DISCLAIMER: I do not own Vocaloid. Or their songs.

I own the story, though. :)


Sunday, 1-1-400

First Day: Cruel Fate

My mother had loved cherry blossom trees.

"They bloom for such a short time," she'd once said, carefully laying a milky-pink petal on the palm of her hand, as if the slightest movement would break it.

I held my breath, waiting for something to happen. The wind blew, and the fragile petal was lifted and pulled away.

Seeing my distressed face, she took my hand and laughed, "The wind won't hurt it. People might, because people can be so destructive without realizing it, but nature understands how to handle its treasures."

"Treasures," I repeated.

"Like you," she explained, bending down to hug me. "You're my precious treasure."

At the time, I hadn't realized that I was also her greatest burden.

~=O=~

They had tried to hide the scars and mask the signs of abuse, but with little success. The mutilated face was still mutilated. The scars were more visible than ever.

"Mama," I whispered.

She lay in the coffin, unhearing.

"Mama."

Again, she did not respond.

"Mama."

My chest heaved, erratically pounding, as tears fell from my unblinking eyes. The world blurred and tilted.

"She's having a fit!" someone yelled.

"Doctor!" cried another.

Amidst the confusion, a calm voice remarked, "Now? What horrid timing."

It was a simple, generic man's voice – not especially compelling or arrogant or soothing. But I knew, and everyone else knew, that this simplicity disguised the speaker's true nature.

His true nature was that of a murderer, and this was his fault.

"You." I lurched up and towards him. A spasm interrupted my attack. I writhed on the ground as the pain grew exponentially.

This was his fault. He'd killed her.

"You killed her," I wheezed, reaching out, trying to claw at his face. The slaves' trembling hands restrained me.

A voice rang out, "Majesty, please return to your chambers."

"Why should I?" he responded. "She can't get me."

The tears would not stop flowing. If only he were not here . . . if he were not here, I could have wept freely. My tears should have given Mama all that she would need in the next life, but now they were tainted with hatred. Tears of hatred were worth nothing. And I did not want him to see my useless, crying face.

"Leave!" I struggled to sit up.

"Foolish child." He bent down and ran a hand through my sweat-matted hair. "You truly are weak . . . and yet so much like myself. I should have separated you two long ago. Be glad that I chose not to."

He gazed at me with a perverse, steely affection. It was not a mutual feeling.

"I hate you," I whispered, spitting on his elaborate silk shoes. "Get your filthy hand away from me."

Audible gasps were heard around the room. He nodded at someone. A face appeared in my field of vision – the head of security in the palace – and my face suddenly jerked to the side. My right cheek burned.

It was all too much.

The cicadas were crying. The cherry blossoms were dying.

And Mama was gone forever.

My eyes rolled back in my head, and I was vaguely aware of saliva and bile spilling out of my mouth as my body twitched uncontrollably. The royals and nobles and officials uncomfortably laughed.

"Craven bastards," I coughed.

The Majesty must have given an order, because I felt myself being kicked and hit by the soldiers. Meanwhile, the awkward laughter continued.

Pain and humiliation had always been part of my life, but that didn't make this any easier to bear. I hated them, those cowardly men and women. I hated every last person in this room. I hated the Majesty most of all.

"You-" I hissed before a booted foot slammed into my stomach.

Crimson liquid spilled out of my mouth, immediately soaking into the carpet.

"Now I need a new carpet," he complained.

"I'll . . . k-kill . . . you."

My breathing was becoming more labored, and black spots dotted my vision. My thoughts were jumbled together. It was a miracle that I was even conscious.

"Pardon?"

"I'll kill you," I exhaled. "Kill you. Kill you. I swear, one day I'll kill you."

Once again, a foot connected with my stomach, but this time it was the Majesty's. The smooth silk was ten times harder than steel.

"Even if you are my daughter," he coldly said, "you do not have the right to threaten me."

He signaled the slaves with a wave of his hand, and the soldiers drew back. The world began to fade.

