Braylin took the cardboard backing of the 8×10 photo frame out gingerly. He made sure that the glossy photograph in his hand was secured tightly before placing the backing in place and securing it. This photograph was given to him and the others as a housewarming gift from his two fathers. Neither he, Adriana, or Winter, really wanted to leave the house they’d spent so many years in together. As far as he could tell, Jared felt the same way too. But, they were adults and they couldn’t wait for their family and friends to return forever. Though Braylen missed Leon and Graciela with all of his heart, he knew they wouldn’t want him to stop living. Moving into this house was the beginning of his healing.
It was the beginning of Alistair’s healing as well. According to the story that the man had told Braylin, this house was one that he had thought he’d spend the rest of his life in. When it had gone into foreclosure and was promptly abandoned by its previous owners, despite the negative memories Alistair had inside of its walls, he couldn’t let it go unlived in. To him, that felt like he was letting Declan win.
You see, this wasn’t just some house that Alistair had moved around in. He had met his daughters here. He got to know them and raised them. He spent happy moments with his father, Apollo, when the man was still alive. Alistair had family dinners in the kitchen, read books in the study, had late night cuddle sessions with his husband and fell in love with him all over again. He taught magic here as the keeper and carried on his family’s legacy. His daughter, Charlotte, fell in love with her husband here.
But, Alistair had also told him of the bad things that had happened in this Victorian styled home in the center of Moonlight Falls. He was betrayed here by the man that he had loved dearly. He was lied to by his husband and his best friend, Sienna Gage. It was in this house that Astra had left him and became the distant and misguided person that she is today. It was in this house that he had failed to defeat Altiere. There was more regret surrounding this house band Bremen could fathom yet, Alistair had still insisted on saving this place. The good memories outweigh the bad memories, the brain and suspected it was more than that.
Accepting this house, accepting his memories, would allow Alistair to move on. Now that he and Callen had been together for so long, now that he had been a father to Braylen himself and his new little sister, Adalia, Alistair was ready to erase Declan from his mind for good. To do that, he wanted the bad memories to be replaced with good ones.
Braylen placed the picture on the wall and took a step back to admire it. This was his new life. This was a Braylen that was happy. A Braylen that was going to live his life to the fullest with his friends and his family. This was also a Braylen who would create new and happy memories to cover the bad ones of lost friends and what had happened in the underworld.
Braylen collapsed onto the couch and admired his handiwork. Winter smiled up at him from the floor, giving him a thumbs up. “It looks good. Makes it feel more like our house and not Alistair’s old one. You know?”
Braylen nodded. She was right. This photograph was uniquely theirs. No one could take that memory away from them. “Is Kris coming over today?” Braylen asked. “You guys are dating again, right? I can’t tell anymore. You two are always breaking up.”
“First of all, shut your mouth,” Winter punched Braylen’s leg playfully. “Second of all, we are back on. He apologized for being a total jerk to me in front of his vampire ‘brethren’ or whatever he calls them. So, I’m giving him another chance.”
“I know you’re going to say it’s none of my business, but I’m gonna tell you what I think anyway. Kristopher likes to play around- maybe too much. He doesn’t usually care about what people think, so why is he being a jerk now? You can’t just let him walk all over you every single time something comes up.”
“It’s not like that,” Winter said with a small sigh, tracing her name into the carpet underneath her. “You can’t tell anyone this, but I think he wants to challenge his father for the seat of clan leader. He doesn’t like how his father makes everything political and how Zander particularly picks on Alistair. I think that Khristopher wants there to be a new Moonlight Falls. People like Altiere give his people a bad name.”
“So, how does that make it okay for him to treat you like a jerk in front of the other vampires? That’s not really changing things.”
“No,” Winter replied. “Maybe not. But it gains them his trust which he can use for the vote. Once he proves himself to his people, me being his girlfriend won’t really matter much. I know you don’t like that, but I trust in his strategy. Just please don’t hit him when you see him.”
“No promises,” Braylen mumbled, standing up.
Just as Braylen was about to head upstairs to check his outfit for the 50th time that afternoon, the doorbell rang. “I got it!” He called out to Winter who didn’t seem like she was getting up anyway. He opened it to reveal none other than Ethan Nair. “Hey gramps, come on in.”
“Hey kiddo, how’s it going? I know I’m early but I wanted to see what you, Jared and the girls did with the place.” Ethan peered over Braylen’s shoulder, grunting in…approval? Maybe? “I see you left it almost entirely the same. You’d think that the people before you would’ve changed it up just a little bit.”
“I dunno,” Braylen said, stepping aside for Ethan to come in. “I really dig the new look. You finally let Kian win and cut your hair?”
“It wasn’t really for him. The hair, at least. You know, he was adamant about dressing me for your father’s speech. But…” Ethan reached up to touch the tips of his hair. “I needed to let go. It’s finally time. Even Moonlight Falls has changed. It’s time for me to do that as well.”
