Warmth in the Frozen North
This city had been utterly destroyed, like so many others in the frozen northern wastelands. Clare thought once again that but for a broken wheel on a slave wagon, Raki could have been in one of these towns when they were destroyed. Had things gone smoothly, after all, the slavers would have passed through Pieta a week earlier, and would have been and gone with no trace by the time Clare had shown up. She would have spent these last two years searching for a boy who was most likely dead.
Raki slipped himself under her arm, so that it was draped over his shoulders. The fifteen-year-old was becoming a lot more physical of late. Clare thought that it was because Helen was so physical with him, and he was getting desensitized to it. She didn't mind, really; in fact, it was quite pleasant.
"Food's ready," Raki said. Clare nodded. They had a group meal every other day. The ex-Claymores averaged half a plate each (the half-awakened eating more than the normal ones), and Raki dried the leftovers so that he could eat them over the course of the next two days, until he cooked the group another meal. Clare didn't know why he didn't cook when it was just himself eating; he was a phenomenal chef, and seemed to love doing it (indeed, he loved food so much that he'd be at risk of getting fat if he didn't get so much exercise keeping up with the group and then during his sword practice).
They arrived, and everyone was already there, waiting. Raki never served the food until everyone was gathered. Now they were all gathered, so Raki served the food. Fresh polar bear sirloin steaks; yum, yum. Deneve had killed the animal, skewering it quite easily on her sword, or rather, Undine's sword. It was exceptionally fresh, and very bloody, as it was cooked rare, quite a rarity (no pun intended), as a polar bear could, if properly preserved, last them several weeks (but properly preserved meat would never be raw enough to be cooked rare). Everyone ate everything on their plates, even though Raki had put a little more on them than they would usually eat (he had had a while in which to learn how to judge their appetites, after all).
"Delicious!" Deneve declared, patting her stomach.
"You flatter me," Raki said.
"Nah, she's just boasting about having been the one to have killed it," Cynthia said, teasing the woman who had been a single rank below her good-naturedly. Helen winced. "What is it?" Cynthia asked.
"Nothing. My back has just been killing me for a while, is all," Helen said. Raki, finishing his meal (he had considerably more on his plate than any of the ex-Claymores), stood up, walked around the table, and started rubbing her back. "Right between the shoulder blades," she directed. There was an audible crack, and Helen relaxed visibly. "Oh, Raki, I could kiss you!"
"Then why don't you?" Raki teased. This was hardly out of the blue, as they had been teasing each other for a while, if not ever since it had first been revealed that Helen was attracted to Raki, but even so, Helen turned around, took his face in her hands, and did so.
Raki, being a teenage boy with a teenage libido, kissed back, and it quickly turned into a make-out session. It was his third kiss, all with different women, all with Claymores. They broke the kiss after a few tens of seconds, Helen looking into his eyes with unabated lust. "Come into the tent with me, right now," she said, her tone leaving no doubt as to what would happen there.
Raki turned his gaze from her silver eyes, to another set of silver eyes. "What do you want me to do, Clare?"
Why is he asking me? Clare tried for a safe answer: "What business is it of mine, what you do with your body?"
…and failed. Raki's gaze became angry, indicating that this was not the answer he had wanted. "Fine, then. In that case, I shall go with Helen and do whatever she wants; after all, she did buy me. Come on, Helen; lets go pop my cherry." He grabbed Helen's wrist, and stalked off with her in tow.
"Clare, walk with me," Miria ordered. Clare got up and followed. They walked off into the snow-covered hills. "You did not handle that well."
"Isn't sleeping with Helen what he wanted?" Clare asked.
Miria shook her head. "No. He didn't want you to give him permission. He wanted you to say 'no.' He wanted you to claim him as your own."
"That doesn't make sense," Clare said.
"Not to you. You're not thinking like a human. Humans are highly emotional, irrational beings. He's in love with you, Clare—in fact, you're the center of his world—and humans tend to equate sex with love," Miria said.
"He's been getting more physical with us lately," Clare said, not entirely sure what she was objecting to.
"No, Clare, he has been getting more physical with you. You are the object of his affection. You could have said yes, or you could have said no, but by saying that you don't care what he does with his body, you're saying you don't care about him, and that hurt him, Clare. Whatever you decide to do about this situation, you're going to have to talk to him, Clare. Soon."
"Raki," Clare said.
"Hmm? Oh, what is it, Clare?" Raki said. He tried to sound disinterested, but it was obvious that he was trying.
