Ch 131: Bubbles and Bloom
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All bases are constantly under construction at all times.

It doesn't matter how big or advanced it is. There's just always more stuff being built, repaired, or upgraded. It's the same way in the main troops back home, ever-expanding. It's the same situation for a rocky military outpost like this.

Lots of hands moving and voices yelling in rotation. If they're not orders being handed out then they're the reply of drills.

Stone to cut and assemble. Mortar to grind and mix. Ditches to dig and mounds to pack, fill and build. Supplies coming in and out. From the unaccounted for mines gathering a variety of substances to the scouting and hunting crews coming back from their shifts.

It's very noisy.

From the safety of the windows of the main keep, where the best guest rooms are reserved, I watch the lively daily routines of this outpost.

An outpost outside the mountains that are hiding a surprising valley where the leprosy colony lives in quarantine.

I don't expect 'guarding leprosy colony' would be a very popular position to take.

Not in the troops, or anywhere. No one would want the position out in the middle of nowhere with little to no chance of career advancements, adventure training, or good experience. The most you can earn is some credits. In a normal setting only newbies with no power, the very unambitious, or those serving some sort of punishment in the ranks would be stationed out here.

So it comes as no surprise to me that things here are more than they appear.

The impossible things going in and out in a place this isolated especially named 'badlands'. Not somewhere one really wants to start a home or a village or anything of the sort. But there are so many pelts, from the fur blankets on our beddings to the fresh meat coming in through the outer gates that there must be plenty to hunt.

Perhaps in the still dangerous amounts of magic spots, and empty land for packs of beasts to roam. Food and provisions, perhaps some magical raiding spots are up to run and make a profit. Then there's a source of water, melted snow from the mountaintops running top. The same source as that waterfall. Probably well stored in water towers built into the mountains.

Inside the valley, there seems to be a reasonable source of agriculture to supply the colony and village. Though there does appear to be some strict levels of separation between the residents and the troops.

I have learned since yesterday that the colony runs much like an old-fashioned village. More bartering than actual money, since not only is there no money system, no one would accept the coin of a leper for fear of contamination.

That much is true I suppose. Mental note to wash all my gold if I'm to roll around in it.

Thus there is a line of credit for each person registered in the colony. They can use their own money between each other but anything to do with the outside world is converted to credits. A credit system already used internally within the troops. Unrelated to gold or material foreign currencies of the outside world, they can only be counted, used, and earned within the troops. While credits can be converted out for goods and local money, you cannot buy the troop's credits.

It's as close to virtual money as we can get.

This kind of system can only be possible in the limited but very controlled environment that is the troops or this isolated colony here. No complaints, no competition, and rather basic. All for the better.

In the closed confined space of the leprosarium, this system is even more effective. Given that there are literally no other windows to the outside world. The same goes for any tester models of buildings, road planning, or other perplexing things that Grampa wants to build.

Of course, these are all things I've only been told rather than really seeing firsthand for myself.

"No Rosalia, you're not getting access into....any of it!" Georgie exclaims, counting off all the rejected Rosalia visitation zones.

Which is literally everywhere!?

Lilyanne may be amused with a few toy blocks, a chalkboard, and an amusingly furry bed for nap time but I'm not!

Mother had left us only after a late breakfast and morning 'play' time, assigning the official babysitter to watch out over us till sundown. Wherever could she have gone that I can't go? Why am I getting treated like the delicate dainty one here? The roles are all wrong!

Even Lukas is gone. Either blissfully off to enjoy all that is Gable, or cannon tossed up the top of that mountain range. Whatever it is that keeps monster kiddies in tip-top strong conditions? Well, if an avalanche occurs today, we'll know what caused it.

"I understand we're not at home and I don't have all my usual privileges, but surely it's unreasonable to keep us isolated from everything," I complain.

"There is not a single place here that's for children." Georgie says resolutely, scrubbing my wriggling sister and her dirty hands from drawing.

"Well, I didn't say we were taking her." I point out.

Like a moody behaving toddler, my sister violently starts splashing the bowl of soapy water. If I didn't know any better, I would say she's trying to splash that whole dirty wave at me. How rude.

"Rosa meanie pants." she huffs, and tries wiping her wet hands at me.

Since I am not wearing pants, I will conclude she is a dumb baby. Oh well. It can't be helped as she tends to get cranky before nap time, especially so when zap zap sessions leave her feeling much more drained than usual. In another life, that would be more than enough to get her pampered and cared for every second of the day. Now however, it's treated more like exercising and tiring out an annoyingly hyper toddler.

Which is exactly how it is.

"Be good and take your nap." I try to mollify her by patting on the bed.

A rural thing far far far below any of my usual standards already lowered in this non-modern world. Memory foam? Futons? Spring mattresses? Ahahahhaha no, we suffer so much with wooden poster beds and tightrope supported sacks for mattresses, even the wealthy. Can we have some better sheets at least?

However, if this is the best thing they have here, I shudder to think of the foot soldiers' dorming quarters. I'm pretty sure the troop's dormitory bunk beds are literally stuffed with straw.

"That's right girls. It's time for your naps." Georgie lays our own silk sheets over one of the sad animal skin beds. Much better. He's learning how to be prepared.

Wait, why am I included in this?

"There is so much work to be done, Georgie. You can't possibly expect me to stay cooped up in here like some common child." I reason.

