- "What do you want to be when you grow up?"
It's a question Welknan schoolteachers ask their students every year, from the day the children enter school to the day the young adults leave. Answers are carefully catalogued and presented to the students at their graduation ceremony in a beautifully decorated scrapbook made by the teacher of each student, added to each year, growing with the child.
It's arguably a silly tradition, and perhaps even morbid to remind the adults of failed childhood dreams, but it's meant to inspire and the children love it, and it's something to do anyway.
Some kids stick to plain, safe answers- tailor, construction, banker, teacher, doctor. Others get imaginative- artist, musician, architect. Others still are painfully practical- shop assistant, office worker. Once in a while, a few are philosophical- "me" and "good" are common.
Rosalin is invariably of the plain variety, not because she isn't imaginative, practical, or philosophical (she is, at times), but because the question embarrasses her and the tradition is dumb and easy to deride with her friends.
Her graduation day is nice. Her teacher hands her the scrapbook with a murmured "congratulations" and Rosalin is finally, blissfully free to spend the rest of the warm, bright day with her friends. They go to the bar and get drunk and Rosalin flirts with an increasingly uncomfortable bartender while the girls cheer her on.
It's all safe, protected. Young. She is so very, very young.
Young, young Rosalin stumbles home with a buzz in her ears and a pleasant languor in her limbs. She climbs the stairs to her room above the shop with some difficulty, mumbles goodnight, sleep tight, and she dreams of bed bugs that night.
Bed bugs go up in smoke. She wakes to the yells of her father and brother, confused and disoriented. Grinning cadavers of animated husks dance and slip through the fingers of her mind; she reaches, but they fall-
There is a fire. She is awake enough now to realize the scent of smoke is not imaginary.
"Rosalin!" The shout comes from her father, balding head peeping in just above the staircase. His face is calm, but his shaking voice betrays him. "Get out!"
Before she knows it, she is being hauled out of bed and out the door. Downstairs, she hears the shop window shattering, overheated glass shrieking in protest, echoing awfully. Rosalin and her father hurry for the staircase, but he throws out his arm to catch her across the neck as they reach the landing. A wall of bright orange roars its displeasure, the rest of the house caught in its grip.
Rosalin's eyes widen, her breath catches in her throat. A soft gasp escapes her, claimed instantly by overpowering heat. "Dad!" she half-wails. Her brother sleeps downstairs.
He doesn't say anything, but his eyes are as wide as hers. Coughing desperately, father and daughter stare at each other for a moment, incredulous, lost, and scared. Rosalin sees herself reflected in his wet eyes, and for an absurd moment a flash of pity sears into her heart.
His face sets; maybe he senses it? Rosalin doesn't know, but she hopes he doesn't. "Dad-"
"Go," he rasps, ushering her back to her bedroom. Rosalin slams the door on the creeping inferno and almost gasps at the sudden relief of pressure, letting her lungs inflate with cold, clean air. It's coming from the window; her father stands there, gesturing for her to join him. Uncertain, she steps forward and yelps when he grabs her and pulls her to the gaping glass.
"Climb down," he tells her, busily packing her small frame through the opening. "Don't touch anything for long, stay low, get out of the smoke."
She can't help but scream as her foot slips slightly on the shingles; she's dangling over a precipice, and it's only the determined (terrified) look on her father's mild features that keeps the thought spiraling through her head- this is real, this is real, ohgodthiscan'tbereal.
She's distracted when her father drops a chapped kiss on her forehead. "I'm going to go get your brother." (It feels like a goodbye.) "We'll be right out."
"No! Dad," she blurts helplessly, clutches at his shirt.
"It's okay," he tries to soothe her. "I'll be right back."
She feels sick. "Daddy…" she stammers, swallows. "I had a bad dream." For some reason, it's important that he knows this. (It feels like an apology.)
His hands wrap around hers, large and comforting as always. "It'll be okay," he says it in a hushed whisper, as though anything louder could shatter them. It's a possibility; suddenly, she feels incredibly fragile. It frightens her beyond control.
He's gone before she can say anything, though what that might have been, she cannot say. Rosalin shudders violently against the side of the building, too overwhelmed to cry. The smoke is beginning to drift outside now; it slips with casual ease up her nose, down her throat, into her lungs. A distant crashing from inside the house- she tries not to think- she tries to do what her dad told her. Get down, she tells herself.
