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Sword Valley was dark at night, even with the starlight from above reflecting off of the pristine armor of the Mechon. Brighter than the stars or any reflection glowed the Monado, its blue ether a shining beacon in the thick of battle. Hours had passed, the Mechon weren’t retreating, and by now, any other soldier would have succumbed to the dangerous blade. But Dunban refused to give in to the Monado. No matter how many times Dickson told him to take a break, he would not put it down, determined to resist its power until all of the Mechon were destroyed. It was his duty to wield it and bring the joint Defence Force to victory against the Mechonis.

“You look like hell, Beast!” Dickson yelled. They ran for cover, hiding behind a shelter just as an explosion of ether sparkled orange and yellow where they had been standing seconds ago. “Why don’t you rest your arm a bit and let me scrap a few of ’em?”

“Your offer is tempting.” Especially now that Mumkhar had gone missing, and some of the strongest men in the Colony 6 force had fallen, too.  “But do you think I’m that feeble already?”

The Monado’s ether surged through his body; more empowering and electric than any normal aura, it seemed otherworldly. Any aura distorted the ether in the air a little, but the Monado’s aura had intensified to the point that Dickson could barely even approach him. But the aura did not come from the Monado alone. It was also sapping his strength, using his own ether as fuel.

Dickson grunted in irritation. “Feeble ain’t the right word, but I got a bad feeling about that sword.”

“I have no time to question what it’s doing to me. Neither do you. We have to fight!”

Scoffing, Dickson cocked his gun. “Still don’t like it. But you got a point.”

Dickson grabbed the edge of the shelter, swinging himself up onto the top of it, while Dunban watched and waited for an opening. Gunfire, not just from Dickson’s rifle, rang in his ears. Bombs and lasers burst into explosions that shook the ground. Swords and pikes clashed with Mechon arms with resonating clangs. A soldier screamed, high and thin, and Dunban rushed out from the shelter and lashed out at the offending Mechon, his heart pounding in his ears as it crumpled to the ground. A group of large Mechon with pincers approached a small squadron from Colony 6; Dunban dashed ahead, deaf to any warnings Dickson barked, and swung the Monado across them, cutting all of them to shreds in one fell swoop. He laughed, at first, he thought, with the joy of battle, but when his own laughter ceased, he heard a voice laughing inside his head.

Yes, more, more! Destroy them all! Kill them!

The voice racked his brain, vivid and vile, clutching the back of his neck with phantom fingers. Though he hesitated, he gave into the sudden violent impulse he felt and let the Monado guide him to his next target. The aura that had surrounded him now crawled up his arm, and though it gripped his flesh like a vise, he had no power to resist either the laughing voice in his head or the sway of the Monado. He didn’t even hear Dickson call him, by name this time, before the Monado engulfed his body and his mind.

“But you can’t lock it up forever!”

“Colonel’s orders, Shulk. Besides, we can’t have another of our best men suffering a grave injury because of that sword. If Dunban can’t even control it, no one can.”

“But I don’t want to wield it. If you give it to me, I’ll only do research on it. I won’t ever try to pick it up. Please, if there’s a safe way to use it, I want to find out.”

“I could ask the Colonel for you, but I doubt he’ll change his mind that quickly. Look at what the Monado did to him. We can’t have anyone else ending up like that.”

“I know, but—!”

“Listen. I’ll ask the Colonel. I can’t promise anything, but I’ll be back.”

The woman’s footsteps as she walked away.

“Wait, Emmy!”

“Drop it, Shulk. It’s no use arguing with someone from the Force while Dunban’s in this state. He still hasn’t even woken up!”

Dunban tried twitching his fingers to show that he was, in fact, awake and had been listening. His left wrist felt sore, and something was underneath the skin. The fingers on his right hand wouldn’t move. He tried bending his right hand at the wrist, but his forearm felt frozen and stiff, tingling like it had needles in it. He strained harder, and pain shot up his upper arm, causing him to grit and hiss through his teeth.

“Dunban?”

Three voices, almost all at once. So Fiora was here, too. He tried opening his mouth, but nothing came out except a barely audible grunt.

“Your throat must be really dry,” Fiora said. “Help him sit up a little, Reyn.”

One large warm hand cradled the back of his head and the other the center of his back, lifting him up. The metal lid of a canteen was held to his lips, and he tilted his head back to drink and swallow. Finally, he was able to open his eyes.

Fiora, his dear younger sister in front of him, with her long pigtails resting on her collarbones. Shulk beside her, skinny with deep dark circles below his eyes, and Reyn, almost comically the opposite of his malnourished best friend.

“Better lay you back down,” Reyn said, lowering him onto the bed again.

“The Monado…”

Dunban tried to lift his right arm, intending to pinch the skin between his eyebrows, only to be met with a jolt of searing pain in his shoulder. He groaned, clenching his teeth firmly.

“Whoa!”

“Dunban!”

“Don’t move your arm!”

“Noted.” He sighed; his chest felt heavy. “The Mechon—are they gone?”

“For now,” Shulk said. “You, and the rest of the joint Defence Force, stopped their invasion.”

“You really bashed ’em.” Reyn grinned. “You were a real hero out there!”

“Hero?”

“Reyn!” Fiora snapped. “My brother is seriously hurt! And think of all the people who didn’t make it back!”

Reyn’s expression turned sheepish. “I didn’t mean—”

“Easy, you two. I’m just glad to hear that we’re safe. That means my job is done.”

