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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.”