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An emphatic answer. The idea of losing it seems to upset you, perhaps part of you feels this place is yours now, too. ” Follen said, and in a flick of his wrist pen touched paper and then was set down again. He waited a moment, observed her, gave her the opportunity to speak further if she wished.

When she did not, he went on. “Despite what I said before, the prescription is time. Time to develop your empathy. Time to make good memories—and forget them, for new ones. You spent your life alone, all you have right now are traumas and isolation. Your feelings towards your parents are natural, and they will fade, though the memories of what was done to you may not. Use that to right yourself. Once some time has passed, all you’ll have left of your mother and father will be the truth. Hopefully by then, you’ll have found enough happiness in your new life, that you won’t mourn your old one.

But, that’s only my hope. I can’t make you promises that aren’t mine to keep—all I can do is help you keep the ones you make to yourself. For now, you need to sit with these feelings, think on them, try to understand them. It may come slowly, you may find no answers at all for quite a while. We’ll continue to keep track, together.
Follen listened quietly while Quinn talked. He didn’t interject, didn’t motion for pause, his face never betrayed an ounce of judgement, or sympathy—or no more than was inherent to his naturally kind expression. This was his way in almost all of their sessions; he would sit in silence, or scratch notes in his journal without more than the quickest glance away from her, and simply listen. When she stopped talking, he waited, because often she simply needed a moment to catch her breath and collect her thoughts, and if she ever looked at him with uncertainty, he would nod encouragement, perhaps smile, and let her continue. He seemed to know when she was truly done, perhaps even before she did.

He set his pen down, cleared his throat and folded his hands. “Empathy is difficult, Quinnlash. If you’ve learned anything since Hovvi, I’m sure you’ve learned that. Some people are can feel the sadness of others simply by stepping into a room with them. Some people understand, but choose to ignore it. Some people spend their whole lives trying to build up that sense of connection and humanity, and never quite manage. But you’re in a particularly unique situation, aren’t you? You’re incredibly empathic—between your actions and interactions, I don’t believe anyone would contest that—but you haven’t gotten to develop it. You spent your whole life alone.

It’s a tragedy of the human condition that time takes our happiest memories away, but our traumas remain. You, I’m sure, remember many of the terrible things that were done to you with perfect clarity. Perhaps, effectively, they are all that you had, and if your parents are truly dead, then, in some ways, now you have nothing. It is a natural reaction to cling to something, good or bad, rather than lose it—because it’s yours. And in that panic you might forget about the things you’ve gained, or might gain.

Tell me, since you found out about them, have you wanted to be here any less?
The door to Follen’s office moved without hardly a whisper of movement on the other side, and there the doctor stood smiling, a perfect portrait of himself. He’d trimmed his beard in, thin and close to his face, kept his hair swept neatly. Follen didn’t wear his coat often, favoring a selection of simple button-ups, and the occasional tie. Very muted, very warm, very comforting. He looked like the sort of person you could approach at any time of the day, for any reason big or small, and given his line of work that was likely intentional.

Quinn! What a lovely surprise, I wasn’t quite sure when I'd see you next.” He ushered her inside, closing the door behind her to a crack, as she liked. His room was blanket-warm and fresh-scented, almost like citrus. Her chair was settled in the same spot, and as he made his way back across his desk, she could see her file set out. Always ready for her, whenever she needed.

He sat down, elbows propped up, hands folding together. His smile turned contemplative, and his eyes searched her carefully behind his glasses.

How are you feeling? I hope you’ve recovered a bit since the other day. You seem a little better, and I heard you slept quite heavily. That’s good, now and then we all need a long rest. Tell me, what would you like to talk about, today?
Besca didn’t know if Quinn’s resolve—brittle though it seemed—made her happy, or simply deepened that apprehensive pit inside her waiting for something to go wrong. It ought to be the first, she knew, but her own omission of the truth had guaranteed that whatever happened now, she would have to deal with the consequences eventually. So she wasn’t happy, but, she could be sad and loathsome and still be proud.