"Remember this," the Majesty commanded, his voice fuzzy and distant to my ears. "Remember that none may oppose the Majesty's words, not even his loved ones. . . ."

~=O=~

The cowardly men and women began chanting, "My Lady . . . My Lady . . . My Lady . . ."

"Shut up," I sighed, too tired to move any more.

"Lady Rin . . ."

"Shut up."

"Lady . . ."

"Shut up!"

"Lady Rin!"

Irritation flooded through my body, giving me the strength to sit up. "Don't call me-"

I abruptly stopped talking, slamming a hand onto the ground to steady myself. Acid churned in my stomach and a hammer pounded itself into my skull.

"My Lady," Luka whispered, bowing. "I apologize for speaking your name. You would not wake up."

The irritation was replaced by understanding.

All just a dream – an absurd, recurring nightmare.

"I'm sorry, Luka," I sighed, burying my face into the palm of my hand and closing my eyes. Stars flickered to life, expanding and distorting the darkness of my mind. "I did it again, didn't I?"

"Yes, My Lady."

"Don't be so . . ." I gagged, trying to ignore the metallic taste in the back of my mouth.

"I apologize, Lady Rin."

"I hate that name."

"My Lady."

"Don't be so nice. If I don't wake up next time, scream in my ear or something."

"My Lady."

I cautiously stood up. The trip to the washroom took a few minutes. After I returned, Luka quietly helped me change into a plain white kimono, and then took the sheets off of the mattress and rolled them up, carrying the bundles into the washroom. When she had finished placing the new sheets onto the mattress, the nausea had vanished, and the headache was subsiding.

"Did I disturb anyone?"

"No, My Lady, I believe."

"Of course. We're too far away for the screams to reach anyone's ears."

My tone was bitter. Luka remained silent.

"Sorry, Luka. I woke you up again."

"I was already awake. Today is the Eve of New Time, I believe."

"Ah."

This time of year always brought me bad memories.

"The ceremony will be wonderful this year," I lightly remarked, walking towards the sliding door and pulling it aside. "I can hear the festival."

Bright morning sunshine bathed me in warmth. A sweet flowery aroma wafted through the air, accompanied by the crisp smell of cooking food. In the distance, the faint sounds of cheering and shouting people, banging drums, and spitting firecrackers all melded together into a formless melody.

"I cannot hear it."

"Really? Maybe it's just me."

Again, she remained silent. I frowned.

"Is something wrong?"

"Nothing, My Lady."

"Luka." I glared at her, a warning in my voice.

"My Lady," she replied, returning my glare with a calm gaze.

After a few seconds of staring, I looked away.

"I'm a horrible master. I can't even control my own servants."

"That is not so."

"It is, and you know it. You won't even tell me what's bothering you."

"There is nothing."

"Why are your hands shaking?"

She quickly folded her hands, one on top of the other, to hide their faint trembling.

"Luka, please tell me."

I patiently waited for her answer.

Eventually, she hesitantly spoke, "Lady Lapis has confirmed her engagement, I believe. A messenger came before you awoke."

I'd expected as much. Still, my heart couldn't help but ache.

"She's really gone," I stated matter-of-factly, walking onto the wooden porch that wrapped around the entire building.

A gentle breeze blew past, caressing my cheek for a brief moment before flitting away, beyond the walls that confined me.

"I am sorry, My Lady."

"Why are you sorry? It's not your fault." I took a deep breath. "It's not your fault that my entire life has been a mess. It's not your fault that the only sister that I ever loved has become just like everyone else."

"My Lady."

"There's no one to blame but myself. It's my fault for being the unlucky child. Lapis was right. I bring nothing but misfortune. I'm grateful to her for staying with me for as long as she did. And this man – Olive, was it? – will make her happy. She deserves to be happy. She doesn't need someone like me."

"My Lady."

"There's no need to be sorry, because there is nothing to be sorry for. Besides, who needs sisters?"

