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Deliver Me Courage, Deliver Me Strength

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"Pacifica! Look out!"

Pacifica's head came up slowly, her patchwork doll forgotten at the raw fear in her big brother's voice. She'd heard him yell at her for pulling his hair, for getting him dirty, for being in the way, for eating too much – for everything and anything all the day long. His voice was constantly upraised around her, usually in annoyance, though not always; sometimes she managed to make him laugh and that was the best sound.

But in all those yellings and laughters and everything in between, she had never heard Shannon sound so panicked.

Then she noticed the creature slithering out of a bush.

"Run, Pacifica!"

Pacifica dropped her doll and bolted towards her big brother. But her little five-year-old legs couldn't get over the big branches and roots that surrounded her favorite hiding spot in the woods – a clearing amidst the brambles where she could creep away and play without having to listen to the screeching of metal being bent and sharpened from father's forge. Her foot caught on something and she stumbled to the ground.

"Shannon!"

"Pacifica!"

Just as Shannon reached her side, the serpent reared and struck.

-==OOO==-

Father was awake again.

Raquel moved slowly, extricating herself from Pacifica's arms. When her sister had been younger, the slightest move would wake her and Raquel would find herself having to soothe her sister back to sleep many times a night. But that had changed in the last few years as Pacifica grew – and as she took on more chores around the house to fill the void left by all that Raquel no longer had time to manage.

Raquel was grateful; as long as Shannon and Pacifica both slept the nights through, neither needed to know about their father's sorrow.

It was pure habit to check on Shannon as she slipped from the tiny room she and Pacifica shared. It had once been Shannon's too, but the day he reached thirteen years old he had declared himself too grown up to sleep with the girls and had bedded down in a corner of the kitchen instead. It had taken Pacifica a month to forgive him for leaving.

Raquel never told either of them that she missed him, too. Even at fifteen, Shannon was already growing into a warrior who would easily surpass any in the valley, to say nothing of their father. Raquel was comfortable with her knowledge of magic, certain of her ability to use it if necessary. And she was the eldest; it was her job to protect the other two, no matter how competent Shannon became.

But there was just something about Shannon that made her feel so safe.

Raquel shook her head at herself and continued with silent steps out into the yard. The dirt was cool beneath her bare feet and she did not even need to glance down to make her way to the forge without stumbling – she knew every inch of the land around the house the same way she knew every smile of Pacifica's and every sigh of Shannon's.

And now, every anguish of their father's.

Raquel pushed open the door, the heat of the fire washing over her in a familiar blast.

He did not even turn away from his work. "You should be asleep."

"Yes. So should you, I think." Raquel moved inside just enough that the door could be closed but no farther into the room – her bare feet and legs made approaching the sparks that flew and the embers that fell dangerous. Not that Raquel minded the risk for herself; she would have accepted any burn as an easy price for her father to sleep the night through for once.

But she could not take harm and add to the burdens that already plagued his heart and soul.

"Is Pacifica all right?"

"She's still sleeping."

"Good." Their father had stopped his hammering at Raquel's appearance, and now he thrust a length of heated metal into a nearby bucket. Steam rose and the water roiled.

"Please come back into the house, father."

Normally, he would ask for a few more minutes to finish and Raquel would agree and they both knew he would work until he fell to the nearest bench in exhausted unconsciousness until the dawn or his grief roused him once more. Raquel had learned in the year since her mother's death that there was almost nothing else she could do to ease her father's pain but to remind him that his children still lived and still cared for him. There was no other magic that could heal the wound in his heart from the loss of his beloved wife.

But tonight he turned from his work and faced her, sweat hiding any evidence of tears on his sooty, weathered cheeks.

"You shouldn't leave Pacifica and Shannon alone. What if something happened to them?"

Raquel considered him. When she spoke, it was in the same calm, measured way that she said everything that mattered. "But that would leave you alone instead. What if something happened to you?"

He blinked.

Raquel waited quietly.

Finally he let out a breath. "You're too young to have to take care of me as well as your brother and sister. I wish you didn't have to, even though it's my fault so much has fallen to you."

Raquel shook her head. "I'm not too young. Girls get married at sixteen. And it doesn't matter. You need me. Shannon and Pacifica need me. If I can take care of you all, I will." Then, though it made her smile wobble, "Mother would have wanted me to do this."

