Basal 87th, 1042

“There’s absolutely no way it’s an accident he’s also in Briarwood; I swear, if Alouette asks him to be Frond's vessel and does it before I get there–” Clover was shoving her clothes back into her small suitcase frantically. Aspen had already packed. Realistically there was no reason for her to be hurrying because they’d have to wait for River to get back. Kuiper had gone to the coast to get her and it’d take at least two hours to get there and back, but Clover hadn’t wasted any time rushing back to her room to pack.

Aspen and Azaleon were standing by her room’s door. They weren't about to go in uninvited, but…

“Clov–” Aspen tried.

“And if Alo got in contact with him, somehow, why didn’t they call to tell us? Is that why they’ve been ignoring our messages? They said they’d leave the choice of who hosts Frond to us–”

“Clover!” Aspen said, a bit louder. She stopped, looking over at him. She was shaking. “Calm down.”

“I can’t! I’m going to see him again. It’s been twelve years. And Gods only know what Alo’s told him!” She leaned over her suitcase, pressing her hands on it and trying to shove her clothes down. Saros had come by earlier this week, gifting her a box full of fabric in that signature Lacus Marian neon, and she was struggling to fit everything in her suitcase now. “Is your sister going to be mad we’re leaving without saying goodbye? You– you can stick around to do that, I can go to Brairwood myself tonight, meet you guys there–”

“No, she understands; she has responsibilities just as I do, we’ve parted without goodbyes before.” He’d make a point to write her later when he got the chance, thank her for taking time to play host this week despite her schedule being surprisingly busy; he’d thought she had less responsibilities because her and Cassiopia were the youngest princesses in Lacus Mare, not due to inherit the throne, but they seemed to manage a lot of guest hosting and event planning between them. Aspen still didn’t think that was as much pressure as actually expecting to inherit the crown, but… it was more than he’d expected her to be doing here.

“Duties?” Clover laughed. “What part of this is your duty? You don’t have any obligation towards me. Seriously, it’s fine. I..I’m probably going to ugly cry and he might be mad at me, and I think I’m mad at him–I don’t even know what I’m feeling, honestly, but it’s not going to be pretty.”

“...Well, it is a duty of mine, because you’re one of my subjects, and the other Quasar, so we’re tied by fate, so it’s my place to…” Aspen trailed off, clearing his throat. Hi cheeks felt hot, his palms sweaty. “No, that’s not true...I’m going with you because our time together is limited. I’d like to spend just a bit more of it with you.”

Clover frowned, turning to face him, her luggage temporarily forgotten. “What do you mean? You can spend as much time with me as you want. You’re freaking me out by how weirdly sincere you’re being.”

“The reason I didn’t want to take one of the Gods into me is because they’re hiding something; isn’t this whole situation too full of mysteries? It’s so beyond our understanding, we’re just pawns for them. I met the Luna– Glacier Silverbell, in my dream, and I know they’ll kill us if we don’t do what they want. And I have no plans to. I’m not damning a future generation of Quasars, I’m not killing you, and I know you feel the same way. And– and even if they don’t, best case scenario and we somehow live, when I return from River’s, my father wouldn’t let me associate with you, given your status. It’s not an option for us to be friends outside of this situation we’ve found ourselves in. I wish it were, but I’m a realist.” Aspen stared at the floor. He’d been dreading telling her this.

She was quiet, and he risked looking up, fearing he’d see tears. She had turned back towards her bed, her head tilted down, making it impossible to see what kind of expression she was wearing.

“Aspen, we could sneak her into the castle if Alder takes issue with her, Kuiper and I would– and the Gods won’t let you die, they won’t let the Sol or Lunar God kill any of us. Seiche swears it, he’s really mad you’d even think that,” Azaleon said. “Besides, you haven’t even gotten to meet Kuiper’s bearcats–”

“Can you both get out?” Clover asked quietly.


“Please?” She didn’t turn to look at them. “I need to write my mom a letter. In case you’re right. In case we d-” her voice hitched. “Just in case.”

Aspen sucked in a breath, turning around. He got halfway out the door before his resolve crumbled and he turned back around, crossing her room.


