Pahn had been repeating variations of that phrase ever since Cleo had found him sitting in the middle of what once had been a battlefield. Currently, she was making him more comfortable in one of the medics' tents that had been set up through the field, treating both the Liberation Army soldiers and any wounded Imperial soldiers who had been left behind. He still carried the same stunned expression on his face, however.
Not that he was really repeating himself, Cleo noted as she pulled another roll of bandages from the bag, in a ritual she and Pahn had performed many times throughout the years. Leaning over him where he sat still and stupefied on the grass mat, she began to wrap the clean cloth around his forearm where the sword had sliced a mercifully shallow wound.
"...I beat him."
He was saying something different each time. Most people wouldn't notice the differences in what Pahn was saying, but when you lived with someone so long, and so closely, and bandaged each other's wounds on a regular basis, you came to understand them a little better.
"I won." - I'm alive.
"I beat him." - I fought really well.
Contrary to popular belief, and even what she herself had said on numerous occasions, Pahn wasn't stupid. Slow, yes, but not stupid. He thought things over very carefully, going over each detail thoroughly before moving on to the next. He was methodical and overly thorough, often to the point where she wanted to shake him for not coming to the obvious conclusion so quickly, or for making snap decisions based on only the few factors he'd been able to explore before time ran out, but he was not stupid.
"...I beat my master."
I faced my master on the battlefield. And I won. I've surpassed him.
Cleo wasn't sure what to say to that. And so she said nothing, instead simply nodding.
Just as she was probably the only one who could have heard what Pahn was really saying, she was probably the only one who could have appreciated just why it was so important to him. She'd been there when Pahn and General Teo McDohl had first met on the battlefield, and she'd seen the young soldier under Geil Rugner give everything he had to stop the advance of Barbarosa's forces - and still fall. There had been an honor in his eyes that Master Teo had seen then, and that Cleo had seen later when she finally got a good look at the new addition to Teo's unit. No one could have disagreed with his decision. Pahn's honor was what set him apart, even when it was misguided.
"...I... beat Master Teo."
Cleo looked up in alarm at the edge she heard in the words. At the moment, the honor so clearly visible in his eyes was overshadowed by a look of guilt.
I fought my master. I struck my master. I hurt him. ...I'd already gone back on my oath, but this...
Cleo shook her head firmly, keeping her eyes averted from his as she helped him off with his shirt - she was afraid of what she might say or do if she really looked at him. There was another deep gash along his ribs, and she set about cleaning it. "You bought us some valuable time," she told him as she scrubbed away the blood around the wound with a damp cloth, already stained red. "Young Master will be pleased. Teo will return, no doubt, but next time perhaps we can be better prepared."
You didn't kill him, Pahn. He'll be fine.
He could hear the words she left unsaid as easily as she could hear his, and he drew in a deep breath. It wasn't just from the way Cleo had accidentally caught the cloth on one raw edge of his wound, either, she'd wager.
"I don't want to fight Master Teo again."
The subtle inflection, not quite unconscious, made her grind her teeth slightly. So he's just "Teo" now to you, Cleo?
Biting back a sharp reply, she focused on the pad of gauze she was affixing to the slash across Pahn's ribs. "Neither do I. I wish we'd had time to talk to him before it got to this point - I'm sure he could have been made to see what the Empire has turned into. In fact, he's not blind... maybe he already knew a little. Even if we'd just been able to tell him what Windy did to Ted, I'm sure it would have made him reconsider."
But we didn't, because you betrayed us before Ted got a chance to explain.
All right, so she hadn't exactly bitten back a sharp reply after all. She sighed, and tried to lessen the damage. "Maybe we can send him a message... or just go ourselves, and talk to him. Master Teo is an honorable man, and one who should not be serving the Empire - and I'm sure he'd listen to us."
Pahn shook his head, grunting slightly in pain as she began to clean another wound. "Maybe he'd listen to you. Probably not me anymore."
