested. There will be ghosts and revenge and all sorts of stuff going on there! I’ll try to keep my story updates somewhat balanced between all the three stories I have now.

I hope you enjoy and have a lovely time!

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Chapter 25: The Princess and the Pixie

I wasn’t completely sure what was going on inside Rem’s head, but I knew that the shaman-thing was still bothering him a lot. He seemed absent-minded and sombre. He was avoiding Patrick and spending a lot of time alone. I knew he was avoiding dad because he didn’t want to talk to him about what the fairies had suggested. He didn’t want to break our family, and I really appreciated that. But I also didn’t want him to break himself while doing his part in keeping us together.

I tried to talk to him one evening when we were doing homework together. Rem had been mostly quiet and kept frowning at his notebook. He had erased his writing so many times and so violently that there was a hole in the page. That was very unlike him. Usually he treated paper – and anything else that could be drawn on – with almost reverent care.

“Telling Patrick doesn’t mean that it’s somehow decided,” I said after thinking intently on what to say.

Rem chewed his lip and didn’t answer.

“Didn’t we already agree that running away from things and pretending they don’t exist is a terrible idea? You were the one who said that, remember?”

Rem sighed.

“I just have a really bad feeling about all that. And I… in a way I want to help them. But I really don’t want to leave. So I’m afraid that dad will just stop me from going anymore, or then worry himself sick over it all.”

“Oh come on! Patrick wouldn’t make you cut ties to Alvar just like that! He wants to be a part of his life too!”

Rem tapped his pencil against his head, a contemplative expression on his face.

“I was thinking that I’d figure out what I want first, and then talk to dad. But I’m not sure I can do that fast enough.”

“Well, yeah, figuring out one’s future at age fifteen isn’t going to just happen in a few days! That’s why we talk to other people.”

“I get it,” Rem said, “It just isn’t easy.”

“I can imagine,” I said, my voice getting surprisingly gentle, “But… we’re not going to stay here forever. We’re going to get lives of our own. Grow up, you know. And dad knows that too.”

I smiled.

“I mean, you’re not going to disappear right away. Think about it as a career option!”

Okay, so I knew that it wasn’t that simple. But at least my words made Rem laugh – albeit weakly.

“Thanks, Lynn. Really. I’ll talk to dad soon.”

A week passed, and he still hadn’t talked.

I could have said something about it, even rat out the fairies and their shaman plans to mum and Patrick. But I adamantly decided that this was something my stubborn brother had to do on his own. He at least had to man up enough to talk to his own dad for crying out loud! And it seemed like he tried, sometimes, but then he always backed down and settled for sadly observing a moment of our daily lives as if he needed to memorise it as well as he could.

Meanwhile, Patrick seemed to know that something was wrong. Or then he just had his own issues with Rem being so awkward and quiet – which was totally understandable. He slyly tried to get Rem to open up. Usually he was very good at it. He spent time with us like he always did, but now he seemed to use a lot of that time to lead his conversations with Rem to worries and Rem’s other family. He talked about it while teaching Rem how to cook, and he managed to even work it into their idle chatter during the chess matches Patrick had recently got a habit of challenging us into. And Rem always kept his answers vague and smiled and said nothing was wrong.

It was annoying, really.

I guess Rem hadn’t been kidding when he’d said he wanted to get his own thoughts sorted out about it first. He seemed to be seriously thinking what he’d want to be when he grew up, at least. His uncertainty about the future surprised me; I’d always figured that Rem would become an artist. I mean, his lifelong passion for painting certainly made it seem that way. But apparently he didn’t think it was that obvious. So he experimented; he signed up to his school’s afterschool shop class and started bringing home small wooden sculptures and butter knives and other random things he made there. He read lots of books, most of which focused on different fields of science on nature and plants. He went camping again after a long break from it. He even made new friends. It was certainly a healthier way for a teenager to try to find themselves than clandestine underage drinking, I supposed. Maybe that was why mum and Patrick didn’t complain and happily paid any fees Rem’s new activities required.

I guessed I too should just let him try new things and find himself, even though I figured randomly getting new hobbies wasn’t going to be the sure-fire way to self-discovery. At least not in a short enough time. I was getting worried about Patrick; he was so obviously waiting for Rem to talk, even though waiting was making him sick with worry.

I hoped that seeing Alvar would help things, because then Patrick could get closer to his biological son and the life that was trying share Rem with us. And Patrick did seem happy when Alvar and Kielo visited.

He talked with them, asked questions, and even taught Alvar to cook with our stove – Alvar was much better at it than Rem. But after they were gone, Patrick would go back to quiet melancholy he tried his best to mask.

One day I caught snippets of a conversation through the door of my parents’ bedroom. I knew I should have already grown out of eavesdropping, but I really hadn’t. I stopped and heard tears in my stepfather’s voice. Really. Tears. Patrick almost never cried.

“It feels like we’re family with people we know nothing about. My son was taken from me, and now this… this stranger occasionally shows up and I try to connect him to the baby I saw for a few moments before he… how could they take him away back then?”

“They gave you Rem,” said mum’s voice. She sounded so gentle and quiet, as if Patrick had suddenly turned into glass and would break apart if she spoke any louder. I had to strain my ears to hear her.

“I know…” Patrick said, “I’m immensely glad about that. But I… sometimes I almost
wish that this never happened. That we didn’t know about Alvar…”

“Don’t say that. You love him too.”

“Yeah… but I never have time to get to know him before he’s whisked away again. And now Rem’s slipping away too.”

“No, he’s not. The kids are just at that age when they have to find out what they really want. You know that.”

I backed away from the door at that point. It was what I’d been fearing, but also what I hadn’t even considered before.

Maybe we’d been naïve to think that we could invite a pixie family into our lives and expect it to be all sunshine and whimsy. Well, we hadn’t really thought that, actually. We’d known it would be tricky. Because what else could one expect when both of our families were so complicated? Still, a part of me had thought that things would have calmed down by now. That the fair folk would finally play nice. I shook my head at that thought. Sometimes, when I started blaming the fair folk too much, I had to remind myself that they too were grieving so many losses and lamenting so many troubles.

In the end I decided to stop losing sleep over it and to just watch how things would develop. After all, things could be – and had been – much worse and much more confusing. Besides, I had things in my own life I wanted to think about too. Like turning eighteen years old. That magical birthday was just a few weeks away. Soon I’d be an adult in the eyes of SimNation’s law. That meant more freedom, less adults watching me – at least in theory, though I doubted things would really change that radically in just a few weeks – and of course, more responsibility.

What excited me the most about the whole thing was that then I’d be free to get more tattoos in pretty much any tattoo place I wanted. Though the vegan place, Bridgeport CMYK, where I’d got my first tattoo – and the second one, which I’d managed to get about a year ago to cover more of my scars – was good enough to become my regular place. But even the people at CMYK had insisted that I waited until I was eighteen before I got more. I could see their point, really. The flowers on my arm had felt like a good idea back then, and I still mostly liked them, but I also had a feeling that I might want something else once I was a bit more certain about what kind of a person I’d grow up into.

I mean, I’d already grown so much, but sometimes I had moments of clarity when I knew that this wasn’t the final result. That I’d always be building myself. In some ways I was fine with that. There were plenty of things I’d like to change about how I saw the world and myself, but I hadn’t yet found out what I’d like to change them into. But when I thought about the things I actually liked about myself – which weren’t very numerous – I felt afraid. Afraid that I’d change so that those things would be lost or warped. Maybe a few years from now I wouldn’t enjoy writing or books, and I’d be missing a piece of myself. Maybe I wouldn’t be friends with the people I was friends with now. Maybe the silly moments I could sometimes find a special kind of happiness in wouldn’t make me feel anything anymore.

When those thoughts got too bad, I usually talked with Michel. He was going through a transition in his life too. He was already nineteen – almost twenty – and he had graduated from high school almost a year ago. He had spent the past year travelling to other countries, and then sending applications to universities he wanted to attend. He seemed to be so okay with being him despite clearly knowing that his life was about to change so much. It made me feel at ease, most of the time. And he was great company, even though he had somehow managed to rope me into helping him study for his entrance exams. He wanted to earn his money by building cyborgs, so he was applying for bioengineering and robotics programmes all the way in places like La Fiesta Tech, a university I had only vaguely heard of before this. Apparently it was close to Strangetown, a place that was rumoured to be inhabited by hidden aliens.

I chuckled at those rumours, but also realised that I didn’t completely dismiss them. Compared to hidden fairy villages, a hidden alien community was… well, just as likely, really.

Michel’s upcoming exams forced me to read a lot of tiny text that didn’t really make a lot of sense to me because it was about advanced technological things I knew nothing about. But Michel seemed to be okay with that. He kept saying that I was good at quizzing him on the stuff because I was a fast reader and actually understood more than I thought I did. All I knew was that it was nice to help a friend, and nice to get reminders that people could take directions in life.

And it was definitely nice to take a break to play video games after an intense studying session too.

“Man, you’ve had days to practise this game while I’ve been gone and I still keep kicking your ass!”

“Hey, I’ve been studying!” Michel grinned at my friendly barb, “Some people have more important things in their life than video games.”

“Like being a sci-fi geek?” I said, “Because you’re totally trying to get into studying sci-fi stuff that’s just a bit less fi and more sci.”

“I know. Awesome, right? Also I just blew your head up.”

I returned my focus on the screen too late and watched Michel’s character taunt my character’s now headless body.

“Hey! I was distracted.”

“You’re the one who started talking.”

I opened my mouth to fire a sharp retort, but I was interrupted when Michel’s door swung open and Carla walked in. She was dressed even more fancily than usual, in an admittedly pretty Chinese-style dress.

“Michel!” she said in a somewhat whiny voice, “Did you take my phone charger again-“

She suddenly fell silent when she realised her brother wasn’t alone. Her eyes fell on me, and she gaped at me as if I wasn’t a regular guest at her house nowadays.

“Oh, hi,” she said tensely. She had mostly stopped bullying others as the years had passed, but I couldn’t say that we really liked each other yet. She was still kind of a bitch and definitely too much of a snob for my tastes, and I was too much of a loser in her eyes.

“Hi,” I said, and then turned to Michel, “Another match?”

“Sure,” Michel looked at Carla, “I don’t know about your charger. Maybe mum used it and left it at our gym.”

“Yeah, sure, whatever,” Carla said, “You know what, enjoy your game. I’ve got to be somewhere.”

“Going on a date?” Michel guessed.

“No!” Carla snapped, “Just out… to eat. With my usual friends.”

She spun around as if she didn’t want to talk about it. I got a distinct feeling she was hiding something from her brother.

“Well, enjoy your murder simulator, I’m off,” she said and hurried out of the room.

“This is a fighting game, you know!” Michel shouted after her.

“Whatever!”

Michel looked at his closing door for a while, and then shrugged.

“She’s so totally going on a date. Who’s she with nowadays anyway? That Mark-guy is ancient history, right? Then was that brief time with that Kevin-fella. But I think she told me she’s single now, like… three weeks ago. You hear any gossip about that?”

“No”, I said, “I don’t really care about that stuff.”

And I would have continued not to care about it if we hadn’t heard Carla and Michel’s mother loudly welcoming a guest, and the guest answering in a voice that was so familiar it made me jump right up from my seat and hurry out of the room to see what was going on.

I made my way across the Faroffingtons’ third floor and then froze at the top of the stairs. In the kitchen below us stood three people. One was Sindy Faroffington, behind whom stood a very nervous-looking Carla.

“Mum, we should really be going already…” she muttered, but her mum was ignoring her.

The third person, the one Sindy was talking to, was-

“Rem?” I managed to cough out.

Rem looked up and waved cheerfully. He was still dressed in his winter clothes, and his cheeks were red from biking through the snow.

“Hey, Lynn! Fancy seeing you here!”

My mouth hung open in shock. Sindy beamed at everyone in the room.

“Okay, Carla, Rem, get in the car. The Bistro is going to be really busy if we wait for too long.”

Michel burst into laughter. Carla buried her face into her hands.

“This is so frickin’ embarrassing!”

I still couldn’t say anything. My brother was going on a date with Carla? Just hearing they were sort of friends was shocking. But dating? There were so many things wrong with that.

First of all, Rem was only fifteen – okay, almost sixteen but still. Secondly, my protective big sister instincts stated that Rem didn’t date. Thirdly, Carla. Fourthly, what the hell was going on?

Michel was still laughing. I realised that Rem, Carla, and Sindy had already left the kitchen and probably the house altogether.

“Oh man, this is so funny! My sis is dating the weird hippie-kid!”

“Hey, that’s my weird hippie brother you’re talking about!” I said, finally getting my vocal cords to work again.

“I know! That’s even weirder!”

I narrowed my eyes.

“Since you find this so amusing, you probably won’t mind helping me.”

Michel managed to calm down, and he cleared his throat.

“Helping you with what?” he frowned.

“Finding out where they’re going.”

Now Michel was completely serious, and I could see disbelief sneaking on his face.

“What? You’re going to stalk them on their date?”

When he put it like that, it all sounded really wrong. But not as wrong as Carla and Rem going on a date. It was just… I could smell a disaster miles away from a setup like that! Sure, Carla wasn’t as bad as she had been when we’d been twelve, but she was still too preoccupied with being perfectly what others expected her to be that she didn’t even want to admit she was friends with Rem. They’d been having talks in secret, as Rem had sometimes told me, and the whole setup bothered Rem to no end, yet he still kept doing it because he was too sweet to stop helping someone talk about their problems. It sounded like a very lousy friendship. So how could this possibly work? I took a deep breath and then answered Michel’s question with a simple:

“Yes.”

By using our detective skills – and mostly by remembering that Sindy had mentioned a Bistro – we figured out that Rem and Carla were going to the Bistro Bretagne. It was located close enough to the Faroffington’s house that we dared to brave the winter cold in our sweaters. At least if we were discovered and had to make a hasty retreat, we didn’t have to stop to grab our coats.

I hadn’t been to the Bistro before. It looked pretty nice from the outside, and the inside wasn’t too bad either. Though the painting of a couple in front of a very Parisian landscape was a bit tacky and ill-placed in my opinion. Michel and I took a table at the corner and tried to be as discreet as possible. The staff wouldn’t let us just sit in the restaurant without ordering anything, so Michel ordered a coffee with some kind of caramel foam and a complicated name. The waiter raised his brows, but didn’t comment on it. Maybe he just didn’t like people using a restaurant as a café.

“Okay, there they are,” Michel said and nodded towards the table where my brother and his sister were talking, “And we’re at the perfect vantage point for your silly soap opera-level scheme.”

“Whoa, whoa, hey!” I raised my arms and sputtered incoherently while trying to think of a witty answer, “I… this… it’s not soap opera -level!”

Okay, so I couldn’t think of a witty anything right now, apparently. Michel’s mouth quirked into a lopsided smile.

“Suuuure. Look, I get you’re being an overprotective big sister, but… seriously?”

I looked at Michel’s annoyingly amused expression. Hey, Rem was too young to date like this, and Carla was too old for him. Not to mention she was still mostly a bitch, and- Okay, sure, I was being overprotective, but considering what our lives had been like so far, it was just rational and sensible, right? I tried reminding myself that Michel didn’t know everything about our lives, but he did know that we’d gone through a lot. I had told him about the fire and my crazy stepdad because that was something that could be found out by reading some old news on the web. But fairies, changelings, fragile psyches and tangled families… he didn’t know about any of that, and I wasn’t about to tell him either. And now that I sat here, I started to think that even all of what had happened really wasn’t enough to warrant this… well, stalking. I started feeling silly, for the most part. But I still had one card that made me feel less stupid, so I played it:

“Carla turns eighteen in like… how many months? And Rem’s still barely sixteen!”

Michel’s face scrunched up.

“Oh yeah, that’s a thing. But seriously, I’m pretty sure this won’t last even that long. Carla switches boyfriends almost as often as she changes shoes.”

He was exaggerating a bit – even I knew that – and his words didn’t make me feel any better.

“Although,” Michel went on, “I’ve got to admit that she seems to be happy now.”

I looked at Carla as well, and I realised that there was something really weird about her. Weird only because I hadn’t associated it with Carla until now.

She was smiling, and it wasn’t the forced, fake, or sarcastic kind of smile I’d seen on her face before. Her smile was… she actually looked pretty.

Okay, so maybe my be-friends-with-everyone -brother could make even our high school’s bitchy princess’s heart melt. Still, it didn’t make it much less iffy.

“I have to talk to him about this,” I muttered.

“Oh, sure, you do. And I’m pretty sure your parents have to too,” Michel leaned to the table, “I’m just surprised you didn’t do it right away. You’re usually smarter than this.”

I frowned at him, but then I got something else to think about when Carla turned her head and saw us.

What the hell are you two doing here?!

Michel was suddenly up.

“Uh-oh. Busted.”

Before I could say anything, Michel was running, and I bolted after him before my mind could catch up with what was going on.

We raced out the door – and I was thankful Michel had paid for his coffee when it had arrived, because otherwise we’d be in so much trouble right now. Still, I couldn’t help thinking about how weird and suspicious we must have looked, sprinting out of a restaurant as fast as we could and without proper winter clothes.

We stopped to catch our breath at the Bistro’s snow-covered terrace. Michel started laughing so hard he almost doubled over.

“Why the hell did we do that?” he managed to wheeze out between frostbitten, breathless bouts of laughter.

“You’re the one who ran!” I said.

“But you’re the one who wanted to come here!”

I was quiet for a moment. Michel grinned.

“But hey, the coffee was good.”

“I’ll take your word for it.”

Michel chuckled.

“C’mon, let’s go back to my place and get you some coffee too. We’re freezing out here without our coats.”

I couldn’t help smiling back at him.

I managed to corner Rem the next day after school, when mum and Patrick were still at work and Merrill was in kindergarten. We sat down in the living room, and Rem was talking before I could even really make my case:

“This is about Carla, right?”

I sighed.

“I guess that’s pretty obvious.”

“You were spying on us at the Bistro,” Rem crossed his arms, “That was… weird.”

My cheeks felt warm.

“Okay, so it wasn’t one of my best ideas, but I was worried! Carla’s way too old for you, and you’re-“

“We’re not dating.”

I narrowed my eyes.

“Then what was it?”

It was Rem’s turn to blush. He fidgeted in his seat and twisted his fingers together. I noted the stiffness of his right shoulder. It had sometimes been acting up ever since he’d been shot there. Thankfully he could still paint – I couldn’t possibly imagine Rem without a paintbrush in hand, and I had a feeling he couldn’t either despite claiming he didn’t know what he wanted out of life.

“She asked me out,” he admitted, “She said she liked me… because I’ve been nice to her and listened to her all these years.”

“Oh yeah… so you decided to go from secret friend-dates to secret… date-dates?”

Rem was quiet again. I knew he didn’t really want to talk about this, but I also knew I was probably the only one who could have any chance of getting the truth out of him at the moment. So I waited. And waited. And waited until Rem finally muttered:

“Just to… try it out. Dating, I mean. We weren’t going to… do anything. Just talk, but more officially. I told her… I told her that if she wanted to go out with me, we shouldn’t hide it. She told her mum, so I figured it was alright…”

He fiddled with the hem of his autumn-coloured sweater and then added hastily:

“I did tell her that it would be just a sort of trial run. For the… dating. I wasn’t going to give her the wrong impression.”

I stared at my brother.

“You used Carla Faroffington to ‘try out’ dating and got her to even go out in public with a tree hugger two years younger than her… voluntarily?”

Rem blinked.

“Uh… yeah?”

“Wow, that’s pretty badass.”

“Thanks?”

I smiled, and then switched myself back into serious-mode.

“But really, we have to talk about this. You’re not going to keep this a secret from mum and dad, are you?”

“No! Well… I’m going to tell them eventually. It’s just… a part of trying to figure out what I want.”

“Rem…” I sighed.

Rem closed his eyes.

“Fine, I’ll tell them. And I’ll talk to Carla too. We’ll… get this sorted out.”

It was the best I could get out of him before he claimed he had a lot of homework to do and left me alone in the living room.

I figured I’d give him a few days to “sort it out”. But no more than that.

So I reluctantly let the matter rest.

Unfortunately some other people didn’t.

Apparently someone at our school had found out about Carla and Rem’s short, amicable date at the Bistro, and this being high school during social media age, rumours started to fly almost instantly. It seemed that even Princess Carla wasn’t immune to mean words and gossip if she just gave enough fuel for it.

It was definitely an odd sight: Carla sitting a bit forlorn on the couch in the school’s hallway, with only her eternally devoted supporter Mina Jones for company, and with a group of other students whispering behind their backs.

“Wow,” I said to Min, who was glaring angrily at the rumour mill that was spinning in front of us, “I never thought I’d feel sorry for Carla.”

I paused for a thoughtful moment.

“It does help that they’re also making fun of my brother.”

Min grunted.

“It’s getting nasty pretty fast,” she said, “At least for a stupid little thing like that!”

“That’s high school for you, I guess. Makes you think how boring our lives are when this is something that warrants so much gossip.”

“Should we do something?”

“Like what? Learn hacking so we can destroy their Simbook accounts?”

“We could tell some of the teachers.”

“Oh, yeah. Well, maybe this’ll die down soon so we don’t have to contribute to the drama.”

I could always hope.

It didn’t happen.

A few days later the rumours were still going, and they were getting worse. It was getting pretty systematic, really. I’d thought that this kind of thing had mostly died down at the early years of high school, but here we were; almost adults and dealing with nasty psychological bullying.

At the head of it was Lisa Bunch, who was a bit less influential, but just as much of a bitch as Carla was – maybe even worse now that Carla had mellowed out a bit. I caught her openly making fun of Carla and her “scruffy jailbait fairy -boyfriend” and calling Carla a bunch of really unflattering names.

I didn’t know if it was just my memories of being bullied, or if it was because of Rem or because I just wanted to show Carla that I was a better person than her. Or maybe I even wanted bury the hatchet and maybe take steps to end the nowadays very passive-aggressive not-war between us. Whatever it was, something made me go up to Lisa Bunch and stand up for the person I’d never really liked.

“Hey, cut it out!” I snapped, “Isn’t that getting really frickin’ old?”

Lisa blinked a few times before she realised that the quiet bookworm from Carla’s class was now standing in front of her. She frowned at me.

“Why do you care?” she said.

I crossed my arms.

“Well, first of all, because what you’re going is really pathetic, and second of all, the ‘scruffy jailbait fairy’ is my brother!”

Lisa snorted, her face twisting into an angry scowl. I glanced at Carla, and I wasn’t sure what I‘d expected to see. Probably not the odd mixture of disbelief, worry, and disgust that was on her face right now.

Maybe she was worried that she’d now be labelled as the loser who had been defended by a bigger loser. But hey, it wasn’t really her I was defending, right? I stepped towards Lisa.

“So back off!” I said, “Or I’ll tell everyone you’ve been cyber-bullying and harassing a lot of people in your sad free time.”

“Yeah! And she’s not the only one who’ll tell!” Min yelled from behind me – I could always trust her to have my back, “You want to keep being a bitch? Then get ready to face us!”

Okay, so that was maybe needlessly dramatic. And my threats really weren’t all that impressive. But they seemed to do the job. Or then Lisa just figured she didn’t want to risk getting in too much trouble – because at this point we knew there would be trouble. I could already hear our maths teacher coming through the door to her classroom, asking what was wrong.

Lisa took that moment to flip her hair angrily and storm off the scene, muttering something that I couldn’t make sense of, but that I probably didn’t even want to hear.

Carla looked at me one more time, and then she too walked away a bit too quickly. Mina Jones followed her like a puppy. The rest of the students that had gathered to follow the scene scattered now that the drama was over. Soon only Min and I stood in the hallway, and I heard our maths teacher, Miss Rodrigues, berating Lisa and others in a gently chastising tone as if they were ten-year-olds.

Min let out a whoop of joy.

“Aaw, yeah! We showed her! That was awesome! I didn’t think you’d really do it!”

I managed an unsure smile in return.

“Me neither… I’m not sure it was even worth it.”

“Oh, trust me,” Min gave me one of her amazingly beautiful smiles, “I’m sure it was.”

That afternoon Min and I went outside to wait for the bus despite the snowy, cold weather. Sunset Valley’s winters were usually pretty mild, but this year it had been snowing like crazy. Sure, the snow was usually sticky and soggy because it didn’t get cold enough, but it was still snow. Patrick blamed global warming again.

