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 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 16: Mother

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I stared at Rem’s excited expression and could only muster up surprise in return. We had gone up to Rem and Merrill’s room after our delicious dim sum dinner to talk more about the Hunter’s findings. I hadn’t known what I’d been expecting, really. But somehow it hadn’t been this.

From what Rem had told me, Douglas had found out everything about Donna. Everything that mattered, at least. That wasn’t the surprising part. Donna had remarried a year after her and Patrick’s divorce, and now had a new husband and two kids under the surname Brooke. The family had lived abroad for the last six years, but a couple of years ago they had move back to SimNation. They now lived in a town called Willowglade, a place I’d heard of vaguely, mostly because it was not far away from…

Screenshot-108

“Twinbrook?” I said out loud when we finally got to that part of Rem’s hushed explanation, “She’s been a twenty-minute drive away from our old home this whole time?”

“Not this whole time,” Rem corrected, “More like a few years. But yeah, it’s funny. Maybe she couldn’t stay away from her home, but didn’t want to go all the way back.”

Maybe. Not that it really mattered. What mattered was that it was actually very convenient for us.

“Well, at least we have an excuse to travel there, if it comes down to that” I said, “We can tell mum and Patrick that we want to visit grandma and grandpa. And see our old friends.”

Rem nodded, a familiar bright smile splitting his face.

“That’s a good idea! You can ask. I don’t think I can ask it in a way that dad doesn’t get suspicious. You’re better at pretending that this isn’t a big deal.”

I wasn’t sure if that was a compliment or not. Maybe it was supposed to be.

“Weren’t you supposed to call her first?”

Screenshot-113

“Oh, right. Yeah, I’ll do that right away.”

We heard Patrick calling us downstairs. We glanced at each other with an unspoken agreement.

Tomorrow.

The next day things didn’t look quite as promising any longer. Rem left to the town centre in the morning, and I knew it was because he wanted to call from somewhere where he could be sure that mum and Patrick couldn’t hear him. He was gone for far too long for one measly phone call, though, and returned in the afternoon, all yesterday’s excitement gone from his face. I caught up with him at the porch and we sat on the stairs that were still warm after the sunny day.

Screenshot-147

Rem looked down, embarrassment mixing with sadness on his face.

“She hung up on me,” he said very quietly, “I told her who I was, and she became angry. Said that dad had promised not to butt into her life.”

Wow. Harsh. And strange. What was going on with Rem’s old family?

“What did you do?” I asked gently. I still wasn’t good at this comforting thing, but I at least had to try.

Rem leaned heavily against the railing, trying to disappear into his oversized sweater.

“Well, I tried calling her one more time, but the result was the same. So I went to a park to calm down. Sat in a tree all day.”

“And… after all that, you still want to talk to her?” I asked, even though I knew what the answer was going to be.

“Yes. I have to go there.”

Right.

“Rem…” I hesitated a moment, “I know you want answers, but are you sure this is the smart idea? Just showing up on her doorstep?”

Rem bit his lip.

“I don’t know,” he finally said, “But I have to get some answers. You’ll help me, right? I promise I won’t ask you to do anything so… possibly stupid ever again.”

I sighed and reminded myself that we’d already come this far. To the point where we’d really have to work to get even more forward.

I’d do it. I already knew that when I questioned it in my mind.

Screenshot-124

The first step was to ask for permission to go all the way to Twinbrook by ourselves. I waited until my next driving lesson with mum to do that. Then I had an excuse to not look her directly in the eyes when I talked. I kept my eyes on the road like I’d been taught and tried to keep my grip on the steering wheel relaxed. My mouth felt dry, and I licked my lips nervously, hoping mum wouldn’t notice it.

“Hey, mum,” I began, “I’ve been thinking… well, Rem and I’ve been thinking that we’d like to visit Twinbrook again.”

Mum nodded, an enthusiastic smile on her face.

“Of course,” she said, “I’m sure Patrick can take you. I’m so busy with my articles right now.”

Screenshot-123

“Umm… Actually, we were wondering if we could just take the bus. You know, to see our friends.”

I saw mum frown and hurried to add:

“We can ask Grandma Brandi and Grandpa Lórccan if we can stay there for a couple of nights.”

Mum’s eyes softened at that.