"My Lady Rin."

Surprised, I glanced at Luka. Her lips were pursed, and the pressure had drained them of their color. After a tense moment, I relaxed, smiling.

"Luka, I have you. That's all I need. Sorry. I need to be alone."

"My Lady . . . very well."

Bowing, she stepped off of the porch and made her way towards the washroom.

My smile disappeared.

I lay down on the hard wooden planks, turning my head so that the backyard was clearly visible. Everything was so scenic and picturesque – so listless and pale.

There were the delicate flowers that Mama had grown and then passed onto me, and there was the stately piano on the wooden platform in the middle of the field of gently waving grass. There was the oak tree with the birdhouses, where sparrows pecked at the seed; the birdbath, where three crows cawed as they cleaned themselves; the washroom, smooth wooden walls glistening in the sunlight; and the garden tools leaning against the glistening walls in a neat row.

Beyond this clearing, there were the ubiquitous cherry blossom trees. They were not tall, but their overwhelming presence was more than enough to mask this fact.

Treasures, huh?

I sat up. If I'd learned anything, it was to cherish my time with my treasures.

Barefoot, I walked across the grass, pulled the plastic cover off of the piano, and lowered myself onto the piano chair.

Maybe a lullaby . . .

My fingers touched the keys, paused for a moment, and then firmly pressed down. The chord rang through the clearing.

I could not waver, lest the music lose its strength. Confident, I played the next note, and the next. Slowly, the Clockwork Lullaby began to turn.

Wistful, I opened my mouth and sang the first note before recalling my senses. In my mind, however, my mouth did not close and the words continued to pour out.

Teach me the words like always, and I will make them into a song.

What did you obtain in your imagination?

The one and only song of truth.

Lu Li La, Lu Li La . . .

This singing voice – to whom will it reach?

I obtained the key called "words" and opened the gates to the Unknown.

I took the toy that I've always wanted.

I carried it with my hands and threw it out the window.

You humans who'll never be satisfied –

What did you wish and what did you obtain?

If you're tired, then just go to sleep.

Lu Li La, Lu Li La . . .

This lullaby – will it ever heal your heart?

You carry with you a sin called greed, but now, you're just in a dream.

Lu Li La, Lu Li La . . .

This singing voice is a clockwork lullaby.

If you don't wind me, then I'll just stop.

The memories like the blossoming flower and the traumas like the muddy water are constantly spinning and melting, inside of me.

I held the right pedal down. The last note shivered in the air.

A drop of water landed on the back of my hand. I glanced down, surprised, and then turned my eyes towards the sky. It was a transparent azure and the only clouds were gossamer threads. It was the perfect weather for a festival – light winds to balance out the heat of the sun, not humid and not dry, and a clear sky.

A cherry blossom petal settled onto the drop of water, as if shielding it.

As I cautiously lifted the petal, another drop fell, and then another. I closed my eyes and wondered why my cheeks felt wet.

The moisture continued to fall. I turned away from the piano. No sense in getting the keys wet.

I methodically retrieved the plastic cover from the grass and tucked in the piano. When I was sure that there were no gaps or tears – nothing to leave the instrument vulnerable to rain and wind – I sat on the wooden platform and listened to the sounds of the festival.

They were muddled, vague, and were most likely nothing more than figments of my wistful imagination, but regardless, I strained to hear.

Humanity had a nice tune.

'Are you lonely?' the cherry blossoms asked.

"No," I lied.

'If you are not lonely, then why do you cry?'

I had no answer for that. They fell back into meditative silence.

The sparrow flew away from the birdhouse and over the crows, which cawed and beat their wings, splashing water onto the ground. They were joined by a fourth crow. It delicately dipped its ebony beak into the water, disregarding the other birds' protests. Wind cheerfully whistled through the cherry blossom forest. The flowers in my garden bent down subserviently. Somewhere, a cricket chirped.

Nature had a nice tune as well, I decided.

