That was the best description for how Ai looked at the moment. Her face was red and puffed up, covered in a sheen of sweat. Her breaths were gasping as she struggled with each breath.
There was nothing Dee could do to help. Nothing. Dee felt so helpless.
It had happened so fast. One minute they'd been trying new treats they'd gotten from a small agricultural village. The next, Ai was choking for air, eyes bulging in horror and desperation. Julie had been quick to stop and pull out the med kit. It was experience on his end that saved her in those first few minutes. Otherwise she could've—
Dee cut that thought off, instead looking around her at the various trees and bushes. It was pretty lucky they'd been where they were, in a place full of green things. They were able to use the plants to their advantage when the medication ran out.
"She'll be fine, right?" she asked Julie again for what Dee was certain was the hundredth time. Her eyes uncharacteristically pleaded with him where he was sitting across from her, on Ai's other side. "Right?!"
Julie has the same stern frown on his face as he crushed up more of the plants he'd hastily gathered, preparing another dose to give to the half-Gravekeeper. The crushing silence from the man that had reigned ever since Ai first reacted made Dee's heart sink like an anchor. Why hadn't he answered her? Surely this was an easy fix? Something so, so common couldn't be that hard to treat!
"It's just an allergic reaction!" Dee said with a raised voice, leaning forward over Ai. "Mint! She's allergic to mint so it must be really weak and stuff...right?"
Julie calmly set down the bowl and pestle. Then, suddenly, he grabbed Dee's shoulders firmly and said sternly, "She might not be okay, Dee. This is a bad reaction. I'm using all the anti-inflammatories around, including these plants that Scar has been collecting for me. But it might not be enough." Sympathy with a touch of pity shone in his eyes. "Ai might not make it."
Dee froze. Then, stumbling backwards stiffly away from Julie's firm grasp, she mumbled, "You...you're wrong. This isn't how Ai'll go out. It can't be!" Her head shook violently as she said far more loudly, "We've seen and gotten through so many things! Gravekeeper graveyards! A town full of death cultists! Long stretches of boredom out as far as the eye could see! And Ostia! And, and she's going out by allergies?! No! Just, no!"
"Dee…" Julie sighed. "The best we can do is give her these ground-up plants and hope they're enough."
"They'll be enough!" she insisted. "Ai will be fine!"
Julie grimly nodded and was quiet for a minute. Then he said, "Someone will have to give her this plant every hour. It's the best chance she has."
"I'll do it!" Dee said a little more eagerly than she meant to. More calmly, she repeated, "I'll do it. Don't want anyone messing it up."
Julie stared. "I realize you two have been together for a long time—"
"—but you can't take this on yourself. We should take turns. If you want, you can take the morning while I take night. Staying awake all night won't help anyone."
Dee puffed out her cheeks. "I don't care! Even if it's your turn, I'll still stay awake to watch her."
Julie then sighed. "You can stay awake if you want. I can't stop you. But it will just make your shift harder."
Dee looked down at Ai. She looked like she was suffering so much…
Dee would do anything to make sure Ai gave her one of those innocent smiles again.
"I can handle it."
As Dee proclaimed, she stayed up the entirety of Julie's shift. Scar came back with a pile of those plants that Julie and Dee took turns grinding up. Dee closely watched Julie give Ai the plants, memorizing the best way to get Ai to swallow the mush.
Finally, after several tense hours of simply watching Ai struggle to survive, Julie stretched his arms and looked at the moon and stars.
"I think it's about time you took over, Dee," Julie said, interrupting what he was going to say next with an ever-increasing frequency of yawns. "I'm ready to hit the hay."
To Dee's frustration, she yawned too.
Julie's lip turned downwards. "I told you—"
"I'm just doing it 'cause you're doing it," Dee defended. "Just go to sleep already! I can handle taking care of Ai."
Julie looked over towards Celica and Scar, who were fast asleep across the campfire. Dee knew he wanted to crawl into bed next to Scar. Dee wished she could have done the same thing with Ai, if just for comfort.
"...alright. I'll leave this to you." Julie got up and walked over to the makeshift bed that held his Gravekeeper and their adopted child. "Remember: every hour."
