BONUS: Tsubasa Map

Here’s a new bonus for Hands Held in the Snow: the long-awaited Tsubasa map!

The whole continent from the story is here for you to see. The bulk of the story, of course, takes place in Balarand, but there’s lots of political tensions in the air. The Tsubasa map will help you understand the world a little bit better while you read, hopefully! I’ve included a normal parchment map and a political map for reference on the borders (as of chapter 1).

There’s a lot of little details in the map, even stuff that doesn’t appear in the book itself. So I hope you’ll give this map a close look. And if you’re reading through, remember to reference it often!

(New to Hands Held in the Snow? Start reading here, or on Tapas, or on Royal Road.)

Click for full size
Click for full size

(You can also see 4K-size versions on the Quinlan Circle Patreon 🙂 )

BONUS: Hands Held in the Petals

This “Lucky Encounter” themed chapter takes place between Chapters 65 and 66, so it’s near the end of the story. Please enjoy!

It was so warm this afternoon that Beatrice had rolled up her sleeves and tied back her hair. She had to actually take off her jacket and stuff it into her knapsack–it was either that or tie it around her waist, and she wasn’t a grade schooler, so into the bag it went. 

Continue reading “BONUS: Hands Held in the Petals”

One Year with Emi & Beatrice [Blog]

It’s been one year since Hands Held in the Snow began serializing on the internet. One year since Emi and Beatrice first laid eyes on one another and our beloved narrator asked us, was it love at first sight?

It feels like an eternity ago. That’s kind of what 2020 was generally like, though. I started writing the book over three years ago, and now it’s finally out for everyone to see, for the world to read and hopefully fall in love with just like I did writing it.

There’s been a whole lot of support for the series since it came out, enough that I’m still pretty overwhelmed about it. ATL is enough of a slow burn experience that I felt OK with how it finally became a little bit more popular as time went on. Hands Held in the Snow, though, had an active readership from the very start! That’s one of the cool things about how web fiction has grown in such a short time.

While the main site has not been particularly active, a few people each month read through the story and leave comments, either on Royal Road or Tapas, and it fills my heart with warmth every time. The Twitter account gets a lot of fun stuff on it from time to time as well. It’s enough to keep me happy, though I’m still waiting for the day the story eventually breaks out (if that lucky day ever comes).

But…

Maybe not enough time has passed to do a thorough reflection. I’m at a loss to actually talk about the story as a whole. It’s still really fresh, like the world of Balarand still hasn’t left me.

As much as I am glad that Hands Held in the Snow is finally over, part of me doesn’t want to let it go! It was a really fun experience and I keep finding myself tinkering away at it, trying to make it perfect for everyone. I’ve been meaning to make some small maps of the continent and of Balarand itself. And I still have a few fun bonus stories to share with the world… though those will mostly be silly non-canon alternate universe tales.

Maybe that’s why I don’t feel ready to reflect on one year with Emi & Beatrice just yet; because my heart doesn’t feel like the experience is fully complete yet. Maybe that’s pretty silly of my heart to think that, but there’s only one response I can make: 仕方がないわ。

I’m glad you read this reflection, whether you are a fan of the story or someone who hasn’t tried it out just yet. (Though if you are the latter, I really recommend it! It’s good! Start from chapter 1!)

With any luck, my next romance novel will release in 2021 (after over two years of research and planning!). And I hope you will be there for it.

(Also, join the Discord server!!)

Hands Held in the Snow Afterword (+Q&A), by Thedude3445

An afterword reflection by Thedude3445:

First off…

Thank you so much for reading Hands Held in the Snow!

It’s been a wonderful nine months posting the story and interacting with readers. I’m a bit exhausted and ready for the story to finally all be out there for people to read, but I have to admit it’s been a lovely time while it’s lasted.

But across these nine months, it sure has been a lot to take in. Even though this was my second original web serial (after ATL), it still brought many challenges and opportunities that have helped me grow quite a lot as an author. This project has grown very close to my heart, and I’m glad that you were here to experience it with me.

The History of the Handholding

I wasn’t sure if Hands Held would see much real success as a web serial. It was written originally as a traditional novel, one without all the cliffhangers and hanging plot threads to keep people coming back week after week. Would people really be invested in a romance story where the focus is not on if they will get together, but how their relationship will go? But I decided to post it anyway, because I didn’t want to wait around hoping an agent or publisher would fall in love with it first. The story was worth more than that.

