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  1. Earlier
  2. marmolady


    Basically, my 'New Year's Kiss' entry and its follow-up. Title: “Rekindling" Book: Endless Summer Main Pairing: Taylor (f) x Estela Genre: Hurt/Comfort, Romance Warnings: mild language Summary: Post-ending (Rourke ending). Memories from La Huerta are returning to Estela in dreams, and she finds herself drawn irrevocably to Taylor. Part One Lights danced across the frigid landscape. Light snowfall… soft and fluffy. “Hey.” Taylor’s face was lit with affection. She wore a long, elegant dress that shone silver in the light reflected off the snowy mountains that surrounded lodge. “…Hey,” Estela returned the smile. A countdown… until Taylor finished. “…Two. One.” “Happy New Year!” Estela stepped in close. The night chill seemed to vanish as her lips met with Taylor’s. She reached out to hold her lover’s hands, taking them in her own. Lying in her bed, Estela tossed and turned, lost in a memory or a dream. She walked into a cosy, luxurious bedroom, lit by a burning fire. She reads a note in a long-forgotten journal: ‘Regarding the new researcher: I feel like I recognise her from somewhere. Do another background check and get me her history. -E.’ Estela’s stomach lurched. She threw the note into the flames, her body tense as she watched it crackle and burn. Then Taylor’s hands are on her shoulders, soft and firm, taking away the tightness in her body. “Just remember that I’m here for you, to the end.” Taylor spoke with utmost sincerity. “Both to help you get what you came for… and after, when it’s all over.” “I know.” And then Taylor began undressing her, kissing down her neck, then her back. “I can’t stop thinking about you,” Estela breathed, her body bare before Taylor. “Then don’t.” Estela slowly removed Taylor’s clothes, the silky dress falling to the floor. Gasping, Estela sprang awake, a hot feeling rising at the back of her neck, her heart pounding. For several minutes she lay there, grounding herself, bringing herself back to reality. Or at least… another reality. It started at the beginning of Freshman year. The dreams. Dreams that were like… echoes from a twisted future. Growing stronger, more vivid. Out and about on campus, Estela would make eye contact with Taylor… strange, intriguing Taylor, who could almost be believed to be from another world, and the dreams would always come. And then, the night that followed would be a whirl of memories that were never made; bizarre visions of a disturbed island… eleven faces… a snarling sabre-toothed cat… blue elven people in a village around a tree… a swirling vortex… and always, Taylor. There was something about Taylor that Estela couldn’t help but admire. She was so certain of her fantastical story that one would almost want to believe her even if it weren’t for the dreams that followed her contact. She was so doggedly determined. Taylor knew too much. Things about Estela that she shouldn’t- couldn’t- know. Of course, she’d aggressively confronted her. Who was she? But Taylor had no fear of her… none. It was that which had thrown Estela most of all; Taylor trusted her implicitly and with no reason. And when their eyes met, Estela was overcome by a warmth, a feeling of belonging. She might drive herself insane wondering why, but she trusted Taylor back. Estela glanced at the clock beside her bed. Forty minutes until midnight. Had she not been jolted awake by her dream, no doubt the fireworks would soon have done the job anyway. She sat up and ran her fingers through her hair. By now she was used to disturbed sleep. It was getting difficult to separate the dreams from reality. Slowly, the pieces were falling into place, and a grim reality dawned upon her night-by-night. A vision of her mother murdered, shot point-blank by a woman she’d called a friend. She’d watched the footage with Taylor by her side. Rage bubbled up within her, real and agonising, and then she was awake. Her mother was alive… but a different one to the woman she barely knew, Rourke’s Second Empress. She’d toss and turn some more. She’d see Taylor, lying beside her, pressed up against her chest, hand lovingly tracing her side. And once more she’d jerk awake, frightened by the intimacy, intimacy with a woman she barely knew, yet knew better than anyone. Who was she? Fighting with herself, Estela succumbed to the urge to leave her bed. She hastily pulled on her clothes, and, having paused before committing to subjecting herself to the world on New Year’s Eve, made her way out the door. Taylor lay on her belly, laughing, legs kicking in the air. She plucked a piece of popcorn from the bowl in front of her. “Hey- catch!” she cried. Diego lurched forward, his mouth open, and spectacularly missed the popcorn that flew his way. Taylor gave a shout of laughter. “How could anyone catch that?” A knock at the door takes the two by surprise. “I guess I’m getting that.” Diego stumbled to his feet. “But pause- pause! Dobby is not allowed to die without me fully prepared to pay my respects.” A little inebriated, he bashed his shin against the table, causing Taylor to giggle some more. “I’m on it! You can invite our guest to our house elf memorial service, if you like.” Taylor reached clumsily for the remote, glancing at the time on her phone as she stretched over. Fifteen minutes to midnight. With a bittersweet pang, she found herself taken back momentarily to her last New Year’s Eve. Sitting around the piano as Michelle sang… wishing a happy birthday to half her friends all at once… Estela descending the staircase in that dress… “Hey, I think it’s for you!” Taylor sat up, alert despite the several beers she’d already downed. Her breath caught in her throat as Estela followed Diego into the room. Diego caught Taylor’s eye with a look of mischief. “I’ll leave you ladies to it.” From behind Estela, he gave an enthusiastic thumbs up. “E- Estela.” Estela glanced around the room awkwardly, wondering what she was thinking to come here. Taylor scooted across the couch, making room beside her. She crossed her legs and held her hand out. “It’s good to see you. I’m, uh, guessing you haven’t been out partying.” “I couldn’t sleep,” Estela said, quietly regarding Taylor with great curiosity. She hesitantly sat down beside her. Being near to Taylor felt so much more comfortable