10.648.Confronted Once More

The La-Iin Series
Chapter 648
“Confronted Once More”

La-Iin had had a thought, Friday after classes.
As she watched the students head out the classroom, some chatting with friends before and as they left, her eyes were focused on Ai-Reia, who waved to Im-Dei and Shuera-Kaizima as they departed.
La-Iin sighed to herself. After her disastrous encounters with Ai-Reia earlier in the year, she had given up on the girl. It seemed her plan to ignite evil feelings in her had backfired, and that if she had any such feelings they were now directed towards her instead of working in her favor. Still, as she thought on her plans for Hypotheory, she found Ai-Reia popping into her head more than once.
‘She almost seems a little goody-goody now. That wouldn’t be surprising. Fyuori and Kokohara are goody-goodies, I think. I wonder if I can do something with that…’
Ai-Reia’s smarts were always one of the things La-Iin figured would be most helpful on her side. Now that it seemed quite likely she was permanently against her, it seemed more like a significant problem.
So La-Iin had made a decision. She was going to approach Ai-Reia for the first time in a while. She watched Ai-Reia closely as she waved to Kim-Koou, then stalked over to her.
“Where’re you going, La-Iin?”
La-Iin turned around and glared. Fer-Shi had been the one to speak up.
“Ahead of you,” she said coolly. “See you Monday, Fer-Shi. At the latest.”
“Um, okay? See you Monday, I guess?”
La-Iin shook her head. She walked up behind Ai-Reia and tapped her on the back.
“Eek!” Ai-Reia turned around, her eyes wide.
“A student told me he wanted to talk to you before you go,” La-Iin said. “I know you don’t like me, but he seemed shy about speaking up and turned to me for help.”
Ai-Reia glared. “What the…are you serious…” She scoffed. “La-Iin, you seem only smart enough to remember I don’t like you, La-Iin. Why should I believe you? You wouldn’t do this, I can guarantee it. You don’t care enough about others to do so.”
“How do you know? I have friends in school. But okay. You don’t want to do it. I guess I could always tell him about you trying to kill me, then.”
Ai-Reia’s eyes widened. “What–! I–”
La-Iin smirked. “Come with me, Ai-Reia. I’m sure he’s getting impatient.”
“Ho–how do I know this mystery boy even exists?”
“Oh, he does, but if you want me to raise the stakes I could tell the entire class as well as him. Oh Class D~–”
“Fine, fine, I’ll come with you! Geez, who even said that the class would believe you…”
Her common sense was telling her that even if La-Iin told the class she wouldn’t be believed, but on the inside she was terrified. La-Iin’s words only reminded her of the dark time in her life, and she didn’t want to think on that even if other students chalked La-Iin’s words up to a silly rumor.
As far as she was concerned, all that could stay in the past.
La-Iin led her outside and a short distance away from the crowd leaving Malicerie. She faced Ai-Reia with her usual expression.
“So? Where’s this boy?”
“He doesn’t exist.”
Ai-Reia scoffed. “I should have known! I shouldn’t have let your threat get the better of me. Forget you! I have to head home.” She turned away from La-Iin.
“I’ll still tell Class D, you know.”
Ai-Reia froze.
“Why are you so concerned? Who even says they’ll believe me?”
“Exactly. The problem is…I’ll remember.” Ai-Reia turned around. “Fine, you win, La-Iin. What do you want?”
“Oh, to talk. It’s been so long.”
Ai-Reia huffed. “Let me guess. This is about me ‘assisting’ you. That’s not happening.”
“I thought you would say that. You’ve gone soft, Ai-Reia.”
“Are you serious? This is the way I prefer to live life. Admittedly having friends wasn’t in my initial plan, but I’d prefer this than being miserable.”
“I see.”
“If you’re done here, then I’m heading home.”
“But the thing is, it’s not about you assisting me, Ai-Reia.”
Ai-Reia turned around.
“It’s about earlier this year. I gave up on you assisting me. But it certainly seems like you don’t want to oppose me anymore. I was curious about that.”
“You must be deluded. I don’t want to, I just will if it’s necessary. But the police would likely do a better job of that than I could.”
La-Iin snickered. “Are you sure?”
“Yes. I’m sure. In case you don’t remember, they have power suppressants on their side. Suppressants for powers which are basically all that is keeping you from being the weakling you really are.”
“Oh, it sounds like I heard the real Ai-Reia.”
Ai-Reia huffed. “Don’t talk to me, La-Iin. I want nothing to do with you. I will fight you if necessary but our rivalry, if you could call it something as simple as that, is a thing of the past. I am happier without you bothering me and I’m certain you’ve found other people to use. I almost feel sorry for that poor Sara girl–I’ve seen you talk to her a few times.”
“…how?”
Ai-Reia only answered with another huff. She turned away from La-Iin once again.
“Fine then, Ai-Reia, I understand. You just want to do your goody-goody stuff now. Then you can do that. I don’t need you. But remember to stay consistent.”
“What do you mean by that?”
“Don’t slip up,” she said. “Those with evil hearts are always evil at heart.”
“I think you’ve forgotten I don’t prescribe to the morality scale?”
“I know. I’m just telling you, if you want to keep your life the way it is, then work for it. Otherwise everyone will know how you really are.”
La-Iin spread her wings and flew off. Ai-Reia watched her.
“What was that all about?”
As she joined the other students on the path out of Malicerie, it nagged at her.
‘She’s just trying to get to me, saying I have an evil heart. But still…why did she say that? Is she going to tell the school what I tried to do anyway? Did she notice I had a monster in me? Just why did she say that?’
Ai-Reia sighed. ‘Oh, what’s the point in thinking on what that idiot says! Calm down, Ai-Reia. You’re fine.’

—–
‘I hope that worked.’
As La-Iin flew back home, she felt both confident and uncertain.
‘Ai-Reia was thrown off by my behavior once before. Maybe now she’ll get thrown off again. I hope so…’
She shook her head. ‘There’s always plenty of time to plan.’ She picked up her pace.

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22.630.The Reveal

The La-Iin Series
Chapter 630
“The Reveal”

‘Shit shit shit!’
Lirako had arrived at school late that day. After a health emergency at home–which turned out to be a false alarm–getting to school was the last thing on her mind. But if she was not going to the hospital, there was no excuse to not be going to school, and now that she was in Grade 12 she didn’t plan on missing school.
When she arrived in Class D, all the other students were already there, including Deki-Tyunri, who she took her seat next to. She was quick to notice that his head was bowed.
“Yo, Deks, what’s wrong?”
“No…nothing,” he sighed.
“How long do you think I’ve known you? I know something’s wrong. Tell me what’s up! Were you lonely for me?”
“I was…but…that’s not the problem.”
“So there is something wrong.”
Deki-Tyunri sighed once more. “It’s a ridiculous problem, though.”
“What’s wrong?”
“…” He glanced at San-Kyung. “…I just wish I could get over Molshei already, that’s all. I know it will never happen. He hates everyone who’s not Dslellular. I don’t even know if he loves his own parents. I don’t know how Dslellular got into his heart, but I really doubt I have what he does. We’re far too different in personality. And he’s neutral, isn’t he?”
“How am I supposed to know?”
“I thought you would since you bother him often. But neutral is probably better to someone who’s evil than good is. And since our morals don’t align, even if I did get what I want, would it even matter? They say couples with differing morals have a lot of problems.”
Deki-Tyunri looked genuinely upset. Seeing his expression broke her heart.
‘But what could I do to help him there? I’ve gone up to San-Kyung before. He’s rough stuff. I don’t know how Dslellular puts up with him. …but then, I don’t know how he puts up with Dslellular, either.’
Just as she was about to let out a sigh of her own, an idea popped into her head. ‘Or maybe there’s a little something I can do to nudge them in the right direction…’

***

Lirako waited until the break time before Science class to enact her plan. She could remember La-Iin intervening in a past altercation she had had with both him and Dosa-Mina, and considering that her plan dealt with trying to get San-Kyung to take romantic interest in someone, she had a feeling it was the best course of action.
So once La-Iin left the classroom, she walked over to San-Kyung.
“Yo.”
San-Kyung glared at her. To Lirako, the glare looked far more malicious than usual.
“Don’t talk to me, Catori. It’s September. It might not be October yet, but you’ll still regret speaking to me.”
“C’mon.” She sat on his desk. “Besides, it’s not me I want to talk about. It’s someone else.”
Lirako noticed that Dosa-Mina was also glaring at her, but his expression seemed uncertain as opposed to San-Kyung’s.
“You know my friend, Elyshen Deki-Tyunri?”
“I don’t care.”
“Lirako…!” Deki-Tyunri’s wings had started to unfold. Lirako winked at Deki-Tyunri, but he still looked flustered and upset.
“Don’t just shut me down. Look, he’s a nice kid. I think you and him could probably be good friends if you’d open up.”
“No.”
Lirako sighed. “Yet you’ll be friends with Dslellular?”
“My life is none of your business. Now back off unless you want to be someone’s meal.”
“I kind of don’t want to. But I’m not going to back off either.” She hopped off the desk and put her face close to San-Kyung’s.
“You know I know, right?”
“Know what?”
“Dosa-Mina’s species.”
San-Kyung’s eyes twitched. Lirako could tell that he was trying to hold a straight face.
“Everyone does.”
“Really? I thought it was a well-kept secret.”
“He’s very blatantly a Normal.”
“Trying to cover for him, eh?”
“Catori, I think I know what you’re getting at. Cut it out. I’m more than willing to lie to you and I’m telling you the truth here. So back off.”
“How am I supposed to believe you, then?”
“San-Kyung, please!” Dosa-Mina said.
San-Kyung glanced at him. “Just get away from me.”
“Oh, alright. If you’re so certain that Dosa-Mina is a Normal, I guess I’ll just tell the class what I suspect, then.”
Students nearby started to turn in their direction. Dosa-Mina’s eyes widened.
“San-Kyung–!”
San-Kyung grit his teeth. He seemed to be having a crisis.
Lirako was more than ready to continue on with her current line, until she caught sight of Deki-Tyunri out the corner of her eye. He was obviously quite upset.
‘Damn, if Deki-Tyunri finds out I’m trying to blackmail San-Kyung into liking him, he’ll probably be furious with me.’ Lirako’s ears flattened to her head. ‘I’d love to see them squirm more, but I think I’ll have to let it go.’
“Ah, well, it’s just a rumor anyway. Stirring up class would be a little more fun if everyone was here. Don’t worry, I won’t say anything.”
Finally.” San-Kyung sounded genuinely relieved.
Lirako turned to head back to her seat. She could already see that Deki-Tyunri was obviously less than pleased by what she had done. ‘That was a mistake. I should’ve known it’d make him mad…’
“…I should have known that bitch wouldn’t leave me alone…”
It was said so quietly, obviously intended for only one person to hear–but Lirako had picked up on it quite easily.
And she was pissed.
She turned around, stared down Dosa-Mina, and yelled at the top of her lungs,
“Says you, Weresiren!!
Dosa-Mina gaped. San-Kyung arguably looked even more surprised than he did.
“Weresiren?” Xhen-Bei said.
“Weresiren?” Zae-Mia said.
“As in, a Werewolf-Siren?” Ai-Reia asked. “Sanyaow, what are you doing calling him that for?”
“This guy always had us believing he was a Normal. But the truth is, what I called him is what he is. If you don’t believe me, you’re always welcome to go and talk to his parents about it.”
“How do you know that for sure?” Xhen-Bei sounded as if he didn’t believe her. “I mean, like, did he tell you or something?”
“I have irrefutable proof. And their expressions should say more than I ever could.”
Dosa-Mina covered his mouth and San-Kyung began to try and look stoic.
“So? What say you, students of Class D? Feel free to ask him to jump as high as he can or sing for you. I can assure you he’ll do neither.”
“But…how can that be? Wouldn’t we know if he was a Werewolf-Siren?” Zae-Mia said.
“Yeah! And why would he hide something like that?” Fer-Shi asked.
“Unless he’s like Dereni and he wants to cannibalize us,” Shan-Zetsu said, his expression one of fury.
“Well, Dosa-Mina? What do you have to say for yourself?”
“I…I’m a Normal…she’s just lying because I wouldn’t sing for her.”
“Does choking really help your situation?”
“Lirako!” Deki-Tyunri exclaimed. “Normal or Werewolf-Siren, why are you bothering him?”
“Because this jerk and I had a promise. I’d keep his secret in exchange for him not badmouthing me. And I don’t know if you heard it, but we Catoris can pick up on things even like whispered bitches. If you want proof, ask Llanni.”
Students turned to see Airy-Aekok.
“U-uh, um…like, I guess I could show you proof, yeah…”
“But are we sure that it’s concrete proof? Sanyaow and Llanni’s claims alone cannot just make us believe that that is the truth. Refusing to sing is suspicious, but there is nothing in his appearance that indicates he is anything other than Normal.”
“Have you ever heard of the Dereni brothers, Vampiris?” Cae-Bougen asked. “The younger brother attends this school right now, disguised as a Normal. I don’t know if I believe this claim, but it’s certainly possible…”
“Well, I know that, but–”
“Stop.”
The students turned to Dosa-Mina.
Dosa-Mina had had enough of their debating by now. He already knew there was no getting out of this one. It was a fight that had been lost the moment Lirako found out. Inevitably something was going to happen. A school event or something of the such. He could already imagine, his mother arriving disguised as a Normal, his father wearing several cloaks–and Lirako pulling off those cloaks, or another curious student reaching under them and feeling fur.
Even if Airy-Aekok was bluffing and she didn’t have any proof, sooner or later they would find out, and if he kept retaliating at this point, they were going to be even more curious when the truth came out. He was so close to leaving school without it ever being found out.
But that was just a dead pipe dream now.
“…Lirako, I understand our deal, but when I said that I wasn’t talking to you.”
“So? I heard it anyway.”
“Dslellular, does this mean that Sanyaow’s words are true? Are you a Werewolf-Siren?”
Dosa-Mina lowered his head. “I give up. I’m not going to deny it anymore. Sooner or later one of you is going to get too curious for your own good and go prying into my business. So there. Now you know. Now leave me alone.”
The classroom erupted into conversation instead. Dosa-Mina cringed.
“Why did you tell them!?” San-Kyung whispered.
“There’s no point in hiding it anymore, San-Kyung. It was a losing battle. I weighed my options and this was the situation with the more favorable outcome. Besides, if she really does have proof, I’m screwed either way.”
“Dosa-Mina…”
“There’s no out,” he said with a chuckle. “I’ve been on a downward spiral for a long while now. Everything’s going to come out about me. Soon enough there won’t be any secrets I can hide anymore.”
Tears rolled down his face. “Nothing…”

