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By StrawberrySunrise All Rights Reserved ©

Action / Fantasy

The Return of the Son

Elias Valcor felt like he was dying, but it wouldn’t be the first time that had happened. He let out a long stream of breath into the cold New City morning, wincing at the bright sun overhead. His brain, groggy and sleep deprived, struggled to plant one foot in front of the other. The route to Hal’s Deliveries, where he’d been slinging packages for over two years, should’ve been muscle memory by now. But, thanks to a fantastic decision to get smashed until three a.m., Elias had to suffer through a painful buzzing in his skull.

Oh. Or maybe that was just the buzzing of his communicator.

Elias didn’t bother to screen the call. Only one person would be speaking with him this early in the morning. Pressing a finger to the wireless device in his ear, Elias hoped his voice didn’t sound as crappy as he felt.

“Hey, Siggy,” he greeted. “What’s new?”

You sound like something that got run over.

Elias couldn’t help but grin. “That, my friend, is partially your fault.” The sound of laughter rewarded Elias, sending a particular thrill through his veins. “How is it that you always manage to wake up on the right side of the bed, even after a night like that?

I’m a morning person,” Siggy said simply.

“So I’ve had the misfortune of noticing,” Elias hummed, gradually finding the walk to work a little more bearable. The 22-year-old’s presence in Elias’ life made many other things more bearable, too. “Did you call just to rub it in my face?”

Of course not! I wanted to check in on you. I feel bad. I was, after all, the one who supplied the alcohol,” Siggy chuckled, neglecting to sound reticent in the slightest. “I would’ve loved to at least take you out to breakfast, as an apology.

Maybe as a date, one part of Elias’ brain whispered.

Maybe as a joke, another, bigger part, hissed.

Elias shrugged, the gesture unseen. “I wouldn’t have gotten sleep any at all, if that was the case. It’s cool.”

So why don’t I take you out to dinner, then?

Elias’ feet stumbled to a stop. That had sounded like a date. Somewhere over the course of four years, Elias’ appreciation for Siggy had gone a little past platonic. Just a flicker of love; nothing wild. Nothing to act on. Nothing that could ever come to fruition. Right? Elias’ mouth went dry, a thousand emotions clamoring around in his chest. Hope. Fear. Love. Sadness. Guilt.

The guilt. He wasn’t good enough for Siggy. He barely made minimum wage, and Siggy was the chief advisor to one of the largest tech hubs in New City. His hands grew faint tremors. Elias Valcor wasn’t someone who deserved that kind of attention. He would only drag Siggy down, further than he had already. He was such a burden; such a weight; such a liar. He wasn’t clean, he wasn’t right, he wasn’t worth--

“Elias?” Siggy questioned, left hanging.

“I--” Elias stammered, unable to play off his hesitation. His throat closed, as new thoughts flooded his brain. What if Siggy hadn’t meant it flirtatiously? Now he looked weird, getting caught up over friendly plans to eat. Friendship was more than he deserved in the first place; why had he ever tried to search for more? “I’m bad luck,” he croaked.

What?” Siggy laughed. “The hell has gotten into you?

Against his will, a smile curved Elias’ lips. “I gotta get going, Siggy. I don’t think I’ll be able to handle more of an outing than deliveries. You’ll just have to eat with some work buddies.”

Elias, is something wrong?

Notsomething.” Just me, Elias thought. “Of course not!” the 19-year-old chirped. “You know me: Fine as anything.”

I’m not talking about your personal appearance.

The quick intake of air that prompted hurt Elias’ lungs. “Can you...not do that?” Elias wondered idly into the receiver.

Be honest?

“Get my hopes up,” Elias mumbled. He slapped a hand against his mouth as he realized he’d said the words out loud. Always such a screw up. “Siggy, I... Wait. What’s that?”

What’s what?” Siggy replied.

Elias stopped in the middle of the sidewalk, eyes drawn to the giant screen affixed to a nearby skyscraper. There were six other major locations in the city where these screens were set up, providing news for the people constantly milling about. All sensation of sound left him as he read the words rolling along the bottom of the TV. When they registered, new emotions bubbled from his chest, searing his insides and sending him running, exhaustion forgotten. Cutting through the footfalls of pedestrians, the rumbling of engines, and honking horns, the female reporter followed him like a shadow. She overpowered Siggy easily, droning on in clear vowels what he had read for himself.