than she’d anticipated. Those dreams- memories? - whatever they were, were screwing with her mind. “I… don’t know why I’m here.” “Maybe you just wanted some company.” Almost imperceptibly, Estela nodded. She leaned back into the chair, finding herself relaxing. Then Taylor’s hand brushed against hers. She found herself aware of her heart thumping in her chest, adrenaline pulsing through her. “Taylor… I believe you. All those things… the island, Rourke, our friends. You. I know you’re telling the truth.” Taylor felt her stomach do a giddy somersault. “I’m not crazy?” A wry smile played on her face. “No.” Estela lay her hand beside Taylor’s, touching it ever so slightly. At first contact, her cheeks flushed. She closed her eyes, embracing the silence, the feeling of being where she was supposed to be. Taylor snuggled into the back of the couch, and she placed her fingers over Estela’s hand. It had been so long. So long. Her wife, the person she loved most in all the world… to her she’d been a stranger, and it was torture. Feeling her eyes grow misty, Taylor hastily collected herself. Estela didn’t give of herself easily. It was okay… it was part of her, and she loved all of her. The clock ticked onwards, echoed voices in the corridors chanting each step in the countdown. Eight. Seven. Six. Before she knew what she was doing, Estela drew into Taylor, pulled by an invisible force she couldn’t understand. So close, she could read each freckle, each line in her face. And it was as though she’d been there before. Five. Four. Three. Taylor looked back at her with a desperate hunger, an aching need that Estela felt in the thundering of her own heart. Images whirled through Estela’s mind as the world appeared to slow; hands entwined together in ribbon, reaching out desperately for Taylor as she tumbled out of a lurching helicopter, swimming through a bejewelled cave… and what they did next. Two. One. A dull roar rang from outside the room. “Happy New Year!” Diego stuck his head out his bedroom door. As quick as he made an appearance, he made himself scarce once more. Taylor turned away from Estela, pulled from a trance. “Happy New Year, Diego!” Estela raised her hand to Taylor’s face, catching it gently as she turned back to meet her eye once more, surprising herself with the ease of the contact. It felt familiar. For a split second, her eyes widened in shock at the sensation, at memories… memories of a past that was a future that had taken place in some since-lost timeline, crashing over her like a wave. She stroked away a tear with her thumb. “Estela,” Taylor breathed. She closed the space between them, their foreheads touching. Estela, I love you. And then Estela felt her lips brush against Taylor’s. And then she was kissing her… soft, tender. And the arms that embraced her carried her back to what was real. And she was home. Part Two Taylor pulled away from the kiss first, worrying that she’d overstepped, despite the fact that it was Estela who’d initiated it. It was a bizarre feeling, to lovingly embrace her wife, as she’d done so many times before, but to have no idea if it meant to Estela what it did to her. “Was that… okay? I don’t know why I…” Estela stopped. That wasn’t true. She knew why. She didn’t understand how- how on earth she was in love with this woman. She didn’t go around falling in love with people, opening herself up to them. But it wasn’t just memories now… she could feel it. Deep within her bones, a wonderful ache that all but overwhelmed her. And Taylor… Taylor wanted it too. Her eyebrow furrowed, she ran her fingers along Taylor’s face. God, she’s beautiful. “I think I…” Love you? Shit, shit, shit, you can’t just come out and say- “That was… wonderful,” Taylor murmured, feeling alight at the touch. “Do you… do you remember? Any of it?” Estela closed her eyes. “I remember. I can feel so much… as real as any memories I’ve ever had. How did I have a whole other life that I forgot? How did I forget… you? I lo-“ She caught herself. “I’m so confused.” Before she could respond, Taylor was pushed back into the couch by a desperate hug. “Jesus, what’s wrong with me?” Taylor wrapped her arms around Estela, her heart simultaneously soaring at the feel of her closeness and breaking at her turmoil. This was never going to be easy. “Nothing’s wrong with you, okay? It’s just Rourke screwing with everything.” Estela recoiled, bristling. She ran her hands through her hair. “My mom… she’s with him. She’s not safe… she’s not…” “Hey,” Taylor said, reaching out to grasp Estela’s hand. “it’s gonna be okay.” “You don’t know…” Estela growled. “No… I don’t. I- I can’t promise that no one will get hurt. But… I know that we’ve got each other now, and I know we’ve beaten Rourke before. I can promise that I will fight for you, and for everyone you love, to my dying breath.” Estela squeezed Taylor’s hand, wincing. It was all too much… she was suffocating. She’d been walloped with a whole other lifetime’s worth of emotions, and it was turning into a sharp physical pain in her head. Feeling it all come back; the happiness she’d felt with her friends and with Taylor, a warming blast of sunshine that she didn’t know she’d missed… and the realisation of how much danger her mother was in, how she was so far away with her life in the hands of a man who’d had her murdered by a trusted friend… it was just too much. She had to do something, but the sheer overwhelm of lost memories left her in a raging storm that she simply couldn’t fight. Her free hand tightly holding her head, willing the sudden, crippling pain to stop, she cried. Her heart wrenching, Taylor reached out, holding onto Estela, pulling her close, loving her. “I’m so, so sorry,” she whispered. She didn’t know if she’d ever hated Rourke more. “It… it’s gonna get easier. More clear. I know you’re not gonna want to… but I think you need to just be gentle on yourself and let yourself adjust.” “Sit back when I know he has her?” Estela’s whole body trembled as she spoke. Taylor held her tighter, realising how close they were teetering toward a very dangerous situation. “Yes.” She spoke forcefully, but her voice quickly softened. “I need you… to trust me. I know everything’s overwhelming right now… but we’ve gotta be careful about this.” “I know that… but it feels like my head’s gonna explode. I need to do