Ch 132: Old Times Lane
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Mother is cosplaying as a poor wretched person. It would be funny if not for the fact we all suffer with her.

"My hair!" she sobs in her plain undergown, breaking yet another comb in the excuse of a guest room vanity. A shined piece of a shield acting as a mirror.

But we can't expect luxury out here.

Those perfect ringlets of villainess worthy hair don't take care of themselves. After all, Rosalia must get her curls from somewhere. Genetically that is Mother's side, and thus Grampa's fault. His own head often cut military shorter than the supposedly fashionable longer lengths of men in this era, but still very obviously where Mother gets her statuesque hair from.

It's all Grampa's fault.

Normally, there are maids and servants to see to Mother's every chore and whim, including hair care and getting ready in the morning. Without them carefully oil brushing and conditioning her locks into elaborate perfection, those curls bounce out in a way that's reminiscent of a wild fern.

Though that could just be from Lilyanne playing in it, making it poof even bushier in tangles and ropes. Yeah, three-year-olds aren't the best assistant hairdressers.

It's much easier to be beautiful when you're rich and have a salon crew right in your own house.

I don't really understand the big deal about her hair, but Lilyanne and I have mixed genes. Looser slightly more manageable curls, but at the great risk of those red undertones.

More importantly, shouldn't Mother already be used to this? She's spent time without the maids before, like that month-long solo dungeon exploration with Father. That and it's her own damn head.

"Booo hoo hoo, now we shall never go out!" she sobs miserably as Lilyanne giggles, hiding in the bronze curly fern growing over my mother's back.

What a drama queen. At least, she has hair. Hey Mother, do you wanna match? I can assure you that going near military bald has no brushing issues.

Underneath the wet pitiful cries of an overgrown drama queen, I hear the mournful whimpers that sound like "Fleas!", "Never again!", and "Oh my rose grown darling, with his petal silken splendor, it's not fair!!"

We'll never visit the leprosarium at this rate. So thus I must step in. I feel myself sighing at the arm workout I'm about to do, readying my purse.

"Mother? If I may suggest something."

From the inside of my bag, I procure something that was not originally meant for human use. It's...a  brush!

Yes, extra large and thick. In this world, people tend to use combs, especially decorative ones from carved wood and ivory bones. Noblewomen would have their servants dutifully brush and care for them from the scalp to the tips, perhaps for hours a day. While everyone else who has lives and needs to work? Meh, put on a hat or bonnet and call it a day.

But brushes? Just not popular at all for some odd reason. I don't see why not? Just make it a bit prettier and sell them off?

" that brush?" Mother accurately guesses from where I got the base material.

"Noooooo, of course not Mother. It's a ...detangling brush. Look at the exquisite handle. The flow and carve. Only the grandest ladies of good taste, not super muscular beasts that get fleas, can use it." I advertise, though a bit too personalized. Hopefully, it works.

"...That's what your father said...and it was certainly a horse brush." she sobs.

Ah. Well then.

"Mother. With the strong wide teeth, it's perfect to cure your curls back. Not like other disastrous fuzzy brushes or tight teeth combs. No one has to know. We must never brush it when wet, now try either my tester #3 or #7 hair oil." I pull out more products.

"...what are the differences?" she takes the bait, sniffing away her frustrated tears.

"Number 3 is an elixir of...almond and imported nut de coco! Coconut can penetrate your hair the way other oils can't, nourishing it with antibacteri-eerr cleansing properties. Combined with the sweet smooth almond, how can you go wrong?" I advertise.

"Hmmmm then what of the other one?" says the reasonable consumer.

"But new from the old. Olive oil...but with fennel and lemon oil! Good for strengthening, also with anti-bacteria, but research says the essential lemon can, ahem,...highlight lighten your hair."

"I'll take both! How wonderful! Oh ho hoho~"

"Great! Cash now or credit for later?"

Selling products to only your mother feels like a joke, but I have a limited market and my production lines are more testers than anything. That and my servants too easily sell out and offer her portions of everything I make anyways.

While I do wonder how Abbey is doing all by her lonesome back home, I am assured the stocks and inventory of all my experiments are being kept in order. Their upkeep still being seen to.

Georgie however?

I said I would make him pay and so I did. Of course, all I did was mention, perhaps mournfully, to Grampa how poor weak pathetic Georgie wanted to be a little stronger. Even for a mob character. That he wanted to be....a little closer to true "hero".

Well now we're in a military outpost in the middle of nowhere. Where there is nothing else to do but train, train, and train some more in this hard endurance-based terrain. He'll be joining the recruits in their epic hero boot camp training.

Grampa personally saw that he got in! No questions or troublesome qualifications needed. Oh ho ho ho.

Have fun my soft little assistant, whom I have confiscated not only some familiar wax wrapped caramels from but all other forms of unessential luxuries. After all, he won't need them in Grampa's mountainside boot camp, they'll just get dirty.

It wasn't hard, much easier than getting into a minion's secret sweets stash. Not that these inconspicuously drugged sleepy caramels are actually edible but hey, could be useful one day.

Go have lots and lots of fun Georgie!

"Oh Rosalia, that's my girl. So kind." Mother smiles, still trying to wrestle her hair down.

Bwahahaha, yes my kindness involves perfect petty revenge where I won't get in any trouble at all. After all, it wasn't even me but Grampa that cleared the orders.

