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Snowtime

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Many seasons have passed on the Bastion now, days and months gone by in work and idle. They’ve traveled to places never before reached by Cael or Ura explorers, met countless people in countless towns, and once very nearly blew up the Bastion after a few too many drinks and a bad shot with the Galleon Mortar. There have been many exciting days, sometimes a little too exciting, but now that winter is crawling in, things die down. That’s how Rucks likes it, really. When he was a young man, he chased adventure wherever he went, following his heart and his spirit to show him new places and new things. But those days have been over for many years. Now, he prefers a quiet routine, something calm to do throughout the day. The Bastion lends itself well to that; there’s always things that need tidying up, parts that need oiling, buildings to be repainted. It keeps Rucks busy in a way that isn’t taxing and still leaves him time to read and nap and tell plenty of stories. Really, it’s the best life an old man like him could hope for.

But that changes when it starts snowing.

Over the years of traveling, and over the many miles they’ve traveled, they’ve experienced all types of whether. From fall rainstorms, moist and muddy and gloomy, to summer droughts, burning and parched and exhausting, they’ve been through all the different seasons the world could offer. But snow was rare; they spent as little time as they could in the colder parts of the planet. Cold meant aching bones and sickness they couldn’t afford. But the snow was here and all the four of them could do was power through as best they could, and maybe try to have some fun along the way.

The Kid has been shoveling snow all morning, but the flurries that swirl in the wind and land on the ground foil his efforts. The snow comes down in great big balls of white and forms into powdery, pale piles, every mound glittering with frosty ice crystals. So far, the Kid has managed to make a path connecting all the buildings and tents of the Bastion, but the snow is steadily reblanketing the ground where the Kid has shoveled. He’ll shovel one area, and by the time he’s finished cleaning up another, the first will be covered again. Still, despite the futile prospects of his actions, he keeps shoveling. Zulf and Rucks are not as hardy as Zia and the Kid, and a fall could be dangerous. They’ve come too far for something like that to defeat them; he has to make things safe.

The Kid keeps shoveling, and in the background, Zulf and Zia play in the rapidly rising snow. Zulf has taught Zia how to make a snowball, and they chase each other around the Bastion, pelting the other with tightly packed lumps of snow. Zulf has an edge over Zia due to growing up in the Terminals, but Zia is a quick learner. His aim is more accurate but Zia is quicker, and for every one snowball he throws, she throws two. It’s just that the two are less likely to hit than the one. They run around in circles, ducking behind buildings and tents, laughing uproariously. It’s not long before both of them are soaked in snow and shivering from the cold. Even so, they keep playing. Sometimes there are too many things to do on the Bastion, too many traumas to deal with, and laughter dries up like a well. Moments like these are to be cherished and buried deep in their hearts, saved for days when the world seems too bleak to be worth it. These moments are the strongest with more of them together, so Zia pulls the Kid into her and Zulf’s game by throwing a snowball at him and pelting him on the back of the head.

The Kid turns to face Zia and Zulf. Both of them are panting and flushed with their arms full of snowballs. “Hey, I’m busy,” the Kid grumbles. He tries to scowl but it’s broken by a smile. “Gotta shovel the Bastion.”

“Do that later!” Zia chirps. “I need someone to help me take Zulf down!”

“Hey!” Zulf squawks. “You can’t team up with Kid, he’s too strong. It would be an unfair advantage.”

Zia sticks her tongue out at Zulf and Zulf laughs. The Kid sneaks up behind Zia and grabs her by the waist. Zia shrieks and drops her snowballs, flailing her legs and arms wildly. “If I’m going to take Zulf down, I need to take you down first!” he laughs. He picks her up, swings her around, and throws her into a quickly growing snowbank. Zia squeals loudly and shouts a few choice obscenities. She kicks out her legs and flails more. “Kid!” she cries. “Kid, I’m stuck! Come help me out!”

Zulf doubles over in laughter and the Kid isn’t in much better condition. But he still goes over to Zia and helps pull her out of the snow drift. Zia knocks her shoulder into him and pouts. “That was mean,” she whines, but it lacks any true conviction.

