Chapter 1: Red Moon
-The 34th of Plantar, 1st month of year 3245-
Today was Shigeo’s birthday. Unlike other birthdays, the academics left him alone to his room to study. At least that was the idea. Shigeo didn’t study much as he curled in the pillow padded window nook and stared out at the city below the Imperial Keep. It was brightly lit and sprawled for miles in all directions. The jewel of the Empire. The city at the center of the world and at the center of the city was the Imperial Keep, the personal home of the Emperor.
The Keep sat on a tower of basalt and granite that rose several hundred feet above the city proper. The walls of the Keep were built in a way that it appeared to be growing out of the rock, adding another 300 feet to its impressive height. Grand walls, that if you tried to climb over bordered an imposing chasm that separated the central Keep from the city. It was a stunning 300 foot drop into an angry river below. Often birds of prey soar gracefully below for Shigeo to watch, they nested along the rocky cliffs pock marked with caves that had been collapsed generations ago. Shigeo loved to view the Keep from the outside. It's dark stone architecture was decorated with arches of gold and marble, and several waterfalls poured form the sides of the stone base into the river below. This has been his home for the last four years.
His focus shifted away from the outside, stopping briefly at his reflection in the window glass. Shigeo’s red eyes shone as brightly as the full red moon above. He noted the sadness present in his eyes as they gazed back at him through the reflection, but he could live with that. He had to. Shigeo turned his focus inward as he reminisced about the homes he and his brother had. Their childhood home with his mother and father when he was still Un-Innervated. He doesn’t remember much but it was small and it was good. Then, six years ago, when he found his Root, and his magic emerged, Claw mages appeared and took him and his brother away at the tender ages of six and five.
“So gifted that child and he doesn’t even know it yet.” They told his parents, “ He doesn’t belong in the world of the common man. The emperor personally requests for Shigeo Kageyama to join the academy. You have given The Divine Tree Empire a True Sorcerer, and we shall forever be in your debt. ”
High status, wealth, living in the best comforts and access to the finest luxuries, they promised the Kageyama household everything. And they delivered on those promises without fail. To this day, Shigeo, and by association Ritsu, had the best rooms in the academy. They had the best tutors and the best doctors when they were sick. The Kageyamas were given the respect and income of nobles. Everything the family could want was provided for them at their request.
It was a great deal until Shigeo was assigned to the Advanced Course four years ago due to changes in his magic. Shigeo was moved to this tower suite of the Emperor’s Imperial Keep in the Capital, away from his family.
A dark feeling blanketed his mind as he thought of his classes. Being tutored directly by the emperor himself was an honor, but Shigeo had always imagined it would have been a joyful experience. There was no joy in the voice of that man, nor any joy in the classes or assignments he gave him. Although Shigeo often wondered if he was really a man at all. He never saw the emperor except from behind the dark silk veil of his… He didn’t want to reminisce on that. Such lonely days its been without Ritsu in classes with him. When the academy saw the distress it caused Shigeo to be separated from his family, they relented and brought Ritsu to him. Ritsu had to continue his studies with a private tutor at the Imperial Keep.
Shigeo was overjoyed at his arrival, but as his brother’s magic grew so did his fears that the Emperor would take notice. Shigeo hoped his brother’s magic would stop growing, despite how much Ritsu’s bright smile as he showed off new spells, warmed Shigeo heart. Shigeo regretted his wish when Ritsu fell sick. For weeks Ritsu suffered, bed ridden due to a rare genetic disease that caused catasphrophic Root degeneration. The doctors did what they could to keep him alive but at the end, when the fevers and pain stopped, Ritsu connection to his Root, his magic, was severed. He was happy no more.
Such guilty days having cursed Ritsu to the same isolation as Shigeo. So much guilt that Shigeo couldn’t comfort his brother like he should have been able to, struggling to control his growing magic while his brother lost all of his. Yet, his guilt was never strong enough for Shigeo to ask Ritsu to be freed. Neither he nor Ritsu really belonged here at the Keep but at least Ritsu belonged somewhere before he came here.
Classes got worse, but their living arrangements were the highest quality they have had yet. Shigeo shared this room with his brother, but was hardly just a simple room. It was beautifully decorated, always warm in winter and cool during the summer, and had multiple antichambers bigger than most families’ living rooms. The brothers even had their own separate side rooms for sleeping, relaxing, studying, and if they wanted, for dining as well. They always ate together though.
Ritsu never left his side, eventually he reclassified from Sorcerer to the purely academic class of Wizard to continue his studies of magic and spell theory in hopes of reversing his condition. Between study they often sat together and whispered of running away and returning home. In the last half year, Ritsu talked like he was serious. Like they would one day get up and leave and never look back.
No one leaves the academy.
This didn’t discourage Ritsu. He discussed his plans, what he’d pack, where they might go, and how they would get there. It was a beautiful escape from Shigeo’s hard days. Their conversations filled Shigeo with so much longing it hurt him. Once they packed a “runaway bag” together, to take their minds off of things. Shigeo never unpacked it. It sat under his bed for the last year in a little pocket dimension Shigeo had helped his brother create during their studies. That bag was packed and ready for a day that wasn’t coming.
As the Red moon rose to among a chain of bright stars in the sky, sitting like a fat ruby on a diamond crown Shigeo’s power surged under his skin and he curled in on himself while magic bubbled up like a geyser ready to blow. He clamped down on everything, his magic and his emotions, anything to prevent a surge from spilling out and destroying their room. Eventually, it passed leaving a dull ache behind. He rubbed his chest in slow circles to calm himself.
Shigeo then reminisced on times before the Advanced Courses when his power was still stable.
The door to their room opened and Ritsu gently closed the door behind him. He wore a heavy pack on his back. Shigeo smiled gently at his brother. Ritsu was the one thing missing from this uncharacteristically nice birthday.
“Big Brother?” Ritsu asked, his eyes had a determined edge to them Shigeo rarely saw this look. It usually preceded something big his brother had planned.
Shigeo wondered, a little bit selfishly, if Ritsu had a present planned for him. Shigeo greeted his brother, “Good evening Ritsu. Did you just get back from the library?”
“I did,” He said and looked around the room, eventually closed the distance between them and pulled out a little grey and red striped rod hanging by a chain on his neck.
Ritsu twisted the top and bottom until the red and grey lines ran unbroken along the length of the rod. Shigeo recognized the feel of the magic as it activated, it was anti-scrying spell, the noise around them muffled as a magical barrier fell over them.
It was then Ritsu asked deathly serious, “Do you remember when I asked, that if the time came, and I said to go, you’d run away with me? You said you would, remember?”
“I do remember that Ritsu.” Shigeo nodded, he crushed the hope rising in his chest. This couldn’t be now, but that look in Ritsu’s eyes and the seriousness in his tone brought that ache back to Shigeo’s chest.
“It’s time to go Big Brother.” Ritsu declared. The finality in his voice left no room for questions or uncertainty in Shigeo’s mind.
Shigeo’s eyes widened and the surge of magic under his skin caused his eyes and skin to glow and his hair to float slightly around his head. No one leaves the Academy. Ritsu gasped and pressed a small bead into his hand and closed Shigeo’s fingers around it. Shigeo felt his magic suck into it and the strange sensation made him woozy. He closed his eyes and fought against the vertigo that overtook him. Shigeo tilted forward onto his brother as he began to lose that battle.
“Brother?” Ritsu grabbed his shoulders and held them firmly, his voice was thick with concern, “Sh- My friend told me it would feel weird but it’ll pass. Just keep it close to you. It- It suppresses your power… It’ll make you harder to find.”
Shigeo didn’t fully understand. Who was this friend? How did they get an artifact this powerful? And from where?
“We can’t use magic anymore either okay?” Ritsu said this more reluctantly. He loved magic, he loved learning about it, but that resolute look was still in his eyes even if it was tinged with sadness, “No- No more spells and you cannot go anywhere without that .”
Ritsu squeezed Shigeo’s fist that was still clutching the bead. Shigeo could slowly feel the vertigo pass and his eyes cracked open to look at this brother.
Ritsu gasped, a look of horror across his face, “Shige… your eyes.”
Shigeo felt the vertigo pass immediately and he looked in the mirror on the wall nearby. His eyes were… black. Or at least they were such a dark, dull red they appeared to be a very dark reddish brown. It looked like someone else’s eyes.
“Its looks fine. Really! It just surprised me is all.” Ritsu’s voice was apologetic and the look he was giving Shigeo was one begging for forgiveness as he tried to explain his reasons, “They have some kind of grid that they can sense when magic is used, but- but my friend he is going to take us somewhere outside of the grid where we will be safe.”
“What about mom and dad? Will we be meeting them there?”
Ritsu shook his head no.
“Wait… What will happen to them if we leave?” Shigeo asked more desperately. They had talked about it running away but it was always back home to them, “Where are we going?”
Ritsu looked around anxiously, “We have to move… now. I can tell you more on the way. Where is that bag we packed? I know you have it.”
“Oh.” Shigeo reached out toward the bed and tried to pull on the power of his Root.
His power felt dull and sluggish. Nothing happened and he pulled his hand back to inspect it. Shigeo could cast spells just by thinking as long as he learned them once and understood what the flow of magic he needed for it felt like. It should be the same now, but his Root didn’t respond, it felt like trying to touch water in a cup by reaching through the glass. He could see it, but he could not dip his hand in.
“What’s wrong?” Ritsu asked.
“It’s under the bed in a pocket dimension, but I can’t seem to open it.” Shigeo said. The bead pulsed dully in his hand.
“Um,” Ritsu dug out his notebook and opened to the page on micro-dimensions, “Try with the incantation maybe?”
Shigeo swallowed but his mouth was dry. This was all too strange and it felt like he was in class again. He remembered the days in the strange classrooms, observed by so many people while they made his power fluctuate outside of his control. In those hours his magic was always either too distant or too close, sometimes it lashed out at the observers like it had a mind of its own. Blood. He had visions of blood. His hands shook. This really did feel too much like one of Sensei’s assignments.
He still took the book when Ritsu pressed it into his hands and he still muttered out the incantation. As he finished, Ritsu found a little bit of white shell powder for Shigeo to rub between his fingers. His palms were sweating and Shigeo feared that the power would turn into a paste in his hands. It didn’t, and there was a gentle pop under the bed as a portal opened. Ritsu reached under and pulled the bag free. He started taking the books from his smaller school bag and shoving them haphazardly into the central pouch.
“Lets go,” Ritsu slung the bag onto his back and hiked it up high on his shoulders, “And keep that gem close.”
Shigeo nodded and followed his brother through the door and down the tower. Without hesitation Ritsu ducked into hallways, following a strange intricate path that led them through the Imperial Keep. Somehow Ritsu knew which corridors were going to be empty despite the roaming guards. He navigated it like he’d done it a hundred times before. Shigeo was walking through parts of the keep he had never seen before and it was daunting how large this building was and he didn’t even know it.
Shigeo’s lung’s started to burn slightly. How far have they gone? It felt like they have been going down flights of stairs for almost an hour. The Keep wasn’t this tall was it? Shigeo kept his eyes down, watching his feet take each step. Of course he didn’t see when this brother had stopped and stumbled into him nearly knocking them both over.
“Watch it!” Ritsu hissed, annoyed and tired.
That bag looked heavy.
Ritsu turned into a hallway and Shigeo looked around. It reminded him of a sewer. Not that he’s ever been in one, but he’d seen dramatized pictures in the adventure books. His brother grabbed his hand and started to pull him along when Shigeo spent too long looking at the deteriorating walls.
Happiness welled up in Shigeo’s heart and he squeezed his brother’s hand. When Ritsu turned around to see what was wrong he was met my Shigeo’s watery hopeful eyes. Ritsu returned the look and they both picked up speed down the tunnel. Their footsteps and ragged breaths echoed off the stone walls but they were soon drowned out by the roar of water. The brothers’ path ended where two roaring currents of water, one from the right and from the left, crashed headlong into each other before tumbling out of an opening in the side of the keep.
“What?” Ritsu screamed, he paced along the edge looking for something to tell them the way.
Shigeo barely heard him above the sound of the water, and he barely heard the sound of the water over the anxious beating of his heart. Shigeo followed his brother’s movement and when Ritsu turned around and saw Shigeo watching him. Waiting. Hoping. His expression broke and he stumbled to his brother.
“I swear I went the right way! I’m sorry Shige, I think I messed up.” Ritsu rubbed the tears from his eyes, but he couldn’t keep up with them and they started to flow freely, “It wasn’t supposed to go this way. We were supposed to just walk out of here.”
Shigeo hugged his brother and held him tight. Ritsu felt so small in his arms right than. Shigeo should have known better than to get caught up in Ritsu’s excitement. No one leaves the Academy.
“If we head back now they won’t even know we were gone.” Shigeo said over the water.
“This was an awful birthday.” Ritsu hiccuped into Shigeo shoulder.
He thought of his last three birthdays and said, “This is the best one I’ve had in a long time.”
Ritsu didn’t say anything but Shigeo felt him take in a deep breath and sigh. He nodded and they started to walk back down the tunnel.
“Where are you two going?” Asked a kid with red spiked hair and piercing blue eyes that Shiego had never seen before.
The boy looked at them both confused and disappointed. His features were distinctive and looked strangely familiar to a teacher of Shigeo’s. The boy crossed his arms across his green mages robes. He wasn’t an initiate, judging by decorations on the sleeves. He was incredibly young, maybe Ritsu’s age, to have full mage status. But what was even stranger was the ivory strip of fabric along the hem of his robes. Shigeo had never seen that Root designation on anyone else except Suzuki-sensei.
“S-Shou?” Ritsu gaped at him. Ritsu eyes were still a little red from crying and Ritsu suddenly started rubbing them looking a little embarrassed.
“Sorry things ran late with my Pops.” He replied, shrugging his shoulders casually. He had a bright gleam in his eyes suddenly and posed smugly with his hands on his hips, “Like my new robes?”
“This is where your directions lead?” Ritsu ignored Shou’s posturing as he gestured sharply back towards the water plunging into an open chasam.
Shou pouted slightly but he appeared to get over it, “What didn’t I say to trust me and follow the triangle? I left you a path.”
Ritsu glared at him.
“Yeah yeah, I know I was vague but I didn’t expect to see you give up so quickly.” Shou said and he walked forward.
Before the boys could stumble out of his way Shou, or at least Shou’s illusion, past through them. A satisfied little smirk wormed its way onto his face when the Kageyamas gaped at him. Shigeo watched Shou walked along the edge and mist coming off of the two rivers passed through Shou’s body. It was disorienting and Shigeo couldn’t look directly at him for long.
“Here.” Shou said and he faced the brothers than took a step backwards off the end onto thin air, “Come on, I got like a minute left before the other mages start thinking they’re slick by fleeing my initiation party while I’m in the bathroom.”
He punctuated bathroom with air quotes.
“There is nothing there.” Ritsu said at last.
“I’m standing on the path right now?”
“You. Are. An. Illusion !” Ritsu yelled exacerbated, “You can float anywhere you want to!”
“After all the years you’ve known me, do you seriously think I would risk everything just to make you and your brother jump to your deaths?” Shou asked earnestly, he stepped farther back on the “path”, as if it would prove his point and dissuade Ritsu’s doubts.
Ritsu clenched his fist and looked down. Shigeo watched several emotions flicker across his face before he sighed, “No, you wouldn’t.”
Shou’s chest puffed up with pride. Shigeo didn’t know who this kid was but, judging by the happiness he expressed when Ritsu gave his lackluster trust in him was enough for Shigeo to like Shou.
“Listen, just one foot in front of the other straight across. Easy.” Shou smiled, “The path is about five feet wide and as long as you are standing on it, no one should be able to see you.”
Five feet? Shigeo looked over the edge. It wasn’t a lot of room and the chasam had a powerful updraft and unstable winds. Maybe Ritsu’s lackluster trust was well gauged.
“This is the last we’ll be able to speak for a while. Once you are on the other side I won’t be able to contact you, nor you me ‘kay? It’ll just give away your position.” Shou said before a devilish grin spread across his face, “I’ll be a little too busy throwing these guys off your scent here to be much help, but I got some people waiting for you that I trust to see you the rest of the way to the safe house. Just show them that charm and they will get it.”
Shou pointed to the striped metal rod around Ritsu’s neck. Ritsu gave Shou a determined nod. Then, Shou turned to Shigeo looking a little more somber.
“Shigeo right?” Shou asked in a strangely repentant tone.
“I’m sorry,” Shou said and Shigeo straightened up, this simply made Shou more nervous but he pushed through, “I hope this makes up for everything you’ve gone through.”
“I don’t know why you are apologizing.” Shigeo said, “Were you at my classes?”
Shou shook his head, “No! I didn’t have anything to do with those classes, but… I’m just sorry. It shouldn’t have been you who had to go through that.”
It was confusing and a waste of time to apologize for something Shou had nothing to do with. Shigeo didn’t say another word. It seemed like it was something Shou needed to say. People apologized for things they didn’t do all the time.
Suddenly Shou looked to his left. His expression was dark. It sent shivers down Shigeo’s spine because it was a look he’d seen before on Suzuki-sensei. Perhaps he had been apologizing for someone else.
“Move quickly.” Shou said suddenly before he turned and yelled at the brothers, “Now!”
Shou’s image disappeared. Ritsu and Shigeo looked at each other, fear creeping into their eyes. They approached the spot Shou was standing at. There was a triangle rune glowing dully on the stone pointing across the ravine. They didn’t have the time to deliberate but Shigeo could see Ritsu struggling to put his foot over the edge and take that leap of faith.
Shigeo got the feeling that their escape was discovered if Shou’s expression was anything to go by. The Academy would be upset with Shigeo but, they would forgive him in time. It was his brother Shigeo feared for. Knowing Ritsu he’d try to take the blame. He’d try to be the hero. Ritsu didn’t know the head mages like Shigeo did. The punishments they threatened or enacted on Shigeo gave him nightmares. So maybe that is why Shigeo felt a swell of courage that filled his body and gave him the strength to boldly take the first step. They couldn’t blame Ritsu if he was the one following Shigeo out of the Keep.
Ritsu watched slack jawed as Shigeo took a step off the end and landed roughly on open air. Shigeo’s heart beat loudly in his ear as his wiggled his foot forward. The path kept going. He took another step and was standing with seemingly nothing below him. Shigeo sighed in relief. It was invisible and a little slick from the mist, but it was solid. He looked back at his brother unable to contain his smile. It was horrifying but it was also kinda cool.
It inspired enough confidence in Ritsu to follow. Shigeo waited for his brother to step forward and grab onto the back of his robe before they moved forward together. They scooted across the invisible bridge, but part way across the winds started to batter them and the brothers crawled on their hands and knees across the 80 foot gap. They crawled slowly, avoiding looking at the 200 foot drop below them and sneaking under the watchful bloody eye of the full red moon cresting in the sky above them. The cold and the fear made their progress slow and shaky. It took an agonizingly long time to reach the tunnel on the other side.
The brothers kept crawling until they were on visible solid ground. They dug their fingers into the dirt and gravel of the cave they crossed into. Shigeo looked back at the Keep, torch light flickered across the windows as room after room in the castle was lit.
“We should go. I think they are going to figure out pretty soon we aren’t in the Keep anymore.” Ritsu pulled Shigeo to his feet.
He couldn’t tear his eyes away from the Keep yet. It was so beautiful, but it was no longer their home. Shigeo nodded to his brother and they disappeared into the dark of the cave.
The 20th of Neir, 2nd month of year 3245
Three weeks later.
The brothers sat in silence, crammed into spaces between the boxes and sacks unidentifiable merchandise. It was fragrant, but the heavy smells could be anything from oils to dried herbs, possibly both. It was nauseating how they mixed into a sticky, heavy, and unidentifiable scent. This was the eighth time the brothers been crammed into some random nook or cranny by stranger. Smuggling children across the countryside had very little concern for the comfort of the children being smuggled the brothers discovered.
Shou hadn’t given Ritsu any details about the route to the safe house beyond directions to the first checkpoint. A location at which they were greeted by a young couple who walked them through miles of caverns to a horse and cart. When they arrived, the brothers were promptly shoved into a large trunk and their journey cross country began. After that they had to trust the men and women they met along the way that they not only knew what they were doing, but that the next person they were given to was trustworthy as well.
The last three weeks were spent with the brothers clinging close to each other as the precariousness of their escape and continued freedom dawned on them. For each day they got farther away, the greater their anxiety became. Neither brother knew when they would cross the point of no return. Was it a mile ago? Yesterday? Was it today? Or was it when they crossed the threshold of their room back at the Keep? Claw was looking for them. How they escaped the notice of an agency with such vast resources and army of mages baffled Ritsu. All the brothers had was one anti-scrying charm. The rest of the plan involved cowering in false bottomed barrels or under hay.
The last few days the brothers were not nearly as close. A row of boxes separated Ritsu’s space from Shigeo’s space in the back of a merchant man’s wagon. They’d been trapped in the back for all but a few hours each night when they got to eat, drink, and use the bathroom. Then he would hustle them back into their hiding spots before anyone else in the caravan noticed the two boys. The man seemed as uncomfortable as the brothers did with him hiding them in the back like a dirty secret. A day ago, they split from the caravan, heading in a northward direction. Ritsu guessed as much based on how the sun traveled across the boards of the crates in front of him.
Without the stimulation from conversations, music and the sound of children from the caravan, Ritsu and Shigeo sat in painful silence while the rough road made their teeth chatter. Fear kept the brothers from talking above a whisper, and a whisper was swallowed hungrily in the din of rattling crates and jars. Maybe it was this reason that the brothers developed a sudden onset of separation anxiety. It was strong enough they forced apart two crates so they could sit with their fingertips hooked together.
The other day the boxes shifted slightly so they had line of sight. It was conditional however. The light had to filter through just the right hole in the canvas roof for the brothers could see each other, and it was only their eyes that were visible in the newly created gap. Shigeo and Ritsu shared the same tense fearful look, and Ritsu swore that Shigeo’s irises looked redder again. It was brief and if could have been a trick of the light. That artifact must be still working because they haven’t been found yet.
Ritsu looked over, the light flashed for a brief second for him to see Shigeo in a fitful rest. He had fallen asleep several hours ago and Ritsu, for as exhausted as he was, couldn’t sleep. He felt each and every rock in the road as the wagon ran over them. The wagon dipped into a pot hole in the road and Ritsu bit the inside of his cheek to keep from yelling as he felt a jolt from his tailbone though to his neck.
The last few hours the road was quiet except for their lonely wagon wheels creaking in the background, but now new sounds had entered the mix. Ritsu could hear them passing other horses, wagons, and people. Conversations too muffled by the background noise of clattering jars of pickled foods and unknown substances in his ear, but they were once again surrounded by people.
Ritsu let got of Shigeo’s hand and twisted around in his space to try and peer through the gaps to the outside. It was definitely a town they were passing through, he couldn’t see anything distinct but he caught glimpses of clothes and skin. They passed a blacksmith and the sound of metal tools forging and the hiss of heated metal plunging into liquid. He could hear sellers, yelling about their wares and the clammer of people trying to buy them. He could hear a fist fight. Ritsu searched intently for the source of that sound but the cart kept moving.
When the cart pulled into a space between two buildings. A gate closed behind the wagon, the wood rattled against each other and the street noise was muffled slightly. Ritsu untwisted himself and settled back into his space. After a minute he started wiggling his hand back into the gap to hold his brother’s when he heard the scrape of metal on wood.
The hatch on the back of the wagon was being opened and the canvas drawn away. Ritsu pulled his hand free and positioned himself on a knee. If he had to defend himself he was going to be in the best position his space would allow.
Section by section the back was cleared out by the man who had transported them here. He didn’t talk to or acknowledge Ritsu while he unloaded his wares at a steady, but upbeat pace. When the last box that comprised Ritsu’s hiding space was removed, he balled his fists and looked around wildly for an ambush. The alley was fairly wide, enough so that a wagon could pull in comfortably. A wooden gate closed off the alley from the street, so it was fairly private.
He searched for a threat and landed his sights on saw grey hair. It was pulled back into a bun on the top head of the head of a very short, very elderly women. When he stood more to peer over the edge Ritsu was very surprised to see the women was no more than four feet tall, leaning on a wooden cane with a thick knotted head, and wearing a white veil that covered the lower half of her face. Something about her seemed familiar, but he couldn’t quite place it. She was watching him as curiously as he was watching her but she also looked like she knew something he didn’t.
“Well, you look awful.” She said in a grandmotherly tone, her sly smile was mostly obscured through the veil.
All the fight was stunned right out of Ritsu. He looked down at himself, his clothes were ill fitting, dirty and borrowed. Their beautiful robes from the capital were destroyed as a precaution before they started the first leg of this odyssey. Ritsu was sore, tired, and he didn’t eat like he used to. Their food was of poorer quality than their fine meals at the Keep and the stress made him and his brother’s appetite elusive and fickle. Ritsu hadn’t seen a proper mirror in a while which might be a blessing in disguise as he hadn’t seen a proper bath in a while either.
“Don’t just stand there, get out of the wagon. No ones going to do it for you.” She prompted him, tapping her cane on the floor of the wagon.
Ritsu jumped and started to scramble out.
“Grab a box.” She ordered like he should have known that's what she wanted, “And wake up your brother, so he can help you too.”
“Yes, ma’am.” Ritsu sputtered and the old woman looked him over with a careful gaze before nodding approvingly.
Ritsu started pulling boxes down and placing them at the open end of the cart. Slowly unburying his sleeping brother. Shigeo’s face twitched between neutral and pained expressions. Another nightmare. Ritsu didn’t feel bad about shaking him awake. Shigeo jolted and his eyes snapped open, they were still that dark, blackish red-brown. He looked around, his expression fearful and tense, but it faded in seconds as Shigeo registered he was back in the waking world.
“We are at the next stop.” Ritsu said quietly, “I don’t know where we are going next yet. The next caretaker is some old lady and she is kind of intense.”
“You bet your little butt I am.” She snapped from behind Ritsu.
She stumbled over the word “butt” like that was a hasty second choice. Ritsu stiffened, embarrassed and surprised she’d snuck up on them.
She tapped the cart impatiently, “Stop sitting around and bring these boxes into the backroom.”
Shigeo eased himself into a standing position. He was stiff in the knees and hips judging by the wobbly straight legged walk he had. Shigeo stretched his limbs, the joints popped and cracked noisily. Feeling more limbered up, Shigeo bent over the nearest box. Ritsu watched his brother try to lift it and it didn’t even shift. He gave up and tried to hide the pink on his cheeks from his brother as he attempted to lift a different crate. This went slightly better but all Shigeo could manage was to lift one corner. Shigeo’s legs and arms still trembled with the effort.
Ritsu tried next. He was able to lift the crate, but it wasn’t with much more grace than his brother. He felt a sheen of sweat on his forehead matching his brother’s as he moved the crate the short four feet to the back of the wagon. The weight was suddenly lifted from his arms and Ritsu nearly fell forward. If it were not for Shigeo holding him up by the back of his shirt, Ritsu would be eating his teeth on the alley floor. The man shifted the weight of the crate onto one shoulder like it was nothing. He looked at the two boys over, the unflattering scrutiny of his gaze was uncomfortable and Ritsu swallowed his pride before it twisted his face into a scowl. Shigeo bowed his head, accepting.
“Just get them to the edge and I’ll take if from there.” He said, tired.
Neither brother knew if the worn out expression from the man was because of them, or because of the journey. The man reached down and hefted a large sack filled with some kind of produce with his other hand.
“He’s strong.” Shigeo said with a hit of admiration.
Ritsu didn’t respond, but he gestured at the remaining crates to his brother. Together they lifted or pushed the boxes to the end of the cart, huffing and straining ungainly. The man would stop by and lift the boxes as if they were a fraction of the weight Ritsu and Shigeo were dealing with. Ritsu didn’t care for the flat affect the man had and felt increasingly cagey as time went on.
With the last box unloaded the man said, “Head in and help her. You two are her problem now.”
A little red faced still, Ritsu grabbed their travel bag, it was painfully light now, most of the books Ritsu attempted to smuggle out of the keep were confiscated by the first couple. The risk that they’d be tracked were too high. So, Ritsu carried a bag that had no more than some candles, and a blanket. It was useless, but it was theirs and he hopped off the back of the cart and followed the man inside. Shigeo was much shakier as he climbed down and followed after him.
The backroom was cramped and boxes were spaced out on the floor so you had to weave through or step over them. Along the walls were shelves lined with baskets and jars. The contents of the shelves consisted primarily of dried materials and plants. A few jars had plants or animal parts preserved in fluid. It was a curious room. Although, most of the labeled spaces were almost empty, and as Ritsu read each label he realized that he recognized all of them.
“These are all components for spells and potions.” Ritsu said, he traced his hand along one of the labels. Shigeo hummed in agreement as he examined the contents of a different basket containing dried grasses.
At the end of the room a door was left ajar, and the brothers stepped out of the back room into a long rectangular room. This one was less of a storage space and more like a living area with a kitchen, dining, and sitting room crammed into the same narrow space. To their left was a paper screen sliding door and to their right was a single swinging door and a small shrine. A short hallway extended past the kitchen in front of them to where the brothers assumed were the bedrooms. The walls were dirty along the edges of the ceiling, and the place was in a minor state of disrepair. Everything in reach of the old woman’s height was maintained but anything too low or too high wasn’t faring as well.
In front of the sliding door, along the wall was one chair and bookshelf stacked high with thick academic looking textbooks and journals. Naturally, the brothers gravitated to it, it was the most familiar sight they’d seen in a while. They didn’t get far before a door opened to their left and the brothers got a glimpse of a storefront or office as the old woman stepped through.
“Do you have it?” She asked as she walked up to the brothers. She was looking between them, waiting.
Ritsu squinted, then he understood and clumsily brought out the charm Shou had given him. She held out her hand and Ritsu reluctantly placed the rod and cord into her open palm.
“We have been using it to keep hidden so I’d like it-” Ritsu started to say when the old woman deactivated the rod with one hand. The brothers’ stomachs dropped to their heels and they reached for the rod in a panic.
“That thing stopped working weeks ago, but it had a duel purpose.” She said as she tossed something to Ritsu with her other hand.
Ritsu caught it and Shigeo looked over his shoulder at an identical rod- deactivated but exactly the same. Ritsu didn’t hesitate a second to turn the rod on. Shigeo felt a buzz of magical energy across his skin he hadn’t felt in a long time. With the rod activated, the old women stood a little taller and her expression was a little less guarded.
“Welcome to Lou Run Kageyama Brothers.” She smiled at them, “You’ve come a long way from the Capital to make it to the Hagnaema Mountains.”
“You know our names?” Ritsu asked the important question. No one in the journey had called them by their names. They were simply “the cargo”.
“We’re in the mountains?!” Shigeo asked the slightly less important question, loudly, and completely shocked.
She blinked a few times with a surprised look across her face, “You couldn’t see much in the back of that wagon could you?”
Shigeo shook his head no.
“You didn’t answer my question.” Ritsu cut in.
“Yes, I know you who you two are.” She said a little more annoyed.
Ritsu tensed and shifted slightly in front of his brother, “None of the other people knew our names.”
“Yes, that's because I am the end of the line. Well, if you two know your geography well enough I can tell you that you’re about 50 or 60 miles from the north west border. Nothing much past here unless you intend to continue into the barbarian lands.” She set her cane in front of herself and leaned her weight onto it, “You can stay the night of course but we can take you no further. What’s your plan from here?”
The brothers didn’t answer. The old woman observed the stunned, wide eyed expression the boys wore. They looked like rabbits that had just caught unawares by a hunting dog.
“You did have a plan of where to go? You’re meeting up with your parents soon right? What do they look like? I’ll know any new faces around here.” She asked cautiously, but the two boys shook their heads no, “Do you not have parents?”
Shigeo shook his head vigorously again, “We do, but they are sent somewhere else. We don’t know where they are now.”
Ritsu spoke up first with a shaky voice, “We-we were told this was the safe place. That this is where we were being sent to stay.”
“Who told you that?”
“Shou did.” Ritsu replied without a lick of confidence in his voice.
The woman sighed heavy and deep, “He might be smart but he doesn’t understand how this process works yet. We’ve smuggled people out of the capital before but we don’t run a safe house, we just provide a safe route. You can’t stay here anyway, it's too dangerous. Two young boys with no family will draw a lot of attention. Especially with military rolling through almost everyday like they have been for the last week and a half. You do know Claw mages are part of the military right?”
Shigeo felt sick to his stomach and vaguely faint. He grabbed his brother’s sleeve to support himself and Ritsu looked down at him but Ritsu was as pale as Shigeo was.
Shigeo asked, his words growing faster and more frantic, “W-we didn’t know. We don’t have a plan... what do we do? Where can we go?”
“We’ve never lived anywhere outside of the Academy.” Ritsu added, “We don’t even know how to buy food or cook or… or…”
She looked at the two boys, gripped in panic. She didn’t know much about them beyond their names and that they were the highest profile cargo the line had ever moved. Yet, it was obvious now that they had lived very sheltered lives prior to this. Why Shou would send them to the frontier without a plan, or their parents, was beyond her. Her eyes became a little distant as she receded into her thoughts and considered her options for a bit.
Shigeo and Ritsu held each other’s hand trying to bring themselves some comfort. They had been so sure this was the end of their journey. Shigeo knew things were going to be tough but actually living through it was an endless trudge of anxiety, uncomfortable positions, and close calls. The bead in his pocket started to pulse dully, numbing the skin and making him feel even more faint than before. He sat down in a chair nearby and put his head between his knees.
“Alright!” The woman stamped her cane onto the floor in frustration, “You can stay here for a few days but you will be working to pay your keep.”
They looked up with hopeful twinkle in their eyes. They didn’t quite dare to smile just yet as the old woman was still stern looking but they had time to figure out what to do next.
“You can’t go to the front, or the back courtyard, but you can stay here in this living space and the back room. You will not compromise my stop along the line, understand?” She started to walk toward the storage room door, her cane tapping along the ground, “Come on, you can start by helping me put the shipments away.”
Ritsu helped Shigeo to his feet. There was more color to his face than a moment ago and he walked straight and steady once he was moving. Along the way out the side door the brothers watched the old women pause and place her hand on a little stone statue of a veiled woman that was wrapped in white silk. The old woman gave an exasperated sigh and dipped her head twice, then she seemed to have a new resolve as she entered the storage room. Ritsu followed her in but Shigeo paused at the statue.
It’s stiff expression was at odds with the gentle way the arms were outstretched to the sides, welcoming the weary. There was nothing special about the stone, or the silk the old woman had wrapped the statue with, except that it made the woman appear like she was enveloped in mist.
“Oh.” Shigeo gasped as it clicked, he entered the next room and announced, “You are a Disciple.”
Ritsu and the old woman turned around with curious expressions and Shigeo blushed. Maybe it was just that obvious.
Then Ritsu had the same epiphany a second later and said, “That’s why you look familiar! You are a follower of the Lady of the Mist.”
The old woman looked at each of them like they were stupid.
Ritsu quickly explained, “The academy has their own doctors who specialize in healing magic, they haven’t used Disciples in decades. This is the first time we have actually talked to one.”
Shigeo nodded to support his brother’s explanation.
“Yes. I forgot the Capital isn’t fond of Disciples.” She says distantly, “I haven’t been there in a very long time.”
“You used to live in the Capital?” Ritsu and Shigeo looked at her with great interest.
“I did, but that’s not important. We have a lot of work to do. Wait here while I pay the merchant.” She said in a tone that cut off the opportunity for either brother to ask more questions.
Their last caretaker was watching from the doorway with that same stoic expression. His face lit up as the old woman approached. They chatted quietly. Neither brother could hear a word but the conversation was a happy one. She gave him the money and the charm, her face shifted into a more stern expression as she appeared to give him instructions. The man nodded solemnly and left.
“You said that the bar had a duel purpose.” Ritsu inquired after the door to the alley closed.
Shigeo perked up. He’d forgotten about that and listened intently.
“Yes, its duplicating your aura Ritsu.”
Ritsu’s slightly angry expression was enough of an answer for the old woman.
“He didn’t tell you.” She said, adding another item to the list of surprises Shou had given her today, she intended to have a conversation with the kid the next time he contacted her.
“He didn’t tell me a lot of things it seems.” Ritsu grumbled to himself.
She tried to sympathize with the brothers, “He is pretty young but I expected better from him.”
“What's going to happen to the old charm now?”
“He is probably going stash it on a caravan or one of the military horses leaving town today to throw Claw of your trail. That is if they are still looking for you.” She said walking through and counting the boxes, “They are all here. Everything is labeled so unpack and put away what you can. If you don’t know where something goes just leave it and I’ll get to it.”
She took the end of her cane and rammed it under the lip of one of the crate lids and wrenched it open enough for Ritsu and Shigeo to get their fingers under and remove the lid fully. They took stock of the contents and found their corresponding shelves. It was monotonous work but the brothers were happy to simply be out and walking around instead of curled in some hideaway. There was an undeniable sense of security in this home of the Disciple.
“Is it true that only doctors can be Disciples?” Shigeo asked out of the blue, they had been working in silence for the last fifteen minutes.
