Sunday, April 24, 2016

Dusty Plains: A Crossover Rainbowcy

Generation Three, Chapter Fourteen


"Oh no you don't!" Lotus shouted, jogging over to take the box from me.

"It's a box of Chambray's stuffed animals – the FOURTH by the way – good luck with that," I argued, trying to grab the box back from him. "My groceries weigh more."

"No lifting! You know better," he admonished, successfully wrestling the box from my hands and heading toward the moving truck with it.

"I'm just pregnant, not an invalid!" I said. Behind me I heard a chuckle and rounded on Cobalt. "I'm not!"

Cobalt shrugged, "you're never gonna convince him. He'd rather you sit on the couch with your feet up and do nothing. When I told him you were coming to help, he yelled at me for twenty minutes because I didn't say no."


With an eye roll, I stomped back to the house. "I'm not even all the pregnant," I muttered.

Chambray, who was on the couch doing nothing, twisted around when she heard my voice. "Doesn't matter," she trilled. "Lotus says that pregnant women are to be honored and protected." Cerulean smirked, echoing my own private thoughts.

"Well you're not pregnant, so why don't you finish packing your own zoo?" I said, nudging her playfully.

"Can't! It's about to be on," she said, pointing to the television. The volume was currently muted as the credits rolled on the whatever had just been showing but in a small cutaway, there was my own face looking back at me.

"Did I miss it?" Sapphy skidded into the room, out of breath. One glance at the television and she was reassured. "Cobalt! Lotus! It's almost time!!" she shouted toward the open front door.


"This is silly, it's a ten-minute interview," I argued as all my family crowded into the living room. Lotus forced Cerulean to get up and offered the vacant seat to me while Chambray unmuted the television.

"Next on Berry Talk, Misty sits down with Lazuli Dust on the three month anniversary of the Disappearance of Flight 627!"

"They make it sound like a mystery novel," Chambray said with a giggle. Cobalt and Lotus shot her simultaneous warning looks and she clammed up quickly. "Sorry ZuZu," she whispered, chastised.

"Don't be sweetie, it does sound like that huh?" I said, pulling her closer to me and wrapping my arm around her. "Hopefully it has a good ending,"I said quietly.


"There you are!" Sapphy exclaimed as the picture shifted to the set of Berry Talk. "Did you meet anyone backstage? Didn't she interview Tangi Tulip the day you were there? Did you meet her?" She was shushed by everyone as Misty placed her hand over mine to begin the interview.

"We're here today with Lazuli Dust – arguably the most recognizable face associated with SimAm Flight 627 – to discuss her continued involvement in the search for the passenger jet. In the audience, at Lazuli's request, are several of the family and friends of the passengers. So, Lazuli – it's been three months now, have there been any new leads into what happened?"


"Leads? Yes. Leads that went anywhere? No. As you know, SimAm has essentially stopped their search. Their assumption is that if anyone had survived the crash – we'd know by now. But the people in your audience still need answers," I replied, crossing my legs on screen.

The audience erupted in applause and Misty joined them, nodding vigorously. "You've been very involved with the search – even after leaving the airline. And you've been very outspoken about their decision to call off their search."

I nodded, though she hadn't actually asked a question. "I have been, yes. I realized after my last press conference that I couldn't stand up there and deliver the no answer answers in this case. When they announced they were calling off the search last month – I admit, I spent an hour yelling at the walls in my house. It felt like they'd given up on their crew and I couldn't stand it! I've been on a flight crew before and I'd always assumed that if anything happened, the airline would do EVERYTHING possible."


"So do you blame SimAm for the accident? Are you angry with them?" Misty asked.

"Let's be clear here – we don't know what happened to Flight 627. We can assume and we can guess but until we find the plane, until we find the black box, until we find evidence – it is a mistake to call it an accident. That being said – no, I don't blame them. Captain Diamond is one of SimAm's most experienced pilots and I am certain he did everything possible in whatever situation they were in," I said, taking a long pause to drink from the mug. "Am I angry though? I'm a lot of things lately – I am three months pregnant after all," this garnered gasps from the audience and Misty.

"You're pregnant? Congratulations!" she exclaimed, easily sidetracked from interview.


I thanked her quietly and let her gush for a moment before continuing. "I have moments of anger toward them and I have moments of sadness and exasperation as well. I understand, as the people here do, that there has to be a certain level of practicality involved. There is only so much money and the Bekmes Desert is huge. Meteorologists and geologists have confirmed that the sandstorm that day dramatically altered the landscape. There could be one tomorrow that changes it again and reveals something! Or they could have flown longer than predicted and ended up in the Casper sea. These are all areas our organization is searching."

"Let's talk about your organization for a moment. I understand you've fronted a lot of personal wealth to fund the continuing search – is that the only source of revenue?" Misty asked.


"No, actually – many of the families and friends of the passengers have made donations ranging anywhere from ten dollars to thousands of dollars. Our crowdfunding campaign was enormously successful, raising over two million dollars in the first forty-eight hours and it's still climbing. Meanwhile, we have people working the phones and emails and even a letter writing campaign to bring more awareness. We get a lot of nos, and that's fine – but we keep going," I said.

"If anyone would like to donate to the cause, information is already available on our website so please check it out," Misty said, addressing the cameras directly. "Lazuli, let's say you find Flight 627 next week, what will the remaining funds be used for?"

"If there are survivors, the funds will partially be used for their transition back into the real world, they've been lost in a desert for three months presumably, it will take time and a lot of care to return. Sixteen of the passengers on board had children – we hope to set up scholarship funds for each of them as well," I said, trying hard not to reach for my own belly as I said it. "Honestly, there are many possibilites but it will depend, entirely, on what's left when we do find Flight 627."