“I get it,” she said with laughter in her voice, “You don’t want your old mum and dad dragging you around on a family vacation.”

“It’s not that,” I said, but then rethought it, “Well, it kind of is. But we’d love to go somewhere as a family too! Just… sometimes I’d really like to just… go, you know? On my own. Well, with Rem now, obviously. I promise I’ll make sure he doesn’t do anything stupid.”

Damn. I wasn’t good at this. Why did I agree to be the spokesperson? Mum was quiet for a while, and for that while I was sure that she’d start a lecture about how she and Patrick had always known about our little plan and how we shouldn’t hide things from them, and-

“This is what it’s been about, then,” she said, “You and Rem have been planning something, haven’t you? It’s been this trip.”

Screenshot-121

It took a lot of self-control to stop a groan of defeat. I mean, she only knew the half of it. The most important part was still safe. I hoped.

“Yeah,” I said, playing up the guilt in my voice a bit, “We’ve both been missing our friends.”

Mum nodded, but she still wasn’t totally fine with it.

“You do remember that… Laketon is out of prison now,” she said, “I don’t want to scare you with him, but I just…”

“Yeah, I know,” I said and swallowed down a lump in my throat, “But he’s not in Twinbrook, right? He’s probably back at his home. And I don’t think he’ll just jump out at us from the first bush even if we go there.”

I squeezed the steering wheel a bit tighter, and then forced myself to relax then.

“We’ve been talking about how we can’t be afraid forever,” I said, “I think it’s high time to prove that we aren’t.”

I was surprised to realise that I believed my own words. Almost, at least. It was a far cry from the time we’d run away from our old home because we’d felt that Laketon’s prison cell had been too close to it. Mum was probably thinking along those lines as well, because she gave me a shaky smile.

“Well then, I guess you are old enough to get on a bus on your own. But we have to talk with Patrick about this. And you will have to stay at Brandi and Lórccan’s.”

I nodded furiously.

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“Sure! Let’s call them right away. Well, after we get back home.”

Grandma Brandi and Grandpa Lórccan were ecstatic to accommodate us for a few days. Not surprising, since we hadn’t had time to properly visit them more than once this summer.

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Well, Patrick and Merrill had driven there one Wednesday when the rest of us had been busy, and I could imagine that visit had been nothing but gushing over how much Mer had grown and how cute he still was. I had to admit that I was pretty excited to see Grandma and Grandpa too. Not to mention that I’d have a chance to spend some time with Bree and Jace. I had been neglecting them too lately, only talking to them through video calls and social media. We agreed to go to Twinbrook the very next week, and to stay there for four nights. It wasn’t a long time considering we needed to secretly hunt for some clues about Rem’s past while we were there, but we didn’t want to push it either. We would already be bothering Grandma and Grandpa enough, even though they probably wouldn’t mind.

I still minded, though. Not just bothering them, but bothering a family who had clearly cut ties to Patrick and Rem ages ago. The whole thing felt wrong to me. What kind of mother hangs up on their child, even if her divorce with the dad had been a rocky one? I again thought of Laketon, and how much trouble and pain he had caused us by just appearing on our doorstep. Now we would be doing pretty much the same to the Brookes. And even though Douglas had said that they seemed like a normal, happy family of four, I was afraid of what we were going to find.

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Rem seemed to be bothered too. He immersed himself into painting for hours and hours every day, using his current in-progress commission as an excuse. I could see through it, though, and I’m sure that mum and Patrick did too. They weren’t stupid. I hoped Rem at least knew how obviously suspicious he was being with his shifty eyes and restless feet. But even if he knew, he just couldn’t help it.

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It especially strained his relationship with Patrick. There was a tense silence between them more often than not. I really hoped it was not permanent. Patrick and Rem had always been on such great terms. Maybe Rem was afraid that Donna would get annoyed enough by the two calls he’d made that she’d seek out Patrick’s number and unknowingly bust us. To be fair, I was a bit afraid of that too. But if either mum or Patrick were suspicious of something, they didn’t say anything about it.

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Then the week of awkward silence was over, and Rem and I were standing at our porch, a bunch of clothing stuffed into our backpacks. Mum, Patrick, and Merrill crowded the front door to say goodbye to us. I supposed it shouldn’t have been such a big deal for teenagers to take a bus to their grandparents on their own, but to be fair, most teenagers probably hadn’t been traumatised and/or burned half to death because of angry and possibly crazed fathers either. Thank goodness, really.

