Dear Ariel - Chapter 7

Rylee awoke to Fiona lightly rubbing her shoulder; she slowly opened her eyes and beheld a view of her own hand, bathed in morning light as her face resided in a puddle of drool she’d made during the light. With a small moan, she managed to flip over onto her back and look up into Fiona’s eyes; she was rewarded with a brief smile and a shoulder pat as Fiona adjusted her position to make herself a bit more comfortable. Rylee laid there looking up at her for what seemed like an eternity; she had her hair down today, which was a stark contrast to the high ponytail she usually sported, and she was dressed in a black form-fitting,-long sleeved t-shirt. Casual, as always, but effortlessly feminine in a way Rylee felt she could never be.

“Tori woke up early and started cleaning,” Fiona said, keeping her voice low. “Anette left to pick up your sister at the airport.”

“Did I sleep too long?” Rylee suddenly panicked, scrambling to sit up; Fiona patted her on the shoulder, shaking her head to silence her.

“No, just relax for a minute, breathe,” Fiona instructed; she waited patiently as Rylee’s breathing slowed, and she dropped her head back against the pillow. “How did you sleep?”

“Okay, I guess,” Rylee lied; she’d tossed and turned for at least a few hours after climbing into bed the previous night. “Is it time to get up?”

“Tori went to get breakfast for us.” Fiona moved her hand to Rylee’s face, brushing a lock of hair out of her eyes. “No one wanted to cook this morning, and Tori wants to do hamburgers for lunch, after your sis gets here.”

“I like hamburgers.” Rylee yawned hard and stretched; Fiona sat back and allowed her to re-orient herself with the physical world.

“She’s really good at it,” Fiona assured her. “She’ll probably grill out.”

“We have a grill?”

“Anette does,” Fiona nodded. “Have you ever been to the back patio?”

“You know I’m not allowed outside by myself, right?” Rylee smirked. Fiona rolled her eyes and patted Rylee’s cheek.

“Come on, get up, let’s decide how we want to do this.” Fiona stepped away from the bed, allowing Rylee some space to sit up as she pulled open the closet and began looking through the clothing options. “Good grief, I remember Tori wearing a lot of these.”

“Yeah.” Rylee yawned, stretching her arms upward. “She gave me a bunch of her old stuff.”

“She really loves you, you know,” Fiona said as she pulled out a dark blue dress and looked it over before thrusting it back into the closet. “Even if her reasons for taking you in were kind of shitty.”

Rylee couldn’t think of anything to say to that, so she sat on the edge of the bed, arms wrapped around her torso as Fiona cycled through outfit after outfit, shaking her head as she tried to make a decision. The ‘shitty’ situation that Fiona referred to was a bit more complicated than her tone let on. For several months after Rylee’s arrival, Tori had had no idea that Rylee was transgender and likewise, Rylee hadn’t known that once upon a time, Tori had had a newborn named ‘Rylie’ who died suddenly one night. When confronted, Tori had confirmed that yes, Rylee had essentially been a replacement. The news, while it should have technically upset Rylee to some degree, had actually helped her to be more accepting of the love Tori was trying to give her. While the others had been confused, Rylee had been able to rationalize it to herself over and over. Yes, the love was meant for someone else, but didn’t that make it easier to accept? It came with less guilt as she knew she was fulfilling a role rather than being a burden.

“I think we’ll go with a hoodie and a skirt,” Fiona said, pulling out a thin pink hoodie. “Kind of casual, that way it doesn’t look like Tori wrapped you up like a fucking present. We can still make you look cute. Here, take this, and this, and grab a bra out of your dresser.”

Bras were something that Rylee had in abundance; Anette had made sure to buy her twelve pairs, and then Tori had added another half dozen to the pile. For all of Rylee’s problems, the one she wasn’t going to have was finding a clean bra to wear every single day. She grabbed a pink and white one; it would go well with the white cami and pink hoodie that Fiona had chosen for her. She was quickly ushered to the bathroom and instructed to shower, which took nearly half an hour, and required Fiona’s intervention as Rylee had simply stood beneath the running water, staring at the wall. The curtain was ripped aside, and Fiona quickly twisted the knob to cut off the water.

“You asleep in here?” she asked, tapping Rylee to bring her back to reality. Rylee blinked and looked over to Fiona, sopping wet, water dripping from her hairline, down to her nose, and tapping against the floor of the tub.

“Sorry,” she said, her voice dropping an octave or two, much to her embarrassment.

“We’re still on schedule,” Fiona said, dismissively. “Just dry yourself off and get dressed.”

“You’re being really nice,” Rylee murmured, noticing that Fiona’s behavior was a stark contrast to her usual. Fiona smirked and shook her head before tossing Rylee a fluffy blue towel to dry off with.

“Are you saying I’m not usually nice?” Fionna snorted, squinting in the humid aftermath of Rylee’s shower. “I don’t even have a resting bitch face, Rylee.”

“You’re just…I don’t know,” Rylee looked away, embarrassed at her own statement, and partially self conscious over the fact that Fiona was in there with her while she was naked. Not that it should have mattered at this point, they’d all seen her naked numerous times by this point.

“It’s an important day for you, Rylee,” Fiona said, answering Rylee’s lingering yet unspoken question. “Did I ever tell you I was adopted?”

“Adopted?” Rylee turned, towel in hand and looked at her in amazement. “I didn’t know that…”

“Not adopted like you,” Fiona shook her head. “My mother loved me, my adopted mother, I mean. She raised me like I was her own, loved me like I was her own. Your…experience with adoption and family in general was…well, it was fucked up, Rylee. Mom and me, we’re more like Tori and Anette. Someday you’ll be like that, with Anette. Not right now; see, Rylee, the whole point of motherhood is to raise someone you can be friends with, not in the early years, but later. You see what I’m saying?”

Rylee nodded.

“You never would have had that with your mother, back in North Carolina; that’s not how they saw you. You could never be on equal ground with them. Anyway, my birth mother, she…um…well, I was an unplanned pregnancy and she couldn’t afford me at the time, so she opted to give me up. She got some money from the adoption agency I guess, probably not a whole lot, and off I went with a new family. Cool, huh?” Fiona smiled half-heartedly as Rylee struggled with her bra and then pulled on a back midi-length skirt.

“So it was a good thing?” Rylee asked.

“Sure, it was a great thing. I grew up in a happy, loving household, graduated high school with honors, I’m going to be a nurse. I have an amazing brother and sister, all my needs met, it was wonderful. I wouldn’t trade the relationship I have with my mom for anything in the world. But, Rylee, when I was eighteen years old, the adoption records were unsealed, and I learned about my birth mother. She didn’t get any updates on me, that’s not how it usually works unless it’s agreed upon, you know? She had to give me up and hadn’t a clue where I was or how I was doing, but that didn’t matter to me. You know what mattered? To me, anyway? The fact that she’d started another family a few years later. I guess she got a better job, met a guy, got stable. She had two kids, a boy and a girl. I should’ve been happy for her, but you know what I actually felt?”

