Respite 8.4

2005, July 8: Phoenix, AZ, USA

"Morning, mom," I mumbled as I came down for breakfast. It was amazing how seamlessly I reintegrated my old routine into the family. New house, new sister, but the same old schedule of waking up to practice martial arts with the dawn.

"Good morning, son. How was practice?" she asked as she gave me a hug. She'd been much more physically affectionate since I woke up, though I supposed I couldn't blame her.

"Good. I'm really getting used to this body."

"Do you mind waking Riley while I set the table?"

I nodded and turned to head back upstairs. That was something else she'd been doing, trying to get me to interact with Riley as much as possible. Things were still a tad awkward, but I couldn't deny that a large part of that came from my end.

Riley was in her room, nestled into a bed that looked too big for her tiny frame. Mom gave her the smallest bedroom. It had been decorated with lots of pastel blues and pinks. One wall had been converted into a painted mural that depicted all sorts of bugs and flowers, each labeled with their vernacular and scientific names, ideal habitat, and a short blurb about their life cycle.

A shelf next to her desk was dedicated to all sorts of terrariums and potted plants, from orchids to cacti to bonsai trees. Each plant had a brass name card that listed information about it as if it was an exhibit in a botanical garden. Her room looked like it belonged in the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History, not the bedroom of a six year old girl.

Fortuna's work no doubt. The room struck a wonderful balance between childish and educational. If a stranger entered by accident, such as one of mom's music students, they would see the bedroom of a young girl who was passionately in love with biology, not the den of one of the most capable biotinkers alive.

I walked over and gently shook her awake. Riley liked to build a cocoon around herself while clutching an overstuffed pillow of an alligator snapping turtle. She called it Gamera apparently, a gift from Yasmine that probably came with some sort of pun about my personal emblem. It was disgustingly cute.

"Riley, time to wake up, squirt," I said gently.

"Mnnn…" She twisted into her cocoon.

"Up. Mom's getting breakfast ready."

"Mnnyaa… Dunwanna…"

"Get up anyway."

"Nuu…"

I sighed. I didn't have the patience for this. I picked up the Riley-flavored burrito and slung her over my shoulder in a fireman's carry. "Fine, stay in your blankets. You still need to eat breakfast."

"Mmkay…" she mumbled, going right back to sleep.

Mom looked at me with an arched brow as I came down the stairs. "I said wake her, not bring her here like a sack of rice, Yusung."

I shrugged helplessly. "She didn't want to. Besides, I'm sure the smell of food will do the trick."

And it did. Though Riley preferred sweet breakfast foods like pancakes, she developed a taste for the savory breakfasts that were more typical of Korean households. She still hated kimchi however.

"What are you doing today?" mom asked me.

"I think I'm going to use up some of the petricite reserves. People have been harvesting them from Babylon but I haven't been around to make them into anything. When the world finds out I'm back, lots of people are going to want their cities to be part of the Worldstone network," I explained. It was inevitable, and likely the most urgent demand from the populace. "Best I get ahead of that while I can."

"Ooh, can I watch, Andy?" Riley asked through a mouthful of rice and eggs.

Mom gently plucked a grain from her cheek. "Don't talk with your mouth full, Riley."

"Yes, mommy."

I considered the question. "Don't you have homeschool?"

"But that's boring~"

"So is making Worldstones. It's just me carving runes, nothing really scientific."

"Poop."

"Tell you what, Riley. If you promise you'll pay attention in class, I'll give you a magic cookie."

"Cookie? Really?" She studied me with narrowed eyes. "You don't have a cookie."

I chuckled. How could I ignore a setup like that? I held out my hand and gave it a flourishing wave. "Oh, but I do, little sister. Now, pay attention, okay?"

"Magic trick?"

"Magic, without the tricks," I corrected. Then, wisps of mana coalesced from my hand, becoming the ideal cookie as Riley, in this moment, envisioned it. Chocolate chip, of course, with just a hint of char to give it that perfectly homemade mouthfeel. "Ta-dah!"

"You can make cookies?" Riley exclaimed. I knew. In that moment, I was the single greatest person in the world in her eyes. Not because I was a hero, or because mom talked me up, but because I conjured a cookie. It was a weirdly satisfying feeling. "Mom! Andy can make cookies!"

"I can," I said with a laugh, "but only three magic cookies per day."

"Gimmie!"

"Ah, nope. You gotta promise, Riley."

"I'll pay attention in class."

"Good. Now, the magic word."

"Please?"

I handed it over with a smile. "Good girl."

"Andy has cookie-powers. It's not fair," she said through a mouthful of crumbs.