Min and I chatted together about normal things like afterschool activities and homework when I heard footsteps approaching us through the snow. It was unexpected because no one else usually braved the snowdrifts just so they could sit on the bench outside at this hour. I looked up and saw none other than Carla Faroffington. She was dressed in her winter coat and had an odd expression on her face. Like she was forcing herself to sniff a decaying salmon.

“So…” she said slowly, “I just wanted to say… thanks. For standing up for me.”

I blinked. Many times. Min had to be the one to speak:

“Yeah, sure. No problem. And no hard feelings. You didn’t get in trouble, right? We heard Miss Rodrigues telling you and Lisa off for yelling in the hallways.”

“Whatever,” Carla scoffed, “I land on my feet.”

That was all she said. Then she turned around and swiftly walked back inside. I stared after her for a long, baffled moment.

“Should we somehow take note of this time?” I finally asked, “As the moment Carla was actually genuinely trying to be nice?”

Min chuckled.

“Told you it was worth it.”

I rolled my eyes at her, but she had just crossed her legs and stared nonchalantly into the wintry sky. I smiled.

“Okay, fine. I guess it was.”

I told Rem about the incident after school. He seemed upset.

“I never wanted that to happen,” he said, as if he needed to clarify something like that, “I just… she wanted to go out with me, and I wanted to know if that was what I wanted. I didn’t…”

“That’s high school for you,” I repeated the words I’d said to Min the other day, “At least in the beginning. You should be prepared for it.”

“I’ll try,” Rem frowned at the walls, “It’s stupid. We weren’t even dating. I told Carla that the dinner was nice… She really can be nice too if she just feels safe enough. But I don’t like her that way.”

I hummed.

“You have no idea how much drama you just spared yourself and our family by saying that.”

“I think I do… maybe,” Rem smiled, “Alright, I get it. I’ll tell dad about the shaman-thing, and I’ll try my best to figure myself out in ways that don’t hurt others… even accidentally.”

“Good luck with that,” I said, “So… if you learned something, I’d say it was maybe worth it?”

“I think so too.”

And that night it occurred to me that maybe it had been worth it for Carla too. I remembered her smile at the restaurant, and her genuine gratitude at school, and I figured that even small moments of decency counted for something.

The next evening it was cold enough for mum and Patrick to take us skating at a nearby pond. The ice on it had finally become thick, and we could try to forget our worries while we skated across the ice and the setting sun dyed the sky pink. Merrill giggled when Patrick tossed him around in the snow, and Rem laughed when he asked me to race him across the pond.

It was another moment of decency and clarity in the confusing and uncertain world.

As was the moment afterwards, when we drove home past Sunset Valley’s beach and I watched the lighthouse’s spinning light and realised once again that our hometown was beautiful.

We got home and mum started making hot tea for all of us – well, except for Merrill, who had hot cocoa instead. We sat down around the dining table with our warm mugs, and Merrill excitedly clambered onto the “big boy chair” to drink his cocoa, and we all stopped to enjoy the moment and us as a family. That was when Rem decided to say:

“Dad, there’s something I want to talk about.”

I worried that it would break our family moment. But Patrick just nodded and calmly finished his tea and then climbed upstairs into his and mum’s room to talk with Rem.

“Do you know what that’s about?” mum asked when she was putting our cups away into the dishwasher and I was tasked with keeping Merrill distracted so he wouldn’t want to disturb his dad and big brother’s talk.

I did know, but at that moment I didn’t want to talk about it. I was feeling tired after the skating, and warm after the tea. Too happy and pleasantly sluggish to start thinking about family drama. I pretended I didn’t know anything, made Merrill laugh by tickling his sides and handed him over to mum. I then excused myself, went upstairs and grabbed a book to read.

I didn’t eavesdrop on Rem and Patrick’s father-son talk, as much as I wanted to. I lingered outside our bedrooms and waited for Rem to get back.

The door opened about an hour later, and Rem walked out with a peaceful smile on his face.

“How’d it go?” I asked.

Rem shrugged.

“Dad wasn’t happy I’d kept it a secret.”

He sat down and grabbed a toy robot Merrill had left on the floor. He started pretending the robot was a futuristic pizza delivery boy, and moved it to and fro in front of him.

“But all in all, it went well,” he said, “Dad isn’t that angry. He said he’d do whatever he could to help. He just needs some time to think.”

“See? I told you so.”

“Mm-hmm… I still don’t know what to do, though.”

I watched him play with the robot and thought about how much of a kid he still was. I hoped he didn’t even need to know yet. Not for a few years, at least.

Author’s Note: I realised after doing the school –photoshoot that I’d used Lisa Bunch as an extra in a chapter where Lynn was still a kid, so she shouldn’t be the same age as Lynn. Buuuut I never mentioned her name or showed her face so it was totally another blonde teenager with the same outfit. Yeah. *shifty eyes*

Also yay for long chapters with lots of nothing going on. :/ Except for character development I guess. I hope it’s not too disappointing considering I most likely won’t be updating in November because NaNoWriMo.

I changed the restaurant’s name because why not. Making the interior for it was pretty fun! But man, I don’t know… I should probably actually do something plot-related here. I just keep thinking that the plot I have planned is sort of a rehash of arc 1… but I’ll think of something different.

Anyway, I hope you find something to enjoy about this, and have a lovely time!

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NEXT Chapter: Eighteen

Chapter 24: Family Ties

I’d formed a new routine when winter had started. Every Saturday I woke up so early that the others were still asleep. I quickly shovelled down a hastily made omelette, brushed my teeth, got dressed and tried to fade out my scars with makeup before I headed out. The morning air was frosty and stung my nostrils in that peppery way chilly air tended to do.

I trudged through the freshly fallen snow and got into our car, driving through a by now familiar route towards the local witch’s house. Sabine was of course still not a witch. I mean, that would be silly because the only real magic was fairies who used their powers to hide and switch up babies. In all seriousness, I wouldn’t be surprised anymore if there was a whole world of all sorts of magical creatures out there. But Sabine Bellechance wasn’t one of them. She was just an old woman who had a lot of compassion and wisdom underneath her bitter and aloof shell.

I’d worked on her garden until it was cleaned up, and then proceeded to maintain it. But when the winter rolled in, I of course wasn’t needed. Not until this year, when Sabine had asked me to help with her groceries and cleaning too. I hadn’t needed to think about it much; I’d said yes almost immediately. Not just because it meant more money. I’d done it mostly because I really liked Sabine.

She was getting older. I noticed it from the way her walking had got slower and of course from the fact that she needed a cane to walk long distances now. But despite that, she kept her back as straight as she could and insisted on walking to the store with me. She looked very snazzy in her sleek coat and her awesome purple bowler hat. She didn’t even seem to mind the cold or the people who occasionally stared at her with suspicion because of the witch-rumours.

“Oh, they need to have their gossip,” she said nonchalantly when we were making our way to the EverFresh Delights Supermarket and a couple of people had started whispering when we’d passed by, “It makes life feel more interesting than it really is here.”

“I guess…” I said, “It’s not nice, though.”

“Well, no. It’s not. But then again, I don’t care enough to let it hurt me.”

She kept her head high, and I secretly wished that I too could grow old as gracefully as she did. Sure, she came off as rather cold sometimes, but maybe it was the coldness that had preserved something important in her soul. Maybe. Whatever it was, it seemed to work for her.

But I had a feeling she didn’t think it would work for anyone else. Especially for me. She talked about it several times when we got back to her house and took a moment to sit down and chat. She especially talked about how people shouldn’t be so apathetic and let life pass them by.

“I don’t mean to point fingers, especially at you,” she said today after I’d helped her with cleaning the house and we’d gone outside to sit in the beautiful snowy afternoon, “I mean, I don’t know everything that has happened to you, but from what I’ve heard, you’ve been taking steps to live a life the way you want despite all the hardships.”

She smiled.

“Although, you’re also spending time with an old woman like me.”

“Maybe that’s also a part of the life I want,” I replied, idly poking the frozen plastic daffodils on Sabine’s garden table, “I like talking to you.”

“And I’m glad about that. But I also think I’m not the most uplifting company.”

“I’m not uplifting either.”

“You don’t give yourself enough credit,” Sabine smiled, “You see a lot of beauty in the world. I read the short story you sent to that contest. You know, the one that got published on the web.”

“Really?” I blushed, “You didn’t tell me that.”

“It wasn’t too long ago. I liked it. Dark but beautiful. I especially liked the bit about the two worlds.”

I smiled shyly.

“Thanks.”

Sabine returned my smile with her own.

“Just don’t let life get you down. It did that once, and I never really got over it.”

I pondered her words when I finally started to drive back home. Sometimes I spent the entire day at Sabine’s, and this was one of those days, but I was still almost surprised to see how dark it had got. I wondered if Sabine thought that I spent time with her out of pity. Because it felt like she really had no one in her life other than me now. She at least seemed to think that her presence made my depression worse or something. It didn’t, really. I really felt like we could become good friends once she finally accepted that I did enjoy spending time with her and respected her despite – or partly because – of the slightly sour, mysterious aura that surrounded her.

I tried to remember when the last time I’d thought about the letters we’d dug up with Min had been. I was still way too curious about them, but I knew enough not to pry. It was Sabine’s secret, and a big part of me had already accepted that she didn’t want to talk about it. I convinced myself that after all this wondering, the actual answers would just be anticlimactic anyway.

When I got back home I was met with a happy greeting from Rem. He and Merrill had braved the cold weather – which to be fair had got considerably less cold during the day – and got out to build a snowman. The snow had become just sticky enough once the weather had warmed up a bit, and Rem had already rolled up most of the snowman while Merrill occasionally took a break from eating snow to pat the snowman’s sides where he could reach them.

“You wanna help us?” Rem asked excitedly, “I think we’re going for a traditional touch with this one!”

I thought about wasted time I could instead waste on reading or surfing on the internet. Then I thought about silly cheerful things that made the blanket over my mind thin.

“Sure. Why not.”

“No man snowman!” Merrill sang in response and punched the snowman’s side with his small fist.

“Merry, what have I told about mistreating other people’s work?”

“It’s bad?”

“Exactly. Don’t worry, you can still stick the carrot-nose on no-man-snowman’s face, okay?”

I grinned at my brothers and joined them.

“Kielo and Alvar are going to visit tomorrow,” Rem said once the snowman was done and he had flopped onto his back into the snow.

“Really?” I asked and picked up Merrill, who was starting to complain about the cold, “They got their phones finally working again?”

“Nah. I saw them. I’m really trying to see little things so I can then maybe see the more important things without messing them up.”

Rem moved his arms and legs to make a snow angel – or a snow fairy – and didn’t seem to care that the sticky snow was quickly soaking his jacket.

“Sometimes it’s easy…” he said, “Seeing… but a lot of the times I still don’t get it.”

“Are you going back to Twinbrook again, then?” I asked, “For some more lessons?”

“Probably, yeah. Maybe tomorrow for a quick visit. I asked mum and dad and they said it was fine as long as I was back before the night.”

I remembered a time when mum and Patrick had been really uncertain to let their son go alone to study with fairies, but things had changed. It had taken a lot of visits from Kielo, and she’d even had to show mum and Patrick the forest until they’d been happy. She’d been a bit hesitant to do it, but in the end she had agreed. Now it almost felt like a devastating family secret had become a hobby of sorts. Like evening classes about wonky magic.

“You wanna come with us?” Rem asked, “Kuura especially has been asking about you a lot.”

I shrugged.

“Maybe later. I’ve still got some schoolwork I want to do.”

“I wanna go!” Merril suddenly said.

Rem smiled.

“Sorry, Merry. Not until you’re older.”

Merrill scrunched up his nose and then turned to whisper into my ear:

“Rem is stupidhead.”

“Hey! I heard that!”

I laughed. There really was a lot of sense in not letting life get to me. Sometimes I thought that I already had, but then I found these little moments when I felt light and happy. That was when I knew that I wasn’t a completely lost cause yet.

Sure enough, Kielo managed to call us that night with her cell phone, which she had excitedly figured out about six months ago, but which kept breaking because she tended to experiment with it too eagerly. She and Alvar arrived early in the next morning after they got permission to take Rem away for a day. They looked almost convincing in their winter clothes, though I was pretty sure the clothes had been either scavenged or stolen from somewhere. They kicked their shoes off as soon as they got in, but they didn’t even have time to take off their coats before Patrick was there, hugging his biological son and welcoming them to the house.

“I guess we should visit more often and not just come here to take Rem away every once in a while,” Alvar said, and then seemed to realise how wrong his words sounded in light of what had happened all those years ago, when the fair folk really had just tried to take him away, “…sorry.”

“Don’t be,” said Patrick, “But yes, you should visit more often!”

They shed their winter clothes, and then it was time for more hugs. It had become a ritual whenever Alvar visited. Lots of hugs and pleasantries followed by Rem often leaving for the day and then returning at night. This time was no different.

“Hey there, little guy!” Alvar said as soon as he got a hold of Merrill and lifted him high into the air, “You’re growing so fast! I don’t think I’ll be able to toss you around like this much longer. Soon you’ll be wrestling all your siblings to the ground!”

Merrill giggled and flailed his arms wildly. He’d really got attached to his half-brother, and seemed to always remember him even after a longer break from seeing him. That was quite remarkable for a pretty self-absorbed three-year-old. Rem and Alvar had also developed this very natural sort of camaraderie that made me smile. Though I had a feeling it wasn’t without its tensions. They were simply very good at hiding their problems. Or then I was just being pessimistic again.

We traded news about our respective lives, and mum and Patrick asked slightly stern questions about what Rem would be doing among the fair folk this time, like they always did. Usually the anwer was more of the same: practising. Rem had been very eager to learn how to control his fairy magic powers, and he really had made good progress with it during his visits.

“I think Lumi has planned some focus training or something,” Kielo explained this time when Patrick asked her about it, “You know, practising the… doing what you want to do with magic stuff. I’m not really good at the academic terms for magic, you know. I can barely pull off my glamour.”

“I think it looks fine,” I said, “Especially the fauxhawk.”

“The what?” Kielo frowned.

“Your haircut.”

“Oh, is that what you call it? Cool!”

“I just hope there’ll be some time to do stuff together too,” Rem told Alvar, who was trying his best to chat with him while holding a wiggling Merrill, “We can maybe try to finish building that treehouse for the kids.”

“Yeah!” Alvar laughed and then winced when Merrill tugged his dreadlocks a bit too hard, “Kuura, Halla and Marras have been pestering me about getting it done for weeks now!”

“It sounds like things are really going well for you,” I said, “You know, despite the pestering kids.”

Kielo smiled.

“We always pull through.”

“Is the winter rough for you, though?” asked Patrick, “It’s much colder than last year. Don’t you do a lot of gathering and farming?”

“Oh, our winters are always really mild,” Kielo said, “It’s a part of having magic hiding us; it also gives us pretty good shields against the frost and snow.”

“I love the snow here, though,” Alvar said, “I wish we had more of it in the forest. It’s so beautiful.”

“And fun, right?” Rem added, “If it were a bit warmer, we could build snowmen and have snowball fights again!”

“Well, maybe next time.”

“Right…” Rem glanced at the clock on his cell phone, “Hey, I think we should be leaving already. I’ve got school tomorrow.”

“Exactly. Remember to get back in the ten o’clock bus,” mum said for the fifteenth time that weekend. Rem nodded and dashed upstairs to cram his backpack full of essentials like muesli bars, sketchbooks and pens.

They were always gone so quickly. We had a quick chat that didn’t tell anyone much about anything, and then dad was standing on the porch, waving goodbye to an excited Rem and our new-ish relatives. He always smiled after them until they were gone. Then he stood on the porch a bit too long and his expression changed to a forlorn one.

I had a feeling I knew what he was thinking. He was maybe afraid that someday Rem wouldn’t come back. That Rem would want to stay among his people instead of us. I knew that was a totally irrational fear. Rem had chosen us long ago, and I doubted a few visits were going to change that.

Especially considering that the visits were like attending school on weekends. Rem had told us in detail how it all usually played out. It involved quick hellos to the other fairy villagers, and maybe some time to spend with Alvar and Kielo before Rem had to go see the Matriarch’s adviser Lumi, who was the resident magic expert and healer. She always had a magic lesson planned for Rem, and she was stern and demanding.

Usually it began with her leaving Rem to meditate by the river for an hour while she was finishing up her chores for the day. After that came the actual teaching. Sometimes she taught illusions and magic that the fair folk could do. It was apparently essential to survival.

“If you can’t master it, you could be killed, or kill someone else with an ill-timed magic surge!” was what she’d said. Her motivational speeches were usually more on the terrifying side.

Sometimes she tried her best to teach Rem how to control his gift of clairvoyance. Because Rem’s mum had been the only actual clairvoyant in the village, there was no one there who could properly teach him that anymore. But Lumi was apparently doing pretty well with what she knew. She explained the importance of focus and of not getting lost into the visions, which I recalled had been what had killed Rem’s mum. She also told Rem about the most common symbols in visions.

I had thought that Rem’s visions were just personal things, just his way of getting glimpses of something he then usually interpreted through fairytales. But apparently there were some universal details in weird psychic powers too. Rem had once excitedly told me about what some of the things he saw could mean. About how animals often represented people and how a stormy weather in visions usually meant that something bad was about to happen.

I was especially fascinated and horrified by his description of the shadowy, silhouetted figure that was apparently an omen of death. The fair folk, influenced by their matriarchal society, had at some point decided that it was female despite not having enough characteristics to tell for sure. They had named her Tuonetar, who was apparently a benevolent if morbid figure in the fair folk’s mythology. The death goddess or something. Someone who ferried the souls of the dead to the beyond.

It had all been interesting, sure, but all I could think about when I heard the description was the black figure I had seen in my dreams after the fire. Rem had mused that it must have been because he had linked his dreams with mine, and because he had seen death. My near-death, probably. The mere thought made me feel dizzy. I also remembered the shadowy figures we’d sometimes been surrounded with back when we’d been little. Maybe Rem had been seeing them a lot and then just accidentally made me see them too. He had been so close to death when he had been born, after all. It was unnerving to say the least.

I wondered what his lessons would be like today. Maybe more of the same. Or maybe he’d be learning about fairy dreams this time. About how he had been able to link his dreams with me sometimes. Before this, Rem had done all those things mostly without knowing what he’d been doing. Now he had the chance to actually learn it.

It was hard work, definitely, and Rem often returned half-asleep and with a headache that made Patrick regret his decision to let his son go on fairy field trips even more. But the next morning he’d again be happy and jumping around like he always was. And he was always so excited about finally learning how to control the visions and powers that had previously manifested as confusing fairytale-esque metaphors. So I figured it was just good for him.

But while Rem was away, I spent the day mostly writing and doing schoolwork and helping mum and Patrick around the house. And because of that I had plenty of time to catch glimpses of Patrick’s worried face and quiet moments of regret.

In those moments I really hoped that he was worrying for nothing. And I also hoped I could have said something to make him feel better. But I could never come up with anything convincing.

But Rem came back, like he always did. He was tired and went straight to bed, and the next day he was skipping through the snow into the school bus as if nothing weird had happened. And Patrick could sigh in relief and our week could properly start. Happy. Safe. And normal for us.

After school I came home to find Rem outside on our swing set. That wasn’t anything new, really. However, he wasn’t really swinging, but instead just sitting and staring wistfully into space. He was even ignoring the awesome igloo Patrick had built for us while trying to think happy thoughts before Rem came back from Twinbrook.

“Hey, you okay?” I said.

Rem looked up at me and smiled weakly.

“Hi. It was a long day.”

“You were home long before I was.”

“Yeah…” Rem leaned his forehead against one of the swing’s chains, “Yesterday… Lumi told me that I was making a lot progress. That I wasn’t completely hopeless with magic anymore.”

He fell silent for a while, and blinked a few stray snowflakes from his eyelashes. I slowly sat on the other swing and waited.

“She told me that I might be ready to start officially becoming a shaman… their new clairvoyant.”

I raised my eyebrows.

“Really? Already?”

“That’s what I wondered too,” Rem pursed his lips, deep in thought, “She did say it would mean a pretty long process of studying and practise and rituals and all… but… I still don’t know. I think they just want someone who can see the future into their village again. And I think…”

He hesitated, and I dared to finish his sentence with what Patrick was secretly fearing:

“That they want to make you stay?”

Rem nodded.

“I think they want me to feel like I have to,” he said, “They’re being nice about it, though.”

“Well, what do you really want?” I asked, “Would you want to become their shaman? I have to admit it would look awesome on a résumé.”

Rem laughed, but the laugh was clipped and not natural like it usually was.

“I don’t know what I want to be when I grow up, really,” he said, “I don’t think I even have to know yet. But I… I do know that I want to stay here. But I want us all to be happy. Them too. My other family, I mean.”

I nodded slowly.

“I think that sounds like a plan. We should be able to work with that somehow. And don’t worry; we’ll all make sure no one will break us apart again. Not even if they’re being nice about it.”

Rem laughed again, this time sounding much more like himself. He kicked the ground with his feet and quickly worked up speed as he swung back and forth, back and forth. His smile lingered in the air amidst the snowflakes.

“You’re right,” he said, “At least I want to think that.”

I watched my brother trying to reach the sky and thought about how far we’d come. I wasn’t sure if I could keep my spontaneous promise of us staying together no matter what. In fact, my pessimistic, usually overpowering side said it was unlikely. But I forced myself to silence it, and closed my eyes and let the lazy snowflakes fall on my face.

Even if it was unlikely, I’d definitely do everything I could to keep us all together and safe.

“No… no…”

“Nathaniel…”

“It was all a lie… You… YOU ALL KEEP LYING TO ME!”

“Please, ma’am. Calm down. What is-?”

“IT WAS REAL! YOU CAN’T CLAIM HE WASN’T HERE! THE FAIRIES TOOK HIM!”

“…They took my son…”

Author’s Note: Yeah, this is another sort of set-up chapter. I could have merged this and the previous one together but ehh… I wanted to get something out sooner so the previous interlude-thing was born. So… setting up possible conflicts and other things and desperately trying to make sense of the very random shadow-people comment in the prologue that really went nowhere because I changed my mind about the nature of the story quite a bit in the beginning. That’s what I get for not planning ahead enough!

But let’s talk about something more positive now… uh… I love how cute everyone looks in their winter hats! Yeah! And winter in general looks gorgeous. I could just take endless screenshots of the snowy scenery!

Also, Tuonetar is a death goddess in old Finnish mythology, though not exactly what I described the fair folk’s version of her being like. I figured that since I’ve used gratuitous Finnish to name every fairy in the story, it stands to reason that their gods/spirit guide-creatures also have Finnish names. I apologise for cramming my native culture down your throats… or then I’m not, because I figure I’ve done it mostly tastefully so far. Feel free to complain if it’s too much.

I’ve been having some trouble with loading some of my Fey saves. I think it’s because the saves are getting too big. I’ve been trying to clean them up and so far I’ve managed to at least get them working. Let’s hope I can keep things functional. So far my TS3 has been very kind to me so we can hope it will keep doing that.

I hope you enjoy! I’ll start working on the next chapter as soon as I have time and energy. Right now I’m pretty busy with school and all. Have a lovely time you all!

PREVIOUS Chapter: One And a Half Years

NEXT Chapter: The Princess and the Pixie

Chapter 23: One And a Half Years

Excerpts from Simbook, one year after what the Monsoon-Farley family has dubbed simply “The Incident”:


Lynn Farley
14 July
Finally getting on a plane towards Shang Simla. It’s been way too much waiting.

Margaret Farley
Remember to be careful!

Rem Monsoon
😀 Mum’s thinking you’ll try to bungee jump off the plane.

 Lynn Farley
😛


Lynn Farley
14 July


The accommodations could definitely be worse. It’s really close to the centre, and the building is super cool! Also the picture I took is proof that we survived the flight, with just some numbed muscles and major jet lag.

Jace Herring
The place is awesome. I’m calling the fancy bunk!

Lynn Farley
Jace, I’m right next to you. You can just turn your head and talk to me. 😛


Lynn Farley
15 July


Went for a walk in the centre. It’s really beautiful. Behind Bree and I you can see the Halls of the Lost Army.