“You watch yourselves out there,” said mum, “And give our regards to Brandi and Lórccan.”

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“We will,” said Rem, “And you take care too. Bye, Merry!”

Merrill giggled when Rem wiggled his fingers at his face as a goodbye.

“Bye!” Mer said, “Watch out for thombies!”

“Zombies,” I corrected, “And yeah, we’ll watch out for them.”

They gave us a bit more hugs before we were set to go. Rem hopped down the stairs and started sprinting.

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“Hey, Lynn! I’ll race you to the bus stop!”

He broke into a run, and I trailed behind without really accepting his challenge. Once we were almost at the road I glanced back and saw mum, Patrick, and Merrill still watching us go, waving and smiling.

I really hoped that once this was done, we could come back to this and everything would still be the way it was now.

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I really, really hoped that.

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Twinbrook still looked the same, at least. The swamp was still there, uninviting but somehow reassuringly Twinbrook-ish. The Always Studious Bookstore was still open, and the library was as sturdy as ever. Our school went by, and a few blocks from where our bus meandered through was our house. We didn’t catch a glimpse of it, but I still looked towards it as if I could see it through the centre’s buildings. It all made me feel nostalgic, and I wondered if it could feel like home again. Maybe. Not that we were planning on moving back. We were Sunset Valley people now, more or less.

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Grandma Brandi and Grandpa Lórccan were waiting for us at their porch like a proper welcome committee. They greeted us with hugs and ushered us inside. They were all smiles and warm welcomes, and Grandma Brandi practically hopped into their kitchenette to cook some salad for us. There was an enthusiastic hostess mixed with a huge dose of bohemian in her, and I loved it. It was the kind of hospitality that was ready with warm beverages but also approved of feet on the table. As Grandma Brandi worked, Grandpa took out some sleeping bags, and we set them on the living room floor.

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Rem was especially excited about the sleeping bags, probably getting campfire and marshmallow-filled flashbacks courtesy of his Boy Scout days.

“This is neat!” he said, “It’s like we’re camping, but indoors. I mean, it’s not as neat as a forest, but this place has samurai swords on the wall!”

“And the music box,” I said, amused. My brother was never going to grow up, was he?

His smile widened.

“Exactly! Hold on, I haven’t greeted good old Davey yet!”

I sat down on the old couch and watched my brother scurry to his favourite table and start fiddling with the music box. I felt Grandpa Lórccan’s presence shifting the couch cushions.

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“You know, I would never have guessed that an old, spinning gnome would become a constant thing in our lives,” I said, “Or at least in our visits here.”

Grandpa Lórccan smiled, and I could see that he looked older than before. Like he had aged a year or five between our visits. He looked more tired, too. That didn’t stop him from laughing the same warm laugh I’d got used to hearing from him.

“Hey, anything can become a constant. I’d say a dancing gnome isn’t a bad choice.”

“It could be worse, I guess.”

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“Definitely,” Grandpa Lórccan chuckled, “But aside from playing with music boxes, what are your plans here? Going to see your friends, right?”

“Yeah,” I said, “I agreed to meet with Bree Vasquez at her summer job place. She’s working at a café.”

Grandpa nodded.

“I’ve seen her working. Café Pistachio, right? It’s a nice place. And your other friend, Jace?”

“He’ll catch up with us. It’s all figured out. And Rem’s meeting up with his old buddies on his own. It’s going to be a fun day.”

Well, a fun morning, at least. The bus to Willowglade would leave in the afternoon. But Grandpa and Grandma didn’t need to know that. We’d be back for the evening, and everything would be fine.

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The gnome danced to the tune it never got tired of. Rem’s eyes were closed, and he was smiling serenely. It was the last time I saw him so relaxed in a long time.

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Café Pistachio was a small cupcake of a house in the midst of more business-like buildings. I remembered it being there before, but I hadn’t paid it much notice before. Now I was looking at it with a different perspective. Bree had been really excited about the job she’d got there, and I could kind of see why. The place was pretty, cosy, and warm, and the woman behind the counter was smiling like she’d known me all her life. Usually that kind of friendliness didn’t fly with me, but she made it look so genuine and natural that it made me smile too.