Well… Whether or not the story was successful at getting people to fall in love with it isn’t up to me. I’m very hopeful that my writing and Mikayla Buan’s artwork has made a positive impact on a lot of people, but ultimately that’s up to you. If you loved the story, or liked it, or even hated it, I really want to know. If you have any thoughts at all to share about a story, please do express them whenever (and wherever)! I’d love to hear them.

While I always have plenty of fun writing stories, I had a blast with this one. Writing about two characters falling in love and having a fruitful relationship together by itself one of my favorite things about being an author, but having the opportunity to write about all those tiny parts of romance–the inconsequential dates, the cuddling, the chats about benign topics–really was as fun as it gets.

Beatrice and Emi both had equally engaging storylines for me to write, though I found it more challenging to keep up with Emi’s storyline and the many side characters she brought along with her. That girl had too many friends and family! But, obviously, my favorite parts of the story to write were when the two were together, having fun and growing together. 

The MOST fun part of the story to write? Probably the entire storyline where they go to Mammoth Pass. Some of the chapters in there made me downright joyful to write.

Of course… writing the more emotional parts of the story was also a tough challenge at times. Getting through some complicated emotions and impassable walls… Sometimes my heart screamed at me to give the story a cheap wish fulfillment ending, even well into publishing the story. But it wouldn’t have worked, and ultimately I don’t think our two heroines would have been happy, anyway. They needed the endings they deserved, not just the one my heart begged me for.

But ultimately, it all went through and the story ended and now we’re here. Despite everything, the story turned out exactly like how I planned it, and I hope it has come out stronger because of that.

Now, I want to discuss the story further, but to help me do so, I’ll be answering some questions sent into me by readers and fans on Twitter and elsewhere. Time for the Q&A!

The Q&A

How long have you been writing Hands Held in the Snow?

The inception of the story dates back to mid-2017, just an idea for a little 6-chapter novella I wanted to write someday. I wrote the idea down, then later on a friend chanced upon it and fell in love with the idea, practically begging me to write it. And this mysterious friend was so serious that they offered me cash money if I’d write it as soon as possible.

Of course, I did! 

The first draft of the story was completed on March 14th, 2018. After that, the next year and a half was spent tinkering on the story, expanding it, smoothing out the pacing, and fleshing out the side characters as much as possible. 

The draft that you read now is the fifth. Usually I don’t rewrite stories THAT much, but this one required a bit more work, especially once it became a web serial.

Will this story be published on any online storefronts?

At the moment, the story will remain on its current platforms for free reading with no limitations. Could there be an ebook version someday? Eh, maybe. If the demand is strong enough, then sure.

What was the driving inspiration behind Hands Held?

I was sick of WLW fiction that centered around “forbidden love” and always having some man to cheat on or sneak around, so I wanted to write a love story that focused entirely on the romance between two women in love. 

Queer stories about real-life experiences like coming out, discrimination, self-discovery, etc. are extremely important and often very beautiful. But sometimes the world needs a queer romance that has none of that; that desire fueled most of the fire in the story’s creation.

Wise words from Al.

When will there be a Map of Balarand?

Listen, I got an Inkarnate subscription, but it’s surprisingly hard to make good maps! I’ll try to post a Balarand map (and Tsubasa map) someday…

I actually sketched out a map of both the continent and the city back when I was writing the story, to give myself a better sense of things. It’s the first time I’ve actually done that for a story before. Someday, I hope you can see it too.

How much money is Emi actually worth? And if possible, can I buy my own Emi somewhere?

Emi alone has a net worth of your yearly salary over sixty years.

You can also buy a plushie right this very instant! Right now on the Hands Held in the Snow Kickstarter, you can get Emi plush for just $35 USD. Hurry before they run out.

How and to what extent have real-life cultures influenced the setting of the story?

The naming systems and languages were not based on any specific pattern and so resulted in a nice mix of random words. The culture is also seemingly a mishmash of whatever I thought would be interesting to through in this renaissance-esque fantasy world. 

