It was called rain. Life-giving. In their short lifetimes, none of them had ever seen it. 3 and 4 were giddily playing in it, 3 holding her hands up to catch drops on her palms as 4 skittered around his sister, jumping into puddles and splashing his counterpart. As for 9 and 7, then were sitting quietly a sheet of metal that must've fallen from a roof, propped up against a few cement blocks and an old tire. 9 was smiling a little, admiring the strange flecks of green that seemed to fill the water, but 7 seemed distant, staring at the shield she held in her small hands.
"...you got pretty quiet all of a sudden," 9 commented, giving her a sideways glance. "You've been staring at your shield for a while now. Something on your mind?"
The question seemed to draw 7 out of her reverie, and she jerked her head toward 9, lenses clicking before she offered him a wan smile. "...a little bit. Yeah." There was a soft scraping noise as her metal fingertips trailed the old copper wiring that held the washer to the tube. "I'm still trying to figure out if I'm... coherent enough to talk about it."
9 blinked, shifting a little. He almost scooted closer, but when she scooted away at the first sign of that action, he froze. "7, if it's that important..."
"5 made it for me."
That caused 9 to lean back a little, regarding his companion quietly. "...when?"
7 gave a soft sigh. "Back before I left the cathedral." Quietly, she hugged the shield to her chest, her expression desolate. "I was so angry with 1. I should've stayed. Or insisted 5 go with me. Maybe I could've taught him to fight." Was she shaking? Her lenses were snapped tightly shut. "I was so stupid!"
Frowning, 9 reached out to grab her shoulders, turning the smaller stitchpunk to face him. "7, you are not stupid. How could you have known any of this would happen? You can't blame yourself."
But 7 didn't reply. She just shook her head, pushing to her feet as she pulled the shield back on, going to shoo the twins out of the rain before they got too damp. Sighing, 9 leaned back on his hands. Well that had failed miserably. But then, since the ceremony, she'd grown more and more distant and he could not for the life of him figure out why. It could be the reality of all the death they had witnessed was sinking in, but...
His thoughts trailed off and he sighed. No use bothering with it now. The rain was coming down harder and they needed to find shelter. Getting to his feet, he plodded out to help with the herding of the twins.
When night fell, they had managed a suitable rough shelter in what looked to have been someone's house once upon a time, with three small cots they could rest on. 7 was still trying to help 3 and 4 burn off some energy, but 9 felt strangely exhausted. Excusing himself from the presence of his companions, he slunk into the room not far from where they stood and flopped onto his side with a heavy sigh. The day was wearing heavy on him, and to make things worse, he felt he'd completely failed in trying to comfort the grief 7 had continued to sink deeper into.
His lenses clicked shut and he sighed. He would try again tomorrow. Besides, the twins were so full of life and energy that it was impossible to stay sad around them. Wasn't it?
He wasn't sure when he had fallen into a rest cycle, but the whisper of a breeze through the room brought him out of it cold and 9 jerked into a sitting position, blinking in confusion with recharge glazed lenses at the strange, misty green that was swirling around the room. What in the world...?
"You know, you have a heavier rest cycle than I thought. Though I should've remembered that from the first time we met."
That brought 9 around completely and he jerked his head to the side, staring at the ghostly, translucent figure of 5 sitting on the cot across from him, smiling casually. He looked surprisingly calm. It was an expression 9 was unaware 5 could wear, and it looked good on him. "5! But... how...?! I mean... you're...!"
"Dead? Yeah. Figured that'd be the immediate response. Guess I just had some unfinished business." He shrugged, then gave a somewhat weak smile. "I really made myself look stupid, though, didn't I? I'm so sorry, 9. I stood there and stared at that thing when I should've been running. Felt like I couldn't move. Geez, I'm such a coward."
He couldn't help it. A smile drifted onto 9's face and he shook his head. "No. Don't apologize, 5, please. You warned the rest of us. That was very brave."
5 laughed, shaking his head, creating another swirl of that strange green mist. "Yeah. Screaming like someone was tearing out my other lens is very brave."
"No one would blame you. None of us would. I can only imagine I would've done--..."
"You wouldn't have, 9, and you know it. You're braver than anyone I know. Part of me, after I met you and saw how you acted, wanted to be like you. But I couldn't. I just... I was never meant to be a hero. You were." 9 quieted at that, looking away. He wasn't going to fight 5 on this.. "...what?"
9 sighed, lifting his head to look straight on at 5, expression disheartened. "I'm dreaming. Aren't I? You're not really here."
