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My Words Are Burdens That Are Not Yours To Carry (Yet Here You Are, Besides Me)

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He sees it in a vision, at first. Purple, in sickness, bruised-light, the deep bags under your eyes. Purple like death, like old wounds, festering scars. Skin that never heals, marks that never fade. He sees it, feels the coolness behind his eyes, the dryness of his throat, the telltale signs of a new vision. 

There are noises, he can hear them. The scuttling of legs, the unmistakable chatter of arachno as they creep into the darkened corners, hide from prying eyes as they wait for prey to wander in. He can hear the whirring of Mechon parts, the old gears and cogs that had fused to their pods, their armour to harden and protect. 

Shulk does not know why he is being shown this. He cannot figure it out. In flashes, through the blink of his eyes, he sees this area. Played over and over again, as if stuck on an endless loop. He has been seeing it ever since they left Colony 9. Ever since- 

The blood on claws, the thumping of the mobile artillery's heavy steps, a scream that cut through the night like a banshee's cry, that had been replaced. A nightmare gone; only to be replaced by something else, something new. 

He cannot discern its meaning, he cannot figure out why the Monado is showing him this. Showing him this lair, this string of webs, this empty hovel. But every time it flashes across his eyes, there is an ever-growing pit in his stomach. A feeling of dread, a feeling of urgency. With each purple flash that scatters across his eyelids, with each whisper of malice that captures his every breath, Shulk knows that something isn't right.

Like he had done with Fiora, like the sound of crushing metal and the red eyes that although no longer in his visions, (for they had now taken home in the darkest depths of his dreams) the purple light haunted him.

In nervousness, perhaps, he hides it from Reyn. He averts his gaze, stumbles in his steps, his fingers slip on the hilt of his sword, but Reyn does not ask questions. He looks over at him, every so often, that familiar concern worn deep in his darkened eyes, but he does not say anything. 

Neither of them are on their best form. Neither of them are without falter, without mistake. They need sleep, they need a break from restless nights and ever-waking nightmares, but they also need to keep moving. 

So onwards they tread and Shulk tries desperately not to let the pull of memories drag him down. ( Last time you were here, Fiora was alive.)

But the visions, the flashes of that dismal purple, will not leave him alone. His memories haunt him, the past stuck in his head, and it is the future that gets stuck behind his eyes. With every blink, with every breath, he tastes lilac on his tongue. It is bitter, like venom, like poison. 

Yet still, he does not say a word. Still, they carry on going forwards. There is no looking back, he tells himself. There is no time to rest, we have to keep going. 

For the Colony. 

For Fiora. 

x

As they head deeper into the depths of Tephra Cave, the visions grow stronger. Still, they are just short flashes, short bursts of energy that appear behind Shulk's tired eyes. They are yet to become something Shulk can piece together, something Shulk can understand. But there is more.

The sounds of arachno grow louder and louder, their scuttling joined by the scratched sounds of hissing. The squeal of venomous teeth, their laugh from the shadows. He can hear panting, too. As though someone is out of breath, as though they have been running for a long time. He cannot discern who, for the sounds are strange, wrong. As if shouting into a tunnel, the noise echoes around his head, clanging against his skull and ringing in his ears.

He stumbles as they make their way through Magmell Ruins, finds himself tripping as they climb up the metal slopes. However, he does not fall, for there is Reyn stood beside him. Reyn, who holds him steady, who catches him just as he's about to lose his balance. Reyn who keeps him upright, Reyn who holds him up when he feels as if he's about to collapse.

"Are you okay, Shulk?" He asks, obviously concerned. Part of Shulk wants to burst into tears, wants to bury his face into Reyn's chest and cry until there is nothing left in him. Sob until no new tears fall, scream until there is no air left in his lungs and no sound left in his throat. He wants to stop, to rest, to get some goddamn sleep. He wants his nightmares to leave him alone, he wants his visions to leave him be.

He wants peace, but he knows that such a thing is impossible.

He thinks of telling Reyn. Thinks of mentioning the flashes of the future he has seen. But he does not wish to be a burden. These are his problems. He is the wielder of the Monado and he refuses to unload his problems onto Reyn. 

He is already unused to fighting. He can tell. Reyn is too kind to mention it, but he knows that he is holding them back. He's delicate, like Fiora had said, back when everything had been perfect. He's not made for this life, not made for war. He's made for the indoors, for a book and a pen and an idea. He's made for studying, made for discovery, made for work done inside, done in a lab. He's not used to fighting, he's not strong enough, he's not fast enough and he's certainly not hardy enough. 

Reyn is a soldier. He knows what he's doing. He's been fighting, being sent out on missions, since Shulk can remember. Ever since Reyn hit his growth spurt, ever since Reyn had become old enough to do so, he had devoted his life to protecting others. Reyn knew what he was doing and yet he was saddled with Shulk, stuck travelling with someone who'd never even ventured outside the Colony.

So Shulk refuses to tell Reyn of his visions. He will not be a burden. He will not worry Reyn with his own problems. 

So he brushes off Reyn's concern, pushes away his cautious hand, warm and large and still lingering on his shoulder, and soldiers on.

He will keep going until he physically cannot. He will not stop until he is dead on his feet, until there is no way in this world he could keep moving. He will not slow them down and he will not hold them back.

He needs to be strong, so onwards they continue. But Reyn keeps looking at him, Shulk can feel the warmth of his honey-gold gaze on the back of his neck. He tries to ignore it, tries to reason with himself, tell himself that he is doing the right thing, and when Reyn moves closer to him, he moves away.

It hurts, but he tells himself it's for the best. 

x

It is Reyn who forces him to stop, eventually. When they stumble across the lifeless bodies of soldiers from Colony 6, blood seeping through the cracks in their armour, blood leaking from their half-agape mouths. It shakes Shulk up more than he'd like to admit. 

All he can think about are their families, their friends. The people back at their homes who will be waiting for them. the children by the door, watching the horizon for the familiar silhouettes of their parents. The husbands, the wives, who will sit and wait and worry about someone who will never be returning home. 