As fun as imagining the pain and suffering my assistant must be going through, life is very inconvenient without more servants. No one to take care of Lilyanne or help brush the great mother's hair. Huff huff brush!

Untangle the tough knots. Separate the corkscrews. Oil up Lilyanne's hands because she wants to help too despite more likely just making up a bigger mess.

Who needs arm training? This is my workout of the week! Mother, why do you have so much hair?

"Oh my." Mother giggles, acting as if she's the one doing us a great favor by allowing us to slave away at the brush.

Or well just me. If it weren't for the oil, I think Lilyanne would be making things even worse. No no no bad Lily, don't tie them up further.

Such natural curls are troublesome. I can't believe now how much time as an adult I would spend on the curling iron. Not now that I have these genetics, though it's not to Mother's extent. Sheesh, the grass always does look greener on the other side. I miss my boring but easy straight hair already.

Eventually, Mother takes over the daunting task, a great mercy on my poor little arms.

"There there Rosalia, you tried. Mama is very thankful." she smiles.

"My methods are effective! It's just, my arms...." I take a great breather.

They're so little! I can't even reach all this. It requires too much effort and force per calorie my squishy little muscles must exert. Like tiny t-rex arms, too short to be of any use. Absolutely useless.

I can't even do something as simple as brushing my mother's hair, how am I ever going to survive this world on my own?

"There there my Rosa, you did soooooo much. Don't be sad. Lookie, you can brush this little part right here." Mother offers me a few long strands.

What do I look like? A real little toddler upset over nothing? Lilyanne? Perhaps in Mother's very broken rose-colored vision, that's exactly what I am.

I sigh, rolling away in defeat.

Eventually, Mother manages to get ready all on her own. Two tightly woven farmgirl braids, tied and pinned up in a modest updo with ribbons. Topped off with a silky scarf-like veil under her sun hat. Said modesty is further themed with a plain very out of date gothic medieval dress and even duller outer robes. Dear god, we are cosplaying poor people today!

Well, at least it's comfortable. More importantly, safe and appropriate for where we shall be visiting today.

Inside the village of the leprosarium.

No one cares how the children are dressed, but this isn't the place to show off. Safety first. With my help, we get Lilyanne, and I suppose myself, into little white frocks, caplets and bonnets. Very easy to get dirty and we'll stand out like little mochi sheep, but I suppose that's the point.

"Alright! Let's go already." I feel myself getting impatient, tapping at my mother to hurry.

I should have toured the colony village days ago. What are we doing wasting all this time, I would like to ask. But alas, I am not the big boss around here. I must follow not only the procedures of the staff here, but the whims of my mother and grampa.

Today is finally the day an official tour can be taken. Preparations organized on all sides with safety assured, even for visiting little children. I'm as terrified as I am excited.

By now taking the wagon tram across the other side is a pretty familiar practice. Made even easier as all passing soldiers and officers salute themselves out of our way. Some going as far to bow, perhaps in shaking fear, while shouting out her hails, as Mother carries us through.

Well, that's nothing new.

On the other side, Grampa is already there getting things ready ahead of time. He greets us, not at the nature grown fork that leads to the orchards, but in front of the actual front buildings. Yes! We're getting in!

"Now then! Do we all remember the ground rules? Hmmm? Rosalia?" Grampa stands with both hands on his hips.

I have no idea why he's targeting me, but I shall comply if only to get this over with faster.

"No wandering. No straying from you or mama. No touching anything. Definitely no licking anything. Stay within the cleared pathways and zones, no barrier-breaking. Do not bother anyone. Be polite. No gawking at anyone or asking rude questions, at least not for now. No-"

"Great job memorizing, pumpkin, now show me those results and have fun! Oh and definitely no licking. "

I would hope not.

It's a very difficult thing explaining to anyone that the world is made up of super tiny atoms, and that some diseases are caused by these tiny living organisms called bacteria. Hate to say it but my best bet is the crazy old man.

The problem is that he doesn't actually get it either!

He liked the concept of a period table just fine. Got all the more excited, and confusing, when on the topic of atoms. "The indivisibles!" he called them and even kept me up past bedtime on the chalkboard. He's really stuck on the concept of protons and electrons for some odd reason.

But biology? Germ theory or the evolution of bacteria? Cell structure?

Yeah, he gave me a look that clearly showed he thought I was the crazy one.

So either Grampa was never privileged with modern education or he comes from an entirely different world, which honestly should be the case given how insane he is. No wonder medicine isn't one of the fields that really progressed under the influence of the great hero.

That lacking was why something like Lilyanne's healing magic was so revered.

Grampa has conceded to me on the topic of face masks though! Disease possibly spreading through air and by breath. They already have evidence of that much.

Now that I'm here though... the problem with that point is that they're bird masks? I'm sorry. Are some of the workers here wearing black plague masks?

The stupid things that didn't actually work the way people thought?

"Rosalia? What did Papa just warn you about?" Mother scolds me already.

"...Keep my comments to myself until later." I recite.

That would be for the best.

No having a toddler supernaturally point out everything right and wrong with the way things are being run. If even Grampa gave me the look like I'm alien talking nonsense, with the rest of the population I'll only be lucky to be burned at the stake.

Alright. Staying good and no talking out loud. Or at least close enough to Grampa that no one will blame me too much.