Fiona stepped over and helped Rylee straighten out the hoodie, then handed her the skirt and waited for her to step into it, after which she guided her over to the vanity and went to work on her hair with a dryer at low-heat, brushing as she dried.

“God, your hair is so…so….anyway.” Fiona switched the hair dryer off and continued to brush. “I felt angry, Rylee. I was so angry because I wasn’t happy for her, I felt like she’d forgotten me. Like she’d--”

“Replaced you?” Rylee suggested. Fiona stopped brushing, studying Rylee’s face in the mirror for a moment. Rylee’s eyes flicked upward, catching Fiona’s gaze just before she resumed brushing.

“Yeah, replaced me,” Fiona agreed. “I should’ve just been happy for her, but I…couldn’t bring myself to talk to her. She lived a few miles from me in Springfield, actually. I went over there once, stood across the street, watched her with her new family. They were all so happy. So happy without me. But how dumb is that? They didn’t know I existed, well, probably. Good thing I’m older and wiser now, right?” She said it with a hint of sarcasm.

“So what happened?” Rylee asked as Fiona finished brushing and gave her a few squirts of heat protectant before grabbing the hair straightener. “Did you ever talk to her?”

“She died two years ago,” Fiona said abruptly. “Bone cancer, apparently. I was too late. That’s kind of the point, Rylee. I know you’re probably nervous; I’ve listened to you, I know you have regrets, but you’re full of ‘could haves’. Don’t let the ‘could haves’ take over, and don’t wait. You have a chance, right now. Don’t waste it.”

“I’m sorry,” Rylee said quietly as Fiona finished up with her hair. Fiona turned her around gently, inspecting her work.

“Why?” Fiona asked absently, inspecting Rylee’s outfit again. Rylee frowned.

“Um…I’m just sorry,” Rylee stammered, looking away.

“Do you care, Rylee? Like honestly. I’m not mad or anything, I just know you’re autistic, and I didn’t tell you the story to make you feel bad for me. I just want you to understand that you need to take advantage of the opportunity before it’s gone. So, let me ask you again, and be honest, do you care?”

“No,” Rylee whispered, looking away again. Fiona gave her a pat.

“Good girl,” she said, nodding. “Come on, Tori’s going to be home any minute.”

Rylee squinted in the heavy morning light as they walked through the dining room and headed toward the living room; she took a seat on the couch, drawing her legs up underneath her and leaning back against the cushion. Fiona sat on the opposite end of the couch, opening her phone, presumably to check for text messages.

“Did you get a new phone?” Rylee peeked over.

“Yeah,” Fiona glanced up. “It’s a Blackberry.”

“What’s that?”

“It’s like…a phone that has a personal organizer, e-mail, internet, instant messaging…it’s pretty cool.” Fiona flipped the device around so that Rylee could see it, and then resumed checking her messages.

“I wonder if Tori would let me have one of those,” Rylee mused, glancing at her own phone over on the countertop. It was a fairly sleek flip phone, one that Tori had bought her a few months ago. It had basic e-mail and some internet capabilities, but surfing was incredibly slow, and the browser barely supported any websites. It was, in fact, so abysmal that Rylee had simply given up on using it for anything other than text messages and calls.

“You know you’re not allowed to use the internet, Rylee,” Fiona warned, making eye contact and causing Rylee to shrink against the cushions. “And you know your phone usage is itemized; she can see you opening the browser on there.”

“Oh…” Rylee’s cheeks burned and her eyes widened. “I didn’t know she could…”

“Relax, you’re not in trouble,” Fiona shook her head. “But you did promise.”

“Yeah,” Rylee nodded. “I’m…sorry…I…”

“She left the internet enabled so you could read the family forum,” Fiona reminded her. “Have you been using it?”

“Not really,” Rylee admitted. “The browser is really slow.”

“Well,” Fiona said. “For that, and only that, she might let you use the computer. You have a whole extended family that definitely wouldn’t mind talking to you.”

Rylee cringed, not at the idea of the family forum, but at the fact that Tori could see that she’d broken the rules. Though she was technically, legally an adult, there were a number of rules in place for her safety, one of the most important being that she couldn’t use the internet. Or computers, for that matter. It seemed overly restrictive, but it was well established that use of the internet had gotten her in trouble in more ways than one.

“Yeah, um…I will,” Rylee promised, her cheeks now bright red. “Am I…are you sure I’m not going to get in trouble?”

“Not today,” Fiona shook her head. “Just think before you act. Very important.”

Their conversation was cut short as Tori walked through the front door, Burger King bags in hand. She glanced at Rylee and then over to Fiona as she passed by, walking toward the dining room.

“What’s up, Rylee?” Tori called back as she deposited the food on the table. “You look terrified.”

“Told her about the internet thing,” Fiona said, over the back of the couch; she then motioned for Rylee to follow her to the table. Rylee stood up slowly, hands clenched together and eyes to the ground as she made her way to the dining room.

“I called and had that turned off,” Tori said, reaching into the bags and distributing food. “You still have e-mail.”

“I’m…sorry,” Rylee murmured, her voice squeaky and distant as she sat down at the table.

“Rylee, love, consequences will happen, but not today. Today is too important, understand?” Tori looked at her insistently. Rylee nodded.

“What kind of consequences?” Rylee managed to squeak out.

“Well if you must know,” Tori said, sitting down. “I’m going to have you do some journaling. You need a creative outlet.”

“Journaling?” Rylee frowned. “That’s my punishment? No sentences?”

“Sentences are useful, occasionally,” Tori said, unwrapping a sandwich. “But not in this case. Come on, let’s eat.”

There was a moment of silence followed by the sounds of crinkling paper as they unwrapped sandwiches and hash browns. Rylee took a sip of her orange juice and continued to stare at the table, making eye contact only with her sausage biscuit. Tori looked at her from across the table, and then to Fiona who shrugged.

“Let’s go over the plan today,” Tori said, helpfully distracting Rylee from the catastrophizing that was going on in her head. Rylee looked up nervously as Tori launched into a quick detail session. “Mom is on her way to the airport right now, she’ll pick up your sister, they’ll come back here. They’ll probably grab coffee or something on the way back, so we have a few hours for sure. We want to meet your sister and talk to her, obviously, but this afternoon you two are going to be on your own. I want to give you guys time to catch up. We’ll have lunch and dinner, obviously, but try to remember that this is probably the first time the two of you have really been together…in any real manner. No one’s spying on you, you don’t have to rush, and you don’t have to go back to being a boy at the end of the day. This is a safe environment for you, Rylee, and a safe environment for your sister, understand?”

“In other words,” Fiona said after taking a bite of her sandwich. “We’re going to see who you are without your parents around.”