—–
“La-Iin, did you hear!?”
“Hear what?”
“Apparently, Dosa-Mina’s a Werewolf-Siren!”
La-Iin’s eyes widened. “How do you know that?”
“H-huh? You already knew?”
“Isn’t that obvious? But how do you know?”
“He just told the whole class!”
“Why would he do that?”
“I don’t know!”
La-Iin huffed. “Something seems off…”

7.615.Once More to School

The La-Iin Series
Chapter 615
“Once More to School”

The path to Malicerie was filled with students, greeting each other and chatting on their ways to school.
“And they say we’re supposed to get a new teacher!” A student from Class A said. “How will we cope if this new teacher tries to change the doctrine?”
“Shh! You’ll give the other classes the wrong idea!”
“Same old Class A,” Lirako sighed. “This Summer doesn’t seem to have changed them either.”
“I, like, don’t get what’s Class A’s problem.”
“I dunno either. They were pretty much weirdos when I first came to Malicerie, though.”
But though the mood around the students of Classes A, B, and C was similar to what it had been when they left, the Class D students felt a significantly different mood–something seemed to have changed for some of the students.
“I can only imagine what kind of hell Hyungdarou will put us through,” La-Iin said.
“You really don’t like Hyungdarou’s class, do you?”
“As if that wasn’t obvious. But maybe I don’t need to worry. After all, someday she won’t be a concern anymore.”
“Um, are you okay, La-Iin?”
“Y’know, Llanni, I still haven’t figured out what to do with that ‘information’,” Lirako whispered.
“We’ll figure something out,” Airy-Aekok whispered back. “But for now, can’t we just, like, enjoy watching him, completely oblivious to what we know?”
“I guess. Hey, maybe we can keep it that way, if it’s fun enough!”
“Hello, Ai-Reia!” Im-Dei greeted. “How was Summer?”
“Oh, Im-Dei, you already have an idea of what my Summer was like. You don’t need to ask!”
“You certainly look happy, Ai-Reia!” Shuera-Kaizima said.
“And I am. I think this school year might be my best one yet. …well, this part of it, anyway.”

***

“Hello hello, Malicerie students! How goes all of you? Hope you had great Summers, and thanks kiddos for doing your Summer homework. Most of you anyway.”
“Why…why is he in drag?” Dosa-Mina said.
“I don’t even want to know…”
“Mr. Sharai, please refrain from taking the microphone while you’re dressed like that. That wouldn’t look good on you even if you were a female.”
“You’re mean, Principal. I think it looks fine on me.” He walked away from the microphone and sat with the teachers. A few students chuckled at the exchange.
“Welcome back, students of Malicerie. There aren’t really any announcements to make this year, except to welcome you all back. We’ve been working hard to improve Malicerie so that all of you can have an enjoyable school experience. We hope you’ll all continue to study hard, especially those of you who are in Grade 12.”
Lirako folded her ears to her head. “I always forget that includes me now…”
“Well, you remembered this time. That’s a start?” Deki-Tyunri said, uncertainty in his tone.
“So welcome back, dear students, and here’s to the rest of our year in Malicerie.”

“It’s good to see you again, Cahongyun,” Shuu-Kena said. “We should find some way to contact each other aside from school.”
“Maybe.”
“Me and La-Iin are able to call each other. Maybe you two can do that?” Fer-Shi suggested. Shuu-Kena began to look uneasy. “I’m not sure my family really likes it when people call them. I think our phone lines might be bugged.”
“…”
“…”
“Interesting,” La-Iin said.
“Are you tired, La-Iin? You seem kind of dreamy.”
“I’m thinking. If you want to talk to me more, it would probably be better to do at the recess area.”
“Alright,” Shuu-Kena said with a nod. “I’ll do that then!”
She took off back to her seat.
“Thinking about anything in particular? Does this have to do with San-Kyung again?”
“No. …well maybe a little…”
Fer-Shi’s comments had her focus her sights on San-Kyung. As usual, he was talking with Dosa-Mina. ‘Even as friends you never smile that way for me…’
“La-Iin?”
“What now?”
“You seem kind of angry now. Did I say something wrong?”
“No. I’m just thinking.”
‘It won’t matter much forever. Rival-boy has nothing to do with taking over the world. But San-Kyung is a different story. Soon enough things will start going my way…’
When she smirked to herself, a few nearby students found themselves unnerved.

Lirako and Airy-Aekok caught a glance of Dosa-Mina and began to giggle.
“There’s something that’s just, like, so fun about the secret itself!” Airy-Aekok said. “It was, like, pretty funny when we weren’t going to school, but it’s, like, even better now!”
“Yeah, you kind of have a point,” Lirako giggled. “Just seeing him there, all cheerful and oblivious to what we know…”
“What are you two talking about?” Deki-Tyunri asked. Both flinched.
“Nothing!” They said in unison. Deki-Tyunri gave them a suspicious glance before turning back to his notebook.
“But, like, also at the same time, it kind of feels like a shame not to tell anyone, you know?”
“Yeah. It’s so conflicting…”
“Sometimes I wonder if we should have even looked into it,” Airy-Aekok sighed.
“Hey, it was our little extra Summer homework. And you and I both know how much he hates us. We have a little something to use against him just in case.”
“I guess, but…”
Lirako glanced over her shoulder at Dosa-Mina. “But what?”
She had expected Airy-Aekok to answer, but Dosa-Mina instead looked away from San-Kyung and snapped, “Stop eavesdropping!”
“I wasn’t eavesdropping! I was talking to Llanni!”
Dosa-Mina narrowed his eyes. “Stop eavesdropping.” He turned back to San-Kyung.
“He makes it really hard not to just blurt it out right in the middle of class.”
“Yeah, he isn’t really all that nice to you, is he?”
“Now what are you two talking about?” Deki-Tyunri asked.
“Nothing! Nothing at all!”
“Yeah, like, stop eavesdropping!”

“You sure seem a lot happier, Vampiris,” Xhen-Bei said.
“Yeah. You were seeming pretty down recently,” Mi-Kou said.
“And then there was that incident…I’m glad to see you look a lot better,” Kim-Koou said. “But are you really okay?”
“I’m more than okay. After that incident I knew I had to resolve to prevent something like that from happening ever again. So I have. There were just some things going on at the time, and I let my stress get the better of me. But now I am definitely better. Thank you.”
“You don’t have to thank us!” Xhen-Bei said. “We were just worried. That incident…sorry to bring it up again, but it was scary,” he said, folding his ears to his head.
“Don’t worry at all. I’m okay now. I promise.”
“Alright,” Mi-Kou said. “Well, we should get back to our seats.”
Once the trio had left, Ai-Reia sighed. “That’s the third group who bothered me today…”
“They’re just worried about you, Ai-Reia,” Shuera-Kaizima said. Ai-Reia nearly jumped out of her seat.
“Please don’t sneak up on me like that!”
“S-sorry. But yeah, people were just worried about you. Me and In-Dei were too.”
“I know. I just didn’t think it had attracted that much attention.”
“Well, it was pretty scary! But you really do seem a lot better, Ai-Reia, and that is most important.”
“Well, I feel a lot better, too.” She glanced behind her at La-Iin, who was staring at the wall with an absent look on her face. “Not even the face of my enemy is enough to bring me down…”
“Hm?”
“Ah, it’s nothing important. You should get back to your seat. The last class is about to start.”
“Oh, okay!”

“Hey, La-Iin, class is over!” Fer-Shi said. She snapped her fingers in front of La-Iin’s face, and she flinched.
“I really have figured out how to do this!” Fer-Shi said, staring at her fingers.
“Snapping your fingers is easy.”
“You only say that because you have Bes-Isa.”
“Maybe, but I think that stands for something. Non-Normals, who can use V-Puppetry, can snap perfectly well, while the Normal who was never able to is so excited to learn how.”
“…” Fer-Shi glared at her.
“Making Normal jokes is no fun with you anymore.”
“I’ve grown up, La-Iin. I kind of think you need to as well…”
La-Iin hissed. “I’ll still be making Normal jokes even at nine-hundred-and-fifty. I’ll be making them to your ghost! ….if there are ghosts…”
“Oh La-Iin…”
“It doesn’t matter. I have a good feeling about this school term…”
“Hm? Why?”
La-Iin smirked. “I just think something great is going to happen during it…”
“Ooo-kay? Well, I hope it does! I’m kinda looking forward to it to.”
The two girls continued to chat as they left the school building.

—–
“Did something seem….different to you about Class D’s atmosphere?”
“What do you mean, Milge?”
“I don’t know…something seemed odd to me. Maybe I’m overthinking it.”
“Yeah, you probably are, knowing you!”
“Hey!”

29.606.To See the Future–Part 8

The La-Iin Series
Chapter 606
“To See the Future–Part 8”

Age 8:2nd Grade
Age 9:3rd Grade
Age 10:4th Grade
Age 11:5th Grade
Age 12:6th Grade
Age 13:7th Grade
Age 14:8th Grade
Age 15:9th Grade
Age 16:10th Grade
Age 17:11th Grade
Age 18:12th Grade & Graduation
Age 19:??
Age 20:???
Age 21:????

Ai-Reia heaved a sigh.
“At the rate I’m going, I really am going to graduate at age eighteen…I won’t even be going through puberty by then, unless I end up precocious in that field too. I suppose there’s college, and here in Vaelyn, I will be a legal adult in a few months from then, won’t I? But, hm…”
“You talkin’ to yourself, sis?” Reuf-Bu asked. He smirked. “If you don’t want us to think that you’re crazy, then you shouldn’t do that with the door open! Whoa!” Reuf-Bu flinched. “Don’t threaten me like that!”
Ai-Reia was tempted to throw the cup in her hand, but she kept from doing it. “Don’t ever say something like that to me again. You make things harder for me than they need to be.”
“Sorry…well, uh, if you need me, I’ll be in the playroom, doing a puzzle…”
“I’m not interested, if that’s what you’re getting at.”
Reuf-Bu sighed. Ai-Reia turned back to her diagram. ‘My future’s a long one. There’s no telling what could happen over the span of hundreds of years. The world will change, people close to me will die, I’ll grow older…I have plenty of time to think, but I’m only eight and already in the second grade. It may be plenty of time to think, but I’m already doing something most Vampires don’t do until they’re older!’
Ai-Reia sighed. ‘Still, there’s so much to learn about the world, and with my knowledge I’m sure there’s some field I could pursue that would take up a good portion of my life. The question is, what am I going to do for a potential nine-hundred years if I’m likely to graduate high school at eighteen? I suppose there’s always the off-chance I’ll be held back a grade…’
Ai-Reia’s stare hardened. ‘But then there’s also my recovery plans. Those are an integral part of my future too. The way I handle myself as I’m growing up could be key to how my future plays out…’