They need to return them to the Bionis, return them to the whisper of ether that they were borne from, but Shulk cannot bear to touch them. He cannot bear to look at them. When he gets close to one, a young woman with her hair cropped short, her tan skin gone ashen grey, monochrome in death. He can see the silver trail of drool leaking from her mouth, the crusted white, like fallen snow, that surrounds the blue of her lips. The whites of her eyes, permanently open, the fear that had no doubt once lied there now dissipated into nothing. She is gone, she is dead, and Shulk cannot bear to look at her.

It is Reyn instead who takes her away, who returns her to the land they tread on - as is Hom's tradition. But before he picks her up, he is uncharacteristically gentle as he gently closes her eyes. Smooths out the terror imprinted on her face until Shulk could almost believe she was peacefully sleeping. But then Reyn heaves her up, takes her away to finally be at peace.

It is as though all the life has been sucked out of him, for Shulk stumbles to the floor, his heart feeling empty as he feels the roughness of half-dead grass against the palms of his hands. It scratches him, feels rough and uncomfortable against his hands, still soft and slender from his life spent indoors. Not like Reyn's, which were large and calloused, dirt under his fingernails and scars littering his knuckles. 

Shulk is exhausted. He is tired. He wants to sleep but he knows what will happen, he knows exactly what will plague his dreams the second his eyes slip shut. So when Reyn returns, sits down next to him with a warm hand resting between the divots of Shulk's shoulder blades, his face twisted in concern, it takes all of Shulk's effort to not lean into his comforting touch, to bury his nose into the crook of Reyn's collarbone, to close his eyes and rest there, where it is warm and safe and smells of home. 

Shulk looks up at him, sees the way that Reyn's own eyelids are beginning to droop, the way he slouches lower and lower, before jerking himself awake and sitting up straight once more.

"You should sleep," Shulk interjects when Reyn's eyes slip shut for a good few seconds. "I'll keep first watch." 

Reyn's eyes snap open and he almost looks like he's going to protest, but whatever he was going to say is cut off by a jaw-cracking yawn. Shulk, despite himself, laughs. Reyn's grin is sheepish as colour rises to his cheeks.

"You'll wake me up in a bit though, right?" He says, concern deep in his voice. Shulk responds with a nod, trying to smile but instead it comes out forced. 

There is a moment of quiet where Reyn simply stares at him, his shoulders stiffening and his teeth worrying at his lower lip. He pauses, opens his mouth to speak and then closes it again. Then, without warning, his hands are resting on Shulk's shoulders and Shulk feels the unmistakable press of lips against his forehead. It's a gesture Reyn has done many times - for he has always been free with his affections, always been one to hug and hold hands and - very occasionally - kiss on the cheek. He's always been the complete opposite of Shulk, who can never work up the courage to be so open, so honest as Reyn. 

Yet here Reyn is. Warm and safe and home, with his lips on Shulk's forehead and his hands squeezing gently at Shulk's shoulders. With a deep flush to his cheeks, Shulk can't help but lean into the touch. And then Reyn is pulling back, still close enough that Shulk can see the dark freckles sprinkled across his cheeks, and then he's leaning away, moving further away as he finds a place to rest for the night.

Of their own accord, Shulk's fingers rise to the warmth on his forehead. He looks at Reyn's back, his half-sleeping form, and his cheeks grow warmer. 

But then there is another flash of lilac across his eyes. Another vision, the same one that has been haunting him since they left the familiar safety of their homes. He hears a shout. His own voice, Reyn's. A yell that is not his own, and a squelching sound of flesh, of bone crunching and skin tearing. 

He cannot see anything, though. Still, his vision only shows him purple. 

x

It can't have been any more time than an hour when Shulk hears movement from Reyn. He shifts about, sitting up, the heels of his hands digging at eyes bruised sleepless black. With a hand running scrubbing through his hair, leaving it stuck up in odd directions that Shulk finds slightly endearing, he turns to Shulk with a rueful smile. 

"Can't sleep." He explains leaning back until Shulk hears an audible pop, his spine cracking with the movement. "I might as well take watch. Let you get some shut-eye." And then before Shulk can even protest, Reyn is moving over, sitting beside Shulk and knocking their shoulders together. "Go on, get some sleep. I'll still be here, man." 

His tone brooks no argument, and there's an edge to his expression that Shulk doesn't dare argue with, so he listens. He moves away, lets his eyes slip shut and - perhaps a testament to how exhausted he is - it only takes a few seconds before he falls asleep

x

The lilac is back, and it's everywhere. Surrounding them, sickness light that seeps into the brain like poison. Shulk breathes and his breaths get caught in his throat. The scuttling grows louder, the sound of hissing laughter whips through the stale air.

And then he sees Reyn. Stood alone, surrounded by arachnos, their beady eyes glinting malice in the gloom. Fangs drip deep purple from open mouths, their faces more beast than spider, their pincers sharp and biting. Their claws clack and they move in, closer and closer.

Reyn manages to hold his own ground, smashing them when they get too close, pushing them away with his shielded driver whenever they get too close. Shulk watches this from afar, feels the panic rising in his chest, but when he tries to move forwards he finds his feet are stuck to the floor. 

He is not here, he realises with a start. For his visions are never him, they are rarely from his own perception, and he cannot see him, the future him, anywhere here. Reyn is alone, the arachno are swarming, and Shulk is nowhere to be seen. 

There are more arachno. They keep coming, new bodies squelching as they emerge from their pods, mucus glistening on their freshly borne skin. They approach, come nearer and nearer until there is no way Reyn can defend himself against them all. 

There's a flash, a yell, and white clouds Shulk's vision. When his view clears once more, Reyn is nowhere to be seen.

Then there is panting, yelling. The heavy fall of footsteps. Once again, the vision swirls, the scene before Shulk begins to change. The sickness purple does not leave though. Instead, it grows stronger. Deeper and darker, it grows infested with infection-green, with grey that reminds Shulk of the Colony 6 soldiers, their ashen skin and their white eyes. 

Reyn thunders on by, his feet pounding against the web-slicken floor. He stumbles, he trips, and all Shulk can hear is the raggedness of his breathing. His arm is covered in red, dripping with purple. Shulk can see the incision of teeth, the venom that snakes down his arm and drips off of his fingers. He looks weak, he looks pale, in pain, but he does not stop running.

Then, from the heavens, She falls. 