With a small smile, just about all she could muster, she rested her head against Quinn’s for a moment. “‘Atta girl,” she said. “No quitters here. If you keep goin’, I’ll keep goin’ too. Drag each other if we have to.

There’d be a lot of that coming, she guessed. But that was okay. She’d lost count of the people who’d dragged her, who she’d dragged, and screamed at, and lost hope in and wished would disappear and now she wished they were still around to torment her. To hate her. To be alive, at least. Time had taught her these days were numbered, some shorter than others, all shorter than most. Pilots didn’t get the luxury of cherry-picking the good from the bad, they just took what they got. Ten years from now, twenty, if she lived that long, Besca would look back on her time with Quinn, and most of the memories she’d have of the girl would be of her in misery, crying, afraid, wishing she was anyone else but who she was. But they would be memories, and she would hold them close, and she would do all she could to make sure they made as many as possible, before…

Sighing, she set her tablet aside, and got up to bring her bowl to the sink. “Guess we both ought to start our days, then,” she said. “Otherwise we’d hide in here forever, and that’d be a waste, hm?
Besca let Quinn go, frowned, and found herself wishing she could smoke in here. She knew this week was going to be trouble but she hadn’t expected it right out of the gate. More fool her, with how things had been—why would she ever expect mercy? ‘When will it be good enough?’ she asked in echo, and bitterly the answer came: ‘Never.’ But you couldn’t say that, not to a kid, and certainly not to Quinn. The cynic in her believed it though; Quinn could give her best every single moment of every single day, and surpass every pilot in Illun’s history by every metric, and it wouldn’t matter. The world would push her further, and keep pushing her until she collapsed, and then it would toss her aside. Maybe in memory her valor would be honored, and people would appreciate her suffering, but it would only be because they couldn’t squeeze any more out of her.

Perhaps the more appropriate answer would have been: ‘When you’re dead,’ but that seemed like an even worse thing to say.

This was the pilot’s lot, and Besca had seen it claim them all, sooner or later. She was fooling herself believing she could bring any true happiness to people like Quinn. Eventually she’d see through her, eventually she’d want more than comfort or sympathy, and when Besca couldn’t give it to her, this would all come crumbling down. Then, brick by brick, she’d rebuild it for whoever came next, because that was her lot.

I don’t know,” she said, eventually. “I’m sorry, hun. I don’t. It might be tomorrow, it might be a year from now. Some people wait their whole lives for it to be good enough. By then they either give up, or they keep trying, and settle for the good they can do.
It took a great deal of restraint to keep herself from getting angry. Of course, not at Quinn. If everything else in the whole world had been going perfectly, the idea that Quinn might be seeking out Follen for advice on any topic which might be encountered between a person’s first breath and their last, would still tempt Besca to violence.

Again, not at Quinn.

It didn’t surprise her that he’d suggested making Roaki an informant. It had worked for Ghaust, and in fact, Runa’s acquisition of a high-profile Helburkan pilot openly derided as a traitor by his homeland had been good for appearances. Even Eusero had focused more on shaming the Great Houses than whatabouting the consequences.

Roaki, however, was not Ghaust. The Tormonts carried ancient prestige, yes, but the girl had seen to sullying it on her way out. Not to mention that, when Ghaust came to them, it had been easy to portray his distaste for dueling as a virtue to the people of Casoban, who were understandably accepting of someone who didn’t want to kill their heroes. They didn’t mind Ghaust, in fact as the years went on they seemed to even like him. They hated Roaki, and she’d given plenty them of reason to.

Before, bringing her on would have been a PR nightmare and might have pushed Casoban into Eusero’s arms even quicker. But to do it now, with their deal already in place? The Accord would strain, and if it didn’t break, Runa wouldn’t have a friend left on Illun by year’s end. Complete and utter catastrophe. Yes, it did sound like something Follen would recommend.

Quinn withered, and Besca let her frustrations go with a sigh.

