I turn back to Kaitlynn the second Frogzilla is down, and carefully kneel down next to her.
“She’s not breathing,” Dave says.
It takes a moment for the statement to filter through because the way he says it is too calm. Unbefitting, almost. However, the tremble in his fingers as he holds his pink glowing Focus Crystal inches over her chest gives away his inner turmoil.
My breath hitches when the metaphorical penny drops, muscles seizing up in a wave of panic.
“I’m Restoring her,” he continues, “but in the meantime, I’m going to need you to give her the kiss of life. We can’t have her Lavi drop to zero. Be gentle; it’s still pretty torn up in there, I imagine.”
I take a deep breath to forcibly calm myself down. I gently pinch Kait’s nose shut with my left hand, lower my lips onto hers, and pour as much of my own Lavi into my next exhale as I can.
The Lavi nucleus in my exhale slips from my mouth to hers. I carefully guide it past her vocal cords and down her windpipe into her lungs.
It reminds me of the time I helped her learn Breath Control. God, how had I not realized my feelings back then?
At least the experience is coming in handy now, as I know my way around her lungs.
I frown at the excessive amount of liquid I find inside, blocking the way.
I relinquish my control over most of the Lavi I pumped inside her and use the rest to guide the Aether to push up some liquid on the way back out. I tilt her head to the side, allowing the black sludge to spill out of her mouth onto the previously pristine white sand.
I quickly settle into a rhythm and focus on providing her with Lavi and clearing out her lungs. It’s an agonizingly slow process, but the steady beat of her heart comforts me. Soon enough, I’ve cleared out most of the sludge, and by my and Dave’s combined efforts, I can slowly feel pathways opening up to deeper in her lungs.
She comes to with a gasp, almost smashing our heads together as she sits up and begins coughing and hacking up some final dredges of sludge.
Relief washes over me. I gently rub her back and whisper in her ear. “That’s it, girl, let it out. You’re safe now. I’ve got you.”
Dave lets out a relieved sigh and wordlessly moves his crystal a little closer to my right arm. I idly realise that it appears to have regained functionality somewhere in the middle of all this—most likely thanks to Dave—since my right hand is currently soothingly rubbing Kaitlynn’s lower arm. Any remaining pain quickly melts away under the pink glow. I shoot Dave a grateful smile.
Once Kaitlynn is done coughing, she latches onto me and starts to cry.
“Shhh, it’s okay, everything’s fine,” I whisper, not entirely dry-eyed myself. “Though I am going to need you to, like, never do that again.”
She laughs in between sobs, then takes a deep, shuddering breath. “That’s my line, you dork.” She still sounds a little rough, but I can hear the smile in her voice. She pulls back to look at me, eyes full of wonder. “How are you even alive? I mean, the way he sent you flying... I thought—” She cuts herself off with a choked sob, as new tears well up in her eye and spill over onto her left cheek.
I smile and wipe them away with my thumb. “Please,” I scoff. “I’m not that easy to kill.”
“And I had a little help,” I admit, turning to indicate Jacob.
Kaitlynn sits up a little straighter in surprise when she spots him. “Hey! You’re back.”
“Hey Kait,” he replies with an awkward little wave of his hand.
I get up and help Kaitlynn do the same. When I attempt to release her hand afterwards, she clutches on tighter. Indulging her, I lace our fingers together and give a reassuring squeeze.
Alec’s got a big grin on his face and his arm slung around Jacob’s shoulder. Jacob’s looking a little flustered about it.
“You guys, that Skill combo was amazing!” Alec says, directing it mainly at Jacob. “Thank you so much, you totally saved my ass!”
Jacob smiles wryly. “It’s the least I could do.” He takes a deep breath, glances around at the mixed expressions around him, and gently removes Alec’s arm. “I, ehm, I guess we should talk.”
Dave clears his throat. “I’ll start. I believe we owe you an apology, dude.”
