The voice of a mother waking her children up, the sound of fire being lit.
The chatter of a family.
A mother’s embrace and it’s heat.
All of them were so comfy, they helped Nico feel more at ease.
A sense of safety. A strong hand over his shoulder.
The face of a brave and capable man. The face of a sturdy and brownish man. The face of an old and gentle man.
These things were all so nice, but they gradually faded away.
Slowly, he opened his eyes, got out of the blanket and stood up.
The dark inside of the tent was very faintly illuminated by a shaft of light, barely enough to make what was there somewhat visible. This feeble ray of luminosity gave everything there a bluish appearance, and the only two persons who laid there, each on their own bedroll, were barely moving at all.
Even their chest didn’t seem to go up and down, as if they weren’t even breathing.
Static, not moving, they looked without life.
It was like this was but a cold, heartless painting.
It was a very unsettling feeling.
Nico left the tent, and a cold wind blew through him.
In front of him, the monochrome land extended to infinity. There wasn’t anybody, or anything there. Only the never ending gray.
He couldn’t help but stand there, looking at it for some time.
Not ever changing, eternal, static.
It gave him the same feeling from before. It was as if he was seeing the world through a lens, which filtered life out from whatever he observed.
At some point, he started to move again, circling around his tent. At its rear, there was Gian’s and Rocco’s tent.
There, Gian and his wife had just got up, and they were outside packing their stuff before they would wake up the children.
Gian’s household also skipped breakfast.
Nico woke up Natta and together with her, helped Gray to get to his place in the cart.
Today, he was weaker than normal, and they had to basically carry him on their shoulders all the way through.
Nonetheless, soon they were all walking.
“Hey, Nico” Rocco, who was at his side, called.
“What is it?”
“Do you want help?”
With his head, Nico indicated to Rocco to go in the middle, between the two shafts of wood coming from the cart.
“So, it seems like Gray is sick, right?”
For a moment, Nico’s pace vacillated. It was a sudden comment, and not very considerate at all, but in the end, that was somewhat expected from him.
“…Yeah” Nico answered under his breath. “He’s pretty bad right now.”
“He’s laid on the cart.”
“So that’s why you’re struggling to pull it…” Rocco muttered. “Well, don’t worry too much. I’m sure he will be better!”
When Rocco said this, Nico expected to get upset. How could someone say this when Gray was only getting worse? How could they lie on his face like that? He couldn’t feed himself illusions like that anymore, he had to accept reality, and if things end up for the better, then lucky for him. But, that said, it ended up different.
Maybe it was Rocco’s wide smile facing him, maybe it was his innocent, upbeat tone, but it made him, even if only a little bit, happier.
“It would be good if that actually happens,” said Nico. “Thanks.”
For the first time today, Nico actually turned and said something face to face with Rocco. The words he used might have been simple and common, but the feeling was genuine. And so, for the first time in quite some time, he had a, even if small, smile on his face.
“Well if you’re better now I can stop pulling this, right?” joked Rocco.
“What? No! Do you know how exhausting this is?”
“Hey, why do you think I want to stop huh?”
“Just get your lazy ass moving and continue helping me. Okay?”
“Listen here you…”
“Doing this is too boring,” Rocco teased him. “Wait… are you maybe too weak to do this without my help?”
“Like hell I can’t do this without you!”
“So show me, if you really can, hehe” he retorted with a smug face.
“Oh shut up! You can go away if you aren’t going to help me!”
“Well, I can help you if you really need…”
That guy… Today he was seriously annoying.
And so, for the rest of the day, they kept walking. Side by side, step after step, sweat running down their body. It was still tiring as always, but by the end of it, at least Nico exhibited a timid smile on his face.
He knew though, that this was but a fleeting happiness.
At the end of the day, they had dinner. Today, Rocco’s mother was teaching him how to make a few basic dishes.
Actually, at first, Nico, not wanting to bother her, had asked Natta to do this instead, but she refused.
“Haven’t you asked them for help for a reason?” she said.
And so, despite his qualms with doing this, he was forced to ask Rocco’s mother anyway. But she was very kind and promptly accepted doing this.
She was very patient with him and helped in the best way she could, always accepting whatever mistakes he made.
But, at the very start of this, she asked Nico to bring some ingredients.
He then, of course, looked for them in the cart. But no matter how much he searched, he found barely anything. By the end, he could gather enough for their dinner, but there wasn’t much remaining for the next few days.