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“Hello!” the woman said, “Don’t tell me! You’re here for Bree, right?”

“Yeah,” I said shyly, “I’m Lynn.”

“It’s lovely to meet you,” the woman said, and her smile confirmed that it indeed was lovely to meet me, “I’m Shauna. Bree’s in the back, but I told her to take the morning off so she can see you. We don’t get that many customers at this hour anyway. Bree! Your friend’s here!”

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Bree emerged from the back, beaming as if Shauna’s smile was contagious. And I had to admit that it kind of was. She greeted me with a hug, and I didn’t mind it this time. We hadn’t seen each other outside of video calls for a year. Again.

“I’m so not getting out of here before you’ve tried some of the hot cocoa here,” Bree said as soon as she released me, “And Shauna’s lemon tarts are the best!”

I chuckled.

“All right, I guess I have to.”

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“Now, Bree, what have I said about holding your friends hostage here?” Shauna said in a joking tone.

Bree pretended to think about it.

“Only if I make them try some cookies too?”

Shauna winked.

“That’s right!”

We all laughed and ordered some cocoa and cookies. There was no way I was going to say no.

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We talked for a couple of hours, and it felt like too short a time. Bree hadn’t become an astronaut or a leader, but she was furiously saving up money to go to the university so she could study business. She was also involved in a mind-boggling amount of projects in and out of school, ranging from music events to amateur filmmaking and volunteer work. She had always had that superpower of crazy time-managing and endless energy for activities. She also had a boyfriend now. Someone named Preston Daley. I remembered him vaguely as the kid who’d delivered newspapers back when we’d lived here. Huh, everyone had to grow up someday, I supposed.

I told her about the writing contests, jogging, gaming sessions with Michel, and Merrill’s latest cute moments. An hour into our meeting Jace barged in like we’d agreed, out of breath after running from helping his parents with something all morning.

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“Hey, Jace,” I said, and Jace froze for a moment, his eyes darting to me with impressive speed.

“Hey, Lynn! You’re here,” he said.

“Yeah. Just like we agreed.”

“Yeah, yeah, we did. Hey, Shauna, you still have that good coffee?”

“What’s up with him?” I whispered when Jace had clumsily excused himself and walked to the counter way too nonchalantly to really be nonchalant.

Bree stared back at me with something akin to disbelief.

“You can’t guess? Still?” she asked.

I frowned.

“Guess what?”

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“You seriously can’t?” Bree chuckled, “Okay then, I’ll tell you later.”

“Rrrriiiight. Way to make me feel dumb for not getting something you find obvious.”

Bree shook her head, still way too amused.

“Sorry! It’s just that this is not the best of times to talk about it. Jace is super awkward about this.”

“About what?”

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“So, Lynn!” Jace said and slapped his coffee cup on the table, almost all of his previous nervousness gone, “How’re things?”

I glanced at Bree, but she just smiled again in an annoyingly knowing way. Man, I hated it when I stumbled upon some inside thing I’d missed because I didn’t live here anymore. Wouldn’t be the first time that had happened. As much as it annoyed me, though, it seemed I wouldn’t get an explanation now. So I just turned to Jace and smiled and started talking again. There was, after all, a lot of catching up to do.

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Jace was still into sports. His parents were a bit distant both from each other and from him, but Mr. Bob was as awesome an uncle as ever. Apparently Mr. Bob was planning to get married with a man he’d been dating for a few years now. His name was Brian, and he told funny jokes and had the most awesome dreadlocks Jace had ever seen.

Jace wasn’t too concerned about what he was going to do after high school yet. And he was also still single, something he reminded me quite often about for some reason. It was a bit annoying, really, but I gave him the usual “Oh, you’ll find someone; give it time” reply I always did. It was probably not the best or the most encouraging response, but it was all I could do. Romance was just something I couldn’t get excited about.

In return I showed them my tattoo, even though they’d already seen pictures of it. I told a bit more about how things were going in Sunset Valley, and deftly managed to leave out my and Rem’s secret plans once again. I checked the time when I was starting to feel a bit too comfortable with how much time we had.

“Oh, shoot,” I huffed, “It’s almost one. I agreed to meet up with Rem half past.”

“You’re already leaving?” Jace asked, sounding as disappointed as I was feeling.

