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This was the place. The tree. This was where Rink had often met Aniara in the past, when they had been together, first as friends, then as lovers. When she watched Gondol disappear behind her while on that trading vessel, Rink didn't think she'd ever be back. But now, here she was, having arranged a meeting with the same girl she had met there so many times before. She wasn't even sure if Aniara was going to show up, but now that she had been forced to come back, not even making an attempt to reconnect would be something she'd regret forever. Though she wasn't actually sure that their meeting again would be good for her either...
Rink waited. It wasn't like she had anything better to do today, either way. If Aniara had gotten the note, if she had decided to come to the meeting... Rink figured she would arrive within the next hour. She'd written to meet her after mid-day, and the sun had passed its apex already. Rink looked up towards the sky, then down at herself. She'd made herself up as pretty as she possibly could, all for her. Somewhere, in the back of her head, she still had this idea of winning her back... to be her girlfriend again.
Over half an hour with no Aniara passed before Rink heard someone heading towards her, approaching from a direction that would only make sense if they were heading for the tree. They didn't seem to be in a hurry, walking rather slowly. Rink saw a figure appear on top of the hill—and even though more than ten years had passed since she last saw Aniara, there was no mistaking who it was. Despite everything, Rink managed to stop herself from running over and throwing her arms around the woman she loved.
Aniara slowly approached the tree and the person standing beneath it. Her pregnancy wasn't far along enough yet to prevent her from moving around on her own, but she took it slower than usual anyway. She had barely believed the letter she had received, but nobody on the island who had known both her and Rink would do something like that to prank her... she had to go see for herself, but had elected to not tell her husband that she was going to—if it was true—meet up with her old girlfriend.
So here they were. Aniara and Rink, facing each other again. A few tears started falling down Rink's cheek as Aniara came closer. Rink studied every aspect of the approaching figure, as if it was the first time she saw her. That long, blonde hair, flowing in the breeze. Her blue eyes, that Rink always thought had a bit of a sparkle to them. Aniara's fair skin. She had a white, roomy dress on, and a necklace with a round silver locket around her neck. Every step that brought her closer to Rink caused more and more emotions to bubble up inside Rink, and it was a wonder she hadn't started bawling by the time Aniara was close enough that Rink walked up to her.
"Anni... you actually came..." she said with a bit of a sniffle.
"It's really you..." Aniara replied. "Rink... I couldn't believe when..."
"Of course it's me! And... now I'm here! With you!" Rink exclaimed and went in for a hug. Aniara accepted it and embraced Rink in return. Rink held on to her for a while with her eye closed, resting her head on Aniara's shoulder, before pulling back a little and looking up—as Aniara had grown even taller than Rink in the years that had passed—at Aniara's face, taking it all in. Aniara, for her part, looked at Rink with some concern. "...is something wrong?" Rink asked.
"What happened to your eye?"
"Oh, that's just... well... I was involved in a bit of an accident when I was out at sea... lost that eye..."
"What have you even been doing since you left?"
"A lot of things! And I... I would be glad to tell you all about it, now that we can... be together again."
"It must have been hard to lose an eye like that."
"It definitely took some getting used to... but you know what the worst part about it is?"
"Now that I finally get to see you again... I can only see you half as much."
Aniara giggled. "I think that's the corniest line you've ever said to me, and with how you used to be, that's actually kind of impressive."
"Nevermind, I'm here now, with you again... just like... back when we..." Rink said and moved her face closer to Aniara's.
"Rink, what are you-" Aniara noticed Rink was moving in for a kiss, so she let go and turned her face away. "Rink, we can't. You know I'm married now. I have children of my own..."
"I've thought of you every day since I left, how we used to be together! I just... I want to be together with you again!" Rink said and brushed Aniara's cheek with her lips.
"Rink, no!" Aniara said and pushed Rink away—perhaps a little too forcefully, as Rink stumbled and fell backwards, catching herself so she ended up sitting on the ground. "I... I'm sor-"
"So is that all..." Rink said, looking down at the ground.
"What do you-"
"Is that all I ever was to you?" Rink half-screamed, looking up at Aniara with tears falling from her eye. "A... a plaything for you to just... throw away when you're done with so you can go be with someone else?" she continued as she stood up.
"Rink, no, I-"
"I... I..." was all Rink managed to get out between her sobs before turning around and taking off towards the inn, crying. Aniara watched her old friend disappear in the distance, not knowing that if she wasn't too upset to notice, Rink would have heard her quiet sobbing as well.
Mirise and Muse were relaxing in the girls' room—that is, Mirise was going over some of her maps and Muse was doing some maintenance on her bow—when Rink burst inside, winded and with her mascara running down her red face. She didn't acknowledge either of them, but instead just went straight for her bed and dropped herself into it, face first. Mirise and Muse looked at her and then each other, before walking over to Rink's bed. Muse sat down next to her.
"So, um... how did..." she started.
"Terribly!" Rink shouted into the pillow.
"Was it... really that bad?"
"Yes," Rink replied and rolled over to look at Muse.
"What happened?" Mirise asked.