“But look at what happened to you!” Fiora stood up, running over to the side of the bed and cutting in front of Shulk. She picked up Dunban’s left hand and clutched it in hers, and he felt a pinch as his wrist bent, now noticing the cable leading to the IV pole next to the bed. “The Monado almost killed you!”

“It’s just my arm, is all. I’m still alive.”

“Just your arm?!” Fiora shook her head. “Didn’t you hear everything the doctor said?”

Dunban looked past her to meet Shulk’s eyes. Shulk pointed away from the bed. Dunban blinked to show he understood, and he and Reyn left him alone with Fiora. He was glad the boys had stopped in to see him, and gladder still that they had enough tact, even at their age, not to butt in on a family conversation.

“I’ve been out for a while. You’ll have to tell me.”

“You had an abundance of ether in your system. Shulk thinks it’s because of the Monado that your body absorbed too much ether and you went into shock. The doctors had to put you in a separate ward for three days because you were literally toxic.”

“Hm. Well, that would certainly be more useful than any other aura. I could just vaporize Mechon on contact.”

“Dunban! It was not—” Fiora’s eyes shimmered with irritation, but she was biting her lip to try not to laugh. “It’s not like it was some kind of neat little quirk that you had too much ether.” Her expression hardened again. “The excess ether can build up in your lungs or other places in your body and kill you.”

“I am well aware what too much ether can do to a Homs. I just wanted to lighten the mood a little.”

“Well, there’s not much I can say to lighten the mood.” She curled her fingers into his palm. “The doctor said the ether ate away at your muscle tissue, severely weakening your arm.”

He turned his head slightly to look down at his right arm. It was encased in a splint, supported by metal.

“Did it damage my bones, too?”

“It didn’t get that deep, thankfully. But your arm needs time to reform. So the cast will have to stay on for a while.”

Reform. Like the Monado had reduced his arm to a boneless pile of flesh and blood.

“Is it still whole?”

“I told you, it’s not broken. They’re going to keep it in the cast while it heals. Once your ether stabilizes, they’ll remove the cast, but keep the bandages on. Then you’ll be allowed to go home.”

“So my arm may still return to normal?”

Fiora frowned. “The doctor said…” She lowered her head. “She said you might lose the use of it forever. But if you keep using it when you return home, it’ll get stronger.”

“Well, I suppose I should at least try.” He offered a small smile.

“You will, and I’m going to help you.”

Though the buzzing in his forearm when he’d tried to lift his wrist told him that something was seriously wrong, he didn’t want to believe it was already beyond salvation. And the determination in Fiora’s eyes made him feel motivated to try. He couldn’t let her, or himself, down.

“I’ll welcome your help,” he said.

About a month later, the muscles in Dunban’s arm had begun to reform, and his ether level had returned to normal. Finally, his arm could be taken out of the cast, and he returned home. Since his wound was still scarring, the bandages had to stay on. The pain in his shoulder had lessened, but the buzzing feeling was gone, too, replaced by a strange numbness and the itchiness caused by the closing and healing of his wounds.

It was a relief to be out of the hospital. The bed had been horribly uncomfortable, and the intravenous medication had made him nauseous and listless, so even though he hadn’t been in much pain, he’d hardly ever slept solid. The food had been disgusting, and taking a walk with an IV pole had been a chore. But now, he had finally returned home. No more nurses coming to check his vitals in the middle of the night, no other patients groaning in pain or coughing when he was trying to sleep, and best of all, his own bed and Fiora’s delicious cooking. Getting a good night’s sleep was far easier with his right arm in light bandages.

But though his arm was free from the cast, he couldn’t start using it again immediately. For the first couple days, Fiora helped him do everything. He quickly recognized that whatever he needed two hands for, like putting on pants or spreading toothpaste on his toothbrush, she would have to help him do. That aside, he insisted on doing as many things on his own using his left hand as he could. He’d already done so during his stay in the hospital, but he wasn’t entirely used to it. That meant that some things were easier than others. Turning the pages of a book was easy since he could put it in his lap and hold it open that way. Holding a glass with his left hand, relatively easy if it wasn’t overfilled. Holding a fork or spoon and trying to eat, not as easy—he let Fiora help him do that. Writing was one of the most difficult things of all.

The physical therapist had provided him with a list of exercises to strengthen his injured arm, and Fiora picked out a few every day, encouraging Dunban to roll his shoulder, rotate his wrist, and do all kinds of other motions. He wasn’t sure if they were helping at all, but his left arm was definitely getting stronger as he continued to use it. Five days after his return home, he had just enough control with his left arm that he decided to attempt to brush the knots out of his tangled, unwashed hair. Fiora noted how long it had become, and offered to cut the dead ends off. A chunk of hair by his right shoulder had been singed off by the Monado, leaving an awkward gap. She planned to cut it the following evening after dinner, which motivated him to try more on his stretches.

“In a circle, slowly, just like a windmill.” Fiora rolled her shoulders. “Out and to the side, then back in. Come on, you can do it!”

No matter how hard he tried, his stiff, numb arm remained a deadweight. How was it he’d never had a problem with a hundred press-ups, but now he could barely stretch his arm forward and backward? Even after a filling dinner that Fiora had helped him eat with his recovering arm. Though he could use his left arm enough to get by, his illegible, formless handwriting was a testament to how weak the muscles in that arm still were.

Finally, she lowered her arms. “I think you need a break.”

He leaned back into the chair, breathing out his relief. “Imagine if the Colonel saw me getting tired this quickly. He’d have my head.”