An attack has been confirmed on the Borderlands. From what we know, there are four dead. The identity of the first three are unknown, but the fourth has been confirmed as a young woman who has ties to the city. This attack, though it is not yet clear who or what caused it, will not disturb any New City activity. If you wish to learn more about what has happened--

Elias!” Siggy finally broke through.

“Sorry.” The word fell from Elias’ lips, more familiar than his own name. “Sorry. I’m sorry, I have to go.”

Go? To work?” Siggy’s concerned tone went a touch hesitant. “Elias, are you having an...episode? Are you in trouble?

Elias narrowed his eyes, spine tingling in anticipation as he made his decision. A decision that had been a long time coming. “I’m stealing the motorbike.”

What?” Siggy groaned. “What are you talking about? Please, just start making sense. Pretty please. For me.

“I need to get to the Borderlands,” Elias said evenly, “and I’m stealing the work bike to get there. It’s all-terrain, or so Hal brags.”

Borderlands? What are you going out there for?

“Helena,” Elias said shortly, Hal’s Deliveries coming into view.

Your... Your sister?” Siggy struggled to recall. “Look, if you need to get to the desert, I’ll take you there, but--

The ice that suddenly gripped Elias’ heart nearly caused him to stumble. “No!” he burst. “No, you can’t come. You can’t--” Elias gulped in air, trying to steady his breathing. He hadn’t even left New City, and already, he was a wreck. “Look, just let me take care of this. Cover me; I’ll be back soon.”

Elias. You aren’t leaving me with that shitty of an explanation. And I’m not letting you commit fraud by stealing, what are you even--?

“Siggy, are you going to cover me or not?” Elias interrupted impatiently. Cutting a right into the trash-strewn back alley, he swiftly unlocked the gate guarding the morning delivery bikes. All twenty were set up in a line, cargo boxes hitched and secured with tarps, ready for the day. He picked out number five with his eyes and headed over. “If you aren’t, let me know. I’ll drive even faster.”

Elias, if you would give me ten damn minutes to get out of my office--” Siggy growled.

Elias put on his helmet and gloves with more gusto than ever before, peeling out of the lot in record time. His mind barely registered that he was breaking Rule #37 by the New Code: Zero communications while operating a vehicle. “I don’t know what I’m about to walk into, and I don’t want you there with me to find out,” Elias said bluntly. “But if Helena’s hurt, and I wasn’t there--” Elias gripped the bike’s handlebar tightly. “I have to go back,” he whispered. “I don’t have a choice anymore.”

Elias drifted to a stop a moment later, powerless to the authority of a streetlight and a busy intersection. He didn’t notice his hands unclench from the brake; didn’t feel it as the bike began drifting forward. Something louder than Siggy was chattering in his mind: something louder than reporters; than cars; than the blood rushing through his veins. Something that pulled him in the direction of the desert; towards home. His eyes began to glaze, touching on the edge of passing out, the words growing clearer as the world grew darker. The phrases were something from a dream, previously unheard but familiar, the voices so unlike the ones that usually cut Elias down. They ebbed and flowed, dragging along his consciousness.

...return it...

...find the liar; find the thief...

...return what was taken...

Elias felt something hit his side, then all of a sudden he was twenty feet away from where he started, blind and battered. As the bright light cleared from his vision, he realized that he was on the asphalt, crumpled and bleeding, and painfully aware.

Through a ringing in his ear, Siggy called out to him. “Elias! ELIAS!

The blond forced himself up, licking his lips and catching the familiar tang of blood. He waited for the nerve-splitting pain to hit him, but his injuries were taking their time in making themselves known. Elias decided to use that to his advantage. “Have to...go,” he coughed. “Have to see Helena.”

No. Elias, listen to me. You are shutting the hell up, and staying right where you are!” Siggy ordered. A dull ache rising from behind his forehead, Elias listened as the man shuffled around his office. “Can you tell where you are? God, was that an explosion? You sound--Elias, I’m calling an ambulance for you.

“S’nothing,” Elias muttered, putting a hand to his helmet-covered head. “Just a...” He looked down at the dented and smoking motorbike half-covering his body. He hesitantly moved his legs, to confirm that they weren’t broken. Around where he had been idling, an equally dented truck now sat. The driver (from what Elias could make out through the double vision) was bent over the steering wheel, fisting his hair. “Just an accident,” Elias put the scene together.