An arachno so large Shulk almost thinks that his can't be a vision. Part of him almost believes that, that this scene before him is a nightmare, that such events will never happen. But he knows , in the heart of his hearts, that this is real. That this is going to happen. 

The Arachno Queen drops down, lands in front of Reyn, bares her venomous teeth and clacks her razor-sharp pincers.

She rears herself backwards, towers high above Reyn, casts him in purple shadow, and then she attacks. 

Reyn doesn't stand a chance. 

Shulk is forced to watch as the Arachno Queen bears down on him, as her claws hit Reyn's scrap driver, as she pushes him backwards before the unthinkable happens.

In slow motion, Shulk watches as her claws slice through the material like its paper, watches as they reach Reyn's chest, impale his flesh, slice through him.

The purple is replaced by red. Dark crimson that pours from Reyn's chest, coats the Arachno Queen's pincers as she pulls away from him with a sickening crunch, the sound of flesh squelching. Shulk sees the life fade from Reyn's eyes, sees the sunlight leave his skin, the warm gold abandons him until only grey remains. He's dead before he even hits the ground, his lifeless body slumping forwards, blood sputtering from his mouth - still open in a silent scream.

Shulk, someone shouts, but all Shulk can see is red. Is Reyn, slumped on the floor, his body still twitching but his eyes cold and dead. Shulk, they shout again.

Shulk! Shulk! SHULK!

The vision ends with a snap and Shulk awakens with a start. 

Reyn is there, and he lets out a breath he didn't realise he'd been holding. But then, as he begins to wake up properly, he can see the panic in Reyn's eyes, here the clashing of his scrap driver, the hissing of arachno. 

In a flash, he's awake once more. He jumps to his feet with a start, his head still reeling, and he takes in the scene around him.

Arachno are everywhere. Swamping them. They're surrounded. 

Shulk thinks he might cry. 

But he fights. The Monado activates in his hand, the blue glow of ether swirls around the two of them, dances about their feet and slices through the lilac air. All around them, ether swirls, it pours from the sword in waterfalls of light, streams from Shulk's eyes as he feels the power of the Bionis itself swirl through him. Together, they fight. Together, they push the arachno back. But once they are all dead, more arrive to replace them. Reyn moves backwards, changes his position for an advantage. He moves further and further away from Shulk, draws their attention with a wild cry. 

But then there are too many, he is backing away. Further and further away. Back and back and back, and still the arachno swarm.

Shulk calls him with a shout, but his voice is too quiet, too soft. It is lost under the hissing of the arachno, lost under Reyn's own bellows, the scream of his voice as he uses all his strength to fight. All Shulk can do is follow, try and kill as many of the damn things as possible, and hope that he has done enough, hope that there is a way his vision will not come true.

But as Reyn comes into view, Shulk's heart sinks to the pit of his stomach.

Lilac light envelops the two. That sickness of purple, the bruises of eyes begging for sleep, the festering wounds hidden under scarred flesh. The plague of Arachno does not stop. From their half-Mechon pods, they emerge and Shulk can see that mucus dripping off of them, the light of the Monado reflecting back in a dull spectrum. That deep purple of venom drips from their open maws, teeth glinting sharp, dangerous.  

"Reyn," Shulk screams, his voice cracking at the edges. "Reyn!"

"They jus' keep on comin'!" Reyn shouts, half-talking to himself, sweat glinting on his brow. "I kill one an' then three more just pop up." 

"Reyn!" Shulk shouts again, "You need to get out of here!"

But before he can do anything, before Reyn can even look at Shulk, a web is shot down from the heavens. A thick web, a sheet of grey mucus, is flung around Reyn. His limbs are nailed to his side, his body rendered immobile as the substance tightness around him. He yells in surprise, thrashes about, but to no avail. 

And then he's gone. Pulled up, taken away. He disappears from Shulk's sight. 

A flash, a vision. It flickers across his eyes. Again, that scene from before. The Arachno Queen, Reyn's cries. The crunch of bone and the squalching of flesh. Crimson, blood, everywhere. Cold eyes, lifeless eyes. Reyn. Dead.

The vision ends and Shulk is screaming. 

Reyn will die here. Just like Fiora, there is nothing he can do. 

Is this it? Will it really all end here?  

But it can't. Shulk won't let it. Reyn won't die here. There has to be something he can do, anything. He needs Reyn. He's already lost Fiora, he can't lose Reyn too.

So he runs. He runs through the fields of arachno, ignores the swathes of them swarming around his feet, kicks away their razor-sharp teeth and their clawing pincers. He runs like he's never ran before, runs until his breath leaves his lungs and his limbs feel weak, and even when that happens he does not stop, he does not falter.

To the lake he runs, Villia Lake, Reyn had called it. Through the water he barrels, not even flinching as water freezes his legs, clings to the fabric of his trousers, weighs down his boots until his legs feel heavy like lead. Still, he pushes onwards. Through the blue light he runs. His hands grip at the ivy lining the walls, and although his tired limbs scream in protest, he does not stop. He hauls himself up, pushes himself higher and higher, tries desperately to climb faster.

He does not even know if this path will take him to Reyn. Perhaps his vision has already happened, perhaps Reyn is already-

But he can't stop. He can't give up, not now. He has to keep trying and he has to keep hoping. 

So onward he runs. Away from the blue light of the lake, back into the sickness purple of his nightmare-vision. 

Blood pounds in his ears, his breath bursts from his lips in raggedy pants, his lungs burn like fire and his heart thrums against his ribcage like an untamed beast. "Reyn!" He screams, his voice breaking, his body screaming in agony. "Reyn!" He yells until his voice grows hoarse, and then he yells louder. In a craze, half-daze, he continues. Onwards, he will not stop, not until-

"Shulk!" It's unmistakably Reyn. 

His voice is tired, pained. Tight and strained in a way Shulk has never heard before, fatigued. But it is Reyn's voice. He is there, he is still alive.

Maybe the future can be changed, maybe Reyn won't die.  

Reyn's voice grows louder and louder as he runs, Shulk follows the direction of his cries, runs faster than he ever thought possible, the Monado gripped tightly in his sweat-soaked hand. 

