Inevitably, Pao-Lin is sent home to Sternbild.Rating:
I sorely regret that I couldn’t have finished this fic in time to coincide with when it would have actually occurred in “real time” (December 2013). But better late than never, right?
(I am also inordinately proud of the fact that I finally managed to work a Vienna Teng reference in with this ship. That woman is relevant to everything ever, just deal with it
In spite of Hubert’s brisk, focused pace as he headed for CH7 one wintry day (he refused to call the building by its ridiculous new nomer of “Heart”), he was only mildly worried about Pao-Lin’s whereabouts. She was never tardy or absent from their kung fu lessons of her own volition, and that narrowed down the possibilities considerably. (Not that being kidnapped by the rogue Malnosso or subjected to the new barrier incompatibilities were ever pleasant notions to think about, mind. But they were easily available explanations.) He didn’t have his journal on hand to call her, but checking in on her personally would be the fastest method of confirming her status anyway. If a visit to her apartment didn’t clarify things for him, the journal network would be his next step.
There was no answer when Hubert rapped on her door. That suggested to him that she was either out of the apartment or sleeping soundly. On a whim, he tried the doorknob.
It turned easily and clicked open into an empty, colorless apartment.
Hubert was faintly aware of something shattering in the deepest parts of him, as though hearing a gunshot from afar. But his breathing remained steady as he stepped inside the barren abode and closed the door. Letters — there were letters, weren’t there? Pao-Lin had mentioned writing them once.
He made a quick sweep of all the rooms, and found a plastic box on the floor of what used to be her bedroom. Dropping to his knees beside it, he snapped the lid off and rifled through the contents. There, at the bottom: an unsealed envelope with his name on it. Hubert slid the letter out of its receptacle and began to read.
Sorry if ure reading this letter since it means Ive gone home. I wouldn’t of gone home if I had a choice. I wish I could of said good bye to u first at least.
I’m no good w/ writing so I think this will all sound kinda stupid to you. But I definitly wanted to write something to u because u mean a lot to me. I’m so glad I met u! U made me really happy & I hope I made u happy to. We have lots of good memories so I hate I’m not gunna remember any of them. But no point in whining rite?
Thank u for all the times you’ve helped me & all the times we spent 2gether so don’t be sad for too long ok. I want u to smile more!!! Ure cute when u smile. =)
Hubert’s hands fell to his lap with the letter loosely clutched between his fingers. His vision was starting to burn and blur, and he knew all too well what that meant. Usually that was the signal for his coping mechanisms to kick in and hold back the incoming flood, a system built out of sheer necessity over the years after becoming an Oswell. While not always perfect, he learned from his mistakes and used that knowledge to fix whatever needed fixing. At this point, bolstered by experience, fine-tuning, and sheer willpower, they were nigh-impregnable and as well-set as clockwork.
But none of that mattered now.
Because quietly...selfishly...the child he had once been shuffled out of the shadows of his psyche and disabled those perfect mechanisms before they could activate.
For the first time in years, Hubert cried.***
If this were the last snowfall
No more halos on evergreens
If this were my last glimpse of winter
What would these eyes see?
Grief gave way to disappointed anger at his own weakness as Hubert made his way back to House 28. He should have known better, should have known that what he’d had with Pao-Lin wasn’t going to last. Sudden departures were the norm here; why had he reacted as though he’d been unprepared for such an eventuality? It wasn’t like this was the first time in his life he’d been suddenly deprived of an emotional anchor, after all. And at least in Luceti there was a chance that she could...no, Hubert refused to entertain that notion for any longer than he had to. While there was certainly precedent for it, there was no guarantee that Pao-Lin would return within his own time, or that she would return with her memories of the village. It was best in the long run to simply accept her return to Sternbild as final and not dwell on the issue. The milk had spilled, he had shed his tears over it, and now he was walking away from the entire mess to find something to clean it up with.
Hubert entered through the back door of House 28 and headed up to his room to announce Pao-Lin’s departure over the journals. After adding a simple filter addressing those she’d left letters for, Hubert closed his journal and shoved it aside (perhaps with a little more force than necessary). He went to his closet to slip Pao-Lin’s letter into a box of other things he’d received from her over the time that he’d known her here. He gazed at the envelope a moment before fitting the lid back on the box and sliding it back into his closet further than it had been previously. Hubert would keep these reminders of her for as long as he could, but he would not
torment himself with them like some lovesick fool.
