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i.

He comes in on a meteor silhouetted by the sun, and you're ready for him.

(No, you aren't, you really aren't, but you're gonna do what you can. What else is there? Let him sit and smolder and cry 'til someone else picks him up? They wouldn't know what to do with him, how to handle him, just turn him into a circus of a news story--baby found in a crater on a dead horse, everyone get in on the fucking media dogpile. No, kid's got red eyes just like you, and that means he's as good as yours.)

You lift him up, cradle him awkwardly, check him over for damage. Jesus Christ, why you? His whole hand fits around your finger, but he's the one who makes you feel small.

ii.

You stare at the blank space on the fake birth certificate and realize that you have to pick a name, so you give it some thought. You check some sites. You sit on it for awhile.

Eventually, you pen one in. It means “beloved.”

(You'd never tell him.)

David fucking Strider. Kid's going to be amazing if you've got any say in it.

iii.

It only takes until the time he starts talking before you realize he's the kid who cares too much.

He's a spitfire and quick on his feet, but everything sets him off like the sputter of a match; so quick to anger, so quick to tears, and so quick to wipe them away violently and set his jaw like a pitbull. He postures and he challenges, he rages and screams, and you think someday it's gonna get him killed if you don't teach him how to aim it.

He's fire and sun and not too long now before he's time, too; you can't snuff it out, not when it's a part of him. But you can temper it. You can teach him how to hold it in, how to pick and choose his battles. You can show him how to guard himself, because he needs it when he doesn't have any damn confidence and the world punches right through to bruising without any armor.

“This is stupid,” he says, planting his feet and crossing his arms, defiant and rebellious. You ruffle his hair and laugh, even as he scowls. (Cute kid. You hope he doesn't lose that when it's all said and done.)

“That's what makes it cool. You writin' this down?”

iv.

Mostly, you lead by example. He wants nothing more than to be like you, and you want nothing more than for him to be who he needs to be to save the fucking world.

You do what you can. Kid's gonna have to make it on his own someday, so you do what you can. What else can you do? It might've been a fucking blast when you were seventeen and kidless, but the parties aren't that fun anymore, and neither are the girls, and neither is the alcohol. You just need to leave him alone some nights--a lot of nights--and you need to come back smelling like smoke and stale perfume and you need to do what you can to keep up that distance.

It never really disappears. That vulnerability, that frustration; it only folds in on itself, tucks itself into hiding. He stops asking questions (where were you last night, who's Candice, how the hell do I cook this when the microwave's broken, what happened to our parents), just rolls with it, and you watch the resentment build and build and build.

Good, you think. He's gonna need that someday, too.

v.

You're as much a trainer as a brother (as a father), as the years drag on. Everything comes with a purpose: Books, for the structure, to keep him sharp and quick; music, for the timing, to give him a way to channel the rhythm that's building up in him and he doesn't know why. Turntables, so he learns the catch and release, gentle movements and precise motions and how needles can skip and records can warp and scratch if he's not careful.

Swords, until his hands have all the right calluses and he knows where all his edges are, until he's so acutely, agonizingly aware of his own position in space at all times. Fireworks and explosives, until it's pressed into him that every action has a consequence, that he has to let go before it blows up in his face. You sink your teeth into everything he hates and push it onto him over and over and over, puppets and traps and broken water heaters and no food in the fridge and unpaid utilities and nights alone.

You stress his limits. You show him how to handle himself, how to fix what he can and endure what he can't. You watch him stretch to meet the mold you've given him with painstakingly muted enthusiasm; you watch as he reins himself in, straps on his armor, sits in patient--almost lazy--wait and lunges at openings. Aimed. Tempered.

Every day that goes by, he becomes more and more what he needs to be, and that's what makes it worth it. You're gonna lose him eventually (baby bird's gotta leave the nest someday), but right now, watching him grow into his bones and his feathers? It's worth it.

vi.

But time's running out and fuck--some days it feels like you aren't going to make it.