***

“Hey, look over there. Isn’t that Vampiris Ai-Reia?”
“Vaelyn’s one and true prodigy! She’s only fifty years old and the discoveries she’s made so far are amazing! Did you hear that her first major discovery was at nineteen!? She wasn’t even going through puberty yet!”
“Yeah, I’m pretty proud of her. She’s something Vaelyn has that other countries don’t! Take that, Manemica! Take that, Wiencei! You other countries have nothin’ on our Vampiris!”
Even sitting far away from the group of people, their volume made it easy for Ai-Reia to hear what they had said. “A lot of people certainly think positively of you, Miss Vampiris.”
“Yes, well, I really don’t understand all the hype. Personally, I find it much more amazing when people work to be able to understand these things. I just happened to be blessed. I find that a lot less interesting.”
“Are you kiddin’ me!? Have you seen yourself!? With all your discoveries and inventions, how could you say that you haven’t put in a lot of work! Pat yourself on the back every once in a while, Miss Vampiris! You deserve it!”
Ai-Reia chuckled. “Well…no, maybe not.”
Since graduating from Malicerie back in 2026, Ai-Reia had focused a great deal of her time on studying and learning more. It seemed like an average enough schedule. She spent time doing what she wanted to, such as being with her family or with Im-Dei and Shuera-Kaizima, and spent the other half of her time studying.
When she was nineteen, however, she had discovered a medicine that could potentially regenerate parts of the body, to be used in keeping people alive longer. A test found that she was correct, and since then the medicine had been used for several people–including her brother Reuf-Bu, who had suffered a near-fatal car accident years later but was now as spry as he was in his thirties.
Since then she had discovered a wide variety of medicines, artifacts and had once helped turn around a guilty sentence for an innocent a few months before her execution. She was considered an inventor for the amount of new discoveries she had made. Ai-Reia loved being able to make vuyong off of studying, especially since it seemed there was still so much left for her to learn. The attention wasn’t always great, but it was just one caveat to getting to do what she wanted to.
And yet, despite her successes and her happiness, there was always a pervasive feeling nagging at her–a small part that kept her happiness from being complete even despite the fact that she had so much to be happy about.
‘I’m successful and I’m doing something I love! My family’s in good health and I’m considered the best aunt by Reuf-Bu’s children…’ That thought often tugged at her, but Ai-Reia already knew what was making her so unhappy.
“Ai-Reia!”
A familiar voice hit her ears, and she caught sight of a Catori and Birdmix walking towards her.
“It’s been a little bit since we last saw each other, hasn’t it?” Ai-Reia said.
“Yes, but that’s alright. I’ve been busy with the family business.”
“And you know how Catoris work. I have so many grandkids now it’s hard to keep an eye on them all…”
Im-Dei and Shuera-Kaizima still looked as happy as always, and in them she could still see how they looked when they were teenagers. But it was obvious they were aging. Shuera-Kaizima’s fur was flecked with grey and Im-Dei had visible wrinkles. The two’s slow walking didn’t go unnoticed by her either. It was quite evident that her friends weren’t as young as they had once been.
“I can imagine. How many grandchildren do you have by the way?”
“Nineteen. And it sounds like five more are on the way…”
“I only have one, but I would love to have more. You know, Ai-Reia, when you’re old enough to consider it, I think you’ll really like being a mother.”
“Well, I’m still a little pubescent, so I think it should wait for now.”
“You’re definitely mature enough for it. I could never imagine doing all the amazing things you’ve done!”
“Yes, we should get together again soon, maybe for tea?” Im-Dei said.
“Yes…yes, that sounds nice.”
“I’d love to do it now, but you’re busy working on a little AI project, aren’t you?”
“Erm, y-yes, that’s right.”
“And I have to work with the family business,” Im-Dei said. “But we should definitely get together soon. It was nice to see you, though!”
“Yes, it was nice.”
“Here!” Shuera-Kaizima handed her a small container. “I made a little something for you to eat! A Kokohara family recipe!”
“Take care, Ai-Reia. We’ll see you soon.”
Im-Dei and Shuera-Kaizima walked off. Ai-Reia stared down at the meal. It seemed to be made from a mixture of grilled tofu and beef. Her eyes started to tear up.
‘They’re so good to me, even now. But whereas I’m finishing up puberty, they’re elderly now…in the grand scheme of things, it won’t be that many years before they’re buried. And I’ll be there. I’ll be there when their children are buried. I’ll be there when their children’s children are buried. And how many more generations, how many more Kokoharas and Fyuoris will I see go before I finally look like they do? Will I see any more go after that point?’
It was a recurring thought in her mind now. She knew Shuera-Kaizima and Im-Dei weren’t likely to just suddenly pass away anytime soon, but that day was approaching fast. And then it didn’t matter how much success she had–her dear friends, her support, once they were gone things wouldn’t be the same again.
And she would have to live that way for centuries past that.

***

“Look, it’s Vampiris Ai-Reia.”
“Isn’t she the child prodigy?”
Was is really a lot more accurate. Just look at her picture nowadays! She was doing so great. I heard in college she really excelled! But when that Cahongyun lady became vice president, geez, she just lost it.”
“Kinda sad, really. I’m sure she could have done great things if she hadn’t gone so crazy…”
Ai-Reia grit her teeth and covered her ears. She couldn’t bear to hear what other people were saying about her. It only reminded her that much worse had been said about her–and that had come from her own friends and family.
“Ai-Reia, why’d you let this happen to you?”
“I can’t believe you’ve gone so crazy!”
Nowadays she spent most of her time on the streets. Staying in her apartment for anything aside from eating or sleeping was painful. It felt like she could hear the rumors flying around the other rooms. Now she missed the notoriety she had had as a child. She would have killed to go back to that old reputation–namely La-Iin, if she had the choice.
Of course, if she did something like that, it would gain her a completely different kind of notoriety.
It didn’t matter anyway, because the mere idea of La-Iin being in such a high position of power would have made her unhappy even if everything else in her life was going fine. But at least then she would have her family by her side; now she had nothing.
‘Maybe I should just leave Vaelyn. Then I might be happy, somewhat…start a new life somewhere else. Maybe in Wiencei or Nyappon…’
“Well, look who it is.”
Ai-Reia looked up. She met La-Iin’s icy glare. “It certainly has been a while, Ai-Reia. I’ve heard some interesting things about you since then.”
“You…!” Ai-Reia grit her teeth. She grabbed La-Iin by her collar, but to her surprise, La-Iin did not react. “Damn you! Do you understand how much grief you’ve caused me!? I thought a stupid little stalker girl could never be so dangerous, but I suppose I was mistaken!”
“Don’t blame your problems on me.” La-Iin pushed her away. “From what I’ve heard, you ended up in this position because you couldn’t stand the idea of me becoming vice president.”
“You know why. If you were any other person, it wouldn’t matter. But I know you, La-Iin. This is just part of your plan to rule the world!”
La-Iin smirked. “Smart girl.”
“You realize I can tell people what you’ve said now, right!?”
“Who will believe you? Nobody takes you seriously anymore, Ai-Reia. And that is your own fault. Your paranoia was your undoing. And you want to blame that on me? What a joke. Be willing to admit when you’ve failed, otherwise it just looks awfully pathetic.”
“You–!”
“You have hundreds of years left, anyway. If you’re so desperate to fix your life, take the chance you have now before I end up taking all of the world under my command. Well, I don’t have time to be talking to you. I have stupid stuff to do, and plans to formulate.”
She spread her wings and flew off.
Ai-Reia watched her go. She could still remember when La-Iin had been little–back then she had thought she had been harmless. Later, she had grown to think that she would do harm, but never could she imagine that her worst fears had a chance of coming true.
In despair, Ai-Reia trudged back to her apartment early, tossing around in her head the idea of ending her own suffering. ‘It’s not like anyone would care anyway. They all think I’m crazy now. Best do that instead of kill that over-pompous bitch…’

—–
‘The future has several possibilities depending on what path I take. I can’t make a plan for nine-hundred-and-something years down to the seconds, but I can try to prevent myself from ending up in a bad situation. My future is half entrusted to me, after all. I must try my best to avoid anything as bad as that other scenario happening!’
She sighed. ‘Of course, a part of the first one is inevitable…but if I can handle myself, then even that might not end up as bad as I imagine it to be.’

12.589.Transition to Recovery

The La-Iin Series
Chapter 589
“Transition to Recovery”

“Y’know, Ai-Reia, you’ve seemed a little happier this Summer break than last Summer break. Especially after those kids…Kokohara and Fyuori, yeah?”
“Yes. And what are you doing calling them kids? They might be younger than you in years but in terms of general maturity you aren’t all that much older than they are.”
“The years still count for something, sis. Anyway, I’m happy to see you happy, especially after all that was going on. Are you feeling better?”
“I have been, actually….oh! You bringing this up reminded me of something. Mother, Father, would you mind if I invited Kokohara and Fyuori over tomorrow?”
“Hm? Not at all,” her father said.
“I’d be happy to see them again,” her mother said. Ai-Reia smiled. “Thank you.”
“You know, it’s so weird that your best friends are teenagers. You’d think they’d be around your age!”
“I would guess that my smarts alienate the normal kids around my age,” she sighed. “But I’ll take what I can get. I do like Kokohara and Fyuori. But this can all wait for tomorrow, can’t it?”

***

Ai-Reia flipped through her diary. Page after page, she would lament about something that was going on in her life, be it something to do with La-Iin, Ca-Miela or the rest of her family. Sometimes she would see entries about her prodigy status. Reading through it made her cringe, but she continued on anyway.
‘This diary saw me through my darkest times, and it was also what helped usher in more,’ she thought. ‘But things have changed since the days I thought I needed this. I’ve realized Ca-Miela has a true potential. My family is showing love for me once more. La-Iin’s hopefully realized she cannot use me, and I have friends now, impermanent as they are…’
Upon finishing the last page, she closed the book. ‘Still, something feels like it’s missing….’
“Ai-Reia, Kokohara and Fyuori are here,” her mother called.
“I’m coming!” She hopped out the bed, leaving the book behind, and went to greet her friends.
“Herro, Ai-Reia! Oopsy. I mean hello.” Shuera-Kaizima said.
“Don’t worry about it. Come on in!”
“Your house really is nice, Ai-Reia,” Im-Dei said. “I like the way it’s decorated.”
“Thank you. Although if I were the one in charge of decorating, I think it would look a little different.” Although she tried to muster a giggle, the reminder of the subject at hand kept her from doing so. “I, ah figure you two know why I called you here today.”
“We’re here to help you too, so it doesn’t bother us,” Shuera-Kaizima said. “Or, at least, it does not bother me. Does it bother you, In-Dei?”
“No, not at all. …well, maybe a little bit, but not for the reason you’d think.”
“You might just be wrong about that one, Fyuori,” she said. “Follow me.”
She led the two to her bedroom, dashing in ahead of them. She grabbed her diary and held it away from them.
“This diary contains a record of the way I felt for a…period of time,” she said. “I’ve had a hard time, although I guess it doesn’t compare to people who have been through worse. But it was horrible. This was my only escape, and when it was taken away from me I started to deteriorate because I had made it the only thing that made me happy…everything else I considered to have a bad side.”
“Ai-Reia…”
Ai-Reia held up a hand. “Please. I need to get this out without commentary. …I don’t know exactly what it was that caused my behavior, but I have a theory. I think it was stress. For a long time, I did worry that there was something wrong with me…of course with my curious mind, I had to look into it. And while admittedly a few of the things that I thought were concerning, I can chalk that up to, well…I am still little…I don’t always understand the full weight of things right away.”
Ai-Reia glanced at the duo, but their expressions gave away nothing. “When I started feeling happier again, I realized I didn’t want to go back to the way I was before. Not only that, but I realized it was the best thing for me. My family has always been my biggest supporters and my best of friends. You two might not be around my whole life, but you definitely enrich it. And as for that bully, La-Iin….if I can recover, I’m showing her that what she did to me does not affect me. It will not stop me from succeeding where she will likely fail. So this is my goal. I will recover from what happened before, and become a new Ai-Reia.”
Her face flushed. “Sorry, that was probably a little over-dramatic…”
“I’ve heard worse,” Im-Dei said. “And we’ve wanted you to be able to move past things too.”
“It does make sense, Ai-Reia. Of course you want to be happy instead of unhappy!”
Ai-Reia smiled. “Yes, I suppose I do. And more than anything, I didn’t want there to be anything wrong with me. Knowing what I know now, I really feel like I can make an improvement.”
“Part of the improvement can also be not dwelling on the past so much,” Im-Dei said. Ai-Reia chuckled. “Yes, that’s true. And I hope I can do that when school starts again. I think I can improve, but I worry about whether or not seeing La-Iin again will stir those old feelings in me…”
“I’m sure if you devote yourself to this, you’ll be fine,” Shuera-Kaizima said. “But to devote yourself, like In-Dei says, that’s to stop thinking about what happened and focus on the Ai-Reia you want to be. And what is it that you want to be?”
Ai-Reia didn’t need to think on it. “Normal. I may have smarts beyond my age, but that’s just a matter of individuality. I want to be a normal person. And I would like to study more. There is just so much to learn in this world, after all. I wonder if I’ll have the time to learn more about it all?”
“That’s silly to say. Of course you will.”
Ai-Reia gave a half-hearted chuckle. “I suppose I will…”

“You aren’t going to put blood in as a secret ingredient again, are you?”
“It isn’t a secret ingredient to us Vampires,” Ai-Reia said calmly.
“It’s an unpleasant secret to those of us who are not, though!” Shuera-Kaizima shrieked. “Please, no.”
“I’m not sure I can keep that promise.” Ai-Reia dripped blood into the batter. Shuera-Kaizima and Im-Dei flinched. “Oh, come on, you two. You’d almost think I was the oldest one here. Especially you, Shuera-Kaizima. Catoris are carnivores–I’m sure you’ve had your fair share of blood, and anyway isn’t eating flesh more gruesome than eating something flavored with blood?”
“If it would not kill me, I might be a vegetarian,” Shuera-Kaizima sighed.
“Well, I guess that’s a Vampire tradition, to put blood in food,” Im-Dei sighed. “I’ll respect it…but I don’t like it. I guess it’s not all that easy to taste, though…”
“That’s fine. I’m not the biggest fan of blood either.” Shuera-Kaizima and Im-Dei shot her surprised looks. “But that’s only because I’m not a bloodsucker yet! I’m sure my taste for it will come with time.”
“As it does,” Reuf-Bu said. “I thought blood tasted like spoiled ham before I could suck blood. Now I love it.”
“You two are crazy. I loved blood even before I could bloodsuck!” Zih-Amo said.
“Why even is there a wait time for the bloodsucking power? Could you not suck my blood now if you wanted to?”
“It has to do with cravings,” Ai-Reia said. She then tapped her canines. “That, and underdeveloped feeding holes.”
“Ah.”
“Reuf-Bu, Zih-Amo, if you’re going to be in the kitchen, the least you could do is help out.”
“Oh noooo!” Zih-Amo shrieked. Reuf-Bu grabbed her by the overalls. “If I’ve gotta help, you’ve gotta help too!”
“Eek!”
Ai-Reia giggled. The kitchen soon became rowdy with the addition of Reuf-Bu and Zih-Amo, but the treats were finished that much faster. Ai-Reia was sure she was having the time of her life, laughing and chatting happily with her older siblings and friends.
Still, something felt like it was missing. ‘I’m sure this would be better if Ca-Miela were old enough to join us.’