Yet one last vestige of Pao-Lin’s memory lingered elsewhere in the room. Sitting on Hubert’s desk was a small, neatly wrapped box: his intended Christmas present for her this year. Seeing her reaction to its contents had been the spectacle he most anticipated the past few weeks, but...well. This damnable world clearly had other plans for the two of them.
Hubert picked up the present, pondering what to do with it. The logical choice was to add it to his box of mementos, but there wasn’t any more space inside it. While it would fit if he took the actual present out of the gift box, somehow it felt wrong to open a present not meant for him (never mind that he’d been the one to wrap it in the first place). Hubert settled for stashing it in a desk drawer instead and making a mental note to look for a slightly larger memento box at the shops to replace his current one. He wasn’t exactly satisfied with the arrangement, but leaving it out in the open was simply going to depress him more. With that settled, Hubert tried to forget things the way he usually did: by burying his nose in a book.
In the middle of his reading, Cheria knocked at the door. “Hubert? Can I come in? I made some tea for you.”
If Hubert had to be perfectly honest, he would have preferred to be left alone. But considering that Cheria had brought something for him, sending her away would be rude.
He set aside his book, checked quickly in the mirror that he did not look overly distraught, and got up to open the door. “I’m fine,” he said before she even asked the question, taking the teacup from her and stirring it with the accompanying spoon.
Cheria frowned in sympathy. “You don’t have to deny anything, you know. Pao-Lin was — is — important to you. Of course you’re going to be sad that she’s back in her own world, because it means she’s not here with you. It’s okay to feel upset about that.”
“Perhaps.” Hubert turned and walked back to his desk to sit down. “However, I don’t care to be upset for long.”
“Huh? But...she just left today...” When Hubert chose to sip at his tea instead of answering her, Cheria’s fists clenched. “You...how could you be so...so cold?”
she demanded, her voice pitching upwards with disbelief. “Did you even really love her?”
The question struck heavy and hard, unleashing a torrent of muddled emotions that drowned any potential response Hubert could have mustered.
Fortunately, Cheria’s rage retreated as quickly as it had surfaced. “Sorry,” she murmured. “I — I shouldn’t have said that. It’s just...I’m worried, all right? And Asbel is too, after hearing about what happened.” Her shoulders sagged. “This is an awful thing for you to go through, Hubert. You don’t have to bear it alone.”
Hubert closed his eyes and exhaled, setting down his teacup. “I appreciate the concern. But you needn’t worry yourself over me. As it turns out, Pao-Lin’s departing wish was for me to be happy in her absence. I’m only trying to abide by that.” He didn’t dare say that he currently doubted his ability to fulfill that wish.
Cheria seemed unsatisfied by his answer as well. But she nodded. “Still...you know we’re here anytime you need to talk, okay? Me, Asbel, everyone else in this house...we’ll help you.”
“I know. Thank you.”
Yet that thought failed to reassure Hubert as it should have. Instead, as Cheria closed the door behind her with a soft click, the familiar chill of loneliness began to settle back into his bones, to a degree he hadn’t experienced since he first began to live a new life in Strahta. Its presence bothered Hubert. He had no reason to feel that way, not when he had his brother and his friends here with him.
But Pao-Lin’s absence tore considerable holes into the daily routine he’d grown used to keeping. Aside from missions, kidnappings, or any other example of Luceti’s weirdness, Hubert had been guaranteed to see her at least twice a week for kung fu lessons. Outside of that, he’d spot her in the plaza and talk to her there, or she would drop by to see him and perhaps invite him out to do something or another with her. With Pao-Lin gone, it was like the path had just dropped out beneath Hubert’s feet.
Surely, then, these feelings he harbored for her qualified as “love,” instead of mere infatuation as he’d often wondered (feared
). Why else did it seem like nothing could be right again unless Pao-Lin returned to his side? Why else would he be suddenly awash with guilt over all the times he hadn’t shown her that he cared?
And why should the issue of his feelings matter now that Hubert couldn’t even tell her about them?
Hubert got up from his seat with a frustrated huff, abandoning his reading in favor of finding his dualblade so he could go lose himself in training. It would
be his luck that he didn’t figure out he loved someone until after they were already gone.***
If this were the last slow curling
Of your fingers in my palm
If this were the last I felt you breathing
How would I carry on?