"Your mother…" But he could say no more. He dropped the heavy tongs that were dangling forgotten from his hands and ran his palms over his face, adding soot and smearing the sweat and tears that gathered.

Raquel picked her way across the floor and reached up to where she could grasp his hands. She pulled them down and held them tightly. In a moment, her father wrapped his arms around her and ducked his head to her shoulder just as Pacifica did when upset, just as Shannon had done when he was much younger. He did not make a sound, but she felt wetness seeping through her thin sleepclothes.

Raquel knew she could not ever replace her mother, not her kindness nor her wisdom nor her effortlessness in holding up the entire family with one smile. But she would try to hold them all up regardless, no matter what.

-==OOO==-

Shannon swept at the ground with the stick he had grabbed on instinct, driving the snake backwards.

"Run, Pacifica!" he yelled again.

But Pacifica seemed frozen where she had fallen, staring with wide, teary eyes at the enormous, thick-bodied serpent whose bright scales winked in the sunlight streaming through the trees above. It wasn't so large that it could eat her easily, but its body was well thicker than one of Pacifica's legs and its bared fangs were longer than her smallest fingers.

Shannon was big enough to carry Pacifica if necessary, and he was growing sturdier every day he worked chopping firewood for his father's forge, but he couldn't stop swinging at the snake long enough to pick her up. And the snake, in spite of a blow landed right on the sensitive part of its snout, only recoiled, hissing, to dart forward again.

Shannon held the stick like a sword and swung it just as he had been taught, but without a sharp edge he could do little more than knock the serpent away and anger it further. He wasn't big enough to kill it in a single blow with the fallen branch.

And he knew if he didn't manage to kill it in one blow, he would be subject to its vengeance.

"Pacifica. Can you get up?" He didn't turn, didn't dare. He could hear her finally starting to move, though, and felt a trickle of relief. Maybe they could escape after all.

"Big brother...you're bleeding!"

Only then did Shannon glance down and realize that the snake's first attack had struck home on his unprotected bare leg.

-==OOO==-

Their very first day on the road, Shannon almost lost Pacifica.

He knew, he knew her bratty behavior was as much an act as her way of trying to forget her own fear. He knew that. Pacifica had always been the most demanding and unreasonable and irritating when she was afraid – unless she was really afraid. Then she went as still and determined as himself.

They'd always yelled at one another or bothered one another; only after their mother's death had those squabbles become meaningful. He knew how to let her rage at him, how to ignore her insults and, more importantly, when to return them in a game of keeping either of them from sinking numbly beneath their troubles.

Neither of them had Raquel's tranquil nature. Shannon and Pacifica had to lash out or else feel their own emotions cutting them apart from the inside. They had always been each other's best target and truest opponent.

But today Shannon just didn't have the time to bother with it.

"For the last time! We're not going back!"

Pacifica had refused to sit on the wagon-bench between Raquel and Shannon and instead had remained inside the wagon, which made it easy for her to position her head directly behind Shannon's to bellow into his ear.

"We have to go back! I'm telling you, I left something important at home!"

Raquel didn't even flinch. "There's nothing more important than your life, Pacifica."

Pacifica glared at her. "Maybe not, but it's close."

"The wagon's over-full as it is," Shannon said, fighting the urge to plug the ear nearest to Pacifica in case she yelled into it again. "We need all the room we have for food and supplies."

"This won't take up any extra room!" She leaned forward and prodded him on the shoulder, right on the spot she knew was bruised from where he had dropped a box while loading the wagon. "I don't care if you're a mean old man for the next month! I want to go back now!"

Shannon's patience evaporated and he stopped the wagon, whirling to snarl directly into her face.

"We are never going back home!"

His roar startled every bird from every tree as in all directions and the harsh, bitter words seemed to echo in the close-woods that sheltered the little-used path.

Pacifica stared at him for a moment. Then, as tears filled her eyes, she nodded once and retreated back into the wagon, closing the curtain behind her.

Raquel waited until Shannon had turned back around and urged the horses to resume their pace. "You can't blame her for being upset."

He snorted. "I don't. But this isn't easy on any of us."

"Hmm."

"You don't think I was wrong, do you? You can't expect us to go back."

"No, I don't." Raquel gave a tiny shrug. "But you never even asked her what she left behind. And I think, if it was that important..."