"When. When folks – not if," Misty stressed, getting another massive cheer from the audience.

"I don't intend to give up Misty," I said with a faint smile. I gazed out on the audience, all familiar faces, "and I don't think they will either."

"No, I don't think they will," Misty said. "Thank you Lazuli, for coming on the show today." We shook hands and fake chatted for a moment as the camera faded to commercial.

"You were great ZuZu," Chambray said, giving me a light squeeze. "I can't believe you announced your pregnancy on national TV!"

"Well it was going to get more obvious soon enough," I said, stroking my belly absently. I hadn't felt any movement yet, it was still early, but I imagined them squirming around inside me.

"Okay, break time is over – we should ALL get back to packing," Lotus looked pointedly at Chambray and Cerulean – who had thus far managed to avoid the hard work. "Except you Zuli," he added, gently pushing me back down on the couch as I started to get to my feet.


I intended to argue but my phone started ringing then. As the others shuffled toward the door, I glanced at the screen before answering it. "Hey "GiGi." Dispensing with the pleasantries, her words came out in a rush but I caught enough to catch their meaning. "Oh my sweet berry!" I exclaimed, placing a hand on my head.

Lotus, who hadn't made it out the door, immediately called Cobalt back in and rushed to my side in a panic. "What is it? Are you alright?"

GiGi was jabbering incessantly so I covered the mouth piece to address them. "Mirage just just donated two million dollars," I whispered. "And he, apparently, wants to arrange a celebrity gala for the families to raise more money."


Cobalt's eyes grew wide and Lotus fell back onto the coffee table, his mouth hanging open. "Take the money," Cobalt said, obviously sensing my desire to refuse any association with our father. "Take it Zuli – you've already invested almost all of your inheritance into this, when that's gone, all those little donations aren't gonna stretch far."

I knew he was right and after a long moment, I nodded. He sat down beside Lotus on the coffee table and grabbed his hand. "GiGi, GiGi! Just tell his people...." I gulped, hating what I was about to say, "tell them to have him call me directly. He has my number," I said, opening the door to invite him back into my life most unwillingly.


With his free hand, Lotus took mine and gave it a firm, reassuring squeeze.

------

We were still a couple blocks away when our limo pulled into the long queue of cars leading to the venue for the gala and began the slow crawl toward the front. As butterflies danced in my stomach, I reached out for Cobalt. "I wonder if this is how mom felt?" I mused. Even with the windows rolled up, I could hear the noise of screaming fans, no doubt pressing against the velvet ropes that separated them from their celebrity crush.

"Mom was a pro at this," Cobalt pointed out. "Now Nepal... Nepal I imagine felt like a fish outta water."


I giggled, imagining Nepal climbing out of a limo only to be met with onslaught of cameras and shouts. "He would have gone into protective mode – never letting Mom out of his grasp."

A tap on the driver's window made us both jump but with the screen partition up, all we heard was a muffled exchange of words. After a minute, the limo pulled out the queue and we were zipping past the rest of the waiting cars. "Seems you get the VIP treatment ma'am," the driver called as he lowered the partition.

One glance at Cobalt and we both nodded, "Mirage," we muttered simultaneously.

Attendants had already held up the queue, leaving a gap for our limo to slide into right in front of the venue. A deep red carpet ran between the velvet ropes up to the entrance, lined on both sides by fans, photographers and reporters. Through the tinted limo windows, I could see the shape of a man jogging toward our car so when the door opened, I wasn't surprised to find Mirage extending his hand for me. Before taking it, I glanced back at Cobalt, "don't leave my side."


Although the crowd cheered and photographers clamored for photos as our trio passed, I knew it was primarily directed at Mirage. I didn't even begrudge him as he posed with "his two kids" and soaked in the attention. It had been two months since the talk show, two months without any news, and we would need every penny earned from this gala to continue the search – so I didn't argue when he put his hand around my shoulders for the cameras. I didn't like it, but I didn't argue.


Once inside, Mirage disappeared to make the rounds and left Cobalt and I on our own. "That was painful," I whispered. I clutched my brother's arm as we made our way around the edge of the room, carefully avoiding any clusters of people. A band played in the front corner of the expansive ballroom and family photos of the passengers flashed across a massive screen on the back wall. We'd made half a lap when I saw a nervous group of a familiar faces and made a beeline for them.


A dozen or so family members had clustered together, unsure of where to go or how to act amongst the continuing flood of celebrities. There were noticeable looks of relief as they recognized me though. "Oh Zuli, this is all so crazy!" one said, claiming from free arm. "How on earth...?"

"It wasn't really my doing," I said. "Have you all found your tables? Sandia, I think you're sitting at a table with Azure St Tropaz!" She let out a squeal and soon the group followed me through the tables until each had found their nameplate and discovered their celebrity company. It was the only real part I'd played in planning the event, making sure the tables were a mix of the families and the celebrities coming. In order to keep myself busy, I made it my mission to greet the families as they came in and set them at ease. Eventually the trickle of guests slowed and I felt Cobalt's hand on my arm, tugging me toward our own table at the front of the room – naturally seated with Mirage.


As the band's music reached a crescendo, Mirage took his place behind the microphone and the room silence. "Welcome, welcome to tonight's gala event. I'd like to thank everyone for coming and supporting this cause – which is very personal to many of the people in this room. Please join me in welcoming Lazuli Dust, without whom, none of this would have happened."