Rem Monsoon
Nice! Can you take lots of pictures on pretty scenery? I wanna paint EVERYTHING there.

Margaret Farley
hi lynaöaflk paskxliw llkasöd.

Margaret Farley
Sorry. Merry wanted to say hi too. He can almost type already!

Lynn Farley
Mum, there are such things as delete and backspace…

Bree Vasquez
😀


Lynn Farley
16 July


Got to visit the famous Scholar’s Garden. It really is as peaceful as the websites claim.

Min Han
Not pictured: Michel falling into the pond.

Michel Faroffington
Hey! 😡

 Jace Herring
lol


Lynn Farley
18 July








Okay, here’s some scenery pics. Shang Simla is amazing.

Rem Monsoon
Yay, thanks!


 Lynn Farley
19 July
The time to get back home is getting closer, but there’s still plenty of time to do stuff. Today was a shopping day, but I’m hoping we’ll get to see the terracotta army later.


Lynn Farley
19 July


Aaaw, yeah!

Rem Monsoon
Did they look like they might wanna come to life and attack people?

Lynn Farley
Stop watching so many movies.

Rem Monsoon
Been raiding your bookshelf, actually. 😛

Lynn Farley
As long as you don’t destroy anything…


Lynn Farley
July 20


One of the last times we visited the centre. I’ll be missing this place later.

Min Han
Me too. It’s been amazing.


It really had been.

I sighed wistfully and logged out from Simbook and from my trip down memory lane. It’d been over half a year since we’d visited China. I’d been wanting to get out, to explore the world, and I’d asked my closest friends to go with me. After some planning and meeting up together several times, Jace, Bree, Michel, and Min had all said yes. And then, a year of working between studies and saving up every Simoleon I made had done it. Barely. To be honest, we couldn’t have gone if it hadn’t been for Michel being rich and helping us all. I hadn’t been a fan of the idea of him paying a bit more than the rest of us, but he didn’t seem to mind. Neither had Mrs. Faroffington, who had volunteered as our chaperone and then stayed out of our way as much as she could to have a holiday of her own. We’d had so much fun, and I felt like it had helped my depression more than a year of therapy and pills could. Not that it had magically cured it; it was still there, a blanket on my mind, but not as suffocating as before.

After that, it had been back to the everyday life. But even that hadn’t felt that bad. Things had changed, and I’d say the changes were for the better.

We’d done some renovating in the house, making the cold white walls a bit warmer with some wood panelling and brown paint. Mum and Patrick had loved fixing up the house, and Rem had always been the first to wake up to paint the walls. I’d loved carrying around the new stone tiles that were then put over the kitchen walls, and just helping things come together. Merrill had loved trying to paint everything in sight until we took the paints away from his reach. Oh boy, had he screamed.

Despite his occasional primadonna antics being mostly unchanged, Merrill had grown. He was talking a lot more, and his walking was much better. He could even draw, write some of the alphabets, and do something resembling very basic maths. And when he played his xylophone, it almost seemed like he knew what he was doing. Not that it made the sounds of him violently pummelling the notes out of the xylophone any less cringe-worthy.

Mum had enrolled on an online university course on computing and media to make her blog better. She had even bought a dorky university shirt and liked to walk around in it like she was the queen of the world. She seemed to worry a bit less too. I liked that. And she liked her studies, especially because studying and working mostly from home meant that she could still spend a lot of time with Merrill. She kept talking about how fast he grew, and how soon they’d all miss these days when Merrill was cute and little instead of cute and slightly less little. I suppose that made sense.

Patrick was… well, Patrick. I don’t know if even the apocalypse could change him. He still liked hugging trees and making responsible consumer choices. He spent most of his free time in the garden, until frost attacked it and he had to let it fall dormant for the rest of the year. Then he moved back indoors to be himself. He still loved teaching and kept his mostly calm, warm nature intact even when paying therapy bills and seeing me sit in my room with a blank expression on my face. But now, when I did the blank staring much less, I noticed that he smiled a little more.

Rem was also still his own, kind of childish and definitely creative self. He’d been shaken by everything that had happened, sure, but he seemed to get over it much better this time. I’m sure that seeing his other family helped a lot too. Sometimes Alvar would visit us, and sometimes Rem would take the bus to Twinbrook and then walk beyond that. It made him less confused, at least, and I think he was slowly finding his identity. I’m sure the doubts about him not being Patrick’s kid had kept it on shaky grounds. Sometimes it was weird how having one’s fears confirmed actually made things easier. But only sometimes.

I could say that I was annoyed or embarrassed by my brother’s childish antics whenever he tried to cheer me up or just felt like being an idiot…

…but I had to admit that I’d learned to love that. Probably way before we’d started to become closer as siblings.

I think that one of the best things about facing all that awfulness in the past was that the smaller hurts felt… well, smaller. I could face difficult things with more bravery because I’d already been so scared and broken and yet managed to get over it. Almost.

Maybe that was why I was having a peaceful nostalgia moment instead of worrying about the upcoming spring that would surely be hell for anyone my age who wanted to have a future.

The pushy society dictated that I should already start to worry about graduating high school, even though this was only my second-to-last year. Not to mention how I was about to become eighteen years old. Almost an adult, legally responsible enough to be held fully responsible for screwing up. And Rem was on his way to high school now. I figured I should at some point start to mentally prepare for studying overloads and shattered dreams.

But not right now. Right now I was happy to just look out the window, at the gentle snowfall that had finally covered Sunset Valley after a too-long, dark autumn. The New Year was upon us, and Snowflake Day was already enough in the past for us to have eaten most of the festive food. I felt like I should go for a jog. I’d been eating way too much in the last few days.

I thought about it for a while, and then called Min and asked her if she wanted to challenge her lungs with the frosty air. She said yes, as long as she could first finish the video call she was having with… someone.

I had a feeling I knew who she was calling, even though she didn’t say it. Even I hadn’t missed the looks Min and Jace had given each other when we’d been in Shang Simla. And Bree had been gushing about the two endlessly after the trip. It was oddly cute, I suppose.

I stood up from my chair and didn’t make it far until Rem almost ran into me.

“Hey, Lynn! I was just practising in my room!” he said excitedly, “Look what I can do now!”

He lifted his hands, and light started to form between them. He scrunched up his forehead, and the light turned into a flower.

“See?” he said, “Look how precise my illusions are now!”

I smiled.

“Yeah, it’s awesome.”

Rem beamed back at me.

“Thanks!”

Then he ran downstairs, probably to either paint or to go outside and frolic in the snow. I realised I was still smiling. Yup, things had definitely turned out for the better in the last year and a half.

I tried my best to ignore the feel of a phantom gun in my hand and walked downstairs after my brother.

Author’s Note: Yay for a short interlude-ish thing that probably shows that I don’t use Facebook or the actual Simbook or anything like that… and it also shows my unwillingness to use chatspeak, since all the characters are surprisingly eloquent in their “Simbook-comments”.

For this story I now have a bunch of events that are out of order and kind of disjointed and I’m trying to weave them together into a logical plot-like thing. So I’m not sure how long it’ll take for this arc to really get going, but I’ll do my best to not leave you hanging for too long.

Have a lovely time!

PREVIOUS Chapter: Rebirth

NEXT Chapter: Family Ties

Chapter 22: Rebirth

I didn’t know how long I sat there in the emptiness. All I saw was blackness broken apart by an occasional flash to dead bodies. My breath was coming out in strangled gasps. After I realised I was still clutching the gun in my hands, I threw it away in frantic disgust, but I could still feel the cold metal like a phantom limb.

I faintly sensed someone moving next to me. First it was Rem, who curled up near me. Then it was Alvar, who scrambled to his feet and ran to Villia. Through the slimy darkness that obscured my vision, I saw him shaking her unmoving body and yelling her name in a heartbreakingly young voice. I barely heard through the loud thud-thud-thud of my heartbeat when Laketon of all people called for help on his phone. My hands were still shaking.

I had to…

I…

I k-

No.

Yes…

He would have killed us!

I…

I had to…

“I’m so sorry,” I whispered, my voice shattering and tears I hadn’t noticed before spilling again. My throat was sore from my scream, but I didn’t care. I deserved all the discomfort I felt.

I’m a…

I k-

No!

I didn’t!

I…

I didn’t want to k-

Kill…

Murder.

I’m a murderer.

When that word finally formed in my mind, I felt my world shattering again.

I had killed someone.

I had…

My hands shook so badly that I had to clench them into fists and smash them into the sand to keep them still. I hit the sand again and again until it hurt. Then I stopped and would have screamed again if I had had a voice anymore. I sunk back into the darkness, let it into my mind and my lungs and my heart. Tears splashed on the sand in front of me.

When the sirens invaded my ears, I didn’t feel anything anymore.

I didn’t know what happened after that, other than that we were surrounded by all sorts of emergency personnel, and then later our parents, who had again had to suffer a shock because of us. They fussed around me after Rem had been carted away into an ambulance. I noted all of that through some kind of thick haze. Even the fact that Alvar sat next to me and cried or the shouts of surprised paramedics that discovered Villia’s body that had by then shed its disguise weren’t snapping me out of it. I was empty, or then I was just so full of shock and emotions that they couldn’t get through anymore. The people tried to ask me questions, but some other people ushered the questioning ones away. I didn’t even register who was asking what.

One of the paramedics gave me something. A pill, or maybe something to drink. Maybe both. I couldn’t remember. The blanket of darkness thickened and wrapped around me, turning from cold and suffocating into warm and almost comfortable. It weighed me down into a dreamless sleep.

I struggled awake in a warm bed and looked up at mum and Patrick’s faces. They were so worried and so relieved at the same time. I blinked up at them and managed to pry my dry mouth open:

“I… Did… What-?”

“Oh, thank goodness!” mum breathed, “Are you okay?”

No. I wasn’t. I struggled to sit up. The room was vaguely familiar. Maybe because hospital rooms always looked basically the same.

“Where…?” I trailed off. I didn’t even know what I was asking. Patrick interpreted it pretty well, though.

“Rem’s in surgery right now,” he said, “The doctors are optimistic about it. Still, he…” he swallowed, “He had a bullet in his shoulder…”

I pressed my mouth into a thin line. Mum gave both Patrick and I one-armed hugs.

“Everything’s going to be just fine,” she said quietly.

I buried my head into my hands and burst into tears.

I couldn’t remember what exactly happened. It all was a haze in my head, partly because of the shock and partly because of the medication they had to occasionally give me to calm me down. I remembered people introducing themselves to me, but their names slipped my mind almost as soon as they got there. I remembered people asking Alvar about Villia and about his family, even though Alvar was in a similar state of shock as I was, I think. I saw his blank face and how he curled up in a ball and couldn’t answer most of the questions directed at him. Sometimes I wanted to open my mouth and tell Patrick: “That’s your son! Go to him! Take care of him!” But I couldn’t. Not now. It definitely wasn’t the time nor the place.

I wasn’t sure how long it took for the worst of the chaos to pass. I wasn’t even sure how long Rem was in the operating theatre. It had to be less than what my mind stretched it into. I was in a fog, or in the same darkness I had tried to leave behind years ago.

I didn’t know if I could do that this time.

I was a murderer, after all.

When I managed to surface from the cold, dark thoughts for the first time to at least get some air, I was sitting on a white, modern chair and breathing in the scent of hospital. Mum, Patrick, and I were waiting outside of the room where Rem was slowly waking up in.

“Lynn?” said mum very quietly, “Are you awake?”

I blinked sleepily, realising that my brain was sluggish and relaxed at the moment. I nodded and watched numbly as Merrill played in a kids’ corner across the hall. He didn’t seem to have a care in the world. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Alvar sitting a few doors away from us. His clothes had got soaked with Villia’s blood when he had clung to her, and he was now wearing an old university hoodie and too big jeans from the hospital’s lost-and-found box. He looked so lost that I wanted to hug him. I really hoped someone would come looking for him.

“Lynn?” mum asked again.

“I wish I could be like Merrill,” I answered, although it wasn’t a real answer. I bit my lip, “I’m sorry.”

“You don’t have to be,” said Patrick.

They had told me so many times already that what I’d done had been in self-defence. That all I was going to get for it was some therapy to help me get through it. According to them, Laketon of all people had been quick to tell the police that I was not a murderer. And then he had disappeared from our lives again.

I wondered idly where he was now.

I heard Alvar let out a quiet sob. The fog in me lifted just enough to let my heart ache for him again. Patrick looked at Alvar worriedly.

“Poor kid,” he said, “No one’s been picking him up.”

That’s your son. Go to him.

I stood up and excused myself for a while. I sat next to Alvar. He jumped slightly when he realised I was there.

“Hey,” I said quietly.

Alvar nodded, and then wrung his hands.

“Are you… how are you?” I asked.

“I don’t know,” he said in a monotone, “I… I think they took Aunt Villia away… They shouldn’t see her like that. It’s against the rules.”

The ache in my heart got worse.

“I don’t think that matters right now,” I said.

“It always matters,” Alvar sniffed, “She… I don’t get it! She was always telling us about her adventures and how she got through all the tight spots. And I knew how awesome she was. I just…” his voice broke, “I always thought that she was invincible.”

I thought about her lying on the sand in a pool of blood. It had been so sudden. So… unceremonious that it made me sick. In a way I too had thought of Villia as a mighty force. And she had been that. The Tree Lady. The mystical schemer from the leafy shadows. But now… to be taken out like that… It wasn’t fair. And I couldn’t even imagine how Alvar felt. He’d already lost so much. And on top of that he was sitting right next to his long-lost biological dad and couldn’t even approach him.

“I’m so sorry,” I managed to say. We fell silent. Alvar sniffed a couple of times, and his tears made his eyes shimmer.

“Is… is anyone coming for you?” I asked after a while. Alvar shrugged.

“Aunt Kielo, maybe. I’m sure she’s worried about me, at least.”

He sighed.

“How did it go so wrong?” he asked, and I was sure he was asking that from the universe rather than me. But since universe remained cold and quiet, I answered for it:

“It was bad luck. Terribly, terribly bad luck.”

Alvar nodded.

“Is Rem going to be okay?” he asked.

“I think so.”

Alvar glanced at mum and Patrick again. His eyes lingered on Patrick’s face. His breath hitched, and he shook his head.

“Shit…” he muttered, “This… I don’t know how to deal with this.”

“Neither do I,” I hesitated before adding, “You should talk to him, though.”

“I know. But I… I’ll wait until Rem wakes up.”

I nodded. I saw mum and Patrick look at us worriedly, and stood up. The darkness threatened to push me to the floor.

“Hey,” Alvar said after me, “You’re a hero. Don’t… don’t be too hard on yourself.”

I froze. The darkness wavered, but became suffocating again.

“I… I’m not,” I said, “I’m not… anything.”

I hurried to sit next to mum again. Mum and Patrick looked at me questioningly.

“Have we met him?” Patrick asked, “I mean, it’s of course nice of you to talk to him. But it’s just that he… looks familiar.”

I hesitated before nodding.

“You’ve met him. Don’t be surprised if you don’t remember it properly, though. It was… a long time ago.”

It just made them more confused, but I wasn’t about to say more. We sat in silence, or maybe it was just me who was silent, until we were invited in to see the now awake Rem.

He looked terrible, but at least he was alive. For a while, there were no words. Just us lining up to give him very careful, teary hugs.

The next few days blurred together. I rested a lot, mostly because of the sedatives I’d been given. My waking hours were spent forcing myself to function and getting a lot of hugs that were slowly trying to chip away the blanket of dark around me.

At some point I was taken to a psychiatrist, who had a warmly decorated office and a very naturally friendly smile. I filled some forms and talked about my guilt and about me being a murderer. I don’t remember what I said. All I remember was the feeling of something having got stuck in my brain. Like the gears had slipped out of alignment and were struggling to move. Sometimes it repeated the murderer-mantra on a loop. Sometimes I was so tired I didn’t want to think anymore.

In the end the visits to the therapist did help, a little bit. It was still too early to say anything final about my recovery, but at least the feelings of being stuck let up somewhat already by the third visit. After that the thoughts started flowing again, and there were too many of them.

I cried a lot after that. Again. I cried because of what had happened. I cried for us and for Alvar and Villia. I cried because of secrets and mysteries and deadbeat dads. And then the tears stopped coming for a long while. I was all cried out. Mum was there most of the time, hugging me like I was a little kid – because I was – and I would often hug Merrill, who still probably only had a vague idea of what had happened.

In-between that we visited Rem as much as we could, and when we couldn’t visit him we asked the doctors for some updates on his condition. He was slowly recovering. He was as exhausted and sleepy as I was, and he barely spoke a word even when we were there with him. He looked at me with a very gentle look sometimes, though. As if to say “Stop doing that to yourself.” Alvar visited too sometimes. He looked so lost in his borrowed clothes and with a police officer with him. He was under police protection until someone would pick him up. The police sometimes asked me questions too. I tried to answer in ways that wouldn’t make me break down again.

It was maybe the fourth or the fifth day after the incident when Kielo showed up. She came in with a pair of police officers, who thankfully stayed back and let her bring Alvar to us without asking too many questions.

At first I didn’t recognise her. But then I saw the yellow eyes and the pointy ears and made the connection. She presented herself as Alvar’s aunt named Lilian Fern and wanted to speak to us. Mostly it was just to say: “Thank you.”

When she asked to see Rem, however, Patrick stepped forth.

“I’m sorry, miss,” he said, “But my son’s not feeling very well yet.”

His eyes added: and we don’t know you well enough.

The door to Rem’s room cracked open, however, and Rem peeked through.

“Dad…” he said in a scratchy voice, “They can come in. And… you and mum too.”

He shifted his feet and clung to the door handle.

“I’ve got something I really need to tell you.”

I looked at Rem with raised brows.

“Are you sure you can deal with this now?” I asked.

Rem nodded fiercely.

“It has to be now. Hiding… hiding things has just got us here. I’ll be fine.”

“Rem? What’s going on?” asked mum.

“It’s… it’s fine, mum,” Rem said, “Just… you really need to know this.”

I was left in the hallway with Merrill, then. When Kielo walked into Rem’s room, I noticed the air wavering around her, and I assumed she was doing it so possible outsiders wouldn’t hear what was going to be said in the room.

It didn’t stop people from seeing the doors fly open after half an hour, and Patrick’s quiet, trembling voice ordering Kielo and Alvar out.

Alvar looked blankly at the floor.

“Well, that went about as well as I feared,” managed to say.

Kielo patted him on the shoulder.

“Give him time,” she said, and then she looked up at me and smiled sadly.

“This is really going to take some explaining, isn’t it?” she said. She sighed, “This shouldn’t have gone this way at all…”

“No,” I said, “It shouldn’t have.”

I glanced at Alvar, who looked ready to cry.

“But I’m glad someone came for Alvar.”

Kielo smiled.

“Of course I did! When he didn’t come home, I started looking for him at once.”

She wrapped her arms around Alvar.

“We may be running out of family, but that just means we have to stick together even better.”

“Yeah,” I managed to say through the sorrow that was stuck in my throat, “I’m so sorry about all this.”

“It wasn’t your fault,” Kielo said firmly, “None of it was.”

She had to know about the shooting. I gave her a faint smile. Maybe one day I could believe when people said that.

I wasn’t sure how long Rem, mum, and Patrick spent in the room, talking and explaining and occasionally yelling. It had to be hours. But finally Patrick opened the door again.

This time there were no words anymore. At least not many. Patrick hesitated for a moment, but then his eyes started to shimmer with unshed tears.

“Nathaniel?” he whispered.

Alvar nodded.

“If that’s what you used to call me, then yeah. But… I’m Alvar now.”

Patrick nodded and smiled through his tears.

“Yes. Alvar. Of course.”

Then they hugged. Father and son. For the first time in days I felt something warm in my chest. It was so close to happiness that I felt like we could maybe survive this set of traumas as well.

Together.

In the end, nothing changed.

Well, that wasn’t true. Because almost everything changed. Our perception of the world, to begin with. But in the end, Rem stayed a Monsoon and Alvar stayed an honorary member of the fair folk. What changed on the surface was the link that was probably the first friendly one between humans and the fair folk in centuries.

It was a tentative start, really. I was sure mum and Patrick weren’t yet fully ready to accept the fact that their sons were changelings and that magic and fairies existed. But when a couple of fairies were standing right in front of them, it was pretty hard not to believe it. And I saw some kind of enchantment in their eyes at times. Like they… loved the idea of magic on some yet unrealised level.  They were less thrilled about the being lied to and having a child stolen -side of things. But even with that… it went much smoother than I’d expected. Maybe they figured there had already been enough anger and abuse around us lately.

So they were friendly and ready to listen. And Alvar even got the permission to hold Merrill. He was so amazed, and his large hand curled around Merrill’s small one, and there was maybe a quiet connection between Merrill’s slightly muddled babbling and Alvar’s delighted, one-worded answers.

Even Kielo seemed to be overjoyed, and actually relaxed after that. She somehow managed to wrap all the people in the hospital around her finger during her short stay.

Maybe it was magic, maybe it was her charmingly sarcastic and slightly mischievous personality. Maybe both. All I knew was that the people in the hospital loved her and she made them smile. I think she even affected me a little. Or maybe my head was realising that it really needed some smiles. In the end, Alvar and Kielo left the hospital with a promise to keep contact, and a promise to return once things had calmed down a bit and once it was easier to really talk things through.

I had a feeling that the real reason why they left wasn’t really not wanting to intrude on an already chaotic situation for long. For soon after they had left, Villia’s body disappeared from the hospital’s morgue, and it caused a buzz for about a day until everyone just seemed to forget about her. All that was left were vague images of bodies that weren’t real after all. The only ones who remembered Villia in the hospital after that were Rem and I. Or at least that was what we concluded. Meanwhile, Kielo and Alvar quietly disappeared from Twinbrook as well, possibly walking into the mist of the swamp like a fading dream.

Rem started to recover rather quickly after that. And I kept going to therapy that turned from talks about guilt to talks about the future. I didn’t know what that had to do with the fact that I had just… killed a man… but it made me feel better, at least. I sat on a cream-coloured couch and slowly started to realise how long a journey I had ahead of me. There was a glimpse of the horizon I had always kept in sight and what had recently been obscured by guilt and depression.

The air around me became lighter again, and this time it wasn’t because of fairy magic.

Around the same time when Rem was about to be discharged, the police informed us that the redheaded woman they had arrested on the beach had talked. That they knew which criminal gang she and the other thug worked for. They told us that with the recent events backing them up, they could arrest the higher-ups of the gang in no time. I felt like I was free to breathe again. Like we were all free to breathe.

Rem got properly out of the hospital under police protection about two and a half weeks after the incident. Grandma and Grandpa were waiting for us with pie and some of our old Twinbrook friends. Bree and Jace greeted me with relieved smiles, and we gathered into a group hug. There had been a bit too many hugs in my life lately, but I realised I minded them much less than before.

Jace looked rather embarrassed when he talked to me, though, so I sighed and put my hand on his shoulder.

“Look, Jace,” I said, “I know things went weird between us, but I just shot a guy who tried to kill me and my family, so… let’s agree that an awkward kiss is like nothing and move on.”

Jace burst into a relieved laugh, and Bree beamed at me.

“Well, I’m glad to see you’re taking this all really well.”

She narrowed her eyes after she’d said that, though.

“Well, you aren’t, really. Are you?”

My smile faded.

“I’m getting there,” I said to reassure her. And because I wanted to think that I really was.

We returned to Sunset Valley a couple of days later. Our home was waiting for us, and I realised just now how much I’d missed it. It wasn’t quite the same, of course, but it wasn’t as bad as when we’d gone through trauma before. I knew that we still had to follow the police case of the criminal gang for a while longer, and I knew that I’d still have to go to therapy, but at least it still felt like home.

The rest of the summer went quietly, like it wanted to slip out of our lives as quickly and unnoticed as possible. Given what had happened during it, I couldn’t really blame it.

Towards the end of the summer I received an email that said I’d actually won one of the writing contests I’d spammed my stories with. It was a decent amount of money. A couple of months ago I’d have been ecstatic. Now the darkness that – despite it being less thick than before – had settled in my head just allowed me to smile gently. I saved the money I’d earned and thought about my tattoos. But I also thought about horizons, and an idea tried to break through the darkness. I went to sleep that night with a buzzing in my mind.