And then he sees it. A shadow from high above, Long legs, sharp pincers, towering from high above. In purple light, Shulk sees orange. Reyn, dwarfed by the Arachno Queen from above, glows like daybreak in the cold-moonlight of the cave. His scrap driver is held in trembling hands, his arm oozes with the same injury he had seen in his dream, the blood-red and venom-purple. He looks ashen, pale, but still there is light that glows within him.

As Shulk approaches, as he runs nearer and nearer, he feels elation like no other. He's here, he's made it. Reyn will be fine. Reyn will survive. 

But then it happens, before he can do anything, before he can even open his mouth to shout again.

Exactly like in his vision, the Arachno Queen rears backwards, raises herself up high. And then she descends.

Shulk screams, his hands gripping the Monado so tight it feels as if his knuckles will burst forth from his skin. He cries as he swings it blindly, his eyes squeezed shut as he prays for a miracle, for something to save Reyn from the inevitble. 

The sword is swung, but he does not open his eyes. He does not dare, for he knows what he will see. He knows what sight will lay before him.

Reyn's impaled body flashes before his eyes once more. The light leaving his eyes, his mouth open in a scream he never got to finish. His lifeless body hits the floor.

Shulk squeezes his eyes shut, as if he closes them hard enough then this world can be erased, then the Arachno Queen will disappear and it will just be him and Reyn, somewhere far away from here. Maybe, he'll wake up in his bed at Colony 9. He'll wake up and all of this will have just been a bad dream. Maybe there was no Mechon invasion, there was no faced Mechon, there was no Arachno Queen. 

But he already knows that hope is in vain. This is happening. Reyn will die here. 

So he keeps his eyes shut tight, waits for the ear-piercing scream, the gurgle of blood that will splutter from Reyn's throat, the snapping of bone and the squelching of flesh. He waits for that, waits for it to all be over, only those sounds never come.

So he opens his eyes. Prepares himself for the worst. Steels himself for these lifeless eyes bathed in lilac light.

But instead, when his eyes open once more, moonlight-lilac has been replaced by sun-bronzed yellow. Orange like fire, golden like warm summer, like the tingle of sunlight against bare skin. 

And, amidst it all, glowing like the sun itself, is Reyn. 

"Shulk, I don't know what you're doin', but whatever it is, it's-" his words are cut off as the Arachno Queen comes down with another attack, but as her pincers are just about to make contact with Reyn's scrap driver, the yellow light about them collects itself. In a swirl of summer colour, the light forms itself into a wall, formed together like honeycomb and half-translucent, it paints Reyn's skin orange, reflects light of the height of his cheekbones.

The Arachno Queen's attack bashes uselessly against the honeycomb barrier and Reyn, with a grunt, pushes her back. 

"Don't just stand there!" He shouts, side-stepping another arachno's brutal attack, "Let's see what else that Monado can do." 

Shocking himself back to the present, Shulk shakes his head from side to side, dispersing his wandering thoughts, wiping all memory of that violet-vision from his mind.

He had changed the future.  

He looks down at the Monado, looks at the new symbol glowing green on its centre, looks at the yellow light that spills from it in droves. He grips it tightly, shifts his weight from one foot to the next. He knows what he must do now. He knows his use.

The future he sees is not set in stone. It is not a path already forged, an immovable fate that cannot be changed. The future is volatile, the future is malleable. It is something that he can change, something that he can shape. 

Reyn will not die here. He will change the future, he will defy destiny. He will forge his own path, bid the fate set out for them to the shadows and create a new future of only light.

He readies his sword, steadies himself at Reyn's side once more. Ether pours from his hands, dances around them, bathes them in wildfire. The arachnos swarm around them, fight their sunlight with the lilac-glow; but they are stronger. They have the Monado.

They have each other. 

So they fight. They fight and the future has changed and Reyn is still here.  

x

It is only when they are free of the gloom of Tephra Cave, when Shulk feels the warmth of daylight against his skin, feels the freshness of grass against his legs, that he allows himself to breathe.

But then there is a groan from Reyn, a stuttering exhale, a weak cry. To the ground he falls, landing on his knees with a thud. His skin is ashen, his dark skin pallid in the new light. The wound on his arm. Shulk curses himself for being so stupid, for Reyn's arm still drips with blood, still drips with the purple venom of the Arachno's razor-sharp fangs. 

Instantly, Shulk is by his side, his hands peeling off Reyn's heavy gauntlets, peeling away the layer of metal and fabric until only his skin remains. The wound is deep, but not so deep that Shulk could not heal it, not so deep that there is no saving Reyn. But the wound is nasty, it is bad enough that Shulk is worried, bad enough that Reyn's eyelashes begin to flutter and his eyes begin to roll to the back of his head.

"Ugh," he groans, voice thick and heavy, laden with fatigue. "Shulk, man… I don't… heh, I'm not feelin' too great." He chuckles weakly, trying to smile, but the muscles in his face have grown lax and his expression falters.

Shulk shushes him with a gentle hand on his shoulder. He's not great at healing, but after being Reyn's friend for so long he'd eventually realised he needed to pick up a bit of first-aid. Reyn always seemed to be getting roughed up, always putting him in danger's way, always sacrificing himself to protect others. 

He retracts his hand for a moment, rummaging in his and Reyn's small pouch for their tankards of water, his eyes still trained on Reyn's slumped body. "Mm tired," he mumbles as Shulk shifts his arm carefully, eyes slipping shut once more.

"Try and stay awake," Shulk responds, his voice louder than it needs to be. It does the job, for Reyn's eyes snap open briefly, before he begins to slip again. There's something quite amusing (and quite sweet) about watching Reyn, who's so tall, so strong, who's literally a wall made of muscle, as he desperately tries to stay awake. His head dips lower and lower, his eyes flutter shut and his breathing evens out before he catches himself with a start, shakes his head from side to side, and then begins to slip once more. He reminds Shulk of the domesticated Volff's in Colony 9, the ones that the wealthier residents could afford. For a lack of a better word, Reyn was… cute. It wasn't really the sort of word you'd normally use to describe Reyn. Reyn is handsome - there's no doubt about that - but… cute?  

Yet, right now, with Reyn half-pouting, blinking owlishly down at Shulk, his hair ruffled and eyes half-asleep, he's most certainly very cute. 

With a flush high on his cheeks, Shulk brings himself out of his thoughts, forces himself back into reality. His own flask, half-full, is suspended in midair, his arms frozen. Reyn is still blinking down at him, brows furrowed in half-confusion, half-exhaustion. 