"Nap nap nows Rosa. Curtains, Geogie!" my sister yawns loudly, wiping her hands dry on my chemise.

Despite all my strength training, my assistant easily lifts and sets both of us on the made bed. Then starts to draw the canopy curtains close on me.

"Georgie!"

I am insulted, to be treating me in the same vein as this three-year-old.

I don't need a nap I say!

"Yes yes Miss Rosalia. Would you like a waaaaarm milk before taking your nap?" Georgie mocks, already warming up a pot of milk on a brazier.

"No! We have work to do! Give me back my purse and get me some pants. There are inspections to be made before we can create a workable plan. So many faults. So many sanitation hazards. Order the mops and brooms, I've seen what cleaning is like here and I don't like it. We'll deduct the funds from the accounting department after this. Along with the soaps. What is the animal fat storage here? It must be wonderfully overstocked, we'll take some off their hands."

"Yaaaay milkies. And pillows." Lilyanne claps, completely ignoring me even if she understood a thing.

"Yes, young Miss Lilyanne. Milkies and your fluffy feathery pillows. You shall have it all. And when you're finished, I will set the hourglass to turn one and half times." Georgie stirs, looking like a little housewife in his apron. Also completely ignoring me.

"Nap nap nap. Lily stay wakey for milkies. Chu chu~" she makes kissy faces, as if already slurping up her favorite milkies.

I glare, obviously alone in my endeavors.

"...once I find my way out of here, you shall rue the moment you chose the wrong side, Georgie." I seethe. Edging my way to hop off the bed, if not for Lilyanne pulling me back by the dress every time I try.

"Nooooooo Rosa. Nap nap time. Be good an take your nap!" she parrots my own line from earlier back at me.

I don't know whether to be proud or insulted.

"Of course Miss Rosalia. I shall regret it oh so much, just like I already do..." Georgie sighs, pouring out the warm milk. Spooning in the honey that will soothe as much as it will ruin our teeth.

Hey, what is our toothpaste made out of?

"Just drink your milk, Rosa. Please."

"Cavities and teeth decay is not a joke, Georgie."

"Sage grout! Herb charcoals! Salt crystals! Mint! That stuff that's mined here and powdered I don't know, that's all I know. Please just drink it and go to sleep. Please don't sneak out. Your mother and grandfather will be back by dinner and you can go crazy then." he begs. The fearful dictionary picture of any babysitter stuck with a danger-prone child.

"...what are we mining that's used in toothpaste? Is that even safe for human consumption? Who thought of this? What's their reasoning?"

In the time I'm trying to figure out what materials are being mined and their uses, with Georgie uselessly sobbing by my bedside, Lilyanne has finished off not one but two cups of warm milk and honey. Entirely giving up the fight with the boring waking world, she retreats into a sloppy sleep over my back.

Such a heavy girl? Ack.

"Georgie, tuck her in. I won't sneak out, I understand orders are orders and won't make things harder for you. But I will need to use the chalkboard to organize as much information about the local camp to the connecting leprosarium as possible."

"...of course Miss Rosalia....why don't I get you...another waaaaarm cup of milk while you ...work."

"Very well and good Georgie."

I wish I was smarter. If I can't be a magical cheat, then why couldn't I be some unparalleled genius that could bring all the benefits of modernization to the forefront?

But nooooooo, all I can currently do is make some soap and struggle to convince people to upgrade their brooms and mops. Great reincarnated into another vaguely medieval world story you have here Rosalia. This is why we save all the exciting fun stuff for the protagonists.

Let's see. Grampa has some sort of binding mortar or cement going on here, as evidenced by these buildings. It's a much rougher version of what I see hold the local home ports together.

There must be limestone, plenty of that. But we already have natural limestone and sandstone mines close to home. So the materials here must be more than just that. I recognize a lot of uniquely baked clay used in the dishes here, so there must be a plentiful source as well.

Clay and lime mixed with aggregates such as ash and debris of all the mountain stones could form concrete. Great. So we do have concrete, or whatever else Grampa probably calls it here. Great.

Do we brush our teeth with it?! I should hope not?!

I swear I was in the middle of drawing out a blobby version of what I could remember of a periodic table, along with listing out natural materials and ingredients in this world. Focusing on the top Calcium rows. Really getting somewhere with that. I just know it.

I was on a roll, occasionally sipping warm milk like it was coffee. For the first time in years, since I've first arrived here, I was on full work mode. Concentration! Productivity!

Somehow I seemed to have passed out.

I know now because I am currently blinking away the delirium of sleep and flashcard nightmares from my eyes. Nightmares I say!

Mendeleev's table and atomic mass. To the modern Periodic Table. 118 elements. 7 Rows. 18 groups. Count the atomic number. Oxygen, hydrogen, sulfur, sodium, and phosphorous walk into a bar. 'OH SNaP!' says the bartender.

No more bad jokes please. High school was not the end, oh god why did I ever let myself suffer all that again with tutoring them. First Jung-Joon, that faker, then anyone who asked. My own brother. Never tutor family. Never. Ever!!!

Flashcards. So many flashcards.

That's enough of that nightmare.

The bed's curtained canopy still drawn and I am alone inside the bed. Beyond the curtain, not only is Lilyanne up and back to playing around but my chalkboard has been entirely erased. The first sign of the Periodic table in the world replaced with my sister's hideous doodles.