The halls to the stone and concrete-like administrative buildings are as sanitary as they can be given this world's standards. Boiling water is regarded as better housekeeping than plain for scrubbing or mopping. Mints and herbs are used as deodorizers, and even without my soaps, a solution of lye mix is already used as a cleaning agent.

The floors and walls are hard, but flat and easy to clean. In the area closest to the tunnel tram, no one wears any extra safety gear. The troop members look just about the same as on the other side, or anywhere. However the further in we go, the more people wear extra leather coverings, boots, gloves and more of those strange bird masks.

Beyond the deepest buildings lay more reinforced gates, along with a barrier outpost by large slightly glowing stones. It appears to be a gray zone. Perhaps for disinfection and inspection as certified people come and go.

So it surprises me when the gates all proceed to open too easily with Grampa leaning the way.

"Do we have to wear those too?" I can't help but ask.

I don't think they make plague beak masks in my size?

"Wait for it~" Grampa hushes me with a grin, face rugged from the lack of a shave recently.

As the gate slowly creaks themselves open, clearing a straight path, the barriers glow in something thin. I'm most impressed by how it can produce such a strange sound, getting louder and louder. It sounds like a cute but annoying little boy's squeaky voice.

"Here here here! We're here! No leaving without the awesome us, we're here!"

I should not be surprised that not only is Lukas here, somehow shaking snow off himself, but he's brought an entire loaded sleigh sliding with him from wherever he came from. Seriously, what the hell?

More importantly, from out behind the sleigh's driver seat, a magnificent heavenly fairy sits. He looks like the beauty of death. Tumbling pale blonde hair, grumpy parenting eyes of distinguished silver, nose, cheeks, and ears stunningly flushed pink at all the right places. He pulls off his scarf to expose the pale graceful length of his neck, Adam's apple pronounced as he alluringly sighs.

Oh my. Oh my blessed eyes. To see Gable in any capacity instantly soothes the soul, the mind. This sight alone could cure the blind!

"You look hot."

Grampa said that. Not me. No one can get mad at me for blurting out stupid things when Grampa is here.

"There's a slight pressure but drastic temperature change from here to the summits, yes," Gable blessedly does not misunderstand, further shedding another layer.

"You too Lukaspatootus, let's get you out there before you melt into a puddle! Told you that you overdressed him. It's the middle of summer!" Grampa grapples with a giant pillow that jumped to smother my mother.

"You cannot underestimate the elements, Ron, especially that high. And you know how easily I burned then, do you sincerely think Lukas is any different?"

Oh wait no, that's just Lukas, bundles up like a tiny puft marshmallow man. At least, he's well protected against mother's crushing hugs like that.

Three layers of puff and fluff undressing later, Lukas is as ready as he'll ever be. Face a tad pink in an awkward shape I guess we can call a fresh and modest sunburn. Looking a bit like a strawberry shortcake popsicle there, though albeit more painful.

"Owie?" Lilyanne pokes at the older boy in the face.

Oh no. Oh no no no. No hunting or poaching hearts so early you cute little protagonist. I forbid it. I, Rosalia, your villainy big sister, absolutely forbids it.

"Nope! I'm too awesome for owies." states Lukas, no shame in his demeanor.

I should be assured of the original plotlines and routes...but I just don't trust Lilyanne for that very reason. How many hearts must she conquer? This little mob however is such a wall of soft pinchable mochi and denseness that none of Lilyanne's reverse harem gathering charms work at all. Thank goodness.

"Lukas, do you really think you're stronger than the sun? The sun!" I inspect his skin.

Meh, he'll live. Kids. We'll give him a milk bath and use tester cream number 8 on him later.

In the time it takes to try convincing Lukas that no, no he is not stronger than the sun's rays or that 'awesomeness' has no correlation to 'owies', we've somehow already walked across the line of gates.

Between each gate a magical barrier activates, blowing a protective shield all around us. Once again, it's similar to something I've seen before at the main troop's camp. The snowglobe. Bubble layers have blown around us, encasing us in a dome casing snowglobe that moves as we walk.

"There will be no touching the barriers now. Or leaving them. Am I understood? Children?"  Gable instructs, taking the lead.

Why does everyone always seem to pay attention to me on these matters?

I mutely nod along with Lukas and Lilyanne, because I swear I have recited the same lines over and over again. And what's the point of reminding me to keep close when there's already another barrier to prevents me from getting far? The amount of trust I get.

"Thank you Gabbey~" Mother says in a coquettish voice, pawing up at Gable.

How dare she, but at the same time, against the overwhelming beauty that is Gable, how can she not? Well too bad Mother. You are already a married woman with your weird nerd, and now you have to settle for him. Settle!

Wonder what Father is up to these days without anyone keeping an eye on him? A nagging feeling tells me it's not just being buried in desk work. Well, at least there's always Alfonso.

"Of course Maria. Buttercup dear, I hope you'll be a ....good...example for the children." Gable smiles, and oh be still my heart.

"Yes Gabbey." Mother deflates to Grampa's laughter in the background.

Despite the noise and commotion we make walking into the village, no one seems to regard us. Not the now covered guards who normally salute, not the masked workers, and certainly not...the villagers.

There are so many of them. Going about their day as if in any other town or village. They walk with goods or mingle by the water pump. In this section, many of them interact freely with the masked workers, like if it were a bank or community center. Exchanging credits, settling accounts or picking up their orders.

