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Sprouts in the cracks in the concrete

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Ness started college. That’s what was expected of him – to graduate from high school, take entrance exams, and be placed in a college fitting of his academic aspirations. Ness wasn’t sure about what kind of major to pursue but his mother reassured him that he had time to iron the wrinkles out of it, just as long as he leaned in the direction of where his strongest interests were located. That posed a challenge as well, considering that Ness harbored a fascination for nearly everything that a college could offer to teach him. Eventually he settled for the humanitarian cluster and had a field trip enrolling in psychology, child development, world relations, and Sign Language (he’d learned a decent amount from Paula and Jeff that he wanted to expand).

It was actually a pretty positive experience: he learned a lot and can’t say he regrets attending. But that only lasted six months. Then came summer break and his coworkers at his part-time job offered to make it full-time. It’s a kindergarten that doubles as a daycare and there are usually enough children to warrant a few adults guiding them along. Ness had been a substitute teacher that mostly treated the kids to reading circles and freeform versions of sports (they always got to make up a few of the rules). They liked him so much that one of them organized a letter with each of their names, asking for him to come more often. Fortunately for them, Ness didn’t even have to see it to say yes to his coworkers’ proposition.

One thing led to another and now he’s working on getting his teaching credentials. How much time he can dedicate to his job fluctuates but he hasn’t dropped out of it once since he started. His mother regularly admits that he’s always seemed like the teaching kind. Tracy agrees, if only because she gets all the help she could need from her brother when it comes to homework and studying. Ness seems to understand things better when he’s teaching them to others, be it a volleyball strategy or a mathematical theorem. He has this way of using his hands and whatever objects surround him as tools, too, that younger people just find engaging. They find it easy to understand and remember afterwards.

A few of the kids have started wearing their caps sideways to mimic him, if that’s any indication of how fond they’ve become. Though there isn’t any need really, when they shower him with the news every time he comes around. At this time of year there’s only one group so everyone gets to share an equal amount of his attention. Still they leap at the first chance they get – quite literally: climbing up his back and wrapping their arms around his neck to ask him how have you been, are we going to play softball today, everyone brought their favorite book as you asked, I hope you’ll read mine this time.

Despite all their chatter, there’s a lot children don’t manage to squeeze between their excited verses and Ness has a knack for hearing it elsewhere: in where their eyes wander and how they poise their smiles, the little crinkles in their expressions that can be either laughter or melancholy lines. Thus Ness adjusts his tone to their tempo and answers accordingly: hello, dear, it’s been a fine day so far, it’s too cold to play outside, but I’ve brought a lot of treasures to hide in the classroom so we can have a scavenger’s hunt, and of course we can read your book afterwards, I remember how enthusiastic you’ve been about this, by the way, your favorite color is seafoam green, right?

It is and those sorts of little things thrill kids to bits because it really shows you pay attention to them. Ness will pretend to have guessed everyone’s favorite everything but he’s memorized them from day one and keeps a generous supply of toys tailored to those preferences. When children speak he tries to stoop to their level and always looks in their direction, though not seeking eye contact if they don’t initiate.

With a little girl on his lap, her fingers fiddling with the seashell necklace he’s wearing, her voice an unpolished symphony that narrates the privileges and restrictions of childhood, Ness thinks about what Paula once said about the responsibilities of looking after someone’s life for a few hours a day. He places his hands under the girl’s arms and lifts her into the air, blowing on her forehead when she starts to giggle. Maybe he’s starting to understand.

Speaking of Paula, he hasn’t seen her in a while. She finished her two years of community college and decided she was embarking on a new adventure before transitioning into university (she’s cleared the requirements to start a career in world relations). Ness can’t recall the name of the organization Paula contacted since she announced it in an excited blur along with several other important facts, but he knows the gist of what they do: assign people of varying capabilities to cooperate with other countries in whatever fields they can excel at. In Paula’s case, her years of diligently studying languages now means that she’s fluent in seven, and she’s putting that to good use by becoming a bit of a teacher herself, though she’s more of the international kind – always has been –, wanting to see the world at large and influence as many people as possible (which isn’t a bad thing when you know you can make a difference). Ness is more dependent on his roots and sticks to what he’s known since birth; he hasn’t done a lot of traveling since he came back from saving the world.