“You want to leave,” Rem said one day when we sat on the porch. It had become a good place to talk. It had fresh air and a chance for Rem to trace the smooth, wooden steps with his bare feet.

“What makes you say that?” I asked.

“The fact that you want to. Don’t you?”

I thought about the horizons again.

“Just for a little while,” I said, “And not yet. I mean, I’m only just adjusting to taking the depression meds so I think I’ll wait for the worst to pass.”

“I think it’s a good idea.”

“Mm-hmm. I was thinking of saving up some more money and asking some of my friends if they’d want to travel abroad with me. I’ll be going to university or wherever I’m going in just a couple of years. This could be my last chance to actually see the world without too many other things messing it up.”

Rem nodded.

“Before this we were too afraid to go.”

“Yeah.”

Rem studied his hands.

“I was thinking of visiting Alvar and the others soon. I promised, after all. And I really want to learn to use my magic properly. Do you want to come with me?”

“I don’t think mum and dad will let you go yet. Twinbrook’s police is still hunting those criminals.”

Rem nodded quietly and then smiled at the slowly setting sun. It made his hair look like it was catching fire.

“Well, there’s still plenty of time.”

“Yeah,” I said, “Who knows what will happen.”

Who indeed? We sat in a comfortable silence, brother and sister. Because for the first time ever, there was nothing so-called about our bond as siblings.

I had to admit that I liked that.

The horizon turned pink, and I knew that soon it would be red like a phoenix rising from the ashes. Full of promise and mystery and hope. I smiled through the shadows.

“In the end, I think we’ll be alright,” Rem said as if he was reading my thoughts.

“Yeah,” I said, “In the end.”

The sun seemed to agree, or then it was just my imagination. Probably the imagination.

“Are you sure you want to do this, Alvar?”

“…Yes. I’m sure.”

“Alright. Then… I’ll be right behind you.”

“I know.”

“Hello?”

“Hello, I’m sorry to bother you, but are you Donna Brooke?”

“Yes, I am, who… oh my gods!”

“Nathaniel?”

“You… you recognise me?”

“I… of course I do! You’re my son!”

“I’ve… I’ve missed you so much!”

“Mother… I’m sorry.”

“Shhh… It wasn’t your fault! You were just a baby. Those… howwhere have you been?”

“Um…”

“Go on, Alvar, that’s why we’re here, right? Closure.”

“Okay… well, it’s a bit of a long story…”

“Well, that didn’t go nearly as well as with father.”

“I was afraid this would happen. Villia told me that your mother was very obsessed with your loss.”

“I wish we didn’t have to… do all that, though.”

“I hoped so too. But… she… I hoped we could have trusted both of your parents with the truth. Don’t worry. She’ll wake up with no memory of this.”

“I guess… Sorry, mother.”

“Hey, cheer up! At least you have a dad now! And us! We’ll be perfectly okay.”

“Yeah. It’s better to be safe than… pursued by a grieving mother, I guess.”

“Exactly. Now, come on. Let’s go. I really want to get the hang of this cell phone -thing!”

“…Nathaniel…”

Author’s Note: Well, this is what I call the end of the first long story arc. Yay! It just took a bit over a year and over 100 000 words. 😀 But this is not the end of the story. I still have another story arc planned, and I have to tie together those subplots, like Lynn’s work as Sabine’s gardener and stuff. Also I think I should do something about Donna and the fair folk and… yeah, things will still happen. The arc I’ve planned should follow Lynn and Rem to adulthood, or at least young adulthood, but I’m not sure what I’ll do after that. I guess we’ll have to wait and see.

Thank you all who have stopped by to read, like, comment, or even just given this a passing glance. I really appreciate your support, and you guys are awesome!

Have a lovely time, and I’ll see you after a little break that I’ll take now because I need to plan the next story arc a bit better before I continue. In the meantime, stop by on my other story if you feel like it. I seem to have too many ideas for that too.

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Chapter 21: Recoil

WARNING: This chapter contains violence, guns, and some pixel blood.

My thoughts had got stuck in a huge, tangled knot. Laketon’s cold, light blue eyes burned through my head even though he wasn’t even looking at me. Images of fire and fear went through my head in an endless loop. Next to me, Rem was frozen, and Alvar just looked at us in utter confusion. I faintly noticed that Villia moved to stand in front of us. The air became lighter, and I saw that it started to waver around us. I managed to tear my eyes from my father and looked at Rem questioningly, but he just nodded towards Villia.

“She hid us,” Alvar whispered, “That man shouldn’t be able to realise we’re here.”

I blinked. In a way I was glad that I was probably shielded from my awful dad, but in some other, strange way that I couldn’t fully explain, I wanted him to see me. I wanted to yell at him for hurting our family. But he was much more frightening than Villia, who hadn’t really existed in my mind until pretty recently. Laketon had for so long been very, very real.

But now, his full attention was on Villia, who cocked her head and kept her cool.

“Hello, Laketon,” she said, “Fancy meeting you here.”

Laketon sputtered as if her cold but courteous response was the worst insult in the world. His hands clenched into fists, and he took a very threatening step forward.

Fancy?!” he roared, “Yeah, fancy that! I sat in a cell overnight for no reason because people thought I’d been after those fucking Farley brats again! You ruined my life once already, and now you show up here!”

Villia sighed. The air around us wavered barely noticeably, but it held together. If I hadn’t been so apprehensive about Laketon standing there, I would have been more intrigued by the experience of being inside an illusion. Now I mostly just hoped it really worked. It was clear that Villia’s illusions were much more sophisticated than Rem’s wild and in-your-face ones, at least. So maybe they were also more convincing.

“Well, I’m sorry,” Villia said without sounding very sincere, “Yeah, I lied to you, but you were the one who really screwed it up. And right now I don’t have time for this.”

She turned to leave, but Laketon actually grabbed her shoulder and spun her around. Now I noticed something else in his eyes. Desperation?

“Well, neither do I!” he snapped, “You know why? Because I really needed that money! I’ve got debts I really need to pay!”

Villia pushed Laketon’s hand from her shoulder.

“Look, Laketon. I don’t have any money. Like I said, I’m sorry, but I can’t help you.”

Laketon gritted his teeth. He raised his hand as if to hit Villia, but then he lowered it, and something broke behind his eyes.

“I… I’ve got to get that money!” he stuttered, “If I don’t… Mr. Harris will…” he trailed off, apparently shocked that he’d said too much.

Villia shook her head.

“I really can’t help you.”

Laketon opened his mouth, but then he looked around and his eyes fell on something in the community gardens.

“Shit,” he whispered.

The man who had been loitering in the garden had at some point climbed over the fence and was now standing calmly in front of us. He had a shaved head and a very unnervingly calm look in his eyes. Laketon’s eyes widened so much that they looked more like marbles than eyeballs. I felt a shiver going down my spine. Rem suddenly gripped my arm.

“He’s a bad person,” he whispered.

“No shit,” I managed back.

“He’s worse than…”, Rem’s eyes widened at nothingness, “Laketon’s not the Boogeyman this time.”

The man looked towards us, but didn’t seem to see us. So Villia’s illusion really worked. Hopefully.

“Hello, fancy meeting you here,” he echoed Villia’s words in a much more unpleasant tone, “Laketon. And your… friend here? Is she the one who was supposed to get you the money? It sure sounded like it.”

“She was,” Laketon said, his voice quiet and completely terrified.

“And she totally fooled you,” the man chuckled, “And now you went and told her about Mr. Harris. He’s already been impatient with you, and now you’re really becoming a liability.”

Villia narrowed her eyes.

“Well, you certainly keep good company,” she deadpanned and glanced at Laketon, “I assume this man was waiting for you here all along. Isn’t it in rather poor taste to have shady meetings in the community gardens?”

Laketon shook his head, but the man silenced any words he was about to say with one cold look.

“We were told to keep an eye on you once you were called to Twinbrook. The last time you were here, you got yourself stuck in prison for years, with no way to pay your money back. And you know you’re running out of time. Mr. Harris really wants his money.”

“I’ll get it, I swear!” Laketon said hastily, “Just… give me a chance!”

“You already had it. Way too many times,” the man said, “And we’ve always stressed that this should be kept under the wraps. You certainly blew that this time.”

“I thought she was going to pay-!”

“Give it a rest, Laketon,” Villia said, her eyes hardened into shards of emerald ice, like she had finally really understood the seriousness of the situation, “There’s no way you can talk your way out of this.”

She closed her eyes for a second.

“I think we’ve both screwed up big time.”

The man didn’t speak anymore. He pulled out a flash of metal, but Villia’s eyes snapped open, and she struck with dizzying speed before he could do more.

The man lost his balance, and Villia continued with a knee to his stomach. Then she turned and swept the air with her hand. The man let out a startled scream.

“Go!” she shouted, and I knew the order was meant for us.

I knew I was in some kind of shock, but I managed to turn around and push Rem into moving. The air rippled around us like water, and the illusion dissolved when we started running. Alvar followed us, still looking totally confused. I heard Laketon shout out a startled:

“What the hell?” and I wasn’t sure if it was because he’d seen us or because of Villia’s sudden burst of ninja skills.

We all ran towards the police station as if out of some silent agreement. That included Laketon, whom I saw following us with some kind of wild fear in his eyes. The quiet streets of the too-early morning felt far too long now when one was running away from a clearly murderous criminal. The part of my mind that wasn’t in fight-or-flight – or more like flight-or-flight – mode tried to understand how in the hell this morning had gone downhill so badly. Weren’t people supposed to have some sort of breaks before the next intense thing? Well, no, of course not, my now rather shoddily functioning rational side said. Life didn’t work that way.

My lungs were hurting, but now all I cared about was the relative safety of the police station and the fact that Rem, Alvar, and Villia were still with me. I quickened my steps even further, so glad that I’d spent so many hours jogging for fun. The police station was close to the gardens, but it wasn’t close enough when Laketon suddenly hit his personal brakes and said:

“Wait!”

I didn’t want to wait, but the distress in his voice made me reconsider.

“What’s going on?” Villia asked impatiently. Laketon pointed at the nearby diner and more specifically, a woman who was sitting at the table there.

“That’s got to be one of them.”

“Oh, come on!” Villia snapped, “This has to be a small-time criminal gang at worst, right? They don’t have big-scale operations for insignificant debts!”

“I’m not gonna risk it! I know she looks familiar! Feel free to go past her if you want, but I’m not gonna.”

“We have to keep moving,” said Rem, “Just… we need to get the police. Now.”

“Nobody asked you, mutant brat!” Laketon hissed, “Why are you people even here?!”

I risked a look at the woman at the table. She didn’t seem to have noticed us yet. She had bright red hair and an equally red biker jacket. Her cell phone rang, and she started to dig it out to answer it. Villia sighed.

“Alright,” she said, “We’ll go around.”

At once, Laketon started running to the way that would take him farther from the woman. Which meant he was going towards the beach. I followed, and the rest caught up with us a bit later.

For a second it was just me and my estranged father who didn’t deserve to be called a father. It was a chilling moment. I slowed down my steps just a bit.

“This is a small-time gang, right?” Villia whispered when she caught up with Laketon. For the first time there was slight uncertainty in her voice.

“It’s not a big one, but it’s big enough so that they can take care of mysterious deaths,” Laketon replied, too scared to realise who he was speaking with and how much he hated the company he currently kept.

Villia bit her lip. I wondered why she wouldn’t just hide us, but I supposed it had something to do with the fact that Laketon was with us. He probably wouldn’t take having spells cast on him very well especially after they’d got him in this mess in the first place. Well, no, that wasn’t true. He’d got himself into the mess on his own first.

We reached the beach. During daytime it was full of people, especially around summertime. I remembered our trips there, and the talks about Krakens and thoughts about horizons. Then it was all washed away by the emptiness and fear and by Villia’s shout not to linger there.

“This is way too much in the open,” she said, “We have to get into better cover and to a place with more people!”

“I can see you’re an expert on this,” Laketon managed to snark, and for a moment I felt a strange sliver of kinship with him.

Villia didn’t answer. We headed towards the staircase that led back to the street. The sand was too light and soft under my shoes. My feet kept slipping, but I kept my pace steady. We were already relatively close to the police station. To safety.

We’ll make it.

It’s not that bad.

She didn’t even notice us.

We’ll make it.

We’ll-

Alvar shouted, and I heard a thud. Then there was a loud bang in the air. I let out a yelp and saw Villia stopping and turning around. All of my instincts told me to keep going, but then I realised that Rem and Alvar weren’t with us anymore.

I turned and saw them both on the ground, with Rem’s shoulder staining red with blood.

My own blood froze, and I could barely see the man Villia had downed moments ago standing farther away, with a gun pointed right at us.

Villia cursed unintelligibly again, and moved her hands so quickly I just saw flashes.

“Oh, screw the masquerade,” she muttered, “We’ll so mind-wipe them later!”

The gunman shouted in surprise, and Villia was moving so quickly I could barely see it.

“Keep moving!” she shouted over her shoulder right before she reached the man and kicked him in the stomach with a kick my Sim Fu teacher would have called very sloppy. It was enough to work, however, and Villia continued by grabbing the man’s gun-hand and wrenching it into a very painful looking angle.

I tore my eyes from the mesmerizingly frightening sight of Villia fighting a gunman, and rushed to Rem and Alvar’s side. My knees hit the sand, and I grabbed Rem’s good shoulder.

“Are you okay?” I asked, “Okay, stupid question, but whatever. Can you stand? Crawl? We’ve got to keep moving!”

“He should be fine,” Alvar said in a shaky voice, “I’m sorry I couldn’t push him out of the way faster.”

Rem’s mouth was moving, but no words came out. His thick sweater was absorbing most of the blood, and I could only hope it also slowed down his bleeding in general at least a little bit. I shook him carefully.

“Come on!” I whispered. Next to me, Alvar got to his hands and knees, but froze when another gunshot hit the ground and sent a burst of sand towards us. This time it came from the opposite direction than where the gunman was. I couldn’t help another small scream leaving my throat.

I instinctively hugged Rem, shielding him and cursing myself for being so helpless. A few martial arts lessons meant nothing when faced with guns. Hell, thousands of martial arts lessons would most likely be useless now.

I dared to peek behind me and saw the red-headed woman near the stairs, blocking our other escape route. She too had a gun, but her face had frustrated confusion on it.

“Come on, I know you’re here,” she said, “Where are you?”

I blinked. We were right there, in the open. My morbid side told me that we should be dead by now. Then I noticed the waver in the air.

“Villia’s hiding us again,” Alvar whispered, “But we have to move. She can’t focus on this too much when she’s fighting that… other guy.”

I nodded and tried to get my legs to move. But I was frozen, not trusting the air to hide us. Especially when Laketon was standing in front of us with shaking legs, breathing such panicked, loud breaths that I swore they could have been heard from space.

The woman approached us, her gun trained in our general direction, but she didn’t fire it.

“Where are you?” she yelled, “Don’t think I didn’t see you run here! You haven’t had enough time to get away!”

On the other side of the beach, Villia punched the man so hard he fell, and she immediately jumped on top of him and latched onto his throat.

The woman’s head snapped up at the man’s strangled cry, and she started walking towards the fight.

“Oh, no you don’t, bitch,” she muttered, and there was something very unhinged in her eyes. Then she was only a couple of feet from Laketon, and her eyes focused. Alvar drew in a hissing, panicked breath.

“She’s seeing through it!” he whispered, “Rem… now would be a good time to help Villia with distracting those guys…”

In my arms, Rem nodded, or maybe he just twitched.

“I… I’ll try,” he said in a barely audible voice, “But I… I’m not good at controlling it…”

“I don’t care, just do something!” Alvar snapped.

The woman’s blood red lips twisted into a smile.

“There you are, Laketon”, she said, and aimed her handgun right at Laketon’s chest, “I don’t know how you hid from us, but it’s over now.”

She glanced at us.

“Oh, and so many eyewitnesses,” she sighed, “And this was supposed to be such a smooth taking-out-the-trash -kind of thing.”

Rem closed his eyes, and I saw a spark of a flame out of the corner of my eye. The woman turned to look at the spark for a split-second, which was all it took for Alvar to jump at her like a cornered mongoose. His elbow smashed against her chin, and when her gun left Laketon’s chest, even my no-good deadbeat dad’s survival instincts activated, and he joined the wild teenager in restraining the woman.

We’ll make it.

We’ll make it.

“It’s okay,” I said out loud, “They got her, Rem.”

Rem didn’t look up. His shoulder was worryingly red. The woman hit the ground, and Laketon twisted her arm behind her back. Alvar pushed her gun away from her.

We’ll make it…

*BANG*

*BANG*

I almost choked on my own breath. I didn’t know where the first shot hit, but the second one almost got me in the leg. Rem yelped when I moved, and he tried to drag himself away from the bullets. It had to be the gunman. But hadn’t Villia-

The thought was too terrible to finish.

But when I looked at the man who now knelt next to Villia’s unmoving, bloodied form, I had to finish the thought anyway.

For several seconds, I couldn’t breathe.

“No…” Alvar whispered.

The man wasn’t talking. He was aiming, and his eyes told me that he wasn’t going to miss next time.

Rem drew in a deep breath, and screwed his eyes shut again.

Plants shot out of the sand all around us. Trees, flowers, bushes, weeds… all familiar from both Rem’s dreams and previous illusions, and from the real fairy forests. Laketon yelped, and I heard the woman grunt when he smashed her head against the sand. The gunman gasped, but then he spoke, his voice annoyed more than anything:

“I really don’t know what this voodoo’s supposed to be, but you’re just delaying the inevitable. You should have just paid that money, Laketon!”

I scurried backwards, further into the fake bushes, until my hand hit something cold. A shot rang out, and I forced myself to stay quiet. We couldn’t stay here. Magic trees or no, we had to move. But the second we ran, he’d see us, unless Rem could somehow extend the forest everywhere around us to confuse him. One look at him told me that he couldn’t do that. He was barely conscious. Another bullet flew over my head, and Alvar ducked under it with panic in his eyes.

My hand curled around what was behind me.

“There’s no escape,” the man said, “Just give up now, and maybe I’ll let the kids go!”

Like hell you would.

That was my last coherent thought before the next shots rang out.

I didn’t even hear them. But I heard Rem’s shocked yelp, and felt rather than saw the forest around us dissipate when Rem didn’t have the strength to hold it up anymore.

All I really saw was the plants giving way to the shocked face of the gunman when three dots of red blossomed in his chest and he doubled over before he collapsed on the sand.

He didn’t get up.

I stared at the woman’s gun that was clutched tightly in my hands. It was now lighter, blindly emptied towards the threat. My hands were still shaking from the recoil.

The realisation of what I’d just done made my heart stop. Emptiness flooded my lungs and my stomach, and darkness overtook my vision.

I screamed.

Author’s Note: Well, that just happened. And at least I got this one out quickly. I’ll get to working on the next chapter after a little break. Pay no attention to the sky that changes from morning-ish to night and back. Doing photoshoots during in-game nightfalls/dawns are the worst.

You guys are awesome! Thanks for your support!

PREVIOUS Chapter: Return

NEXT Chapter: Rebirth

Chapter 20: Return

Villia seemed to be in a rather optimistic mood when she led us through the thicket of fairytale plants and real-life weeds. She seemed to think that talking to this matriarch could clear up all possible problems. Or then she was just glad to be back home. It was clear that she spent quite a lot of time among us humans, after all. She kept proudly pointing out little details around us, like the fairy lights – and I had actually been smart for not following them – and what looked like a maypole.

When we got past the thicket and to another larger clearing, Villia gave the scenery a very content smile.

“Well, what do you think?” she asked, “It’s beautiful, isn’t it?”

I had to admit that yes, it was. There were more tree trunk houses and more spirally trees around us. But there was also a larger building that looked like a mix of a small castle and a gazebo. Villia started walking towards it, and Rem and I followed with much less confident steps. Rem kept looking around in amazement, but he cringed when he met the eyes of some passers-by that stared at him rather angrily.

I wondered what their problem was.

At the entrance to the gazebo-castle stood a white-haired woman, who had to be Kuura and Halla’s mother. Lumi? Yeah, that was her name. Villia walked up to her and started talking. Lumi seemed to be rather apprehensive about all this. They talked in hushed voices, but I could make out phrases like “against the rules”, “very questionable”, and “are you sure you know what you’re doing?”. That didn’t really make me feel very confident. Not that I’d been bursting with confidence before this either. I glanced at Rem again, but he kept his eyes directed at his feet.

Finally Lumi led us inside the gazebo-castle without speaking more than a short, clipped greeting at us. Inside there were stone benches that Villia motioned us to sit on. There was also a simple throne – really, the only way I could tell it was a throne was that it was placed like one – and a statuesque woman who sat on it.

Her eyes were as green as Villia’s, and she was dressed like a proper fairy queen – and that’s what she was, kind of. I felt a pang of envy when I looked at her gorgeous, long red hair. After some patient growing I had come to the conclusion that my hair would never reach past my shoulders again. It was probably because of the fire. I tried to comfort myself with the thought that The Matriarch’s hair could have been an illusion. These people were a bunch of fakes in many ways, after all.

Rem and I sat on the benches – they were much more comfortable than I would have guessed by their appearance – and Villia stood in front of us. She gave a light bow of the head to The Matriarch.

“Honoured Matriarch Milia,” she said formally, “I have finally brought the changeling home.”

The Matriarch nodded.

“Greetings, Villia,” she said, her voice melodious like a pan flute, “You may sit. We have a lot to discuss.”

Villia sat next to me, probably so The Matriarch and Lumi would have a clear view to scrutinise Rem, who looked both impatient and uncomfortable under their gazes.

Finally The Matriarch spoke again:

“I’ve heard that you have been getting reacquainted with your family.”

“Yes, ma’am,” Rem said shyly, “I… it has been good to know. To have answers.”

“Of course. And are you happy here?”

Rem nodded.

“It feels like home, in a way. I’d love to get to know it better.”

“And that you shall,” said The Matriarch, “If you decide to stay, that is.”

Rem blinked. I realised my shoulders were tensing. My Sim Fu teacher, Mr. Nyqvist had always told me not to tense my shoulders. Right now I couldn’t care less about that. The Matriarch smiled her gentle yet somehow too-friendly-to-be-true smile.

“I know this has to be a lot to handle, even after having some time to think about things. But I will be direct, seeing how we haven’t been that with you very much. We want you to return here. Home. You are one of us, despite growing up apart.”

“And despite bringing an outsider here,” Lumi said, her freezing eyes narrowing, “Matriarch, are you sure it’s safe to let her walk around here? Shouldn’t we at least wipe her memory of this little trip?”

“What?” I blurted out.

Villia frowned.

“We are not drugging anyone or fiddling with their memories! We’ve made a mistake, and we have to face the consequences!”

“I heard Kaita doesn’t even want to stay!” Lumi argued “I’d say even he should forget, then! He has already talked to Alvar and tried to convince him to return! What then? His birth parents will no doubt demand him back, or react negatively, or at the very least want to know where he has been! It’s too dangerous to let humans know about us!”

“Lumi, calm down,” said the Matriarch, “We’ll discuss this matter later.”

“No, wait a minute!” I said before I could stop myself, “Go back to the drugs and mind wipes! You’re not really planning on doing that, are you?”

“Of course they aren’t,” Villia said, her voice tense as a bowstring, “Lumi is just being her overly worrying self.”

Someone has to be!” Lumi snapped.

“I should point out,” The Matriarch said slowly and clearly, “That young Rem here hasn’t even given us his answer yet.”

They all turned to stare at Rem again. I did too, even though I noticed that all the stares were making my brother nervous. I noticed I was stressing the brother in my head a bit too much. Was I really worried he’d decide that he wanted to stay? I mean, of course he wouldn’t. Right? I really, really didn’t want to think about how our family would break again if he did. And how I would have to somehow explain it to mum and Patrick.

“I like this place,” Rem said after an agonisingly long silence, “And I’m glad to know where I came from… even though it’s all filled up with sadness and lies.”

He bit his lip.

“But I think you all know I can’t stay here just like that. I have a home, and a family. Just like Alvar does.”

I let out a breath I’d apparently been holding. The Matriarch’s shoulders slumped. I almost scoffed. I mean, what had they been thinking? That Rem would just jump at the chance to abandon the people who’d raised him? Please, Rem wasn’t quite that fickle.

