His legs spirited him across the open field. He was completely in tune with himself; he could feel the world around him as if it was a part of his body. But he could not feel -
He shot. It was risky to shoot from this distance, but he had no choice at this point. He missed his target, but -
Panic swallowed him, made him weightless, made him fly. Panic pinned him down to the charred ground he now ran across. Panic could not make him -
"How is he?"
Six cyborgs sat in their comfortably-furnished living room, and all wore similar expressions of discomfort and regret. The uniforms they wore had all at one point been red and gold, but now were varying shades of black and gray. Hair had been burned, cuts had remained open and bleeding, and minds were overtaxed and worried over their comrade. More importantly, they worried about their friend.
Another with the same signs of battle entered the room, carrying a baby whose uniform of scarlet had not been ruined. An older man emerged from behind them, shaking his head and looking up at the cyborgs. He sighed deeply; this had always been the most difficult part of being a doctor.
"I'm afraid his chances are, at best, very low. He was caught right in the middle, Françoise tells me?" Gilmore asked, catching some of the cyborgs' eyes.
"That's right. He ran like the devil had possessed him, went into acceleration...but they still caught him and blasted him. There were other things, too...but that was the last that he could take after all that, Doc." Jet answered, remorse clear in his voice. "If I had only..."
"Don't assign blame," Albert said, placing a hand on Jet's shoulder. "We were all there, and we all did the best that we could. It's not your fault any more than it is any of ours."
Françoise walked across the room, feeling seven pairs of eyes follow her. Jet left the room, untying his scarf as he walked. Françoise placed Ivan into his crib; the baby turned his head to face her. She shook her head, tears welling in her eyes.
"I'll be back soon, Ivan. Joe needs me right now." Françoise murmured. She turned away and left through the door that she had previously entered from, wiping her eyes.
"Is she going to be okay?" Britain asked Gilmore, dusting ash off his head.
"It's impossible to say right now," Gilmore said, sighing once again. "If he does somehow manage to pull through this, then she'll be fine. But if not..."
He remembered carrying Joe back.
Jet stepped out of the shower and wrung his hair out. A pool of black water was still gathered in the shower; ashes had clogged the drain. Joe hadn't been a heavy physical weight, but the emotional weight that he was on Jet's shoulder was one that still sat there, unmoving and painful. Joe had been burned by the robot that had been in command while they had been going after the smaller, less powerful robots...
Albert had said that blame couldn't be assigned to any one of the other seven that had been fighting. Jet tried to follow this advice, he really did...but this was almost impossible. The sight of Joe falling out on the field, burning...
You need to run now! If one of those robots catches up to any one of you, they all have flamethrowers ten times as strong as Chang's!
The telepathic baby had helped him, Pyunma, and Joe formulate their attack strategy. Ivan had said that once its arms had been destroyed, it would be hopeless, and Joe would be able to charge it and take it down for good. But naturally...
Françoise's scream pierced his memory, stinging. He had had to pin her back from running into the flames herself after Joe, but she had won out in the end and hit the robot on her magnum setting. But her tears, falling as she cradled his head in her lap...
I'll carry him back.
He wasn't going to be able to forget that. They had all heard Ivan's communication to run, and Françoise's relay of it shortly thereafter. Joe had done it exactly; Joe had saved him once during that fight preceding his...
Jet clenched his teeth, tears falling from his eyes. This wasn't blame. This was guilt.
The Dolphin's sick bay was staunch white; the tattered uniform Joe had once worn lay on the floor, distinguishable as a uniform only by the goldenrod patch that remained on the scarf. A blue blanket covered Joe's body, which had been terribly burned in the fire. His head remained uncovered. His brown hair had barely remained such, cuts were already scarring and bruises appearing on his face. Machines fed him oxygen, monitored his pulse; machines were keeping him alive. Gilmore watched him with remorseful eyes.
Françoise entered, and the door slid closed with a faint swish. Gilmore raised his head to look at her and shook his head. Françoise walked to the edge of the bed and placed her hand on Joe's forehead. She knew this gesture was in vain, but it was not for Joe; this battle had torn open brutal emotional wounds in her, and no doubt in others as well. Gilmore nodded in understanding.
"There is sign of brain activity, which is excellent at this point. His body should recover from the burns within the next week, but I'm not sure when he'll regain consciousness." Gilmore explained. "You shouldn't worry yourself over him too much, my dear. There is no blame to be assigned, you've already told me that he was too busy trying to protect everyone else to notice that something was going to happen to him. Don't-"
"That's why! I was the one he was trying to protect! I was the one who tried to warn him right before it attacked! He...he..."
Françoise began to sob, and Gilmore embraced her gently. He felt the guilt that had fallen over the cyborgs; it now engulfed him as well. He had made no mention that there was always the chance that Joe would not regain consciousness, but that burden was for him to carry alone.