The nightmares are back. So many flashcards. So many bad chemistry jokes.

More importantly, my table!!! Do you know how much of a headache I got thinking all that up!?! From memory??!

"Good job Rosalia, that was two hours. You napped for two full hours." Georgie cheers, ignorant in his crimes against the good of science and humanity.

"Give me back my work!" I feel faint.

"Rosalia?" Georgie puts down whatever he was playing with Lilyanne with, coming to my side. It's very much unnecessary. I just got up too fast, still sleepy. Just, let me yawn and...

"Maybe I should have cut the caramel piece even smaller?" Georgie wonders out loud to himself, poking at my lethargic state.

Excuse me?

Excuse me worse babysitter in the world. Did you mean to say you drugged my milkies? To get me to take a nap?! Where even did you get some damn- the minion! He got some of those sleeping caramels after all?! These better not come with those side effects!?!

Oh, there I go yawning again.

This is awful. My eyes are tearing up, unwilling to stay open. Horrible! I'll get you, Georgie! I'll get you back so hard!!! Just you wait!

Right after another...forced...nap. Real quick. Just let me...zzzzzzz.

Sweet void of dreamland aside, being a baby of any kind must really be messed up.

Imagine going to sleep inside your own home or something and then waking up suddenly at the store, or the beach, or any of the damn places the grown-ups decide on. Wherever they so please.

That is exactly what happens to me the moment I next open my eyes. Not snuggled up in a dark curtained bed in my little nightgown, no. I'm bundled up outside the zap zap tree and orchard zone on the other side of this cliff. Lilyanne marching along to a song far below me.

No warnings. No, 'oh wake up Rosalia, we're going somewhere now'. Just 'bam!'. An instant teleport apparently to my weak and sleepy senses.

Even worse. I am in the ultimate boobie baby sling. I'm strapped in and being carried...by Grampa.

"Unhand me!"

"Oh goodie. Pumpkin, you're up! Great timing!"

"Release me from this shameful prison, at once."

"There there now pizzapie, don't fidget. If you're not strong enough to break through by sheer force, conserve your strength, and more accurately plan your breakout! Locate your captor's weak points but don't act rashly. Instead, gather your resources, it's not stealing if you're taken captive, and wait for the right- "

"Grampa. Just let me down already."

"Using your blunt cute charms! May or may not be effective depending on the receiver but generally lowers their attack stat. Be careful of using charm, especially at your age- it's very very very dangerous."

"Grampa!"

The days are longer and the sun sets later in the summertime. While there is still daylight, for it to be so low in the sky means it's already well to the end of the day. Though I feel as if I've done nothing all day, my tummy slightly rumbles in need. It's already supper time!

"Alright, you and charm win. Now go along with your sister. Don't overdo it, just play to your hearts' content~"

We are literally zapping a secret treasured tree that grows mystical life-extending fruit, with Lilyanne's pure healing magic like it was fertilizer. This is not playing around.

"Lalala push push zap." Lilyanne sing songs.

Okay maybe for her it's playing, and that's perhaps for the best. She's too young to even try and understand the implications of what she's doing. She can't even look in the face of a sick patient without bursting out crying.

It's too intimidating, even in a world of magic.

I think I may have a slightly stronger stomach for such things. I'm more used to it. Not saying I had much experience around a literal leprosy colony or anything of the sort. It's just...hospitals...have you ever lived in a hospital?

In the past, whenever a young Lilyanne had taken ill with fever and bouts, it was always a stressful time. The physicians, the treatments, the panic, and the tenseness that goes on through the house. But it was always private, though worrisome as it was. Even when she was sent 'away' for further rest and recuperation, it was with the splendor of a pampered young miss. Her every whim and comfort saw too. As lovely and relaxing as possible.

In my past, that was far from the case.

There were no house calls with honored invited physicians and alchemists. We had noisy ambulances and rushed hospital bags.

It was no luxury treatment, far from it. Insurances and waiting room after vinyl cold waiting room. False reassurances and misleading diagnoses. Pain that didn't stop. Bodily functions that wouldn't, couldn't keep functioning.

Any pity I've ever felt for poor pitiful Lilyanne, inconsolably weak and crying, comes to me like waves lapping at the shore.

Like the seaside vacation taken but a little over a year ago. The cold shocks my bare feet and sinks me just a bit smaller into the wet sand if I don't keep moving. Sometimes, if I go in too far in or the waves are particularly strong, it surprisingly splashes me more than expected. At the edge of pulling, playful most days, but the danger not to be underestimated.

There is no comparison, even after a lifetime of this beautiful tragedy. It is still absolutely nothing.

Nothing compared to the sight, the stark reality of seeing my brother hooked up to a ventilator.

It was so silent then. No whining, no crying, not even if I begged him to. Begged him to complain. To even roll his eyes in that childishly annoying way or give me any response at all. There was none then. Only monotone beeping and labored breaths through a machine, pumping oxygen through his windpipe, just to keep him alive long enough for the next round of treatment.

If Lilyanne on her worst days were the waves pulling me in a little too strongly, enough to slip in the water, then Heng Fei is the drop.

Full plunge into the open seas with no shore in sight. There is no comparison.

Never had a damn tube stuck down her throat because her own body wouldn't work. Couldn't breathe on her own.

Never had needles shoot down her fragile little spine just to test and rule out all the damn things it could be let alone the transplant surgeries.