“I feared you would say that,” The Matriarch said, “We are really in need of a new clairvoyant, and according to Villia’s reports you have shown much potential for that. And then there is the matter of both our laws and the safety of you and the people around you. You have noticed your powers are more unpredictable than before, yes?”

Rem nodded reluctantly.

“We could help you with that,” The Matriarch smiled again, “It’s a part of growing up for all of us. You don’t have to be lost anymore.”

Rem fidgeted in his seat. I tried to make eye contact with him and maybe give him a questioning look, but he kept staring at The Matriarch, his face such a mess of emotions that it was totally unreadable to me.

“I… I would like to get help with all that,” he finally said, “And I’d like to help you too. But you have to understand that… our parents are probably already super worried about us, and we should leave.”

“If you wish, we can make sure they won’t think about you,” The Matriarch said. She smiled at Rem’s mortified expression, “But I can see that you don’t. It is a rather difficult and questionable procedure.”

“It definitely wouldn’t be right,” Rem said firmly, “Besides, I want to go home. I… I could visit you if you wanted, though. Would that be okay?”

“Of course,” the Matriarch said.

“Milia, you can’t be serious!” said Lumi, “We can’t just let them walk away! How can we trust them not to spill everything about our village?”

“You brought us here,” said Rem, suddenly so defiant and different from the previous him that I almost thought for a second he’d been replaced with an alien twin, “You all did… by believing my mum. And then by not being clear with us. If you would have just talked properly to begin with, things might have been different.”

“Exactly,” Villia said, “And since it was mostly my fault, I’ll take responsibility for everything that might go wrong.”

“Blaming someone when we get discovered and possibly killed – or worse – isn’t going to help much,” Lumi muttered, but then she sighed, “Fine. But we can’t just leave this be. Kaita… I mean Rem must be taught control if he wants to stay safe.”

“I know,” the Matriarch said, “That’s why I’m proposing a compromise: you can go, but you must keep this a secret. You can only tell your… family, and no one else. And I also propose that you visit us again once you have sorted things out among… humans. You don’t have to stay if you don’t want to. But we do hope that you could keep a link open to us.”

I frowned. That was oddly generous of people who had just talked about mind wipes. I honestly couldn’t tell if the Matriarch was being sincere or if there was something else behind it.

Rem was smiling, and his eyes shone with familiar excitement.

“That… that sounds great!” he said, “It’s like… everything would work out that way.”

“It requires work, of course. Your home is quite a long way away from here. But with your transportation system it doesn’t take that long.”

“Milia, are you sure this is wise?” Lumi asked without much enthusiasm.

“Yes. I am. We have already caused enough damage.”

“Let me at least teach the boy the very basics of controlling magic surges before they go.”

“Of course,” the Matriarch nodded, and then smiled again, “It would be great if you could stay for a couple of more hours. Lumi can help Rem, we can all eat something, and Villia can then guide you back.”

“And no mind wipes?” I asked cautiously.

The Matriarch’s smile widened.

“No mind wipes. I promise.”

Rem finally looked at me. His smile was from ear to ear.

“Isn’t this awesome?” he asked.

I could only nod.

It turned out that some of the fairies had been cooking like crazy while we’d been talking. There was a banquet waiting for us, like straight from some stories that always ended badly for anyone who tried to eat from the fairy buffets. But we were invited, so it should be okay, right? I hoped so. I was starving.

Even the Matriarch joined us for dinner, and we dug in to the wild vegetable salad and what looked like roasted fowl. We chatted, or more like the fairies chatted. Rem and I mostly focused on eating and occasionally looking at each other as if to make sure we were both still in the same state of reality. Rem smiled at me reassuringly, and I smiled back. I think I was finally starting to accept that yes, this was indeed happening.

The food was delicious, and definitely called for. The paleo-picnic felt like it had happened ages ago. I tried my best to just focus on eating and forget about all the apprehension and worries that my surroundings and the thoughts about the future gave me.

I couldn’t stop thinking about my wish that everything would be the same once we returned, though. It didn’t take any clairvoyant powers to know that no, it wouldn’t be the same.

After the dinner I was basically forgotten for a moment again when Rem was led to the shore of the river.

I’m not sure what exactly Lumi did, but it was apparently some kind of ritual most of the fair folk took part in sometime during their teens. While that was going on, the other fair folk busied themselves with what I presumed was their normal evening activities. Kuura and Halla wanted to play with either Villia or I, but were instead ushered out of the “grown-ups’” way. They ended up disappearing into the bushes with a black-haired girl who was apparently named Marras.

So I was left alone in the unfamiliar world again. I leaned against a giant mushroom and waited. As I stood there and watched the evening chores of the fair folk, I started to feel like the village was slowly becoming less unreal. The flowers weren’t quite as bright in the darkening evening, and I was getting used to the faintly glowing, curly trees. Even the occasional, mystical lights didn’t feel so surreal anymore.

“Hey,” said a voice that made me jump.

I spun around and saw Alvar standing behind me. Damn it, why were these barefooted people so sneaky?

“Hey,” I said warily. Alvar smiled uncertainly. He looked almost sheepish when he extended his hand.

“Um… so, it’s nice to meet you. Properly.”

I gave him a tight-lipped smile and shook his hand. Alvar glanced towards the shore of the river, which was barely visible through the flower bush thicket.

“So your brother’s getting his first ritual, huh?” he said, “It’s usually done around the twelfth year, so it’s a bit late.”

“Really,” I said. It wasn’t a question, but just something to keep the silence filled.

“Uh-huh. So hey, can I ask you… stuff?”

“Sure, go ahead.”

Alvar shifted his weight from side to side. Like a very nervous, broken metronome.

“So I’m actually your… brother, right?” he finally asked.

“Stepbrother,” I corrected, “Not blood-related. Your dad and mum both have more kids, though. They’re not together anymore.”

“Right. I did know something about them being separated… So, how’re my parents like? Rem told me something, but it was… I didn’t want to ask too much. It’s much less awkward to talk to you, somehow.”

“Really? Usually I’m the more awkward one of us.”

Alvar chuckled. I managed a slightly more believable smile than before.

“Well, alright” I said, “I’ve only met your real mum once, though. She obviously cared a hell of a lot about you. Your dad’s a teacher, and he’s really into helping the environment and stuff. He’s really nice. He doesn’t want to talk about his ex-wife. But he loves my mum now. And he loves Rem and me and our little brother, Merrill.”

I paused, hesitating for a moment before adding:

“And I’m sure he’d love you too.”

Alvar was quiet for a long time. He chewed his lip, and I only now properly noted the scar near his eye.

“Where did you get that scar, if you don’t mind me asking?” I asked when the silence got awkward again.

Alvar touched the scar automatically.

“I was dumb,” he said, and actually laughed a little, “I was playing in the forest and saw some people… humans, you know? I went to investigate, and they noticed me. I was ten or something. They thought I was lost and wanted to take me to civilisation. I panicked because I’d been told that I should never talk to humans without supervision. That they should never find us. I ran, and I was so scared that I ran right into a tree. Almost got my eye gouged out. Mother was so worried, but Lumi healed me right up. Well, except for the obvious.”

“Oh.”

“So what about you? I can see some scarring on your face too.”

I bit my lip. I smoothed my hair to cover my scars even better.

“Alright… I guess it’s only fair,” I said, “There was a fire, and Rem got trapped. I pulled him out but got burned instead.”

“Wow. So you’re a hero.”

“Not really. I was just a stupid, reckless girl who didn’t want to lose a brother.”

I crossed my arms.

“We’ve never been the closest of siblings,” I said, “But we’re getting there, and we’ve always cared about each other. I’m not going to lose him to you people either.”

I cringed at how callous my words sounded.

“No offence,” I added quickly, “It’s just… these people have been trying to get him back for years. Now they have him. I can’t help but think that… they won’t settle for actually letting him go just like that.”

“Yeah. I know.”

Alvar was quiet again. He had the same, pondering look Patrick often got before he was about to hand out some advice.

“I don’t think they’re going to force him or anything,” he said, “Villia’s been really strict about that ever since she… since things went wrong in your town. That whole mess really hit her hard. And I’m sure Aunt Kielo would be furious if they did anything to hurt either of you. She’s always been the most pro-human person I know.”

He sighed.

“At least Aunt Kielo just wants our family to scrape together what we can, and move on. The rest… I’m not sure.”

“The Matriarch said we could go if we wanted,” I said, “But she wanted Rem to come back.”

Alvar nodded.

“Makes sense. The higher ups really want Rem to stay, so I’m sure they’ll be nice to him in hopes that he wants to do just that. The clairvoyant is an important part of both tradition and our safety. They’ve always helped us hide and stay protected.”

“Why do you want to hide so badly anyway?” I asked.

“All I can tell what I’ve been told,” Alvar shrugged, “Long ago the fair folk didn’t really get along with humans, and their ancestors thought it best to break away from them. I think it had something to do with war and them taking the fair folk’s land and all. You know, what the stories usually say. Aunt Kielo has been insisting that we should at least try to bridge the gap between us and humans again. But… well, she’s told me that by now it has become more of a question of pride than anything else. When things get that far, it can be increasingly difficult to change.”

“Yeah. I guess you’re right,” I mused.

“I wished it wasn’t like that,” Alvar said, “I mean, I don’t think I’ve questioned it before all that much, but now… after everything I knew was turned upside down… I really wish I could just go and see what my real parents are like.”

I looked at Alvar for a long, conflicted moment. Then I smiled at him.

“Well, I can certainly relate to that… bro.”

“Bro?” Alvar frowned, “That sounds odd.”

“Yeah. You’re right. I guess I’ll just stick with ‘Alvar’.”

“That’s okay… uh, Lynn, was it?”

“Yeah.”

“It was nice to meet you.”

“You too. Even if it involved all of… this.”

“I get it,” Alvar laughed, “This has all been pretty rough.”

“Tell me about it.”

When Rem finally returned, he seemed just the same as he had been before. When I asked him if he felt any different, he just shrugged with an unsure expression on his face. The others assured us that it wasn’t anything that was easy to notice, and I asked if we could finally go back. As if on cue, Villia appeared from among the trees, wearing clothing that wouldn’t look out of place among humans, and smiled. It was only mildly creepy.

“Yes. I think it’s time for you to really leave. Lumi made me promise that I make sure you keep your end of the bargain, though.”

“Don’t worry,” Rem said brightly and looked only a little bit nervous at the mention of the stern, sceptical woman with chilling eyes, “I promise I’ll come back when I can.”

When Villia began leading us out of the glade and towards the edge of the village, Alvar followed us. He chatted innocently and brightly, asking questions about our lives and wishing us a good journey back. I could see a hint of something in his eyes, though. He had almost the same look as I probably did when I set my mind on something. Once we had got past the village’s borders and the still rather frowny Myrsky, Villia stopped and turned to Alvar.

“Okay, Alvar, it’s time for you to turn back,” she said, “I’ll take it from here.”

Alvar hesitated and glanced around as if to see if Myrsky or some other guard was within earshot. Then his eyes got steely. Now he reminded me a lot of Donna and her intimidating anger.

“Don’t I deserve some better answers too?” he asked.

Villia massaged her temples.

“Alvar, you know the rules, and you know your mother-“

“Mother lied to me!” Alvar snapped, “Don’t get me wrong; I love her! But I too want to know what’s really going on!”

He pressed his palms together in some kind of parody of a prayer.

“Please, I don’t need to necessarily talk to them, if that’s too bad. I just want to see…”

He trailed off. Now Villia was pinching the bridge of her nose.

“Oh, I’m going to get so much crap for this… Fine! You know, at some point even my guilt is going to run out and you’ll stop getting special rule-breaking enabling from me!”

Alvar jumped up and down. At that moment he looked so much like a little kid on Snowflake Day that it was hard to believe he was already fourteen.

“Thank you so much, Aunt Villia!”

Villia frowned.

“I have a feeling I’m going to be disowned for this or something, so use that title while you can.”

It took us hours to get back. I sensed the light air of the fairy forest shifting into the more humid, chilly air of Twinbrook’s swamp at night. My legs started aching by the time we caught the first glimpses of the ramshackle houses at the edge of the town. They were a most welcome sight. When we passed the first house, I caught a glimpse of Villia’s hair that was again blonde and immaculately curled. When she looked back at us, I saw she was again wearing her human face.

Twinbrook was sleepy, which was no surprise considering it was half past midnight. Some cars passed us by, and I could see some of the townspeople walking either home or towards a bar. The air was chilly, and I shivered. I noticed I was getting dead tired, but I stubbornly refused to walk back to Grandma and Grandpa’s looking cross-eyed and ready to collapse.

I was so happy to see their house. I was a bit less pleased to see that their lights were still on. They had to be worried sick by now. Rem and I shared a look and then turned to Villia and Alvar.

“I think you should stay back a bit,” I said, “I mean… they don’t know either of you, and I think we should only tell Patrick and mum about this at first.”

“Who lives here, then?” Alvar asked.

“My…” Rem trailed off and then cleared his throat, “Or actually your grandparents.”

Alvar’s eyes widened.

“I have those too? Awesome!”

He thought about it for a moment.

“But yeah. Maybe we should talk to them in the morning. Or what do you think, Aunt Villia?”

“I’d say we should definitely lay low until this whole thing is sorted out,” Villia said, “We’ll seek you out tomorrow.”

“Are you going to be okay?” Rem asked worriedly. His eyes stared through emptiness, and he blinked rapidly, “I… I think something’s… something’s about to go wrong. I can see the… blood… I don’t know.”

“We can stay hidden when we want to,” said Villia, “Don’t worry. As for your visions, you’re probably still just getting used to the aftereffects of the ritual. After I got my first ritual done, my hair was changing colour at random for the next three days.”

Rem nodded slowly, but didn’t seem too convinced.

“Just be careful,” he said. He looked worriedly at their retreating backs until they disappeared among the bushes.

After Villia and Alvar were out of sight, we walked up to the front door. Before I had time to ring the bell or knock, the door opened cautiously, almost hopefully.

“Who’s moving out there?” asked a voice I probably should have expected.

My eyes widened.

“Mum?” I asked.

Mum almost screamed in surprise and relief.

The door was thrown open, and Patrick, Grandma and Grandpa poured out as well. Rem and I found ourselves in a sea of relieved hugs.

I knew we were going to be in so much trouble once we’d explained where we’d been – to the extent we even could explain it – so I definitely clung to the love we were surrounded with at the moment. And when we got inside, the commotion woke up Merrill, who had been sleeping and whom mum and Patrick hadn’t apparently dared to leave in the care of a babysitter when they had rushed to Twinbrook.

He was grumpy at first, but Rem quickly and happily picked him up and twirled him around, gushing about how great it was to see his little brother again.

But the happiness had to end soon, because as I’d expected, after the relief and the hugs came the fury.

“Where have you been?!” mum almost shrieked once we had sat down on the couch, “We’ve all been worried sick! We called the police and they’re already looking for you!”

I cringed. I’d been hoping my milk carton scenarios had been an exaggeration. I guess I’d been wrong. Rem and I shared a look again. I realised we’d been doing that a lot lately. This time our look was more like a mutual agreement. Then we turned back to our parents and grandparents and started to lie. Or at least to omit certain things.

We had agreed not to tell about the fair folk or changelings or anything before we had actual proof in the form of Villia and Alvar. And before any proof could be presented, we needed to lay our parents’ worries to rest and get Grandma and Grandpa out of the picture. I knew they could be trusted, but the fair folk certainly didn’t, and they also didn’t seem to want to risk it. Just the permission to talk to our parents had been given very reluctantly. It was best not to push it. I wasn’t still perfectly ready to trust them not to do something messed up again.

So we told them we’d got lost in the swamp after needing a place to talk in private. Rem confessed that we’d gone to see Donna, and that the meeting had caused him to flee for most of the day. Patrick looked shocked at that, and then mumbled that they would talk about it later. I was mostly quiet, only backing up Rem’s story when needed, and watched the family drama stew behind the worried gazes and the quietly sombre questions. I could only imagine what this would turn into once we actually told the rest of the story.

After mum couldn’t stop asking questions – most of which were along the lines of “are you sure you’re alright” – and Patrick had fallen into some kind of silent shock because of the news that Rem had gone to see Donna, Grandma Brandi clapped her hands together.

“Alright, everyone,” she said warmly but in a tone that allowed no arguments, “The kids are obviously exhausted. And so are we! We should let the kids wash up and sleep, and we can call the police and call off the search. Would you do that, Margaret? I’m sure the police will be glad to hear the kids are okay, and no doubt want to see them tomorrow. And I’m sure Laketon will be glad to be let off the hook as well.”

“Laketon?” I repeated, “What’s he got to do with this?”

Mum shifted nervously.

“Well, once we informed the police that you were gone… we of course thought about Laketon. So the police went to talk to him and… apparently he was suspicious enough to be arrested for further questioning.”

“What?” I blurted out, “So he’s here? In town?”

Mum nodded.

“But he’ll be gone very soon. He… he didn’t cross paths with you, right?”

“Of course not!” I snapped, “I would have said if he had!”

“Of course, sorry,” mum mumbled, “I’m just… I’m just so glad to see you’re okay.”

I only now could get a better picture of our parents’ worry. The last time we’d been gone… Oh, wow, and I thought I had overestimated their worry. I let mum hug me and Rem again, and I hugged her back with all my might.

After we’d managed to get our folks to calm down enough to really let us go to sleep, I took a long, warm shower and felt amazing after getting a few days’ worth of gunk off me. By the time I got into my nightshirt, everyone seemed to have calmed down. Mum was sleeping on the couch, and I caught a glimpse of Patrick in yet another sleeping bag in Grandma and Grandpa’s room. Even Merrill had his own tiny bag, or “cocoon”, as he insisted on calling it. I crawled to my resting spot next to Rem, who also looked a bit less haggard after a shower and some late-night herbal tea. He was tossing and turning in his own cocoon, and I closed my eyes and hoped we’d both get some rest despite the troubling thoughts that kept chasing each other in my and no doubt his head too. I fell asleep almost immediately.

I woke up to Rem shaking my shoulder. I blinked furiously and squinted at my brother, who sat agitated in the never-very-dark summer night.

“Rem?” I mumbled sleepily, “Wha-?”

“Shhhh!” Rem hissed, “We can’t wake up mum.”

I looked confusedly at mum’s sleeping form. She shifted, but didn’t wake up. I looked at the time.

“Rem. It’s like… four a.m.”

“I know,” Rem said. I noticed only now that he had already thrown on some proper clothes, “It can’t wait.”

Still confused and more than a little cranky, I sat up. Rem slid my backpack towards me and motioned me to put on some clothes.

“What’s going on?” I whispered.

Rem looked around nervously and then leaned it, his eyes unfocused.

“I saw… I saw Villia and Alvar. They were in trouble.”

“You saw, as in…?”

“Yes.”

“You sure?”

Rem had already stood up. He looked at me very solemnly.

“This is the clearest… vision… premonition… whatever that I’ve had in years. It’s like with the Boogeyman and the Phoenix. I don’t know what it is, but it’s bad. We have to find them and help!”

There was such real distress in Rem’s hushed voice that I finally shook the last of the sleep from my eyes. I’d ignored Rem’s warnings before, and all that had got us was pain and grief.

Things just seemed to refuse to go smoothly for us.

We snuck out into the town. It was early, those dead hours of morning when usually even the hardiest of partiers were at home or passed out or both. We called out for Villia and Alvar a couple of times, but got no response.

“Where do you think they went?” I asked.

Rem looked around almost frantically.

“I don’t know. But I doubt they just hid in the bushes all night.”

“Right. How about places with lots of trees? They seem to like those.”

“Good thinking,” Rem’s eyes brightened, “Let’s go to the community gardens.”

“Right.”

When we reached the community gardens, they were empty. Well, mostly. Some guy was walking towards the gardens and stopped there among the free vegetables. He lit a cigarette that glowed in the dark. We called for Alvar and Villia in quieter voices, and I felt a shiver going through my spine when my voice echoed. The situation was eerie, especially with Rem’s visions or whatever they really were.

“Hey!” I whisper-yelled, “Villia? Alvar? Come out!”

“What’s going on here?”

We spun around, and I let out a sigh of relief. Villia and Alvar stood there by the road, looking perplexed and maybe a little sleepy. Villia crossed her arms.

“I told you we can take care of ourselves,” she said, “What are you doing here? And why are you yelling when there’s people around.”

I glanced at the man farther away. He kept his eyes either on the ground or at the street somewhere behind us and didn’t seem to pay us any notice. Rem looked a bit embarrassed.

“Well, I had a… vision? I thought you guys would be in trouble. I just thought you should know. To be careful.”

He sighed.

“Of course, I can’t really know when these things happen. Sometimes it can take years, so…”

Villia nodded and smiled.

“I’m sure it’ll get better with practise. So… how did your folks take this all?”

I opened my mouth to answer something a bit snarky, but it all got caught in my throat when I saw a figure over Villia’s shoulder. The figure froze when he saw us, and there was a moment of chilling recognition. Villia frowned and turned around, and it was only then when the figure spoke:

“It’s you! You bitch!”

I almost stopped breathing. Rem let out a small squeak, and Villia blurted out a word that sounded something like prkl. Judging by her tone and the situation, the word wasn’t a very friendly one.

For in front of us stood Nils Laketon, rage very apparent on his worn-out face.

Author’s Note: Whew, sorry about the wait, guys! I had a lot of problems with this, mainly the problem of thinking that this story is utter crap (again). And also the problem of pulling the threads of this story arc together. That’s right, we’re nearing the end of what I call the first big arc of the story. Of course some of the subplots are still wide open and all, but the main mystery has been mostly solved and all that. And now things are coming together on Laketon’s end too. So I hammered out this and the next chapter too. All I need to do is edit that and I can get it out, so it shouldn’t take that long. And for now I’m feeling pretty good about this too, so that’s something.

Thank you so much for your patience, and if you feel like telling me what you think, then that would be awesome!

The Finnish names in this one:

Marras: A not often used word for dead/dying person or an omen of death. The Finnish word for November, marraskuu literally translates to “the month (or moon) of death.”

Milia: A more English-friendly form of the Finnish name, Milja. It’s a variant of Emilia, which is a feminine form of Emil (which comes from the Roman name Aemulus – challenger). Can also be from the name Ludmila.

The random frowny teenaged fairy wasn’t named in story (yet), but his name is Aarni.

Aarni: A variant of Arnold, which can mean “ruling like an eagle”. Aarni is also a word in old Finnish mythology that refers to a spirit creature, a guardian of treasures.

Also the word Villia muttered at the end was perkele, which is a Finnish swearword that is nowadays used as yet another name for the biblical devil, but it most likely originally came from Perkūnas, which is the name of an old Baltic thunder god.

Have a lovely time, people!

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Chapter 19: Rabbit Hole

As soon as I got outside, I dug my phone out of the small pocket on the inside of my shirt and checked the screen out of some very wishful thinking that I might get a signal and be able to call Grandma and Grandpa. No such luck. Of course not.

I cursed silently and looked around in the empty fairy village that still surrounded me like an especially stubborn dream. Rem could be anywhere in the village by now. I knew that Rem could run really fast when he wanted to – and he wanted to very often – and he was usually at home moving among the trees. But here nothing was really home, maybe even less so for Rem, who had apparently been born here to a very selfish mother. I knew I shouldn’t think bad things about the dead, but all of this was just so… gah! I just couldn’t get over it. And I had a feeling Rem wasn’t about to get over it any time soon either.

“Rem!” I raised my voice above the quiet whispers of the curly tree branches, “Where are you? Come on! You were the one who wanted to face this!”

There was no response, save for the unnerving feeling of being watched. Maybe that was some sort of default addition to any enchanted glade. I sighed and walked into the darkness.

I heard the faint buzzing of bees as I passed what was probably a bunch of hives. I saw glimpses of fairy lights among the trees. I’d read enough stories to not follow them. I kept shouting out Rem’s name, not caring if I was waking up some sleeping fair folk. They’d got us into this mess, so they could suffer a night of not getting enough sleep because of us.

I found Rem after some searching. He’d collapsed near an opening where I could see the remains of a large bonfire. I got a very strong sense of déjà vu as I approached my brother’s hunched form. We had to stop going to places that would lead to Rem rushing outside to cry.

“Rem?” I shouted, “You okay?”