Shannon sighed. Pacifica could be so round-about sometimes. "Fine." He handed over the reins and turned to crawl back into the wagon. It was annoying, and he really should be watching for danger from their former neighbors who might now be hunting them down, but he supposed he owed Pacifica that much courtesy.

But when he pushed the curtain aside, his heart froze in his chest. "Pacifica!"

Raquel stopped the horses at his shout. "What is it?"

"She's gone!"

Shannon leaped off the wagon and raced back along the trail. How could she? There could be people at the house right now waiting to kill her! He spotted a familiar boot-print just at the edge of the track before it vanished into the forest.

Raquel appeared at his shoulder. "You take the road," she said. "I'll follow her through the woods."

Shannon nodded and headed off at once at a full sprint, his sword bouncing against his hip. No one was quicker in thick undergrowth than Raquel, but even she didn't know this forest the way Pacifica did. He had always managed to get tangled up, and the sword made it harder to move quickly but quietly. He could only hope they would reach her before anyone else did.

Shannon ran for what felt like hours but was truly only a few miles. Just as he was rounding the last bend in the trail before the forest thinned out to the fields that had surrounded their home, he heard pounding feet running towards him. Shannon drew his sword and charged.

"Shannon!" Pacifica almost collided with her brother's bare blade.

But Shannon expertly swung it up and down, not touching a hair on Pacifica's head while neatly cleaving the fishing spear that came stabbing in her direction in two. With the momentum of the strike, he put himself between the small knot of villagers and Pacifica and faced them.

His unexpected appearance brought the crowd to a halt.

"Turn around," Shannon said. "I'll let you go."

"But! She is the poison that will destroy the world!"

Pacifica flinched at the man who had sold her family fish for as long as she could remember, the one who had joked and told stories and had only a few weeks prior complimented her on growing up into such a pretty young woman. Now his spear was broken and his face was red, though she could not tell if it was from anger or shame.

"Walk away," Shannon said. "Now."

They hesitated.

"Servants of the flames, dance!"

Tiny fires ignited under their feet. The men shouted and jumped, trying to keep their boots from catching fire.

Raquel walked up behind them, one hand outstretched.

"We...we have to kill her!"

"Servants of the flames, dance!"

Shannon drew Pacifica to his side, half-hiding her in his cloak. "Go home. All of you. This is over." He began to edge away, keeping himself always between Pacifica and the villagers.

Raquel stepped around the men and interposed herself. "Protect us, wall."

A shield rose and shimmered in the air, encompassing the crowd instead of the Casulls.

"Hey!"

Raquel shrugged. "Oops." She turned to follow Shannon. "Don't worry. It will fade away eventually." She paused. Considered. "I think. At least within a few days."

Pacifica glanced up at her when she reached them. "Did you really just trap everyone for that long?"

"I don't know, actually. I suppose I'll never find out. But probably not."

Shannon drew in a long breath. "Pacifica…"

"I know." Pacifica looked at her feet as she walked. "I know. It was stupid. I shouldn't have gone. But…" Wordlessly, she held out her hand.

Shannon's rage dissolved. "I see."

Pacifica closed her fingers on the clear, blue broach that was one of the few possessions she inherited from her mother. She had worn it almost constantly since her mother's death years ago, taking it off only when she might risk damaging it – as she had that morning while hauling large boxes up into the wagon.

"I left it on the woodpile," she said softly. "I just…"

"It's all right," Raquel said, putting a hand on her shoulder. "I think mother would understand."

Pacifica nodded and carefully affixed the broach where it belonged, nestled close to her heart.

Shannon sighed and put a hand on her other shoulder, squeezing gently.

He understood, of course he did. And he couldn't be angry with her, not when she was so sad already.

But Shannon wondered how many more times he would be so frightened for her before the end.

-==OOO==-

Finally the serpent retreated and Shannon felt the shakiness he'd thought was fear catch up to him. His knees buckled and he dropped into the knot of roots that had prevented Pacifica's escape.

Pacifica darted around to him. "Shannon?"

Shannon wanted to say that he was okay, that he wasn't scared, that it was over now. But a sudden spike of agony shot through his leg and he doubled over, whimpering.

Pacifica's tiny hands stretched for the wound. "You're bleeding a lot," she said in a voice that wavered on the edge of tears. "And your skin looks really funny."