Never had her own nerves freeze up and fail on her, paralyzing with no chance of recovery. A lifetime of physical therapy your only choice if you wanted any function of anything. Your face. Your arms. But not the legs. Never again.

I want to go back to thinking about flashcards and concrete toothpaste. I want results and productivity. I don't want to dwell on how useless I am. I don't want the sadness that isn't even mine to be drowning me.

The problem of Lilyanne's weak childhood constitution is fixed with the strange non-magic already existing inside me. But I can't do anything else. Not really.

I can't do anything but watch.

Paper cards with messy handwriting, tediously written to stay neat, spilling out of their case on cheap hospital sheets.

A seemingly pretty girl, dark circles hidden under her makeup, fumbled to right them all back together.

"Wait no- sorry! Wrong flashcards. These are chemistry, damn you won't need these till like, pffft another few years? Man, is high school gonna be a pain." she laughed off.

It almost echoed in the sparse room, as small as it was. But they were the only occupants, the other bed cleared just the day before.

The file chart on this sole bed listed his name as Henry, age as 11.

He held an obvious resemblance to the chattering girl, withered as he was. Something about his facial muscles leaving it stiff and unnatural, sometimes saliva would even uncontrollably leak out. Something he would quickly try to wipe before his sister noticed.

She did. She tried not to feel hurt when he pushed her touch aside.

He held none of his usual warmth. Or even crass banter. He didn't feel like it. Couldn't.

"....Jie, stop it." the tense line in his mouth finally broke

'I may not have a few years left.' goes unsaid.

'I might not make it that far.' said the silence.

'Stop trying.'

If Meng shook, then it was in anger, not sadness. She didn't have that right. She wasn't the one hooked up to IVs and machinery, wasting away half-paralyzed in her own body. She wasn't the other child, one bed away, taken cold and gone not even 48 hours ago. She wasn't the one drowning in it all.

"What? Trying to work your way out of homework?! Ha! You're not falling behind shit when you get back into class. If it's a few weeks from now or years. Now here!" she pulls out the right materials, not mixing them up this time. It's all she can do, and do it well she will.

Brown eyes, normally so much larger and brighter than her own, listlessly turned away, unnaturally hooded and limp.

"I still can't move my arm today." he said, young voice cracking with difficulty.

Meng clenches her fist, so hard the skin welted up from where nails pressed. Both angry and grateful for the pain she can still feel. It's not about her, so she has to be brave. Has to smile comfortingly, tasting iron blood where she bites inside her cheek.

"Of course not. It will take time obviously, and we'll work on it." she takes the young boy's hand, the one he can't feel. It's with affection how she pries each finger, massaging the tendons and joints.

"...Stop." he doesn't dare look, like how he doesn't look under the blankets covering his legs. Once as healthy and moving as any other boy his age.

"Don't be stupid, this is part of your therapy treatment too. Now, what subject do you want to start with today? And tell me which snacks you want, I'll make someone bring them for you. Your usual croquettes? Hot dog bread with extra ketchup? Hmm, honey buns?" she clenches, the slightly smaller hand unfeeling just how hard.

"...How much?"

"Honeybuns? As much as you want, you little diabetic in the making. A special treat. Or do you mean-"

"How much does it all cost?! Not the bread! I hear it, I can hear all of you! The antibiotics didn't work! They say I need surgery to even hope to move my legs again and, I know that's not covered. I hear you out there on the phone with dad yelling about money. I know! I can still hear you!" he chokes.

Literally chokes, starting to cough uncontrollably against his will. Tears of pain and frustration already spilling from redding eyes.

"Breathe. Breathe Heng Fei, please calm down and breathe." she feels short on breath herself, hyperventilating with panic when the seconds pass, and the situation spins out of control.

Waves. One after another. A complete drop from the ground below.

There is no ground and she can't breathe, even as her body still moves to slam the red button repeatedly.

No senses when the strong nurses rush in. Can't feel or make out a thing but the vertigo rush when they fail to stabilize her brother's breathing. The doctors come next in waves, yelling out orders in medical jargon she can barely make out. Content unmemorized, unlearned, like spilled flashcards.

"Inflammation" "Code Blue" "Ventilator" "Life support" "Sedation"

Things she doesn't want to understand, made all the worse in their fragments.

It's not her. She's not the one suffering. She's not the one fucking dying, for no damn good reason, her brother was dying right in front of her eyes. And she could do nothing but watch them take him away.

Why does it feel like she's dying too?

The waves rush and take her wherever they so damn please. Wrung and washed like a corpse afloat. She's already past the point of losing it and she can't breathe.

"M-ng. Meng!"

A vaguely familiar voice bubbles. Pops uselessly through the cold water till they smother her directly. Oxygen already lost so why try resuscitating? Hands reach out, burning and solid, and all of a sudden she finds herself already sitting on plastic. A scratchy blanket over her shaking shoulders and LED lights flickering the hospital hall in an eerie blue.

She's fine. She's not the one drowning.

"I'm sorry I got here so late, they didn't let me in till just now. Meng, are you alright?" uselessly kind hands feel cool against her face when that's impossible.

All of her feels so cold. Deep sea, space, void. She can't do anything. Not even control herself. It was all so damn frustrating.

"What... do I do?" she finds herself asking blankly.

"Shhhh, you're going to be okay." a young man tries breaking through, taking her into his arms and wiping the tears she can't feel on her too pale face.