Ariel stepped out of the jetway, following a thick crowd of people into the terminal. She clutched her carry-on bag in her left hand, her right hand held her cell phone, hyper aware and awaiting any buzz that would indicate a message from Anette. She’d already received five since waking up at four in the morning. One confirming that she was awake, a few more checking to see if she had everything she needed. For a stranger, this Anette was being more than vigilant about Ariel’s wellbeing.

She walked with purpose across a carpeted floor, past rows of blue chairs and out onto a tile concourse flanked on one side by terminals, and the other by various shops and restaurants. The murmur of the crowd, the shouts of children, the aura of morning light enveloping the concourse from the glass ceiling overhead, all of it representing a living, breathing, moving world that had left Ariel behind.

One step at a time, one breath at a time, she observed a happy family emerging from another jetway; a mother, father, brother and sister. All happy, all getting along – the type of family that Ariel would have liked to have had. Happy families, and even happy people were a reminder of the life that was stolen from her and evoked a longing for something that had never happened to her. Nostalgia for a phantom past.

Her feet carried her to the end of the concourse, down an escalator and to a lobby that boasted a gargantuan ‘Birth of Flight’ mural just above the exit. She stepped off the escalator, leaving the noise of the concourse behind and standing before a display case that contained three hand-crafted models of the Wright Flyer along with several information plaques establishing Ohio as the ‘Birthplace of Flight’. Ariel held her hand to the glass, running her fingertips over the surface as she briefly scanned a placard discussing Kitty Hawk; memories of North Carolina, her home, came crashing through her carefully crafted mental defenses.

“Ariel?” a familiar voice said from behind. Slowly, Ariel turned and met the eyes of a middle-aged woman, jet black hair pulled back into a messy bun with hints of gray at her temples. She was dressed casually like Ariel in a blue fleece zip-up hoodie and black slacks. Ariel regarded her cautiously, her mind making the connection. “It’s me, Anette. Are you okay?”

“Um…hi,” Ariel said nervously, taking a step forward and swallowing hard as she tried to think of a follow-up. Fortunately, she didn’t have to; Anette smiled gently and stepped forward to meet her, outstretched her arms and enveloped Ariel in a quick hug before taking a step back and smiling again.

“Let’s get out of here, why don’t we?” Anette motioned toward the exit and Ariel nodded violently, bringing a hand to her face and wiping her eyes.

“Yeah, yeah,” Ariel nodded. “It’s nice to finally meet you. I’m…sorry, I’m just a little flustered.”

“Take all the time you need, sweetie,” Anette assured her as they walked toward the exit. “How was your trip?”

“I…don’t really remember,” Ariel said truthfully. “I’ve just been on autopilot, been a big ball of anxiety all day.”

“Have you eaten yet?” Anette asked, drawing a blank stare from Ariel as they stood before a row of steel and glass doors leading to the lobby exit. “You have to be hungry.”

Ariel, in truth, hadn’t eaten anything since the day before; her stomach was in knots when she woke up this morning, and she’d barely managed to get a few sips of water in. The idea of seeing Rylee for the first time in two years, the anxiousness and anticipation of seeing just what had become of her sister had consumed her. Most of all, the realization and understanding that she hadn’t been there for her like she promised. All of their plans had come crashing down around them and she’d done nothing to stop it.

“I, um…I’m not hungry,” Ariel shook her head. “I just want to see my sister.”

“Coffee then,” Anette suggested. “I insist, you look a little faint.”

There was no arguing against it, so Ariel fell silent as they exited the concourse and emerged into the cool morning air. They walked through a concrete parking garage, taking in the scent of motor oil and exhaust beneath cool white fluorescent lights. Their footsteps were hollow and the air around them was dead, as if they’d been sucked into a parallel universe where they, and only they existed amongst a sea of cars.

“Here we are.” Anette indicated a white SUV; she pulled out a key fob and deactivated the alarm, unlocking the door for Ariel.

“Is she okay?” Ariel asked as Anette navigated the parking garage. “My…sister, I mean.”

“Ariel, I know you’re worried, but I assure you she’s doing well. She’s kind of a wreck about school, but that’s normal teenage stuff. I’m more worried about you, to be honest.”

“Me?” Ariel frowned. “Why me?”

“You’ve been through a lot, Ariel,” Anette said firmly. “I know you’re going to downplay it, maybe even say Rylee had it worse, but you both grew up in the same environment and faced many of the same challenges. Rylee wasn’t in good shape when she came to us; I know you can’t be doing much better.”

“I guess…I try not to think about it,” Ariel admitted. “After it all happened, I left home and lived with my friend Amber for a few months, but my parents, they…kept causing problems, so I left and followed a job lead up to Michigan. I didn’t know where I was going to stay…I kind of planned to stay in my car. It didn’t work out that way, but I took a job at this place called The Haven, helping people like Rylee. Well, no, not like Rylee. Gay and lesbians…they weren’t really interested in helping trans people.”

“They usually aren’t,” Anette agreed. “For all the philanthropic bullshit they spout, they like to pretend trans people don’t exist.”

“So you have…a lot of experience with it then?” Ariel’s brow furrowed, turning toward Anette as if trying to assess her.

“Social worker,” Anette confirmed. “For most of my life, actually. When I saw Rylee for the first time, my first inclination was to call social services, get her assigned to a group home or something. Then I saw how my daughter, Tori, was with her and honestly, Tori’s been a mess ever since her daughter died. Rylee gave her hope, a purpose, and I started to have hope of my own. Then, when we were at the mall, she told me something and slipped up, basically told me she was trans.”

“Sounds like her,” Ariel muttered. “We told her mistakes could get her in trouble.”

“I went home, did some searching, found missing persons reports from Woodcrest, your hometown, and it didn’t take me too long to find her. As soon as I confirmed she was trans, I knew we could never turn her over to social services.”

“Yeah, I…I’m glad you saw it that way,” Ariel admitted, watching the road ahead as Anette took an exit and pulled into the parking lot of a Waffle House. “She wouldn’t do well in the system.”

“No, she would not,” Anette agreed; she switched off the engine and unbuckled her seatbelt. “Come on, let’s get you fed.”

“You really don’t have to do this,” Ariel said insistently. “Can just--”

“Ariel,” Anette said, cutting her off. “You’re having breakfast, that’s final, come on.”

Moments later they were seated at a table near the window amidst the aroma of bad coffee and the conversation of travelers, long haul truckers, and a half dozen others. Ariel glanced around, taking in the view of the regulars, some of whom stared into their cups of subpar coffee as if trying to mitigate the hangover from the previous night’s indulgence.

Ariel ordered a single pancake, while Anette ordered hash browns. While waiting for their food to arrive, Anette finally broached the tough part of the conversation.

“So, Ariel,” Anette said, sipping a cup of black coffee. “Now that we’re here, there are some things I really need to discuss with you, concerning Rylee.”