She steadies her foot against a lintel and reaches out to grab a shingle, but is instantly distracted by a soft sound. It's light, airy; seems to breathe in the fire, inhale-
Rosalin waits, dread pooling in her stomach. Her body knows what's going to happen before her mind does, or maybe it's her soul that knows, since that dream of fiery afterlife-
It's an explosion, or something. Explosion seems too mild a word to describe the world as it tears apart before her eyes, rents and shreds beyond recognition. It's lucky she faints almost immediately, because then she doesn't feel the heated metal splitting her skin, the impact as her body meets the ground, the million shrapnel shards. It's lucky she doesn't watch her house explode with her family still inside.
When Rosalin wakes, it is to a merrily lit night and for a moment she is confused. Fireworks? Festival? She is content to lie on the ground and watch the light play, but the heaviness in her heart pulls her head to the side. Only then does she see the smoldering remains of her home.
"Ah…" A sound of pure misery falls from her lips, shapeless with sorrow and bewilderment. She clambers to her feet and staggers over to where the front door would have been, reduced now to a sad pile of scorched metal and ash.
Tears are falling thick and fast. "No…" A cruel, ugly moan rises from her chest, and she is trapped in its clutches, unable to escape. But Rosalin is still young and maybe part of her still doesn't believe that this is real, so her limbs fly out of control, suddenly digging and pulling and throwing with strength she never knew she had.
Her family is nowhere to be found. Her fingers close around a square-shaped object, pleasantly cool, when a second smaller explosion throws her back several feet. This time, Rosalin doesn't get up. She lies on her side, clutches her scrapbook of childhood dreams to her chest, feels the pain of her wounds and melted hands, and waits for her father to return.
Her father doesn't return. It takes hours for Rosalin to finally accept it. She wouldn't have moved if it weren't for the smoke, but the power of her father's final words gets her to her feet and down the street. Rosalin walks, aimlessly and gracelessly, with no idea of where to go or who could help her. There is no plan. There never really was a plan for her life, she realizes now, but it never included this, and now, for real, there is no plan.
So Rosalin just walks through the streets. All around her, Welkna burns.
Shock slowly sets in. Her memories blur. Shivering and whimpering, she reaches the edge of the woods, thinking maybe to catch some sleep under the dewy trees. And then she doesn't think, but just does it. Collapses to the ground, ignores the clamors of her wounded body and mind, and slips away almost instantly.
It's the same dream. Those clever little insects, scurrying, whirring. She would think them lively if they don't turn their faces to her and smile with little white bones, grinning visions of macabre horror.
Rosalin wakes up with a gasp, opens her eyes. Sees the chubby little hand that poked her awake. Gasps again, winces as the acrid air grinds its way down her throat, raw from coughing.
"Here," a low voice says, and she nearly screams at the odd lump unfolding itself from the darkness. The person moves closer into the dim view awarded by the moonlight, and oddly enough it is a human.
She doesn't really know why she's surprised by that. Out of everything that has happened this night, this shouldn't surprise her. But it does. She watches in mute shock as the man offers her a gourd of water- but she's not too shocked to refuse. She grabs it and gulps it down, as much as she can swallow at one time.
The human doesn't say anything, but watches her with sunken, lifeless eyes. That grim stare, coupled with the silent child waiting behind him, gives her pause, wakes her up fully. Slowly, she puts the gourd down.
"Who are you?" she asks, a little nervously. Only now does she notice his sparse attire, the wounds littering his broken skin. The horns on his head.
Wait, that couldn't be right. She squints, tries to get a better look, but he springs to his feet and turns away.
"That's not important," he tells her, his back to her, tense.
She frowns. "No, I really think that it is."
A soft snarl. She immediately shuts up, watches with trepidation as he strides away- is he leaving?- but no, now he returns, holding the hands of three blank-eyed children.
She stares at him, at them. They stare back, except for one child, who glares.
"You have to take care of these kids," the man tells her.
"Um," she says, and wills her heart to stop beating. "No. No, I can't do that."
"Why not?" he asks patiently, but she detects a hint of something passing through his eyes, something alien. Her eyes flicker to the horns.