“Again,” you bark. The sun's setting and the heat isn't backing off and he's just twelve years old, but that doesn't stop you from leaving him sprawled on his back, coughing, choking in greedy lungfuls of air. He looks a little sunsick beneath all the embarrassment and you know you should just call it for the day, but there's just not enough time.

He pulls himself to his feet, and for just a moment, the mask you've helped him build snaps like porcelain. The sword slips from his hand, clatters and rolls on the sizzle-hot tar paper roof and he snarls, teeth bared and fists clenched and everything written on his face in screaming neon letters. “Are you fucking kidding? No goddamn way. I'm about ten seconds off from fuck you and I'd rather freefall thirty stories than keep this shit up. Fight yourself. I quit.”

He turns to leave and you grab him by the jaw, ripping off his shades (brown eyes, hiding them with contacts now, and you almost feel insulted until you realize that this is what you taught him to do; you want to apologize but you can't, because it just doesn't work that way anymore) and say firmly--terminally--”Too fucking bad. You can't. Pick up your shit, we're going again.”

You stand and stare at each other like that for a long time; he grinds his teeth and you don't let go until he spits out a poisonous 'fine'.

“Can't see shit through the sun at this angle. At least give me back my shades,” he snaps, holding his hand out. You shake your head.

“Nope. Time for you to learn how to fight blind.”

He'll thank you someday.

(You're pretty sure, at least.)

vii.

The day comes and all you have is questions. Did you do it right? Is he going to step up, be the man he needs to be? Is this it, is this the end, are you going to lose him, should you catch him if he falls, should you--

You swallow them down, one after another after another, because--what else is there? You can't turn back time. Yeah, you've probably made mistakes. Yeah, you've probably fucked some stuff up.

Yeah, you could've done things differently.

Did you do it right?

“Come on, man. I need your copy.”

You run fingers along the brim of your hat, pull up your posture, and ask: “What are your friends worth?”

He doesn't answer--he doesn't need to. It's in the rasp of steel as he draws his sword, the whistle of air and drag of the soles of his shoes as he takes his stance.

Yeah, you think with a grin (and relief, and pride that fills you to bursting).

You did it right.

viii.

And that's what makes this part so easy. You don't have to worry anymore. No more questions to catch between your teeth and swallow down; you know who you are, and you know who he's become, and you know that--he's grown into his feathers and bones and it's time for him to fly all on his own. You did what you could. It was enough.

You don't feel it. You don't feel much of anything right now, a numbness that crawls up your arms, pushes your vision into dizzy brown-black tunnels. There's something sticky and warm and that's--Jesus fucking Christ, that's you spilling out everywhere, soaking through your clothes. You cough out something black and syrupy and your lungs can't fight it out forever; air comes back in wet, less and less and less of it each time.

There's a flutter at your side, weak and anemic; you look and see stumps weeping white and orange, bleeding out mercury and bromine and glowing like the sun and--shit, it's him, it's not him, and you still aren't sure how you should feel about it. A weight that feels half-imaginary props up against your shoulder and it's a comfort, at least. (You aren't going alone. Family is family is family.)

“Pretty good.” Your tongue feels thick and clumsy in your mouth and you do what you can anyway because--what else is there? “Didn't teach you some of that stuff.”

“Came with the job. ...Thanks.” It's his voice, too--Jesus Christ, it's his voice but it's hollowed out and digital, and it's modulating, slowing down, fading out. Drowning. (Dying, just like you; you'd think you just got him killed, if he weren't already dead.) “Shit, Bro, I'm--”

“Don't you fucking apologize. Did what you could. And you know I--” Even though it takes all your focus to keep your lungs working and your thoughts running, you can't say it. You do, you really fucking do, and you think you might've said it before, way back when--but neither of you remember it now, and you don't remember what the words sound like. “--You know. Always have.”

“Yeah,” he chokes. “Yeah, I--You too.”

 ix.

Red eyes, just like you. David fucking Strider. Amazing. Thirteen years later and he still makes you feel small--and he'll only get bigger from here on out, swelling up like the sun, fiery and fierce and brilliant. You just won't be around to see it.

And that's fine. It has to be. What else is there?