"Come with me. We need to talk," Clare said.
Raki wrapped his coat around him, and walked at a brisk pace with her. "Alright. So talk."
"Raki…I'm sorry. I did not understand what you were saying," Clare said.
"It was a pretty difficult message to miss," Raki said.
"Not if you're a Claymore," Clare said. "We are…tools. Weapons, used to fight yoma. Love is, by and large, a foreign concept to us. The Organization discourages it, along with any other sort of attachment, but is indifferent to whatever sort of sex-lives we may have. What I'm saying is, that to us, sex is, well, a recreational activity."
"So what you're saying is that just because you don't care if I sleep around with other people does not mean you don't love me?" Raki said bitterly.
"Yes, actually," Clare said.
Raki sighed. "This is most likely stating the obvious, but until today, I was a virgin," he said. "I lost my virginity to Helen, Clare. There's nothing wrong with her, granted…but I wanted it to be you, Clare. I wanted to give it to you, Clare, as I want to give all of myself to you, but now it's not yours, its hers, and there is nothing we can do to change that."
"Do you want me to pretend that I care? To pretend to be jealous of your body and want it to myself? To begrudge Helen the joy she finds in your body, and to deny that to both of you?" asked Clare.
Raki sighed. "No. Don't bother. It would be meaningless, if that is not truly how you feel. But how do you feel about me?"
"I don't understand you," said Clare.
"Do. You. Love. Me?"
"I…" Clare sighed. "What is love, Raki?"
"Love is not something that can ever be explained," Raki said.
"Then I'll never know if I love you or not," Clare said.
"If you're in love with someone, you should be able to know it," said Raki with a tone of finality.
They were silent for a minute.
"You are the center of my world, Clare, my everything, my goddess, and I don't require that you reciprocate that. However you feel about me, I am totally devoted to you. I always have been, and I always will be," Raki said.
Clare had no idea what to say to that, and had about a snowball's chance in hell of coming up with something to say that was that beautiful or eloquent. Luckily, though, he punctuated his statement by getting up and walking into camp.
As Raki was coming to, he had the distinct feeling of being watched. He opened his eyes, and saw that all of his companions were staring at him.
"HAPPY BIRTHDAY!" they shouted.
"Huh? Oh, that's right; it is my birthday," Raki said. Sixteen. Wow.
"We'd have gotten you a cake, or something traditional like that, but, well, it's not as if there are any open stores around here," Deneve said.
"You guys didn't need to do anything," Raki said. "I don't do much, after all."
"Oh, nonsense," Helen said, grinning. "You take care of all of the important stuff like cooking, cleaning, and laundry, while we're off playing our silly war games."
Raki smiled back at his friend-with-benefits. "Of course, you would say that," he teased.
"We did get you something, though," Tabitha said.
"All of the animals that we have hunted and killed in the last few months, we've skinned, and after we each made several failed attempts to tan the hide properly, Uma finally got it right about two weeks ago, as we were about to give up," Cynthia said, holding a tunic crudely fashioned out of a polar bear pelt. "Try it on."
Without even thinking twice (or, hell, once) about it, Raki stripped of his nightshirt, the only article of clothing he was wearing, and made a grab for the tunic.
Deneve eyed him appreciatively. "You're filling out quite nicely. In a few months, Helen is probably going to have to start sharing you."
Helen patted her on the back grinning. "See? You're beginning to come around."
"Now there's a scary thought: becoming more like Helen," Deneve teased. This conversation would have been very telling, had it been saying anything they all didn't already know.
Raki put the tunic on, and looked himself over. It was an oversized affair, the sleeves reaching his knuckles, and the hem reaching halfway between his knees and ankles. There was also a hood, made, apparently, from the bear's head. It was billowy (not good of something meant to keep you warm), but that could be solved by hemming the sleeves narrower and wearing a belt of some sort, and it was also itchy (as none of these Claymores could sow worth a damn, so the inside of it was riddled with seams), but that was nothing a good undershirt and –pants couldn't fix. "It's beautiful, guys," Raki said, truly touched by it. Then he changed out of it and into some more regular clothes. "I'm going to have to hem it a bit to make it usable, though." Raki had learned a thing or two about sowing (alright, stitching) from mending the Claymores' bodysuits after rough practices or accidents.
Raki looked over the cloak. He had tightened and shortened the ends of the sleeves, and had but a few belt loops on it. Now it would do beautifully. He took off his jacket, and put it on.