Luka exited the washroom and approached me.

"My Lady."

"Luka."

"Please wear your coat, My Lady. Your body-"

"My body is fine. I'm going for a walk."

"But, My Lady-"

"Don't worry, Luka. You know that there's nothing to worry about."

"Then may I go out? We are running low on supplies."

I stiffly replied, "You may."

She meekly backed away, bowing. Then she was gone and I was left feeling rather frustrated.

After deciding to actually take a walk, I began weaving through the cherry blossom tree trunks, following the paths that I knew so well. I had been walking here since the day I was born. Losing my way was not a possibility.

The forest was dotted by many clearings and diminutive hills. By the time I arrived in Peak Meadow – named as such because it contained a patch of sloping land, most likely the tallest piece of natural land on my property – the sun was already high overhead and there was little wind to comfort me.

Weary, I lay down on the sloping land and wished I'd chosen to go to Brook Meadow. My throat was parched and my skin was burning. Cursing my own stupidity, I closed my eyes.

I needed to rest, just for a moment.

~=O=~

When I opened my eyes, the first thing I saw was Lapis. Her azure eyes bored into mine. It made me uncomfortable – I didn't like looking into people's eyes – but I was too happy to look away. She hadn't gazed at me this way ever since the day Mama died. . . .

"Rin," she said, her lips barely moving. "This is good-bye."

The little fragment of joy in my heart shattered.

"Lapis," I whispered, reaching towards her. "Please don't leave. I-"

"This is good-bye," she repeated. "I am to be married. That is all."

"But why? You've been so distant ever since that day. Did I do something? Please don't leave."

"I am to be married." She turned away and walked into the distant white light.

"Lapis!"

"I'm done playing around with you." Her voice began to fade. "This is good-bye."

~=O=~

There were tears in my eyes. Two times in one day. It was a new record.

Lapis . . .

I blearily opened my eyes. A tear slid down my temple. I felt a strong urge to sob or scream – to do anything that would make this pain in my chest disappear. My lips parted.

That was when I heard the violin.

Its sweet voice awakened me, stirring my blood. I stood up, ignoring the sudden dizziness and the blackness that stole over my eyes.

I knew this song. Mama had sung this song to me.

A breeze ruffled the cherry blossom petals and they rushed through the meadow. I turned my head slightly, wondering why the blackness had not yet retreated – and I saw him for the first time.

Never mind that no one should have been there except for me. Never mind that the only way in, besides the front gate, was over an eleven-meter high brick wall. Never mind that he had somehow managed to get in carrying a violin.

No – the only thing I could think was that for six years I hadn't seen a single living being besides Luka and Lapis and Majesty's messenger and the visiting animals. For six years I hadn't heard Mama's songs because I wasn't willing to play them. For six years I had been alone.

And now was seeing another person and hearing the song that Mama used to sing.

The boy stopped, noticing me. My heart pounded faster.

"Keep playing," I said impulsively.

"Who are you?"

His voice was beautiful.

"Please," I beseeched him. "Keep playing."

"Who are you?"

"Rin."

"Okay, Rin. This one's for you."

Raising his head, he swung the violin up, caught it between his chin and shoulder, brought the bow around, and began to play.

I smiled widely. It was nighttime already. I must have fallen asleep. Normally, I would have been irritated with myself.

But at this moment in time, I was glad, because the full moon shone brightly and his figure was silhouetted against the moonlight, a ghostly violin played by a ghostly boy in the forest of a dead girl.

Was this a dream?

Without thinking, I began to sing the words of the song. The boy's violin did not stop. The music encircled us.

Many people died on the edge of devastation at that time.

Everything has gotten back to life as usual, but I still feel pain in my heart.

I've talked a lot since I met you.

You reminded me that the world is still hopeful.

Here, I hesitated for a moment. But I did not want to break the melody, so I plunged forward, forgetting the risks and consequences. I let my voice soar.

