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Generated: Jun 18, 2020 11:23 AM
Post last updated: Jun 18, 2020 11:22 AM
to rule the fate of man
alteriverse!imrainai lands on atlantis!serg
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Houses Festri and Tellari have been trying to get the gate working for months. Their Liar work crews have finally gotten it to do something, but none of the Alteri ships have been able to use the gate for long-distance travel. They simply pass through to the other side.

The Alteri order the Liars to fiddle with various pieces of the structure, hoping that one of them will be able to determine the problem. Imrainai passes through the gate purely because it's the shortest route to the piece she's supposed to fiddle with.

She lands somewhere with gravity, where she promptly trips over her own feet and falls on her butt.

Her suit computer informs her that she has returned to Liar-safe atmospheric conditions.

She looks up.

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All around her stand the ruins of an ancient city, crumbling stone and rusted metal lit from below by a wavering silver light. Above, the sky is low and dark, mostly blue with a paler green halo surrounding a smudge that might be a sun.

There are also things... swimming. In the sky. Definitely fish-like rather than bird-like sorts of things; birds don't get that big, or move in that sort of way.

It may in fact not be a sky at all, but instead an ocean, which she is looking up at from inside an inexplicable air bubble full of ruins.

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Well.

This is not great.

She stands up - yep, that's how you stand up in planetary gravity, comes right back after a few seconds of minor flailing. She fires up her comm and broadcasts. "This is Tellari spacer 97816. I have lost visual contact with the support ship. Can anyone hear me?"

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It does not appear that anyone can hear her.

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Well.

She checks her computer for malfunctions. She runs a diagnostic. She's cut off from any other computer support, and her bio monitor is concerned that she might be experiencing "moderately acute stress", but otherwise everything is good.

She double-checks. No errors.

She shuts her air purifier off and takes her helmet off. No immediate signs of depressurization. It feels like she's getting oxygen.

She takes a deep breath.

"Hello?"

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The gentle distant sound of rippling water is the only reply. Light reflects off the bottom of the ocean high above her. Nothing moves, or speaks, or gives any sign that there have been any other people in this place within the span of a human lifetime.

But the air sure is breathable, so at least there's that.

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On the one hand, you're supposed to stay where you are if you get separated from other people, because that's the easiest place for anyone who's looking for you to find you.

On the other hand, she's been here for several minutes already, and at some point she's going to need to eat something.

She starts walking.

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The ruins are very pretty. Lots of curves and circles and arcs, at least where the buildings haven't fallen completely to pieces.

The source of that wavering silver light is some of the paving-stones underfoot; there's no clear pattern to which ones glow and which ones don't, and it almost seems like they all used to glow and then most of them stopped working, except that the inert ones seem to be made of completely ordinary dark grey rock, solid and opaque and not luminous at all.

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Maybe some of the buildings have tools or something inside. Any of them look fairly stable and have promising entrances?

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There's one up ahead that's nearly intact! It even has several unbroken windows and a set of slightly intimidating double doors still standing in their frame! It looks very big and impressive.

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Cool! She walks up to the building and pauses.

She knocks on the doors. Just in case.

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No one comes to answer them.

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All right then. She tries opening the doors and heading inside.

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There's a short hallway, and another set of doors, which lead into an enormous circular room, and the only thing in the enormous circular room is a marble throne shaped like a complicated splash of water with an extremely tall and ominous-looking man sitting in it.

He's... probably a Liar? He has hands and a face and so on. He is definitely more Liar-like than he is like anything else in her experience. But he's unnaturally tall, and apart from his hands and his face he seems to be wrapped in dense black smoke that holds the shape of clothes but only very vaguely. And when he looks up at her, his eyes are glowing a brilliant green. Normal Liars' eyes do not glow.

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It's true! They don't!

 

She frowns at him for several seconds and then waves.

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He stares at her in a confused and generally miserable sort of way. The misery seems to have been his default state since before she got here; the confusion is new.

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"Um. I'm sorry to intrude but I think I'm lost."

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He says something in a totally unintelligible language.

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She spreads her hands for "I don't understand", then tries Confederate One hand signs.

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He watches her hands with an uncomprehending frown.

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She tries Yahivi and a few words of thickly-accented English, for completeness's sake.

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The seven-foot-tall stranger with glowing green eyes does not appear to have heard of any of these languages!

He tries a few more words of his own, but not with any apparent hope of success.

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Hands spread again, to indicate that she still doesn't understand.

Well. It's still better than being totally alone, and he's probably not the only person around.

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He sighs and rubs his face with both hands.

—when he sighs, the building settles downward and inward, slightly but noticeably. When he takes a deep breath afterward, it straightens up again.

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Well that is just slightly terrifying. But she was already slightly terrified, so it's not much of a difference, really, is it.

"Should I go?" she asks, gesturing back to the door.

 

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He frowns in confusion, then shrugs. His shadowy cloak ripples and eddies with the movement. He pulls it inward and wraps it around himself and looks, for a moment, very lost and sad.

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Oh no.

" - I mean, I don't have to, I just don't know what I should be doing and I don't want to be a bother?"

He's never going to understand all that, though. Hmmm. 

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Sad pile of shadows remains sad.

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All right. Well. There are probably other people somewhere, but she doesn't know where, and until she finds them (or until someone finds her), it's not like she has anything better to do. Especially since this person has got to eat something at some point, so sticking around here probably increases her odds of solving that problem. Time to brute force the language thing.

She points to herself. "Imrainai."

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...he looks up, blinking.

It takes him a moment to echo the gesture.

"Saikirei."

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"Saikirei," she repeats, smiling.

OK. Think. What words would Ves try to get first?

"Imrainai, Liar," she says, pointing to herself. "Saikirei, Liar," she says, pointing to him, hoping that he is one. 

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"Imrainai, Liar," he agrees, and adds a word that might be his translation: "Aisara." Then he pauses. "Saikirei..."

A long, frowning silence; a slow shake of his head. He can't think of a word for what he is, but he's pretty sure it isn't the same as her.

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"Saikirei is... Saikirei. Imrainai is aisara."

She points out the door. "Aisara? Saikirei?"

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He shakes his head. "Ti. Timahre, taisara, ahya ti mir dimana—ti."

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Well, at least she has a word for no now. No is generally a good word to have. 

She's not very sure how to get more words in general - Ves or Mathrael would, if they were here, but here she is instead - but maybe she can solve her other moderately pressing problem. She mimes eating something. "Food?"

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He nods comprehendingly, looks thoughtful for a long moment—

 

—Every shadow in the room ripples and wavers, curling like smoke, like the stuff his cloak is made of.

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That's pretty creepy, but, you know, if he doesn't seem creeped out then it's probably either fine or a prelude to attempted murder, and you can't just live your life assuming that every weird alien thing that happens is a prelude to attempted murder.

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The shadows return to their dormant state. His cloak flows out onto the floor and spreads into a messy puddle, and he frowns in concentration, and there is a faint rumbling noise like a very distant landslide, and then his cloak retreats, and in the space it was covering there is a long marble platter bearing a freshly grilled fish which if it stood on its tail would be nearly as tall as Imrainai.

"Food," he echoes, with a slightly awkward accent.

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" - wow."

She really hopes she gets to tell this story to someone before she gets executed for desertion. No one will ever believe her, but they'll give her points for imagination.

She bows slightly, very little more than a nod, says "thank you," and then gets to work eating some tiny portion of this fish.

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The miserable shadow man smiles hesitantly at her.

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She smiles encouragingly back at him. She's not super sure what her game plan is here, but it definitely involves being friends with the guy who can create grilled fish with his mind.

 

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He maintains the mutual smile for a few seconds before he looks away and gets distant and sad again.

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She goes back to eating her food, at least until she's full. And then she'll tear off a piece and leave it in one of her biosuit's pockets. Maybe if she keeps it in the one by the cooling system it'll keep for longer than a couple hours. This is probably not what biosuit pockets are for, but no one appears to be stopping her.

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He blinks in mild surprise, and something that might possibly be a faint shadow of wry amusement, when he sees just how much he overestimated her hunger.

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She is in fact not capable of eating her weight in fish. That seems like the sort of thing that could lead to problems. 

She is also not very good at coming up with words that she can easily communicate. She could give the word for the fish, except she doesn't have a word for fish, and has in fact never seen a fish before today. 

This could be hard.

The next set of words that comes to her is the set of relational directions; she gives him up, down, ahead, behind, left, and right, by pointing. She doesn't know if those are in any way useful, but at least they're something.

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He offers his own translations of those words, but seems sort of halfhearted about it. Maybe he's just really depressed. It would definitely be consistent with the evidence to surmise that he is really depressed.

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He does in fact seem really depressed. Under normal circumstances she would ask if he wanted to be left alone, or if he wanted to talk about it, or whatever, but she can't do that right now and she won't be able to do that until she has more words, so they're just gonna have to tough it out. She repeats each of his words several times, attempting to commit them to memory.

It occurs to her that he has not left his chair over the course of their entire interaction. This might mean that he's just really depressed. Or that he likes being in the chair. Given the weird bond between him and the building, though, it might also mean that he can't.

She sits, and gives her word for sitting. She stands, and gives her word for standing.

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He nods along and offers his own translations.

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"Can Saikirei stand?"

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He seems to correctly guess the nature of the question; he nods, slowly, and then demonstrates this capacity.

 

...he's really tall. About seven feet tall, in fact. His cloak flows around him like whirling smoke.

He sits down again.

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"Saikirei can stand. Good."

Annnd now she's not entirely sure where to take this interaction. He's mobile, but he doesn't seem very mobile, so she can probably come back here for food again after she runs out. She's not going to learn his whole language in a day, so maybe she'd better think about what she can ask while she explores the terrain further. She leaves a little silver button on the floor where she's standing, then gets her computer to mark the beacon's location.

"Imrainai go," she says, motioning out the door. "Imrainai come back," she says, with the reverse motion.

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Another slow nod.

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"OK! Thanks again!"

And now to see if any of the other buildings have anything potentially useful inside them.

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The other buildings seem to have...

 

...a whole lot of nothing. Sometimes there's a few sticks of furniture left. More often there's nothing but bare stone. It's rare to find a door that's even in good enough shape to be hanging off its hinges in pieces.