“Oh?” Ariel looked to her with concern, hand clenching the ceramic handle of her coffee mug.

“You asked how she was doing,” Anette took a sip and met Ariel’s gaze. “She’s doing well, far better than she was when we first met her. She was timid, afraid, she used to flinch at the slightest touch. I don’t know where that behavior was learned; maybe it…was from her life at home, in North Carolina, or maybe it was something that happened to her when she was on the run. It’s hard to tell, but she’s doing better. Not perfect; we haven’t had a lot of time with her, but she laughs now, she smiles, she’s stopped cowering. But, Ariel, despite being eighteen, she’s a child. I can’t gloss over that and neither can you. She ran away from home at sixteen, her…education was lacking and emotionally, she just hasn’t reached adulthood. There are so many things that she hasn’t learned. She will, but she’s just…not there yet.”

“And you think you can teach her those things?”

“She was a mess, Ariel,” Anette told her. “A big fucking mess, and it got bigger as we figured out what happened to her. We took her in, we made her a part of our family, a real part. Just…I’m asking you to give us a chance, Ariel. You’re here as a part of this family, just like she is.”

“Yeah that’s…what I’m having trouble understanding,” Ariel admitted. “You don’t know her…or you didn’t. She’s just…someone who showed up. Why would you go so far as to declare she’s a part of your family?”

“Despite the world’s best efforts, Ariel, Rylee is a sweet girl and she helps my daughter,” Anette explained. “We’re glad to have her, even if she can get frustrating from time to time.”

The food arrived, and Ariel stared at her pancake for a moment before reluctantly digging in. Abandoning the conversation at hand for a moment, she found herself looking through the window, toward the parking lot and to the freeway overpass beyond. Of all the places she thought that she might end up, Ohio certainly wasn’t one of them. To think of how far she’d come, and how much she’d learned, and feared; it had all been for this moment, the moment that she would find her sister, find Rylee. She’d come here to take her away, to bring her back home, to live the life they’d both always dreamed of, but what now? If Rylee was truly happy, if she was cared for, what right did she have.

She’s your sister, you have the right, her inner voice urged. Yes, that was right, it was not only her right, it was her responsibility to get Rylee away from here. They’d had plans, god dammit. Despite her better judgement, however, she sighed, and momentarily relented, turning back to Anette.

“Alright,” Ariel said softly. “I’ll trust you, for now.”

“Rylee, stop pacing, you’re going to wear a hole in the floor,” Tori told her, watching her pace from one end of the room to the other. Rylee practically glared at Tori, which nearly caused Fiona to break out into a fit of giggles. “Rylee, seriously, sit down.”

“I can’t!” Rylee exclaimed. “I…I just feel…I don’t know!”

“Rylee,” Tori said, moving toward her and gently laying a hand on her arm. Rylee jerked away, frustration and anger evident in her expression as she shrank back and wrapped her arms around herself, rubbing her forearms and shaking her head violently. “Rylee, you’re fine, just breathe.”

“Don’t touch me!” Rylee shrieked. Fiona stood from the recliner and quietly crossed the room, taking up a position behind Rylee.

“Rylee,” Fiona said firmly. “I know you’re freaking out, I know you’re worried, nervous, whatever, but you need to calm down. Take a seat on the couch.”

“Get away from me!’ Rylee snapped, spinning around and taking a step backward from Fiona. “I’m fine, just leave me alone!”

“Rylee...” Tori stepped a little closer, reaching out to her. Rylee lashed out, smacking Tori’s hand away, and stumbled backward over the coffee table. Fiona managed to catch her before she tumbled into the glass, which caused Rylee to react even harder, letting out a shriek and flailing her arms. Tori gave Fiona a glance and nodded; they both took a step forward, Tori placing her hands on Rylee’s shoulders while Fiona pinned her arms and dragged her toward the couch. Rylee tried to kick, but all at once, she was on the couch and Fiona had expertly wrapped her legs around her, practically immobilizing her. Rylee’s face was red with frustration and anger as Tori talked her through the meltdown.

“Rylee, look at me!” Tori snapped her fingers, drawing Rylee’s attention. “You’re okay! I know you’re scared, I know you’re frustrated, but look at me! Look at me!”

Slowly, gradually, Rylee began to calm down; she fought less, the aggression faded from her eyes, and her breathing normalized.

“Sorry,” Rylee whispered through tears. “Sorry, I didn’t mean to--”

“It’s okay! It’s okay, Rylee!” Tori said insistently, cradling her sister’s cheeks. “You’re okay, everything’s okay!”

“I sh-- I…I shouldn’t have done that.” Rylee was sobbing now, her lower lip quivering, her eyes puffy with tears. These meltdowns had been a matter of course since early on in their relationship, and Tori, along with Fiona and her mother, had learned to deal with them. A good part of it was anxiety, but another huge factor was her aversion to being touched. During her worst periods, the air itself was enough to set her off. “I j-just…”

“No, no, it’s okay, I promise.” Tori nodded to Fiona, who slowly released her; instead of pulling away, Rylee melted into Fiona’s arms, sobbing and convulsing as Tori rubbed her back. “It’s going to be okay, Rylee, I--”

Tori and Fiona were suddenly interrupted by the all-too-familiar clearing of Anette’s throat; they’d been so distracted that they hadn’t seen her stepping through the front door, Ariel in tow.

Tori stood upright and froze, looking from Anette first, and then to Ariel. Rylee’s sister was much like she’d expected and much like she’d seen on the video chat; long blonde hair, straighter and better kept than Rylee’s. She was wearing a simple white t-shirt beneath a black jean jacket with a cute, form-fitting cut and a pair of blue jeans, also form fitting. Combined with her light makeup and demeanor, she was a picture of beauty, practically angelic, and Tori couldn’t help but stare.

“Um…hi, you must be Ariel.” Tori did her best to compose herself, straightening the wrinkles from her v-neck top and standing up straight, aware of Fiona behind her trying to get Rylee to stand. “I um…sorry, we were just--”

“Rylee,” Ariel said, breathlessly as she stepped away from the foyer, crossing the room and stopping halfway to Rylee. “It’s you. It’s really you.”

Rylee was still hanging onto Fiona, eyes puffy, cheeks red as she turned her head to look at her long-lost sister. Despite the build-up to this reunion, the disbelief in Rylee’s eyes was unmistakable. Blinking through the tears, she stared at Ariel, her sister, in the same room at last. Ariel took another step forward, offering her right hand and giving Rylee a nod. Rylee slowly, gingerly reached out and laid her hand against Ariel’s, allowing her sister to pull her to her feet where she stood, head down, tears flowing as Ariel pressed a hand to her cheek. Slowly, carefully, she raised her head to make eye contact, offering a warm smile.

“It’s okay, little sister,” Ariel reassured her. “You did it. You survived, and you’re here. It’s over now, okay?”