The loneliness was familiar. But it wasn’t the quite the same.
In Strahta, Hubert couldn’t even wake up without being reminded that his world was forever changed. From the trappings of his bedroom to the people that walked the halls of his new abode to the desert cityscape outside his windows, he’d been fenced in by all manner of alien, exotic details. In that way, it had been easier for him to accept his newly fractured reality.
In Luceti, he woke up in the same bed, in the same room, with the same housemates, and walked the same streets lined with the same buildings. Hubert could almost fool himself into believing that everything was normal — were it not for the sudden chunks of free time he had in his schedule now that a certain girl had vanished from his life. And with Luceti being the kind of place that it was, it was more difficult to lose himself in busy work than it had been back in Strahta. There was only a limited number of things he could do (like wish for a mission that would take him out of the enclosure and put him back on the battlefield, where he belonged), and nearly every location in the village was linked to Pao-Lin somehow. Hubert had hidden all her physical tokens from his sight...but her memories would not be stowed away so easily.
Still, Hubert was as stubborn as those memories were. He lasted two and a half weeks before a sense of utter wrongness
led (or perhaps dragged) him to the barracks, where he would have had kung fu lessons with Pao-Lin if she were still around. The place was empty; apparently even the usual hardy souls that braved the winter cold to train here had been deterred by the heavy snow that blanketed Luceti the night before. Hubert couldn’t say that he’d enjoyed trudging through the knee-high snow, himself, but there was something meditative about having to pay closer attention to his steps than usual. Certainly the inconvenience would have been rendered trivial if he had found Pao-Lin waiting for him at the end of his trek with a smile warm enough to ward off the frost.
But today there was only Hubert and his heartbreak.
He stood in the doorway feeling like a fool. He felt even more so when he realized he’d been letting more cold air into an already chilly space, and so he stepped fully inside, closing the door behind him. Still, Hubert considered turning around and walking back out. There was nothing for him to do here, right? He couldn’t even train — he hadn’t brought his dualblade with him.“Can I ask what kind of weapon you’re using? I’ve never seen anything like that back in my world.”
“It’s a dualblade with interchangeable forms. The rest is classified information, but you’re welcome to stay.”
“That’s seriously really cool!”
Oh, right. They’d met here for the first time, hadn’t they? Pao-Lin had been watching him practice, and he’d inquired after her presence...
Hubert found himself starting to walk the perimeter of the empty room, his eyes focused on the center of it as though he were rewatching that day like a movie. He remembered a quite flashy demonstration of her lightning generation powers, and then a more practical demonstration via a spar with her. He lost, of course, for how could he hope to match a superhero?
Yet, by some miracle, Pao-Lin had still found him impressive enough to deserve a superhero name of his very own.
Over two years later, Hubert still felt that the accolade was unearned. Even more: Pao-Lin’s love
for him was something he felt he hadn’t earned and didn’t deserve, and he had yet to fully accept the truth of it even as he enjoyed the results of it. Well, had
enjoyed it.This is pointless
, he grumbled to himself, letting out a cloudy sigh. All he was doing was spinning worn-out wheels in his head, sulking over what he’d lost. There was nothing to gain from this endeavor but more reasons to despise his imprisonment in the village. If he had any sense left in him he’d head straight back outside and not look back.
But he kept walking, and the memories kept coming…
Pao-Lin gently correcting the alignment of his arm when throwing a punch. Pao-Lin smiling without any sense of guile or shame before she kissed him on the lips in full view of both Richard and
Malik. Pao-Lin leaning against him, exhausted after a long day spent defending Malnosso fortifications from the Third Party. Attempting to feed him a meatbun. Begging him not to leave her after a misunderstanding. Blushing and hiding her face in his shoulder as they watched some of her earliest HeroTV episodes as Dragon Kid.
By the time Hubert reached the entrance again, it was as though he’d re-lived every moment of their time together in Luceti. The fog of grief in his mind had begun to clear away, swept away by the rush of retrospection.
And as he stepped through the threshold back into the wintry chill, a thought occurred to him like a snowflake landing on a window pane.As long as I remember being here with you, I’ll be okay.
The sentiment wasn’t his, not originally. Pao-Lin had expressed it earlier this fall, when she had discovered that she was one of a group of Luceti residents who would return to their original worlds and be taken back to Luceti at a further point in their timeline to Luceti’s past
— a past filled with callous, painful, and frequently lethal experimentation. The thought of her being subjected to such inhumanity still pained him even now. But Pao-Lin, dear Pao-Lin, had seemed completely unfazed by the news.