"I don't. I have magic cookie-powers," I replied with a smile. "If you keep eating them, you'll be able to use magic too one day."

"R-Really?"

"Yup. Fortuna can, but only a little. Do you want to learn?"

"Uh-huh." Her head nodded so fast I almost feared it'd pop right off.

"Well, you're going to need to pick up Shojin kenpo."

"That kung fu stuff you do in the salty place?"

"Yeah. And that means waking up early with me. Think you're up for it?"

"Hmm… Okay…"

So agreed, I placed one on the kitchen table for Fortuna. Hers was a gnarly purple color, speckled with seeds. To the best of my knowledge, it was a type of yam that didn't grow on Earth-Bet; it had slowly evolved into something else through the cultivation methods of humanity. It didn't objectively taste better than modern sweet potatoes or anything, but it held a unique place in her heart as one of the few things that could instill in her a sense of nostalgia.

Sure enough, Fortuna stepped through a Door not ten seconds later. She grabbed the cookie and took a nibble, letting out an appreciative hum. She twisted as she sat on the couch, dispersing the force of Riley's sudden tackle-hug.

"Aunty Fortuna! Hi!"

"Hello, Riley, Sujeong, Yusung," she greeted.

I nodded her way and conjured a third cookie. I handed it over to mom. It wasn't as though I needed the mana anyway.

She shook her head and pushed it back to me. "You can make three, right? Have one yourself."

"Ooh, can I?" Riley asked, releasing Fortuna in favor of reaching for the cookie.

"No. We share in this house, Riley. You've already had yours."

"Aww… Okay."

I shrugged. "Thanks, mom."

I took a nibble and was reminded why Biscuit Delivery was one of my favorite runes. It was one of the branches of Inspiration I'd sorely neglected. After all, food was ubiquitous. These biscuits weren't the only magical forms of sustenance available on Runeterra.

Sadly, I would likely continue to neglect this branch of human innovation, aside from baking treats for my family and friends, because it just didn't provide the overwhelming power and utility I required.

Fortuna stuck around and chatted with us for precisely fifteen minutes. She'd taken to sharing a cup of coffee with mom apparently and, even if I knew it was at least partially for this specific purpose, I felt grateful nonetheless.

As I was headed out to Babylon, mom called, "Yusung, remember that you're meeting your friends tonight."

"Yeah, I know. Have a good day, mom."

"Love you, son."

X

Having done it once, making the Worldstones was damn near intuitive now. I borrowed a laser cutter from Hero and started to make topographic maps onto enormous slabs of relic stone, the same, pale substance that made up all Sentinel runes had to be engraved and empowered by my hand, but the boring work of making a miniaturized relief of the word could be hastened along.

The goal was to make a network that spanned the entire globe much as I'd done for the United States. Canada, being the home of the Guild and the second country to adopt the PRT model, was naturally first on that list. Engraving all day, I added Calgary, Edmonton, and Winnipeg to the network. Hopefully, that'd keep Eugene and Richter happy.

I did get home a bit earlier than I would have liked. Today was the day I promised I"d meet my old friends and I had no idea how that'd go. Still, now was as good a time as any.

Friday night was movie night. It was a tradition started when I headed to DC so I could keep in touch with my friends. I'd been surprised and touched to hear that mom kept this tradition going, even getting permission from Fortuna to allow Doorways so the former Phoenix Wards could meet in person. It didn't happen every week anymore now that everyone was grown up and had their own lives to live, but they did make a point of catching up in person at least once a month.

Oh, I wasn't naive. Fortuna probably determined that it was an easy concession to make to keep my mother happy. She probably even calculated the influence having strong female role models like Raquel, Yasmine, and Penelope would have on Riley's development and decided to give her some of the social interaction the young biotinker so desperately lacked as a homeschooled child.

I finished stuffing the last cannoli with homemade cream just as a Door opened into the living room. Two figures came through, a blonde woman with an athletic build marred by her obvious pregnancy and a man with sandy-brown hair and half an ear.

"Hey, Mrs. Kim, we brought popcorn," came Penelope's voice. She wasn't angled to see me, but I could see straight through her. I wondered if she knew she'd be having a son.

Mom ushered Penelope to sit down. My old Wards leader grumbled that she wasn't made of glass but allowed herself to be bullied into a chair anyway. Before they could begin to catch up, the Door opened again, this time spitting out Yasmine.

"Yo, Mrs. K, how're things?"she asked as she sauntered in. Yasmine had changed a fair bit. As Hat Trick, she was widely considered the most versatile member of the San Francisco Protectorate. She kept the right side of her hair shaved short and the rest of her bangs dyed in purples and greens. "And how's the little midget?"