"Looks good," Miria said.
"I think so," Raki agreed. "You know what it could use, though? A matching pair of knee-length boots." He batted his eyes at her.
Miria smiled. "I'm not Helen. You're going to have to find some other buttons to push with me," she said. Then she got serious. "That reminds me of why I'm here, though."
"What is it?" Raki asked.
"Helen's right; you are important to us, but not just because you take care of us. You…are good for morale. You're warm, friendly, fun, and a good outlet for affection. I'm not talking about sex, as Helen is the only one who is currently having sex with you, but, well, Claymores are not the most touchy-feely of people. Even mock-sparring with you is fun. I'm not disparaging your skills, you're good for a human, but Claymores are measured to a different standard. It's not really part of our training, and you give an outlet for that."
Raki nodded; this seemed to fit the pattern of disassociation with humanity and other Claymores, expendability, and impersonality that characterized the Organization. "Thank you. But I assume that you're not just giving me a pep talk. So, what do you want?"
"As Deneve said, you are filling out, and soon you will be coming to the attention of the rest of us," Miria said.
Raki connected the dots. "So what you're saying is that you're ordering me to whore myself for the good of morale." He wasn't offended, more like mildly amused.
Miria shook her head. "No. For one thing, I'm not ordering you to do anything. You're not a warrior, after all. Besides, if you don't want to spread your legs for the whole team, as it were, it's no big deal. After all, most of us don't burn as hotly as Helen apparently does." She smirked, "Or maybe you're just that good in bed, eh?"
"Oh, she's just taking full advantage of the fact that she has me to herself while she does," Raki dismissed blithely. "So, when are you going to come calling?" he asked boldly.
"Next year, if you keep developing like you have been," and if I'm not freaked out by the fact that we pretty much raised you. "Just don't turn into a muscle-bound freak," Miria said.
"I'm not planning on it," Raki said. He gave her a mock salute, "Raki of Doma, company whore, signing out, sir!"
Miria watched him walk away, bemused.
"Clare?" Raki asked. Pleaded, is more like it.
"What is it?" Clare asked.
"I'm sixteen now," Raki said.
"I realize that, Raki," Clare said.
"That's legal, in most places," Raki said.
"I realize that, too," Clare said.
"Do you want me all to yourself?" Raki said. "You can. I know you said that you don't care whom I share my body with, but it's just human nature, and I want you to be happy."
"That will not be necessary," Clare said.
"What can I do to make you happy?" Raki pleaded.
Clare wanted to take his face in her hands and kiss him. She wanted to tell him that he made her happy just by existing, that every laugh, every smile, every little habit of his filled her with warmth. She wanted to tell him that the effort he put into their bi-daily meal and into his sword practice (just so that they wouldn't feel like he was a liability) was heartwarming. She wanted to tell him that she could sit and watch him eat all day. She wanted to tell him that he gave her a reason to live, other than revenge. But Clare never did have a way with words.
"Right. I'm sorry I bothered you," Raki said. He turned away, hiding tears.
Clare grabbed him by his wrist and pulled him to her. She kissed him like she was trying to eat his tonsils right out of his mouth.
"Do you want me, then? Like I have said many times, I am yours, to do with whatever you see fit," Raki said.
"Raki, you make me happy just by existing. Every laugh, every smile, every little habit and idiosyncrasy of yours fills me with warmth. The effort you put into our every-other-day meal, as well as into sword practice—which you just do so that we won't feel like you're a burden—is…well…heartwarming. You give me a reason to live, Raki. Aside from revenge for Teresa, that is," Clare managed to say most of what she had wanted to; what a miracle. "Is that love, Raki? I don't know what love is, but if that is love, I love you more than life itself. I love you more than…more than…well, insert romantic cliché here."
"Clare, hearing you say that makes it all worth it. And if that isn't love, then I don't know what love is, either," Raki said with conviction.
"For you? Anything!"
"That color-haired girl counted all of them one by one…what do we do, Miria?" asked Helen. "We'll be found out!"
"It is as it is," Miria said. "We can't just kill her off, and the others are starting to regain consciousness, so we can't just take them and carry them to a different place, either." They had given the other three Claymores first aid, so their lives shouldn't have been in danger.
"I've never seen a Claymore with hair that color before," Raki said.
"It's said to happen sometimes," Tabitha said. "It means that the yoma flesh didn't entirely take. She's a failed experiment. The only reason I can think that they would have given her a rank, or even allowed her to live maybe, is because they are strapped for personnel."