"I'm just a kid," she says, and she's suddenly struck by how awfully true that is. She would cry, but there is no water left in her to do it. A dry, hacked amalgam of cough and sob emerges, but she fights it down. "I can't just take care of three kids."
He simply looks at her, unimpressed.
She tries again. "I don't have any money, I don't have anywhere to go. I'm going to die, and you want me to take three kids with me."
He crouches to meet her gaze. "You are not going to die," he says, softly. Liquid dark eyes fix onto hers- they drill straight into her, straight through her defenses.
She has no choice, she knows. She lowers her eyes to the ground. The man nods, satisfied, gets to his feet. He murmurs something to the children, but she doesn't hear. She just stares at the ground, wide-eyed and disbelieving. She probably would've stayed that way forever, if it weren't for the small sounds of weeping.
She looks up. A boy, so small, barely five years old, is huddled on the ground, trying his hardest not to make a sound. But crying such as this, the tears for all of the losses he never would have thought possible, cannot be quiet, quietly hidden away.
Her heart breaks. He's just a kid. So am I.
She carefully scoots forward, and counts a mental blessing when he doesn't shy away. Slowly, so as not to scare him, she wraps her arms around the small, shivering body and closes her eyes. Tries to think of what to do.
Rosalin is eighteen years old. Fresh, young. Rosalin sits with her life burned away, arms around three scared children whom she must protect. All she has of herself is a book of childhood dreams, as broken and shattered as the shop window.
"We'll be right out," her father had said.
Animated husks, glowing in firelight.
(It'll be okay.)
She closes her eyes.
She opens her eyes. The vague sounds of distress and cold comfort echo in the large, shadowy room. That's probably what woke her up, she thinks distantly. Yes, that must be it, she decides, studiously ignoring her hands while they brush away the dead insects burning holes in her skin.
Another day. She sits up, carefully to avoid dislodging a fast asleep Fate, tiny body burrowed against her stomach. Out of all the children, Fate is the most emotionally dependent. Looking at him, she can't blame him- the boy is just so little, made to look even smaller by the severe wounds all over him. So scared, he couldn't even tell her his name. Shira had supplied it instead.
Her face softens and hardens all at once. She reaches out to brush her bandaged fingertips over his downy hair, smoothing it away from his scrunched face. He sighs and shifts, winces. Guiltily, she pulls her hand back. For a moment, she just sits there and stares at it, contemplating.
Sin City. It's not what she expected. But it was her best (only) idea. It's a big city. Surely, there's enough space for them somewhere here.
For now, that space is a shelter hovering on the outskirts of the city. Filled beyond capacity, Rosalin supposes they're lucky to look as pathetic as they do. Unable to turn away a young woman with three children, wounded and exhausted, the shelter had given them a bed.
It's not enough. It's painful at this point to acknowledge anything, but Rosalin lets her tired eyes roam over her three charges, and she knows it's not enough. Fate cries all the time, terrified and in pain from the jagged cuts, only barely beginning to heal. Kain the redhead (whose name she only learned after a five-minute session of yelling) grows angrier and discontented by the day. The girl, Shira, simply doesn't talk at all, but does as she is told with wide, glazed eyes. All three are hungry.
She doesn't know what she can do for them. Without money, only their barest necessities can be met. Medical attention is provided in the form of rudimentary bandages and a simple 'tough luck'- the shelter has nothing to give them. Neither, it seems, does anyone else.
Rosalin can't sit and think. She pulls to her feet, wraps the sheets snugly around the kids.
"I'll be back," she whispers.
Only Kain is awake to hear it. He gives her a mistrustful look, but she knows he's listening. "Don't get in trouble," she hisses. "Stay here, no matter what. Don't wander off, and don't talk to anybody."
"I know," he snaps back. A harsh whisper from the on-duty attendant silences them immediately. They settle for trading glares.
Yes, she supposes he does know. After all, she's said the same thing to them every single time she has to leave to find food and a job, at least three times per day. It's silly, she knows, but she is absurdly terrified of losing them.
"Take care of them," that shadowed man had said. She's seized onto this task with all her remaining strength; deep in her heart, there's this overwhelming urge to struggle, to fight to survive; she cannot succumb to the death-watch beetles, waiting for her in her dreams. If nothing else, her charges give her purpose. At this point, purpose is her only defense against despair.