When the treats were done, all five of the cooks set them down on the table. Ca-Miela stared at them wide-eyed, and seemed anxious to eat one, but was instead handed a bottle by her mother.
“It might sound conceited, but I figured since I’m making a resolution, why not celebrate?”
“Because some people make resolutions they won’t stick to?” Reuf-Bu said. Ai-Reia nudged him lightly with a fist.
“I am sure Ai-Reia will keep this resolution. She’s serious about it.” Shuera-Kaizima told him.
“Don’t I know that. I live with her, you know.” He rubbed his hands together. “Well, it’s a win-win, then! You’re going to be more happy, and we get treats because of it!”
Everyone at the table began to reach for treats at once, making a bit of mess on the table. Ai-Reia found herself amused by the display.
“Are you really going to be happier from now on, Ai-Reia?” Her mother asked. “I’m still worried, you know…”
“I understand, Mother. But my resolution is to enjoy life more. I can’t keep dwelling on the things that upset me, otherwise they will only serve to upset me more. I’m sure I’ll still be stressed at times–the downside of being such a young child prodigy….but here in Bledger, do I really have to worry all that much?”
“She has a point,” Reuf-Bu said before cramming more food into his mouth.
“I felt it on my birthday. Once everything started going right, I knew what I had to do. So I’m certain now. I will not go back to that point I was at before. I will prove my true strength by showing this world that I can move past it, and be happy!”
Almost everyone at the table smiled at her, save for Ca-Miela, who was still drinking from the bottle. Ai-Reia smiled back.
‘Just you watch, La-Iin. Your threats will mean nothing to me when I return to school. This Summer has made me a changed woman!”

—–
Late that night, after Shuera-Kaizima and Im-Dei had long since left, Ai-Reia stepped outside with the diary and a lighter she had managed to swipe from the kitchen. She hoped nobody noticed it was missing.
She checked through the pages once more. Each of them made her as uncomfortable as they had earlier that day.
“If I really am going to stick to this plan, I can’t be reminded of my past by you,” she said, then set the diary on fire. She tossed it to a portion of gravel and watched it burn, keeping close by just in case the fire began to spread. To her luck, it stayed mostly contained to the diary.
As she watched it burn, an uncertain feeling washed over her.
‘That monstrous feeling…those violent dreams…am I sure those too were the product of stress?’
She shook her head. ‘Don’t think on it. This is a thing of the past now. If I am really going to be happy from here on out, I need to start convincing myself that will really be the case.’

8.585.To Repair the Prior Year

The La-Iin Series
Chapter 585
“To Repair the Prior Year”

Memories flashed in Ai-Reia’s mind.
“GYAAAAH! CA-MIELA!”
“How what goes!? You could’ve killed Ca-Miela!”

As the minutes passed before her birthday, all she could remember was the prior year and how horrible it had been. She had a slight concern that her eighth birthday would be every bit as bad as her seventh, but for a different reason: her family either becoming concerned that she would harm Ca-Miela again, or becoming concerned about keeping her happy to the point that it was stifling.
It was hard for her to look forward to her birthday under those conditions, but the idea of having a day that miserable made her sick. So instead, she formulated a plan.
‘As long as I pretend to be happy, they won’t have any reason to believe that they need to coddle me or that I’m going to harm Ca-Miela again. And who knows, perhaps if I pretend to be happy, I actually will become happy. I feel it–that is the only way I will have any sort of true happiness tomorrow…’

***

Reuf-Bu’s bedroom door opened with a loud creak. Ai-Reia flinched, but her brother showed no signs of waking up. Cautiously, she walked over to him and began to shake him lightly.
“Reuf-Bu. Reuf-Bu.”
“Mmngh…no, no, I don’t wanna tell my parents about Cais-Elle yet, heh heh…”
‘Cais-Elle? Wasn’t that girl a classmate of his?’ The detail wasn’t all that important, so she went back to gently shaking Reuf-Bu. He groaned again and opened his eyes.
“Cais-Elle? Wait…you aren’t Cais-Elle…”
“Honestly, Reuf-Bu! You can’t tell the difference between me and some school fancy?”
Reuf-Bu sat up abruptly, his eyes wide as if he had just drunk a large pot of coffee. “I–I don’t have a school fancy with Cais-Elle!”
“Hm.”
Reuf-Bu stiffened. “Ergh–I mean–yeeees, what do you need, birthday girl?”
“Oh, so you remembered?” Ai-Reia tried to make her face light up. Reuf-Bu’s expression gave her no indication of whether or not she had succeeded. “I was lonely because nobody else had woken up yet, so I figured of everyone in the house you would be the most likely to pay attention to me if I woke you up. I would like to do a puzzle with you!”
“Of course you would. It feels like with you and me, it’s nothing but puzzles…”
“Is a thousand and eighty pieces too much?”
“A thousand and eighty–!” Reuf-Bu gasped. “Ai-Reia, what is this!? Is this some sort of portrait of a major historical figure or something!?”
“It’s a large picture of cartoon depictions of the countries in the world.”
“Ah…ahaha, I guess you are still a little kid….but geez…a thousand and eighty pieces!? Seriously, what the hell!?”
Ai-Reia covered her mouth. Reuf-Bu sighed. “Sorry.”
“No, it’s fine. I curse myself from time to time, but I keep most of those locked away inside my head instead of letting them cross my lips.”
“Acting high and mighty, aren’t we?”
“I’d usually take offense to what you said, but I can’t find it in myself to care right now. Really, I do want to do a puzzle with you, Reuf-Bu. After all, you mistook me for Cais-Elle…I might have to ask Mother and Father just who she is for you to have mistaken me for her…”
Reuf-Bu flinched. “Now you’re just being a sadist!”
“What’s a sadist?”
“Don’t play dumb with me, Ai-Reia. I know you know what a sadist is.” He stretched, yawned, and hopped out of bed. “Fine, I’ll do the puzzle with you, but you have to wait for me to get ready first.”
“I can wait. I’ll be in the living room scrambling the pieces!”
Ai-Reia dashed out the room. ‘Geez, she’s energetic today. Why does something feel a little off about that?’

When Reuf-Bu had come out to do the puzzle, he had a larger reaction to the number of pieces, and Ai-Reia couldn’t suppress a giggle. Nevertheless, they ended up putting together most of the pieces in a shorter amount of time than both of them expected–mostly thanks to Ai-Reia, though Reuf-Bu placed quite a few pieces.
“I think you’re getting the hang of going against me in a puzzle battle, Reuf-Bu,” she said.
“Puzzle battle!? Since when was this anything like that?”
“Since today. Eight is an age of change, you know.”
“What I know is that most eight-year-old Vampires I’ve known are still using the potty, contrary to what you’re doing.”
“It just proves that with an advanced brain, you can overcome any physical shortcoming.”
“Okay, you’re really being obnoxious today. This isn’t indicative of how you’re going to be throughout all of eight, is it?”
Ai-Reia chuckled. “Of course not. Don’t worry about it, brother. I’m only forcing you because today is my birthday.” She cracked a smile at him; when she opened her eyes, she spotted a yawning Zih-Amo walking past them.
“Hello, Zih-Amo! Good morning!”
“Oh….good morning, Ai-Reia,” she said. “Happy birthday.”
“Thank you. Oh, oh, Zih-Amo! I wanted to ask you if we could do something.”
“Hm?”
“Me and Reuf-Bu are doing a puzzle right now, but I thought maybe after that, you and I might do a little flying around? I would really like that.”
“Usually you don’t,” Zih-Amo said. “What changed?”
“She’s claiming eight means everything is changing for her,” Reuf-Bu said.
“Well, it sounds fun right now. You can wake up a bit more first, though. Me and Reuf-Bu still have to finish this puzzle.”
“Oh, okay. Still, that is pretty strange.”
“No, no, Reuf-Bu, that piece goes here! What are you, colorblind?”
“Yep, something tells me your terrible twos were moved up to eight.”

“Woohoo!”
Ai-Reia gave shrieks of delight as Zih-Amo, holding her tight to her chest, flew above their house in arcs and swirls. Zih-Amo was becoming dizzy spinning around so much, and it astounded her that Ai-Reia didn’t seem dizzy in the slightest. She was happy to see her sister with a smile on her face, but something about it unsettled her.
‘I guess I just can’t forget what her diary said…’
“Zih-Amo, you’re slowing down!” Ai-Reia snapped.
“S-sorry, Ai-Reia! Ohh, now you’re gonna pay! We’re gonna do a mega loop-de-loop now!” She began to do a backwards cascading loop. Ai-Reia shrieked in delight, while for Zih-Amo it took all her fortitude to keep herself from vomiting.
“Playing with Ai-Reia, Zih-Amo?”
Their parents voices distracting her, Zih-Amo only narrowly finished her backwards cascading loop before landing slowly on the ground and falling over, the world spinning around her. Ai-Reia ran up to her parents with a smile.
“Mother, Father! Do you two have free time right now?”
“Well, nobody else is asking for our attention, and your father has the day off, so I suppose we do,” her mother said. “Why?”
“I’d like to make some birthday treats for everyone in the house. My birthday is of course mostly for my enjoyment, but I think all the rest of you should enjoy it too!”
Her parents glanced at each other and smiled. “Sure, Ai-Reia. We’d be glad to help you with that.”
“Especially considering we don’t want you to hurt yourself…”
Ai-Reia’s expression fell briefly before she broke out into another wide smile. “Thank you!”
Though they were pleased with their daughter’s sudden cheerfulness, that brief moment where she had shown them a frown made them feel slightly uneasy, and that feeling continued as they followed Ai-Reia into the house.