Shulk blinks back at him before remembering himself, trying to will away the awful red blossoming on his cheeks as he hastily unscrews the flask. 

With practised ease, he carefully pours the water over Reyn's wound. With it, the surface grime is removed. The layer of dust that had stuck to his sweat-slicked skin, the thinner patches of blood still oozing from his wound. As the water trickles down his arm, gleaming against his dark skin, rivulets of grey-pink water trickle down his fingertips, darken the soil beneath them as Reyn lets out a wincing hiss.

"Sorry," Shulk mumbles, but he is preoccupied with his own actions, his other hand carefully resting around the edges of the bite wound, gently rubbing away some of the thicker clumps of blood, the bits that have dried into deep brown and crusted on Reyn's forearm. He makes sure to keep his actions gentle, careful. It is something he has always strived to do, especially when it comes to healing Reyn. 

He remembers, back in the Colony, when Reyn would return from his post, when Reyn would return to the Colony sweaty and tired, cuts on his arms and bruises on his stomach. Shulk remembers watching in horror as Reyn cleaned out his own wounds, for Shulk knew that - when the time called for it - Reyn could be gentle, could be careful, but he could never do so himself.

It was on that day, a few years ago now, when Shulk had watched Reyn roughly scrub away the blood and grime from himself, handle his own body with such a lack of compassion, that Shulk had demanded that from then on he would help with Reyn's lesser injuries. 

Reyn had never been that good at taking care of himself. Considering he worked so hard, ate well and exercised almost constantly, it pained Shulk to see him treat himself with such nonchalance.

"I can handle a bit of pain," He'd always said when Shulk had winced at his brashness. "I'm much tougher than that."

And Shulk knew that was right, he knew Reyn could handle it, that he could grin his way through pain and keep on going, but it wasn't right.

(For Shulk knows that Reyn is at his most destructive when he is at his most miserable. Injuries had been commonplace after the death of his parents, for he remembers the concerned face of Dunban carrying a complaining Reyn home. He'd broken his leg jumping out of a tree, simply because he could, simply because he'd wanted to)

So Shulk treats Reyn with care. Partly because he wishes Reyn would have a better sense of self-preservation, (although Shulk could be just as self-destructive, through sleepless nights of study and forgoing his meals to try and build new weapons) but mostly because he likes looking after Reyn.

It makes him… happy. Reyn has his back in strength. Out on the battlefield, in fights, it is Reyn who protects him, Reyn who looks after him.

But then, afterwards, it is Shulk who looks after him, Shulk who helps heal his injuries, who takes first watch when Reyn is dead on his feet. 

Shulk wants to help Reyn, wants to look after him. Not to repay Reyn, not as a bargaining chip, but rather because he cares.  

Reyn is his closest friend. The person who knows him better than anyone else. For years, it had been him and Reyn and Fiora. And now that Fiora is- now that she's… 

Shulk can't lose someone else. Especially not Reyn.

So he washes away the blood, the dirt, the grime. Washes it away until all that remains is the puncture wounds of the arachno bite. The venom is mostly gone; thankfully it wasn't enough to be deadly, but enough to drain all of Reyn's energy away, and it isn't long before the wound stops bleeding entirely, allowing Shulk to quickly bandage it up. 

When he is done, Reyn is still awake - but barely so. He says something, but his words are slurred and unintelligible. But he can't sleep here, not in this position, so Shulk speaks to him, tries to get him to stand, to move somewhere else where he can sleep more comfortably. 

Eventually, he has to half-haul Reyn up to stand, no easy feat considering Reyn has a good five inches on him in height and Shulk doesn't even want to think about their difference in weight. But they just about manage, Reyn wakes up enough that he can support himself for the most part, and Shulk barely manages to keep him upright as he half-drags, half supports Reyn to a safer, less open spot where they can make camp for the night.

Once they've moved, Reyn drops to the floor like a bag of rocks, asleep before he even fully hits the ground. Shulk manages to get him into a more comfortable position, with a lot of difficulty, because even Reyn's limbs are heavy. Shulk had always known Reyn was massive, because, I mean how could you not? But even still, Reyn is ridiculously large. 

Who even needs muscles that big anyway? Shulk is pretty sure Reyn has muscles on his muscles, a foreign concept for Shulk who has almost no definition to speak of. But eventually he manages it.

He's just thankful that, for once, Reyn appears to be in a deep sleep. Shulk is a light sleeper too, but Reyn's time in the Defence Force had instilled with him good instincts - he had a nasty habit of waking up at the smallest of sounds, hands instantly reaching for his weapon. Even if the reason due to his deep sleeping right now was because he was poisoned, it's still nice to see him looking so… peaceful.

Shulk hadn't even realised that Reyn had been wearing an almost permanent frown on his face ever since That Day. They hadn't really spoken about it. Not properly. Shulk didn't want to. The emotions were still too raw, still too fresh and new. The wounds had not yet healed and it was too painful to even think about what had happened.

But maybe it would help. Maybe it would help if they both talked about it. What had happened, what would happen next.

Reyn breathes deeply in his sleep, not quite snoring, but he is not silent either. Even when sleeping his face is expressive. He talks in his sleep, mumbles words that Shulk can't quite understand, and he fidgets about.

Shulk is used to this, used to this Reyn, for it is not Reyn the soldier, Reyn; a defender of Colony 9. This is the Reyn he grew up with, the one who used to come and stay over at Shulk and Dickson's house, who would make pillow forts with Shulk and sleep by his side, squeezed together on the same single bed. 

Then he'd grown older. His parents had died and he hit his growth spurt. Eventually, he'd start his training as a soldier, and Shulk would spend more and more time holed up in the lab.

They spent less time with one another. Never growing further apart, never losing the strong ties of their friendship; but there were things that had changed between them that Shulk missed. 

So Shulk looks fondly at Reyn, who snuffles in his sleep, wrinkles his nose and shifts, his leg kicking out and his arm sprawled to his side. The sun is setting fast over the Bionis' kneecap, and the world fades from blue into orange, into cherry blossom-pink, and then into the darkness of night.