“Yeah, sorry,” I said, “But hey, we can meet up again later, before we go back to Valley. I’ll message you, okay?”

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I left reluctantly after saying goodbyes, and Shauna waved at me from behind the counter as I passed her. I jogged to meet Rem near the bus stop where the bus to Willowglade was going to leave from. Rem was already waiting for me there.

Our chosen meeting place just happened to be right next to our old house. We’d both agreed that it was totally just a coincidence. The house was still where we’d left it. Not that I’d expected anything else. It was still the same kicked-over industrial building that had been turned into a nice place to live. It was apparently now occupied by a family with kids, just like it had been when we’d lived there. But it was different too. There was no garden or the small fountain I’d sometimes sit at. There was no car in the yard either, which was probably good seeing how it meant that at least some of the occupants weren’t at home to witness a weird pixie boy and his sister staring at their house.

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“Look at that!” Rem said with overdramatic outrage, “These new people have a trampoline! I’ve always wanted one!”

I looked.

“Huh. But it looks like they had to fell one of our trees to fit it there.”

“Yeah, that’s true. So… not worth it,” Rem sighed, “This place even smells familiar.”

“That sounds creepy,” I automatically took a deep breath, “But yeah, it’s also true.

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We stood there together, lost in a stalkery nostalgia trip. It was funny; all these years I’d sometimes missed this place, but I’d never spared much thought to who might be living here now. I had never even asked if mum or Patrick knew. I wondered briefly what the new occupants were like. If the pirate ship in the yard was loved, and if the kids playing with it were even more so. What would it be like to just go there and ring the doorbell? How had they set up their furniture? Who lived in my room now?

I decided not to get any answers to those questions. We would already be harassing one unfamiliar family during this trip.

“Should we get going?” I asked, “The bus will be at the stop soon.”

Rem nodded slowly.

“Yeah. Let’s go.”

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Willowglade looked a lot like Twinbrook in my eyes. Except with much less swamp and more willows. And glades. Someone had been very unoriginal with names. The Brookes lived in a yellow house that we found after some wandering around and using my phone’s navigator. The house looked so… normal. It was hard to imagine a pixie-woman living here with her family. But it had to be her, right? That was Rem’s theory anyway. The whole place was peaceful and pleasant and everything I wouldn’t want to disturb with ghosts from the past and family feuds. But here we were, nevertheless.

Rem reached his hand towards the mailbox that said Brooke, and hesitated for a long moment.

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“Are you getting cold feet now?” I asked, “You could have told me before we wasted our money coming here.”

“No… I’m fine,” said Rem, not sounding fine at all, “It’s just… I’m getting a feeling… flashes of something unpleasant. I’m not sure what, though.”

He sighed, this time heavily.

“Why can’t I ever see anything that could actually help us?”

I considered patting his shoulder, but then decided not to.

“Life sucks, doesn’t it?” I just said, “Sorry, you know I’m not very good at this. So… maybe we should just ring that doorbell and see if things really are as bad as you think, right? I mean, we already made it through one fire. Why not another one?”

Rem smiled weakly.

“You’re right. I got this.”

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He walked up to the innocent-looking front door and pushed the doorbell button. The ring was ominously cheery and kind of annoying at the same time. I’m pretty sure it played some kind of public domain tune that I couldn’t quite place except in my dullest nightmares. The door opened quickly, and an astronaut greeted us.

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“Hi!” the child’s voice was a bit out of breath, but still bright as a bell. She probably sounded like magic when she started singing, “Who are you? We’re not buying anything.”

Rem cleared his throat.

“And we’re not selling anything. Is… is your mother named Donna?”

The astronaut nodded and bounced up and down.

“Yeah, she is! I’m Gabrielle! Mum is right here at home now! Do you want to talk to her? Who are you people? Your ears are funny! Are they real? Why’re your eyes yellow? I’d like to have funny eyes too!”

She talked so fast and so cheerfully that I shut down for a second. Rem didn’t seem to mind, though. Probably because he was almost as bubbly at the best of times.

“I look like this because I’m magic,” he said with a smile, “And yes, I would like to talk to your mum. Can you ask her to come here?”

Gabrielle’s eyes sparkled with excitement.

“You’re really magic?”

“Maybe.”

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“Awesome! Come on in!”

