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Coming Home

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Rosa Lauri travels light.

She has a sword, an old Helic military-issue blade kept ready at her hip in a way that's half sentimental and half intimidation; the roads she walks are isolated, and not always friendly. In her own pack, tucked in an oilskin bag and nestled amid practical gear, are four books.

The rest is food, water, and medical supplies, carried in saddlebags—because Rosa isn't alone. Her Battlerover treads obediently on rein alongside, kept in the finest repair other than the grit streaking its legs and purple-blue armor. It lacks insignia other than the manufacturer's safety warnings and a decal proclaiming it runner ornitholestes. She's just as anonymous on sight: her blue-grey clothing is typical of the area, long and flowing and tucked into fingerless gloves and old leather boots. Her hair's tied back, and she wears a bandanna over her mouth and nose to catch the dust. It clings to her face in the morning cold.

This spring has come late and dry, but with it comes proof the soil still lives. As Rosa strays from the trail, the ground crunches under the Battlerover's feet and hers. They leave tracks through old plants, leaves twisted by brief spates of frost. Despite the winter's magnetic storms and their rainless lightning, some of their explorations reveal new growth.

Plants are one of the first things to return, and they've beaten her back home.

Groups of them cluster where she stops to rest, tiny leaflets and stems sheltered in the lee side of the same erratic boulders that block the wind from her eyes. She sits down alongside them, leans back into a curve in the glaciated rock, and turns her face to the sky before closing her eyes. Breathing deep, she runs her fingers along the starts of violets, pasqueflower, sand phlox...they're the flowers of her childhood, ones she knows from touch and smell alone.

When she was little, her mother always made time for Rosa to experience the world outside of the lessons befitting a councilwoman's children. She and her sister would walk the fields and the hills along the farms, joining the kids playing in the steppe grasses that carpeted the hills beyond the irrigation ditches.

Plants she doesn't recognize catch her attention too, carried in as unwitting seed-passengers by Zoid traffic in all the years she's been gone. Few people will recognize her either, not this far from the capital.

Her smile is thin, the slight curve of chapped lips hidden behind fabric, but it reaches her eyes for the first time in a long while.

She's had enough of Helic; or, more accurately, had enough of other people's memories of him. Her own are pleasant, personal...but everyone else speaks of his public face, and she remembers the man behind it, not the leader. Rosa's Helic was the one who would share dreams of peace far too idealistic for his age, and, knowing them unrealistic, his fears about where the war to achieve them led. And he was the one who kept a most terrible library of books amid the expected political and classical fare—it's the trashy ones they both laughed over that hers are picked from.

The condolences she hears for his recent death are never about him as a result, and never really for her either. They're for the first lady and about the president. History will remember them both that way. But while Rosa has been many things—a councilwoman's daughter, a bodyguard, a mother—she does not wish to be Helic's replacement.

Elena, her niece, wants to rule and reunite the continent. She's wanted to for a long time, Rosa can see in her eyes, hidden behind the proper mourning of her father and uncle. Elena talks about what could have been when she wants to be shaping what will be.

When Rosa thinks of what Elena will rebuild out of Helic's republic and the ashes of Zenebas' empire, she can't help but wish her brother-in-law had had the decency to die a decade earlier.

Chirrups to her left rouse Rosa from her drowsy musing, and she looks to her Battlerover, which tosses its head in gentle reminder. The sun grows lower in the sky, warning their light is limited. Rosa stands and scratches the Zoid's chin, beckoning it near enough for her to climb aboard. They're close, and better to make it before nightfall and save them another evening curled by a fire with only each other as company. The Battlerover deserves shelter and rest after so long, and she could do with a proper meal and a bath.

They wind through more rocks, then hillsides—and suddenly, the feel of the road changes, smoothens. The Battlerover's stride lengthens with it, and it takes the next hill in a skip, knowing that pavement means civilization. Rosa unties her bandanna and lets her Zoid prance past the first of the houses and farms, which spread organically out of the central parts of town farther ahead. Some windows are already lit, and other places people are still heading in under sunset's red-orange lighting.

Almost everyone along the way greets her somehow: a quick wave, a "hello, traveler", and a few "hello, Rosa"s, most hesitant. She answers every one of them, not minding the kids fussing over her Zoid or the brief catchings-up with the people old enough to have known her mother—or even her father, before he left for the military like she and her sister left for the city. They deserve the explanation, and she finds it freeing to talk with people as people again, rather than with titles before her name and formalities in their words.

The streets grow more purposeful the longer they walk, and Rosa finds herself meeting other Zoids; there's a wild Cannonfort with a bell around its neck pulling a cart, several insect types being led home by proud children who introduce them by name before they tell her their own, and finally a Siegdober, all ice-blue metal fluff and wagging tail. It licks her hands as she leans out of the Rover's seat, and Rosa scratches it behind pointed ears.

Here, a Nyxian Zoid furred in natural armor is just somebody's dog. She was the president's wife, now she's just Rosa.

She is not abandoning what she's learned, however. There are a thousand towns like hers, still rebuilding, and while she's content to leave the bigger picture to Elena, she knows direct help will be slow in coming. The people of her old hometown are out here on their own, having to band together with old trade partners and rivals—in ways fraught with more unpleasant politics now that survival's more a question. She's kept in touch, heard about the debates springing up now that the worst crisis is past.

Rosa, needless to say, has some experience with councils. And if she is not the one to take Helic's place, perhaps she can reclaim her mother's.

She spots a figure waving, a street away—and spurs the Battle Rover forward to greet her sister.