“I’m happy for you both,” Braylen said, leading Ethan over to two chairs right by the large uncovered windows. “Change is good sometimes.”
Ethan took a seat across from Braylen. “When I first lived in Moonlight Falls, before I even met Alistair’s dad, I was a young and stupid guy. I had a best friend- Kian, that I pushed away because I made a terrible mistake with a man that I thought I loved. After that incident, I lost my best friend, I lost my parents, I lost my brother and I lost my home. I wasn’t able to move on from that past until I met Apollo. He showed me there was a way to keep living.”
Ethan looked down at the chair he was sitting in, the same chair he remembered Apollo liked to sit in when he visited Alistair and the kids. He remembered how Charlotte would spend so much time with her grandfather just talking in this little corner. Apollo’s eyes would always light up, like he had finally found some meaning in his life that he had lost by returning to Sunlit Tides. He was a human, but he belonged here in Moonlight Falls with his family. “You know in that spot over there by the door…” Ethan pointed to it. “That’s where Apollo and I reunited after I left on a dangerous trip to Imaginationland. I was ready to give this place up to go back to him in Sunlit Tides but he came and told me he wanted to spend the rest of his life with me wherever it may be.”
“Does it hurt?” Braylen asked quietly. “Being here, being where you and Apollo had so many good memories with your family? Does it hurt being with someone else?” Braylen frowned, looking down at his black sneakers. “Those were rude questions. I’m sorry to have asked.”
“It’s okay,” Ethan said. “You’re allowed to ask. I don’t think being apart from Apollo will ever stop hurting. He was my soulmate. Kian knows that, and I don’t pretend otherwise. I thought for a long time that I was being very unfair to him. Kian had gone out of his way to make me feel welcome in Moonlight Falls again and I always put him second to the memory of a dead man. I actually had a really long talk with Callen about how he was able to move on from Luke. It was a little different, your father loved Luke but they weren’t as close as Apollo and I. Still, he brought a new perspective to my attention. For people like me, you, and your dads, life isn’t short. I wanted to give up and see my husband again. But, Callen helped me see that because our life is long, we owe it to ourselves and to the people who rely on us to make use of that time.”
“Take you for example. I am blessed to call you my grandson. Some people don’t live long enough to even have a grandchild. Me getting better really started out as guilt. I guilted myself for wasting so much time sulking, but I also guilted myself for treating Kian so poorly like I did when we had first lost contact as teens. Then, that guilt turned into something else. I realized that the person I care about most, the person I was wasting so many tears on, wouldn’t want me to. Just as Luke would want your father to move on, Apollo would want that for me as well. So, I made a promise to get better for him, for myself, for my family, for my town too. Because, I should have stopped Damian when I was your age instead of hiding.”
“It’s okay to be afraid. Your son taught me that. My dad always likes to be the tough one in a situation. He’s been forced to be strong for his entire life. But Alistair, he had the luxury of acknowledging his fears. Those fears brought him and my father together. That fear probably brought you and Apollo together.”
“And here I thought I was giving you advice about something that was troubling you,” Ethan said with a small smile. He leaned over and touched Braylen’s knee. “I guess an old guy like me can stand to learn a few more things about life.”
“Thank you,” Braylen said softly. Ethan had given him some peace of mind. “I’m going to try to move on. Leon and Graciela wouldn’t be mad at me for calling Winter and Adriana my best friends now, would they?”
“Of course not. They would want you to be happy. In fact, when they come back, because I know they will, you can all be best friends.”
Braylen headed upstairs. Ethan would be driving him, Winter, Adriana and Jared to Alistair’s debate tonight. They’d sit together and watch proudly as Alistair spoke to the mages in an attempt to get reinstated as the Keeper of Magic. This was a big moment for his father, yet Braylen felt nothing but remorse. Though he had said he was ready to move on, and he really felt that in the pit of his stomach, there was something else holding him back. Braylen looked in the mirror, anxiously tugging on the hem of his shirt. He wished that his shirt buttoned up higher up his neck, but he knew he’d feel strangled. “Stupid tattoo,” He mumbled, scratching at the area it had appeared in only days earlier.
“Hey, Bray! Have you seen my hair straightener anywhere?” Winter called, banging on the door to his room. Braylen jumped slightly, quickly straightening out his shirt so no one would notice anything different about him.
“Uh…maybe Winter has it? Sorry!” Braylen called back. When Winter shouted her thanks, he dropped to the floor and looked at himself in the mirror. When…when was it that he had become a killer? Would more people die because of him? Would that one tattoo on his body manifest into more like his father’s?
He was a monster. The underworld had changed him and no one was wise enough to see how torn up inside he really was. Where was his light in the dark? Where was his redemption? Where was his person to come and save him from himself? No, monsters didn’t get that luxury. Braylen laid his head in his hands, trying to block out the sounds of screams he heard coming from the underworld.