The modest room within the geriatric care facility was filled with sounds that conveyed the grievous woes of pending loss. Watching someone waste away before your eyes was a kind of image that couldn't be scrubbed from your memories no matter what you did.
It would haunt you.
Kieran was haunted by such memories of himself, which was almost like experiencing inception, but he wasn't so disillusioned to believe everything he had endured, felt, and encountered was a figment of his imagination or placed there by someone — something — else.
His imagination was strong… but not strong enough to create another world or another life.
'Let's leave that up to the filmmakers, novelists… and whatever other creators exist.'
Kieran watched as Bastion brought his grandmother's gaunt hand to his lips, his tremors growing pronounced and violent. He honestly did not know how much more time she had in this world. Her expression seemed at peace while she slept, but then her lips quaked, and her eyelids shook as if she would soon stir awake.
"You're disturbing her rest, Thomas."
Only then did Bastion realize how loud he had started weeping. His sorrows bled from his heart in an endless, forlorn stream as he lifted his tear-sodden face.
Then, Kieran gently eased into his questions.
"I came as soon as I learned of your situation. I wish I heard earlier. It's clear that you truly care for her."
Bastion took a moment to gather his thoughts and wipe his face, but his emotions had become his visage — a guise of heartwrenching sadness that couldn't be wiped away.
His pain and turmoil were evident, but he spoke still.
"My abuela has been my world for as long as I can remember, and though she never spoke of her struggle or what came of my parents, she supported me in everything I endeavored. She's why I didn't go off and join Arthur to train as a soldier. By then, she was up in her years, and I ought to return the care she gave me."
Kieran nodded, listening to Bastion's story.
It seemed normal enough, and he could sympathize with not knowing his parents. It wasn't that Kieran didn't know his… he simply did not have enough time with them. And what memories remained were… inadequate from the frail mind of a child.
"Gaming became an escape and a source of income — enough so that I could ensure we lived comfortably. But our elders are prone to sickness and become weaker as they age. My abuela's health deteriorated, but it was manageable, nothing like her current situation. Then, Zenith Online came, and I thought I'd make enough to afford top-quality medical care."
As Bastion's telling continued, Kieran realized his speculation may have very well been the truth. If Bastion's reasoning for stepping into Zenith Online was the care of his grandmother… her death was likely the catalyst of his previous disappearance.
Kieran's questions eventually shifted from why he had waited to tell them about his burdens.
Bastion chewed his lip as he spoke, biting back more tears. He seemed regretful and riddled with guilt, likely blaming himself for his grandmother's deteriorating health.
But, after finding the bearings to speak, he continued:
"This was all sprung upon me so fast! While preparing and reaching out to health institutes, everything crashed down in the blink of an eye. I explained my situation, but medical care is on the rise for some reason. The price of the highest quality care has tripled, and the elders are given low priority."
Placing the elders as a low priority may seem logical, but it was somewhat heartless. Kieran saw the logic in the decision but disagreed with how it was being rolled out — in the shadows.
Someone — or something — was manipulating the Private Sector, assuming that's where Bastion had searched. Only one entity had the sway to determine any price standard at the drop of a dime — the World Council, or more specifically… its Unseen Hand.
However, Kieran felt their interaction was too sudden and surreptitious.
There had to be a motive behind the changes. Kieran thought back to the information gathered on Dahlia. Her condition was listed as unknown, which was what H-COS would be labeled as, but he felt something else was afflicting her. The lady had neither come in contact with Zenith Online nor ingested X-hancers.
So, Kieran immediately ruled out H-COS as the culprit of her rapid deterioration. Bastion had described her symptoms. It didn't match with an overactive mind depleting the body. If he had to name what her condition sounded like… it would be poison. Like Dahlia had been poisoned by something.
Of course, Kieran didn't bring that thought up. Bastion was already in a distraught, excitable condition. There was no telling how he'd react to Kieran's baseless speculations.
When grieving, logic sometimes flies out the window.
Kieran needed more information on the matter to make a proper conjecture.
Still, the fact people were falling ill and others were capitalizing on innocent victims didn't sit right with him. Someone knew something, and he wanted to know what that something was.
"I know it all took you by surprise, but why didn't you reach out to Lillian or someone else?"
Bastion sighed dolefully.
"I… I didn't know what to do. I guess I felt like I didn't want to be a burden on you all. I know we're growing close, but at the end of the day, my problems aren't your own. It isn't right that I push that on you."
Kieran frowned while listening to Bastion talk, and it only continued to deepen, becoming glum at some point.
"So you don't think everyone's willing to help you in your time of need? We may not be blood, but we chose to support one another. What, you don't trust us to prioritize your needs?"
lightsnοvεlBastion looked up and stammered, shaking his head.
"No, boss! That's not it. I just… I didn't know how to ask for help without breaking down. Aside from Arthur, who has been a great help through this, I've never really had people or family to rely on. I'm supposed to be our pillar; I didn't want to appear weak and broken when I'm part of the glue."
Altair looked between Bastion and Kieran with a strange, almost infuriated glint in his eyes. Then, he spoke up on behalf of everyone.
"Who cares if you appear weak? If you need help, ask for it, Bastion. You're our damned shield. We know you can take a punch or ten; we don't doubt you. But this is a life we're talking about here. You don't tip-toe around the problem. You get right to the heart of it!"
Bastion and Kieran were similarly stunned by Altair's blunt outburst until they saw the raw emotion in his eyes. Kieran suddenly remembered Altair had been a victim of tragedy, which was part of why he loathed his father.
A pool of tears welled in Bastion's eyes without falling as he was filled with warmth and the crippling fear of loss. Seconds later, they fell in an endless, hot cascade.
"Oh god! Boss… Xane, please help me. I don't want to lose my abuela yet."
As Bastion burst into tears, the door crept open, and in walked Nemean, holding a brown paper bag and cup holder with drinks. He wore an awkward grimace.
"Ah, I didn't bring enough food."
Nemean hid everything behind his back before reading the room and coughing softly. He set everything down and grabbed Bastion's shoulders firmly.
"We've got you, bud. We always got you. Ah, we have each other, really. Times are changing, and things grow weirder with each day. I wouldn't be surprised if the order as we knew it fell apart."
If not for Kieran being absorbed in sending directives to Weasel, Allan, and Lillian, he would have responded to Nemean's profound prophetic comment.