“I’d say the Colonel would understand, but judging by all the stories Reyn told me…” She made a noise of exasperation. “Would you drive them that hard if you were Colonel?”

“He may be a piece of work, but he’s the only one for the job.”

“‘Piece of work’ is one way to put it. I think he’s just a big bully.”

She went over to her dresser and pulled a drawer open. Then she pushed it back in, and he felt his shoulders relax in anticipation.

“Sit up,” she said.

He sat forward, and she began to run her fingers through his hair. The tenseness in his shoulders eased further as she gently picked up pieces of his hair, untangling a few knots from the wavy ends.

“This has been getting long,” she remarked. “You’re lucky the Colonel doesn’t make you chop it all off.”

“I only trust you to trim it,” was his spaced-out reply.

“Uh-oh.” She giggled. “Are you going to fall asleep before I even start?”

He hummed. “If you were wearing Mum’s perfume, I wouldn’t know the difference.”

“Well, one day I’ll get as good at cutting your hair as I am at putting you to sleep.”

“Would you play with it for a little longer?”

“Yep. But if you start dozing off, I might not get your haircut done.”

“No matter,” he mumbled, soothed.

He hadn’t felt so calm in a long time. Since Fiora was born, the constant attacks on the colony had weighed on his mind. Their father had served in the Defence Force and died defending the colony against a Mechon invasion. Fiora had never known him, but when he was alive, he had been distant from Dunban, to say the least. He’d struggled to express any sort of affection for his son, yet that same man had inspired Dunban to join the Defence Force after their mother died six years later. Though he had been only twelve when the Mechon attacked, he’d picked up a sword afterward, and practiced the blade since then. Much like his father had believed it his duty to defend his wife, son, and infant daughter, Dunban, knowing his mother was a gentle pacifist, resolved to protect her and Fiora.

It was Mum who had encouraged him to relax back then. He’d always been on edge, stubborn and temperamental. Always getting in fights with the other kids in the colony, because he wanted to be the strongest of all of them. He’d come back bruised and scratched at dinner, and afterward, she’d run a hot bath for him, then comb the knots out of his hair while she hummed old Homs lullabies. Though he could still recall the flowery notes of her perfume, his memories were not enough to return her to them. Only her recipes and her possessions, and her progeny, had survived.

He had used to love flowers. When he was a boy, he’d brought them back to her and watched all smiles as she set them on the windowsill in the kitchen to dry. Was it so wrong to go soft when his sister, who remembered that kindhearted woman and the love she’d bestowed on them, brushed his hair just like Mum had? No, he couldn’t keep being so weak. He had to get stronger. But the quiet snip of the scissors, the way the splintered ends of his mother’s wavy dark hair fell silently to the floor, pulled him away from all of that, made him forget what the Monado had done to him.

“Oh, I might have gone a little short!”

Fiora’s cry brought him back to reality, and he opened his heavy-lidded eyes to see that his hair stopped at the base of his neck.

Dunban sits in front of the mirror with Fiora behind him.

“I was so distracted thinking that I forgot what I was doing.”

He touched the ends of his hair with the fingertips of his left hand. “I think a shorter cut suits me well. It’s getting hotter anyway.”

“Phew! I’m glad you like it.”

“What were you thinking about?”

Her reflection smiled sadly. “I know your arm isn’t getting better, but you seem so much happier.”

“Of course. I’m finally getting to spend time with you. Away from the Military District and their dreadful hospital.”

A sudden yawn struck him, and he covered his mouth, unable to swallow it before it came on.

“Oh, Dunban, you must be exhausted.” She set her hand on his shoulder. “Why don’t you rest a little? I’m going to head over to the lab to make sure Shulk isn’t too deep in his research.”

“Is Dickson still not back?”

“Not yet. He was pretty upset about your injury, but there was something he really needed to look into.” Her face lit up. “Hey, maybe he’ll bring back some medicine for you!”

“Maybe. But I doubt he’d have been away that long for such a purpose. Unless he thinks he can find something in the upper regions, but such a long journey would hardly be worth it.”

At least Dickson would come back eventually. Right? It wasn’t as if Dunban really cared if Mumkhar came back. Mumkhar had always been crass, kind of rude, and even more hardheaded than he was. Dunban hadn’t minded fighting alongside him; he just wouldn’t have trusted him with his life. If only he’d realized Mumkhar’s true intentions earlier, before he had disappeared. Then he could have ratted him out to the Colonel. But he hadn’t really gone to join the Mechon, had he?

“Bionis to Dunban!”

He blinked. “Ah, right. I should be getting to bed.”

At the very least, while she was making her short visit to Shulk, he’d have a little time to relax, maybe read a little, and think about what really happened to Mumkhar.

The Monado was bleeding ether. Seeping into his veins, swallowing him up as its aura swirled around him, laughing, laughing—

Mumkhar running to his death, laughing.

The Monado was back in the Weapons Development lab, and Shulk was touching it, and the blue blade was emerging and striking back at him, opening its maw to consume, and suddenly everything went black—

Dunban bolted upright in bed with a breathless gasp. It was early morning. The back of his neck throbbed dully like he had slept wrong. Beneath him, the bedsheet was soaked, his back damp with sweat.

Fiora called upstairs, “Rise and shine! Breakfast is ready!”

Rubbing the sleep out of his eyes and wiping his face on the sheet, he drew himself up, watching as she approached, wearing her hair down today. Her hair was getting long, too, but there was nothing he could do about it.

“Good morning,” he said.