While the situation between Elince, Dannark, and Doros was not based on any specific historical events, I am a student of history and am fascinated by the way that complicated geopolitics affect everyday life for the citizens living in those places.

I’m especially interested, for example, in the 1848 revolutions throughout Europe that ultimately failed at first but fueled the fires of liberalism later on. As an American who only learned of these revolutions in university, it came as a surprise to me that such spontaneous events could rise up and then be squashed so quickly. What did the average everyday people do in these years? What was life like under these short-lived democracies, and then again in the restored monarchies? Unfortunately, history doesn’t always give a clear picture of what these lives were like, not without doing plenty of primary source research at least.

The history of buffer states like Thailand or Poland has also been an interest of mine, and that topic plays a large part in Elince’s role in the story. You can make of that what you will, though.

Is the Ragnell family named after the crone or the sword?

Actually, the name comes from the Star Wars character.

[Editor’s Note: No, it doesn’t.]

L’Hime? Really?

.

Will you be coming back to this world for another story in the future?

Most likely, yes. 🙂 The details are mum for now. Sorry about that!

Why is the art so good?!

You’re gonna have to ask Mikayla Buan that question, because she really knocked it out of the park with the artwork. It really blew me away.

And finally…

As I said before, thank you so much for reading Hands Held in the Snow. It means so much to me that you gave your time to go through it.

If you’re looking for other works to read after this, you can check out The Acorn Princess, an animated short film created by Mikayla Buan and others at Tough Nut Studios. For Thedude3445, you can also look to the web serial ATL: Stories from the Retrofuture, whose second season will continue shortly. And there will be another new Quinlan Circle story coming soon, from our resident cool person Joi Massat, one that you’ve just got to get ready for: Stacrash!! with Jeff.

I myself am starting work on my next romance story very soon. I don’t know when it’ll be done or when it’ll be ready to show to the world, but rest assured it’s going to be something special.

As for Emi and Beatrice? We can let them rest for a while. They earned it.

<== Previous

Chapter 70 – And That’s Their Story

And that’s their story–the story of two girls in love.

Was it love at first sight? I don’t know. 

From the look on your face, I guess you don’t either. Not that a child like you would understand. Yes, yes, you’re not a child, you’re grown enough to make your own decisions, sure. But maybe I’d believe that a bit more if you ever cracked open your history books.

Well, it didn’t matter if it was love at first sight. In short time, the two grew a bond with a strength forged in molten flames. It was a short time that they grew together, but they never grew apart. For the rest of their lives, no matter how distant they may have been, they kept a shard of each other nestled in their hearts. That’s the kind of love that they built.

Hm? Come again? Oh, what happened after they parted?

Well, life ended up well for both women. Emi Khara went on to become a diplomat and inventor whose machines are still used in households today. Beatirce Ragnell became one of the most important priests of her time and revolutionized the Church’s role in health care. Their destinies did not converge again, as far as I’m aware, but they both ended up happy. That’s the important thing, after all. 

As for Emi, well… I think you’ve figured her out by now. Yes, Grandma Em is the same girl from the story, what with her love of contraptions and that stupid Winter Ceremonies painting she’ll never throw away. I guess when she called me “Novi” that must have finally given it away. You certainly know what happened to her, I imagine, so I don’t have to explain.

Beatrice?

No, you’ve never met her. She passed long before you were born.

In her younger years, Beatrice provided aid to civilians during the conflict between Dannark and Doros. Eventually she founded over two dozen hospitals, all of which run to this day. But she didn’t make it through the Great War. She was helping the evacuation effort in Fathie when a bomb struck her medic tent. 

But she will always be remembered as a hero. After your Uncle Reo united Tsubasa and ended the war, he placed a statue of Mother Ragnell in Fathie City, right in the center of the downtown square. Next time we go there, you ought to take a look.

Actually, wait. Don’t go letting Grandma Em know I told you about her. She doesn’t like to talk about it too much. After she heard about what happened in Fathie… she was very sad for a while. You have to be sensitive.

What? What did you say? Oh, does she love me? 

Dearie, that’s an easy question.

Of course she does. 

Your grandmothers love each other very much. We grew to appreciate each other’s company, and we raised a whole family together. It’s been fifty-seven years since we wed and we’re still happy. If that’s not love, I don’t know what is. She loves her family very much, and we love her.