something.” “I think for now, ‘doing something’ means getting your head straight. I get it. Really, I do. I’ve been trying so hard to reach out to you all, but it’s felt like I’m getting nowhere. You know Zahra’s in the next room? It’s been months, but she’s still closed off. I know some of it’s coming back to her, but she acts like I’m crazy. But you came here. You remembered. I just don’t think it’s possible to do this any faster. We need each other- all of us- but it’s easier said than done when no one wants to know.” Estela became quiet. Her breathing steadied from a raging pant, and she let herself relax, slowly but surely. She was tired. Drained. She could understand why the others might resist the startling dreams and visions; to actually have allowed herself to succumb to the memories had knocked the stuffing out of her. Even now, certain as she was that everything she’d seen and felt was real, her mind was a jumble of questions, and of different realities competing. It was gut wrenching to know that she couldn’t get to her mom. Olivia had kept away, minimised contact. For Estela’s protection, that now seemed clear. Surely… surely, she’d be trying to somehow take Rourke down, to put things right. Estela had seen little of her mother growing up, for Rourke had recruited her early and made certain to keep her close. But now… now their life together, a life that the snake had taken away, had become clearer. That son of a bitch had stolen every joy from her life. Estela felt her hands curl into fists against Taylor’s back, and then once again she softened. Taylor… her Taylor was holding her. She closed her eyes, just taking in the feel of her, letting her focus be on nothing other than the scent of her partner’s skin, the comforting rhythm of her heartbeat, the touch of her fingers stroking her back. “Taylor,” she breathed. “I’m sorry too. I wish… I wish you weren’t so alone.” Thinking back to her early indifference, annoyance even, towards Taylor was painful. What Rourke had done to her was just so… so unspeakably cruel. “I’ll help you. I don’t know how I’ll help… it was hard enough opening up to them the first time round… but I’ll do it with you. We’ll reach them.” Taylor was looking at Estela with a gaze so warm and affectionate that it made her blush. There was a silent longing there. Estela felt her heart thumping hard against her chest. “You can kiss me, you know. You… look like you want to. I don’t bite.” “My love, I know it’s all still coming back to you, but I’m pretty sure you do bite.” Taylor smirked, amused as Estela’s cheeks turned a deeper red. “I, uh, I just don’t want to push you too much. This has all been… intense.” “Kiss me. I want you to. Please.” Caught off guard, Taylor felt her breath catch in her throat. She could feel heat radiating between them, drawing her closer and closer. Estela’s gaze was heavy with desire and it lingered on Taylor’s mouth. She tipped Estela’s face gently towards her with one finger so they were just a breath apart, and let her eyes flutter closed. Taylor pressed her lips against Estela’s… tentative at first, but powered further, harder, by the pleasurable jolt of electricity that pulsed through her body. Estela moaned against her mouth as Taylor’s tongue caressed her lip. Their arms wrapped around one another in a tangle, fingers delving into hair, hands pulling one another closer. After an age, they came apart. Taylor leant back into the couch, grinning from ear to ear. “So… that ring any bells?” Estela’s face was bright with the sweetest of smiles. The confusion, the fear, the agonising pain in her head… it all seemed to fall away. For now, the only thing that made sense to her was Taylor, and she had no idea why she’d spent so many weeks fighting what had always been true. “You can give me a few more reminders, if you like.” Exhausted, she collapsed against Taylor’s chest and nuzzled in. “I need to get some sleep. I haven’t been sleeping well… all the dreams. I guess it’s gonna get worse before it gets better.” “We’ll fix it,” said Taylor confidently. “I know with Diego it took a little while, but it’s kinda settled. He gets the odd dream, but it’s not like a constant onslaught anymore.” “I hope so.” “Hey… do you… do you wanna sleep with me tonight?” She added hurriedly, “I’m not pushing for anything to… er… happen, but since you’re already here and it’s late, I… I’d like to wake up with you next to me again.” “You don’t mind someone tossing and turning next to you all night?” “And snoring,” Taylor said with a smirk. “But that’s just how much I love you.” They crept into the room Taylor shared with Diego. It was a cramped space, really only intended to house one student, but as Diego had begun to recall their friends and the events of La Huerta, the room had become their sanctuary. By now, he’d fallen into bed and was sound asleep. With a glance over to the slumbering Diego, Estela followed Taylor onto the other bed. Her mind wandered back to her handfasting… Diego had been there too, making his own commitment. What had Rourke done to Varyyn and his people? Taylor made to undress and paused. “You don’t mind if I…?” Estela took the bottom of Taylor’s shirt and carefully pulled it over her head. “Does it look like I mind?” Stripped down to their underwear, the two women tucked themselves into bed, immediately appreciating the warmth that skin to skin contact gave them. With no prompting, Estela edged in close to Taylor’s back and nuzzled her face against her neck. She wriggled one arm around her shoulder and draped the other over her chest. The steady rise and fall lulled her into a state of quiet bliss. It was just as it had been. “I don’t snore, by the way…” Estela grumbled into Taylor’s shoulder. “Sure, you don’t.” Taylor gave a tired giggle and put her arm over her chest so that her fingers rested against Estela’s. “But you have any weird dreams and want to talk, just wake me up- anytime. We’re gonna get through this.” She felt Estela’s body relaxing around her, seemingly finding the same security that she was giving Taylor. “Sleep well, Estela.” And then, the words that she’d feared she would never again hear… “I love you, Taylor.” Just a whisper, muffled and tired, but full of certainty and without a trace of fear. Taylor’s heart skipped a beat. “I love you too, Estela. I always will.”
