Summary: Sooner or later, everything comes to an end. She just isn't willing to go that easily. And he isn't willing to let her go. Jose-centric, with a heavy focus on Henrietta.

Had a hard time choosing between whether to use the name Jose or Giuseppe, since the anime and manga differ with that for some reason, but I decided to use the former out of personal preference.

For Rika, as I could not write the gag she requested for her birthday. And I hope that the lyrics will make up for it.

And This Is the Last Time

watching the flashbacks intertwine

memories I will never find

--l--

"Jose?"

"Yes?"

"Do you remember when…"

"Yes?"

"It's funny…I don't remember what I was going to say any more."

--l--

Jose forgot about it the next day.

With a somewhat-liberal helping of alcohol to speed along the process. Highly uncharacteristic of him, but necessary at the time.

He missed his usual drink with Hillshire because of it, but the man brushed it off with the uncanny impression that he knew.

Well, Jose thought, he is a handler as well.

--l--

and this is the end

this is the end of the world

--l--

Henrietta didn't like the rain, Jose knew.

It's dark, she said to him, and it leaves the sky overcast and gray, drenches everything and forces her to lug an umbrella or a thick rain slicker around. It covers up the sun, soaks the ground until mud flows, sticky and waiting for her to step in it. Not that she doesn't appreciate what the rain does or how calming it is, she hurriedly added. She just prefers the sun more.

Jose laughed a little, then told her a story about how the rain is a blessing from the heavens; it nourishes all life, it's calming and fills the air with a rich earthy scent after a downpour, and without it, there'd be no rainbows.

She brightened and smiled, decided that she liked the rain a lot more than she had before.

He met Hillshire that night and they laughed a little about it over two glasses of whiskey.

It was amusing at the time.

--l--

"A camera and…a diary?"

"It's a weird combination, isn't it?"

"No, not at all!"

And it tightened his stomach a little, how anything from his hands, any word from his mouth, anything he did or said at all was perfectly right and good to her. How cruel the conditioning could be. How he didn't know if it was conditioning or genuine, and probably never would, and how they shouldn't be so similar but yet here they were –

"I thought you've been getting a little forgetful lately, so maybe this will help. You can get the film developed if you give it to one of the men at the Agency."

He closed his eyes while she carefully sifted through the wrapping paper.

There was something wrong with this whole picture, if he truly thought about it.

So he didn't, and smiled for her when she looked up.

(And thought, this is all so very nice. Just like a normal father giving a normal girl a normal gift.

And nothing else.)

--l--

Besides being two of the gifts that he would never begrudge her, the camera and notebook were given more out of practicality disguised with a ribbon and a bow.

Jose doesn't like to think that, though.

(some days, he doesn't like to think at all)

Eventually he treats it as nothing when he has to remind her to trade him full rolls of film for new ones to refill her camera. He treats it as nothing when he checks her pens to see if they're full of ink, checks notebooks to see if they're filled to their brims.

One day he opens up an envelope of developed pictures to find some images repeating over and over. Snapshots of some people's faces that were quite similar, probably taken on the same day, but obviously not simply a duplicate or a photo technician's mistake. As though the photographer hadn't remembered that she'd taken those pictures already.

Then sheets of black and white. Blanks. A lot of blanks, as though the shutter button was just held as the photographer forgot. Black blanks when the shutter wasn't open quite right, white blanks that looked somewhat like the wall of her room.

A lot of blanks.

Photo technician's error, really.

--l--

So maybe Jose's never been good with denial.

He's never had to try it before.

--l--

scares the hell out of me

and the end is all I can see

--l--

Sundays were for little girls to play outside, to smile and enjoy the break from school and frolic in the new dresses that their mothers chose for them, laces and bows and braids. Or to go to church, if the family was the church-going type.

Sunday, 12:57 pm, and Henrietta was next to him holding two semi-automatics and firing away as if she is anything but that.

(and she is, and that's the thing)

They had each other's backs, both covering their own ends of the room. If he strained, he could see her out of the corner of his eye, could imagine the way she held the guns, the way her arms overlapped as she shot in a 180 degree motion. The way they fell like a cross, and how he thought it might have been a symbol of some twisted higher being after all.

That morning, he had asked her, "Are you sure you want to take this mission? I know how today you planned to have cake and tea with the other girls."

"No, it's okay." She had smiled. "I'll go on the mission and help you, Jose! Triela and Claes will understand. It's not a hassle at all."

He glanced over, saw the bodies left in her wake and an expression that didn't belong on a young girl's face, and bit his lip while adding to the load himself.

--l--

(always adding, never subtracting)

--l--

There were more than bodies left behind that day, he thought, and stared at the amber in his glass.