You know what? Let’s go find her. She’s probably out at the balcony watching the sunrise. We can surprise her and show her that wooden centaur you found. I have a feeling it’s going to make her happy. 

What’s that? Whatever happened to that mad scientist girl?

That’s a story for another time. A very long one. By which I mean, go read your history books.

終わり

<== Previous

Hands Held in the Snow Afterword (+Q&A) by Thedude3445 ==>

Chapter 69: Departures

“Your priest robes…  They look so… so adorable….”

Emi’s reaction was, beat for beat, the exact same as her Mom’s a week prior, and her Dad’s the following morning. It was amazing how people turned into exact copies when it came to complimenting fashion.

“It’s not even the official robes,” Beatrice said. “Just a casual uniform.”

“Fair enough, but… Oh, you look great no matter what,” Emi said.

“You’re just trying to get in my skirt, aren’t you?” Beatrice smirked.

“Well, Is it working?”

“No way.”

Emi shrugged. “Worth a shot.”

There was a small group gathered here to see Beatrice off. Her parents, naturally, and Emi, of course. But also Bodhi himself had arrived, which surprised her but warmed her heart as well. For some reason, Emi’s housekeeper Pip was also here, but Beatrice was pretty sure she had never actually had a one-on-one conversation with her before, so… Well, it was good to see her anyway.

The party was almost complete, but not quite yet, until… Huh?!

Tia Knoll and Runa Arakawa strolled to the gathering site, hand-in-hand.

When Beatrice saw this, she gasped. How did those two even meet?  Certainly it wasn’t during the Battle of Balarand, was it? …Was it? In the stress of the moment, did they really look at each other and suddenly…

Wow.

Beatrice was about to join her group of new priests who would take the next several weeks to hike towards their convent. She had complained about the carriage ride taking too long, but she was now regretting ever thinking such things. Hiking for WEEKS? It was going to be ruthless, she knew already.

“You know,” she said to Emi. “In the end, it turns out my convent is right near Mammoth Pass. I feel like that’s the Gods playing a prank.”

“Probably,” Emi said. “You’re going to be in for some tough winters, though. Do you have all your winter clothes?”

“Nope. Just what’s in my bag over there.” She pointed towards a large backpack with some food, a sleeping bag, and a few other supplies attached. It was really heavy and carrying that on her back for weeks was going to prove very tough, but she tried not to think about that right now. “I’m going to try to buy new clothes when I get there, but our allowances are very low, so it might be tough.”

“Well, the Gods will provide,” Emi said. 

Beatrice wasn’t sure whether that was sarcasm or not.

“So, how’s, uh, Lady Khara?” Beatrice asked. “Is she, uh, treating you well?”

“Yeah,” Emi said. “She’s making me… uh, show her around town and stuff. She’s, uh, nice. You know.” Both of them burst into laughter just as much as they blushed. 

Emi stepped back and let Beatrice’s parents give one last hug. “We love you so much,” they said together. 

“And I love you, too,” she said. “I’ll try to see you during the Winter Ceremonies, okay?”

“You have to promise you’ll come,” Mom said. “We’ll come back up too, you know.”

“I can’t promise! That’s half a year away. I don’t know what my schedule will be like then.”

“Write often,” Dad said. “And tell me all about the convent. I have heard yours was one of the very first ever built. It must be so beautiful.”

“Dad…”

“Just asking.”

“Well, you better write often about Kent too, then,” she said. “I really hope you enjoy it down there.”

“I just hope I figure out how to be a teacher,” he replied. “I’m already getting worried about it.”

She waved goodbye to Runa and Tia. “You guys better have a good time without me,” she said.

“Tia here has promised financing my research,” Runa said. “I could not imagine a better time than that. My quest for control of the fabric of reality has grown ever closer to completion.”

“Oh, Runa, you’re never going to give that up, are you?”

“Of course not. And I cannot forgive you for your transgressions against me. Leaving me in my time of greatest need, abandoning me to work with the Church… It breaks my heart, Ms. Ragnell.” Tia laughed, but Beatrice wasn’t sure whether he realized how serious Runa really was about all of this. 