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Well this is certainly non-ideal. She picks through lots of buildings, occasionally picking up some small piece of trash before later deciding that it's not worth the cost of carrying it around. She eats her remaining grilled fish. She takes a nap in what looks like a moderately hidden and defensible corner. She checks that nobody's contacted her and then circles back around to Saikirei's building.

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There he is, in his chair, being sad. Exactly how she left him.

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"Hi! I didn't find anything."

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He says something. Maybe it's a greeting.

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She repeats it and adds it to her mental list of words to finish memorizing. 

"Food?" she asks, but that sounds rude to her. "Please?"

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The grilled fish from last time is still sitting on the floor. He peers at it; it does look less appetizing than it did when he made it. His cloak pours across the floor to cover it again, and when the cloak retreats there is a grilled fish of a much saner size lying in the same enormous platter.

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She gives another tiny bow, thanks him, and eats. She reviews the words they shared yesterday, occasionally getting stuck and waiting for him to repeat his words for her concepts.

She thinks about what words she can add to their shared vocabulary. "Big," she says, and spreads her arms wide. "Small," she says, of the space between her fingers. Some miming should get them "happy", "sad", "angry", and "afraid".

Permalink Mark Unread

Yes. He is capable of providing translations for all these words. Though thinking about emotions doesn't seem to be doing him any good.

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"Saikirei sad?"

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He hesitates, then nods.

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"Saikirei big sad," she pronounces, as if she is an expert in these matters. "Imrainai small sad."

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"...Imrainai... not afraid."

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She makes a wobbly gesture with her hand. "Small afraid."

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Nod.

"Imrainai small afraid. Saikirei... Liars big afraid."

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"Imrainai not afraid Saikirei," she says, and then considers. She makes a very small space between her fingers. "...Imrainai small afraid Saikirei. Imrainai medium afraid - " she makes another gesture with her hands, somewhere between big and small " - no Liars."

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He considers this recitation for a long moment, then lets his cloak pool on the floor again. It bunches up into a tallish lump. When it recedes, there's a marble pedestal there, with a marble island or continent surrounded by a blue glass ocean. The cylinder of ocean rests atop the pedestal with its sides open to the eye, showing the sides of the continent as they descend all the way to the ocean floor.

"Meraiyu," he says, pointing at it.

Smoke and shadows gather on the stone surface. Tendrils of darkness push and tug at the stone, shaping it like clay. He builds exaggerated stylizations of cities.

"Liars, Liars, Liars," he says, gesturing illustratively at the cities. Then: "Saikirei," and a point of darkness grows from the center of the largest city and sweeps outward, shattering the whole surface of the continent, destroying everything in its path. The continent is dragged beneath the surface of the ocean, collapsing down until it's level with the ocean floor. The water closes over it, leaving a bubble of air. And the point of darkness collapses inward until it's back where it started, though considerably lower. "No Liars," he finishes.

He does not appear to be proud of this accomplishment.

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She considers this. Then she nods, accepting it. She has a lot of questions - how, why, is it going to happen again, what happened to the Alteri in Meraiyu, were there Alteri in Meraiyu, where did Meraiyu come from in the first place - but she has no words to ask them.

"Imrainai small afraid Saikirei," she says, and the space between her fingers is bigger this time, but can still be measured with one hand.

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He makes an incredulous sound that is not really a word but can probably be translated pretty readily as 'what??' or 'why??'.

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She doesn't have the words necessary to explain herself properly, and she probably has a whole lot of reasons that go into her gut's calculations here, but -

She tears the fish open and digs out the bones. When she has enough of them, she arranges the ribs in little x shapes scattered across the floor, little constellations of fish bones that match the star positions from Yahi. When she's done, she stands and names her star systems - Aldara, Kessria, Tlax, Fen, Ni Nare, Makath, Hhof, Kunakt'kits, Mihi, Ologro, others, more names than he can possibly be expected to remember.

"Aldara, Liars. Kessria, Liars. Tlax, Liars. Fen, Liars. Liars, Liars, Liars."

She gestures to herself. "Alteri."

She stomps on the bones that make up Aldara. There's a crunch beneath her boot. She adds her own rather theatrical explosion sound. "No Liars, Aldara." And then she travels around to the other star systems, gets ready to stomp on them, and pauses, thinking. Four or five times, her foot comes down and she makes her explosion sound. The other worlds remain in suspense. 

She travels to one particular star, no more noteworthy than the others, and names it Earth. "Imrainai, Earth. Liars, Liars, Liars." And she gets ready to stomp on Earth, and then thinks better of it, and then decides to stomp again, and then thinks better of it, and then decides to stomp again, and then -

"Imrainai afraid Alteri. Alteri - " she makes her explosion sound " - no Earth, no Earth Liars. But Alteri no - " she may be having a little too much fun with the explosion sound " - Earth Liars happy."

She travels back to the marble pedestal and gazes sadly at the remains of Meraiyu. It's sad that Meraiyu is gone, it doesn't stop being sad just because other planets have been destroyed. She pats the representation gently. "Meraiyu no Liars. No sad, no happy, no angry, no afraid. Saikirei..."

The explosion is perhaps a bit more somber this time. It is pointless. No one will hear it. She shrugs.

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...He absorbs this narrative thoughtfully.

Then he nods, acknowledging the point.

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She is pleased to have made her point. She gathers up her broken fish bones and makes a pile of them at the edge of the platter, because that seems like the polite thing to do after smashing fish bones on someone's floor.

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Saikirei stares meditatively at the fish bones, pondering questions that are beyond their mutual vocabulary at the moment.

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This does seem like an important thing to work on. She's willing to spend two or three hours trying to absorb more words. It'll be fairly haphazard, based primarily around whichever ones she figures out how to mime effectively, but it's progress. Eventually she places another helping of fish in her sort-of-refrigerated pocket and gets ready to leave the building again.

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Saikirei makes no move to impede her.

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Then she'll go back to her sleeping corner to sleep, because it seems like the appropriate place to go for that.

She'll return once or twice a day for food, fresh water, and additional vocabulary. The rest of her time is spent exploring the ruins, despite the fact that they appear to contain very little of value. Maybe she'll find a table she likes and be able to drag it over to her sleeping corner and pretend that she has her own house.

It's sort of nice, not having to do anything. She'll be sad, if she has to live the rest of her life down here without ever seeing Taz or Ves or Mathrael again, but she won't be as sad about it as Saikirei is. Not that she's given up, exactly, but she won't be able to figure out her options until she's either thoroughly explored the ruins or figured out how to properly talk to Saikirei.

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One day, when she comes into Saikirei's building, he is sitting on the floor in front of his chair, arms wrapped around his knees, cloak spread out around him in an ominous pool, looking even more depressed than usual.

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"Saikirei?"

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"Sad," he murmurs.

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Hmmm.

She does not really know how to deal with sadness in ancient superpowered not-Liars who are mourning the loss of an entire civilization. She's not sure anyone she knows does. Maybe nobody in the universe knows how to do this.

She sits down beside him, hesitating when she gets to the cloak and then forging on ahead. She pats his shoulder. She wants to say that it'll be OK, except it won't be. She wants to say that it probably wasn't his fault, except it absolutely could have been. She refuses to say something as contentless as "there, there."

So she sings a song that she used to sing when Ves was very small, a song where the singer wishes the stars goodnight at the very end of the universe, when the stars will grow cold and everything that depends on them will die. It makes no promises and offers no hope, but at least there's someone still trying to wish them goodnight, even after everything, and maybe that's something?

It's what she's got.

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The cloak is oddly warm, but doesn't misbehave when sat on.

Saikirei is tall enough that it's slightly awkward to reach his shoulder sitting beside him, and when she pats him he goes still for a moment, and so do all the eddies of shadow rising from his cloak.

But it isn't until she sings that he curls up on the floor with his head resting against her leg and cries.

Permalink Mark Unread

Well, the rules of lullabies are quite clear on this point. You keep singing until the person who needed the song has calmed down. Good thing there are a lot of stars out there to say goodnight to.

She pats his head and sings for as long as it looks like that's necessary. 

 

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He cries for a while, but runs out of tears before she runs out of stars.

Up close, it's more obvious that the cloak is... actually a part of him. The shadows blur and merge into his skin without a clear edge between them.

 

The pool of darkness on the floor huddles inward to form a sort of nest around them, and a blanket of shadowsmoke lifts up to drape itself over Imrainai's shoulders in a gesture not unlike a hug.

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Wow her life is super weird now. Arguably better? Definitely weird.

"OK now?"

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This is apparently a difficult question to answer.

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She pats him again. "That's OK."

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Sad curled-up shadow-man with sad cozy shadow-hug-blanket.

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Pat pat pat.

She's hungry, but she doesn't exactly have anywhere else she needs to be. She can wait maybe an hour before boredom or hunger spurs her to actually ask for food and water.

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He sits up, and takes her hand, and squeezes it very gently. He looks... still miserable, honestly, but maybe less so? Or differently?

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She is not immediately sure what to do with this.

She squeezes his hand back.

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He spends a while sitting there like that, trying to say something. Occasionally he gets half a word out and then frowns and cuts himself off and goes back to struggling silently with their limited vocabulary, and after about two minutes of this he drops her hand and curls up and his cloak escapes vaporously from underneath Imrainai and pulls in to wrap around him, and it keeps wrapping tighter and tighter over the course of a few seconds until finally it disappears entirely.

Permalink Mark Unread

Um.

She does sort of need food and water to live, still.

She supposes it is maybe time for her to solve this problem herself.

She returns to the building that contains her sleeping corner, since that's where she's been keeping all of her gathered materials. (It is not the same building as the one that houses her pee corner, because she may be living in her own filth, but she knows enough about sanitation and germ theory to at least attempt not to get herself killed via infectious disease.)

She has rocks! Lots of rocks. Some unidentifiable pieces of wood that used to be furniture. Some corroded metal bars she pulled out of the rubble. Some fish bones that are unfortunately too fragile to make anything useful out of. Most importantly, she has a series of large glass bottles, since Saikirei's just been giving those to her when she asks for fresh water. She also has the tools she brought with her, which fit comfortably in her various biosuit pockets or are tethered to her waist. Screwdriver one, screwdriver two, sad little pocket knife, flashlight, more-or-less paracord, set of wipes, adhesive rolls that are duct tape in all but name, and, obviously, her biosuit itself.

