The alarm had been ringing for a moment already.
Blues was running after Roll throughout the house. The three-year-old was seemingly not realizing the gravity of the situation as she ran away from her elder brother giggling. Blues had considered telling her to stop harshly, but he preferred her laughing over getting scared each time she'd hear the alarm; they heard it often enough. She was shortly distracted by Rock filling some hole in the backyard, just enough for Blues to catch her and lift her. She replied with a playful squeal and kicked with her legs for a few seconds before deciding she liked Blues' arms better and let him hold her properly. They joined Rock in the backyard, who was finishing up with his hole and tapping the dirt with his shovel. The second the alarm has started ringing, Rock had practically thrown himself outside to dig. Said he was doing some trick he learned from friends at school. Roll was set down and her elder brother quickly put on her hood, that she tried to push away.
“It's too hot!” she complained when she let go of the hood and instead pouted at Blues, crossing her arms.
“I know, I know,” he answered. “We'll take it off when we get out of the shelter.”
It only seemed to upset her more. Her lips pursed more and her eyes teared up.
“I hate shelters,” she said with a voice that sounded like she was about to cry out of annoyance.
“I don't like them either,” Blues said to calm her down. “Tell you what, once we're in the clear, I'll take you both to the park.”
This seemed to spark some joy out of the youngest, who started bouncing on the stairs in excitement, her annoyance forgotten. Even Rock was smiling while piling up some things in his bag behind the other two. After being in shelters, the three of them always needed some time outside, where the air felt less oppressive, tense and hot. He turned back serious pretty quickly though.
“Blues, you should head to the shelter,” he said, not even trying to hide his concern.
“Yeah yeah,” scoffed the elder almost too casually while pulling off his scarf. “Shouldn't run too much, yadda yadda, I know.”
“Do you have your medicine?”
“Yes, I do, now stop worrying, I'm the one moming you around here,” laughed Blues, giving his scarf to Rock, who rolled it around his hand for the moment. “I'll be at the fire station shelter. Take whichever if you can't make it. I'll meet you at the pond if so.”
With that, he patted Roll on the head and started heading out. Of course, she tried to follow him.
“Nu-uh, young lady,” he said, gently pushing her back toward Rock. “You're going with the runner. Be a good girl and do what he tells you, alright?”
She nodded enthusiastically and placed herself next to the door like some sentry and watched her big brother leave the house and walk toward the station. Blues was old enough to go fight in the front lines and had actually done a few military camps, but because their mother had died shortly after Roll's birth from flu complications, Blues was excused from fighting and allowed to stay at home. With his heart condition he wouldn't have made a very good soldier anyway.
Rock got back inside and closed every window's panels and hid away two or three of their most prized belongings out of precaution. His gaze met with a family photo of all of them with their father and he quickly shoved the now unframed picture in his bag before telling Roll to come over so he could tie her on his back with Blues' scarf.
A year ago, the photo might have been bittersweet. Their mother's death had left Blues awfully sour towards their father. Blues had once told Rock their father had changed careers and if he hadn't it might have saved their mother. There had been too little information for Rock to change any view he had on their dad, but he had noticed that since then Blues had started doing things their mom used to: cooking, cleaning, putting them to bed... He had asked Blues' friend Tempo about it once. She said he wanted to "be the responsible one", whatever that meant. Rock understood fairly well it was out of spite though, even if he didn't fully understand why.
Once Roll was safely tied on his back thanks to Blues' scarf, she pointed to a red dog plush.
“Rush! Rush!” she exclaimed, kicking to get her brother's attention.
Rock picked it up and gave it to his sister while he started running for the door. They didn't even have the time to reach the front door that they heard planes fly over them.
“Cover your head!” Rock ordered as he threw himself down.
Roll listened to him and buried her face in his back with hands on her head, growing silent. The sound eventually died off a bit and Rock stood back up and got outside.
It was absolute chaos. People were running and pushed each other, some tried to carry more than they could take. There were some fires on houses. A group of men were trying to put them out and save as much as they could. Rock looked up at the sky and stopped in terror for a moment. The planes seemed so close, a lot closer than he had ever seen them. Something was very wrong about this raid. Roll screaming and hiding her face on his back snapped him back to reality and he started running. He started heading towards the fire station, but then noticed there seemed to be too many people going in that direction. Blues must have arrived before the crowd. Rock judged it safer to run to a less popular shelter or somewhere less likely to be bombed. He ran off as fast as he could, trying to make his way through the crowd and reach the park, where he knew he could easily reach more open spaces. He could barely hear the distant sound of bombs over his beating heart and heavy breathing. He finally reached a lake, where he found a secluded, lightly roofed space, where very few people were. No one protested to their arrival.