She was like this the day they first really met. Shivering numb. Silent. Reminiscent of a female ghost, a drowned and drained spirit with a face that haunts all your best dreams and nightmares. Unlike then, where he could only hide and wait, he hangs on. Foreheads pressed, hands gently holding on to her terrified self.

"What should I do?" she sounds so lost. Because that's what she is.

Lost. She lost the backpack, with all the homework. The study sheets? Oh no. She'll need to make more. It wasn't just hers and Heng Fei's stuff. Flashcards. Jung-Joon's flashcards.

"I lost your flashcards?" she recognizes him, even this absurdly close. Recognizes through all the violent emptiness, unlike the last, first, time.

"Screw the fucking flashcards. All I want is to ask again and again if you're ok, even though it's clear you're not." he holds her close, unwillingly to see her so cold.

"...the flashcards. It's a school night. It's so late?...What are we doing wasting time here? I have phone calls to make. Does the hospital need me to sign anything? Let's get you home before your mom worries," she shakily tries to get up.

Not that he'll let her. Not like this.

"It's not okay, you already know this. None of it is ok." he wraps the blanket tighter, waiting.

"You? What are you doing? There's so much that needs to be done, stop messing around."

"You did so well. Such a good job all this time." he hugs tighter. "Thank you, you're amazing. Thank you for staying, thank you for everything. You try so hard and do so much. Heng Fei knows. We all know."

Heng Fei. He couldn't breathe. It's spread to the point he can't even breathe. Where did they take him? Where did they go? Not him? Anyone but him?

"What ...should I do? Next. What's next? ...Oh god. What do I do?" the tears suddenly flood, torrents and storms. She can't stop herself. She's the sea and she's drowning herself. Why can't she stop?

"That's it. None of this is ok, so don't hold it in. Don't hurt yourself like that. It hurts just watching, you know that. Thank you for answering back, thank you for letting me in."

"Jung-Joon, what do I do? What am I supposed to do?!"

Bubbles and seafoam, washed away into nothing. It means nothing in the end. Absolutely nothing.

"What do I do?"

The bubbles bursts.

They bloom pink and gold. Fat flat fruits like Saturn peaches ripen above in the reflecting emerald foliage right before my eyes. It's the golden hour, the oversized sun setting majestically over the vivid mountainous valley's edge in a halo effect.

I realize where I am. Who I no longer am. There's a story to play out and prevent. New plans to follow through if I don't want the worst kind of ending.

"Lilyanne stop!" I call out, feeling too late how full the current capacity is for miracles to grow all around us.

"Okay dokey Rosa!" a cute little girl complies.

She takes my hands and if I squeeze, she squeezes back. Feeling everything. Healthy as a horse. So very cute.

Not like my own little brother. Officially little no matter how old he gets, how much he survives. So moody sometimes, especially as a teenager, sheesh. So uncute.

There are no money worries or painful hospitals here. This is a magical place where none of those things follow me. Nothing and no one.

"Grampa! We fruited your stupid special tree. Now what's next?" I turn and pull Lilyanne along, expecting her praises and my pay.

Well, I didn't do anything actually but I still want to be paid!

'You did so well.'

No one said that.

Not grampa, not me, not even the whistling night breeze. But I still hear it bubbling inside me, in a silvery voice that's not my own. It makes the pit of my stomach oddly warm and my chest feels contradictorily tight as well as light.

'Thank you.'

I don't get near enough the thanks I deserve!

Oh ho ho, I'm making more than just money with the identity of the young miss Rosalia. Just you wait. I'm hardly getting started as the ultimate villainess. The nobles will all shake and bow shamefully before my power. The commoners shall fear how much they love me, or well my stuff. I make things, they enjoy them, for a price. Everyone wins.

"Huh? Didn't expect them to sprout after three sessions. Well, that's my girls for you!" Grampa laughs, petting at our heads.

"It was nothing, right Lily?" I huff.

"Push, push and cheer with Rosa!" Lilyanne exclaims.

"Is that so? How wonderful." Grampa imitates her, cheering along with imaginary pom-poms. Definitely not a cute image.

"We've done practically nothing but nap all day. Now we have plenty of energy for our age group. Since we've completed so much on this end already....." I start in my business proposal mode.

"Hmmm whatever it is, it will definitely wait till at least after dinner pumpkin. It's time to be getting back! Remember to use charm on your mama, girls! And don't ask how her day went!"

"Yaaaaay mama! "

"But the food here sucks! What did you do to Mother? Wait, don't distract me." I count off the list of things I can immediately see to, even as a toddler.

As Grampa carries us off back to the troop's buildings and to the tunnel wagon ride, I verbally document them out. It's very professional and not at all like someone nodding along to a rambling child.

"I want to get into the leprosarium. You're responsible for its major construction plan, right? I want to see it up close, and there's probably plenty to improve on. What do you all know of safety and sanitation? You, people, make weak soap out of pan grease, nothing like my bars. I should be standardly paid for those. Let's make an official renewable contract. This place is so isolated...should I start a branch factory out here? And do you understand elements and grouping? Or how the world works and is made up of atoms? Ahem, and there's something I'd like to test out in regards to Lilyanne's zap zap, but uh....through me? If that makes sense. "

"Perfectly pumpkin! Let's start by asking permission over dinner~"

Somehow I don't think he understood a thing I just said.