"I'm not a midget!" came Riley's protests as she stomped downstairs. "Mom! Jazz is bullying me!"

"Oh, that's cheap."

"Yeah? Well blegh!"

"Riley, no, bad," mom chided. "You too, Yasmine. How are you as bad as a six year old?"

"Ehehe, sorry, Mrs. K."

The door, our front door, opened to let in Raquel. I smiled at seeing her. She of all my friends had changed the least. She was still that short Latina, lithe and scrawny at first sight but densely muscled from over a decade of dedicated gymnastics. She wore a t-shirt and shorts with a pair of flip-flops to deal with the Phoenix heat.

"Hey, guys, I brought drinks," she called with a cheery grin. "You won't believe what happened."

"Hey, chica, heard you were inducting the newest Ward, right?"

"Yeah, he's a huge pain in the a-booty," she said, moderating her language at the last second with a glance towards Riley. Mom nodded with an approving smile.

"What happened? He ask you out?"

David began flipping through DVDs. "I bet he mistook her for another Ward."

"He didn't!" Raquel yelped with a pout. "And that only happened once! He's just super entitled and thinks he shouldn't have to do any of the basic training and certifications just because his dad's on the city council or something."

"Really? Because it's not that much."

"I know, right? Basic first-aid training, how to interact with police, and some general SOPs aren't that hard to learn. But he just wants to punch villains in the face because he has a brute power," she huffed.

David shrugged. "Maybe you should spar with him a bit, deflate the ego a bit."

"Yeah, kick his butt," Jazz added. "Beat him black and blue."

"That's not what I said."

"It's what you meant."

"It's not, Jazz. Stop trying to make Raq be a bad example."

"Yeah, you can't just punch your problems," Penny said, backing up her husband. No one pointed out the obvious hypocrisy there. Ever the big sister, Penny smiled sympathetically and patted the seat on the couch next to her. "Come on, Raq, relax. Sit with me."

"Yeah, sorry for venting," Raquel said, practically melting into the cushion. One of the pillows vanished, to be replaced by Riley. My little sister squawked in surprise before she was enveloped in a cuddle pile.

"Eh, it's cool. That's half the reason we have these nights anyway."

"Yeah, I needed this. Food, friends, movie, and Riley."

"Hey," Riley protested weakly.

"Shush, you. Enjoy the cuddles."

"Your power is unfair."

"All the better to hug you with, Riley."

"Yeah, speaking of Riley, can I bring Josie next time?" David asked. "This kinda began as cape-talk, but we don't really do that so much anymore."

I took that as my cue to walk out of the kitchen, a plate of freshly stuffed cannoli in hand. "Sure, why not. Actually, I don't think I've met her. How's she doing anyway?"

"Not bad, she's eleven now. It's kind of a pain having to find babysitters for her who won't ask questions about where I've gone," David said, not looking up from the back of a DVD case.

"Andy!" the girls shouted. I barely had time to put down the plate of pastries before I'd traded places with another pillow.

"When did you wake up?" my former leader asked with a watery smile as she gave me a hug. She used her second trigger to pick me up from a distance like a doll.

"A few days ago," I told them as I ruffled Riley's hair. "I had to get a few things situated. Catch up on everything that happened, meet my new kid sister…"

"You've been busy."

"Guess I have."

"Andy, I'm… I'm sorry," she began. "I've always wanted to tell you… If I wasn't there, then you would have-"

I looked at her. She looked so damn guilty like this, like my three year coma was her fault somehow. I hated this. She was Stingray. Confident, strong, everyone's big sister. Not… Not this teary, guilt-ridden mess.

"It's not your fault," I tried.

"It is! You told me not to volunteer! Then I had to play the big damn hero. I-I heard it was DC and…"

"And you wanted to check on me," I said softly. I understood, because I would have done the same. For as briefly as I'd known them, these four had well and truly become like family to me. They'd taken in the little blind boy, and I'd gotten David's dad killed. There was a big part of me that still didn't forgive myself. Penny, she was going through much the same. "You did nothing wrong."

"You got hurt because of me."

"I didn't. I got hurt because I fought the Simurgh with powers I wasn't ready to handle," I said, pulling the taller girl into a hug. "And I'm better now. See?"

"You lost three years of your life…"

"And I'm back. No harm done."

"I-"

"No, Penny. No beating yourself up over what happened. That's what the Simurgh does. She arranges little events like dominoes. She used Warptek's bomb to make her escape."

"You shouldn't have had to choose."

"But I'll make that choice every time," I assured her. "You're worth it. All of you."