Rock sat down, panting and untied Roll, who snuggled close to him and held Rush tightly. Else than Rock's panting and distant explosions, the place was quiet, clouded by a heavy, tense silence. This went on for a while, at least enough for Rock to breathe normally again.
“I'm hungry,” Roll suddenly complained, making one or two people jump.
Rock only hummed as an answer and started looking in his bag. While he had plenty of water, he hadn't thought of packing food. The raid had come just between snack time and lunch. With the adrenaline worn off, he too felt a bit hungry. He hoped he had an apple he forgot about or something along those lines. He softly gasped at the sight a familiar little bag at the bottom. It was usually used for Rock's school lunches. He got it out and looked inside. He was right: there were three sandwiches and some cookies inside. The bread was fresh, soft and still a bit cold. Blues must have made them when the alarm started ringing and put them in the bag while Rock was busy digging. Blues didn't lie: he was the one moming them.
Go to the school. There will be food and shelter. Go to the school, you will be safe.
These were the words an officer had shouted at the pond. It seemed they were spreading the message around. Most of the town had been destroyed, Rock's house included, and it seemed to be hard to walk around what used to be streets. The untouched, easy to access school seemed like a slim thread of hope.
Rock and Roll had been waiting at the pond for a little while, but Blues had been nowhere to be seen. He might have heard the message and went there, or maybe he had broken something in the chaos and he was brought to school. Rock could easily imagine Blues fighting against whoever tried to bring him to school because he wanted to go at the pond... Well, there was only one way to find out. Roll was on his back in seconds and he walked toward the school. It luckily wasn't too far, he expected to get there in about twenty minutes.
Blues used to be sour to their father as he gradually took the role of moming his siblings, but it seemed once they had gotten the news Thomas would be leaving for the front lines, Blues' behavior completely flipped. Where he used to make he and his siblings eat dinner and leave the rest on the table for their father, he would now wait for his return to take the time to eat all together and even let Thomas do the dishes with him while the kitchen had somehow turned into Blues' space over time. Roll had even caught them hugging once. She had said Blues was crying, but Rock had never really seen him do so, so he took that part with a grain of salt. Now that he was there, walking towards the school to get some rations and hopefully meet with Blues quickly, he wondered if that's how he had felt the night he flipped. There was just.... something about the air. He wondered if Blues had felt it too, if he felt it now.
“Why does it always rain after raids?” asked Roll, looking up at the darkened sky.
“The raids cause it. Put your hood on or you'll get wet.”
She did as instructed and nervously hugged Rush on her chest with one hand, the other on Rock's shoulder.
By the time they arrived at the school, the rain had stopped and Roll had already pulled off her hood. She made an annoyed grunt and started kicking so she could walk by herself, and Rock decided to let her go on the ground if she held his hand. There was a line outside to what appeared to be a food ration desk. He walked next to it with Roll, but Blues wasn't part of it.
“Rock!” a familiar female voice called from behind.
He turned back to the source, where he saw a brown-haired girl run up to him. Another well-known blonde girl followed right behind. They looked rather gloomy.
“Hey Tempo, hey Vesper,” he said. “Have you two seen Blues?”
“Yes, he's...” Tempo hesitated, glancing at Roll then spoke quietly and slowly. “He's injured. You should go see him. You know him... he won't rest until he sees you.”
After those words, Vesper almost hurriedly took charge of the youngest.
“Roll!” she said, picking her up and starting to walk away. “Why don't we get your biscuit rations together! What a bombing that was, it must've been scary!”
“Did you cry?”
“Wow, really? You're so brave! You could teach me a thing or two!”
Their voices died down a bit as they went to the beginning of the line. This hesitation from Tempo and hurry from Vesper admittedly worried Rock.
“...He's that bad?” he asked quietly out of disbelief. “How? He was supposed to be in the fire station shelter...”
Tempo shifted her weight on her feet. She was missing a shoe. Not surprising with all the chaos from a few hours earlier.
“He...” she started and gulped. “He didn't make it to the shelter.”
Rock felt himself stiffen. His heart started pumping strongly. “But he left quickly, how could he have not reached it? And he has a heart condition, a responsibility over us! They couldn't refuse him!”
“A lot of people left early from their homes, Rock...” Tempo answered. “It was so crowded in the shelter... we couldn't even sit. He must have been caught up by the crowd...” She started fidgeting a bit. “I saw him, he was with other people stuck outside, talking to the officer... I tried to shout at the officer to let him in, because he can't run for too long, but there were too much people... not enough space to walk, not enough....”
