The hospital room was too cold. Aoi Uzuki pulled the blanket over her shoulders and tried to get comfortable. She hadn't been able to adjust to the temperature, even after two days.
There was a beep every minute from the vital monitor she was hooked up to. She rubbed the skin on her right wrist to dull the itch from the cuff.
It was, what, the third time in two months she'd been admitted to Saint Maria's Hospital? No, the fourth. There was talk about transferring her to the Acute Neurosis Treatment Facility if she continued to deteriorate. This was the first time she'd had to stay for more than one night.
Through the window Aoi mostly saw sky, and the middle floors of a nearby office complex. She wished she could've heard the city sounds, but the window was sealed tight. The closed door opposite the window kept out the noises from the hallway. Except for the beep of the monitor, her world was a silent one. She thought of turning on the room's basic UMN screen, but she felt too lightheaded to move.
The remainder of her lunch sat on the adjustable table attached to the bed. She'd been able to eat a little of it.
Her headaches had gotten worse. There'd been a time when nanotherapy had dulled them, but now all she could do to escape was to wait for the pain to shove her into unconsciousness. But there was something waiting for her in the dark.
She'd seen her symptoms before, in her father, and in her aunt and grandmother. It wasn't always quick, but eventually they just . . . slipped away, into comas none of them would return from. She didn't want to slip away, didn't want to be separated from Suou and their children.
She didn't want to face what waited for her.
Sometimes God calls upon us, to speak with Him, Aoi's elders had told her.
Something flitted past the window. A delivery drone, Aoi thought. A coffee order, maybe, or it could have been someone's groceries. She missed the days when she'd taken such things for granted.
Aoi tried sitting up without relying on the bed, and found that she could do it if she moved slowly. She sat, and tried to ignore the dull pulsing of her skull.
She was like that for a while, before the "visitor" warning chimed and the door slid open.
"Mommy!" she heard, a split second before something small and brown-haired cannoned into her. For a moment her vision blurred as her head was impaled by a spike of pain from the impact. She bit back a cry.
Aoi recovered a moment later, and looked at her daughter. Shion was clinging tightly to her midsection, and Aoi could feel something in one of Shion's hands pressing gently against her back.
With care, Aoi returned the hug. "I missed you yesterday." The day before, there'd been nothing but tests and tubes and doctors scrolling back and forth through her charts. At least Suou had peeked in a couple of times.
It was good to see her family. It would have been even better with Jin there, but his leave wouldn't start for another month.
Shion squirmed back off of the bed, trying to keep whatever she held in her right hand out of view. Aoi caught a flash of orange as Shion hid her hands behind herself.
"We came yesterday, but Daddy said I had to wait outside because you were busy with the doctors," Shion said.
Aoi looked up and toward the door, where Suou was standing and fidgeting slightly. "He did, did he? Well, seeing my little girl would have made all the prodding I went through much more bearable."
Suou stepped inside. He was carrying a shopping bag, which he set on an empty plastic rack. He sat on the end of the bed, after Aoi moved her feet.
"How's your head?" he asked, keeping his voice down.
Aoi looked away, then looked back and shrugged. "It's not too bad right now. If I don't move much, it's okay." She glanced at Shion, and brightened up. "And what have you been hiding behind your back?"
Shion giggled, and before Aoi had finished speaking Shion thrust out her hand to display a small bouquet of poppies and wild carrot flowers. "I found them growing by the side of the apartment."
The flowers were vivid against the pallid bedclothes. Aoi pictured her daughter exploring the nooks and crannies of their apartment complex. "Once I'm out of here, you'll have to show me where," she said.
Suou stood, and began searching the room for something. The cupboard doors by the bed were opened and shut repeatedly.
"Try the one on the end, by the water dispenser," Aoi said, pointing.
Suou opened the door. "How did you . . . ?" he trailed off, waving a disposable cup at her.
She smiled. "I'm your wife. I figured you wouldn't think to bring a vase." Soon the flowers were sitting on the swivel table beside her lunch.
A medical assistant came in after that. Suou and Shion drew back to give him space. He looked at the vital monitor's screen, checked Aoi's wrist cuff, and scrawled something on his datapad. Then he turned his attention to what was left of Aoi's lunch.