Helen suggested that they threaten the girl, but Miria told her that it was pointless, reminding her that they had completely erased any trace of yoma energy that leaked out of their bodies, and thus that finding them in the frozen would be like finding a needle in a haystack, even for Rafaela, who wouldn't be sent, anyway, unless the organization had proof. "So we're going to do nothing?" Helen asked. "Boring!"
Raki had to laugh. This was so like her. To Miria he said: "I could go down there. Convince them that I set up the graves, and that I put you seven somewhere else for some reason." He smiled becomingly, "I could use my masculine charms on them."
Miria shook her head. "No, that would just raise more questions than it would answer. After all, how did a lone human survive up here for seven years? And why wouldn't you have gone south by now?"
"I hide whenever a yoma comes, and I remained up here to care for the cemetery," Raki said. "I have all the names and ranks memorized, if I need to prove it."
Miria smiled softly. "Sorry, but that story would be immediately suspicious. Humans tend to view Claymores as monsters. If you go down there with that story and flirt with them, they'll be immediately suspicious. Besides which, your charm probably wouldn't work on them, as they don't know you like we do."
"Its time that I move ahead, anyway," Clare said. "I've got unfinished business in the south."
"I'm coming with you," Raki proclaimed.
"It would be safer for you to stay with the others," Clare said.
"How many times must I say it? If you die, I die. I'm yours, Clare. Completely yours," Raki said.
"And if I should die, you would have nothing to live for? What about Helen?"
"Helen is fun, cute, and personable, but she's not the center of my universe. You are," Raki said. "I'm coming with you."
There was a tone of finality in the final sentence. Clare sighed, and nodded. "Very well."
"What sort of 'unfinished business' are we talking about?" Miria asked.
"I have no intention of naming it," Clare said, "but the many souls inside me will not forgive me the time I've spent here in peace and happiness already."
"Take your sword, Clare," Miria said, drawing hers.
" 'If you want to go south, do so after defeating me.' Is that how I am supposed to take this?" Clare asked.
"I don't care how you take it," Miria said, and so they fought, showing the skills that they had learned these seven years. Eventually, Miria put her sword away. "Fine, then. If you have that level of skill, you shouldn't be outdone even by high ranking single digits." The statement came as a shock to the ex-Claymores; they had realized that they had been getting stronger during these last years in isolation, but none of them had realized that they had gotten that much stronger. Miria spoke to all gathered: "Today, I resign as your leader. I'm sorry. Each one of you is free to do as she pleases from now on."
"W-what?" Helen demanded.
"I will go south with Clare, and exact revenge for our fallen comrades," Miria continued. "There's no need to worry, as you have all grown strong in these seven years, and the Organization shouldn't bother you as long as you're up here, so—"
Helen interrupted her by destroyed a rock with her sword using the Drill Arm technique (partially just because she liked doing it, though—simply speaking up would have sufficed, after all). "Aren't you acting a little stuck up, now, Miria? You're not the only one who's out for revenge here!"
"What have we been training for until we threw up blood during these last seven years??" Helen demanded.
"That was a little excessive, just to hide here in the north and stay alive," Deneve observed.
"I also want my revenge for Veronica and the others," Cynthia said.
"My leader is and has always been you, Miria," Tabitha said. "If you go, so shall I."
"Besides, what's the point of staying in this frozen dump if Raki's leaving?" Helen said, destroying the tense, dramatic atmosphere.
Which was thoroughly restored when Uma said: "Please…take me, too. I know I will be a drag, but I don't want to end like this, either. When push comes to shove, I don't mind if you throw me away, but please…"
Raki walked up to her and took her hands in his. "Uma, no. You're not the weakest member of any group I am a part of." He smiled wryly. "I'm human, remember? I'll never be the equal of even you."
Uma half smiled. "Thanks." She kissed him chastely on the lips.
Miria spoke: "The battle's objective this time won't be surviving, like it was seven years ago. You could even say that this battle goes against the very idea of survival. It should be even harder than the one seven years ago, too. We fought so hard for these lives, so very hard, and there is no one who will blame you if you choose to stay here. What if the warriors who lost their lives wished for you to live like this? Would that still not change your mind?"
Miria waited. No one spoke, excepting a low, dark, predatory laugh from Helen. "So we're all feeling the same. I see. Lets go, then, joined by the souls of our fallen comrades."
Next Chapter: Epilogue: Vital Information