You crazy--” Siggy hissed. “Would you do me a favor and stop trying to kill yourself all the time?!” Elias stilled as true anger slipped into Siggy’s voice. “If you would let me help you, for once in your fucking life, instead of dancing around me like I’m some kind of loaded gun--!

“Siggy, shut up,” Elias snapped, getting to his feet. He ignored the stinging wounds and aching leg, putting a wall between himself and the pain. As easy as one-two-three, it was out of his mind. One of the few tricks that his brain, no matter how broken down, would ever let go of. Elias picked up his bike and started it up again, pleased when the engine turned over. At least he wouldn’t have to add to his Rule-breaking with additional theft.

Faintly, Elias realized Siggy was still ranting on the other line. With great difficulty, Elias brought the conversation back to the forefront of his mind, knowing it’d be best to just end the call there. But Siggy deserved a little more respect than that, even if Elias didn’t.

“Listen to me,” Elias said, calmer than he felt. His nerves screamed at him to run. Helena could be in trouble; Helena could be hurt; Helena could be dying, and he was just standing--

Elias drew a breath, and overpowered the voices with his own. “I need to go make sure Helena is alright, and this is more important than I have time to explain. But I’ll come back. I promise.” Elias’ voice cracked. “Please. Just trust me. And stay here.”

He ended the call, silencing any more of Siggy’s protests. Grim, Elias mounted the bike and floored it. Pushing away the well-worn mental image of shocked pedestrians and a blood-spattered street, Elias sailed out of clean and safe New City, and into the sandy, wide, Borderlands.

Elias found the town easily. It was right where he remembered it, situated near the mountain peaks that Corinth called home. What he didn’t remember was the cavalry of men and women blocking his entrance, weapons strapped to their hips and backs.

“You’re with the rebels?” one of them demanded: A tall, dark-skinned woman. “Come to collect your kinfolk?”

“What?” Elias blinked, turning off the motorbike. He stood slowly, wary of the threat of violence. “I’m here to see Helena--who are you people? You’re’re not villagers.”

“The general?” the woman questioned. “What’s your business?”

“I have to Helena about what happened,” Elias said, finding it hard to converse. “Where is she?”

The woman narrowed her eyes and altered her stance. “Sir, are you well? Do you really have business with the Compound?”

Elias swallowed and began walking forward. “I’m here for Helena. I’ll find her myself.”

The woman touched Elias’ shoulder, stopping him. Her eyes ran over his body, then she glanced at another member of her party. “Guide him in. He appears unarmed, and may require medical attention.”

“I know where I’m going,” Elias muttered, heading for the largest structure in the village.

His supposed “guide” matched his pace in silence. The two hurried past unfamiliar faces selling their wares, the strange languages hit Elias’ ears causing him to grimace. This wasn’t his town. These weren’t his people, and these were no longer his buildings. Everything had been replaced. Elias’ heart hammered away as he got closer to the building, scared of who he’d find with the name “Helena” inside the manor on the dunes.

The door to his childhood home was open. The foyer that was once painstakingly kept tidy was now littered with waves of sand and dark smudges. Elias frowned as he moved deeper into the mansion, ignored by the swarms of men and women who bustled past him Their arms were heavy with bandages, medicine, and broken excuses for humans. He recognized the insignia of Nursing Officials. Had his old home turned into some sort of hospital?

Elias set his jaw as he hit the center of the house, one knee almost buckling. All the paintings in his memory were gone, along with the plants. The expensive water fountain attached to the wall, once gushing cold water, was now dry as a bone. Even without these markers, he remembered the way, forcing his twisted leg to run.

He stopped at an open door that had, at one point, led to a study that always smelled of sweet tobacco. He paused before raising his head, afraid of what--or who--he would see.

“What news do you have? I sent you out ten minutes ago, Lent,” a woman said. She turned away from a wall of pinned-up maps, pictures, and treaties. She stared at Elias with hard eyes, the same shade as his own.

“Helena,” Elias said, stumbling forward and landing on his knees. “I was so scared. Oh, I’m so glad you’re alright.”

The woman’s eyebrows slanted downward. “I’m sorry?” she said, coming closer and kneeling down. “You aren’t Lent,” she stated the obvious, laying a hand on Elias’ shoulder. She looked up at the person who had escorted Elias. “Orion, what is this?”

“We...aren’t sure, Ma’am. He insisted on seeing you. Thought he was with the rebels.”

