Delta opens the car door and Esther goes running out into the woods before Delta even registers what’s happening.
“Get back here,” Delta says, defeated.
Fortunately, Esther is a very obedient child when she’s not following her own mysterious whims.
“Sorry, Maman,” she says.
“Let’s walk together, like we always say. Especially into the dangerous woods.”
They’ve come to Mt. Diablo, right at that special spot where you can see the whole mountain in all its beauty. There’s a nice grassy grove, and then beyond that woods as far as the eye can see.
Delta and Esther venture into those woods, following the path that Delta so well remembers.
She and Francis used to come here so often. After she got her license, and especially after she got kicked out and moved in with the Bacalls, Mt. Diablo became the perfect getaway spot anytime the stress of life proved too difficult to handle for their adolescence-riddled brains.
It’s hard. Being a kid and growing up. It’s hard and nobody understands.
The woods are almost the exact same as they were all those years ago. Untouched except for the little pathways that lonely adventurers made in their travels. She wishes she had come here more often as an adult.
The last time they visited Mt. Diablo, it was to help out Eryk and experiment with his Destiny Points or whatever. The only thing she can remember about that day anymore was how Eryk literally wrestled a bear to the ground and then went about his day as if nothing particularly special had happened.
What a dick.
A while into their walk, Esther starts to get tired, so Delta has to carry her the rest of the way. This baby’s getting pretty heavy now, especially with that full head of pink hair that goes all the way down to her waist now. She’s going to need a haircut, but that is much lower on her list of priorities than anything else right now.
And then, after a few more minutes, she finds it.
Exactly what she knew would be in these woods: A tiny cabin, deep in the woods, with an air conditioner running and a large satellite antenna attached to the top. It can’t be any bigger than a single room, can it? Music played through the walls, some vaguely upbeat party techno.
Well, it was obvious what she was about to encounter, so she went to the front door and gave it one single, resounding knock.
The music stopped.
A minute later, the door opened, with a certain man’s face showing on the other side.
“Delta,” he says. “What the—”
“Good afternoon,” Delta says. “Say hello to Esther.”
Esther reaches out his hand for a high-five, but Delta puts it down.
Francis... looks... different.
His cheeks have lost so much fat, and he sports a beard that is pretty thick now. His arms and legs are beefed up with muscle, and the orange tanktop he wears is covered in sweat.
He notices her staring at her and says, “Yeah, sorry, I was just getting done with a set. Want to come in? Sorry if there’s no chairs or anything though.”
Delta enters Francis’s new home and her eyes open wide.
This really is a single-room cabin. Hardwood floors and walls, but you can barely see them because the entire place is covered in stuff. Along one wall, there’s a large setup of streaming and PC equipment, along with a bookshelf of DVDs and video games. On the opposite side, a wall covered in posters and gaming goods, as if to show off how cool Francis is when streaming and nothing else, because it goes to the webcam’s viewing range and then just... stops. Just to the side of all those posters is a weight set and a pull-up bar, along with a padded mat on the floor. The wall on the side of the door has Francis’s bed, just a twin size up against the wall, and a single desk with cluttered papers over it, as well as a notebook in Francis’s scrawled handwriting. The fourth wall has a kitchenette and then a door to the undoubtedly tiny bathroom and shower.
Francis is living the nomad life, and just this room shows Delta the full extent of things.
For, what, six months now or something, Francis has been out here in the wilderness, doing nothing but streaming? And, working out, of course.
Holy shit Francis is buff.
And also, pretty pale too. Did he ever go outside anymore?
“Like the place?” he asks. “I built it myself.”
“No, but I paid for it all in cash with my savings. My parents thought I’d never amount to anything, but guess what? I’ve achieved my dreams already.”
Delta distinctly recalls Francis lamenting his streaming career and wanting to switch to something else. He certainly doesn’t LOOK happy, either, as much as he’s smiling to Delta. In fact, he looks more like he’s doing his best impression of a depressed comedian in some tacky indie dramadey from the late 2000s or early 2010s.
“It’s nice and cozy,” Delta says. Only half a lie. If she wanted to live alone in the woods, this would probably be a nice place to do it. But it’s not very common that anyone in this world wants to live such a secluded life... Especially Francis, surely.
“Why’d you come out here?” Francis asks. “I was sure you’d know where I moved, but then you never visited.
“Well, I kinda have a baby to take care of, Francis,” Delta says, pointing to the girl in her arms.
Francis tilts his head to the side. “Baby...” He puzzles over the word. “Esther’s really pretty, but why isn’t she a baby? She’s definitely not a baby.”
“I’m a baby,” Esther says.