The weavers spinning their thread and making cloth. Potters rolling their clay. Old men peacefully chatting over morning games while small children play tag.

It's almost like anywhere else.

"Waaah!" Lilyanne exclaims, fearfully running up to Mother, demanding to be held.

She's been taught and warned not to make a fuss, but the sight still shakes her up. Recoil naturally if not out of instinctual fear and disgust.

So many of them are disfigured. Telltale signs of the disease already eating away at their bodies. Inside the colony, no one wears dark-sanctioned robes or hide as they do on the other side of these walls. In the outside world.

Here, there is no judgment since they all share the same fate.

The old men that sit enjoying the summer sun have cloudy eyes, most likely already blind, faces and limbs in a mix match of disfigured shapes. A mature woman passing by with a basket of bread dough, most likely to the communal bakery, is missing a nose and an arm. A running errand boy, healthy with all four limbs is covered in various shades of polka dots and discolored chunks of his skin.

Lilyanne has been warned repeatedly before this. Not to say it. But her whimpers and little cries still escape from Mother's hold.

"Scary monsters."

Is she wrong? Is this not how the rest of the world sees it? That's why they're isolated in the first place. From here to every leper's colony across the lands. They're where we leave the ill and undesirables.

No one wants to see this. No one wants to live with such fear and ugliness. So it's better to just..not look. Throw them away and not look.

"Weeeeak, stupid stinky baby! We already beat all the monsters here and the ones outside go to make bacon! Or salami and sausages and jerky. Lots of jerky." Lukas laughs, seemingly breaking the awkward mood with his chatter.

"Alright, that's enough out of you." Gable shakes his head good-naturedly, sharing a strange look with a smirking Grampa. When he moves to take the lead, the bubble dome follows, sliding along our every step.

No one seems to notice or care about our appearance. If a passing by villager brushes by, we avoid them but otherwise, they seem to not even regard us.

Under the bubble, no one can see us. That's what Gable's doing. Providing a cover and shelter.

Like this, we can see the village uninterrupted. As it would be on any other day, how it operates, lives, and breathes.

It's still breathing. All the people here are still breathing, doing their best to live with what they can.

They line the paved streets and well built buildings in various stages of health. Some are missing both their legs, so they can't walk. Amputations are more common than not around here. Fingers. Toes. Whole parts, pieces of something missing. Many are covered in bandages and wrappings, treating as well as preventing their open sores and infections. The ones are that open-color green and yellow dry healing crusts, gruesome to uphold.

The strangest thing that baffles me however is the polka dots.

Everything else is textbook. While real-life is a lot more shocking than seen in an internet video or a medical book, they're all symptoms I'm mentally prepared for. The skin lesions, the easy to be infected wounds, and nerve damage that swells and forces amputation. Even blindness. All checkmarks on the list.

But I've never heard of the bumps. These polka dots raised bumps that line people's skin.

Some wrap around all their exposed skin while others are more neat lines and bars. They look like patches of bubble wrap, and I recall the same pattern on the healer mother. Multa Melitta.

I get my tour, obvious distractions aside. I get to see how roads organize and wrap in pavement and stone. How water funnels through shaped clay baked tiled pipes, metal pumps feeding wells underground. How spread out space is, making things perhaps a little more difficult to traverse but open and breathable.

These are the things we should be looking at. What we can change, what we can actually do. Not gawking at everyone.

But it's hard not to.

It's a good thing they can't see or hear us. Maybe that's the whole point of this barrier. To spare the people from the stares of dumb little children.

I'm not surprised at the adults' calmness. One of them built this place while the other is Gable of all people. Even Mother, while occasionally marveling at something, doesn't seem phased at all. But then again, I can easily infer she's been here before. Perhaps many times in the past.

They speak of things like how this building was replaced, what used to be in that plot of land, and even strange stories I have no knowledge of.

"Aaaaaaah, remember your slide down the pipes and completely tainting the water supply baby girl? And we had to come up with extra filters and carry jugs from the falls! Oh that time you got your butt stuck in a jug and had to walk like a hermit crab! Ahhhh good times." Grampa points out randomly.

" never bring that up again." Mother seems to be getting tired. Weakening further and further as the tour goes on, though that could just be from listening to Grampa talk.

"Or that time you let a stampede of buckaroo deer through the gates?! Now they're living happily in the crater forest. Mmmm deer jerky. Such cute jerky. Or-" Grampa considers.

"Papa! Gabbey oh please stop him! I promise to be good, I haven't broken a single thing all week, not even a teacup, please just stop him." she begs for mercy.

"What are you talking about baby girl? There were two casualties in that tunnel expansion, which is ahead of schedule by 3 months! Thanks Maria,~ you didn't have to but you were such a help! But that's broken bones! Ahaha, that will teach them to sneak around restricted zones, ah though I can't blame them too much. Youth. Ahhhh." Grampa does not know the definition of mercy.

"There were what?! No no no I just wanted to finish up and that inspection you made me do was sooooo long. I didn't know they were there! Boo hoo..." Mother panics.

I admit they make a better kind of distraction.

All Gable does is pinch his temple and move on, pulling along Lukas by the hand. A wise choice, ignoring them.