"I'll be back," she repeats senselessly.
She makes a face at him. "Well, alright then, know-it-all." She turns to leave, but something holds her back, something left unsaid.
--taking care of them is unexpected relief--she'll die if she has to take care of herself--daddyhelpplease--
It'll be okay.
Rosalin squares her shoulders and walks away.
Rosalin's shoulders slump with fatigue. The only job she's found makes her the kitchen girl in what must be the busiest restaurant in the whole world. From morning to evening, she is kept washing, scrubbing, mopping around the chefs as they yell at each other in what she can only describe as troll.
Still, she can't complain. Busy is good, it means a bigger salary, and Rosalin is a little stunned when she gets paid for the first time. She sort of hunches around it, fists clenched tight, staring at the first bit of money she's ever had to earn on her own. It feels like one of those life milestones, the ones she should be happy to cross because it means she's growing up.
(She misses her family, her friends, her life, her youth terribly. This growing up business is not for her.)
Sometimes, as she works, she thinks about Welkna. About what had happened, and why. Has anybody discovered the broken town yet? Put out the fires and buried its people? Rebuilding and moving new people in, to take up where the dead had left? Would she ever go back?
No. That was never in question. She cannot go back. Rosalin focuses on releasing her death's grip on that first moneybag and takes it home. That night, she treats the kids to a little ice cream, leftovers from the restaurant she bought at half-price. She is rewarded by three smiles, and as she smiles back, hope begins to settle and rise in her, hope that everything would be okay. They snuggle a little closer that night, even the perpetual grump Kain, who turns his nose up at her but clings to her knee in sleep.
Sleep, for the first time that night, is deep and untroubled.
That is what teaches her when she wakes up the next afternoon to find herself alone. Panic- strong, heedless panic- seizes control of her mouth, gabbles incomprehensibly- are those wasps stinging her eyes real? She trips off the bed in her haste, looks around wildly for the kids.
Nowhere to be seen. She ignores the screams in her head- where are they why did they leave oh god please don't let me fail not now – bitter tears fill up her eyes.
"Are these yours?" A snappish voice, thin with impatience.
She spins to look, sees them huddled behind a tall, willowy woman with the nastiest expression Rosalin has ever seen. She ignores her. The relief is so strong, it completely whitewashes the contents of her skull, wipes it all clean and dry.
"Yes." She doesn't recognize her own voice; her face burns. "Th-thank you." She rushes past the woman and grabs them all in a tight hug. They don't reply, their backs tense to her fingers.
"These are really your kids?" The woman gives her a look of measured disgust. Rosalin knows what she is thinking- two elf boys and a girl with rabbit ears? (Rosalin, you whore!)
"Yes," she snaps. "Thank you."
"You won't thank me if this happens again," the woman warns her sourly, then turns and stalks away. Rosalin watches her go, bemused.
Kain lifts his head. His face is a nightmare; blue and black bruises, one eye already swollen with blood, cuts, smashed skin.
The worst is the fear, the hurt on his thin face. He tries so hard to hide it with a scowl. A tooth is missing.
"What happened?" She struggles to keep calm.
He knuckles away a stray tear, glares at the floor, and doesn't say anything.
"Did you get in a fight? Why did you do that?" Her voice becomes tighter and higher. She can't help it. "I told you not to do that! And you two, why didn't you stop him? You were all supposed to stay here!"
Fate and Shira flinch. She sees new tears spring to Fate's eyes and bites her lip, but it's Kain who makes her want to slap herself. He looks so miserable, so helpless. He hangs his head. "They stole the money," he mumbles to the ground.
"What?" She grabs his shoulders and pulls him forward to meet her eyes. "Who?"
"I don't know! Just some boys. I- we tried- they wouldn't… got…" he chokes and hiccups the words, fighting past the tears and lumps in his throat.
"Why didn't you wake me up?" she almost shouts.
"We're sorry," Shira murmurs, trying to save him. Rosalin looks over at her; one of her ears is hurt, fine pinpricks of red at the base suggesting that somebody had pulled it hard. Her other ear twitches anxiously under Rosalin's gaze. "You… you… were so tired," she finishes lamely.
Rosalin realizes that they still don't trust her.
Fate cries harder. His cuts have reopened.
