Proving Ground

A Xenosaga fanfic by Princess Artemis

Copyright © 2006 S.D. Green, except for what is copyright © Namco/Bandai and Monolithsoft

Allen tried stilling himself, but he wasn't doing a good job of it. Too rigid or trembling like a leaf—his body refused to find a middle ground. He supposed it wasn't a bad thing, or an unusual one...after all, the Chief had just set her head on his shoulder after letting him hold her hand. He had only wanted to be in this sort of position for over five years now. That being a given, he didn't want to wreck it all by stumbling all over himself, which he felt he probably would at any given moment.

Just stay still. Still. Either that or drive her off the moment she showed any actual interest in him beyond friendship. Wouldn't that be the story of his life. And wouldn't that make this slower than light trip to Lost Jerusalem a most awkward potential time...decades maybe...

She didn't seem to mind, or notice, one or the other. She turned her hand over and twined her fingers in his. Allen managed not to jump out of his skin by main force of will. Calm, deep breaths, stay still...maybe turn his head a little? He thought he could manage that, just a smidge, just enough to get her hair to stop tickling his neck, to touch her head. Just enough so she could feel it, enough so he could feel it as well.

Hmm, so much for calm and deep breaths. Wrong move, sir, he thought to himself. She smelled nice. Of course she smelled nice; he thought she probably could have smelled like a sewage treatment plant and he'd think it was nice just because it was her. And now her hair was tickling his mouth, and tickling his nose, and he figured if he didn't sneeze in her hair it would be a miracle. Something always happened. Sneezing in her hair would be just as an effective way to destroy whatever parallel dimension he'd found himself in as anything else. Although he granted it was a very nice parallel dimension, and he was surprised that he was calming down a bit. Maybe deep breaths weren't so bad.

She made a contented little sigh, no more than a soft exhalation. He smiled. Yes, this was a nice parallel dimension. Maybe in a few minutes he'd let himself believe reality prevailed. Probably the nanosecond before Junior barged into the room.

Allen was a little anxious to say the least. Recent events hadn't changed his essential life-long knowledge that every time anything so fantastic as this happened to him, something would come along and ruin the moment.

It seemed, however, that things had changed. For long, satisfying minutes, the two just stood the way they were, looking out the Elsa's window. Shion stayed where she was, moving a little closer even, Junior had not interrupted (nor had anyone else), a fleet of Gnosis hadn't suddenly appeared, the universe hadn't come grinding to a halt (yet), and Allen himself had not done anything to trip up. A nice change of pace indeed. A man in love could get used to this sort of comfortable silence, this sort of closeness, after wanting it so long.

"Allen?" Shion said, voice soft.

"Hmm?" He was too content to voice much past that.

"I didn't get a chance to thank you."

"What for?" Allen couldn't think of a single thing he had done recently that would warrant thanks. Not off the top of his head, anyway. Maybe jumping that Gnosis? He didn't know why she would think it necessary to thank him for that. "Do you mean that last Gnosis? I should have been doing that all the time."

Shion giggled a little. "No, not that. Well, OK, yes, that, too, but I meant something else." She paused. "Where did you learn to jump like that anyway?"

That question made him a little tense. He tried not to show it, but he had trouble imagining that he was actually successful for once in not showing his nerves. Don't screw this up! he shouted at himself, but he had to be honest. "Ah, Jin...Jin was teaching me a little. About chi." Don't get upset don't get upset please don't get upset...

"Oh." Simple answer, but to Allen's ears it was something of a relief. He didn't hear much sadness in it, maybe a hint; it was more bittersweet. She didn't sound upset that he had mentioned Jin, in any case. Not happy, but not upset.

He wished she hadn't asked, though. She was still leaning against him and holding his hand, but he knew something had shifted. There were a few moments of silence, not quite as comfortable as before.

Then Shion shifted a little, moved herself so that the whole length of her arm was against Allen's, her head still leaning on his shoulder, but now he could feel her breath on his neck. Coherent thought became difficult rather abruptly. Wonderfully awful or awfully wonderful...he wasn't sure. He was sure he liked it, though. There was the matter of staying still, which was not possible at the moment. He was trembling now. Hopefully not so much that she would notice, but he did have enough correctly operating neurons for instinct to tell him she'd feel it just because he was Allen Ridgeley and Good Things Like This Did Not Happen Without Something Ruining It. He set his free hand on her shoulder in an attempt to get the 'This is nice, please don't leave just because I've gone fight-or-flight on you' message through.