It wasn’t that Hubert disagreed with (most of) Pao-Lin’s reasoning behind her optimism. It was just that, were he to find himself in her circumstances, he never would have been able to face such a dark future with an equally bright countenance. At best, he could muster pragmatic acceptance of being fate’s chewtoy. A smile, to him, was surrender and submission; and he had very little use for either in his life.
But if Pao-Lin could think on being tortured in the name of science with a smile, then perhaps Hubert could look into finding a nice pair of rose-colored glasses for the coming days without her. He could never hope to match her enthusiastic conviction, but...it would surely be an insult to her memory to not even try.
The mid-morning sun had melted away some of the snow when Hubert left the barracks, but he still had to carefully re-trace his steps to the main path. As made his way back to House 28, he considered the rest of the day’s activities. He had grocery duty today, didn’t he? Ugh. It would be such a hassle in this snow. But the house had held out long enough at this point and the food stores were running low. He had no choice. First he had to pick up the grocery list and a bag or two…
“Hubert! There you are!”
The voice froze Hubert straight to his tracks.No…
It couldn’t be.
Barely willing to believe his ears, he slowly turned…
And was promptly tackled into a nearby snowbank by an overly enthusiastic Pao-Lin.
“P-Pao-Lin?” he stammered once he’d caught his breath.
She beamed up at him, her nose red with the cold and her head framed by a pair of red earmuffs. “Hi.”
Hubert threw his arms around her and brought her close, heedless of notions of propriety and public displays of affection. She’s here. She’s really here.
“When did you get back?” he asked, resting his chin in the crook of her neck.
“Earlier this morning. I woke up in the clothes shop, of all places.” She nuzzled him slightly. “Where were you? I just came from your house and Asbel said he didn’t know where you’d gone.”
“I was at the barracks.”
She giggled. “Practicing what I taught you?”
“Er...yes, of course.” He wasn’t entirely comfortable with the lie, but he was even less comfortable with admitting the truth about what had brought him there. He made himself pull away a little so he could look at her properly — and did a double-take. “Pao-Lin, when did you cut your hair?”
Pao-Lin’s hair had never been all that long in the first place, but cropped as it was now, it practically mirrored his own. “It was two months ago,” she said. “I just think this suits me better than my old hairstyle, you know? Plus it made it easier to put on my wig.” She suddenly looked very uncertain. “Do you like it?”
Did he? First he’d have to consult on how he felt about his girlfriend suddenly looking more like a boy
friend. Then again, she’d never been a paragon of femininity in the first place.
“It suits you,” Hubert agreed, and decided that if it suited her, then he liked it too.
Pao-Lin smiled, seemingly relieved at his answer. She got off him and then offered a hand to help him stand before brushing snow off her coat and his. “How long has it been since I’ve been gone?” she asked.
“Two and a half weeks.”
“Really? It’s been six months for me.” She laughed. “I bet you didn’t even notice I was gone.”
Hubert’s heart twisted at that, as though wringing out all elation from him. “Do you truly believe me capable of being unaware of your absence?” he demanded.
Pao-Lin tilted her head. “Of course not! I was just joking. I mean, I guess it wasn’t a very good joke, but…”
“No,” Hubert said flatly. “It wasn’t.”
She gazed at him, looking a little alarmed at the change in his demeanor. The smile fell from her own face. “I’m sorry,” she mumbled. “I made you mad, didn’t I?”
Hubert suddenly felt a pang of regret. “No, I should be the one apologizing,” he said, shaking his head. Although there was a part of him that was genuinely mildly offended by her callous comment, at its core, all of it was really just about his own insecurities and fears, wasn’t it? “I was simply...” A surrendered sigh. “I missed you.”
Pao-Lin nodded. “I missed you, too. Well, I mean, I didn’t remember anyone from here while I was in Sternbild, but now that I remember everything, it feels like I haven’t seen any of you in forever.” She shrugged with a smile. “It sucks being stuck in Luceti again…but it’s not so bad as long as you’re here.”
Hubert felt himself blush hotly at that, but since it was cold and the sentiment appreciated, he didn’t mind it so much. “I don’t necessarily approve of this world trapping you a second time, but I’m not unhap — I mean, I’m...happy to see you again as well.” He nodded as he brushed past her, taking up. “Let’s head back to the house first. I’d rather not stay out here if I can avoid it. And…there’s something I’d like to give you.”