Shannon forced himself to look at his leg. It hurt more to see the deep bite-marks, and the sick feeling in his stomach grew at the white puffiness already swelling around the site.

"Poison," he said.

"Mama can fix it," Pacifica said. But it was almost a question, and her lower lip was trembling.

Shannon forced himself to nod and to swallow the pain down. "Yes, she can. You'll have to help me get to her, though."

He moved Pacifica to one side and tried to levy himself upward so he could lean on her while they walked back to the house – hopefully before the poison spread too much. But the first instant he stretched out his leg and tried to walk, Pacifica's own balance faltered and they both tipped back into the brambles. The next two tries ended the same way.

"I'm sorry!" Pacifica cried. "I'm not strong enough to carry you!"

"It's not your fault," Shannon told her. Pacifica's tears were flowing now. He hated seeing her cry. "You'll have to run home and get mother as fast as you can."

But before Pacifica could move, a hissing sound rose from the nearest bush.

-==OOO==-

Shannon Casull, Zefiris decided, slept exactly like Beckham Mauser.

Five thousand years of stagnant history could not erase certain instincts, it seemed, at least not in those created to protect the Providence Breaker. For all that humanity had been penned, tamed, and blinded, the restless wariness of a warrior had still managed to breed true into Shannon Casull.

Zefiris was both grateful and unsettled by the similarity.

How many times during the war had she checked on her master to find him sleeping upright in his bunk, a communicator in his hand? How many times had he opened his eyes, no trace of tiredness in them, at the very hint of her presence? It had taken Zefiris the better part of a year to learn to watch him without triggering that awareness so he could rest properly.

It seemed his distant descendent was no less wary, enough so that she needed to repeat the old subroutine that kept her from entering quite into normal space to keep him from sensing her.

Shannon Casull carried a sword instead of a communicator and wore a hand-woven cloak instead of a neuro-optimized bio-suit, but it would have been easy for Zefiris to think her code had glitched again and she was looking at a memory file instead of her new master.

No. Not new master.

Beckham Mauser was her only master, no matter how many thousands or billions of years passed. Even if her code degraded to nothing, she would have no other master.

But now she must accept a new knight.

A knight to protect the Providence Breaker.

To create the world Beckham Mauser had died trying to save.

Shannon Casull shifted slightly, never losing his perch against a tree and never raising his head. Zefiris became aware of something in the forest and scanned the area for threats. She located only a deer, normal fauna in this area of the biome.

Though facing the wrong way and too far distant for human senses to perceive it, Shannon seemed to recognize the deer also, for the slight tension in his limbs released and he slid back into the slump of before, not that anyone without nanometer-precise vision might notice the difference.

For a moment, Zefiris imagined her own master here instead.

But he would not have relaxed at a deer and would instead have gone to investigate. Shannon Casull had grown up in this primitive world and knew its animals and its threats; Beckham Mauser had lived in a world of technology.

But he had been just as attuned to his own surroundings, too.

The others in the D-wing had never understood how Beckham could be awake and already suited up for combat before the alarms announced another unexpected attack from orbit. Or how he had an uncanny way of knowing when dinner was ready, even though meals were served on an irregular schedule precisely to keep the enemy forces from catching them unprepared. Or how he could tell when his sisters were not sleeping because of their own worries and would go to find them in the metal, underground hallways that were the only part of the world safe enough to house humanity's last hope.

Zefiris had never bothered to speculate if her master's awareness was related to Celia's own gift or if it was something else. But now, watching Shannon Casull, she had her answer.

For there was no trace of the extra-sensory abilities that had made Celia Mauser so indispensable to the resistance forces in either the Providence Breaker or her guardians, but still Shannon Casull heard the unhearable and anticipated the invisible.

Zefiris thought that was just as well. The Providence Breaker had enough trouble without that added burden. It had almost broken Celia Mauser by the end, the knowing, and the inability to prevent so many deaths no matter how hard she tried. Pacifica Casull was gentle in a way none of the Mausers had ever been that Zefiris had seen – she did not need to carry that same sorrow.

But the Casulls had lived in a world of relative peace and ease compared to the Mausers who had been born into a war of horrific proportions.

And yet Shannon Casull carried the same war-honed weariness of Beckham Mauser.

Was it any wonder Zefiris was drawn to him?