With a slow breath and a strained smile, I got to my feet. I allowed Mirage to kiss my cheek as he ushered me forward and then took his place behind the microphone. "Mirage gives me more credit than I'm due," I said with chuckle. "He is right though – this is a very personal cause and the fact that so many celebrities have come out to support it is nothing short of amazing." As the audience clapped, I took a second to catch my breath. "Ninety-eight people, there were ninety-eight people on Flight 627. A drop in the bucket in the grand scheme of things but those ninety-eight people meant the world to the people in this room. They were fathers and mothers, husbands and wives, friends and lovers – they are ordinary people who we miss dearly," I felt my cheeks burn as the tears welled up. To my right, Cobalt started to get to his feet but a held up a hand. "I had a speech ready, all about the hard work and the cost of running an ongoing search and rescue operation but, the fact is, I've talked a lot about all that in the last five months. What I haven't talked about is my connection to Flight 627. Most people assume I knew someone on the crew because I was a SimAm flight attendant but I know a passenger. His name is Lochnivar Viking and if I don't find him, then my children will never know their father," I said, placing a hand on my baby bump. A collective gasp and corresponding whisper rippled around the room for a long moment. "So thank you for being here and supporting this very personal cause. If you'll indulge me, I'd like to invite the other loved ones that are here to share their own stories if they'd like."


Sandia, who was usually quite shy, got to her feet immediately. She gave me a long hug and then assumed my place while I returned to Cobalt's side. "You did great," he whispered. Tears stung my eyes and slid down my cheeks but I didn't try to swipe them away.

One by one, the families told stories about the passengers of Flight 627. Somewhere, a techie scrambled to display the correct pictures each time a new person stepped up. This went on for over an hour but no one rushed them, even as waiters waited in the wings with dinner. Looking around the room, more than one person cried – especially when Akaroa Creamsicle talked about her husband and their three year old daughter, the youngest passenger on the flight.

As the last person left the stage, Mirage nodded to the waiters and they rushed out, eager to serve the first dish of dinner. Though I should be starving, I pushed my salad around on the plate absently while Cobalt looked on with concern. "You should eat ZuZu," he whispered. "The night has only just begun." Though I nodded and took a bite to appease him, the waiter whisked my mostly full salad plate away a few minutes later.


He was right though, the night had barely begun. The three course meal led into mingling and some mild dancing. Every celebrity in the room seemed to seek me out, offering a mix of congratulations and condolences. And offering money. In exchange they wanted a few minutes of my time a picture or two – it wasn't hard but it ate up all of my time that evening. Every time I tried to disappear for a moment, someone was calling my name or tapping my shoulder.

As such, when my phone vibrated in my purse, I thanked the berry gods and excused myself. I didn't care who was on the phone, just that they'd bought me a few minutes to excuse myself. "Hello?" The signal was patchy at best, I could barely make out the voice on the other end. "Hello? I can't hear you!"


"Ms. Dust!" Finally, the voice came through clearly – too clearly as he was shouting in my ear. Even as every four or five words cut out, I could piece together their meaning and I nearly dropped my phone as I staggered backwards into Cobalt's arms.

I glanced back at him, eyes wide, as the person on the other end continued to talk. "I'll be on the next flight," I said, cutting him off. "I'll have GiGi forward my flight information as soon as I know it." With a snap, I hung up the phone and leaned heavily against Cobalt. "I have to go, I need to go... can you get the limo. No that'll probably take too long."

"Zuli what's going on?" Cobalt asked, trying to draw my attention back as my mind zipped in a million directions. "Zuli!"

I stared at him for a long moment and then grinned. "They found something – something real," I whispered, peering around him for any snooping reporters.


Cobalt didn't smile, in fact his face filled with concern. "Zuli, you're five months pregnant with twins – you can't just fly off to berry knows where. Let them investigate and get back to you."

I pulled away from him, shaking my head quickly. "No, I have to go Cobalt – I have to see for myself. As you said – I'm five months pregnant, not nine. I can go flying off to berry knows where – and it's the Bekmes Desert of course. I'll be fine Cobalt."

"Zuli, stop and think for a minute. What if you get there and it is Flight 627 and everyone is..." he trailed off. "Let someone else discover that – you wouldn't subject Sandia or Akaroa to that..."

I shook my head, "I have to know Cobalt. Maybe you're right and that's what I'll find but I have to be there. I can't explain it..." Without another word, I turned away from him and started dialing GiGi's number. She picked up on the second ring, sounding sleepy, "I need a seat on the first flight out of Berrywood to Tuatara."


Cobalt snatched the phone from my hands, "make that two seats GiGi, I'm going with her."

End Chapter

Dusty Plains: A Crossover Rainbowcy

Generation Three, Chapter Thirteen


The moment the plane touched down in Caramel Canyon, I pulled out my phone to call Lochi. I knew he was still in the air, so there was no rush, but I'd been thinking about him for the last thirteen hours. I cradled the phone to my ear with a shoulder as I pulled my bag out of the overhead compartment. One of the flight attendants, who I recognized, gave me an annoyed look but I ignored her as I waited for Lochi's voice mail to pick up. Finally I heard his sweet voice offering a brief greeting before the beep. "Hey, it's me. We just landed and I couldn't sleep because I was thinking about you. Call me when you're home...."


I'd barely stepped through the doors before being rushed at by a blur of pale green and purple. "Oh my goodness, thank the berry you're back!" Aubrie exclaimed. As she grabbed my arm, the cell phone fell from my ear and landed face down on the floor. I didn't have to look to know it had cracked. Slightly embarrassed, Aubrie scooped it up and offered it to me. "I'll get you a new one but it's not important right now," she hissed, throwing the phone into her own bag after I didn't take it from her. "We've got a problem."

"I just got off a thirteen hour flight and I am still on vacation. Whatever it is, I'm sure you can handle it," I said, preparing to make a beeline for customs and get home.