Beatrice said her goodbyes to Bodhi and Pip. “Thank you so much for coming, Bodhi. You’re a good friend, and I hope you can be a good friend to a lot of people someday.”

He snickered. “You say that like I don’t already have tons of friends.”

“Oh yeah.”

“Take care, Bea.” He tipped his hat down and gave a single not.

“Don’t call me Bea.”

Pip sobbed and blew her nose through a handkerchief. “Oh, Beatrice…”

“Oh, and, um, goodbye to you too…”

“Beatrice…!”

Uhh… Okay then…

“Well, it’s about time for me to meet up with my group,” Beatrice said. “I’m going to miss all of you so much. Thank you for coming here.”

One last thing…

She turned to Emi–

Who was holding a small metallic box in her hands. It looked a lot like the one that showed off the horse, the one Beatrice had broken so long ago.

“One last thing,” Emi said. “I made you a going-away present. For friendship.” She held the machine with both hands, and then used her magic to turn the crank. Still a show-off.

The machine showed Beatrice, her visage replicated on a board of hundreds of small squares, turned into a tiny animated woman. Her hair and all its curls flowed in the wind, and she was smiling, looking directly at the viewer.

The whole thing lasted for only two, maybe three seconds, before it looped back and started over. But she must have stared for a full minute before she looked away.

“It’s a moving portrait of you,” Emi told her. “I made it really small so that you can take it with you anywhere. But don’t try to reprogram it, or the whole thing will break. Trust me.”

“Oh, Emi…” Beatrice held a hand to her own cheek. “You know I can’t have possessions.”

“You can’t?”

“But… I love it.”

“You do?”

“I’ll let my parents have it.”

“But, if they take it, then you won’t have it. And then…”

Beatrice stepped forward and took both of Emi’s hands. “I’m never going to forget about you,” Beatrice said. “Never for my entire life. Just because we’re apart doesn’t mean you won’t have been the best thing to ever happen to me, okay? The Gods didn’t want us to be apart. They wanted us to be together, and that’s what happened.”

“I love you so much,” Emi said, tears already rolling down her cheeks. Her eyes glowed–those same bright brown eyes that sucked her into a portal of magic and romance that changed the course of her entire life. “I want to see you again, Beatrice… I know we promised not to say these things, but I can’t help it. I miss you already and you’re not even gone.”

“If the Gods Will it, we’ll meet again, okay? Whenever it may be.”

“Will you write letters?” Emi asked.

“I’m not sure if your wife will think that is appropriate.” Beatrice giggled, and then started crying as well. She let go of Emi’s hands and went back to pick up her backpack. Wow… this was so heavy. She really didn’t want to carry this on her back for ten hours a day.

“See you later,” Emi said.

Beatrice shook her head, smiling. “Farewell,” she said. Emi and Beatrice’s Dad hugged, and her Mom fiddled around with that mechanical contraption. Runa rambled about a new master plan, and Tia looked at Beatrice’s robes with a judging gaze. Bodhi’s looked off in another direction with his arms folded, clearly trying not to cry, and Pip had let her emotions flow, crying louder than anyone else around her. What a bunch of weirdos, Beatrice thought. Some amazing weirdos.

She let her mind paint a portrait of this scene, and keep it burned into her mind for the rest of her life. These were exactly the people Beatrice knew she had to protect. She was a powerful person who accomplished everything she set her mind to, and becoming a famous priest would be no harder than acing a test. But now, after everything, she finally had a reason behind her ambition. She would do everything she could to keep the smiles on these people’s faces bright and harmonious.

In her future, Beatrice would become a powerful and prominent priest. She would revolutionize the Church to actually help people, to actually bring the harmony it lacked so much in this time. Each person saved, each life given new breath, would be a new piece to bringing peace to this tumultuous continent. Everything Beatrice did would matter. It had to, or else all of this would be for nothing.

After one last moment of reflection, Beatrice waved to all her friends and family, and then walked away. 

She didn’t look back.

<== PreviousNext ==>

Chapter 68: Harmonies

Atop the Gonda Tower, all five moons were in view, radiating in full bloom and showing off the entire city of Balarand.

Emi, for the first time in her life, realized that Balarand wasn’t exactly a city crossed by two rivers. More like… Balarand was one giant misshapen island in the middle of one big river. It was a revelation that put her entire life into perspective. She was an islander, living on an island city. 