If we are doomed to hurt each other in this fabricated world . . .

Bottling up my emotions, I'll let you go.

Unforgivable but ardent feelings towards you . . .

I'm not forgiven to abandon everything to love you for the rest of my life.

I'll definitely be playing the violin here tomorrow, in a dream of the endless world

Here, a light sweat began to break out across my forehead. My voice wavered and my breath hitched.

But the violin did not stop, and I pressed on.

Dreamy cherry blossoms, please don't die . . .

My empty love story lasted only for sixteen nights.

Even though I have to give up on this love real soon.

Just for now . . . just for now . . . let me love my dearest.

If only I could love you for the rest of my life . . .

I have to end off my unforgivable love story.

To kill all feelings towards you . . .

Here, I let out a tiny cough, and suddenly I could not continue singing.

Just one more line . . . just one more line and the song would have been sung completely. I hated to leave a song unfinished.

Damn this weak body!

I leaned forward as coughs shook my spine, tossing me around like a puppet. I fell to the ground, still wheezing.

The boy stopped playing and hurried over. Standing over me, he asked, "What's wrong?" Then he muttered something, set his violin down, and knelt beside me.

I wanted to tell him to keep playing and not to worry about me because I would be fine in a moment, but my body would not let me.

I felt the strong urge to curse, but, again, could not.

After a few more body-wracking coughs, I was able to breathe well enough.

"What was that?" the boy asked.

"Coughing," I exhaled, lying spread-eagled on the ground and staring upwards. The stars were winking. They danced and grinned and laughed. The sliver of moon seemed to be peeking out from behind a curtain.

"That was obvious enough. You okay?"

"Fine."

"Your voice is amazing."

Startled by the sudden subject change, I did not reply.

"You could be the next Lily-chan," he said, smiling. All I could see of his face was the starlight and moonlight reflecting off of his eyes and teeth.

"Who?"

"The famous singer, Lily-chan. You don't know her?"

"No."

I was shocked when he continued, "Well, your voice is much better than hers. It's so much more powerful." He settled down beside me and turned his head to look at me.

"You're still talking. Different from Luka."

"Who's Luka?"

"A person."

"How do you know her?"

"She's my servant."

"This is a forest. There isn't a house here, let alone a servant."

"Yes."

"You really don't like to speak, do you?"

"No."

"Is that a 'no' as in 'no, I don't like to speak' or 'no, I don't dislike speaking'?"

"The first one."

"I've forgotten which one that is." The smile returned. The right side of his mouth was tilted more steeply than the other.

"No, I don't like to speak."

"Finally! You've spoken more than three words at a time!"

"I am perfectly capable of speaking more than three words at a time."

"My head's spinning," he laughed. "That last sentence was phenomenal!"

"Are you teasing me?"

"Yes."

"You are strange."

"I could say the same to you. Why's a girl like you out in the middle of a forest? And why are there so many cherry blossom trees?"

"I live here."

He seemed to freeze. I waited politely for a moment before attempting to restart the conversation.

"Um . . . boy?"

"My name is . . ." He paused and sat up, looking down on me. "Hey, Rin, you're not some sort of criminal, are you?"

"No."

"And you're not a ghost?"

I stared at him for a moment and burst out laughing. I was rather proud of my laugh. It was sporadic and sounded like a choking cat's squeal. Mama had always said that it fit me perfectly.

"Hey, you're not having another fit, are you?" He worriedly leaned forward. "Hey!"

"No," I giggled. "And I'm not a ghost. Good guess, though."

"Oh." He cleared his throat and looked away. "Then, my name's Len."

"Call me Saku."

"I thought your name was-"

"I hate my name."

Len's face turned towards me again. I couldn't see the expression on his face, but his eyebrows seemed to move closer together.

"Who gave you your name?"

"My biological father."

"Then you'd be doing him a disgrace."

"I hate him."

"Why would you say that?"

"I hate him." I stood up and brushed grass off of my kimono. "I should be going now."