"Yeah, yeah...I got it." Dee made a shooing motion as he laid down. "Will you just go to sleep already?"
"Don't you worry. I'm beat enough to sleep on rocks!" Julie chuckled at his little joke before he settled down next to Scar. Sure enough, it wasn't even five minutes later that saw him snoozing away.
Dee snorted. Quitter.
She looked down at Ai, letting a mild sense of dread sink in. Her girlfriend looked just as bad as before. Still gasping, still swollen. How long did allergic reactions last? Did her being half-Gravekeeper have anything to do with it? There was no real way to tell. Did it mean this would be a battle that lasted days?
Dee shook her head. No. Things would be fine. It wouldn't be too much longer before Ai was back to normal. Then Dee could tease her about being allergic to something so ridiculous.
She took some of the paste that Julie had prepared ahead of time and copied how he'd given it to Ai, making sure to massage her throat to get her to swallow it all. It was an obvious struggle, but her girlfriend managed to ingest it.
Dee frowned as she rubbed the remaining mush on her fingers into the grass. Her own throat felt tight as she gulped her fears down.
"Ai will be fine. She'll pull through. Everything will be nice and hunky-dory and sunshine and rainbows. Ai will be fine," Dee chanted to herself, trying to make herself believe it. Every time she looked down at Ai's face, though, it brought on another wave of worry.
She tried distracting herself by watching the stars through the branches and leaves. They were always a comfort to her, even back before they'd gone back to Ostia. Silent, moving ever so slowly. The calm they emitted in turn calmed Dee. Ai didn't really understand, but accepted that sometimes Dee needed some time with her empty night sky.
Hours passed like that. Dee gave Ai the medicinal herbs, then resumed watching the stars. Just like that, over and over. It was soothing to numb out the thoughts on Ai's state. Because Ai would be fine.
Dee sighed through her nose as she saw the stars begin to fade, giving way to the dawn of a new day. She looked down at Ai and tried comparing her now to how she was at the start of her watch.
She was still red, swollen, and breathing hard. But...it was less. Her cheeks and lips had shrunken, and there were now splotches of fleshy color on her cheeks.
Scar stirred then, awoken no doubt by the rays of the sun.
Good. That meant Dee could finally relax.
As Scar looked around, Dee mumbled sleepily, "Your turn."
Scar pursed her lips, then replied, "This one needs to feed and change Celi—"
"Don't care, your turn." Dee flopped down next to Ai and cuddled close. She began to doze off, but then had an idea. Before she let herself succumb to sleep, she leaned in close to Ai and whispered in her ear, mustering up all her power as the Witch of the West.
"You'll survive and watch the stars with me."
A loud 'thump' and a bounce that lifted her off where she was laying shook Dee from her sleep.
She blearily pushed herself up to sit, hunched over in a post-sleep daze. Through her half-open eyes she could see the inside of the car and the landscape zooming by. It was fading to nighttime, the sun disappearing under the horizon and the stars beginning to spring to life in the sky.
She was confused. Hadn't they been…?
"Morning! Or, should I say, night?" Julie smirked at his joke. He looked at Dee through the rear view mirror. "You were out pretty hard. It was really easy to load you into the car."
Dee finally woke up all the way. She swiftly turned her head about, looking for—
She could see tufts of her hair sticking up from behind the rear seats. Dee immediately hopped into the rear seat to Scar's complaint and looked at her girlfriend who was laying out in the trunk area.
She looked so much better. Her cheeks were barely swollen and the red had completely vanished. And, to Dee's great relief, she was looking up at her.
"Hi," Ai said weakly through plump lips.
"Ai…" Dee did the first thing that crossed her mind.
She reached over and bopped Ai on the head.
"Owwww~" Ai whined. "What did I do?!"
"How can you not know you're allergic to mint?!" Dee asked incredulously. "It's, like, super common!"
Ai looked sad as she mumbled, "We didn't have many traders come to the village. And we just haven't come across it on our travels."
"Until yesterday," Dee uttered, feeling like a terrible person for dredging up Ai's memories of her childhood home. Ai sometimes happily talked about being raised by Anna and Youki, and the way the village spoiled her. It made Dee envious sometimes. But the price Ai paid in the end...definitely not worth it.