It changed nothing, but still.

Emi and Novella stood at the edge of the roof and watched the stars sparkle in the night sky, watched the military patrols sweep the streets below. Peaceful, quiet, beautiful, but not exactly the kind of atmosphere that sets one at ease.

Behind them was a whole party of people. Emi’s Mother and Father squabbled about something or another. Touma had two Dannark noblewomen by his side and was about to be slapped by both. Reo stood alone watching the patrols with a pensive frown. Ms. Khami chatted with the recently-arrived Lord Lau, while his daughter was in the process of being seduced by none other than Pip.

A whole crew of Emi’s family and closest friends, and she ignored them all in favor of the woman next to her. 

To be fair, the woman next to her was Novella Khara, her soon-to-be-wife, and this woman was surprisingly adept at conversation. Even… a friend, perhaps.

Down below, large towers were being constructed on top of buildings all over the city, with large, rotating panels. They were called semaphore telegraphs, large devices that could be used to carry messages across long distances. The towers would rotate the panels to indicate a message, and then the next tower would replicate it until it carried all the way to the front lines of the Dannark-Doros War. While they were dwarfed by the size of Gonda Tower, even partway through construction it was clear they would change the shape of the cityscape dramatically. Never again could a rebellion break out when commanders across the river could exchange messages in an hour or less. Another new normal.

“A shame, isn’t it?” Novella asked.

Emi turned her head from the view below. “What is?”

“That we’re out here celebrating peace when these conquerors are installing towers to clamp down its iron fist.”

“Oh… Um, I’m not really into talking politics with a lover,” Emi said. “It’s kind of a rule of mine.”

“We aren’t lovers,” Novella said. “We’re merely fiancees.”

“True.”

“Any further would be presumptuous to the point that I’d have to think you are attracted to me.”

“Well, you’re certainly attracted to me, and we ARE getting married in a couple weeks. So I guess that makes us pretty close to lovers.”

“But enough of lovers that you cannot talk about politics?”

“Sheesh, fine,” Emi whined. “I completely agree with you. I think it’s terrible what Dannark is doing to our city. But the rebels that attacked us did a bad thing too. Violence trades for more violence. And if the Dannark-Doros War gets any worse…”

“We’ll be in Zahn by then.”

“But my heart will still be here. I’m an Elincian through and through. A Balarand islander.”

“What?”

“Nevermind. What I mean is…” Emi tried to figure out the right words to say what she wanted. “The rebellion, the occupation, the war, all of it is an injustice against the harmony of the Gods. My gir–my friend taught me a lot about the way Tsubasa works like a finely tuned machine, and right now, the springs are broken, so the whole thing’s falling apart.”

“An apt metaphor for a gear-head such as yourself.”

“No offense to you, but I don’t want to marry you for love or romance or any of that,” Emi said. “I want your noble status so I can better help the world. So we can better help the continent.”

“I see…”

“Tsubasa is in great trouble now, but we can fix it. There’s something I realized during the rebellion: we are important people. We have so many resources at our disposal, and we have the opportunity to use them to better the world. We can end the injustices and restore harmony to the continent. For years, people like you and me have sat on their hands doing nothing but keeping the status quo. But we can be the ones to finally change things forever.”

“Together, you say. You assume I wish to do anything of the sort.”

“You’ve already been doing your part. You were the education governess and helped an entire nation’s children learn to read and write.That’s amazing, Novella. Think of what we could do!”

Novella seemed to ponder this for a few moments. Then, she smiled softly. “It’s a good dream.”

“A darn great one, you mean.”

“I like it. Let’s bring harmony to Tsubasa.”

Emi L’Hime was soon to become Emi Khara. The Moon Festivals had drawn near, and wedding preparations were well underway. It was an exhausting process, enough so that this trip to Gonda Tower was one of the most refreshing reprieves she’d had in weeks.

“This woman of yours, this Beatrice,” Novella began. “She must mean a lot to you.”

“Yeah… A lot.”

“You still love her.”

“Of course,” Emi said. “She’s the woman who changed my life. She’s the reason I decided we’ll change the continent together. And she’s absolutely gorgeous.”