“Good morning!” She sat down beside his bed, setting a plate on his nightstand and cutting a piece of omelet off for him. She put the fork in his right hand, then helped guide his hand to his mouth for each little piece she cut.

“You don’t have to help me eat,” he said.

“I know, you can use your left hand. But it’s important to work on your right hand, too. If you keep using it, there may be a chance you could recover.”

“The chance was slim,” he reminded her.

She frowned. “That’s unlike you to say. I thought you didn’t want to give up on your right arm.”

“I don’t. I’m just feeling a little… off today.”

“Well, just because you’re a little out of it, that’s no reason to give up! I said I was going to help you, didn’t I?” She smiled warmly. “Open wide, now.”

He let her feed him another piece of breakfast.

“You do seem a little shaky this morning,” she remarked.

He calmly swallowed his bite of egg and vegetables. “What do you mean?”

“Your grip is a little weak.”

He didn’t have the heart to tell her it was all her grip. He’d tried to curl the fingers on his right arm around the kitchen utensils, but they always seemed to slip. He could feel the cold metal of the fork in his hand, and that Fiora had her hand around his wrist. But his fingers, and his arm—rigid and numb.

“I’ll work on that today,” he said instead.

Her brow knitted in concern. She seemed to know it wasn’t just his grip that was faltering. Had he talked in his sleep? Screamed, even?

“That look on your face.” She set down the fork and met his eyes unflinchingly. “Something’s bothering you.”

Silence. He tried not to betray any emotion on his face.

“I felt a little warm last night,” he said. “I don’t think it’s a fever, but I can’t be sure.”

She pressed the back of her hand to his forehead. “You don’t feel hot. Would a drink of water help?”

“Sure.”

She walked back downstairs with the plate and she had just turned on the faucet when there was a knock on the door. Dunban flinched. He hadn’t even gotten dressed! He rarely wore a shirt around the house during the warmer months. But his shoulders relaxed after Fiora opened the door and he heard, “Dickson! Welcome back!”

“Hi, Fiora. Did you and Reyn look after Shulk for me?”

“He’s doing fine. Spending some more time at home, actually, so I stopped by your place a few times to drop off some dinner for him. You know how it is…”

“…Without his old man around, he forgets to feed himself. Yep, I know it well. Anyway, I’m here to check on your brother. He taking visitors?”

“Is that an old fossil creaking around downstairs?” Dunban called, smirking.

“Sounds like lazybones is finally awake. I’ll keep him company. Why don’t you head over to the lab and let Shulk know I’ll be coming.”

“Of course. I’ll tell him you’re on your way. ’Bye, Dunban!”

“See you later!”

She shut the door, and heavy bootsteps clumped up the wooden stairs, until Dickson stood across from him, grinning as always.

“Been a while, hasn’t it, Beast?”

Dunban nodded. “I’m glad you made it out in one piece.”

“I could say the same about you. Fiora’s been looking after you, huh.”

“And she’s done a good job of it.”

“It’s a shame the Monado did this to you. I try to keep Shulk away from the damn thing, but he’s devoted to figuring out its secrets. I guess ’cause his parents left it to him.”

“As long as he doesn’t plan on wielding it, I don’t mind. One day, someone’ll come along who can wield that blade better than I.”

Dickson grunted in agreement. “That day might be sooner than we think.”

“I certainly hope so.”

“One thing’s for sure, I ain’t touching it. After seeing what it did to you, I had to get away from it for a while.”

“Very wise of you. But where did you go? I could have used the company.”

“You getting tired of that little sister of yours?” Dickson laughed. “I went to Colony 6. To check on ’em and give ’em a report after we came back home.”

He smirked. “Funny how it is, but everyone I talked to was going on about ‘Dunban this, Dunban that.’ They’re all talking about you.”

Dunban raised his eyebrows. “Really, now?”

Dickson flashed another toothy grin. “Every young man in the Force sees you as a role model. And all the ladies your age would be throwing themselves at your feet if you took visitors.”

“Ugh!” Dunban curled his lower lip. “Please, none of that.”

“Well, there were a few men, too, if that strikes your fancy.”

No one strikes my fancy. I’m quite fine the way I am.”

“So you’re not okay with folks falling head over heels for you. I figured as much. But are you fine with the kiddies seeing you as their hero?”

“No, no. That doesn’t bother me at all.”

Truthfully, it did make him a little uncomfortable, more than he might have expected. When he was a child, he’d always planned on being a hero, but now he wasn’t sure if he should be considered a hero. Ultimately, what he had done had not been brave; it had been foolish. And he couldn’t remember everything that had happened after the Monado had taken over him. What if he’d lost sight of the true enemy and hurt other soldiers in the joint Defence Force? No, that was not only unthinkable, but impossible. The Monado couldn’t harm Homs.

“Dickson, did you ever find out what happened to Mumkhar?”

“I don’t know where he went. One minute he was there, the next I turned around and he was gone.”

“I saw him run right into the thick of it. Toward the Mechon, no less!”

“That’s what I thought, too. Seemed like he was deserting, if not a dirty traitor, to me.”

“How am I not surprised?”

Dunban’s forehead was buzzing. Something burned behind his eyes. He hadn’t felt the itch for a drink in well over a year, after the last conflict had concluded. But talking about Mumkhar like this made him both angry and nostalgic. Mumkhar was not a great person; Dunban had no doubt about that. For getting drunk out of one’s mind with, he was just fine. But did he really have any good memories with Mumkhar? He’d been annoying, tactless, and kind of craven. He’d never really cared anything about Shulk or Fiora or Reyn, not in the way Dickson did. He’d always been distant, that was for sure. Not that Dunban had ever opened up to him either, or even to Dickson. One thing was for sure—he’d taken their camaraderie for granted.