Aubrie's nails dug into my arm as she dragged me away from the terminal – and away from the crowd of passengers deplaning. "We lost a plane," she whispered fervently.


"You lost a plane?" I said slowly, willing my brain to process the words fast. "What do you mean by lost exactly?"

Aubrie's eyes darted around the concourse anxiously. "We should go. Mr. Dingley is waiting. He sent me to get you as soon as you landed..."


Reluctantly, I allowed her to lead me through the airport and up to the conference room on the fourth floor. Crete Dingley had his back to us when we entered but a half dozen others turned toward us as the door swished open. One look at their faces told me that 'lost' was not defined as 'misplaced' today. Without a word, I handed my bag to Aubrie, "I should have another one coming through baggage." She practically fled the room, eager to be away from the SimAm corporate crowd.

"Ah, Ms. Dust," Dingley turned around. His face, at least, seemed calm in the face of potential disaster. "I trust you've been briefed on the situation?"

"Not exactly sir. Aubrie said something about a lost plane but nothing more," I said. At his look of displeasure, I quickly added, "we were in the middle of the concourse – surrounded by customers and passengers. I'm sure she didn't want to alarm anyone."


"Of course," he said smoothly. He motioned toward an empty seat and then nodded to his own assistant, a wiry young man who rarely spoke. The screens that lined the side wall lit up, three with people obviously conference calling in and two with what appeared to be radar and weather scans. "Eighty-three minutes ago, flight six twenty-seven was diverted due to a dense storm." Though his mouth continued to move, I heard only mumbles and felt a wave of nausea overpower me. I stumbled for the chair he'd pointed to and fell in it, trying to catch my breath. "We lost radio contact seventy-two minutes ago and she disappeared... Miss Dust are you alright?"

I wasn't.


"Wh-what was the flight number?" He repeated himself, obviously annoyed. "Excuse me," I ran for the door, stumbling over a trash can along the way. I barely made it into the hall before I collapsed.

Most of the suits looked around at each other confused but two came out to help me to my feet, reassuring me that I was okay.

I wasn't.


After several long, slow breaths, I fumbled my way toward the restroom where I proceeded to lose my lunch and the three bags of pretzels I'd eaten during the flight. I was gone long enough that Aubrie had returned from baggage claim and was sent to check on me. "Ms. Dust?" She rapped lightly on the stall door, and when I didn't respond she knocked again. "Are you alright?"

"No," I choked out, still hovering over the toilet in case anything else found its way up. "No, I'm very much not okay."


Aubrie shuffled her feet nervously for a few minutes before speaking, "well Mister Dingley would like you to come back to the conference room. I mean he pretty much demanded it."

I got to my feet slowly, testing my balance for a moment before unlatching the door. "Well, perhaps you should tell Mister Dingley that I quit," I said. Leaning over the sink, I felt my head swimming again. "I know someone on the flight," I whispered finally.

Aubrie sucked in a breath, "oh! Oh I'm sure they'll understand then! Was it one of the crew?"


"Is it," I corrected, not willing to accept her use of the past-tense already. "And no – I don't think I know any of the crew but I suppose it's possible... wait, do you have a roster of the flight?" She rummaged in her bag for her tablet and after a few taps, she held it out to me. I scrolled past the passengers until I came to the crew list. Although I vaguely recognized one of the flight attendant's names, I couldn't recall her face. None of the pilots sounded familiar. "He's a passenger," I said finally, handing the tablet back to her. "A very close.... friend."

Aubrie nodded somberly, "I'll let them know you'll need a few minutes."

I considered relaying my message of quitting but let it go, time was of the essence now and I didn't want to quit in the middle of a crisis. With Aubrie gone, I took a few minutes to splash water on my face and steel my nerves. When I turned toward the door, as ready as I'd ever be, I came face to face with Crete Dingley. "I'm sorry – Aubrie explained that you had a personal friend on board."


"Have," I corrected. He understood, giving me a slight nod.

"I'd understand if you did not feel able to do the press conference Ms. Dust," he said. "I need someone detached enough to answer the barrage of questions."

I closed my eyes tightly and imagined the onslaught of reporters that would be gathering soon. "I can handle it," I said finally. Though I didn't feel confident, he seemed to accept my response. "If we could resume the briefing – I'll need as much as we know."


"Of course," he said, motioning toward the bathroom door. The short walk back to the conference room required every ounce of willpower to keep moving forward. A couple steps behind me, Dingley matched my pace and seemed prepared to catch me should I fall down. After I was situated, with more than one pair of eyes on me, he resumed his place at the head of the table. "As I was saying, five minutes and thirty-nine seconds after altering their course, we lost radio contact with the cockpit. They disappeared from radar seven minutes later over the Bekmes Desert in Tuatara." Behind him, the screens adjusted to display the flight path, and disappearance, of Flight 627.

"Is it possible, they adjusted the flight path to evade some unknown weather – beyond the storm?" I asked.

"Possible? Yes," one of the suits behind her chimed in. "But they should have been picked back up on primary or secondary radar by now. The most likely scenario is an uncontrolled landing in the desert."

"Oh come on Bahia – let's call it what it is, they crashed!" This came from one of the females in the room.


"I'd prefer 'uncontrolled landing' when addressing the public," Dingley said, training his eyes on me. I made a mental note and nodded. "Bahia is right, most likely the flight went down in the desert. Unfortunately, there are brownout conditions which will hamper any attempt at search and rescue until the storm passes. I've scheduled a press conference to make the initial announcement from here. But then I'll need you on a plane for Italy Ms. Dust, that's where the plane was headed and there will be a lot of families and local reporters clamoring for news."