Then I couldn't move because I had the world's biggest trash panda buried in my chest. She said something but it was muffled. "We thought you'd never wake up…"

"Well I'm back, Raq."

"You missed so much…"

"I know," I said, rubbing her back in soothing circles. I felt my shirt dampen with tears. "I'm sorry."

"Wow, I definitely didn't expect this today," Jazz quipped. She'd never been great with emotions, a bit like me actually, so her go-to response was to try to lighten the mood. She leaned forward and snagged a cannoli. "Mmm! Yep, this is Andy for sure. He's taller, but he still bakes."

"I'm glad I passed your master-stranger test."

"Yup. It's a very rigorous test. What kind of random imposter would know how to bake cannolis?"

"But what if they were poisoned?"

"You shut your mouth with your logic."

That pulled a quiet chuckle from us. I gently pulled Raquel from my chest and nestled between her and Riley. "You know, you haven't changed at all. I mean, new hair, new city, but still the same Jazz."

"Yeah? How 'bout you? You're taller than Raquel now!" she said with a laugh.

And suddenly, Raquel's flip-flip was in her hand, sailing towards Yasmine's face. "You shut up!"

I laughed and pulled my favorite trash panda into a one-armed hug. "She's right, you know. Penny's clearly expecting, David's got a scruffy beard now, and Jazz' hair looks like a leprechaun barfed on it, but you? You're a consistent midge-Ow! Why your slipper?"

"Shut up, you jerk! Do you know how many short jokes I put up with every day?"

I couldn't help it. Feeding this little fire was second nature to me by now. "So one might say it's left you with a short temper?"

Raquel's eyebrow twitched in a distinctly unhealthy way. Riley, probably smarter than me, ran out of the splash zone and hid behind mom. The flip-flop hurled towards me. I would have caught it, but it was only a distraction. It vanished and reappeared in Raquel's hand as she lunged towards me. "Fear the chancla!"

"Ow! Ow! Damn it, trash panda! Oh, I heard you named your PHO account aft-OW! That one actually hurt!"

"¡Callate, estupido!" she yelled, before descending into a rambling mix of Spanish and English.

All the while, her favored weapon of judgment descended and I laughed like a maniac. Mom, David, and Penelope looked on with exasperated smiles as Yasmine cheered Raquel on. Riley looked between me and Raquel with a conflicted expression; I was probably causing irreparable damage to the heroic image she had of me, but that was a good thing in my book. Hero worship was nice, but not from family.

X

2005, July 9: Babylon, Ukraine

I reflected on my newfound status as a "god" all week. This would be my first time in Babylon, the town and enchanted forest, not my lab that overlooked them both. Fortuna was, of course, correct: What these people thought of me was irrelevant.

On the other hand, what Farya and Wolyo said also had merit: I too was part of the Kindred now, one of them. There would come a time when I could no longer call myself human; perhaps that time had already come. The spirit gods of Runeterra were influenced by the faith they inspired, so it wasn't a far stretch to think I too would be vulnerable to the same one day.

More than anything, I was morbidly curious. What exactly did a "faith in the Kindred" mean in this context? The Lamb and the Wolf were worshiped throughout all of Valoran, but each culture did so in different ways.

In Bilgewater, they respected those who fought the Wolf to the bitter end. There was a festival called the Kindred's Eve, during which time a known coward, a designated "Lambfool," would be forced to face a respected warrior to the death. Should the Lambfool emerge victorious against all odds, every knave, liar, murderer, and pirate in Bilgewater would be obligated to walk the path of peace for a full year. Hence why they always chose a known coward.

'An idiotic practice,' Farya sniffed. 'To accept the inevitable is not cowardice.'

'Maybe, but many humans consider death the final enemy,' I pointed out. 'In that framework, to accept death is to be a coward, for it is to accept your enemy.'

'Ridiculous. All things end. Neither I nor dear Wolf judge the morals of man.'

'So I take it you're not a fan of that particular tradition?'

'Nor I,' Wolyo said, somewhat to my surprise. 'The prey that struggles is good, but I do not care for the conduct of the living.'

'Ah, so they're putting words in your mouth by mandating the pirates behave themselves for the year. Interesting take.'

'They leave me with less prey when they live justly,' Wolyo grumbled.

That made me laugh. Was that it? Wolyo felt cheated out of his prey in Bilgewater whenever the Lambfool won? It made sense, if in a twisted way. Neither halves of the Kindred gave a damn about the way humans comported themselves while they were alive. All souls were theirs to reap after all, and, contrary to human misconceptions, the two were one and the same. It mattered not to them, whether it was the fangs of the Wolf or the arrows of the Lamb that found a man in the end, only that the man was found and the hunt concluded.