“We had some good times with that bloke.” Dickson was leaning against the corner of the wall next to Dunban’s bed. “But let me just put it this way. I’m glad it was him instead of you.”

“That’s cruel!”

“Oh, come on. He wasn’t good for very much.”

“I won’t dispute that. But we won’t be saying so when his ghost comes back and claws us apart.”

Dickson narrowed his eyes and scoffed. “Is that your idea of humor? You’re so morbid, Beast.”

I can’t help it after the Monado nearly clawed me apart itself. “You’re the one who smiled when I said it.”

“More smiling ’cause…” He seemed to turn a little bashful. “I guess all that talk about you made me miss your sorry little self.”

“Ha! Getting sentimental on me, are you? Speaking of being missed, you’d better pay Shulk a visit. He’s probably wondering what took you so long to get back.”

“You make a good point. Hopefully I won’t be intruding on the young lovers by the time I get there.” He winked. “See you ’round, Dunban.”

Dunban smiled. “Goodbye. Take care.”

Fiora wasn’t back within the half hour, and Dunban was feeling drowsy and full of nostalgia and something he refused to call heartache. Had he really lost a friend or just someone to help fill the space? Dickson he felt comfortable calling a friend. Shulk and Reyn were his sister’s friends, but he felt they saw him more as a role model. Sure, there were plenty of people around his age in Colony 9, and everyone pretty much knew everyone. It wasn’t as if he was hurting for company. As long as he had Fiora, he could never be alone.

But if Fiora married Shulk when they were grown, they’d most likely buy their own house. That would leave him alone in their parents’ house. Would Fiora really abandon him, then? Move to another colony and leave him behind? No, she would never leave him behind. Would she? If what Dickson said were true, he could easily find himself a partner and settle down. But he didn’t truly want that. He was content with the way things were, yet he knew the future would bring new developments, and he feared being alone most of all. All these anxieties muddled together in his head, and he felt so drowsy he might just fall asleep…

He was shaken awake by Fiora jostling him, gripping him by the shoulders.

Blinking rapidly, he shot up in bed, pushing her aside. “What? What is it?”

“It’s nothing,” she said, startled. “It’s just me, Dunban.”

“What did you wake me up for?”

“The doctor stopped me while I was in the Military District. I asked if I might be able to remove your bandages, and she told me whenever you felt well enough, we should try. How does that sound?”

“Sounds fine to me.”

“How do you feel?”

“I haven’t felt any pain in a while.” Though it’s still numb. “How was Shulk?”

She began to unravel the bandages. “He’s looking healthier. He still won’t eat his vegetables, but once I told him a tomato was a fruit, he seemed to not have any problem with eating it. It must be the principle of it. Or maybe he doesn’t like green things? Oh, this part is really stuck.” She tugged hard, then gasped as the cloth strips came free.

“Oh,” she kept repeating. “Oh, oh no.”

“It can’t be that bad,” Dunban said, but he quickly ate his words when he saw the reddish-brown patchwork of still-scarring flesh covering his forearm. Deep cuts that the Monado had carved into his skin. Digging into it, eating it, electrocuting and burning him.

He groaned and clutched his stomach with his left arm, doubling over. His stomach was raw with pain, his forehead burning, vision blurring. A hiccup caught in his throat, and he lurched forward.

Fiora rushed up from the bed and got the trashcan, holding back his hair. Just in time. She handed him a handkerchief and he wiped his mouth. He trembled, lightheaded. His stomach felt empty and cold on the outside.

“Better?”

He took a deep breath. “Sorry. Just… shaken.”

“What are you saying ‘sorry’ for? I’m just as horrified as you are. But look how well it’s healed!”

“I’m just glad I didn’t see it when it was still healing.”

Fiora let go of his hair, and it fell to his shoulders, hiding her from view until he raised his head. The shakiness was gone.

“You looked a little worried when you were asleep earlier,” she said.

“Did I?” He smiled weakly. “That old man put all these thoughts in my head, so I had to sleep them off.”

She hummed, frowning. “Maybe you aren’t ready for company then.”

“Don’t tell me. You invited Shulk over, didn’t you?”

“And Reyn, too, of course.”

Dunban frowned.

“They really want to see you!” She slung her arm across his shoulders. “They always ask about you. In fact, I think everyone in the colony’s waiting for you to make your big debut again.”

“I’m not entirely looking forward to it myself.”

She rolled her eyes, smiling. “Shulk and Reyn won’t care if you don’t want to wear a shirt to dinner.”

“It’s not that I don’t want to. I can’t stretch my arm up through the sleeves. Though if it were up to me, I’d probably leave it off, yes.”

“Well, what about one of Dad’s old button-downs?”

“Fantastic idea.” Nobody had ever dressed as well as his father. And nobody in the colony really dressed like him anymore. “Why don’t you wash some of his shirts? At least one of them should be dry by tomorrow evening.”

“There you go. A new haircut, and a new wardrobe—you’ll be a whole new person!” She giggled.

“Fine by me. I’d much rather wear his things than my old Defence Force clothes.”

“All righty. I’ll get to work washing those shirts.”

“Are you okay to go into our parents’ room?”

“It’ll just be a quick trip. What, do you think I’ll get lost?” Then she furrowed her brow. “I’m more worried that you’ll get sick again.”

“I’m fine now.”

“Let’s see how you feel in an hour. I can wait for dinner.”