As soon as the meeting ended, I fished out my house keys and handed them Aubrie. "I need clothes – uniform, suits, etc. I don't know how much – just use your best judgment and get back here quickly. There's a suitcase and a garment bag in the front hall closet. Understood?" Aubrie nodded before speeding off. In my pocket, my cell phone trilled to life – Cobalt. "Hey."

"Where are you? Everyone on your flight has come and gone from baggage claim..." Cobalt asked, worry in his voice. He was here to pick me up as he'd retrieved my car from airport parking shortly after I'd landed in China weeks ago.

"There's something going on – I'm in the airport but I'm flying out again in about an hour. Meet me at main security," I said, snapping the phone off before he could ask any questions. "I'll be right back," I said, though no one was paying attention to me anymore.


As I approached security, I saw Cobalt waiting impatiently off to the side. One of the security guards was eying him warily. I pulled the chief aside and pointed out my brother. After a quick explanation, Cobalt was ushered through with only cursory wave of the wand. "Zuli, what's going on? Why are you flying out again?"

"There's a situation and I need to be the face of SimAm," I said. I pulled all the papers he'd sent me from my bag and handed them over to him. "They're all signed. I'll be back – well I don't know when but I can't imagine I'll be gone too long. Don't move ahead too quickly."


"Zuli, wait – you know we'd never leave before saying goodbye right? I mean you're not coming back to an empty house," Cobalt said, fiddling with the papers anxiously. "In fact – we don't have to sell the house. You could move back in after..."


I shook my head, "no, no it should be sold. It's way too big for me. I gotta go, give my love to Sapphy, Cham and Cer okay? And Lotus." I turned to leave, heading right back for the conference room, but stopped after a half dozen steps. Cobalt was still standing there, clutching the legal papers in confusion. "Hey!" I shouted, drawing his attention again. "I met someone pretty great."

Cobalt grinned and closed the gap between us. "The Italian from the phone?"

"Yeah, the Italian," I said, swiping through my phone pictures to show him a selfie of Lochi and I in front of the Great Wall. "I think... I don't know what I think but he's pretty great."


"Well, that's a ringing endorsement from you! You gonna see him again?" Cobalt asked.

"I... I don't know. He was on this flight..." I trailed off as the tears pooled in my eyes. "Hopefully," I whispered. "I have to go – there's a press conference and then I'll be heading out." I shifted the bag on my shoulder and heard the clink of Chambray and Cerulean’s souvenirs. "Oh, here – there are souvenirs for everyone," I said, passing the bag to him. I retrieved my wallet, passport and SimAm ID from the bag quickly and then wrapped my arms around his neck. "Love you brother."


------

The initial press conference consisted of a lot of "that's currently under investigation" and "we have no information at this time." Basically code for we don't know anything. This, as usual, prompted dozens of attempted follow up questions I couldn't answer.

For the record, "uncontrolled landing" isn't much better than "crashed". Reporters aren't stupid. At least not entirely.

By the time I arrived in Italy, I'd run through every conceivable emotion. Cobalt had all but blown my new phone up with messages in the interim. He wasn't angry, simply checking on me in typical brother fashion.


I was met at the gate by a short, pale, white haired woman who turned out to be the Italian counterpart to Crete Dingley. "Lazuli Dust? My name is Pampas Mallo," she said, extending her hand.

"Do we have any more information?" I asked, falling into step behind her as she navigated through her airport.

"Unfortunately, no," she said with a frown. "The sandstorm engulfing the region has not dissipated and has, in fact, gotten worse. It's entirely possibly that the wreckage will be completely obscured even when it does pass."


"Then we've received no other word from the crew," I said, staggering back a few steps. Ms. Mallo paused, with pursed lips, as I recovered myself and continued following her.

"No, of course not. You were briefed on the situation before coming weren't you?" she asked, irritation in her voice.

I stifled the urge to snap at her and nodded. "We had very little information at the time. It's a fourteen hour flight Ms. Mallo, a lot could have happened."

"We've contacted the emergency contacts and next of kin for the majority of the passengers and crew. They've begun to gather here," she said, pausing outside a pair of double doors. From the look of it, it appeared to lead to one of the first class lounges. "There are a few that we haven't been able to get in touch with," she said, handing me a tablet.


"My job is Media Relations – not Family Relations," I pointed out, backing away from the doors quickly. "And if there's no new information, I can't tell them anything they don't already know."

"I'm well aware of your job Ms. Dust," she said. "I'm also aware that you had a personal friend on board the flight. You are more suited to talk to them than anyone else I've got. There's a press conference in an hour. In the meantime..." she pointed toward the double doors and then turned to walk away.

I considered running after her, insisting on doing anything but what she wanted, but ultimately pushed open the double doors. They rushed toward me the moment I entered, shouting questions and demanding answers. When they realized I knew nothing and was, in fact, one of them, they quietly returned to their seats and huddled in small groups. I scanned the room, looking for anyone who might belong to Lochi. I settled into a corner, distanced from the others, and pulled up the roster on the tablet. Beside each name was a list of the family contacted or attempted and a brief biography of the passenger. When I got to Lochi's name – there was nothing beside it.


I skimmed through the rest of the contents of the tablet – more maps of the area, the storms in question and a data from the weather center – while waiting for the press conference. With fifteen minutes to go, I stood up and began pacing the room – I realized I didn't even know where this press conference was and I'm sure I looked like hell after a fourteen hour flight. "Excuse me," a small voice said, drawing my gaze. A child, probably no more than eight, was curled against his mother. "Is that you?" he asked, raising a hand to point toward a row of framed magazine covers by the bar. There were the covers from the company magazine, sent out to club members and share holders every quarter. And on the most recent cover was my face – the face of SimAm.