Some emotion seemed to get to her and she stopped, apparently trying to swallow it back.
“Tempo,” said Rock. “I need to see him. Where is he?”
She nodded and gestured for him to follow. They entered the school and walked in a hallway. She seemed unusually nervous, trying to fill the silence.
“They've been asking where you were... the officer at the door knew your father well, he's always been rooting for all of you...” she had a nervous half-hearted laugh. “They couldn't get Blues to sleep or keep his mouth shut. Took them a while to understand he was saying names...”
They arrived at a closed door where a very sturdy looking officer was guarding the door. He recognized the two youngsters immediately.
“Tempo! Rock!” he said.
“Hi, mister Gus, sir,” answered Rock. “I heard Blues is in here?”
Gus grew slightly gloomier, but nodded. “With the names he was shouting, it can only be him. Follow me.”
Rock obeyed and looked around the room. He noticed a box next to the door with a few belongings. A ring, a fancy hairclip and... sunglasses. Or rather half of them. Rock knew these too much. He looked back at Tempo. She slightly waved, but he could see her slumped position, her nervous shifting...
“He was rather lucky to have a broken water pipe so close to his position,” Gus said. “He could keep himself cool until people found him. It definitely must have reduced the pain.”
Something was very wrong.
Gus led him to another room, where he saw more heavily bandaged people. Rock didn't like that room at all. He could hear some moaning, family members crying and loud, raspy breathing. He walked a bit further in the room, trying to quickly get to the next one, but then noticed Gus had stopped walking. He turned back to face him.
“He's there,” said the officer, looking down. “We managed to convince him to stay quiet. He kept hurting his throat asking for you.”
Rock followed Gus' glance and stopped on a very heavily bandaged body. Half of the body had multiple large spots of blood going through the layers of bandages. They seemed to have run out for the legs, as it was only lightly bandaged. The body's pants were mostly burned, even black and crunchy looking at some spots. The only visible skin was the opening of the nose, the open mouth letting out, loud, raspy breathing, and closed eyes, which seemed more closed out of swelling than the intention of resting.
That... was Blues.
“We're supposed to change his bandages tomorrow when we get some new ones..." said Gus, "but he needs a hospital. He'll be taken there by the supply truck tomorrow.”
Rock barely heard him. He slowly knelt next to what he couldn't recognize as, but knew was his big brother. He needed a minute to take it in, then he put a hand on the bandages where Blues' hand was supposed to be. He wasn't sure he felt it. If he had been burnt that much, maybe he couldn't feel anything. He was proved wrong, as a shiver seemed to pass through the bandaged body, whose breathing accelerated for a few seconds and lips trembled.
“...Blues?” Rock tried quietly. “It's me, it's Rock.”
He heard a soft gasp, then a sound came out. It was the beginning of a word, but at the first syllable it was cut by a coughing fit. Rock waited for it to calm down. He was able to make out an “R” sound, but whether he was about to call for him or ask about Roll, there was no way to know.
“You shouldn't talk,” Rock said, taking the bottle of water hanging on his shoulder and removing the cap.
He gently put his hand under Blues' head and lifted it. The elder brother couldn't help a moan, which broke again into a cough. Rock remained patient and waited it out again, before getting the bottle to his brother's lips and letting a bit of water in. Blues weakly swallowed the slow sips his younger sibling gave him.
“Roll is okay too, she's with me. We'll sleep here tonight.”
Blues didn't speak, but Rock was more than certain he heard a long sigh and his elder brother's head seemed slightly heavier on Rock's hand.
“We met with Tempo and Vesper. Vesper's taking care of Roll at the moment.”
The younger brother continued talking as he gently placed the bandaged head on his lap and gave the elder more water. The process was long, since Blues was unable to swallow much and needed a small break after each sip, but it gave more time for Rock to process. The sight of the bandaged body scared him, but as much as he wanted to go away from this bloody, raspy breathing body, he also couldn't bring himself to even think about leaving. He felt like he was gripping an anchor, and as much as the body disgusted him, he felt his brother under the layers and he only felt stronger the love from both sides. Blues' responses, as minimal as they were, breathed relief.
He wanted to stay right there, to give him all the water he needed, to keep talking forever about anything, just to make sure he wasn't alone, to reassure him... but what he wanted most to do now was to hug him, and that, he couldn't... At least not for now. As time went on, Blues' breathing went weaker, but regular and seemingly more relaxed.
“Blues...?” Rock quietly called, to get a reaction if he was awake, but not wake him up if he was sleeping. There was no answer.
“Is he asleep?” asked Gus, who had passed for the third time to check on them.
“Yes,” answered Rock, looking down at his brother.