“I don’t know,” Delta says. “She’s special in her own way. But that’s sort of why I came here. I figured, if I didn’t see you now, you might not meet Esther until she’s graduating from college or something.”
“It’s a place where people go and then most of them quit.”
Francis frowns. “That’s not funny.”
“What? Oh, wait, sorry. I didn’t mean...” Delta tries to change the subject quickly before she upsets Francis. “Julie’s going through something right now, and I can’t solve it. She and I, well, created Esther, and now our whole life is changing so fast.”
“Julie never liked me.”
“Oh, that’s not... Okay, that’s completely true. But Julie doesn’t like most people, or most things. She’s just got her ways.” Delta pauses, and then decides to say it: “And we think she’s a North Spiran.”
Francis’s mood shifts immediately. A scowl forms on his face. “Oh, no, don’t you dare,” he says.
“What? No, I was just... Oh, hey, Francis. I saw one of your streams the other day. Aren’t you doing Vtubing now?”
His mood shifts back to his normal (?) self. “Oh, yes I am indeed. A lot of younger viewers were getting less interested in me after I lost all the weight, according to some surveys, so Mixer hooked me up with a whole Vtuber suite, and that’s what I’m doing now on most days.”
“Do you enjoy that?”
“Vtubers are REALLY HOT nowadays,” he says, dodging the question. “Super popular. Ever since Pewdiepie died and his team brought him back as a character with AI and archive voice clips, it’s just become this phenomenon all over the gaming world.”
Delta has no idea who Pewdiepie even is, but she nods along. “Awesome. So you’re really moving up in the world.”
“Yeah, I guess. I’m the top of the top. The most famous streamer in the entire world. Honing my craft and my body every day.” Then he paused and his face darkened. “But you only asked me about that to sweeten me up before you ask for a favor, didn’t you?”
“Nothing gets past you, oh smart Francis,” Delta says.
“You even brought the kid along to help.”
“Well, no, Julie is training today.”
Delta adds, “and we can’t afford a babysitter. The insurance is too high after the last one threatened to sue because SOMEONE decided to test out her magic on a teenage girl like she has been constantly warned against. What does that someone have to say for herself?”
“I’m very ultra sorry,” Esther says.
“She’s so adorable,” Francis says with a sigh.
“She’s gotten a lot more social lately. Ever since she started playing with dear cousin Victoria.”
“...You’ve met Taylor recently?”
“She comes up every week to see your parents. She knocks some sense into them every time they complain about you.”
“They STILL do that? Ugh!” Francis paces over to his computer chair and shakes it a few times. “I can’t do anything right. Nothing.”
“You’re fine, Francis.” Or he will be until Delta finally gets to the bottom of her reason for visiting him. “Maybe you should come home.”
“No. Nope. No way.”
“You could really help Julie, I think.”
“How can I help Julie when she won’t even let me?” Francis asks. “She blames me for the whole stupid road trip still. And rightfully so.”
“I think she’s changed her mind on you.” She hasn’t. “Julie is starting to unlock some powers. You know, like the Destiny Card type. She’s confused and a little scared and has no clue how to progress. You’re the only one who might...”
Francis crosses his arms. “Might what?”
“Might, um, know where Eryk is.”
“I’m going to stop you here,” Francis tells her. “I have no idea what happened to the real Eryk, and I don’t care. Those weeks of my life spent on that ungrateful jerk were a complete waste.”
“I mean, I kind of agree, but you know. We really do need him.”
“We don’t need him. He’s the kind of man who would rather clone himself than actually spend time with his friends, and when the jig was up I guess he was just too ashamed to come back and face us. He’s probably out there earning Destiny Points and being all cool and whatever.”
Delta knows why Francis feels the way he does. He isn’t saying it, but he probably really needs to, she thinks. “What happened in L.A.?” she asks.
“Nothing. You remember.”
“I mean, on the day with that stupid luncheon. You ran off with Eryk, and then you came back and he didn’t until the next day. What happened?”
“Did you confess to him?”
Francis flares up and points at the door. “Don’t you dare talk about that,” he says. “You know what? Get the—” He looks at Esther and catches himself—“heck out of my house.”
“Dude, just relax. It’s me. You don’t have to—”
“Get out!” He marches over to his chair again and sits down, arms still folded. “I’m streaming Chameleon Twist 2 today, and I don’t need any distractions. Please leave.”
“Got it. Thanks for helping me.” Delta sneers at him and leaves the cabin.
Absolutely nothing has been accomplished today except making two friends sort of hate each other for a bit. What a stupid mistake coming here.
But at least Delta knows, now, that her only faint hope is now dashed.
Julie, Delta, and Esther were alone in their journey, and they were going to have to accept it. Whatever came their way, they’d figure it out together.