  3. marmolady


    This wound up being a whole lot longer than anticipated. Anyhow, more exploration of the Endless ending, which I think has become my favourite thing to write! Title: “Kin" Book: Endless Summer Main Pairing: Taylor (f) x Estela Genre: Family, Hurt/Comfort Warnings: mild language Summary: Post-ending (Endless ending). The world beyond La Huerta is gone, Taylor’s family are nothing but a fabricated daydream, and Estela’s only living relative is a walking reminder of her connection with the figure that tore her life apart. What do love and kinship mean in this burned and scarred world? “Hear me out, dudes,” Raj urged, setting down steaming plates of food on the table. “this place has everything; everything we need… except for…” “Waterslides!” Craig exclaimed, throwing his arms in the air. “…waterslides!” Raj finished. “And how,” Aleister sneered, “pray tell, do you intend to build such a thing? I suppose one of you is an engineer, equipped to build a theme park monstrosity up to health and safety regulations.” Jake scoffed. “Malfoy, when has anything we’ve done met health and safety regulations? I dunno… maybe jumping into the path of the Loch Ness monster’s psycho cousin with nothing but a ripped-up hang-glider was a stretch, but a slide? That’s goin’ too far!” “Fine, enjoy your death-trap. I can assure you I won’t be running around beneath it holding a net.” Aleister wrinkled his nose. “But there’s no escaping the fact that a waterslide would be an absolute eyesore. I swear, paradise is wasted on you people!” “But who build’s a world-class tropical resort without a waterslide?” Around the tables by the pool that had been brought together for breakfast, the Catalysts, save for Diego who had spent the night in Elyys’tel with Varyyn, chattered animatedly. Since Rourke’s demise, it had become routine, along with the nightly dinner gathering. Dealing, as they were, with a loss so huge, so devastating, holding together was the best they could do. Raj was in his element- on almost full-time hospitality duty- and he saw it as a way of honouring his grandmother. If he could do anything at all to keep his friends smiling as they moved through unspeakable grief, he’d be doing her proud. Taylor, wracked with guilt for her failure to sacrifice herself to end her friends’ suffering, had been reclusive, but she was trying… she was trying so hard to be the supportive shoulder they all needed. Beneath the table, her fingers were entwined with Estela’s, stroking them in a circular motion, and feeling a soft and reassuring pressure in return. As she took a sip of juice- what strange fruit it contained, a mystery- Taylor briefly made eye contact with her wife, and it was enough to make her heart flutter. She tuned back in to the familiar bickering and reached for a breakfast burrito. “This is ridiculous!” Aleister was saying. “When you’ve all emerged from fantasy land, we can talk about creating something that’s actually worthwhile. The sheer knowledge we have access to- the possibilities are…” “Waterslide! Waterslide! Waterslide!” chanted Craig, banging his fists on the table. To his great satisfaction, Aleister’s face began to colour with increasing frustration. “I’m sorry- how old are you; eight?” “And what are you, the fun police? Estela- he’s your brother, stick it to him!” In an instant, the table went quiet. Estela’s expression turned cold and stony. A hard glare resting upon Craig, who withered back with an averted gaze, she got to her feet and, without a word, walked away. Aleister looked pointedly in the opposing direction, discomfort showing clearly on his flushed, drawn face. Grace immediately placed her hand over his, looking over him with great concern. Zahra rolled her eyes. “Nice one, dumbass, you really outdid yourself there.” Quinn’s brow furrowed, worry all over her face. “Taylor, is she okay?” “I- I’ll go after her.” Her gut twisting, Taylor rose from the table. The silently bubbling tension within the group had finally breached the surface, and she felt a personal responsibility to resolve it. She strode out onto the sand, picking up the pace until she had almost reached her wife’s side. Without looking back, Estela reached her hand out behind her, inviting Taylor in. “It’s a shame we can’t fix that faulty connection between Craig’s brain and his mouth.” Taylor took Estela’s hand and grasped it tight. “Family means something,” Estela growled. “My family is gone. Aleister is not… is not…” With a tug of her arm, Taylor pulled her into a hug. Estela was tense, but she returned the gesture, her movements stilted. “Do you want to be on your own right now?” Estela took a moment before answering. “No. Stay with me.” She held on tightly to Taylor’s hand. It anchored her, holding her from losing herself in grief and rage. Slowly, she calmed herself and gave Taylor an encouraging smile. “You don’t need to worry about me.” “I don’t worry about you- pretty sure you are literally the biggest badass on earth. But I do care about you. And even the strongest people can use a hand to hold sometime.” “You can do more than hold my hand, you know,” Estela said, a smirk on her face and a glint in her eye. With a giggle, Taylor nuzzled her face close to Estela’s and planted a sweet kiss on her cheek. “That’s a start, right?” “I’m feeling better already.” As she went in for another kiss, Taylor felt a gentle hand catch the side of her face, lovingly drawing her lips towards Estela’s. They met in a tender, lingering dance. Estela came away, her cheeks glowing. She sighed. “Goddammit, I love you, Taylor.” “Goddammit, Estela, I think I love you too,” Taylor said, a laugh in her voice. She playfully twiddled with Estela’s hair as she watched her expression become thoughtful. “I do want to open up to everyone. I care about them,” Estela said. “Even Aleister, two-faced bastard,” she added with a snarl. “It’s just, some things I… can’t. He’s no brother of mine. Hearing it is a knife in my chest. You understand, don’t you?” “Yeah, I do. Well, as much as anyone can. You know, I don’t think anyone’s expecting you to be a bubbly, outgoing life of the party all of a sudden. And