She can't really tell how far away the edge of the air bubble is, and she has no idea what's keeping the air in or whether it will insist on keeping her in, too. Supposing it doesn't, though, it's probably her best bet (or second best bet, depending on how whatever just happened shakes out) for reliable food and water. Assuming the edge is less than two or three days away from here, she can probably make it there and back here without actually dying of starvation. Three of the bottles still have some water, so she won't die of thirst in that time, either.

She consolidates most of her water into one bottle. She ties the metal bars and an empty bottle to the back of her suit, checking that they're secure. She puts her favorite weirdly sharp rock in one of her pockets. She picks up the mostly-full bottle in her arms, and checks over her other possessions to see that she isn't forgetting anything important. Doesn't look like it.

She heads for the edge of her world.

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It's a longish walk to the outskirts of the city, but if she picks the direction where the bubble-edge looks closest, she'll be able to tell after about an hour that she's definitely getting closer.

 

Also at around that time, the ground underfoot rumbles slightly, and fountains start sprouting from street corners like highly improbable weeds. Each one is a stone bowl wide enough for a person to climb into, with clear sparkling water pouring inexplicably out of midair into said bowl, and then draining out again via openings in the stone near the edge. There isn't any sort of pipe up top for the water to come out of. It just... appears, and falls two or three feet in a continuous stream.

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Well. You don't look a gift horse in the mouth, but you do quietly remember that you don't understand how his city works and that he may not have brushed his teeth. 

She half-fills her empty bottle with magic water, strips off her biosuit, fastens the bottle to the inside to make use of the suit's airtight seal, and prepares to wait for evaporation to do its thing. The inside of most of the suit is getting pretty filthy, but whatever condenses on the inside of the helmet should be OK. Assuming it's going to do that, because she's not really sure how humidity levels work when you're in an air bubble at the bottom of the ocean. It occurs to her that she can take something resembling a shower and wash her hair, too, so she does that.

She grabs her suit and her existing bottle of verified-safe water. She continues to head toward the edge of the bubble, now barefoot.

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It's about another hour, maybe a little more, before she gets her first clear view of the air-water boundary. It comes down just past the last scattered piles of rubble at the edge of the city, looking very much like the edge of an ordinary air bubble in ordinary water expanded to an outrageous scale and held in place despite the complaints of gravity. Beyond its faint silvery shimmer, the dark water is mostly still, but disturbed by an occasional curious fish.

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Huh.

She sets her stuff down and pokes at the barrier with one of her corroded metal sticks, checking whether it's the sort of thing an object can pass through without anything very unfortunate happening.

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The object passes through. Nothing very unfortunate, or indeed particularly interesting, happens.

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She sticks a finger through, just to make sure it's not some kind of forcefield that only works on stuff with water in it.

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Her finger survives this expedition without discernible harm!

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Cool, cool. 

She considers throwing a rock above her head to see whether it falls back through the barrier or bounces off, but the ceiling is really high, and she's not going to be strong enough to throw anything that far.

After some thought, it occurs to her to check whether the metal stick thingies are magnetic enough to stick to the boots of her biosuit. When she determines that they are, she removes the water from the suit (not enough time to get any good condensation, she's going to have to sleep on it if she insists on not just drinking from the fountains), tosses the smallest of her metal sticks just through the barrier, and attempts to fish it out with magnetism without actually pushing the boot through into the water.

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This succeeds! The barrier hardly seems to impede the bar at all.

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Nice! Weirdbut convenient for her purposes. She's gonna try tethering herself to some very large piece of rubble anyway, but it's nice to know that if her tether snaps she can still theoretically swim back and make her way into the enclosure again.

She tethers the suit to the rubble, suits up, checks her CO2 filters and other air systems, leaves her pile of sticks by the bottle of water directly from Saikirei, takes her tethered pocket knife in one hand and her sturdiest metal bar in the other, and - 

- medium-deep breaths, Imrainai. Calm breaths. No wasting air. This trick isn't going to last forever either way, even if she can pull it off this time, but maybe when she's less hungry she'll be able to think of something more sustainable.

She steps through the barrier and looks around.

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She's underwater - under a lot of water. The dim light from the glowing street-tiles has trouble reaching very far past the barrier.

There are a lot of strange creatures out here. A bunch of teeny little finger-sized silvery things swim past in a moderately organized cloud, too far for her to reach; something with many long wiggly limbs wiggles its way across the ocean floor in the middle distance. There's things like questionable brightly coloured plants growing out of the ground, and a buglike thing the size of her foot scuttling between a pair of rocks.

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It belatedly occurs to her that it was pretty stupid to come all the way out here without first checking whether the suit could withstand the water pressure. Luckily, whoever designed her model of biosuit seems to have been very intent on making sure their investments survived, even under environmental conditions they couldn't reasonably be expected to ever encounter. Maybe she can just pretend she tested it and move on with her life.

She turns on her suit lights to get a better look at what she's dealing with. She's probably not fast enough to stab a fish, though she's willing to try if it's the only option. First she's gonna try to stab the bug thing.

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The bug thing runs, but not fast enough.

Unfortunately, her knife injures it badly but does not prevent it from continuing to run.

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She is theoretically capable of stabbing things multiple times!

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After a short and slightly farcical chase sequence, she can retrieve one extremely stabbed bug-thing!

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She is so good at surviving. She is one of those tiny domesticated silkworm things that two-cycles sometimes feel bad for, and then their parents explain to them that they've been domesticated so long that they could never survive in the wild anyway, so isn't this actually definitely better, except that she totally can survive in this ridiculous magic underwater dome that she wasn't created to withstand at all, so take that, tens of thousands of years of domestication.

She grabs some of the funny-looking plants on her way back to the city. Once she's back on dry ground and has gone back to conserving her air supply, she opens the bug thing up to see whether it has any parts that look at all edible.

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Its parts look... buggy. Some of them seem squishy enough to successfully chew. Kind of hard to tell whether or not she would regret doing so.

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It could definitely be poisonous. It could also be infected with something, but she's just going to have to take a chance on that one, because animal carcasses don't do the evaporation thing and she doesn't have the faintest idea how to make a fire without an oven or a blowtorch. If she could make a spark, maybe, if she could find a rock that ever sparks when it hits metal - ?

Anyway, she ate yesterday, and the walk to the edge of the bubble is totally doable in less than half a day, so it's not like she's going to starve if she spends today being careful. She licks it, just a little. Hopefully if it's poison that'll just make her sick, not outright kill her.

She scrapes the chewable parts of the bug into her sort-of-refrigerated pocket and drops the hard parts into a different pocket. She gathers up her plants and metal sticks and bottles and her tether line.

She heads home.

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The fountains continue to be plentiful on the way back in; there's one at nearly every place where two medium-sized streets cross.

Around the central building, they're much bigger and fancier; a couple of them, if she was paying attention, are discernibly restored from preexisting ruins.

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She is paying attention!

It is probably worth checking the water as soon as she's done checking the bug thing; the evaporation thing is going to be really slow here, given what the humidity must be. But she has to finish seeing if the bug thing is gonna make her sick. If she's going to get sick then she wants to be pretty sure which thing did it.

She drops her stuff off at her sleeping corner and goes to check whether Saikirei is back where he usually is.

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He is not.

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OK. Well. Fine. She's now possibly not in danger of imminent starvation or dehydration, so this is less irresponsible of him than it otherwise would be. And it's not like he actually has any obligation whatsoever to look out for her, so really he's just been nice and doing things for herself is the only fair thing to expect.

It occurs to her that he's really the only reason to come here. If the ocean is gonna be more reliable than he is, she might be better served setting up camp there.

She straps about a third of her empty glass bottles to her biosuit and walks back. If the bug thing doesn't make her sick by the time she gets to the ocean for the second time, she'll eat the rest of it.

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The bug thing has so far not made her sick! A promising start.

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This is indeed promising!

Now. If she's going to survive without Saikirei's help, she's going to have to get better at chasing crabs on not very much air. She practices taking deep breaths and holding them for a bit, though her suit display has turned off to conserve power, so she doesn't have a way to time herself and doesn't know if she's getting any better. There are people who can go for a long time on one breath, though, she's heard of them. She's not actually sure whether you get it by practicing or if you have to be born that way, though.

She turns her suit's air off this time - she can turn it on again underwater if things don't go well - takes a deep breath, and goes back out to see if she can find anything else to stab.

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Stabbable creatures are scarcer this time around.

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Problematic. 

She decides to head back after taking a few breaths of her suit's air. She's probably not going to get good enough at stabbing things on no air to do it indefinitely. But she's sort of tired right now. Maybe she'll think of something else after she's slept on it. 

She drinks some of her actually safe water, sticks her tongue in one of the fountains, arranges her stuff around a new sleeping corner, and goes to bed.

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And when she wakes up—

It's less obvious from the edge of the city than it would have been from the middle, but it seems... brighter in here? Her biosuit may be tentatively concluding it doesn't need to conserve power quite so hard. The light isn't coming from that dim and distant sun, though, at least not directly, and the street-lights haven't gotten any less patchy. It seems to be most concentrated toward the middle of the city.

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...hm.

She's really hungry. Not starving-hungry, she's not yet in actual danger, but she's going to become less and less good at doing things if she doesn't get more food soon, and she certainly doesn't need to make decisions that will lead her to four more hours of walking and additional disappointment before she's able to eat anything else. 

But she drinks some of the probably-safe fountain water and heads toward the middle of the city anyway.

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The whole area surrounding Saikirei's building, for several blocks in every direction, has been cleared of rubble. (There is a natural-looking but very convenient gap left to accomodate Imrainai's sleeping corner and supply cache, which remains untouched.) In place of the crumbling buildings that once stood there, a vast sprawling garden now sits, enchantingly beautiful in every detail. The brightness comes from a kind of glowing haze that swirls just under the barrier, beaming a soft sunny light down on the trees and shrubs and grasses.

Every tree has fruit or nuts. Every bush has berries or invitingly plump leaves. Many of the grasses have grain.