"Yes," I said softly, kneeling beside him. "Yes it is. Is there anything I can get for you?" I asked, glancing toward his mother as well. "I don't know anything different than you do," I said quickly, before she could get too hopeful. Ms. Mallo appeared at the doors and beckoned me over, "not yet anyway," I said quickly, before getting to my feet.

"Are you ready?" she asked, fussing with her hair as we walked. Unlike Crete Dingley, who delegated all press time to me and a small team, I suspected Pampas Mallo was eager to get in front of the camera and put on a show.

I stopped and shook my head, "no, no I'm not. I can't..."


"You have to, you're who they find reassuring – for reasons I can't understand," she muttered.

"I don't have anything new to tell them though!" I exclaimed.

"You tell them we have people on the ground in Tuatara waiting for the storm to clear. You tell them we will find out what happened to Flight 627 and that we ask for their prayers in the mean time. You tell them we're doing everything we can Ms. Dust," she said before grabbing my arm and dragging me the rest of the way.

As I was pushed toward the podium, in front of a crowd of international reporters, the familiar click click click of cameras echoed around the room. Lights flashed, blinding me and everyone started to shout at once.


There was a prepared statement sitting on the podium but the flood of questions, and languages, made it impossible to read out loud. In a brief lull, I raised my hands to silence them. "The fact is, we know nothing more than the last press conference. Ho, ho! The conditions within the Bekmes Desert make it impossibly to send out a Search and Rescue team at this point. But they are waiting and they will be deployed as soon as possible. What we do know is this, Flight 627 took off with ninety-two passengers and six crew members. Each of those people has a family or friends – they have loved ones waiting for news. Those people are here in the building or on their own flights to get here – they need your thoughts and prayers. So while I have no answers to give you, I do have a request. Please keep our loved ones in your prayers tonight. Thank you."

As I stepped away from the podium, I handed the unread statement over to Ms. Mallo. "I quit. I was wrong – I can't do this and be one of them."


End Chapter

Sunday, April 17, 2016

Dusty Plains: A Crossover Rainbowcy

Generation Three, Chapter Twelve


After, as we lay in the bed together, I found the silence surprisingly comfortable. Neither of us seemed eager to jump up or talk – perhaps for fear of ruining the after effects. Lochi was the first to move, shifting his weight to his side and propping his head on his hand to look at me. He had a goofy smile on his face, the kind one gets after finally getting exactly what they'd been wanting for ages. "That was number six," he said.

"Only number six? I would have thought it ranked higher on the list," I said with a giggle.

"Well in my head – there was more kissing first. And a date with food. A walk under the stars," he offered.

"No stars out now," I said, turning toward the balcony. Morning sunlight steamed through the opening. "And we already had breakfast. But I wouldn't object to more kissing..."


Lochi smirked, "perhaps the stars and the food will come later – a bit out of order. I could cook you dinner downstairs. Or a midnight snack after a star filled stroll outside." His fingers trailed across my skin lightly.

"Mmhmm, sounds nice," I said. "Assuming you can cook of course. I tend to survive on room service and fast food – think you can out do that?"

"I think I can manage. What's your favorite midnight snack?" he asked.

My forehead crinkled as I considered the options and then I shook my head. "The problem with that question is time zones."

"What do you mean?" Lochi asked, his brow furrowing cutely.


"I rarely know when it's actually midnight. Midnight to my body – could very well be lunch where I am," I explained with a teasing smile. "But – I love waffles. That's not really a snack is it?"

"Not exactly but waffles it is," he said. "I'll have to call down to the front desk to see if they can get the ingredients for me. Any particular type of waffles?"

"Belgian waffles, with berries on top and light powdered sugar. That's how my grandma served them when I was little. Cobalt hated blueberries – so he always slipped me his before she saw," I smiled, thinking of Grandma Cinder's sweet smile as she spooned extra blueberries onto Cobalt's plate – no doubt thinking he loved them since he always "ate" them so quickly. As the memory faded, I twisted around to face him better, "I've never told anyone that. Not even my grandpa – though he probably knew."

"Why not?" Lochi asked.

"I don't know – it was a Cobalt and me thing I guess. Most things are – or were anyway," I said, with a small frown. "When I started flying with SimAm and moved out – we didn't share as much anymore. I didn't even introduce him to Felix until after..." I gave Lochi and apologetic grimace. "Sorry, you probably don't want to hear about him."

"I want to hear about everything," he said simply. "Why didn't you introduce your brother to your boyfriend?"


"Because he wasn't my boyfriend – at least that's what I told myself," I said. "It was all a secret – it had to be or we couldn't be on the same crew. And that meant it was never going to be anything more than a series of layovers. He'd never pass the five year test, and I knew that from the very beginning so I didn't tell anyone about him."

"The five year test? What's that?"

I chuckled, "um, it's a standard. A standard by which to gauge if a relationship is real. It's silly really but on job interviews or when you're about to graduate high school – they ask 'Where do you see yourself in five years?' right?" Lochi nodded, though he still seemed confused. "I never saw Felix beside me when I asked myself that question. After he proposed and I stupidly said yes, I tried to imagine life five years later but he was never there. It was always me and empty spot in the bed. There were no wedding pictures on the night stand or little green and blue children. I could just never see him. Even the morning of the wedding! I was about to do a press conference at SimAm and I stood in front of one of the locker room mirrors and I tried to imagine just five hours from then – when I would be standing at the alter in the dress. And he wasn't there. I saw Cobalt and Lotus and Sapphy. I saw the preacher and all the guests but no groom."

"If you'd gone through with it, do you think you would have found happiness eventually?"