There were a myriad of things that Rylee wanted to say in this moment. She wanted to tell Ariel that she loved her, she wanted to apologize for leaving her behind. She wanted to thank her, for helping her to become Rylee. So many things, so many thoughts, and words, and ideas and emotions and no words or ability to express them as she stood before her sister for the first time in two years among friends and family. The emotions and history present in the room were enough to fill a book, each of those present recalling the events that had taken place right here in this living room. Most recently, the family meeting where Tori had discovered Rylee’s true identity and had sworn to love and protect her nonetheless. The moment they had learned her past, the horrors she’d faced, and now it all came full circle as Ariel, a face from the distant past and her sister, had come here against all odds.

Slowly, carefully, Ariel drew Rylee into a tight hug, Rylee laying her head against Ariel’s shoulder and allowing the tears to flow freely; all of her thoughts and unspoken words transformed into one display of torrential emotion as the world around them faded away. For a moment, perhaps more, it was them and only them, sequestered in their own private universe. Tori, Anette, Fiona, the living room, all of it vanished as their emotions intertwined and two years of pain, longing, and regret swirled around them. No words were spoken, they simply stood in that long, warm embrace that served to say: I know. Me too.

“I’m really sorry about that,” Tori apologized again. “She has hard days sometimes, and today…”

“No, don’t worry about it,” Ariel reassured her. “You handled it really well.”

“Thanks,” Tori nodded, her voice empty as she looked at Ariel and Rylee. They’d opted to sit in the living room, Ariel beside Rylee at the end of the couch, her little sister wrapped in her arms as Rylee made futile attempts to dry her eyes with a Kleenex. Fiona sat at the opposite end of the couch and Anette had taken the recliner while Tori sat lightly on the ottoman. Rylee had recovered from her episode, mostly, but had opted to remain mostly silent. Ariel continually rubbed her shoulders, giving her the occasional squeeze and reassuring her as Tori and Anette looked on. “I’m, uh…really glad you decided to come.”

“Well yeah, of course I came,” Ariel said. “I mean…I’ve been looking for Rylee for two years. Can you tell me…more about what happened, though? How did she end up here?”

“Um…” Tori scrambled for an explanation that didn’t involve the word ‘gun’, but Anette raised a hand, silencing her.

“Honesty is going to be best here, Tori,” Anette informed her before taking a deep breath and looking to Ariel. “Ariel, I’m going to level with you, it wasn’t…the best first encounter. Rylee had been homeless for a long time; she was surviving by breaking into houses, stealing food, clothes, taking showers, whatever she could do. I can’t really blame her for it, no one should. We know what happened with your parents, we’ve seen the social work reports, and we know that she was lacking the skills she needed to survive. Of course, Tori didn’t know that, at the time, so it’s understandable that when she found an intruder in her home, she took…measures.”

“Measure?” Ariel frowned. “What do you mean, measures?”

“She means I put a gun in her face,” Tori said abruptly, drawing a horrified stare from Ariel. “I’m not going to sugar coat it--”

“But I am,” Anette interrupted her. “Tori felt the need to protect herself, but the moment she realized Rylee wasn’t a threat, she made efforts to make her feel safe, and the rest followed.”

“The rest?” Ariel raised an eyebrow. “This all sounds…kind of horrifying. You forced her to stay here at gunpoint?”

“That’s an oversimplification of it,” Anette corrected her. “Tori brought me in, because of my history as a social worker, and we realized that if we allowed Rylee to leave, she would simply continue with her current course and likely be killed or fall back into the same situation she had before, when she first left home. If we turned her over to social services, she could end up in jail or a group home. When I discovered she was transgender, our options were narrowed even further. Now, before you blame Tori or me for our actions or this situation, I want you to think about what it was like when you lived at home with Rylee. Think hard about how much she went through, and think about what you were able to do for her.”

“I…” Ariel frowned, her eyes darting from left to right as she recalled a history of violent abuse, despair, and helplessness. “I gave her…her name, and I gave her chances to be herself, and…I…”

“But it was all temporary,” Anette said, nodding. “You did the best you could, and so did we. Ariel, we have more resources than you do, we have jobs, we have money, I have my connections as a social worker, Fiona is training to be a nurse and we still couldn’t help as much as we wanted to. There are no adequate resources for someone like Rylee; the system is cruel to people like her. The best thing we could do was offer direct help.”

“I’m going to jump in here,” Fiona spoke, which surprised everyone in the room. All eyes turned to her as she folded her hands on the other end of the couch, adjusting her position and turning to Ariel. “What happened here is…abnormal. You don’t normally just…keep a home invader, let alone make them part of your family, but as a fairly neutral observer, Tori needed Rylee, and Rylee needed Tori. That’s all there is to it. They were both in bad places, pushed to the edge, and they saved each other in a way that me, Anette, and any number of their other friends couldn’t. I’m hard on Rylee, a lot, because I know that she can be better, she can be more than what she is, but what she is, right now, is amazing. She’s loving, she’s caring, and she’s very very smart. But she’s hurt, and she needs people to guide her, people with experience. You’re not going to find anyone better than the people in this room right now.”

Ariel took a deep breath and looked around the room. From Tori, to Anette, then Fiona, and finally back to Rylee, who was comfortably tucked into the corner of the couch next to her. Finally, she spoke again.

“Can…I talk to my sister alone?” Ariel asked.

“Absolutely.” Anette smiled. “Rylee, why don’t you take Ariel back to your room?”

“Her room?” Ariel asked, surprised. “She has a whole room?”

“Did you think she was sleeping on the floor?” Tori raised an eyebrow; Anette glared at Tori.

“I guess maybe…I thought you had an air mattress for her or something, I don’t know.”

“A whole room,” Tori confirmed. “Rylee, you want to show her?”

“Yeah.” Rylee nodded, pushing herself off of the couch and waiting for Ariel to join her. As she did, she looked to Tori, who nodded her approval.

“Go ahead, Ry.” Tori smiled. “We’ll be out here when you guys get done.”

Hand in hand, Rylee and Ariel made their way out of the living room, down the hallway, turning left into Rylee’s room, where they separated and Ariel stood in the doorway for a moment. Rylee stepped forward, toward the center of the room, and turned toward Ariel, offering her a quick smile as she watched her step inside. Ariel’s eyes traveled the room, from the white dresser with pink trim, to the perfectly made bed, to the writing desk in the corner. Slowly and carefully she made her way around the room, running her fingertips across the surfaces, rotating the miniature CD tower on the dresser and mouthing the titles silently. She moved to the closet, pulling the doors aside and taking in the huge selection of clothes, and finally turned back to Rylee who was watching her not with confusion, but curiosity.