Ai-Reia hummed a tune as she cut dough into shapes and mixed together a filling made of blood, marshmallows and frosting. She seemed cheerful as she stuffed the dough with the filling, some even to the point where the filling leaked slightly out the opening in the dough. She seemed to want to make each shape unique, and so did things such as etch in a small crack in one heart-shaped piece and create a striped pattern on one star-shaped one.
She almost seemed genuinely happy, and yet there was something that unsettled her parents about the sight, as if there was something artificial about her motions.
“You two trust me more than I thought,” Ai-Reia said. “I basically got to do this whole thing by myself!”
“Oh, well, yes, we do,” her father said. “Of course we do. You are fairly mature for a Vampire who’s just eight. Cooking is the least of our concerns.”
“Um–! Though I am a little concerned about the sweetness of that filling…”
Ai-Reia smiled and sighed. “It’s just because it’s my birthday. Besides, the blood should cut the sweetness some, don’t you think?”
“I guess that’s true,” her mother sighed.
Ai-Reia stuck the pastries into the oven. “Well, I think I should go and do something else. Would you mind keeping an eye on these for me?”
“We wouldn’t mind, I guess,” her father said. Ai-Reia flashed him a wide smile, then took off.
“Something’s definitely wrong,” her father said.
“I feel that way too. But I just don’t know what to do about it…”

***

Ai-Reia head into her parent’s room. It was the same as normal, though Ai-Reia still found the sight of Ca-Miela’s temporary playroom jarring. Her parents had turned a small corner of the room into a place where Ca-Miela could play, and that was where she was now, though she seemed tired as if she might fall asleep at any moment.
“Ca-Miela,” Ai-Reia said. “Look at you. So innocent. If anyone could really brighten up my day, it would be you…strange considering how last year went between you and me.”
She flinched when she heard the door creak. In a moment she had flashes of the previous year, the looks on her parents’ faces, the looks on her siblings’ faces, the sound of Ca-Miela’s crying. But when she looked up, she didn’t spot her parents or siblings–instead standing there was Shuera-Kaizima and Im-Dei, holding presents.
“…Fyuori? Kokohara?”
“Hello, Ai-Reia, and happiest of birthdays!” Shuera-Kaizima said cheerfully. Ai-Reia looked up past her, at Im-Dei, and noticed that standing behind the two was her family, who watched her with a strangely serious expression.
“We wanted to see you today. We had to go through several hoops to figure out where to find you.”
“But we finally did, and without resorting to illegal tactics, too.”
“Oh…” She broke out into smiles. “Well, it’s so nice to see you two!”
“Actually, Ai-Reia, there is something we want to discuss,” Shuera-Kaizima said, her voice becoming strangely serious. Ai-Reia blinked at her. “What would that be?”
“Do you remember what we told you a while back, Ai-Reia?”
“Huh?”
“You can show your true self to your family too,” Shuera-Kaizima told her. “Not just a fake self.”
“What…?”
And then, it clicked. The same attitude she had put upon to keep her family from worrying about her had only served to worry them still. Ai-Reia’s face twitched. At first, she wasn’t sure what to say.
“I just wanted to be happy myself, you know,” she whispered. “I figured if I acted this way, I’d be able to have a genuinely happy birthday. But now I know, all I did was worry you, just as I always do…”
“You know, showing your true self to your family doesn’t mean being always miserable, Ai-Reia. It just means show them how you feel. So right now, how do you feel?”
Ai-Reia looked up at them, her eyes tearing up but her mouth turned up in a smile. “Well, I guess I would have to say…I’m actually a little happy.”
Her family and friends began to smile. Not a single one seemed forced to Ai-Reia, and that made her heart feel lighter. Even Ca-Miela gave her a gummy smile.

—–
“These pastries are good!” Shuera-Kaizima exclaimed.
“Thank you.”
“They have a strange kick to them. Is there a secret ingredient?”
“Perhaps for you two,” Ai-Reia said, her smile innocent. “There’s blood in there.”
Im-Dei paled, and Shuera-Kaizima put her ears back. They looked to Ai-Reia, waiting for her to break out into laughter or say she was lying, but not once did she do either of those things.

18.564.Plans for the People

The La-Iin Series
Chapter 564
“Plans for the People”

“Hey, La-Iin. I see that you’re busy, but since I can talk right now, I’ve got a question for you that’s been nagging me lately.”
“What’s that? And hurry it up. I think this picture is going to be a masterpiece and I need as few distractions as possible.”
“I’d beg to differ, but whatever. I can’t remember, but did you say whether or not you had plans for all the people you mean to involve in your world-domination plots?”
La-Iin’s eyes widened and she set down her crayon. “Yes. I have big plans for quite a few people.”
“Ah, I see.”
“What, is that it? You don’t want to hear about my plans or anything?”
“As much as I would, I know you won’t give me the full story because it’s supposed to be a secret. As if I could tell anyone anyway.”
“I have no guarantees on that now that Sale-Dessu found out you can make V-Puppets autonomous. And you make a great point, why spoil my plans? But I can tell you who I have plans for. That would be Fer-Shi, Mama and Dami, Choungetsu, but only a little bit, Ai-Reia, sort of, Sara, rival-boy, Sale-Dessu and Eul-Bok, and San-Kyung of course, and you.”
“Is that it?”
“Unless you want to count my future children or wanting to see if Imagination is still alive nine-hundred years from now. Then yes. There might be a few people I have smaller plans for, but those are the ones I have major plans for.”
“I have to question some of those choices. Don’t you dislike rival-boy–what was his name, Dosa-Mina?”
“Yes, he’s Dosa-Mina. And I do have plans for someone who’s caused me so much trouble.” La-Iin gripped her crayon tightly. “If you want to hear anything, you’ll have to ask me after I’m done drawing, though. Oh, and I guess I have a little bit of a plan for Ei-Tio, too, but it’s a work in progress.”
“Huh.”
“I have a lot of plans, Bes-Isa. You should have known that plans for the people would be among them.”

***

“La-Iin, you said you wanted Narwhaltae blood, right? Are you planning on giving the slaves a bath?”
“If you want the slaves to be clean, clean them yourself.”
Fer-Shi sighed. “Most of the slaves don’t like me….agh! La-Iin, do you have to breastfeed Chung-Ae in front of me?”
“It wasn’t in front of you before you got here.”
“Things aren’t the same anymore…and I’m even more scared of San-Kyung now that he has a kid with you.”
“Of course things aren’t the same. I succeeded in world domination. I won San-Kyung’s heart. And now I’ve had our child. Things are a lot different than the days we spent at Malicerie.”
“How about the days we spent at Desutrap? Do you still remember those?”
“Desutrap?”
“You really don’t remember, do you?”
“I remember going to a stupid preschool and meeting you, but the name Desutrap doesn’t ring any bells.”
“You should remember it, though! You had it torn down almost as soon as you started ruling the world!”
“Oh. That. I blocked it out, at least until now.”
“Well, if you remember our time at Desutrap, I guess that’s enough for me. I’m glad that you’re happy, La-Iin. I just wish I could be, too.”
“Are you not happy? You might be my slave, but you’re treated much better than the other slaves. And I call on you for some advice.”
“Yeah, I know. But my Mom and Dad, you don’t spare them any leniency. You don’t do it for Shan-Zetsu or Cae-Bougen either…”
“They’re different to me than you are, Fer-Shi. Namely, I don’t care about them.”
“I know…”
La-Iin sighed. “Fer-Shi, of course the world is plenty different nowadays. And I’ve accomplished my dream. Someday my conquest will become worse and more widespread. But I don’t want you to be miserable.”
“It’s hard not to be when this is what you didn’t want to happen…”
La-Iin stroked Fer-Shi’s head. “Maybe I’ll let your Mama and Dami out for a few moments someday.”
“Thanks, La-Iin.”
La-Iin dropped her voice to a whisper. “Tell no one this. But ruling the world has not made me hate you. You are a slave because I worry about your influence if I let you be more. But I will still try to keep you happy.”
Fer-Shi smiled. “Thank you, La-Iin. I had a bit of a feeling, though. You do treat me pretty nicely despite all that’s happened. Would you like me to watch Chung-Ae for you someday in return?”
La-Iin glared. “No.”
“Okay, okay.”

“La-Iin, I wanted to ask you a question,” Mit-Sun rasped.
“What, Mama?”
“How come you let Asul-Zenza out of his cage but not me?”
“It’s payback for all the years you messed up while raising me. Which is a lot.”
“What!? But that isn’t fair! You realize which of your parents has less time to live, right!?”
“I’m aware. And stop yelling. It isn’t doing you any favors.”
Mit-Sun whimpered. “La-Iin, I understand there were a lot of times I messed up. But isn’t this a little excessive? If you keep me in here that long, by the time you show me any leniency it won’t really matter all that much, will it?”
“You’re only bartering with me. I know it doesn’t mean anything, Mama! You’d only set out to raise a rebellion against me the moment I let you out. I can’t trust you. Your treatment is based solely on how you acted towards me in the past.”
“Didn’t I do some things right? Weren’t there some days we enjoyed together? Even if it’s just me making mincemeat pie, weren’t there any times you enjoyed with me? Really, La-Iin, I wouldn’t want to raise a rebellion against you. I know that’s just suicide. But I’ve seen that you show Fer-Shi some leniency, and really, I would love to meet my grandson.”
“Appealing to me that way won’t work, Mama. I can’t focus on what you did right at the moment. The world is in my grasp, but it’s still precarious. The slightest show of favoritism is a potential show of weakness–Fer-Shi knows this. Perhaps the day things change and the world will eternally be within my grasp your situation will change as well. But you should know I still haven’t forgiven you for everything.”
“La-Iin…”
“But I don’t hate you. And…I do make sure you’re taken care of before the other slaves. So–” She grimaced and spread her wings. “So be patient. And don’t die on me. I’ll see to it that your treatment changes someday. But I’m no benevolent ruler. Know that.”
La-Iin grit her teeth. ‘That was too much of a show of weakness…’

“La-Iin, as grateful as I am to be allowed outside of the cages, I truly have some questions for the way you are handling things.”
“Do you have any suggestions, Dami?”
“No, it isn’t like that. Do you not think that someday your slaves will realize that my being free is favoritism and not a case of assisting you? What will you do then?”
“I would figure by then Chung-Ae would be grown up. And at that day I think my hold over the world will be stable enough that I won’t even need to care about something like that. Trust me, Dami, I have plans for the future that extend far past just the next decade.”
“I see. And another thing, was the shock necklace necessary? How did you procure something like this in the first place?”
“That’s confidential, Dami. i trust you, but this is necessary to keep secret. And that’s necessary too, just in case you ever decide to betray me.”
“La-Iin, you know I would never do that.”
“Whether you would or wouldn’t, I’m prepared for it all the same. I’ve been prepared to be betrayed since I was little, so I’m ready to deal with it if it happens. But I trust that you would never betray me, Dami. But this is no sign of weakness.”
“You’ve changed, La-Iin. You weren’t this scared of showing your flaws in the past…”
“San-Kyung has had to handle most of the brunt work now that Chung-Ae has been born, and it’s uncertain just how long he’s going to stay like a baby. Just because I was lucky doesn’t mean Chung-Ae will be. The world isn’t entirely under my grasp yet, and I’m not completely capable of sedating the powers of millions of people. I can’t afford to mess up here. You should understand that.”
“You needn’t act so tough around me, though…I will not betray you. I will say that as many times as it takes for you to believe me. And you needn’t do it around all your other loved ones–speaking of, when do you plan on letting Mit-Sun out of her cage?”
La-Iin narrowed her eyes. “Dami, I love you, but you really don’t understand any of how this is supposed to work.”
She flew off, Asul-Zenza watching her with widened eyes.

“Relent.”
“Never!”
La-Iin kicked at the cage. Ai-Reia flinched. “I can do much worse than that.”
“I’m prepared to die before i join your alliance. I know what you’ve done to my loved ones. I should have taken more precautions!”
“It’s not your fault you lack my ability to grow faster,” La-Iin said. “I offered you a good position among my ranks. I’ve trusted you even though you’ve given me so much reason not to. I’ve threatened you constantly, and yet still you don’t relent?”
“I told you, I never will!”
“I’m surprised the child prodigy never considered lying to gain the ability to assassinate me.”
“I’m surprised that this supposedly-smart world ruler never thought that, as a prodigy, I would consider what options are downright suicidal. I know the difference in our power, La-Iin. But I shall prevail all the same!”
“So you say.” La-Iin took off.
“I’m willing to work by your side, La-Iin.”
“I’m glad to hear it, Ai-Reia. Your assistance is just what I need. Your ability to retain information is a handy one. And I’ll admit, it will be beneficial to have someone who shares my lifespan on my team.”

No matter how much she dwelled back on her childhood fantasies of her plans for Ai-Reia, each time she visited her cage it seemed less and less likely that they would come true. Swallowing her frustration, she picked up in speed.

“Hello, Shuu-Kena. How goes everything?”
“Oh, hello, La-Iin,” Shuu-Kena said. “Everything seems fine so far. I don’t see anyone planning a mutiny or anything. And even if they were, none of them are close to your tower, so I don’t think you need to worry about anything happening to Chung-Ae.”
“I’ll never be worried about anything happening to Chung-Ae until the moment something does happen. And I don’t see it happening anytime soon.” La-Iin glanced at her hand. “Is that a bottle of blood?”
“Yeah. Here you go.” She handed the bottle to La-Iin, who quickly downed half of it and sighed in relief. “It’s been too long since I had blood that fresh…”
“It seems like it was recently.”
“There has been a lot going on, Shuu-Kena.”
“Yeah, I guess so. Speaking of Chung-Ae, how is he?”
“He’s fine. I have high hopes for him. …loathe as I am to thank anyone, Shuu-Kena, I have to thank you for your assistance. You’ve been a helpful asset. Neutrals certainly can be sometimes.”
“Thank you back, La-Iin. To be honest, I don’t really care for all the world domination stuff so much, but I think you knew that already. And, well, at least you haven’t murdered anybody yet. You were a saving grace from my family, too. I feel like I owe you. And that you haven’t put me in a cage like the rest of them.”
“I understand.” La-Iin spread her wings. “By the way, I wouldn’t mind a nice and dark picture for Chung-Ae’s bedroom. I feel like it’s missing a little something.”
“Certainly, La-Iin. I’ll make one as soon as I have the time.”
La-Iin nodded and took off. Shuu-Kena glanced out around the landscape, and seeing that there was no activity, sat down with a canvas and began to paint.