“Hm?” the old woman took a second to finish setting some jars of pickled beets on a shelf before saying, “Partially true, anyone who works in medicine can be a Disciple. Nurses, medicinal potion and medicine makers, and of course physicians are all Disciples.”
“But no one else?” Shigeo clarified.
“No one else.”
“Why?” Shigeo asked, looking up from some dried bundles of herbs he was counting.
“The Lady of the Mist is a Goddess of Healing and her worship requires you to practice the act of healing.” She answered, but the edge of her voice would suggest to most people that it was common knowledge Shigeo should have known. Most people would have picked up on that and been embarrassed but Shigeo wasn’t most people.
Shigeo was genuinely facianted, he turned away from the crate he was working in to asked her directly, “Okay, so is it also true that Disciples give up their names and don’t have them anymore?”
“No. We still have our names.” She moved onto the next box, “but we keep it secret and take on a pseudonym instead.”
“What's your name?” Shigeo naturally asked.
“People call me Recovery Girl here in town.” Recovery Girl answered.
“Ah..” Shigeo nodded in understanding and followed up with, “Why do you wear the veil?”
“I- keep working if you are going to ask questions.” She waited for Shigeo to scramble back to work, gathering up the bundles of dried flowers and taking them to their appropriate shelf, “Did you make sure to check the label first?”
“Oh, I know what willder-fawn looks like.” Shigeo said, pausing only for a step to explain.
“We studied components for almost five years at the academy.” Ritsu grabbed a pouch of medicine only taking a cursory glance at it before placing on the shelf, “Shigeo knows plants better than he knows arithmetic. You can identify nearly a hundred different plants and almost as many components but you can’t divide or multiply to save your life.”
Shigeo’s shoulder bunched up to his ears to hide his embarrassed blush, he then deflected by saying, “Ritsu makes it sound impressive, but I know only half as much as he does, and he knows how to brew potions and create component salves.”
Recovery Girl walked over to the medicine Ritsu had just finished putting away. Ritsu had already moved onto the next crate while Recovery Girl checked his work. He was correct. In fact, both of the brothers were very accurate and were making quick work of the crates. Ritsu was clearly the better versed and he corrected his brother several times, but Shigeo wasn’t hopeless. His gentle mannerisms were much more approachable than Ritsu prickly personality. This task would have taken Recovery Girl several hours finish alone, and it was looking to be completed in about forty-five minutes.
This got her thinking. If they truly had an aptitude for this… She shook her head and tried to dislodge that train of thought. They studied components for magic, not medicine. Granted most of the components and their usages were an easy transition from magic to medicine. Magical healing was a part of modern medicine. Not that Recovery Girl used magic for healing, it was a very rare skill and more conservative measures were often enough. Still, if they excelled in the academy like she was told, they already know how to study and retain complex information.
She didn’t want students but, they didn’t have anywhere to go and they no plan going forward. They also had skill sets that positioned them for success in Recovery Girl’s field.
“Shou you red haired little demon.” Recovery Girl cursed him quietly under her breath as she doubled check the brothers work but found she didn’t need to fix any of it.
“Did you say something?” Ritsu paused and Recovery Girl was met with the concerned gaze of both brothers.
She felt a warm flutter in her chest as the two boys watched her, standing within arms reach at all times if possible. They were hardly different from the other children she’d see pass through the line. Slightly gaunt appearance after hard weeks of travel, a slight and constant tremble from living with unending anxiety, but with eyes bright and full of life.
They were so young… and they were alone, but they were also at the perfect age to enter an apprenticeship , Recovery Girl realized. Shou understood perfectly how this smuggling line worked, and he didn’t lie to the boys, I’ll ask them tomorrow if they don’t come up with anything themselves.
I am speeding up the updates for the first 3 or 4 chapters simply because I need to establish the world. The pace will slow down as it moves from introducing the setting to the main plot.
-The 20th of Neir, 2nd month of year 3245-
Their first night at the house was strange. Neither brother could really believe that they would wake up and be in the same place tomorrow. They sat in the living room at the back of Recovery Girl’s clinic. The only thing that kept them from wallowing in silence was Recovery Girl and her random tasks. She pulled them into her workshop when she needed an extra pair of hands to help her mix salves or brew a batch of potions, observing them carefully while they worked. They got complimented when they finished and were sent back to the living room to sit. The brothers ate dinner with her, exhausted heads hung heavy with the weight of their problems.
She didn’t press for conversation, or ask where they were at in planning for their future, but she did gently prod them into helping her with the dishes. Afterwards, she walked them to a small room with piles of boxes obscuring the floor.
“You can sleep here.” She said as the brothers leaned into the room with a disbelief etched clearly across their faces, “It’s all I got and you can’t sleep in my living room.”
“No, no no, its-” Shigeo grimaced looking around at the room that was about the size of his bathroom at the Keep, and he was being generous. On top of that, he and Ritsu were going to share a quarter of it with all these boxes in the way.
“It’s better than anything we’ve had in weeks.” Ritsu finished gracefully.
“Just make enough room for a futon in the center there. I’ll set up some water for a bath.” Recovery Girl started walking back toward the living area, her cane tapping along the wood floor.
“What do we do with the boxes?” Ritsu asked down the hall after her.
“Either stack them in the room or outside. Just don’t block that door. It’s my room.” She said and pointed the door across the hall from them.
She left the brothers to clear out enough space to fit a single futon as she set up a small basin with water, soap and hand towels to clean themselves. The brothers made space, but the dust on the floor and in the air made this room feel even more cramped. It hardly felt like a change from the last three weeks. Shigeo wiped a clean place to sit with a dirty sleeve of his tunic.
“Have you been thinking of what we’ll do now?” Ritsu asked sitting in the dust, unable to care if his space was dirty or not.
“I haven’t.” Shigeo replied with a sigh.
Ritsu nodded absentmindedly but there was a hint of disappointment in the movement. Shigeo felt guilt creeping into his chest. He was the older brother and he should have this figured out, but his mind was blank. Just like back at the Keep he was so consumed with his own stress. He was useless as an older brother.
“I’m really proud of you, you know that right?” Shigeo told him suddenly. He couldn’t remember if he had even thanked Ritsu yet, Ritsu sat stunned while Shigeo had more to say, “I don’t know what to do. I don’t even know anything useful but you got us here. I’m sorry… I’m- if I was half the brother you are I’d have an idea but, I have nothing. I have nothing.”
“You’re a great brother!” Ritsu crawled across the floor to his brother, their knees knocked together as Ritsu grabbed Shigeo’s sleeves, “I- I wouldn’t trade any other brother in the world for you! I had to get you out of there. You were suffering.”
“Now you are comforting me again.” Shigeo wiped an eye, “That’s supposed to be my job.”
“Who cares?” Ritsu asked.
Shigeo was going to say ‘I do’ but he noticed Recovery Girl hiding by the door watching them. Ritsu followed his gaze and he broke away from his brother. Recovery Girl sighed out of sight before she entered.
“I didn’t want to interrupt but I have a bath ready for you.” She said and left the doorway, the order to follow her went unsaid.
They followed her to the sliding door along the wall opposite of the door to her clinic.
“I thought we couldn’t go outside?” Ritsu asked to be sure, prepared to step out of sight as she reached for the handle.
“I set up something. Its temporary.” She said, “I use the private room at the bath house but you can’t just walk there for obvious reasons right now. There is a basin in the back for you two. Leave your clothes by the door here okay?”
They nodded and she slid open a door and sheets were hung from a wooden overhang that blocked off all view of the yard. To the right of the door was a tub, soap, and two short stools. She gestured to the boys to get moving and closed the door behind them. The brothers undressed and dropped their clothes by the screen door. The ground was mostly hard packed dirt, and it was cold and gritty on their feet.
The water was warm but it cooled quickly in the chill spring air. The brothers were shocked to see the water run brown off their skin. They took turns scrubbing their skin with the bar of soap Recovery Girl left for them until the water ran clear. What looked like a tan was a layer of dust and dirt that was turning into silt at their feet. With their skin clean and slightly tacky from soapy residue, they took turns washing each other’s hair.
It was a careful process to scrub soap through each other’s greasy hair, and rinse, without either brother touching any of their freshly cleaned skin to the dirt. They shivered in the wind and the water had gone cold a while ago. The bath had been nice, but without clean clothes to change back into, it felt pointless to the brothers.
So when they saw two clean kimonos and towels waiting for them at the door they were pleasantly surprised. They inspected the clothes, maybe a little big, but definitely not Recovery Girl’s size like they first feared. Dressed in clean clothes and freshly bathed brought a sense of relief the brothers didn’t realize they needed.
“No need to cry Ritsu.” Shigeo pointed out Ritsu’s watery eyes knowing full well his were the same.
“Yes big brother.” Ritsu said with a breathy laugh.
They opened the door and Recovery Girl was reclined in a chair reading. The brothers brushed off their feet with the towels and went to their room without either party saying a word. The futon was rolled out with a pillow for each of them. The brothers climbed into bed and laid in the dark, listening to the other breathe, unable to start a conversation. Hard earned habits die harder it seems. They slipped into sleep without realizing it and didn’t stir the rest of the night.
-The 21th of Neir, 2nd month of year 3245-
No one woke them the next morning. Ritsu came to in the dark, windowless room. The only light sources were from under the door than came in and the light from another door to his right he hadn’t noticed last night. A stack of boxes obscured the bright line but it was there. Just beyond, Ritsu could hear a muffled conversation was taking place. Shigeo was already awake and he was staring at the ceiling with a serious expression.
“Good morning.” Ritsu coaked, his throat was uncooperative this morning.
Shigeo turned his head, startled out of his thoughts, “Good morning Ritsu.”
“What are you thinking about?” Ritsu asked, he arched his back and stretched his chest and shoulders but he didn’t get out from under the covers, they were too warm.
“The future.” Shigeo said flatly.
“Any thoughts to share?”
His brother paused, the corners of his mouth dipping down into a brief frown, “None.”
“Me neither.” Ritsu rolled his head so he was looking up at the ceiling again.
“You just woke up.” Shigeo said bluntly.
“So I don’t have any thoughts yet.” Ritsu said lightly. He smiled to himself in the dark, then he rolled his head to the side to look at Shigeo, “Do you think that old lady is awake?”
He nodded in head, his hair was messy before, but it was fluffed into a halo around his head now, “She got up a while ago. I think she had an appointment with someone. I can hear them talking in the next room over.”
Ah, so that's what that room is , Ritsu turned his head toward the door, just able to make out Recovery Girl’s voice, “Do you think she’ll really kick us out if we don’t come up with some kind of a plan?”
“No,” Shigeo said with a level of certainty Ritsu didn’t share, “I think she is really nice. Nicer than she wants us to think.”
Ritsu could see that. She seemed soft on them but they were rather pathetic sight to behold right now.
Being in such a dark room was disorienting. Not nearly as disorienty as it was waking up in some of the other places they have over the last three weeks, but Ritsu couldn’t tell if it was morning or the afternoon. He was warm and tired enough to fall back asleep were it not for the gnawing hunger in his gut. Shigeo’s stomach growled and he tried to play it off like he didn’t hear it. When Ritsu’s stomach growled in a call and response, Shigeo immediately sat up.
“Let’s go and ask for something to eat.” He said as he got out from under the covers.
Ritsu watched him fix his kimono and try to smooth down his hair, while Ritsu waited till the last second to pull himself from the warm covers. They padded lightly down the hall, the wood was cold, and slightly rough on their feet. It was in need was sanding and polish, but that seemed like work that was beyond the arthritic capabilities of the elderly woman. Breakfast hopefully, was not.
They made it to the living space, the rectangle room was still a tightly fitted combination of kitchen, dining, and living room. The brothers couldn’t help but compare it to the academy rooms. Even at the boarding school, their dorms were bigger, but Recovery Girl somehow made her whole life fit into this space. Maybe the extra space wasn’t necessary to begin with.
Recovery Girl wasn’t there, and the brothers sat at the table and waited. They discussed the future but their plans always seemed to fall apart under the slightest scrutiny. It was hard to plan for a new life when you didn’t know how to live one on your own. When Recovery Girl returned the brothers were having a hushed conversation.
“Good morning. Are you two hungry?” She greeted them.
They nodded their heads earnestly, and Recovery Girl clenched her jaw to keep from smiling. She refused to believe that she was feeling the beginnings of a fondness for the boys. Shou couldn’t have read her so well.
“Have you two decided what you want to do?” She asked on her way to the kitchen, she had some rice left over from her breakfast that morning.
It would be cold but a fried egg might make it easier to swallow. Not that they were in a position to complain about what she did or didn’t give them. As for her question, she didn’t get an answer. A hollow silence filled the room instead. She glanced back at the brothers who were looking down, their lips pressed in thin trembling lines and their brows knitted together.
“Have you thought about…” She started to offer ideas to brainstorm solutions but she stopped herself. She knew what she wanted to ask and she didn’t give herself a moment to get cold feet, “Would you two like to stay here?”
The brothers heads’ snapped up at the same time. They looked at her wide eyed and hopeful, waiting with baited breath for her to rip the rug out from under them. She preceded carefully.
“There is one condition,” She stated with such a tone that ensured they understood this was a point she couldn’t compromise on, “You would become my apprentices and you’d become Disciples when you were done.”
That hopeful look from Ritsu was significantly more distrustful now.
Shigeo just seemed confused by the offer, “We aren’t really looking for religion right now.”
Blunt , Recovery Girl didn’t betray her surprise or lack thereof, “You would be allowed much more freedom of movement, no one would question why you are here if they think you were sent here to be my apprentices.”
That might be less of a farce than she was letting on if her suspicions of Shou’s intentions were correct.
“While you are here I can teach you how to take care of yourselves. Eventually you’d be independent Disciples so I would be setting you up for failure if you didn’t know how to at least cook for yourselves.” She added.
“I don’t understand how a veil and joining one of the most identifiable religious organizations will make us stand out less .” Ritsu’s lip curled slightly in disgust, “Also, why do we have to join? Why can’t we just stay and wear the veils?”
“Because if you get found out that you are not in the order and wearing the veil people will ask a lot of questions you cannot answer. Especially if the Order decides to check in.” Recovery Girl answered, then she gave a reason she hoped would sweeten Ritsu to her proposal, “You might not understand since you haven’t seen Disciples and how people interact with them, but the modesty veil is highly respected. People respect the anonymity of Disciples of the Lady of the Mist. They don’t ask questions as to where Disciples come from, where they are going, or who they were . A Disciple’s time is considered valuable and people don’t waste it. No one wants to lose the Lady or her order’s favor by preventing them from saving someone because of stupid questions. Although, if it makes you feel better, think of it less like a religion and more like guild with a specific uniform.”
Ritsu was looking less guarded, and he was considering the option more.
“Would you really not help someone if they asked too many questions?” Shigeo asked cautiously. Shigeo’s doubt suddenly turned Ritsu against the idea judging how quickly the combative look returned to his eyes.
Recovery Girl sighed, these boys were going to fight her on this, and she’d prepared for this possibility but it was still annoying, “Of course not, but people believe what they want anyway. It just happens to work in your favor.”
Neither brother made a move for or against her proposal but they were considering it greatly. During the pause in the conversation, she fried an egg for each of their bowls of rice and placed the bowls in front of them. The stone wear clattered noisily on the table. Ritsu reached up and stopped his while Shigeo let it settle on it own.
“I’ve got to go to the front, but take your time to think about it.” Recovery Girl said and she left.
“I think we should do it.” Shigeo said after a long moment of careful deliberation.
Ritsu cocked his head slightly, “Why? Are you saying we join a religious order?”
“How is that crazier than anything we’ve done up to this point?” Shigeo asked and he forged onward despite Ritsu’s objections, “We don’t know how to take care of ourselves and we have just been presented an opportunity to have a place to stay and have a job. I don’t know how we got so lucky to end up a place where our schooling would make us fit in more than stand out.”
“Yeah but, this sounds like a forever kind of deal.” Ritsu dug his heels in for a reason Shigeo could sense but not identify, “I don’t want to become a priest.”
“I don’t think we are becoming priests, but more like doctors.” Shigeo countered, “I know you’d be great at it.”
“I’m not sure.” Ritsu’s opposition was softened by the compliment and he looked away to blush, “What about mom and dad? Would we have to give up our family to do this? Does joining mean we are giving up our names?”
It was certainly a good question that Shigeo didn’t know the answer to, “We can ask, but I think this might be our answer. It’s not ideal.”
“It’s not ideal.” Ritsu echoed sourly.
Recovery Girl returned about an hour later to the brother still sitting at the table with their empty bowls. Their conversation stopped as she entered and got up and stood in front of her. Their determined faces bored straight into her soul.
“If we join does that mean we give up our mom and dad?” Ritsu asked sternly.
“What?” Recovery Girl exclaimed, “No! You don’t cut ties with your family. I kept in contact with my family until they all died. You just take on a new public name, you can keep your original names to address each other in private if you want.”
The boys whole bodies relaxed. Then they stiffened up and bowed.
“We accept your offer! If you’ll still have us.” They said in unison.
“Already?” Recovery Girl stepped back slightly, “I was going to give you a few days to think about it. It’s a big decision.”
The bothers flinched, hesitation evident across their features but once it had its moment their faces steeled.
“We’re sure.” Ritsu spoke for both of them.
“You are going to wear these veils all the time for the first week. When you eat, and even when you sleep.” She gave them two veils from a small basket in her room.
Shigeo took the rolled veil from Recovery girl. It was tied with silk cord that came undone with the slightest tug. The veil unrolled into about a foot of white semi-translucent fabric what obscured the edges of his fingers. The brothers shared a concerned look. This was the point of no return.
“You need to get used to wearing them all the time.” She continued sternly, catching them both in the eye with her commanding gaze, “I better not catch either of you without them this next week. If I do, I will add a day to your time until I get my seven days from you.”
They both glupped and nodded. Ritsu tied his veil with deft fingers behind his head and Recovery Girl checked his knots and placement with a pleasant smile. Shigeo was still struggling to get the veil high and tight enough when she came over and helped him. She tied it higher on his head than he thought was necessary. It held for about two seconds before it started to slip down his smooth hair. Without blinking, she took two pins out of her hair and clipped the silk stings behind his ears. Shigeo blushed a little embarrassed at his incompetence compared with his little brother.
“Thank you.” Shigeo said softly.
“You seem to have some knowledge already of components and the process of potion making but don’t think for a second you know anything about medicine. I know the academy doesn’t teach or give access to their archive of medical spells to anyone other than their medical students. Starting today you will be studying every book I own in my library. You’ll read one chapter a night until you can identify every plant, mineral, material and tool you could ever come across. I’ll review with you in the evenings and throughout the day. ”
Shigeo and Ritsu took steadying breaths, it was an intense schedule but nothing compared to their time at the Academy.
“You will also be working in the clinic, cleaning and restocking. In addition, you will be observing my work and running errands.” Recovery Girl added, “You are considered my apprentices and if people ask for your names you tell them that. Although, you should also think hard about what names you are going to go by once you are both Disciples.”
“When is that?” Ritsu asked, he was tugging gently on the veil.
Recovery Girl tapped his hand with her cane and he tucked it behind his back out of her reach, but he stopped messing with the veil.
“When you save your first life. There will be a ceremony where you will give them your name. Right now, neither of you could even save yourselves.” She said.
The brothers looked away. Ritsu with annoyance and Shigeo with a hint of shame. She didn’t let them dwell on it for long as she led them to her “library”. It was nothing more than a single bookshelf of identification guides and field notes. She took down four large manuscripts. Two were focused on plants and their uses, one on medical components, and the last was on medical terminology, illness, and treatments. The last one was one of a twelve part series. She shepherded them to their room and the brothers set the books down and cracked open the book on identification of plants when Recovery Girl tapped her cane loudly on the ground. The brothers heads snapped up.
“You study after chores are done.” She said with authority.
The brothers got up and followed her through the relatively simple list of chores. Cleaning, sorting, and taking turns cooking, but as the day went on that list was only the base of what they had to do throughout a single day. One, or both brothers would be pulled from a task to help with a project of Recovery Girl’s. They did repairs for her, ran errands, or helped her with appointments and house calls. Any of these tasks could be five minutes or several hours and when they were done, they had to finish their daily chores. In the evenings they poured over the books in the living space under her watchful eye. Throughout the next day she would quiz the boys on what they studied the night before, and incorporate the information in their extra tasks and duties.
That was their life for the next week. Doing chores, trying to keep their veils from falling off, studying, and sleeping. At the end of the seventh day the two lay exhausted in their beds listening to the movement of another military procession outside.
“Hey, Ritsu.” Shigeo said from his bed.
Ritsu looked over but it was dark and he could only see the rough shape of his brother in the lightless room. Ritsu readjusted his veil when it pulled weird.
“Yeah?” He replied.
“Isn’t it weird how everyone gives us stuff for the shrine to the Lady of the Mist but no one actually asks to visit themselves?” Shigeo said slowly. He sounded tired.
Ritus thought about it. Getting used to walking out in the open with just a veil to hide their face was a slow process but Recovery Girl was right. People respected the Order of the Lady, and left them to go about their business with merely a respectful nod. Even mages gave them only a cursory glance if they thought the brothers weren’t looking. Yet, when they purchased items on their errands they always got something extra for free. The venders smiled pretty and said “for the shine” or “for The Lady”.
“I didn’t think anyone worshiped anything other than the Divine Tree. So, what do we know I guess. We were very sheltered growing up.” Ritsu shrugged.
Shigeo hummed. He was unconvinced but when he didn’t say anything more until Ritsu prompted him.
“What are you thinking about?”
“I-” Shigeo stopped to think a little longer before saying, “I don’t think they do. Not... officially. Are people not allowed to worship other beings in the Empire?”
“Huh… I don’t know.” Ritsu said, “I don’t worship anything.” Ritsu felt Shigeo suddenly shifting around on his side of the futon. His brother was now watching him closely. Ritsu said carefully, “I don’t think I have for a very long time. This Order is just a way to hide for me. What about you? Do you really believe in a Lady of the Mist? Or a divine, world tree?”
Shigeo gave a non-committal noise.
“I don’t want to think that there is something out there deciding who gets to be weak, or who get to be strong you know?” Ritsu said into the dark, he gripped the blankets tightly, “At least if its just random chance, than people can just be responsible for people.”
He felt his hands sweat a little. He’d never really talked about this before and with Shigeo not taking a stance for our against his statement, it felt like maybe his brother didn’t approve. It was suddenly very vulnerable to share such big thoughts. Maybe is was the exhaustion loosening his tongue and making him tread into territory he shouldn’t.
“Makes sense.” Shigeo said not leaning for or against in a way that Ritsu could detect.
“ Yeah .” Ritsu said awkwardly.
“I think there is something out there.” Shigeo said after five minutes of silence startling Ritsu from the cusp of sleep.
“I have felt it.” Shigeo said ominously without elaborating.
Ritsu swallowed thickly. He couldn’t sense things like Shigeo even before his illness, but at that moment Ritsu felt like a thousand pairs of eyes were watching him. He pulled his covers up closer to his face and tried to steady his heart.
Ritsu jumped when Shigeo asked him another question, “Little brother did Recovery Girl give you extra days at the end of the week to wear this veil?”
“Yeah, she assigned me thirteen extra days.” Ritsu admitted.
Shigeo pulled the covers off Ritsu when he sat up to exclaim, “ Thirteen? We’ve only had the veils for seven days?!”
“Shhh!” Ritsu hushed him and yanked the cover back over himself forcing Shigeo to flop back down onto his side of the futon but Ritsu was smiling, “Be quiet.”
“We were only supposed to get one extra day for each day we messed up.” Shigeo said breathlessly laughing.
“You are too loud .” Ritsu whispered.
Ritsu laughed quietly, “I got tired of the veil and took it off a few times. I might have done it whether or not she was in the room watching me.”
“ Ritsu …” Shigeo disappointed tone was marred by his own amused smile.
“Don’t think I haven’t see you do the same thing. You are the older brother. I’m just following your example.” Ritsu accused Shigeo, he could hear his scandalized gasp next to him.
“Never in front of her .” Shigeo said before he threw his pillow and stuck Ritsu in the gut.
In revenge Ritsu clutched it close to his chest and said, “I’m keeping it.”
“Wait…” Shiego whispered as he realized his mistake. Then he snorted.
This in turn made Ritsu choke back a laugh but the horrible gutteral noise he made doing so spurned more giggles out of the two brothers. Neither could stop the giggling once it started. If they commented on it, they broke into a bout of laughter. If they avoided addressing it they laughed harder. The brothers were breathless after about ten minutes struggling to contain themselves. Of course, as they started to calm down, Shigeo had to start hiccuping. A pause of thirty seconds of silence interspersed by Shige’s high pitched squeaking was all they could handle before they both roared with laughter.
Ritsu looked over at his brother and saw him glowing slightly and when he turned to him, his wide, dimpled smile arched joyfully below his bright, red eyes.
“Shigeo!” Ritsu didn’t feel like laughing anymore, “Stop! Your magic!”
Shigeo looked down at his hands and the smile died on his face. The glowing stopped right as a very exhausted Recovery Girl burst into the room.
“Go. To. Bed.” She said somewhere between a demanding and begging them to stop.
The brothers shut up and threw their covers over their head to hide from her burning glare. Shigeo waited until the door closed to ask, “Can you pass me my pillow?”
Ritsu handed it over and asked, “What was that? Don’t you have the artifact on you?”
“I do!” Shigeo replied in a frantic whisper, “I haven’t been without it since…”
“Okay, okay.” Ritsu whispered back to assure his brother, “I believe you... but why didn’t it work then?”
“I don’t…” Shigeo paused to think about it, the silence was uncomfortable, “I sometimes… recently in one of my- my classes…”
Ritsu didn’t like the way Shigeo chewed his words when he mentioned the Advanced Course.
“...my emotions sometimes affect my magic. Like it pulls more power from my Root. Well it happens to everyone but not like it does- We left before my teachers figured out why it started happening.” Shigeo said shamefully.
Ritsu was uncomfortable about those implications, but explained why his brother’s control appeared to be slipping. It didn’t explain why the artifact didn’t suppress his Root. Unless, Shigeo was drawing magic in greater quantities than it could absorb.
“I thought… So does it matter what emotions?”
“I don’t know.”
“I don’t know .” Shigeo turned away from Ritsu, his voice was tight with regret, “Do you think they’ll find us now?”
Ritsu wasn’t sure but he said, “I don’t think so.”
Because it felt like the right thing to say.
“I’m sorry.” Shigeo said softly, “I liked it here. I thought this is a place we might belong.”
Ritsu shifted in the bed suddenly, “Big brother isn’t that a little hasty?”
Ritsu sounded more confident that he actually was and he was thankful for the dark cause it hid his apprehension.
“Is it?” Shigeo’s voice was muffled.
“I’d think so.”
Ritsu heard Shigeo shifting on his side of the futon. Ritsu liked to think Shigeo wasn’t facing away from him anymore based on the thoughtful hum his older brother made.
“Goodnight Ritsu.” Shigeo said with a slightly shaky breath.
“Night.” Ritsu said.
The following two weeks were very tense for the brothers, but no one came for them. Ritsu relaxed but Shigeo seemed more reserved as time went on, although Ritsu didn’t pay it much mind.
This chapter has one of my favorite scenes. I love projecting my sibling relationships onto the Kageyama brothers. The number of times my siblings, my cousins and I have gotten yelled at by each others parents for cackling late into the night is something we have lost count of. Sometimes you are tired and you just gotta laugh at your own laughter.
Chapter 4: Spell Books and Dragon Pins
-The 8th of Icah, 5th month of year 3245-
Shigeo shifted the veil across his nose, it pressed along the bridge and he couldn’t seem to find a spot that wasn’t driving him crazy. He was in the back rooms sweeping the floors. They weren’t required to wear the veils constantly anymore, but the workroom opened directly outside and once or twice people have entered bringing supplies for Recovery Girl. Nothing was coming in today, so after a quick glance around checking for Recovery Girl, he took off the veil and let it hang under his chin like a translucent white beard.
Spring had transitioned to summer and the brothers had slowly transitioned from books to practical lessons. Today was Shigeo’s turn to brew potions, mix medicines, and create the salves using the recipes Recovery girl had left for him. Shigeo found the set recipes and simple maths led to an easily structured day and had come to enjoy it more than dealing with people on the clinical side of the house. Downside was it also meant it was his turn to clean the back room while he watched potions brewing.
It was when he was crouching and sweeping the pile of dirt into his dust pan that Shigeo noticed a book that had fallen back behind one of the shelves. He swept up his pile and set the pan and broom to the side. Shigeo quick tucked the loose end of his veil into his kimono and got onto his stomach to get a better look.
It was a book.
Maybe a journal or notebook that was about the two hands wide and two hands tall. The leather book was bound with a braided grass cord. Most of the color and details were covered in a thick layer of dust, dirt, and bits of crushed plant matter that had settled along the edge of the wall where the book was currently trapped. Shigeo had to wiggle under the shelf to about his shoulders to reach it.
He came out coughing and covered in dirt. He patted his hair, clothes and veil clean, watching puffs of dust flying into the air and catching in the beams of light from outside. The veil would need to be washed again, but it was worth it as Shigeo turned over his prize. The hard leather cover was a deep earthy brown that once had been accents of green, but age seemed to have faded the color.
Shigeo ran his fingers along the design pressed into the leather on the front. It seemed familiar and he got up and found a cleaning cloth on the work table. Shigeo pausing to take a quick glance at the potions simmering on the burners. They were fine so he left them alone and turned his attention fully on the book.
Shigeo’s heart beat fast as he wiped the dirt away and the impressions in the leather became visible. It was a spell book. He’s hands trembled as he undid the cord binding it shut and his fingers were clumsy as he hurried through the motions. With great fervor he opened to a random page near the end.
Shigeo flipped through the book from start to finish. Only about a third of the pages held spell equations and those that were there were very simple. Recovery Girl didn’t have magic, her root had, like most people her age, shriveled up with disuse. If she had healing magic she wouldn’t be in some random frontier town, she would be in a city working in a big hospital or she would be in the capital as a member of Claw.
Was this one of her family member’s? Shigeo wondered, studying a spell equation meant for healing small cuts, Should I ask her?
Shigeo envisioned that conversation ending poorly. She didn’t talk about her family or her past really. She said she is too old to be saddened by old memories all the time. So, Shigeo imagined he’d get no answers and end up bookless. Shigeo tucked the book inside his kimono to show Ritsu. They would have their fun and Shigeo would return it a day or two later with Recovery Girl none the wiser. He went about his day like nothing had happened and didn’t say anything to Recovery Girl or Ritsu during dinner about what he found.
Ritsu had started the dishes while Shigeo cleaned the dining area. The brothers had started to find their space in Recovery Girl’s home. They had replaced the clinic stools the brothers were using in their first few weeks with newly purchased chairs. The brothers also got their own dishes and utensils to eat with, and that was only the start. Recovery Girl’s home had changed a lot in the last three months since the brothers started living there. It was a little more cramped in the sitting area and around the dining area, but with two able bodied boys at her disposal Recovery Girl had set them to work on projects she couldn’t do alone.
The living area was clean. Wear and tear that went unaddressed for so long was fixed and painted over, and the most difficult, but needed change was the floor. The rough and uneven boards were sanded down or replaced and it was given a new polish. No more did they have to tread carefully across the floor to avoid splinters in their feet, or jamming their toes. The brothers didn’t understand how the little old woman survived it for so long, as she was largely dependent on her cane.
It was the smallest place Shigeo had lived to date, but it was his favorite yet. They didn’t have much space, he and Ritsu, but the little room once cleaned out, was still theirs. The room was too small for two futons, but once they pushed the one they shared into one of the corners, there was enough room for a single desk and two chairs to study at. Everything they had, they shared now.
Tensions rose sometimes, but at the end of the night, they laid shoulder to shoulder, hands clasped together as they listened fearfully to the passage of military troops. Even though they didn’t pass through the town as often anymore. Every time they heard the rhythmic beat of boot and hoof outside the town’s meager wooden walls, the brothers prayed they didn’t stop and just continued northeast to the border.
When they finished cleaning up dinner Ritsu asked, “Is there anything else?”
Recovery Girl looked up from her chair in the sitting area and said, “No, you two did good today. Go study.”
Shigeo got up from the chair he was resting in, but in his hurry to get back to his room his balance was off and it was much more awkward and loud than he intended. He started to shuffle to their room, holding the book to his side with one hand to keep it from slipping to the floor.
“Shigeo.” Recover Girl called after him, “Come here.”
Ritsu saw the nervous sheen of sweat on Shigeo’s forehead and the tense look in his eyes and mouthed, What did you do?
Shigeo didn’t acknowledge his question and walked back with an apprehensive jitter to his movements. Recovery Girl eyed him carefully, and by the time Shigeo reached her, he could see she had a laundry list of things noted in her head that seemed off about him.
She grabbed her cane and pulled Shigeo’s face down to her level, hooking the knotted head of the cane on the back of his neck. Her hand felt along his forehead and cheeks and she pulled on his lower jaw to look in his mouth.
“Have you been hiding something from me?” She asked and Shigeo gulped feeling the book tucked at his waist and the bead thrumming to life to counter his rising anxiety, “Are you sick? You haven’t been trying to treat yourself have you? I haven’t taught you how to prescribe medicine yet. I don’t care how far ahead you have read, if you are feeling sick come to me okay?”
Shigeo nodded but didn’t say a word fearing he would say something to get her to ask more questions. The book felt so bulky and massive in his kimono.
“You haven’t been looking good lately. You are peaked and I noticed you’re unstable on your feet. Are you sick? Or have you touched something in the back room you weren’t supposed to?”
Shigeo shook his head no, it wasn’t a lie if she was talking about mishandling toxic components and not spell books. She hadn’t made them mix anything with toxic ingredients yet anyway. Her eyes squinted into thin, distrustful slits.
“Ritsu take your brother to bed. No studying tonight, just rest.” She unhooked her cane from Shigeo’s neck and leaned back to her chair.
Shigeo bowed slightly and hurried down the hall with his brother following closely behind.
“Shige what was that about?” Ritsu asked, once he closed the door behind him, “Have you been feeling sick and didn’t tell me? We share a bed, I would like to know.”
Shigeo flopped onto the futon with an exasperated sigh. He covered his face with one arm, and pulled out the book he was hiding, holding it high in the air.
“I thought she found out I had this book.” He said wiggling it in the air for his brother.
“You have what?” Ritsu sat by his brother and took the book out of his hands and paged through it, “Brother… this is a spell book. Where the hell did you find this?”
Shigeo spread his arms to his sides, “Under a shelf in the workroom. It looks like its been there for years .”
“Does she have a Root?” Ritsu asked, flipping between the last written page and the start of the empty section of the book.
Shigeo shook his head, “No. If she did, it withered up decades ago.”
“This could be decades old.” Ritsu said while peering closely at the blank pages, “She only had equations in here that a kid might learn in their first year… wait.”
“What?” Shigeo sat up and looked over Ritsu’s shoulder.
“Can’t you sense the magic off this thing?” Ritsu asked cocking his head to the side to look up at his brother.
Shigeo shook his head no. He hadn’t really been feeling for anything, with the bead suppressing his magic his sense of magic was muddled.
“Are you sure Ritsu?” Shigeo asked, “You haven’t had the best senses since… you know.”
Ritsu shot him a dirty look and said, his voice thorny, “There is some kind of illusion spell or something hiding information on these pages. They have a sheen to them that you only see on enchanted paper.”
Shigeo looked closely at the pages, they reflected light from the lamp in the room but it just looked like very smooth paper. Focusing on the pages more caused the bead in his pocket to thrum to life and eat the magic before he could use it.
“Look all the pen lines smeared onto other pages except these two pages,” Ritsu had the book open to the last written page and the first blank, clean page.
It wasn’t too noticeable but there was a contrast between the clean, almost emalculate pages found in the last two thirds of the book, compared to the age weathered appearance of the first third.
Ritsu slapped the book with the back of his hand, “Just take the bead and set it on the blank page. If there is an enchantment I bet it’ll cancel it out.”
Shigeo took out the red bead and rolled it between his fingers. His skin tingled where the bead rolled along it. He touched it to the blank paper. For a second nothing happened but like watching milk spiral into a drain, the white on the paper was pulled into the bead leaving behind a page of spell equations. The brothers shared a shocked look and frantically dispelled the remaining pages until they uncovered four very long, very detailed healing spells.
“I didn’t know healing magic was so complicated.” Shigeo flipped between the ten pages that comprised half of the first, and shortest spell.
“I knew it was difficult but this is insane.” Ritsu’s mind was working quickly to decipher the glyphs and equations in front of him.
“She told us to go to bed.” Shigeo said after a beat of silence.
“She told us not to study, and to rest.” Ritsu countered, “This is practically leisure.”
Shigeo knew he should have been responsible, but instead his curiosity kept his mouth shut. They hungrily went page by page through the book. Eventually, they brought writing material to the futon and began breaking down the spells, going late into the night.
Shigeo started to gather their notes and hide them under the futon after he fell asleep for the third time. Ritsu didn’t have enough fight in him to stop Shigeo from plucking the book out of his lap and hiding it under the futon as well. The next morning Recovery Girl had to give them the day off to recover from their sudden illness.