She led us inside into a house that at first glance looked a bit small for a family of four. It was pretty homely, though, so maybe the size worked for its advantage. At least it was most likely less of a pain to clean than our two story house.

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“Mum!” said Gabrielle, “There’s a magic boy and a punky girl who want to talk to you here!”

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I shifted my focus from the brick walls to the family in front of me. A boy my age was playing a video game and wearing a pretty nice studded collar. I did some quick counting and figured that he was probably not biologically Donna’s kid, considering Donna had been married to Mr. Brooke for just around thirteen years. A very neatly dressed man had his back turned to me, but I could catch a glimpse of a thick book on his lap. Then there was Donna, who was an older, much more neatly dressed version of the world-embracing woman I’d seen in Patrick’s yearbook. I heard Rem stop breathing for a while, and I had to admit that I didn’t really know what to feel either, other than like my stomach had suddenly been carved hollow.

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Donna Brooke took one look at us, and gasped, and I knew she recognised at least one of us too.

“Um…” said Rem, but couldn’t continue. He didn’t have time to, either, because Donna jumped up from her seat.

“Kids, honey, could you give us some privacy?” she asked tensely.

Her husband looked at her questioningly, but took control of the kids with admirable ease and led them outside after taking a good look at us to make sure we wouldn’t pose a threat to his precious wife. It was all over in a few moments, and I had to admire the efficiency this family displayed. Or maybe Donna had expected us in a way and briefed the family in case of our arrival. Rem had called her pretty recently, after all.

Donna stood in front of us, and the silence was so heavy it was hard to breathe in.

Finally, she spoke, in an icy voice that cut the silence in half.

“What are you doing here?”

Man, she could be intimidating. Rem actually cringed and hid halfway behind me. I looked at him pointedly. I was definitely not going to be the one to do the talking here.

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“I’m sorry!” Rem managed to squeak, “I don’t want to bother you! I just-“

“Then why are you here?” Donna asked. This time her voice was a bit softer, almost gentle. Rem peeked from behind my shoulder.

“I know you don’t want to talk to me, but I just wanted to know… why you left… and if I… if you were…”

He was probably going to say “like me”, or “magic”, but he trailed off before he could finish. I could understand why. There was nothing magical about Donna Brooke. At least not in the way it applied to Rem or Villia. Even I could see that.

…So yeah, something was not right.

Donna frowned, and looked for a moment like she was going to just shoo us out and go on with her life, but then she sighed.

“Fine,” she said, “So Patrick hasn’t told you anything?”

“She said you had problems,” Rem replied timidly, “Nothing more. I was just wondering… I just wanted to meet my biological mum.”

Donna sighed again.

“Okay, you get one talk with me. Sit down. And who are you supposed to be?”

I was startled when I realised she was looking at me with a suspicious look on her face. Rem was quick to come to my defence, though:

“She’s Lynn. My sister. Well, stepsister, but still. She’s with me.”

“Well, if you say so,” there was still suspicion on Donna’s face, but it was now directed more at the situation in general, “Sit down, both of you, then.”

Her voice was again like a knife. I didn’t like it. It didn’t fit the image of the smiling woman in the pictures.

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Donna took a long moment to think about her words. In hindsight, it was probably for the best, because what she had to say was not pretty. I was dreading it already when she pressed her palms together in front of her mouth and then lowered them slowly like she was about to announce a death sentence to someone. Perhaps to hope or optimism.

“To be honest,” she started slowly and wearily, “I’ve been dreading this day for years now. I had a hunch that Patrick wouldn’t want to talk about this to… you. Then again, I probably wouldn’t want to either, seeing how no child wants to hear that their parents… well, split up because of them.”

It took me a moment to process what she had just said. Apparently it took some time for Rem too.

“Wait… what?” he said, “What… what do you mean?”

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“At first I was so angry at Patrick. At you,” Donna said as if she hadn’t heard him, “I imagined either of you showing up here and me just… yelling at you. Screaming, really. But now… I’ve had some more time to think. And… you were just a baby, so it couldn’t have been your fault.”

“What?” Rem asked in a shaky voice.

Donna pressed her mouth into a thin line.

“I am not your mother.”

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What?

A very painful silence filled the living room. I was too busy chanting What? in my head to speak, and probably Rem was too. Donna, however, was again lost in a memory she clearly didn’t like.

