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Full Circle
As soon as she was able, Natalie made the journey to Masiaka, seeking the catharsis of closure. Compared to Freetown's crumbling devastation, the town itself had fared well; it stood, whole and mostly unblemished, but for the fact that it was half empty. The school and garrison had suffered the worst of the damage, but Masiaka's citizens had fled in all directions that night, many escorted by the legionnaires to the refinery that marked their grave. A trickle returned now the conflict had passed, armed with the tenacity to re-dig their roots and start over. The call went out for lost family, and with it the deepening anguish of grief for so many lives lost.

The school was utterly empty, its walls pocked by machete marks and blood stains not yet scrubbed clean. Natalie's heart tightened in her chest, a small and constricted thing that refused to acknowledge the waves of emotion such a sight engendered. Her jaw remained tight, pale gaze cold to all that she saw. Azu's dreams eddied in dust.

Still, she walked those halls and absorbed it all, internalising each reaction and locking it away. The last time she had strolled this very path, she had been with Azu. Dawn spread gold fingers from the horizon then, shimmering the bloody sight that had confronted them round the next corner. The chipped mug still lay where she had abandoned it, half buried in sand. She toed it with her boot, recirculating the memories like she could encourage a new ending.

The children had been arriving in early drips and drabs when the soldiers stormed the school. While Natalie navigated the hospital in Freetown with two small boys, Azubuike had protected them and fled with the legionnaires. They were all gone now, all but Ayo and Ekene and any others who'd managed to seek safety with their families. That was the hardest reconciliation, how dozens of faces had been swept clean like a god grew bored with the game and simply cleared the pieces.

There had been a ceremony in the town's church, and a rallying from neighbouring villages and towns. She was not the only one seeking closure. For a while Natalie stood motionless, processing the loss and its magnitude. Two saved from so many. She lifted her melancholic gaze, and forced herself to focus on the positive.

Separated from their children, Ayo's parents ran south. Fortune had favoured a blessedly quick reunion with the daughter Jay had plucked from death's arms, but such joy was tempered by news that their son was gone. Natalie was not the one to deliver the news, a prickle of shame on her conscience considering she had been the last one to see the boy. But Laurene had shielded her from the duty.

Ekene's future hung in a more uncertain balance. His older brother had presumably perished in the failed coup, else he was laying low somewhere. Given the legion's presence in Masiaka during the initial fighting, the former was more likely. Ekene took the news with mixed emotions, drawing into himself and jabbing at his broken hand. Rosters marked his father as having been among those executed at the refinery. His mother and sister so far remained unaccounted for, but had perhaps fled north. For now he remained under the care of the Cross.

Azubuike's small cottage attached to the school building, and it was in this untouched sanctuary that Natalie eventually found herself. He'd lived sparsely and there was little that truly reflected the man in his decorations or possessions. A few well thumbed books piled on shelves, among them a small bible she had often seen on his person peeking from a jacket pocket. She pulled it onto the small kitchen table, and idled through its tissue thin pages. She wasn't religious, and there was little comfort to be found in its words, just the memory of the man who had carried it close.

"There you are."
Olabisi shoved a hip against the door and slipped through with two coffee mugs. Her dark eyes held a reproachful air, lips pursed to find Natalie here. Red lined her eyes, the whites swelled pink. Still, she smiled and placed the drinks down, joining Natalie at the table. She was older than Azubuike by some years and Natalie had never really known much but her name. She lived the next town over, but like many had made the journey to mourn those lost, and stayed to help family, friends and neighbours rebuild.

Natalie cradled the coffee in both palms, grateful. Though it ought to be her doing the consoling. Olabisi had lost her brother. "I remember taking the children to Tokeh once,"
she said to fill the silence. "The sand is so white there, and the ocean so incredibly blue. Most of them had never seen the sea, and the lesson disintegrated quickly. But I remember his face when he watched those kids squealing through the surf. He loved what he did, and he believed so passionately in this country. He wanted to show them something beautiful."

The pain tightened in her chest, but she eased the sharp grip away and placed it aside.

Olabisi smiled, a wistful and sad expression, but she seemed comforted by the offered memory. It was the purest way in which she would remember him; the benevolence with which he viewed the world, and she thought perhaps Olabisi understood the rare thing that had been lost. Natalie hid a grimace, pressing the coffee to her lips, trying not to dwell on the violent manner in which he had died. Passion fired the need for revenge, but there was no one to take it out on. "He was a good man, my brother. He lived and died for his convictions. No one can fault him for that."

"He was. Among the best I've ever known. But not everyone here loved him for his ideas."
It was how he'd come to work with the Red Cross, offering scholarships to girls still so often denied the opportunity of education in this part of the world. Their father had been a child-soldier the last time peace shattered in Sierra Leone, and the school had been his originally, but it was Azu that blossomed those humble beginnings to something worth fighting for. "They're rebuilding the town - will they rebuild the school?"

"So many lost children. Those wounds need to heal first. New ideas take fertile soil."

Natalie nodded. Swallowed back the bite of frustration. "He won't be forgotten, Olabisi, I promise you."

The older woman placed her hand over Natalie's, squeezed it lightly. "I know."
A moment of sad silence descended. Olabisi's eyes glassed and she blinked. "But it won't be done by lingering amongst ghosts. You must have family? Go home to them for a time, girl. It's important to look after the things that mean the most to us while we still have them."

They spoke a time longer, reminiscing, until shadows touched the windows and Natalie finally stood. Olabisi pressed the bible into her hands before she left.

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