The words sounded stupid even as they left my mouth. Of course he wasn’t okay.

When I got closer I noticed that Rem was in fact not crying this time. He was, however, breathing too fast, breath hitching in his throat in a very panicky manner. His hands clutched the grass under him and I could feel the air getting lighter when I approached him. I remembered Villia’s words about stress-induced magic surges and hoped it wasn’t anything really bad.

“Rem? Hey, Rem? It’s me, Lynn. It’s alright.”

I sat down next to him.

“Or, hell, it’s not really alright, I know. But… you know… just breathe. We’ll make this alright. You just need to calm down.”

Rem shook his head, putting his hands over his ears.

“I-I’m trying,” he managed to get out between his hysterical breaths, “I really am… Just…”

I looked around, not really knowing what I was looking for. I had no idea what to do. I tried to calm my mind with the knowledge that usually Rem had just projected this place with his… illusions or whatever they were into his surroundings. So here one could barely tell the difference. Unless… unless now that he’d finally found the source of his maybe-memories, he’d have got subconsciously bored with growing dandelions out of the floor.

I hoped that wasn’t the case. I hoped he’d just stick to the familiar and not to something that would be harder to handle.

I saw a spark behind Rem, and in a few moments there was a flame. And it was growing.

“Oh, hell,” I whispered, “Rem! Stop that now!”

He didn’t stop. The fire grew until I honestly couldn’t tell if it was real or not. I felt the heat on my face and could almost also feel the skin on my scars peeling back. The peeling continued all the way through the flesh, through the bone, and right into my traumatic memories.

“Help!” I shouted, “Someone! Help!”

I faintly saw someone green approaching us. Then I saw and felt a flash, or something like air rushing out of the universe around us. Rem yelped as if he’d been struck, and then the flames were gone.

I blinked away tears I hadn’t noticed had spilled, and saw Rem on the ground, holding his stomach as if feeling really ill. The guard-man… M… Muesli or something, stood above him, his face distorted with anger.

“I knew I should be watching you!” he snapped, “This kind of uncontrollable behaviour is unacceptable here!”

Rem didn’t answer. He didn’t seem to be able to. To my horror, he collapsed on the ground.

“Rem!”

I crouched again and saw to my immense relief that he was still breathing. He wasn’t responding, though, and I could only hope that Muesli-man’s whatever-power-he’d-used hadn’t done any serious damage.

“What did you do to him?”

My voice was bordering on hysterical. The uptight guard didn’t seem to notice.

“I suppressed his uncontrollable magic, of course. Do you think that-“

“Myrsky!”

The voice that cut the man off belonged to Villia. She was running down the same slope I had ran just moments ago. Her too-green eyes were blazing with fury.

“What are you doing?” she marched to Mue… I mean Myrsky, with very pointed steps, “If you hurt him, then I swear-!”

“I didn’t hurt him, Villia!” Myrsky snapped back, “I just suppressed his magic. It was going haywire. He reacted much more strongly than I expected, though.”

“Of course he did!” Villia almost shouted, “He has zero experience about this! And he’s a teenager!”

“I was just doing my job!”

“You could have been a bit gentler about it!”

“So I was supposed to just watch and let him fake-burn this entire glade down?”

Villia glared murderously at Myrsky, but then let out a reluctant sigh.

“Whatever,” she muttered, “I guess you did what you had to…”

She crouched next to me and glanced at Rem’s unmoving body. I stiffened and my instincts told me to stay put while my bad memories told me to run. Villia smiled in what she clearly hoped was a reassuring way.

“He’ll be fine once he just sleeps it off,” she said, “Come on, let’s get him to bed so he doesn’t have to be out here in the cold.”

All I could do was give her a shaky nod.

I’d never before had to carry Rem around, but even with Villia helping me I realised that he was much lighter than I’d expected. Not that he looked very heavy to begin with. It was like his bones were hollow or made of a lighter material than they should be. Maybe it too was a fairy thing. I’d always noticed the little oddities in Rem’s physical appearance, but now they looked so obvious I couldn’t ignore them. I noted the pointy ears and how unlikely it was for humans to have them naturally. I noted the facial features that didn’t look like anyone from Patrick’s family – or even what little I’d seen of Donna. I thought about the yellow eyes that were now hidden behind closed lids. What had they been called sometimes? Genetic anomalies? Yeah, maybe with some people, but with Rem, it was just his fair folk showing.

Kielo was waiting for us, and she led us into the house next to the one we’d talked in. Apparently that one belonged to her as well, and it housed her bedroom. A woodland-style canopy bed took up most of the space there, and Villia and I set Rem on it. He curled up, and I hoped it meant he was really asleep instead of unconscious now. Kielo looked worried.

“What happened to him?”

“Myrsky hit him with a suppressor,” Villia said, “He’ll be fine. Physically at least. As for… well, I think these two need a little time to think about this.”

“You think?” I said.

Villia narrowed her eyes.

“There’s no need for sass.”

“Give them a break, Vil,” Kielo said quietly, and then turned to me, “We’re very sorry about all this. Is there anything we can do to help?”

I crossed my arms.

“I think you’ve helped enough,” I said.

“Of course. Sorry. Come on, Vil, let’s go,” Kielo gave me a very Rem-like smile, “Just give us a shout if you need anything.”

Then they were gone, and I was left at my brother’s bedside with way too many questions in my head.

I wouldn’t have thought I’d be able to sleep, but somehow I must have at some point, because when I opened my eyes I was on the floor and looking at unfamiliar furniture for a moment before I remembered where I was. Rem’s bare feet got in my field of vision, and I jumped up as quickly as I could in my groggy state.

“Ugh… hey, you okay?” I managed. Darn, everything ached. Sleeping on the floor wasn’t a good idea at all. Not that it had been an idea to begin with.

Rem slid down from the edge of the bed he’d been sitting on. He looked much better than he had last night. If it weren’t for the conflicted, almost haunted look in his eyes, I could have said he was back to normal.

“I guess I’m fine,” Rem said quietly, “Are you?”

“Me? I’m sure my spine will recover,” I said, “I’m never sleeping on the floor like that again, though.”

“No, I meant… I’m so sorry. I don’t remember much about what happened after… Alvar walked in. But I remember flames. You saw them too, didn’t you?”

I shrugged uncomfortably.

“Well… yeah.”

“I didn’t mean to do it.”

“I know,” I said, trying to give him my gentlest smile, “Seriously, don’t worry about me.”

Rem nodded slowly.

“I… Okay,” he sighed, “I’ve been thinking a lot. What are we going to do?”

“Why’re you asking me? This is more about you right now, isn’t it?”

“Yeah, but you’re better at solutions than I am.”

I raised a brow.

“Really?”

“Yeah. You’re smart. And you’re not seeing things that confuse you.”

I almost laughed at that.

“Rem, right now everything I see around me confuses me. But, well, I’d say we should at least get out of here soon. I mean, Grandma and Grandpa are probably way too worried about us. And they’ve no doubt told mum and Patrick, and if that’s the case, we’re already on milk cartons or something.”

“So you think we should just leave?” Rem asked almost disbelievingly.

“Well… not without real closure, of course.”

“Right. Closure,” Rem looked uncomfortable, “But… what about Alvar?”

Oh. Right. Damn.

“Yeah, that’s bad… I mean, don’t you think Donna and Patrick deserve the truth?”

Rem bit his lip.

“But we can’t just bring a random guy in front of them and say ‘hi, here’s your real kid’. I mean, what if he doesn’t want to leave? What do you think Donna or dad are supposed to do with all that? What if this all just gets worse? What if… what if I have to leave you?”

I stared.

“Why would you have to leave us? Rem, you’re much more Patrick’s kid than that Alvar-guy is.”

“I… yeah, but…” Rem sighed, “I have to talk to them, right? I mean, I do want to, but… I’m scared.”

“I know. I’m still scared too,” I touched his shoulder in what I hoped was a comforting manner, “This all is so… weird.”

“Tell me about it.”

We stood in silence for a moment, before we slowly opened the door and greeted the weirdness.

What we saw when we stepped outside was not what I’d been expecting. True, I hadn’t had much time to think about what I’d imagined the fairy town to look like in daylight, but for some reason the image of the two kids from last night and Villia sitting on a clichéd picnic blanket and eating hamburgers would have probably never even crossed my mind. The only boy in the group looked up at us and waved.

“Hey!” he said in a voice that sounded a little bit like a cricket, “They’re awake! Come eat! We made fast food!”

Rem and I exchanged glances and stepped cautiously towards the blanket. Villia chuckled. She looked odd in a torn T-shirt and black capris when I’d got used to seeing her in much more stylish clothes. She was demonstrating impressive flexibility by sitting down in a perfect split, and I honestly couldn’t tell if she was showing off or just doing some morning stretches.

“They wanted you to feel more welcome,” she said, “I doubt these taste the same as the stuff you eat, but I’d say it’s pretty close.”

The little girl who seemed to have berries in her hair looked up at us.

“Sit down! I’m Kuura and this is my brother Halla! Villia told us you’re Lynn and Rem!”

I glanced at Rem again, and Rem flashed the two frosty-eyed siblings a slightly shy smile.

“Yeah, that’s us. I’m Rem. Lynn’s my sister. It’s nice to meet you.”

He sat down, then, just like that. It was such a Rem thing to do that I felt almost relieved even though we were still in very unfamiliar territory.

I sat down next to Rem and took a hot dog that looked much less like plastic than usual human fast food. It reminded me a lot of the organic veggie burgers and tofu hot dogs Patrick made, actually. I’m pretty sure the food was made mostly out of nuts and avocado. Those who’d been taken by the paleo diet craze would love this place.

“You eat a lot of stuff like this at your place?” asked Halla, “We’ve never been that far outside the glade.”

“Mother says it’s dangerous,” said Kuura, “And I guess she’s right. But Villia is always telling so much about the cities!”

“And Kielo keeps fixing human tech-things,” Halla added, “They’re really cool. And your names are a lot of fun too!”

“I wish we could go there,” Kuura said, “To a real city. You know, just to see it. But we have to master our glamour first.”

“And even then mother probably won’t let us go,” Halla sighed.

Villia smiled and flopped down on her back.

“Yeah, I doubt she will. And if you keep dreaming about sneaking into human civilisation, your mother might even forbid me from telling you stories anymore.”

“That’s not fair!” Kuura whined. Then she turned to me, her icy eyes twinkling, “You’re really pretty! When I grow up, I want to look like you!”

I almost coughed up my paleo hot dog.

“Seriously?” I managed, “You need better role models than me!”

“Don’t sell yourself short,” said Rem. He was smiling like crazy, and I couldn’t tell if his cheerfulness was real or just an attempt to hide the turmoil in his head.

“Mother isn’t going to let you dye your hair like that for years,” Halla said, “But hey, you could make your glamour hair like that.”

“I could, couldn’t I?” Kuura said, “Mum isn’t going to like it, though… she’s all proper. But you know, I could just tell her I couldn’t get it any other way!”

“Who’s your mum?” Rem asked.

“Her name’s Lumi,” Kuura said, “She’s our best healer, and the second-in-command here. You know, right next to the matriarch herself. And she’s really busy all the time.”

“Not that the title means that much,” said Halla, “The adults all decide on stuff… but the matriarch and mother just make sure the adults stay civil in the meetings. And sometimes they talk about smart stuff, I guess.”

He shrugged, clearly uninterested in talking about fairy politics.

“So… what do you do for fun in human places? We play in the woods, and do fun stuff with magic. And Kuura paints. Alvar watches the stars a lot. And when Villia’s home we play with her a lot because she’s really nice. What do you guys do?”

“Actually, a lot of the same stuff,” said Rem, “I love painting.”

“Oh, really?” said Kuura, “That’s… awesome! Hey Villia? Can you play with us now? You promised you would?”

Villia laughed.

“I did, didn’t I? I guess I have no choice. You want to play tag?”

“Yeah!”

“All right, then you’d better try and catch me!”

I looked in mild confusion when the two kids jumped up and darted after Villia, who moved with flashy grace and put her body through some sort of acrobatic routine, much to the delight of the kids.

“Well, this is… huh…” I said.

“It’s a lovely place, in the end,” Rem said.

“Yeah. That’s a bit scary. I didn’t expect that.”

“They’re not the bad guys.”

“Well, no. I didn’t think they were… Okay, maybe I did a bit, but still… I mean, I didn’t expect evil castles and decorative wall corpses -evil, but… this is too normal, in its own way.”

“Yeah,” Rem said, and then sighed, “You gonna be okay for a while? I want to find Kielo and… Alvar. I need to talk to them. Alone.”

“I’ll be fine,” I said, “How about you? You sure about what you’re about to do?”

Rem looked around in the glade. Kuura, Halla, and Villia’s laughter rang out around us.

“No,” he finally said, “But we’ve been over this so many times already. I have to… I have to do this.”

“Yeah. Good luck. Give me a shout if you need any help.”

“You too.”

When Rem got up and walked to Kielo’s house, I felt apprehension in the pit of my stomach again. For some reason the bright colours of the fairy trees just made it worse. We’d followed the breadcrumbs and then the rabbit hole, and it had just led us to a whole bunch of new problems. We really had a changeling scenario in our hands. And Patrick and Donna’s real kid was alive and well here. Among people who didn’t want to be found. Now that the initial shock had worn off, my brain finally had time to really try to process it all, and it kept reaching this very persistent question I had no answer to yet.

What the hell are we going to do?

I didn’t like the thought of us splitting up in this place, but I had to let Rem have his space when he confronted his so called family. I ended up wandering around the small village square and trying to find signal for my phone to no avail. There were many curious eyes all around me. The two little kids in the neighbourhood were especially interested in me. They even side-tracked me from my signal hunting by taking me to see their house, which was an odd assortment of do-it-yourself shelves and plants.

There was even a fountain that Kuura explained was mostly for practising illusions. Apparently water made it easier – something I didn’t really get. She asked me a lot of questions and was ecstatic to hear that I had a tattoo. Apparently only shamans – which I concluded meant experienced clairvoyants and healers – got tattoos in their culture, and the only shamans they’d had in Kuura’s lifetime were Lumi, and Rem’s mother, and apparently they’d never been big on tattoos. I showed the flowers on my arm to her, and she looked at it in wonder.

She looked just like a normal kid who had just found an older girl to be her role model. I wasn’t sure how I felt about it. I guess it was nice, in a way. To know that there really weren’t conspiracies or evil powers at work here… probably. There seemed to be just… life. Lives that were maybe broken just like ours and that had broken our lives even more. But in some other way it was… maybe even more infuriating. In a way I would have felt better about it all if there had been someone I could really hate and blame. But here in the bright and colourful and maybe magical but still very normal glade all my hate wanted to just evaporate from my mind and body. The slates and I were being wiped clean of this all. And I didn’t want to be cleansed yet.
After I managed to get Kuura and her brother to leave me alone for a while I wandered back to the riverside where the bonfire was located. I tried not to shudder at the memory of last night’s flames.

They weren’t real. Get over it!

I looked at the familiar swamp across the river. It seemed to be so close, but I knew that the closeness was probably another illusion. We’d walked for hours to get here. Or then we’d just been meandering a lot because Villia had wanted to mess with us. Either way seemed just as likely.

“Hey,” said a voice I’d already learned to recognise.

I sighed. Had I summoned her with my thoughts or something? Sure, I did want to talk to her, but… not now. I didn’t feel like I was ready to be civil with her. Not without Rem holding me back.

Or then I was. Why was everything so confusing?

Because everything’s messed up again. Because we’re in fairyland.

Oh, right.

“Hey,” I said coldly.

“Yeah, I still get it,” Villia replied, “Look, Rem is working things out with his family. Maybe I should try to work things out too. I just want to… well, I don’t know what I want. I know you’ll probably never forgive me, and I understand that. I mean, I don’t think I’ll forgive myself either. Even though I was doing what I thought was right.”

“Really?” I scoffed, “Then your idea of ‘right’ is very different from mine.”

“That’s life, kid, get used to it,” Villia said, but then her frown softened, “But you’re right. It really wasn’t a good thing to do. You have to understand that we haven’t needed to do this before. This… changeling business was supposed to be a thing of the past. And then one of my best friends starts messing with it… I just wanted to help Taru. After the whole fiasco with Laketon we left you alone for a time. I had just planned to keep tabs on you, but then you moved and escaped from us.”

“Like that stopped you,” I said, “Or did it?”

Villia nodded.

“For a time. We have a code of honour. If one of us doesn’t want to be found, they won’t be until they wish it again.”

“Huh.”

“But after Taru started stressing about it…” Villia trailed off. It was obvious now that Rem’s mother’s death had hit her hard. I couldn’t imagine what it felt like to lose a friend or a loved one. I mean, to really lose them. Knowing that I’d never see them again… I found myself feeling a little bit sorry for Villia.

Villia cleared her throat.

“After she started fading, even our matriarch asked me to keep looking for Rem. Not that I wouldn’t have anyway. Taru had been our clairvoyant, and so far no one else here has displayed that ability. Not in this generation at least. But Rem has clearly inherited it.”

She sighed.

“The matriarch wants to see him. I told him that we’d go once he’s talked to his family.”

“Oh.”

I didn’t know what to say, really. I wanted answers, but the answers probably wouldn’t make sense without a proper history or culture lesson. And I also wanted to go home, but we couldn’t just leave now. I didn’t think the fair folk would let us leave without us seeing this matriarch first. And who knew what she’d want? They kept talking about Rem’s visions being valuable to them, I think. Did they want him to stay? My hands curled into fists. I didn’t care if these people were his flesh and blood. I wouldn’t let them have him. At least not unless Rem really wanted to stay. But he wouldn’t, right? This wasn’t his home, no matter how many dreams he’d had about it.

“Rem’s mum… how did she die?” I asked before I could stop myself.

Villia looked at the river, smiled at its gentle waves as if she could see her friend there.

“She got lost in her visions,” she finally said, “She felt guilty in the end, I think. She kept trying to find Rem.”

I stared at the water without really seeing it. An ominous feeling of nausea started building up in my throat.

“Don’t blame yourselves,” Villia said as if reading my thoughts, “I think that at first she knew what she was getting into, but then… she couldn’t stop looking. She tried to force herself to see. So she fell asleep. Then into a coma.”

“We watched over her. I tried to find you so Taru would stop. I think she did want to stop at some point, but she was so far gone that she couldn’t get back anymore.”

“It was… surprising. Shocking, even. She was so experienced. We didn’t imagine she could get lost.”

Villia fell silent again for a while. I could hear her swallowing what was probably tears.

“That’s also why we wanted to find Rem. To prevent further tragedies like that in our family, no matter how distant he was. He was becoming an adult, so he was at risk of really starting to misuse his powers without proper training. We didn’t want him to become a danger to himself or others.”

She pursed her lips.

“But I shouldn’t try to make us sound all noble. The truth is that… I manipulated you all. I’m rather good at it, so why not, right?” she laughed bitterly, “But I know we were selfish. Most of all we just wanted him back. We wanted everything to go back to normal.”

For a while, the river and the bees were the only sounds I could hear. They felt almost intrusively loud in my ears.

“Then…” I cleared my throat, “Then I guess we have something in common.”

Villia managed a sad smile.

“I suppose we do.”

We stood together on the shore, me and a fairy guide I’d hated for so many years. It was a strange experience. I could only imagine how Rem was doing.

“Oh, wow, you have your own vinyl player? That’s so cool!”

“Yeah. Aunt Kielo fixed it for me. She does stuff like that. She even gave me the camera I’ve taken pictures with. Sometimes she and mum take me to a human town… well, now it’s just Kielo, obviously. And Villia, when she’s around.”

“I… I’m sorry for your loss.”

“I’m sorry too.”

“So… you’ve always known that you’re…”

“A changeling? Yeah. I mean, it’s pretty obvious. We humans don’t have fancy magical disguises like you.”

“And you never considered… finding where your real parents were?”

“Why should I? I had a mum who loved me. And a big family. I’m happy here. I mean, from what I heard, you didn’t want to really find out the truth either.”

“I didn’t know the truth wasn’t what I believed!”

“So you never even doubted it?”

“I… Well, I… yeah, I did.”

“See?”

“So you don’t want to even meet them?”

“You think that’d be smart? Mum kept saying they didn’t love me.”

“Well, that’s not true. They did. Your biological mum especially… she loved you so much that she… she always knew you were missing.”

“She did? Wow… I… but I can’t just… go, can I?”

“I don’t know. It might be a very good thing… but then again, it might go awfully wrong too.”

“Yeah.”

“So uh… do you want to talk to Aunt Kielo too?”

“Yeah, that’d be nice.”

I met Rem in front of Kielo and Alvar’s house a few hours later. He was smiling, and there was genuine happiness in his eyes. But I could see that he was still just as confused as ever.

“So?” I asked.

“So we talked. A lot,” said Rem.

“Yeah? And it was a good talk?”

Rem’s smile widened.

“Yeah. Well, it was weird. But it was nice too.”

“Alvar and Kielo are really friendly. They told me about Taru, about how she lived and… died. They told me about their life too.

“In the end it almost really felt like… like maybe one day I could… I don’t know.”

“Be family?” I asked.

Rem shrugged.

“Well, that’s a bit early to say. I mean, I want to believe that… maybe,” he massaged his temples, “This is just still so overwhelming. And now the matriarch wants to talk to us.”

“Yeah. Villia told me. Is she going to take us to her?”

Rem nodded.

“I’m happy we got here,” he said out of the blue, “But I’m just wondering where it’ll end.”

“Me too,” I said, “I think there’s still plenty of rabbit hole to go.”

I looked at Rem, trying to find some evidence that he too wanted to go home. To our real home. I mean, this was nice, I guess, knowing and all. But mum and Patrick and Grandma and Grandpa were probably beside themselves with worry by now. We might have been in fairyland, but out there, across the fake-short distance, real life was still going on. And it was calling us back.

“What are you going to do?” I asked, “What do you think they want now that you’re here?”

Rem looked almost scared when he said:

“I don’t know.”

Author’s Note: More exposition for you. Yay. Also I have a new computer now. I’m having mixed feelings about that. I mean, it’s definitely good and in many ways better than the old one, and my old one was already pretty… well, old, and it was becoming kind of unusable because of all the malfunctions it had. That said, I’m pretty sure the major things that are broken are the hard drive and the battery, so they are things I could just replace… but it would already be the second time I’d have to get a new hard drive for it, but on the other hand… agh! Spending natural resources and probably supporting the very poor working conditions of computer makers makes me sad! I didn’t throw the old laptop away yet, so maybe I’ll get some use out of it still…

Well, what’s done is done, and at least my TS3 works on the new computer and it actually runs much smoother and the computer doesn’t heat up like crazy when I play. Yay! And because of the new computer my screenshots are going to be IN WIDESRCEEN in the future. I’m still debating whether I want to crop them differently or just use the proportions I automatically get, but I am liking the pics I can take now. Also some of the pics in this one were already taken with the new computer and I cropped them to match the old ones because it would be weird to change randomly in the middle of a chapter. Even if that meant a couple of the pics look a bit weird because of the cropping. But from the next chapter onward there will be slightly different pictures. Just a heads up.

Ugh, I ruined my “use only one word for chapter names” -rule that I had for this story (except for the prologue) for… reasons. I don’t even remember why I had that rule. But hey, I was getting tired of it and my Finnish mind keeps telling me that “rabbit hole” is just one word so whatever.

Also more Finnish names/words in this chapter:

Kuura: Finnish for the physical frost that forms on the windows etc.

Halla: Finnish for the phenomenon when the temperature drops below zero degrees Celsius near the ground but not higher up (the English-speakers call this frost as well).

Lumi: Finnish for snow.

PREVIOUS Chapter: Changeling

NEXT Chapter: Return

Chapter 18: Changeling

I had never considered myself a violent person. Sure, I’d been doing some Sim Fu and that had meant a lot of punching and kicking air and sometimes sparring partners, but that was not violence. That was just a fun lifestyle derived from violence. But now, when I looked at Villia’s friendly smile, I seriously wanted to deck her in the face. Rem stepped between her and me, though, before I could do anything of the sort, and raised his hands in a calming gesture.

“At least hear her out,” he said.

“Exactly,” said Villia, “I owe you that much.”

I gritted my teeth and glared at her. Rem put his hand on my shoulder.

“It’s okay,” he said quietly, “She has the answers.”