Now Ness feels glad he humored Paula when she insisted he try to teach her Spanish. He wasn’t an excellent teacher back then (still isn’t) but she learned enough from his clumsy lessons and their bilingual everyday conversations to help her out later in life. Spanish was the first language she studied in college – Ness knows because her phone calls started pouring in at around that time, asking him to chat with her and correct any mispronunciations or awkward sentences. It was a bit like when they journeyed together, the great distance between them suddenly downgraded to the length of a telephone cord. Paula learned fast and didn’t need Ness for that long, but she kept herself sharp by continuing to call. In a way, Spanish was just an excuse to reinvigorate their relationship. As Paula once said: you speak different in Spanish, like words have more of a meaning to you; it really sounds like you’re enjoying yourself; I couldn’t have know you this way before.

Ness can understand that. It is different. He knows for a fact that Paula’s preferred language is French, though she was a true bilingual child, learning both French and English from her parents and having more trouble sticking to just one than she ever did taking on Sign Language, Hebrew, or Spanish. Not at all like Ness, who had to blunder through English as if it were a second, more advanced version of mathematics he had to memorize the formulas for. People tell him they never doubted he’s a native speaker and he laughs at it because he might as well have earned that by now. He might not be a linguistic savvy like Paula but those two he can balance well enough. For everything else he can live through the stories Paula tells.

She’s in Chommo at the moment – with Poo, actually. He’s king now, but he’s personally ensured that his studies continue by taking on the challenge of learning as much as possible from outside regions and their inhabitants. Ness hears the occasional anecdote involving him from Paula since he’s usually too busy to speak over the phone himself. Supposedly Poo’s been following Paula’s since before she arrived in his home continent but now he has the chance to aid her in her endeavors by sharing his knowledge of Chommo. Poo’s interested in extending his own education to the people of Dalaam so he’s asked Paula to consider visiting his kingdom and sharing what she’s learned about the cultural and spiritual practices of others. He says having an outsider speak to them directly will help rouse their interest. Paula’s quite keen on the idea but she has to adhere to the schedule assigned to her and hasn’t found the time to equate that trip in yet. Perhaps, she tells Ness, next year, when the program has come to an end and I have to return to school, I can postpone that just a little longer so I can see Dalaam again.

Poo seems fine from what Paula has passed on. He usually has a message for Ness, and on the rare occasion that Ness actually gets to talk to him, Poo always sounds like he’s genuinely trying to make times for those phone calls. Poo is skilled enough in PSI that he can communicate telepathically with someone regardless of the distance, just as long as he can more or less pinpoint their exact location. It’s considered rude to just burst into someone’s thoughts without warning, though, kind of like how you don’t open a bedroom door until you’ve been given permission. Ness has trouble remembering this rule while he’s in the company of people but Poo’s pretty strict about when and how he sends telepathic signals. Even when all four of them were on their journey, only an emergency would warrant Poo using telepathy without first receiving verbal consent. Paula, however, has let it slip that he’s become a lot more lenient these days – half their conversations are in their heads.

They’re penpals, too, but letters travel slowly so they primarily send photographs with little inscriptions on the back to explain what’s happening in each. Paula started it, giving no warning beforehand, so Ness was quite surprised to discover a fat envelope in his mailbox with the address of some place in Foggyland. She forgot to write her name but Ness immediately knew when he recognized her face in the middle of the first picture. There were several, apparently taken in different places, but collected gradually over time until she had enough to mail a batch. They were primarily photographs of her with the people she met during her travels. She made sure to scribble the name of each person and a short description of what she’d done with that particular group.

Ness found some tape and chose an empty space on his bedroom wall to start hanging the photographs up, an endeavor that would later require they start occupying the neighboring wall, too. He didn’t tell Paula he’d received that first letter, instead opting for preparing one of his own, though he was forced to ask her for the address of her current residence since he didn’t want the envelope to accidentally reach a place she’d already left. Ness made a special occasion out of it at the kindergarten, too, showing his students the photos Paula had sent and asking them to draw or write a response.

It became a recurring thing as Paula continued to mail those envelops. At this point, the kindergarten as a whole is penpals with Paula and whomever she has the pleasure of sharing Ness’s responses with.

Sometimes, they arrive with more than just photographs. The children in the kindergarten bring things like stickers and shells and cards, and Ness sends off anything that’s small enough to fit amidst the other clutter. Paula has picked up this habit of always sending a pressed native flower or leaf, which Ness then places on a glass display next to the previous ones, angled in such a manner that the students can see the array glistening above a bookshelf.

They always demand Paula’s stories behind the photos so Ness puts on a show for them, trying to imitate that wonderful flair for drama that Paula’s capable of when she helps her mother at the preschool. They also remember their favorites and ask for repetitions later. Right now they seem to be entranced by the scouts that Paula looked after for three weeks. Amongst her exploits are helping them build a treehouse overlooking the sea and relocating aquatic creatures from a drying pond to one that was much better off.