Ariel stopped her survey of the room to regard her sister, standing there timidly in the center of the room, silent, except for the millions of questions that burned behind her perplexed expression. But still, there was something different about her; when she’d been at home, in North Carolina, there had been brief moments of happiness, but they were always overshadowed by fear and pain, both of which had been present in her expression at all times. An innate sense of paranoia and trepidation had preceded her personality and overshadowed her every movement. Today, as she looked at her sister, she felt as if she were truly seeing her for the first time. The fear was gone and replaced by contentment and a sense of belonging. She looked…like a normal teenage girl.

“Hi…Rylee,” Ariel said cautiously.

“Hi,” Rylee said softly with a small smile tugging at the corners of her mouth.

“Look, I’m…I…have to say this isn’t what I expected to find.” Ariel looked around and gestured to the room. “They gave you all this?”

“It’s my room,” Rylee shrugged. “Tori lived in it when she was a teenager, but…she gave it to me. It’s got all her old stuff in it.”

“You look…really good,” Ariel stepped forward and studied her little sister. “You grew your hair out?”

“Yeah,” Rylee nodded. “It didn’t take long; it was really messy at first, but Tori showed me how to take care of it. I have to use conditioner now; I never did that at home. And she has me put some other stuff in it.”

“Rylee…I…came here to take you home with me.” Ariel frowned. “I…have a job in Michigan and we could live in an apartment together, just like we always wanted…but…”

The room sat in a stagnant silence for a moment save for the sound of Rylee’s irregular breaths and the beating of Ariel’s heart that filled her ears. Finally, it was Rylee who spoke.

“I…dreamed about you,” Rylee said, breaking the silence; Ariel tilted her head, listening intently. “When…I was out there. On the road or whatever. I used to fall asleep dreaming that you’d find me. I was hungry and cold, and everything hurt. But…I would dream these dreams where I’d wake up and there you’d be, holding out your hand, and you’d take me somewhere safe.”

“I’m here now, Rylee,” Ariel said softly. “We can still do that, if you want.”

“I never forgot about you.” A tear trickled down Rylee’s cheek. “I prayed, and prayed, and prayed. When I was asleep in the woods, or when I found some abandoned building to sleep in. When…when those people…were doing things to me. I thought about you and I stayed alive because I knew you wouldn’t stop. Not until you found me.”

“I tried, Rylee.” Ariel wiped a tear from her cheek and sniffed. “I tried every day, I did everything I could, I promise--”

“I know,” Rylee said softly. “I know you did. But there’s something…here. When I lived at home with Mom and Dad, I didn’t…really live there. I don’t know what I’m trying to say, I guess. It’s just…I didn’t really…I don’t know. I was always waiting for the next thing, always waiting for the day I could leave. They included me, but they didn’t. I didn’t belong. If I disappeared, it wouldn’t make a difference. When I’m here, though, I feel like…I’m a part of it. Like I’m supposed to be here. Like…if I left, people would miss me. I…want to be here, Ariel, and…I don’t know how to do that. I don’t want to hurt you.”

“And this…Tori person,” Ariel said, wiping away another tear. “She’s nice to you? She doesn’t hurt you?”

“She took care of me,” Rylee said, biting her lower lip and doing her best to keep eye contact with her sister. “She helped.”

“I should have helped,” Ariel said simply. “I should have…been there for you. But I wasn’t, and some stranger had to do my job for me. That feels…it hurts, Rylee. It fucking hurts. I just…need a minute.”

Ariel could see the wave of anguish as it crashed over Rylee like the evening tide. Her face transformed from that expression of newfound hope to utter despair as Ariel made her statement. They had been two years separated, desperately searching, and now that they were here, standing in the same room, they were suddenly worlds apart.

Rylee nodded softly and stepped out of the room, disappearing into the hallway and leaving Ariel to her thoughts. As soon as her sister was gone, Ariel collapsed onto the bed, burying her head in her hands. How could she have failed so badly? She’d promised to protect Rylee, to keep her safe, but some stranger, this Tori person had to step in. This wasn’t how it was supposed to go. It just wasn’t! She wanted to cry, she wanted to scream. She wanted to break something, but as she looked around the room, all she could see were Rylee’s valuables, gifted to her by Tori Blackburn. This place, this room, all of it was put together with so much love, so much caring, so much more than they’d had at home with their parents. It wasn’t possible, it just wasn’t!

“Breathe, Ariel,” she muttered to herself. “Just breathe.”

“It wasn’t your fault,” Anette said from the door; Ariel looked up to see the petite, black-haired woman leaning against the door frame, shaking her head insistently. “It wasn’t, Ariel.”

“Then whose?” Ariel asked, weakly. She no longer had it in her to yell or demand.

“The monsters that raised you.” Anette’s statement left no room for argument. “The two people that should have loved you for you and not the people that they were trying to mold you into. A parent’s job is to give guidance and to protect their child from harm. To provide. They don’t manipulate, they don’t abuse and they don’t resort to loving only the image of themselves that they project onto you. It. Wasn’t. Your. Fault. Understand?”

Ariel sobbed softly as Anette took her hands, and crouched down in front of her, looking into her eyes.

“I feel so useless,” Ariel admitted, unable to contain her tears. “I’m her big sister, I should have…I should…I…”

“You’re here, aren’t you?” Anette reassured her. “You left a trail for her to follow, we picked it up, we found you, you came here. You found a way, against all odds, and here you are. Listen, Ariel,” Anette continued. “Your sister needed help, she found help, and she found a family, just like you did today, if you’ll have us. Lots of people need help, Ariel. Every single day, someone is in a dire situation. Life or death, win or lose. And Ariel? Right now, it’s you.”

“You sure she’ll be okay in there?” Ariel peered over her shoulder as Tori closed the door behind them and they stepped into the garage.

“Yeah, she’ll be fine,” Tori assured her. “She’s got a new game to play and she needs some time to disassociate. It’s been a day for her, so far.”

“Mom and Dad never let her play games,” Ariel said thoughtfully. “They always said it would be bad for her ADHD or whatever. I snuck a few home for her from school to play on our old computer, though.”

“She told me,” Tori smiled. “She talked about you a lot. The game thing, though…Mom and I did some experimentation with it; she does fixate if she’s left alone, but we put time limits on her gaming. We usually give her an hour to two hours a day, but more on the weekends. We don’t want to take it away because she sort of needs something that’s hers, and it’s relaxing for her.”

“Something that’s hers?” Ariel asked, curiously as they began to walk past Anette’s car and toward the open garage door.

“I don’t know how to put this,” Tori said, shrugging. “The situation…I mean, her being trans and all, it’s made it so everything she is, every single thought, secret, personality quirk, all of it’s been laid bare. She has nothing to her that’s really ‘hers’ anymore. Some of that…could have been avoided; I mean, if she’d come right out and said, ‘Hey, I’m trans and I have a history of abuse that I’d rather not talk about’, we definitely could have worked with that, but she made us drag it out of her piece by piece until every part of her was exposed. It wasn’t pleasant, but it was the only way to take care of her.”

“That sounds…awful.” Ariel shuddered. “And she’s okay?”