everyone knows you care. It’s obvious. They like you for you. I think even Aleister does… in his snobby, terrified way.” “He should be scared. Half the time I can’t stand to look at him. And the stupid thing is, I don’t even know if it’s the betrayal, or if I just don’t want a reminder of who I am.” Taylor shrugged. “If it makes you feel any better, I’m getting the impression the ‘secret half-sibling’ thing is weirding him out too.” She kicked off her shoes and walked into the sea, enjoying the cooling feeling of the water lapping around her ankles. “Look, I know talking isn’t always your strong point, but it might do you both good to just put it all out there. Maybe that’d do something about that elephant in the room.” “The last elephant on earth… maybe we should keep it, for now.” Estela sat down in the sand and rested her head on her hands. There was no hurry; they were together on this island for as long as they lived. Confronting Aleister, confronting whatever it was he meant to her, it could all wait. “Just… just, don’t let it trample over you, all right? You deserve to be happy.” In spite of everything, a smile tugged at Estela’s mouth. She watched Taylor wandering through the shallows, her face a picture of quiet contemplation. There had been a lot of that in the week or so since Rourke’s plans had been scuppered… introspection, coming to terms with new identities and adjusting to a future so different to what any of them had envisioned. Estela knew she was fortunate; grief for her tio and the earth aside, her future was far brighter than she’d have expected not so long ago. She just hoped her friends- friends… how long it had been since she’d had any of those- would in time find the same contentment. Perhaps more than anyone else, though, Taylor appeared lost. Estela looked over her wife protectively in the aftermath; with no quest for vengeance to occupy her, her purpose was now to support Taylor through a turbulent period of transition. And, of course, it worked both ways. Today felt like a bad day, but there would be tomorrow, and the tomorrow after that. Estela bit her lip, her eyes glazing over as troubled thoughts swirled through her mind. Perhaps Taylor was right. Perhaps she should stop skirting around Aleister, if nothing else but to avoid awkwardness for everyone else. She wondered, how did Aleister perceive her? The child of his father’s affair, he could quite easily resent her. Maybe he should. After all, at the end of the line, Rourke had acknowledged Estela as his truest heir, not Aleister. As much as she tried to shake the ridiculous thought from her head, Estela found herself coming back to a disturbing conclusion. Part of her was afraid that Aleister- not family, never family, but a genuine link to her mother- might turn away from her. She angrily pushed the notion from her thoughts. She didn’t need or want a half-brother, and certainly not a literal Rourke clone at that. It was just… part of letting go, and she’d grown enough to know that letting go was what she needed. Having been powered on anger for so very long, Estela wasn’t quite sure who she’d be once she had no living person to channel it towards. Would she simply implode? Perhaps… if she didn’t have Taylor. The faint sound of sand beneath light feet made Estela alert. She glanced sideways to see Quinn approaching, a piled-up plate in her hands. “I thought you might appreciate breakfast to go,” said Quinn shyly. Surprised and touched, Estela sat back in the sand and offered Quinn a bashful smile. That girl really was too good. “Thanks.” Taylor came running back from the water and put her arms around Quinn. “You’re the best, you know that?” Quinn beamed in response, and she carefully sat herself down beside Estela, making sure not to drop anything. “Well, I couldn’t let you miss out. I think we all know Raj’s heart would break just a little if you two didn’t get to enjoy his breakfast burritos.” Tentatively, she placed a hand on Estela’s arm. “And, if I’m honest, I wanted to make sure you were okay.” Estela’s cheeks flushed, but she didn’t shy away. “I’m… fine. Is Aleister…?” She shook her head. “However I feel about him, I mean… I don’t like him… but we’re on the same side. When it comes down to it, it’s not him who’s really hurt me, it’s his father.” Still, she could not say ‘our’ father. Her tio was the only father figure she’d ever needed. Out of nowhere, she felt a stab of pity for Aleister. He’d never had that. “I think he and Grace were gonna go down to the library together. That’s their happy place.” Taylor plonked herself down in the sand and began tucking in. “Honestly? I think that Aleister’s pretty happy on the whole. He’s just adjusting to… a lot.” She gave a little sigh. Poor Aleister. With everything that had happened since the revelation of his origin, she hadn’t taken as much time as she should have to make sure he was okay. Responsible as she felt for caring for her gang of friends, she knew she’d dropped the ball there. “Like we all are. But we’ve all got each other’s backs.” Relieved to see Estela looking a little brighter- another win for Raj’s cooking- she put her free arm around her. “I’m gonna have to give my compliments to Raj- these are so good!” “We’ve got to be getting low on meat that isn’t squirrel or… dinosaur. Is there anything left in the freezer?” Quinn furrowed her brow thoughtfully. “I think we’re getting near the end of our supplies. I’ve been meaning to do some baking but… once everything’s gone, it’s gone. We should talk to Varyyn; if the Vaanti can throw lavish feasts, there’s no reason why we can’t make La Huerta work for us too.” “I don’t need to ask Varyyn to know how to hunt,” said Estela. She was quiet for a moment. They needed to start doing something. The initial high of the fight for survival ending had waned, and what was left was reality. Everyone was in pain. With emotions running high, the group could easily splinter, devoid of a clear way forward. Chilling around The Celestial wasn’t enough anymore. “But you’re right. We have everything we need here. I’m going to go hunting- or fishing, it feels like it’s gonna be a hot one.” “You’ll