The Kid wraps his arms and Zia again, but this time he hugs her instead of lifting her. “It was funny,” he says. He kisses her cheek. “But I won’t do it again.”

“You better not,” she grumbles, but kisses him on the cheek, too. She shivers and shakes herself off. “Great, now I have snow down my jacket. I’m going to change my clothes.”

Zia leaves, still shivering, and heads back to her tent. The Kid and Zulf eye each other warily, tense and ready to bolt; their standoff only ends with Zulf drops his snowballs and holds his hand out for a truce. The Kid grasps Zulf’s hand and shakes and resists the very strong urge to pick Zulf up and also throw him in a snowbank. But Zulf never fully recovered after the Terminals, and needs to be handled more gently than Zia. The Kid can be gentle when he needs to be.

The only one who hasn’t taken part in the snowy revelries is Rucks. He sits in the opening of his tent, wrapped in a fur blanket, and merely watches as the others run around and play. The Kid waves at him. “Y’wanna join us?” he calls.

Rucks shakes his head. “‘Fraid my old bones can’t take it,” he responds. “You kids keep having fun, I’ll just watch.”

The Kid only shrugs in response. He grabs a handful of snow off the ground and throws it in Zulf’s face before bolting away. Zulf squawks before grabbing his own handfuls snow and rapidly shaping them into balls, the truce now broken. Once he has a few made, he chases after the Kid, chucking snowballs with an impressive accuracy. Their laughters rings out throughout the Bastion and Rucks watches them in a measured silence. Oh, to be young again. It reminds him of his first snow, but that was a long time ago. That was a very, very long time ago, but then again, so were most things.

Night fast approaches and Rucks warms himself by the kitchen fire. The crew all busies themselves with what must be completed. The Kid is shoveling the Bastion once more, now that the snow has stopped falling; Zulf mends clothing and sews fur into jackets, all while warming himself in the Forge; and Zia occupies the kitchen with Rucks, moving to and fro as she prepares dinner. Rucks sets himself up to supervise, which is perhaps the most important of all the jobs. He taste tests and hovers and gives her pointers on chopping and filleting, as if he knew more than she. Zia puts up with his instructions, however unhelpful some of them may be, and hums quietly to herself as she works. She’s making an Ura stew tonight, something thick and warm and filled with meat. A good Ura stew should be hot enough to make one sweat, is what Zulf says, but that’s not fair to the palates of Rucks and the Kid, so Zia makes it only a little spiced, with extra peppers on the side for Zulf. Four different palates are difficult to cook for, but Zia makes it work.

She holds out a spoon of steaming yellow sauce for Rucks. He tries it, smacks his lips, and says, “Could use a little more salt.”

Zia adds another pinch of salt and stirs it into the stew. The spiced aroma fills the kitchen and floats it way up the stairs and out into the cold. All that’s left is to let the stew simmer and thicken, so Zia and Rucks hunker down in front of the fire, sharing with each other one of the many massive fur blankets from around the Bastion. Together, they form a warm little cocoon, surrounded by heat on all sides. Rucks kisses Zia on the forehead and she grins her pleasure. “Tell me, Miss Zia,” Rucks starts, “is this your first snow?”

Zia goes quiet for a moment. “…No,” she finally says. “I first saw snow in the Terminals. But this time… this time is better.”

“Never saw any in the City?” Rucks asks. There’s no sense in letting silence linger and relive what has already happened. Nothing good can come from that.

Zia shakes her head in response. Caelondia was a place of sun and heat, of balmy winters and scorching summers. Snow was so rare, most never saw any--so rare Rucks couldn’t even remember the last time he saw it. There were folks in the City who didn’t believe in snow at all, said it was a hoax just made to scare people. The City certainly had some colorful people.

“I like snow, though,” Zia says. “It’s a lot of fun, even if it’s really cold. I need to push Kid into a snowpile to get back at him.” Rucks chuckles and Zia grins. “What about you? Did you ever see snow in the city?”