It seemed to, since she set her hand over his, forcing him to again stop himself from reacting like someone had jabbed him with an electric prod. He really wished he weren't so nervous.

"It wasn't that," Shion said. "I wanted to thank you for what you said...did...inside Michtam. To Kevin, for me."

Damnit, not that.

"You don't..." His hands and voice were shaking but his body had gone cold. Not that, not now. "You don't have to thank me for that."

"I do. I was so cruel, and then..."

"No, you don't. You don't have to thank me for any of that." He was going to screw it up. He knew it. Unless she dropped the subject, for now at least, he was going to screw it up and he was going to hate himself for it. Every path lead to the same conclusion. He could only hope his nerves were making him paranoid, but it was a miniscule thing, that hope.

Shion pulled away, but still kept hold of Allen's hands. "But why?" She looked up into his face, honestly confused.

Allen closed his eyes and turned away for a second. No, this at least, you say to her face. Then you can ruin everything. Just not this. So he turned back, and looked her in the eye, steady as a rock, and said, in all sincerity, "Because I love you, Shion."

Then he dropped his head and closed his eyes. He had wanted to say that for so long, but under better circumstances. He was sure she knew, now, even without saying it (hadn't he already said it with blood and broken bones?), but he still had hoped there were better circumstances. Sometime when his blood wasn't cold and his hands weren't shaking and he wasn't fighting back tears, not from nerves, but from pain.

There was a long pause. Then a confused reply. "I don't understand."

Allen nodded slightly. "I know." He kept hold of her hands, running his thumbs along the tops. He felt so cold. He almost felt numb. He was going to ruin everything. Probably already had. He wasn't nervous now, just cold. Cold and angry and deeply hurt by his own anger. Not now...why couldn't it have waited until it wouldn't hurt so much? But he still held her hands.

Shion's reply was hot, angry. "What do you mean, 'I know'?!"

"I don't want to hurt you."

"Then explain why you think you know so much, Allen!"

He winced at her tone, but if she saw it, he didn't know because his eyes were still closed. "Chief...Shion...I don't know so much, I don't know anything much at all except I don't want to hurt you but I'm going to and that kills me." He moved her hands so he held them both in one hand, and started stroking the top of her exposed hand. "Maybe you like me. Maybe you love me. I want you to. But I know you don't love me as much as I love you. That's OK, you haven't had time to, even if you had the desire to. I don't expect that...but it does mean I know you don't understand why I don't need or want to be thanked for dying for a hope." His last words were little more than a whisper.

Shion tried to take her hands back, but Allen wouldn't let go. If he was going to shoot himself down, he was not going to do it in a way that left any ambiguity; he was not going to make it seem like something he wanted to do or something he did without knowing what it was. If he shot himself down, if he ruined any chance, he was going to do it full knowing and holding Shion's hands. He didn't know where this confidence came from, or if it was confidence at might have been more likely foolhardiness. That, he thought, he knew well. So let him fall a fool.

"You aren't dead," she said, voice still heated and no less angry. There was frustration also. "And that doesn't explain anything."

Allen looked at her, not quite raising his head. "I did die, a little...but that part needed to die, so it's OK. I expected to die. Do we really have to talk about this now? Can't it...can't it wait a while? I could maybe explain better, when...when I didn't think it would hurt so much." Let it go for now...please let it go, for a little while...

Shion seemed to cool down a bit, but Allen still saw anger and frustration in her green eyes. He wondered if she knew how well he could read her moods. He'd had a lot of practice. He wondered if she realized that was how he knew how much pain she had been in for as long as he had known her when he had seen her cry only twice. He sighed, no more than a breath, when he saw determination there as well.

"Just tell me why it would make a difference to put off whatever it is you want to put off. Why not deal with it now, instead of letting it fester?"

Of course, Shion had a great deal of practice at that. Allen did too, in a different way. What a perfectly awful time to try a new way of dealing with everyone's feelings, he thought, right when I need some time to sort out mine. He still felt cold, and his hands still shook. For a moment he lost himself in the feel of her hands in his, her skin under his fingers. Why that calmed him, he didn't understand, when such a short time ago just touching her had been doing a beautiful job of completely ruining any composure he possessed. Still, it did. Maybe because his reasons had changed. Now he thought he might be on a proving ground. She asked a lot of him; she asked more than she was willing to give. He hoped some day that she would be willing to give as much as she asked, but maybe she was right. Maybe this was something that had to be said, even if it hurt her; it certainly hurt him. But the air would be clear, and there was no certainty that she would ever care about him the way he did her.

