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  2.  
  3. “Gabriel, come! Come look at this!” Aria’s exclamation could almost be described as a squeal. Her excitement was apparent in every syllable that passed through her lips.
  4.  
  5. Some thirty feet away, a young Jupiter Adept with dirty blonde hair and seventeen years to his name momentarily peered up from his work and squinted over at the girl. His blue eyes lingered on her for a moment before dropping back down towards the ground. “I’m a bit busy here, Aria,” the boy replied, scrubbing furiously at a brown stain he had acquired on his shirt sleeve just a short time before. Not only were his clothes tainted after a long day of work; he was physically exhausted, and his soul was drained.
  6.  
  7. “Just this once, Gabriel?” Aria pleaded. “You’re always ‘a bit busy.’”
  8.  
  9. Gabriel sighed loudly as he pushed himself to a stand. His hand reflexively fell to a nearby post for support as his legs wavered beneath him. With slow, deliberate steps, he reluctantly made his way over to the small pond where his younger sister was standing, crouched over the water’s edge. Gabriel watched as a half-dozen froglets, using their newly developed legs, waded timidly ashore to take their first steps on land. Beside him, Aria giggled and clapped at the sight.
  10.  
  11. “Not bad, sis,” Gabriel remarked. “Just make sure you don’t accidentally squash them.”
  12.  
  13. “Of course I won’t!” Aria retorted, offended. She reached out her hand towards the water and gently scooped up one of the froglets, offering it to her brother.
  14.  
  15. Gabriel gave a half-hearted pat to the green amphibian before promptly wiping his hand on his shorts. He paused for a moment to examine his sister. She was taller now than he remembered. Her chestnut hair had grown a considerable amount, falling nearly halfway down her back. Perhaps the most noticeable change, however, was the muscle tone she had acquired on her tanned arms and legs. Gabriel couldn’t help but wonder who between them would win in a spar. “I’m going home,” he finally said, giving his sister a pat on the head before turning around to leave. Aria did not follow.
  16.  
  17. The two young Adepts’ residence was just up the hill—one of the tallest in their hometown of Contigo. There, Gabriel knew, he would have two loving parents and a bounty of food waiting for him. Even so, the only thing Gabriel could think to do upon arriving was stumble into his room and collapse on the bed. His mind flew to the land of dreams in a matter of seconds. Was it ten minutes that he slept? An hour? Three hours? Gabriel did not know, and quite uncharacteristically of him, in this moment he did not care.
  18.  
  19. It was only with the sound of his mother’s voice that the boy finally woke. “Gabriel, dinner’s ready!” his mother called from the kitchen.
  20.  
  21. The Jupiter Adept’s eyelids gradually fluttered open. Normally, the call to dinner would have had Gabriel bounding through the house towards an enjoyable meal with his family. Now, however, he could hardly remember what it was even like to have an appetite.
  22.  
  23. Too tired to move, the boy remained where he was, sprawled out on his bed. He did his best to relax his muscles, but it seemed that nothing he did could stop their aching. Through the small crack in his door, he listened to his parents conversing outside.
  24.  
  25. “Sheba, just give him a bit of time,” his father’s voice echoed down the hall. “He’s had a long day; I’m sure he’ll be alright after he gets some rest.”
  26.  
  27. “Rest will be good for him, sure,” Gabriel’s mother chimed in, “but this has been going on for two weeks now, Felix. I find it hard to imagine that a one-hour nap will suddenly fix everything at this point.”
  28.  
  29. “Mm, mm, you may be right,” the deeper voice spoke again. “Even so, let’s give him a bit of space for now. We can leave a plate for him for when he wakes up. Aria, come help carry the dishes out to the table, please? And when you get the chance, remember to—”
  30.  
  31. Gabriel couldn’t say for sure if more words were uttered after that. If so, they fell on deaf ears. The voices down the hallway faded to silence as sleep pulled him back under.
  32.  
  33. *   *   *
  34.  
  35. Several hours later, after the dishes had been cleaned and Aria had been put to bed, Sheba and Felix found themselves alone in the quiet living room of their modest, one-story house. Flames danced romantically in the fireplace as they worked to chase away the cold of winter. A crescent moon shone in the sky just outside their window. Meanwhile, a full plate of food remained untouched on the dining room table.