Hillshire sat across from him, glanced to the side, and started to discuss facts and figures in his professional voice.

He tilted his glass back and drank, thanking him.

--l--

and I know the moment's near

and there's nothing you can do

--l--

"Henrietta, we have a mission tomorrow."

"I know."

Silence.

"I'm sorry, Jose."

"What?"

"I didn't mean to scare you. You know I'd never kill myself. Why would I?"

(sometimes I'm the happiest girl in the whole wide world)

"…But why are you bringing that up, that happened months ag-"

"Jose? Did you say something?"

(sometimes I wish she didn't look so happy, god no)

"…No, it was nothing. I know you'd never. I know."

you've told me as much already…

--l--

She really scared him that day, when she explained with such (seeming) ease the truth of Elsa's death, demonstrating with her gun pointed at her eye and no Henrietta –

She hadn't meant to scare him. She hadn't meant to do anything. But it was frightening all the same.

Angelica, the other unfortunate girl – all she could remember now was the affection she had for her handler. Still has. Will always have. She won't ever recall the details of the Prince of Pasta again, won't blink twice again upon seeing a white dog on the street, perhaps one day can look her friends in the face and ask, "who are you?" and won't think twice about it either. But thanks to the conditioning (only that and nothing more, he has to remind himself, only that and nothing more), she will always remember Marco.

And it scares him, because when will that day come, the day that Henrietta can only remember that feeling and nothing more?

--l--

"Wow, Henrietta, that much sugar again?"

She blushed. "I told you already, I just can't taste it as much as I could before. I have to add more of it now."

"And I told you that I was going to call you "sweetie" from now on!"

She groaned, and it almost made Jose, who was standing in the doorway, smile.

Except that little girls made of sugar and spice and everything nice shouldn't have such problems at such a young age. They shouldn't. They shouldn't.

He walked away, never acknowledging the fact that he was there.

--l--

(Maybe one day, he'll look up and she'll look back at him and it'll be like he was never really there at all)

--l--

and she'll scream, and she'll shout, and she'll pray

and she had a name

(yeah she had a name)

--l--

"Henrietta?"

No response.

"…Henrietta? Henrietta?"

Blank eyes of a little girl, blank and oh so cold, blank and boring holes through his own. "Who's that?"

No words.

No words. No words. No no no no no.

"Oh, it's me, isn't it?" An innocent smile and a giggle. "Sorry, I completely blanked out."

She blinks, and then light returns to her eyes.

He – what –

"Jose? Are you all right? Weren't you asking me something?"

School your features, school your features, school your –

"…You remember when the next mission is, right?"

"Of course!" she beams. "This Monday. Don't worry, I'll be ready! We're heading down to the firing range today, aren't we?"

For all he knows, she's reciting that line in a blur of Italian-English-French-Latin-German that'll remind him of the difference in their ability. For all he knows, she's saying it the way a killer would before he whets the blade or a doctor before he tells the patient that everything will be all right. For all he knows, her eyes will blank out again at any moment and she won't be Henrietta any more and what was that, anyway –

(oh, he knows. oh, he knows.)

"Jose? Are you okay? You seem…like you're blanking out."

"…I'm fine. I'll…meet you down at the firing range later, okay?"

"Okay!"

She closes the door, and Jose does a sort of stuttering, stumbling-but-not-really kind of walk before he reaches the nearest open seat and simply sinks into it.

Sinks.

Like a weight that he'll never be able to get rid of.

--l--

this is the last time I'll abandon you

and this is the last time I'll forget you

--l--

(I wish I could)

--l--

A little girl's whisper, petrified with fear. "Jose…? What's happening to me?"

Silence.

"I can't remember anything, I can't remember what we did yesterday, I can't remember the mission briefing you gave me this morning – I feel like I'm losing something – why?"

Guilty silence.

He'll stare down at her, wishing that he wasn't so silent by nature. Wishing that he could blame it on his nature in the first place.

"Jose…I'm afraid…"

Sometimes, he wakes up in a cold sweat.

Other times, the dream goes on until he holds her in an awkward embrace and her eyes slowly glaze over before she says, "Jose? What just happened? Didn't you say we have a mission?"

(why are you getting so sentimental? why are you putting me over the job? why aren't you making the right choice?)

He's starting to lose his mind.

--l--

so I'll love whatever you become

and forget the reckless things we've done

--l--

"We have to protect them," Jose overheard the Director and Jean say to each other one day. "Jose and Henrietta are the naïve ones. They can't know…"

Jose smiled sardonically afterwards, because he and Henrietta had been the ones to figure out what happened to Elsa without the evidence that those two men had tried to deny, hadn't they?