Joe fought like he knew what was going to happen to him, always.
It was something that Pyunma greatly admired about the younger man. Joe was goal-oriented, and never allowed himself to abandon his comrades. This last battle had been no exception to that rule, and Joe had worked as hard as he could to protect all of them from the danger that threatened to do to all eight on the battlefield what it had done only to Joe.
In the end, it had come down to Pyunma, Joe, and Jet working together to take down the leader. Jet had flown in and destroyed one of its arms as Pyunma destroyed the other; Joe charged head-on towards it and gotten the last of its flaming tornadoes. Even as he was being burned, Pyunma remembered, Joe had shot at it desperately.
"Hey, Pyunma. Help set the table?" Britain asked, handing Pyunma a stack of plates and napkins. Pyunma nodded automatically.
Joe hadn't asked them to help. Once he and Jet blasted the arms, they returned to fighting the smaller robots. To add insult to that, the smaller robots all shut down once the main one was destroyed...and Joe had collapsed right along with them.
"Oh...someone needs to get Françoise and Jet. They're the only ones not here," Chang said, breaking through Pyunma's recollection of the battle.
"I'll go." Pyunma said, already leaving.
"This isn't going to be a fun night, is it?" Britian asked Chang. Chang sighed, expelling a small flame in the process.
"At least it isn't raining," Chang commented, returning to the kitchen to continue transferring food from their pots and pans to serving dishes. "Eating something will make everyone feel better. Food always helps take your mind off of whatever's troubling you. And, well..."
"We most certainly need our minds off of this," Britain finished, accepting one of the serving dishes from Chang and placing it on the table.
Even as they said it, their thoughts betrayed, ran wild, and branded that memory into their minds for posterity.
Joe didn't dream, he watched.
Joe watched as he, again, charged across the field. He could feel his panic devouring him once again, and felt as the flames licked every centimeter of his flesh. This outright attack on their home – no, not just their home, their lives – had been preempted by absolutely nothing. He watched the robot explode, flames even greater than the ones it had unleashed on him tearing the field to pieces and brushing the treeline. And he felt, again, the pain that caused him to black out; it had been a staggering combination of physical, emotional, and mental strain that had finally pushed him over the edge.
Françoise's voice resonated clearly in his head, as if she was still calling out to him, before he had been caught in the inferno. He remembered Ivan telling them all to run, that the robot leader was going to attack soon, but Joe was forced to watch himself, Pyunma, and Jet charge the robot. He had run, run...
It was no longer a memory of Françoise screaming after him that Joe heard. This sounded surprised, and quite clear. And everything...everything ached.
" Fran...çoise?" Joe whispered, inhaling a tiny breath. He twitched.
"Yes, Joe, I'm right here," Françoise said, reaching a hand out and smoothing the hair away from his face. He tried to open his eyes, but once they were cracked open, he closed them immediately, as the white of the room was far too bright. Something cool and wet was placed against his lips, and carefully, he swallowed the liquid Françoise offered.
"No...more?" Joe asked, turning his head slightly to the side. Françoise moved her hand again and returned it to her lap.
"No more. They won't be coming back, Joe, and it's all thanks to you."
And just as before, nothingness consumed him.
Don't assign blame.
Françoise could do nothing but heap the blame onto herself as she sat on the beach, weeping. Rain poured down on her, as if Chang had done something to jinx the wonderful weather they had been having. She could barely even feel it any longer, she'd been out so long; vaguely she wondered if anyone knew she had left the sick bay, or if they would notice her...
He was trying to protect everyone else.
Bitter pain gnawed at her heart, telling her that she was to blame because Joe was trying to protect her. More tears, more pain; she was cold. She knew that this posed some sort of irony, as Joe had burned and she was now -
"You're going to get sick if you stay out like this much longer."
The rain stopped abruptly, and someone else joined her in the sand. Françoise turned her head to see Albert next to her, holding a large, blue umbrella over both of them. More tears spilled out of her eyes, and Albert pulled her to his body.
"All of us feel guilty, Françoise. None of us want to hear that it wasn't our fault, or that it couldn't have been prevented, but it's true. That thing was going to attack, and if Joe hadn't hit it full force, I don't think we'd be having this conversation right now, would we?" Albert said, hoping to comfort the woman.
Françoise only sobbed harder, and began to feel an unwanted, yet somehow familiar, numbness envelop her entirely. Her consciousness detached from her emotions, which ran amok through her body. Albert noticed the change in her emotions and held her tighter, knowing that the anxiety attack could not be avoided, but could not be stopped now. He dropped the umbrella, knowing that he would not become ill from overexposure to the cold and wet; she cried out bitterly, knowing that her tears could do nothing.