Well, it's fair enough. Not like she's done much for them, just one disaster after another. Vitriolic curses slide out between clenched teeth, furious with disappointment; she tries to ignore the scolding her father would've given her if he'd heard language like that.
The reminder tempers her anger. She looks at them all, and sighs.
"Come on," she says quietly. "It's okay."
The statement hangs in the air. They don't comment on its utter ridiculousness, but she sees it in their faces- of course it is not okay.
She expels a frustrated puff of air. "Well, there's no use in moping about it!" She glances at Kain again, the boy with the stony face trailed with tears, and softens her voice. "Thank you for trying. It's okay, it's nothing we can't handle. I'll just make more."
She shepherds the kids to bed, dresses their injuries as best as she can. She had been planning to use that money to get them to a hospital, see that they're properly treated. But maybe it's more important to get them out of here first. Her eyes shut tightly as she rocks Fate to sleep, her cheek pressed against his matted hair.
She has to decide what's best for them. She's scared of doing it wrong. But then, she supposes, it's not like it could go more wrong than this. Did Dad ever feel like this? Did my mother? Is it always this difficult? She can't help but wonder.
She glances around the room. The shelter is filled with families, mothers and fathers trying to keep their kids safe.
When Fate is asleep, she lays him down next to Kain and Shira. The older two are already out cold from the stress of the day, snuggled together for warmth. She picks Shira's ear out of Kain's snoring mouth and smooths it back against the girl's hair.
The three children sleep, but Rosalin stays awake, arms wrapped around her knees and hot, dry eyes staring at nothing, everything. Her fingers skitter nervously over the leather bound scrapbook, miraculously unharmed. She flips it open for the first time, slowly soaking in the memories. The letters from her old instructors- her cooking teacher had liked her; the reading teacher had hated her.
She wants to cry so badly, she feels sick with it. She pages through it, reading her aspirations from her childhood. She'd wanted to be a nurse first, apparently. The next few years were romantic- bride and wife and mother, which makes her snort- so much for that. When she'd grown old enough to realize boys were icky, she wanted to be a chef, her growing interest in cooking nurtured by the kindly old instructor. And then, when she'd finally grown old enough to realize boys weren't so icky and the world is maybe a bit bigger than she'd been led to believe- it had been a secret, wistful wish for happiness.
She reaches the last page, and to her shame, her eyes are squeezed shut. If there is an answer, it's here. Is it wrong to be afraid of it?
It'll be okay. Okay.
She looks. Written in her blocky script, what she wants to be when she grows up:
I don't know.
She remembers now. She had been honest- she really didn't know. Faced with the prospect of growing up for real, she'd blown it off, flippantly as you please. And now, now she has no answers.
What do I do, ohgod what do I do.
Her charges sleep, but Rosalin stays awake, thinking of nothing and everything. Trying to decide.
She's decided. It makes her feet move all the more quicker over the grimy street back to the shelter. This kind of rain, torrential and gray, tends to cause sewage overflow, but she ignores it as she hurries back to her wards, bursting to tell them the news.
She knocks on the door and is permitted entry, slips inside and makes a beeline for the corner. There, she collects Fate, Kain, and Shira from the woman who'd agreed to watch them, slips her the agreed payment, then ushers them back to the bed.
"Dinnertime," she announces, handing out the fruit and bagels, giving Fate her share of blueberries. Blueberries are good for sick kids; she tries to get them for Fate every day. At least his injuries have mostly healed, but there's nothing she can do for the scars.
She waits until they're finished then leans forward, excitement building. "I have good news and bad news," she whispers.
They copy her movement to form a huddle. "What's the good news?" Kain asks.
That earns him a glare. "You're supposed to say bad news first," Shira explains reprovingly.
Kain shrugs. "I don't give a damn," he says sullenly, embarrassed.
Rosalin makes a clucking sound. "Language."
Fate tugs on her hair. "Tell us."
She smiles and takes his small hand in hers. It's not as chubby as it used to be. She's determined to fix that. "We can't live here anymore."
They gasp simultaneously, looking horrified. She almost laughs, but their eyes look suspiciously shiny. Hurriedly, she pushes away the urge and explains, "Because we are going to have a place of our own!"