The brothers kept the book secret from Recovery Girl. It took them about two weeks of concentrated study to crack the first spell. They even burned through Ritsu’s Birthday, requesting the day off to explore the mountain and instead walked somewhere and study it undisturbed.
The discovery was rather anticlimactic once the brother’s realized it was just a bigger, more energy expensive version of the smaller wound healing spell already in the book. Although, Ritsu was impressed with the craftsmanship it took to streamline the spell and the energy output so it reduced the chance of rebound that could kill the caster or the patient.
Shigeo didn’t fully understand Ritsu’s enthusiasm for the fine details, but the sigil was rather beautiful. It was a painstaking process decoding and finding the right components for the ink, and it took just as long to learn how to properly draw the sigil. He eyes traced along the intertwining circle of fifty or so looping lines that flowed in and out of each other. It was like capturing the motion of an entire river in one condensed still image. He placed his hand in the center of the sigil imagining what it would be like to use his magic for something like healing everyday.
“Brother?” Ritsu stopped his impromptu lecture on spells, and watched his brother resting his hand on the sigil.
Shigeo took his hand off and set it in his lap, “We should give Recovery Girl the book back.”
“We…” Ritsu started to say but he looked at the book and their notes. They were falling behind on their studies with Recovery Girl. If she didn’t suspect something, which she did, she’d figure them out soon. So he nodded, “Yeah, we should. What were we going to do with this anyway? I can’t cast spells, let alone one this powerful.”
“And I can’t really cast spells right now either.” Shigeo stated, but something about this was nice. It was familiar.
“I kinda felt like old times.” Ritsu stuck the nail on the head and Shigeo murmured in agreement, Ritsu said softly, “I know we hated the academy but- I kind of miss it. Well some of it.”
Shigeo examined the sigil more, he saw curtains of black silk and heard a joyless voice the longer he dwelled on the past, he mumbled, “I don’t know.”
“That’s all I knew. It’s weird to think we can’t go back.” Ritsu leaned back on his arms, “I miss my friends.”
“I understand.” Shigeo patted his brother’s shoulder, he didn’t quite feel the same but he could understand, “It wasn’t all bad there, but… I think I like it here better still, and we shouldn’t be lying to Recovery Girl.”
“Alright, but who is going to tell her?” Ritsu stared pointedly at Shigeo.
Shigeo took the book and left the room without Ritsu. Apologies and explanations formed in his head as he walked down the hall and spotted Recovery Girl sitting in her chair, eyes closed.
“Shigeo?” She opened her eyes and her gaze drifted down to the book he was nervously holding in his hands, her eyes focused intensely in a moment of recognition, “Where did you find that?”
Shigeo’s elaborate apology and explanations died on his lips as he stepped forward and held the book out for her, “I’m sorry. I found it in the workroom and I was curious so I opened it.”
“You saw them?” She took the book and opened it, flipping towards the end to the advanced spells.
“Yes, and the ones hidden behind the enchantment.” Shigeo nodded remorsefully.
“You shouldn’t have done that.” She said with a sigh, her tone not angry or even disappointed but sad and longing, “How did you break the enchantment?”
Shigeo hesitated but he removed the bead from his pocket, “I have been using this. I’m- I don’t know how much you were told, but my magic is unstable and I use this to help control it.”
She held out her hand and Shigeo placed it in her palm. She rolled it around for a while and gave it back.
“I want you to be careful with that.” She told him, “Carrying gems without some kind of protective casing can be dangerous. I made the mistake once in my youth, no amount of healing magic can reverse the adverse effects of a powerful gem. It’s a reason people imbed magic gems and stones in rings and amulets.”
She got up and left to her room and returned a few minutes later with a hair pin. She popped loose a pearl from the mouth of a coiled dragon and put the bead in its place.
“Since you think I don’t know you remove your veil all the time in places you shouldn’t, I am going to give you this. Its my old pin and it’ll hold up your veil better.” She tucked the pin in his hair behind his ear, the tingling, numbing sensation disappeared but the effect on his magic didn’t waiver. She stepped back and said, “The alloy its made out of is for magic gems. I’d imagine it a little more comfortable than having it directly touching your skin.”
Shigeo touched it lightly, but he looked at the pearl-like gem, “What did that used to be?”
She wrapped the pearl in a silk cloth, looking at it both sadly and fondly, “Just an old charm I used in my youth. It’s not much use to me at this age but maybe another maiden or gentleman, might be interested in it. You’re a little young yet to need something like this... It’ll need a new casing though before someone new takes it.”
It was vague but it was enough of an answer for Shigeo right now. He shuffled his feet awkwardly. He didn’t have much more to say, but the expectation of a punishment kept him standing there. Recovery Girl paged through the book, a sadness in her eyes that came when she was remembering something. Shigeo hoped he wouldn’t have that look in his eyes when he was older but he supposed he wasn’t much different. He had a lot of sad memories to look back on already.
“You can go.” She said as she closed the book, tying the braided cord shut.
“Really?” Shigeo half turned away, unsure if this might be a trap. Not that she has ever done it before, but there was a first for everything.
“I think you coming forward and telling the truth shouldn’t be punished. I wish you would have come sooner but, I am happy you came to me at all.” She said with an understanding that Shigeo didn’t know he needed from her, “Those spells, you wouldn’t be able to cast them without a Healing Root anyway. So… you can go.”
“I’m sorry.” He apologized again and left.
He returned to the room and Ritsu sat up on the futon and turned on the lantern.
“I didn’t hear a thing. Was she angry?” He asked.
Shigeo replied with a small shake of his head, “No she was… sad but not about us. It was something else she remembered I think... but, she didn’t punish us. She was happy we told the truth.”
“Really?” Ritsu said with the same disbelieving tone Shigeo had.
Shigeo got into bed next to his brother.
“New pin? Wait, is that the gem from Shou?” Ritsu turned on his side to examine the pin.
“Yeah, it is. Recovery Girl gave it to me.” Shigeo unclipped it from his hair and clipped onto his clothes, “I like it better here, at this house. I think I’ll look back and smile at these memories.”
Ritsu cocked an eyebrow at the odd statement but he didn’t say anymore about it. The brothers bid each other goodnight.
Chapter 5: Lost in the Mist
TW: Blood, minor descriptions of injury/wound
-17th of Mazecus, 6th month of year 3245-
A few weeks had past and the brothers let the spell book fall from to the back of their minds. They sat in the front room on stools behind a long counter waiting for walk-ins and appointments. Very little was scheduled today. No company of soldiers outside, no infants on their way in, or elderly on their way out, and no surgery. Not that surgeries in the frontier were planned . What people did need were treatments for allergies now that the late summer weeds were coming into season. Sporadic. Mundane. Routine.
Resting their elbows on the front desk, they read through the new books from the Order of the Lady that Recovery Girl had requested for their studies. Shigeo and Ritsu turned the page on their respective books and sighed deeply. It was a boring day.
Ritsu glanced up when he heard the hard gallop of horses and the clatter of a wagon being dragged behind them. The few people milling about in the street in front of the clinic stopped to stare. There was shouting as the wagon drew closer and it interested Shigeo enough to look up sleepily from his book. People scattered as a flat bed wagon drove up recklessly and skidded to a rough halt in front of the clinic. Horses huffed and danced in place, stomping the dirt, still agitated. Two men leapt down from the sides.
Both brothers froze, not processing fully that the men carried weapons, but wore no uniforms. They were disheveled, dirty and sweaty and their faces were drawn into tight, grim frowns. A girl wailed in the back of the cart out of view as the two men carried in a third man on a litter improvised using a cloak and some tree branches. It was soaked in blood.
Blood ... Right .
Ritsu and Shigeo sprung up from their chairs, the eldest led the men to the exam room while the younger sprinted to the back yelling for Recovery Girl. Shigeo directed them toward the exam table, his hands shaking. He tried to ignore the full body tremble he had as he started to set up everything Recovery Girl would need to treat-- Shigeo hadn’t even look at the wound yet.
The room was hot and the smell of blood permeated the air and seeped into his pores. Shigeo turned slowly and approached the table. Yet he couldn’t pull his eyes up from the floor.
“It’s okay you don’t have to look kid. What are you eleven? Twelve?” The voice was strained but clearer than Shigeo expected, “Really, there isn’t much you can do for me now.”
It was enough to make him look up at despite the permission the patient gave him. The blood rushed from Shigeo face so quickly he thought he might faint. The man was younger, mid to late twenties, light brown hair slicked with sweat and blood as he nervously swept his hair back with one hand, while his other held his abdomen together.
“I said you didn’t have to look, and you looked.” He gave Shigeo such a sad, apologetic expression.
Shigeo observed his deathly pale face, his clammy skin and dilated pupils. All that and his strange alertness in spite of his injury struck Shigeo as signs of shock. There wasn’t much Shigeo could do, he couldn’t even treat the shock without risking further injury to the wound and aggravating the bleeding.
Ah, yes the bleeding, Shigeo thought numbly and found the sterile packing cloth and attempted to stem the bleeding. His movements got faster as each cloth he put into the wound was dyed red and soaked in blood immediately. Shigeo knew how much blood was in the human body, but it looked like so much more when it was pooling in places it wasn’t supposed to be.
“Hey kid, breathe,” The man said gently, even through the pain. He touched Shigeo’s forearm, leaving a three finger smear of blood.
Shigeo’s magic prickled under his skin while the red marks felt heavy, pinching Shigeo in between them. He squashed down the rising tide of emotion and magic and kept packing. Shigeo needed to let the pin eat the magic building under his skin, dwelling on his thoughts was only going to get him into trouble. Sparing a frantic glance, Shigeo acknowledged Recovery Girl and Ritsu as they entered the room. Recovery Girl didn’t address Shigeo, her focus was on the wound.
When she spoke her words were sad, “Arataka what did you do this time? Did having that girl under your wing teach you nothing?”
Ritsu started gathering clamps and suture materials and placing them on the table while Shigeo kept packing. The blood was smeared up past his wrists now and he was going to run out of cloth soon. Fortunately Ritsu brought him another basket, and Shigeo stuffed away his anxiety with each cloth while Ritsu set up the station for Recovery Girl.
She seemed so still among the frenzy of the two boys. Shigeo watched out of the corner of his eye as the man’s calm facade started to crack.
“ I know you know what this looks like…. What this is. ” He said with a finality that made the hair on Shigeo’s arms and the back of his neck raise.
“I don’t know how you are still alive.” Recovery Girl said dismally.
“Healing charm, she used it so I could make it here.” He scoffed like the girl outside had spent their grocery money buying the wrong items and now he had to suddenly rework his plans for dinner. As he spoke his voice started to drift, “I don’t want her to see this. I- I don’t want the kids present. Can you-?”
“I understand.” Recovery Girl didn’t argue, and she put a hand on Shigeo’s shoulder, “You can stop now.”
“Wha- what?” Shigeo shook his head and kept packing.
She grabbed his arm and pulled him away from the table, “Stop! There is nothing we can do for him.”
Magic swelled in him like wave and she had a curious expression on her face looking at him. It took the bead a second to catch up with the surplus energy and Shigeo’s magic mellowed. Shigeo’s emotions couldn’t seem to do the same.
“Go, leave the room and wash yourselves up, I’ll handle it from here.” She told them kindly but she had a firm grasp on their arms as she pulled them from the room.
The girl was sitting in one of the chairs, her short black hair in wet clumps. She was praying frantically, squeezing her hands together so forcefully her forearms shook. As the door opened, she leapt up and walked towards Recovery Girl. She didn’t seem to register the boys, nor Shigeo’s bloody hands and clothes. Not that he looked much different than her in her blood splattered padded armor.
“I- used that charm it’s the only thing I had! Please tell me it’s enough! I tried to dodge I swear… he didn’t have to-” Her words broke apart as Recovery Girl met her anxious ramblings with a cool, somber expression, “It was enough wasn’t it?”
“Go now. I have to talk with her.” Recovery Girl said quietly to them, her eyes and voice were so severe the brothers fled the room. Whatever she had to say it was going to be a very difficult conversation. As they exited she turned to the girl, “Tome I’m sorry--”
The brothers started toward the backyard well. Shigeo was numb, or maybe he had too many emotions he’d crammed down that were trying to force their way through him at the same time. He wanted to turn around and run back into that room and try harder, but, at the same time, Recovery Girl gave him permission to rid himself of the responsibility.
Shigeo couldn’t. That man would rather die alone in that exam room than have that girl watch him go in such a painful manner. Shigeo still could feel the gentle touch and words as he tried to protect him from the same trauma. The sadness in his eyes when he had failed.
Shigeo hadn’t thought of all the people they might not be able to save. Injuries too grave and illnesses too great for thread and medicine. Recovery Girl had never shielded them from the possibility, but Shigeo felt the failure intimately and he didn’t know why.
He was a kind soul but, there was nothing that Recovery Girl could do. Shigeo stopped a step away from the screen door as the memory came to him and his shame suddenly made sense. He turned on his heel toward his room, I can’t let him die. I can’t- I can’t. Not if there is something I can do.
“Shigeo?” Ritsu called after him, but Shigeo tuned him out.
Shigeo, with bloody hands, started shuffling through the papers looking for the sigil. It had been weeks since they decoded it. Shigeo had given back the book, but he’d kept the sigil. Getting rid of it had crossed his mind many times, but it was beautiful and something deep inside him always convinced him to hold onto it for one more day.
Ritsu slammed the door open, his eyes were wide. The room was scattered with papers smeared in bloody fingerprints.
“Brother what are you doing?!” Ritsu started to collect the papers off the ground.
Shigeo had a face washed clean of all expression, but his eyes were drowning in anxiety.
“I can’t- I can’t find it!” Shigeo tore through the room, books clattered to the ground and Ritsu could only imagine what it sounded like though the thin walls, “Here!”
Ritsu didn’t need to think too hard to realize what Shigeo had just grabbed. His brother forced open the side door on their room and stepped through.
“Shige wait!” Ritsu followed after and his blood froze as he watched his brother remove the pin and set it on the counter with one hand and place the sigil on the dying man’s chest with the other. “You can’t! You’ll expose us both!”
“I can’t let him die.” Shigeo looked up, his veil fell looser on his face, dipping down on his right side but a second later it, and the hair on his head, began to float upwards. His irises were red like liquid rubies and burned with intensity of a fire, “Not if I can do something.”
Shigeo didn’t listen, it was too late, he had already removed the pin. His magic freed at last from the unrelenting siphon of the gem, roiled viciously inside him. He pressed his hand down on the sigil, but nothing happened. He didn’t know what it felt like to draw from the Healing Root and use its energy, and his vast stores of magical power pressed against his hand but stopped, held back by Shigeo’s own lack of understanding. All the spells he cast in his classes were usually destructive, breaking, forcing and melding. Healing seemed to only be comprised of creating. An inkling of terror in the back of his mind, that he was somewhere he didn’t belong, playing with magic he wasn’t meant to use, started to stain his thoughts.
Please… I can’t have exposed myself for nothing. Please work. Shigeo squeezed his eyes shut, trying to imagine what it would feel like to close a wound, or restore blood to the body.
Shigeo couldn’t imagine such things, but he could feel a gentle but steady pressure of someone’s hand on his. It was cool and soothing, and it made him think of water. The thought of the rushing, flowing, cycling of energy. He thought of how his magic entered that cycle and intertwined with the energy in the man. He opened his eyes as the lines of the sigil glowed brightly through his fingers like lines of sunlight.
Ritsu rushed forward and Shigeo flinched, thinking Ritsu was reaching for his hand, but Ritsu went to the man instead. It became a race between Ritsu and Shigeo as he cleared the abdomen while Shigeo closed it. The sigil pulled his magic from his body, but Shigeo had so much to give as hope overwhelmed his nerves. Shigeo’s Root entangled with the man’s Root and Shigeo’s magic flowed from his very core into the wound.
Although, just as Shigeo was getting started, Recovery Girl burst into the room. He was startled by the sudden noise and seeing Recovery Girl’s shocked face. That small terror in the back of his mind that he was playing with forces beyond his understanding expanded into a vast black mark that colored his reasoning at the sight of Recovery Girl’s blanched and furious face. Shiego pulled away from the sigil and the spell forcefully. He felt a cord of his magic pull, snap, and whip back into his body. A weird sensation overcame him as it lashed around wildly inside him. He lurched forward and the room blurred around him. He felt his insides twist like they had turned to mush and someone was stirring their hand vigorously inside him as the spell rebounded. Shigeo stumbled away from the table and he had visions of black silk and a single outstretched hand.
“Brother!” Ritsu grabbed Shigeo to steady him.
Recovery Girl’s expression rapidly changed from anger to horror as she realized what Shigeo and Ritsu were doing. She didn’t address either of them, moving as quickly as her legs could take her to Arataka. Ritsu heard her curse in a word she has never used around them before as she finally started using the suturing tools Ritsu had set out for her.
He placed a hand on his brother’s chest, feeling the rapid, and shallow, rise and fall. His brother’s hair rose around his head like it was caught in a current. Shigeo’s his eyes and skin glowed, back lit by the surge of magic in his body. Shigeo looked up at him with a desperate plea in his eyes.
Ritsu settled his brother against the counter a little rougher than he could have liked, sacrificing gentleness for speed as he searched for the pin. He grabbed it and pressed it into his brothers hand. Shigeo gasped, his eyes shooting open like he’d been stabbed. Ritsu watched the glow fade and his brother’s irises darken.
“Can you stand?” Ritsu asked.
Shigeo shook his head, his face was pale and his eyes listless.
“Is he still breathing?” Recovery Girl asked over her shoulder.
Ritsu’s voice trembled, “Yes.”
“Good, get up here and help me save this man. You’re brother is going to have to fight through this one on his own.” She snapped, but the worry on her face was terrifying to Ritsu, he didn’t want to leave his brother’s side, “Ritsu! Get me the forceps now!”
Ritsu found himself following her orders like his body had entered a stress induced trance. Ritsu and Recovery Girl worked overtop of Arataka and Shigeo. Neither Shigeo, or the man, were focused on much. They stared with glassy eyes into empty space, breathing occasionally.
Shigeo stirred first about ten minutes later, pulling himself into a standing position. Ritsu nearly knocked him over reaching for an instrument Recovery Girl demanded.
“Get him out of here, lay him down in bed, and return right away.” She snapped, that anger back in her voice.
“Is he going to be okay alone?”
“The fact that he didn’t die on the floor just now means that he will survive this.” She said with a clinical steriality that stunned Ritsu.
Her words didn’t seem to stick fully, rebounding off the shock that blanketed his brain. So he brought his brother to the futon and laid him down. Shigeo’s hands were still damp with clotting blood, smearing brownish-red marks across the futon. Ritsu didn’t get a chance to clean his brother off before Recovery Girl was yelling for him to return.
Shigeo slept because he was tired. His dreams were dark and it was a relief to wake from them. His eyes opened to see Ritsu placing his hand on Shigeo’s upper lip just under his nose. Ritsu mouth dropped into a soft ‘o’, as Shigeo’s eyes opened, it was more relieved than embarrassed.
“Are you okay?”
“Yeah.” Shigeo sat up, mostly okay. He was still tired, but he could stand.
Ritsu pressed down on his shoulders, forcing him back into bed, “Wait Shige, don’t get up.”
Shigeo found himself fighting against the pressure until Recovery Girl entered the room, holding the bloody sigil, and snapped, “Lay your ass back down Shigeo! I would expel any other apprentice from the Order without a second thought for a stunt like that, do you understand? If it were not for your unique situation-- Okay, just… You have a lot to explain right now, because you need to convince me that expulsion won’t be unnecessary.”
Shigeo didn’t have words to defend himself, but he did have a reason, “I couldn’t just let him die. Not when I could do something.”
“What you did was so unbelieveably stupid I don’t know how to even explain it to you!” Recovery Girl yelled, “Do you know why there are so few people with Healing Roots?”
Shigeo and Ritsu shook their heads no,
“Because most of them die before the age of twenty-five doing what you just did. You tried to heal a man with no components and no knowledge of how to detangle your Root from your patient! The spell rebound rate of healing spells is so high and you leapt in head first with no protections and no exit plan!”
“I didn’t know.” Shigeo said quietly.
“I know that! I should’ve taught you about healing spells once you brought that stupid book to me. Of course you’d try to use one.” She leaned on her cane, her tone regretful, “I failed you and it almost got you killed. Did you have a healing root this whole time? I never asked because I thought it didn’t matter. You shouldn’t have been able to cast any of those spell anyway. I know neither one of you came from the medical house at the academy. Excuses… It sounds so stupid now.”
“I don’t have a Healing Root, because I have a Tap root.” Shigeo said cautiously, “I’m a True Sorcerer. I am not limited by Root types and I don’t need components to cast spells, except when I am wearing this gem. So when I removed it I didn’t think they would be necessary.”
Recovery Girl stared at Shigeo for a long time. It was so different than how she looked at him before, the surprise, the wonder, and the clear change in how she perceived him. Shigeo felt a thread of sadness latch itself onto this moment as it was etched into his memory.
“So that gem... it was to hide your Root classification, not control your magic?” She asked, and Shigeo could see her perspectives changing and he didn’t know how to stop it before his powers alienated him from another home.
“I- I still have an unstable Root, but no, it wasn’t the main purpose of that gem.” Shigeo said, he couldn’t watch any more and lowered his gaze.
“Alright, If you are going to do this again, I’ll at least have to teach you what I know. It’s been a long time since I could use magic, but maybe you can avoid dying next time.” She said, chin held high with a determined glint in her eyes, that distant analytical look was gone and replaced with a warm, but stern, expression Shigeo had come to know, “That doesn’t give you permission to use any healing spell in the clinic without my approval.”
“I- You are going to let me stay?” Shigeo asked tentatively.
“This is your home,” Recovery Girl, “It would be wrong of me to kick you onto the street because of my mistake. I will teach you what I can about Healing Roots.”
“Did you used to have a Healing Root?” Shigeo sat up and Ritsu was too shocked to stop him, “Why is it gone? You could be using it everyday here.”
That sad look crossed her eyes again, “I used to have one, yes. My connection was broken a long time ago.”
“How?” Ritsu asked, intrigued.
She looked at Ritsu, the sympathetic look in her eyes caught Ritsu off guard, “I was sick for weeks and I nearly died. When I got over the fever and body pains my magic was gone.”
Each word was a heavy stone that pressed heavy on the brothers lungs, forcing the air out. Ritsu took shallow breaths as he listened to her describe his own condition.
“Catastrophic Root degeneration? You had that too?” Ritsu asked, feeling a sense of solidarity.
“That’s the story. A genetic disease that destroys Roots is what the Empire tells everyone, but that's not true.” She told them, their faces were washed in confusion, “It is the work of one man, and he flexes that power of his from time to time to remind others to stay in their place. Sometimes he’ll destroy the Roots of friends or family members to keep someone under his thumb. He did that to my teacher at the medical school when I attended the academy. He took my magic as a warning to her, and she smuggled me out of the capital the moment I was healthy enough to walk.”
“There is no disease?”
“No, the genetic bit was to help explain the randomness of its appearance.” Recovery Girl told them sadly, “also why entire families might come down with the illness.”
“Who?” Ritsu got up and left his brother’s side. His eyes were dark with anger, fear, and an old aching despair that he never lost, “Who did this to me?”
“The Emperor.” She told him and Shigeo watched Ritsu stumble away like she’d struck him in the chest.
Ritsu had hatred and fire in his eyes, but his body drew into itself in fear. Quiet permeated the room. Each person lost deep in thought until Recovery Girl spoke up.
“Have you two thought about names?”
“What?” The brothers latched onto the question to pull themselves from their wayward thoughts.
“You two saved your first life today. It’s time to pick names and give them to that man in there.” She said and the tension in the room eased slowly, “I think you have until morning to decide. He’ll be out for a while between that spell and surgery. Ha! To think in five months you’d walk your way out of the mist. Don’t think for a second that means you’re done with your schooling.”
Recovery Girl left the room with a slight chuckle while the boys could only stare at the door as it closed behind her.
Chapter 6: From the Mist
Shigeo and Ritsu had brief conversations about the names they’d pick, but that was supposed to be years away. Now that it was here, they felt unprepared. They mulled over the decision in their room. Shigeo laid awake thinking of all the names he could have and all the people he could be, but his mind kept returning to the academy. To the Emperor and what he did to him and his brother. Shigeo didn’t understand why he would take Ritsu’s magic. Shigeo had always been good and obedient.
This thought process continued into the next morning during breakfast and their lessons. The focus today was on post-op care, as they tended Regien Arataka’s wounds. Tome returned around lunch, having spent the night at a neighbor’s house. She sat in the lobby, watching people pass in front of the clinic outside. Shigeo offered her some water and food but she turned him down. Her skin was still a sickly pale color and her lips were drawn into a thin line.
“You helped heal him right?” She said blankly.
“Yes.” Shigeo responded.
“Thank you.” Tome closed her eyes and then asked, “What’s your name?”
His name? He still didn’t have one picked out yet. He’d only gone by one other name back at the beginning of his time at the academy.
“I’m—I’m just an apprentice.” He settled on his default answer of the last five months.
She nodded her head in understanding.
“Apprentice,” Recovery Girl stuck her head out of the exam room, “Its time.”
Shigeo nodded his head and entered the room. It was clean, but Shigeo still had the smell of blood in his nose from the day prior. Arataka Reigen was laying on the table, a protective hand still laid over his abdomen, but it was intact, and while there was one long incision from his navel to his right hip, it looked startlingly normal.
“You helped me?” Reigen asked, craning his head to look at Shigeo from the door and following his movements as he stood beside his brother, “I’m sorry you had to see that.”
“They're going to be medical professionals one day Arataka, that won’t be the only wound they'll ever see.” Recovery Girl told him while the boys behind her blanched at the thought.
“First name basis really? Not even a little respect for an injured man? For the World’s Greatest Adventurer?”
“I’ll give you that respect when you stop coming into my clinic for ridiculous things.” She said flatly.
“How is a life threatening injury ridiculous?”
“Everything a self-proclaimed ‘World’s Greatest’ does is ridiculous. I thought you were going to grow up a little bit to take care of that girl. She needs a home, not to be gallivanting around the countryside with some D-list adventurer.” Recovery Girl waved her hand dismissively, but there was warmth to her voice and Reigen, even though his pout had a glint to his eye.
“If she wanted a simple home life she would go back and live with her parents. With me she can exercise her Root and get paid.” Reigen said in a playfully sharp tone.
Recovery girl scoffed loudly.
The brothers shuffled awkwardly in place, waiting for them to finish. Ritsu coughed once to remind the two adults they were still there. They replied with gentle ‘oh’s’ and focused their attention back on the brothers.
Recovery Girl explained proudly, “These two boys are responsible for saving your life.”
“Ah,” Reigen acknowledged positively.
“You were the first life they have ever saved.” She continued and she smiled watching the realization dawn on Reigen.
“Oh!” Reigen jolted up, but he hissed in pain and laid back down. He was focused intently on the two boys, knowing what was about to happen.
The brothers suddenly realized the weight of this ceremony. Shigeo hands were clammy, he thought of names but nothing seemed to fit right and he wanted to ask if they could change it later. But he knew the answer would be ‘no’, but Shigeo thought he’d have a few more years to think about it. Shigeo felt a hand on his shoulder and he jumped.
“Apprentice, you have been without name and without purpose, lost in the Mist. Today you have walked out of the mist, following the call for help of this man, Arataka Reigen. Now that the world can see you clearly, what is your name?” Recovery Girl said with reverence.
Shigeo’s mouth went dry and he looked at Reigen with blank eyes and a blank mind. Silence stretched on for a few minutes. The air was tight with awkward tension.
“Still lost in the mist there?” Reigen joked awkwardly.
Shigeo flushed, and he thought through names quickly in his head. A new name that would be his first step into this new life and one step farther away from the academy but his tongue kept trying to form same old name.
At last, it broke free, “My name is Mob.”
Ritsu kept his head facing forward but his eyes slowly slid to look at his brother. Shigeo could feel the question as Ritsu’s stare implanted it directly into his head. Really? Your old nickname from our first few years at the academy?
“Mob,” Reigen tried the name, he seemed as confused about it as Ritsu was, “Can’t say I haven’t heard weirder.”
“Yep,” Mob nodded, he just wanted him to move on and not focus on it.
“My name is Ritsu.” Ritsu held his head high.
Mob went white as his veil as Ritsu blurted his real name to Reigen. Recovery Girl stepped back so Reigen couldn’t see her disappointed scowl. Ritsu ignored her, his eyes bright and mischievous, and his smile wide and wild, although the veil covered it. Mob’s brother knew exactly what he was doing by picking that name. Ritsu had expressed discontentment with having to pick a secondary name since Recovery Girl first told them about the ceremony. Although he always talked about picking his own name as a joke.
“That is a much more normal sounding name.” Reigen mused bluntly.
Mob involuntarily flinched, regretting his own name a bit. Although, he couldn’t imagine getting away with picking his real name as his Order name.
“Mob and Ritsu, thank you. I really thought I was going to die.” Reigen said gratefully, a warm smile in his eyes, “Tome would probably have turned to necromancy had you not.”
Mob snapped to attention, horror clearly written across his face.
Reigen held up a hand, “I wasn’t being literal kid.”
“Oh,” Mob said very relieved.
A tap of her cane brought the room’s attention to her, “Reigen, I need you to understand that when you leave this room, you have to explain to your party that you were healed with surgery. Not magic. Mob and Ritsu here have a bad history with Claw and we don’t want them snooping around.”
Reigen’s eyes narrowed as he processed her words, “Did those guys we were with stick around?”
“They haven’t returned since yesterday.” Recovery Girl told him.
Reigen nodded, “Then they've already left with the money while Tome was occupied with taking care of me. I doubt we’ll ever see them again.”
“Will you keep this secret?” Recovery Girl pressed again, looking for a solid answer.
“Yes, I will. I don’t know much about Claw other than they're stuffy academics or soldiers. I have never had a good experience with them. One of their officers cheated me out of a couple gold.”
If he was on their side simply because of spite, then that was enough for Recovery Girl.
“Boys, help Reigen with his bandages. I’m going to get Tome, if that’s okay?” She directed the question at Reigen and let the brothers finish replacing any bandages that needed to be changed.
“Yes, I think she has a lot to say to me.” Reigen said, he was a little more nervous than before.
It didn’t take the Kageyama brothers long to finish cleaning up and they were very happy to finally disappear into the back. Tome and Reigen fluctuated wildly between yelling at each other in anger and in relief.
Later in the afternoon, while they were checking in on Reigen again, a procession of horses galloped up to the clinic. They heard at least ten pairs of armored boots land heavily on the dirt street outside.
Recovery Girl greeted the incoming people very loudly, “Well this is a surprise! What business does Claw have in the house of a Disciple?”
The brothers stopped what they were doing, paralyzed by fear. Mob felt the full magnitude of his decision to heal Reigen in that moment as regret surged through him. It had been sometime since he felt the numbness in his skin as the bead worked overtime to contain the surging magic, now that it has happened twice in less than twenty-four hours. Ritsu clutched Mob’s sleeve, digging his fingers into and around the fabric like Ritsu was afraid of falling through the floor without Mob to anchor him.
“These are the guys?” Reigen asked no one in particular but the brothers nodded stiffly anyway.
He and Tome shared a determined look and she stepped over and placed herself in front of the door to the lobby. Reigen still prone, did his best to turn and look into the boys’ eyes.
Mob trembled. His uneasiness oozed from his every feature. He receded in on himself, curling his shouldered in and wiping his face of emotion. Mob looked so small, it broke Reigen's heart. His brother Ritsu had a resolve in his eyes that meant Ritsu was either prepared to fight Claw or take his brother and disappear right then and there. Reigen knew neither option was going to end well for them. They had to convince or trick Claw to turn around right here and now. Fortunately, Reigen was good at tricks.
“Do they know what you look like?” Reigen asked trying to get a clearer idea of the stage he was working with.
The brothers nodded their heads yes. It brought up a slew of questions that Reigen had to squash down and file away for later.
“Do either of you have veils that cover more of your face?” Reigen gestured to his own face, “Maybe something less see through?”
The brothers cocked their heads to the side, intrigued. He took it upon himself to lead them through developing their disguises. They ended up in wide brimmed sun hats with a gauze-like packing cloth quickly thrown over the top. Between the more opaque cloth, and the distance and shadows provided by the brim of the hat, Reigen had easily obscured the boys faces. You couldn’t tell if they were boys or girls under their impromptu veils. It looked a little sloppy, if he was being honest with himself, but who would argue with a priest over religious fashion?
Recovery Girl stalled for as long as she could. When three Claw mages entered the room, they barreled through Tome despite her best efforts to run interference.
“What are you doing? This is a private room!” She tried to cut them off but Reigen could see the murderous looks in their eyes.
This wasn’t time to play around. They were deadly serious.
“Tome!” Reigen hissed and when she looked his way he stared at her, straight in the eyes and shook his head, Back off! This is not a fight you are going to win.
Reigen worried she wouldn’t back off and he was in no position to shield her this time around. She hesitated, but eventually Tome relented, falling back to the side of the room, watching carefully. Out of the corner of his eye Reigen saw the two boys had drifted closer to him, and Reigen realized sickly that he was the only adult in this room that wasn’t there with malicious intent.
Reigen, with a freshly closed hole in his gut was the only thing standing between these two boys and whatever the hell these mages thought they came here to do.
“I don’t know what Claw is doing in my room but I am recovering from surgery and I would like to do so in peace and under the care of these two Disciples.” Reigen said smoothly, letting them believe he thought this was simply a case of entering the wrong room by mistake, “Recovery Girl can direct you to who you’re looking for I’m sure.”
They ignored him and squared up with the two boys. Mob and Ritsu turned away, flinching into each other.
“Hey!” Reigen shouted, he met eyes with Tome and impressed on her his plan.
She seemed to have picked up what he was looking for and edged her way around the Mages and opened the door to the lobby. Soldiers and some curious civilians were gathered around Recovery Girl as she slowly got back to her feet. If that's how they wanted to play, preparing themselves to throw down with twelve year olds, than Reigen would be loud and he would be heard.
“Unless you have something for me, get out of my room!”
The man at the front of the three mages stepped forward toward the boys, his expression was a dark as his black hair, “Kageyama, we-”
“Who?” Reigen put his hand to his ear like he was hard of hearing, “Who is that? These two are Mob and Ritsu.”
The way the mages perked up at Ritsu's name, that actually explained the strange reactions Mob and Recovery Girl had when Ritsu gave his name.
“We are looking for a Ritsu Kageyama,” A red haired woman stepped around intrigued.
“Those are their Order names, not their real names!” Reigen snapped at her. He rolled his eyes like how could you be so stupid? And the woman sneered when she picked up on his expression.
“Then what are your real names? A mage of Claw demands to know!” She turned her anger on the two boys.
“Did you just ask a Disciple for their true name? ” Reigen asked with a theatrical level of disgust and volume.
The woman spun on him, her gritted teeth and red face were ordering him to shut up, but clearly her seething anger, or her embarrassment for stumbling headlong into a social taboo was silencing her instead. Reigen held no fantasies that he could take any of these goons on in a fight of magic or fists, regardless if it was set up in his favor, but he could change the arena and style of combat.
The man at the front seemed less phased, he also seemed older than the other two, addressed the boys again, “We detected a surge of magic nearby that was from a Kageyama Shigeo. No one else in this town has Roots powerful enough to be the source except possibly from someone here. If you are masking your magic somehow, we will find out.”
Mob took half a step back and his brother slowly raised a protective arm in front of him. Their reactions were a dead giveaway and that was enough of a confirmation for the mage to feel bold enough to reach forward and attempt to tear the veils off their heads. If there was one thing Reigen knew about academics and soldiers, if they wanted to get anywhere in life they had to care a lot about their public image.
Reigen had no intentions of going any quieter than a stage whisper.
“I know Claw has never gotten along with Disciples of the Lady of the Mist.” Reigen began loudly.
The black haired man paused inches away from the brothers who scrambled backward in terror. The woman and the other man in the trio had growing looks of unease as Reigen got louder and the people outside got nosier.
“But to harass three Disciples in The Lady’s own house and demand their names, was bad enough.” Reigen spat, “But to actually try and remove their veils in front of all these people? Do you want to get this whole town cursed?”
“Stay away from my apprentices!” Recovery Girl hobbled forward.
“Mages of Claw are attacking apprentices? Do you have nothing better to do than be this cruel?” Reigen cried out dramatically, “Thankfully I was healed before you upset the Lady so.”
Reigen told himself that if he could do life over again he would become an actor. The atmosphere outside the room had steadily gotten more agitated but, the dramatic shift into pure mob-minded aggression following Reigen’s last statement was the sweetest nectar to him. Although it was probably a very bitter pill to swallow for the three mages. Even the soldiers that escorted them had darkened looks. Their lives could depend on the Lady’s favor someday soon.
The mages withdrew slightly. Tome took the opportunity to bleed into the crowd and Reigen could hear her stirring up trouble. She was a little too enthusiastic, and Reigen knew he had to wrap this up soon or they might have a riot on their hands.