Jacob shakes his head. “No, it’s—it’s fine. You guys didn’t do anything wrong per se. Unless you secretly helped design this place. It’s just a screwed-up situation, and I didn’t handle it well.”
I scratch the back of my neck. “For what it’s worth, I don’t think we handled it well either. Not talking about it was taking the coward’s way out. You deserved better from us.”
He nods. “I appreciate that. But please let me say what I’m trying to, or I’ll never get the words out, because this is not easy for me.”
A silence follows as we wait, expectantly, for Jacob to find his words.
He rubs his eyes with the palms of his hands for a moment, then lets his arms drop with a sigh. “I couldn’t sleep last night,” he confesses. “I tossed, and turned, and it took me a while to realize what was keeping me up. Guilt.” He pauses and licks his lips. “I felt insecure, and hurt, and I let my emotions fester. It’s not an unusual pattern for me.” He snorts. “God, if my therapist could hear me now.”
I can’t help but crack a smile at that.
Jacob notices and smiles back. However, the smile quickly slips from his face. “When you visited me, Emma, you were pretty darn persuasive. I was actually on the edge of giving in when I got paranoid about your Charm.”
I can’t stop my jaw from clenching a bit at that. “You know I would never use that on any of you, right?”
He shoots me a meaningful, slightly sarcastic look.
I roll my eyes. “I mean, like, on purpose.”
“I think I did know that,” he admits, looking down at his feet. “Or I should’ve. The only excuse I have is that the time you accidentally used it to manipulate me, left me... afraid. That fear kept me so preoccupied that it took me a while to remember how and why it happened back then. I... nearly abandoned you guys, in your time of need, out of fear. Out of self-preservation.” He looks up at with a sigh.
I frown, unsure where he’s going with this.
“Regardless of how you did it, Emma, you gave me the courage I needed to take a stand. When I just left the Fifth Trial, I was still high on adrenaline, and on reaching the second level of Increase Momentum. However, as I waited for you to guys to come out of the Trial as well, I quickly reached a low.” His eye starts to get a little red around the rim, and he looks up, blinking. “Next time, I told myself, I wasn’t going to need your help to do the right thing.” A tear trickles down his left cheek. “Next time, I would be brave.”
Kaitlynn can no longer contain herself, it seems, and rushes forward to hug him. He smiles over her shoulder.
I stare at him for a moment, the cogs in my head turning. “That’s why you were so keen on taking the most dangerous door into the Sixth Trial.”
Kaitlynn releases him, and he nods. “It was one of the reasons, yeah. Anyway, as I lay awake, I realised that, despite all that conviction, I did it again. I let you guys go off into danger without me. As soon as I’d reached that point of thought, I checked the map, saw you guys were heading to a medium-sized island, and rushed over. So, that’s why I’m here.”
“Will you be staying?” Dave asks quietly.
Jacob’s eyes dart around. “I would like that. If you’ll have me.”
I’m pretty sure the group hug is enough of an answer. But just in case, we each tell him in one way or another that we definitely want him to stick around.
The way he flushes under Alec’s enthusiastic attention is kinda adorable.
I watch their interaction with great interest. Do my eyes deceive me, or might my ship actually set sail?
I frown. Even if it happens though... Jacob may have been gay back on Earth, but what about Alec?
I glance over at Kaitlynn and sigh. Soon. I’ll tell her soon.
We find Jacob’s spear embedded in the remains of a hut behind Frogzilla. Surprisingly, its blade is entirely unblemished. I guess the difference in Toughness was too big for it to be damaged, despite the surely incredible forces at play.
Alec shakes his head. “Seriously, I still can’t believe it went right through him.”
“Actually, I think it’s a she,” Dave muses.
I look at him in surprise, then turn to study the body. “Well, I’ll be damned, Frogzilla was a girl.”
Alec does a double-take at my use of the name Frogzilla, and desperately clamps his hand over his mouth, then glances at Dave.
Dave deliberates for a moment. “Close call, but I didn’t hear you laugh, so I won’t count it. It’s still seventeen to two for Emma.”