Eventually, this touristy little wander ends up at a large building, of about four stories. It's a room, with a lot of open space and even a pretty courtyard. Judging from the type of people that linger outside and about, it appears to be a sort of medical or rehabilitation center. Not urgent, but meant for long term healing.

I am well versed in the signs, the walkers and bars across. Equipment in physical therapy. I know these sorts of things far too well.

We pass by the rehab courtyard and a section of smelly pools used as therapeutic baths. The sights familiar but not, not in this world. Not as Rosalia.

We continue on past waiting rooms and restrictive areas, where patients are being treated. Lilyanne huddling in Mother's arms the whole time, while I peer nervously. Lukas asking occasional questions like what the needles are for and why people are getting them shot into their skin.

It's the ultimate invasion of privacy.

"All done, now that wasn't so bad. See you in three weeks." speaks a woman dressed like a nun, patching up a boy of around 13 after a shot.

The bumps. They're from the shots. I understand now, each and every bump is from an injection shot that doesn't really go away.

It's multa Melitta under that nun's veil. Her disfigured face is on full display but it's also her voice I recognize. The patient grimaces but nods, quickly running off when he is cleared. SO quickly he doesn't notice how his limp hand smacks the doorway.

He can't feel his arm.

It's too familiar. This place is too familiar. These people are too familiar.

For a moment, it's not a stranger who escapes out of here. His straw-like hair turns darker, straighter. These foreign features they call normal blur, smooth and ivory pale, features morphing. I can almost hear him telling me he was off, almost feel how he rolls his eyes and laughs.

But Heng-Fei can't walk, can't run. Not anymore. Definitely not at that age.

He was only 17 last I can recall. We were living together again, his legal guardian was only me. He was only 17 when I died.

A curtain closes over the door. A curtain has closed over that part of my life, my existence.

"Well now, you're right on time. Were things to your satisfaction?" multa Melitta turns to address us as a group.

When she looks straight ahead, I can see one of her eyes has already discolored pale. A cloudy cataract blinding her sight.

We could have fixed that. In modern times, we could remove and replace that cataract so easily. We have antibiotics and do so much more.

But we were far from advanced either.

Who knows? Maybe there's another alien out there, looking in and laughing at how deplorable the state of the earth is. My earth. My terrible capitalist fueled overworked hell on earth. Where my brother lives. Where my brother, my co-workers, my damn manager, all my stupid friends, the Parks...where they all still live.

Without me.

"Well enough. I see they raising another barn out in the skirts." Grampa replies, tapping through Gable's barrier.

I can see it fall back, just a layer, and a shine of focus in multa Melitta's one working eye.

"Exciting times. Oh, we all do love a good barn raising." multa Melitta plays nice if a little senile. The wrinkled lines on her face hidden by the raised bumps of treatment. She's much older than she sounds.

"Oh my, now would you look at this little berry. My, my, my, you have the blood of the North in you, no worries now. I'm sure you'll grow to be a fine beauty still. Your big sister got in far many more bends than that and look how she turned out." she bends down, bones creaking, to giggle and gesture at Lukas's little pink face.

Without making any contact, a wave of pulses seems to radiate out of her lumpy hand. Slowly the shades of Lukas mild sunburn cools back into his usual pale. Soft and smooth as freshly pounded rice mochi.

It's not surprising she's a healer, with rare magic even, though much weaker than Lilyanne. But to be living all the way out here, and in her condition?

The world is limiting, there is sense and order even in magic. No, especially in magic. There are things that simply can't be done.

"OH! Thanks a bunch!" Lukas pats at his little face, showing it off to Gable. Who not only grimaces but turns up to the multa.

"He's...a boy." Gable says plainly.

"Oh? Oh I got it wrong again? Well, still good! He has too much of your face. Has it been twenty years since I did this? Why do you always raise them up switched like that? How is anyone supposed to tell?" the half blind woman chuckles.

Well now. That's a clear sign that Lukas needs a haircut. Preferably bald. Let's match?

"What are they needles for! What's in them?! Do they fill you with armor?" Lukas interrupts, his mouth shooting off for me.

Asking questions I probably shouldn't myself but still want to hear.

Luckily, the multa doesn't shy away at all, though her appearance causes Lilyanne to cower more in Mother's arms. At least, she no longer cries.

"Why it is a type of armor, yes. It's made of the orchard nuts, but eating them is fatal. This is the only way to administer them and it arms people against this disease. Such a bright child! Oh Ronald, I really like how you made this one." the old woman caters to his question.

"I wasn't made, I'm a Lukas. Aha, so the bumpers are armor pieces, I knew it! Gable, can I have armor to fight under my skin? So I can go beat the sun because Rosa says I can't fight the sun."

"Absolutely not." Gable doesn't even hesitate.

Oil. They can only inject them since ingesting it is not an option. Oil doesn't dissolve well, but it needs to run through the circulatory system to work.

That's why the injection shots can't really heal right, forming painful-looking boils. Even if someone heals the wound or skin on the outside, relieving some pain, it will still bubble underneath. Even if we heal them with magic, the living pathogens for the disease is still there.

This is what I can make sense of.

But nothing more. I'm not that smart. I don't know what else there is I can pitch in here.

"Awww! Watch Rosa, I'mma go do it even without armors just cause." Lukas keeps interrupting my thoughts.

Kids think they can do anything. It's a little nice how hopeful they are.