'Okay, so what about the tally-men of Noxus? They don't favor a specific half of the Kindred, do they? I think they mostly dig graves and collect corpses.'

'They do not favor either side,' Farya agreed, 'but we did not ask them to keep an account of funeral rites.'

'None of it matters.'

'None of it matters.'

'But maybe it matters to the people left behind,' I thought quietly as I walked towards the town. 'I don't think it's wrong to offer people closure. Death might be inevitable, but it is only right to soothe the pain.'

The town was… idyllic. It was a primarily brick and mortar sort of place, the kind of beautiful, sanitized place that might show up in a renaissance faire or the set of a medieval fantasy movie. It reminded me of the Shire from Lord of the Rings, even if the architecture looked nothing alike. No sign of industrialization, but that left a sort of humble, Amish feel to things.

I was dressed for the part, a thick, woolen cloak with a hood drawn up over my face, casting it in shadow. I'd picked it up from a renaissance faire store out in Maryland. The Door was wonderfully convenient like that.

'It is not unlike a village in Demacia,' Farya quipped.

'Really? This place?'

'The petricite trees, the fields of golden wheat, and the shape of the buildings remind me of the place. They favor dignity in their passing.'

'Which means they favor those who meet you over Wolyo.'

'A boring lot with a boring hunt,' Wolyo grumbled.

"Who goes there?" I was brought out of my musings by the call of the guard. He was a farm boy, maybe a year or two older than me, dressed in thick fleece.

The town didn't have a stone wall, but there was a watchtower and a set of thick, wooden stakes posted around the perimeter to deter wild animals. Considering that they, the Case-53s in Neverland, and Cauldron staff were literally all there was of humanity in this world, they didn't need anything more sophisticated than this.

Honestly, I was more impressed by the man's grasp of English. Or had the Slug's memory manipulation been a requirement for their migration here?

"Ahoy!" I called. I immediately wanted to slap myself. Ahoy? What the hell? How did quasi-medieval farmers in sorta-but-not-really fantasy earths converse anyway? Should I have gone with "Tally ho?" Or "Howdy, chap?"

"Who are you?" he asked suspiciously.

"Ah…" I panicked. I didn't actually have a backstory planned out. "I come from… far away…"

"A traveler? We've never had one before."

"Well, first time for everything, eh?"

"You sound too young to be wandering the world. Short too. Take off the hood." I sighed but acquiesced. "You… Your eyes. They're-"

"Very blue, yes. Crystal, you might say."

"You're from the castle, aren't you?"

I paused at that. "What castle?"

"Babylon!" he exclaimed. "The castle of the witch-lords! You must be! You have eyes like sapphires! Are you their messenger?"

That was… one way to describe my eyes… I would have preferred the effusive praise come from a pretty woman, but he wasn't wrong. More importantly, he gave me the perfect excuse to be here.

"Yes, that's right. I'm a messenger of the witch-lords," I said, a little awkwardly. "Take me to the village chief, if you don't mind. We've decided that after five years, we would like to learn more about this village."

"R-Right away!"

Author's Note

I have plans for Babylon. Using it to integrate a bit more of Runeterra was always the plan, as seen with the Anivia/Winter's Approach thing. I don't know if it'll mesh well, but I think this story's been one big experiment for me anyway, kind of like how the firstborn child is always the experimental kid.

Animal fact? Sure. Sorta. This year is the year of the dragon, which is the fifth in the zodiac order.

Why fifth? Well, the Jade Emperor hosted a race to determine the order and the dragon fell behind the rat, ox, tiger, and hare even though it could fly. There are several versions of why this is the case, but the story goes that the dragon stopped by to give some peasants rain. And when the rain threatened to flood the river and drown someone, he created a gust of air to push him to shore.

Basically, the dragon is a swell guy.

Thank you to all of my patrons. As many of you know, I update one of my stories once every weekend publicly. However, I update much more frequently on Pat-re-on, usually 8-10 chapters a month spread across various stories. That means the number of chapters available on Pat-re-on is always growing. As of now, this is how far along each story is:

- ACL & Bunny Quests: Same as public
- A Life Worth Living: 1
- Apocalypse: 1.13
- The Holy Grill: 2.6.5
- Homeless Bunny: 24
- Legendary Tinker: 8.6
- Plan? What Plan?: 4.13.5
- When is a Spoon a Sword?: 4.12
- Troll in the Dungeon!: 21
- Let There be War: 9 (Complete)

Total Chapter Difference (Pat-re-on - Public): 30