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Lost Dimensions

Chapter Text

“Sir Ilbert. If I may have a word?”

Rowen froze at the familiar voice, a grimace visible on his face for a brief moment before he schooled it away behind a faintly surprised, courteous expression. After all of the talk floating around Fennmont, their group had decided it was best to explore the palace in search of Nachtigal–the most likely source of the divergence in this dimension. Ludger and the others posed as tourists exploring the public rooms of the palace during its quieter hours, while Rowen made use of his apparent authority in this dimension to search the more restricted floors.

Of course someone would call out and acknowledge him. He had been prepared for that.

He hadn’t been prepared for that someone to be Wingul, who for all intents and purposes should have been in Auj Oule.

Perhaps he was a negotiator? That aligned with Wingul’s responsibilities as he knew them, having absorbed several of them into his role as prime minister. He certainly wasn’t a hostage or normal visitor, accessing this wing of the palace with his nonplussed expression intact. Regardless, Rowen turned to face the younger man with a smile in place, nodding in greeting. “Good evening, Wingul. What may I do for you?”

Upon closer inspection, he could see that the younger man was carrying a number of books under one arm. Ah, of course—a prolific observer like Wingul would make use of his time in Orda Palace and seek out any books that were not available in Auj Oule.

“I wished to discuss some of your works with you while I had the opportunity.” Rowen smiled at Wingul’s level of formality, but somehow found the lack of hostility jarring. There was no reason to think it strange, considering they were in a fractured dimension and it had been a long time since he’d seen an antagonistic Wingul. Perhaps it had something to do with the niggling reminder at the back of his head that Nachtigal was alive somewhere in the structure.

“Most certainly. I would be happy to…” He trailed off as he belatedly recognized the book Wingul shifted to the top of his stack, his smile freezing in place and thoughts grinding to a halt. Fortunately, his sudden trepidation went unnoticed, and he fought to calm himself.

Until Wingul spoke. “I never would have imagined you to be such a visceral poet.”

* * *

“You ran away.”

Rowen had the decency to flush in embarrassment, hiding the majority of his grimace behind his teacup. “A strategic withdrawal. We had much more important matters to deal with, and far be it that I be the one holding us up.”

Wingul leveled an unimpressed look at his drinking companion, shaking his head as he averted his gaze back to the Spirius Corporation dossier in front of him. “Yet none of this will ever be on the public record.”

“Indeed. One would think it would benefit Spirius to be more open about basically saving the world.”

“Benefit? If Origin’s Trial and this wish business were public knowledge, there would be chaos in the streets. Or, even worse, everyone would be second-guessing every action they took out of fear of somehow creating a fractured dimension.” When Rowen raised a questioning brow, Wingul emphatically stabbed the papers in front of him with the back of his pen. “A strong enough departure from the choices of the prime dimension, wasn’t it? Imagine the fear bred out of the possibility. No one would want to end up in a fractured dimension.”

“My understanding is that the shift is unnoticeable and that those in the fractured dimension are not even aware of their state.” Rowen seemed to be in the middle of shifting opinions on his earlier remark. “I suppose the leadership of Spirius sees no reason to alert the public if there is nothing they can do about it.”

Wingul’s eyes narrowed as he followed the other tactician’s line of thinking. “If that is the case, how does someone become aware they aren’t of the prime dimension?”

“There is the issue of our two Millas, of course, but that could be refuted with the belief that each dimension prioritizes that world’s version of a person. I presume it has something to do with this Land of Canaan that Elle is searching for. Perhaps the Spirius Corporation of our world has found some trace of it to lead them to that belief.” While it certainly sounded plausible, Rowen couldn’t deny his own skepticism—or the dour look from across the table. “I will speak with Ludger, but it may very well be blind faith. Who would actively press forward believing their world is a fractured dimension?”

“A world determined or desperate enough to defy that possibility.” Wingul leaned back, dropping his pen on the tabletop along the way. “Fighting world destruction on multiple levels. How absurd.”

Rowen smiled wanly in response. “What is fighting for peace if not delaying world destruction?”