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Woah.

It's probably for her? It can't be something that the city just does, or there would be dead trees among the rubble. 

She has no idea how to feel about this. She should probably feel happy? Saikirei probably wants her to feel happy? That would probably be the considerate thing to do. He could be watching her right now, if he can just make things then he can probably make cameras and there's no reason he can't be watching her, she'd probably be watching him if she'd done something like this, she'd want to be able to see how positive it was, to know that she made him feel just a little better.

She feels... overwhelmed.

She sort of doesn't want to go talk to him at all, because what if she's not happy enough, and what if that makes him sad? But she really really doesn't want to ignore the garden and then come back and have it not be there because she reacted in a weird confusing way and seemed incongruously sad and then there won't be food and she'll have to worry about starving again and it will be all her fault.

She sort of wants to cry. But she's wanted to cry many different times and not gotten to, because there were other more important things to do, and she's not going to cry now, either. She takes a few deep breaths and waits for the mess inside her to bubble back down.

She straightens up and walks into the building.

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For the first time she's ever observed since she got here, Saikirei is asleep. He's curled up on the floor and blanketed in his shadow-cloak.

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Well that's oddly relieving. Maybe he tired himself out after making all that.

She sort of wants to wait here for him, but she's really hungry, and the food is probably for her.

She heads outside and finds something to eat.

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The garden contains many eatable things! All of them are tasty.

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She doesn't bother testing for poison this time. Mathrael can criticize her life choices if she ever sees her again.

When she's full (and when she's filled one of the bottles with berries and dropped it off at her corner so that she doesn't have to do this again every time she wants to eat things), she returns to see whether Saikirei is any more awake.

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He's sitting on the floor and leaning back against the side of his chair, with his cloak pulled in close to his body.

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"Hi! I saw the trees!" she says, and then it is at once patently obvious to her that she could not possibly have gotten here without seeing the trees.

Oh well.

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He looks up, and then looks concerned.

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Oh no. He can tell. Aaaa.

"They're really good!"

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Conceeeeern.

Haltingly: "Imrainai afraid trees?"

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"No??"

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"Imrainai afraid trees," he concludes sadly.

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"I'm not!" she insists, and then she doesn't have any words for whatever it is she needs to explain. She couldn't explain it with her usual fifty thousand, and certainly can't do it with fifty, certainly not when she can barely remember which fifty she has, but this much is important, and - "Please don't take them away? Please?"

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He hugs his knees and sighs frustratedly. He has the look on his face that he gets when he's trying to say something and knows he is going to fail. Usually when that happens he just gives up, but—

"Imrainai... water," he says slowly. "Saikirei—" he puts his hand by the floor and makes a lifting-up gesture "—stone-water. Imrainai—" he holds out his hand and makes an in-gathering grasping gesture "—water."

Then, paralleling the first sequence: "Imrainai... food. Saikirei—" lifting-up gesture "—trees. Imrainai—" grasping gesture "—food."

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She understands this, and it's good, and it was so nice of him, and she wishes she could say that, but the only thing her brain will think about is the stupid, stupid silkworms, and she doesn't actually know what feeling goes with that thought, much less what she should be feeling about this, or what words she might express it with if she knew.

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She does not look sufficiently reassured.

He thinks hard, rubbing his face with one hand. (It trails small curls of shadow-smoke.)

Then he cups his hands together, and they fill with shadow-smoke, which recedes to reveal a little statue of a circle of grassy ground with a bush and a tree and a tiny stone fountain.

He gets up, and crosses the room—moving hesitantly, with an awkward half-successful effort at shrinking down to reduce his intimidating stature—and takes Imrainai's hands, and puts the statue in them, and closes them firmly around it.

"Imrainai trees."

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She cradles the statue for a moment, letting the weight of it settle in her hands, and then she bursts into tears.

This is quite possibly the nicest thing that anyone has ever done for her. As soon as she has the thought it's obvious that it is, but the statue makes it - OK, somehow, brings it back down to the scale of a gift and not a world, makes it something that can exist for her, not something that has to define the full scope of her existence.

She only lets herself cry for a second. One second, not two, before she's dropped the statue in her pocket and started hugging him.

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—!!!

He hugs her back, smiling like he can't believe a thing as nice as being hugged by Imrainai could possibly happen.

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Awww, he can smile! This is a really good thing for him to be able to do! She would probably be more obviously in favor of this if she were not still crying, though. Right now she's just going to cling for a bit.

"Thank you."

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Hug.

"Imrainai trees."

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Hug. Hug hug hug. She will just keep hugging him until she calms down, and then wipe her eyes and smile back awkwardly.

"'M sorry," she says, even though he won't understand it because she's aware that it doesn't actually logically follow from anything. "They're really good trees."

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He doesn't understand, no, but he smiles back.

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Oh man how do conversations move on after something like this.

"Um - Imrainai go see more trees? Saikirei see trees too?"

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He smiles and nods.

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Oh good! Then she takes his hand and attempts to lead him outside, where she will name things and declare them good with very genuine enthusiasm.

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He is so happy that she thinks the things are good!!!

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The things are really good!

Now that she doesn't have to worry about imminent starvation and dehydration (and given that she's pretty sure she can find a way to reliably dispose of waste by pushing it into the ocean), her most pressing concern is once again her lack of words. She redoubles her efforts to learn Saikirei's words for things. If she spends most of her time on it then she can pick up, what, fifty more words a day? Surely eventually she'll be able to communicate complex thoughts.

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It's a good thing she's trying so hard to pick up his language, because although he's trying pretty hard too, he's much worse at picking up hers. And even in his own language he often has some trouble expressing himself.

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She will, in time, start expressing herself almost totally in whatever language he's speaking. It's going to take a lot of consistent, conscious effort, but she's willing to put in a lot of effort if it means she can talk. Her grammar comes out a little wonky for a bit, but her expressive vocabulary is constantly expanding. 

"Difficult Saikirei for to make things?" she asks him, eventually.

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...He shrugs, a more-complicated-than-I-can-express sort of shrug.

"Difficult to make... some things. Easy statues," he gestures at the marble replica of his drowned continent still sitting on its pedestal, "difficult gardens."

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She nods, then hesitates, then forges ahead. "Imrainai ask Saikirei make more things? Or no? Or only very need things?"

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He smiles and nods emphatically. "Ask things!"

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She smiles and looks relieved. And then frustrated, trying to get her words out. "Saikirei - Saikirei follow?"

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He blinks, but nods.

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So she takes him to her sleeping corner.

It's less sad than it was two weeks ago. The pile of unidentifiable ancient wood scraps has been dwarfed by a much larger pile of sticks and branches, none of them bigger than what she can tear off of a tree using nothing but her arms and her pocket knife. She has a slightly larger pile of ancient rebar. She has eight glass bottles lined up very nicely along the wall, some of them filled with water and others filled partway-full of perishable food. The tiny statue he gave her sits in their center, in as close to a place of honor as the room affords. There's a very sad attempt in one corner at weaving some sort of fabric out of grass, but if there's a trick to it then she hasn't found it yet, and her results are all either too inflexible to use for clothing or else too quick to fall apart in her hands. There's another pile beside it of hard crab and fish parts, in case she figures out anything she can do with those.

The sleeping corner itself is now a pile of grass and leaves, painstakingly gathered little by little in an attempt to create a softer sleeping surface. It doesn't look very comfy, though, and in fact it isn't. She hadn't known that the leaves and grass would become harder and scratchier as they dried out, and continually swapping them out every few days is more trouble than it's worth. But she's still not sleeping ridiculously well. 

"Saikirei make - more good sleep place? Not hard?"

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"Ah." The confusion clears from his face; he nods comprehendingly. "Not hard," he affirms. "Here? Not here?"

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She motions hesitantly to an unoccupied corner of the room. "Not take away sleep place, uh - other sleep place?"

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His cloak flows out to cover the indicated corner. It bunches up and roils for a bit, then retreats, leaving behind a bed. A thick, flat oval mattress rests in a wooden frame shaped to look like braided rope, with soft blankets and pillows piled atop it.

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Woooah, what is that.

(It's possible that her standard for a good bed is a moderately claustrophobic triple bunk bed with foam mattresses and a single sheet.)

She pokes the blankets and notes their softness and then comes back to hug him, since that worked out so well last time.

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Eeeeeeee hugs. Hugs are so good. Imrainai is so good. Giving Imrainai things is so good.

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"Saikirei make two other things? Small things?"

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Nod nod!

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Oh good.

She brings over one of the empty glass bottles, indicates it, then makes a cupping motion with her hands, indicating an imaginary container with a flat bottom and sloping sides. "Not bottle. Bigger top."

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A thoughtful look, and then his cloak wraps around itself in his hands and he is subsequently holding a stack of glass bowls in charmingly nested decreasing sizes. "Like this?"

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Ooh. Emphatic nodding; not going to specify what she needs these for. 

For the last item she takes one of the blankets from the bed and wraps herself in it like a hooded cloak. "Not biosuit," she says, using her own word. "No helmet, not hard. Soft biosuit thing?"

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He nods, and his cloak does the thing, and he hands her a bundle of cloth. It is very soft. Some dark greys and browns with bold-coloured trim; some bright sunny cheerful colours with subtle swirling patterns; some green things patterned like overlapping leaves.

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She takes them and lays them out on the bed and makes sure they're going to cover everything that needs to be covered, then nods. "Good things. Saikirei word for things?"

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He labels the bowls and the clothes and the individual articles of clothing—shirts and pants.

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She repeats the words delightedly. She is just generally delighted at words. She wants the words for the bed and the pillows and the blankets, too.

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She is so cute and good. He can name the bed and the pillows and the blankets! She now knows the names of many soft things!

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This is good!

She now has all of the physical objects she needs to take basic care of herself, and words are, once again, the main thing she wants to spend her time collecting. More words, more concepts, until she can ask things that get her closer to knowing what is going on.

"How many days Saikirei alone, before Imrainai?"

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...He frowns a vocabulary-related frown.

"Many," he says. "Many like..."