The stars twinkle high above them and Shulk allows himself to relax.

x

The night drags onwards. The sky brews darkness and thick clouds begin to smother the starlight. The temperature drops and Shulk finds himself shivering. He's hungry and he's tired, but he doesn't want to wake up Reyn. Not just yet.

He wishes he'd made something to eat earlier. No doubt, when Reyn awakens, he'll be hungry too. Reyn's appetite was legendary. Shulk didn't know where it all went, he was certain Reyn's stomach was a black pit, but there's no doubt Reyn would be starving when he awakens once more. I mean, he's always hungry. 

And then the boredom begins to settle in.

Shulk's never done anything like this before. He's never left the colony and this certainly isn't the sort of life he ever saw for himself. If you'd asked him only a few weeks ago, he would have laughed at the idea of him wielding the Monado, of him aiming to travel the world with a head full of visions and Reyn by his side. It was… this was impossible.  

And although Shulk is glad for the peace, there is nothing to do. And when there is nothing to do, Shulk's mind - naturally - begins to wander.

The path his mind takes is a dark one. For the adrenaline of the day is beginning to wear down, the events beginning to solidify within his mind. And with that, comes the guilt. 

Reyn had very nearly died today. In fact, it's beyond a miracle that he's still here. Yet, even though he had not died, Shulk had seen him die. Over and over again. Vision or not, fact or fiction, Shulk had watched Reyn be impaled by that devious Queen, seen that lilac light morph to furious red as blood had coated the floor, trickled from Reyn's mouth in a red river, a waterfall spilling from his lips. 

The more he thinks about it, the more he can't stop.

He cannot get it out of his mind. That image of Reyn with his lifeless eyes. Of his figure slumped over, dead. Falling to the ground. Devoid of that light, devoid of that fire. The scream, the gurgle of blood caught in his throat, the mouth left wide open in sound that will never come.

Shulk doesn't even realise his breathing has quickened until he finds he cannot catch a breath. His throat is closing up, the world around him closing in on itself. He feels trapped, as though his skin is too small, as though his bones don't fit together right. He feels everything, he feels the very world at his fingertips and none of it seems right.

He can't catch a breath. He can't catch a break. Reyn is dead, he is alone, and the world won't stop getting smaller and smaller-

"Shulk," Reyn's voice is groggy, still half asleep, but it is there . It is Reyn, Reyn who Shulk can hear shifting behind him. Reyn who's footsteps thump across the hard ground, Reyn who crouches in front of him, his hand reaching out to Shulk before he catches himself. 

"Hey, man. Is it okay if I, uh, touch you?" 

Shulk nods, for he doesn't trust himself to speak, and Reyn's palm is large and hesitant on his shoulder. A familiar weight, a warm weight.

Shulk doesn't even stop to think. He flings himself at the warmth of Reyn's chest, tries to breathe in deeply, tries to control his hurried breaths. He breathes in the scent of sweat, the faint tang of blood. The smell of the earth, of sunlight and campfires in the autumn. Of Reyn.  

He thinks he is crying, but he still can't think. He still can't breathe.

All he can do is shove himself into Reyn's chest, listen out for the sound of his heartbeat, let the rhythmic beats, the proof of life , soothe his racing mind.

Reyn's hands are on his back. Rubbing circles, rising to his shoulders before dipping down his spine. He does not hold Shulk close to him, he does not wrap his arms around him.

It is a technique Fiora taught him how to do, back when they were younger and Shulk would have episodes like this all the time. Don't surround him, make it so he's in control. So he can pull back if he needs to. 

Shulk didn't realise Reyn had taken those lessons to heart.

But he's there, leaning into Reyn's warm body, his face steadily dropping down to his stomach. He breathes in again, deeply. Breathes in that familiar scent.

He doesn't know how long the two of them have been like this. He never knows, not during moments like this. It could have been seconds, minutes, sometimes he would sit here for hours, without ever realising; but no matter how long they sit there, no matter how long Shulk buries his face into Reyn's stomach, Reyn does not move.

Shulk reaches out to grasp at one of his hands. Traces his thumbs over the callouses and scars, the roughness of Reyn's skin against his own. He taps the rhythm of heartbeat against his palms, dances his fingers across the flesh, moves down to Reyn's wrist where he presses in, checks for that thrum of a pulse.

It is only then, after he can feel the beat of life against his fingertips, that he manages to control his breathing. 

"I saw you die." He says.

It is the first thing he has said in hours. His voice is hoarse, crackling from the tears still caught in his throat.

"You had a bad dream?" Reyn asks. Shulk shakes his head, his nose pressed up against Reyn's torso.

"No. A vision."

There's a sharp intake of breath, Shulk can feel the muscles in Reyn's stomach tense. Then, Reyn relaxes, he exhales, a short noise of realisation escaping his lips.

" The Arachno Queen." Reyn breathes. 

Shulk's eyes slip shut, he nods.

"If I'd told you sooner, if I'd said something, maybe you wouldn't have gotten hurt. Maybe things would have been different. You almost died and it's my fault-"

Suddenly, Reyn's hands are on his shoulders. His grip is tight, not hard enough to hurt, but hard enough that he can force Shulk backwards. His gaze is dark, his eyes hardened. 

" Don't say that." He spits venomously. "Don't say it's your fault."

Shulk is surprised at the anger that spills from Reyn's mouth, the way he spits out the words as if they leave a bad taste in his mouth. He can't help but recoil and Reyn's gaze instantly softens, his hands loosen their hold.

"No, Shulk. I'm sorry, I'm not good at this sorta thing but- Man, it ain't your fault. Who knows what would have happened, even if you'd told me I woulda still run off. Them visions… No, you, Shulk. You saved my life. If it weren't for you, I'd be dead."

Shulk can feel the pinprick of tears in his eyes. He vehemently shakes his head.

"It wasn't me! It's my fault you got injured! It was the Monado that saved you. The Monado that showed me that vision. I- I did nothing. You almost died, and I did nothing. "

An exasperated expression flitters across Reyn's face and Shulk can't stop the defensive anger that curls inside of him. Just as he's about to open his mouth, Reyn cuts him off.

"An' you're the wielder of the Monado, Shulk. It don't matter what that sword does, or what it shows you, it wouldn't be doin' anything at all if you weren't wielding it. You might see them visions, and the Monado might have them special powers, but it's you that's doin' it all. The Monado is your weapon. You saved my life Shulk."