teach me, right?” Taylor asked. Estela just smiled. Honestly, she couldn’t imagine much she’d rather do with herself. She met Taylor’s eyes and answered her silently. Beaming, Taylor raised her burrito. “To bringing home the bacon- or whatever the screwy La Huerta equivalent might be!” “Cheers!” laughed Quinn as she and Estela bumped their tortillas to Taylor’s. Having gathered a few supplies, all the while managing to avoid any awkward encounters in the wake of the breakfast drama, Estela led Taylor along the coast to the west, Furball trotting eagerly at their heels. “There,” Estela said, nodding her head in the direction of a strip of land rising out into the sea. “There’s a reef just beyond the cliffs.” Carefully, Taylor lowered herself down the rocky side of the grass-covered headland, gripping tightly with her fingertips in a precarious hold. Beneath her, Estela climbed down with ease, barely slowed by fact that she had the added complication of holding a spear under her arm. Taylor huffed, a little breathless. A pebble plinked off her forehead, and she looked up to see Furball skittering around the edge, watching them with great curiosity. “You be careful, little guy! You don’t want to sl-“ She bit her tongue as she lurched downward, her foot missing the next hold. Scrambling to regain her grip, Taylor felt something firm beneath the ball of her foot, and she glanced beneath her. “I think the fox is fine. You might want to check your own footholds.” Estela held the blunt end of the spear beneath Taylor’s foot until she appeared to have steadied herself. She settled on a jutting out ledge just above the water and held out a hand to guide her partner down the last little way. “And we couldn’t have just swam out from the shore?” “Not unless you want to catch all the waves breaking. It’s better to go straight to where the fish are.” Stripping down to her swimming costume, Estela slunk into the water, her movements smooth and stealthy. Taylor followed suit, ducking under the crystal-clear water. Together they swam out to a colourful reef, where they found themselves surrounded by silver-scaled fish that appeared to shimmer in the bright sunlight. It was beautiful. Running out of breath, Taylor returned to the surface and treaded water, watching as Estela rounded onto a target and popped her head above the water, hair plastered to her face. “Hey, you want me to try and herd them over to you?” Estela nodded. “Push them toward the sandbar, if you can.” “I’ll see what I can do.” Taylor swam from side to side, sending the fish swimming away from her- and towards the sandbar, where Estela was waiting. After a few moments, Estela streaked forwards, and came up with a writhing fish on the end of her spear. “Okay, that was impressive.” A little smile on her face, Estela beckoned Taylor over to the shallows surrounding the sandbar. She pulled her close against her chest and lowered into the water. “Here,” she said, taking hold of the fish with one hand and giving Taylor the spear with the other. “Don’t flail around so much. Be still… keep your eyes open… focus.” Feeling her pulse quicken at the sensation of her partner wrapped around her, Taylor took a moment to redirect her attention to the task at hand. She held her breath and put her face under, trying to avoid sending ripples out into the water as Estela gently guided her spear arm backwards in preparation to strike. She didn’t move a muscle, and soon the fishes swam by them, oblivious. Seeing her chance and taking it, she thrust her arm forward, but the resistance from the water was greater than anticipated and she came short. “Dammit!” “Try again… you were close.” Estela swam away, taking her catch back to the rocks, where Furball spun around in excited circles. Determined to catch something, Taylor slipped back beneath the surface and tried again… and again… and again… until finally… “I got one!” she hollered, taking in a mouthful of water and spluttering. “You’re a fast learner. Throw it here.” The sun rose high into the sky, beating down hard on the La Huerta coastline. The pile of fish Furball had been diligently guarding had grown satisfyingly, and he proudly perched himself on top, watching as the women splashed about in the sea. At one point, Taylor had sat him on her shoulder, egging him on as he shot ice out into the waves, catching fish that got in the way of his short, powerful blasts. He only accidentally iced Estela one time. Leaving fishing to the pro, Taylor built up a small fire on the edge of the headland and managed to tackle the cliff face with just enough finesse to bring up a large fish to cook. “Shit, it’s hot,” Taylor grumbled, very quickly realising that the water was very much the place to be. Mrrrrp? Furball chirruped, and he sent out a small wave of snow. He bounced to the side and looked up at Taylor quizzically. Taylor scooted over and sat in the newly frosted-over grass. “Thanks, little guy!” She pulled off a little piece of meat for him and tickled his back as he dug in. That little fox was totally unique, one of a kind. Had he ever had a family? Thinking about Estela and Aleister, about the families her friends had all lost, Taylor felt a bizarre loneliness. She could reach into her mind all she wanted, but there was nothing beyond sitting beside Diego on the plane. In fact, the more she tried, the less that came to her. Even knowing it was all fabricated, a lie, she wished the false memories of a childhood were still there. So she could at least pretend. Next to the lives of everyone she cared about, her existence seemed so… shallow… empty. You could scratch beneath her surface and you’d find nothing, no history at all. “Something on your mind?” Taylor jumped, looking behind her to see Estela hauling up the fruits of her efforts up onto the grassy outcrop. “God, you nearly made me jump outta my skin! You know you don’t have to sneak up behind me like a ninja, right?” Estela crawled over, sitting down beside her wife with a little grin. “It’s fun making you squeal.” “One of these days, I’m gonna get you so- “ “You can try, if you like. But you should know I don’t scare