“I see,” Novella said. “The kind of love that doesn’t fade like a fire. More like… frost on the top of a mighty mountain.”

Emi nodded. “I’ll love Beatrice the rest of my life,” she said. “And probably more than ever knowing she’s out there doing the Gods’ work.”

“It almost sounds like you want to compete with her to better the continent more.”

Emi giggled. “Don’t worry, I warned her ahead of time. We’ll both be keeping score.”

“Wow…”

“Eh?”

“I fully expect to fall in love with you,” Novella said. “I must warn you ahead of time. I can’t imagine a life with you where I don’t.”

Emi felt her cheeks burn and averted her gaze. She back at the half-built semaphores and tried to think of any possible response she could give. What did you say to a statement like that?

“Hey,” Emi said. “May I call you Novi for short?”

“Uh, why?”

“It’s cute.”

“I’ll allow it, if I can call you Em.”

“That’s fine.”

“Novi and Em,” Emi said. “Sounds like a power couple in the making.”

“If that’s what you wish, Em.”

“I would say that I do, Novi.”

They smiled at each other.

Then– a tap at Emi’s shoulder. Pip, shoulder around Lord Lau’s very excited daughter, shouted at them, “C’mon you two!” It’s time to dance!”

“Well?”

“After you, my dear Em.”

Emi and Novella stepped away from the edge of the roof and joined the others in an impromptu dance session. Touma had pulled Reo into the spotlight and forced him into a musical pair, which sparked the rest of the family to move along with them. Even Emi’s parents began to dance together. Even Ms. Khami and Lord Lau of all people began to dance together. 

As if the entire tower had trapped in a magic spell, Emi’s family and friends froze before her in this moment of time. For however long she gazed at them, they stayed in place in this moment, like a grand painting with all its vivid strokes of color. All her loved ones gathered here to celebrate the night even in trying times.

In the midst of this scene, Emi could see the future before her. She would raise a family and become a devoted wife and make an impact on the world that only someone already born into privilege and wealth really could. She would give up her entire life to make sure that her descendants had a world to be proud of. She would serve Tsubasa like only a L’Hime could.

These past few weeks had been exhausting, but Emi felt stronger than ever. Finally, somehow, she had become like Beatrice, and it took her until this exact moment to realize it. 

She took Novella’s waist and worked her dancing magic.

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Chapter 67: Repairs

Beatrice struck the hammer down and slammed the nail into the piece of wood. A drip of sweat fell from her chin and plopped on her arm, but she paid it less mind than a gnat fluttering about around her head. She struck the wood again to make sure the nail was in place, and smiled when she saw it was good.

A wave of exhaustion had set on her, but she kept going. The warm sun overhead had just reached its apex, and the birds had finally come back out to sing their chirpy tunes. With a free meal waiting at the end of the day, Beatrice was never going to quit helping here, not until it was all complete.

It was grueling work, repairing the damage done to the restaurant Foron’s. Half of northern Balarand had burned to the ground, but the Dannark government had done nothing to help rebuild So it was up to Beatrice and the other former junior priests of the St. Helens Academy. The school had been shut down permanently, but that wasn’t going to do a bit of good in stopping its students from helping their favorite afterschool dining spot.

Her face was covered in sweat, and she had nailed more boards than her mind could comprehend, but Beatrice felt amazing. She really felt like she was doing something. And best of all, she had her friends around to help.

There was one friend missing from all of this volunteer work, though, someone Beatrice had been secretly hoping would show up the entire time. 

But it didn’t happen.

At least, not until the lunch break was over. Then Beatrice saw that silly little hat, and those shining blue eyes.

Bodhi Makala had showed up to help rebuild Foron’s.

***

It wasn’t until after the volunteer work was over that Beatrice and Bodhi finally got a chance to talk. Without exchanging a word, the two met up and began walking down the street in a random direction. They were going north, up towards the port and where Runa still lived, but they probably wouldn’t need to walk that far.

The streets were quiet, with at least one guard posted on every city block. Many shops and businesses were still facing fire damage, broken windows, or even total destruction. With the occupation government busy putting down pockets of guerilla resistance, nothing could be done except by their own hands. 

One day, Balarand would all be back to its vibrant, pretty self, even if it took a hundred more days like today from Beatrice and her friends.