Ness told his students that there’s a wonderful ocean view near his house and they all clamored to see, leading to a miniature field trip where everyone wore matching striped shirts and baseball caps of some kind (they don’t have a regular uniform and Ness’s mother has kept every shirt she’s ever sewed for her son, so somehow it just ended up that way). Unfortunately there were no trees to build a house on top of but the children were satisfied to explore the rundown building that is technically still Ness’s property. Before heading back, they all gathered in a circle while Ness planted a seed in the earth. He told them that in a decade or so a tree would be growing tall and firm there for them to build their house on top of.

Ness wonders sometimes if Paula and Poo have tried teaching other people PSI, or if they’ve observed potential of that sort in anyone. Ever since saving the world with them, most people in Onett are aware of Ness’s psychic capabilities but few have seen them in action. Ness’s hyper-empathy is usually just regarded as a keenness for reading social cues, which is in reality quite far from the truth considering that Ness still struggles to attribute facial expressions and gestures to the correct emotions. Being able to physically sense the feelings of others has really helped make that dilemma of his invisible.

Beyond that, there’s the occasional electrical snap or levitation that he’ll perform to entertain his students (Ness wouldn’t admit it, but the majority of these are actually accidents: he forgets to do things normally and someone ends up witnessing his supernatural act). Then he’s pinned down by their pleading and has to conjure some sort of encore. Though PSI is primarily a means of self-defense, Ness sees nothing wrong with tweaking his talents a little bit so they can better appeal to his young audience. Poo’s such an expert that he can mold his psychic energy to resemble a variety of things. He rarely bothered in the midst of battle but otherwise practiced pretty often, claiming that being able to focus his energy into specific figures would strengthen his overall control. If it makes the kids happy while also helping him improve (and he never can know when he’ll need to use his PSI seriously again), then it’s a win-win situation. It takes Ness time because he’s no genius like Paula or Poo, but he gets there eventually – and when they see luminous, golden butterflies fly across the room, they really are thrilled to call Ness their favorite teacher.

Ness’s students are certainly enthusiastic about psychic powers but he can’t say that he suspects any of them of being users. It’s still unclear how common the phenomenon is, or how someone that isn’t forced into constant combat because of a world saving ordeal can develop those abilities into something akin to what Ness possesses now. Paula has her theories about genetics and circumstances, believing that everyone has the potential but most will go their entire lives without an awakening. Poo says it can be gauged the moment someone comes in contact with PSI – either they resonate with it or not, and that’s that (since times immemorial, this is how PSI has been kept active in Dalaam). Ness has to admit that he’ll be pretty excited of he ever meets a new psychic, but for now he’s not holding onto the hope. Paula, Poo, and Ness tend to get caught up in how different they are from non-psychics – how unique their experiences are and how coming together allowed them to better understand and appreciate themselves. Especially when all three of them are engaged in conversation, they can forget about, well, everything else.

As much as their PSI might bind them, when it comes to remembering to communicate, all three of them pale in comparison to Jeff. He’s always been a person with a lot to say, and long-distance helps him shine because it removes that uncomfortable barrier that his anxiety is constantly wrestling during face-to-face interactions. Jeff graduated from Snow Wood Boarding School and took up residency in a university that specializes in physical sciences. He still has a way to go before he’s certified but he’s tried his hands at so many branches of writing, programming, and engineering that he can probably secure a job in any field he chooses. The big goal in his life plan seems to be scripting the artificial intelligences that maneuver machines in space. However, he’s also expressed a profound interest in poetry and published a few pieces – Jeff makes sure to mail the issues of newspapers and magazines to his friends.

Because of how meticulously he tailors and adheres to his routines, Jeff is consistent with his calls. It’s a relief for someone like Ness who starts worrying about the wellbeing of his friends the moment he stops talking to them, especially if he doesn’t know how long it’ll be until he can contact them again. Ness used to pride himself in how he started most of the conversation between the Chosen Four but that was when he had a clear understanding of everyone’s pace and didn’t have to grapple with whether they might be busy and rather not waste their time on idle chatter (Ness is always afraid that even important things he says will be interpreted as idle chatter).

Having Jeff be the one to ensure a steady dialogue is new and different but far from bad. Ness actually feels like he can relax because the worrying and questioning isn’t necessary with Jeff – he tells you exactly what’s been up: good and bad, and in generous detail. If he happens to forget anything, Tony is usually around to remind him. Jeff puts most phone calls on speaker because he works while he talks, which means that Tony can hear everything. Ness doesn’t mind since he gets along pretty decently with Tony these days. Tony has about as much to say as Jeff but doesn’t feel inclined to share unless directly asked (he respects the conversations being between Jeff and Ness). Jeff finds ways of gently nudging Tony into them, though. Ness just goes ahead and greets Tony at the beginning of calls.