“How are you feeling, Dosa-Mina?”
“I’ve had better days…I wish today was one of the days I wasn’t sick.”
“San-Kyung!” La-Iin snapped. “I thought you were home watching Chung-Ae.”
“I thought you were home with him.”
“Evidently not. I have to do my rounds around this time. It’s not safe to leave him on his own, you know.”
“He’s not on his own, though.”
“He’s on his own surrounded by people who are mostly fairly weak.”
Dosa-Mina glanced at both of them. “So even you two fight.”
“Are you really surprised? We fought all the time when we were kids.”
“Quiet, rival-boy.”
“Sorry. …say, San-Kyung, I know you have to head home now, but can you tell me a little bit about Chung-Ae?”
“What can I tell you? He’s a baby. He drools, he soils his diaper, but he’s got quite a grip. I’m thinking he’ll end up more powerful than I am.”
“I wouldn’t be surprised.”
“If this conversation is about over, you have your son to attend to,” La-Iin snapped. San-Kyung narrowed his eyes.
“You spend plenty of time with Fer-Shi. I don’t understand why you don’t grant Dosa-Mina the same privileges you grant her.”
“Because I don’t like him, San-Kyung. Besides, I don’t think you understand what I mean by precarious situation. I don’t think anyone understands except for me, in fact!”
“People might understand better if you clarified what they were,” Dosa-Mina said. La-Iin hissed at him.
“La-Iin, you’re being unreasonable. You realize I have about equal power to you when it comes to what is done with the slaves, right?”
“You agreed with my slave plan!”
“I know. But I’m saying, Dosa-Mina–”
“I really wish I had put his cage someplace you couldn’t find it.”
San-Kyung narrowed his eyes.
“Maybe you really should head back home…”
“You gave Fer-Shi another purpose!”
“Oh, quit fighting with me over this! You have more important people in your life now. But fine, if you’re really so determined for Dosa-Mina to get special privileges, then once I feel he’s served enough time in there and the situation stabilizes, I’ll let him be a tower slave. Happy?”
“I never believe you when it comes to Dosa-Mina.”
La-Iin huffed. “Just get back to Chung-Ae, San-Kyung! I still have rounds to go, you know!”

Midnight had arrived, and now having retired to the tower, La-Iin went to visit Sale-Dessu, who was examining the corpse of Choungetsu.
“How goes the extended lifespan experiments?”
“I haven’t been able to figure anything out yet,” Sale-Dessu said. “I really don’t understand how this ‘lifespan gene’ works. I’m starting to think the scholars of the past were a little deluded…”
“Maybe that’s something I should ask Dosa-Mina on,” La-Iin mused. “Well, just keep working on it.”
“What if I can’t bring Choungetsu back, La-Iin? You won’t torture me for that, will you?”
La-Iin lowered her head. “No. I won’t. As much as I want Choungetsu back, my top priority is extending San-Kyung’s lifespan so that he will live at a time equal to me. At this rate, no matter how long he lives he will not be part of my and Chung-Ae’s lives for too long. I don’t want that to happen. If there’s any chance that I can have him live as long as I can, then I will take that.”
“Are you looking for immortality, La-Iin?”
La-Iin lifted up her head. “No, not particularly. But tell me if you find out anything in regards to it. I’ll take that if it’s available to me…but there might be one exception.”
“Hm?”
“It’s nothing. Get back to work. I plan on letting Eul-Bok out tomorrow, so you’ll have a companion to help you.”
Sale-Dessu smiled. “Thank you, La-Iin.”
“You know I don’t listen when you say that.”

“It’s about time you showed up.”
“How’s Chung-Ae?”
“Fine. He hasn’t cried at all since I got back.”
“That’s good.”
San-Kyung glanced at La-Iin. “Now that we’re alone, do you mind telling me what it is you’re so worried about?”
“What do you mean?”
“You seem concerned about nearly everything.”
“Isn’t it obvious? My ruling of the world isn’t perfect yet. I have a child to think of now, so that makes everything much harder, especially since he’s still relying on me for food. And that’s not to mention if we do go through with that plan of having more. You’re not the youngest in the world either, San-Kyung. Our age gap might not be the worst I’ve heard of, but it is concerning.”
“Something you should have realized years ago?”
“I worry that even with all the planning I did beforehand that I’m going to mess up somewhere,” she sighed. “This is the happiest I’ve ever been. The world, or at least a part of it, is mine. I have you as my husband, and we have a child now. The people who are important to me still live and most help me. I have almost all that I want, and yet I can’t just be happy about it. Instead I’m left worrying about the possibility of just the smallest thing going wrong and ruining all I have worked for.”
“Your stress won’t help much either. You must keep a level head about this. And don’t forget, you said it yourself that you are not alone. Your method of ruling the world might not have been my ideal, but I never planned on being entirely alone, either.”
La-Iin glanced over her shoulder. Chung-Ae was fast asleep in his crib, looking content. “With stress or without it I’ll keep working to keep my goal intact, San-Kyung. Now that I’ve tasted this happiness I’m not going to let it go so easily.”

—–
“Hello, Bes-Isa.”
“Hello, La-Iin. It’s been a while.”
“It has been, but I’ve been busy. I felt like tonight I could use your advice. Hence why I came here.”
“You don’t need to talk so formally around me, you know.”
“Oh, I know.”
“Well, whatever advice you need, I’m willing to give. What is it?”
“It’s a lot of things, Bes-Isa. So I hope you’re feeling patient.”
“After being stuck in the dark so long it doesn’t matter what you do, it’s better than that anyday.”
“That’s good enough for me.”

16.562.A Ca-Miela Conflict

The La-Iin Series
Chapter 562
“A Ca-Miela Conflict”

Ai-Reia stared down at the small shape lying on her bed and crying. As opposed to her normal shrieks, right now Ca-Miela was only letting out a small, thin wail, as if she lacked the energy to cry harder. Just the sight of her contorted face was making her angrier.
“They love you best, don’t they?” Ai-Reia said. “Well then, I might be doing them a favor by taking you out before you’ll be too missed.”
Ai-Reia reached for the closest thing to her that could be a weapon, and found a pen. She jabbed the pen into Ca-Miela’s chest. Ca-Miela began to wail loudly, but Ai-Reia didn’t hear anyone running to see her, so she continued on.
Soon enough despite the blood flowing from her chest it became evident to her that Ca-Miela would not die by that pen alone. Desperate to finish her off, she reached for the next closest thing, a broom. She began to whack Ca-Miela with the broom. Ca-Miela gave several shrill shrieks before the volume of her voice died down until she was no longer making any noise. Taking a quick breath, Ai-Reia brought the broom down one last time to check for any reaction.
Ca-Miela lay on the bed bloodied and beaten, her eyes wide open and cloudy. Her wings had been crushed into her back. Ai-Reia chuckled to herself and continued to stare down at what used to be her sister as everything around her went pitch black.

Ai-Reia woke with a start, gasping for breath. She checked her bed. There was no sign of blood. The broom was not in her room. The events of the dream had not taken place.
‘I haven’t had violent thoughts about Ca-Miela in a long time. Dammit, I thought I moved past that this April! But maybe I’ve just been repressing it for my own good.’
The thought brought back to her memories of her seventh birthday. ‘What’s wrong with me? Why do I have these violent thoughts and dreams? I understand my resentment towards her, but there’s no reason for this level of vitriol.’
It was still dark outside. Feeling uncertain, Ai-Reia got out of bed and head for her parent’s bedroom. Her mother and father were fast asleep, but Ca-Miela was not, sitting up in her crib and glancing around wildly as if looking for something. When she laid eyes on Ai-Reia, she gave a small smile.
Ai-Reia breathed a sigh of relief, then reached into the crib and pulled her out. She checked her parents for any sign that they were waking up, then she fled the bedroom with her sister, who giggled as she ran.
‘What are you doing? How can you trust yourself alone with her?’ The dream flashed back in her mind, and for a moment she nearly dropped Ca-Miela in fear. Ca-Miela was still giggling and cooing with a smile on her face, pulling at Ai-Reia’s hair. ‘No. This has nothing to do with recreating the dream. I know what I plan on doing. My life cannot go on with me thinking such violent thoughts about Ca-Miela. I have the power to sway her onto the right path, the path of innocence. There is no reason for me to hate her unless she ends up like La-Iin, which is highly unlikely even if she does end up spoiled…I will not harm her regardless. Not in that way.’
She set her down on the bed and handed her one of her old baby toys.
“Ca-Miela, you trust your big sister, right? You don’t think I would do anything to you, do you?”
Ca-Miela reached for the toy and stuck it in her mouth. She smiled. ‘Right. Look at her eyes. She trusts me. She probably doesn’t even remember the jump rope incident. But that won’t last forever. That’s why I need to move past this. Ca-Miela hasn’t even been failed yet, after all.’
“Want to play with more?” She pulled out a box of her old toys. Ca-Miela gave a delighted shriek, which Ai-Reia tried to shush, but didn’t quiet her down in the end. Instead she looked at the toys, seeming to be overwhelmed by the variety, and stuck a few in her mouth.
“Goodness, Ca-Miela,” Ai-Reia scoffed, pulling the toy out her mouth. “In what year will you learn that those aren’t for going in your mouth?”
Ca-Miela cooed innocently. Ai-Reia focused on her. Still she could see the sight of the dream in her mind. “Play with them like this.”
Ca-Miela slammed a toy onto the bed. Ai-Reia sighed. “And I worry about being the violent one….no, she’s just a baby, she doesn’t know any better. Okay, Ca-Miela! Maybe toys aren’t the best thing for you so late at night.”
Ca-Miela’s expression dropped when she took the toys away, and for a moment Ai-Reia worried that she might cry. But instead she just stared at her anxiously, as if waiting for her to return the toys.
“Here, if you’d like a toy how about Bunety-Man? Reuf-Bu got this for me, but you can hold him if it will calm you down.”
‘What am I doing? It’s too late at night for this. What if mother and father wake up? Then they’ll be upset. There’s no way they’d believe that I was trying to calm myself down. What am I supposed to tell them? Oh, I had a dream about murdering Ca-Miela so I decided to bring her into my room to calm myself down? Only an idiot would believe something that sounds so excuse-worthy!’
Ca-Miela babbled. ‘And then there’s also the possibility that she might cry and give my position away to my parents and siblings…’
Ca-Miela stared at Ai-Reia, her eyes widening. She began to gently cry, holding tight to Bunety-Man.
“What’s wrong now?” Ai-Reia asked. “Was I making a scary expression?”
Ca-Miela just sobbed quietly. “I’ll get no response from a baby. Oh, please don’t cry, Ca-Miela…”
The beginning of the dream flashed back into her mind as she reached for Ca-Miela, and she flinched, knocking her over. Ca-Miela continued to cry, still holding tight to Bunety-Man. Ai-Reia felt as though she were slipping back into the dream–save for Bunety-Man and the lack of a broom, the situation was exactly the same as it was in the dream, and for a moment she panicked, hiding her face from Ca-Miela.
‘What do I think I’m doing? No matter how hard I try, I’m only a danger to Ca-Miela. Much as I want to avoid her developing a spoiled princess attitude, that’s definitely preferable to her suffering early trauma or growing up to hate me. I can’t trust myself, not like this. I can’t even keep a hold on my own mentality. Why did I ever try to trust myself alone with her!? What’s wrong with me!?’
Through her frenzied thoughts she could still hear Ca-Miela crying, and though the thought of being alone with Ca-Miela terrified her, the thought of being caught by her parents with her in this state terrified her more. She reached out to Ca-Miela and picked her up, gently rocking her.
“Please don’t cry,” she said, her voice wavering. She was beginning to feel on the verge of tears herself. “Don’t worry. If I ever become a danger to you, I won’t let myself hurt you. I promise. I’m going to do my best so that you end up as my ideal younger sister. I don’t want to hurt you…”
Ai-Reia felt uncertain of her own words. Ca-Miela stared up at her, face stained with tears but no longer gently sobbing. She reached for Ai-Reia’s hand and stuck it in her mouth, then closed her eyes and curled up next to her.
Ai-Reia remained silent, trying to get her thoughts into order. “You’re different from La-Iin, Ca-Miela. I only ever held a grudge against you for taking the time of my siblings. But in the process I discovered how much of a monster I can be…and I’m sorry. You never deserved this. I shouldn’t hold grudges against you. You did nothing wrong. You’re just a baby, after all…”
Ca-Miela gave no response, and by her gentle breathing Ai-Reia assumed she had fallen asleep. She sat there with Ca-Miela in her arms for a short while longer, finding her presence calming. She was not dead or beaten. She was not crying or scared. She was comforted and asleep, and alive. Ai-Reia rocked her back and forth gently as she tried to get her emotions into order. She looked down at her. The dream no longer flashed in her mind at the sight. She set her down on her bed. The dream flashed only briefly.
‘Maybe there’s a way to tame this beast, somewhere in me.’
Ai-Reia was tempted to leave Ca-Miela there and go back to sleep, but she knew how her parents would feel if they were unable to find her. Picking her up, she waddled back to their bedroom and gently set her down inside her crib. Then she head back to her own bedroom and curled up in her bed.
‘Perhaps all along I’ve been mistaken. I shouldn’t be having violent dreams about Ca-Miela. Even if the rest of my family turns against me, I’m certain she’ll trust me.’
Ai-Reia fell back to sleep fairly quickly, feeling emotionally fatigued.