“It was awful on both sides,” Tori assured her. “There were a lot of tears, for sure, and it was frustrating but…Jesus, Ariel, things happened to her. I read the social work reports and…I…I honestly admire her for surviving, but she needed help. She needs help.”

They stopped at the threshold of the garage, staring out at the driveway. In front of Ariel, maybe a dozen feet away, Tori’s box truck stood, shining in the afternoon sunlight, freshly cleaned. Her eyes traveled to the left, surveying the front yard: a green lawn ensconced behind a row of high shrubs that protected it from the outside world.

“She’s been here four months and you know her better than our parents ever did,” Ariel said, shaking her head incredulously. “I guess…I just don’t get it. How?”

“She was a hard nut to crack,” Tori admitted. “But I had help. My mom’s social work experience, Fiona’s medical training, friends, family, all sorts of advice. I didn’t do it alone, you understand, there are a whole lot of people invested in helping your sister, people she hasn’t even met.”

“But why?” Ariel frowned, bringing a hand to her head and twirling a strand of hair. “You don’t even know her, none of you do.”

“Why do you?”

“Um, she’s my sister,” Ariel said, matter of factly.

“Half-sister,” Tori corrected. “You didn’t have to help her, you could have just let her rot. Even your parents encouraged you to. What was your motivation?”

“I…guess…when I saw who she really was, I just couldn’t let her suffer like that.” Ariel struggled to come up with a viable explanation, and simply stopped there.

“There’s a saying,” Tori said. “That you ‘don’t owe anybody shit’. I get the sentiment, but Mom always told us that we owe each other a lot. She also told us that if you can help someone in need, and it won’t hurt you, then you must help them. I try to live by that as much as she does.”

“But helping Rylee,” Ariel said. “It had to hurt you. But you kept doing it?”

“For better or for worse, Rylee is my sister now, and so are you,” Tori said firmly, making eye contact with Ariel. “She’s a little messed up, or a lot, but we’re all messed up in our own ways here.”

“I…wanted to take her home with me,” Ariel admitted, “I…got a raise at my job, and I was going to look for a bigger apartment and…I…”

“I know you were, Ariel.” Tori turned to her, laying a reassuring hand on her shoulder and maintaining eye contact. “I know you love your sister more than anything in the world, but she can’t work. You’d end up supporting her, and it sounds like you can barely support yourself. I’m not insulting you, but you’re two years older than her; you haven’t had time to establish yourself and you didn’t get the help you deserved. It would be bad for both of you.”

“So what am I supposed to do?” Ariel shook her head. “I’m supposed to protect my sister. I can’t even do that?”

“You’re here,” Tori said reassuringly. “She thought she was never going to see you again, but you’re here. You’re alive. You’re doing amazingly so far. It could have gone so much worse, Ariel.”

“So what, am I supposed to just leave her here?”

“Come on,” Tori smiled. “I want to show you something.”

Tori placed a hand on Ariel’s shoulder and smiled softly as she led her from the garage, down the driveway, and toward the back of the truck. The back door was open, and as Ariel peered in, she was shocked to see someone asleep on the floor; a guy with dark hair, dressed in a maroon t-shirt and a pair of dark blue jeans, one arm tucked beneath his head as a pillow.

“Um, who’s that?” Ariel frowned. “You got a homeless guy back here?”

“That’s Marcus,” Tori explained. “But, unimportant. This is going to be a food truck. I’m going to the bank next week to try and get a loan; once it comes through, I’ll start getting this thing set up. There’s a lot of work to do, but we can manage it. How would you feel about being a cook, Ariel?”

“You’re…going to run a food truck,” Ariel said, a question phrased as a statement.

“Hell yeah, I am.” Tori nodded toward the truck. “I’ve got a menu planned out and everything. Marcus is going to work the truck and…maybe you can too. If you want.”

Ariel turned to look at Tori and then glanced back to the empty box truck and Marcus, snoring on the floor. Finally, she turned back to Tori.

“I’m supposed to just abandon my whole life for this?” She shook her head, her eyes wide. “What if you don’t get the loan?”

“We’ll manage,” Tori assured her. “In the unlikely event that this falls through, we’ll find something else for you to do.”

“But you’re still asking me to abandon my whole life,” Ariel reminded her. “I left my best friend back there; she kind of relies on me to pay rent.”

“Ariel, you want to ask your sister to abandon her whole life for you,” Tori reminded her; Ariel’s face fell with recognition. “And your roommate is a big girl; your sister isn’t. Who needs you more?”

“This is such bullshit,” Ariel shook her head. “This shouldn’t have happened!”

“Yeah well, in some ways, I’m glad it did,” Tori said, prompting a look of surprise from Ariel. Tori gestured toward the edge of the edge of the truck bed, sitting down and waiting for Ariel to follow suit. “I’m glad I know your sister, Ariel. She’s sweet, she’s polite, she’s a joy to have around. She’s damaged, of course, but Ariel, people love her.”

“It’s weird, you know?” Ariel looked at Tori who cast a questioning expression at her. “People know my sister now. Back then it was just…me and Amber. We knew about her, hell, we kind of made her, but no one else knew. She was kind of our dirty little secret, I guess. I…I didn’t know if anyone else would ever know her. I didn’t know if she’d survive. I thought maybe Ryan would survive, but Rylee? I…wasn’t sure that her identity would make it. Now you know her, and Anette knows her, and Fiona, and…probably that guy back there--”


“Right,” Ariel nodded. “Marcus. It’s like…she’s real. She’s finally real. I guess I should stop bitching at you. You made that happen, didn’t you?”

“You brought her out,” Tori pointed out. “I can’t take all the credit.”

“I brought her out, but I didn’t make her her. When we lived with our parents she couldn’t really be herself. I don’t know who she was on the road, but she…became Rylee here, didn’t she? In a way she was born here with you. I don’t know what to think, Tori. I’m her sister and I couldn’t even give her that.”

“I think you did the best you could.” Tori reached over and rested her hand atop Ariel’s. Ariel looked up, her eyes glazed over. “I think you had limited resources, and I think…Ariel, I think you saved your sister’s life. I think you helped her find herself, even if it was in a dark place, and you gave her the courage to become herself away from home. Don’t diminish your accomplishments, Ariel.”

“You’re really her sister, aren’t you?” Ariel said, after a long moment. Tori squeezed her hand.

“We both are,” Tori said, “and my other sister, Rebecca. Anette is our mother; we’re a family. For better, or for worse, we’re stuck together now.”

Ariel took a deep breath, contemplating the weight of Tori’s words as they sat there at the edge of the truck, having a heartfelt discussion to the cadence of Marcus’s light snoring. There was pain in Ariel’s eyes, the memories of a time long past intermingling with the hope for a future she never imagined. It was strange, and this certainly wasn’t the way it was supposed to happen, but could she have hoped for any better outcome? Reunited with her sister, against all odds. A family, simply handed to her, another thing that she couldn’t have dreamed of.