“When my first child was born, it was a perfect moment,” she said, a sad smile on her face, “Patrick and I were so happy. He was a perfect little boy. But we… we didn’t even make it out of the hospital before they told us that our child was very sick and might not make it.”

She swallowed down what sounded like tears.

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“It made no sense. He’d been perfectly healthy once he’d been born. Our Nathaniel… We couldn’t see him for days. They said they were doing their best to save him, but… the hardest part was to wait without knowing if… if we’d have to face the worst.”

I remembered Rem’s first name being an emergency naming. I remembered Patrick talking about how sick Rem had been when he’d been a baby. But Donna wasn’t done yet:

“Then we heard that he was going to be just fine. That they’d saved him. I was… again almost as happy as when our Nathaniel was born. Then they brought him back to me, and…”

This time the tears did make it through.

“It wasn’t him. But they all claimed it was. That I was wrong. That I couldn’t recognise my own child somehow.”

She sniffed.

“They took my child from me. And tried to replace him with you.”

She looked at Rem with such open hostility, then, that he cringed back in his seat.

“But…” he said in a broken voice, “I don’t think Twinbrook’s hospital would do anything like…”

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“I DON’T CARE WHAT YOU THINK!” Donna snapped, and Rem actually jumped up to get away from the raging woman, “Do you think I haven’t heard that a million times already?! Do you think I haven’t sat in therapy for hours for being ‘delusional’? Do you think it was easy when even Patrick refused to believe me and loved the… the thing that those hospital people had presented as our Nathaniel? Do you think it’s easy doubting that all this time, it really has been me who got it wrong? That I have hated my own child? NO! I… I…”

She took a few deep breaths.

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“I think you should just go… I… I tried to… I just can’t…”

She couldn’t even finish the sentence.

Rem seemed to sway on his feet, and then managed a very, very quiet:

“I… I see. I’m so sorry.”

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He turned and ran right through the front door and disappeared outside. I was too shocked to react to anything anymore. This was just… what? I couldn’t even find the words in my mind. I excused myself, stood on legs that had been much stronger when we’d got in, and ran after Rem.

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I imagined Donna Brooke standing in her living room, with the tears still in her eyes.

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Rem didn’t make it far. He collapsed on the Brookes’ yard, and his shoulders shook with the sobs I could hear even to the front door.

I really, really couldn’t blame him.

Hell, at least my dad had been more straightforwardly messed up. Then again, at least Donna hadn’t burned us. Physically, at least. With her words, however, she’d probably more like cut Rem to ribbons.

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“Hey,” I said as gently as I could, “Are you okay?”

Rem was up so quickly it was almost scary.

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Well what the hell do you think?!” he snapped, screamed, really.

I took a step back when he practically lashed out at me. For a moment I feared that hallucinatory plants would start appearing around us again.

“Okay, calm down,” I said, “This was definitely not what we expected, and yeah, it was… pretty bad. Well, really bad. But…”

But what? There was really nothing I could say to make this better.

Rem glared at me, tears running down his cheeks. Then he broke again, all of his rage spent in just a few seconds.

“I… I don’t know what to do,” he whispered.

He looked like he was about to collapse again, but something – and I still don’t know what – barely kept him standing.

“The worst part…” his words broke, and he fumbled to get them back together, “The worst part is that I know that she was right. That I…”

He couldn’t finish it. I slowly stepped towards him and, when he didn’t lash out, pulled him into a tight hug.

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“I’m sorry,” I said.

I could have said that it was going to be alright, but at the moment I knew that Rem didn’t want to hear it.

I’d say it later, when it would actually mean something.

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Author’s Note: Whew, finally got this done! It took some time because for some reason the café scene really got me stuck. I even considered leaving it out but it does sort of reintroduce Bree and Jace so… yeah.

Also, if you haven’t noticed, I’ve also started a new story called The Chrysanthemum Tango! It’s a fantasy story with a bit of an attempt at some kind of humour (though so far not that much), and it’s going to be an adventure/mystery with some slice-of-life thrown in. Kind of like this one, except not really in any way.

Check it out if you haven’t already and are feeling curious! Three chapters are already out. Note that although I’m writing that story as well, it doesn’t mean that I’m giving up on this one. I’m just juggling these two according to what I feel like doing at the moment.

Have a wonderful time!

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