“Your Highness, please,” she begged. “I won’t take long–”

“No–listen! Whatever lies the Gods have told, this false promise to us, that we’re so ‘special’?” He held up his hand, his Cachet glittering. “I don’t care about their opinions or what they want. Everything special about me is something I’ve worked hard for. I’ve studied Thauma for my entire life. River is an expert in it, the most skilled person in the country; we’re both authorized to use every hue. Kuiper might just be the smartest person I’ve ever met, and my brother the most skilled fighter. Do you have so little faith in us to just accept some pessimistic ‘we’re all going to die’ horseshit?”

“You were the one saying it!” Clover said.

“Well I take it back.” He reached down, squeezing her left hand in his, their Cachets glowing softly as he did, reacting to each other. “Fuck the Gods, don’t trust them to keep you safe, I don’t care– but I won’t let you die. Put your faith in me.”

She jerked her hand away, balling it into a fist.

“You’ve been too good to me. I don’t deserve it. There are things you don’t know– I’m not a good person,” Clover admitted. Aspen blinked in disbelief.

You? You seriously– you’re not a bad person.” He was normally more articulate than this, but he was genuinely at a loss for words. “I don’t care what secrets you may have–”

“My mom already mourned my dad, and my Juniper, since she assumed he was dead,” Clover said. “I don’t want to break her heart. I’m a liar, I lied to her. If..if I was to die, she’d think it was River’s fault and get mad at her…”

“What did you lie to her about?”

“What didn’t I? I never told her we left the cabin. I used an audio-only e-call back in Windeen City so she wouldn’t see my eyes. I didn’t tell her I met Alouette, or that…that they confirmed Juniper to have run away.”

“Okay? And I didn’t tell my father anything, either. Not beyond the fact that River was taking us to Lacus Mare for ‘training’. I lied for my sake as much as yours, to keep anyone from knowing you were the Quasar,” Aspen stated. “Is that seriously all it took for you to believe you’re a bad person?”

“You shouldn’t have lied for me–”

“And why not? I lied for Azaleon and Kuiper, too, so they wouldn’t be punished for me finding out we were related, or punished for Azaleon having a partner that our father didn’t hand-select. I lied to keep Alouette from being captured. Lying is fine if it keeps you all safe. How is lying for you any different from that?”

“It just is,” she said, her face crumpling. “Because I’m a bad daughter. It was my fault Juniper left.”

“Clover, you have to know that’s not true. Juniper made his own choices,” Azaleon said.

“That’s right. And–And if you were to ask Father, he’d probably say I’m a bad son, too. But I will be a good king, because I know what’s right, in spite of my father, in spite of his opinions of what kind of heir I am to him. And you will continue to be a good person, the kindest I know. You, the first of us to lend a vessel to a God for no other reason than your own selflessness. If she ever finds out the truth of him leaving because you’re the Quasar and genuinely blames you, if she really believes you’re a ‘bad daughter’, then perhaps you should consider that she is a bad mother.

“You’re seriously gonna insult my mom?” Clover murmured, a small nervous laugh bubbling out of her despite how upset she seemed. Aspen put his hands on his hips.

“Well, in my defense, I’m not used to comforting people– what do you want me to say?! I’m just telling you how I feel–”

“And you’re doing great,” Azaleon added from the doorway.

“Shut up!” Aspen snapped, feeling incredibly patronized. Clover laughed again, a welcome noise.

“Your Highness–”

“Aspen. Gods sakes, Clover, I know you hate being formal, stop forcing yourself. Nothing you can say will change my mind, either, about you being a good person.”

“But you don’t understand. My mom is– she helps people. For practically nothing. But me, I didn’t take on Remedy because I’m some altruistic saint.” Clover murmured. “You seriously have the wrong impression of me. I did it because I– my mom is a healer. She saves countless lives every year; she wants me to be one, too, to help people, and..and I was just doing what I thought she’d want me to do. That’s all I’ve ever done. Not to be a good person. Just because it was expected.”

“You were still helping someone, intentions aside, right?” Azaleon asked. “So do your intentions even matter? Remedy was still freed. I’m sure she isn’t complaining. Ask her.”

Clover shook her head stubbornly.