“If you say so.”

Hiding his nightmares from Fiora was getting harder. He’d woken up after dreaming that Mumkhar had stolen the Monado and left him to get devoured by the Mechon. He’d never used to have such graphic nightmares. But he was always alone in so many of them, and it was a great comfort when Fiora walked up the stairs as usual with breakfast. Today, he insisted on eating on his own with his left arm. He still didn’t want to tell Fiora, but concentrating on the left arm was looking like a better idea every day.

She went to the Commercial District early, leaving him with some time to read until he had an idea. Though most of his practice weapons were still in the Military District barracks, there were a few sabres on his weapon racks on either side of the window. He walked over to the weapon racks and picked up one of the sabres, bringing it over to the bed to shake it loose from its sheath. Gripping the handle in his left hand, he noticed how, though it was not his sword hand, he could still hold the sabre aloft for a bit before his unpracticed hand began to tremble. He regretted not learning to use a two-handed grip—but even if he had, his left arm would still be the weaker of the two.

Fearing Fiora’s return, he quickly returned the sabre to its sheath and to its position on the weapon rack. Though he hadn’t dared try any forms, he now knew that he could at least lift a sword, and that if worst came to worst, he could wield the Monado again. Though Dickson seemed oddly optimistic about the prospect of finding someone who could wield the Monado unharmed, Dunban didn’t expect that anyone could have more control over the Monado than he did. And he couldn’t even control it himself. Was he willing to possibly give up his other arm to save the colony from the Mechon? He felt like he was willing. Was he a hero for that, or just a fool?

After seventeen years, his father’s death still stung. So, his impulse was to protect. Not just Fiora, not just Shulk and Reyn, not just his fellow soldiers. Everyone in the colony. So maybe he did have a bit of a hero complex. But that wasn’t exactly it—it was more that he felt obligated. If he gave that up now and turned away into an early retirement, where would the colony be? Especially without someone to wield the Monado?

He sighed, sitting on the edge of the bed and burying his forehead in the palm of his left hand. “Would you have known what to do?” he said, not sure whether he was speaking to Dad or to Mum. He knew what Dad’s answer would have been. Dad would encourage him to be a hero for the sake of the colony. Right? And what would Mum say? Think of Fiora? Think of the colony? Think of yourself? What did he want?

“I’m back,” Fiora announced as the door swung open. Startled, Dunban shook his head to free himself from his thoughts, listening as she set the basket on the table. “Should I get you dressed now? No, I guess you should eat first.”

After a quick lunch, she brought in the button-down from the clothesline and helped him into it, along with a pair of stockings and trousers from his own wardrobe. She gave his hair a quick brush, then he walked over to the mirror.

“Needs a vest, I think,” he mused.

“I remembered you mentioning all his vests. But I thought you might get hot with the extra fabric.”

“Yes, this is more comfortable. And,” he pointed to his arm, “it covers me up.”

She nodded. Then she laced her hands behind her back with a sunny smile, looking quite like when she was five years old asking for Mum to give her sweets from the candy jar.

“Hey, it’s really nice outside. Now that you’re dressed, you should take a walk. You’ve been inside for more than a week.”

He chuckled. “Is that what getting me dressed was really about? Still, I won’t deny you’re right. Let’s go.”

And it was nice to walk around the colony outskirts. Not nearly as hot as the past few days, though it was still warm. Peaceful, and quiet. He didn’t even hear much chatter in town. The leaves on the trees seemed greener than he remembered, the sky perhaps bluer.

All along the way, Fiora chatted about the people in the Military District. Clearly, she hadn’t been spending all her time with Shulk and Reyn. She was getting to know more people from the Defence Force—and a lot of their personal drama. She’d even resolved a small lover’s quarrel. Though that was petty and insignificant, he felt proud of her nonetheless. She seemed more mature than he remembered, standing taller lately.

She talked about the casualties from the war, and who had gone missing. He hadn’t had the heart to look into any of that after Mumkhar’s disappearance, but he was shocked to learn that Karlos, one of the men around his age with whom he’d gotten in fights when he was young, had fallen off the Sword, according to a report from Colony 6 that Dickson had relayed to the Colonel, who had then relayed it to his soldiers. Fiora explained how she hadn’t seen him around the Military District, even though she’d looked for him every time, and Dunban expressed sympathies. He’d always been a good guy, that one; he’d forgiven Dunban’s brashness in their youth and was kind to Fiora and Shulk.

They returned an hour later, and Fiora got right to work on dinner. Dunban rested his legs and flexed his arms. He wasn’t keeping up a strict regimen with the right arm anymore, but now and then he tried to bend the fingers of his right hand in the blind hope that his grip might return. He’d hardly begun to roll his shoulder when there was a loud knock on the door, and Fiora opened it to raucous greetings.

“Wow, Fiora, that smells amazing!” Reyn cried. “The potatoes, the meat, the vegetables… this curry’s gonna be sublime!”

“It looks delicious,” Shulk said. “Mmm, it’s making my mouth water.”

“Thank you both. But save your compliments for when you’re eating it!”

Dunban made his way down the stairs and offered a smile as they both turned around. “Hey, you two. Good to see you.”

Reyn’s eyes widened. “Whoa, it’s Dunban!” The corners of his mouth turned up. “Boy, am I beyond glad to see you up and about.”

“You look well, Dunban,” Shulk said cheerily. “Are you feeling better?”

Dunban nodded. “Yes. My strength has begun its slow return.”

