Chapter 048: One kiss

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"Anni!" Rink shouted as she threw open the door to the master bedroom, only to receive a growl in response. There, on the bed, was Aniara—and next to the bed, quite unexpectedly, stood a bear.
"Rink, are you- what the hell?" Allen said as he came in behind Rink and saw the beast. It was of considerable size, being over a meter tall standing on all fours, and at least twice as long, with dark brown fur. It turned to look at the duo. "How is there a bear here?"
"I- I have no idea!" The bear roared at the two of them and started to advance, but faster than either Rink or the bear expected, Allen changed into half-animal form and charged at the target in front of them. It was knocked off balance by the sudden assault, allowing Allen to start pushing it backwards, away from the bed.

Lying on said bed was Aniara, wearing a silvery silk nightgown, with slashes across her chest and torso, clearly from the bear's claws. She was bleeding profusely. Rink ran over to her, grabbing her shoulders gently.

"Anni? Anni!" she shouted, but got no response. She could at least tell that Aniara was still breathing, but she wasn't opening her eyes. Before she could do much else, her attention turned back to the other struggle in the room, as Allen was thrown backwards past her.
"Oh... right! We have to take care of that," Rink said and took a deep breath.
"Just... give me a push," Allen said without taking his eyes off the bear. "Do your thing."
"Are you su-" Rink didn't have the time to finish her question before Allen charged the bear again, and she had to trust he knew what he was doing. She moved behind him, with Allen and the bear lined up in front of her. The moment they clashed again, she let out a forceful bellow in their direction, giving Allen some extra speed and power in his approach, allowing him to push his adversary all the way to the wall—and through the window behind it. The window shattered as the two of them went through it and fell to the ground below, but Rink didn't take the time to confirm the results of the defenestration. Instead, her attention turned back to who she had come here for in the first place. Aniara still hadn't moved, and with her wounds and her pregnancy, there was no way she was going to get out of here on her own. It was obvious to Rink what she had to do—she gently placed her arms underneath Aniara, and with all the strength she could muster, lift her up. She carried her, quickly but carefully, out of the bedroom and down the hall. The flames were picking up around her as she descended the stairs, vaguely noting that Markus and Charon were still on the second floor, but she didn't pause for any reason as she headed out the front door.

The servants of the house had remained in front of the building, and as soon as they saw Rink come outside carrying Aniara, they started walking up to her. Rink laid Aniara down on the ground as they met and dropped to her knees, breathing heavily.
"Mistress Miman!" Elsa exclaimed as she saw the state of Aniara. All of the servants tried to approach her, and were all talking over each other.
"We need to get her to the clinic!" Rink shouted to interrupt them. "Is... is there a cart or something?"
"Yes, but... we don't have any horses or oxen to pull it..."
"Then allow me," a voice came from behind them. Charon and Markus had come out as well, with Harry on Charon's back, Isagel on Markus's, and Robe holding Markus's hand. They handed over the three of them to the servants as Charon changed into half-boar form. "Prepare the wagon!" he growled, and two of the male servants hurried off to bring it up.
"What about Harry, and..."
"They are in less need of urgent care," Charon said.
"The kids are scared but mostly unharmed..." Markus said and crouched down next to Rink and Aniara. "Harry protected them at the cost of some of his own bones. He needs to get to the clinic as well, but he'll live either way." He pulled out a roll of bandages and started wrapping it around Aniara's wounds. "I'll make sure everybody is alright here. But her bleeding needs to be stopped. That's the best I can do here, and it's not going to hold for long. If she's been bleeding like that since before we came in... just go!"
"O... okay," Rink stammered as the two servants came back, pulling a small cart that Charon allowed himself to get strapped to. Rink laid Aniara into it and climbed on herself, putting Aniara's head in her lap. "Will you be alright with the two of us riding?"
"I still have some energy left to give," Charon growled. He put another pill in his mouth and swallowed it, then shook his body before taking off.
"...wait... where's Allen?" Markus asked right as they left, but Rink was already too far away to reply.


Allen landed on top of the bear when the two of them hit the ground in a cascade of shattered glass. The force of the landing had allowed him to drive his claws into his adversary, but he was soon thrown off and the bear got back up unexpectedly swiftly.