easily.” “We’ll see…” Brushing a wet strand of hair from Taylor’s face, Estela looked at her imploringly. “So, what has you so distracted? You looked… sad.” Taylor shook her head. “It’s nothing. I…” And then she stopped. There was no point to hiding what she felt, not from Estela. “I’ve just been finding it harder and harder to recall anything I thought I knew before we came here. The fake memories Vaanu gave me. I know how crazy it sounds trying to hold onto something that was never really there, but… it’s all I’ve got.” A thoughtful frown on Estela’s face, she considered Taylor quietly. “Maybe your true memories are taking their place, pushing them down. Is any of it left at all?” “I can sort of recall things related to Diego. I guess those feel more real because he’s here, I’ve got something solid to build from. But anything else… no. It used to be like a blur, but now there’s nothing there. Blank. Of course, it was going to be like this- it’s not as if the memories I thought I had were ever real. I just feel hollow, like I’m missing something that should be there.” Estela pulled her close, so they sat shoulder to shoulder. “I can’t imagine it,” she said softly. Taylor winced. “This is going to sound insanely self-absorbed with, well, everything, but I wish I’d had a family. People to remember from my childhood. Hell, even to have had a childhood at all.” “That’s not selfish. All those things; it’s part of being human. How could you not want that?” Estela gave a heavy sigh. “Memories, a past… family. Losing it all, it feels like you’re being ripped… torn to pieces. It’s the worst pain there is. But it hurts because what’s been taken away meant something. My mom, my tio… I would go through losing them again, over and over, if it meant we could have one more day together. Or an hour.” She leant her head against Taylor’s and closed her eyes. Hearing the gentle crashing of the waves, she could imagine they were sitting together on a San Trobidan beach. “I wish I could give you those memories… those hours.” Grasping her lover’s hand tight, Taylor exhaled shakily. She slowly relaxed into a comfortable silence, closing her eyes to appreciate the feel of Estela next to her, giving unflinching support. Her stupid hurts and worries didn’t feel so shameful while she had that love surrounding her. “Tell me,” Taylor whispered, after a long while. “Tell me about all the little things. The memories that make it worth the hurt.” A small but warm smile came to Estela’s face. “For a long time I couldn’t look back. Looking back made me weak, and I couldn’t afford to be weak. Even when I was small, I couldn’t stand it. Mom wanted to protect me, and I never wanted her to feel like she’d failed. When I was eight, I broke my arm- or had it broken for me. Kids in San Trobida, they don’t know anything but fighting. That’s all we see all around us, on the news, it’s just normal… you learn to pull a punch young. It was after that, Tio Nicolas started to teach me to defend myself. I knew I would do whatever it took to follow after him; I was too young to understand, but I knew he was fighting so Mom didn’t have to worry anymore. When the riots kept me awake at night, I would crawl into bed with her. I wasn’t afraid… I didn’t know any different, but I knew she slept better if I was in her arms. I would go to sleep with her singing to me, stroking my hair, holding me like I was her whole world. I’d get up before sunrise, make her a coffee. Spill it everywhere ‘cause, you know, broken arm. And she didn’t care that I made a mess, she just knew I loved her.” Her voice became hushed. “I loved her so much, Taylor.” “I know.” Taylor gently rubbed Estela’s arm, hoping that she could give even a little comfort. All she really knew of Olivia Montoya was from her virtual reality message, and from the haunting hotel room recording. “I- I wish I could have met her. She seemed so intelligent… brave.” “She was. She was so determined. Whatever it took for her to get the future she wanted for us, she faced it. But she always found time for us. Just for us.” “Like going on your lunch hikes?” “Yes, like that. And when I was little, we used to walk along the beach and collect shells. We’d go swimming and look at the fishes; there would be tropical fishes in all colours. She showed me how to appreciate small things… beautiful things. Sometimes, it felt like the world was blowing up all around us; you need to find beauty in the little things when that’s your life. And she made it easy. Just being near her. She would sit and read on one side of the room, and I would sit on the other side. We didn’t have to say anything, I could just feel that she was there. After she was gone, I don’t remember being happy. Not until I met you.” Taylor wrapped her arms around Estela’s waist and nuzzled her face against her neck. She suddenly started giggling. “What’s the matter with you?” “Estela, my love, my soulmate, my heart’s desire, my dearest friend, my starlight… you stink of fish. Like, bad.” Estela laughed and put her hands to Taylor’s face, pulling her in. She caught her mouth in her own, kissing her fiercely. Taylor’s hands travelled up Estela’s back and into her hair, holding her close as she reciprocated, the momentum pushing them down into the grass. After a moment, they both doubled over, collapsing into giggles. “You’re not smelling like a basket of flowers yourself.” “How about we finish this once we’re cleaned up a bit?” Propping herself back up, Estela gazed over her wife, her cheeks hot. “Promise?” “Cross my heart.” Taylor looked into those dark eyes, which were brimming with warmth, and felt herself melt. A promise like that? Not even a question. “I’ll give these to Raj,” Taylor said happily, swinging the bucket of fish. “We are gonna be his absolute favourite people. At least until everyone’s sick of seafood.” Estela gave her a quick kiss. “I hope so. He’s been on my back about the knives disappearing from the kitchen.” “Yeah… I’m pretty sure there was a note pinned to the drawer. Something about ‘these knives are for cutting food, not people’. You may have been mentioned by name. In bold block capitals.” “That’s