How does he do this?? Okay, perhaps a quick timekeeping lesson:

He produces a tiny round golden coin and calls it a 'day'. Lays out thirty of them in neat rows and calls that a 'month'. Produces a silver coin with thirty tickmarks around the edge, and calls that a month too, equating it to the thirty days. Lays out twelve months in a circle and calls that a 'year'. Condenses the year similarly into its own dark grey coin with a twelve-pointed silver starburst. Puts down a row of ten years, and another, and another, ten rows of ten: a hundred years is a 'century'.

The summary-coin for centuries is black and engraved with a very fine ten-point spiral. He piles up a heap of them, for an estimate rather than an exact count. It looks to be a medium-sized handful: twenty, maybe thirty.

"Days Saikirei alone," he says, pointing at the heap of centuries.

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"Many," she agrees, sadly. "Saikirei not - uh - " she makes a stabbing motion at herself and mimes dying as best she can.

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"Saikirei not die," he agrees. "Not die many days, not die other things."

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"Meraiyu aisara die? Before Saikirei?"

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Nod.

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"Other alive things? Before Saikirei, Meraiyu have - build cities, light language, skin like crab alive things?"

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He puzzles over this question, then shakes his head.

"Build cities alive things only aisara."

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Troubling. Unless this is - hm.

She points at the day coins. "More circle days? Please?"

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A tendril of shadow-cloak uncurls out to the grid of thirty little golden days and deposits a pile of extras beside it.

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She lays out rows of days until she has a full three hundred and sixty, broken up neatly into months.

"Meraiyu year?"

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Nod nod.

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She adds five extra days to the last month. "Meraiyu year? True Meraiyu year?"

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...He shakes his head. A cloak-tendril reaches out and separates the five extra days from the last month, then nudges away two more.

"Meraiyu year before," he says, and then scoots the two missing days back into place. "Meraiyu aisara change year—before Saikirei, many before. Now year this."

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Huh. She looks at the day coins and frowns, then sighs. "Meraiyu not Earth. Not Alteri, but not Earth."

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"Earth year this?" he asks, pulling the five stray coins back.

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She nods.

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He nods too, thoughtfully.

"What thing crab skin build city?"

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"Alteri."

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Huh. He recognizes that name from her memorable fishbone-stomping session, early on.

"Meraiyu no Alteri, only aisara."

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"Earth only Imrainai place have aisara and no Alteri. Meraiyu - how many centuries aisara live Meraiyu?"

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"Many. Before aisara live Meraiyu, no aisara."

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"Alteri make Aisara. Or - Alteri make Liars."

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He considers this.

"Alteri not make aisara. How Alteri make Liars?"

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She frowns thoughtfully and then shrugs. She is unfortunately not a biologist. 

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Then he shrugs, too.

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Sigh. But she can't give up yet, she still needs to figure out more things about their situation.

She takes one of the day coins and names it 'Meraiyu', and takes one of the month coins and names it 'star', in Etra La. She moves Meraiyu in a circling motion around its star, until it's all the way around. "One Meraiyu year?"

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He hesitates in a contemplating-a-quibble sort of way, but then nods.

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"Meraiyu aisara leave Meraiyu, before Saikirei? Go other stars?"

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He shakes his head.

"Meraiyu aisara..."

This demonstration is going to need a globe. He makes one. It's made of two different colours of wood, darker water and paler land.

He points to the continent that matches the shape of the depressing diorama that still stands in his room from that first conversation. "Meraiyu," he says. "Meraiyu aisara, before." Then the other continents. "Udimal, Lohei, Alaila. Meraiyu aisara go Udimal, go Lohei, go Alaila. Build small cities." He covers Meraiyu with his hand, and a pool of shadow flows and recedes, leaving the continent scorched to a darkness resembling water. "Meraiyu down. Small cities other place maybe live, maybe die. No aisara leave," he gestures to the globe as a whole, "place."

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"Oh," she says, obvious comprehension dawning, and then - "Aisara above water, other parts place? Aisara live?"

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He shrugs. "Above water. Maybe live. Maybe die. Saikirei can't leave Meraiyu, can't see."

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"Saikirei can't leave Meraiyu?"

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He nods. "After Meraiyu down, Saikirei can't leave."

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"Water stop Saikirei?"

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He shakes his head.

"Other thing."

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"Saikirei explain other thing? Difficult explain?"

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"Difficult explain," he agrees. "Saikirei try."

Okay, now how does he...

"...Saikirei before, want not die. Saikirei take... thing. Thing do this," he gestures to his cloak, "do this," his glowing green eyes, "do Meraiyu down, do Saikirei not die, do Saikirei not leave Meraiyu. Saikirei only want not die, not want other things."

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She nods. Mentally adjusts downward her estimation of how likely it is that Saikirei is just an aberrantly nice omincidal maniac.

She could probably make it to land. She probably has enough air left in her tank that, provided she had a direction to swim in, she could make it to one of the other continents and live out her days there, on the surface, with other people. It'd be dangerous - she's much more likely to die at some point, without Saikirei's help. And the people on the other continents might not speak the same language, so she'd have to go through all of this again, but she could probably do it.

Only she'd have to leave Saikirei behind, and that's not really the sort of thing she can just do. He could've left her to die, and he hasn't, so she's gonna try to repay that in kind.

Somehow.

"How far can Saikirei go? Before thing stop Saikirei?"

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"Can touch water. Can touch," he pauses in a vocabulary-related way, "door."

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"Door?"

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"Before Meraiyu down, Meraiyu have—door. Door to Udimal, door to Lohei, door to Alaila. After down, doors... not. After years, one door go Lohei, little time, then stop. More years, other door go Udimal, little time, then stop. Many more years, other door go Alaila, little time, stop." He makes an and-so-on-and-so-on gesture with one hand. "Doors not, nothing go through doors. Doors go, things go through doors, Saikirei can't go through."

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"Hmm. Saikirei can't give thing back." Obviously isn't the sort of thing you can do that with, or he would have done that already. "Saikirei get thing - place?" 

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He shrugs and shakes his head. "Difficult explain."

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She nods. "Imrainai not go Udimal Lohei Alaila without Saikirei." 

No promises on Earth, but Earth has Ves, and she can't willingly abandon Ves any more than she can abandon Saikirei. Not that going back is likely to be good for her lifespan, even if she does figure out how.

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...he smiles. He looks—touched.

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Good! Now she just needs to figure out what's keeping him here and how to fix it. Which he's failed to do in more than a hundred of her lifetimes. 

It's good to have goals, anyway.

"Imrainai see doors? Saikirei show Imrainai?"

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He nods agreement, and gets up to lead her through the city.

It's a fairly long walk—half an hour or so, in the opposite direction from her crab-hunting grounds at the edge of the bubble. The ceiling gets higher as they walk.

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She's gotten more used to long walks over the course of the past few weeks, even though they're otherwise completely outside her experience. She tries making conversation and asking if he knows what particular buildings used to be, a long time ago.

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He does know those things! He sometimes struggles to express this knowledge in their mutual vocabulary, but he does his best. This one was a place where people lived, and that one was a place where people wrote things down, and that one was a place where people bought and sold things, and...

...that one was, "Door."

It doesn't look much like a door. It looks like an enormous intricate metal ring made of many partial circles overlapped and layered in complicated ways to form a single circle tall enough that Saikirei could walk through it with two other Saikireis stacked on top of him. The lowest part of the circle is buried under the street, and the rest arches over it.

There isn't anything especially magical-looking about it at the moment. It's just a big round complicated arch thing.

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It vaguely reminds her of the gate, although the design is different enough that she wouldn't hold out hope for a common origin even if she weren't on a completely different planet entirely outside the Confederacy.

She walks up and sticks an arm through it, just to check for herself that it doesn't do anything.

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It does nothing, exactly as expected.

"Door go place, see place through door," Saikirei explains clumsily. "Not see place, door not go."

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She nods. "Wanted to see. Thank you."

It she were Mathrael - if she were smarter, maybe she could uncover something about how the door operates and get it working again. She supposes this wouldn't really solve either of her core problems anyway. But she can come back later, now that she knows where it is. She leaves a second tiny beacon by the base, just to be sure.

"Go back now?"

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Nod.

Back to his building. It's strange being this far from it; he almost never bothers anymore. His cloak flickers and swirls in his wake.

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She returns to her routine, gathering food and collecting objects and hunting crabs and missing fish and stuffing as many words as she can into her head. She visits Saikirei every day without fail, even though that's no longer strictly necessary for her survival. Occasionally she feels a little sick to her stomach, but that's probably just because she insists on eating raw seafood, or even just the transition from nutrient blocks to something more food-shaped. She pays it no mind.

And then, one day, she throws up.

She crawls back into bed and thinks about how she's ever going to clean it up. She's back to low-grade nausea fairly soon, but she still doesn't want to eat anything. It could be some weird symptom of her period, right, it's got to be almost time for that?

She consults her calendar, which is a tree branch with notches in it. She's been in Meraiyu for fifty-three days. She hasn't had a period in that time. She thinks about it, and envisions another calendar with work shifts and numbers on it, and realizes that she's missed two, both of them following the last time she was put under general anesthetic for chip maintenance.

She spends the whole day sitting in her room hugging herself. Eventually she gets some leaves and water and cleans up the mess she made earlier. She eats some food that she already has in her house. She thinks about her options. She wishes she hadn't promised not to go; she never expected that she would be making that decision for anyone other than herself, and she has no idea whether it's fairer to raise a child here, where it's safe, or on the surface, where there might be other people. She has to decide now, though. She's only got the one biosuit, and at some point it's going to stop fitting her.

She doesn't go see Saikirei. She doesn't have any idea what she would say to him. 

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Well, if she doesn't go see Saikirei, then he will continue not to know about this.

On the other hand, if she continues not to go see Saikirei...

 

After a full day with no sight of her, he emerges from his building and checks her sleeping place to see if she's there.

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Yep, she's curled up in her very soft bed, wearing the clothes that Saikirei made for her and hugging her knees and looking fairly despondent.

"Hi," she says, quietly.

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"Imrainai sad?"

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She nods.

"Imrainai sad. And afraid. And - angry. And sad."

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"What...?"

He's really not sure how to finish the question, so he just trails off awkwardly.

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"Sorry." He probably still doesn't know what that word means. 