"A-Allen?" Muse had dropped her lantern and nocked an arrow before Allen and his enemy had even hit the ground, while Mirise had stepped away and leaned over, shielding the cat from any glass with her own body. Some shards hit her, but she was far enough from the heaviest concentration that she only suffered some minor cuts. She had also, slightly subconsciously, started transforming her hair. "What is-"
"Stand back!" Allen growled as the bear roared at him, and the two of them again charged at each other. Allen was clearly struggling, and had it not been for the energy boost from Charon, he would have been overpowered in short order. The bear raised one of its paws and struck Allen, who stumbled backwards. The bear started approaching him, but Muse fired her arrow in front of its face, hoping it would scare it off. While it caused the bear to pause momentarily, it showed no signs of retreating, and instead turned towards Muse. Before it could close in on her, Allen leaped at the side of the bear, who was clearly not expecting him to be back up already. Allen dug his claws into its body again and managed to draw blood before he was thrown off, at which point Muse fired another arrow—this one hitting the other side of the bear before bursting into flame. With a roar, the bear turned and quickly backed into the forest before starting to run away from them.
"Finally," Muse said, watching it escape.
"No! I'm not done with him," Allen said and started running after it.
"There's something I have to find out!"
"Then... let me come too!" Muse yelled and ran towards Allen, who slowed down slightly.
"Fine, get on, but fast!"
"What should I-" Mirise started saying as Muse got on Allen's back. She had realized there wasn't much she could do against the bear, especially not as she was still holding the cat, so had stayed out of the preceding tussle.
"Just go to the others!" Muse shouted to her as they ran after the bear. "Tell them about... all of this!"
"O... kay," Mirise said, but Allen and Muse were already out of earshot.
"So, what did you find?" Allen asked as he kept up the chase.
"That the fire wasn't natural," Muse replied. "Someone set fire to the forest and made sure it spread to the house. We couldn't confirm anything else before you came flying out... what happened in there?"
"Assault and arson, eh...? Markus and Charon went to check another room, while we found Rink's ex, who was being attacked by that bear... she helped me push him out. He's the one responsible, then!"
"But... a bear couldn't have set that fire, there was oil and gunpowder..."
"Oh, that is most definitely not just a bear... that's a zoan," Allen snarled. "His movement wasn't one of an animal. I think he wanted us to think he was just a bear, so he never transformed or said anything... that strength, though... he could have overpowered us both."
"So why did he flee?"
"Even when you're that strong, you've gotta pick your battles," Allen said as they reached the end of the forest, spotting the bear approach the edge of the island. "He clearly didn't count on resistance, and having already encountered two unexpected devil fruit users, and then you... he couldn't know what other reinforcements there might be, and continuing the murder streak was... not... important enough... haah..."
"Are you okay?"
"I'm... starting to feel light-headed," Allen panted and started slowing down.
"Already? Didn't you say you had energy for another hour?"
"I spent most of it... grappling with him... gonna be hard to catch him like this..." Allen continued, and with the bear already having a significant lead on them, Muse fired off two arrows in rapid succession. Aiming at a moving target from an unsteady position was not ideal, however, and both missed.
"We've cornered him, though," Muse said as she readied a third arrow. "He's just got the ocean ahead!"
"Don't be so sure..." Allen said, and just as Muse let her arrow fly, the bear reached the edge of Gondol... and jumped off of it, without pausing.
"What? Why did he..."
"He wasn't alone..."

The two of them continued to the point where the bear had jumped off, and could just barely make out that something was moving in the water, away from the island... towards...

"Allen..." Muse said as she dismounted.
"I see it too... just barely, but..."
"Let's see if we can get a better glimpse..." Muse said and pulled out another arrow, coating it with the conductive gel as she did. Taking aim above the shape she could only barely make out in front of them, she fired.

They waited.

One moment.

Two moments.

As the arrow discharged, the flash of light further revealed the silhouette of a large, dark ship, which was quite obviously where the bear was headed. With how dark the ship itself was, the storm clouds covering the sky, and no other sources of light being present close by, it was almost perfectly camouflaged by the night, clearly on purpose. As continuing the chase was impossible at this point, as was trying to hit anything without vision on it, Muse and Allen—who had transformed back to his human form—just watched as the ship slowly started moving.

"What... what even was all of this? A bear, a storm, that ship..." Muse said while she folded her bow back up and put it in her quiver. "What about the others? Are they okay?"
"I took the worst of it, I think," Allen replied. "Don't know about Markus and Charon... but Rink was fine... which is more than I can say about her girl..."


Charon raced towards the clinic as fast as he could. He knew he didn't have much strength left, as the last pill he had taken in combination with the one he had ingested earlier meant he was currently operating at a capacity that not even a zoan-strengthened fishman body should really be able to handle. He knew that if he stopped, it would be a long time before he could start moving again, so he had no choice but to keep running until they reached their destination. Somebody's life depended on it.

Rink held Aniara's hand and gently stroked her face as they rode through the rain. The blood had already started seeping through the now wet bandages, starting to dye parts of Rink's nightgown a deep crimson to go with the muddy brown it had acquired on the trip in the other direction. As they started approaching the town, Rink felt Aniara move, if just a little. Looking down, she saw that she also had opened her eyes slightly.

"Anni? Are you- can you hear me? Anni!"
"I... Ri..."
"Oh, Anni, please..."
"Ri... Rink..." Aniara said, weakly.
"I'm here..."
"I'm... so sorry..."
"I was... I should have... thought of you..."
"Don't talk, Anni... we're getting you to the clinic."
"Sing... sing a song for me, Rin-rin..."
"A... a song? At... at this time?"
"What... what do you want to hear?" Rink sniffled.
"Sing... the one... with the pig..."
"But... okay. Anything... anything for you, Anni..." Rink swallowed before starting to hum.

Up and down... down and up...
Pigs are swimming in a cup and...
A mouse in a house, curses her blouse...

Given the situation at hand, it was perhaps no surprise that it was not quite a perfect rendition of the song. Rink kept it up for a few more bars, before she felt Aniara's body slumping down, just as they passed the inn.

"Anni? Anni!" Rink leaned down, holding Aniara's head. "We're almost there!"
"Rin-rin... thank you... for everything..." Aniara said before flashing a weak smile as her eyes began to close.
"No, no!" Rink shouted. She panicked, and having no idea what to do, she did the one thing she had wanted to do since the day she left Gondol, the one thing she had dreamed of for over ten years—she kissed Aniara. A deep, lingering kiss, a kiss that Aniara at first welcomed and reciprocated to the extent she was able.

A kiss that only ended when Rink felt that Aniara's body had gone entirely limp.

A kiss that lasted the rest of Aniara's life.

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