The conversation hadn't ended there, though.

"We have to protect them."

"If only he didn't invest so much in Henrietta. I've told him again and again that nothing good will come from it, but he never listens to me. He doesn't realize that these girls are tools. Machines."

"After Henrietta, he probably can't be part of a fratello pair ever again."

"That's why we have to protect them."

He walked away before they noticed, and showed up fifteen minutes late to his briefing.

--l--

Of course Jean doesn't understand. Rico is just a tool to him.

Henrietta actually means something to Jose, though. Actually means something.

But his mind whispers to him that Rico works just as well and doesn't disobey while Henrietta has her moments and –

Works just as well.

She's a little girl. She's not a tool. She's flesh and bone and synthetics and steel but she's still just a little girl.

(Maybe he's the one that doesn't understand after all, Jose thinks. Maybe Jean's been right this entire time.

Maybe.)

God, she's just a little girl.

--l--

"Jose?"

"Yes, Henrietta?"

"Do you love me?"

His hands stilled against the desk, and he knew that if he looked behind him, she'd be blushing and looking down at her feet.

Bullet to his heart, bullet to his brain.

"Why do you ask?"

She said nothing.

He wondered if she'd overheard something between Jean and Rico. Or perhaps Marco and Angelica. Or perhaps Triela had gone and complained to her again. Or perhaps…

"Of course, Henrietta."

"No matter what?"

"No matter what."

He thought he could feel her smile penetrate his back, and turned to her and smiled warmly all the same to reassure her.

Don't let her get attached to you, Jean would've said.

But it was a little too late for that.

--l--

Jose makes it back to his desk, unsteadily; sits back down before anyone can notice that something's wrong.

Should he tell Dr. Bianchi? Or not? He struggles with the idea as he stares down the latest smattering of text briefings that sit on his workspace, knowing what doing one or the other means.

Reports have been received of Padania's movements in northern…

I've told him time and time again that nothing good will come from it…

…just a tool –

- taken off of the active duty roster due to the degenerative effect the conditioning's had on her –

No matter what, Jose?

Don't let her get attached to you.

Maybe he is the one that doesn't understand after all.

Maybe.

He glances over at the stack of black and white blank photographs from a week ago.

If only things can be as clear-cut as that. If only.

--l--

our time is running out

our time is running out

--l--

The day she slips on a mission, Jose can't keep it a secret any longer.

Henrietta almost gets herself killed and Triela quickly has to take over; luck is with them when Rico's rooftop sniping skills take care of the rest. Henrietta slides down against the wall and leaves a bloody smear as the other girls cover her, slides down with rivulets running down her arms and the question of "what…" upon her lips.

Jose panics when he hears the static on his receiver, and right away, he can tell that Jean knows the truth.

"How long?" the other handler asks.

Jose debates whether or not to tell him the truth. Henrietta's always had a few forgetful moments here and there, a few slip-ups due to temper and feeling overprotective for him or the girls, but it's never been as bad as this.

"Nothing like this before," he replies truthfully. Honestly.

Jean looks back at him scathingly, mockingly.

Truthfully.

--l--

They take Henrietta off of the active roster the next morning. The girls don't ask questions; Hillshire comes by Jose's desk to get the mission information, as it's been transferred to him and Triela instead.

Now, Jose knows, it's only a matter of time.

He wishes he didn't.

--l--

and I'm not breaking down, I'm breaking out

last chance to lose control

--l--

"Jose? Why am I here?"

A chill runs through his veins, his arteries, his blood.

He smiles and hopes it's warm. "The doctor's running a few tests on you, just to be safe."

The fear in her face melts away. "Oh, okay. That's okay."

He smiles again, sits on a chair at her side, and nods off into a nightmarish distance some leagues away.

--l--

"Jose, her condition will not get better. It's too degenerative now. Even Angelica's better off than her. You're going to have to let her go, do you understand? Even taking her off of the conditioning drugs won't have an effect."

"You don't know that. With these girls, you never know. They're strong. They'll fight it to the death."

"With their memories gone, they won't even know what they're fighting for."

"That's what this agency's trained them for anyway, isn't it?"

"It's only days now, Jose. You can't do anything for her. And in all likelihood, she won't be able to, either."

Dr. Bianchi walks away, having had the last word.

Jose feels like he's drowning under a wave that he can't stop.

--l--

"Jose?"

"Yes?"

"I'm going to make it. I'm going to get through this. So please, if things get really bad and I…I want you to know that I'll make it. Okay?"

"Shh, Henrietta. Shhhhh. You need your sleep."