"Yeah. Yeah sure, go fight the sun if you can." I answer him. Then look up to regard multa Melitta, smiling down on us like a kind kindergarten teacher.

"Does it hurt?" I ask, despite knowing it must.

"A little. But that's a good thing, that we can still feel it. Shame, we can't just turn these sensations on and off so easily as you or your father, little one." she answers calmly, before regarding me with a little lost look.

That's because I'm the one who looks lost.

"What? Turn on and off what?" I ask, unable to control my rudeness, despite Mother rushing to pick me up and hold me tight.

"Rosalia," she warns against my question.

"Oh my. Looks like it's a little too early for that one to start training. Forgive me, I couldn't feel a lick of magical veins from her despite the others being so strong. I just assumed she took after-" multa Melitta draws back, overly apologetic.

No. She said it on purpose. She knows something I don't. This woman is much older and layered than she looks.

"You thought wrong. Frederick and I are not raising her like that. We would never." Mother bundles me away, covering my ears and eyes.

As if that could undo what I just learned.

"What is it? What do I take after? What can I turn on and off?" a clawing feeling starts rising up in me. That kind of desperate anxiety when something escapes me out of my control.

"Rosalia!" Mother warns, her voice final.

"Mother, what is she talking about? Mother...won't you answer me?" I turn back, feeling unwell.

When I don't feel well, my face takes a neutral expression, professional. As if to control all the things I can't. It's always helped me in the workforce but I know it's not the sort of face a child should make. Off. Wrong.

"I'm looking to build a new project. " Grampa takes over, still smiling like nothing's wrong. Nothing was ever wrong.

It leaves enough space for Mother to hush me, now being not the time. But the tea has been spilled. I have another lead I can't let go of now.

"Wonderful! Another celler? Something bigger? Well, space is limited and we could always-" multa Melitta jumps over the topic before grampa interrupts again.

"But will you live long and well enough to carry it out?" he says casually.

"Yes. If the gods are merciful." her expression doesn't change despite the underlying threat.

"They usually aren't." Grampa pulls out a strange package, tube-shaped and messily bound in melted wax, tossing it over.

"Whatever it is Ronald, it shall be done, with or without me." she smiles the kind of smile I've only seen in the hospitals of terminally ill. The kind of grim peace that only one who accepts death is around the corner.

"It would. But it would be easier for everyone this way." Grampa points down at the parcel, information for later. "Construction begins after we leave, I want the setup and production to be first priority. It will even help out your concerns about lasting through the coming winter."

"But?" Multa Melitta apparently knows how Grampa operates far too well.

"Your body will fail before then you old crone, and unfortunately you're the best candidate to watch over this zone by leagues." Gable steps in.

"Oh I am so honored. You know little ones, when your Gable here was a wee pristine cherub, you could never get one nice thing out of him. Not until that meteor storm and young Ronald came crashing along."

"Aaaahhh good times, you hid me down the well and I had to cling on. I was so weak back then haha," Grampa sighs,

"Oh, I never liked that side of that old castle anyways. Good riddance. And you were so adorable, I still remember how you wore nothing but the slain pelt of a 4th grade battle boar. The skull kept slipping off your tiny head." she told.

"Ahem. The tasks on hand?" Gable interrupts by coughing, ending that particular trip down memory lane.

Thank goodness for Gable but uh, hey I wanted to hear that story too, errr I mean gather information. Mental note to track down multa Melitta for some interviews if I ever get the chance to escape alone.

After all, it's clear enough that none tells me anything. Ever. In any lifetime. Can't be blamed if I have to go hunt for it outside.

"Gable's right," Grampa sighs, sounding too exasperated for speaking the truth.

Without any fear or regard, he takes multa Melitta's damaged hands into his own, imploringly through his request sounds as straightforward as any orders.

"Gather up your cabinet, medical team, and the patients who have been through treatment the longest, in the platform in the town square. Throw in a few choice citizens as you wish. Don't tell them a thing. We'll be performing one last miracle." he winks

" wonderful...everyone will be so...happy. You never offered such generosity..." the old woman sounds conflicted.

"You shall stand right-center Melitta. I know how you feel, how you turn down any special treatment, not until we can find a better cure. But you can't lead anyone further if your dead body is burning in a pit! I'm going to need you for as long as you'll all put up with me. Hold on for me won't you old girl?" Grampa comforts.

Wow. What a charmer.

Unfortunately, Grampa seems to be just multa Melitta's type, for she caves. Simply wilts and whimpers feebly into his thick arms. She wipes away the tears that still cry through both eyes and resolutely nods.

"Great! Put that away and call in the bells, there's some fun to be had." Grampa hugs her as if she were a normal old woman, and she weeps silently for but a breath more.

"And time." Gable pulls them apart. Hitting Grampa with a few rounds of fire and spells for disinfection.

Or just hitting him more for the sake of it. That's fair.

We're brought to a rest area somewhere underground after multa Melitta steps out to shout her orders. A welcome break especially with children.

My own mother sits us down silently. Cleans our hands and hands us juices. Going through the motions as if she doesn't know which of her children she needs to address first. Who needs her more.

A still scared and nervous Lilyanne, doing her best to not cry. Or me, still silent and biting my lip from the information I've only begun to learn.

The answer should be obvious. I've never needed her.