A thoughtful noise drifted from 5 and he sighed. "Could be. Could be you're exhausted and you're imagining things." He leaned forward, giving 9 an earnest look, smiling. "Or it could be that as your friend, I wanted one last chance to say goodbye."
That finally drew 9's attention back around and he smiled. Part of him wished he could actually reach out and touch his friend, but he had a feeling it would not work, leaving him grasping air. And then there was the fear that if he tried, the vision would vanish and he would be left alone in the room again.
"There's something more to it, though," 9 stated plaintively, "isn't there?"
When 5 gave that rueful smile, 9 knew he had hit the nail right on the head. "Caught me." Reaching out, he put his hand on 9's knee, looking him straight in the lenses. "I need to be serious for a minute. 7's shield."
"Yes. She said you made it."
"I did. I told her that even though I couldn't be there, as long as she had it, I could always protect her." 5 paused, looking mournful. "Maybe it helped her to be braver. But she's always been the strongest one of all of us. I want--..." He trailed off. "I can't protect her anymore. That little shield can't save her from her own thoughts. I need you to be that for her now. Please."
Something in 9's head clicked. "You loved 7. Didn't you?"
5's smile was quiet and contemplative and he looked away. "Still do. More than anything." Quietly, he turned his gaze back to his friend. "That's the other reason I needed to talk to you. I want you to take care of her."
Quickly, 9 shook his head. "5, 7 can take care of herself..."
The ghostly 5 frowned, reaching out to grab 9's hand. The other ragdoll was startled with the fact that they could touch, but the icy cold in his dear friend's grip was enough to send a chill up his spine. "Not with this. Please, 9. I can't be there for her. I was never able to be, and I hate that. But I know I can trust you to be there for her now." When 9 started to shake his head, 5 tightened his grip. "Please. Promise me, 9. Promise me you'll do this for me."
After a moment or two, 9 finally just smiled a little, lowering his head before he covered 5's hand with his free one. "I promise, 5. I'll do everything in my power to do this for you. You have my word."
The world came rushing back with sudden clarity in that instant, and 9 sat bolt upright, lenses wide as he stared frantically around the too dark room. 3 and 4 were in a cot nearby, curled together so tightly that it was hard to see where one twin ended and the other one began. He frowned, noting that they were laying where the ghostly image of 5 had been sitting. Had he imagined the whole thing?
Glancing around the room, he noticed that 7 was sitting on the remaining cot, still holding the shield, playing with a loose piece of wire on it, her expression just as distant as it had been before. Quiet, mindful not to wake the sleeping twins, he moved to sit beside her.
"You feeling any better?" he asked, reaching out to cover one of her hands with his. Odd. The appendage still felt cold. He wondered if she noticed. "You were distant earlier."
7's expression tightened. "I'm fine. Just... thinking."
Sighing, 9 glanced down at the shield. "...when 5 gave this to you. Did he tell you that it would protect you when he couldn't be there to do it?"
That was when 7's head jerked up, lenses wide as she stared at him. "How did you know that? Did he tell you when you were at the cathedral with him? I never told anyone...!"
9's free hand came up to cover her mouth as he nodded softly toward the twins. When she didn't make a sound, he lowered his hand and sighed. "I had a dream. At least... I think it was a dream. I'm not so sure. I saw 5. He wanted to apologize... to say goodbye. He told me about the shield, and why he made it for you." Both of his hands covered hers now. "He misses you."
If 9 hadn't known better, he would have thought 7 looked as if she may start crying. She stared at him, something in the way she gazed reading nothing but grief and regret. "I told him once, when his eye got... got ripped off that I would always have his back. That he would never be alone. I would always protect him." She choked. "I lied to him, 9. In the end, when he needed me to protect him the most... I couldn't save him!"
He wasn't sure what he could do. But 5's desperate pleading urged him onward and he reached out, pulling 7 to him in an embrace that would have been easy for her to break out of if she'd wanted. She did not move. "He doesn't blame you. Trust me. If anything, he was worried you'd be angry at him for his not being able to protect you like he wanted to. He cared about you more than anything, 7. Please don't forget that."
He tensed, but 7 still didn't move, instead resting against 9 as if she had lost all strength to hold herself up. "I'm always the strong one," she mumbled. "Do you mind taking that role for me for a few days? Everyone's always expected me to be the one to carry the weight of the world, but I just can't do that right now."
"I'll do everything in my power, 7," 9 responded softly, lenses half closed as he glanced down at her. "You have my word. I'll always have your back."