It might be some time yet before Shannon Casull decided to trust Zefiris completely, before he willingly accepted the full powers of a D-knight. The more he learned of the truth of Mauser and his own legacy, the less Shannon was comfortable putting himself into the keeping of Zefiris, even for his own safety; she knew perfectly well he did it only for the sake of the sister he loved and had sworn to protect.

But Zefiris had waited five thousand years for the chance to finish what Beckham Mauser had started. She had waited with nothing but emptiness in her heart where her one true master should have been.

Shannon Casull, for all his differences, would choose to fight with her in the end. Zefiris was sure of it. It was, without any doubt, the only certain way to ensure Pacifica's safety.

Which meant there were only two uncertainties remaining.

(Three, if Zefiris acknowledged the possibility of failing in her mission and dishonoring the memory of her master, but she would not fail so that possibility was not permitted to take up any space in her code, no matter how likely it was.)

The first uncertainty was – when would Shannon Casull accept the mantle of full D-knight, and would he choose it too late?

The second was whether or not Zefiris would be able to unlock the greatest powers within herself in time. And not just the abilities of her D-knight, not just the strength of a full merge.

Zefiris would have to allow Shannon Casull to step into the place made only for Beckham Mauser, only him. She would have to let this person who bore something close to his DNA and his face and maybe his spirit stand where her one true master belonged.

Unlocking that was more difficult than preserving the rest of her code put together. In more ways than one.

But Beckham Mauser had asked her to live, to protect the world, to save humanity.

In the end, no matter how difficult, how it hurt, Zefiris would follow that order. She would make her master's dream come true.

Until then, she watched Shannon Casull sleep and guarded him and his Providence Breaker as her master had guarded her with nothing but the memory of his presence for five thousand years.

-==OOO==-

Pacifica climbed out of the heap she had tumbled into with her brother and turned to the bush as the snake reappeared. The ground was not level here, so the serpent lifted itself up to prop its triangular head on a stout tree-root, tongue flicking out at her.

"Pacifica." Shannon was whispering now. "Run. Go get mother."

Pacifica shook her head, tiny golden curls bouncing.

"You have to." Shannon winced as another pain shot through him. "I can't make it out of here. You have to go get help. Before it's too late."

Pacifica shook her head again. "No. I'm not leaving you, big brother."

"I can't protect you now!" Shannon felt something twist inside his chest at the admission, something that made him feel sicker than the venom in his body. "I can't save you. You have to run!"

The snake started moving, edging around them to one side, but its beady eyes were still fixed on the pair of vulnerable children.

Pacifica dug into her pocket and found a piece of cloth she had fashioned into a dress for her little patchwork doll. Shaking with fear, she turned her back on the serpent and knelt beside her brother. She gave a yank and ripped out the stitches in the handmade dress, then bound the cloth around Shannon's wound that was still bleeding sluggishly.

Shannon gulped in pain as she made the makeshift bandage tight, a fiery agony from the pressure put on his skin and flesh that was getting whiter and whiter and swelling ominously now.

"Pacifica. Please go. Please."

"No." Pacifica's blue eyes fixed on him and Shannon wondered suddenly why her eyes were so different from everyone else's and how they got that way. Maybe it was because she spent so much time crying as a baby.

"Pacifica…"

"I said no!" Her little childish voice went sharp and shrill. Pacifica pushed away from his knee and turned to the snake inching ever closer. She stood up and held her arms out as if to block its way.

"I'm not going to let you hurt my brother!"

"Pacifica! You'll get bitten!" He couldn't bear to add, You'll die, too.

"I don't care." Pacifica spared one instant to look over her shoulder, her watery eyes filled with a light Shannon had never seen in her before and could not understand. Then she faced the snake and lifted her chin.

"Poison me if you want to, snake, but I'm not leaving my big brother here alone! No matter what!"

It was the bravest thing Shannon had ever seen in his ten years of life, and he was stricken to realize it would be the last thing she ever did as the snake reared to strike again.

-==OOO==-

Christopher Bairach, formerly Christopher Armalite, leader of the Obstinate Arrow and elite special forces fighter, felt absolutely heartsick. More than he ever had wading through the sea of bodies that had been candidates for Obstinate Arrow before the Baroness – now his mother, and that still took some getting used to – had taken over, and more than he had on any of the assignments, solo or with his team, he had ever undertaken.