Just wait. Grampa's a closet nerd. He'll surely be interested once I make and pull out the flashcards on this world's version of the table of elements. Let's revolutionize science and understanding! Concrete and soap!

So much to do, so little time. It's already quite complicated and we're not even done with the drawing board.

The staircase colony is still in sight. Medicine and science are sadly lacking. The troops really need more updating and restructuring, while I need clearer info to be effective. The outside will eventually go rife with famine, struggle, and the collapse of power under the veil of Lilyanne's romantic drama. This is not that great of a story to live.

My stomach bubbles distractingly. Perhaps I'm just that hungry? It still burns and tingles, maybe giving my chest that light case of similar burning.

But the open starry sky between dusk looks really pretty out here. It almost makes me feel like it's okay to feel any way I like. I lose sight of it, and the twinkling stars emerging, before it goes full dark, our ride rolling us back away. I couldn't even see the moon.

Not that it went anywhere.

'Thank you. I love you.'

"I love you?" I feel myself mouthing before I can stop it. Huh odd?

"*gasp* Awwwwwwww pppppuuuumpkin!!!"

"Lily and grampapa loooooove Rosa too!"

"Wait, no, that's not what I meant. No! Get away! Get your huggies away!"

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Bonus content ft Lukas (and Gable) and the snowy border control. Here. Late but here. Thank you for waiting.

Also optionable and skippable.

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"Gable! All I do is homeworks and a lot of nothing. It's not cool at all. All my sidekicks are doing waaaaaay cooler hero stuff. Even the stinky baby!" Lukas talks as he walks.

That was nothing new. Only it resounded notably in the emptiness of it all. There were no trees or scattering little wildlife like in their neck of the woods. Only open air and the snow that still clung to the rocks.

"...sidekicks." Gable looked down at the adorably walking bundle.

Ronald told him this morning that he was overdressing the boy, after all it was summer. But up here at this high elevation one couldn't be too prepared. Believe it or not, Gable was more worried about sunburns.

He himself was cloaked to protect against the elements but not anywhere as thickly as Lukas. Their steps left vastly different imprints in the vast snow behind them.

"One and two. Amar can be sidekick one because he's first. Rosa's number two even though she's not very strong. But there's lots of kind of strongs." Lukas explains, counting under his mittens. They just, couldn't see his fingers underneath there.

"Ah. Yes. Various sorts of strengths in this world, it would be unwise to disregard them simply because they don't look to be the same as yours. "

"Bacon is best but it goes better with potatoes and eggs and bread and anything. They can be the eggs to my bacon. Or my mashed potatoes and gravy. Or baked potatoes Or or or-"

"I believe I have the full picture, Lukas."

The bright sunlight was very harsh, reflecting off the steadily melting snow. It made Lukas squint the whole time he walked. Slush was harder to walk in than snow so sometimes he stomped around and made it all fluffy again.

Just the areas the Gable pointed out to him, but eventually, he was figuring out the pattern. Freeze up the slush where they walk, sometimes look for more things.

He doesn't know exactly what but it was fun. Like a treasure hunt!

"Rosa said she founds stuff under the old tree. Can I do that too?" the boy asks, looking around.

"Perhaps. Magic isn't entirely dependent on your innate talent. It must be refined. Honed. Like steel to a sword, where it once was but hidden in rock. When extracted and molten, you can shape it to your best ability. That is why we must grow your knowledge, and thus abilities."

"Booo, you just want me to do more homework studying!"

Well, he exactly wasn't wrong. Gable hummed in response.

The reflection of the sun glared across the snowy surfaces. Sometimes, with one wrong step, Lukas would even disappear into a snow bed. Just sink himself in from bodyweight alone, forcing Gable to constantly be pulling him out.

The boy could freeze the path around him instantly, so it was clear that Lukas was enjoying the sudden snowdrops and consequent attention. When Lukas was falling a little too often, Gable started suspecting he was doing it on purpose.

"You're figuring out where the powder spots are?" Gable prompted patiently.

"Uh huh! I'm awesome like that! Rosa said when she's with the stinky one, she can feel magics and stuff but they all look different. So are spots without. So if I try really really really hard, it gets easier to feel snow and better the stuff that's not snow." Lukas shook off the fluff.

"Interesting turn."

Gable tries, he really does. He's pulled out all the archives and storage of books and tomes, carefully transcribing them by level for Lukas to learn. Then when he figured the obvious...discrepancy in Lukas' literacy levels, they started from scratch. Bottom-up.

But honestly, it seemed that Lukas learned best by example, and especially so around the other children.

When first tackling the neverending mission that was Lukas' education, Gable found it wasn't entirely hopeless. The little boy was very eager to please, much more so than Maria had to subjects at that age. While not particularly studious, and definitely behind a noble's tutoring, there were certain...unexpected strengths.

"Amar's much better at counting and stuff and it helps you climb stuff better and sneak around." then Lukas would answer why his sense of numbers, calculations, and even shapes were much more advanced than his other subjects.

It made sense, given how Lukas tended to stick to the other child in their time at the troops. IF the boy was willing to attend, let alone keep awake, to any lessons, it would most likely only be ones with Amar in tow.

"Speaking to people is hard but marking is worse! Too many words. Amar and Yuna explained it lots better." the boy would subsequently cry over his writing practice scripts, little hands cramping unused to the finer work.