"No appetite?" he asked her.
"Got tired partway through. It's staying down, though." That was true. Aoi felt only the slightest roiling in her stomach.
The MA nodded, and made another note on the pad. "You have a neural scan scheduled an hour and a half from now. But your family can stay until then." He took the tray, and a moment later the door closed behind him.
As soon as he was gone Suou reclaimed his place at the foot of the bed, and Shion climbed up near her mother.
"The food isn't any better?" Suou said, with a nod to the empty space on the table.
"Maybe a little worse," Aoi admitted.
Shion's gaze shifted from Suou to Aoi. "Does that mean you can't eat the cookies we brought?"
Aoi feigned shock. "Not eat cookies? When have I ever not been able to eat cookies?"
A small red tub came out of the shopping bag, along with a few other things. There was a UMN pad, an artist's pad, a couple of lightweight dresses, a set of pajamas, and a few toiletries. There was also a dog-eared book of fairytales, from Shion's collection.
Aoi held the book up. "You're letting me borrow this?"
Shion nodded. "Uh-huh, until you come home. That one's the best. Sleeping Beauty's my favorite."
"I see." Aoi smiled. "Now about those cookies."
They turned out to be chocolate chip. Aoi managed to eat one without too much difficulty, but had to split the second with Suou and Shion.
Her mouth full, Aoi stared at the flowers in their makeshift vase. She imagined Shion hunkered down beside them with her little clippers, her knees pressed into the dirt, the sunlight turning a few stray strands of her hair golden. Aoi loved seeing her children in the sunshine.
"If we've only got an hour and a half more, could we spend it outside?" she said, and swung her legs over the side of the bed. The movement was too sudden, and she had to clutch the sheets to keep from pitching forward. She felt Suou's hands brace her shoulders. She looked up at him.
She didn't want to spend her time in a sterile room if she didn't have to. She didn't want to feel like she wasn't part of the world anymore.
A beat later, Suou nodded. "I'll get you a chair."
Aoi realized Shion was staring at her, wide-eyed and with her hands slightly raised. Her heart clenched when she remembered the same look on her own face, back when her father had been ill.
"I'm all right, sweetie, I'm okay," Aoi promised, and hoped she wasn't lying. Her head hurt a little more than before, but she didn't think she was near fainting.
Suou returned, and with Shion's help bundled Aoi into the wheelchair, then clipped the vital monitor's screen to the chair back. The tub and the book of fairytales went on Aoi's lap.
To Aoi, her inability to get around under her own power was a bit unsettling. She smiled nervously at everyone she passed. But the hallway swam in her vision and she knew she needed the chair.
"I feel awful for being such an inconvenience," she said as Suou maneuvered her into the elevator.
"You're not an inconvenience," he assured her. "We're just glad there are some ways we can help."
"Like we could bring you something better to eat," Shion suggested.
Aoi smiled. "Which I would very much appreciate, but the doctors say I have to stick to the diet they gave me—with the occasional treat now and then." Then she sighed. "Maybe you can sneak me something decent, anyway. But I hate the thought of staying here. I'm already tired of this place."
The elevator doors opened onto the lobby, and Aoi noticed the wall tiles were the same shade as the wildflowers in the cup upstairs. "When I get home I think we should plant something where those wild carrots and poppies were growing."
Shion's grin was blinding.
As Suou wheeled her across the floor toward one of the hospital's courtyards, Aoi closed her eyes and her mind began flooding with color. She saw purple hyacinths; yellow coneflowers; her grubbiest jeans made grubbier by the dirt. She wanted that to be a reality. A warmth rose in her body.
She opened her eyes and it was as though the vivid hues in her mind had spilled into the real world. Everything and everyone in the courtyard glowed at the edges.
The colors seemed to drift like ribbons. It was beautiful, but so painful to look at. Aoi felt like her head was on fire, and there was a buzzing in her ears. She was dimly aware of a high-pitched sound, like a small bird chirping. Sweet little bird, she thought, keep away from the flames. It was important to keep the bird safe.
Something touched her forehead, her hands. But even that gentle breeze couldn't do anything about the heat in her skull. Aoi was in a blaze, bright orange as a field of poppies.
And darkness fell.