It was one thing to kill on the order of the Baroness, or even the order of the king.

It was another to watch a person he had sworn to protect die.

Let alone two of them.

Why, why hadn't he foreseen Prince Forcis's decision? He had spent time with the prince, had learned to read him not just for tactical purposes but as a friend. He understood the prince's gentle heart and innate kindness. He had analyzed it, but he had also respected it.

It had all worked out – somehow, and no amount of explaining from Pacifica was making it any clearer how exactly she and Forcis were still alive – but still. Chris had let Pacifica die. Had let the prince kill himself.

He'd rather take his axe to his own chest than see either of those things happen ever again.

"Don't."

Chris looked up, surprised. Prince Forcis walked beside him, calm and at ease. At least, that was what he was allowing everyone to see. Chris would be a poor judge of his friend and prince indeed if he couldn't read the guilt and pain swimming behind the clear blue eyes.

"Don't what, your highness?"

That won him a frown and Chris hid a smile; the prince was still easily baited, at least.

"Not between us. I've told you that before."

"Right. Sorry, Forcis." He wasn't sorry at all. Anything to break the swirling storm of recrimination and worse roaring around inside the prince and only barely remaining behind his iron-stubborn control.

"Don't look at me like that." Forcis stopped walking, obliging Chris to stop as well. "You shouldn't feel bad about what I did."

Chris was surprised. Apparently he wasn't the only one reading the other so closely. "I'm not sure I can help it. I decided to protect Pacifica. And I wanted to protect you, too."

"And any fault lies with me," Forcis said. "It was my decision." His mouth worked into something resembling a tight smile. "Though, ultimately even that was taken out of my hands."

"I suppose." Chris shrugged.

"Are you going to yell at me again?"

"Did I yell at you before?"

Forcis's smile became less restrained. "Well, perhaps 'yelled' is the wrong word. But you certainly spoke very forcefully to me while I was taking what I thought were my last breaths." Then, a hint of humor in his eyes, he added, "I can now understand your team a little better."

Chris blinked. "How so?"

"Not one of them would dare to die on you if they knew how angry you would be at them while they died. It's certainly not the most peaceful way to exit the world."

Chris felt his face flush. "I'm...sorry?"

Forcis shook his head. "Don't be. It's only more annoying to me now because you were right all along. Pacifica...whatever she is, or was...I never should have done that."

"I'm glad we agree on that," Chris said. "From now on, you leave the shedding of blood to me and my team." Then, as an afterthought, "Actually, leave being anywhere near a battlefield to us, too. You're too important to lose from a building coming down."

"I think it'll be a while before there are any more battlefields," Forcis said. "The kingdom...the world is in too much of a mess for that."

He resumed walking and Chris fell in beside him. Pacifica, her siblings and friends, and the rest of Obstinate Arrow would meet them in the capital eventually, but for the moment they were going by a back route. Even though the voice of Lord Mauser had spoken and absolved Pacifica of any need to die, nobody wanted to risk a soldier spotting the Scrapped Princess and trying to kill her again. But Chris had insisted on accompanying the prince himself, just in case, as they rejoined the rest of the soldiers and set off for what was left of the city. The king was dead, Forcis would have to be crowned, and there were too many people with too much anger around. To say nothing of hidden agendas.

Chris had just gotten Prince Forcis back from the edge of death; he wasn't going to let him get close to it again.

"I'm going to need help," Forcis said then. "I can't fix all this on my own."

A long line of shattered forest made clear the devastation in the distance.

"You won't have to," Chris said. "I think...what Lord Mauser was trying to tell us was that we all have to work together to make the world what it should be."

"Yes. I know that." Forcis looked to Chris again. "But even so. I can't...shoulder this alone."

Chris felt something lodge in his throat and he nodded. "You won't. We'll help. My team and I. And...probably the Casulls, too."

Chris never realized the prince was moving until he had slipped his fingers into Chris's hand.

"Thank you."

Chris froze. How was he supposed to...he was a soldier...and an orphan...well, adopted now and even heir to a barony but still...and there was Winia...but…

Forcis squeezed tightly for one moment before he let go and strode ahead. It took Chris an unacceptably long five seconds to snap out of his feelings and follow.