Also reasonable. The boy's past closer to Ronalds's than Gable's. Only the most rudimentary of lessons, since his foundations were so lacking.  Well, at least Lukas could hold his quill without too much difficulty...or breaking every single one. It's fine, they had Maria's old talon quills. Though chalk was much easier and less wasteful.

"Tree histories of nobles is stoooooopid, so stuuuupid. There's too many losers. Even Rosa says they're stupid and she reads all the boring stuffs. Why do I gotta know dis?!?! No one cares! Waaaaahhhhh." Lukas would sob and tantrum in frustrated boredom after any grains more than a quarter of a glass, of attempting to learn the noble houses and lines.

That particular lesson plan was put on full hold. Perhaps when Lukas was...much older? And more patient?

Or as Ronald would say, "you can't teach them to fish without actually taking them to fish." Though that often came along with lots of teeth, screaming, and waterlogged crying children. Yeah. Gable hasn't trusted Ronald in over 30 years and he's not starting again any time soon.

The point of the matter is that Lukas could roll around and cry into study material for years, learning at a reasonable pace as you can expect from a hyperactive 6-year-old, but pick up things at lighting speed when properly exposed. Like how he was now picking up exactly what Rosalia reported to see and sense unnaturally, but in his own way.

This was especially the case in all things physically active.

Gable misses having Amar around already. That one could get Lukas to sit still and read his damn books. And unlike with Rosalia, Lukas wouldn't come up to him afterward asking the strangest questions on the most inconceivable topics.

Yeah....he'll just leave that part to Ron.

"Gable? What kinds of stuffs are we really supposed to be looking for?" Lukas spoke up, sliding, and gliding along when he got bored.

It was good for him to practice, not just in winter. Making ice itself wasn't too hard, especially in a place like this, coming as easy as breathing. But once again, self-control was the boy's greatest trouble.

"What makes you think we're looking for anything? Can't it just be a sort of practice?" Gable slowly asked, seemingly exerting no effort at all in their impossible trek. Seemingly floating. When he wasn't dragging Lukas out of another snow pile. It was easy to get lost.

It was so quiet up here. Echoes and openness. Peaceful even.

"Because it's too sad." Lukas said.

As simply as he states the sun is big or bacon is tasty. This silent emptiness was all too sad.

The sun’s glare reflected on snow all around, so easy to get lost with no markers. They couldn't even see down to the valley from here, nowhere the other way was, if not for their own footprints. The colony down below, the troop's buildings and markers, tunnels hidden into the hills, all gone and out of sight.

If it was any worse weather than perfect summer days, they wouldn't see a thing. Trapped in this base of ice and nothing.

There were no fences, no walls nor any sort of barriers separating the valley from the mountains. Other than the main tunnel gate, the only path in and out of the valley, anyone was free to go wherever they pleased unguarded. Where else when there was nothing but the badlands beyond? Ronald gave them more freedom than in any other place. Warnings or not, with it came the most danger. It came with the hope of escape.

Perhaps that was a mistake.

When Lukas made for a running jump, this time he didn't disappear into the remaining ice and snow. They blew out, as if the boy commanded gust and wind instead, creating a conspicuous clearing. A crater in all the glaring white.

Gable didn't stop him. Didn't try to pull or hold him back.

This was the same kind of risk Ronald offered. Freedom, but for what? This was a price that would eventually be paid. Taking in a child like Lukas. Watching first hand what he's bound to become. Grown.

If it was little Maria all these years ago, Gable would never allow it. There would be no word of it under his rooftops or wherever he could still so reach. He probably wouldn't even allow it now with Rosalia, and certainly not the youngest.

But Lukas was his responsibility, his true and tired tragedy.

He cannot undo the past. He cannot atone for the mistakes made and the ones who suffered for them in his stead. He still cannot face reality fully, ever running even from himself.

He would have ideally liked to leave his past behind. He would have liked to stop dragging Ronald down with him. So close too.

So imagine his shock to find them crashing all seemingly at once.

A lost barefoot child with too much a resemblance to Ron, to Maria in all her young and free wilding glory. The man himself, the sight of him alone always enough to knock the air from Gable's lungs. And of course, the child he can never make up to. Cursed before birth with the winding cruel plot after plots of adults. Unwanted. Unloved. Locked to rot.

Abandonment the kindest thing his mother had ever done for him.

Lukas stares for a long time, his little breaths beginning to frost and solidify in the cold. Something he should be able to control. Yet he does not. Maybe he cannot.

The boy stares for a long silent time.

"Scary." Lukas shakily steps forward.

That's enough, that's more than enough. Gable finally, god damn finally, allows himself to move. To pull up Lukas and comfort the tears that will be incoming. But the boy slips out of his grasp, fast in his rush.

Lukas's cries were always messy. Always too loud and too much from the heart.

"It was scary right? It must have been really dark and scary! I know. Sorry! Sorry you went through that. Sorry. It's not dark anymore. We got you out. It won't be scary anymore..." he sobs, choking on his own hiccups and tears.

Gable would have stopped him from getting close. From touching the infected bodies, frozen as they are. But he feels ...defeated. It was a surprise, yet it was not. This reaction. He should have known this boy, the kind of heart he held beating in him. He already knew it was so different from his own. Closer to the cut someone like Ron was made out of.

Lukas stops anyways, simply drops to the floor but a few steps away. As if his legs somehow lost their tireless strength. It all going into his blows and cries instead.