“Like we have any reason to trust her!” I hissed.

“Yeah, I suppose you don’t,” Villia said, “I know I messed up. Badly, and many times. But I’m here to fix what I can. Rem wanted to find his family, and I wanted him to find them, so here we are.”

My eyes narrowed.

“So wait, you’re saying that you’ve known all along who and – more importantly – where Rem’s real parents were all this time? Seriously?”

“Yes,” said Rem, “I think that… I think that she’s been lying about very little during all these years.”

“Well, thank you for giving me that, at least,” Villia smiled, “For what it’s worth, I’m sorry. Terribly sorry. I never realised things would go this wrong. And I completely understand why you’ve been avoiding me.”

“But not anymore,” Rem said, “Tell Lynn what you told me, please.”

“What?” I asked, “Here?”

“There’s no one around,” Villia shrugged, “Besides, it’s easy to make people ignore things. That’s how no one knew I was at the bar with Laketon.”

I stared. Villia smiled.

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“Let me start from at least some sort of beginning. First of all, yes, you could call us fairies, though we prefer the term fair folk.”

I opened my mouth to say something, but an annoyed look from Villia silenced me. Not that I’d have much to say other than “What? Seriously?” Even after all this time of suspecting something like that, it was still a bit of a shock to hear someone say it. Not to mention it sounded like a half-baked, crazy story. At this point I was really hoping that Villia wasn’t lying, though. At least that would take us forward.

“Second of all,” Villia went on, “Yes, Rem is a changeling – which I’ve been trying to tell him for years. I was tasked with bringing him back home with us.

She tilted her head.

“But you seem to have finally accepted that part. I guess talking to Mrs. Brooke was what you really needed. I should have maybe realised that.”

“You knew about Donna?” I asked before I could stop myself.

“Of course I did,” Villia said, “She saw right through Rem from the beginning. Some people are better at that that sort of thing than most. Like you are, Lynn. Your father… I’m sorry, Laketon, is pretty good at it too.”

Villia glanced around as if to make sure we weren’t being eavesdropped on. I took that moment to ask the question that had become the most pressing in the last few moments:

“Why? Why did you do all this?”

Villia sighed.

“If you’re looking for some kind of conspiracy, don’t bother: there is none. We used to go around switching babies back in the Dark Ages, but we don’t do that sort of thing anymore. Rem was a secret to us too for the first ten years. We thought he was dead.”

She looked a bit uncomfortable now. She cleared her throat and the sound rang in the empty park before it was muffled by the vegetation.

“Look, this is getting into awkward family talk territory, and I’m not quite family. Rem told me he’s finally agreed to see his home and his family. I can take you to them.”

“To Rem’s real parents?” I asked.

“No,” said Rem in a very quiet voice, “She told me they’re dead. I didn’t believe it before, but…”

Villia nodded, a hint of regret on her face.

“But there is still family left for you. Your aunt, for one, and the rest of us, if you want to count that.”

Screenshot-575

Rem looked questioningly at me, and I looked back. Then I glanced at Villia. I still couldn’t wrap my head around the fact that Rem seemed to be just forgiving this woman. Or well, maybe not forgiving, but at least tolerating her enough to listen and maybe even to trust her. I didn’t know if I was even ready to believe that she was sorry about all the pain she’d caused us. Maybe she was. But was that enough? And oh, right, she was also spilling secrets about some kind of fair folk and magic. In a way I found myself to be strangely calm about that part.

Finally, after a thoughtful and definitely awkward silence, Rem spoke again:

“I’ll go with you.”

I sighed. So Rem really was going to follow her to the truth, or whatever it was that we would find if we listened to her. And I couldn’t possibly leave him alone with this manipulative, life-ruining bitch no matter how sincere she was being now.

“Alright,” I said, and then turned to Villia, “But if anything goes wrong, I’ll make you regret it.”

They were mostly empty words, and Villia must have known that. But at least I was fulfilling my protective big sister duties.

When Villia turned and started leading us out of the gardens, I felt Rem’s hand close around mine and squeeze in a desperate search for comfort and safety. I squeezed his hand back briefly before I let go again. Sometimes I forgot that he was still really, really young. That I too was – as much as I hated to admit it. We were just two scared kids, possibly walking into death or misery. Like Hansel and Gretel lost in the woods and stumbling upon a gingerbread house inhabited by a man-eating witch. We could only hope there would be no man-eating anything in our tale.

We walked out of the town centre, towards the swampy edges where the houses turned smaller and eventually more ramshackle. The summer day had been quite hot in the town, but here amidst the trees and the watery ground it felt much colder and I wished I’d worn my hoodie. Next to me, Rem shivered a bit, but he voiced no complaints. His eyes stayed fixed on Villia’s back. Villia herself didn’t seem to be bothered by the temperature, even in her short shorts and light shirt. I didn’t know if that was a fair folk -thing or if she just wanted to show how badass she was by not being inconvenienced by something as trivial as weather.

We didn’t talk for a long while. There was just the wet splash of our shoes – and Rem’s feet – against the ground, along with the occasional rustle in the leaves of the limp tree branches. Even the air felt quieter than normal. The silence made things feel even colder. I reminded myself that this was home. Or at least used to be. This was Twinbrook, the place we’d done a lot of our growing up in. We’d sometimes come to the edges of the swamp to play, though only with our parents coming with us to make sure we didn’t wander off. But that had been years ago. Lives ago, almost. And now we were much deeper into the woods than we’d ever been. At least if one didn’t count Rem’s dreamworld excursions. And I didn’t.

We were way past anything familiar when Rem spoke. His voice cut the silence like rusty scissors, hesitant but still effective:

“Villia.”

Villia halted and turned around. She smiled her too-sweet smile.

“Yes?”

“Now that we’re outside of the town, I want you to stop hiding. I want Lynn to see your real face too.”

I raised a brow. Rem had said something about not real faces before, hadn’t he? I found myself holding my breath. Villia let out a small chuckle.

“Oh, fine. I guess I owe you that too.”

And then she changed.

At first I almost didn’t notice it, because it felt for a second like she had always been the greenish-skinned, gangly redhead. But then my brain caught up with what I was seeing and I gasped. Villia turned around, her creepily pretty face less human-like and her too green eyes now entirely too green. They reminded me of Rem’s eyes back when he had been sick. Villia smiled, straight from the depths of the uncanny valley.

“Well? Happy now?” she asked.

Rem nodded.

“Thank you.”

“So that’s… what you really look like?” I asked, my voice all too uncertain for my liking.

“Yes.”

I glanced at Rem.

“And Rem…”

“Looks the way he is used to,” Villia said, “Our people have a knack for tricking the eyes and the mind of others. You know, illusions, glamour, subtle manipulation… all that.”

“Yeah, I’ve gathered,” I said, “What else? You shoot fireballs from your hands too?”

“No, of course not,” Villia said with a snort, “Some of us have more uncommon abilities, of course, just like you humans do. Like Rem and his ability to get glimpses of possible futures. Look, it’ll take some time to explain, so I’d rather not do it right now. It’s already dark and I don’t want to take all night to get home.”

Rem looked at me, trying to give me an encouraging smile. The keyword being “trying”. The encouragement-thing didn’t really work when he was just as unsure as I was. We didn’t have much time to hesitate, though, because Villia was again walking, and I really didn’t want to be left this deep into the swamp without someone who knew where she was going. Rem and I hurried after her.

It really was getting dark. I kept glancing at my cell phone’s clock. It went past six, then seven… almost eight… my legs were starting to ache from trudging through the swamp. Villia didn’t seem to be showing any signs that we were anywhere near the end. Not that anything around us looked like a fairy forest or whatever it was that we were going towards anyway. I glanced at the clock again and realised only now that we were long past getting a signal to the phone.

“Rem?” I said.

“What?”

“We’re so going to make Grandma and Grandpa worried.”

“It’s not far anymore,” said Villia, “Just a little bit longer.”

“Yeah,” I scoffed, “that’s not very comforting when we’ve already been walking for hours.”

“If we lived right next to humans we wouldn’t be that well-hidden, now would we?”

So why are you hiding, anyway?

That was only one of the things I wanted to ask. But Villia was again picking up her pace. I had a feeling she wanted to sit on most of her answers until we were “home”, as she kept calling it. If she even wanted to really tell us anything. She could be leading us right into some kind of messed up trap for all we knew. Almost all of my thoughts kept screaming at me to turn back, to take Rem with me and run until we found someone or could call for help. But I kept ignoring it. Maybe it was because of my damned curiosity. Or maybe it was because I could see something sincere in Villia’s apologies even though I still wanted to be mad at her. Or maybe I was just so tired of being confused.

Finally Villia stopped and turned around.

“Well, here we are,” she said.

I looked around. Nothing looked especially different.

“Uhh… what’s this all about?” I asked.

“Oh, right, the wards…” Villia muttered and then trailed off. She seemed to focus intently on something I couldn’t see.

I looked at Rem and noticed that he was staring.

“It’s… it’s just the way I remembered…” he said almost disbelievingly, “I didn’t think it would be this… accurate.”

“What? The swamp? What are you-? What the hell?!”

The scene changed. Instead of the by now numbingly repetitive swampy forest I saw Rem’s dream in the distance. I blinked rapidly and even looked at my hands to make sure I wasn’t dreaming this time too. I wasn’t. And the fairy forest was still there when I looked back up.

“I take it you see it now?” said Villia almost smugly, “It always takes a bit of adjusting for a human to get in.”

“Villia!”

Villia spun around and I saw a man walking menacingly towards us. Villia sighed.

“Oh, right… This will require some explaining. Bringing humans here isn’t exactly legal. Don’t worry. I’ll speak for you.”

The man stopped in front of Villia, and in the dark he looked very eerie. Maybe it was the eyes. Maybe it was the almost porcelain-looking skin. Maybe it was the look of utter distrust he sent my way. He said a few words in a low voice, and I wasn’t sure if he was speaking in another language or just mumbled deliberately so we wouldn’t understand. Villia responded to him in clear Simlish, though.

“Oh, give me a break, Myrsky!” she snapped, “I’ve finally accomplished my mission and you start lecturing me about protocol? I brought the changeling, so I’d say that’s a reason for some rule-bending!”

The man whose name I couldn’t pronounce looked at me again. His eyes narrowed and he turned back to Villia.

“If something happens, it’ll be on you!” he said, “We’ll deal with this later.”

“Nobody has to ‘deal’ with this but me. I’ll inform the matriarch and the family. Now just… keep doing your job!”

“I am doing my job at this very moment.”

“Yes. Great. Now let me pass; everything’s under control.”

The man who was apparently some sort of guard shook his head, but stepped aside. I noticed Rem walking closer to me, and I wasn’t sure if it was to protect me or himself.

“I don’t think we’re wanted here,” he said.

“Oh, don’t worry,” said Villia, “It’s Myrsky’s job to be overly paranoid and a stickler to rules. He’s not that bad otherwise.”

I wasn’t convinced. I heard the quiet shuffle of the man’s feet and knew he was trailing closely behind us. Villia didn’t seem to mind, though, and just led us through the final stretch that led us under odd spike-trees and spiralling branches that seemed to glow in the dark. It was almost nine in the evening. Grandma and Grandpa were probably already organising search parties.

We circled around the windows that peeked through the branches until the trees parted and we came into a clearing.

Some sort of crystal ball-like contraption shone light on the houses that seemed to be build out of very old wood. They were like an unholy mix of honeycombs and layered birthday cakes, but they had a certain quirky charm to them. As we stood in the clearing, surrounded by the strange houses, giant mushrooms and bizarre trees, it all really sunk in and I felt my lungs become weightless and my arms lose all strength. I struggled to keep my legs at least somewhat functional even though I was lost in some sort of haze. Reality crashed in, except reality was fantasy now. We really were in fairyland.

I found myself staring, but my widened eyes were nothing compared to Rem’s look of enthusiasm and awe. For a moment he seemed to forget how to breathe.

“Home sweet home, as you’d say,” Villia said, “Now come on, there’s someone you must meet. Well, many someones. But I figured we should start with the family.”

“Family?” Rem managed to say in a very small voice. I couldn’t help noticing that he was swaying on his feet.

“I think we need a moment here,” I said.

“You can have a break once we’re indoors,” Villia said and pointed towards the nearest house, “It’s right there.”

A small child ran past us and greeted Villia. Villia’s usually either annoyed or too-sweet expression melted into genuine fondness and she greeted the boy back. Another set of tiny footsteps stopped near us as well.

“Humans?” said a girl whose white hair and pale skin matched the boy’s so well I assumed the two were siblings, “What’re they doing here?”

She squinted her ice blue eyes at Rem.

“Wait, he’s one of us! He just looks a bit like a human. Is he… hey, did you finally get him to follow?”

Villia chuckled.

“Yes, I did. Now run along, I can watch you two tomorrow if your mother is busy.”

The girl and the boy let out whoops of joy and were on their way. If it weren’t for their looks and the otherworldly feeling they gave me they could have been completely ordinary kids playing tag. Villia looked at their retreating backs with an almost motherly smile on her face, though only for a moment before she turned back to her task at hand and knocked on the nearest house’s door.

Rem stopped breathing again for a worryingly long while. He didn’t seem to be able to get comfortable in his skin. He was still staring wide-eyed at the not-dream around us, and I saw his fingers occasionally twitch as if he wanted to try to tear it all down… or possibly embrace it. I myself managed to find a nice spot in a state of floating between dream and reality and settled there. Maybe we would both wake up in our sleeping bags. Or maybe we wouldn’t. At this point I honestly didn’t know which would have been preferable.

The door was opened, and a woman with greenish skin and red hair stepped out. Her eyes were yellow – almost gold. Like Rem’s. She greeted Villia with a smile and a hug and they talked in hushed voices for a while.

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“Rem?” I whispered.

Rem only tilted his head.

“This is really happening, isn’t it?”

Rem nodded.

“I’m scared,” he said.

“Me too.”

The women stopped talking, and the one with the Rem-eyes turned to scrutinise my brother.

“Hello,” she said in a soft voice that sounded a bit like water flowing through rocks, “You’re finally here.”

“I… yes?” Rem squeaked.

The woman let out a long-suffering sigh when she glanced at me.

“And you brought a kid from the human family as well… Oh dear… this should be fun… what a fine mess my sister left me…”

Rem’s eyes became way too big again.

“You mean you’re…”

“Your aunt, yes. I am Kielo. Honestly, Villia, haven’t you told the poor boy anything?”

Villia huffed.

“Hey, I told him most of what he needed to know in order to come home! He just never listened until now.”

“Yes. I’ve heard,” Kielo said and sighed again, “Well, come on in. I think it’s high time someone actually explained these things to you.”

She opened her front door further, and Rem and I walked in with numb legs.

I wasn’t sure what I’d been expecting to find inside the honeycomb-cake house. Maybe another forest with flower-people prancing about in it. Or maybe some kind of chamber built into an ancient, huge tree. The latter was more accurate. It really felt a bit like we had stepped inside a hollow tree trunk. There was an appropriately woodland-style sofa against a wall, and there were candles lighting the place up with gentle flames. But then there were the mismatched chairs that reminded me more of Grandma and Grandpa than fairytales, and the stove that stuck out like a sore thumb. Kielo noticed when I stared at it a moment too long and smiled at me.

“I’m a bit of a scavenger. Quite a lot of us are, actually. Technology is just so fascinating!”

“Uh… sure is,” I said. Kielo sat us all down around a very plain-looking garden table and then took a deep breath. In the light of the candles I could see her freckles and the nuances in her skin colour that could have been make-up or just natural variety. I couldn’t tell for sure. She reminded me a bit of a human-shaped plant. All of the fair folk did, really.

“Okay…” Kielo said wearily, “Well, I guess I should say ‘welcome home, child’, or something like that, first. So, welcome home.”

“Thank you,” Rem said.

Kielo smiled. It was a mixture of nervousness, compassion and even understanding, so it made for an odd smile to say the least.

“This must be a bit of a shock to you. Or is it?”

Rem stared at the table for a moment, his body tense.

“I… I don’t really know what to feel about all this. It’s all so… overwhelming. I guess a part of me always knew… but I didn’t want to listen. Especially after… after things went wrong.”

“Right. Villia’s oh-so-brilliant plan of masking your disappearance by making it seem like a crazed man did it,” Kielo said, “And making herself look like a trustworthy person by being the one to save you from him. I told you it wouldn’t work!”

“What?” I said, “That’s why you did all that?”

“Hey! I’d like to see you do better!” Villia retorted, glaring at Kielo and ignoring me completely. My desire to punch her was back with a vengeance, “This isn’t exactly something we’ve had much experience with!”

“Don’t start again! We’re not here to judge stupid decisions. We’re here to help confused children.”

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“No, I want to talk about this!” I said, “You made Laketon take us just so you could take Rem ‘home’ without people coming to look for him?”

I looked at Rem, who had fallen silent. He was trembling and his eyes had that desperately suppressed shine that I could guess was somehow related to his episodes of uncontrollable magic.

Yes!” Villia snapped, “But I never meant it to go that far! It was supposed to be simple, but Laketon was far more unpredictable than I thought! I told you I was sorry and I promise not to do that again. I was wrong and stupid. Are you happy now?”

I glared at her in disbelieving rage.

No! I’m the opposite of happy about all this!”

“Fine!” Villia snapped, and then her defiant expression melted into regret, “Just… I’m trying to make up for it. I really am.”

“I believe you,” Rem whispered. His shoulders were still far too tense and his fists were clenched. I felt his magic thinning the air around us.

“Alright, let’s all calm down,” said Kielo, “We can all agree that Villia was an idiot. But she was just trying to fix the mess my sister started.”

“Um… What mess?” Rem asked, “Villia told us that I’m a changeling… and I guess I have to believe it now. It’s hard not to, really. She told me that this isn’t… normal for you. I… I still don’t understand this.”

“Of course you don’t,” Kielo said, “That’s why we’re here, having this questioning session. Now… first, a little history lesson. Back in the happy, birdsong-filled ancient past our kind would sometimes meddle with humans, and humans would meddle with us. Back then the fair folk was more curious about people, and it was almost customary to switch some of their babies with ours to see how the families would react. Messed up, I know.”

She laughed bitterly and I realised that I might actually be able to like her.

“Later it was done to give some of our orphaned children a good home. We’d find a family with a dying baby and make the switch. The changeling would subconsciously adapt to the new environment by creating their human disguise, which they grow into so well that it basically becomes their real shape. Usually the human parents’ relief of their child being ‘miraculously healed’ combined with the baby’s illusions was enough to fool them. The human baby usually died soon after in the care of the fair folk, and eventually the changeling would return to us after giving the human parents a taste of parental love.”

Kielo paused, looking thoughtfully at the table and tracing her finger in the seams between the planks. The mix of regret and discomfort on her face was obvious.

“But nowadays we hardly do anything to mingle with humans,” she said, “Some, like Villia here, are pretty good at blending in and helping us understand people, but that’s about it. There’s no messed up baby-switches or… magical deals that always go wrong. We just want to be left in peace for the most part.”

“So… why did my mother switch me?” Rem asked, his voice trembling just a bit.

Kielo wrung her hands and laughed nervously.

“Yeah, that is the big question, huh? Oh, I so love crushing other people’s nice worldviews and talking judgementally about my dead sister. Well, long story short… she did it because you were sick and dying.”

Rem stared.

“What?”

“It was a nasty illness,” Kielo said, “Some kind of influenza, or whatever it is you call it, but much angrier than usually. Normally we are very resilient to most illnesses, but this one got straight through our immune system. We lost many to it, including your father. His name was Kaita. Your mother – Taru – was expecting at the time and had you soon after your father’s passing…”

“To be honest, Kaita and Taru’s whole relationship had basically been a fling, nothing more… but I guess his passing hit her harder than she wanted to admit. She named you after him and tried to move on. But you got sick with the same illness almost right after.”

She took a deep, mournful breath.

“I remember her crying, being desperate, begging the healers to help. She had seen your death so many times in her mind. She was clairvoyant, much like you are from what I’ve heard. Though it didn’t really take a vision to see that we were just delaying the inevitable.”

Rem’s breath hitched. He wasn’t crying, but his fists were clenched so tight that it was a wonder his fingernails hadn’t drawn blood yet.

“Then, only a week or two after you were born, Taru disappeared with you,” Kielo went on, “She was gone for days, and none of us could tell where she had gone.”

“When she returned she had a human baby with her. She claimed she had had one of her visions. That there had been a baby abandoned in the woods nearby. She said you were dead and that she had buried you, that the new child was like a gift from the forest. She called him Alvar.”

Kielo shook her head.

“We were stupid to believe her. Even though she had always been the most honest of us, we should have seen that her grief had made her desperate. It took us years to realise she’d been lying…”

“…that she had walked right into a nearby hospital and pretended it was the Dark Ages and that changelings were okay.”

“She took a healthy baby boy with her, and left her dying child for the humans to sort out.”

“Even she couldn’t see that they would manage to save him. Human medicine has been ahead of ours for decades now, so maybe we could have realised before… but no… it took us years to figure it out.”

Kielo sighed.

“At first we were just happy to see Taru smile again. I guess we didn’t want to believe she could have been lying. When we found out, we were so angry with her. But we’d already learned to love Alvar, and there was no way we could have taken him back. But we couldn’t just ignore you either. In the old times the changelings used to eventually seek their way back home. You know, before they reached their teenage years and would need guidance with their developing magic. But you wouldn’t come back. We knew we needed to fix it somehow.”

“So they sent me,” said Villia, “I was an old family friend, and I felt rather at home during my visits to the human world. But you know the rest. Needless to say, things didn’t work out like we planned.”

My mouth had suddenly become very dry. These… these people… Rem’s mother had stolen a frickin’ baby from Patrick and Donna? And thought that it would have been okay to dump the grief of losing a child on someone else? And more importantly, she had been okay with just abandoning her own dying child, rather than facing the possibility of losing him? It was so fucked up that I couldn’t find any civilised words for it. And then Villia had continued the same messed up logic and thought it would have been okay to steal a kid from our family again and let us believe that Rem had died… or worse?

“What the hell is wrong with you people?” I managed to hiss through my teeth.

Kielo raised her hands defensively.

“Hey, I was always against all of this! I mean, I wanted our Kaita home once I heard he was alive, but not like… not like this. Kai- I mean, Rem? Are you… can you hear me?”

I turned to look at my stepbrother, who wasn’t really my stepbrother at all. He didn’t seem to find any words for this. He was shaking and his eyes had a frighteningly shocked look in them. The air around him seemed to waver. Villia shifted in her seat.

“I think he’s having a stress-induced power surge,” she said and to her credit managed to sound genuinely worried despite her clinical choice of words, “Just breathe, Rem.”

“Hey, what’s going on here? People are talking that… oh, guests! Hi!”

Rem suddenly stopped shaking at the sound of the new voice. In fact, he became completely still. I looked over his shoulder and saw a teenager at the door. And even though I had already begun expecting to see him at some point after the pieces of Rem’s past had started clicking together, it was still a shock.

I stared at the human who had the unmistakable features of Patrick and Donna on his face. The boy whom Donna Brooke had lost and mourned at the cost of hating the rest of her family. My real stepbrother.

Rem stood and pushed past the teen without looking at him. He was running before I could stop him. The boy at the door looked at Kielo and Villia helplessly.

“Uh… was it something I said?” he asked.

Then his eyes found me, and he smiled.

“Oh? Hi! You’re different! There’s never been another human here! I’m Alvar.”

“Yeah,” I said, my vocal cords feeling strangely weak, “I kinda guessed that.”

Then I rushed outside after Rem.

Author’s Note: Well, that was… problematic to write. Aside from this part of the story requiring a lot of building and Sim-creation – which I love, but will also admit that it takes a lot of time – I’m again almost having these “this story sucks and should be destroyed” -moods, but I’m trying to fix that by really trying to bring the threads of the plot together. So the answer to the mystery that has plagued the Farley-Monsoon family iiiis… that people have been in denial a lot about things they could have known earlier and that Rem’s past is filled with some really selfish people. Then again, they have their reasons, even though they’ve been pretty stupid at times. Oh, well, you can be the judge of just how messed up these people were. I mean, I can at least think of hundreds of ways they could have been worse.

And oh man, Rem’s mum turned out pretty even if I say so myself. I was especially surprised by her human form, which I made by creating a twin of the pixie form and just changing the skin tone, hair, clothes and makeup.