"Well," Dee started, changing topics quick enough to cause whiplash as she began pinching one of Ai's cheeks, "it's a good thing we all knew what to do!"
Dee glanced behind her as an icy feeling went up her spine. Julie looked annoyed, but Scar looked downright menacing. She could see the red demonic aura around her!
"Erm, I mean, Julie and Scar did most of the legwork," Dee amended. She added hastily, "But I helped!"
"Julie and Scar were telling me about it." Ai frowned, then chastised, "You shouldn't have done that to yourself! You didn't have to do that!"
For me. Ai didn't say the words, but Dee knew they were there.
"It was worth it," Dee said warmly. Cheekily she added, "I wanted to make sure that it was being done right. And who better to make sure than yours truly?"
Ai teared up just as she always did when Dee got a bit mushy. The two of them watched each other for a few moments, just enjoying the fact that they were together and alive.
"It's time to camp," Julie suddenly said, breaking the trance. "It's getting too dark to safely drive."
"I agree," Scar said, giving Dee a sideways disapproving glance.
"Good! Ai needs all the rest she can get, and the road isn't the best place for that," Dee announced.
"Don't worry. I see a nice clearing up ahead. It should be nice, sleeping completely under the stars," Julie said. "Romantic."
Scar gave him a subtle smile while Celica pulled lightly at Scar's hair.
Dee rolled her eyes.
Dee was the last one at the campfire, eating her fill of the hearty stew Julie had cooked. There were potatoes, carrots, celery, some kind of meat...she was a little afraid to ask what kind of meat. The only thing that should keep for their travels is jerky and salted meats, and she didn't remember Julie buying or trading for either.
Oh well. It didn't matter much. She trusted Julie to know what he was doing.
She was just beginning to slurp down the last of it when a hand on her shoulder took her by complete surprise.
Her bowl and the remains of her stew flew out of her hands and bounced hard against the ground. The stew splattered messily into the campfire, putting all but a few embers out.
"Ah!" Ai's voice cried out behind her. Dee grumpily twisted around to find Ai standing there waving her hands apologetically. She rushed, "Sorry! I'm sorry! I didn't mean to—I was just trying to—"
"Haaaaaaa…" Dee let out an exasperated breath as she watched her girlfriend freak out. Sometimes Ai was such a weirdo. Grumpily, she complained, "You couldn't have said something? Gave me some kind of warning before you spooked me with your weird attempt at catching my attention?"
"Sorry!" Ai repeated. "I just...wanted to know…" she began pressing her fingers together "...did you want to watch the stars with me?"
Dee blinked. "Watch the stars?"
Ai nodded enthusiastically. "Yes! I feel like it's a good idea. Like Julie said, it's romantic!"
The purple-haired girl looked up at the stars. "Romantic, eh?" She chuckled, deciding to simply let the spilled stew go. "Yeah, sure. Let's watch the stars together."
An extra set of stars appeared in Ai's eyes as she seemed to get completely into her idea. "Alright!" She energetically grabbed Dee's hand and dragged her towards a large open area close to the camp. "This is gonna be great!"
Dee struggles to stay on her feet, stumbling behind her excited girlfriend. She didn't quite get Ai's obsession with watching the stars with her. It wasn't like she couldn't do it any other time!
Ai finally stopped in the middle of a sea of grass. The long stems and leaves swayed in the light wind, shimmering slightly in the moonlight. The trees lining the small meadow set a picturesque scene that bordered the sky well. Dee had to admit, the ambience was top-notch.
"Lay down!" Ai said cheerily, bouncing down onto the ground and splaying out.
Dee gave her girlfriend a half-smile. As she laid down next to her, she chuckled, "You're so goofy."
Strangely, Ai gave Dee one of her patented innocent smiles. "You love me for it!"
A full, warm smile came to Dee's face. "Yes, I do."
Dee settled down, propping her head against her hands. Ai curled into Dee's side, her head tilted so she could see the stars.
They laid there for a long time, simply enjoying being together. Ai's steady breathing plus the normal calm of the sea of stars was lulling Dee into a delightful trance.
Perfection. This, right here, was everything Dee could ever want. The sea of stars above and her girlfriend laying next to her, enjoying the sights with her…
It had to be heaven.