—–
“Ai-Reia, is something the matter?” Her mother asked that morning at breakfast. “You seem tired. Did you stay up too late reading?”
“I saw her lights out, Mom,” Zih-Amo said. “What’s got you so tired, sis?”
“Oh, it’s nothing. I think I just haven’t woken up all the way yet, that’s all….”
Ca-Miela was sitting in a high chair next to her. When her family looked away, she briefly squeezed Ca-Miela’s hand. “Last night is our secret. Promise?”
Ca-Miela squealed. “Someone seems happy. I guess she likes drinking out of a bottle better!” Reuf-Bu said.
“I do too. It’s far less painful.”
Ai-Reia cracked a smile. ‘Maybe, just maybe, I can trust you.’

24.540.The Ability to Reach Out

The La-Iin Series
Chapter 540
“The Ability to Reach Out”

“In this case, you’d have to multiply this problem by three,” Ai-Reia told her. “And that’s the hardest I can help you with in this aspect of math. Anything harder and you’ll have to ask one of the twelfth-graders.”
“You’re so smart, Ai-Reia. I don’t think anyone could help me much as you.”
“That would be a lie. While I’m dubious on how smart Sanyaow is, I know for sure that Sherry’s grades are about my equal, and I have to do easier homework than she does. I think Molshei and Dslellular are fairly high up there as well, and they aren’t even in the twelfth grade yet.”
“Well, you’re the smartest one who is my friend,” Shuera-Kaizima said. “In-Dei is smart too but I don’t think even he could get this!”
“The average grade for this level of math is about tenth to eleventh,” she said. “Not to show off…now, is there something else you want to say? Break time should be just about over soon and I don’t want to chance getting in trouble. Sharing tips might not be against the rules but being out of your seat at class time certainly is!”
“Hm, I know.” Shuera-Kaizima blinked. “Actually, there is one more thing I wish to say to you, Ai-Reia.”
“What’s that?”
“Well, um…or, maybe I shouldn’t say it…”
“You’re welcome to say whatever you wish. Don’t hold back. If you’re worried it will upset me, don’t. I’m actually in a fairly good mood today and I think only La-Iin could bring it down. That or one of Ca-Miela’s massive diaper mishaps…”
“If you say so,” Shuera-Kaizima said, though she seemed uncertain about continuing on. “Well, even though you said you are okay, and everything that happened on the school trip was fine, it was pretty scary when you freaked out last Monday. And I am still worried you will do it again…maybe it sounds…irrational, but I do not want you to be upset like that again.”
Ai-Reia smiled. “Wanting that is not irrational. We’re friends, Kokohara. But trust me, I am a lot better now that I have you and Fyuori. I might have underlying problems but that’s a source of great healing for me.”
“Still…” Shuera-Kaizima’s ears shot up. From the hallway she could hear footsteps. “Er, we’ll have to go over this later, Ai-Reia.”
Ai-Reia shook her head. “Do not worry about me, Kokohara. I promise, I am fine.”

***

“Do you think we should try to talk with Ai-Reia again, In-Dei?”
“Why do you ask?”
“I’m really worried about her. She seems happy right now, but there are times I will be happy and then end up upset soon after. With Ai-Reia, when she gets upset, it can be much worse than just sad.”
“I’m worried about that too, but maybe she means it. Remember, when we talked to her last month, she was worried about befriending us because we won’t live as long as her, but she seems to have gotten over it by now. Maybe she does feel a bit better.”
“Or she could be hiding it…and isn’t it better to handle things before they get too bad? Do we just wait until she is upset again, or should we handle it while she is not? Would that simply upset her?” Shuera-Kaizima groaned. “I just want her to be okay…”
“I know you do, Shuera-Kaizima. I guess we could try. She might be more open to talking about these kinds of things while she’s not upset. But don’t keep pestering her about it. That might just make her more upset.”
“Do you want to ask her then, In-Dei? I worry I’ll just get desperate.”
Im-Dei shrugged. “I guess I can. But we should focus. I hear the science teacher.”

“Ai-Reia!”
Ai-Reia smiled. Im-Dei was walking up to her desk. “It isn’t often you and I talk between break times. Hello there, Fyuori.”
“Hello.”
“It’s strange to me. When I first came to Malicerie I got the impression that you were shy. But you barely seem it around me and Kokohara.”
“I am actually pretty shy,” he admitted. “But you see Elyshen talking just fine with Sanyaow. It’s like that. Also, I’m a lot more shy around girls than I am around boys…”
“Kokohara and I are girls, though. And I might be young, but Kokohara’s around your age.”
“I know she is, but it’s still the same kind of situation.” He shook his head. “Anyway, I wanted to ask you something. I know you’re happy right now and I like that you are. But I was wondering if you’d be willing to talk with me and Shuera-Kaizima now. We figured that maybe you’d do better getting your problems off your chest while you’re in a good mood than you would while you’re in a bad mood. But if you don’t want to, you don’t have to!”
Ai-Reia stared at him blankly, and Im-Dei felt certain she would refuse. “I don’t really want to talk about these sorts of things. I’ve been trying to put them out of my mind so they don’t come up. But I realize, my outlet for my feelings was destroyed recently. So I suppose you and Kokohara could be worth a shot as a new one. I just don’t want to upset you or her, nor do I want to think about these sorts of things. I’m in a happy period right now. I want to keep it that way for as long as possible.”
“Well, you do what you think is best. I’m sure you’ll come to the right conclusion.” Im-Dei lightly ruffled her hair. “If you want to talk to us you can come see us after class. But do what you think is right.”
As Im-Dei walked away, Ai-Reia was left with his words: “Do what you think is right.”
‘What would be right? Should I really unload all my concerns onto those two? They’ve been nothing but nice to me while I’ve been fighting them and showing them my darkest moments. But I have no outlet. They’re my only relief most of the time. They’re understanding–they might have a solution. But should I really do that to people who have treated me with so much kindness?’
Ai-Reia shuddered. ‘Not all my problems are so dark that I’d want to keep them from those two. Maybe telling them a little bit wouldn’t be too bad…’

***

After classes that day Ai-Reia had made her decision. She approached Shuera-Kaizima and Im-Dei and, by their expressions, she could tell they already knew what she had come there for. They walked out the classroom alongside the crowd but soon broke off from them and head into a weekend classroom.
Both of them stayed silent and sat down, staring at her with neutral expressions. Ai-Reia felt nervous, but she took a deep breath and began to speak.
“Well…this is sort of silly, but I’ve told you two about my situation with my family before. It feels as though things soured around the time my younger sister was born, that and around the time La-Iin would follow me around the school. Since then I’ve had some on-and-off troubles. Some months I’ll be on fine terms with my family. I’ve even started bonding with my younger sister, it’s just, I have difficulty dealing with babies, I suppose. Other times we barely talk to each other at all. As for La-Iin, I suppose she hasn’t been in my way much recently, but the times I’ve been at odds with her has only made those problems worse…
“In any event, I had hoped things would stabilize this year, but they haven’t really gotten better yet. I had started keeping a diary so that I could write down my problems, but my older sister found it and basically told the whole family about its contents. Now I think that they think I’m a ticking time bomb waiting for another one of those nervous breakdowns, and the fact that I had one at all probably just adds fuel to the fire.”
Ai-Reia began to tear up. ‘Damn it, I promised myself I wouldn’t do this…’ “I know these problems are silly, I just want to go back to being normal again. I half-wish I wasn’t a prodigy so none of this would have ever happened. I’d still be at home in diapers with Ca-Miela. Or if I hadn’t insisted to go to school, I might still be at home as well. I’m glad I met you two, really I am, and I wouldn’t trade that for the world. But all the other things that have happened since I came to Malicerie, if I could, I would wish them away. …sorry to bother you two with these stupid problems.”
“You aren’t bothering us, Ai-Reia,” Shuera-Kaizima said. Im-Dei nodded. “Not at all.”
“Thank you.”
“I think you should try and show your family that you’ll be alright. If you keep hiding away from them and avoiding them, that might only make them think that you’re getting worse. Talk to them and show them you’re fine.”
“It’s okay to show when you’re not fine as well, though,” Shuera-Kaizima said. “They won’t think you are unstable if you cry because something bad happened. Well, they shouldn’t, at least!”
“Of course they’ll think you’re still upset if you avoid them as much as you can. And sometimes, you have to take matters into your own hands. So try your best to set things right. …well, that’s all the advice I can offer.”
“I suppose it’s worth a shot. It can’t make things worse, in any event.” Ai-Reia hugged Shuera-Kaizima and Im-Dei. “Thank you two. I am so very grateful for your friendship.”
“We’re happy to have you as a friend, too!” Shuera-Kaizima said.
Ai-Reia let go of them and turned around. “See you tomorrow,” she said, then head out the Weekend classroom and went to join the sparse crowd heading home.

—–
“Reuf-Bu?”
Reuf-Bu glanced at Ai-Reia. “Yeah, sis? What’s up?”
“I know you’re a fairly grown Vampire and all, but would you mind doing some finger-painting with me?” Ai-Reia felt embarrassed just to suggest the idea. “I heard some of the other children around my grade talking about it, so I was curious–”
“Sure, why not? Are you sure you wouldn’t rather do a puzzle, though? That seems more your style.”
“A puzzle does sound nice. Maybe we could do that afterward.”
“You’ve got it, Ai-Reia.” He smiled. “Glad to see you asking to play with your big brother again.”
“I’m glad to ask,” she sighed. “Now let’s hurry before Ca-Miela starts screaming her head off!”
Just as they arrived in the playroom, they heard loud crying. “Too late.”
“Don’t worry, I’ve got it!” Their mother called. The two gave a sigh of relief and went back to setting up their craft.

20.536.The Weekend School Trip–Part 2

The La-Iin Series
Chapter 536
“The Weekend School Trip–Part 2”

“Why did you ask to room with me instead of Sanhuun, Cahongyun? Aren’t you two good friends?”
“We are.”
“I know you’re interested in my family, but there’s nothing I can tell you about them right now. Nothing really big, anyway. So why did you ask to room with me? I know the final choice wasn’t yours, but–”
“I was wondering about something.”
“Huh?”
“It’s nothing I can tell you, though. It’s just a little…experiment.”
“Er, okay. Well, I’m happy to room with you anyway, Cahongyun. You know, Neigghed is a lot nicer than my house. I kinda wish our school trip was a little longer than it is.”
“Well, I have to make it back home soon. I’m concerned about something.”
“What’s that?”
“That’s also nothing I can tell you.”
“Hm…well, I don’t really want to talk about my family and I can’t ask you much, but I’m not tired yet. Say, Cahongyun, you seem to really like Molshei.”
“I do.”
“Do you have a crush on Molshei?”
“…”
“Huh?”
“I don’t like saying that outright.”
“So you do?”
“What do you think?”
“Yes?”
“What do you like so much about Molshei?”
“If San-Kyung didn’t hate almost everyone I’d have you ask him yourself about how he is. But all I can say for now is that he’s exactly what I was missing.”
“Huh?”
“It doesn’t matter if you don’t get it. Fer-Shi doesn’t either.”
“Um, okay…”
Shuu-Kena smiled. ‘This is nice. I wish this school trip would go on forever.’

“Aren’t you upset that Cahongyun is rooming with Sara, Fer-Shi?”
“No, I’m not really worried. We’ve been friends for a long time. If our friendship was so bad that I was worried about it because she has a new friend, we wouldn’t be friends at all because I have Shan-Zetsu. And I know La-Iin really doesn’t like him.”
“Are you jealous?”
Fer-Shi flinched. “…maybe a little. It’s just, I know I’m still a kid and all, but it feels like all the fun times I had with La-Iin happened both a long time ago and just recently. We used to spend a ton of time together. We’re best friends, and she would go to me when something was wrong. Now it feels like she’s keeping a lot of secrets from me and she seems to go to other people before she’ll go to me. She only just started liking Sara and it feels like they hang out all the time now.”
“That sounds like more than a little. But like you said, if your friendship was a bad one, it probably would have already ended. If you two have been friends for a long time in a friendship between good and evil, I think it may last. But she might want to turn to people who understand her values better.”
“I understand her values!”
“Maybe not enough? I don’t really know, Fer-Shi, I just wanted to try and help…”
“I know you did. And maybe that’s what I needed to hear. Maybe I haven’t been hearing her out enough. Of course she might turn to people who understand her better if I’m not even lending her an ear.”
“Perhaps.”
“I’ll just have to keep trying, then.”
“A friendship takes the effort of both people part of it, after all.”