“Remedy had been wailing and I couldn’t take another night of hearing that! No–no, it’s not okay, Remedy!” Aspen assumed the God was trying to reassure Clover, same as they were, but he couldn’t hear her. “My mom– she used to cry like that, and she’d ask why I was all she got left with. Why couldn't it have been me instead of him. I did everything I could after Juniper left. I did the cleaning, did the cooking, because she’d tell me how exhausted she was from work. And I really–I honestly did try as hard as I could in school, too, at first, but…but it was a lot of work to balance both and I couldn’t keep up with it. I lied to her all the time, I’d s-say I was staying with a friend or my aunt or neighbor to help them, but that was a lie. I needed a break, my hand was hurting and I–she was working and so tired and I should have been there, but I couldn’t help around the house when it got bad. I-I don’t think she’ll ever see me as more than a reminder of what she lost. I couldn’t help her. I still can’t, and I have the Healing God of Salubrity in me. Because even if I do find Juniper, even if I get the chance to convince him to go home, I don’t want to go back there! That’s why I’m a bad person!”

She scrubbed her hands on her face, breathing hard as if she’d just confessed to the worst crime of all.

“I’m sorry. I-I shouldn’t have said that,” she tried. She forced a small smile. “Gods know we have enough problems, just forget I said that, let’s..let’s focus on–”

“River would let you live with her. Or… regardless of what my father says, you could come live at the castle. We’d work it out. I’d let him set my entire garden on fire, let him be mad at me defying him, but you’ll never have to go there again. You don’t have to,” Aspen said.

“I’ll break her heart,” Clover whispered.

“I think it was broken a long time ago. But it’s not your place to mend it,” Azaleon said gently. “And you’re certainly not a bad person for that. For any of it. You were a child. It was never your place to take care of her. She’s your mother, it’s her place to care for you.”

“She couldn’t have,” Clover murmured. “It’s not her fault.”

“If you’re so concerned over her health in your absence, we could send caretakers from the castle–” Aspen offered.

“I don’t want to talk about this anymore,” she said very quietly. Aspen nodded.

Clover sat on the edge of her bed for a while, staring off to the side wall. Aspen sat beside her, not pressing her. They sat together for a while, both silent.

He thought if she spoke she might cry, and it was evident she’d been trying so hard not to, for whatever reason, so he left her be, kept her company in the meantime.

The minutes ticked by, and she finally stood, taking a breath.

“Can we wait outside or something? I need some air,” she asked. Aspen nodded.

“Yes, that's a good idea. Now is the time to focus on other things and stop putting yourself down. We need to double check before we go outside, as we probably won’t be coming in again. Are you completely packed? You're not forgetting anything, are you? It’s a long way to Fern Helion.”

Clover watched him pace her room and examine her dresser and under her bed with a small smile, one that made Aspen’s stomach squirm like it was full of worms. If Azaleon’s cooking had given him food poisoning, so help him… finally, she turned, also surveying the room.

“No, I think I got everything– oh. Wait, the picture of Juniper I gave to Saros to give to the communication center– that comm worker didn’t give it back. It was the only one I have with me. The rest are at mom’s,” Clover said. Aspen hated the idea of making her go there for it after he’d just promised her she wouldn’t have to go back, so it seemed like they’d be marching downstairs for the photograph.

“It’s still down there, assuredly, they know not to throw such things out. And since there’s still a good hour until River and Kuiper get back, if you’d like, you can look at the footage from the communication center in Briarwood where he was spotted. He might look a bit different. Not so much he wasn’t recognized, but like you said: it’s been twelve years. It might help you prepare more mentally, if you feel up to it.”

“Nothing is going to really prepare me, I don’t think,” Clover admitted. “But yeah. Yeah, I do want to see how different he looks now. I wonder if he’s still rocking the same glasses he used to wear…” she smiled softly to herself. “They were so dorky. I just wear contacts, personally.”

“You wear contacts?!” Aspen said. “Are your eyes actually that color?”

“What? Yeah, they’re just to see, not cosmetic,” she snorted. “Well. I mean, I guess the orange glow makes it hard to see the ‘natural color’ but, y’know. They’re brown,” she confirmed. He let out a sigh of relief.

“Good. I like your eyes, and I couldn’t handle any more surprises.”

Clover busted out laughing. “You’re not like, hitting on me, right?”

What?! No– not that you’re not beaut– I mean, no. Q-Quite frankly I’ve never had time for romance and this is an especially inappropriate time–” Aspen sputtered, feeling his cheeks burn. He was still getting used to the concept of having friends. Romance was so far out of his depth.