Me too, hun,” she said, brushing a hand through Quinn’s hair. “All the time. Most days I wake up feeling like I missed the instructions, and no one seems to be able to send me a copy. I…don’t know if that ever goes away, but you do eventually figure out that there are no instructions. No one has the answers, not all of them—even if they say they do. You just gotta…do it, on your own, sometimes. And you’ll make mistakes, and you’ll learn, and sometimes you’ll make the same mistakes again because most people don’t get good at something only doing it once or twice. You don’t have to be perfect, you don’t have to be right every time. You just have to do your best. That’s how your best gets better.


As the matches continued on around them, Dot was pleased wit what she saw, at least for the most part. The blondie, Baker, was proving to be an outright menace to the whole event, and while his tricks were certainly entertaining, it was nothing compared to the incredulous scowls plastered onto the faces of the noble pricks watching. Hang their stupid ceremony, show them all what life looked like outside of their towers and their parties. A handful of matches down and only now were the blue-blooded spawn starting to trickle in.

A pair of them were squaring off in one of the arenas; some pale, lanky fucker who conjured water into a knife for the gobsmacked quartermaster, and then a boy who looked like a full-course meal of insufferable nobility, from the cool cockiness of his demeanor to the saccharine condescension in his tone. Season with foppish good looks. Arrogant grin for garnish. The whole crowd seemed to be drooling over him. Dot found herself hoping they might find a way to lop each other’s heads off, but failing that, she bitterly rooted for the ghostly boy.

Another noble made for the stage, as did the Baker kid. Well, no contest there who she sided with. Only difference now was that the people Julian might hurt deserved it. They might not be allowed to do any real damage here, but when it came to reputations, she hoped there’d be a healthy amount of bloodletting.

For her own part, she was sad to see herself matched against the Valeforian boy. He was tenacious, and crafty as well; she wouldn’t be able to talk him out of the arena and frankly, she didn’t want to. Whatever his skills with the sword were, this was going to be a proper match. As she stepped onto the stage, Zenshin smiled and raised his blade. He looked nervous. Less nervous, sure, but still nervous. Dot smiled back, gave him a respectful bow, and shouldered her waster.

You too. Lets put on a good show, maybe these bastards let us both in, ah?

Part of her wanted to let him go ahead when he was ready, but she’d been in his shoes before. Verite most often initiated their spars when she’d first started training, and she’d found that helpful. So, gripping the handle with both hands, she walked briskly forward, gait level and measured. Halfway across she shrugged the blade down, twirled it back up and lunged to swing it down at him. It wasn’t a particularly fast move, but it did quickly close what distance remained.
Besca didn’t know why Quinn’s plans surprised her. The girl lived on a schedule, and stuck to her habits as often as was physically possible—healthy or not. So it should have been obvious that she’d want to go see the Tormont girl again today, and not, say, in a week when it would be most convenient and infinitely less upsetting. Part of her regretted that she hadn’t just acquiesced when Roaki asked to just get it over with. Quick, painless, she’d be cooling in the morgue out of sight, where she couldn’t affect Quinn anymore. It was the logical answer in some ways, the one that eschewed political responsibility for the sake of her family; the tough, but compassionate decision that would have taken time to be forgiven for, on all fronts, but at least she could have felt like it was worth it.

Of course, now that wasn’t the case. Now she had other feelings. She had pity for people she wasn’t used to pitying, and guilt for having failed to pity them sooner. She would have liked to say that her hesitation stemmed solely from the way Quinn would have felt about her actions, but the reality now was that her own conscience wouldn’t stand for it either.

So, she’d developed a moral compass. Great—it still pointed nowhere. She had no idea what to do. Sitting there, Besca’s mouth went dry, and she suddenly remembered how bad she was at actually being someone’s family. It wasn’t a matter of being out of practice, either; sister, niece, cousin, daughter—especially daughter—she’d been shit at all of them.