"Imrainai..." No, she can't explain it starting with herself. She shakes her head and takes a deep breath and starts again. "Liars, in Imrainai place, listen Alteri."

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He's not totally sure he gets what she's aiming at, but maybe it will become clearer after she has said more things.

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Deep breath. She can do this.

"Liars have metal thing, in head," she says, gesturing to the back of her neck, where there's a thin scar that marks the site of the incision. "Make listen Alteri. Before Imrainai arrive Meraiyu, Alteri say... fix Imrainai metal thing. Imrainai sleep, Alteri open up Imrainai head, fix metal thing, metal thing in head again. And Alteri - Imrainai asleep, Alteri not tell Imrainai - "

Ugh. Ugh, ugh, ugh.

"Small Liar," she says, burying her face and not looking at him. "Small Liar in Imrainai now."

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Oh.

Ohhhh.

 

"Want Imrainai safe," he says, somewhat at a loss.

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She's not looking, she's not looking, if she doesn't look maybe she won't burst into tears and have to be even more humiliated.

"Imrainai not know what - not make small Liar before. Know sometimes - know sometimes Liar die, when make small Liar. When not - "

Ugh, what are words. She switches back to Etra La, frustrated with her own inability to say things. "At home we would have doctors."

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"People help?" he guesses. But - "Here no people. Only Saikirei."

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This, somehow, rouses her to get off the bed, though she's still not actually looking at him. She heads over to her row of bottles, not because they're actually useful visual aids but because she needs to get her thoughts organized somehow.

"Choices," she says, laying out three bottles. "One, Imrainai go above water, find aisara, be aisara. Need go now. One biosuit, no small Liar biosuit. Two, Imrainai go above water, find aisara, leave small Liar aisara, return Meraiyu. Need go now. Three, Imrainai stay, small Liar here, small Liar no leave Meraiyu."

She frowns at the bottles. None of them seem great.

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"Imrainai go," he says immediately. "If aisara help, if Imrainai more safe above water, Imrainai go."

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She is really relieved that this is his take on the situation, though she's not sure it's actually that clear-cut.

"Maybe no aisara alive," she reminds him. "Maybe aisara die, maybe aisara not know help, maybe aisara not want help..."

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He sighs; he nods.

"Not know."

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"Imrainai not know." She frowns at the second bottle in her configuration. "Imrainai go now, come back, tell Saikirei? Maybe time? How far not Meraiyu places?"

There is, of course, the tiny minor detail where swimming across an ocean with no food could easily kill her, and could much more easily kill a baby, but it's worth asking.

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"Far," he admits. "Not know if Imrainai can go."

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"Biosuit has air. But no food, in biosuit, underwater." She frowns. "Maybe keep food, go up surface, eat food? Maybe bad, maybe - deeper and shallower fast is bad, sometimes. Maybe Sakirei make - thing? Thing go faster than Imrainai?"

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"Maybe make thing," he agrees, nodding slowly.

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"Maybe," she echoes. "Go... not very safe. Stay... not know safe."

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Nod.

"Want Imrainai safe," he repeats, frustrated.

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She nods. She wishes she knew how to accomplish this.

"...thank you."

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"Want safe," he says again, softly this time.

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She stands up and hugs him. He seems like maybe he needs a hug. Maybe she needs one, too.

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He hugs back, wrapping his cloak around her like cuddly bat wings. The surface is covered in restless curls of smoke.

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Awww. She feels safer here than she's felt in a long time. Pity how that isn't everything.

 

"If Imrainai stay," she says, eventually, "more safe if Meraiyu clean. Meraiyu not dirty, Imrainai maybe not sick, after small Liar." She doesn't know what to do about, like, blood loss, but at least a cleaner environment would improve her chances. She really doesn't know what to do about the fact that giving birth without painkillers hurts, but at least the pain shouldn't actually kill her.

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Nod nod nod.

"Saikirei make clean," he promises.

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"OK," she says, quietly. "Not know how safe when - uh - make small Liar, lose red water? Lose much red water, not know how..."

She's not sure how to finish that thought, even. She doesn't know how the making thing works, whether he can just make arbitrary objects or whether he has to understand what he's making, on some level, whether he'd have to know her blood type and know what that information meant.

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He nods again.

"Saikirei try help."

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"OK," she says again. She's still scared, but she's going to try not to be. "Thank you."

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Nod. Hug. This is a situation that calls for Many Hug.

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Saikirei is entirely correct about the number of hugs that the situation calls for.

Eventually, when she's feeling a little more stable, Imrainai returns to her bottle-options and considers. 

"Imrainai maybe try go? Come back if not fast, too long no food, not safe?"

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He nods. "Try go," he affirms. "Try go safe."

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"Saikirei make thing? Go fast thing? Saikirei show direction?"

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"Not know how make thing," he admits. "Not know can make thing." But—he shrugs, and: "Try."

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She nods seriously. "Thank you, Saikirei."

And then she gets to work on her own contraption. She doesn't have the knack for engineering that her niece and nephew have shown, but she knows which part of her comm system sends and which part receives, and with a little bit of effort and some help from the various tools that are still strapped to her belt, she's able to separate the two halves. It's not like they've been doing her much good since she got here; maybe this will be a better use for them.

After a couple hours of work - could have been done sooner, but she wanted to be sure she didn't break anything - she goes to find Saikirei again.

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He's sitting in the gardens under the dim light of the sea-veiled sun, leaning back against a tree and frowning thoughtfully at thin air.

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Cool, cool. It's a hard problem. 

"Made Saikirei thing. Receiver," she calls it, in her language, handing him the piece that receives. She pushes a button on her half and speaks into it, making sound come out of his. "So Saikirei hear Imrainai when Imrainai go. Know if Imrainai safe."

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—he takes it, very carefully, and holds it.

"Good," he says emphatically. "Good know Imrainai safe."

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"Good Saikirei know," she agrees. "Saikirei think OK? Imrainai help think?"

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"Don't know how think," he sighs.

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She wishes she could communicate just how much she empathizes with this.

"Saikirei - uh - " she picks up a nearby stick and holds it like a pen, making scratching marks on the ground. "Know thing, make thing?"

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After a moment's consideration, he curls up a fold of his cloak in his hand and produces a thing vaguely resembling a pen, which he hands to her. Then, observing the lack of any remotely reasonable writing surface in the vicinity, he curls up a slightly bigger fold of his cloak and produces a notebook with blank white pages.

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"Thank you!"

OK. She has absolutely no idea how to make a proper jet propulsion system, though she understands that that's what you should use if you want to go fast underwater. She'd never even seen an ocean before coming to Meraiyu. She does, however, know that you can use propellers to move air, and presumably water, and that this should be a workable method of generating thrust if you can make a proper propeller blade and then figure out how to keep the blade moving.

She draws various contraptions that involve propellers, periodically getting stuck and tearing a page out of her notebook to begin again. She refines her design. She does math, in mathematical notation that consists entirely of tightly organized dots, defining the shape of the sort of blade she'll need. She doesn't know all of the relevant variables, and there's definitely guesswork involved, but she does make progress toward some kind of coherent solution over the course of the next several hours.

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Saikirei watches this progress unfold, and thinks really hard about how to make the things she's describing.

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Eventually she has a drawing of a propeller-powered vehicle with foot pedals, a sort of cross between a rudimentary submarine and a bicycle. She's also drawn the individual metal parts it should consist of, and she thinks she could weld them together with a blowtorch, if that would be easier for Saikirei.

"Thing maybe work. Faster Imrainai alone. Saikirei make thing, make thing parts?"

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He nods slowly.

"Make thing here? Make thing near water?"

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"Near water. Need direction. And sleep. Imrainai meet Saikirei tomorrow, tomorrow go?"

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Nod nod.

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She hugs him again. She's not unaware of the fact that she's sort of - scratch that, is - asking him to participate in getting rid of the one interesting thing that's happened to him in literal millennia. 

"Imrainai happy know Saikirei. Saikirei good."

And then she heads off to prepare for tomorrow.

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—he smiles, and keeps smiling as she walks away.

The next morning he's waiting in the garden.

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She is well-rested and moderately confident when she meets him. "Hi! Direction?"

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He gets up, smiles at her, nods in a direction, and starts walking.

It's close to the direction she takes to get to her crab-hunting grounds, but different enough that the trip to the edge takes closer to three hours than two.

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She's brought snacks, so she'll be fine. She doesn't make very much conversation this time; the occasion seems too serious for it, somehow.

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Yeah.

They reach the edge. He piles up a whole lot of cloak—it's not clear where it all even comes from—and then pulls it back again to reveal her entire pedal-powered submarine, true to the design in all functional particulars but slightly aesthetically embellished. It probably did not need to be this pretty.

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"Awww. Thanks." She fastens her helmet and checks that it's sealed and tests her comm. "Saikirei wave?"

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Wave!

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"Good." 

She looks forward. There's nothing ahead to steer by, so she'll just have to keep heading away from her beacons. Good thing she's a spacer now.

"Ancestors guide us home," she murmurs, and doesn't know whether to think of her parents on Yahivi or her niece and nephew on Earth or Saikirei here or whatever it is that's ahead of her.

She pushes her little craft into the water and follows it in.

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Saikirei stays back and watches and worries. He's sure he made it as well as he could, but what if he didn't make it well enough? What if she gets out there and something happens to her? He can't follow her past that rippling wall; there's nothing he could do to help her if she needed it.

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This would be worrying for her, too, if she were letting herself worry right now. Which she is not. She hops on her craft and pedals, vaguely surprised that the thing actually works under however much water pressure this is.

"Alllll right," she says, heading away from where her map readout says her beacons are. She doesn't bring her main lights on; it's not like there's going to be much out there to make sense of. "Craft safe so far. - I should really name this thing, I wonder if she's more of an Intrepid or more of an Explorer. Or if those are boring names. - Sorry, try talk Saikirei words, Imrainai thinking."

Pedal pedal pedal towards whatever lies out there in this extremely dark ocean.

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He steps up to the wall and presses his hand against it, even though it hurts and makes his skin come apart into curls of smoke. He feels... helpless. He does not like feeling helpless.