"No, not really. I think we would have either gotten divorced or seen each other so rarely that we never had the time to make a home together. I would have resented him – I did resent him actually. This whole last year, I was doing a job I hated and he got to keep doing the job he loved. It wasn't his fault – not really – but I was jealous," I said. "Wow, I'm babbling a lot. I doubt this is on your new list of things to do."

"Listening to you tell me about your life is number one," Lochi said with a reassuring smile. "For what it's worth – I think you made the right decision," he added with a wink. "Although that may just be me being selfish."

------


True to his word, Lochi produced glorious Belgian waffles with an extra large heap of blueberries that night and we sat downstairs talking until the sun began to peek over the mountains. Talking to him came naturally and he listened to every story with rapt attention. When we returned to our room in those early morning hours, I didn't feel the pull to retreat to my own bed as I had so often around Felix. Without hesitation, I slid under the covers next to him and snuggled against him, feeling like a perfect fit. We spent most of the our final vacation days in the hostel – usually avoiding the common areas in favor of a hermitage in our room with rare attempts to forage for food without getting pinned down for small talk. Having given up on the top twenty Chinese tourist traps, we worked together to create our own top twenty list – which eventually grew to a top thirty-six list. Though we wrote it all down, we mutually agreed to burn the evidence on the last night.

It was the last day before we finally ventured outside. I'd put off buying souvenirs for Sapphy and the twins for the whole trip and would feel terrible returning empty handed so we made our way down to the village for one last shopping trip. "I need to pick up a book," Lochi said, pointing in the general direction of the book store. "You should probably consider a suitcase as well though, seeing as you're certainly leaving with more than you came with."


He was right of course. My single carry-on would barely hold the few things I'd brought with me from the church that day, let alone a couple new outfits and whatever presents I found to take home. "Meet back here in twenty?" I suggested. With a nod, we parted in opposite directions. I started with the hunt for a bag at the gear store. It was the same merchant I'd purchased a canteen and dried food from before we'd ventured into the Dragon Cave. After several disjointed attempts to convey "suitcase" or "travel bag" to her in broken Mandarin, I pointed to a small sack in the corner and then tried to mime putting it on my back like a backpack. The playacting did the trick because she ducked behind her counter and emerged with a new, larger backpack. I eyeballed it for a long moment, trying to gauge whether it was big enough to hold everything, and then conceded. It may very well be too small, but I didn't feel like wasting an hour to get my true meaning across.

In the next shop I found two obnoxious, hand crafted musical toys for Cerulean and Chambray. I picked out a gorgeous jade hair comb for Sapphy, though I almost put it back because the color reminded me too much of Felix. Shoving him from my mind, I took gifts to the register and tucked them each into my new bag for safe keeping. I'd already sent Cobalt and Lotus a wooden training dummy just like the one we'd experienced at the Academy. My shopping all done, I lingered a moment over the display case to look at the jewelry. Much of it was jade – or had jade somewhere in the design – but a small selection of amber and an even smaller collection of opals were tucked amongst the sea of green.


"There you are," Lochi wrapped his arms around my waist. "What happened to meeting outside?"

"I got distracted," I said, still enraptured by the delicate opal pieces.

"So I see. With so many glittery objects, it's no wonder," he said with a chuckle. "Though I didn't take you for much of a jewelry person."

"I suppose I'm not really – but those opals are just too pretty to ignore," I said with a chuckle. "I could become a jewelry person." After another minutes, and a long, pointed look from the sales clerk, I led the way out of the shop. "Okay, my flight is in about thirteen hours – any last chance stops we should check out?"


"There is one I've heard about," Lochi said with a smile. Without waiting for my consent, he took my hand and we made our way out of the village. A line of carts waited just outside the walls, each manned by a bored looking attendant. Four of them saw us at once and jumped to their feet, eager to get one last fare before the day ended. Lochi flagged one over, gave him our destination in perfect Mandarin and we awkwardly crammed into the seat. It was wider than one person needed but not quite wide enough for two people to sit without being VERY friendly. Barely situated, the attendant lifted the front of the cart and off we went.

"Where are we going?" I asked, looking back as the village walls disappeared behind a row of trees. After another few minutes, we began to climb and I felt sorry for the poor attendant dragging us up the side of the mountain.

I looked in my wallet, planning to offer him extra for his effort, but Lochi put his hand on mine and shook his head. "I'll take care of him, I promise," he said softly. Even after I put the wallet away, Lochi left his hand on mine before weaving his fingers between mine. Soon the slope flattened out into small plateau overlooking the village and the Chinese countryside. Lochi hopped out of the cart and then offered me a hand down as well. He and the attendant exchanged a few words and then our driver settled into the grass under a tree. "He'll take us back down when we're ready," Lochi explained, grabbing my hand and walking with me toward the edge of the plateau.


"How did you find this place?" I asked. "It wasn't in your guidebook."

"I overheard someone talking about it," he said with a dismissive shrug.

Gazing out toward the expansive scenery, I wished – not for the first time – that I'd brought my camera with me to China. I hadn't taken the time to go back home for anything after the wedding – just fled for the airport and hopped on a flight with an open seat. Stuck in momentary regret, I felt Lochi's arms wrap around my waist from behind. "It is beautiful," I said softly. "I should take a picture..." I started to reach for my cell phone but Lochi took hold of my hands.

"Just, enjoy the moment," he whispered. "You won't be happy with a cell phone snap anyway," he reminded me. He was right of course, my cell phone would not do the scene before us justice. Yielding to his advice, I settled against him and watched as a flock of birds erupted from a tree below us. We watched their flight for several silent minutes before he spoke again. "What are the chances of you returning to an international flight crew?"


"If my boss has her way, slim to none. Why?" I asked.