Albert could feel it when the younger woman fainted from exhaustion. She had been awake since the previous morning, when she had first seen the robots approaching, and had not stopped worrying about Joe since he had been burned. Albert watched as the mask of pain slowly slid off her face in her unconsciousness, then folded the umbrella. He tucked it under his arm, then lifted Françoise and walked her back to the house.
"What happened?" Jet asked upon seeing Albert enter.
"She passed out. I think it's a sign to all of us that we need to get more sleep than we all got last night. Would you tell the professor? I'm putting her in her room," Albert said, walking all the while. Jet nodded and went off to inform Gilmore of this occurrence.
Albert found dry clothes for Françoise and got her changed, the laid her gently onto her bed. His heart ached strangely; the knowledge that this was a strange contradiction made him smile slightly. He had no physical human heart to feel pain with.
That, however, did not stop him from feeling.
"Sleep well. You deserve it."
The voice that asked this time was not Françoise, but rather Geronimo. Joe turned his head to face the large man, hair obscuring most of his blurry vision.
"Yes?" Joe asked in response, voice quiet.
"I'll get Professor Gilmore. He wanted to know when you woke up." Geronimo stated, then left the sick bay. Joe was puzzled by this, but did not think too hard about it. He felt like someone had beaten him within an inch of his life, and -
It's all thanks to you.
Guilt overwhelmed Joe. It was if the flames that had burned him had been extinguished by the guilt he now felt; he drowned in it. Françoise was worried; Geronimo was sitting here practically waiting to see him stir, and as for -
"Good to see you're finally awake, Joe."
Gilmore helped the young man sit up, then removed the oxygen mask and IV tubes. Joe blinked several times, trying to clear his vision of the perpetual fog that cloaked everything.
"How do you feel?" There were a few small pokes as Gilmore looked Joe over, but Joe barely reacted.
"Guilty. How's everyone else?"
Gilmore met the visible ruby eye with surprise. "Why, Joe, you have nothing to feel guilty for. They all made it back in one piece. Naturally they're upset by your injuries, but it's nothing that seeing you won't cure!" He carefully left out that he was overjoyed to see Joe awake and moving...and very much alive. Now he could tell Françoise that it would all be okay, Joe was fine, and -
"Professor...how is... Françoise? I remember...she was here..." Joe asked, taking several deep breaths between words.
"There's a lot that has gone on while you've been unconscious, Joe, and not all of it...I should say very little of it has been good. Françoise is currently asleep; Jet, Albert, and Chang are all keeping watch on her, as the poor girl has been terribly depressed since your battle. I don't quite know what to say, and you wake up and tell me you feel guilty. My boy, you have nothing to feel guilty over, just as I told her. It was something that could not be prevented. You should thank the gods that you're still alive and talking to me today after what happened out there, Joe, not feel guilty that anything happened!"
Still, all he could hear was Françoise screaming after him, out in the field.
Françoise sat in her bed, staring at the wall. Chang had brought her dinner into her room, knowing that she could not currently face anyone else without crying. None of them could carry a decent conversation, really...but that wasn't the point.
"Hey, Françoise, you need to eat."
"I'm not hungry, Jet, but please give Chang my thanks."
She was congested. He pulled up a chair.
"Françoise...please listen to me." He tilted her chin up so she looked into his eyes. "We all feel guilty over what happened to Joe. Hell, I wish I could just rewind time and take it all back. I should've helped him finish that thing instead of thinking it couldn't attack any more, I mean -"
"Then aren't you assigning blame to yourself, Jet?" Françoise asked, eyes burning into his. "I feel guilty for calling after him, for not..."
"C'mon, we were both trying to help when he went down. I...I don't know what I want from this. But I want to stop feeling all this guilt, like it was all my fault."
"It wasn't all your fault, it was mine too, Jet."
"Exactly. Share the guilt, Françoise, and please eat. The only way the doc's gonna leave you alone is if you eat, take some medication, and get a good night's sleep. We're all hurting, and we don't want to see you hurt any more than you already are. Even if the doc said that he wouldn't come back...you know he will. That guy will come through anything for all of us."
Françoise scooted to the edge of the bed and held her arms out to Jet. Understanding, Jet pulled her into a hug.
"Thank you, Jet."
The rain was merciless.
"He's been out for almost two days now," Britain said over breakfast. Jet shot him a glare, and Britain understood that it was not a good topic to share over food. "Well then, how about after we finish breakfast, we all go down to visit Joe?"
"I'm afraid that won't be happening today, Britain. I need to take Françoise with me once we have finished to run a few simple tests." Gilmore said, apologetically looking towards Françoise. She looked a bit confused, but nodded in agreement regardless.
"Hey doc, how's Joe doing?" Jet asked through a mouthful of eggs. Britain eyed him with mild distaste.