"I'm not too sure about that," Cleo said honestly. "You and Teo have the same soul - that's why he took you in, remember? And after he beat you in that duel, years ago, you chose to follow him."
"Master Teo wouldn't choose to follow me," Pahn muttered, scowling darkly. "And if he tried, I wouldn't have him."
He's my master, and I betrayed him.
"I didn't say he should follow you," Cleo pointed out, leaning down to wipe more blood from his body. The wound had bled all the way down to the waistband of his pants by now. "But maybe he would listen. Just hearing the reasons why might be enough. After all, he did tell us to support Tir while he was away, and he knows that Tir has a good heart. If Tir cares so much, and you care so much-"
"It's all so easy for you, isn't it?"
Cleo looked up in surprise to meet his eyes, dark and stormy. Pahn rarely spoke what he was really thinking about so clearly. Much less in such an accusatory manner.
"Just go off and join the rebels, because that's what Young Master wanted, and Master Teo did tell you to follow his orders. Never mind what Master Teo would have done himself if he was there at the time. I'd expect that from Gremio, Cleo, but not you - you're too responsible. Even if it turned out to be the right thing to do in the end, you sure rushed to it."
"Yes, Pahn," Cleo snapped, before she could help herself, "it was the easiest decision I've ever made. After all, the Empire was only the most important thing in my life for years, wasn't it? It was no big deal to throw that away. And what about you? You were never loyal to the Empire at all, were you? You were always sworn to a master, whether it was Rugner or Master Teo, and Master Teo just happened to serve the Empire. It should have been even easier for you to blow them off and wait for Master Teo, or at least for our friend Ted to wake up and explain. And don't you dare talk about Gremio like that."
Pahn stared at her in stunned silence, and almost immediately Cleo regretted the outburst. They hadn't talked about that rainy night in Gregminster. They'd been avoiding it since he'd come back to them. It had been easy enough to pretend that nothing had happened when they were all together again - minus Ted, but he wasn't always at Teo's mansion anyhow - just like they had been for so many years, but Gremio's absence was an unmistakable change, not easily overlooked. It just made it all the more obvious that nothing was the same anymore.
Seeing the hurt in Pahn's eyes, Cleo bit her lip, sitting down in front of him, but said nothing of her thoughts. "...I'm sorry, Pahn." You've beat yourself up enough over this that there's no need for me to add to it, is there?
Pahn shook his head, lowering his eyes. "No, you're right," he muttered, bitterness creeping into his voice. "Unlike you, I've never been able to follow my heart."
He raised his head again slightly, enough to look into her eyes, and Cleo once again heard the things he'd left unsaid. He was referring not only to his betrayal of Ted, but just as much to the same unspoken things she'd seen in his eyes for years. It was evidence for his case.
She nodded slightly. "...I know." And you know as well as I do that calling you on it would be hypocrisy, when I've never... She'd left things unsaid herself.
Pahn broke their eye contact with a light shrug. "Uh, anyway... So. You remember back before all this started up, we were talking in the front room? Well, probably you don't. But I was saying that maybe-"
His eyes averted awkwardly, he didn't see the slight shake of her head, and he was too focused on what he was trying to say to notice the note of exasperation in her voice. "...Next time we got a day off..." He shrugged again, and chuckled under his breath - he was trying so hard to act casual, and failing miserably. "Now it looks like we weren't going to get a day off anytime soon anyway, and we probably won't for awhile. But you know, sometime, when this war gets over-"
He halted there. Her voice was firm and authoritative, the same kind of voice she'd have used to scold Tir for sparring with Ted indoors. She'd used that voice on purpose, and he knew it. Reluctantly, he nodded his head. "Didn't think so."
I really am a muscle-headed idiot.
Cleo sighed deeply. "I just mean not now. ...I'm still too angry." Yes, you are an idiot, but not for this.