“Get out and deal with that crowd!” The black haired mage was clearly the highest ranked, he practically growled, “Shut that door! This’ll be quick.”
Shit! I might have pushed him too far. Reigen’s stomach dropped, “He-hey! What’s that look for? They’re just kids; you don’t—don't do anything rash!”
The mages hands glowed blue and Shigeo reached under his veil to remove the pin.
“ Yeah , don’t do anything rash captain.” said a young voice.
Ritsu had to cover his mouth to keep himself from blurting out Shou?!
Shou didn’t acknowledge the brothers. His eyes were fixed on the captain who straightened up and fixed his hair.
He snapped to attention, “Sir! I didn’t know you were coming on this mission.”
“Really? I got word we found the Empire’s most powerful runaway, whose disappearance is the biggest mystery of the decade and you think I wouldn’t show up? ” Shou stalked forward. He was smiling but his eyes were joyless, “If anything it was a little short sighted not to invite me as I am one of the few people who has actually met Shigeo and Ritsu and could identify them. Instead, ” The mage squirmed slightly as Shou’s tone got more dangerous, “You leave your best asset behind and proceed to harass the Disciples of a small, Podunk, nothing town in front of its small, Podunk nothing people.”
“Sorcerer Superior Suzuki, I-”
“No! I’m speaking now, not you!” Shou slashed his hand through the air, the wave of force from it blasted open the door to the lobby and nearly blew Mob and Ritsu’s veils off, “You’re behavior is unacceptable! If word got out that this is how we conduct ourselves we’d have uprisings along all the borders and in every little town and outpost that prescribes to the Lady’s teachings. Which is a lot of people if you weren’t aware? You are obviously not ready for your rank nor the responsibility it gives you.”
His face was white as he nodded. Shou didn’t release him from his spot and stormed over to the brothers. The severe expression dropped for a second and he winked. Shou seized one of each of their arms and concentrated for a few moments.
He dropped their arms and announced, “It’s not them.”
“How do you know?” One of the mages outside asked, the former-captain inside the room kept his mouth shut.
“I would know if it were them.” Shou said low and threatening.
He wasn’t challenged again, so he turned his attention to the boys and said loudly, “A Healing Root is pretty rare. Would you like to learn medicine at the Academy? There is a spot open for you if you’d like.”
The brothers shook their heads vigorously no.
“Ah, that’s a shame.” Shou hissed, disappointed and then glared at the black haired mage, “Look, you scared away two perfectly good recruits!” He turned to the brothers, “Have a good day… Mob and Ritsu was it?”
“Yes.” Ritsu bowed his head and answered for Mob, who was utterly speechless.
“A pleasure; I’ll be keeping a closer eye on you two now but don’t worry. You’re not in trouble. It’s just part of my job.” Shou said with a smile and he blinked out into the lobby and watched with disinterest as everyone jumped back, “Alright, we are clearing out. Recovery Girl, I apologize and take responsibility for their actions. Claw will pay for any damages, just write down how much and fold it when you are done. I’ll receive it.”
Shou handed her a pink sheet of paper and motioned for everyone to leave. In minutes the horses were galloping off toward the border again, and the few townspeople who were gawking had let themselves out.
The brothers ran from the room to Recovery Girl who was leaning heavily on her cane. She waved them away as they started to fuss over her.
“What are you two wearing?” She pulled off the hats and was startled by the tears in the brothers’ eyes. She pulled them into herself trying provide as much comfort as she could through touch, “That was terrifying wasn’t it? You’re safe now alright? Come on let’s get out of the lobby.”
She guided them to the exam room, followed closely by Tome who broke off and stood next to Reigen.
“I know he might not ask, but what was that about?” Tome asked bluntly.
“Actually, I was going to ask. What did I just watch?” Reigen propped himself up, “Are you two runaways? Do you have parents looking for you?”
“No!” Ritsu yelled, he wanted to dissuade that idea quickly, “We are hiding from Claw because we escaped. We’ve been on the run for months and until my brother healed you, we hadn’t seen any sign of them.”
Ritsu seemed unaware of how his words made both Reigen and Mob looked down shamefully.
“It’s why I asked you not to tell anyone he had magic. We didn’t want claws attention.” Recovery Girl explained.
“Too late for that now!” Reigen exclaimed, “Now everyone knows Mob has a Healing Root and that freaky kid has them on his radar.”
No one corrected his assumption on Mob’s Root, and they let Reigen and Tome hold onto that idea.
Ritsu did step in and say, “Actually that freaky kid is my friend from the academy.”
“Not anymore-” Reigen started to say when it started to click into place, “ He would have known it was you . He helped you escape didn’t he?”
The brothers nodded. Reigen made a contemplative noise and settled back down.
“So, you're both Claw mages?” Tome asked to clarify, “Are they all that young when they start?”
“No,” Ritsu said, “We never got that far in our training. Shou is a child prodigy, so he was initiated earlier this year.”
“Will you keep our secret?” Mob asked quietly, playing nervously with the bottom of his silk veil.
Small talk put Mob on edge. It felt like they were avoiding the core question of if Mob had just cost Ritsu and himself another home.
Reigen and Tome’s heads snapped in his direction and they said as if insulted, “Of course. They were jerks.”
Mob let out a shuddering sigh of relief. He was so tired, and his head had started to hurt as the numbness faded. Ritsu asked if he would like to lay down and Mob nodded and the brothers left the room. Recovery Girl stayed behind to check on Reigen and to make sure they all had their stories straight before continuing forward.
Recovery Girl gathered the boys into the common room. She took out the paper and scribbled a message onto it before folding it in half. She ran her fingers along the crease and little sparks popped between the sheets of paper.
After the last crackle of magical energy Shou apparated into the room with a soft pop . He stood before them and examined the cramped space for a moment. Then he muttered something under his breath and snapped his fingers. The room buzzed with magic and the sounds outside muffled.
“Alright, that was a close one.” Shou pinched the bridge of his nose, “I almost exposed the whole operation covering that up. Whatever spell you cast had better have been worth it Kageyama.”
Shigeo was still pale faced; he gripped the fabric of his Kimono, “Are we safe now?”
“Yes, but you are not in the clear. They honestly thought you two had crossed into the Barbarian Lands. Now they are not so sure.” Shou told them, “What did you do?”
“I removed the pin to heal Reigen.” Shigeo said and Shou had a confused look so Shigeo clarified, “The man on the table.”
Shou nodded in recognition, “Well, you can’t remove that pin anymore if you stay in the area. I know this is outside of the grid but your magic is very obvious. If you really want to cast a spell so badly you have to wait until the ambient level of wild magic in the air is strong enough and just use that.”
“Like the new and full moons?” Recovery Girl asked.
“Yes, wild magic is more prevalent on major phases but,” Shou squeezed his eyes shut as he thought hard about it, “It’ll have to be at the Ruby moon. That is the only day I can think of that has high enough levels of wild magic that Ritsu’s brother would be able to do any real magic.”
“Once a year? Only once a year he can cast spells?” Ritsu cocked a brow, “You just told the whole town my brother has a Healing Root, how are we going to explain when he suddenly doesn’t use magic?”
“First, you’ll have to figure that one out yourself and second, not spells, spell . Only one” Shou said, “I would guess there would be enough magic for one spell.”
“What kind of spell.” Shigeo asked.
“Whatever healing spell you just used would be too big unless you were somewhere with a lot of natural wild magic. I’m not really sure how healing spells work to be honest. Although, to answer your question, you could send a message to your parents.” Shou said.
He reached into his sleeve and pulled out a small scroll, its size compared to the tightness of his sleeve must have meant Shou had a pocket dimension hooked to his clothes.
“I thought about it for a while and I figured this would be less conspicuous than me running messages to your parents through our line. Also, I have better things to do than play messenger.” Shou smiled.
Ritsu took the scroll, it was slightly lumpy and when he unrolled it there were pouches of components, chalk and the spell equation. Shigeo took one of the pouches and examined the contents curiously.
“Nothing you guys couldn’t find in the span of a year.” Shou rocked back on his heels, Shigeo noticed he hasn’t smiled yet, his face still grimly serious, “Even with the Ruby Moon, you’d only be able to pull in enough wild magic for one spell. I cannot stress that enough. If you cast more than that, you might use your own magic to fuel the spell. Claw is distracted right now but you can’t give them something to focus on.”
“One spell,” Shigeo repeated back for Shou, “Thank you Shou.”
A corner of his mouth ticked upwards for a second, “Yes, great. Unless you have something for me, I’ve got to get back before someone notices I’m gone.”
“Why do you go so far to help us?” Shigeo asked.
Shou risked so much to keep their cover; that much is clear. Shigeo wanted to understand why Shou felt like Shigeo deserved his help. Even if it was just because he was friends with Ritsu.
Shou thought about it for a second, he plastered a smile across his face, “I can’t let those old farts hold onto someone as powerful as you. Also, at this point I might as well commit fully to this boyish heist of ours, ya know?”
It was an answer, but the smile seemed off as he blinked away. Leaving the remaining three alone in the living room.
“I want you two to rest tonight.” Recovery Girl said the moment Shou was gone, “I know today was trying, but you can’t dwell on what has happened. You will have many stressful days. So, tomorrow we will continue your studies, but tonight you need to sleep.”
The brothers nodded in acceptance. Ritsu threw an arm around Shigeo’s shoulder and the two brothers leaned into each other as they walked back to their room. Shigeo sighed, a sense of calm overcoming him as the events of the last two days settled in his heart and Shigeo could finally say that he had found a home.
Shigeo looked forward to looking back on these days with a smile.
Chapter 7: Three Years Later
-The 27th of Plantar, 1st month of year 3248-
Mob readjusted the strap of his basket, securing the lid and the boxes of precious roots and bulbs inside. Snow clung in the crevices between roots and under earthen overhangs, but it was melting fast. The earth still held its winter chill that left his hands feeling cold as he foraged for medical components in the mountainside. Despite the cold leeching into his clothes and joints, his movements weren’t clumsy. He’d done this a thousand times before, and motions were natural to him now. Dig, harvest, leave enough left over that it can regrow for harvest later, and carefully cover again.
He walked down the mountainside, enjoying the way the breeze tugged at his veil and the tickle of fabric against his skin. A sound, like long drawn out thunder, came down the mountain. It’s was so distant that if the wind was any louder, or if Mob hadn’t stopped in the clearing, he was standing it to admire the mountain view, he would have missed it. A little dot of red flitted through the clouds, so far removed from where Mob stood at the mountain's base, the sight was more amazing than it was terrifying. Mob couldn’t wait to get back to the cottage and tell his brother he finally saw one of the dragons the soldiers were talking about. Not that Ritsu would believe him.
Through the trees as Mob descended, he caught glimpses of Lou Run. The town, his home of that last three years, had grown considerably from when they first arrived. It had been no more than a collection of houses around a hot spring, that were boxed in with wooden barriers that once made the outer walls. Now those walls served only to separate the town center from the rest of Lou Run. A newer ring comprised of an earthen mound topped with a wooden wall, was the new protective barrier. Farm fields and military encampments dotted the area around Lou Run, and looked like a game board from where Mob stood.
With the influx of people over the last three years, Mob and Ritsu’s training accelerated. At first, they came for Mob and the rumors of his Healing Root. After Mob’s less than stellar demonstrations it made more sense to people why Claw didn’t abscond with him when Mob was first discovered. Although, people didn’t stop coming.
As the military pushed deeper into the barbarian lands, their supply chain finally was pulled forward enough that Lou Run became a military supply hub. Yet, with the influx of soldiers, came an influx of Mages who, like the soldiers, sought cures to aliments they were too embarrassed to put on their records. Recovery Girl and Mob issued a lot of placebos for hangovers.
This led to the renovation of an old mountain cottage that was built into the mountain by one of the first settlers. Its location is kept largely a secret, with few knowing its location and most of the town turning a blind eye to the place once the Disciples staked a claim on the land. The boys often used it to hide at when high ranking Claw members passed through.
More Disciples arrived at Recovery Girl’s request and the clinic expanded. With more teachers, the brothers learned quickly what their niches were. Mob never got comfortable with surgery or blood but, he could excel in finding components and mixing medicines. Some called it luck, but the mountain always seemed to lead Mob to exactly what he was looking for, and Mob had tremendous success growing plants at the old cottage. One day Mob stopped using the cottage as a hideout, often going so deep into the mountains he couldn’t make it back to the clinic. This started as weekends, then weeks, and eventually he lived there for most of the year. Now, he only came to town over the winter, before the snow and cold set in, and he would return to the cottage each spring with the thaw.
Ritsu seemed to enjoy the challenge of clinical work. He eventually overcame his aversion to blood unlike his brother and he excelled, often assisting the older Disciples at the clinic. He stayed with Mob, even if the cottage on a good, clear day was a forty-five minute walk down the mountain to town and over an hour walk back up the mountain to return home.
For a while, Ritsu had transported Mob’s medicines back and forth from town, but Mob grew lonely and he looked forward to the end of the week when he could visit the clinic. The longer Claw and the military was in the town the more Mob’s anxieties eased. He had a home, and a life he was happy with, and Claw hadn’t looked their way once in the last three years.
Mob, back at the cottage, organized his components and medicines, sorting what he’d keep at the cottage to work with and what he’d bring to the clinic. The mountain was generous the last few days and he decided to make the trip a few days early. He considered it like an early birthday gift to himself.
He smiled. It was one week until his birthday. The Ruby moon would rise and the wild magic in the air and earth would be dense enough to contact their parents. With as calm as things have been, he and Ritsu thought of asking their parents to join them at Lou Run this year. It was a long shot since his parents had brought up the possibility of a new sibling joining the family. If it were true, them moving was less likely. If it wasn’t, then perhaps they would come here, and be a whole family again.
Mob hummed happily to himself. He turned over and over the thought of a new brother or sister in his head like a hard candy. Taking his time with each layer of flavor. He kept mulling over the thought as he walked. He almost didn’t hear the patrolling soldier on horseback who offered Mob a ride to town. Mob kindly accepted.
She chatted briefly about her unit and what she saw on patrol. Mob mentioned the dragon off handedly, and she assured him that it was nothing to worry about, even if sightings by people in town had become a near daily occurrence. She brought him to the clinic, people parting for her once they spotted Mob behind her on the horse. She helped him down to the cobblestone street, which was a vast improvement to the dusty packed earth it used to be. The soldier said her goodbyes and rode off. Mob’s face was neutral but the interaction made him happy.
Ritsu met Mob outside. A while ago he changed his veil, it was a more opaque cloth that covered just his nose and mouth that he tied behind his ears with four strings. It was unconventional, but Ritsu has proven himself over and over again to be a very unconventional Disciple. Mob never changed from the traditional silken veil, it was still long and flowed gracefully past his jawline.
Ritsu looked slightly concerned by the soldier, “Brother I wasn’t expecting you today.”
Mob shifted the weight on his back, “It would have been too much to carry in one load if I waited.”
Ritsu guided him into the clinic, which had expanded into the building next door. The newer Disciples seemed excited at the prospect of the clinic eventually turning into a full fledged hospital. Mob didn’t think he’d be able to support a hospital with his medicines alone, not that he could support the clinic currently, but maybe it was hard seeing changes happen so quickly to his old home.
In the back, the two new Disciples, Livery and Kane, were gossiping. They smiled at the brothers when they entered the old living quarters. The long narrow rectangle of living space that once was a combined sitting room, dining and kitchen areas was now the clinic break room and office, while their old bedrooms had been converted to new procedure rooms over a year ago. The Disciples live next door now in the long building across the gated alley. Recovery Girl was surprisingly happy to have a building that was meant just for living in.
“Mob, this is unexpected.” Livery greeted them with her bright smile, “Did you get more fox nip? We are almost out.”
Mob shook his head no. It wasn’t in season for another two weeks. He pushed forward to the work room, which was simply just the stockroom now, to unload his supplies.
He heard Kane say fondly, “Quiet kid.”
Ritsu and Mob put away the components and the boxes of medicine Mob had created, setting the homemade medicines next to the ones that had to be ordered in through the military supply lines.
“Brother, your birthday is in a week.” Ritsu said nonchalantly, he paused for Mob to hum in agreement, “What are you thinking for your birthday this year?”
What would you like me to do for you this year? Was the question Ritsu was trying to ask. It was so indirect, but Mob like to let Ritsu think his gifts were a surprise every year. Mob thought about what he’d like. It was still somewhat of a surreal question for him after so many terrible birthdays at the Academy. For the last three years, each birthday was wonderful and stress free. Ritsu usually took the day off from the clinic and they spent it on the mountain or in the town.
This year was a little bit different.
“Reigen his coming to treat me out this year.” Mob said happily, “He and Tome have done well for themselves according to their last letter and they are going to take us both out.”
“Oh really?” Ritsu said, is voice carefully controlled, “Has he done well enough to pay for all the medicines and treatments he has put on his ‘tab’?”
“I’m sure he will come and pay off his tab this year.” Mob said in Reigen’s defense.
“This is a medical clinic big brother, there shouldn’t be ‘open tabs’.” Ritsu pointed at Mob with a root he was holding before he put it away.
“He has also been responsible for getting us components I can’t find on the mountain and we can’t normally buy.” Mob countered.
“Oh, I included that in the final bill.” Ritsu nodded knowingly, “He still owes about fifteen gold.”
Mob blinked, that was nearly six months of pay for the average person, “Really? That much?”
“Mm-hmm.” Ritsu confirmed with a hum.
“Maybe that’ll be my birthday present this year.” Mob thought out loud.
Ritsu said light heartedly from across the room, “Don’t let him off that easy brother. He can do both.”
They left the storage room, the weightlessness of the basket was a blessing for Mob. Outside the door was Kane looking through the schedule on the wall.
“Mob do you mind staying around for a bit? I got doubled booked and I can’t cancel my in-house appointment.” Kane had a pleading look to his face, “It was going to be Ritsu and I heading to the military encampment to help the doctors there.”
Mob frowned slightly.
“You know Mob doesn’t have a good history with Claw mages. Just because they are healers doesn’t change that.” Ritsu said upset.
Kane threw up his hands, “Whoa, hey I know! There are no Claw Healers right now, just normal non-Claw physicians. Recovery Girl is already there, you just need to check in and see if she needs any help. They brought a lot of soldiers back the other day with some nasty wounds, you guys are probably just going to run sick call or something for a couple hours. You are really good at this stuff and I think Recovery Girl would be happy to see you too. She also sent this list.”
Kane handed them a long list of medicines to pack up and bring with. Mob chewed gently on his tongue as he thought about it. It would be nice to see Recovery Girl, but he didn’t care much for the soldiers and the danger and risk the military brought. His thoughts drifted to the kind horsewoman and to other acts of kindness he witnessed soldiers doing while they stayed in town. They weren’t all bad, and he wasn’t going to be working directly with Claw mages.
“Okay,” He said, folding the list around his thumb, “I’ll go.”
Kane clasped his hands together and said “The Lady bless you! I didn’t want to have to cancel Mrs. Keanu’s appointment again. Her daughter... so spiteful, she turned off my hot water at the bathhouse for a month the last time I cancelled. You are a lifesaver!”
Mob blushed at the adamant praise, and excused himself to pack, before the embarrassment became too much to handle.
“Brother, you don’t have to go. I can handle it myself.” Ritsu said, he was less forgiving to his coworkers than Mob was, “You shouldn’t let Kane butter you up like that. He needs to learn how to schedule better. I’m pretty sure he just didn’t want to make the walk.”
“Ritsu, it’s not a big deal.” Mob tried to appease his brother before his words altered the way Mob felt about helping Kane.
There was a ring of truth to them. Mob didn’t know how to acknowledge that and not taint his feelings about his good deed.
“Alright, but stay close. You haven’t actually been to the encampment before. It can get a little rough.” Ritsu said as he helped Mob finish packing, “They get really bold and try to talk to us a lot. I think they got too chummy with their doctors while they were at the border and they sometimes forget we aren’t them. Usually someone straightens them out-”
Mob let Ritsu continue like this for awhile. He loved his brother’s protectiveness most of the time, but sometimes it was exhausting. As they left, the two other Disciples waved them off.
“Watch out for the dragons! People have been disappearing on the road they say.” Livery called out to them, her tone was teasing Mob sussed.
“Who’s they?” Ritsu challenged back and the two Disciples had small teasing smiles. He said to Mob after they left the clinic, “They listen to too many rumors from the old people they see.”
“I don’t know, maybe they are grounded in some truth. I saw dragon earlier this morning.” Mob shrugged.
“You did?” Ritsu questioned him with more than his words. Mob had half a mind to admonish Ritsu’s doubting expression. Ritsu tilted his head down toward Mob, and Mob was acutely aware that his brother had started growing taller than him, “A dragon?”
“It was really high on the mountain but it was red… or orange. Well, it was just a little dot in the clouds but I heard it roaring.” Mob explained, almost feeling a defensive edge to his voice that he quickly reeled back, but Ritsu must not have been as sensitive to it as Mob was.
“Okay.” Ritsu said neutrally.
Ritsu wasn’t always one to make leaps of faith easily. Mob was determined to show Ritsu he saw a dragon. He kept one eye on the mountain peaks as they walked. Unfortunately, there were no dragons spotted along their walk to the encampment and he had to focus on the path ahead as it became congested with people, soldiers, and, to Mob’s displeasure, a few mages. They moved toward the center of the encampment. Despite Ritsu’s horror stories, not one person acted aggressively, nor were soldiers nosier than other crowds the brothers had passed through. Much like town, people parted if they noticed them, or got out of the way when the brothers asked. They kept their eyes off the two boys as they moved through the crowd.
Mob and Ritsu kept on their path but they paused, looking at the Barbarian armors displayed in front of the commander’s tent. Most of the armors were leather with furs padding the seams and lining the inside, but some had what looked like scales and others had chainmail. The armors were of so many styles it didn’t look like one came from the same place. They were much wilder than even the armor common adventurers wore. The only unifying factor among them was the style was distinctly not from the Empire.
The Empire had dark silver armor with trims of gold or ivory if the soldier was highly ranked, and the leather they wore was often a similar dark color and all very uniform in design and cut. There was a feral-ness to the displayed armor designs, accentuated by the deep slashes in the leather plates, and the broken arrow shafts sticking out of the chest and back. It inspired fear in Mob, almost enough that he nearly forgot that this armor once belonged to someone and it didn’t always look this way. Mob turned away. It didn’t seem right to display them and gawk when their history ended so tragically.
Ritsu’s gaze was much more analytical. He didn’t seem disturbed like Mob when he finally stepped away. The aid station tent was in front of them, but it was a conversation being held in a side tent that caught the brothers’ attention. They peered in past the canvas flap over the door and saw Recovery Girl sitting in a chair in front of the desk of one of the military doctors.
“Recovery Girl we have had to send more of our doctors to the border, but we are running out of people back here to handle those moving onto and off of the battlefield.” A tall woman with dark curly hair was deep in negotiations with Recovery Girl, “If you took over the aid station here, we could focus on sending our doctors farther north and save more lives. They are better equipped and trained for trauma, not long-term care. The military would be willing to fund a more permanent, larger facility. Willing enough to invest several thousand gold into this project.”
“Are you offering to build me a hospital?” Recovery Girl squinted at the doctor.
“Yes! You would be able to staff who you needed and the military would supply you with resources.” The woman smiled broadly.
“Who would own the building?” Recovery Girl asked, and the smile on the woman dropped a little.
“Well, it would be--”
“The military does.” Recovery Girl answered for her, “You see, the Empire hasn’t been kind to the Order of the Lady for many years. Our offers of aid on the front have been refused many times. Now I am not one to turn away those in need, but I am not so naive to give up my clinic and the ground it stands on to put my staff at the mercy of the Empire’s politics for some coin.”
“I think this is something we can discuss further and reach a conclusion both sides will agree to.” The woman said firmly, she leaned in not as a threat but like a friend urging Recovery Girl to listen, “You are already coming and helping at this aid station every couple of days. What is being offered is a way to save both you and these patients time and energy. It’s like the military paying you for your work.”
“I don’t like being indebted to the Emperor-- or his military.” Recovery Girl told her, “I won’t consider anything that man says by word of mouth alone.”
The woman’s eyes narrowed slightly, she looked like she was trying to read some message hidden between Recovery Girl’s words but it passed.
“If I have something drafted would you consider this proposal?” She asked Recovery Girl.
“More than I would right now.” Recovery Girl said bluntly.
The woman’s eyes crinkled with a smile. “That, I can work with. It’s a pleasure working with you Recovery Girl but, introduce me. That boy is new.”
Recovery Girl turned around and was clearly surprised to see Mob standing there. Her expression was tinted with happiness as well as concern.
“That would be Mob.” She said and while the next thing she said was phrased like a statement, it was clearly a question for Mob, “He is usually in the mountains this time of year collecting components.”
Mob opened his mouth to explain when the woman introduced herself first, “I am Hirayama Koko and I am the head doctor of this aid station. I’ve heard a lot about you Medicine Maker from your coworkers Kane and Livery.”
“Oh have you?” Recovery Girl asked under her breath.
Mob dropped his gaze and the doctor laughed kindly, “Don’t worry they were all good things. The soldiers tend to prefer your medications than those from our supply lines. What do you do? Cast a spell on it?”
Mob tensed and spoke quickly to dissuade that thought, “No I usually just add a sweetener if it doesn’t mess up the medicinal balance. Also most roots get bitter if you over boil them. Its easy to watch for if you are just making them in small batches.”
That was more than he wanted to say and he clamped his mouth shut before he started to ramble. He held out his basket with the medicines for the doctor to take. She laughed lightly and took the basket from him and set it to her side next to a large locker Mob could only assume was the drug cabinet. The lock was much more impressive looking than the one back at the clinic.
“You don’t need to be so nervous. It was a compliment. Anyway, I think this means I have finally met the entire team. So that is a wonderful milestone.” Hirayama said to Recovery Girl, “Would you mind if I asked your Disciples for some help with the new soldiers that came in? They are all minor injuries, but they are taking up beds I need. My team is spread thin and I don’t want the soldiers waiting around all day.”
Recovery Girl looked at the two boys, “They are the Lady’s Disciples not mine and they can make their own decisions.”
The doctor looked at the two brothers.
Ritsu rolled his eyes, “That’s what I thought I was coming here to do anyway, but my brother has other things to do and I need to help-”
“I don’t want to leave someone in need Ritsu.” Mob said unable to break away from the pleading look in the doctor’s eyes, “I can stay. I am ahead of schedule. I don’t want to interfere with your work.”
“Wonderful!” Hirayama said and stepped around her desk, “Follow me.”
Ritsu shot Mob a dirty look and it finally clicked that Ritsu was the one who didn’t want to stay. He was just using Mob as an excuse to leave. They walked through a canvas corridor to the large central tent. There was relief on the faces of everyone who noticed them as they passed. Mob was surprised to see about forty filled beds in a patient holding tent. Many of their injuries were far from minor. Wrapped in bandages, bound in splints and casts, and even a couple of soldiers missing digits. Mob had to wonder what frame of reference the doctor was working with that this was minor. If anything they were all significant, but stable injuries.
“Sando!” Hirayama called to an older man, “I got you some help.”
He gave the boys a once over and nodded his head, “Come with me.”
Mob and Ritsu were given about ten people each to look over. The soldiers chatted idly with Mob as he worked. Mob found himself enjoying the short, funny stories the soldiers had about their time near the front.
Through bits and pieces of information, Mob was slowly putting together an image of the Barbarian lands. Rugged open landscapes dotted with geothermal areas, and dense forests. No settlements, but the nomadic barbarians didn’t need them. Instead they roamed in war bands. Their warriors were brutal and they possessed a strange primal form of magic that used no spells. It was like Roots, but unless everyone in the barbarian lands had innately powerful Roots, they had to have some kind of unique type of magic. It seemed to bring a little bit of morbid joy to the soldiers to talk about how the barbarians gave the mages a run for their money most days.
The image of the barbarians was less than flattering as some divulged details of destroyed posts and frontier settlements. Barbarians running off into the night with the Empire’s civilians was always a rumor Mob had been aware of but based on the stories Mob was listening to, the soldiers believed it and had seen evidence enough to support their beliefs. The closer their stories got to the battlefield, the greater their animosity became, until either they, or Mob, changed the subject.
Ritsu stopped by to tell Mob he had finished as Mob was moving onto his last patient. Mob wanted to be done with this as quickly as possible. He checked the patient’s file, information was surprisingly scarce, but he needed stitches removed and his splint checked. Ten minutes tops if Mob was taking his time. Unlike the other soldiers this one had a privacy curtain around his bunk. Odd for such a courtesy to be extended to a foot soldier when there was clearly a shortage of space in the tent.
“Aronin Ugast? I am here to remove your stitches can I enter?” Mob called, preparing himself for someone who must have a terrible injury.
“Oh, yes. Please.” The voice was clearer than Mob was expecting with a kindly western Empirian drawl in his voice.
Mob stepped in carrying his aid kit in his hands. He kept his face even as he examined the Aronin. He was one or two years Mob’s senior, dark hair that almost looked purple if the light caught it right. He was certainly handsome with a charming smile that put Mob at ease. His tunic was nicer than the other soldiers. It wasn’t the same uniform issued design. It was softer and better fitting. Most unusual was the lack was scarring that might have required the level of discretion the screen warranted.
No horrifying mutilation, nor indecent exposure from wound location. The deep lightening bolt like slashes stretching out from under the splint on his left arm were startling, but all of his limbs and digits were still attached and much of the wound was magically healed leaving a smooth almost waxy scar tissue in its wake. At a glance, Mob counted twelve stitches and those were only the ones visible. Mob mentally adjusted his time. Fifteen maybe twenty minutes tops to get out of there.
“Are the disciples taking over this aid station?” The soldier sat up politely, following Mob with his head as Mob set up his aid kit.
“No. We are here at the station’s request to aid in the patient overflow.” Mob said.
Mob pulled up a stool and started to undo the ties holding the splint together. The skin was certainly marred, and it would never look normal again. A quick recount and Mob counted about thirty-eight stitches. It was a messy patch job. Healing mages had large volumes of patients and limited energy. They either stabilized or did these messy closures to aid the healing rate and reduce the energy demand of the spell. Still, Mob didn’t understand how they could be stratified with such shoddy work.
The wound looked bad, but after gently palpating the forearm for any tenderness he found no residual break and apart from the interested and a little too intense staring from Aronin, there was no reaction to Mob’s touch. Mob had Aronin hold his hands and squeeze at the same time to compare the damaged and undamaged hand’s grip strength.
“Your injury doesn’t seem to have affected the functionality of your arm or hand.” Mob pleasantly noted and he waited for Aronin to let go of his hands.
“That’s wonderful news.” He smiled kindly. Still not letting go and rubbing his thumbs across Mob’s knuckles.
Mob pulled his hands free and sat in the stool, “Yes. Can I have your arm? I will be removing your stitches today.”
Aronin presented the arm and settled back into a reclined position as Mob clipped and plucked the sutures.
“Have you been to the front?” Aronin asked.
He waited for Mob to shake his head no, of course not, the Empire doesn’t allow Disciples near the battlefield. Disciples heal based on priority and need, not by allegiance.
“It really beautiful land, rough, rugged, and untamed. Like the people.” Aronin said thoughtfully, “It’s a shame we are fighting over it. You should see it at some point in your life. I myself might return one day to visit after the empire has secured the land.”
Mob hummed, half listening as he focused on not clipping Aronin’s skin and keeping count of the stitches. Eight, nine, ten...
“Although, I have some bad memories tied to the place,” Aronin noted, looking down at the arm, he leaned in slightly and Mob leaned away still clipping and pulling stitches, “Nasty thing. A Devil Child did this with their own claws and teeth. It barely looked human.”
Mob stopped his work and looked up at Aronin. He was sincere and in addition appeared pleased to have gotten Mob’s full attention.
“They say the wild magic in the barbarian lands is so thick that it changes people, mutates them.” He continued to explain in a low voice, not in a way that was threatening, but like he was trying to draw Mob closer and it worked, Mob found himself unconsciously leaning toward Aronin, “Many of the denizens of the north are hardly human anymore. Not that I can’t handle a few devil children.”
It was extremely rare to the point of being unheard of in the Empire, to see Roots manifest like they did in devil children. Some considered it a mutation. Others thought it was the purest form of Root innervation a person could experience. Aronin made it sound like it was not only common, but a side effect of living in the barbarian lands and Mob had his doubts listening to the soldier’s ramblings before, he didn’t take much stock in what he said now.
Mob realized he had lost count of his stitches and resumed working. Aronin was slowing him down and it was rather annoying. If Mob wasn’t as worried about trying to get out of there as quickly as possible he might have pointed out his shredded arm to through his assurance in his abilities into question. Instead, he sacrificed gentleness for speed and Aronin's battle stories were frequently interrupted with little hisses of pain. Twenty eight, twenty nine, thirty...
“Do you come to the encampment often?” He asked before Mob removed the thirty first stitch.
“No, I am only helping today.” Mob repeated and snipped another stitch. He had asked several variations of this same question as if Mob might give him some new information.
“Do you live in town? I am in the area for a while and I don’t really know what there is to do.” He leaned his head to try to catch Mob’s eye again and draw him away from his focus on the arm.
Mob conceded only a brief glance before answering, “There isn’t much. Most people go to the bars, or the bath house.”
“Oh?” Aronin had a sly smile, “What do you prefer? Do you drink?”
“I’m too young and I only used the private rooms of the bathhouse.” Mob told him but he added, “I’m sure you can find a group to go with. They are both very popular with the soldiers.”
“Hmm, probably not, they don’t really like hanging out with mages. I really don’t have much to talk about with people who don’t have much interest in magic and go about their lives like they are un-innervated.” Aronin scoffed at the idea.
Mob swallowed thickly, and quickly plucked the last two stitches and threw his kit together without much care to sort or clean the tools. The bed arrangement, the clothes, and even his stories began to make much more sense.
“You will not need the splint anymore.” Mob got up and returned the stool to its original place, he didn’t want there to be a tremble in his voice, nor expose his nerves with his rushed, shaky movements, but there was, and he did.
“Wait. You look so nervous. We mages seem scary but we are just people underneath,” Aronin gently implored Mob, “I hate to see you go on such a bad note. Let me treat you out. I can show you mages aren’t all that different.”
“We will not have much to talk about.” Mob said bluntly, “I don’t have much interest in magic and tend to live a rather un-innervated kind of lifestyle.”
Aronin’s mouth dropped open and Mob just quickly bowed his head and left. It felt like he was fleeing when he met up with Ritsu at the end of the tent.
“Let's get out of here before they rope us into something else.” Ritsu said in hushed tones to Mob, looking around uncomfortably, “I don’t like being here.”
Mob nodded, “I just have to get my basket. I left it in the doctor’s tent.”
He barely disturbed the tent flap as he stepped into the office of Hirayama. The tent was humid and the heat boarding on oppressive without the circulation of air. Why the doctor closed the door and windows was baffling. Until a shape shuffling around in the dark caught his attention. It was a person but he couldn’t tell if it was the doctor or not.
“Hello?” Mob asked to the shape and it froze, then stood, casting a much taller and broader silhouette than the doctor could ever have. Mob stumbled back into the heavy canvas as fear built as a pounding pressure in his forehead, “I’m- I’m sorry I am- I was just looking for my basket.”
“I’m just getting something too.” It was a man’s voice and he chose his words carefully.
Mob nodded even though it was too dark to see it. He inched around the edge of the tent to where is last saw his basket. His common sense was telling him to just turn around and leave, but fear clouded his thoughts and he became hyper focused on his original goal-- find the basket, so you can leave.
“Are you sure you are supposed to be in here?” The man was sounding more nervous, his silhouette stiff and hunched over something on the ground, “What are you looking for?”
The edge in his voice was growing. The tension in the room climbing higher. Red flags started waving harder, slowly clearing out the fog separating Mob’s actions from his commonsense.
“I’m just…” Mob realized that his basket, and the carrying boxes for his medicines, could be replaced and he sought a way out, “I’ll come back later. I shouldn’t be snooping around in Doctor Hirayama’s office when she is not here.”
“Is that what you think I’m doing?” The man asked and the intensity of his accusation drew a shuddering breath from Mob.
Mob could see the bright outline of the door. He was close, but he could also feel the presence of the man as he walked up behind Mob. Mob couldn’t bring himself to move a muscle, fearing the man would take any movement as provocation.
Mob answered his question with a shake of his head. He messed up once by speaking. He wasn’t going to be foolish enough to try something that didn’t work twice. Mob tried gauging the distance from his spot to the door, and the time it would add to push through the heavy canvas verses the speed of the man behind him. Mob was pretty bad at math, but even he could calculate that the odds were against him.
“Hold on,” A hand grasped Mob’s shoulder.
Mob’s instincts kicked in and activated flight over fight. He tried to lunge forward, dive out of the tent if necessary, but that was once again wrong the move. Fingers dug into his shoulder and a large hand clapped over his nose and mouth muffling his scream. Mob was wrestled to the floor, and he kicked out desperately his heels connecting with chairs and tables, knocking the items off of them onto the floor. He cried into the man’s hand, but Mob quickly stopped as the panic of not breathing overwhelmed the panic of the man crouched over him holding him down.