"I'm not asking you to decide now." Forcis did not look at him at all, but there was the faintest blush on his porcelain skin. "Just...whatever happens now, I hope you will…"

"I'll be there." Chris said it and knew it was true even if he didn't know anything else for sure anymore. "When you need me. Whenever you need me. I'll be there."

The prince let out a breath and Chris could see a part of the world's burden upon him being released with it.

"Then I'm not afraid to face whatever comes next."

-==OOO==-

The snake launched itself at Pacifica.

A blade flashed.

And the snake's head fell at her feet while its body collapsed on the other side of her father's sword.

"Father!" Shannon cried. "Pacifica! Did it get you?"

"No." Pacifica lowered her arms and drew them in, looking at her hands. She started to shake.

"Take Pacifica," came the familiar voice of their mother. "I'll help Shannon. Yuhma, I'll need the body."

Carol Casull strode into the bramble-patch with Raquel at her side. Raquel managed to get her arms around Pacifica just as her sister's courage drained out of her and she went limp, crying brokenly on Raquel's shoulder.

"Mother." Shannon felt like crying, too, but his skin felt hot and he didn't have the breath to sob. "It bit me."

"I know." She unbound Pacifica's little bandage and ran gentle fingers over the wound. Even her lightest touch, however, drew a moan of pain from her son.

"Here." Yuhma brought the carcass of the snake over, kicking the head away as he did. He reversed his sword and cut a neat line into the serpent's body, opening it like breaking a loaf of bread into halves for his children.

"Thank you." Carol reached into the body and scooped out a fluid that was not blood into her cupped hand. With her other hand, she drew a vial from one of her endless pockets and uncorked it. A few droplets from the snake changed the yellowish liquid to an amber-orange color.

"What-what is that?" Pacifica was still wrapped up in Raquel's arms, but she couldn't not watch what was happening to her brother.

Carol smiled at her children and waved the girls over so they could see her work. She exchanged a knowing look with her husband.

"The snake is venomous and its bite is poison," she said as she swirled the vial to mix the contents more completely. "But the snake itself also bears the cure that can undo all the harm it causes."

She looked Shannon in the eye. "This will hurt."

Shannon nodded and wrapped both hands around nearby roots. "I understand."

Yuhma knelt to hold his leg steady.

In a series of quick motions, his mother drew a small knife from her belt and made a cut across the bite on his leg. Shannon barked a cry of pain which turned to a keening scream as she dribbled the amber-orange cure onto the open wound.

"Be strong, big brother." Shannon cut off his screaming when he realized that Pacifica, tear-stained face and all, had moved to crouch by his right shoulder and was holding onto his hand braced on the root.

On the other side, Raquel knelt, too. "We're here. We'll protect you."

With his sisters anchoring him, Shannon felt the pain just the same, but it seemed not to matter as much anymore. He barely noticed as his mother treated the wound with her mixture several times before wiping it clean and binding it tightly.

How could any amount of hurt matter when Raquel was holding him up and Pacifica's eyes were so full of trust?

"You see." Carol leaned back and looked at her children. "Something that carries poison can be very dangerous. But it also tends to carry healing. And the snake that bit you wasn't dangerous to itself or to its own children. It was only dangerous to its enemies."

"Remember this lesson," Yuhma said.

There was something in those words, something he didn't understand, but Shannon could feel the weight of it and responded automatically, "I will, father." He started to push to try to get up.

"Shannon! Be careful!" Raquel immediately got herself under his arm to take some of his weight. "You're still hurt!"

Shannon shook his head. "I'm fine." Then he noticed Pacifica hanging back, gaze down. "What is it?"

"Can...can I try to help again?"

Shannon nodded and extended his other arm to her. He kept most of his weight on his good leg and Raquel, but he had to put at least a little pressure on Pacifica, if only to see the light in her expression when she believed she was helping.

"Thank you for protecting me, big brother."

"Thank you for protecting me, Pacifica."

And Shannon knew, as he turned towards home held safely between his sisters, that he would jump in front of a snake or a bear or anything else for them. That protecting them was his job and he never wanted to watch Pacifica tremble with fear trying to keep him safe ever again.

That he never wanted her to feel the pain of poison like that, or to have to bleed like he had.

"I'll always protect you, Pacifica. Always and forever."

"Me, too," Raquel said.

Pacifica grinned at both of them. "I'll protect you, too. No matter what!"

And Shannon knew everything was going to be all right.