Imrainai is so important—a friend, a good friend, the first one he's ever had, the first person he's ever really truly deeply cared about—he wants her to be safe, more than he can ever remember wanting anything, even more than he wanted the things he shed his mortal flesh to gain—

 

—And then, all of a sudden, his half-disintegrated hand snaps back into full solidity. He can feel water against his skin.

He has only a moment to notice the change before he feels his world come undone.

It's a little bit like stretching out after a long sleep, or stepping out into the light after a long time in the dark, or taking a full breath for the first time after centuries spent underwater. It's wide and wild and dizzy and painful. The ground shakes, and he falls to his knees in a pool of shadows. He can't keep hold of his shape; it flows, dissolves, comes back together and breaks apart again. He is a boiling lake of black smoke and green fire.

He breathes. The whole bubble breathes with him.

And then he just... reaches out, and... the wall reshapes itself, stretching out a long pathway of air toward Imrainai.

He's not sure if that's what he should be doing. He's not sure what he should be doing. He has... so much to say to her, and no idea how to even begin to articulate any of it.

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She has about half a second to notice that something is happening behind her before the water is gone and she's pitched off her still-unnamed craft and tumbled onto the ground, because submarine bicycles don't do so well in air.

She feels like she should be checking on Saikirei. She can't actually do this, because she doesn't have a receiver. She feels like she should be doing something, but she can't think of anything that isn't stupid, so her mouth starts making decisions without her.

"Ground control, we have a situation? I'll let you know what it is in, like, three seconds here."

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He—breathes—no, that's not quite right—he reconstructs himself out of the pool of shadow and takes a real actual breath with his real actual lungs.

Steps forward—vanishes in a swirl of smoke and shadows—appears next to Imrainai.

Oh. She fell off her thing.

Sorry, he says—tries to say; the sound doesn't come out quite right. She has her helmet on and probably can't hear him anyway. He reaches hesitantly toward her to offer her a hand up.

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"Hi," she says, still talking through her comm, because he probably hasn't brought his receiver with him but she's a little bit not super thinking about that right now. 

She takes his hand.

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—right, the receiver. Which he can still hear with perfect clarity. For some reason.

This is all very overwhelming.

Well, first things first: he helps her up and then gives her a hug.

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She is super unclear on what's happening, but she hugs him back.

"Saikirei underwater?" she says, when she's calm enough to formulate the question.

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He opens his mouth, then closes it again. How does he even begin to...?

 

"I accidentally freed myself by caring about you more than I cared about the things that got me trapped here," he says, and for some reason she can hear this through her helmet and also understand every word of it perfectly.

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"Wow," she whispers, entirely about the fact that she can understand what he's saying now.

" - wow," she says, half a second later, about the actual content of that. She feels like - like half of her brain is screaming that that's way too much caring and she's never going to live up to whatever impression caused it, and half of her brain is elated and filled with some emotion that she doesn't think it romantic love but which could maybe be if you squinted at it, and the two awful machines are grinding their gears against each other in some kind of vicious attempt to destroy her sanity between them, and - she wants something, she decides, and she doesn't exactly know what it is, but whatever it is she wants it a lot.

"Wow," she says, for the third time, aware that she's probably going to start sounding pretty stupid if she doesn't use a different word pretty soon. "I, uh, I can understand you now."

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"Yes," he says. "That... happened. A lot of things have happened. I think... I think I might be able to make the doors work. The gates. So you don't have to pedal all the way to Lohei."

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" - that sounds comparatively less likely to get me killed, yeah. Why don't we, uh, walk back and you can tell me about your very eventful past ten minutes?"

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He smiles a little, and nods.

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She looks vaguely relieved, and then smiles herself. She starts walking back, minus one submarine bicycle that she feels like she probably won't need after all. "Cool. ...so more than life itself, huh?"

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As they walk, the bubble-path closes in behind them. Saikirei spends a minute struggling with words. Translation magic doesn't help when the problem is that you don't know how to say the thing you mean at all.

 

"I should tell you, I'm... not a good person," he says. "I didn't know how to say it before. I—the reason I'm down here is—I didn't just want life; I wanted Meraiyu. I wanted... all of this," he waves at the rubble ahead of them, "to be mine. And I was willing to kill a lot of people to get it. I just didn't realize how... big the trouble was going to get, and by the time I did, it was too late to stop it, and I was at the bottom of the ocean surrounded by dead people. And I... I had the things I'd wanted, but I didn't? I was immortal but with a life so thoroughly empty that I would've rather not had it at all if I could've managed that. Tried. Couldn't. And Meraiyu..." He sighs. "Every lump of rock in the whole span of this former continent is part of me. I can feel where everything is, constantly. It's how I knew to spare your house when I built the gardens—it had the only things in this city that had moved in the last century."

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"Makes sense," she says, because it only sort of makes sense, but hey, she understands it, and their lives have already been established to work on fairy tale logic.

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"So—but in all that time I never wanted anything the way I'd wanted things when I made my grand mistake. And then... you were out there, and I couldn't reach you, couldn't talk to you, couldn't help you at all, and you could have been hurt and I wouldn't have been able to do anything about it, and... I wanted you to be safe... and it, it felt like..." He shakes his head. "I don't know how to say it, but it was—about wanting something the same way that getting trapped here in the first place was—except, outward instead of inward? And then I was free."

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"...that's kind of a poetic way for it to work, I guess."

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He half-smiles. "You're not wrong."

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"I haven't been, like, assuming that you're naturally a paragon of virtue, y'know. You told me you destroyed Meraiyu, and I don't know how much it matters whether it was intentionally or through gross incompetence. But - it happened, like, thousands of years ago, and it's sad, but you have to be able to... I would hope that a thousand years is long enough between tries that it makes sense to give someone a second chance at being good. And - you have been pretty good, since I got here. So there's that."

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"I still don't... think of 'good' as a thing that I am."

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"I dunno if I know anyone who does."

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...he chuckles softly. "I suppose that's fair. I just—I don't want you not knowing what I'm like. It wouldn't feel right, to have a friend who didn't know."

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"I mean I probably don't know everything. And you probably don't know lots of important things about me. But we have lots more words now, so I'm sure we'll be able to fix that."

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He smiles. "Yeah. It's nice to be able to talk to you."

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"Yeah! It was so frustrating trying to do things the slow way - people say I'm decent with words, which is I guess a good thing because I tend to use a lot of them, but I'm not very good at learning them, I don't think."

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"You're a lot better at it than I am!"

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"Well, you're out of practice!"

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"True enough!"

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"So," she says, feeling like she should probably take this opportunity to fill in some of this aforementioned possibly relevant information. "I'm Imrainai Tellari, slave of House Tellari, officially a spacer and unofficially a poet and the guardian of Taz and Ves Tellari, although they probably have a new one now. Uh, I was raised on Yahi by House Kendari to be a domestic servant, I got moved to Earth over the course of a little over a decade, I'd been there for almost a year when I accidentally passed through the orbiting gate we were working on and got thrown, uh, here. Those are the basics."

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"Saikirei Ulara, former prince of Meraiyu, and I've already told you the story of that. —Is it true that all your fishbone countries were separate planets? I thought that, but I wasn't sure."

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"Yep! Well, stars, but most of the stars only have one inhabited planet of any significance."

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"Even when Meraiyu was a civilization and not a—" (he gestures ahead of them again) "—this, it never managed to reach as far as another planet. Though we did move ours a little, to make the years line up right. Long before I was born. I told you about that, didn't I, or tried to? When we were discussing time."

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"Oh! Right, yeah, that makes sense now. I wouldn't really expect - it's weird that you guys exist, and it'd be weirder if you were an interstellar empire. Or maybe I'm just expecting aliens to be more alien than you are and you really are a proper alien and not a Liar at all, it's hard to say."

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"The people of my world look more like you than I do. I got... much taller and stranger, when all the trouble was happening."

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"That's weird. But I guess if there are independent Liars on Earth then there could theoretically be independent Liars in other places."

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"—Wait, you call yourselves 'Liars'?"

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" - well, yeah, that's what they call us."

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"...why?"

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"Cause we lie," she says. "I haven't lied about anything, though. Not since I got here. I mean, not on purpose or that I remember."

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"—I believe you but—why is that—I'm so confused. Do you lie a lot or is that just something they say—?"

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"I guess so," she says, considering. "Uh, Carthons don't lie, and Alteri and Sluggards and Thieves all can lie but it's not - fundamental, the way it is for Liars, we make things up for ourselves when we sleep. Uh, do you not?"

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"I hate lying and do as little of it as I can get away with. I still dream, though, I don't feel like that's related."

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"...OK, well, I can keep not doing it, then? Not the - I can't turn off dreaming but if you don't feel like that's the same thing anyway then I guess it doesn't matter."

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"...that's not... I mean, I do generally prefer when people are honest with me, but when I say I hate lying I mean I hate what it feels like to lie, not—anything about other people at all. And I don't even know if we really mean the same thing by 'lie' or not because putting dreaming in the same category makes no sense to me."

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"Huh. Well - there are true things and false things, right?"

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"Ye...s...?"

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"And dreams are on the false side. That's what a dream is, your brain lies to you and gets you to believe something false for a while."

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"That's... not... really how I think of dreams."

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"OK. Well. Where I come from people do. And we're just - we're like that, making things up all the time. So that's why they call us Liars."

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"Dreams don't... make you be wrong about things," he says. "You have them and you wake up and that's all they are, dreams. I don't like making people be wrong about things and I don't like when people try to make me wrong about things but I don't mind—stories."

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"...it's better, yeah, when you can keep track of what's true and what's a story, if you're doing anything important or making any important decisions. I think most people are worse at keeping track than we are. But - we don't make important decisions, so I guess for most of us there's a limit to how much harm it can do. Not that I don't think you can hurt people by lying to them! Because you can! Especially if you aren't upfront about the fact that that's what you're doing! But - real life is really hard and sometimes you couldn't get through it if you were looking straight at it all the time. But I don't know if that makes sense."

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"Maybe. I'm not sure I'm the sort to be comforted by pretending."

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"Yeah. It's complicated, when pretending is most of what you have. I think if stories didn't count for anything we just - couldn't live, maybe, we'd wither away and we'd die, trying to live on just things that we actually had."

She pauses.