But I’m rambling now. I hope you’ve been enjoying this mess of a story. I’m super, super grateful of all the wonderful comments and other support you people have given me. 🙂 Now don’t worry (or do worry, depending on how you like my story), this story is far from being over even after this whole changeling-mess has been sorted out. I mean, these characters are just kids so they still have plenty of life left for me to mess with! *evil chuckle*

Also here’s a fun(?) bit of trivia for you: All of the names of the fair folk are either Finnish words, Finnish names (most are both), or at the very least slightly modified versions of them. For those who are curious, here’s a list of the ones that were mentioned in this chapter:

Villia: This is an intentional butchering of the word vilja, which is Finnish for grain/crop. I modified the word in a way that should hopefully trick English-speakers into pronouncing it correctly (In Finnish, the letter ‘j’ is always pronounced like the ‘y’ in ‘you’). There’s also the word villi in the name. It means wild.

Kielo: Finnish for a lily of the valley.

Myrsky: Finnish for storm. It’s also a word that is probably going to be a pain for English speakers to pronounce correctly. 😛 Sorry, I’m evil. (The letter ‘y’ is always pronounced like the ‘u’ in the French word ‘lune’ (moon), for example).

Taru: Finnish for (fairytale-like) legend or myth.

Kaita: Finnish for narrow, though the word is almost never used and people use the same-meaning word kapea much more often. Can also be an older, nowadays not often used form of the verb kaitsea, which means to shepherd, to guard, or to protect (with devotion).

Alvar: A Finnish name, though uncommon and not a native one. Comes from the Old Norse name Alfarr, which is formed from alfr (elf) and arr (warrior). Also a Swedish and Estonian name. One of the most famous Finnish architects/designers was called Alvar Aalto.

Whew, that’s that. I hope you have a lovely time!

PREVIOUS Chapter: Puzzled

NEXT Chapter: Rabbit Hole

Chapter 17: Puzzled

We didn’t talk much on our way back to Twinbrook. Rem sat at the window seat with his cheek plastered to the glass. At some points I thought he was trying to somehow phase through the window and onto the road. But maybe that was just me being morbid. He wasn’t crying anymore, but I could tell he was far from being over it. And again I couldn’t blame him.

As for me, I was mostly angry. At everything. At whoever had screwed over the Monsoon family. At Donna for making Rem so upset. At myself for not being able to comfort my brother better. And at life for always turning out to be full of crap just when I was starting to see silver linings in too many places.

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It was pretty late when we got back; our return bus from Willowglade was the last one for the day. Luckily Grandma Brandi and Grandpa Lórccan weren’t too overprotective and just seemed happy that we’d come back before midnight. They asked about Rem’s quietness and tried to comfort him even when Rem insisted – quite unconvincingly – that he was fine. I had a feeling that if I hadn’t been with him, he would be running in a forest somewhere to be sad in peace. But I’d made sure he wouldn’t wander off. This trip had already made things darker. I didn’t want to add any physical damage or danger to it as well.

Rem buried himself into his sleeping bag almost as soon as we’d got something to eat. Grandma and Grandpa found it odd and worrying, but they were also experienced enough to know when someone just wanted their space. So they went to bed as well, and left me sitting on the floor, unable to sleep.

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I hadn’t thought about changeling stories for a long time. I’d read a few, and I remembered picking some up specifically for research when Rem had had some vague doubts about being one. Now it seemed that it really was the case. Or then Donna Brooke was just really delusional. I didn’t know which possibility was sadder.

Was it possible that Rem had never been Patrick’s? Was Donna and Patrick’s real son still out there somewhere? Or was he dead and gone? At this point I wouldn’t be surprised if the hospital had really somehow planned everything and then used the switched baby for an occult ritual or something.

Rem curled up tighter in his sleeping bag. I could only see a bunch of his unruly red hair. I thought about our childhood and remembered how I’d insisted that Rem was a pixie.

Back then it had been wonder mixed with apprehension.

Now I just hated being right.

Things really didn’t work out quite like in the fairytales. Life had more nuances and less neatly tied loose ends. Life had less straightforward morals and too many moving pieces.

And as for happy endings… well, one could always hope.

When I finally fell asleep, it was to visions of a pixie boy running through murky forests, afraid and miserable.

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The next morning Rem was gone when I woke up. Grandpa Lórccan said that Rem had left early to meet some of his friends. According to him Rem had seemed to be in a better mood than yesterday, but he’d still insisted that Rem should call in a couple of hours.

“What happened yesterday anyway?” he wondered out loud, “Do you know anything about it?”

I managed a half-hearted shrug.

“Some of his reunions weren’t as heartfelt as he’d thought, I guess.”

I knew there was no use staying at Grandma and Grandpa’s place. Rem was gone and he’d be back when he wanted. Besides, I wanted to trust him even a little bit.

Okay, so right now I couldn’t. I called him.

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“Rem?” I asked as soon as he answered, “You okay?”

There was a long silence at the other end. It didn’t ease my mind at all.

“I’m fine”, he finally, finally said, “Don’t worry. I just needed to clear my head for a bit.”

“Where are you?”

“Places.”

“No, really. Where are you?”

“Near the beach. Don’t worry. I’ll be back before you know it. You go see your friends. Have fun.”

I tried to hear something off about his voice. He was melancholic, yes, but not… devastated. There was only a hint of the darkness in his tone, and he was speaking openly enough.

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“I’ll trust you not to do anything stupid, okay?” I said, “I’ll call you soon.”

“Yeah. Okay.”

He hung up before I could say anything more. I sighed. It was going to be a long day.

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“Hey, Lynn? You okay? You look pretty depressed.”

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I looked up at Jace, a big part of me regretting that I’d agreed to meet with my friends today. I was probably lousy company at the moment. I hadn’t been excited about the walk in the town and the jokes and ice cream at the park, nor was I getting into the picnic near the beach either.

“I’m fine,” I said, “Sorry. It’s just… Rem was pretty down yesterday. I think he still is. I kind of feel guilty for having fun when someone close to me is feeling so bad.”

Jace smiled at me.

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“Aww, you’re so sweet. And uh… it sucks that your brother’s feeling down. What’s wrong with him?”

I really, really considered telling them the truth. Bree leaned forward in her seat, curiosity mixing with worry. Jace had put his hand on my shoulder. They were here for me. And we’d been apart for too long. I used to be able to tell them everything. But now… no. This was between me, Rem, and whatever skeletons there were in the Monsoon family closet. I sighed.

“I’m not sure. I’m kind of worried.”

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“Yeah, I bet,” said Bree, “Hey, if you want to postpone this, I’m okay with it. I have to leave a bit earlier anyway because of my violin lesson, so…”

I considered it for a second. But then I shook my head.

“No, I really should try to have fun. We have so little time together anyway.”

Bree smiled.

“Well then, I won’t hold it against you if you and Jace find something fun to do together while I’m gone.”

She winked, and Jace grabbed my now empty paper plate and threw it at her. I frowned.

“Is this another inside thing again?”

Bree giggled, but then she became dead serious again.

“No, really. You still don’t get it?”

“Get what?”

“Never mind.”

“Ugh! You guys suck! Jace, give me your plate, I want to throw stuff at Bree too.”

Jace obliged, and the picnic escalated into a minor food fight. And even I managed to enjoy myself for a while.

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Bree left for her violin lesson an hour later, and Jace and I were left alone. I called Rem just in case, but he said he was still doing fine and had actually ran into Mr. Bob and was having a chat with him. I chose to believe him, and hung up with a relieved, weary sigh. Jace put his hand on my shoulder again.

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“This thing is really bothering you, huh?” he said.

“Yeah,” I admitted, “But I think he’s a bit better now. He’s with your uncle.”

“Oh, well then he’s going to be fine. Uncle Bob is the best at comforting people.”

I smiled.

“Yeah. He’s pretty good. You’re not actually that bad either right now.”

Jace chuckled, and his cheeks turned a bit red.

“You know, one of the best things about you is that you’re so caring underneath all that snark.”

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I raised a brow.

“Where did that come from?”

“From my opinions?” Jace said and smiled awkwardly, “Hey, you still wanna do something together?”

It was still light out. And who knew when I’d have time to be carefree with old friends like this again? Rem was in good hands. Besides, he’d told me to have fun and not to worry about him. So I tried.

“Yeah, sure. I’d love to.”

Jace took me back to the park, where he proudly presented a rollerblading rink that had been set up this summer.

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I wasn’t very good at skating, and I was even worse when the skates had little wheels on them, but it was still fun. And Jace was having so much fun too. He skated in circles around me and cracked bad jokes until I was laughing at the sheer awfulness of the humour.

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He even tried to teach me how to do pirouettes, which he insisted was just spinning if it was done by two people. Maybe that was true. Or maybe the word pirouette just had an uncool ring to it in his ears. It was fun, nonetheless…

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…if occasionally a bit painful.

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It was getting dark when we finally left the park – after another round of ice cream and sitting by the park’s fountain – and we ended up on one of Twinbrook’s many shorelines. It was beautiful there, and nicely calm. I breathed in deep.

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“Thanks,” I said, “For today. It was probably just what I needed.”

“No problem,” Jace replied, “Look, if you want to talk about what’s been going on… I mean… you and your brother aren’t in trouble, right?”

I shook my head and hoped that was true.

“No, just… bad reunions.”

I smiled and hoped it was convincing.

“We’ll sort this out. Don’t worry.”

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I rubbed my arms. It was getting a bit cold despite it being summer. Twinbrook was never the warmest of places.

“But you know…” I said, hesitating only for a moment before deciding I really needed to get at least something off my chest, “I’m just afraid that we’ll go back to being… well, I just… You remember how we were like after Laketon… and the fire…”

“Yeah, I do. But this isn’t like that, is it?” Jace asked worriedly.

“No. Nothing like that. But it’s… it’s pretty bad. Rem’s especially kind of rattled. I’m sorry. I promised him I wouldn’t start spreading the details around. It’s… difficult.”

I sighed.

“I just want us all to be happy. But it feels like all the time everything’s so close to just falling apart. Even after all these years.”

My breath hitched. Odd. I hadn’t realised I was feeling that bad. Jace put his arms around me, and I relaxed just a little bit. I hugged him back, hoping the hug would just squeeze all the bad feelings out of me and the world. It didn’t work. Or maybe it did, a little bit.

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“Thank you,” I whispered, “And sorry. I didn’t want to drag you into this angst-fest.”

Jace chuckled.

“Hey, it’s nothing. I’m just glad I can help.”

I pulled away, but Jace’s hands caught mine on the way. Jace had a weird look on his face. One I dimly remembered seeing many times before.

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“And…” he trailed off again, an awkward smile getting in the way of his real happy face, “I’m really glad we could spend time together. Even if it was with all this worrying.”

“Yeah,” I said, “It was really nice. I’ve missed you.”

The look on Jace’s face reminded me a bit of the look I’d seen in cheesy films between the male and female lead who were destined to be together simply because they the male and female lead. But that couldn’t be right… could it?

“Me too,” Jace said, “Missed you, I mean. Look, this is probably not the best time, but it kind of needs to be said, and Bree’s really bugging me about it, and I’m bugging myself about it…”

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“Jace,” I said, “Remember to breathe.”

“Right. Sorry. Just… Lynn, Ireallylikeyou.”

I stared blankly at Jace. This was getting to an awkward territory, big time.

“Uh, yeah? I know. Wait, how do you mean ‘like’, exactly?”

Jace was still holding my hands. I looked questioningly in his eyes, feeling some kind of uncomfortable tension that I hadn’t really registered before.

And then Jace kissed me.

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It was a quick peck on the lips, and what I could – with knowledge derived from dozens of books – describe as “chaste”. Not that I was really describing anything at the moment, because my mind was too busy flatlining until it finally formed a single, clear thought:

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What. The. FUCK?

I shoved Jace away from me.

“What the hell are you doing?!” I said, and it came out as a rather shrill shout.

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Jace looked shocked, and disappointed, and possibly a little bit heartbroken. I wasn’t sure, but I was too confused and uncomfortable to care at the moment.

“Sorry!” Jace managed to squeak out, “I’m sorry! I thought you… I wanted to cheer you up and… I thought this was a… a moment!”

“What moment?” I snapped.

Jace blushed.

“You know… a… romantic one. You were giving all these signals, and…”

“What signals?”

“I… you… uh… so… you don’t like me?” Jace asked.

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“What? No!” I realised my voice was still a bit too loud. I forced myself to calm down, and cleared my throat, “Just… what… I

I trailed off, not finding the right words. Jace still got the message.

“Oh…” he blushed even more furiously, “I’m such an idiot.”

He bit his lip, and reached out with his hand. I stiffened, but he just touched my arm like he had when he had been just friend-Jace and not getting-signals-that-didn’t-exist-Jace.

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“Hey,” he said softly, “I’m… I’m really sorry. I messed up.”

I sighed.

“Yeah, well, I guess I did too. Signals. Whatever. Look, Jace, you’re one of my best friends, and I really like you. But I don’t…”

My mouth was speaking out words that I hadn’t needed to really think about before that much.

“Uh… we can still be friends?” I said, and cursed mentally immediately after. Wasn’t that on the list of things not to say in a situation like this?

Jace did manage a very forced smile, though.

“Yeah. Sure we can. I… maybe we should both just go home. This is super awkward.”

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“Are you sure you’re okay?” I asked, “I really am sorry.”

“I’ll be fine. Yeah. Let’s talk more later, okay?”

“O-”

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Jace was walking away before I could even properly start talking again.

“-kay.”

I stood alone on the familiar concrete tiles. The night air blew a chilly gust of wind through my hoodie. I tried to put my thoughts in order about this, but they just kept getting messier and messier. I wasn’t sure just how bad of a knot Jace and I had just added to the tangle of our lives, but I did know two things: that this was the inside thing Bree had kept winking at me for, and that this meant new worries and sorrows to people around me, and to me as well.

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Shit.

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I was still trying to organise my thoughts when I walked back to Grandpa and Grandma’s place. Grandma and Grandpa told me that Rem hadn’t come back yet, and they smiled faux-carefree smiles that were betrayed by the fact that they had managed to burn the dinner a little bit. Not that I could focus enough to even properly taste anything anyway. I was too busy feeling too many other things at once. Grandma and Grandpa asked about my quietness, but I just grunted in reply. They didn’t ask again. Maybe it was again that life experience telling them that I didn’t want to talk to them right now.

I wanted to talk to mum, most of all. I could usually tell her everything. I wanted to talk to Jace too, but at the same time I really didn’t.

I also wanted to talk to Rem. A faint memory of Rem talking about princes so many years ago flickered in my mind. Had that clairvoyant little bugger known that this would happen?

As if on cue, the door cracked open. Rem stood there, giving a sheepish smile in greeting.

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“Hi. I’m sorry I’m so late. I ran into my old teacher. We talked a bit about… things. About sadness and families.”

“Did it help?” Grandma Brandi simply asked. No other questions. No scolding. Just her smile that had seen quite a few things already.

Rem smiled and nodded.

“A little bit.”

He sat down and took a plateful of half-burned casserole. He caught my eyes with a clear wish to talk to me. I inclined my head questioningly, but Rem then glanced at Grandma and Grandpa. The message was clear again: not around the others. I sighed and moved my food around on my plate. My thoughts stubbornly returned to the tangle that was Jace Herring.

I tried talking to Rem after dinner, but he just kept shaking his head until it was bedtime. I really wished he wasn’t being difficult like this, but I had to play along. I couldn’t exactly talk to someone who was stubbornly escaping into dreams.

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At first I doubted I could get any sleep, but it actually didn’t take a whole lot of time for my racing thoughts to settle down enough so I could fall into the familiar, relaxing darkness.

At least in dreams I could…

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…could…

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“Aw, crap. Rem!”

Rem stepped out of the flower bushes, a sheepish smile on his face.

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“Sorry,” he said, “But this time it was intentional. This way it’s easier to talk without Grandma and Grandpa hearing us.”

I crossed my arms, vaguely noting the smooth texture of skin where the uneven scars should have been. This was definitely a dream all right. Not that the fairy forest that spread all around us could have been anything else.

“All right,” I sighed, “If you really want to go for the dramatic. What have you been doing today? Do you have any idea how worried I was in the morning?”

Rem took a deep breath.

“Okay, I know I left without saying a word in the morning, but everything’s fine. I even answered the phone all the time, didn’t I? I know you told mum and dad you’d watch me, but I just really needed to be alone for a while.”

He tried to smile diplomatically.

“Besides, you had fun with Bree and Jace, right?”

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“Fun. Yeah, sure,” I said in a perfectly deadpan tone, “For the most part. Look, I don’t want to start a lecture about… anything. What did you want to talk about?”

“I have another plan,” Rem said, and his smile flickered “Come on, let’s walk.”

His walking was more like running. He almost disappeared into the midst of giant mushrooms and spiralling trees before I caught up with him again. I tried my best to focus on his voice even though the dreamscape seemed to change with almost every step. It was an unholy amalgamation of Rem’s previous fairy forests and Twinbrook this time. I didn’t know if it was my own day seeping into the dream or if Rem just wanted some familiarity around us. Or maybe he couldn’t control it either.

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“I’ve getting flashes of this place all my life,” Rem said, “At first it was all sketchy and I didn’t know what it really was like. Then it started to become clearer.”

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We got to Twinbrook’s swamp in just a few steps. Rem stopped for a while.

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“Lately it’s become sharp,” Rem went on, “Almost painful. Today I went as far into the swamp as I dared, but I knew I wouldn’t find it alone.”

“Find what?” I asked.

Rem glanced at me.

“Where I came from, of course.”

“Oh that place”, I said wearily, “You know, it would be easier if you said things right away and didn’t replace everything with pronouns.”

“Sorry,” Rem said sheepishly.

I felt grass under my feet. In dreams even I didn’t wear shoes, it seemed. The air was again fake-cold. It just felt refreshing but lacked everything else that I could associate with coldness.

“So what was your plan?” I asked. Rem seemed really unfocused here. Like he had trouble grasping his thoughts.

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“What?” he asked, “Oh, right. Plan… Sorry, this is difficult. It’s getting harder to keep this place together. It’s your dream and my dream and memory and I can’t make sense of it.”

“That makes the two of us.”

Rem chuckled. Then he became serious again.

“Hey, I’m sorry about what happened with Jace. If you want to talk about it-“

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“Waitwaitwaitwait,” I cut him off, “So you knew that would happen? Why the heck didn’t you tell me?”

Rem raised his arms defensively.

“I didn’t know! I just… saw some things. You know… when I was little. The many princes and all that. The first suitor always fails.”

“That’s not helpful!”

Rem sighed.

“I know. It’s all blurry and messy. I just knew that something would happen, but nothing… bad I guess. And then Jace called Mr. Bob when I was still there and I knew…”

He took a deep breath.

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“I’m sorry. This… we can talk about this later if you want.”

I crossed my arms again.

“Yes. Definitely later. Or never. I think mum is better for this kind of stuff than you are. No offence.”

“None taken.”

Rem looked unfocusedly at the little swamp pond in front of us. The old, rotten train tracks above it were howling, as if trains were still going over them.

“The plan?” I said impatiently when Rem didn’t seem to be able to grasp the situation, “What was your plan?”

Rem’s head snapped up.

“Oh, right. Sorry.”

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We took another step and were in a different place again. The fairy forest was back, and in the distance a small window was shining with light like a beacon. Rem smiled at it.

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“It took me years to find my way here. Now… now I can almost get to where they want me to go.”

He reached out with his hand and it pressed against solid fog.

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Almost,” he repeated, “I think this is as close to a memory as I can get. But I know it’s real. Maybe not all mine, even, because I had to be really little when I was here. But it’s somewhere around here… near Twinbrook.”

The window seemed to taunt us. The stars above blanketed the sky and us with their warm glow.

“I know I can’t find it,” he said again, “But they want to find me. So I’m letting them do that now. We’re here, closer to them.”

He looked at me.

“Will you… come with me to let them find me?”

I sighed.

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“Rem, right now you’re not making any sense. But yeah, I told you I’d help you. And I will.”

Rem smiled.

“Thank you. Then… I’ll leave tomorrow morning again. Just… go out too, and don’t make Grandma and Grandpa worried. Wait for my call.”

“Okay. Deal. Now could you please stop with all these special effects? They’re clearly messing with your head.”

Rem actually laughed. It rang in the air and some of it was caught in the stars.

“You’re right. Let’s go back. Just… run until the swamp ends. You know how to get out.”

Then he was gone.

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I looked at the fairy window in the distance one more time and started running.

The next morning Rem was gone like he had told me. It was pretty easy for me to excuse myself from the house after Bree called me around midday and wanted to meet me at Café Pistachio. I had a bad feeling about that, because I was certain Jace had told her about the fiasco last night. I was really not looking forward to sorting that out with anyone yet. Heck, I hadn’t even had time to sort out my thoughts about it. But Bree pretty much jumped at me once I got to the café. She had already started her shift, and her overly cutesy dress and retro ponytail kind of comically clashed with her outraged expression. It almost made me feel less anxious about this all. Almost, but not enough.

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“What happened?!” she snapped as a greeting, “I called Jace this morning and he was just… I don’t even know. Disappointed and baffled! What did you do?”

I raised my hands defensively.

“Hey, he kissed me without warning! Told me I’d been sending some ‘signals’.”

“You were!”

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“No I wasn’t! What signals are you even-“ I forced myself to take a deep breath, “Look, it was a disaster. We both misread the situation, and I hope we can just get past this and move on, okay?”

Bree stared at me incredulously with her pretty, big eyes. I sighed.

“I’m really sorry I upset him. I’ll call him once I’ve got this sorted out better, okay?”

Bree’s expression finally softened a bit.

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“But… It’s just… I’ve been shipping you guys since we were twelve!”

“You… what?”

Bree rolled her eyes.

“You know, shipping. It’s when-“

“I know what that means! But I just… Jace and I, really?”

“It was pretty obvious on Jace’s part at least,” Bree said.

“No it wasn’t.”

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“Okay, so it wasn’t for you,” Bree smiled, “Hey, sorry for snapping at you. I know you and your brother are going through some issues even without any relationship drama from here.”

“No kidding.”

“Sorry.”

“Hey, you didn’t know, I-“

My cell phone rang. Thank goodness.

“Oh, sorry, I’ve got to get this.”

I quickly put the phone to my ear.

“Rem? Where are you?”

“Come to the Community Gardens right away. They found me.”

“That still kind of makes no sense but okay. Don’t go anywhere.”

I turned to Bree and smiled.

“Hey, family needs me. Sorry.”

Bree nodded.

“Yeah. No problem. If you need any help, you know you can call me.”

“I do. I’ll get back to this… Jace thing later.”

“Yeah, you will.”

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Well, that was only marginally less awkward than yesterday.

I was actually relieved to get away from Bree. An unusual feeling, but all things considered I figured it was totally understandable.

I jogged to the Community Gardens, which was a ridiculously pretty garden with free vegetables and fruit for everyone who was active enough to go pick them. Patrick had loved to take us there occasionally when we’d been little. I remembered him saying once or twice that he’d gone there to teach Rem how to walk back before he’d met mum and when Rem had still been a tiny toddler. Not a bad place to learn at all.

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I walked through the gate to the almost overwhelming mix of flowers and fruit. Rem was waiting for me near the centre of it all. I hastened my steps, but stopped dead on my tracks when I realised who it was that had found Rem.

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In retrospect, I probably should have seen it coming. Knowing that didn’t make me feel any less angry, though.

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“Hello, Lynn. Rem insisted that we waited for you.”

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I clenched my fists and quietly snarled at the woman who had caused us all so much grief.

 

Author’s Note: LET YOUR EYES MELT AT THE SIGHT OF MY POOR ROMANCE WRITING SKILLS! Mwahahwahahaa! Ahem, but seriously, the kiss wasn’t supposed to be anything but awkward and it was supposed to come right out of left field for Lynn. So yeah. That happened.

It took me a while to get this flowing and to make this not awful. Then I realised I could do another dream scene and that helped me be happy with this so here we go! The first mystery of this story is close to finally being resolved. Doesn’t mean we’re even close to being done with the actual story, though.

I hope at least some of you enjoyed this. As always, feedback and talking with me is always welcome!

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