And Reyn is looking at him, so honest and so open and so goddamn expressive. His hair is ruffled, there are still dark bags smudged under his eyes. He looks tired, he looks worn down, he looks like hell and Shulk can't imagine him looking any better. 

Shulk looks at him and he knows he loves him. He knows he loves Reyn with all his heart.

"It's me and you, Shulk. You're… you're the most important person in my life. An' I know I don't say it a lot and I know I ain't good with words, but I love you, man. I love you so much."

He smiles and, despite it all, some of the darkness in his eyes is lightened. Like stars lost in an endless sky, they glow bright. His cheeks, flushed, his face close enough that Shulk can count each and every freckle dotted across his cheeks, a constellation that he can trace with his fingers, make his own stories, forge his own future.

Reyn is leaning closer, so close that Shulk can see the faintest of scars on his upper lip. He remembers how Reyn got that. He'd been trying to make a zipline out of old clothes wire on Dunban and Fiora's second-story window. He'd been hanging outside, dangling from the windowsill, and he'd fallen. Dislocated his shoulder (something which had never been quite right again) and split his lip open. 

Dunban had been furious, but then when Shulk and Fiora had howled and cried ( Is Reyn dead? They'd shouted, What happens if he does die? Will he be okay? Dunban? Will Reyn be okay? Can we go see him?) he'd calmed down. He'd taken them to see Reyn, back in his old parents' house, (back when they were still alive) and even though he'd been so angry at Reyn earlier, Shulk had watched as he'd smiled kindly at him, mussed up his hair until it stuck up at all odd angles. It wasn't until much later that Shulk realised that Dunban had been so angry because he cared about Reyn. Not because he was mad that Reyn had broken the windowsill when he fell out, but angry because Reyn had hurt himself. Angry that Reyn hadn't thought about his own safety.

Shulk finds himself getting angry at Reyn for exactly the same reasons these days. 

But there is Reyn, with that faint scar on his lip that Shulk knows, because he knows everything about Reyn, and he's so close and Shulk can feel the warmth of his breath against his cheeks, see the shadow of his eyelashes across his face, the moonlight reflecting silver light on the very tip of his nose.

"Shulk," Reyn says, and his voice is thick and deep in a way he has never heard it before.

He lips his lips, Shulk watching the movement intently, he sees the peek of white teeth as Reyn opens his mouth, the tip of his pink tongue and the glisten of saliva shimmering on his bottom lip.

Shulk finds his cheeks getting hot.

"Shulk," Reyn tries again, his voice lowering even deeper, his honey-brown eyes flickering from Shulk's lips to his eyes, the movement so quick that Shulk isn't sure if it had actually happened. He swallows, audibly, and Shulk tracks the movement, the way his Adam's apple bobs deeply in his throat.

His tongue darts out to moisten his lips once more and Shulk feels something in him snap.

"Can I kiss you?" He asks, before he can even think about what he's saying. Reyn's eyes widen in shock and instantly Shulk regrets what he has said. There's no taking it back though. Maybe he can blame it on his fatigue, on his heightened emotions. It would be a lie, he's been feeling this way for… some time, but perhaps Reyn would buy it.

Or maybe he should laugh it off, as much as that would hurt. Pretend it was a joke. It would, of course, be perhaps the worst joke ever performed since the Bionis has existed, but maybe he could play it off as that. Not convincingly (for he's never been the best liar) but well enough that he and Reyn can pretend this never happened.

However, his thoughts are cut off as Reyn laughs.

He… laughs

Instantly, offence rises within Shulk. He feels his hackles raise and his jaw tighten. A mixture of anger and embarrassment burns at his cheeks, shame curling in his gut. His displeasure must be worn plain on his face for Reyn stops, quells his chuckles, but even he cannot wipe the rueful smirk from his face.

"Sorry! Sorry!" Reyn says, words breaking off into more laughter. His hands raise up in surrender. "I'm not laughing at you, it's just, heh, that's what I was gonna ask you."

Shulk blinks, mouth left slightly agape, brow gently furrowed, before he too breaks off into giggles.

It's not even that funny, really. But perhaps it is the culmination of so much bad, of so much darkness, and for this one moment, this cloud-smothered night, they have found something good. Something that they can hold on to. Something new, but something Shulk (and from the looks of things, Reyn too) has wanted for a long time. 

They laugh, their voices loud in the silent night, twisting amongst the darkness and parting the clouds until they are bathed in gleaming starlight. Like an aurora of colour, their laughter spills from their mouths, crinkles at their eyes until creases of crows' feet form at the corners. In spectrum light, happiness pours from their very souls, the sunlight orange of Reyn's joy, the blue-light whisper of Shulk's delight, they laugh as though it is only the two of them in the world, and in this moment - perhaps they are. For all that remains is the blanket of stars above them, the softness of grass beneath them, but the rest of the world melts away into nothing, leaves them floating in a void-space built just for them.

Their laughter, eventually, fades away into pleasantry, and such a feeling spills from them in droves, like the ocean's waves lapping against the shoreline, bringing with it gems of softened glass and technicolour seashells. The two of them, lost, in a moment of perfect peace amidst a world shook apart by war. 

It is broken, however, when Reyn scratches the back of his head, swallows deeply once more. "Can I kiss you, though?" 

Shulk laughs, his hands reaching up to cradle Reyn's face, his smile so wide he feels as if his face could split in two. Arching himself forwards, tilting his head upwards, his eyes flutter shut of their own accord, his eyelashes dancing like butterfly wings on his cheeks. Reyn meets him halfway. 

His lips are soft, softer than Shulk would have thought, and they are warm. Warm like spring mornings, when the dew glistens like diamonds amongst the buzz of dragonflies. Like summer rain, fresh and clean and comforting, washing away the tumultuous sky and leaving only the warmth of comfort behind. Kissing Reyn is familiar, like walking back home after a night in the lab, like watching the sun set from across Outlook Park. Yet it is unfamiliar too, for he has known Reyn all his life yet never like this. Never so closely, never with such intimacy. 

He is excited to find out, though. He is excited to explore. To walk the path of the unfamiliar with someone he has always known, someone who - throughout it all - has brought him nothing but comfort. 