Behind Shulk, Reyn turned to the cutting board where Fiora had worked earlier, searching for scraps. Fiora was busy watching the curry, while Shulk snuck glances over at the pan.

Shulk turned his gaze back to Dunban. “You should take as long as you need, since the colony should be safe for a while.”

“Yeah, no one’s expecting you to get up and help right away,” Reyn said through a mouthful of carrot ends. “A hero deserves his rest, after all.”

“I suppose you’re right.” Though he couldn’t shake his nightmares, he couldn’t remember a time when he’d felt as calm as he had staying home with Fiora for the past few days. He hadn’t thought much about the Mechon, probably because he was too worried about his arm and the Monado.

Shulk hovered over the pan of curry, watching as Fiora stirred it, her hair tied back at the nape of her neck. The house swam with the scents of potatoes, carrots, onions, garlic, and spices. Reyn looked intoxicated by the smell, Shulk too; Dunban himself felt a little giddy, especially when he recalled the “meals,” if they could even be called that, provided by the Defence Force. If their cooking hadn’t gotten any better since he’d been in the hospital, that would explain why Reyn was so excited.

Fiora spooned the reddish-brown curry into bowls, setting them in front of everyone’s place at the table. Satisfied “mmm”s replaced Shulk and Reyn’s idle chatter; Dunban closed his eyes to savor the taste. He opened his eyes to Shulk’s loud laughter and Fiora’s giggles as Reyn breathed out, squeaking “Hot, hot!” and he couldn’t help but laugh quietly, shaking his head fondly. Reyn tended not to think when good food was on the table. Made sense when he usually didn’t have folks cooking for him.

But though Shulk and Reyn were not tied to each other, or to him and Fiora, by blood, he couldn’t help but think of them as family, too. It made his heart warm to consider that they would likely continue being part of Fiora’s life, into his old age and her own. Reyn would always be by Shulk’s side, and Shulk would always be with him and Fiora. Their bonds were strong. And if one day Shulk realized that maybe he did want to marry Fiora, Dunban didn’t really have a problem with that. No matter what happened, his family wouldn’t get smaller. He wanted his family to keep growing.

“Wow, you three seemed to enjoy your dinner a lot,” Fiora said once Reyn and Dunban had cleaned their plates. Shulk had pushed all of the green vegetables aside, but he was slowly picking at the potatoes, carrots, and sauce. “I tried a few new spices this time. But you need to blow on it before you eat it, Reyn!”

“I know! I was just so chuffed to have your cooking again!”

“Reyn, you talk like it’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” Shulk said. “Doesn’t Fiora bring you food?”

“She does, sometimes. But believe me, if I got food from Fiora every day, I’d have my whole routine done before the Colonel could even blink, press-ups ’n’all.”

“You certainly look like you’ve been doing enough of them,” Dunban said.

“I’ll take the compliment and run!” Reyn flexed one bicep with a grin. “You oughta get just as strong if you eat her cooking every day, Dunban.”

Dunban chuckled. “Well, yes. Eating is certainly important for one’s health, and is key to a good recovery.”

“See!” Fiora steepled her fingers, glaring at Shulk. “Dunban agrees with me. You have to remember to eat, and not just when Dickson’s around to cook for you.”

“I eat!” Shulk’s voice went up a pitch. “I take a snack along every day when I’m working in the lab. And I eat it!”

“Your idea of a snack probably isn’t enough to give you even a little tiny bit of energy. Hmm, what would it be? Half a piece of bread? One carrot?”

“Remember, Fiora, Shulk doesn’t know what good food is.” Reyn pointed his thumb at Shulk. “This is the kid who ate bugs when he was little.”

Dunban and Fiora snorted almost in unison.

“That was one time!” Shulk protested, shoving Reyn lightly, which barely even moved him. “And you tricked me!”

“Well, what about the time you took a bite out of a mud pie? I couldn’t believe my ears when I heard that.”

Fiora raised one eyebrow. “Really? Even if it has ‘pie’ in the name, you had to know it wouldn’t taste good.”

“Only a true connoisseur can appreciate the refined flavor of wet dirt,” Dunban said quietly, smirking.

“Dunban,” Fiora chided, laughter lingering in her voice.

“I did not!” Shulk countered, though his voice was starting to crack, too. “Someone made that story up! You know I never ate mud, Reyn!”

Shulk’s anger faded, they all erupted into laughter, and the conversation continued onto the kids in the colony who really had eaten dirt and flowers and things like that. Dunban said nothing about when Fiora was two and thought that sand was the most appetizing thing in the colony, nor did he mention that Shulk and Reyn had probably tried to shove a handful of sand in their mouths when they were that age. He got up and poured himself some water from the faucet, holding the cup carefully with his left hand and returning it to the table without spilling anything. His grip was getting stronger every day.

Dunban found it hard to get to sleep that night. He rolled around in bed, the crickets from outside ringing in his ears, until he finally drifted off. There was enough blood in whatever he dreamt that the veins in his arm seemed to pulse when he woke up. Was his ether elevated again? He really didn’t want to have to go back to the hospital, but he felt hot, his throat raw. It was barely dawn, and he didn’t want to return to bed.

He went downstairs and sat at the table for a bit, trying to calm down by breathing deeply, but a headache was already pulsing behind his eyelids. He recalled Dad’s migraines all too well, how he’d come back from training early and say he needed to lie down, and it was dark in the house in the middle of the day, and he had to play outside with other kids and not bother Dad. But he wasn’t seeing black dots in his vision. Maybe it was best just to drink a little more water and walk it off. Best to leave now and come back while Fiora was still asleep.