"So you really like me more than life itself?"

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He smiles at her.

"You're—my friend."

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She smiles at the ground.

"Well. You're my friend too."

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It occurs to him that 'you're my friend' doesn't actually convey even a tenth of what he meant when he said it, and he can clarify, now, that's a thing he can do, he can say something clumsily and then figure out how to say it better and do that.

"You're the best thing that's ever happened to me and I want to keep you safe and hug you and give you nice things."

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She hugs him again and smiles like an idiot.

"Well. I like being kept safe and hugged and given nice things, so that should work out OK."

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He hugs her and smiles like an idiot right back.

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Awwww.

"So. What all can you do now? You must have covered all the distance from here to the city in a couple of seconds. Can you just, like, teleport now?"

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"I can do—a lot of things. I'm sure I haven't found them all yet. I... yes, I suppose you could say I can teleport now."

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"Cooool. Just yourself?"

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"So far. I could probably figure out a way to bring you places if I tried."

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"OK. Not that you need to! And you should probably try it on a plant or something first so that you don't, I don't know, accidentally disassemble my molecules and kill me? But it would be neat."

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"—I am definitely not going to do anything that risks accidentally killing you," he says immediately.

Then, slower and more thoughtful: "I... gave you the fountains so you could have your own water without needing to ask me for it, and the gardens so you could have your own food. I wonder what I'd need to do so you could have your own magic?"

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- oh hey, there's a new anxiety dimension that she didn't notice before her brain decided to figure out whether it should go away or not. Her brain hasn't actually decided what the answer is, so that's fun.

"Did... people on Meraiyu just have magic, or was that just you?"

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"Magic was... not something people had the way I have it. I sort of... stole it all. I'm not sure I could give any away if I tried. I want to, though, I want—I want you to have things for yourself."

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"That'd be nice," she says quietly. "I don't really... this is already the closest I've ever gotten to having things, I think. Unless you count things that don't exist."

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"I want you to be able to go wherever you want and do whatever you want and have whatever you want."

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She smiles.

(He's gonna set up opportunities for her to be happy and then she's going to fail to be happy because she's bad at being happy and only wants completely impossible things and then he's going to be disappointed and frustrated because she's actually impossible to please - )

"I'll have to... think about what any of those things are, I guess."

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"No, I mean—whatever they are, I want you to be able to have them. I want you to be—enough able to go places and do things and have things that when you figure out what you want you can just get it."

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- that sounds like maybe a different thing.

She thinks about what it would be like to be Saikirei, to be able to just do things, to be able to take care of herself and also to need to take care of herself, because nobody'll catch her or make her make good decisions or stop her if she decides that something must be done.

She looks at her hands and she thinks about the sikworms. They stay worms, cycle after cycle, never transforming into anything else, because if they could fly away and be free then they would do that, but they'd be useless, they wouldn't ever make anyone happy or fulfill their purpose. And they're fed and they're safe and they're warm and they're kept in little boxes where they don't ever experience anything, ever, except the sensation of being warm and safe and fed, and that's what they're for, and if they tried to be anything else they would fail at it and die right away.

And she thinks about the crabs, and about the wall, and about the receiver, and about her sleeping corner like it was before Saikirei helped her, and about gods crying in anguish at her songs, and about the submarine bicycle that she designed and that Saikirei made and that both of them have abandoned now, and about whether she could have made it to the surface on her own if she had to, and about the tiny, tiny child growing inside her, and -

 

 

"Why?"

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"Because—I like you, I care about you, and—I like giving you things but I don't want you to need me to give you things—because sometimes I might not be able to and you should still have them—I really hated watching you leave and knowing that if you got hurt I couldn't do anything about it, I want you to be safe even when I'm not there to make sure of it."

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She's not going to cry, she's not going to cry, she's not -

"Yeah, but - like - what if I wanted something that you didn't want? That, like, conflicted with the stuff that you wanted?"

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...he blinks confusedly at her. "What do you mean?"

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Oh ancestors protect her.

"Well, you know, like - you want other things too, right, so what if - what if I decided that what I really wanted was leave and never come back, or for you to never leave Meraiyu even though you could, or to destroy the world, or to destroy the whole universe, or - you know?"

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"—I wouldn't want you to destroy the world. And I wouldn't want to never leave Meraiyu. But—if you wanted to leave and never come back—that's part of what I meant when I said I want you to have things even if I can't give them to you, if you leave and never come back I'll be sad but I'll still want you to be safe and have things."

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" - I mean, I guess you've proved that one, but the point stands," she says, even though she's not actually a hundred percent sure it does. 

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"Does it? What point?"

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She makes a motion with her hand in an attempt to lend emphasis to whatever point it is that she's trying to make, and she realizes that she's trembling.

 

" - you promise you don't lie?"

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"I really don't lie," he says seriously. "I hate the way it feels to make someone wrong about something when I could've not done that. And I'm especially not going to lie to you because I care about you more than I have ever cared about anyone or anything else in my life."

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- OK yep those are tears. They're not going to go away if she ignores them, but she's going to ignore them anyway, just on principle.

"The point is that - the point is that if you want me to be happy, then I don't know if I can do that, but I can try, and you know what that looks like so you can reasonably expect that if you get it then the results will be something you're happy about, and if you want me to be your friend then I can try to do that, too, and if you want me to be - pleasant to be around, I can probably figure that out no matter what, and - if you want me to want things and have whatever things I want and be able to do whatever things I want, then - you don't know what those are, I don't even know what those are, so I don't see how it can be the thing you really want when neither of us even knows what that thing is, and - and - just - the last time you didn't think about what you wanted very hard millions of people died, and I'm sorry to bring it up again but I don't want you to end up with a situation that - the point is that apart from the lying I'm just really disappointing as a person, OK?"

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"You're... not disappointing, though?" he says. "You're—you're you—and you were nice to me and—and—you gave me my life and my freedom and now I want to give you yours."

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She just - really really really wants a hug right now, so she detaches her helmet and lets it fall to the ground and hugs him and cries, very quietly, because even when her brain is trying to rip itself apart it still knows how to be quiet.

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He hugs her tightly, wrapping her in cozy swirling shadows.

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"M'sorry for being dumb."

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"—what??" he says, half-laughing.

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"For - I don't know how to deal with any of this."

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Hug. "Well, neither do I."

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She laughs, and it only sounds slightly hysterical.

"I just - you just keep being really nice to me, and you can do things, and I don't know anybody who can do things and who isn't just horrible to people who can't, not even because they're a horrible person but because that's just how it works out, and I don't know how to - I can't do anything, ever, so I just have to try to - this is stupid -

- on Yahi they have these silkworms that they raise in these little boxes, and they feed them and they keep them warm and safe, and they don't let them grow up and have wings, because firstly they won't make silk anymore and secondly they'll die, they've been bred just for the larval form for thousands of years, and by now the adults just can't take care of themselves, they're stupid and slow and they don't know how to find food, and I keep thinking about - we're silkworms, Liars, except that we can imagine what it'd be like to have wings, and we know how pathetic it is that we don't, even though we'd get ourselves killed if we did."

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"Well, then I'm going to find you some wings," he says immediately, "and help you figure out how to live with them, until you can manage it by yourself."

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"...thank you."

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Hug. "You're—important."

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"Not any more than anyone else. But - I'm glad you think so."

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"You're important to me."

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"I'm glad. You are, uh, also important to me, and not even mostly because of your ability to create arbitrary physical objects." 

She picks up her helmet again, though she doesn't bother putting it on. "So. To the gate?"

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"To the gate!"

But first, one more quick hug. Okay, now they can go.

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It's important to have your priorities in order! These are correct priorities.

"So," she says, when they get to the gate. "If you can get it working again I naively feel like I should go through first, on the grounds that you may or may not know how to keep all the water from crashing down when you're not here? And I'm not a physicist but I think I would die then."

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He nods.

"I mean—I don't expect the water to fall, or anything else catastrophic to happen. But you might as well go through first anyway, just in case."

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"I have pretty much zero mechanical understanding of how your magic works. We should possibly get on that, after - well, after this."

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"Yeah."

Okay. Gate.

He puts his hand on the side of the big metal ring and closes his eyes.

Nothing much happens for a minute.

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She can wait a minute. Sometimes doing impossible complicated stuff with magic is hard.

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There's a low hum, and the arcs of the gate light up one by one in a haphazard pattern. Some of them flicker off again a moment later, and then back on after another second. The hum slowly rises. When the whole thing is glowing brightly, it shudders and clunks and starts to spin, with all the pieces sliding against one another at different rates and chasing each other around the circle for several rounds before they begin to settle into a new configuration.

When the last one ticks into place, the glow dims but stays steady, and the air inside the circle ripples and twists and then seems to pull back, flowing like water out to the edges of the ring, to reveal a deserted forest clearing on the other side.

Saikirei opens his eyes and steps back.

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"Very impressive."

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He smiles hesitantly.

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"Should -  is it safe to step through - "

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He nods.

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Well, then... she'll step through.

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The sounds of the forest are muted from the Meraiyu side, but they come alive as soon as she passes through the portal. It's a bright, cheerful morning, with sunlight filtering through the leaves to bathe the forest in a green-gold glow. A squirrel hears her footsteps and darts behind a tree.

If she looks back, the view through the gate is dim and wavering, like a mirage; Saikirei's shadow-wreathed silhouette stands there hesitating for a few seconds before he steps through behind her.

He takes a deep breath and looks up through the canopy at the few visible patches of unobstructed sky. It's blue, up there. It's so very very blue.

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She's never actually seen a real forest before. She has seen skies. It's been a while. She doesn't remember whether Earth's was this blue.

" - wow."

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"I missed the sky," he says quietly, staring up at it with a soft smile on his face.

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"Yeah. Guess it's been a lot longer for you."

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He nods.

"...thank you," he says. "For being my friend. For being my friend enough that I get to have this. I didn't think I ever would."

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"...yeah. No problem."

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He smiles at her.

Then he takes a deep breath and straightens up a little and looks around and picks a direction at random and takes a few steps, glancing back to see if she'll follow. He doesn't know which way to go to find civilization, but it seems unlikely that they'll find it standing in front of the gate.

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She can follow! They can go find out what's over that way.