Wingul made the effort to pick up his pen to fling it in the older man’s direction, not at all surprised to see it caught with ease. “There’s already enough cynicism at this table without you dipping your toes in the water. You have yet to finish your story about the fractured dimension.”

“Ah, yes, I did, didn’t I?” His smile took on a faintly nostalgic tinge as he set the pen down. “Very well, I suppose I should tell you about our eventual meeting with Nachtigal…”

Chapter Text

“She enjoys making up and singing songs. Perhaps you would be interested in lending your expertise?”

Wingul did not deign Jiao’s remark with a visible reaction; he continued reading his paperwork without pause, as if he hadn’t heard. Of course, Jiao knew his colleague better than that and waited for a reply, carefully tapping at his GHS with a round-tipped stylus.

“You keep doing this. I’m not interested.”

Jiao hummed in acknowledgment, but similarly did not look up from what he was doing. They rarely conversed without some other medium involved, be it their own individual projects or a shared one.

“You are the only one who doesn’t interact with her.”

A faint snort. It was an obvious observation. “There’s no reason for it.”

“Even His Highness talks with her from time to time.”

“His Highness talks to everyone.”

Jiao finished typing out his text message, sending it without fanfare; he found little need for the ringtones and notification sounds of his GHS, keeping it on vibrate most of the time. “Is it the connection to the labs? To the boosters?”

There was a noticeable pause in the flipping of pages. “She was a test subject.”

He shifted his attention from personal texts to an ongoing weather report for the region. The weather accuracy was drastically low in Elympios with the influx of mana, and Rieze Maxia was only a little better. “All of you were test subjects.”

“Not every test subject rose up to become a researcher.”

Jiao’s brow twitched at the flat response, and he looked over from his broad seat to see Wingul with his head turned towards the window. Distracted. Thoughtful. “If you are feeling guilty for the life you gave them, Wingul, you shouldn’t. The children still had the choice to be children, which was more than could be said for others.” While he did not say it outright, he was sure they both thought of the tribal dregs and ‘specialized’ groups like the Rats.

“It’s not guilt.” The momentary slip in expression was replaced with annoyance. “As I said, there’s no reason for it. What am I supposed to talk to her about?” There was only a brief pause before he quickly followed up. “And I don’t mean something trite like songs.”

The GHS was slipped out of sight, returned to the carefully stitched inner pocket of his coat. While he had allowed himself to take up some of Elympios’ technology, Jiao still largely embodied the style and traditions of an Auj Oule tribe. “I can’t think of anyone better to talk with her about boosters.” When Wingul shot him a probing look, Jiao wove together his large, callused fingers and sat back. “You know as well as I that her booster is also a prototype—just of the third generation. She continues to treat it like a toy, and it doesn’t cause her pain like yours does, but it’s inevitable. Side effects are inevitable.”

“You don’t know that.”

No one knows that.” Jiao accepted the retort readily, having expected it. “Everything written about the third-generation prototype research went up with the labs. With so many of those involved in the research gone, you may very well be the only one who knows anything about what Teepo does to Elize.”

“If you are so concerned, you’ve had every opportunity to dissuade her from using it.”

A more temperamental man would have been incensed by the aloof answer. But, once again, Jiao knew his colleague well enough to continue despite the apparent indifference. “She continues to use her booster for the power it gives her. The power to stand beside and protect those she loves.”

There was a significant moment of silence as the sheaf of papers on Wingul’s desk was carefully slid to one side, allowing him to rest his folded hands on the desktop. He sighed, more weary than irritated. “You’re not going to give up on this, are you?”

Jiao grimaced, reaching up to stroke his beard in thought. “Her argument is a strong one. Even though I care about her very much, it’s not something I can hold against her.”

Disbelief, peppered with slight understanding, was audible in Wingul’s scoff. “And you think I will somehow fair better?”

For the first time in their conversation, Jiao found it in himself to carefully smile. “You’ve gone to incredible lengths for king and country. To the edge of death, on more than one occasion.” His smile grew stronger as he continued. “In spite of all of that, you are still here. You managed to show restraint in the face of numerous battles and worldwide war.

“…If there is anyone who can understand and help her judge when to use Teepo, it’s you.”