“Shit shit shit.. Fuck.” The man frantically whispered under his breath as he started to panic.
He looked down at Mob and Mob could see him considering his options. The man’s eyes grew more and more apologetic. Not for what he has done, judging by the pensiveness in his posture, but what he was about to do. Mob couldn’t speak or breathe, but begged with his eyes for the man to reconsider.
Sweat poured down his face and pooled on his skin and soaked into his veil where the hand was clamped firmly over his nose and mouth. Mob tried to wiggle his face free before the lack of air knocked him out.
Bright light blinded Mob as a rush of cool hair washed over him. Mob heard a heavy thunk and the man’s weight dropped off him.
Mob gasped for breath as a smaller hand grabbed his wrist and pulled him to his feet. Ritsu’s face was twisted in anger and he positioned himself between Mob and the man. He brandished a long, heavy-looking metal candle stick at Mob’s attacker. Mob gulped down air and tried to pull Ritsu away only for Ritsu to shrug him off and hold his ground.
“Dont touch my brother.” Ritsu looked down coldly on the soldier who was shakily getting back on his feet.
The soldier towered over Ritsu and said threateningly, “Not very gentle for a healer to hit a man from behind.”
“Don’t worry.” Ritsu’s voice was as unforgiving as a winter wind, “Anything I do to you… I can fix.”
Before the man could reply with his own retort the canvas door was thrown open by several other soldiers. They connected the dots easily and tackled the man to the ground while others ushered the boys out of the tent. Mob and Ritsu stayed only as long as it took to answer the soldier’s questions and they fled the encampment.
They went directly home, only stopping at the clinic long enough for Ritsu to grab his bag. They closed and locked the door of the cottage behind them, breathing heavily.
“That was…” Ritsu shook with anger.
Mob was still in shock, he removed his veil but the pressure of the hand across his mouth was still there. Mob walked over to the wash basin and didn’t care if the water was unchanged from that morning, he scrubbed the sweat from his face with his hands and a bar of soap until both the sweat and the memory was washed away.
“We got lucky I stepped in before you used your magic.” Ritsu said with a horrified tremor in his voice.
“Yeah,” Mob said into the water basin, but he realized that the thought of using his magic to save himself didn’t cross his mind once.
After three years of avoiding it, and cutting all dependence on it out of his daily life. He simply didn’t see use in his magic. The only exception was his one spell a year. That carried through even into today. The moment his magic could have helped him, could have been excusable to use, he didn’t think to use it. Although, he would have exposed himself had he cast a single spell. Would he have let that man kill him? Mob didn’t know how far he would have let it go before he thought of something. His gut twisted at the thought.
“I- I don’t want to do back to the encampment again.” Mob felt great shame in those words but the memory of the event still weighed heavy on him as if it just happened a second ago.
“You don’t have to.” Ritsu more or less snapped, his anger was still hot and Mob let him be angry for the both of them.
The next day his basket was returned to the clinic with a letter from the Encampment Commander profusely apologizing and promising to see to the man’s punishment. Ritsu figured he was trying to get into the locker behind the doctor’s desk. If that were true, Mob figured the moment he stepped in and asked for his medicine basket he had doomed himself.
Mob went about the rest of the week doing his daily routine like the rest of Lou Run. The unpleasant memory faded as Mob got closer to his birthday. He paid no mind to the legion of soldiers that picked up from the encampments and headed northeast suddenly. They would be replaced in due time. He was happy to see the tents clear out and open up space for new people.
It was three solid days of marching formations and long trains of supply carts before silence reigned over Lou Run again. In the movement, no one noticed the group of mages splitting off, turning sharper north, into the mountains.
-3rd day of the Constellation of the Crown-
The incursion started off according to plan. Barring small hiccups here and there, Katsuki Bakugou saw success at the end of the tunnel. He was confident in his team’s ability to crush the Empire mages standing in their way.
Their spells were slow. The Empire put a lot of work into distancing themselves from their roots using incantations and components. Bakugou didn’t even need to think about his Root to draw out the explosions and use them on the mages in front of him. Although, he could appreciate the punch their spells had if he let them finish casting. If .
Bakugou drew his sword and with a wild smile charged a group of mages who were clustered in front of Bakugou’s target. He didn’t know what it was, it was just a monument they erected in the center of this outpost the Empire mages had built. The dragons noticed it weeks ago and Bakugou intended to raze it to the ground with the rest of their stupid outpost. He used an explosion to launch himself into the air and came down the group. He made quick work three with his sword and blasted a fourth across the square.
Bakugou felt the crackle of magical energy as a mage behind him was just finishing his incantation. Symbols glowed angrily in the air around him condensing into bolts of white energy. A spray of acid doused the mages hands and he pulled from the spell and cried out in pain. Bakugou watched him collapsed onto the ground as the spell rebounded and stuck him down.
“That one still counts as mine.” Mina Ashido slid up to the body, her armor was pockmarked with acid holes, having already burned through the protective coating she had put on it. Mina poked the mage with the toe of her boot.
“You’re on fire tonight Bakugou.” Denki Kaminari bounded up to the two of them, and proceeded to pat out a smoldering patch of fabric on Bakugou’s sleeve, “I’ve cleared out my section, and Kirishima and Sero…”
There was a roar followed by a series of screams and the sounds of spells being released. The three had knowing smiles as they listened to the fight.
“...I figure he and Sero are almost done.” Kaminari said looking up at the thing, “A lot of fuss for one rock.”
“Let's turn the shitty stone into gravel and leave them crying over it on their own time.” Bakugou snarled, throwing out a hand to his side and warming up his Root with a few crackles of fire and smoke, “I’m really fucking done with this place.”
“You’re speaking my language.” Mina slid around on her acid like she was skating and she took up a spot to Bakugou’s left, hands raised and waiting for the signal.
Kaminari let his lighten crackle across his skin and he wedged a metal disk into the stone before stepping back and preparing himself. Bakugou didn’t try to contain his smile and he let it spread across his face as he revelled in the destruction he was about to reap.
A tap on his shoulder, broke his focus and when he turned to snap at Sero for sneaking up on him a fist cracked across his face and sent him flying into the stone. Mina and Kaminari cried out and Bakugou looked up to see both laid out on the ground and struggling to get up to their feet.
A man apperated in front of him. He wasn’t armored, just in a dark tunic and pants but the cuffs and collar held Claw insignias, marking him as a mage. Bakugou launched himself forward and sent an explosion towards his face. When the smoke cleared the man was gone.
“Interesting. I expected a whole companies worth of mages would be enough to handle a handful of soldiers, let alone child soldiers. You all are pretty young.” He said from the top of the Stone. A flicker of light off a coin caught Bakugou’s eye right before a crack of thunder and a spray of acid collided where the man was standing. He stood next to Bakugou to watch the explosion of green and blue flames as the acid ignited, “Resilient too.”
Bakugou reacted instantly trying to land his open hand on the mage’s gut and blow him in half but right as he touched the fabric he was gone. A kick landed squarely in Bakugou’s lower back and right before he could hit the ground he fell into a knee aimed at his solar plexus. Bakugou gasped for breath. Two fists stuck him in the face and set him reeling onto his ass. Enraged Bakugou waited a second for the man to close in and exploded the air around himself.
The man appeared in front of him, a smile pulling on the corners of his mouth, “You have some fight in you. Try to keep me entertained.”
Bakugou couldn’t help but return the challenge with a cruel smile, he snapped at the two, “This fight is mine!”
They’d understand. Bakugou charged the mage who blinked out of the way of every attack Bakugou threw, throwing his own strikes in between. None of them were hard enough to knock Bakugou down and his rage grew with each hit. He roared trying to throw explosions faster than the mage could dodge them.
This mage was different. He didn’t use incantations. He was fast. It was nothing like how Empire Mages fought. The man’s attacks slowed as Bakugou began running out of breath. To his embarrassment, Bakugou dropped to one knee. The mage didn’t even seem phased, breathing evenly, his skin free of the same flush that had overtaken Bakugou.
“Hm, I really thought that was going to be more entertaining.” He said disappointed, then he blinked right in front of Bakugou and picked him up by his hair, “Let get this over with.”
The mage looked disinterested, and his gaze wandered as his got lost in thought just long enough for Bakugou to aim his hand on the mage’s hip and release one explosion. Bakugou’s hand jolted as he finally reached his limit. The mage teleported rapidly around the center before stopping in front of Bakugou clutching his hip where he had burned a hole through the fabric straight to the skin.
The mage looked down, his hands trembled and hovered over the blistering wound, when he looked up Bakugou realized it was the first time the mage had opened his eyes since he arrived. Two red, glowing dots floated in inky black sclera and they burned with rage. Bakugou was grabbed by the face and gravity suddenly yanked down on him as the mage apperated them both thousands of feet into the air.
The flurry of motions combined with the random changes in direction as the mage landed blow after blow, jumping him and Bakugou to a new point in the sky before Bakuogu could catch his balance or his breath. Eventually he stopped throwing strikes into Bakugou, and started throwing Bakugou into things.
His back cracked against a cliff. When he opened his eyes again, he was thrown through a forest canopy, then launched into the dirt of distant mountainside. The dizzying changes in momentum and rapid folding through space made Bakugou sick and during one of the jumps he vomited into the undergrowth of a forest.
Bakugou wasn’t teleported again but he wasn’t strong enough to even look up as the mages footsteps crunched across the forest floor. Nor could he summon the strength to defend himself as the mage drew Bakugou’s sword and plunged it slowly into his abdomen. Bakugou gasped the pain too sharp to even suck in a breath to scream.
“I-” The mage started to taunt him but he stopped as both of them felt a surge of energy through the ley lines that shook them to their very Roots, “Shi-”
He teleported away before he could finish his curse and left Bakugou to the mercy of the cold mountain. He didn’t come back for him. Bakugou had been left to rot.
The earth leeched his heat and drank his blood, while Bakugou could only draw dazed breaths. The last few hours before daybreak past in this way for Bakugou and he watched as his vision darkened while the world slowly filled with light.
He closed his eyes, because it wasn’t like he could see keeping them open. His body became warm and he felt comfortable for the first time since he was thrown onto this mountain. His pain receded to a dull ache and Bakugou saw a bright column of light ahead of him. The top and bottom curled and fanned out like the branches and roots of a tree. He let himself drift into the waiting grasp of what he could only imagine was the Divine Tree itself.
-The 34th of Plantar, 1st month of year 3248-
Mob cracked one eye open. It was still dark. The forest canopy was cutting out most of the moonlight, but it was nearly the full moon, so there was just enough ambient light that Mob could make out the outline of his brother still asleep on his bed.
Mob pulled his covers over his head and groaned, trying to will sleep back into his body. His Root throbbed like a second heartbeat, and its uneasy rhythm was keeping him awake. At some point in the night there was a surge of magic and his Root resonated with the ley lines as they vibrated like someone had roughly plucked the strings of a harp with a broken screw. Prior to that, Mob had woken to the sound of distant thunder, and he hoped the storm would pass or at least finish raining before his birthday. He turned over his in bed, but sleep eluded him still. It was such a restless night and now the wild magic in the air felt disturbed.
Not the ideal start of his day. Mob stretched under the covers and enjoyed the heat he’d captured there. He swung his legs over the side of his bed and threw his covers off his shoulders, taking the brunt of the morning cold in one go. Mob quickly crossed the wood floors to where he left his slippers under the table.
With protected feet, he started a kettle and prepared a simple breakfast. Craving rice and fried eggs like Recovery Girl had made them most mornings back at the clinic. While he waited for the rice and the tea, Mob changed into a fresh kimono, tying on thick hakama’s to protect his legs as he worked. It was dark colors for today, as Mob had a strange feeling that he was going to have a very fruitful day on the mountain.
His co workers had been asking for foxnip. Mob has kept an eye out for small green and orange plant, even though it would be at least another week till it was in season. Although, judging by the strange urge to explore the mountain, it might be early this year.
The kettle started at a low whistle and Mob barely got to it in time before it began screaming. Mob cringed and poured himself a cup of tea.
“Brother?” Ritsu asked, sitting up in a bleary haze, not quite looking at Mob and more in Mob’s general direction. He said half awake, “Are you awake? I was going to make you breakfast…”
“I couldn’t fall back asleep,” Mob said softly, his voice free of sleep, “I’ve got a good feeling about the mountain today. I’m going to see what I can find.”
The ambient light was gradually increasing as dawn approached. It was just enough light for Mob to watch his little brother rub his face with both hands to try and wake himself up. When that failed, he dropped them into his lap and sleepily pouted. Mob sipped his tea quietly and enjoyed how unintentionally cute his little brother was being this morning. He didn’t dare point it out, otherwise Ritsu would stop and try to appear more serious, and ruin the best birthday present his brother could give him.
“You can go back to bed, dawn isn’t for at least two more hours.” Mob said over his tea, and it warmed his heart as his brother, who was half alert now, nodded and flopped back onto his pillow and curled up in the covers.
Mob ate his breakfast and admired the small cottage. Their beds were on either end of the almost oval shaped house. Strings were draped between the banisters and in a few weeks they would be heavy with bundles of drying plants. It was a little chaotic. Bins and makeshift cubbies in the spaces between their living areas where they stuffed away components and medicine making supplies. They had been consistently adding cabinets and cubbies but they had less and less time as the years went on.
It was very much like their home with Recovery Girl where their whole life was fit into one room, although this was significantly larger than the small box that they shared in the clinic.
Mob finished his tea and washed out the cup. He clipped his veil securely in place, and he doubled checked his notes on what was, and wasn’t, in season as he planned his route. For some reason, as he was putting away his notebook he opened Recovery Girl’s old spell book. A sigil slipped out onto the floor where Mob picked it up. He found himself battling internally between keeping it and putting it back. Mob shook his head. The strange behavior of the ley lines was making him paranoid.
He admired the shape of the sigil. This time it was painted on cloth instead of paper, and he rubbed it between his fingers. The woven strands, Mob had learned, made the spell more stable, not that he ever got the chance to test it out. He read over the equation and components, briefly reminiscing on his lessons with Recovery Girl and faintly remembering the feeling of the phantom hand pressing on his when he used that first sigil. Mob blinked, having forgotten himself for a moment. He returned the book to the hanging shelf and set out on the mountain.
His intuition was spot on. For his first hour, Mob had a very successful and satisfying morning on the mountain. Foxnip was early this year and Mob thought about how happy Livery would be to have more for her cupboards. He happily thought about his plans for the day. He’d be out on the town with Reigen and Tome, messaging his parents, and having dinner with Ritsu.
He hiked the strap of his basket up higher on his shoulders. It was mostly full and on other days Mob might have turned back, but his intuition urged him onward. So, Mob cycled around, arching through an area he usually doesn’t check until later in the spring, but the Foxnip was early so maybe he would get lucky and find something else unexpected.
Mob rounded a large tree and saw what looked like a wounded animal laying on the hill. It was half curled in on a blade someone left in its body and its hide was a mix of reddish scales and blotchy black and blue skin, with a shock of blond hair on its head. Mob started running before he fully processed that he was looking at a human.
He skidded on his knees across the dirt and leaves, dropping his basket to the side.
“Are- are you okay? Can you hear me?” Mob stammered loudly.
His leather armor was padded with fine furs although they were marred with blood and dirt. Who ever this was, he wasn’t from the empire but Mob had no idea how a barbarian soldier could have gotten this far south. He had to be a scout because the nearest battlefield was at least a day and a half of travel away. Not that any of that mattered now as he touched the boy’s neck.
His skin was so cold and his pulse was weak and fading. The boy looked like he was beaten within an inch of his life yet this was only half as terrifying as the blade imbedded in his lower back. The edge was covered in drying blood as it jutted out of abdomen just below his chest plate. Mob couldn’t tell what the blade might have hit by sight alone, but he couldn’t get his boy back to the clinic in time. Mob had no idea how long he had been like this, he just knew he was going to die.
Mob’s heart dropped. Was this what his intuition was leading him to? Had he spent too long daddling on the mountain collecting plants and feeling satisfied with himself all while neglecting a dying boy? He felt his Root thrum in sync with the magic in the air as he fell deeper into this winding and dark thought process. The gem in Mob’s pin struggled to keep up with the surge of magic in and around him.
Desperate, Mob searched through the basket and his pockets for something to help and his fingers closed around the sigil. Mob pulled it out. He swore he’d put it back in the book but the more he reviewed his memory, the less that was true.
Mob debated internally as he set up a few components, whether or not blowing his only spell on the slim chance he could save this person was worth it. Let alone, a spell that was as unstable as a healing spell. Messages were one thing, this was magic Mob hadn’t thought about in years. Still, the debate had a clear answer from the start.
Against his instincts, Mob removed the sword, praying the shock wouldn’t kill him before he could activate the spell. The ambient wild magic was densely clustered around Mob. It might have been the fact the ley lines felt frayed this morning, or perhaps his emotions gathered magic close like a magnet in steel shavings, but it shielded Mob’s Root from the gem as his Root reached through into the boy. Mob could feel his Root innervate every tear and bruise in the boy’s body, stitching and closing as it went.
Quickly the magic in the air was chewed up and consumed by the gem which turned it’s hunger on Mob’s Root. It ate away at the connection and Mob pulled out of the spell earlier than he would have liked, detangling himself quickly and mindfully before the spell rebounded on him again.
Mob pulled free and he gasped. Black dots danced in his vision and Mob realized he had been holding his breath for the entire length of the spell. Mob felt around on the ground near him, the lavender mountain lilies and spring soaked moss crumbled to dust at his touch, completely spent. His hand closed around the boar root and Mob took a bite out of the sweet potato sized root like an apple and chewed. He sat and ate, blinking the swirling black dots out of his vision. He was going to need the quick sugar to keep from passing out while he carried this boy back to the cottage.
He looked down at the strange boy, his bruises were a soft yellow, like they were weeks old rather than fresh but he was still pale under all that color. Mob removed the battered armor, and stacked it alongside his large basket, he’d have to come back for it later. The boy’s tunic was stained brown and stiff with dried blood. Mob had to admire his strength of will to survive so long despite his injuries. The wound itself was no longer bleeding and was mostly closed. He couldn’t find any signs of injury to his head or spine, so Mob had no qualms about tying the boy’s the cloak under his armpits and using that to drag him across the forest floor to the cottage.
Mob wheezed, he was already tired from using that spell, but his years of hiking this mountain was still not enough to prepare him for dragging this boy’s dead weight through the forest. He dug his heels into the soft earth and pulled. Mob didn’t know how long he was dragging the boy, but the sun had already risen, and Mob worried Reigen was going to show up at the cottage before he did.
The concern was kinda inappropriate, considering Mob had a half dead stranger he was dragging behind him. He had to figure out a way to explain this to Reigen and Tome, and Mob didn’t know what he was going to say to Ritsu.
Mob leaned against a tree and closed his eyes. He gave himself the count of two before pushing forward, focusing on the ground in front of him as he took slow, shaky steps.
He didn’t know if he could even bring him to the clinic. Too many soldiers visit there and Mob couldn’t bare the thought of dropping off the boy at the clinic just to be killed by the first soldier that entered after him. At that realization, Mob’s birthday plans started to crumble before his very eyes.
He glanced up. Just beyond the crest of the hill Mob could see the roof of the cottage.
“Hey! Ritsu!” Mob yelled breathlessly, “Help! I need help!”
“Mob?” called Tome and Mob could hear her shout back toward the cottage, “Hey guys, something wrong!”
Seconds later Mob saw Tome, Reigen and Ritsu sprinting toward him and Mob’s legs gave out.
“Ritsu! He’s hurt,” Mob gasped between breaths, “We have to get him inside.”
Ritsu skidded across the ground grabbing Mob’s shoulders, his eyes glanced up and down Mob’s body, but once he diagnosed it was merely exhaustion afflicting his brother he moved onto the boy.
“Arataka be useful and help me bring him inside.” Ritsu ordered Reigen who swore softly under his breath looking at the boy, “Tome?”
“Don’t worry, I got Mob.” She said, already hooking her arm around Mob and lifting him to his feet.
“Thank you Tome.” Mob said, leaning heavily into her as they entered the house.
Ritsu worked quickly, and once Mob caught his breath, he joined him. In thirty minutes the brothers had him cleaned, bandaged, and set up on Mob’s bed to rest. Mob and Ritsu collected the dirty instruments and cloths in separate baskets to be cleaned or disposed of later.
“You used a healing spell.” Ritsu glanced over at Mob who flinched, and slowly nodded.
“He’s going to live.” Mob replied, hoping his brother would focus on the good of his actions.
“Did you take off the pin?”
“No.” Mob said, and his brother relaxed slightly, “I used the wild magic in the area.”
“Is there enough for another spell?” Ritsu asked quietly, with a cautious hope to his words.
Mob tried to feel for that ambient magic in the air. Unlike the aggressive buzz this morning that permeated every living thing on the mountain, it was dead still. If Mob wanted to use the message spell, he’d have to draw from his internal reservoir and cast it without the wild magic in the air to cover for him.
“No, there isn’t. I used it all on the healing spell Ritsu. I’m sorry.” Mob apologized.
Ritsu’s mouth dipped into a frown. He was thinking hard about something and then he shook his head.
“It’s hard to be mad about you saving someone’s life but I really wanted to hear from Mom and Dad.” Ritsu had a dejected look on his face as he worked, “Maybe I can contact Shou and ask a favor.”
Mob hummed in agreement. It was certainly an option, but Shou historically, has been hard to contact. Mob didn’t feel like he regretted saving the boy’s life, but he didn’t feel good. What would their parents think if they didn’t contact them? Would they believe they were caught or even worse, he and Ritsu just didn’t want to speak to them?
Ritsu faced the boy and leaned on the table, “I’ll head to town and rent a cart and horse. We can drop him off at the clinic and let the other Disciples take care of him.”
“How about we go to town?” Reigen offered, “You might be better suited here. I don’t know much about medicine.”
“My brother is more than capable if you stay out of his way.” Ritsu fired back.
“We can’t do that.” Mob said suddenly, he didn’t look up to see their confused or surprised faces but he could almost feel them against his skin, “He isn’t from the empire, he had barbarian armor on and I- I think a soldier tried to kill him or his was in a bad fight. If we bring him to town I worry it will put him in more danger. I won’t be able to heal him again if something happens.”
“Setting aside the fact we have an enemy of the empire just laying in your bed. We can’t leave him alone, he needs someone to watch over him.” Ritsu reasoned with Mob, “We don’t know how complete your spell was until he wakes up.”
“I brought him here. I can do it.” Mob said, still looking down at the boy.
“Mob this is our home. It’s always been private, and we don’t know who this is.” Ritsu said.
He had a point. This was a place of privacy, where they could take off their veils and relax, but he couldn’t relax if he might put that boy in more danger by passing him off.
“I’ll take care of him. The cottage has medical supplies and clean water anyway.” Mob met Ritsu’s gaze.
Tome spoke up next, “So someone tried to kill this guy and you left a long trail, that clearly looks like someone dragging a body, leading back to the house?”
The three guys paused and looked up at her. Not a single one had even thought about it until then. She didn’t seem too bothered.
“If he’s not moving, Reigen and I know how to cover our tracks.” Tome winked and gave a thumbs up, not acknowledging how strange her declaration was in this, or any, context.
“I don’t think we’ve decided that he is going to stay here yet.” Ritsu said.
“I left my basket and his armor out there.” Mob said quickly.
“Hey, don’t worry. We’ll get it.” Reigen patted Mob on the shoulder, “but you might want to tell Recovery Girl what you found.”
Mob looked away in a way that didn’t inspire confidence in Reigen. He squeezed Mob’s shoulder and left with Tome out the back door.
“We can’t tell her.” Mob said after Reigen had left, Ritsu was rightfully surprised, “She’ll want to bring him to the clinic or if word gets out there is an injured man here soldiers might start looking around. Livery and Kane mean well but they… talk.”
Ritsu considered his words and said, “Maybe… but is this something we can handle on our own? I don’t like to, but I agree with Reigen this time. I get the feeling this is going to come back and bite us later. If he is a barbarian he might try to kill us when he wakes up.”
“We saved his life.” Mob countered.
“Does he know that?” Ritsu asked.
“I’ll explain it to him.” Mob said nervously.
Ritsu squinted his eyes at his brother. His brother who shrinks away from any conflict.
“If we tell Recovery Girl.” Ritsu said, “I will be okay with him here. She knows more than either of us and she can keep a secret.”
Mob knew Recovery Girl was trustworthy, but he didn’t want to have wasted his spell for the boy to be killed anyway. Of course, the more he thought about it, his common sense overrode his fear.
“Okay, fine, you’re right.” Mob agreed, “ But I will take care of him. I got us into this. Its my consequence to bare.”
“Fine, but if he gives us any problems I have no qualms handing him over to the clinic... or the military.” Ritsu said, glaring at their patient and new houseguest, “Maybe we’ll get lucky and he’ll just wander back into the forest when we aren’t looking.”
Mob narrowed his eyes at the coldness in his little brother’s words. Ritsu noticed, but he didn’t back down from his position.
Bruh does this count as a "meet cute"?
Chapter 9: Bakugou Wakes Up
When Bakugou opened his eyes he didn’t expect to still be him. He thought he would have been reborn since he entered the divine tree, unless his memories carried over into his next life. That would fucking suck was all he could think. He groaned and tried to lift his hand to his face when gentle hands guided him back down onto the bed he was in.
Now that Bakugou had time to sit and let his mind clear he realized he’d tried to lift his face to hand and nearly tipped off the bed onto the floor. He wasn’t reborn. His body was far too grown to be a child’s, so someone healed him. He slowly blinked the haze out of his vision until he saw three veiled faces looking down at him. One clinical, one concerned and the last annoyed. Three Disciples. Bakugou relaxed slightly, he must be at the temple, it smelt of drying plants and medicines.
“...” The old woman was asking him something and Bakugou had to really look at her to focus, “Boy can you understand me?”
Bakugou nodded. His head swam and he felt a dizzying energy buzzing under his skin. He hadn’t felt the effects of healing magic in a long time and nothing this deeply innervated into his body.
“Can you tell me your name?” She asked.
“Bakugou Katsuki.” He shut his eyes and licked his lips. He felt dried out and gods was he thirsty.
“Do you know where you are?” Her voice drew him back from the edge of sleep.
“The Temple of the Lady.” He answered, “I need water.”
“He is still delirious. Mob help him with some water. Not too much, yes, yes use the sponge.” The old woman spoke to the other Disciples and she turned back to him, “Bakugou, what is the last thing you remember?”
Bakugou’s lip curled as he remembered the Claw mage, “Empirian bastard stabbed me.”
“A soldier? Where you in a battle?” She asked.
“No.” Bakugou’s mouth was so dry.
He closed his mouth and tried to generate some spit before the roof of his mouth split like dried earth. One of the Disciples, Mob, returned and pressed a wet sponge to his lips. Bakugou greedily sucked the sponge dry and he wanted to reach out for the bowl Mob was refilling the sponge. The oldest Disciple stopped him warning that too much and Bakugou would get sick. His head was feeling clearer than ever and he would have disagreed but Bakugou had enough of a mind to him now that he knew not to argue with a Disciple.
He also had a clear enough head to see he wasn’t at the Temple of the Lady, but in some cottage.
“I’m not in Yuuie am I?” He asked. It was so much colder here than back at home and it smelled of forests and damp earth.
“If you mean the Barbarian Lands then no.” The old woman spoke with a clear and kind voice but it also carried a distinct Empirian accent, “You are near a small town called Lou Run south of the Hagnaema Mountains. It’s the central mountain range of Aca in case you call it by a different name.”
Bakugou tensed and watched the three very carefully. He was feeling weak but that didn’t mean he was weak.
“I didn’t know there were still Disciples in the Empire.” Bakugou said distrustfully.
“Don’t start that.” the Old Woman leaned back in her chair looking at him disappointed, “I am Recovery Girl and they are my students Mob and Ritsu. You owe Mob your life so I’d stop this defensive act you’ve got right now. We aren’t going to turn you over to the military.”
One of the boys nodded in agreement but the other one glared distrustingly at him and Bakugou noted that he’d have to keep an eye on him. The two boys were near his age but with the veils it was hard to read who was older or if they were the same age.
“My brother risked a lot to heal you.” The taller boy with the slightly longer hair and the sour expression told him.
“Ritsu.” The other boy chided his brother. His expression and his appearance was plain. He was reserved but his presence combatted the angry aura radiating off of Ritsu.
“Thank you Disciple for walking me out of the mist.” Bakugou said sincerely, he knew his manners and once that was out of the way he “Can I get more water? I’m so fucking thirsty.”
Mob’s pleased looked was quickly converted into surprise as he scrambled to bring the sponge back to his lips except Bakugou just reached out and took the basin from Mob. He and his brother sat him up before he drowned himself trying to drink laying down.
Ritsu grumbled under his breath and Mob brushed the water out of his hair as it splashed from the bowl onto his head. Bakugou sat back holding the bowl to his chest. It might be cold in the room but the cool metal bowl felt nice against hot skin. His listened to Recovery Girl as she addressed her pupils.
“He is going to be fine, hardly a cat scratch left on him, but he has lost a lot of blood. He’ll need supplements until he gets his strength back.” Recovery Girl finished packing her aid kit while Mob nodded along, “Same pills as Reigen’s. You know how to make them. Do you have enough of the iron salt?”
“I do.” Mob said and he handed her a cane.
“Good. Ritsu come with me we have work.”
“But he-” Ritsu’s distrustful gaze weighed heavy on Bakugou.
“Mob should be fine on his own.” Recovery Girl interrupted, “He won’t hurt your brother. I’m not sure where he is from, but I haven’t heard a formal thank you like his in a long time.”
Recovery Girl left and Ritsu pulled his brother aside turning their backs to Bakugou and sharing hushed whispers. Mob was very easily bent and maneuvered by his brother, only resisting enough to keep his balance while Ritsu whispered into his ear. Bakugou was bored by the brotherly display of concern because it was unnecessary and insulting.
Ritsu finally left, but not before shooting one more warning glare at Bakugou. The cottage was quiet. It was just wind in the canopy and bird song. Mob closed the door carefully.
“Do you need anything?” Mob asked as he grabbed a book from a hanging shelf and set it open on a table.
“No.” Bakugou said and Mob just nodded and started gathering components from various drawers around the cottage.
Bakugou watched Mob work. Prepping, cutting, grinding, boiling, and mixing plants and minerals together to heal not only him but clearly to supply others in the little town he and his brother were from. Bakugou could feel the last vestiges of the healing magic fading away where it had innervated itself into his wounds and closed them, bringing him from the brink of death.
Recovery Girl said it was Mob who saved him, so it was Mob who had the power if he wanted to use it. Bakugou would be out of Mob’s hair if he just used that spell one more time, but Mob was just complicating his life by doing this. Balancing his work as well as caring for Bakugou. Mob’s restraint didn’t make any sense. It was not just hindering himself, Bakugou had places to be and people to return to.
“Hey! You.” Bakugou snapped and Mob flinched, looking over at him slowly, as if moving too fast might provoke more yelling, Bakugou didn’t need provocation, “What the hell are you doing? Are you trying to waste your time, or mine?”
Mob looked down at the mortar and pestle he was working with confused, and his eyes held that emotion as he redirected it at Bakugou, “I’m going as fast as I can?”
“You better actually be stupid, because if this is an act to keep me here I will kill you.” Bakugou propped himself up into a sitting position on the bed, so he could better communicate his seriousness. He couldn’t fight much of anything right now but Mob didn’t know that based on the way he clutched the mortar to his chest like it would shield him, “Just use that healing spell on me and get me the hell out of here.”
Mob shook his head no. A growl started to roll in his throat ready to break like thunder.
“I know you can do magic! I know you can heal. I can feel it!” Bakugou spoke with the ferocity of a lighting strike as he clutched at the blankets covering his wound. The scar tissue had the smooth, nearly waxy feel. He wasn’t just pulled from the jaws of death. He was already being swallowed when Mob arrived.
Mob looked down at the mortar, his breathing quickened and while he was hard for Bakugou to read, he knew Mob was nervous.
“I can’t.” He said at last, still looking down, “I- I can’t heal you without putting you in more danger.”
He started grinding again but the motions were off. He was not nearly as quick or smooth as before.
“You think I can’t defend myself?” Bakugou’s eyes narrowed.
No one has treated him as weak in many years, some empirian Disciple wasn’t going to be the first and go unchallenged
The grinding stopped.
“If you could before why did I find you like that ?” Mob asked bluntly, his eyes emotionless and clinical.
The thunderous growl Bakugou had been trying to contain rolled free. His hands sparked and angry explosions smoked and burned between his fingers. Mob’s eyes widened and his brows furrowed deeply in an overt expression of dismay and fear.
Except it wasn’t fear. It was fascination.
“No spell?” He asked eyes wide, “No components either? Do you have a Tap Root?”
“No and you don’t need those things to use your Root.” Bakugou laid back down, the exhaustion was making his words breathy.
“What else can you do?”
Bakugou examined him carefully, judging if this was an attempt to gauge his strengths and weaknesses, but Mob simply look curious, “If you are asking about other spells I don’t have any, but don’t think I can’t do a lot with just these.”
He let another crackle of explosions flash in his hand to show Mob. The boy retreated into his thoughts, his face a stoic mask once again as he mulled over the new information.
“You have a Healing Root right?” Bakugou tested the waters, Mob glanced up but he didn’t give much away, “Why are you hiding it? Does the Empire have something against Healing Roots?”
Mob shook his head no. He scooped out the paste from the mortar and start cutting in a powder and finely minced dried herbs. It wasn’t enough to explain why he couldn’t use his Root, nor how some authority would find out.
“Who would know if you used another spell? Would your brother turn you in if you used your magic again?” Bakugou knew the brothers were close and if his brother would have ratted him out he would have done so already. He asked mostly to try and get a rise out of Mob, trip him into explaining.
It worked. Bakugou thought he felt a faint pulse of power off of Mob and he could have sworn Mob’s eyes turned red in anger as he glared at Bakugou. Mob took a moment to calm himself.
“My brother would never.” Mob said low, enunciating each word carefully for Bakugou, when he finished he took a few steadying breaths, “Do you know Claw? They have a way to scry on powerful Roots or spells. So if your Root is strong I would be careful using it.”
Bakugou figured that was the closest Mob had gotten to telling someone to “shut up”. Mob wore that air of authority uncomfortably and Bakugou easily brushed off the attempted sting of Mob’s words. He was much more interested in this ability Claw supposedly had. There was no spell or ability Bakugou knew of that strong enough to cover an entire empire worth of territory. Unless it was just a way to keep empirians in line if they thought Claw was looking over their shoulders at all times.
“Is that why you don’t use magic? Do you have a powerful Root?” Bakugou let himself sink into the pillows.
He didn’t expect a response and he didn’t get one. Mob was rolling the paste into round pills and packing them into a small wooden box. Not once did he look in Bakugou’s direction.
“Why does everyone in the Empire refuse to use their Roots?” Bakugou asked and Mob finally glanced in his direction, “Are all your Roots so weak?”
“Only those with strong Roots go to the Academy.” Mob explained as he rolled and packed the soft pills, “If your Roots not strong it's not worth the time or money to send someone to school to train it. It's not like you need a Root for daily life.”
Bakugou stared in horror as Mob spouted insanity with such a straight face and with a tone that bordered on patronizing to Bakugou.
“What bullshit are you on?” Bakugou snarled, “How is your Root not useful to your daily life?”
“Its brought me nothing but trouble.” Mob said ominously, “and it's not helpful in my day to day life. Most people use it to impress others at parties, but it takes a lot of schooling to make it useful.”
“Bullshit!” Bakugou yelled, the outlandishness of Mob’s statements made him seeth.
Mob stopped packing and looked at Bakugou.
“You don’t need years of academic school to use your Root. You just use it! Anyone can be strong if they understand how their Root works. They just have to fucking put in a little effort to do it! Are you telling me the people of the Empire are too lazy to put more than one second of effort into it?” Bakugou ranted at Mob, wanting to knock that a stupid idea out of his head with his fist.
“You don’t understand. There isn’t enough magic around for just anyone to use their Root, only strong Roots such as Branch Roots or Tap Roots can access the ley lines.” Mob said, “For everyone else its a waste of time.”
Bakugou wanted to argue that but when he went to draw on the wild magic he found almost nothing. The ley lines were tightly bound and not a drop of magic diffused from them, unlike at home where they dispersed magic like a heavy mist off of a waterfall. Everything felt stifled, the magic, even the people. Bakugou hated it here.
“What happens to people with strong Roots?” Bakugou asked.
“They attend the Academy.” Mob replied.
His words were carefully chosen and they were guarded.
“What if they don’t want to attend the Academy?” Bakugou asked and he saw it. Mob tensed as he thought about his answer and barest flicker of fear sparked in his eyes.
“It’s the highest honor to attend the Academy. No one refuses.” Mob lied to him. He finished balling up the paste into pills and took his supplies to a wash basin and scrubbed them clean, “I have medication for you. It should help you restore the blood you lost. They might taste strange but you’ll feel better and have more energy. I’ll give you one with your meal at dinner tonight.”