I shake my head. “Anyway, I kind of feel bad for fat-shaming her now...”
Dave raises a brow at me. “You would’ve been okay with fat-shaming a guy though? That’s kind of sexist, Emma.”
I snort. “You’re right, I take it back. The freak had it coming anyway.”
“What, for defending her village?” Jacob asks dryly.
We all fall silent at that.
I eventually sigh. “You’re right, we should show her some respect. She put up a good fight. We should probably bury her or something.”
“Well, that might be going a bit far, she is a pretty big girl,” Alec mutters.
Kaitlynn punches him in the shoulder for that. I can’t help but smirk at his wounded expression. He’s got a point though. Burying her would take forever.
“Let’s figure that out tomorrow,” Dave suggests. “For now, we should probably try to find some clean beds and crash for a while.”
“I’ll take first guard,” Jacob says. “There might be survivors, hiding out somewhere on the island.”
Kaitlynn gasps, then looks at me with wide eyes.
My face falls when I realise what she just thought off.
With all the wanton destruction Frozilla performed, it takes a bit for us to retrace our steps and find the right hut.
Or, well, what’s left of it.
It seems to have gotten smashed at some point during the fight. Probably by Frogzilla. Possibly because I jumped onto its roof. Shit.
Kaitlynn immediately begins to furiously dig into the pile of wood, throwing pieces into random directions. I silently join her.
We eventually find it. It’s not a pretty sight.
Kaitlynn collapses into silent sobs. I sit down with a sigh and pull her against me. After holding her for a while without much improvement, I pick her up, cradle her to my chest, and carry her over to a clean, intact hut.
I put her down on top of the pile of seaweed and lie down next to her. She shuffles over a little, pressing her back to my front, grabs my hand, and pulls my arm across her midsection.
I don’t resist. Just this once should be fine, we’re too tired to do anything but sleep anyway. I need to be careful not to make a habit out of this though. I can’t be trusted around this girl.
The next morning, I carefully extract myself from Kaitlynn’s arms and tiptoe out of the hut. Since we never bothered to take off our armour, I don’t even need to get dressed. Could use a wash, though. I think there’s froggo in my hair...
I stretch out, look around, and decide to get some cleaning done first. We can’t exactly live in a village full of corpses and burying them all would be far too much work, so I start dragging them out to the beach. There, I loot them before using a combination of Decrease Inertia and Boost Physical to hurl them out into the Hydrum. The others soon wake and take over the dragging part, while Jacob starts using Increase Momentum to help speed up the hurling.
Of course, at the normal rate at which Qi recovers we can currently only use our respective Skills about once every ten minutes, so as the corpses keep coming, I instead jump into the Hydrum and start dragging corpses out. Soon, Kaitlynn starts helping me with this task.
At one point she disappears in the village, however. After a few more hauls I get nervous and go looking for her.
I find her near the smashed hut, digging a hole.
Next to the hole lies the partially squished froggo baby.
My heart sinks. “Kait...” I trail off, unsure of what to say.
She turns around, and I can tell she’s been crying. “I know, I know, it’s not a baby, it’s a frog,” she says listlessly. “I just don’t like the idea of throwing her into the Hydrum. It’s just... so sad.”
Wordlessly, I kneel down next to her and give her a hug. Then, I help her dig.
Finally, the only thing we still need to clean is the enormous corpse of Frogzilla Many of the huts are still full of froggo goop, of course, but we only need a few clean ones anyway. I’m sure the rest will just dry out, or something.
For this monumental task, we all get together to roll her onto the beach. There, Jacob and I once again demonstrate the amazing synergy between our Skills, by managing to launch the enormous bulk of Frogzilla at least 30 feet into the Aether, and about 50 feet out into the Hydrum. The splash when she lands is enormous.
It’s a very solemn affair, for such an epic cannonball.
Alec perks up. “Guys, check it out. There’s a bunch of huge fish swimming around! They must’ve been attracted by the... well, you know.”