After all of this though, before eating his own food, he had to feed Gray, who had gotten even worse with the passing of the day.
When they stopped for lunch, he couldn’t stop groaning in pain, and only after Nico prepared and gave him the medicines the Shepherd had instructed him to, did Gray get better. As a side effect though, he was very slow and sleepy, and at least for the moment, needed help to be fed.
So, spoon by spoon, Nico fed him soup. Slowly and carefully, as if he was a baby.
Today, the soup had a higher amount of water than usual, thanks both to Gray’s difficulty to digest things and the scarcity of their supplies at the moment.
But as Nico fed him, his mind couldn’t help but think about this.
What was he going to do?
Soon, they were going to run out of food, and although this wasn’t a problem per se, usually one or two days before this happened, they would reach one of the pillars and Gray would gather food there, but now though, he was too sick to do this.
To be fair, there still were the donations the Shepherd distributed to the elderly or those who are under serious problems, but they, alone, usually barely covered half of their needs until the next time the Flock reached a pillar.
What would happen with Gray once this happens? He was already in bad health, and if he didn’t eat a decent amount of food, he would be even worse.
At this moment, thanks to the medicine Gray wasn’t that bad, but even then, Nico couldn’t take the sounds of his groans earlier out of his mind. His weak voice, the visible pain.
For a moment, he pictured Gian, and his progressively skinnier body in his mind,
He didn’t want to see Gray like that.
But what could he do?
“N-Nico…” he heard a voice that remembered him of Gray mutter.
It was at that moment that he noticed he had been holding the spoon in the same place, in front of Gray, for a good time already.
The soup on it had already dropped onto the ground, and it now laid empty in front of Gray’s pale face.
He started to give him the soup once more, this time making sure this wouldn’t happen again.
Yes, he had to make sure this couldn’t ever happen again.
To make sure he wouldn’t ever commit such an error again.
Look at what did it cost.
He could have avoided this, but he didn’t.
This was all his fault.
At that moment, he reminded in his mind the words said by the Shepherd the day before.
‘Devious ideas only bring misfortune.”
He let out a sigh.
That day was supposed to be his 14th birthday.
This was what he realized as he had dinner four days after it.
Usually, on special days like that, Gray would commemorate by making large, delicious meals. They would have plenty of meat, and everything would be prepared with extra care and ability.
But now, none of this could be done.
They didn’t have food to waste, and neither did Nico have the ability to cook something like that.
But, even more important than that, he didn’t think he was in the mood to celebrate something four days late, nor did he think that he was in the mood at the right moment, four days ago.
Maybe this was why the soup he was eating tasted so dull.
He raised his head for a moment. Gray didn’t seem very happy either.
“Soon I will be able to take our portion of the Shepherd’s donation,” commented Nico.
He wasn’t talking to anyone when he said this. Instead, it was more like he was affirming this as a fact for himself, maybe as a way of confirming he was at least going to do something.
“You shouldn’t worry too much about this.”
The one who said this was Gray.
Without a single warning that he had already finished his soup, he said this.
“What do you mean ‘I shouldn’t worry too much about this’? I can’t let us starve to death.”
“No, no” Gray sighed. “What I’m saying is: you shouldn’t be the one worrying about this.”
“Yes I should.”
“You’re still young, you’re still a kid. You’re supposed to enjoy your time, not get worked up about how will you find a way to feed yourself and two other people that are way older than you.”
Gray finally raised his head. He now looked directly at Nico’s eyes.
Today, Gray was better than normal. At least good enough to eat, stand, talk and even walk, although not for too long, by himself, even if he still felt uncomfortable.
“I will do this for you, you don’t have to worry about this, Nico. Tomorrow, I will go there and climb these pillars like nobody, you won’t even be able to notice I was still ill the day before.”
“Just because you are a little better today, this doesn’t mean you’re already going to be cured. Not to mention that even if that was true, you won’t recover so fast, and you still are an old man, and…”
“And that’s all thanks to me.”
Once he finished saying this, having already eaten all of his soup too, he stood up, and walked away.
Before he could get far though, he heard a soft, distressed mutter.
“Say, when did you turn into a pessimist?”
That wasn’t true.
He wasn’t a pessimist, he only wouldn’t allow himself to grow unreal hopes again.
And so, without answering Gray, he walked away, pretending he didn’t hear him.