Reyn pulls back, his forehead pushing against Shulk's, his eyes glazed over in honey-glow. Slapped upon his face is a dopey smile, a slackjaw grin as though he can't quite believe what just happened. 

"Gods, man. You don't know how long I've wanted to do that." Surprise flickers on Shulk's face.

"Since when?" He can't help but ask, his curiosity piqued.

"Since… forever, really. You're just… You're you , Shulk. It's always been you."

His smile is bright, his cheeks growing redder and redder with each word. He does not avert his gaze, however, he looks at Shulk with such intent, with such emotion in his eyes that Shulk finds himself flustered under that stare. It's so typical of Reyn to be like this, an intensity in his eyes that Shulk feels undeserving of. He quells that self-doubt, however. For Reyn looks at him as though he has hung the stars and moon in the sky, as though he is his world and Shulk, for the life of him, wants to believe that he is worthy of this. That he deserves this, that Reyn truly loves him for - as sappy as it may sound - he knows he feels exactly the same. 

But the sun is rising, a golden ball of flame peeking over the horizon, dispelling the gentle glow of the stars and filling the sky with flame once more. Pink and yellow and orange creeps higher and higher, floods the sky in technicolour mist and the shadows of clouds dappled in light fall across their faces, paint their skin in watercolour. 

It is time for them to go, time for them to move on.

The memory of lilac-gloom, of sharp pincers and venomous fangs, seems like a nightmare long passed. All that remains is the bandages wrapped around Reyn's forearm, stark white against his dark skin. The memory of a honey-orange shield shines bright, however. The proof that the future can be changed, that darkness can be dispelled into light. The night has gone and with it has come a new day. Hope, shining over the horizon. 

There is still much that needs to be done, revenge that needs to take place. Colony 6 is still a long ways off, and their adventure is far from over. There will be new hardships that they must face, new horrors that they will experience; but they will be together, side by side. 

Never again will they be parted, not if Shulk has any say in the matter, and never again will Reyn come so close to death.

They have already lost someone, already lost Fiora, so dear to them that she was more like a sister than a friend. They were separated, beyond the very spans of the universe, and Shulk would do everything in his power to make sure such a thing never happened again. 

x

"Fiora would be laughin' at us right now, y'know." Reyn says, exhaling loudly as he re-organised their pouch, preparing them to leave their make-shift camp once more. Shulk stands only a few feet away, giving a quick once-over to Reyn's scrap driver, ensuring it's in perfect working condition before they head out once more. 

"What do you mean?" 

"Well, she always knew I liked you 'n' all, I wasn't very subtle about it. I thought you knew, to be honest, and you just didn't want to say anythin'." Reyn interrupts himself with his own laughter before continuing, "She always said that you were the most unobservant person to ever live. I always thought she was just sayin' that but I think she was right."

Shulk scowls, although there is no malice behind it. It does not take long before the expression slides from his face, instead replaced by fond exasperation. 

"It was the same for me too. I didn't want to ruin anything, so I always kept quiet. I- maybe Fiora is- was right, I honestly didn't even realise."

They laugh together, Reyn coming to stand across from him, taking the newly repaired scrap driver out of Shulk's hands. However, before he turns away, he leans down to give Shulk a chaste kiss on the lips, his eyes twinkling with mischief as he pulls away. 

And then his gaze softens, and something sad flickers across his face.

"I miss her, y'know. I miss her a lot." 

"Me too, Reyn." 

There is a moment of silence, a moment of sombre tranquillity where they remember what they have lost. Blonde hair and green eyes, brighter than any summer's day. A laugh, free and jovial, ringing out without a care in the world. 

"I always hated her nagging. When she'd go on and on about how irresponsible I was, how I needed to use my head more rather than just my fists." Reyn's laugh is hollow, empty. "Now I'd give anything to hear her voice one more time. Even if she were to call me a stupid brute. I-" he breaks off, the back of his hand shielding glistening eyes. "We need to destroy them damn Mechon. Every last one of them. I'll never forgive them, no matter what."

The anger is back, the fire that had burned within them both, started them on this foolhardy quest in the first place. Reyn's eyes are tinged with red, Shulk is certain his own are too, but - like Dunban had said - they will not lose themselves in their grief. They will use this pain, use this sadness, and use it to keep going. Use it to fight , to make the Mechon pay for what they did to their Colony. 

They will keep going, they will not stop until they have achieved their goal, until the world is at peace once more and they can live without fear. They will not stop until that faced Mechon is dead, until Fiora has been avenged. 

And Shulk looks up at Reyn, looks at the fire in his eyes, the way the sunlight reflects off of his red hair, sends it back in spectrums of light. His face is sharp, strong edges and harsh lines, the deep shadows that surround thick muscles, a body hardy and scarred and incredibly powerful. He stands tall, proud, casts a shadow in the sunlight that dwarfs the world around them. He looks formidable, the wind blustering through his hair and his thick eyebrows furrowed. Large hands clenched, teeth digging into his full bottom lip. 

And then he looks at Shulk, and the roughness melts away. His gaze softens, his body relaxes, and he smiles down at him. Half-sad, half-happy, but all brimming with adoration. Shulk flushes, face growing hot, but he jogs to catch up with him, steps into line with him until they are walking side by side.

He slips his hand into Reyn, rests his head on his shoulder. His thumb traces the callouses, the scars; all with a story to tell, a story which Shulk knows for Reyn has been his everything for as long as he can remember. 

He stops, tugs Reyn until they are facing one another and looks up into his face, tries to convey all of his love, all of his adoration for Reyn in his eyes. It must work, for a blush soon rises to Reyn's cheeks, and that dopey smile slides onto his face once more.

He leans up, standing on the very tips of his toes, and Reyn leans down. They meet halfway, two separate halves becoming one whole.

They kiss. They kiss for hope, for love. For better days and a brighter future. They kiss for they are proof that there is still good in this world, still a world worth fighting for. They kiss to remind themselves of what they could lose, of what they must never let go of. They kiss because it has always been them, it has always been the two of them together. They kiss because, combined, they are unstoppable.

The clouds thicken far above them, the blue of the midmorning sky slowly fading to grey. Yet, even when the sunlight begins to fade, it still shines down bright over them.