Lie. That was instinct. Repugnant, but natural. She could pull it off, she could convince Quinn that Roaki was ill, or that there was some kind of test being run today, or something, and there wasn’t a doubt in her mind the girl wouldn’t believe her. But, a week would pass, and then inevitably they’d have that crushingly familiar conversation. Besca was a natural there, too, but there was something lost between people after a lie that stark. The idea of losing anything between her and Quinn horrified her.

Honesty was next, an only-recently acquired taste. Really, what made this any different from breaking the news about anything else? Quinn was as powerless here as she was when she’d become a pilot, when she’d been forced to link with the Modir that destroyed her home, forced to duel, to interview. What was this but another stone on the table?

Too many stones, she thought. And the table’s a kid.

But what did that leave? She couldn’t lie, she couldn’t be honest, and she couldn’t just stay silent and hope she turned invisible. So what could she do?

That…sounds great, yeah.

Fucking. Idiot.

As long as you’re feeling up to it, I mean. Don’t feel bad if you need to stay in, lie down a little more. God knows I needed to take it easy after my first hangover. I could square things with Follen if you wanted to take a raincheck today.

The day wound, and gloomy as it was, they were at least spared a drenching by the time they pulled off the road. Esvelee seemed eager to rest, or at least rid herself of Cerric’s endless conversation. Lilann felt a certain enjoyment at that, a professional amusement in seeing someone fail so boldly in maintaining the interest of their audience that it very well could have been intentional. Bards—whether by trade or by nature—needed to cultivate a particular sense of their standings with others. It had to be sharp and responsive, like a reflex, able to see and hear and feel when the things you said were landing, and when they weren’t.

If she’d gone on like he did, the crowds in Dranir would likely have beaten her dead. Maybe that was a difference in their styles, or maybe it was something a little more innate than that. Either way it was funny.

Less funny was the idea that Eila might be Rotting. It was one the woman was quick to dismiss, and utilizing that impeccable sense, Lilann figured there was no need or point in pushing the matter. But, still, regardless of Eila’s insistence, she was going to keep an eye on her. She liked the woman more now than before, but not enough for pure, blind trust.

The topic quickly moved on, led by Ceolfric, though it splintered quickly towards Kyreth’s aetheric abilities. He seemed immediately anxious, and it came out in his words; she hoped they wouldn’t push him too hard over it. Learning or not, dangerous or not, he’d saved her life, and probably more, with his little fireshow.

I’ve been in more than a few ambushes—necromancy wasn’t what I would call typical,” she offered. “No shortage of dead animals in the woods, I have a feeling we’ll be seeing more of them before the journey’s done. Some of us couldn’t so much as touch those things with our aether, so perhaps we should focus on the ones who could.

She gestured to Ermes and Kyreth, and, a bit delayed, to Eila as well. “The bindings, the fire, the healing—they’re valuable, I’d suggest putting them behind us. You’re good with that sword. I might have lost my own weapon, but if I can get my hands on something sharp, or heavy, I can help you defend them. At least that way we have a structure.
This, too, was not an entirely unfamiliar place for Besca to find herself. As many mornings as she’d awoken with her head pounding, she’d had just as many nights plagued with bad dreams. Unfortunately, the similarities ended there; it had become clear that Quinn’s dreams were different from the dreams of others. As long as she’d been here, and for as many troubles as she’d had, Quinn had rarely—perhaps ever, even—listed nightmares among them.

Perhaps that should have been concerning, but right now Quinn wasn’t asleep. The dreams couldn’t touch her here. A part of Besca briefly, selfishly saddened at the idea that whatever spark of her had appeared in Quinn’s sleep had been unwelcomed, but it was gone before the girl had even uttered her meek apology.

Besca put an arm around her, rustled fingers through her hair. “Nothin’ to be sorry about, hun. Dreams are dreams. Important thing is that you’re feeling better. Here, c’mon, eat up. Want to get your energy back, get some momentum in you. S’what always helped me.

Leading by example, she took another spoonful from her own bowl, which had been somewhat neglected as she’d worked. “So, start thinkin’ about what you want to do today, help get yourself moving again.
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