Helena refocused her attention on Elias. “Did you lose someone in the attack? The recovery room is down the hall. I’ll show you--”

“Helena!” Elias shouted, looking her full in the face. Her grip grew slack as she took in the man in front of her.

“Elias?” she whispered.

“The one and only,” he laughed.

She drew her arm back and punched him down to the floor. “E-lias?!” she screeched, standing over his body.

“Mmm, I deserved that, but perhaps you could’ve saved it for another time?” Elias reflected. He touched his jaw, grateful he’d managed to keep all of his teeth. “Wow, who taught you how to punch? That hurt.

“Ma’am?” Orion interrupted.

Helena glared at the doorway. “I’ll take care of this, Orion. Resume your post.” The man nodded and left. Helena stepped over Elias’ body to shut the door, locking it.

“That sounded a little ominous,” Elias commented.

“You having a nice time down there?” Helena asked.

“I imagine that I should probably be lying down in some form or another,” Elias replied. “And if you’re just going to punch me, maybe the floor is better.”

“You wanted mercy?” Helena laughed, shocked. She hauled Elias back to his feet with muscles that had been grown in his absence. “Did you expect kindness from me if you ever came back? Did you think I’d be sitting in that chair, patiently waiting?”

“Well, I obviously didn’t expect violence.” Expression neutral, Helena dropped him. “Christ!” Elias wheezed, crumpling to the ground. “You might’ve just collapsed a lung!”

“I seriously doubt that.” Despite the deadpan tone, Helena was puzzled. She dropped down to Elias’ level. “What’s the matter with you?”

He rolled onto his back, huffing before sitting up. “I heard about the attack on the Borderlands.”

“So?” Helena asked, quirking an eyebrow.

Elias, thrown by her apparent apathy, went on despite this. “I got distracted. They were talking about a woman dying, and I...” He trailed off, eyes flickering down, then back up.

“And?” Helena urged, softer.

“Got hit by a car,” Elias muttered quickly, turning his head away. Helena caught it all, punching his shoulder in her shock.

“A car?!” she shrieked.

“A truck,” Elias corrected himself.

“Elias!” Helena scolded him.

“I need to learn how to lie to you,” he laughed.

She reached out a hand to touch Elias’ hair. “Then you’ll tell me the truth? If you’re really here? If it’s you?”

“I’m here,” he assured her, tucking Helena into his embrace. Her shoulders stiffened as she took comfort from this familiar stranger--someone whose face she hadn’t seen in four years. An almost-dead memory, bitter and painful, now fully alive and warm beside her.

“I thought you were gone for good,” she said quietly, deciding to allow the close proximity. “Dead in the dirt, somewhere.”

Elias chuckled, though it felt like someone jabbing sharp-nailed fingers into his chest. “I’ve missed you, too, little sister.”

“You bastard!” was the first thing Helena shouted at him after he released her. “You left me! You left and never called, never wrote--you abandoned me! How could you do that?”

“Helena,” Elias murmured.

“No,” she snapped. “My name isn’t why you left, is it? Start explaining yourself!”

“...I’m sorry,” he whispered, her criticism more biting than he could’ve imagined. “I’m sorry, but--I couldn’t stay. You know why I left.”

Helena fell back, resting her weight on her palms. “Yeah,” she thought it over. “But...I guess it isn’t even that you left. Everyone knew you’d split, with or without a Blessing.” Elias’ jaw tightened. “I just don’t get why you left alone. I was 14, then. A burden, maybe, but we could’ve made it. I thought we were connected by something that couldn’t be cut, you know?” Her voice softened, as hushed as a dying man’s last breaths. “So why did you leave me all alone with a broken cord?”

Elias licked his lips, mouth dry. He’d rehearsed his reply so many times; bulleted every reason; making himself clear and forgivable. Now where were all those perfect words as his sister stared at him, pleading for his reasons to be good enough?

A hurried knocking shattered the moment.

“Patrol picked up another group of injured!” a voice declared through the door. Silent, Helena stood and allowed the person entrance. A red-haired man flew into the room, his clothes burned in places, and hair sticking up everywhere. “It’s getting worse, Ma’am,” he added.

A smile quirked the blond’s lips, hearing the title again. “Nice of you to finally show up, Lent. Give me the details,” Helena ordered, used to the man’s appearance. She looked down at Elias. “Go find the infirmary. You’re so irritating that no matter how busy the Nursing Officials are, one of them will tend to you, just to shut you up.”