Rucks hmms and thinks a moment. He saw snow in the War, certainly, when he was around the Urzendra Gate and areas similar. Around there, it snowed a lot. No one was prepared for it, but then again, no one was prepared for anything. But that’s a thought for another time. Instead he remembers the snow at the Urzendra Gate, the war, the time before the war, the time of being a boy and not a man. And then he remembers, fifteen, right before he was drafted--

“I did, in fact. Back when I was just a boy, only a few years younger than you. Was the night before the draft. Back in the war, we all got drafted; anyone that could hold a gun and set a trap got drafted, and even those that couldn’t. Didn’t matter much how old you were. We had men old enough to be heading to the grave and children young enough to still be hangin’ off their mama’s teat. Was a damn mess.

“But that ain’t the important part. Was the night before the draft, and the first night of Pythmas. Been a cold week, coldest anyone could remember. Some thought it was a sign from Pyth, maybe a sign of the end times, but you know how those religious types are. Buncha mumbo-jumbo, if you ask me. It was real late, and I was out walkin’ ‘round the town. Wasn’t such a fan of Pythmas festivities, you see.”

“Why not?” Zia asks.

“Well… things just weren’t the best back home. Sometimes things got a little… hectic around the house. Pops was a fan of his booze.” Rucks waves his hand. “Oh, but that don’t matter now. That was a long time ago. There are better stories to be told.”

Rucks clears his throat. “Anyway, as I was sayin’. I was out walkin’, feelin’ a bit nippy with the cold but still goin’, lookin’ into windows as I went by houses. Always nice to see what families are doing. But it wasn’t long before I was alone in an empty marketplace. Musta been close to midnight. Not a soul in sight, not even any little critters. Just me. Looked up for the stars, but there were only clouds. Just a glimmer of the moon showin’ through. And then… strangest thing happened. Big puffballs started fallin’ from the clouds. I thought the damn sky was falling! And it fell fast. Just a few flakes at first, then more and more, until the ground and everything around it was all white. Don’t think I even knew what snow was back then.

“Well, I ran right back home then. You know how cold it is, to be covered in snow. Family was asleep so I had to sneak back in. And, well, the next morning was a sight to be seen. We musta had at least a foot-and-a-half of snow, and all the neighborhood kiddies were out playin’ in it. Played in it quite a bit myself. It was… it was real nice. Everyone just seemed happier. It melted real quick, but it was nice for how long we had it.”

Zia has been listening quietly the whole time, her face pressed to Rucks’ arm. A silence settles over them, and Rucks watches the fire crackle and spark. “That does sound really nice,” Zia says after a while, her voice soft. “And that’s the only snow you saw in Caelondia?”

Rucks nods. “Indeed it was. That was, oh… over fifty years ago now. Wonder if it woulda snowed in the City again, had things been different.”

If the Kid had chosen to start over again, maybe they could have. Maybe they could have gone far enough in the past to avoid the war altogether. Maybe even farther back than that. But the Kid didn’t, and instead they chose to move forward. Maybe that was the right choice. Moments like this, when he’s huddle up next to sweet little Zia, make it all worthwhile. Could they have changed things? Could they have made things better? Maybe. But what they have now works. It’s hard sometimes, many times, but Rucks finds he wouldn’t want it any other way.

Zia wiggles out from under the blanket and goes to check on the stew. “Looks done to me,” she says. “I’ll go get everyone for dinner. And… Rucks?”

She looks strangely serious. “What is it, Miss Zia?” Rucks asks, a little apprehensive.

Zia’s serious look turns a smile. “You have to play in the snow with us tomorrow! I’m taking you down!”

She sticks out her tongue at him and then runs up the stairs, laughing. Rucks chuckles. She really is a sweet girl; he’s lucky that he met her. Maybe he’s lucky he met all of them. Even Zulf, but Zulf doesn’t need to know that. Rucks goes about plating up stew for everyone. Playing in the snow again? Maybe he could do that. It wouldn’t be too bad to see how his aim has held up, and maybe give Zulf a snowball to the face. A little snowball to the face. Maybe it would have snowed again in Caelondia, if it hadn’t been destroyed. Maybe it wouldn’t have. Either way, it’s snowing now, and he can share it with the people he cares most about, and that’s really all that matters in the end.