“Good... he needs rest.”
“...What happened to him?” hesitantly asked Rock.
“I don't know the details, but those who found him said there must have been a bomb that dropped close to him. They found him burned under the water of a broken pipe and one side was more damaged than the other. The only one who truly knows is him.”
Rock looked back down at his brother. He could only imagine... he could only imagine him as he tried to run to another shelter, but his heart wouldn't allow him to. He could imagine the blow, the burning, the impact push... he could only imagine the fire catching up, and his brother trying to find something to save him, and struggle to the pipe... Rock always had a very detailed imagination, but at the moment, he regretted it.
He still couldn't bring himself to leave just yet. He felt like he was holding a fragile vase and if he let go even for a second it would shatter in million of pieces. He couldn't, he wouldn't let his brother shatter, so he stayed, putting his hands on the elder's head as comfortingly as he could.
Eventually, Blues grew quiet and sunk further into Rock's lap.
The train ride was long and crowded. He was lucky to have found a seat... or perhaps someone had given theirs to him, since the large box in his hands didn't allow him to grab onto any bars. He couldn't remember; the last hour had been blurry. Only the box in his hands took his attention. Even as he walked out of the train, his eyes wouldn't leave the box. The walk to Uncle Wily's house was just as blurry to him as anything else.
Wily wasn't really their uncle, but he was a good friend of their father, more than any other distant family. Roll hadn't been too excited to go; Wily's kids scared her, especially the younger one, Bass. Granted, Bass was pretty rude and snappy, but he wasn't a bad kid overall. The older one Michael was nicer, but looked imposing and had hard eyes. Still, Rock knew they would welcome them well, why wouldn't they? Once at the house, he hid the box in a bush and got inside.
“Blues!” he heard a little voice squeal.
Roll arrived at the door as quick as her little feet allowed her with Rush in her arms, but she stopped in her tracks seeing only one of the brothers, obviously disappointed. Uncle Wily had heard Roll's scream and arrived at the door too.
“Is Blues still in the hospital?” asked Wily.
“Yeah,” curtly answered Rock, untying his shoes.
“When is he coming?” asked Roll. “I want to see him!”
“I'll take you to see him once he's better,” sighed the older brother.
Wily found Rock's behavior odd to say the least, but didn't question it for now and let him remove his coat and get a bit comfortable. It was late after all, and in the two days they had been there, Roll was put to bed around that time. He'd talk with Rock later.
A few minutes later, the front door opened again.
“M'home,” said Bass in his usual indifferent tone.
He closed the door behind and walked in the house. Wily was about to scold him for not removing his shoes, but then noticed the wooden box in Bass' hands.
“What's this?” he asked his son as he approached.
“Dunno,” shrugged Bass. “It was under one of our bushes. It doesn't look like it can be opened. Kinda dumb to have a box you can't open.”
He expected his father to have a similar reaction, but met with some shock instead.
“What?” he said, puzzled.
“That's an urn,” answered Wily. “A cheap one, but an urn. That would explain...”
Their short conversation was cut short by Rock getting out of the room and closing the door behind after shooting one last glance at Roll. His eyes laid on the box almost immediately. His eyes widened, he gasped and ran straight to the other two.
“Don't touch that!” he exclaimed, ripping the urn out of Bass' hands, and holding it in a hug-like manner.
Bass looked annoyed, and wanted to take it back out of spite, but he changed his mind when Rock's eyes started to well up as he stared at the urn.
“Is that...?” started Wily.
“He died back at the school,” said Rock, who didn't feel ready to hear Blues' name yet.
“Why did you hide it from us?” asked Wily, with a slightly softer tone.
“I didn't...” he looked back at the closed door, where Roll slept on the other side. "I don't want her to know."
Wily was skeptic with the idea. “And what will you do with the urn? She'll ask what it is and find out eventually, it's better if she knows.”
He vividly shook his head and hugged the box closer. Wily tried to convince him for several minutes, but he'd have none of it. Even Bass stepped in to make them realize the discussion was going nowhere after grunting in frustration and going to his room. This triggered a much calmer conversation between Rock and Wily, who came to terms after a while. As of now, the urn would be hidden in Wily's room, but Rock would have to tell her eventually. The youngest agreed, though he didn't feel like he'd ever muster the courage to tell her the truth. Yet, he'd have to. Rock went to lie down next to his sister that night, his heart heavy with anxiety, though he had no control of the situation. He turned to look at Roll, who was sound asleep on her stomach, and softly ran a hand through her hair. How could he possibly tell her? She was too young. They were both too young. He fell asleep with his hand on her head, thoughts of the world's unfairness running through his mind.