“Well, haven’t you grown up cold?” Elias teased, titling his head. A sly smile hit his face, one that Helena could trace back to their childhood. She found herself returning it, like no time had ever passed.

“And you haven’t grown up at all.”

As Elias went left and Helena and Lent went right, Elias started to realize that getting hit by a truck was no easy thing to walk away from. Elias used the beige-bricked walls for support, focusing his breathing as he waited for someone to notice him.

After a minute of being ignored, it dawned on Elias that no one was going to take care of him unless he collapsed and seized. If he wanted help, he was going to have to ask. Elias let out an irritated breath. It had never been his forte. Damning it all, Elias reached into the next herd of Nursing Officials to pass by. His hand found the arm of a plump, motherly-looking Nursing Official, and he pulled her toward him.

“I get that you’re busy, but I don’t suppose you could, you know, help me?” he asked.

She blinked up at him. “Do you need me?”

“Oh, no,” he said. “I just got hit by a truck and am bleeding all over the floor. No biggie.”

The russet-haired woman glanced down at Elias’ shaking legs and the tiny circles of red on the floor. “Well, for one thing, you hide it well,” she said.

She pulled off his heavy leather jacket, revealing gashes and cuts his white T-shirt only highlighted. The Nursing Official tsked and put her arm around the tall Elias as best she could. “Down the hall. I’ll patch you up nicely.”

“ ‘Patch me up’,” Elias grimaced. “I feel like a ragdoll.”

“Well, with the amount of stitches you’ll probably need...” the Nursing Official said. Elias threw his head back and groaned. “You said it yourself: You got hit by a truck. You think all you’ll get is a scraped knee?”

“I was hoping,” he smiled.

She grinned in return. “That’s good. We could use it. Since it seems you’ll be sticking around, what’s your name?”

“Elias,” he replied, coughing.

She tsked again, bringing Elias into a room that was filled with cots and bordered by nursing stations. She steered Elias onto an open bed and pushed his bangs back, wiping the tiny cuts on his face with peroxide. “What pretty eyes you have, Elias,” she said.

“All the better to look at such a pretty person as yourself with,” Elias replied. He turned serious. “Hey, can you tell me what’s going on here?”

The Nursing Official prepped his arm for a dose of morphine. “There’s no conspiracy here. No need to talk with your voice so low.”

After a prick of pain, the injection site was covered with a band-aid. Moving on, the woman cleaned and wrapped a gash on Elias’ left arm. Seeing nothing else of concern, she had Elias take off his shirt and lie down.

“I thought attacks on the Borderlands stopped years ago, before I was born,” Elias recalled, wincing as the Nursing Official starting cleaning out his major wound: A deep cut on his side. A pleasant haze filled his mind as the woman clicked her tweezers. “What happened? Who are all these people?”

“From the fact you were hit by a truck, I gather you’re from New City,” the woman commented. “You wouldn’t know much about us, then. This is Compound A. Compounds B and C lie along the eastern and western fronts of the Borderlands. We needed extra space as more people came from the desert, and those abandoned towns were perfect. The general has been talking about a Compound D, to accommodate the latest wave.” The woman paused in her removal of gravel and glass. “You know, it’s the strangest thing. You’re quite lucky that your injuries aren’t more severe than this--not even a broken rib.”

Elias nodded absently, remembering when Compounds B and C were called Agir and Corinth. “I’m pretty resilient by nature. This Compound used to be somebody’s home. This room was a library. What happened to all the books?”

He elected to ignore the woman’s concerned expression as she primed a needle and thread. “The general kindly offered the use of her home as a sort of haven for people a couple of years ago,” she finally said. “It’s evolved into this. Under General Valcor’s guidance, we now have several communities and hospitals for the refugees that come our way.”

Elias let out yelp as the Official started stitching. “This general just sounds like a damn humanitarian,” he grunted after a minute.

“Quite a remarkable woman, yes,” she murmured, tying a knot in the black thread. “You have stitches and major bruising, but be grateful that that’s the extent of it. Move as little as possible for the next week.”

“Yeah, yeah; believe me, I know the drill.” Elias held his arms up as she wrapped layers of white linen around his midsection. “Alright, so you’ve got this place up and running. But why do you need it? If it’s not the government, what is it this time?”