He nodded again; he understood. "Sorry. So... maybe sometime...?"
She was still holding a damp cloth in her hands. Blood was still dripping from another gash on his leg, and a cut on his head. Grateful for the distraction of things that needed doing, Cleo reached for the bowl of warm water and wrung out the stained cloth, soaking it again before pushing the ripped cloth of Pahn's pants away from his wounded leg. "Maybe," she agreed, setting about her work again. Someday she would be able to forgive him for what he'd done to Ted... but not yet.
That seemed to satisfy him well enough, and he smiled a faint smile, which turned to a grimace as Cleo wrapped another bandage around his leg. "That's awfully tight."
"You'll live - and it's better than letting them fall off every time you take a step. Honestly, you can take a sword to the leg with barely a flinch and then you complain about the bandages." He made the same complaint every time, and every time she gave him the same reasoning. She wasn't quite sure whether it felt reassuring or disorienting to be repeating the usual banter now, when so much had changed.
A glance at the bowl of water showed that it was cloudy and pink in color now, and needed freshening. Cleo paused for a moment, about to say something, then remembered and simply picked up the bowl to dump it outside the tent. The cool wind blowing in from across Lake Toran smelled of rain, but didn't quite drown out the coppery smell of blood. She was glad to go back inside, where the only blood to be seen or smelled was Pahn's.
He watched her as she filled the bowl again from the pitcher of fresh water that sat in the corner, and brought it back to where he sat amidst the tattered clothes and bandages. He looked like he was thinking, and evidently about the same thing she'd been thinking of. "...Heh. I was expecting Gremio to burst in here and start fussing over the dirty water at any moment. Like you don't know how to clean a wound."
But he's never going to burst in unannounced and start fussing again.
Cleo hesitated, the cloth in her hands only half-wrung, before she continued her task silently. They hadn't talked about this either, and she didn't want to. Talking about it meant thinking about it.
"I didn't mean anything, earlier," Pahn said suddenly. "You know I respected him, as much as anyone. He wasn't much of a fighter, but he was stronger than I am."
"Yeah." Cleo didn't elaborate - she only moved to kneel beside him, wiping the blood from his cheek. Please don't talk about him right now.
He read her perfectly, and fell silent as she scrubbed the cloth through his hair, plastered over the small cut above his ear.
There were times, Cleo thought, that she would have liked to be a more normal woman. It would have been nice to be able to allow herself to let her guard down, to appear vulnerable for a moment. It would have been nice to be able to cry for the loss of an old friend - a family member, really - and nicer still to be able to be comforted by those he had likewise left behind. Pahn would have taken her into his arms in a second, if she could have asked. And if he could have believed she wouldn't hit him for it.
Both were silent, lost in their own thoughts, until Pahn spoke again. "Ted is gone, and now Gremio. What if... Cleo, what if it's me next time?"
There was no fear in the question, because it had nothing to do with him.
"Or what if it's you?"
Cleo sat back on her heels wearily, closing her eyes. "...Let's not think like that." You're only making this harder for me by giving me an opening.
Her eyes opened again, when to her surprise, she felt something rough brush gently against her cheek. One hand, still spattered with the blood and dirt of battle, hovered by her temple, touching cautiously with just one callused finger. His eyes were serious and warm and nervous, and told her everything.
If you would let me, I would hold you.
She gave him a slight sigh, closing her eyes once more without spoken comment. If I could let you hold me, I might even kiss you for doing so. But she could not.
She sat silent and motionless beneath his careful touch, ragged and warm against her skin as he caressed her cheek, until she felt him remove his hand. When she opened her eyes again, he was frowning aimlessly down at the ground.
She nodded. "I think so." I hope so. "...But not yet."
He nodded back as she wet the cloth once more, and began washing his hair again. "Let me know?"
"Of course. It'll take some time, though."
Keep trying to follow your heart, Pahn, and I'll let you know when mine's settled too.