  36.  
  37. “What’s my lovely lady thinking about?” Felix said, rubbing his wife’s shoulder as he took a seat beside her on the couch.
  38.  
  39. “Why do you ask?” the Jupiter Adept replied.
  40.  
  41. Felix scooped up Sheba’s hand in his and began to trace the lines on her palm as he explained, “I can tell from your face that you’re having serious thoughts. Tell me what’s bothering you?”
  42.  
  43. “Nah, you’ve got enough on your mind as it is with your work, Felix,” the woman said with a weak smile. “Don’t worry about it. I’ll be alright, I promise.”
  44.  
  45. “No, no,” Felix retorted. “Work can wait. You, on the other hand, are my wife! Did we not make a promise many years ago that we would always be transparent with one another?”
  46.  
  47. Sheba nodded slightly, recognizing that the Venus Adept would not yield until her concerns had been voiced. Of course, Felix had a point. As her husband, he deserved to know.
  48.  
  49. “It’s Gabriel…” she finally opened up. “I’m worried about him. Ever since he joined the Guard, he’s been acting differently. He always leaves so early in the mornings, and he comes home so late in the evenings. He barely eats, wakes up at odd times in the night. Don’t you find it unsettling, Felix?” Sheba asked, running her thumb over the back of her husband’s hand. “He used to help out readily around the house, but now he barely has time to sit down with us for a meal between his work sessions. Am I just being paranoid and unreasonable?”
  50.  
  51. Felix paused a moment to think before answering. “No, I don’t think you’re being unreasonable,” he said, shaking his head. “Even if your worries aren’t entirely accurate, though, it would be worth talking to him, don’t you think?”
  52.  
  53. “I do think it would be worth it, yes,” Sheba said. “I’ve been wanting to do it for several days now, but I just worry how Gabriel will respond…”
  54.  
  55. Felix grinned. “Leave it to me, then. I’ve been itching to give him a good heart-to-heart, man-to-man.”
  56.  
  57. *   *   *
  58.  
  59. Two days had passed since Gabriel had watched, alongside his sister, the pod of froglets emerging from their watery home. At times, he couldn’t help but envy those creatures for their freedom. They had no work to worry about, no captains or clients breathing down their neck.
  60.  
  61. As the sun dipped lower in the sky outside his window, Gabriel worked away sharpening his daggers for the next day’s mission. Only a junior guardsman, he had been tasked with escorting a lesser-known merchant across the river to a nearby Atteka settlement. It wasn’t a particularly glorious task, but it was one he felt proud to carry out nonetheless.
  62.  
  63. Suddenly, a knock came to his door. Gabriel heard his father’s voice on the other side. “Real-talk time, Gabe. Can I come in?”
  64.  
  65. The boy took a deep breath and cleared some of the clutter from his desk before replying. “Yeah, sure,” he said, an overwhelming fatigue evident in his voice.
  66.  
  67. Felix pushed open the door, careful not to disturb any of the paper cranes that hung from the boy’s ceiling. The man sat down at the edge of Gabriel’s bed, his vision focused on the young Jupiter Adept’s dirty blonde hair and what little he could see of Gabriel’s face. It seemed to Felix like it was only yesterday that his son had been a tiny boy, first learning how to run and wield a sword. Now, here he was, a guardsman of Contigo.
  68.  
  69. “So, what did you want to talk about?” Gabriel said, his eyes never once breaking focus from the blades in front of him.
  70.  
  71. The older Adept took a brief moment to collect his thoughts, then cleared his throat and began, “Well, mom and I have noticed you’ve been acting differently lately. You seem to be working constantly, and we’re worried about how this might be affecting your health.”
  72.  
  73. “What do you mean?” Gabriel replied. “This is what I’ve always wanted to do. Sure, it’s tough, and I’m working really long hours, but that’s just because this is my first year. Things will get easier as I go.”
  74.  
  75. “Yes, you’ve mentioned this before. I’m concerned, though, that this might not be the case as much as you believe or hope it to be. What do your fellow guardsmen say?”