"He could be much worse; my original diagnosis seems to be very inaccurate. He has had brief moments of awareness, during which he has asked about all of you. Joe is more worried about your well being than his own, from what I understand."
Silence, except for the rain.
"Joe's a good kid, I knew he wouldn't let us down."
All eyes focused on Albert. "Well, he's never left us before, has he? The kid's always managed to pull out of it before, and we all know that this isn't the first time he's been injured during battle. The professor here has always been able to get us back on our feet, no matter what happens to us. And with both of them working towards the same goal, it's a wonder Joe isn't out here now."
Gilmore gave him a small smile; Françoise looked reassured.
"I'm done now, if we could go down now?" She asked. Gilmore nodded, and they left.
"Doctor...what happened wasn't all too serious. I'm sure Jet played it up as much as he could, and Albert probably told you about my anxiety attack...but I'm much better now, I don't feel sick in the least...can I just go back to my room?" Françoise babbled.
"My dear, we all worry about each other. It's how we operate so well together, and why we trust one another so intimately, especially lately. Pyunma, Jet, and Albert all worry about you, as do I and everyone else." Gilmore tapped in the keycode to enter the sick bay, and the door slid open to admit them. "It isn't about who takes the blame for the outcome of a battle, it's how we all accept and handle the aftermath that truly determines our character. We all suffer from guilt, Françoise, it's only natural that we do."
"Please, do be seated." Gilmore offered her a chair, and Françoise obediently sat. "If I'm not mistaken, there's someone who would like very much to speak with you."
"It's good to see you, Françoise." Joe said, sitting upright and facing Françoise. She immediately became flustered; she had been paying so much attention to the professor that she had taken no notice of where he had led her to.
Burns still covered most of his arms; scars still decorated his face, but he was still Joe, and he was still alive. In fact, he even gave Françoise a crooked smile as he looked her over. Her eyes were swollen and red from crying, and her nose was tinged with pink; a small smile appeared on her face as well.
"You're...okay?" She asked, touching his hand. He nodded.
"Doctor Gilmore was able to treat most of my burns, and my skin is going to regenerate soon, and then there will be no physical evidence that this ever happened. All of my memories are intact as well...so now all there is to do is make sure everyone else knows I'm okay, starting with you." Joe said. He turned his hand so her palm sat in his. "Françoise? He told me that you were really worried...is that true?"
She nodded, the looked straight into his eyes. "I was more afraid than I've ever been for anyone, Joe, and they were all afraid for me. It's just...I feel so..."
"Don't feel guilty. I said that I would take it, and I did. It didn't kill me...and you're all still here. There's nothing to feel guilty about,Françoise. Can't you see it?"
And looking into his eyes, she believed him. He gripped her hand, and she gingerly gripped his in returned, letting out a small giggle in the process.
In his mind, Françoise no longer screamed and cried, she smiled and held his hand.
Joe was out of the sick bay for the first time in a long time, and had decided to visit Ivan. Geronimo was with him, but the child instantly recognized Joe as he approached.
It's good to see you well again, Joe. We've all been quite worried about you.
"Thanks, Ivan." Joe replied, smiling. "I was worried about all of you, too. I'm glad to see nothing happened to you or the doctor."
Well, we did have to watch the others worry about you. It caused Isaac a great deal of worry, Joe, you do know that?
"Yes, I know. But we can recover from that now...everything will go back to normal, right?"
Yes. I don't see anything bothering us for a long time after this, if at all. Will you hand me my pacifier, by the way? I dropped it while I was alseep.
Joe laughed. It was always amusing to have the baby genius ask such a simple question; it returned him to the fact that Ivan was still very much a baby, no matter his intellect.
"Ready for dinner?" Albert asked. "Chang spent all afternoon in the kitchen once news got out that you were awake and talking."
Geronimo lifted Ivan out of the crib, and the four entered the dining room together. A true feast awaited them; Chang had outdone himself this time. Joe sat between Jet and Françoise, beaming at everyone. They had all pulled out of their guilt, and now, it was time to return to life stronger than before.
Françoise's hand found Joe's under the table. He smiled and took it in his own.
"Joe, please don't ever make me worry like that again."
"Never, Françoise, never again."
Author's notes: Sup, everyone, I'm not the same author I used to be. I kind of like this version of my authoress self better, to be honest...but regardless, I'm very proud of this not-so-little fic. It's quite different from the style I'm used to, not only in its organization but its focus on all the cyborgs, as well as Gilmore. I also tried to break away from the common clichés, such as Albert constantly angsting over Hilda, Jet being a cocky jerk; I know I made Françoise into a sobbing mess, but forgive me. Please tell me what you think, I always love hearing what you have to say (: .
As for the title...take your best guess as to what it means. It's meant to be open for interpretation, and I'd like to know what you think it means.