Bakugou knew he’d struck a nerve. Mob had history with Claw and it wasn’t happy. Had it been someone else Bakugou might have dropped the subject but Mob might have information Bakugou could use. He had a rematch with a Claw mage he intended to win.
Mob gathered small bags and gardening tools into a wide, swallow woven bowl and headed toward the front door.
“Where are you going?” Bakugou asked.
“If you need me I will be out front in the garden.” Mob said and disappeared behind the door.
Bakugou felt himself settling further into the bed and his eyes and body were heavy. Bakugou blinked long and slow. Sometimes when his eyes opened Mob would be in the room doing something and the next blink he would be gone. Another blink and Mob would be at his bedside trying to get him to eat or drink before disappearing behind Bakugou’s lids again to reappear somewhere else.
Gradually, the timeskips between Bakugou’s blinks decreased until Bakugou laid fully awake in bed listening to the sound of Mob grinding with a mortar and pestle. Except this time it was not natural light but warmer lantern light that filled pockets in the room. There was the sound of frying oil and talking, and the smell of spices and meat.
To his right were his clothes, cleaned and folded next to his armor. He was too tired to change out of the borrowed trousers he was wearing and he turned his attention to the table.
Bakugou was in the dark and he went unnoticed as he watched Mob and Ritsu working by lantern light while talking with two new people. A girl who was reclining in a chair at the same table, balancing on the back two legs and kindly antagonizing a brown hair man who was cooking in a wok at the fire stove. Ritsu jumped in to support the girl whenever the man tried to defend himself and Mob would look up every once in a while, but he kept working. His posture was relaxed and he went about his work at a steady pace.
It was a kind and homey atmosphere, and Bakugou couldn’t help but watch. It was strange how familiar it was. Seeing empirian civilians sitting around a table talking and waiting for food. Bakugou had only met soldiers and mages, but this was something Bakugou never got to see and it was more surreal than he was expecting it to be.
The girl’s chair clattered against the wood floor as she met gazes with Bakugou. Mob’s chair skidded slightly, screeching against the floor after she presumably kicked it to get his attention.
“Mob the kebab is awake.” She gestured in his direction with her chin.
“Please don’t refer to him like that Tome.” Mob said flatly.
He wiped his hands off on a towel and got up from the table to walk over to the bed. Bakugou kept his eye on him but Mob wasn’t aggressive in his approach. His veil gently fluttered as he walked to the lantern over Bakugou’s bed and turned the light on. Mob knelt on a pillow at his bedside and Bakugou found himself admiring the way the light caught in Mob’s dark hair and reflected in the garnet color gem held in the mouth of his dragon pin.
“How are you feeling?” Mob asked, unaware or uncaring how Bakugou was gazing at him.
“I’m better.” Bakugou said with an edge in his voice to cover his embarrassment for staring.
Bakugou tried to sit up and Mob propped him up with pillows and made sure he was still covered when he was settled.
Once Bakugou moved he quickly realized something else, “Where is the restroom?”
“Outside.” Mob said and when Bakugou started to swing his legs over the side and stand, Mob quickly supported him before he toppled over, “Let me guide you.”
“Hey Mob what's going on?” Ritsu called over to him concerned.
“He has to use the restroom.” Mob said, “I’m going to help him over to the outhouse.”
“No you won’t, give him to me.” Ritsu walked over and wedged himself between Mob and Bakugou, “You are not on bedpan duty on your birthday.”
Ritsu didn’t leave room or time for Mob to protest and led Bakugou to the outhouse. The brother’s cheerful demeanor was dropped the moment they left the cottage.
“It’s his birthday?” Bakugou asked to fill the quiet.
The sun was nearly set, but the mountain had cast the forest in shadow. The only light was from the rising full moon that was already pink and turning redder by the minute.
“It is.” Ritsu curt reply rubbed Bakugou the wrong way.
“Brat.” Bakugou clipped back.
Ritsu was cold before, but he was friggid now and Bakugou would have set him in his place had they been in Yuuie still. When they returned, the components were cleared from the table and dishes were being set. Ritsu less than gently set Bakugou back up on the bed and left him to cover his own legs with the blanket.
“Ritsu, he can join us at the table.” Mob cocked his head.
“He’s too tired.” Ritsu answered for Bakugou and sat at the table himself.
Bakugou leered at Ritsu but he turned away from Mob and the table. He had no interest in joining rude Empirians even if they had saved his life. Bakugou stared at the wall, trying to distract himself from the friendly conversation and the smell of food. He had an ache he was unprepared for as he thought of his friends, his family, his home and just how far away those were right then.
The clatter of utensils on ceramic near him caused Bakugou to whipped his head around and raise a clawed hand defensively. Mob jumped and froze mid step and all conversation and eating at the table stopped. Bakugou dropped his hand and looked away again.
“I didn’t mean to startle you. You just looked-”
“Like what?” Bakugou snapped.
He puffed out his chest and bared his teeth hoping to cover the fact he felt like a wounded, cornered animal and judging by the way the people at the table were watching him that was what they were thinking anyway.
“Hungry.” Mob said compassionately.
Bakugou was stunned by the tenderness of Mob as he pulled up a chair and set a cup and two bowls down. One with noodles, vegetables, a few dumplings, chicken and a pill, and the other was a dark, thick, savory smelling broth. He held out a towel for Bakugou and Bakugou took it from Mob’s hands rougher then was polite and wiped them off before trading the towel for chopsticks.
Mob stood and said softly, “Make sure you eat. You need your strength.”
Mob returned to table and conversation resumed. Bakugou sat and ate. It was good and Bakugou was very hungry but he was sure he could have done better. The pill was soft and tasted like iron and egg yolks and Bakugou washed it down with the rest of the broth. Bakugou’s better judgment won out and he kept his opinions to himself when Mob returned and he asked how the meal was. Mob helped him shift the pillows so he could lay back down.
“Happy Birthday.” Bakugou said under his breath as Mob was leaned over him.
A thoughtful look overcame Mob as he paused. He nodded and hummed in agreement.
“Thank you.” Mob said and he left Bakugou to join the others outside to watch the Ruby Moon crest and take its seat at the center of the crown of stars.
-End of the 4th day of the Constellation of the Crown-
Chapter 10: A New Plate at the Table
-The 35th of Plantar, 1st month of year 3248-
Mob checked the wound. The twenty four to forty eight hours following a healing spell the body had significantly accelerated healing rates, but it left the person worn out. Thus, Bakugou was pliable, allowing Mob to move and position him as he needed even though Bakugou eyes never lost that look of defiance and pride.
Ritsu had left early that morning, riding with Tome and Reigen back to town. There were still plates from the birthday meal last night and Mob found himself assembling a to-do list in his head for the day. He had orders to complete and one injured barbarian scout to take care of. Mob made sure to wash and mend Bakugou’s tunic and trousers, but even then they still looked like they’d clearly been in a battle. Mob was thankful he’d remembered to ask Ritsu to bring another kimono from town, which would have the added bonus of disguising Bakugou’s true origins.
Mob was unaccustomed to cooking for two over morning and lunch and found his timing was off. Bakugou insisted on sitting at the table. He leaned heavy on the wooden table top as they shared their meals in silence. Bakugou frowned at his food but he was too tired to do anything except eat and return to bed.
The following morning, Mob heard Bakugou get out of bed on his own. The effects of the healing spell must have worn off, and Mob was happy. It meant he was getting better and maybe he didn’t need help going to the outhouse anymore. Mob looked over his shoulder to make sure Bakugou was walking normally and he watched in slight horror as Bakugou stumbled towards him into the kitchen.
“Bakugou is something wrong?” Mob stepped away from the rice, ready to catch Bakugou if he fell.
“Yeah, your cooking.” Bakugou said and pushed right past him to the pot of rice.
“Eh?” Was all Mob uttered, undecided between feeling embarrassed or insulted as his primary emotion.
Bakugou inspected the rice and started rifling through the drawers and cupboards, “Where the hell are your knives?”
Mob reached around him to point at the knife block. He pulled a knife from the block, wielding it as naturally as a warrior with a sword, and found a cutting board.
Mob grabbed green onions, “What are you doing?”
“Making breakfast. I don’t care what your standards for food are when you are alone, but I sure as hell am not going to lower mine. Do you have eggs?” Bakugou said bluntly and started to rattle off items he was looking for.
Mob was acutely aware of how Bakugou was following him around the kitchen. The intensity of his gaze was on the cupboards and drawers and what was in them, but Mob felt nervous in its mere proximity. Bakugou got what he could and noted disappointedly that Mob’s kitchen was clearly lacking before getting to work. The speed and confidence at which he cut and mixed and cooked stupefied Mob and he stood in the middle of the kitchen and watched until Bakugou yelled at him to sit at the table.
Mob waited, hands in his lap, brows knitted as he considered how strange it was to have his recovering patient in the kitchen cooking for him. Bakugou didn’t let him think for long before he roughly set a plate in front of Mob and sat opposite of him. Mob hesitantly picked up the chop sticks and looked down at the rolled omelets, rice and broth. Even the presentation, the way the slices of omelet were fanned out and the well rounded cup of rice with hardly a grain displaced, was beautiful. Although, his rough treatment spilled some of the broth on the table.
“Thank you for the food.” Mob said quietly. Bakugou watched Mob attentively, holding his own chopsticks in a firm fist as Mob guided a slice of omelette under his veil to his mouth, his free hand acting as a barrier between the food and the silk. He ate his first bite of the omelette. Mobs his eyes went wide and his hand flew to cover his mouth so he could say, “This is really good !”
“Of course it is!” Bakugou barked and he started to eat his own food. Whatever spell he was under ended, the conditions satisfied once Mob passed judgement on his cooking, “What did you think I was going to do? Serve you shit?”
Mob was going to say no, but he was too busy eating and Bakugou was too intense. Mob could only focus on one or the other, and the meal, he deemed, was more important. When the meal was finished, Mob helped Bakugou to bed. That intensity and fight was gone again. Mob was worried until he noticed Bakugou was focused on something beyond what Mob could see, his face was neutral, but trending more somber as Mob settled him back into bed.
Mob knew that look, he and Recovery Girl had worn it many times as they remembered their pasts.
“Are you okay?” Mob asked sympathetically.
“It’s none of your business.” Bakugou replied coldly.
Mob knew better than to press and he was ready to leave Bakugou to his thoughts when a hand grabbed his wrist. Mob looked back down at Bakugou wondering if he had a sudden change of heart based on the serious expression he had on his face.
“Wake me up when it's time to make lunch.” Bakugou waited for Mob to nod before he let go.
It was a strange morning for Mob and he had an acute feeling the strange was going to be a common occurance going forward.
Quiet fell over the cottage, and Mob went through his stores of components. He had enough for the next few days, but he’d have to go out eventually and restock. He tapped his lip with his pencil debating what he could find on the mountain and what he should put in for the next order. If they piggybacked off of the military’s supply chain they could get dried and packaged components within two weeks easy. Mob glanced back at the boy and he appeared healed, but he didn’t know how long he’d have to stay with him. His stamina was poor, but rapidly improving from what Mob observed. Mentally he gave himself a time. Maybe a week, give or take a couple days. It was hard to tell this early. He couldn’t be left alone now, but that could change soon as the extent of his recovery became more apparent.
Mob penciled down the supplies he’d need and set about his other tasks. He was in the small garden out front, tilling the soil with a hoe when he noticed the position of the sun. Mob left his tools behind and went inside to wash off his hands. Once again Bakugou surprised him. He was already awake and dominating the kitchen, taking up the little counter space there was with chopped vegetables and bowls.
Mob set his basket aside to run and check on Bakugou, but Bakugou spun around and took one look at Mob’s hands and snapped, “Don’t track dirt into my kitchen!”
He stuttered in his approach in reaction to the forcefulness of Bakugou’s voice. Except, it wasn’t his kitchen and Mob could see the wobble in his stance and the paleness of his face. He found a rag and water and wiped his hands clean. He was determined to check on him. Mob touched Bakugou’s neck and face and it was cool and clammy. His eyes weren’t glassy, but they weren’t nearly as sharp as they usually were. Bakugou’s lip curled and he jerked his head away from Mob’s touch.
“I’m busy.” Bakugou said sternly, stirring onions with a wooden spoon.
“You need to rest.” Mob stated, the last thing he needed was for Bakugou to collapse at the stove and land face first in a wok of hot butter.
“No, I’ve got this.” Bakugou’s grip on the wooden spoon tightened.
Mob pulled away. Even in a weakened state, Bakugou had enough confidence to make Mob doubt his eyes and his gut. Ritsu was better at handling non compliant patients, much better than Mob was. Yet, this was his patient, and Mob felt a little justified in throwing around his authority.
He just wished his voice didn’t shake as much as it did when he insisted, “You have to rest. You are only going to make it worse by doing this.”
Bakugou’s eyes became wild and distant for a few moments, he resumed stirring the onions and oil in the pan and said gravely, “I know, worry about yourself.”
“What?” Mob asked confused. The stupidity of the statement caught Mob offgard, and he stated bluntly, “I’m your doctor. It’s my job to worry about you.”
“It’s your job to heal me so I can go home.” Bakugou snapped back. His aggression seemed more aimless, like his attention was split between Mob and his own memories.
“Those two are not mutually exclusive.” Mob said, “and I am worried that you are pushing yourself too far, too soon, after your injury.”
“I don’t want you to worry about me! I’m not supposed to have people worried about me! I supposed to be stronger, I’m supposed to win!” Bakugou raged, an angry flush appearing under his pallor, “I wasn’t supposed to fail!”
Mob opened his mouth, but he had no words. There was weight and pressure to Bakugou statement that Mob couldn’t identify, but it was crushing Bakugou. He didn’t cry, but his brows were scrunched together and his eyes pinched shut as he used his willpower to keep from breaking. He started to wobble more significantly, throwing his balance as his knees started to buckle. Mob quickly guided him to a nearby chair, thankful for something to do other than stare awkwardly at Bakugou in his moment of crisis. Mob felt for Bakugou’s pulse and his mind mulled over what the boy said.
His phrasing was odd. Mob didn’t understand why having people worry about him was bad. Mob didn’t like it when his brother worried about him, but he didn’t find his brother’s ability to worry about him as inherently bad. Ritsu worried because he cared.
His pulse was rapid and somewhat shallow. Mob waited a moment to see if Bakugou could sit up in the chair on his own. Once he confirmed Bakugou wouldn’t collapse on the floor, Mob needed him to drink and eat something. He poured water for Bakugou and cut him slices of a boar root to try and give him some energy. Bakugou took them but immediately set them aside.
Mob smelled something burning. Oh, the onions , Mob looked over to the stove and could see smoke rising out of the pan from the oil. Bakugou tried to stand but Mob placed both his hands on his shoulders and forced him down into the seat. Mob could feel just how well muscled Bakugou was, and it only confirmed how weak he was feeling that Mob was able to physically overpower him.
“I’ll get it.” Mob said and he left Bakugou there and took the wok off the heat.
The onions had blackened and burned to the bottom of the wok. Mob took it outside and let the wind disperse the smoke while he scraped the contents into a bin he used for compost. When he returned, Mob was surprised to see Bakugou still sitting in the chair. The water and sliced root was still untouched.
“Please eat and drink that. It’ll take some time to get your stamina back.” Mob said and Bakugou shifted his weight, not to grab the food or water, but to stand and Mob said sharply, “Don’t get up, I’ll cook.”
“I already told you this morning-” Bakugou for as worn out as he was, still managed to have a surly, contentious tone.
“Then tell me what to do and I’ll do it.” Mob cut him off in a flare of annoyance. It must have been the edge in his tone, but Bakugou begrudgingly sat back in his chair and was silent, Mob huffed slightly, “Are you going to tell me what to do or should I make whatever I can?”
Bakugou sighed, “Take a thumb’s worth of butter and heat it in the pan with a half of the onion.” Mob reached for the butter and Bakugou snapped, “Cut the onions first!”
Mob clenched his jaw and let the irritation flare up and live out its life cycle. He then reached for the onions and started to chop them but Mob could see Bakugou in the corner of his eye judging him as he did so. His stare was so heavy and forceful Mob felt his magic bubbling up, carried by his growing annoyance, faster than his pin could eat it. Mob picked up the cutting board and the onion and set it down on the table near Bakugou, pushing the water and sliced root out of the way.
“How about you cut and I just mix it all together when you are done.” Mob said and he was relieved when Bakugou pulled the chair up to the table and cut the onions angrily. He was far faster than Mob was and once he was done Mob took the onions and began to fried them in butter, “What’s next?”
Bakugou walked him through the rest of the meal. Their interactions were more curt and tense than at breakfast, and Mob didn’t know how to plate the meal as well as Bakugou but the food was finished. Mob looked over and saw the water was gone and the root eaten sometime during the meal preparation. Bakugou certainly had better color to his face. Mob picked up his chopsticks and heard Bakugou gruffly mumble something across the table.
Mob fixed him with a flat look and Bakugou sneered, “What’s with that face? I said thank you.”
“Oh… your welcome.” Mob said feeling embarrassed at his assumption, “and… and thank you for walking me through the meal… and eating and drinking what I gave you.”
Bakugou only honored the thank you with a grunt.
They ate in a tense silence and Mob’s mind wandered back to Bakugou’s statement. The anxiety of Bakugou’s words struck Mob as familiar. He lived much of his life in extreme fear and many times felt helpless. It wasn’t fun or easy to be in that state, and Mob sympathized with Bakugou’s situation.
“Why do you look so glum? The food is fine.” Bakugou seemed to have shaken his mood now that he’d eaten.
“I’m sorry that-”
“If you are going to pity me… don’t .” Bakugou said with a heavy warning in his tone.
“My brother worries about me.” Mob said, he looked down at the food, pausing to think about his thought.
“Your point?” Bakugou asked gruffly, filling the silence.
Mob flinched at the harshness of the tone, but he couldn’t leave his thought half said, “Its because he cares. So it’s good there are people who care enough to worry about you.”
Bakugou didn’t comment on his declaration. His face and body were still tense and angry.
Something about his posture compelled Mob to say, “I’ll get you home. It will just take some time.”
“I don’t need your pity. I’m not weak.”
“I never doubted that. You had to be very tough to survive for as long as you did before I found you.” Mob answered honestly and calmly he picked up his plate and took Bakugou’s, “I-”
Mob didn’t finish what he was going to say and started to clean the dishes. Bakugou sat at the table mulling something over before standing suddenly from the table, his chair scraped loudly across the floor. He pushed it back in and laid down on the bed.
They didn’t speak for hours. Mob had things to do and he went down the list, pausing briefly between tasks to check on Bakugou who didn’t speak. He just picked a spot on the ceiling and glared at it, contemplating complex thoughts in his head that Mob could only dream to ascertain. It was the fourth time that Mob went to check on him that Bakugou finally spoke.
“I’ve never failed a mission, got captured, or lost a fight with an empire mage before.” Bakugou said. It was more verbalizing his thoughts than speaking directly to Mob, “My mother… She trusted me. She stuck her neck out for me and I don’t like owing favors to anyone. I promised her I wouldn’t lose anyone on that mission and I had to fucking lose myself.”
Mob listened as he finished cleaning around Bakugou’s bedside. Mob didn’t look at him or respond because Bakugou didn’t sound like he was finished just yet.
Bakugou turned his full attention on Mob, and spoke with deep hostility in his voice, “Not only that I don’t even know why the hell I feel compelled to tell you any of this shit you Empirian mutt!”
People confess many things to Disciples. This wasn’t the first time Mob became privy to the secrets of a stranger. For awhile the pressure of knowing these secretes weighed heavy on Mob, unsure why he was deemed trustworthy and how he’d maintain that trust with so many people he didn’t even know. Until Recovery Girl told him once “We are faceless and we take care of them in their most vulnerable moments. We are the ultimate caring stranger and confidant. Who is a Disciple going to tell? Our Goddess? She deals in healing, not souls.”
“Well you didn’t get captured. So that streak remains unbroken.” Mob commented, ignoring Bakugou’s last statement.
Recovery Girl had many aggressive patients in her time and Mob did his best to emulate her calm demeanor. He didn’t want to engage Bakugou in a fight, and Recovery Girl’s advice tended to work better than Reigen’s. Reigen was quick with his tongue and Mob could envision him running Bakugou in mental circles until Bakugou tired himself out. Mob didn’t have the verbal dexterity nor the stamina for that. So he did his best to sound and look calm.
“I’m-!” Bakugou said sharply and to Mob’s surprise he sighed sadly, “I was out of line. I shouldn’t insult a Disciple in a house of The Lady.”
Mob wanted to accept the apology and walk away while he was calm, but the defeated and far away look in his eyes tugged at Mob’s conscience. Against his better judgement he said one more thing.
“If you need to talk, I will listen.” Mob said and when Bakugou shot him a distrustful glare out of the corner of his eye, Recovery Girl’s words slipped out of his mouth, “Who am I going to tell? The Goddess? She deals in healing, not souls.”
The contemplative look that crossed Bakugou’s face didn’t match the argumentative tone that came out of his mouth, “Why the hell do I want her to know anything about me?”
Mob pursed his lips. He thought he had gotten through to Bakugou, but maybe he got it wrong and misread something. Bakugou seemed more relaxed, even sitting up on the side of the bed, but Mob left the bedside perplexed.
Mob spent the next few hours finishing his work in the garden. He had a few roots and bulbs from the previous year he needed to repot and as he finished a pot and brought it inside he’d find Bakuogu sitting by the window looking out on the garden. That dull look in his eye had returned and Mob set the pot down.
“Are you tired? Do you want to lay down?” Mob asked, wiping his hands off and readying to help Bakugou back to bed.
“I’m not tired.” He frowned, shooting a fierce look at Mob.
Bakugou broke the stare first, gazing out at the garden again. Mob knitted his brows, trying to think of something to do to help. Then the thought crossed his mind that maybe this wasn’t a medical problem.
“Do you… want to help?” Mob asked tentatively.
Bakugou got up without a word and followed Mob out to the garden. Mob showed him what needed to be planted and how to prepare the pot and soil. Bakugou followed directions well, even if it was a little intense for him to swear at the dirt and his tools if they weren’t totally compliant while he worked. Mob hadn’t had someone work alongside him in a while and he enjoyed hearing and feeling the presence of another person during the day. Mob was generally fine on his own, but it got lonely and monotonous during the day.
Bakugou noticed Mob glancing up and watching him periodically and he asked gruffly, “What? Am I doing it wrong?”
Mob stopped his work and looked up. He smiled softly. Probably too soft to see behind the veil, but he hoped it reached his eyes, “No, you are doing great. I’m just enjoying your company.”
Mob half expected Bakugou to retort with some insult tainted response but he just huffed and turned away, focusing on the bulb he was working with. When he was done he handed Mob the pot roughly, but that was no different than how he has been doing before. Still it felt different. Almost gentler.
Oh right, usually he would have asked for another and swore a few times doing it, Mob thought to himself as he took the pot and set it aside. The basket still had roots and bulbs in it but they had run out of pots to put them in. He might use some for medicine and others he might plant throughout the mountain for next year, but for now Mob packed up.
“Thank you for your help,” Mob brushed off the dirt from his knees and picked up the basket, “That is all the planting I am going to do today, I just need to bring these inside.”
Bakugou didn’t say another word and picked up a few pots and carried them into the house. He had collapsed onto the bed almost immediately after setting the pots he was carrying down on the table. It left Mob to do the rest on his own. Mob spent some time organizing them around the house as Bakugou slept.
Bakugou still hadn’t woken when Mob finished, so he left him water and started brewing potions. It was just Mob, and the gentle sound of boiling liquid and the chime-like clink of small glass vials as Mob cleaned, sterilized and organized them. The shadows outside grew longer and Mob started to think of his brother as the end of his shift at the clinic was getting closer. Mob wondered if he would be late again tonight. If he would have to stay the night at the clinic and hoped that wouldn’t be so.
Bakugou shifted on the bed and Mob could hear him grumbling to himself as he stood and walked into the kitchen. He had heavy footsteps. Without looking up, Mob could follow Bakugou’s path through the cottage and the kitchen. Bakugou was loud and unafraid to be heard unlike the quiet way Mob shuffled through his life.
“What the hell are you doing?” Bakugou asked with harsh words. Although he was loud and brash, the tone wasn’t mean from what Mob could tell. Still Mob reactively stiffened.
“I am making medicine. This one is a potion we give for relieving joint pain. This one is medicine for Yellow Flu which will be coming into season in a month or so.” Mob pointed at the different vials, the colors and viscosity were slightly different, “They are the easiest to make. It only takes an hour to distill them.”
“Can you make anything here?”
“No... I can make most medicines but, we have to order a lot from outside. I lack some of the tools.” Mob said wistfully, “I make do.”
“I’m home!” Ritsu called in as he opened the door.
“Welcome home Ritsu.” Mob didn’t look away as he poured the still warm liquid into the tiny vials, “How was the clinic today?”
“It was- You’re cooking?” Ritsu asked Bakugou, forgetting Mob’s question.
“Yes.” Bakugou answered with an edge in his voice.
Ritsu simply cocked a brow, “If you are well enough to do that then why are you still here?”
“Ritsu!” Mob admonished Ritsu and cut off Bakugou’s retort in one fell swoop.
Mob’s sharp gaze laboriously cut through the cold, hard exterior Ritsu put on for Bakugou. Ritsu’s eyes flicked between Bakugou and his brother. Finally Ritsu broke and he sat by Mob and whispered to him, too low for Bakugou to hear.
“He’s cooking?” Ritsu asked Mob, “Does this mean he is well enough to leave?”
“No, not yet.” Mob said, “He is still far too weak to travel but, it’ll only be a couple days to a week at most.”
“I’m hoping for the former.” Ritsu grumbled.
Bakugou yelled over his shoulder, “If you are going to insult me you can say it loud enough for me to hear.”
Ritsu didn’t look at Bakugou, but Mob watched him sneer, “I was just staying to my brother that I hope you get well soon.”
Ritsu’s tone wasn’t lost on Bakugou and the blond boy grumbled and swore under his breath at him.
Ritsu appeared to ignore him, but Mob could feel Ritsu’s agitation like heat from a stove. He took over labeling and packing the finished vials into the square slots in the medicine box, marking down on paper the number and type. This allowed Mob to focus on just pouring the medicine and managing the heat of the final beaker. They finished just before Bakugou finished dinner and together the brothers cleaned off the table and set it. Ritsu and Bakugou shot each other tense glares throughout the process, but they didn’t speak, not even as Bakugou set out the food.
Mob sat awkwardly at the table with his empty plate as Ritsu and Bakugou sized each other up. After about a minute into their silent challenge Mob quietly thanked Bakugou for the food and Ritsu for his help setting the table. He dished his plate, the clatter of his utensils the only sound. Ritsu’s eyes flicked over to Mob, breaking eye contact first, and when he looked back at Bakugou, Bakugou had a victorious smile as he dished his own plate.
“Ritsu, you should try the vegetables,” Mob said and he started to put food on his brother’s plate.
“I would have cooked meat if you had any.” Bakugou suddenly said.
Ritsu bristled, “Well meat is expensive and I think it's rather rude to complain about your host’s hospitality.”
“Too expensive? Aren’t you a doctor?” Bakugou didn’t say it in a way that Mob read as a challenge, but Ritsu certainly took it that way judging how his face screwed into a spiteful scowl.
“I never said too expensive .” Ritsu said venomously, “I just don’t want you to ruin a good piece of meat.”
Bakugou met Ritsu’s challenge with a sly sneer, “You haven’t even tried what I made. Your brother likes my cooking.”
Mob stammered as he watched the tensions in the room boil out of control in just a few short sentences.
“I- I- I think, um Ritsu, lets not fight.” Mob started, and Ritsu’s angry glare was redirected at him.
“Are you taking his side?”
“What?” Mob cried out in shock, “No! No, no, no, I just wanted to say that Yoshihara was planning on butchering a pig of his soon and I just finished his medication. You might be able to bargain something. Also Bakugou is a good cook, please try some.”
Ritsu took a bite of the vegetables and Mob watched his brother fight to keep his coldly indifferent face from breaking. For the most part he succeeded and he set his utensils down. Bakugou had that same tense expression as he waited. Although, he seemed more ready for a fight while waiting for Ritsu than when he waited for Mob.
“It’s fine.” Ritsu said cooly and he continued eating.
Bakugou huffed and resumed eating as well. Neither of them noticing the extreme stress that exchange had on Mob who felt like he’d lost some of his appetite.
“You don’t have a lot in your kitchen. No tomatoes, leafy greens, squash, or carrots, it's mostly roots, onions and dried vegetables.” Bakugou said, “I could do more with fresh vegetables.”
“I don’t know where you are from, but you won’t find those here.” Ritsu replied with that contentious tone again.
Mob, unwilling to lose his appetite fully, cut in, “What he means to say is we don’t have access to foods like that until the farmers can grow them. We can get canned vegetables, but it depends on how much is left in the store house from winter. Rations are tight this time of year. The military supply sometimes sells their food.”
“That’s fairly under the table ,” Ritsu warned, “We don’t want to bring a lot of attention to ourselves and the encampment is pretty sensitive to our presence since our run in with that soldier.”
“Oh,” Mob said almost guiltily.
“It's not your fault.” Ritsu assured him, but he had a strong angry undertone that tainted the softness of his assurance.
“A run in with a soldier? The Empire attacks its own people?” Bakugou’s lip curled at the thought. A little bit of disgust, but the sneer was also a little amused.
“I don’t want to talk about it.” Mob’s curt reply and Ritsu’s saddened expression caught Bakugou’s attention and he noted the information away for later.
He changed the subject, “There isn’t a greenhouse? You know for growing food over the winter?”
“A four season’s garden?” Ritsu asked and when Bakugou looked confused, “Like a building with glass walls or ceiling that you can grow plants in year round.”
“We don’t have one this far north. The glass is expensive.” Ritsu answered, “A few of the bigger cities have one. Although they don’t grow a lot of food crops.”
“The capital has the biggest one.” Mob said wistfully, “I wish I would have spent more time in it now that I like growing plants.”
Bakugou watched Mob closely, his eyes sharp and analytical.
“We have talked about building a four seasons garden up here before.” Ritsu said and he put a comforting hand on Mob’s shoulder.
“Then someone would have to stay up here. I’m the only one who gardens.” Mob pointed out, “It would be impossible in the winter to walk through the snow. I would be trapped.”
“Maybe we can build something at the clinic.” Ritsu offered next, not liking to see his brother dwell on regrets, “Recovery Girl is thinking of expanding the clinic again.”
“Is she taking the military’s offer?”
“No, not yet I don’t think.” Ritsu said with a shake of his head, and he looked at Bakugou, “Speaking of the military, I was in the encampment today. I haven’t heard anything about a battle near here.”
“You wouldn’t have.” Bakugou said before taking another bite. He was listening into the conversation, but the brothers, until now, had drifted away into territory he couldn’t speak on.
“Do you think they are looking for you?” Ritsu asked, and for the first time his tone wasn’t combative.
“They left me to die on my own sword.” Bakugou said coldly, “So I fucking doubt it.”
The brother’s looked at each other and they almost sagged into their chairs in relief. Bakugou squinted disdainfully at their response but, in some ways he could understand. They didn’t seem like fighters. Ritsu maybe has the will, but Bakugou doubted he had the strength or the Root to back it up.
“I heard Sudia has a whole city that is one giant four-season’s garden.” Mob stared into the distance dreamily, “They grow plants from all over the world year round. I heard they grow an entire forest inside one of the buildings.”
“That sounds fake.” Ritsu said disbelieving, but he was caught up in the fantasy of a city of glass buildings filled with exotic plants.
“Its not.” Bakugou spoke up and he smirked as Ritsu looked at him will all the disbelief and none of the wistful fantasy.
“How would you know?” Ritsu asked.
“I’ve been there.” Bakugou said.
The brothers looked at him in amazement.
“I would love to see it!” Mob said, he had a happy spark to his eyes.
Bakugou frowned when Mob turned that look away from him and directed it at his brother. The brothers seemed to share a silent conversation.
Ritsu set down his utensil, “Let’s go.”
“Now?” Mob asked confused.
“No…” Ritsu conceded, “but when we are done with our apprenticeships and you are a famous medicine maker-”
“I think you’ll be a surgeon before I ever make a name for my medicine,” Mob pointed out.
“Who cares if we are nameless even… We don’t have to stay here.” Ritsu pressed on, “We could leave.”
“It’s on the other side of Aca,” Mob said, realistically it was a pipedream, but they have followed through on pipedreams before.
“We’d figure it out,” Ritsu smiled, “Together.”
Bakugou kept his mouth shut. He could hardly imagine some Empirian boys from a backwater Empire town escaping on their own. Yet, something about the way Mob’s smile reached his eyes and the new life he had in his movements and words while interacting with his brother stopped Bakugou. He didn’t know why. Anyone else and Bakugou would have rained down cold reality. Bakugou figured he didn’t want to get on the bad side of the one Disciple that liked him, but that didn’t seem to be the core of the reason why.
He’d be here a couple more days. If he figured it out, great. If not, he couldn’t care less once he reached home.
Chapter 11: Scars
-The 3rd of Neir, 2nd month of year 3248-
Bakugou had been at the cottage for about four or five days. Mob had started to include Bakugou in his daily tasks and chores. It made the days pass faster and allowed Bakugou to test his limits. Mob, while he was quick to fuss over him, he was just as quick to cower unless he deemed Bakugou was truly at risk of injuring himself. He was older than the other Disciple Ritsu, but his brother seemed to have the stronger personality, and his incessant protectiveness led to him becoming more and more hostile towards Bakugou as the days went on. Ritsu passive aggression at least gave Bakugou something to do most evenings.
Bakugou was used to more mental stimulation, planting, cooking, and mixing medicines was not enough to quell the feeling of unrest he had, trapped by the limits of his own stamina. Thus, that energy was turned on figuring out Mob.
“Who were the two people here the other day? They weren’t Disciples.” Bakugou asked as Mob palpated his abdomen, his veil tucked into his kimono so it was out of the way.
He could feel magic from Mob, but his movements were too quick and his touch too short to read much.
“They’re friends. Reigen and Tome are adventurers.” Mob said.
After a period of silence, and Bakugou’s very expressive face communicating his confusion, Mob realized he was unfamiliar with the term.
He explained further, “They are people who travel and work as free-lance problem solvers. That’s how Reigen sees it. He does everything from small home repair to exorcisms. I’m not sure how Tome got wrapped into it, but she is about as enthusiastic about the work as he is.”
“Exorcisms? As in ghosts?” Bakugou scoffed, “What is he a psychic?”
Mob said with a smile, “No, nothing so ridiculous as espers. I don’t know how his methods work against ghosts, but he does give good massages and they do promote blood flow and healing. In fact, I think I’ll start you on scar massaging.”
“Wait, he does massages to expel ghosts?” Bakugou wanted to backtrack, it was hilarious and stupid that people would fall for that.
“Yes. He is very good at it. I learned what I know from him.” Mob explained.
Bakugou could care less about backtracking. That conversation was in the past now and he couldn’t help the amused smile he had when he asked, “You know how to massage?”
“Yes.” Mob said matter of fact, “Like I said, It promotes blood flow and healing. I have used it at the clinic for some elderly patients joints, or farmers with strained or pulled muscles. You though, you just need to massage the scar tissue so it doesn’t get tight, although walking might help with that too.”
Bakugou thought about it, “So what do I have to do?”
Mob got up. He untucked his veil and let it hang freely once again before he went and pulled dull green colored jar from one of the cubbies across the room. He returned and sat down showing the vial to Bakugou.
“It’s a vitamin oil, you rub it into the scar once a day and it could help break up the tissue and prevent it from tightening. We should make sure you walk or stretch for at least thirty minutes a day as well.” Mob rattled off his course of treatment. It was a little emotionless, and rather clinical. It sounded like something he’s said many times before to many people, “You just take a little bit and warm it in your hands before rubbing it in.”
“I don’t understand. Can you show me?” Bakugou said, and his laid back, presenting his scarred abdomen.
“I—oh… yes.” Mob nodded, knocked off track from his prepared speech, it took Mob a second to recenter.
Mob tucked the veil back into his kimono again so it wouldn’t tickle along Bakugou’s skin as he leaned over. Except, the way it folded this time around it exposed a little bit of Mob’s jawline. Bakugou looked away quickly and focused on Mob’s hands instead as he spread a thin layer of oil across his palms. Mob rubbed his hands together, warming the oil before placing his hands on Bakugou’s scar and working the oil into the skin.
Mob’s hands had more confidence as they massaged along the scar tissue than the boy they were attached to had in his day to day life. It felt nice. Mob pulled and pushed along the muscles of his stomach, side, and back in smooth even strokes. He used mostly his hands, but sometimes he’d run his forearm across Bakugou’s obliques. It wasn’t necessary. There was no scar tissue there, but Mob must have felt the tightness in his muscles and worked on them while he was at it. Mob’s eyes were focused, but they still had a gentle compassion to him that Bakugou was unaccustomed to seeing in Empirians at large. He had come to expect it, and almost look forward to it, in Mob though. Bakugou almost let the observations distract him from the purpose of this encounter.