“Geez, I can’t believe our door was unlocked. I blame you.”
“Absolve yourself of any responsibility, huh.”
“No, it’s not that. Still, I both can’t believe that those two opened the door and I’m not surprised that they did.”
“I’m not surprised at all. Last year La-Iin broke in. Although that one was worse–she opened the door with sheer force.”
Dosa-Mina giggled. “No wonder you’re so interested in her abilities. She is pretty powerful for a seven-year-old.”
“…”
“Oh, sorry, San-Kyung, I didn’t mean to upset you.”
“No, I’m fine. I’ve been feeling a little bit better lately. Just wish using La-Iin’s power wasn’t a crapshoot.”
“I’m sure there’s some other way we can find out how to help you. I’ll keep looking, okay?”
“You say that, but I know you’ve been preoccupied with your own things.”
“…those aren’t all that important. And anyway why are we talking about depressing things on the school trip!? We should be talking about better things! In Neigghed did you know there are a lot of free things to do? You and I haven’t been going out much lately. Tomorrow we have more free time–we should take a chance to cast out on our own and have some fun!”
“Yeah, but we’ll need to make sure we aren’t caught by La-Iin or else she’ll tag along.”
“She’s been pretty preoccupied with that little girl who joined our class in March. Maybe she’s annoyed with us right now. After all, that speech she gave us…”
“She was hanging onto me on the bus.”
“Good point. Either way, I guess there’s time to plan for all this later. I’m starting to get tired!”
“Same here.” San-Kyung yawned. “Good night, Dosa-Mina…”
“Good night, San-Kyung.”

***

“Alright students, who’s ready for the day? We’re going to get something to eat, and then we’re going to study history. After that, you’re allowed on your own–although if you’re under fourteen, you need to be accompanied by someone older.”
“What!?” Airy-Aekok exclaimed. “You, like, gotta be kidding me! I’m gonna be fourteen this year! I’ve gotta be accompanied ’cause I’m a little too young?”
“You have me if you need anyone, Llanni.” Lirako said.
“Yeah, I know, but I’m still pissed off!”
“Sorry, but it’s the rules,” Theasis said. “Not just set by us, but set by Neigghed as well.”
“How does that make any sense!?”
“How are you feeling today?” Shuera-Kaizima asked Ai-Reia.
“F…fine, I suppose,” Ai-Reia said. “Thank you…both of you. You don’t need to be so worried. I’m sure I’ll be fine. I’ve just been…stressed lately, that’s all.”
“That’s alright. We’re on your side, Vampiris. We’re here for you.”
Ai-Reia had to take a deep breath to keep herself from tearing up. “B-b-by the way, you two, I don’t mind if you call me Ai-Reia.”
“Really? That would be lots easier for me!” Shuera-Kaizima said.
“Hey, are you three paying attention?” Mr. Chensu asked. “Anyway, first things first. We’re heading out to eat!”

Breakfast for the Class D students and teachers had been somewhat cumbersome; the number of people going to the small restaurant overwhelmed the workers and Mr. Chensu had panicked at how much vuyong the entire meal had cost. Still, after the meal the group was in mostly high spirits as they ventured to other historical locations within Neigghed.
“This building right here used to be a place where the bodies of the dead were stored. In early Neigghed, burials were uncommon. They prefered to store and preserve the bodies for various reasons–trophies, food, threats….their methods of preservation are methods other places in the world adopted for preserving bodies prior to funerals. Nowadays it’s a small hospital for treating minor wounds.”
“How much longer is this going to take?” San-Kyung whispered.
“I don’t know, why do you ask? I find all of this interesting.”
“I do too, but I’m getting sick of hearing his voice.”
“Mr. Molshei, shut up! I’m trying to give a lesson.”
“…great. I just made it worse.”
“Mr. Chensu is always annoying, San-Kyung,” La-Iin whispered. San-Kyung flinched and crashed into Dosa-Mina. “What do you say we cast out on our own?”
“No!”
“A-hem.” Mr. Chensu narrowed his eyes. “Anyway, we’ll be letting you all go off on your own soon enough. But before we do, there’s one last place we think you students should see.”
The teachers led the way to a more rural part of Neigghed that to La-Iin, looked as though it had been abandoned; the ground was dotted with bare patches and tall grass. Up ahead in the distance, a large statue stood.
“This is the statue of the dictator who ruled over Neigghed like a certain family rules North Vaelyn. As you can see, it’s since been defaced in more ways than one. Here you can see that not all the population of Neigghed is forgiving and pacifistic. Some have written some violent and profane graffiti on here….like “dick-tator”. Ha ha. Very funny.”
“Did you just laugh, San-Kyung?”
“No, I didn’t.”
“Oh, he totally laughed.
“You shut up!”
“Anyway, let’s head back before you all go off. Heading off in different directions in the middle of nowhere is a recipe for disaster.”
The students followed the teachers back to the hotel. San-Kyung glanced over his shoulder one last time at the statue and stifled a giggle.

“Now we finally have the freedom to go off on our own!”
“A freedom we usually have?”
“Yeah, but we haven’t had it in Neigghed yet! Come on, let’s go!”
Dosa-Mina led the way as the two looked at the small buildings in Neigghed. San-Kyung was intrigued, but only mildly. Neigghed had several places to visit, but it was swarming with all sorts of people wishing each other well. It seemed like a stereotypical utopia–and it made him sick.
“Hello there!” One called out. “Would you like to visit one of our facilities? We have ones perfect for a couple like you! Don’t worry–we’re very accepting here!”
“What the hell?”
“You’ve got the wrong idea,” Dosa-Mina said.
“Oh? Our apologies! Well, there are plenty of places for anyone to go! You’re welcome to go anyplace you like!”
“Calm down, San-Kyung,” Dosa-Mina whispered. “This is just them being polite. They’re known for being kind here.”
“Well, it makes me sick!”
“Wow, look at San-Kyung. Can’t even take a little politeness without getting all worked up.”
“Yeah, kinda cute though, isn’t it?”
“Llanni, are you high?”
San-Kyung sighed. “Let’s just keep going.”
Dosa-Mina glanced around Neigghed. It reminded him of a peaceful village. “This place is like the opposite of Hledshess. I like the way it’s set up, though.”
“Dosa-Mina, you’re more interested in this place than I am. Where do you want to go?”
“I don’t know. There are a lot of places around here, but a lot of them seem like eateries and I am not hungry in the slightest.”
“Eateries aren’t the only type of place around here, you know.”
San-Kyung groaned. La-Iin was sitting on a bench nearby, Fer-Shi at her side. “San-Kyung, it’s wonderful to see you!”
“Have you been stalking us?”
“Actually, this is complete coincidence,” La-Iin said confidently. “But I’m happy to see you regardless. Rival-boy is completely useless when it comes to finding fun places in Neigghed–meanwhile, I and Fer-Shi have found quite a few.”
“There are a lot of fun places if you know where to look. Did you know you’re in the eatery district right now?”
“That would explain all the eateries,” Dosa-Mina mused. “What kind of good locations have you found?”
“Don’t humor her!”
“I’m just asking for the general direction.”
“If you don’t want to be anywhere near me, it was a mistake to ask, rival-boy,” La-Iin said. “I’ll only show you if you accompany me and Fer-Shi to that place!”
“If you want to find another district, just take a left or right at the beginning of the eatery district. The first eatery is called Smoothie Sandwiches!”
“Smoothie Sandwiches?” Dosa-Mina began to look nauseous. “Er, why don’t we go now, San-Kyung?”
“Sure.” The two took off, and as soon as they did, La-Iin grabbed Fer-Shi by the collar of her shirt.
“Why would you tell them that!? This was my perfect chance!”
“That’s exactly why I told them! Can’t we just have fun on our own!?”
“A school trip is the perfect opportunity for rival-boy to make his move. He and San-Kyung are in the same room! The only thing that made me feel good last night was the fact that my and Sara’s room was next-door to theirs. I didn’t hear anything but who’s to say there isn’t a makeout district!?”
“You’re over-blowing this, La-Iin. You seemed so calm yesterday, so what’s got you all riled up today?”
“I’M ANGRY AT MAMA!” She yelled. “Come on, Fer-Shi! If we chase after them, we might be able to catch up to them!”
“Hey, wait!” La-Iin grabbed Fer-Shi’s hand and, propelling herself faster with her wings, chased after the faint outlines of San-Kyung and Dosa-Mina in the distance.

“This place is a lot of fun, don’t you think, Ai-Reia? Everyone is so nice here in Neigghed!”
“It is a nice break from all the bustle of Bledger,” she said.
“Bledger doesn’t bustle all that much. Though I guess I can understand how it can seem that way sometimes.”
“Mm.” Ai-Reia lowered her head. “Why do you two even want to spend time with me? I’m a young child and you two are adolescents. I don’t understand.”
“You’re our friend, Ai-Reia. And like I said, Cahongyun and Morushei are friends and they have an even wider age gap!”
“And please try not to worry about the lifespan factor. We don’t want to make you upset by being your friend–we want to make this time better. But I think I need to ask this. Would it make you happier if I stopped trying to be your friend now, or if you had lots of fond memories of me when I’m gone?”
“I…I don’t know.”
“In-Dei, you shouldn’t change the conversation to that,” Shuera-Kaizima scolded. “We are here to have fun.”
“You’re right,” he said. “And that’s just what we’ll do. Don’t worry about it, Ai-Reia. Right now we’re here to have fun with you!”
Ai-Reia smiled. “Thank you, you two.”
Slowly but surely the kindness the two showed her was starting to make her feel just a slight bit better. It felt to her like the happiness that was buried by her constant self-reminders of their lifespans was starting to slowly peek its way out, and it pushed away her memories of her recent breakdown as she chased after the two.
“I think she’s gaining on us!”
Ai-Reia stopped in place when she noticed San-Kyung and Dosa-Mina run by. They quickly outpaced even Shuera-Kaizima and Im-Dei, who were still running ahead until they noticed the two. They were followed not long after by La-Iin and Fer-Shi, who were running almost as fast.
“What’s going on?” Shuera-Kaizima asked.
“I don’t know,” Ai-Reia sighed. “And I’m certain I don’t want to.”

***

“You students sure look like you’ve had a lot of fun,” Mr. Chensu said that night at dinner.
“If by fun you mean getting chased down and harassed by a little girl…!”
“Calm yourself, San-Kyung.”
“Well, we leave for home tomorrow, so anything else you might want to do in Neigghed you’ll have to do early. We leave a little bit before twelve.”
“What would be the point in doing anything at all?” La-Iin asked.
“I dunno, just for fun?”
“Well, anyway, I hope you all enjoyed the trip. And I hope it made you feel a little bit less stressed. Bledger might be a more dangerous place to live than Neigghed right now, but maybe the morals we’ve learned here will help you feel a little bit better about the future. …unless you’re one of our evil students.”
La-Iin and San-Kyung looked away.
“Hey, teach, can I room with Fer-Shi tonight?”
Mr. Chensu blinked. “But aren’t you rooming with Miss Sara, Miss Cahongyun?”
“I am.”
“Why the sudden change of heart?”
“No particular reason.”
“I’m fine if she changes rooms,” Shuu-Kena said. “We actually somewhat talked about it already.”
“Well, if you say so…”

“Did you really talk to Sara about rooming with me tonight?”
“Sort of.”
“What changed your mind?”
“Nothing in particular.”
Fer-Shi growled. “You never tell me anything!”
“I’m not telling you because if I told you, you would just get mad.”
“Now I really want to know.”
“Oh, come on,” La-Iin sighed. She laid down and pulled the covers over her. “If you feel bad about me hanging out with Sara more, don’t. Stop being so jealous.”
“Is that why you’re rooming with me tonight?”
“What do you think?”
Fer-Shi shook her head. “I don’t know what to think. But, um…thanks, La-Iin.”

“Say, San-Kyung, would you say this school trip was a success?”
“In what way?”
“Did it help make you feel a little bit better about living?”
San-Kyung tried to push away the memories of being chased down by La-Iin as he thought back on the trip.
“…yeah, I guess so. But not for the reason the Neiggheds would want.”

As Ai-Reia settled down that night, she felt content.
‘I really do have friends who will stick by my side, don’t I?’

—–
On the way back to Bledger, most of the students had fallen asleep. The ones who had not still seemed exhausted.
“You know, this was a pretty fun school trip. I’m glad the Principal reminded us.”
“Me too. I hope next year’s is fun as well.”
“Next year’s?”
“Yes. It happens every time there’s a Grade 12 student, right? Don’t you remember? Mr. Molshei, Mr. Dslellular, Mr. Ferister and Mr. Yuuldang are in Grade 12 next year. And the year after that, Mr. Elyshen and Miss Fheyundaer. And after that, Mr. Fyuori, Mr. Pinyon and Miss Llanni. And so on until the year Miss Shaejaein and Miss Auedarna graduate, and that’s not counting any new students who join. And even then, just a year later Miss Sanhuun, Mr. Gyurkang and Mr. Veiner would be in Grade 12.”
Mr. Chensu’s eyes widened. “Aren’t Miss Shaejaein and Miss Auedarna in Grade 6!?”
Theasis nodded. Mr. Chensu nearly fainted in response.