“It will never be something I have to seek out myself. Father will choose who I am to marry, same way he did to Saros, to someone equally as capable and noble as I am– I can only hope it’s to someone I actually can tolerate as well; Saros lucked out, her and Cassiopia were friends long before he had them married, and I suspect they were…you know, having a series of trysts before that…” he lowered his voice to tell her that part, and her eyes grew wide, sparkling with interest; he’d nearly forgotten what a gossip she was. “Anyway, there’s another reason I can’t die! Saros would be expected to come back to Fern Helion, perhaps even put in a temporary rulership position, and she loves being here with Cassiopia, so I’d be doing her a great disservice by actually putting her in a position where she’d have to–Upper Realm forbid– work,” he said, changing the subject quickly to something less indecent. Clover was still giggling. “Aren’t we going down to the communication’s lab?!”

“Yeah,” she snorted, exchanging a look with Azaleon, who also had a stupid grin about the whole thing. Aspen huffed, shoving past both of them. They could act like children about it all they wanted!

He would be the one focusing on the truly important things. …Like the fact Clover was at least laughing again. He felt partially responsible for the fact she’d had such a breakdown, and decided he’d not broach the topic of her mother again until she was the one to bring it up first. But Clover, she was a bit like a rubber band, snapping back into a good mood so easily, and he definitely preferred when she was joking around. It made him feel lighter, somehow, her rays of happiness shining on everyone around her. It made perfect sense to him that she ought to be the Sol God’s favorite. She was as bright and warm as the sun.

Not that she was entirely happy right now–by the time they’d all reached the castle’s private communication lab Clover was rolling on the balls of her feet with anxiety. She stared at the dark screen while the comms assistant typed in the code that would allow her to pull up the footage of the communication center in Briarwood. Her reflection betrayed her nerves. She was chewing on her lip, twirling her coily hair around her finger.

Normally communication centers were very good about privacy, letting you mail or e-chat whoever you needed while being discreet, despite the fact they were the only places– aside from the castles, thauma-processing plants, and temples– that had surveillance at all, to keep the mail safe in the event of a crime. Pulling strings to get this footage was something only Aspen or another royal could’ve done for Clover, and for that, Aspen felt proud.

The comms worker left them in the little booth for privacy's sake. Aspen allowed Clover the single chair that would fit in the booth, choosing to stand beside her and offer his hand. She reached out and held it, squeezing it for comfort. Azaleon stood behind her, his eyes betraying the same curiosity Aspen felt. They both wanted to see this supposed brother of hers for themselves, beyond just the photograph Clover carried with her.

Clover’s hand hovered over the button that would play the video. She hesitated for almost a full minute before Aspen sighed.

“Clover, press the button already!”

“I was working myself up to it!” she said defensively. She slammed her hand down on it, and physically recoiled when the footage started.

Sure enough, the same brother from the photograph Clover had just gotten back off the desk of the communication center’s front desk was there, looking more or less the same. In the photo his hair hadn’t been in a bun like it was in the footage. But he was still wearing the glasses Clover had said were ‘dorky’. He walked with a confidence Aspen hadn’t expected, purposefully walking to the center of the room in front of the front desk and stopping.

Alouette was with him. They had a big cloak over their wings, but the big lump on their back was no less conspicuous than it’d ever been. They offered a smile– a very nervous smile, Aspen noted– up to the camera, like they expected someone to watch this footage. Juniper had a grip on their wrist, anchoring them in place. He’d practically dragged them in with him.

Juniper looked up at the camera slowly and his eyes were bright white. Anyone watching might have mistaken him for being blind. But in the photograph, his eyes were brown, a few shades darker than Clover’s medium brown. Clover clicked the button again, pausing the footage.

Clover leaned back in the chair. It creaked, the only sound in the entire room.

“They put Frond in him already. Without asking me.”

“Clover.” Azaleon– no, Seiche, said, gripping the back of her chair and leaning forward to look at the footage closer, his blue eyes blazing cold and tumultuous as the sea, “If that were Frond his eyes should be emerald green, as Frond’s Thauma is.”

Clover’s hand grew clammy with sweat in Aspen’s, and he didn’t let go, for both her sake and his own.

“Then who is that possessing my brother?” Clover asked Seiche without tearing her gaze away from the screen. Seiche cleared his throat, his voice shaking a bit when he answered her.

“...That’s the Sol God. That’s Inferno.”

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