"Why? Because we both have to go back to our real world soon and I want to see you again – outside of China, in the real world," Lochi said. I tried not to let my uneasiness show but I felt him pull away. "Sorry, sorry – I realize you just got out of your relationship..." He paused, taking an abrupt step backwards. "You know what? I'm not sorry at all Zuli. I like you – and I know we just met – but the last few weeks have been amazing for me. And I hope they have been for you."


"They have," I insisted, grabbing his hand. "I just didn't come to China for this. I ran away! I expected to sulk in my hotel room and drown my sorrows with alcohol and cheap romance novels while I evaded the infamous real world. But then you were here and you had your top twenty list to distract me..."

"You should know, I didn't care about the top twenty list – it was a ploy," Lochi's previous tension faded and he relaxed beside me. "I just wanted an excuse to stay and get to know you more."

I grinned, "really? That's... well kind of crazy. But sweet," I added. "Look, I'm not opposed to seeing you again – out in the real world – but, as you said, I just got out of an almost marriage. I think, maybe, I need time and distance."


"I suppose it's a good thing we live on different continents then," Lochi said with a faint smile. In spite of it, I could hear the sadness in his voice but could offer no words of comfort. We were silent for several minutes, each deep in our thoughts as the sky turned pink and the sun slipped to the horizon. Lochi wrapped his arms around me once more and pulled me closer. "Ya know, I knew the moment you showed up at the door that I was in trouble."

------

Though Lochi's flight left a couple hours after mine, we left for the airport together. When we reached the check in desk, the customer service rep was confused by the fact that we were going to different places – I guess we gave off the "couple" vibe already. Noting that I was an employee of the airline, she offered me an upgrade to first class since they had empty seats and handed me my new ticket and boarding pass. I waited for Lochi to finish up and we passed through security together.

At the top of the stairs within the concourse, I knew that Lochi's gate was the opposite direction as mine and paused. "I guess, this is it," he said, taking my hands in his. "I could walk you to your gate?"


"I think that would just suck. I've been on this side of the glass as the plane pulls away and it's horrible so I don't want to think of you like that..." I said. My mind flashed back to the days before SimAm and before Felix, as I watched Monte disappear. "No, I think here is better. I'll call you when I land – you'll probably still be in the air but I'll call you."

"I'd appreciate that," Lochi said, tracing his thumb over my hand absently. After a long moment, he pulled me into a tight embrace. "Let me know when you're ready," he whispered. Our last kiss started tenderly but quickly became more passionate as neither of us was ready to let go.


Reluctantly, I pulled away first, tears stinging my eyes. I swiped them away quietly and offered him a patented SimAm smile. "Thank you Lochi – you can't know how helpful you've been to me these last few weeks," I said, as I shifted my bag on my shoulder. "I'll see ya," I blew him a playful kiss and quickly turned away before the tears started to fall.

I'd almost made it to a turn when he started calling for me. I heard him jogging behind me but tried to ignore it, feigning temporary deafness. "Zuli!" His hand landed on my shoulder and I was forced to stop and face him with watery eyes and a couple of fat tears on my cheeks. "It's not enough!" he exclaimed. "I can't – it's not enough."


"What are you talking about?" I asked, brushing the tears away. "What's not enough?"

"This – this goodbye and wait and see approach! I can't do it, I want to be understanding and respect your limits but I can't do that. At least not without saying something first..." he said.

"What? Without saying what?" I stammered, unsure if I wanted to know; if I was ready.


"I love you," he said simply. "And I know that's beyond crazy – we've barely met but I've never slept on a plane before because I hate flying – with a fiery passion – but you, you made it easy. And it's not what you said or what you did, I just felt better with you next to me and I think that's significant. Everyday I've spent with you has made me feel ecstatic. And I think that's love – the together forever kind of love. The kind that stands up to the Five-Year-Test. Where do you see yourself in five years Zuli?"


"I....I don't know," I stammered, trying to imagine five years into the future. For a moment, I saw the picture on the night stand and I heard the sound of shrieking kids but I couldn't see their faces. "Happy with a family, I hope?"

Lochi grinned and dropped to one knee. He pulled out a small velvet box but didn't open it right away. "The contents of this box are yours, no matter what you say. As is my heart." He opened the box with a light pop. One of the opal rings I'd admired in the village was nestled into the slot. "Marry me. Because I think you feel the same as I do. I think your heart swells and your head feels light when we're together. I think you know that we fit together perfectly and I think you know that we'd make each other happy forever."


"You're insane!" I said, though I couldn't deny anything he'd said. "We can't get married after knowing each other for three weeks."

"Sure we can – people do it all the time," Lochi said, with a playful smile on his face. "But I admit to being insane – utterly and completely insane for you."

"No, no this is crazy Lochi. I don't know you," I said. I realized it was a lie almost as soon as it came out – I did know him. I knew more about him than I'd ever known about Felix and he knew me. "I can't marry you after so short a time."


Lochi nodded, getting to his feet. While a few people had overheard the exchange, no one paid us much attention and there were no startled gasps at the refusal. "I was kind of hoping you'd say that," he whispered, a conspiratorial smile on his face. "I didn't want you to say yes out of some sense of expectation," he said, as he slid the gorgeous opal ring onto my finger anyway. "So I think you should go home and talk to Cobalt about me – tell him anything and everything. Like you used to. And show my picture to Sapphy so she can tell you to marry me. Talk to Lotus too – he seems to be the levelheaded one. I imagine his advice is sound. And ask yourself, as you look at this ring every day, where do you see yourself in five years?" He placed his lips against my hands and smiled once more before spinning away toward his own gate, leaving me speechless in the concourse.



End Chapter