"To where?"

"You ask too many questions."

"I'm stranded in the middle of an endless forest with a girl I just met. Of course I have questions. No one lives this far south."

"Yes. No one lives this far south." I scuffed the ground with my bare feet.

"Well, I like your name."

Again, the sudden change in subject caught me off guard.

"Rin is pretty. It sounds like bells, or birds – and it matches with Len. Rin and Len, Rin and Len, Rin and Len . . . see? You have a name and you're alive, so you're not no-one."

I was speechless.

Len suddenly jumped up and yelled, "Aha! I know who you are!"

"Who?"

"You're the illegitimate daughter of some rich guy who sent you out here so that you wouldn't be found!"

Without hesitating, I answered, "Nowhere close." I began walking out of the meadow.

"Really? I thought it was good." He quickly caught up with me. "Hey, Rin, could you take me with you?"

"No. Call me Saku."

"Why not? You're a hermit, so no one will see it. I just need somewhere to stay for the night."

"Stay outside."

"But it's cold!"

"I will bring blankets."

"It's, like, fifty miles to any sort of civilization!"

"You can stay in Sunflower Meadow. It's between here and my home."

I lightly skipped over the roots and fallen branches, occasionally reaching out a hand to steady myself. A trail of grunting and cursing followed me.

"You are clumsy," I noted.

"Directionally challenged and gauche," he countered.

"That's worse."

"It sounds more sophisticated."

I merely shook my head. The night was filled with the sounds of crying cicadas and rustling leaves. I imagined Luka sitting on the house porch, waiting for me to return. Perhaps she'd assumed that I had run off in a fit of anger. I did that quite often. She never had any reason to worry, though, because no one could get here. . . .

Casting a cursory glance towards Len, I berated myself.

"Who are you?" I asked.

"Huh?"

"Why are you here? No one can get here."

"I was being chased. I climbed a wall, ended up here, and got lost."

"You climbed that wall with a violin?"

"I'm pretty athletic."

"And yet you can't walk on a forest floor," I muttered.

"What?"

"Nothing. Who was chasing you?"

"Stupid officials. All I did was take some bread . . . I even left money there! Maybe not enough to pay for everything – but close enough! Stingy bread vendor."

"You're a thief."

"Don't say it like that," he laughed. "You make it sound like a bad thing."

"It is."

"What if I told you that I was stealing for the poor children living in the sewers?"

I looked into his eyes and, after some thought, answered, "I don't believe you. You are too light-hearted."

Still smiling, he replied, "That's untrue. I am very serious. You just can't see it."

I chose to remain silent.

"Hey, Rin. You okay?"

"Fine. It's Saku."

"You just stopped talking all of a sudden. I was worried."

"Ah."

"Are we almost there?"

"Almost."

"Are you angry?"

"No."

"But you're so quiet."

"You talk too much."

"Am I annoying?" I glanced back at him. He was smiling again.

"Yes."

He abruptly stopped walking, placing a palm against his chest and crying out, "It hurts!"

I stopped, worried. "Len, are you okay?"

"No," he sighed, dropping to his knees. "My heart is pounding, and my lungs seem to have been punctured – for such a fair lady has declared that I am annoying! Yes – annoying!"

I was so anxious that I barely heard his last few words, but one thing was clear. He was in pain.

"Um . . . Rin?" he said in a strained voice, looking up at me.

I knelt down beside him, gently placing my hands on his shoulders. "Is there anything I can do? Luka probably has some p-painkillers…I can go get some. Or I c-can sing a song. That always worked when Mama did it. I'm so sorry – I'm so useless." I almost wanted to cry again.

"You're not useless," he protested, his voice still strained.

"Don't speak. You're in pain. I'll . . . I'll carry you to my place."

"Seriously. Don't start crying on me now."

"I'm so sorry!"

He began coughing.

I paced back and forth, wringing my hands. Why was I so weak?