They don't say anything, but she catches their mouths closing with an audible snap. She smiles brilliantly, the most she's smiled in such a long time. Her face feels stiff, abused.
The kids look almost as scared by her good news as they did by the bad. They trade glances, coming to a shared understanding.
"Seriously?" Kain demands coldly. "We're seriously going to have a house and everything again? Really?"
She nods, brimming with an odd happiness at their stupefied expressions. Slowly, hope flickers in each child's eyes.
Fate sniffles, leans into her side. She wraps an arm around him; on the other side, Kain and Shira fall in with a practiced movement. She hugs them tightly to her, lets them cry. She'd done it too, when the deal was finalized- sneaked outside and let it out.
"When do we go?" She thinks that was Kain's muffled voice. She slowly releases them, and gently flicks his nose. His eyes are bright.
She smiles. "Right now."
They stare at her. "Now?" Shira repeats, glancing outside. Thunder roars.
She's already decided. "Yes, now. Put your coats on. We're not staying here a minute longer."
Kain's already on his feet, eagerly swinging his thin arms. He helps Shira down from the bed, hands joined protectively as he scans their surroundings with a vigilant scowl. Rosalin slides off too, holding her arms out for Fate to fall in. When the boy is secured against her waist- he's so light, it makes her frown- she takes Shira's other hand and tugs them away.
"Wait!" That's Fate's voice, right in her ear. When she turns to look at him, eyebrow raised, he blushes slightly. "Your book." He points and hides his face against her shoulder.
Ah, yes. She gives it one last look, then shrugs. "We'll leave it." She has no use for it anymore.
They leave the building for the last time; the attendant gives them a small smile as she opens the door for them, as though she knows. They all unconsciously hold their breath as they cross the threshold, maybe expecting the sky to fall.
When all they feel is rain, cold and sharp and glorious, they breathe.
Rosalin leads them for two miles. They must be cold and tired, but they're so young and bright with hope. Shira and Kain practically skip, jumping into puddles, they're so excited. Fate babbles happily in her ear; she listens and babbles back.
Finally, she stops. There it is. The children, noticing her pause, come to a halt.
The house has three bedrooms, one bathroom, kitchen, living room, and an attic. The children are silent next to her; she knows it looks a bit scary from the outside, ramshackle, dusty, and broken down. But it's the only way she could've gotten something this big; it's a bargain for how much she paid. Granted, it took a year of double-shifting three jobs, but it's finally enough.
"Well," she says lightly. "Come on."
Gripping hands, hearts pounding, they walk up to the door. The key jangles as she tries to unlock it, her hand shakes so much. Finally impatient, Fate leans down and jams the key in properly. Rosalin's mouth twists.
"Move it already." That's Kain, of course, all anger and impatience to hide his anxiety. She smiles faintly, then turns the doorknob, pushes the door open.
She puts more force in it than intended; they all wince as the door crashes into its adjacent wall. But the sound is galvanizing, like a sign of life in this solemn, downtrodden new home.
"Come on," she repeats softly. They step inside, shivering and maybe a little afraid. Kain slams the door shut, instantly blocking the meager light from outside. All four hover in their private strips of darkness, watching, waiting, wondering.
Life. It's all they have now. Rosalin knows now that it's all they need. She puts Fate down, who immediately hangs his head. Shira moves to comfort him, but for now, Rosalin ignores them.
"Coats off. Candles are in the kitchen," she says aloud, lifts her chin, and strides off. The children jump at the loud creak of the floorboards, groaning heavily under the new weight, but she doesn't let it stop her. True, the candles are in the kitchen, but so is something even nicer.
Shira is the first to see it and gasps, and Rosalin has to suppress a smile at the bunny ears twitching with glee. "Cake!" she squeals.
It's the first thing she's been able to bake since she lost Welkna and everything in it. Rich dark chocolate with whipped cream and sugared violets, it had taken her a week of begging the restaurant owner to let her use the kitchen.
"It's for my kids," she'd said. That had given her boss pause- finally, he'd agreed.
She watches them now. Shira chitters happily, swiping chocolate icing when the boys aren't looking; Fate and Kain elbow each other out of the way, small faces alight with life.
She hadn't expected it, but it's true- they are her kids now, one way or another.
"Alright, settle down," she says sternly, and the three are immediately quiet, turning their faces up to her with angelic, solemn expressions. Unbidden, a grin tugs at her lips. "First one to the table gets the first piece."
