She plays at courage. Like a child with a toy she holds her weapon, pointed viciously at kin. "What's it to me if they die?" she asks, and she tries with all her might to hide the way her fingers want to quake.
She cannot hide from him.
Idiot, he says with a stab of pain that she flinches off.
"If you don't have the nerve for it, I'll do it myself," she tells them, and he sticks her viciously, makes her voice catch in her throat. She refuses to admit to the pain—she grows louder, a frightened beast braying to stave off danger. "Go on alone, get stronger, and smash Cocoon out of the sky!"
Like a masterless warrior she razes the earth, swinging at shadows, blaming them for the indecision and fear roiling in her belly. Coward.
He digs his claws in. The earth shakes with his strength.
She screams as he digs his way from her flesh, trying to ignore the pain, to stop his emergence, and she can do neither. His hand comes down as it did on waves of dark hair swathing a small head, so like his—a small curled fist, then short fingers patting in consolation.
Be strong, you fool. He bursts from the sky and stands before her, fists ready to teach.
"What's he doing here?" she asks, teeth gritted, her own fingers clenched tight. Sniveling, fearful, but ready all the same. At least that is a start.
I, he says as he lurches forward, will teach you to be strong.
He is lost. Lost in the sea of himself.
She feels how he bleeds, the lacerations in his heart as the boy drifts away. She wants to smooth human fingers across his brow, to console him and heal the wounds that tear themselves wider. The boy—she feels a quiet recognition, a small sadness, but it is a little thing. The boy is free. It is you who burns.
She feels a rush of fire in his heart when the girl speaks, and it feeds his voice. "What do you want from me?" she cries. Her tears drench the blaze.
"Shooting you won't help," he says, and she can feel herself pushing at the barriers of him, a blaze fit to burst from an emptying husk. It pains her to feel.
It is not over for you, she wants to say, but has no mouth to speak.
"Neither will living," he says.
She stares down at him when she emerges into the world. Her eyes are blank, her heart aches. She does not desire it, but she will kill him. If he wishes for it, begs for it—there is not left to him.
Then the girl is there, and blocks the path. "It's not over," come the words, teeth and tongue.
She aims, does not wish to shoot, and does not have to: bullets pepper her armor, and he steps forward. "You want me?" he screams, and that fire burns again, back in its hearth. "Come and get me!"
Gladly, love. It is with great reluctance, but great hope, that she swoops down to meet them both.
Many days later, he calls her back again. He turns to her as she draws forth, his face full and bright as it had ever been. "There you are," he says, and smiles for her.
And there you are, my life, she says before she comes again to his side.
Her voice is cheery and bright, and it plucks him from the earth like a daisy.
"Come on, Hecaton!"
As he shakes the ground beneath their enemies he can feel her by his side, her voice high like a pretty little bird's calls—then adversaries burst into flames beneath his many hands. It's a familiar feeling. He doesn't know why. There's a cloud of it, like pollen surrounding him, her voice one that he never knew but bears in mind.
He doesn't understand. He tries not to try. He fights for her, instead.
She defeated him, as she must, when they first met. He knows her power. Still, she is small and slight in his hands—he holds her close and tight, shields her from his own blows. She touches his face, or what he has of one, smiles and laughs and says her thanks as he unwraps her from his arms. He wonders at the shifting inside him.
He focuses. He fights. Lead pings off his armor like rocks thrown by children. He won't let them in. A rocket blasts him from the path. She cries. He holds her tight. He hears the screaming of metal as an airship crashes down beside them. He won't let it hurt her.
The car-woman and the human man inside snatch him from the air, and carry then away. He won't let her go.
"See you next time!" she says, when the fight is done. She returns to her human companions—he vanishes into what can't be seen. Yes, he thinks, and is happy, at least, to know that.
In the etherworld, he dreams about building a sandcastle, and the smile of an old friend.
"It would be better for everyone if I just stayed behind!"
What nonsense are you talking, boy?
He is silent until those foolish words, then comes in an instant, blinding force pulverizing all. The boy cries, but reigns in even that.
If he had lips, could use them after all this time, he remembers well the thin, disciplinary line they would make. He suffices to steam, enormous chest bobbing with heavy, powerful breaths.
The boy quivers helplessly before him. Helpless, for but a moment.
