Another new cycle.
Another loss. Another jagged tally mark gouged on Discord's scoreboard.
Not surprising - hardly any of them ended in Cosmos' favor anymore.
No matter how hard Cecil wracked his brain he couldn't remember just how many cycles he'd seen, but it didn't matter. He didn't care anymore. The numbers meant nothing when compared to the knowledge that all of it would be repeated. All he cared to know was that he survived there long enough to reclaim most of what he'd lost. Long enough that the pieced memories had slowly connected into the almost-complete puzzle of his recollection.
Warrior of Light shifted next to him, sniffing slightly in the silence, and Cecil listened to the echo as it crept through the stiff air of the Lunar Subterraine. The sound wrapped around his mind and tugged him back to the present, and immediately his eyes burned. He didn't even realize he had been staring. He pressed his palms to his eyes and blinked away tears and stars, thinking anything else he could to plant himself back in that deep garden of thought. Sometimes, if he was lucky, remaining in the Subterraine managed to coax a last memory or two out of hiding, and Warrior was always nice enough to extend their patrol. As much as he wanted to, he couldn't seem to lose himself again.
Just as he moved to stand, the whole place brightened. Before his eyes the colors of the world around them blanched into varying shades of gold - the grey dirt became a gritty brown; the crystals growing like fungus on the bottom of each platform glittered a garish lemon; the stars darkened from white to a sweet honey; and the clear sky morphed from violet and black galaxies to the colors of yellow sand. The air itself thickened and shimmered, uncomfortably coating Cecil's throat and lungs with each pull of breath as if he were inhaling the color itself. It startled him for a moment, until he remembered the cause: Shinryu. Unapologetically gracing this world with his presence. Coming to retrieve and restore the fallen, then offer Cecil's friends back to him again and again like recycled presents.
Warrior sighed, a very uncharacteristic sound coming from him, but it about summed up everything Cecil felt. He glanced at him and had to squint from the tangible glow around the gold plating in his armor. Warrior's eyes remained wide and fixated on the sky with his eyebrows furrowed. He looked like he couldn't decide between sadness or awe. The two of them shielded their eyes as sky emitted one last bright flash of gold, then it was gone, as suddenly as it came. Warrior was the first to break the thick silence.
"Come. Let us return to Cosmos. Our patrol is over . . . " Anticipation crept into his normally controlled tone. A new cycle was always met with anxiousness; were there any new warriors? Who survived Purification? Who hadn't? For the 'seasoned' ones, as they were called, it was as easy as looking around. Who was there before, that wasn't there now? Who had memories; who did not? And who were the new warriors, freshly plucked from their probably wonderful lives?
Cecil cared deeply for his companions' states at the turn of a cycle. Each time someone woke with no memories of themselves or their comrades, it wrenched his heart, and pity panged in his gut like a sword blow. He always did what he could to help those who had forgotten. Their apparent relief at the thought of a friend warmed him, and typically replaced the sadness with a feeling of obligation - that he had to help his comrades. That was usually enough to take his mind off of all he had remembered, all that he had left behind due to Cosmos' need of him.
It pained Warrior to see Cecil so troubled.
At first, the return of buried memories elated Cecil. He refused to stop talking about it. "I remember now!" he would cry, or, "Edge! Edge was that ninja's name!" "My brother, he helped us at the end of our battle." "Rosa, she was . . . my wife . . . I loved her very, very much . . . " The pleased knight's tones became more and more somber with each memory.
Then he hit a point where he stopped telling them completely.
He would be fine one moment, laughing with them, sharing moments and creating new memories with them, then his mood would shift rapidly. The bright eyes would glaze slightly, and the proud gait of a self-assured man would slump into the downcast trudge of an empty person. He would lose himself in bouts of reverie that left him oblivious to the world around him.
On more than one occasion he walked straight into a manikin ambush, and didn't hear his companions' shouts for him until he took a blow or two from the manikins. He was at it again. Warrior stared at him, hoping he would feel the eyes on him and break the spell, but . . . He walked with that same defeated amble, his blank stare fixated on the ground in front of him. His eyebrows furrowed, no doubt in recollection of something that troubled him.
"Sometimes," Warrior thought as he stared into Cecil's tormented eyes, "it is simply better to have forgotten."
"I'm a coward," he said to her. "A coward who cannot even defy orders he knows he ought not follow."
He dare not look at Rosa. He dare not look into her face, not after what he just did to the people of Mysidia. He was ashamed. Disturbed. The guilt gnawed at his heart like a worm that wouldn't stop squirming. He stared out the window to the turrets and ramparts of the castle below.
"Cecil of the Red Wings is many things," she said, "but he is no coward. Not the Cecil who I love . . . "
"Cecil!" Warrior's deep, deliberate voice broke through the fog of the fresh memory. He blinked and shook his head. The memory of her, his wife, his Rose, his everything, still swam before his eyes.
Just the mention of her name set his heart aflame with the passion they had once shared before Cosmos called him. Her beauty - unparalleled in Baron, in the entire Overworld. Unmatched by Aphrodite; Venus did not compare. Inanna, Freyja, all of them trumped by the love of his life.
"Cecil," repeated Warrior, once again cutting through his thoughts. "We are here."
He hadn't even realized they reached Sanctuary.
Cosmos sat at her usual position on the throne, but it was the woman beside her who garnered Cecil's attention. Tall warrior, golden-blonde hair. She had it loosely gathered to one side over her shoulder, and secured down its length with several pink bands. A two-layered cape covered her back: the bottom layer was floor-length, of sheer white cloth. Hemmed with roses in gold embroidery, while the top layer was waist-length, thick gold cloth, affixed by white spiked pauldrons. The remaining wisps of hair cascaded gently between the spikes as she brushed pieces behind her ear. From under the sheer cape Cecil saw a red skirt that was short on one side and longer on the other, short, heeled boots. A knife was strapped to her belt, a staff across her back, a quiver of arrows down near her hip, and a bow in her hands.
"A new warrior?" Cecil asked, still in a bit of a daze from thinking of Rosa. "Just one?"
Warrior frowned, understanding Cecil's implications. He tactfully ignored them. "Come, let us meet her," Warrior said confidently, striding forward with Cecil in tow. He stood before the goddess and dropped to a knee. "Cosmos." He bowed his head to her. "My lady," he added to the unknown soldier. He looked up into her face and faltered momentarily, then hastily stood.
Cecil stepped up to pay his respects when the woman spun, her green eyes locking directly with his blue.
His breath caught in his lungs. His jaw fell open as he choked on his polite introduction. His eyes captured every inch of her; lacy, thigh-high tights running up the smooth lines of her legs. The same white and gold knee guards that he remembered. Same leather belts that she used to wear - gold, brown, and maroon. The top edges of her hips were bared, and Cecil traced the tantalizing 'v' shape that the sheer white halter made as it connected to the very middle of her belt. The fabric pulled and creased, fitted against her slim figure. He zig-zagged his gaze along the green ties up the front. The brasier, solid gold with yellow lace over top and thin straps that wrapped around her shoulders.
No. No, it couldn't be.
Slender neck and sharp, contoured jawline. Thick lips, defined; her nose equally as slender and sharp, and her hair framed her face nicely. He staggered back several steps as his eyes reconnected with hers. Hooded, slightly downturned eyes filled with the most dazzling and familiar shade of green Cecil ever remembered seeing.
His lips mouthed her name but no sound escaped, and he melted beneath her powerfully beautiful features, just as the first time they saw each other, when she stole his affections.