"Oh Rosalia, we were going to tell you....about something... when you were older. " Mother uselessly chooses wrong. Her comforts wasted on me.

"No, you wouldn't have." I state simply, feeling nothing. Not bitter, not mad, though that seems to be easier. I don't really feel anything at all, except for this hollow.

Because I know the truth. I have a whole lifetime of the truth behind me.

So I ignore it easily when Mother gives me her confused look. She doesn't know how she never told me. Or how she dies.

The bubble glows back up over us, Gable holding Lilyanne as he has us follow along. I do not fight it as the woman who calls herself my mother takes me back in her arms. After we leave this room, we're to stay close and hidden altogether.

All but for Grampa.

We're no longer alone. The informed residents who work this place bow before him. They give humble thanks for absolutely nothing and stare with awe long after he passes.

He already stands out normally but now? He walks unprotected and undisguised along the underground hall. There's no need for introductions or identifications, everyone knows who he is. They don't dare step in his way but can't seem to remove themselves entirely either. As if trying to glance at him a moment more.

The tunnel leads to an airy open stone room. I can hear bustling noises from above while the ceiling takes many carved shapes like a square. There are stairs and platforms leading up. Up to the surface.

Before Grampa steps up, he turns and smiles, holding out his hands.

"Can I take the girls for a quick moment?" he actually asks this time.

While Gable easily hands over Lilyanne, Mother seems to hesitate with me. Her arms tightening around my torso.

"I don't think Rosalia is feeling all too well," Mother tries, stepping back.

"Well...what does she want to do about that?" Grampa speaks with a strange tone in his voice, low and oddly surrounding my senses.

I hold out my arms uselessly, indicating permission and allowing him to take me with his free arm.

"Did you have fun?"

That voice.

"Grampapa it so many, and Lily was good. Not a dumb stinky baby, pffft. Lily no cries at awll at all the scaries. Lots of owies, so it all scarwies and sad. Lily sads now." my sister starts babbling, a spoiled little girl in her grandfather's arms.

"Ahhh, so we're learning things the hard scary way. Aren't we?" he responds, softer than he usually does.

"Yes! Mama say no monsters, and that when Lily cries it makes everyone sads. No one wants to be scary monsters with owies. Lots of sads." that little girl slowly absorbs, learning through more exposure than she's ever had.

"It does! Because the world is very big and full. It sometimes looks a lot different than how we think of it before. Doesn't it Rosalia?" Grampa turns his attention towards me.

Like it's all a test he's teasing me with.

"You knew?"

I want to stay silent. Really now. But my mouth seems to have a mind of its own sometimes.

"And you didn't. Isn't it interesting how much we miss one time around? " Grampa hums.

"Why? Why couldn't you just tell me, why couldn't you all just..."

I don't even know what it is I want to say, or ask. Too many thoughts and tangents spill in my head.

"I can't answer for what I don't know, didn't live. I can't tell you one best way to proceed. Your new unknown is going to be as scary as it's what you need." he pats.

"Scary!" Lilyanne repeats, blessedly not understanding a thing.

"I don't even know what's all going on," I admit. That numb pooling into something blue, a body of water I have already long drowned under.

Grampa laughs, cradling us with a bounce at each stair step.

"Tell me about it! I never know anything. Tell me all the things you don't know, are finally willing to say, and only then can we do anything about it. Well, all in due time of course. No one is hurrying my cute grandbabies to grow up, or I'll beat them up." he says, breathing light.

At a certain stone platform, he sets both my twin and I down, squishing our little arms in goodbye waves. I'm certain that somehow both Lilyanne and I are walking away with entirely different conversations from this.

What a crazy old man.

"When the ceiling lights up, just push as you normally do." he instructs.

"But...Lilyanne can't heal like this? Definitely not in masses, it's too weak and gets lost. Even when she was at her strongest." I look around, seeing nothing but stone.

I've told Grampa before about the miracles Lilyanne has performed, as well as her limits. Like a delicate piece of art, she does best when she can give a single subject her full attention. It was clear in my memory how her healing abilities on a wide range or battlefield situation was more psychological than anything. The more subjects, the weaker the effect.

My sister, still only three years old, gives me a question blank head tilts while Grampa laughs it off, rubbing our bonnets practically off.

"Grampapa knows! Gable and I got something set up to help with that. Just for today," he winks those big brown cow eyes disgustingly.

Who do I look like? An old multa woman? Take that nasty fake charm elsewhere.

To which he does, blowing gross kisses to Lilyanne's happy giggles and hopping up and away. Past trap doors and platforms up out of sight.

The roar of the crowds above is deafening, even through stone walls. It's like being backstage at some concert. Down below, Gable has my mother and Lukas moved to a different area. My mother's overly worried eyes on us the whole time, even as Lukas clings to her skirts and comforts her with his standard babble.

When the world above goes into an agitated silence, I somehow catch bits and pieces of Grampa's voice. Tunneling through this underground passageway.

"My good people..."

It's still too far though, too thick. I strain my ears, my senses to hear more.

"...over 50 dead recovered....bodies burnt. Their possessions up for identification.... I cannot say I'm sorry for your losses. Laws are not always correct but I do not offer false promises or hopes-"

"Rosa scawies?" Lilyanne clamps my hand, breaking my concentration.

"No Lily...actually yes. But we'll just take it a day at a time. Alright?" I sigh.