"This isn't an ordeal," he hears, "this is a gift." A woman, young and lovely, stands beside the boy, raises a sword. Too tough for his taste, but beautiful. Almost as beautiful as his own had once been.
The boy looks up, into these shielded eyes. That small face, free of wrinkles and time but worn all the same. Tired from holding itself straight, holding back feeling—and feeling all the more penetrable for it.
He knows where the fault of that lies, pushed from one onto another and another again. I am sorry, boy, he says in his heart. I will give you what I can.
"Hope!" the woman says, herself an image of steel. "This is the kind of power you've got inside. And it's telling you not to give up. Trust me!"
He does not move, silently keeps his eyes on the child. The boy meets his gaze, stands in quiet astonishment. "You mean," he breaths, "that came from me?"
In more ways than you can know.
Another moment, and the boy rushes forward, slow and cautious but open, freeing himself to harm, to attack. Allowing himself the pain, that he may win.
Come and fight, boy, he says, with a tinge of pride. I will be your shield.
What do you think of him? says the first.
A bit broad in the shoulders. He'll engulf her, says the other.
That seems to be just what he wishes for.
He stands poised, fists ready, shaking breaths clouding about his head. The first twists the wheel about in her grasp, drives it in to shred him where he stands. He blocks, and seems untouched.
Strong, she says, a lilt to the words as she draws back. He rushes forward, lands two punches to the tops of her knees. Very strong.
The other is silent. Curaga flickers over his form.
Oh? asks the first, slyly. You like him so, already?
They watch as he prepares himself from the next attack—and his strength, yes, it is formidable. But—
He is thick-headed, says the first. Thick, like the rest of him.
—but it is not that which matters. The other ignores the joke. His heart is good, she says instead. That is strong, too.
Is it enough? asks the first. She pirouettes, blades of ice slashing through his coat, his flesh. He grunts and takes the blow, wavering on his feet but still standing, still here. The only one to stay, and try, even so futilely, to free her.
Yes, she answers, as she gazes down at the man. With him, when the girl awakens—she will be happy. It is all that the other, in that time dully remembered, had ever wanted. It is enough.
Hmm. Shall we then, sister?
As they come together, and draw him near to meet their coalescing form, they look to him, send him their regard, their warmth, their strength, their leave to take her hand.
We will give you, they say as one, more than you could ever wish for.
Claire. What are you doing?
She tries to speak through the pain. "The whole world is against us," she gasps. "I can barely keep myself alive."
Excuses. What did I teach you? Have you forgotten so quickly?
He means it to sting, to burn. He takes the pain from her body and memory—the pain, in both, from her heart—and ignites it, digs his blade in and twists. Her voice is a whine in his ear as she stumbles and swears and berates the boy at her side. She screams and cries, an angry child.
I don't have time to baby you.
"You wanna get tough?" she bleats.
I will make you remember how to be.
She has already fled when he bursts forth, leaving the boy alone before him. He can feel her at his back, childish rage welling up to scream him down, like a toddler crying at a thunderstorm. Petulant, and useless. No, it is the boy he sees when he emerges, and he moves with vicious speed, rage boiling in his heart and guiding his moves, on this weak and frail thing.
It is a happy, melodious sound as metal sings against metal, their swords clashing. He presses, forces her back, and she stays on her feet, between him and the boy. His rage is quenched, for the moment. Yes, my girl.
His moves are calm and calculated now—slow, even. He waits for her this time, lets her use her healing magic, lets her steel bite into him to drive him back. She does not fall as she did but a moment before, not now. No, not now that she has someone to protect.
I am sorry that I could not always protect you.
He is relentless. The boy would not stand a chance, not the way his own sword flies and catches and slices. Spells fly from her fingers as she heals, drives forward and slashes. Just as she should. Just as he tried to impart, before this world was no longer his own.
He apparently could not make her see, then.
I am sorry, my girl.
But know this.
In the blaze of battle, she steps forward to guard the boy one more time. His eyes meet hers, eidolon to human, and he is satisfied.
This is how you find your strength!
Driving his sword into the earth, he leaps high, and in his new form walks from the sky to face her. Without pause she completes the ritual that she does not understand, meeting him where he stands. He knows, from now on, how it will be—he will come when she calls, he will guard her as long as she stands to protect those around her. Just as he had always hoped she would know.
I will help you remember, he says, within her heart, as she takes the boy and crosses the bridge. And I will let you move on.