“My, you really are out of the loop. Strange creatures...such odd beasts,” the woman said, securing the bandage in place. “The way survivors describe them, it’s nothing I’ve ever heard.”

Elias put his arms down and she moved to his leg, cutting away the fabric. Wrapping his calf in a tight binding, she advised him not to run for a while. Elias agreed and moved to put his shirt back on, but the Nursing Official slapped his arm and took it away.

“Um. Kinda half naked here?” he reminded her.

She patted Elias’ shoulder. “Fear not; I’m off to fix that. Can’t have such a cutie walking around a tattered mess.”

Elias smiled. “Then thank you...” He let the pleasantry linger.

“Matilda,” she answered, turning away. “I mean it now, stay still! I’ll be back shortly--provided that no fresh youngsters stand in my way.”

Elias laughed, reclining back onto his cot. When his laughter faded away, he heard it: The raspy breaths; the gentle and loud cries; the groans. He shuddered. Happy didn’t belong here. He didn’t belong here. What was he thinking? He was New City, satisfied and taken care of by his government. The same government that had censored updates on an obvious crisis. Two years now? And he hadn’t known a thing. It had been all too easy to sit inside a bubble, not noticing if the world burned up around him, just so long the projection of a blue sky was running.

Elias sat up and curled over, fisting his hair. His back felt watched. Something crawled beneath his skin. He felt out of place--unwelcome in a place that welcomed all. He flinched at the hand that touched him, whirling around. Helena smiled down at her brother.

“I see you’ve done quite a number on yourself,” she commented, sitting beside him. “It’s a wonder you didn’t collapse on the way over here.”

“Motorbike,” Elias explained. “Didn’t have to do much walking.”

“And you got a tattoo?” Helena grinned, leaning back for another glance at the S on Elias’ shoulder. “They got a weird way of doing them in New City. Almost looks like a burn.”

“Yeah, it’s all the rage,” Elias agreed, clenching his forearm.

“I still can’t believe you’re here.” Her eyes ran over his profile. “You’ve gotten so big. Tall. Like...” Helena bit her lip. “You did get banged up good, though,” she changed the topic.

Elias shrugged. “Had worse.” Neither sibling looked at the scar under Elias’ collarbone.

“That’s true,” Helena said, thinking of other numerous instances.

“You don’t even know the half of it,” Elias muttered. Helena didn’t reply to that, but he felt her stare: No doubt taking in new markings that weren’t present in their childhood. Elias swung his legs, allowing her the privilege of looking. “What’s happened in the time that I’ve been gone?” he asked after a time. “I heard a little just now. Monsters, refugees, compounds? Guards? Why did you turn our house into this?

She chose to answer his last question. “It was so empty,” she replied. “And yet, so full. Full of good memories. Painful ones. Things. Emotions. All cluttered, but completely empty.”

“An empty house. So I psyched myself out for nothing, over the ghost of an old man. I thought it was weird he hadn’t come at me yet. He’s really dead, then?” Elias confirmed. Helena nodded. “When?”

“A little after you left.”

A rueful smile crossed Elias’ features. “Give the town something more to hold against me. First I kill the chief’s wife, then the chief himself.”

“Elias, all the people are gone now,” Helena said. “They followed your lead. Packed up and left. Some snuck into New City, but a lot just headed out into the sands.” Helena sniffed, briefly flickering into her military persona. “It’s for the better. I don’t imagine that Berd Obi would’ve taken too kindly to having me in charge.”

“Berd Obi took kindly to no one.” Elias took Helena’s hand in his. “Are you happier, then? With this place as a hospital?”

Helena smiled and nodded. “It’s also an orphanage.”

“Oh? A mom already? Got a husband I don’t know about?”

Helena rolled her eyes as Matilda reappeared. The woman cast a disapproving glance at how quickly Elias moved to stand, but said nothing.

“Thank you,” Elias said, accepting the garments she handed over.

Matilda giggled, then let out an amused scream as Elias discarded what remained of his old pants. Helena punched his arm to the sound of catcalls from patients and Nursing Officials. “Have a little decency!” the general hissed.

“Everyone else seems to be enjoying the show,” Elias grinned, buttoning his pants. He winked at an elderly woman, who promptly dissolved into chortles.

“Oh, he’s a fun one,” Matilda laughed, hand lingering in front of her mouth.

“Fun, annoying--they’re interchangeable,” Helena replied, crossing her arms. She turned to leave, and Elias waved goodbye to Matilda before following. He pulled the new shirt--a dark green--over his head.