Maybe he wouldn't be ruining anything. Maybe there was nothing but a fleeting moment to ruin, and it was well and gone now. He was uncertain, always uncertain, but there had been no guarantees under Michtam either. Just hope. He could still hope.

He raised her hands, holding them separately again, so that his touched his chest and hers were near. He looked at her hands while he spoke. "OK...I...I don't want to say it because of everything that's happened, so fast, and not that long ago. So many old wounds and fresh wounds, everyone is still reeling, and I don't want to add to that. I don't want to say it because I'm certain it will hurt you and I don't want to cause you any more pain. I don't want to say it because it hurts me. But if you want to hear what I don't want to say, I'll say it." He took a deep breath and waited.

Shion moved one hand so it lay flat on Allen's chest, and his breathing hitched once. "You said you wanted to cry in my place...maybe I want to do that for you, too."

That nearly unhinged Allen, and he found it difficult to stand. She sounded sincere. But it wasn't fair to ask that from him! And it wasn't fair for him to get upset that she had. Did she care that much? She asked too much...did she really want that? Proof...not it anyway, already has me...can't avoid it. Not fair to her... The low glass rail he had been leaning against kept him from falling right down, but he couldn't stand. He slid down, clenching his hands, mindless that it might hurt Shion's. "Don't cry Allen! I didn't mean to make you cry!"

He was crying? He couldn't tell. He must be, though; she wouldn't have said that if he wasn't. He couldn't quite think his words through, but he spoke anyway. "I shouldn't have had to! I hate that I feel like that, I would do it again in an instant, but I shouldn't have had to...why didn't you listen to us, why didn't you let us care?" His voice sounded wrong, he was crying... "I hate that I feel that way."

She must have been standing. Her hands were stiff and cool. He wouldn't let go, even if he wanted to chew on his fingers; crying always made his fingers hurt. I wanted time damnit! I needed time, too. Say something...

For a long time, an interminable time, Shion didn't move and said nothing. Allen wouldn't look at her, didn't want to see what kind of damage he may have done, scared to find out if he had destroyed everything. It was too soon and it wasn't fair and it wasn't right but he still felt that way and he knew he had hurt her so he cried. She had asked and he told her what he didn't want to say...and she was silent. Every second was a knife and so he cried. All he had to judge were her hands. Stiff hands. Shocked hands.

Then her hands were gone. He must have lost his grip. How long? He couldn't tell, except that he'd chewed his lip bloody because he couldn't bite his aching fingers. An arm slipped behind him, and he let her pull him closer to her, nerveless. Now his head was resting on her shoulder. "I'm so sorry, Allen," she said, her voice not very clear at all. "I'm sorry. I shouldn't have asked...I wasn't ready to hear that. I wanted to be, but I wasn't." She sniffed back tears of her own. "All I ended up doing was hurting both of us. I'm sorry."

Allen heard all of it, but one phrase caught his attention and finally broke the chill he had been feeling. He lifted his head, to look at Shion, again trying very hard to still himself—she was so close. Close enough that he could almost speak in her ear. "You wanted to be?"

He could sense her confusion. "It doesn't matter...I wasn't, and I'm sorry."

"It matters to me." He wondered if she could hear the tremulous smile in his voice. He suddenly wrapped his arms around her; why it hadn't occurred to him to do that before, he wasn't sure.

"But...I don't..." She was still confused, he could hear it in her voice. The unspoken 'I don't understand.'

"We hurt each other, and we're both sorry. Just give me some time. Give yourself some time." He took a moment to think, then moved a tiny bit, enough so that his cheek was against hers. "No matter what happens, I'll still love you."

They sat like that for a long moment. Shion suddenly stiffened, about to say something, her self-doubt nearly tangible.

Allen was certain he knew what she was about to say, and cut her off. "I think you are. In the matter of my heart, I think my opinion is the only one that matters. Do you think you can accept that?"

Shion relaxed considerably and brought her free hand to the back of his neck, holding him closer. "Allen...Allen...I think so."

"I'm glad."

The End