“Thank you, Tori.”

“Rylee! Off the Nintendo!” Tori snapped her fingers. “Come on, get over to the table!”

“A little hard on her, aren’t you?” Ariel frowned from the other side of the table, her hand resting on the back of a wooden chair. Tori gave her a soft smile.

“She’ll stay on that thing all night,” Tori explained. “She’s got school tomorrow.”

“Wait, I have to go back already?” Rylee turned from her position on the floor, controller still in hand. Tori smirked at her.

“Don’t wanna fall behind,” Tori laughed. “Besides, your friends probably miss you.”

“Rylee has friends?” Ariel said, softly enough for only Tori to hear. Tori turned around, nodded and smiled to Ariel.

They’d just finished dinner, a meal consisting of green bean casserole and pork chops. Tori had made the porch chops while Ariel and Tori had shown Rylee the finer points of making green bean casserole. Now that dinner was over, Tori and Ariel had set about gathering the dishes and moving them to the sink, and subsequently the dishwasher. Rylee, on the other hand, sat quietly on the living room floor playing one of her fantasy games.

“Rylee, help us with this,” Ariel called out.

“Don’t you dare,” Tori snapped to Rylee. “Go shower and brush your teeth.”

Ariel looked to Tori questioningly as Rylee’s shoulder slumped and she turned, walking past Ariel, down the hall toward the bathroom. Tori immediately stacked the plates and silverware, walking them over to the sink as Ariel’s eyes burned into the back of her head. Tori dropped the plates into the sink and looked up at her from across the counter.

“When she first came to my house,” Tori said to Ariel, “her first instinct was to wash the dishes. She grabbed for a scrub brush just because we were in the vicinity of the sink. I put a stop to that right away. Mom’s been a social worker for most of her life, I’ve heard enough stories, and now I know Rylee’s history. I’m not going to have her thinking her worth is tied to what she can do for us. Chores included.”

“When we lived at home,” Ariel said, picking up the glasses from the table and heading over to Tori. “She did the dishes. It wasn’t a chore that Mom or Dad gave her, she just did it because she wanted to do something. It just…became a thing, and I guess everyone expected her to do the dishes. So then, one day, Dad brings home this movie from Hollywood Video; it was called Willow, I think. She wanted to see it, but her bedtime was nine. So she skipped the dishes. It wasn’t really one of her chores, so she figured she’d leave it until morning. They got about halfway through the movie, I guess, before Dad walked over to the kitchen to get something, and he saw the dishes…”

“She has reactions to things she shouldn’t,” Tori said, filling the silence that hung off the end of Ariel’s last statement. “She flinches at the lightest touch, and she’s just…afraid, in general. She’s afraid of her own shadow, and I’m trying, I’m really trying, but I kept her here because she just wasn’t ready to be out there.”

“You know, I was mad at you, at first,” Ariel said, resignation in her tone. “I wanted to hate you because…you kept her here against her will. I mean, that’s what you did. You can call it whatever you want, but you didn’t allow her to leave, and I was so angry. I came here…dead set on grabbing her and taking her back home…”

“We figured.” Tori smiled and took the glasses from her, setting them in the sink. “She’s your sister, you love her, and you’ve been looking for her for two years. I get it, Ariel, but we wouldn’t have let you.”

“I know that,” Ariel nodded. “I…Tori, I just…when I saw her, there was something so much different about her. After you talked her through her meltdown, I mean. She seems brighter; there’s this light in her eyes, and she smiles. It’s like she’s come to life; you did something that I couldn’t.”

“You kept her alive,” Anette said, stepping out of the hallway and toward the kitchen. “You couldn’t have been expected to do much more than that. It’s time for you to stop beating yourself up.”

Ariel turned away from Tori, stepping back toward the living room and standing behind the couch. She peered out the window, past the porch and toward the front yard. The evening light was beginning to fade; the sky bursting with color as night began to set in. Ariel leaned against the couch, trying to process every little, and big thing that had happened today. She’d had plans when she came here, plans to take Rylee, to get her to Michigan, to build the life that they deserved to have together. But it was different now, wasn’t it? Rylee had a life, she had a family, the same family that was being offered to her now. The opportunity to start over, to join her sister here. Her apprehension was slowly fading.

“It was right here, you know,” Tori said, stepping around the couch; she gave Ariel a thin smile as she gestured toward the couch. “I brought her here, and that’s where I learned everything about her. Well, almost everything, I mean there’s still a few tidbits that I haven’t figured out yet. But the night I found out she was trans? I brought her here and she was…she was so scared, Ariel. She was trembling, sobbing, she kept saying over and over again that she was going to tell me. She thought I was going to get rid of her or kick her out or whatever. It was in that moment, Ariel, that I realized what a commitment we’d made. What I’d made. She’s someone that needs to be protected. The worst has already happened to her, and we need to make sure it never happens again. She’s…put so much time and effort into becoming the person she was meant to be. Hell, I don’t even know how she learned half of it.”

“She had help,” Ariel wiped her eyes. “I showed her some, and then there was this woman, we met her online. She transitioned in the eighties; I guess she went to some finishing school in Almsworth. It’s over in England. She…went at her hard.”

“She did was someone hit her until she learned to walk properly,” Anette snorted. “Your friend?”

“Yeah,” Ariel nodded, wiping her eyes again. “It may have saved her life.”

“Maybe,” Tori agreed. “When I found out about Rylee, I told her that this wasn’t going to make me push her away, it was going to make me more protective of her, because of how unique she is. We’ll do what it takes, Ariel, whatever it takes.”

“You know what sucks, is I’m starting to believe you,” Ariel sighed. “I don’t want to. Every instinct in me is saying to grab Rylee and run, but…I think I believe you. That you really have her best interests in mind.”

“We do, obviously,” Anette said, stepping forward. “But there’s more to it than that.”

“More?” Ariel raised an eyebrow. “What more could there be?”

“You,” Tori said, flatly, simply.

“Me?” Ariel whispered. “What about me?”

“You didn’t face the same challenges as Rylee,” Anette said, regarding Ariel softly. “You didn’t have the autism, or the learning disabilities. You don’t have the spatial awareness issues. You aren’t transgender, obviously, but that doesn’t mean you didn’t endure the trauma. You were raised in the same house, by the same monsters, and you had to watch out for your little sister. You spent years keeping her safe and then you went off and had to take care of yourself. You never caught a break. Now, Ariel, it’s time to let someone take care of you.”

“I…” Ariel stammered, looking between Anette and Tori. Tori folded her arms while Anette stepped forward again, this time, arms outstretched. Ariel twitched, her eyes watering again as she went slack, allowing Anette to embrace her. She buried her face in Anette’s shoulder as the tears began to flow freely.

“Welcome home, sweetie,” Anette said.

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