“Good to know you still think I’m fun,” he teased.

“That ‘annoying’ bit just sailed right over your head, didn’t it?”

“Well, lots of things have sailed over my head today: Most notably, a chunk of street.”

“Now you’re just milking it.”

“That’s to be seen.”

“You love to argue, don’t you?” she snapped, losing her patience.

He ducked his head down immediately, wincing as he put too much pressure on his leg. “Missed having someone to argue with,” he answered.

Helena’s eyes, colder now, flicked over Elias’ body. “You should’ve thought about that before you made your choice,” she said, unwilling to give up the ghost. “You can find the kitchen. Eat as much as you want. If you’re gone afterward, I won’t be surprised. I stopped holding my breath for you a long time ago.”

Just like that, Elias felt reduced to nothing. The general left, leaving Elias to his own devices. His fingers clenched into fists, unable to say a single word in retaliation. Helena had every right to grind him into the dirt.

“You look like you’re having a bad day.”

Elias stopped and turned his head to the speaker. A boy of about 14 looked back, with shiny black hair that completely covered his left eye. The visible eye was a shade so dark, it nearly matched the color of his hair. He wore a white-and-gold cloak that was common in Elias’ village, made to protect against the midday sun.

“Is it so obvious?” Elias asked.

The stranger flicked a wrist at him. “Whatever it is, get over it,” he stated. “You’re making the place all wonky. It’s making me sick.”

Elias was too stunned at first to be offended. “Forgive me if things don’t roll off my back as easily as they seem to do for you,” he finally replied.

The stranger aimed a quizzical glance at Elias. “Why should I?”

“I...I’m sorry?”

“Why should I?” he repeated. “The people here have it way worse than whatever you’re moaning about. You probably don’t even have anything worth being sad over.”

“How’s that?” Elias muttered.

The teen’s eye rose. “Your hair. Blond. You aren’t from here. Closest place is New City. And if that’s your home, you’ve got no reason in my eyes to be mopey.”

“I didn’t realize I was talking to such an important person!” Elias gasped. “You get to decide what feelings are valid, and which aren’t? So impressive!”

“Get out,” the teen demanded suddenly.

“What?” Elias stammered, taken aback by the authoritative tone.

“Go home,” he barked. “You’re with the rebels, right? Here for the body of that stupid girl? Whatever Helena had you come here to do, it’s done. Go! Nobody needs your bad mood!”

“Who are you to tell me what to do?” Elias snapped. “You dumb kid, you’re the one with the bad mood!”

“Better a stupid kid than a New City goof,” he replied steadily.

“And if anything, I’m the one who should be telling you to leave,” Elias went on.

A smirk flitted across the teen’s face. “Yeah, whatever. I don’t give a crap about who you think you are, or your little broken feelings. You’re the most insignificant person here.”

Elias wasn’t a violent person, but he felt something building in his chest. “Insignificant?”

The stranger jabbed a finger at Elias. “What are you crying over, a scratch on your arm? You should be ashamed.”

“Oh, so all I need is a good reason?” Elias asked. “Wow, I just so happen to have one! I should be allowed to feel sad because I’m a human!

“Then go be sad in your own city,” the teen snarled, moving past Elias. “At least you still have one. Family, friends, home--must be nice.”

Elias didn’t say anything and, satisfied, the young stranger kept on his way. The blond blew out a heavy breath, getting himself together. However infuriating that kid had been, Elias couldn’t deny that he had had a few points. He and Helena had a lot of things to sort through, but at least they still had the chance to. He knew not to expect Helena’s open, loving, arms. Did any of these refugees know what to expect before it hit them?

New thinking in mind, Elias ghosted through the house. He imagined the rugs and pictures and furniture, now vanished. He thought of when this house was private, keeping only four people. Combined, they filled it to the brim--so much that it had to break.

The mother died.

The son left.

The father died.

The daughter remained.

It took a mere 14 years for a place that held just four people to shatter. There were hundreds in it now. So many strange new lives were stuffed into this one building: Hundreds of memories, regrets, and aspirations. Elias could almost taste them.

He stood and wondered how long it’d take for the house to break this time. If he would cause it again. Then he tore his heart off his sleeve and shoved it deep in his chest. Shaking off the skeletons that had crawled out of the closet, he reminded himself he was hungry.
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