Kain wins almost immediately, to no one's surprise. Shira bounds up to second, and poor Fate trundles in last, struggling with his meager height to climb up the chair. When at last the children are settled, Rosalin shifts the confection to the middle of the old, dusty table, courtesy of the previous owners.
Kain finds the lack of plates suspicious. "Don't I get the first piece?"
She hands out forks. "I lied," she replies blithely, and grins at his look of outrage. "Dig in!"
Shira and Fate cheer, obey her order with gusto- apparently, she reflects ruefully, sugar is the only way they listen to her at once. Kain hovers disdainfully for a few seconds before accepting defeat with grace, and joins his pseudo-siblings.
They eat sweet, soft cake until they feel sick, and then eat some more. At last, only a few desultory morsels are left and her kids slump back in their chairs, eyes glazed. Rosalin can't help but smile.
"I think it's time for bed," she observes.
They do not respond, choosing only to flick half-closed eyes to the candles glowing against the windows.
Well, that won't do. "Don't you want to choose your rooms?" she tries.
There- now they look at her with interest. "We get our own rooms?" Shira asks. At Rosalin's confirmatory nod, they slide down their chairs and fly out the kitchen door, sleep forgotten in favor of exploration.
Rosalin stays behind, picking up the dish and forks and taking them to the sink. Her hands move slowly, carefully scrubbing it all clean under the spray of cold water. The children's voices echo down to her, louder than the rain and thunder they are now protected from by this house's walls.
This house. Someday, it might be home.
There's giggling now; it rouses her as if from a deep slumber of her thoughts. She finishes with the dishwashing, sets it aside neatly to dry. Collecting some candles, blowing out the rest, securing the door locks on her way, she makes her way to the second floor hall. At the sound of her footsteps, the kids rush out of the rooms, thin cheeks rosy with grins.
Rosalin smiles down at them. "You've all chosen, then? That's good, show me."
They're only too happy to do so. Rosalin visits each room, nods her grave approval of their individual tastes, leaves a candle in each room so they won't be scared of the dark.
"Time for bed," she announces a while later, for probably the fourth time. "No, I mean it this time. Go to sleep!"
All three pout, but finally seem ready for the night to be over. Kain and Shira trundle off, but Fate has a small frown on his face.
She nudges him with her knee. "What's wrong?"
He looks up at her, and there's this little look of uncertain worry that makes her feel a little bit misty. "But where will you sleep?"
At this, Kain and Shira stop, turn to look back. It's an awkward moment as they all consider the situation; all three bedrooms have been chosen. Her kids look at up her, anxious.
"It's okay," she reassures them, but there's an odd tightness in her chest. "I'll sleep in the attic."
They trade looks, unsatisfied. She shakes her head, ushers them forward. "Anybody who's not in bed in five minutes gets dusting duty for the next month."
One look at the old, dusty house convinces them- they shuffle off to bed after a hug goodnight.
When they're all tucked in, Rosalin turns up to the stairs. Again, she feels oddly listless, yet restless at the same time- trailing her fingers through the banister's film of dust as she goes, she arrives at the attic. Here, the wind is strongest, wood creaking and groaning as windows shudder from the rain's impact upon the aged glass. She listens with some alarm, but Rosalin is not so easily overcome with panic as she once was.
She toys with an old thought for a time- hanging on the edge of a house that was once home- but the memory has no power here. Expelling a sigh, she prepares for bed and slides underneath the covers.
The only furnishings she has are the ones already here, left behind by a generous soul, or maybe a soul with nowhere to take anything to. It's a curious little something, she supposes, and laying there underneath a thin sheet that once belonged to someone else, she wishes them peace, if only for the peace that they have brought her.
I have to buy real blankets soon, she thinks. Winter is quickly approaching, and the kids will be cold.
She feels cold. Laying there in the dark, alone for the first time in a year, staring up at the unfamiliar ceiling- why does it feel like she's been alone all her life?
She feels cold. She wishes for something, anything. But she doesn't know what.
The wind howls; the rain beats her spider-crept thoughts away. Outside her door, something creaks.
She turns to look, half-rising and ready to fight, but the door swings open gently to reveal three small heads, peeping into the attic room like a triplet of baby chicks breaking from their eggs, taking in the world for the first time.
