Hal’s image flickers to life above his drone in a series of crackles and whirs.
“Uh, y-yes? What is it?”
Azure hesitates before answering, making sure to choose his next words carefully. It’s been a while since he fused with his Legion and was brought to Hal’s hideout. And with the two of them being in an almost constant vicinity, it’s hard not to think about the hacker behind the yellow drone. It’s hard not to be curious about his history, what his life was like before joining Neuron and how… How he ended up with those mechanical arms.
He knows for certain that it’s not a happy story.
“What...happened to you?”
Hal raises an eyebrow and tilts his head.
“Er, what do you mean?”
Slowly, Azure lifts his hands from his lap and taps his arms as a silent clarification. Hal glances at his own arms in response.
“Sorry. I know it’s probably a sensitive subject.”
“No no, i-it’s fine!” Hal says, waving his hands in front of him. “I… I don’t mind telling you. I think it’s about time I told you, anyway.”
Azure watches silently while Hal’s hologram flickers out of sight. He hovers across the room to Azure’s place on the couch before reappearing in blue light and static.
“Alright,” he sighs, raking a hand through his hair. “Long story short, I used to be one of the Hermits. There was an explosion in Sector V a few years ago, and I was one of the lucky few to have made it out alive.”
Azure’s eyes flit down to Hal’s mechanical arms. His guess was that Hal got them as a result of a chimera attack, but that explanation makes a lot more sense.
He knits his eyebrows ever so slightly. Hal continues.
“I was in...really bad shape, though. I almost didn’t survive any of the medical procedures taken to save me. When I woke up, both my arms and legs were replaced with prosthetics, and it felt like...everything was crumbling down around me.”
That’s a feeling that Azure knows all too well. He almost died that night, in the final faceoff against Jena. His entire consciousness went blank when his Legion took control of his body, and the feeling of pure, unnatural rage was overwhelming.
And when he woke up three days later, everything came crashing down, an avalanche of bad news. Neuron had gone off the rails thanks to the commander, Akira had become another one of Yoseph’s damn projects, and Azure along with Hal, Olive, and Brenda were officially enemies of Neuron.
That feeling of hopelessness...never truly went away, Azure realizes. Even now, it’s still in the back of his mind. And Hal… He didn’t deserve to get caught up in all this. Especially not when it’s all Azure’s fault. Hal would still have his job if not for him.
He shakes his head and tries to will those thoughts away. Meanwhile, Hal keeps talking.
“Eventually, I was able to move again, but...I left after that. Sector V, the Hermits, everything. And...I’ve been hiding out here ever since.”
Hal is no longer facing Azure by this point. His posture has turned stiff, and his gaze is cast aside while he rubs a hand over his arm subconsciously.
The silence that follows is heavy. Azure can already feel his eyes stinging, and he blinks slowly. It’s hard with a mask covering Hal’s face, but he does his best to look him in the eye.
He inches to the side and reaches out, but stops short once he realizes he can’t touch the hologram.
“I’m so sorry.”
“Why...are you apologizing?” Hal mutters, turning his head to face Azure.
Because you’ve already lost so much and now you’ve just lost everything else and it’s all my fault.
“No reason,” he says. “Just…”
I was stupid and reckless and now we’re stuck out here with limited resources and I should have seen Yoseph’s betrayal coming and I don’t know if you’re okay after what happened and I just wish I could protect you because—
“You almost died and there’s...nothing I can do.”
Azure stands and pretends to be watching the cameras for something interesting.
“I can’t go back in time and undo all of that. You’ve suffered so much and I… I can’t fix it.”
He casts his eyes to the floor. The tears are harder to suppress now.
“But I want to. I want to heal you.”
Because I love you.
I love you so much.
He wants to say it. He wants to spit it out so bad, to let it all roll off his tongue as easy as walking, but the words are stuck in his throat. He sees the way Hal has gone quiet, the way he struggles to maintain eye contact even with a mask separating them, and Azure can’t bring himself to force the confession past his lips.
Hal knits his eyebrows as he hovers over to Azure, his face twisted with confusion.
“Azure… That’s not your fault. It’s— it’s in the past, I’ve moved on by now. There’s no need to—”
“It’s not about that!” Azure snaps. Hal flinches.
“Are you okay?” Hal asks, reaching out to place a hand on the brunet’s shoulder. Azure doesn’t notice him recoiling when his fingers phase right through him.
Azure tears his gaze from the floor to look at Hal. There’s a tear sliding down his face.
“You mean a lot to me, you know that?”
Slowly, he brings his hands up to brush Hal’s arms. He moves them up and down, frowning while he does so. Time and again he has to remind himself that this isn’t the real Hal, and it hurts a little bit more each time. He’d give anything, anything just to be able to touch him, to feel his skin and to sweep his hands over Hal’s arms before locking their hands together and never letting go.
And what he wouldn’t give to be able to lean in and touch their foreheads together, to slowly inch closer and closer until their lips meet, and to card his fingers through Hal’s hair while he kisses him softly.
Azure wants it more than anything. He’d do anything just to be able to see Hal.
He brings his hands up from Hal’s arms to his shoulders before going further to frame his face. His frown deepens, and Hal’s face darkens.
“...I wish you were here.”
This time, it’s Hal’s turn to frown. He turns his head.
“Don’t apologize. I just…”
Azure takes a moment to dry his tears and to swallow the lump in his throat. He takes a breath and moves his hands back to Hal’s shoulders.
“You’re important,” he says, his voice small and shaky. “Both to the mission, and to me. And I can’t tell you how much I care about you.”
At this, the hacker looks at him again. He bites his lip and sighs deeply.
“And I… I need to know that you’re real. That you’re more than what I can see right now.” His gaze returns to the floor. “I don’t know what I would do without you.”
Silence settles between them. Azure’s arms feel heavy, and he lets them fall.
“Azure, I…” Hal begins, but the words die on his tongue. He clears his throat and hovers a little closer.
“I’ll see you when this over. I promise.”
He gives a reassuring smile, and Azure snaps his head up to give a strained smile back. Just for a moment, he forgets that the Hal in front of him is little more than a projection and he steps forward to embrace him in a hug, only for his arms to go straight through with no resistance. He gasps sharply and jumps back.
“S-sorry,” Hal whispers, cutting off the image.
“It’s fine, Hal. Don’t… Don’t worry about it.”
Azure sighs and hugs himself. He looks back at the cameras.
“I’ll be okay. I just...want everything to be over.”
A moment passes. He feels the drone nudge his shoulder.
“I’m ready when you are.”
The brunet nods and blinks slowly. “...I think I am, too.”
“Then we’ll head for the ARI as soon as possible,” Hal announces, moving to the PC to check a few things. “How does tomorrow sound?”
“Perfect. I’ll let Akira know.”
With that, Azure turns to go look for his sister. His boots seem to echo on the concrete floor.
“Oh, and Azure?”
He stops in his tracks and faces Hal. The hologram comes back to reveal a fond smile.
“Don’t die on me. I need to keep my promise.”
Azure smiles back, and he feels like he’s pouring his entire heart and soul out to Hal. He hopes it’s enough to convey just how much he loves him in that moment, but a part of him knows it doesn’t come close.