"Okay dokey! Rosa need poopies? Lily tell mama and Gabgab you gotta goes?" she asks at my scrunched up face, still trying to listen in for more.

"...Maybe later Lily, now stay real quiet and get ready!"

"Okay dokey!"

Focusing again, I can almost see in my mind's eye Grampa's poster hero speech. Serious in some parts. Lively in others. I wonder what he can say to further his own press and agenda, that dangerous fool. Pretending never to know a thing.

I guess I can kinda relate.

"This is not a cure. This is none. This is a thank you as you will all still most likely die here. Absolutely!"

Nevermind. He's insane.

It's a good thing this man was never a politician let alone a king. He would run a country into the ground, and use the remaining pit as his wine cellar. Yep.

Somehow, the people of the masses seemed to love him.

Even now, judging from the fact the crowd hasn't erupted into boos and tears, it's still going too well. Sheesh. I'll never understand Public Relations or sociology, despite all my experience. Maybe everyone's brain-damaged?

I wonder where the brain-damaged minion is right now? Still with Damia? I'll beat him up if he comes back even more brain-damaged. Maybe Vincent too? I could use the kiddy help to reign Lukas AND Lilyanne in. Oh and secret stash sweets that aren't poisoned.

"Once again, and all the agains that will never be enough. Thank you for surviving." the old man's voice barely breaks through the echoes.

My distracted scattered thoughts end not from another odd shake or question of Lilyanne's but the warm glow of the ceiling lighting up. Overly complicated transmutation circles begin shining out, overlapping one another, and the signal has been received.

With one last reassuring look down at Gable and Mother, Lukas excitedly pointing up at the display, we get to work.

No need for focus or finesse, not just yet. For now, Grampa's got this. So Lilyanne, give it all you got. Aaaaand zap!

I can't say it's too exciting to just be pulling off the usual routine. But the thunderous sounds from above, the miracle that must be going on the surface, means it must be a real sight.

Grampa's right. This isn't a cure, the disease still active inside them even if their sight is restored or their wounds healed like how it was before. By law, these people will all die enclosed with the walls of the leprosarium. Never to escape or return back where they came from.

We're all just doing our best to survive.

I don't think the truth is all that bad of a message, though Grampa could have most certainly worded it better.

The sounds don't die out but the impromptu ceremony must end eventually. Lilyanne tiring out faster despite her stamina practice, perhaps after all her work on the tree and orchards outside. She is after all only a small child.

"zap zap zap Lily do zaps." she hugs the platform rock with a very funny sort of expression.

Ah kids are hilarious when they're serious.

The ceiling lights cut out with a wave from Gable. His nod indicating that it was over. As soon as he does, Mother rushes up the stairs to pick us up even before I can get Lilyanne to stop pushing magic blindly.

How did she get up here so fast? While baffled, I can only think this to myself already swept up inside her arms. That's too fast?

The roaring of a cheering and delighted population resounds throughout the space until the trap door closes shut once more.

Grampa walks down the upper steps, sweat dropping as he escorts multa Melitta. Not fully healed but looking...better.

She looks older when her face isn't so bumpy or swollen, the wrinkles finally more pronounced. Her fingers are still missing on her outstretched hand, and there are pox like scars across her skin. But it's better, less painful. Both of her eyes shining teary but clear, sight restored.

Relief is a type of progress.

"Thank you. For everything." the old restrengthened woman bows low.

When she gets up, she presents each of the adults in our party but a single plump peach. It doesn't look like much, but hey aren't those....

"Oh Multa Melitta! We couldn't!" Mother tries to turn the gift away.

Five years stored in a single fruit, one single tree that can only produce so many. If diluted and used as a medicine, it could only go so far. To eat a whole fruit is a luxury, and selfishness, that is hard to afford. I can't even imagine the price if I sold one of these on the black market?

"You're actually old enough to have one now. Take it, perhaps to share with your...darling? You could do it like those two..." the old woman giggles, pushing back the peach.

"Oh these old tales," Mother blushes, putting away the peach.

"Well, I know we save them for research has been a good 20 or so years since we had a fresh taste." Grampa already splits one in half, grinning as he presents one side in front of Gable's nose.

Grey eyes roll before the man himself shrugs.

"I suppose if it's only half..." he relents, taking the split fruit. Even putting up with Grampa clicking the half peaches like they were champagne glasses.

"To another 20 more?" Grampa bites the wrong slice, grossly eating out of Gable's hand.

"I regret everything already," Gable swipes and switches fruits, but he smiles lightly before taking his own bite. Following up, "...yeah sure. Already don't have much of a choice. "

"Whatever makes you feel better about yourself, Gabe." Grampa licks at the remaining juice.

What a lovely scene. Such a weird friendship. I'm getting hungry just watching.

A dangerous thought but I do wonder what such a juicy treasure tastes like.

"It's alright. Bacon is better." Lukas chews.

"Well of course you think bacon is better, you're...wait what?! What are you eating!?!" I scream bloody murder.

It's like the countdown before a bomb detonates. Shock. Stillness. Slow-motion with Grampa already jumping into action. Taking away the cursed stolen fruit in Lukas's hand as Gable silently screams, eyes promising a certain kiddy a painful death, or maybe just a very intense grounding.

"Ah just like old times." multa Melitta laughs.