"Kain?" she asks, peering into the darkness. She'd forgotten to bring a candle for herself. "Fate? Shira? What are you- why aren't you in bed?"
Three pairs of feet perform an admirably complicated shuffle. "We-we couldn't sleep," Kain answers for them. Behind him, Fate and Shira nod, ashamed and hopeful, all at once.
She blinks. Tightness in her chest. For a split soundless second, moonlight slips in and outlines the walls with brilliant white.
Rosalin opens her arms. Her children run to her, jump into the bed, and cuddle in close. Rosalin tightens her hold on them every few minutes, and if they feel her tears dripping through their hair or the soft kisses on their small foreheads, they don't say anything about it. This bed is much bigger than what they're used to in the shelter, but it's still lumpy and uncomfortable and glorious, and the kids are soon fast asleep.
Rosalin stays awake, fingers rubbing soothing circles into Kain's back.
"It'll be okay," she echoes, to herself.
Rosalin stays awake and watches the storm fade, watches the moon set at last.
Five months after moving into their new home, the children are equipped with new clothing, full stomachs, and blankets.
Six months see the arrival of three new beds- by mutual consent, Rosalin's attic bed stays.
Seven months, chubby-cheeked Fate calls her Mom. The rest are soon to follow.
(She thought she had moved beyond all tears, but she is kind of glad to find out she was wrong.)
Eight months, and she's finally made Kain stop swearing in front of polite company, and Shira begs her for new hairclips.
Nine months later, Rosalin wakes up one morning and spends some minutes lazily remembering her dreams, and realizes that for the first time, the haunting ghost-butterflies have flown away.
Two years later, she has the funds to renovate the house. The entire first floor is changed; she knocks the dividing walls down, combines living room and kitchen into one big floor space, the beginning of her own restaurant. Kain calls it Café Chow Chow, and that is that.
Some years later- funny how she can't really remember anymore- her kids bully her into letting them learn how to fight. Her mouth twists sourly at the sight of Shira with sai, Fate with knives- she has to bite straight through her lips at the sight of Kain lugging around that monster mallet he calls Thor- but even now, she remembers the sight of them, small, vulnerable, alone, injured and unable to protect themselves, and she sighs. She gives them permission, on the strictest condition that they have to do their chores at the restaurant first, and her heart clenches at their victorious smiles.
And life is good, life is home; they live with each other in a thousand small ways. Rosalin watches her children grow, and sometimes she thinks of that strange shadowed man, the human who was somehow more and less than human.
I'm taking care of them, she thinks to him. And then- they're taking care of me, too.
(Sometimes, she thinks she'd like to thank that man, if she ever sees him again.)
"Hey, Mom," Kain begins.
She recognizes that wheedling tone. Alarm bells go off in her head instantly.
"What do you want, Kain?" Inside, she smiles.
Fate slumps in his chair and covers his face. "God, Kain," he moans. "You suck at this."
The redhead's eye twitches. "Shut up," he snaps. "I'm better at it than you."
Fate, Shira, and Rosalin give him incredulous looks. His only concession is a slight blush on his pointy ears.
Rosalin knows not to let them get too distracted. "What is it?" she repeats.
The three teens exchange sly looks. "Well," Shira says, fiddling with her ear and giving Rosalin doe eyes, "there's going to be a tournament in Sin City soon."
Rosalin frowns. "The Alcaeus tournament, you mean?"
They nod enthusiastically. "The grand prize is a dragon whistle," Shira explains. "And the competition this year is cupcakes next to us. We can win, I know it! Think of how much that would sell for!"
Rosalin is not convinced. "Absolutely not. It is far too dangerous." She twitches at their hurt looks, and makes the mistake of glancing at Fate.
He aims his face at her, all wide, pleading eyes and hair perfectly sloped to the side of his face, throwing the thin scars in sharp relief. It's a look honed over the years to manipulate her, and she hates it because it works every time.
Lord. She knows she's going to regret this. "Fine," she grouses. "You can enter the tournament. But you'd better not get hurt! And you'd better win," she adds, absentmindedly.
Three smiles, beautiful and young. Her heart squeezes painfully.
Young, so very young.
[The struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man's heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.]