Now that Mob had extended, concentrated contact with Bakugou, Bakugou reached out with his Root to Mob’s. He knew what Mob’s Root felt like, theirs had been tangled together during the healing spell, but his was unconscious for most of it and the effects had faded quickly. Still, he had enough of a memory of what it felt like that it wasn’t hard for Bakugou to find. Mob’s power was incredible. His body so full, the magic didn’t have room to ebb or flow, only press against the surface, condensing down to make room for more since it couldn’t seem to escape. As Bakugou reached out to investigate, Mob’s Root reacted to his presence and reached back, tendrils trying and failing to pass beyond Mob into Bakugou.
Mob retracted his hands and pulled away from Bakugou. His eyes darted between his hands and Bakugou’s scar. His brow krinkled with deep lines of confusion.
“I-” Mob swallowed, a little fearful tremble in his voice, “That’s all you have to do. I think—I think you’ll be able to do it on your own from here.”
Bakugou sat up, pulling the kimono back over his shoulder and wrapping the cloth around himself again. Mob didn’t try to assist like he usually did, he had stepped back and away from the bedside and watched.
“Is something wrong?” Bakugou asked carefully.
Mob shook his head ‘no’. It was unconvincing, even to Mob, who added, “Nothing, I just noticed you are very tense.”
Bakugou squinted and Mob looked away from his gaze.
“I—I think you could use a bath.” He stuttered out.
“The hell?” Bakugou swore as Mob blindsided him with his declaration, “Are you saying I’m fucking dirty?”
Mob looked at him, eyes wide as he realized what he said, “I mean you are tense and hot water should help! Your muscles, Y—your muscles are tense!” Mob was distressed enough that his had a nervous sheen of sweat on his forehead. He kept his arms crossed against his stomach, gripping onto his forearms, “I’ll get water started.”
Bakugou stood and tied the kimono shut and moved to follow. Mob tried to tell him to sit back down, but he bent easily with one well placed look.
It was a lot of work to bring the tub out of storage and clean it out. They dragged it to the back door, near the stove and the water pump. Mob apologized avidly. He usually used the bath house in town after he dropped off medicines and components at the end of the week. The bath house was far too crowded with soldiers to walk in anymore, and appointments were a set a minimum of a week in advance. This left them with a tub to fill bucket by bucket. Mob kept his distance from Bakugou at the start, but as he started to get more tired hauling water, he bumped into Bakugou a few times. Mob’s anxiety ebbed with each accidental collision and soon he wasn’t as purposeful in keeping his distance.
They both were sweating as waited for two large pots of water to finish boiling. Mob leaned on the counter and Bakugou reclined back in a chair at the table with his head resting on the backboard. Bakugou wasn’t used to getting tired so quickly. It wasn’t the burn of his lungs or the ache in his muscles, it was the sudden lack of energy to move that sabotaged his strength. His stamina was shit, and it pissed him off. He was very ready for this bath.
Mob looked like he was ready for one too. He wasn’t sick or injured, but he looked about as tired as Bakugou did, leaning his full weight on his forearms, head hung low nearly resting on his fists. He glanced up every once in awhile at the pots, seeing if they were boiling yet. The light caught in metal of his dragon pin.
Bakugou had noticed it a few days ago. It was the only piece of jewelry either of the brothers owned. They were certainly poor, the Order of the Lady didn’t have much power or money in these parts from what he’d ascertained from the conversations the brothers had. They struggled to get food on the table and basic supplies. Frankly, Bakugou was surprised to find Disciples at all. They haven’t been seen on the Empire’s side of the battle field in decades. Odd considering they generally flocked to where the need was greatest.
The pin bothered him, or more exactly, the gem did. The color, the shape, the prominence of the gem almost looked like it was a magical item.
“That pin, where did you get it?” Bakugou asked, he lifted his head off the backboard watching Mob curiously.
Mob stiffened again. Bakugou had seen this reaction of his before when he started to ask questions with answers Mob didn’t want to give.
“I got it from Recovery Girl.” Mob said. He was standing up now, not looking at Bakugou, but he was listening closely.
“Just curious, it reminds me of a magic pin I saw once.” Bakugou cast a line into the dark, not sure if he’d catch anything.
“Really?” Mob said neutrally, but his body didn’t relax and he didn’t turn his head.
Bakugou decided to be more direct, “What does yours do?”
“Nothing, it’s just a pin.” His voice was tight, and he rubbed his chest in slow circles that, if Bakugou wasn’t paying attention, might have looked like Mob was simply scratching an itch.
“Huh,” Bakugou made a contemplative noise and didn’t press.
Mob relaxed after a beat and resumed watching the pot. Five minutes later it boiled and Mob dumped the hot water into the tub.
“It’s not as hot as the hot spring but its very warm.” Mob stirred the water with his hand, and frowned slightly. He filled the two pots again and set them on the heat, he turned to Bakugou and said “I’ll step out if you want to change.” Bakugou already started to disrobe and Mob spun around, “Oh! I’m sorry.”
“You’re my doctor why are you being so fucking bashful all of a sudden?” Bakugou chaffed and stepped into the water, “This is a weak bath, but it’ll have to do.”
“I’ll just be inside watching the water,” Mob said from around the corner.
Bakugou couldn’t see him but he could hear that nervous quiver in his voice still. Bakugou pulled his knees to his chest so he could dunk his head under the water while it was still warm. He stayed underneath and vigorously scrubbed his hair and scalp. He emerged from under the water with a satisfying gasp and sprawled back against the edge of the wood tub. He felt a pinch in his side and absently mindedly massaged the scar.
Mob brought a towel and the newly heated water to the tub. Not nearly as hot as the first two pots, but hot enough that he poured slowly to keep from burning Bakugou.
“I’ll leave this for you.” Mob said, hanging the towel within Bakugou’s reach, “If you need anything I’ll be inside.”
“You don’t need to baby me.” Bakugou said sharply, “If I need help I’ll ask.”
Mob sighed and left Bakugou to his bath. It was hard for Mob to read his tone, but it wasn’t as aggressive as it usually was. Bakugou also was leaning his head back, with his eyes closed and Mob could see red marks across his face and shoulders where he rubbed a little too aggressively as he cleaned. Mob returned inside and sat at the table with his books and field guides. There were many plants coming into season and he was going to have to find some tomorrow. Bakugou had dipped into his components for seasonings and Mob was going to run out sooner rather than later with Bakugou around. He marked down notes in the margins of the components Bakugou had used as seasonings. Livery was fond of odd seasonings and Mob figured she’d be interested in the findings. He might struggle to explain how he found out though.
It wasn’t fifteen minutes later that Mob heard a knock at the door. Ritsu is back already? Is the thought that crossed Mob’s mind as he got up from the table and approached the door. Yet he couldn’t figure out why he wouldn’t just enter, unless someone stumbled on their house. It was unlikely, but not impossible.
Mob made sure his veil was secure before he opened the door, still half expecting Ritsu to be standing there. Instead he was looking at dark, finely made Sudian tunic, and Mob’s eyes carried up to the handsome face, charming smile, and dark hair that as the light caught it just right, almost looked purple.
“Aronin Ugast, ” Mob closed the door until it was only open enough for him to block line of sight with his body. “This is a private residence h-how did you find this place?”
Mob’s mind raced and he looked through the trees expecting there to be more Claw mages hiding there, waiting for a secret signal. The pin thrummed to life as his panic rose and his Root instinctively reached out to find hidden mages but it was chewed and rendered useless by the gem.
“It took a little time,” Aronin said, the sweetness of his voice might have lulled Mob in another situation but his nerves were taut.
Mob blurted his next question before Aronin could fully explain, “Why are you here?”
“I was so worried about you after you were attacked.” He told Mob. He looked and sounded earnest and well meaning, “I hadn’t heard anything. I tried talking to your brother but he was too busy and left the encampment before I could speak with him. I wanted to check on you so I asked around. How are you doing?”
Mob could hardly hear the question as panic gripped his mind. Aronin shouldn’t have been able to find his home. Not without putting in significant effort. Mob’s mind reeled as he thought of all the ways Aronin could have found him. Recovery Girl and Ritsu would never say a word. Livery and Kane, were chatty but even they knew not to give away the cottage’s location, unless he charmed them with that smile of his. He could have paid off someone in town or he could have followed Ritsu home without Ritsu knowing. Each option had horrible implications and Mob’s breath hitched as his heart rate increased.
“Well I’m fine, thank you for checking.” Mob said quickly and started to edge the door close, “Travel safe.”
He reached out and placed his arm on the door and Mob reflexively flinched, “I came a long way, could I get some water for the road? I hope I deserve at least a little bit of your hospitality. That is all I ask and I’ll be on my way.”
“I just-” Mob swallowed guiltily, it was rude to toss out a guest, but he didn’t ask for this guest. If water was all he wanted, Mob agreed “Wait here I—I can’t let you inside right now. I’m… working.”
Mob feared for a moment that Aronin would prevent him from closing the door. He was relieved when Aronin’s hand put no resistance against the door and he let it close and latch. Yet, Mob noticed that he didn’t remove his hand either, fully capable of stopping Mob at any point. Mob’s heart raced and he quickly filled a cup with water and walked back to the door, not caring if a little spilled on the way over.
He took a steadying breath and opened the door again. Aronin was standing further back than before, just out of reach. Mob waited a moment, but he didn’t come closer to take the glass. A little fed up, Mob stepped past the threshold and held the cup out at arms length in one hand and the other hand on the door. He didn’t fully close the door, but he didn’t allow Aronin to see in. Bakugou was visible from the front, even if it was only an arm and the top of his head.
When Aronin stepped forward Mob couldn’t tell if it was intentional how his angled his body so it narrowed Mob’s route back to the door. He was taller, probably faster too, and Mob didn’t like that he was very aware of that.
“I think we got off on the wrong foot.” Aronin said as he took the glass from Mob’s hand, he leaned in and his tone of voice wasn’t aggressive, the opposite even. He sounded very personable, but Mob felt pressured to remain and not compromise his own hospitality again .
“Oh.” Mob’s answer was noncommittal, simply answering because Aronin ended on an inflection and it would have seemed rude to remain silent while he edged back toward the door.
He almost wished he’d said nothing at all as Aronin took it as permission to keep speaking.
“I would like to tell you I thought about what you said, and I was rather insensitive to different lifestyles. I just got so caught up in magic and Roots, and how great it was to use them everyday but it was a narrow way to view the world. It was preventing me from meeting people with different perspectives and seeing value in them.” Aronin spoke, not once did he pause to drink, and Mob was left waiting outside for him to finish, “I’d like to get to know you better and for you to get to know me better. You can come to the mages tent. Everyone is interested in meeting a Disciple. Don’t worry I’d be there to protect you if you’re nervous.”
Mob’s aim was off as he backed up and he backed into the frame of the door with a hiccup. Aronin’s leaned on one of his arms against the wall. Mob spotted the scarred flesh hidden under the long sleeve of his tunic, peeking out of the cuff. Before it made Mob question Aronin’s ability to properly defend, but now it served as a reminder of how willing he was to throw himself into a vicious battle. He noticed Mob looking at the scars and pulled away, tugging the sleeve down.
“I don’t know.” Mob shifted in front of the door, his eyes on the undrank cup in Aronin’s hand.
His voice was a little more hurt, “I think... I think we could have something if you give it a chance.”
A pang of guilt jolted through Mob. He didn’t want to hurt Aronin, but Aronin must see how uncomfortable he was.
Mob said apologetically, “This isn’t a good time.”
“Maybe another time?” He said. That hurt was gone and somehow replaced with hope.
Mob didn’t want to hurt him but he didn’t want this either, “No, I think I’ll find you if I am interested in talking. I just have a lot going on. I don’t want to go to the encampment.”
“We will meet in town. I went to the bar you mentioned. It's very nice. We’ll go together. Get something to eat and drink. On me.” He spoke with such confidence it felt like Mob didn’t have a choice in the matter, like they already set a date.
“Wait, Aronin.” Mob let go of the door to place both of his hands between him and the mage.
He realized what he just did and Mob quickly reached out and grabbed the door again.
“Listen,” Aronin pleaded gently. It was like he was not reading the signals Mob was trying to communicate and Mob didn’t know how he kept getting bolder, “One evening, thirty minutes of your time is all I ask. That’s not much and you’ll hardly notice it, you might even have fun. You can’t be too busy to not spare thirty minutes.”
“It’s not just thirty minutes, it’s travel too for me.” Mob stammered.
“Next time you come to town or I could always come back here.” He offered.
“No! My brother doesn’t like having guests.” Mob felt a little bad for bringing his brother into this, but some small thread of hope that Aronin might listen if it wasn’t just Mob’s refusal alone.
Aronin reached out and held Mob’s hand and Mob froze. At what point was his obligation of hospitality complete?
“Just a yes, it's not a commitment for life.” Aronin watched him look back toward the door, “We don’t have to make this a big deal.”
“I told you I—I” Mob could feel his resistance failing, it was exhausting and the way Aronin looked at him was making him feel guilty, “It's not fair because I’m very busy right now and you’ll be gone at war soon.”
“I’ll just keep coming back until I get a yes.” He laughed like it was funny or endearing and didn’t sound like a complete threat, “I’ll show you I am serious about this.”
“Please-” Mob said and the door opened behind him and Mob stumbled back into something.
“He said no. Fuck off .” Bakugou growled, his words dripping utmost contempt and malice as much as the water from his skin and hair.
Bakugou pulled Mob behind him and Mob went willingingly, allowing Bakuogu to form a barrier between him and Aronin. He might have been dripping wet and wearing only a towel around his waist, but he had some height and weight on Aronin. He also exuded an almost tangible aura of confidence and willingness to do violence that clearly unnerved the other man.
“I think Mob can make his own decisions.” Aronin said as he sized up Bakugou, squaring his shoulders. Although his eyes were tense and lacking the confidence his posture had.
“He did and he isn’t interested in a greasy bastard like you.” Bakugou snarled, “but your hearing is rather selective. Let me be clear. Leave, or I break you in fucking half .”
Aronin swallowed thickly then he slowly cocked his head, “Where—where did you get that scar?”
“Its none of your damn business and I am not going to waste my time explaining it. Disciple, I need your help if you’d please.” Bakugou pushed Mob through the door, deeper into the house.
“Where are you from?” Aronin demanded as Bakugou began closing the door.
“Wouldn’t you fucking love to know that huh?” Bakugou tried to slam the door and Aronin put out a hand to stop him, out of spite Bakugou smirked and said, “If you’ll excuse us, the Disciple was helping me with my bath.”
It stunned Aronin enough that Bakugou was able to shut the door in his face. They waited in tense silence for twenty minutes for Aronin to leave. Bakugou had heard the sound of a horse galloping away a while ago but he still checked the window for Mob. The cup was laying on its side, water soaked into the dirt but Aronin was nowhere to be seen.
“You shouldn’t be afraid to tell off bastards like them.” Bakugou sounded like he was scolding him.
Mob swallowed nervously, it felt unfair, and he said, almost too quiet to hear “That was a Claw mage.”
“What?” Bakugou snapped.
His eye contact was too direct and his movements too aggressive for Mob’s frayed nerves.
“He was from Claw,” Mob struggled to keep his emotions reigned in. He tried to keep his voice steady and his head held high, “I—I couldn’t fight back. I can’t.”
“That's a lie.” Bakugou said low, “I know you could fight back.”
“No,” Mob shook his head, “You don’t understand.”
“He is going to keep coming back, but you only have to knock him down once and people like him run with their tails between their legs.” Bakugou raised his voice.
“I just can’t!” Mob yelled and his power pulsed violently inside him.
Mob dropped to his knees and pressed the pin to his head as if it might aid it in devouring his magic faster.
“Mob?” Bakugou asked after a beat of silence and he knelt down in front of him.
Mob shifted away from him, “Please, just… give me a moment.”
“Okay.” Bakugou said.
Mob looked up surprised at the understanding in his voice but when he did, Bakugou was focused on the pin. He could see Bakugou’s mind working behind his eyes. Bakugou stood and held out a hand for Mob, and Mob accepted and let Bakugou pull him to his feet.
“You don’t have to worry about him while I’m here.” Bakugou said and walked over to his clothes, “I’m going to get dressed.”
Mob appreciated the warning and he turned his back to him. His eyes glancing toward the window out in the forest.
“Thank you.” Mob said.
“Where I’m from people don’t harass Disciples! Don’t read too much into it.” Bakugou said dismissively.
“Well, it meant a lot to me.” Mob said anyway. “Thank you.”
Chapter 12: Hidden Facets
-The 3rd of Neir, 2nd month of year 3248-
When Ritsu returned from his shift that night and discovered what had happened he flew into a rage. Bakugou gritted his teeth as Ritsu paced back and forth, decrying the entirety of Claw. What Bakugou really hated was how unfocused and neurotic the younger brother’s rage was and it was doubly irritating how Mob let his younger brother get away with it. Although, Mob seemed even more malleable than most nights. Ritsu came up with many strange plans, even suggesting they pack up and flee the town that very night. It was only then that Mob spoke up about how that plan was ridiculous, although he said it was such little confidence and presence, Ritsu couldn’t hear his brother over his own ranting.
After about ten minutes he started to loop back around, “He came to our house! He threatened you-!”
“He really didn’t threaten me.” Mob said but it was futile.
“—Claw just thinks they can go anywhere they want? What were they looking for, information? I’ve heard whispers from the soldiers about looking for of barbarians deeper in the border.” Bakugou perked up slightly at the information, but Ritsu didn’t dwell on it as he was already trending away from rage back to anxiety, running his hands over his face and through his hair, “Oh this is bad. They might think we are traitors.”
“He was just worried about me.” Mob said uncomfortably. Bakugou could see the conflict in his eyes as he wrestled with guilt and contempt, “I don’t think he’d...”
Mob stopped mid-sentence. He pensively fiddled with his fingers.
“Don’t give him a pass!” Ritsu snapped and Mob looked away, a weak furrow in his brow, “This has got to be breaking some rule or- or-”
“I don’t want to make a big deal out of this Ritsu.” Mob’s eyes were still downcast and his shoulders hunched up by his ears, “He knows where we live. He knows where you work. I don’t want to make him angry. Maybe, if I meet with him he’ll be satisfied and leave us alone. He said he just wanted to talk.”
Bakugou’s lip curled, he’d let idiots be idiots, but maybe the feelings of obligation from Mob saving his life that Bakugou couldn’t stand by while Mob clearly ignored his own gut.
“What do you think he wanted to talk about? The scenic beauty of Lou Run?” Bakugou snapped over his shoulder. He could see Ritsu bristling out of the corner of his eye, and he couldn’t care less, “He was interested in you and with a guy like him it might be for the simple fact that you have about as much back bone as a steamed-fucking-noodle.”
“Hey!” Ritsu shouted, “You really are going to disrespect my brother in his own house?”
“Ritsu please don’t fight.” Mob brought his hands up to hold him back before Ritsu swung at Bakugou, “Bakugou, please don’t aggravate my brother.”
Ritsu made an indignant noise and Mob began apologizing. Bakugou focused instead on the meat he was cooking. If his brother couldn’t get him to shut up, than maybe the pork would. Ritsu sat with a huff when Bakugou set the plates at the table. For a couple minutes there was silence in the house as they ate.
Mob stood at one point and retrieved the box of soft pills he’d made for Bakugou. He presented the opened box to Bakugou and let him select one. There were three left. He made about one Empirian week’s worth and Bakugou wondered if that was as long as he was going to stay here for, or if he would have to stay longer.
Mob closed the box and set it beside himself. Wordlessly, he returned to eating. Ritsu stalled, watching Bakugou out of the corner of his eye. He looked like he was waiting for Bakugou to dispose of Mob’s hand made medicine. Add another slight against his brother to the list. When Bakugou did eat it, Ritsu squinted and returned to his food as well.
Aronin Ugast managed to throw the Disciple’s house into disarray. Tension hung heavy in the air, and the brothers had strained movements as they maneuvered through the rest of the evening. Neither really spoke until that night when Bakugou heard them whispering as they laid in the bed on the other side of the room.
Bakugou heard footsteps approaching his bed and he snapped awake. Mob’s eyes widened for a fraction of a second but he fell back into that neutral expression. The tension in his movements and features from last night was gone. He knelt beside Bakugou and spoke in hushed tones.
“I have to go out on the mountain today and collect components.” He whispered, “I have no worries that you will be in trouble on your own, and you know your way around the kitchen if you are hungry. I’ll be gone only for a couple hours.”
Bakugou sat up and swung his legs over the side of the bed and Mob watched him. Mob blinked a few times confused as Bakugou put on his boots.
“You can go back to sleep.” Mob said still kneeling, he wasn’t eye level any more and tilted his head up ever so slightly to look at Bakugou.
“Am I not allowed to go on a damn walk?” Bakugou asked briskly.
Mob looked away, ardent and thorough as he considered Bakugou’s words. It replaced the fearful flinch he used to have that had made Bakugou want to roll his eyes. While Mob rightly moved past his reactionary fear, Bakugou wished he didn’t have to consider his words and tone so deeply. Mob was quiet and indirect. Bakugou wasn’t. Simple as that.
Mob reached the conclusion of his thoughts and spoke, “I don’t want to take you too far, let me know when you are getting tired... I think, you should eat before you go.”
His decision was made and Mob seemed determined to stick to it. He stood and Bakugou noticed he wasn’t in the same Kimono as before. This one was darker and made with a stiffer fabric than his lighter, softer Disciple robes. Combined with the hakama trousers, he looked more like a laborer than a Disciple.
Bakugou refused to hold up Mob and give him a reason to consider him a burden. He was no stranger to fast meals and they were on their way out before the sun or Ritsu had fully risen. Mob stayed back for a moment, to chat with his sleepy brother, informing him where he was going much in the same way he had with Bakugou. He watched Mob tenderly adjust Ritsu’s veil as they talked, Ritsu didn’t seem to notice. This tenderness was hardly unique. The brothers were close. They lived alone on the mountain with no mention of parents, or other siblings. Mob only spoke of Recovery Girl and Reigen with the reverence one holds for beloved mentors or extended family.
When Mob met him outside, he was wearing a large basket strapped over his back, any sign of that tenderness he extended to Ritsu was gone and replaced with an emotionless facade. Mob didn’t say a word. He made his way into the trees, trusting Bakugou would follow beside him.
It was a very different setting to see Mob in. He had a route in his head that Bakugou was not privy to. Feeling like he was following the tide as Mob found patches of plants, dug roots and mushrooms out of innocuous looking patches dirt, and every once in awhile Mob watched the tips of the mountains with great interest. They took frequent breaks. Mob took his time to enjoy the weather and the animals on the mountain. He stopped for some time to watch deer graze in a thicket. When they moved on, Mob dug around in the same thicket cutting sprigs for himself that he wrapped in cloth and tucked away into the basket.
Bakugou used this time to observe Mob. Bakugou wasn’t an idiot. He knew Mob was hiding away in the mountains less by choice and more by necessity. Mob was very careful to not use his Root but Bakugou could still see it seeping out when Mob’s emotions flared or more passively in the way the mountain seemed to bend over backwards to provide for him. Mob didn’t notice the way roots released from the earth for him, or how leaves and vines leaned toward him like he was sunlight. Bakugou can’t say he ever saw Mob get caught once in the thicket or underbrush.
The mountain seemed to drink in Mob, parched and dry from the stifled ley lines that sat fat and heavy above them. Mob was often the same when around others but in the moments he forgot himself, Bakugou could feel that magic ease off Mob’s skin like an early morning mist. Something would come over Mob a few minutes later and he’d touch that pin and he be as constrained as the ley lines again.
It came as a surprise when Mob asked, “It’s beautiful isn’t it?”
There was an opening in the trees where a landslide once passed through. A few twisted, scraggly trees persisted among the sun dried upturned roots and trunks of trees less fortunate. There was nothing beautiful really about the broken mounds of rock and dirt but Mob was gazing past that into the distance. The mountains cut off into plains. Patches of shadow cast by clouds glided over grassland dotted with lakes and patches of trees. The blue of the sky and an endless expanse of green was beautiful in its sheer scale. Mob’s gaze traveled up the mountain to the cool gray stone, thick, ancient trees and snow capped peaks.
“That’s beautiful too.” He said and started to walk forward along the path, “I would like to show you something if you have the energy still.”
“Do I look tired?” Bakugou questioned.
Mob examined him closely from where he stood, “I think you look fine but you know yourself better than I do.”
“I’m fine.” He snapped and stormed up to Mob, “Well? I can’t read your mind. Where are we going?”
His eyelids flickered in and out of a squint as he considered something. Although Bakugou would not have noticed were he not looking so closely into them. Usually Mob pulled away. Today, he did not.
“It’s up the path.” Mob walked along a narrow path that clearly was an animal trail repurposed by Mob, the crunch of gravel and loose stone their only accompaniment as they traveled over uneven ground, “I found it one summer when I got stuck on the mountain in a flash thunderstorm. This is the only path I know that takes you to it.”
Bakugou hummed neutrally. If Mob wanted to go off his route to show him the mountain he wouldn’t argue. There was a secondary purpose to this walk. He didn’t know what the mountains surrounding the cottage looked like, or what terrain he was going to encounter. As far as Mob and Ritsu knew Lou Run was the last bastion of civilization for well over three days of hard travel on horseback. Thus far, he found no evidence against that, but Mob didn’t seem like he was looking for signs of hidden forts or man made trails. Bakugou needed to build a mental map quickly if soldiers were already asking around about barbarians . Last thing Bakugou needed was that mage to get uppity and start harassing him as he returned home. He was scanning the path for something else, a high, flat, open patch of land away from town.
“Are you looking for dragons?”
Bakugou’s head snapped around to Mob who was standing and looking up the mountain too. He did a fervent scan of clouded peaks.
“What makes you think that?” Bakugou leered at Mob, trying to discern any hidden motives to the question.
Mob shrugged, “There are dragons in the mountains. Sometimes you can see them. Have you ever seen a dragon?”
“I have.” Bakugou smirked.
Mob had a bright look in his eye as he did a determined little nod, “So have I.”
“Really?” Bakugou asked, it sounded a little too sensationalist coming from an Empirian, and Mob must have gleaned Bakugou’s doubt from his tone because he eyed him briefly as they walked.
“Yes.” Mob told him neutrally, although Bakugou should have sworn there was pointed undertone to his words, “I have. It was flying in the clouds. Uhh… there.”
He pointed toward a nearby peak. It was still thousands of feet away, but closer than Bakugou was expecting. Which was good, he was closer to the border than he thought. The pleasant surprise on Bakugou’s face was positively received by Mob who had a rare smile on his face, one that reached his eyes. Bakugou observed it as much as he could before it melded back into that neutral mask Mob normally wore.
“Do dragons have anything to do with where you are taking me?” Bakugou asked, it was taking longer than he thought to find his place Mob mentioned.
“No.” Mob said and kept walking.
Bakugou waited for him to continue, but before he started to grind his teeth in annoyance he dropped it. He should have learned by now Mob wasn’t always forthcoming with information when asked.
The roar of water didn’t register for Bakugou until it was too loud to ignore. He looked around, water dribbled between cracks in the dark granet, ferns and wildflowers poked through the rock and hung from stony outcroppings in tangled blankets of green and pops of color. The path transitioned from a narrow gravelly walkway hugging the mountainside to weaving in and out of rough stone pillars that look like they were slowly peeling off the cliffs and down the hill. Bakugou lost track of the sky shortly after they began weaving in and out of the stone. The roaring sound faded away as Mob took him deeper into a cave. A few points Mob had to stop and take a second to maneuver the basket through crooked pathways where the walls tilted at sharp angles over the pathway and every stone was slick with moisture now.
When that roar returned it was gradual, but this time Bakugou was listening for it. Mob looked back to confirm he was still there. Then, he picked up the pace. They rounded one more corner and were met with a wall of water. Mob edged slowly between the water and wall, moisture collecting on his clothes and veil. Past the wall of water, Bakugou saw a deep pool at the bottom of what looked like a fifty foot column open to the sky. The granet had given way to hexagonal columnar pillars that were topped with mosses and bird nests. Sunlight glinted off the water and bathed the stone in light, making it warm to the touch. The pool itself was filled with bright algae along its edges, which Mob was crouched beside and carefully scraping orange algae into a glass jar without touching it. When he finished he sat in the sun on one the the columnar pillars and watched Bakugou wander around the space.
Bakugou could appreciate the beauty of a hidden space like this, but this old volcanic column had only one entrance and one exit if you didn’t count the opening into the sky. He couldn’t use this and he didn’t gain much by knowing it was here. He turned his attention to Mob ready to let him know he was good to leave but Mob was reclined back on his hands, eyes closed and basking in the sun.
Basket at his side. The sun reflecting off his hair and making his skin glow. It was strangely picturesque and Bakuou found himself staring longer than he meant to. Mob opened his eyes and looked over. He was clearly at peace where he was but his brow furrowed.
“Are you not enjoying this place?”
“Its… nice.” Bakugou looked around one more time as he walked over to Mob.
“It’s one of my favorite places.” Mob said as he stood, “It’s unique… I don’t get to share it with many people. Ritsu is too busy, Recovery Girl would never be able to make the walk, and I fear Reigen would try to swim in the water.”
“What the hell is wrong with the water?” Bakugou eyed the colored algae more distrustfully.
“Oh it’s toxic with the orange moss growing in there. Also its superheated toward the bottom.” Mob said casually, “I saw a bird fall toward the bottom one time and it came up fully cooked.”
With the heat of the sun radiating off the rock Bakugou hadn’t noticed the heat coming from the pool itself. Why Mob neglected that information made Bakugou raise a brow. Mob closed his eyes and relished the feel of the sun on his skin with a sigh.
“We should head back.” Mob stretched and rolled his shoulders before slipping the basket back on, “It’s almost time for lunch.”
Bakugou followed, and as they left an odd feeling settled in his chest. Mob trusted him enough to share that place with him. He scoffed at himself. Mob was clearly lonely, and he couldn’t share the little things on his walks with his brother and mentors, so Bakugou was really just a convenient second choice he told himself.
Even then, Mob didn’t have to share, but he did.
Chapter 13: Set the Board
-The 4th of Neir, 2nd month of year 3248-
Bakugou’s stamina finally gave out towards the end of the day. Mob assured him it was progress. He managed to go a whole day without needing to lie down every other hour, but Bakugou couldn’t celebrate since he still felt sick, weak, and too tired to even make dinner that night. This left it up to Mob to cook.
After dinner Bakugou laid in bed and watched the brothers chat at the table and play a board game. He recognized it as a strategy game, Chief’s Might. They assembled the board and set up the pieces, horsemen, footsoldiers, and laborers across their starting tiles. The games were slow, with Mob taking his time to deliberate on his moves. Ritsu complained he was taking too long and when Mob finished, he’d make his move in a few seconds and resume waiting as Mob frowned at the board. Three games later, Ritsu and Mob packed up the game board and put it away. Mob went to check on Bakugou while Ritsu got ready for bed.
Bakugou asked, vaguely curious, “Who won?”
“Ritsu did.” Mob said, a brief pause, “All three times.”
Bakugou could sense the disappointment in Mob’s tone, “Have you ever won?”
There was a faint hike of his shoulders up to his ears, and if Bakugou could’ve seen his mouth he imagined there would be a slight frown.
“I’m… not very good at the game.”
“Do you want to win against your brother?” Bakugou tested.
Mob jolted, it was hardly noticeable, but when Mob looked at him there was a unfed craving in his eyes, “It would be nice.”
Competitive was something Bakugou had never considered would even register in Mob’s vocabulary and he couldn’t stop the impish smile that crawled across his face, “I know the game. How about I show you a few tricks tomorrow and you have a rematch with your brother.”
The next day they step up the game board and pieces. Bakugou intended to play one game and observe Mob’s strategy. There hardly was one. He was unwilling to sacrifice any of his pieces, he only collected resources, he didn’t conquer territory, and when he did it was on accident and he apologized afterward. On top of it all, Mob was painfully slow in his decisions. Bakugou rapt the table with his fingers as he waited. All in all, Mob was the most peaceful warchief Bakugou had ever seen and he easily crushed him in the game.
Mob seemed like he expected the outcome, settling back only slightly deflated.
Bakugou opened with, “Are you sure you know how to play this game?”
Mob sat up straight like Bakuogu just splashed cold water on him. His brow furrowed but Bakugou didn’t let him speak.
“This is a war strategy game. My mom had me play it as a kid. It is supposed to teach you how to allocate resources to conquer and hold territory.” Bakugou explained, not bothering to soften his words or tone. Mob wasn’t a child. Although he played the game like one, “Each piece has a set direction of movement and skills. You also collect resources to spend them . I don’t know why the fuck you hoarded fifteen goddam sheep and twenty-five wheat.”
“It was to feed the sheep.” Mob said quietly in his own defense.
“This isn’t a Shepard’s Might !” Bakugou yelled and he physically restrained himself by pinching the bridge of his nose, “If you want to win , you are going to have to play the game as intended.”
“But—” Mob seemed uncomfortable with that.
“What?” Bakugou growled.
“I feel bad for killing his people.” Mob fidgeted with his fingers.
Bakugou looked up at the ceiling and sighed, he offered slowly, fighting to keep his rage under control as he slowly said, “How about you think of it more like you are capturing the other pieces?”
“Oh...” Mob considered the solution, “I guess I could do that.”
Is this progress? Bakugou wondered but he didn’t want to get ahead of himself.
Bakugou explained the rules and the functions of the pieces to Mob. Bakugou wasn’t quiet or soft in his explanation. Mob sat stiffly with his hands in his lap, only nodding yes or no in response to Bakugou’s questions. Once he reached out for the horseman piece and Bakugou slapped his knuckles. At the end Bakugou set up the board and gestured for Mob to make the first move.
Mob was even slower, trying to process the new information and play under the intense gaze of Bakugou. He had a slight tremble in his hand, and a tightness in his eyes. He didn’t look like he was having fun.
Bakugou surprised himself when he asked, “Do you want to stop playing and do something else?”
Mob looked up, his hand hovering over a piece, “I—I’d like to keep playing.”
“How about I go first then because you are overthinking it.” Bakugou huffed and moved a piece.
Mob took his words in stride and didn’t deliberate very long before moving a piece. The beginning is always calm as they collected resources and their borders approached each other. Once the fighting started, Mob was significantly less hesitant in taking Bakugou’s pieces. He carefully arranged them, giving them the best treatment he could. Bakugou thought it was weird but as long as Mob was willing to play the game he let him be.
Bakugou won. Mob easily fell for all the simplest traps and lost within twenty rounds. It was like playing against a child who just learned the game, and judging by how Mob played before, this might as well have been his first time playing. Bakugou realized it was going to be impossible for Mob to win on his experience alone, but there were a few tricks and fast strategies Bakugou knew that Mob could easily learn.
After about an hour of teaching him the tricks and a break for lunch, they set up the game board one more time. Half way through the game Mob whipped out one of the fast strategies Bakugou taught him, and while Bakugou knew the counter strategy to it, he let Mob take one of his most powerful pieces. An inexperienced player would have been done for but Bakugou wasn’t done playing yet.
Mob went to move a piece and Bakugou said, “If you do that I’ll win in five moves.”
Mob’s whole body stalled, processed, and then he picked a different square.
To the left more.
“An idiot could do that in two moves… no three.”
“It doesn’t move that direction.” Bakugou played with one of the pieces on his side of the board, tipping and rolling it on the bottom edge. He liked winning and the challenge of a strong opponent. Crushing them and proving his strength was part of the fun, but Mob made it too easy. It wasn’t a challenge. So it was a surprise to Bakugou that he was still enjoying himself. He reached across the board and hovered his hand over the piece and Mob released, “Try moving it here.”
“Oh.” Mob examined the board, it was a slow process but the gears clunked into place, “Oh! I thought it would expose my laborers, but actually blocks your horseman.”
Bakugou learned all his tricks from his Mom, but he also learned to never lose, so in another twelve turns, Bakugou secured Mob’s chief and won the game.
“You are really good at this game.” Mob said as he put away the board and pieces, “I had fun, but I also haven’t done any work today.”
Bakugou arched his back and his winced as his scar pinched slightly. He sat on the bed and massaged the skin with the oil Mob gave him. Bakugou watched Mob out of the corner of his eye as he set up wire stands for brewing. Apart from checking in on Bakugou, Mob worked diligently at the table through Ritsu’s return home and up until dinner when the table was cleaned and disinfected prior to eating.
Mob made no mention of their activities during the day to Ritsu. Carrying on conversations like every other night. Bakugou inspected the pill Mob made him, it was the second to last in the box. He retreated into his own thoughts and just barely caught Mob saying: “I am looking forward to Recovery Girl’s lesson tomorrow.”
“What about him?” Ritsu pointed at Bakugou, “You can’t take him into town.”
Mob’s brows furrowed for a moment than he clicked back into that neutral expression, “He should be fine for five or so hours. Bakugou,” Mob looked at him and Bakugou noticed how his eyes were round and doe-like, “I usually have lessons with my teacher every other week, and tomorrow I’ll be gone much of the day. Will you be okay alone? I can postpone it a couple days.” Bakugou started to sneer, a response rearing in the back of his throat when Mob turned to Ritsu, “He’ll be fine.”