"I hugged her, I yelled at her, and I ran away from her..." Rink said with a sigh. "Again."
"I don't know what I was thinking," she continued. "Why did I think I could just snuggle up to her and go for... I wanted it to be like before. But it's never like before. I don't even know if before was like before."
"You... kind of lost me there," Muse said.
"Forget it," Rink said. "This was a bad idea. The sooner we can leave, the better. I'm just going to lie here until Cassandra's done."
"No, you're not."
"Probably not, but I can try!" Rink rolled over again to face the wall, hugging her pillow.
"How about you clean your face first?" Muse commented.
"Fine," Rink said and stood up, disappearing into the bathroom. She came out a few minutes later, her face and fingernails now devoid of any makeup, and wearing only underwear as she had taken off her dress and jewelry. She tossed the dress on her luggage, not caring how crumpled it would get, and dumped the pile of jewelry on the table next to her bed, which she then jumped right back into and dragged the covers over herself completely.
"Rink..." Muse started.
"I'm not in," the bed replied.
"Well, uh... we were going to get some lunch when the rest of the boys are all back... should we bring back some food for you too?"
"...meh," Rink groaned.
"Come on, you need it."
"Alright... come on, Mirise," Muse said and went for the door. "I think we should give her some space."
"Oh... okay," Mirise replied. "I, um, hope you'll feel better soon," she told Rink before the two of them left their room and knocked on the door to the boys' room instead. Allen, being the only one who had returned so far and wearing some of his newly acquired clothes, opened it to let them in.
"I heard a slam, everything good?"
"Well, Rink went to meet her ex... and it turned sour, apparently. So she's pretending to be a bed right now."
"She'll come around... I hope," Mirise added. "I've never seen her like this, though..."
"We're stuck here for a while no matter what," Muse said and sat down on the closest bed in the room. She didn't care who had been sleeping in it. "She can't stay in for three weeks straight anyway."
"Boat's gonna take a while, so..."
"Well, that shouldn't really matter to me, anyway..." Allen stated.
"What do you mean?"
"Remember, the deal I had with blondie was that I'd stay on his boat until we got to the next island with people on it. That's here, so..."
"Huh... thinking about it, if Markus was only going to tag along until James's leg healed, and since we'll be here for that long..."
"This might be where we part ways," Allen said. "I do owe Rink ten thousand beli, though."
"Are you... really not going to come with us any longer?" Mirise asked with a bit of concern. It was clear she had already grown fond of all their new companions.
"Well... Markus is still wanted... maybe staying here for a while wouldn't be such a bad idea," Muse said. "Rink said there's never been any Marine presence here."
"I like this island myself," Allen agreed. "I could see myself living here... I'm wanted and Roth is definitely going to be on the warpath now. This island isn't too far from Garlan, though..."
"The Marines aren't going to comb every island in search of two escapees," Muse stated. "That'd take too much time and people."
"Oh... I was just... hoping we could still be..." Mirise said.
"I mean, the shipwright said that Cassandra could take a month to get fixed, so the rest of you aren't going anywhere soon either," Muse replied. "We'll be around each other for a bit longer, regardless."
The conversation didn't last any longer as the door opened, and in came Markus, followed by James hopping on a new pair of crutches, and Charon with new bandages over his wounds. After an update on why Muse and Mirise were in their room and Rink's current state of mind, the six of them headed out to get some food... and further update each other on their respective situations.
Three and a half weeks later, Cassandra was almost ready to go again. But a harsh storm had been raging over Gondol for the last week, meaning that testing her out in the water before the final procedure to get her truly prepared for a longer journey was not quite possible yet, so no departure was in sight. The seven of them still stayed at the inn together, despite at least Allen and Muse seriously considering staying on Gondol—with Muse trying to convince Markus it was a good idea. Markus was helping out at the clinic, and had made good friends with Helga, but wasn't as certain as Muse about staying. James's leg was almost fully healed; he could walk on it now but had gotten the recommendation to refrain from putting any heavy strain on it for a couple weeks more, so he still had his crutches for moving around. He absolutely intended to continue his journey, as did Mirise and Rink. Charon was completely restored already—when given proper care and rest, fishman skin healed quickly. He hadn't made his intentions fully clear, but he had been going around exploring the wild plant life of Gondol.
Rink had, unsurprisingly, not stayed in bed for all that time. She had met up with some other old friends and acquaintances, visited her parents' grave a few more times, but made sure to avoid running into or talking about Aniara or anything having to do with the mayor and his family. She had also made it clear to those that knew her that she wasn't back for good.
They had just finished having dinner at the inn. With the weather being what it was, none of them were really keen on being outside for any extended periods of time.
"Still with all this rain and thunder..." James said as Selma started clearing their table.
"I've seen extreme weather before, but this feels like it's lasted too long for West Blue," Muse added.
"You're the weather expert, Mirise... any predictions?" Markus asked.
"I don't know... I don't like this storm," Mirise replied. "It's weird. I've been over to that archive place to see if there were any sea charts or anything, and I checked the weather records that existed while I was at it... and this isn't a kind of weather that Gondol's ever had before."