our next job, then. Make some practical weaponry. We should get a hold of some of that amber the Vaanti use.” “Sounds good. The cutlery is spared, and you can put your dagger-envy to rest. Everyone’s happy.” Taylor gave Estela a playful shove and headed inside. Estela made to follow, but her eye was caught by a movement from the side of the hotel. It was Aleister. Her walls leapt up, her gaze hardened, and she turned away. “Wait! I wanted to…” Aleister faltered, singed by the hostility that radiated off her. “I have something for you.” He wished he’d thought to just give what he’d found to Taylor, who was rather less the human equivalent of a bomb that could go off at any moment. “You needn’t think of it as a gift or anything sentimental. But it belongs to you.” He thrust his hand forward, ignoring the clear mistrust in Estela’s eyes. She took from him several crumpled photographs. Estela’s mouth dropped open. Her eyes grew wide, then scrunched tight shut, wet with tears before she could properly comprehend what she held in her hand. She turned herself away from Aleister and messily wiped her eyes. Mirroring her actions, Aleister awkwardly turned to the opposing side, completely at a loss for what to say. Dealing with emotions was not his strong point. Words of comfort, sympathy? Simply callous coming from him. “I, uh, that is my mother and I… and Grace… we found these in a hidden safe in the library,” he said finally, still avoiding eye contact. “I had wondered… he said he’d truly loved your mother… perhaps something might have been kept.” Her fingers running tenderly over a photograph; a small child, arm in a sling, walking hand in hand with her mother along a beach, a rough but almost pretty town in the backdrop, Estela could barely hear Aleister’s words. “My mother,” he continued, “knew that he’d put away some items from her room. Obviously, somewhere private… hidden. It’s not much, but it seems he couldn’t bring himself to destroy everything.” A flicker of rage licked through Estela’s heart, but it was extinguished by a bittersweet wave of aching sadness and love. “It’s the fish… the smell; it’s making my eyes water,” Estela lied, sniffling still. Aleister snickered appreciatively. “Given the sensitive nature of our exchange, I decided it best not to comment on the… aroma. I am glad that you are at least aware of it.” “A small price for dinner. I hope you’re hungry.” Frowning, Estela looked down at the ground and then pointedly into Aleister’s face. Well, shit, better get this over with. “We almost died because of you. You were so stupid, so arrogant, you almost killed the only people who gave a damn about you- “ “-Can we not do this now?” Aleister scowled and rolled his eyes. It had been too much to expect to get through to someone so blinded by hate. Estela was just like their father… never satisfied… out of reach. It was small wonder he’d seen something in her that he never had in Aleister. “Is it really so difficult for you to let the past be the past for five minu-“ “No.” Estela’s gaze became steely, and Aleister was momentarily forced into silence. “No; listen.” “To your well-prepared character assassination? I would rather not.” “You put your trust in the wrong person. Even the best people…” she felt her voice waver as she thought of her mother, of Lila. “Even the best of us can trust the wrong person… the worst person. In the end… you made your choice. You saved us. He… he told you he could bring your mother back to life. You were an idiot to believe it but… I understand. You’re a better man than Rourke ever was. And I can’t keep holding a grudge against you. I don’t want to.” Aleister’s face registered surprise, but he quickly collected himself. “Uh, thank you. I know how personal this has been to you; how personal it has always been. You and I have been at odds so much of the time… but I would not have wished my father upon you. I’m sorry.” Estela winced, her face clouded over. Her eyes flickered back to the photo. To her mother. The last person she imagined would keep her in the dark. Tears rolled down her cheeks and once again she had to look away. She felt a hand placed awkwardly on her shoulder, then hastily removed. “Ah, I…” Aleister stammered. Where was Grace when he needed her? She’d have wrapped Estela in a hug and been done with it. Certainly, she could have done so without the fear of having her lights punched out. But yet Estela didn’t bristle at the bumbling attempt at physical contact. If anything, she looked… amused. “Is something funny?” “You’re about as good at opening up as I am,” Estela said, smirking through her tears. “A side effect of a life shaped by a treacherous snake,” Aleister said with a wry smile. He paused for a moment, trying to read her. “We have a certain kinship. A regrettable one, I’ll admit, but… I’m grateful to have it. He was never much of a father… my mother died when I was small… it has been lonely, I’ll admit. Perhaps, in time…?” Estela’s mouth was dry. “…maybe we could have a couple of drinks, stew over how he screwed us both over?” “That sounds appropriate. I don’t expect you to ever see me as family… kin… but…” Unsure, he held out his hand. “Friends I could do.” With a deep breath, Estela grasped Aleister’s outstretched hand firmly. “I’ll leave the hugging to Taylor, though.” She glanced down to the precious photos held tightly in her other hand. “And, uh, thanks. Thank you… more than I can say.” He gave her a nod of understanding, and they parted ways. Her photographs clutched to her chest, Estela realised she was trembling. “Hey?” called Taylor, walking over, her brow furrowed in concern. “Hey, is everything all right?” She put her arm around Estela’s shoulder and inhaled sharply as she saw what was in her hand. “Wait- are those?” Estela wiped her eyes and nuzzled close to Taylor. “Everything is… good. Uh, better than… uh…” Another deep breath. “It’s family… family stuff.” She put a hand to Taylor’s cheek and almost laughed at the stunned look on her face. “Let’s go up to the room, okay? We’ll get cleaned up and… I’ve got some things to share with you.”
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