Ritsu nose crinkled, “Are you sure?”
“I don’t need a babysitter. Go to your fucking class, I’m not going to stop you.” Bakugou clenched his chopsticks.
“Good, cause I didn’t want to stay back to watch you.” Ritsu said quietly.
“What did you say?” Bakugou bristled.
“I said-” Ritsu started to say when Mob accidentally cut him off as he thought out loud.
“It’s been awhile since we walked together to the clinic Ritsu. I’m looking forward to it.” Mob said before he delicately lifted the veil just enough to bring a bite of food to his mouth, something he had gotten rather good at after nearly a week of meals with Bakugou.
Whatever hot tempered response Ritsu had died on his lips but it lived on in his eyes as shot one last sharp look at Bakugou.
“Before we go to bed. I would like to play one more game with you Ritsu.” Mob said innocently.
Bakugou stayed to watch. Ritsu was a surprisingly adaptable player, but he wasn’t as good as Mob believed. One unconventional strategy in and Ritsu was off his game, scrambling to keep up. When Mob reached over the board and claimed Ritsu’s chief. He looked back at Bakugou and beamed.
“I think that is enough for today.” Mob said, the smile easing into something softer.
Ritsu opened his mouth to argue but Mob packed away the board with a newly imbued confidence that Ritsu was too stunned to argue with.
The following morning Bakugou was woken by Mob again. Mob bid him farewell and left early with his brother. It was a quiet day and Bakugou had thought hard about what his plans were going forward. One day of pills left and there wasn’t much Mob could do for him but keep his home open.
Bakugou took out his armor and inspected the leather and the padding. He had the day to himself to prepare for travel. He worked over lunch, repairing and washing his armor, and inventorying what survived. Much of his gear had been broken as he was tossed around but his Dragon horn carved from the very horn of a white dragon that glistened like ivory, survived. Even if the some of the metal decoration was destroyed, the body was undamaged, but it was made of tougher material than most.
Bakugou used his time to scout the woods. He hiked toward the mountain peak Mob had spotted a dragon at and found a flat patch of land. With this location marked in his mental map, he returned to the cottage before the brothers returned that evening. He was making dinner when Mob came through the door with apologies on the tongue for running late. Bakugou chided him for worrying, and he sat at the table with them. He took the last pill from the box and ate it with the meal. His obligation to stay disappeared with the pill, and Bakugou was ready to leave this Empire, its magic parched lands, its insufferable mages, and cool air far behind him. He just needed to do one thing first.
“I’m planning on leaving tomorrow.” Bakugou said casually as they put away the meal and began to wash the dishes.
Mob started, looking at him in surprise, “You—You are?”
“What am I not healthy enough?” He puffed up his chest and scrubbed the dish he was washing harder, “I feel pretty damn fine!”
“No! I—I mean yes. If you think you are ready.” Mob stammered before adding, “I was just surprised. Its—its sudden. I wish I would have known this was your last day. I enjoy your company.”
Bakugou stopped scrubbing. A second later his shook his head and continued to clean roughly, “Well-!”
He didn’t have a response so he turned his attention back to the dishes and swore under his breath at the sauce and bits of food stuck to them.
When he woke, he put his armor on instead of the kimono and tied his cape over his shoulder, unused to the thick fur that lined the edges around his head. He won’t mind it as much once he is crossing the mountains.
“Bakugou.” Mob said quietly behind him, he held out a small bag for him, “Its some food and a new water skin. I made some more medicine too. To help your recovery.”
He tucked away what he could into pouches along his belt and handed the rest back to Mob, and said gruffly, “I travel light, you can have these back.”
Mob seemed nervous, his movements a little more clumsy than usual. He was mostly looking down, or away, but his eyes did travel up to the medicine box Bakugou held tight in his hand. There wasn’t a pocket or pouch that could fit it.
And before Mob could ask Bakugou snapped, “I’m not going to go against the direction of a Disciple, what do you take me for?”
It was a little harsher than Bakugou intended. His friends took his volume in stride. Mob struggled to read past his tone and he flinched away, deeply confused. Bakugou clenched his jaw. This isn’t how he wanted to leave things, then he had an idea and reached into a pocket hidden in the armor of his lower back and produced a necklace made of cord and a single carved jade pendant of two interlocking dragon heads.
“Here.” He held it out for Mob and bit back his impatient remark as Mob took his time to examine it before taking it from him, “A token from my house. When we reclaim our land, Lou Run will be overtaken. Not that Disciples would have to fear harm from Yuuie warriors… That will tell any Yuuie warrior you are a friend of the Bakugou family.”
Mob was quiet for a while and then he closed his fist around the pendant and said, “Thank you. I—I hope you travel safely. You’ll always be welcome here.”
Bakugou grunted. He was never coming back to this place until it was part of Yuuie again. It was a surprisingly pleasant interlude, but he had to places to be and responsibilities that have been neglected for far too long.
Mob followed him to the doorway but he didn’t step past it with Bakugou. He watched from the cottage as Bakugou traveled up the mountain. Bakugou looked back once to see Mob still watching, his brother leaned on the door frame, waiting with him.
He returned to his hike. It took a couple hours to sneak through the woods, his path winding and confusing to throw off any one who might attempt to trail after him. Eventually he made his way towards an open flat patch of land near the top of one of the smaller peaks. He put the horn to his lips and blew. The frequency was too low for the human ear to hear but Bakugou felt the vibrations in his lips and they went numb as he finished the long note.
There would be no response for at least a couple hours but it didn’t stop Bakugou from straining his ears and gripping the horn for anything. Bakugou sat with a huff. He’d be here awhile. His mind over the next few hours kept drifting back to the cottage and to Mob. Quiet, plain, a pushover and someone Bakugou would have overlooked, but Mob had a hidden strength that he willfully smothered. Bakugou didn’t have enough time to figure out if it was his magic, or something else inside Mob that gave him a strength that left Bakugou deeply intrigued. Somewhere in the back of his mind was a ping of regret that he hadn’t figured out what it was.
The Dragon horn resonated with a far off frequency, vibrating against Bakugou’s side. He looked toward the horizon and saw nothing. Regardless, relief fluttered in his chest. He was almost home. Any faint, foolish desires to stay were quickly being stomped out. He looked back toward the cottage one last time, grip tightening on the medicine box, as he was ready to cut loose any thread of attachment he was still holding onto. The cottage wasn’t visible through the canopy, but he knew approximately where it was.
He rose abruptly, the box clattering at his feet, when he saw a thick column of black smoke billowing out of the trees where Mob’s cottage should be.
-7th of Neir, 2nd month of year 3248-
Mob watched Bakugou disappear into the woods, his red cape flitting between the trees before disappearing altogether. Ritsu waited for Mob, watching his brother instead of the barbarian.
“Are you okay?” Ritsu asked, leaning on the door frame with one shoulder.
Mob didn’t take his eyes away from the treeline, “You don’t have to wear your veil anymore. I know it bothered you.”
Ritsu squinted at him, confused, hurt, suspicious, Mob didn’t take the time to read his brother’s expression. He was trying to come to terms that his life had changed again. Although this time his life was going back to normal and in theory it should be an easy transition.
Ritsu removed his veil with one hand, “You can take yours off too.”
Mob nodded after a pregnant pause, and removed his veil. The air on his face felt nice. Ritsu waited for a while longer, eyes on Mob, sometimes he’d scan the forest looking where Mob might, or he looked inside the quiet house.
“Are you sad that he’s gone?” Ritsu asked cautiously.
Mob’s lips twitched as he chewed on his tongue.
“I think I will miss the company.” Mob’s answer was ambiguous, “It was nice having company.”
Ritsu looked away. His face soured for a few moments and then softened with a look of acceptance.
“What if we moved back into the Clinic?” Ritsu asked sincerely. Mob finally broke his gaze away from the treeline at this startling development, “What if we lived in town again?”
“I get my components from the mountain.” Mob said confused.
“I know, I know, but we could just order them in too. We… You don’t have to be alone up here.” Ritsu’s brow furrowed, his tone compassionate, “Claw doesn’t seem to take much notice in us anymore, other than Aronin, but you’d have the other Disciples around and the Clinic is expanding. We could have our own rooms. We could save up and build that Four Seasons Garden.”
Mob’s jaw clenched slightly as he thought over Ritsu’s offer. He liked the cottage, and the mountain. He felt at peace here and finding components was something he enjoyed, but he was alone most of the time.
Ritsu patted him on the shoulder, “Take your time. I’m going to start breakfast.”
Mob stepped away from the door a few minutes later, closing it behind him and starting the process of acceptance. They ate and Mob saw Ritsu off at the door with a hug.
“I’m sorry he’s gone.” Ritsu said.
“You’re not.” Mob called him on his blatant lie.
Ritsu sighed, “Yeah.”
“I don’t think you even liked him.” Mob continued.
“I didn’t .” Ritsu conceded, “But I like you, and I don’t like that you are sad.”
Mob put a hand on Ritsu’s head and ruffled his hair. Ritsu ducked away and smoothed out his hair with both hands, giving Mob an annoyed pout as he did so.
“I will be fine.” Mob assured him, “I’ll think about moving back to town. I’ll let you know tonight.”
“You don’t have to be so quick.” Ritsu told him, “It’s no rush.”
“I think… I think I am ready for change right now.” Mob said tentatively, “but I’m not sure.”
Ritsu smiled. The veil hid most of it, but Mob could see the smile had reached Ritsu’s eyes. They said their goodbyes and Mob was alone in the cottage. Bird song outside and the wind in the canopy was the only sound around him. He went to his bed where Bakugou had rested for the last week. The mattress and covers were rumpled and in need of washing. Mob gathered up the sheets and covers and carried them to the tub outside. As he walked he could smell Bakugou in the fabric and part of him was sad to wash it away, but mixed in with the smell was sweat and the musk of over a week of use. The sheets were in dire need of cleaning. Mob spent a few hours washing and hanging blankets and clothes. He sat outside among hanging sheets and kimonos, turning over the pendant Bakugou gave him in his hand.
It was a wide, rectangular carved stone about the length of his thumb. It was jade or some kind of opaque green stone of two snarling dragon heads interlocked. Their open, fanged mouths extending towards the other’s necks. Mob held it up to the light and the sun illuminated the carved lines. Pretty, but a little gaudy too. It seemed like a fitting symbol of a Barbarian.
Mob heard the whinny of a horse, and when he strained his ears to hear more, he heard the movement of a band of horses approaching the cottage. He went inside the building and tied on his veil, placing the pendant by his bed. Mob looked in a polished brass plate to check that his veil was on high enough before stepping out the front door. He watched curiously as a band of six horses rode up to the cottage. That curiosity began to curl and sour into fear as he recognized the person at the head of the riders.
“Ugast. Why are you here? Who are these people?” Mob stepped back toward the cottage, his arms reflexively raising to his chest defensively.
Aronin rode up to Mob and turning his horse so he could look down on him. The other riders were around Aronin’s age, young, looking to Aronin for guidance. Not one was wearing a uniform, but Mob could tell they were mages. He doubted Aronin would ride with regular soldiers, but the lack of uniforms and the cold, unfriendly looks on their faces set Mob on edge.
Something was wrong.
“Mob.” Aronin said toneless, that charming smile absent as the riders fanned out behind him.
Yes, something was very, very wrong here.
“I told you this is a private residence. Why did you bring more people here?” Mob swallowed thickly and he felt little comfort when the gem thrummed to life and started to devour his surging magic.
“ Private Residence .” Aronin sneered, his eyes like a basilisk as he glared at Mob and petrified him to the spot under his gaze, “It’s a convenient cover. You were able to fool a lot of people with that didn’t you?”
Mob’s stomach dropped into his heels. They couldn’t be here for him right? Aronin didn’t figure it out did he? He tried to calm himself, suppress the bubbling fear before his magic exposed anything.
Aronin motioned with two fingers to the rest of the riders. Two galloped off into the woods around the cottage while three other riders dismounted and approached the house. Mob watched two of them walk around Aronin’s horse and head straight for the door.
“W-wait!” Mob turned back to the door, blocking their path inside, “Don’t go in there! This is my home!”
The two boys paused, unsure how to continue after hearing Mob’s frantic voice.
Aronin scowled at the two and said, “You know why we are here. Search the house!”
They clenched their jaws and pushed past Mob, knocking him to the ground. Mob scrambled to his feet to follow after them when he was roughly grabbed by the arms and forced back onto his knees. His eyes darted between his door, the new mage holding him.
Aronin dismounted and landed heavy in front of Mob, drawing his full attention.
“Where is he? Where are you hiding him?” Aronin crouched in front of Mob.
“The Barbarian!” Aronin grabbed Mob by the collar and Mob felt nervous sweat gather on his forehead.
“No—nowhere! He left this morning. I—I don’t know where he went.” Mob implored Aronin and he searched Aronin’s eyes to see if he understood how sincere Mob was.
“How cruel, he had his fun and left you behind.” Aronin was implying something that Mob was too shocked by this whole experience to register.
“I don’t understand— he was my patient.” Mob told him, his heart raced and each beat sent magic stirring through his nerves, “He was never going to stay. I just opened my home to him because he was hurt.”
“So you got nothing from this arrangement?” The distrustful way Aronin asked the question made it sound like no matter what answer Mob gave him, Aronin had already had his own.
“I didn’t! I—he didn’t give me any coin.” Mob stammered out the only answer he had.
“Ugast, I found something.” One mage emerged from the house holding up the pendant, “It’s definitely Barbarian in origin. It looks like a crest or tribal symbol.”’
“What about that then? Is that nothing?” Aronin released Mob and stood.
“It’s a gift. That’s all.” Mob cried out and when he tried to turn and follow Aronin, his head and chest were pressed into the dirt.
“It is payment for the healing? Or is it payment for something else ?” Aronin asked and Mob didn’t understand.
Mob breathed heavy. A numbness started to spread across his temple, beginning at the pin, as the panic was rising in him.
“A gift. That’s all.” Mob said, his words muffled by the dirt and his voice choked by dread.
“I don’t believe you. You must have had something going on. There must have been something between you if he gave you something like this!” Aronin yelled and unlike the way Bakugou raised his voice, Aronin had something wild, hurt and erratic in his tone that struck fear into Mob. Bakugou could be unpredictable at first glance, but the more Mob got to know Aronin the more terrifyingly unstable he seemed to become. Mob trembled in the dirt, unable to even speak up and defend himself from Aronin’s accusations.
“Aronin-?” The mage holding Mob nervously got his attention, “He has magic.”
“A Healing Root, yes I know.”
“He has a lot of magic and I think you should be careful about pushing him too far.”
“What is he going to do? Ease the pain in your knee?” Aronin snapped, Mob could feel the mage’s grip lose confidence, and Aronin must have saw as well and added, “Here use the null tape if you are so worried.”
Mob was pulled upright and his hands were bound with the palms and fingers tied together with a white ribbon. As they finished wrapping around and between his fingers, and across the backs of his hands, the loose ends melded together. Symbols of a curse flared across the pristine white, and the ribbon tightened painfully, immobilizing his hands. He couldn’t access components or draw incantations now. The curse had the same numbing effect as his pin although it was significantly weaker. For most sorcerers this would nullify them. The ribbon started to warm as Mob’s Root seemed to test this new barrier.
“Who lives at this house other than you and your brother?”
“It’s just us.” Mob said, resisting the urge to fight against the binds. “We are the only ones who live here.”
“So your brother was living here when the barbarian was?” Aronin asked darkly.
“Please, my brother had nothing to do with this. It was all on me.” Mob begged, he wrenched his shoulder free of the grasp of the mage holding him and grabbed Aronin pant leg. His hands were still bound by the null tape but Mob tugged on the fabric with the tips of his fingers, “He was going to turn him in, but I stopped him.”
“He knew the right answer and he didn’t follow through.” Aronin hissed, “He has his own mistakes to pay for.”
The numbness of his pin spread past his temple and he could feel it above his right eyebrow as the gem struggled to keep up, the null tape started to heat. The sensation was not unlike standing too close to a furnace as the binds were being overwhelmed.
“No! No please, I am his older brother! His mistakes fall on me. I am willing to take his punishment. He didn’t know better.” Mob felt tears form in his eyes and Aronin had a little smirk as he watched the first few falls.
Aronin roughly pulled his leg free of Mob’s grasp. Mob fell to the dirt, some kicked up into his mouth and he was spitting as he propped himself up on his bound hands.
“Usually you’d be right, but this is something much more serious. This is treason and you compromised both you and your brother. This is a matter that goes to the emperor so I hope that Barbarian was worth it.” Aronin explained like he wasn’t spitefully enjoying the way Mob trembled in horror at his words.
“Don’t. Leave my brother out of this.” Mob finally met Aronin’s eyes, a deathly serious tone creeping into his voice.
The mountain seemed to quiet for a moment.
Aronin squinted, taking in this shift of personality but ultimately he turned to the other mages, “This is clearly a safe house for some kind of Barbarian communication line. Destroy it.”
“What?!” Mob jolted, his head swinging wildly between looking at Aronin and the other mages as he was lifted by the arm and dragged away from the house.
A moment later, bolts of white hot heat left the hands of two mages and the cottage erupted into flame. Mob protected his face with his bound hands against the intense heat . Black smoke billowed out of the flash burned roof, carrying everything Mob and his brother owned aloft as ash. Mob cried out. Everything was burning. His memories flashed before his eyes, the dissonance between what was in his mind and what was before his very eyes was jarring. Internally his mind, his magic, and his emotions roiled and raged, but Mob couldn’t bring his body to do anything but stare.
“The Disciples probably knew about this. For all we know, they are all compromised and we’ll deal with them later. I’m willing to bet that old lady is behind this.” Aronin said and there were murmurs of agreement among them, “When Shimizu and Edel get back we are going to bring Mob with us and report what we found.”
Mob shook his head. He couldn’t believe it. He didn’t want to believe it. This wasn’t how it was supposed to go, but he did it again. He put his brother at risk and this time, there didn’t seem to be a last minute rescue by Shou to bail him out. Sensei will know and it's all my fault. My fault.
Mob felt it. The threads of magic in every one of the riders and in every living thing. He could feel the thick cords of magic in the root-like system of ley lines above him and he had the sudden urge to grab a hold of all of them in one hand and pull the sky down on them all. He could crush them, even if it meant crushing himself in the process, but at least his brother might have a fighting chance. Mob never wanted to hurt others, but he didn’t know if he could talk his way out of this one alone. He did know one thing: that he wouldn’t let them hurt Ritsu.
Mob took a few, quick short breaths to steel himself, but then he couldn’t stop and he started to hyperventilate. His breath didn’t linger in his lungs long enough to absorb any oxygen and his magic fizzled uselessly. Mob heard what sounded like thunder and felt a flare of magic. Everyone else must have heard and felt it too as they stopped talking. Two mages split away, arching around the inferno that was once Mob’s home toward the sound.
An explosion tore through the forest obliterating half of the cottage and throwing Mob, the remaining mages, and their horses on their backs. Mob’s ears rung with a pitch that drilled into the center of his brain. Still, over it all, Mob heard a voice.
Mob flipped onto his stomach and looked toward the sound of Bakugou’s voice. Unable to truly believe his eyes as the blond boy, cape billowing, sword drawn, face twisted into a furious, manic expression, was galloping on a horse toward him.
“Shit!” Aronin scrambled to his feet and grabbed Mob by the collar and tried to lift him off the ground.
In a panic, Mob twisted in his grip and kicked out with his heel.
“YOU DAMN BASTARD!” Bakugou’s snarl was swallowed by the sound of several short explosions as he launched himself off the horse and across the distance. He was on top of Aronin and Mob in just a few seconds. Bakugou’s sword was drawn back and he let his momentum carry through into his swing.
The other mage pushed Aronin out of the way and was cut down by Bakugou’s blade instead. Bakugou kicked his body out of the way. In the same step, he lunged with a vicious snarl at Aronin again. A sliver bolt shot towards Bakugou and he withdrew his strike against Aronin to try and dodge, but was spun in mid air as it clipped him in the side. Bakugou hit the dirt hard next to Mob with a heavy grunt. Bakugou’s brow was slick with sweat and he had to take a moment to get back on his feet. He stepped over Mob and brought his palm up and unleashed another explosion. Mob curled in on himself, covering his head and neck as Bakugou fought overtop of him.
“Mob get up!” Bakugou yelled over his own attacks. He reached down and lifted Mob to his feet and Mob’s knees wobbled. Mob just wanted to drop back down to the ground and let this pass, but Bakugou was pushing him away from the fighting and up the mountain. That was until he yelled, “Get down!”
Bakugou grabbed him by the collar and threw them down to the ground behind a tree as a spell rendered the trunk into a thousand slivers of wood. Branches rained from the sky, the shifting of leaves were louder than a monsoon and it was punctuated by an aching groan and a thunderous crash as the top half of the trunk toppled over. Bakugou was laying over Mob and he waited as the last of the branches fell and bounced off his armor before he launched himself back in the direction the spell came from. There was a terrible cry and Mob was spurred into action and he tried to scramble away, digging his elbows into the dirt and getting his feet under him.
Mob ran. His breath was heavy and his legs hurt as he raced over loose earth. The bindings on his hands limited his movements. When he tried to push enough magic through them to overload the curse, the null tape heated to a near searing temperature and Mob didn’t have to fortitude to push through the pain. Mob’s legs started to slow and he stumbled to a stop against a tree, as he breathed in, smoke burning his eyes and lungs.
He didn’t rest for long as the sound of hoofbeats threw Mob back into a panic and he tore off into the trees again. The horse rider overtook Mob in a handful of seconds. He cried out as a hand grabbed him by the back of his kimono and hoisted him onto the horse. Mob’s nerves were too frayed by surprise and horror to feel any relief when he saw it was Bakugou. Bakugou threw Mob’s bound arms over his head so Mob could hold on while Bakugou grabbed the reins with both hands and spurred the horse into a hard gallop.
Mob couldn’t see the cottage anymore as they rode up the mountain, but the forest was blanketed in a grey haze and the air was acrid and harsh from smoke. The farther they got the clearer the air became.
I'd consider this chapter and the next sort of a "end of part 1" kinda story beat.
As a heads up. After the next few chapters will start breaking my bi weekly schedule and dropping updates to once a month until I run out of my queued work (although when that happens the chapters will be slightly longer). Once I run out of my queued chapters, I will only be able to update when I can which will be much less frequently then I'd like. I'm in medical school so my hands are kinda tied (oh well).
Bakugou rode until he came to a large clearing near the peak of the mountain. The threat wasn’t over but his body could only ignore its injuries for so long. Even as Bakugou lowered Mob down before dismounting himself, his muscles jumped and pulled. He clenched his jaw as Mob slipped through his hands. Bakugou watched Mob stumbled back and fall on his ass, clearly in shock and unable to register his current surroundings as he was still processing what the hell just happened to him. Bakugou let Mob sit and process. He slapped the hindquarters of the horse and watched it race back into the underbrush. He might have kept it. Kirishima liked horses, but Mob was going to have enough to stomach for today, so the horse gets to live.
He rolled his right shoulder to shift some of the weight of his heavy cloak off his arm, in doing so Bakugou suppressed a hiss as his ribs flared in pain. Empire mages’s spells packed a nasty punch. He put the Dragon’s Horn to his lips again and blew. Inaudible to him, but the low frequency numbed his lips. It was a minute later he felt the horn resonate with a response. It was stronger now. They would be leaving soon.
In the distance there was a haze gathered over the forest, at its center thick clouds of black sputtered out of the trees. It was much less violent now. There was probably very little left to burn at this point.
Bakugou crouched beside Mob who was deathly pale and trembling. He hadn’t moved from his spot. He just stared into space.
“Hey! Hey, I need you to wake up!” Bakugou patted him on the cheek a few times.
Mob jumped to his feet and hopped a few steps away from him. He looked down at himself and saw the blood of the mage on him. His skin almost had a glow to it that was as shaky as his breath. He then looked at Bakugou with a look that told him one thing: Mob was planning on running. Bakugou wasn’t going to let him just hand himself over.
He kicked off the mountain and used one short burst of magical power to create a small explosion and close the distance before Mob even had a chance to turn and run. Mob yelled as Bakugou tackled him to the ground and sat his weight on Mob’s stomach pinning him.
“You can’t go back!” Bakugou said as he struggled to keep a hold of Mob.
Mob was much weaker, but so was Bakugou. Also, Mob was slippery. A few times he managed to wiggle his hips free and kick away. Bakugou was forced to re-establish his mount three different times.
“Let me go! I don’t want to be apart of this.” Mob huffed, he was already tired from running and it was purely adrenaline that was keeping him going, “You—you killed someone!”
“When I said I came from a battle what did you think I was doing there?” Bakugou growled, the willful stupidity was infuriating, “Did you think we were playing? We are at war! Your empire just set fire to your own home dumbass!”
Despite the absurd amount of magical energy simmering under Mob’s skin, Bakugou’s skin still tingled slightly when he came into contact with it, Mob didn’t use a single grain of his power to free himself. The boy was seemingly resigned to use his rapidly depleting physical strength and stamina.
Bakugou didn’t like the people of the Empire. They were weak and it was their own fault. Mob told him about how they treated Roots, trampling their own Roots down so a select few could grow stronger. As if one person’s growth lessened the growth of another.
But to see it in action made Bakugou seeth in anger. Mob was the strangest thing he had ever seen. A boy with seemingly limitless magic who feared himself so deeply that he was desperately trying to trample his own Root. A whole empire of people so woefully stupid and proud that they think spreading this vile is for the greater good. Bakugou had half a mind to tear that trinket suppressing Mob’s power off and let him face the reality of his being right then and there it made him so angry. He ground his teeth and let the impulse fade with a few forced breaths.
But Bakugou knew if he did remove that bauble there would be nothing to hold up Mob’s veil and he wasn’t going to do that to someone as devout as a Follower of the Mist. He’d been through enough and Bakugou wasn’t making it much better. Also, if Mob was right, and Claw could scry on anyone with a strong enough magical aura, they could instantly be spotted and he was fucking done with this place.
Bakugou heard a roar in the distance. He squinted into the sun and could just see Kirishima’s form and he was approaching fast. Two minutes and Bakugou would be out of here. Bakugou grabbed Mob and held him in one arm like a sack of flour. Mob had stopped struggling and Bakugou could feel him breathing heavily.
A large red dragon, with a crown of horns and a mouth large enough to swallow a grown man, swooped out of the clouds and toward Bakugou. It turned sharply on a wingtip and cut a large arc around Bakugou and his charge. As he passed, Bakugou almost sighed in relief when he saw Kirishima was wearing a riding harness. It would have been a painfully long flight without one. The dragon beat its heavy leather wings against the wind, quickly slowing its momentum and kicking up dirt and mountain grasses in the process. Bakugou had to squint slightly as dirt flew into his eyes and Mob curled in to protect himself. The dragon landed heavy behind them and Bakugou didn’t turn to look at Kirishima until he pulled up alongside them.
At this time, Mob started to struggle with his bonds and Bakugou could hear him whimper slightly as the reality of his situation must have started setting in. Mob’s magic flared and it felt hot against Bakugou’s skin, but it was ultimately dulled by the trinket in his veil before it could expand much farther. Bakugou could feel Mob taking deliberate breaths to combat what was probably the start of a panic attack. His grip tightened on the boy. Like hell was he going to let the Empire get their hands on Mob.
“Bakugou are you stealing little girls from convents now?” Kirishima’s tone was light, light for the gruff vocal cords of a dragon. His pupils contracted and dilated quickly, taking in as much information as he could on the boy. Undoubtedly he could smell the smoke and blood. Bakugou had spent enough time with Kirishima to read his draconic expressions and tell he was concerned for Mob.
To Bakugou’s surprise Mob said to the ground softly, “I’m a boy.”
“What?” Krishima leaned in, his hot, singed breath washing over Mob causing him to flinch away.
Kirishima recoiled, realizing he’d frightened him. He moved so quickly the leather of the saddle creaked.
“He says he’s a boy moron.” Bakugou snapped at the large lizard.
Kirishima suppressed a smile but his eyes were bright and mischievous, “You know, I didn’t expect you to lean so hard into that barbarian persona the Empire gave you. You are just feeding the stereotypes by stealing veiled boys from convents.”
“He wasn’t in a convent!” Bakugou growled.
“Oh? So he’s a free range veiled boy? Tell me, o’prince of mine, how does that make it better?” Kirishima had a shit eating grin plastered across his snout that only grew wilder as Bakugou became increasingly angier.
He had to be friends with the one dragon that not only could , but knew how to smile. Bakugou stormed up to the dragon, and lifted Mob toward Kirishima. Kirishima reflexively took Mob, grabbing him like a cat would scruff a kitten. Mob looked around desperately, first at Bakugou, than the dragon, and then he began scanning the woods. He did so with such severity and intent Bakugou wondered if Mob sensed someone coming. His explosions didn’t pack the same punch as they used to. If another mage survived his attacks, it was imperative they left now.
Mob’s eyes had a wild look of fear and he begged quickly, and quietly, “Please, I can’t leave. Please, just put me down. Thank—Thank you for stopping those mages and I swear I won’t tell anyone. I just can’t leave my little brother behind, we’re all we’ve got left. P-please. ”
“Oh c’mon man, are we really doing this?” Kirishima asked out of the corner of his mouth. He looked severely uncomfortable as he held Mob.
Bakugou climbed the side of the dragon and didn’t respond.
Mob was clearly desperate because he looked back at Kirishima hoping to find sympathy, “You don’t even have to untie me you can just let me go.”
“ Mother of Dragons , he’s literally asking me to drop him dude!” Kirishima searched Bakugou’s eyes but they were hard set.
“You will definitely drop him if you keep holding him like that.” He said and reached out for Mob.
Kirishima reluctantly craned his neck around so Bakugou could grab Mob by the waist and set him down in front of himself. He gritted his teeth as his battered ribs flared hot with pain and involuntarily gripped Mob’s side too tightly. Mob jolted in his grasp as Bakugou set him down. Bakugou didn’t let go for a few seconds, his eyes pinched in pain. He was going to get a nasty bruise from what that spell did to him.
Mob looked down, calculating the height in his head, but Bakugou cut off his thought process, “You try to do that and I’ll tie you to the dragon like a deer. Sitting is much more comfortable.”
Mob stiffened and looked forward. Bakugou watched him carefully but he didn’t use his magic. Mob kept his gaze down and away, his shoulders slumped. Acceptance. A pang of guilt registered in the back of Bakugou’s mind. This boy risked a lot by healing him and hiding him, but he also nearly got himself captured by the Empire doing so. Bakugou would make sure he had the support he needed and he was well taken care of when they got back home. Well, when they got back to Bakugou’s home.
The dragon spread its wings and leapt from the mountain into the air. The skin snapped taut and the dragon slowly started to glide upwards, flying aloft on a warm updraft. Mob sat up straight and had another moment of desperately searching for a way out. It didn’t take long for Mob to give up on his own this time. His eyes did linger of the thinning column of smoke on the side of the mountain.
“Hey man, I swear it’s going to be okay. Yuuie is really nice. Lots to see.” Kirishima said over the wind to Mob but he asked in a deep rumbling draconian that Bakugou had learned to understand by feeling the unique vibrations with his legs, ‘ This is only temporary right?’
Bakugou twisted one of his rings made of cast black metal around so the metal pyramid was pointing toward the ground. He patted a message back, but he had to lean forward over Mob, who hunched nervously out of his way to do it. Bakugou’s replies weren’t as eloquent as draconian, but he was enough for him to communicate and give orders during flight without Bakugou losing his voice.
‘I don’t know. Us. Seen together. Empire. Destroyed home. Strong magic. Can’t leave behind. For Empire.’ Bakugou used the ring to poke between two scales. It wasn’t painful, but it was distinct enough for Kirishima to understand it as a message and not a stray arrow or blade rattling against his hide.
‘ I can feel his magic.’ Kirishima rumbled ominously, ‘You know, he could be a spy.’
‘ Disagree.’ Bakugo tapped.
‘ Yeah, I didn’t get that vibe either… what about his brother? How old is he? Oh Mother, we didn’t leave a toddler behind did we?’ The horrifying realization made Kirishima’s flight stutter to a halt, his hover was rough and both Mob and Bakugou had to cling to Kirishima’s riding harness, as his body bounced up and down in space, ‘We have to go back’
‘ Fly stuipd! Brother fine. Head of Household.’ Bakugou felt weird tapping the term for a draconic head of household as it was a heavily gendered term for a position usually filled by an old Matriarch and not something to be used lightly.
It worked to straighten Kirishima’s flight path. Which was good because Bakugou could see, even in the low light of the setting sun, that Mob had turned a little green.
‘The little brother is the one in charge?’ Bakugou wasn’t the best at feeling out tone when they communicated this way, but the disbelief in his “voice” was affecting the vibrations Bakugou was picking up. It took him a second longer to translate in his head.
‘ Yes. No. Weird. ’ Bakugou wanted to say a lot, but his words were limited right now, ‘ explain later’
Kirishima puffed smoke from his nostrils in reply, then a moment rumbled nervously, ‘ His den leader isn’t going to come after us right?’
Bakugou thought about that one. Head of House for dragons were terrifying forces of strength and fury. Even with Kirishima’s power, there wasn’t a single Head of House he could realistically survive if one targeted him. A den leader was second in command, the right or the claws of a Head of House. A figure that wasn’t one to be trifled with.
Unlike Mob though, Bakugou couldn’t sense magic from the brother. He couldn’t sense magic from anyone like he could from Mob who was a walking well of magical power, a human ley line. Although the younger brother was unusually overprotective and doting on his older brother to the point you’d think he was the eldest. Bakugou didn’t care for his coddling, nor for how Mob accepted it so willingly. His brother had a fire in him he openly brandished unlike Mob.
Yes. Bakugou tapped and Kirishima flinched and some of the longer scales around his head stood on end. Bakugou followed calmly ‘ Brother. Not powerful. Stronger personality only. Fly normal. Stop shaking him. Nauseous. ’
Kirishima snorted but the dragon tried to correct his flying anyway.
Except Kirishima over corrected. The dragon’s flight was stiff as he tried to avoid bumping or displacing Mob, but it didn’t do much and only slowed them down. Bakugou grew steadily more pissed off and finally he snapped and slammed his fist down on Kirishima’s thick hide. Mob flinched away and Bakugou growled at himself. At least Kirishima was flying normally now.
An hour into their flight Bakugou heard Mob’s muttering incantations under his breath. Except, it wasn’t an incantation, it was a prayer. For all the time Bakugou spent at the cottage, he hadn’t seen Mob pray. Disciples don’t pray often, but the brothers had done even less. Mob whispered pleas of protection not for himself but for another. It wasn’t hard to figure out to who.
“I can’t do it today, but I’ll get your brother too.” Bakugou tried to reassure Mob but Mob visibly paled.
It became oppressively awkward. Mob leaned slightly forward more, his eyes locked at some distant unseen point.
“ That was a good try… actually, that really sucked... and you sounded super creepy .” Kirishima rumbled in draconian. He breathed out and fire trickled between his teeth warming the air before it hit the two humans on his back, providing some relief in the cold twilight air, “ You at least brought him a coat right? ”
Bakugou blinked. Mob had lived in the mountains for awhile and he wore a fairly thick kimonos, but it wasn’t riding gear. The damp air clung to his clothes and the winds right now cut deep to the bones without proper waterproofing and layering. Mob’s weakly held the saddle horn in front of him. Bakugou realized he never removed the binds on Mob’s hands.
Bakugou didn’t have another coat, only his own cloak. It was large enough that they could share but they’d have to get cozy to do that and Mob was already so uncomfortable. He deliberated the options for about ten minutes until he saw the pained look in Mob’s eye as he shivered. His veil was wet from the moisture in the air and it clung to his face. Bakugou was surprised to see more of the features of Mob’s face and he quickly looked away. They were modesty veils for a reason, Bakugou knew better. His gaze drifted to Mob’s hands. They had fallen away from the saddle horn. Still bound, his hands were forced through one of the night straps, loops of leather on either side of the saddle horn, so he could keep holding on.
Bakugou groaned and shifted forward. He pulled his knife out and ignored the abject look of fear in Mob’s eyes before he cut the binds on his hands. The ribbon resisted for only a second. Bakuogu saw a flash of curse runes before the magic holding it together broke like brittle grass and the ribbon was just ribbon again. Bakugou let the wind take the fragments. Mob’s hands trembled painfully, the wrap left angry red marks across his skin where his magic must have heated the ribbon as he struggled against the curse.
He threw his arms over top of Mob’s shoulders and leaned over him grabbing the night straps for support. His cloak fell over Mob, enclosing him in a space free from the worst of the wind and radiated by both Kirishima’s and Bakugou’s body heat. It wasn’t comfortable, Bakugou was sure, having to be crouched over like Mob was forced to, but he could feel Mob shift his legs so his feet were covered by the cloak as well.
6 exams in 2 & 1/2 weeks. Next up is finals. So to translate, I will be moving to monthly updates until further notice. Thank you for your readership. I hope you enjoy the next set of chapters as I can finally show to the greater world of Aca!