"It was never like this in any of the seventeen years I lived here, for what's that worth," Rink pitched in. "And I'd remember something like this."
"I guess we're not in any real hurry, but..." James commented.
"You'd have to be insane to go out with a boat in this weather," Allen chuckled. "Especially one as small as yours."
"Tag says there's nothing more they can really do for Cassandra until she can be put in the water again," Muse said. "She's all ready for that final test run, then we- I mean, then you can get ready to leave."
"Sooo... are you really sure you're staying here?" Rink asked. "Not that I don't think that Gondol wouldn't fit you, but you don't sound like you've convinced yourself..."
"I'm... just trying to..."
"No need to elaborate," Rink interrupted. "I know you still have things to work out. What about you, Markus? Has she convinced you yet?"
"It really is a nice island, and I do feel a bit at home at the clinic... but I don't think it's where I belong, as such," Markus replied. "Muse is free to do whatever she wants, but... if you'll still have me, I'll gladly travel with you a bit longer." He looked at James.
"We do have space for you, at least," James said. "But except for Mirise and Rink, the agreement was that you could stay on until the next island where you would be fine on your own..."
"I'll be out of your hair," Allen said. "I've paid back my debts. I'll stick around here for a while. Don't think I'll settle down forever, that's not really me, but... I'll take some time to relax here. Get a change of pace, do some manual labour... let the buzz around me die down a bit. Let Roth stew in his own rage when he can't find me. And then... we'll see where I go. Maybe we'll cross paths again some time."
"Alright, then... Charon?" James asked.
"I am... undecided," Charon replied. "I have found this island quite enjoyable as well, but I am unsure that there would be any place for me here. I also believe that there are still things for me to find elsewhere. But if there is no more room for me on your ship, then I am willing to remain and try to find another means of travel on my own."
"Well, if Muse and Allen are gonna stay behind, and you sleep outside as you've used to... then I guess Markus and Charon can still come with us," James replied. While he didn't make it apparent in the same way Mirise did, he, too, had come to consider his unexpected travel companions as friends by now.
"But... if Markus is going..." Muse started.
"We... still have some time to think all of it over," Markus said. "We can't do anything until Cassandra is ready. You've already done more than enough for me, Muse... you should think about what's best for you for once. Make your own decision... don't feel like I'm holding you back."
"You and mister Roland can keep each other company here," Mirise said. "Maybe we can come visit some other time."
"There is no chance I'm coming back here again after leaving," Rink added. "Gondol's nothing but history to me now... history I'm not gonna be keen on revisiting."
"That seems a bit harsh," James said.
"Maybe. But I don't trust myself being able to handle going through returning here again after leaving... again," she replied and stood up. "Anyway... I'm going back to the room. This weather is getting me down."
"I'm heading back to the clinic," Markus said. "There's a patient I promised to assist with."
"I shall accompany you," Charon added.
"If you wanna head out in this weather, suit yourself," Allen said. "I'll stay in."
"Same," Muse agreed.
"Yeah, me too," James added.
"I... I'm going out," Mirise stated. "This storm feels so... so wrong. I want to see if I can figure out why it's like that..."
"Well, I guess you if anyone won't be bothered by getting wet," Rink chuckled. "You can give us the weather report tomorrow."
As planned, James, Rink, Muse and Allen retired to their rooms, with Mirise, Markus and Charon leaving the inn to take care of their respective businesses. Rink went to bed early while Muse did some work on her bow and arrows before going to sleep herself. Markus and Charon came back to the inn nearly two hours after they had left and headed right to bed, with all of the others already being asleep at that point—save for Mirise, who still hadn't returned.
The storm showed no signs of stopping, and in fact, seemed to be reaching something of a climax, with more loud thunderclaps and bolts of lightning than there had been before. Rink had been sleeping with her earplugs in ever since the storm started, and otherwise managed to tune out most of the sounds of the weather, but still slept somewhat uneasily.
It was in the middle of the night when Rink awoke due to someone shaking her. At first she didn't understand that it was happening for real, but when she opened her eye, she saw Mirise's face above her, her hair, face, and clothes dripping wet from having stayed out in the storm.
"Mi... Mirsh? Bweh?"
"Rink! It's... it's on fire!"
"Whe... what? Who? Who's a fire?"
"It's on fire! There was some intense lightning, and... the forest by the mayor's house caught on fire, and it spread fast... even to the building."
"Wh-what?" Rink exclaimed and rose immediately. Muse had woken up from the commotion as well, and was looking over towards Rink's bed. "Don't... don't just stand there!" Rink shouted as she slipped her feet into her sandals and ran outside, still wearing only her nightgown, taking off towards the mayor's residence. She wasn't the only one heading in that direction—more of Gondol had been woken up by what the storm had brought—but there didn't seem to be any major incidents elsewhere, it was only the mayor's place that was affected so far. Rink only had a single thought in her head as she kept running, ignoring the mud that splattered onto her feet, legs and gown with every step.
Despite how their last meeting had gone, despite everything that had happened, despite Rink knowing it was a bad idea for them to meet again... there was only one thing that mattered to her now.