Bodhi finally spoke, saying, “You look beautiful, Bea.”

“Beatrice,” she replied instantly. “And thanks.”

“That dress… It’s really a work dress?”

“Oh, yeah, this?” She looked down at the plain outfit she had on for her volunteer effort. “I made this for sewing practice. It’s not very useful as anything other than a work outfit. And I definitely learned today that skirts are not good for hard labor…”

“You learned how to sew? Darn, you never cease to amaze.” Bodhi flashed one of his classic smirks. “I see you’ve kept growing out your hair, too.”

“Yeah… It’s really long now.”

“And cute.”

“Really? You think so?”

“I know so.” Bodhi, for just a split second, began to reach out to touch her hair, but pulled back before his hand went anywhere. “Anyway, I’m glad about today. I’ve been waiting for Foron’s to reopen for weeks now.”

“Did you love me?” Beatrice asked suddenly.

“Uh….”

Beatrice lowered her head and smiled. “You didn’t come help out at Foron’s just to see me, did you?”

“Well, I…” Bodhi sighed. “That’s exactly what I did.”

“I thought so.”

“I heard you were there, and I heard you passed the Priesthood Exam. I wanted to see you one last time before you left Balarand forever.”

“That’s sweet.”

“And yeah, I loved you,” he said. “I loved you for years, Bea. But you were always… How do I say it? Unattainable.”

Beatrice giggled. “What the heck does that mean?”

“Always nose-deep into your books. Never wanted to hang out. Committed to becoming a celibate priest and abandoning everyone around you. That sort of thing.”

“It took me a long time to realize how felt about me, Bodhi,” she said. “Until after I broke up with my girlfriend. It kind of hit me how you must have felt the whole time, and… I felt a little guilty.”

“Guilty?”

“Because I never returned your feelings, not one little bit. I don’t know why. Maybe in some other world it would have worked, but… the Gods didn’t Will it, I guess.”

“I felt really jealous when you met that girl,” Bodhi said. “All those years by your side, thinking you’d see me one day for more than that annoying guy who always calls you Bea. But then you found someone else who loved you.”

“And so you’re here now looking for… closure?” Beatrice asked.

“No way. Closure is Mammoth crap. I’m just here to see my friend.” Bodhi laughed a little bit, but Beatrice couldn’t tell if it was genuine or fake. “Listen, I sorted out my feelings for you a long time ago. Maybe I loved you in that schoolboy kind of way, but it was nothing. When I saw Emi, and I saw the way she looks at you… that’s when I realized all I had was an overgrown crush. That girl REALLY loves you, Bea.”

“And I really love her,” Beatrice said.

“You really love her, but you’re still becoming a priest.”

“Yes.”

“Just… why?” he asked. “You two are perfect for each other. She loves you, and you love her. So why would you ever do something to end that?”

Beatrice shrugged. “What’s it to you?”

“I just don’t want you to make a decision that could ruin the rest of your life,” he said. “Love is so important and you can’t just throw it away to serve the Church. They have a billion priests. You only have one Emi.”

“There’s something I realized during the rebellion,” Beatrice told him. “I have a duty to serve. Tsubasa is about to enter a dark time, and the harmony will disappear if there aren’t people around to save it. With my knowledge and ambition, I can become the kind of priest who saves lives every single day. I can change the entire continent for the better. The kind of love I have for Emi is the same kind of love I need to give to the whole world.”

“I… guess I can’t argue with that,” Bodhi said. “So it’s all religion stuff.”

“The Will of the Gods and all that,” Beatrice said.

“You really don’t believe, do you? In the Gods and the Church?”

“I do, I do.”

He looked at her with an intent stare, and said, “I… can’t tell what you’re thinking anymore. You’ve really changed, haven’t you? You aren’t an emotional open book.”

Beatrice rolled her eyes. “Or you’re not some sort of Beatrice Expert like you think,” she said. “Now, is there any destination for where we’re walking, or are we just going nowhere fast?

“Going nowhere fast, I imagine.”

“That’s fine by me.”

Beatrice could have felt pangs of bittersweet nostalgia. She could have felt sad. But she didn’t. Instead, she enjoyed a walk with a good friend, and that was that.

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