Ness got to visit their apartment once. The rooms are in a straight line and there are no doors or second floors so it feels like one big corridor. Science and art converges in every corner, evidence of their multiple interests. Tony’s an architect and he’s already designing the blueprints for their future house. His extensive taxidermy collection adorns bookshelves and desks, while his animal skulls (each found by accident, each with their own story that Ness has heard) are nailed to their bedroom walls. They both hail from cryptid country (Winters) so it’s no surprise that they’re fascinated by all kinds of real and mythological beasts. Jeff had to invite Ness on one of their treks through forests and up mountains in search of that rare and blurry glimpse of a could-be-new-species (or alien, Jeff is always open to the possibility of aliens). Tony’s also enrolled in the drama club and performs in an actual theater pretty often – Ness watched Jeff try to hand him some flowers after a show and Tony ended up hoisting him onto the stage, Jeff up in the air while Tony embraced him – so there’s a big sewing machine and stacks of half-finished costumes that Tony’s working on. An iguana – named Stanley Kubrick in honor of the author of the Space Odyssey series – sunbathes on a table directly beneath the window and sometimes crawls onto their bed at night. Jeff fixed up a sofa so Ness could spend the night and since it takes him a while to fall asleep in a new environment he got to watch Jeff and Tony settle into a comfortable spooning position.

Before Ness headed home, Jeff gave him a photograph of all three trying to reenact a scene from one of Tony’s plays (he wrote the script for it himself). They’re wearing matching heart shaped glasses and a whole lot of glitter. Ness tapes it to the wall between one of his students dressed as different species of birds and another of Paula and Poo riding a camel.

Today is the anniversary of the world being saved by the Chosen Four. Ness has a little ceremony that he performs to commemorate and thus far it’s always been alone, but it occurred to him a month or so ago that maybe he should change that this year. Thus, with the help of his mother, he’s prepared a batch of food for his students to eat during their picnic (their love for his mother’s cooking has actually motivated him to try harder to memorize the family recipes).

Everyone has a backpack with their essentials and they’re wearing those striped shirts as a makeshift uniform again. Eager eyes look up at him while arms and legs fidget but Ness has to make sure they’re divided in pairs first, each holding hands to diminish the chance of straying from the group. Once they set out, they don’t need to be guided because they know their destination, allowing Ness to walk at the very back and watch over all of them. The chorus of joyous voices brings a smile to Ness’s face.

Up the path they go, to the cavern that hasn’t been blocked off for a while but still isn’t paid much attention to by the townspeople. They seem to have forgotten that beyond the dark and wet and overall unappealing network of tunnels there’s a site that offers the best view of Onett.

Ness has been through it plenty of times since the world returned to normal and he’s seen nothing dangerous but he reminds his students to form a line and wait until everyone else has made it through a certain part before running on ahead. Ness has to take the lead now, instructing them on how to climb the ropes that he replaced just recently for this occasion. The children seem pretty awed by the sense of adventure but it pales in comparison to the thrilled shrieks that they emit once they’ve seen Giant Step. First it’s the delightful clearing, then the inexplicably large footprint on the ground, and once they’re finally done gasping and laying their bodies inside of that, there’s the sight of Onett as if it were a model town or the background in a movie.

While they’re busy pointing out buildings and theorizing about the origins of the giant footstep, Ness sets down a cloth made up of several different cloths sown together so that the entirety of his class can sit together. The weather’s wonderful, too: warm but not burning, the sky a deep blue that feels comfortable enough to lie in, and the breeze the sort of playful that inspires children to fly kites and paper airplanes. Ness has brought a few such toys to entertain his students with but supper comes first. He waits patiently while they settle down from the initial hype of being in this new and enchanting place.

Eyes closed, Ness gathers his memories of each previous visit, every year since he first ventured out of home and found this little sanctuary in the midst of growing unease. Ness touches his index and middle finger to his forehead. The sanctuaries lost most of their power after he absorbed the energy of the Earth but it’s that very connection that allows him to sense what remains. This is the only sanctuary he came to alone but it’s never invoked loneliness. Instead it was like opening a door hidden in a wall, in plain sight and yet not, only visible when he ran his fingers across and pried it open.

Ness has the feeling that he’s being watched by himself as a young boy, barely a teenager and yet already on a journey into the vast and exciting unknown.

Then it’s over, like it never happened – except, of course, in his memory. Everything is always real in his memory.

Ness watches his students play and thinks, here comes the future. If the world needs saving again, it’ll be one of them.