"Sorry! I don't know what I'm sorry for, I'm just really sorry and my friend says that it makes people feel better. Sorry, you were waiting so long. It must have been really dark for a long long time. But look!"

The snow billows and blows, as if every speck was as light as a feather. As beautiful as it was horrible.

The revealed corpses lie peacefully under the frost. Huddled together as if merely fending off the cold of the night.  There were small children in the women's arms, even a baby. Men at the forefront. Youths to the side. No less than a dozen of them, not counting the little ones, scattered paces from each other. Maybe at least until the storm hit.

At least they had each other in the end. They weren't alone.

Gable can't even sigh.

These people knew what they were getting into. No one would stop their escape, but neither would anyone rescue them. The elements themselves were more of a prison wall than anything they could have come up with. They could have lived out their lives peacefully in the colony down below. It wasn't perfect by any means but it was more than most of them could have ever afforded in the outside world.

Large spacious, though oddly built, insulated homes. Stone paved roads and running water. The chance to resume your old trade, or take a new one. Contribute back to the colony provided for free. Raise your family if you have one. Start anew.

Yet they still chose to take the risk. For what? A world outside that would never accept them? What did they have back out there that was worth risking it all?

But it didn't matter in the end.

Ronald was a cruel man. Giving people even a drop of hope when there was none. But he made no illusions. No one would stop them and no one would save them. That was made very clear.

Lukas still sobbed, refusing to be picked up and taken away. Fat wet tears, like the melting snow that ran down the mountain tops in fresh streams and falls. Feeding life into the valley where it cuts off the outside world.

Unlike Gable, even as a fully grown adult with decades of sights, Lukas never looked away once. So Gable does not try to stop the tears. He would let the boy cry. Let him face the harsh truth of life that Lukas must have already known, too soon, too close.

And be there to pick up where he fell.

When the sobs and hiccups slow, more out of exhaustion than anything, Gable lights his walking staff. Make it bright enough that Lukas knows even from far behind that he's coming.

Carefully, Gable makes to kneel, right over his little boy's side.

"Go on." Gable allows, so quietly it might as well have been in a whisper.

Lukas was obviously tired. The outburst of snow and tears more exhausting than this entire hike. It's with clumsy hands, mitten bound that Lukas finally reaches up. Still hiccuping as he grasps the handle along with his guardian.

The supernatural light grows fat and round. Like a giant dandelion puff, Lukas takes a great painful breath, and blows. To humor him, Gable does too.

Gentler than the snow that buried them, the light burns and wisps. Eating up the long-frozen and fallen. It scorches and cleans, a fire so unfeeling it burns white, tinged only at the tips in shining cool colors like those of the polar lights.

As they watch and wait, Gable tries blowing the cold away from Lukas's pink cheeks and shivering hands. Not with any magic but the old-fashioned way. It somehow always works better.

When the flames die out, there's nothing left of the flesh nor bones. Any organic material wiped out, clean, and blown to the wind. What relics they do find, well Gable will hold on to them. Just till they can be returned back down the mountain. It wasn't much. A crude ring. Someone's broken watch. A painted stone with a drilled hole. Nothing valuable but for the sentiments.

But maybe that's all that was worth anything in the end.

"Ready?" Gable asks the shivering child in his arms, taking out a blanket.

Lukas was so red from crying. Cold from the inside out that frost bit at his little cheeks and pale lashes like diamond bits. Sunlight fine hair peeking out from his oversized hat. He looked as miserable as he was pitiful and so beautifully alive.

"No. I can keep going. There's lots more like them, right? Still stuck in the dark? They must be very scared. Let's go!!!" Lukas huffs, spirited in the way only the young and truly strong could be. Hardship forging them even stronger.

Gable lets out a light laugh, maybe in relief, maybe in something he can't understand. Like how he never understood why he allowed someone like Ronald to stick around. Never understood his own reasons or rhyme.

"Alright. But that's enough for today." Gable comforted by patting his back, carrying a weaker than usual little boy.

Like the very young, Lukas will overdo it. He'll underestimate his weight and overuse his strengths. Like the idyllic heroes that don't exist, Lukas will want to save them all.

"But-" Lukas starts to argue, not feeling his own pain. Diamond dust still freckling under his glacier clear eyes.

"Rest for now, we'll keep looking. We'll keep trying. I promise you."

Something in Lukas must crack, ever so subtly, ever the right way. His little chest hiccups. Cries in softness as he burrows that too pink face into Gable's chest, fresh tears melting the ice once more.

They do not stay up there. In the silent air where the dead finally meet their peace. But if they did, if they were buried against a storm they had no way of fighting, Gable was oddly comforted. That at least, they would have each other.

But that is not how it goes, someone's waiting for them. At the dinner table, with a warm bed, the next groggy messy day. A lot of someones.

Two tracks of footsteps turn into one as Gable carries the little weight down. They're all that's left in the glaring white snow.

 

My drafts are overflowing with these little side stories that are supposed to make the main storyline stronger but end up taking a life of their own. But they're fun and building in their own ways. 

random question: Given the choice what kind of bonus would you readers like to see most? Or about who? In general and personally yourself?

Thanks for reading and supporting all this time. Your comments keep me going like a light in the dark.

Thank you for staying. Thank you for everything.

 

https://discord.gg/ARkSMFPbew

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