Wisps lit the night up yellow, though their glowing bodies paled in comparison to the majestic tapestry of little stars pockmarking the sky. The path up to Outlook Park was an easy one, and it would not be dangerous at night. The breeze was gentle, the night warm, but when the wind picked up a little, he realized just how thin the borrowed shirt was. The fresh colony air soothed him, and he began to forget the gory nightmare he’d had. He sat on the bench, watching the stars briefly. Then he heard footsteps rushing up the stairs.

“Dunban! Did you even hear me?”

He flinched, turning his head. Fiora stood there in the clothes she’d worn yesterday, her hair tied up in a haphazard bun.

“Fiora! You’re up this late?”

“I could ask the same of you!” She sat down on the bench next to him. “I was worried. Not only because you left. I heard you screaming!”

“I… screamed? In my sleep?”

“I was horrified! It chilled me to the bone.” She clutched her hands to her arms and rubbed up and down to warm them. “What happened that you were screaming like that? I thought you were being attacked!”

He turned his head away. “Must have been a nightmare.”

“It’s not the first time, is it?”

He still didn’t meet her eyes.

“Answer me!”

“No. It’s not.”

“Thank you. That’s all I needed to know.”

Silence fell for a moment. He listened to the crickets. He lowered his head, breathing a silent sigh out his nose.

“How long have they been going on?” she asked solemnly.

“Ever since I came home from the hospital, I’ve had horrific nightmares.”

“Are you having… flashbacks to what happened?”

He looked up, meeting her worried gaze. “I try to push it out of my mind, but it seems I’m always thinking of it one way or another. I don’t want Shulk, or anyone else, to pick up the Monado and get hurt. That blade is dangerous. But at the same time, it’s all we have. And I’m the only one who can wield it.

“So it’s my duty to pick it up again. I’ve got to be ready to—”

“No, you don’t!” she shouted. She grabbed him by the shoulders. “Look what it did to you. I couldn’t bear it when I saw what happened. If something happened to Shulk or to anyone else, then I—” She grimaced.

“It’s all right.” He closed his eyes, shaking his head slowly. “It was a sacrifice I had to make. I’m glad everyone is safe.”

“What are you talking about?! It wasn’t a sacrifice!” She bit her lip, tears welling in her eyes. “No one asked you to be a hero. Least of all me.” Her expression twisted with rage and sadness. “Don’t tell me… don’t tell me that you want to be heroic because of Dad!”

“It’s not because of him!” He hadn’t meant to raise his voice that much, but he wanted to make sure she understood. “It’s because of you and Mum. All I wanted to do was protect both of you after Dad died. And if I can save the colony and the Bionis itself, then I don’t see a problem with being a hero.”

“Well, I think you need to take a break from it!”

He relaxed his furrowed brow. “What do you mean?”

“I’m going to get stronger, too. I’m going to learn to fight, too. So I can protect you, Shulk, and everyone.”

“You’re learning to fight? Fiora—” Oh. That explains it. “Is this why you’ve been going to the Military District so frequently?”

She nodded. Then she frowned, lip quivering. “I’m sorry I didn’t tell you—”

“No, no! That makes me happier than anything to hear. I want you to learn to protect yourself. What’s going to happen if I’m not here one day? Or if I stick around long enough, you might be the one protecting me. Either way, I’m…” He relaxed his expression into a smile. “I’m not angry that you didn’t tell me. I couldn’t be prouder of you for making this brave decision on your own.”

Fiora opened her mouth, but whatever she said came out as a wail, and she leaned into his left shoulder and wept.

“There, there,” Dunban whispered, reminding himself of his mother. “No matter what happens, Fiora, we’ll always have each other.” He swallowed, feeling his own tears beading in his eyes as his face mottled with heat.

She tried to say something in return, but he could understand very little of it, her voice being choked up with tears. He patted her on the back briefly and reached in his pocket for the handkerchief he’d stowed in there yesterday after he’d teared up a little that evening thinking about everyone happy around the table. She released the embrace and accepted the handkerchief.

After she’d wiped her eyes and nose, he asked, “What was it you were trying to say?”

“You need to rely on me more.”

“Rely on you?”

“You need to tell me about your nightmares. You can’t be afraid to talk to me about them. You…” She paused to collect herself. “I may not understand, because I wasn’t there. But I can see clear as day what happened to you. You don’t have to do it alone, Dunban. I’m your sister, and I want you to tell me when something’s wrong.”

“Right. I shouldn’t keep it from you… that’ll worry you more.”

“You were keeping it from me because you didn’t want to worry me. I knew it.” She sighed. “Same old brother.”

“And my arm, too.” He lowered his head. “I—”

“I understand why you gave up for now. But your left arm is getting stronger. You’re getting more used to it, I can tell.”

“I’m glad you’ve noticed.”

He raised his head to meet her eyes, tearstained face and all. Inside his head, he felt like his mother and father were constantly fighting. Dad would want him to be a strong role model for Fiora and the boys, a stoic and headstrong man. But Dad had also been the most stubborn git he’d ever known. Mum would want him to be sensitive and attuned to others’ needs. But he couldn’t be all soft inside, otherwise he wouldn’t ever be able to muster any courage when it mattered. The best he could manage was to be brave. To be himself. That was all he had ever known and ever wanted to be.

He stood and offered his left hand. “Come on, Fiora. Let’s head back.”

Dawn broke new in a cloudless sky, and he felt himself smiling wider than he ever had.