“Oh, those are edible,” Jacob says. “Alec, you wanna go fishing? My kayak is a bit down the beach.”
Alec’s eye glistens. “Let me go grab my trident!”
As they speed off, Dave clears his throat and says, “I’m going to take inventory of the chief’s house. I believe I spotted another sizable collection of crystals.”
“Nice!” I say, and wave at him as he walks off.
Finally, I turn to Kaitlynn. “I was thinking of exploring the island. You coming?”
She still looks kind of down after the little funeral we held, but nods, and heads into the forest with me.
Time to go find those mysterious beings that can help us temper ourselves.
From what Jacob told me as we were launching corpses off the beach, the beings on the council’s island were hidden in a cave somewhere, so that’s what we’re looking for. Unfortunately, he hadn’t been there himself yet before he returned to us, so there was little else he could tell us.
I glance at Kaitlynn. She walks beside me quietly, staring at the ground in front of her feet with her brows lightly furrowed.
The light of the Twinstar filters through the leaves above us, occasionally eliciting a burst of bright blue from her hair.
I can’t help but stare a little.
At some point, she notices and shoots me a small smile. “Sorry if I’m being a drag.”
I clear my throat, as it’s gotten a little dry for some reason. “It’s okay. We’ve all been through a lot.”
She nods and goes back to staring in front of her.
I glance around, keeping a wary eye out for danger. Also, to look for any rocky outcrops or anything else that might signify the presence of a cave, but no such luck.
Eventually, Kaitlynn speaks up again. “I hated what we did last night. The killing. In the heat of battle, it doesn’t bother me as much, but coming for them while they were sleeping like that...” She shakes her head.
I nod. “I know, I didn’t like it either. I kept telling myself it was all the same, that it was just safer to not give them a chance to fight back, but it just didn’t feel right.”
“Emma...” she starts with a small voice, “are we the bad guys here?”
I consider it for a moment, then shake my head. “No. In the end, it’s not our fault things are this way. We haven’t been given a choice.”
Kaitlynn twists her lips. “There’s always a choice, though, isn’t there?”
“All right, I guess there is,” I admit. “But sometimes, none of your choices are acceptable, and you still have to choose. Fighting for your life isn’t an evil thing to do.”
Kaitlynn sighs. “Last night, when we were faced with the... situation, I couldn’t bring myself to choose. You could, and I stopped you. You were willing to murder your own heart, to keep us all safe. I wish I could’ve been that strong."
I frown and stop in my tracks, turning to face her. “Don’t put yourself down like that, Kait. Compassion isn’t a weakness. You stopped in the middle of enemy territory, putting yourself in mortal danger, to seek a chance at life for—”
“—a mere frog?” she says, interrupting me with a wry smile.
“No,” I say, stepping forward and grasping her hands in mine. “For a helpless little baby. And that’s not weakness, that’s bravery.”
She hums and looks at the ground, lightly swinging our connected arms from side to side. “I didn’t just put myself in danger though, I nearly got all of us killed.”
I shrug. “Honestly, it’s a miracle we remained undetected for that long. I had expected Alec to bungle it up way sooner.”
Kaitlynn snorts. Is that a smile I see?
Encouraged, I continue. “If the chief hadn’t been such a freak of nature, we would’ve made short work of what remained of them. In the end, we all made it out just fine, so don’t beat yourself up too badly.”
She looks up at me with a nervous glint in her eyes and squeezes my hands. “Thank you. “
I am interrupted by a pair of lips, pressed against mine.
The kiss is fleeting, almost a peck, yet it sends shivers up my spine and causes a crash of butterflies in my stomach.
I can’t help but stare at her wide-eyed, as she slowly grows flushed. The ghost of her lips against mine is a tangible presence, a feeling that seems burned into my skin.
“You were saying?” she asks with a giggle.
Something rustles in the bushes behind her, and without thinking I pull Kaitlynn behind me, shielding her with my body as an object comes flying towards us at high speed.
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