  76.  
  77. Gabriel paused, struggling to find the words to convey what he had heard and seen over the past few months. “Th-they told me it will get easier. But… they’ve also said that this year, of their many years working for the Guard, has been their most challenging one yet… And they always look so tired and stressed—all of them, even the veterans.”
  78. Felix nodded as he listened. “And, if that’s the case,” he posed to his son, “are you sure this is what you want for the rest of your life?”
  79.  
  80. “Of course it is!” Gabriel exclaimed. “This has been my dream for so long. I’ve trained so many years to get to this point. I can’t just leave now.”
  81.  
  82. “Why not?” Felix asked.
  83.  
  84. Gabriel furrowed his eyebrows in frustration. As much as he hated to admit it, he had been through this conversation dozens of times in his head already. The subject had haunted him during his every waking moment for the past week, at least. He was starting to feel sick.
  85.  
  86. “Because that would make me a weak person,” Gabriel finally mumbled softly. “I’ve only been in the Guard for six months. Other people can hack it, so why can’t I? I just need more time. It will get better eventually. Plus, what would happen to all the townspeople who need my help? I can’t just leave them!”
  87.  
  88. Felix soaked in every word of hurt that poured from his son’s mouth, absorbing them as if he were a sponge trying to clean up a spill. At last, the Venus Adept rose from his seat and stepped forward. He placed a caring but firm hand on his son’s shoulder, commanding the boy’s full attention. “Gabriel, listen to me. There are dozens of people who will line up to fill your position. Guardsmen are replaceable. The people of Contigo will be just fine too; they’ve been beating the odds for hundreds of years now. You, though… You, Gabriel, are my son, and there is nothing I would ever be able to do to replace you if something bad were to happen.
  89.  
  90. “Walking away does not make you a weak person,” Felix continued, the tone of his voice maintaining a peculiar combination of compassion and assertiveness. “It takes strength to know when something is not working and to make intentional efforts to change it. That would not make you a weak person, Gabe. That would make you a strong person—one of the strongest I know.”
  91.  
  92. Gabriel nodded timidly, keeping his eyes down. He did not speak or move, but Felix could feel the boy’s body starting to shake ever-so-slightly beneath his hand. They were small, uncontrollable shudders, ones which needed no further explanation to understand what they meant. It was a strange, surreal feeling for Felix, to be standing there while his adolescent son cried in front of him.
  93.  
  94. A silence which normally would have been described as awkward ensued. Felix embraced every last second of it. Even so, he knew there was one more question that needed to be asked. “Gabe, do you have thoughts of hurting yourself?”
  95.  
  96. Gabriel’s answer came faster than Felix had expected, as if it had been rehearsed a half-dozen times already. “N-no, I don’t really have thoughts, and I certainly don’t have plans” the young Adept said, a sense of anguish leaking from his voice. “Sometimes, though, I feel like I want to just go to sleep and never wake up…
  97.  
  98. “Aria…” Gabriel continued. “She’s nine now, going on ten. I’ve come to realize that I only get to be a big brother to her and watch her grow up once. Working as a guardsman from dawn until dusk, in constant fear that I’m doing something wrong—this is not how I want my life to be. I know I’m not treating my family the way they deserve. I know I’m not treating myself the way I deserve. And if I can’t even take care of myself or my family, how can I possibly provide the people of Contigo with the services they need and deserve?
  99.  
  100. “There are other ways I can contribute to society, right, Dad? Maybe being a guardsman just isn’t for me, and that’s okay... Life’s too short to spend it being miserable. I just want to feel alive again. I want to feel free again.”
  101.  
  102. As Felix continued to listen, his worries started to melt away into a smile. The Gabriel he knew was starting to come back, little by little. A long road undoubtedly lay ahead—negotiating Gabriel’s way out of the Guard would not be easy, and helping the Jupiter Adept find a new path to pursue could be tougher yet—but Felix knew this would be a long road worth travelling. There was nothing he wanted more than for his son to be healthy and happy again.
  103.  
  104. “It sounds like you know what needs to get done, then,” Felix said. “What do you say we go find something you’re passionate about and try again?”
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