"…you need to know…I'm going to make it…"

you need to know…

--l--

He winces as sunlight hits his face and the nightmare-dream hits his head in a one-two sucker punch.

(god he's a sucker)

The news that Dr. Bianchi delivered doesn't help. A blow to what hope he had, instead. And dreams are caused by whatever's floating around in the subconscious at the moment, memories that the mind is trying to sort out. After all of that, he should've expected some kind of midnight rambling from the inner workings of his head.

The talk that night was essentially the kind of talk that a veterinarian might have with a child whose pet he might not be able to do anything for, might have to put out of its misery.

To the agency, these girls are tools; nothing more. Dogs of the agency – train them to bark, bite, leap, and run, but in the end, they'll all be put down.

He glances at Henrietta's sleeping face, wonders if she's having better dreams. If she can even dream at all. Even if she's not a normal little girl, she's still a little girl, isn't she?

Jose ends up running out of the room before Triela and Hillshire – or Rico and Jean – come to visit.

If they actually came, well, he doesn't know; he's long gone by then.

--l--

But he eventually comes back.

He always comes back.

She's still asleep, but when he grips her hand, she grips right back.

Out of the two of them, she's always been the fighter.

--l--

look through a faithless eye

are you afraid to die?

--l--

"Jose?"

His eyes snap open, early morning or no. He tries to make his voice sound as it always does, with exactly the same cadence, without any traces of drowsiness or strain.

He tries.

"Yes, Henrietta?"

A whisper, such a soft whisper that he isn't sure if he hears it himself. "Am I…going to be all right?"

It's only days now, Jose.

He swallows.

It's too degenerative now. Even Angelica's better off than her.

"Everything's going to be all right." God, the lie in that. Anyone passing by would be able to tell.

But not her. Not her, with her faith, with her belief, with her – conditioned – love. "Then it's all right, Jose," she mumbles as her eyelids close on her again.

He's still holding her hand.

At the very least, he's going to bear more of the grief and the fear than she will. At the very least, she won't be suffering for much longer. He won't let them run their tests on her the way they do with Claes, whether he has the say in it or no. And besides, her condition's degenerating too much as it is.

At the very least, she'll find peace soon. At the very least, she won't be suffering for much longer. At the very least, he's going to bear more of the grief and the pain.

But it won't make up for anything.

It's not nearly enough.

--l--

When she's gone, he won't know what to do. Damaged goods, the agency will stamp him. Can't be part of another fratello ever again. Can't take care of another little girl.

Memories and spiral notebooks and flashbulb cameras and photographs.

Will he end up like Marco? Will she end up like Angelica?

Armani instrument cases and perfume and gelato in the square and fettuccini from the cabin.

He won't know what to do. He won't know, won't know, won't know.

Latin and German and English and Greek, violins and semi-automatics and silver-gold bullet casings.

He won't know what to do.

--l--

She'll fade away on a Wednesday. Or perhaps a Friday, even a Sunday. It's all the same to him. He doesn't want her to die, no, no, no, but sitting by her bedside like this is agony. Like an eternity that will never pass.

And yet, when it does, so will she.

Some eternities are meant to be endured, but for both his sake and hers, he doesn't know how long he can wait while she fights her fight against inevitability.

The guilt hits him again after that thought – has he lost all belief in her? – and now he knows, that even if she might, all of this will never fade away from his mind. That even as memories will dull and he'll need photographs to remember her face, he'll never be able to forget things like this.

(Because some eternities – are actually eternal.)

--l--

It's hell.

And it's the least he can do, because she's gone through worse for less.

He raises a cup of whiskey to his lips and Hillshire sits across from him while reciting his facts and figures and for a moment, it's as though nothing's happened to Henrietta after all. As though she's not on the brink of death that will hover there indefinitely for a long time to come.

Alcohol's supposed to be fine with guilt, but this time, the two have mixed into acid running down his throat.

He downs the rest of it anyway.

Because it's the least he can do.

--l--

this is the last time I'll abandon you

and this is the last time I'll forget you

--l--

(I wish I could)

--l--


This has been so liberally sprinkled with Muse lyrics that it's not even funny. I don't know how it happened. When I started, it was just the beginning and I was planning to add one at the end, but then…they manifested all over the place. And if you're wondering, they're all from the Absolution CD, with the main ones from Sing For Absolution and Stockholm Syndrome.

And yeah, full of emo. I had the idea for this over a year ago and only got back to working on this a month or two ago. And then I finished it – in spurts of emo. So there we go.

Thanks to Dex for the beta'ing, which was sorely needed for this one, and hope you enjoyed.