House 28 was oddly quiet and empty-seeming when Hubert and Pao-Lin stepped inside. Hubert silently thanked whatever forces had conspired to make that miracle happen as he led Pao-Lin upstairs to his room, where he fetched her present from its place in his desk drawer and handed it to her.
Pao-Lin stared at it a little before glancing up at Hubert. “You really want me to open this now?”
He nodded. He didn’t trust that Luceti would have her stick around long enough for Christmas. And damn it, if he could be allowed one last moment with Pao-Lin, he wanted to at least see her reaction to the present he’d gotten for her.
Said reaction was pretty worrying at first, truth be told. When Pao-Lin opened the box and plucked out her gift, she actually frowned at it. “A hairpin...?”
Hubert cleared his throat nervously. “Y-yes...a sopheria hairpin.”
“ — oh! That flower from your world, right?” She turned the hairpin, and the iridescent beads that comprised the small sopheria flower on it sparkled in the sunlight. An awed expression as something occurred to her. “Did you make this?”
He shook his head. “I commissioned it from someone else.”
“Really? I didn’t know there was anyone in the village who could make something like this.”
“The person in question apparently arrived last month, so they’re quite new.”
As they spoke, Pao-Lin headed for the mirror on the opposite end of the room. She gathered some of her bangs on one side of her face to slide the hairpin onto before tilting her head to study the result. Then she turned around to face Hubert. “How does it look?” she asked.
Well, given her new haircut, the presence of such a feminine accessory was even more at odds with her tomboyish appearance than usual. But the contrast on her was charming, and anyway the sopheria’s color matched her new pale purple wings (which in turn were reminiscent of the aster hairpin she usually wore). “It looks nice,” Hubert said, hoping the compliment sounded as genuine as he felt it was.
She grinned and skipped over to hug him tightly. “Thank you,” she said, her cheek pressed again his chest. “This was a great thing to come back to.”
“I’m glad you think so.” He almost let that lapse into silence, but his willpower persevered (as it was wont to do) and he made himself say his next words. “Pao-Lin...”
“...I love you.”
Hubert felt Pao-Lin tense for a brief moment before she looked up at him in surprise. He, too, found himself tensing, afraid of what he might hear or see from her.
But she only smiled and said, all too easily: “Well, I love you too, silly.”
And before Hubert could even think to be relieved, she stood up on tiptoes to kiss him.
Which was of course when the door to his bedroom opened and Pascal skipped in without any attempt at warning of her presence whatsoever. “So, Hu, I just realized — whoah, hey, Pao-Lin! Great to see you again!”
Pao-Lin simpered and waved. “Hi.”
“You could’ve knocked, Pascal!” Hubert squeaked, already feeling his face turn red.
She scratched the back of her head sheepishly before clenching her hands into excited fists. “Sorry about that. I just had this totally amazing thinky moment and I wanted you to hear it!” Said fists then opened up as she shrugged. “Buuuut since you’re obviously doing something else, I’ll go bug Cheria instead. You two just go on with your love-a-dove stuff, okay?” A wink. “I’ll even tell everyone else you’re gettin’ busy so they don’t bother you!” And with an irreverent salute, she skipped back into the hallway.
“Wait, don’t say it like that!”
Hubert protested, stomping over to the door to call after her. “You’re making it sound like we’re — Pascal, are you even listening to me? Ugh.” He ran a hand over his face.
Pao-Lin tugged at his arm. “Maybe we should head out? We can get milkshakes.”
“Yes, perhaps it would be wise to leave,” muttered Hubert. He would have to get the house’s grocery list first, though, and that meant having to go down the stairs, through the living room, and into the kitchen, vastly increasing the chances that he would get hassled by a housemate or two who had heard Pascal’s ill-worded warning. It was one aspect of his life with Pao-Lin that he certainly hadn’t missed.
But seeing her by his side, looking adorably pleased in the gift he’d specifically custom-ordered for her, made the hassling well worth the pain.
If Pao-Lin had any doubt about whether Hubert truly loved her, he would put those doubts to rest once and for all.***
This is not the last snowfall
Not our last embrace
But if I were that kind of grateful
What would I try to say?
-Vienna Teng, “The Last Snowfall”