"Don't cry," he said. "It was a joke, 'kay? I'm not in pain. Seriously." Still coughing, he lifted his head to reveal a wide grin.

"Stop joking," I snapped.

"I'm serious. I really was joking."

"You're joking now. Those coughs are so familiar . . ."

I trailed off into silence. Those coughs . . .

"You're laughing?" I asked incredulously.

"Yes!"

"For what?"

"Because it's funny!" he wheezed.

"I'm worried for your life and you're laughing!"

I huffily began walking.

Struggling to keep up, he said, "I was being dramatic. I never thought you'd be so gullible."

"Well, excuse me for being gullible," I haughtily replied.

His only answer was to continue coughing.

Were all boys this annoying? I pitied Lapis if her future husband was anything like this one.

After the sound of his laughter had subsided, he apologized, "I really am sorry." Then he ruined the apology by asking, "Don't you know the difference between a performance and a real fit?"

"I do."

"Apparently, you do not."

"In my defense, your laughter sounds very much like a coughing fit."

"And yours sounds like a choking fit. So we're even."

"I agree with the first comment, but not the second. My worries are far more profound than yours."

"You look pretty unworried to me. You're smiling."

"I am not."

I struggled to wipe the smile off of my face.

"Take it back," said Len.

"What?"

"I'm not so annoying now, am I?"

"You are."

"I think you're joking."

"I think you talk too much."

"I'm glad we're in agreement."

I couldn't help but giggle. "I concede. You're not so annoying now. In fact, you're rather funny."

Len cleared his throat and began, "Rin-"

"Don't call me that."

Completely ignoring me, he continued, "Since you asked questions about me, can I ask some about you?"

"I think you've asked enough."

"So . . . I can't?

"Yes."

"Why're you so secretive?"

"No comment."

"Rin-"

I abruptly stopped walking. "Call me Saku. We're here." I gestured towards the clearing in front of us, where hundreds of clusters of sunflowers swayed in the light breeze.

Len tried to stop walking, failed, and tripped over something. He fell, bringing me down with him.

"Sorry!" He hurriedly jumped to his feet.

In a very dignified manner, I stood up and brushed dirt and twigs off of my kimono.

"Wow, you sure aren't flustered by anything," he commented. "Nothing like you were when you were singing."

My face warmed up a bit. "I was not myself."

"I think you were more yourself than you are now or have been for a while. Understand?"

"No. Wait here. I'll fetch some blankets."

Without waiting for a response, I pushed him forward and left.

By walking along the less cluttered routes, I made it to my dwelling in a few minutes. Sure enough, Luka was sitting on the porch, asleep. She must have fallen asleep waiting for me.

"Sorry, Luka," I whispered. I crept into my bedroom, pulled a spare mattress and two blankets out of the closet, and then entered the kitchen and took a bottle of water and some wheat bread – wheat because I only got the healthy stuff. Somehow, I managed to leave without awakening Luka.

In the meadow, Len was sitting in a patch of grass, holding a sunflower in his hands. He plucked off the petals one by one, muttering something.

"What are you doing?" I asked, laying the mattress on the ground.

"Trying to figure out if I'm going to die or not."

"You won't. Tomorrow I will lead you to the wall."

"I might starve to death or die from dehydration."

I spread the blankets over the mattress and set the water and bread on top. "Enjoy."

He glanced up and tossed the sunflower over his shoulder. He quickly unscrewed the bottle top and began guzzling the water. While he stuffed his face with the bread, I retrieved the fallen sunflower.

"Wha're you gon' do wiv 'at?"

"Give it a proper funeral. Good night."

He swallowed and managed to reply, "Good night. Can I come to the funeral?"

For the second time that day, I was speechless.

Then I smiled and said, "Of course. We'll go tomorrow before you leave." With that, I left.

Before sleeping, I gently shook Luka awake and helped her walk to her bedroom. I returned to my own bed, changed into a nightgown, and fell asleep almost immediately.

That night, I did not dream.