Another 1 x 7 one-shot coming your way! This one is considerably longer and angstier (not a word, but we'll let it slide this time) than my other one. It's been my baby for two months now, and yes, it really did give me that much trouble. So review, please. This one required quite some effort. (1 and 7 wouldn't cooperate, not even for my first double-digit story!)

Rating: A very, very mild T. For angst and the like.

Summary: "You call me coward," he said quietly. "But you're the one who ran from what you couldn't control." 7 comes back to tie up some loose ends...and create new ones. Pre-movie, 1x7 centric.


What am I doing here?
It was 7's first thought on spotting the Sanctuary's towering spires framed against the darkening sky. She grimaced and gripped her spear tighter, its presence reassuring her. She had sworn not to come back — not until every Beast was dead. Someone needed to fight the enemy. They couldn't just cower in their home while those monsters prowled around outside. It wasn't right; they shouldn't have to be afraid to step outside.

No Beast has ever found this place, she thought firmly. The thought rankled as much as it relieved her. Though she hated to admit it, that sniveling coward they called their leader did his job well. If they stayed in the Sanctuary's limits, they were safe, like he said they would be.

But what if they aren't safe? What if something finds them?

That was why she was here. It had started in her usual routine. 7 had gone scouting early in the morning, following the tracks of a four-legged Beast she was sure was the Beast — the giant cat-monster that had sent them scurrying into refuge in the first place. She tracked it all day, tracing the marks of its claws diligently, her fingers clenching and unclenching around her spear in eager anticipation. The tracks had gone through the Emptiness and passed dangerously close, so close, to the Sanctuary's enclosure.

The machinery acting as 7's heart had jumped in her chest. Her thoughts raced in a wild jumble of sudden, unhindered worry. It didn't look like the Cat-Beast had found the Sanctuary; in fact, she was almost perfectly sure that it had retreated into the Emptiness. Keeping this reassurance in mind, she went off to track the Beast again.

Worry plagued her mind, distracting her so badly she nearly lost the Beast's trail. Images flashed through her mind, horrific and gruesome. 3 and 4, clinging to each other in their last moments. 5 and 2, partners in curiosity, one trying to protect the other before they were both ripped to shreds. 8's brute strength would be no match for the Cat-Beast's hulking form. And even the thought of 1, that coward, being torn limb from limb made 7's inner pegs go cold with grief.

The Cat-Beast could wait, she decided. She needed to see them. Just to know they were safe.

So here she was, standing just outside the Sanctuary's moonlit boundaries, wrestling with her worry and dread.

7's fingers curled over her spear's handle and uncurled again. A moment of indecision followed by an image of her friends' torn, lifeless bodies, and she was off, darting silently over the stone ground in front of the Sanctuary. She held a hand to her bone-mask to keep it from making noise. Just because she was going to check on the other stitchpunks didn't mean she wanted them to see her. She was still angry with their complacency, their willingness to hide in the shadows while the monsters roamed about.

Scaling the side of the Sanctuary was all a matter of grace, and 7 had mastered that particular quality long ago. Her metal fingers clicked quietly against ancient stone and mortar as she climbed, her quick feet easily moving her from one level to the next.

A warm reddish-orange light seeped out from a shattered window several feet above her. Swinging her spear across her back and through a sling wrapped diagonally across her chest, 7 propelled herself up to the broken window and gripped the stone sill with firm fingers. She balanced on steady feet and peered into the warmly-lit room.

Even before she looked inside, she knew whose room it would be. 2 was the stitchpunk most likely to stay up tinkering with some artifact from Outside. In fact, when she'd been younger, 7 had often gone to pass the night hours with him whenever she couldn't sleep.

7's guess had been right. 2 was in the middle of the room, crouched over an odd-looking piece of metal with too many bolts and ridges to count. The countless, nameless trinkets and baubles hanging from the walls glittered in the light from a match the old inventor had placed in that glass salt shaker he'd found several months ago. Somehow, he'd managed to convince 1 that the trinket posed no harm to the group. Which, considering their leader's perpetual paranoia, was an amazing feat. Not that she didn't believe 2 could outwit 1, but…nonetheless, she'd been proud and pleased of his little triumph.

5, though, surprised 7. It looked like he'd been working with 2 and had been unable to keep his optic open; he was slumped against 2's bed, his cloth shoulders sloping with exhaustion. His mouth was open just the tiniest bit, and if 7 concentrated, she thought she could hear him snoring. A fond smile tugged at the corner of her mouth.

2 was muttering quietly to himself, as he often did when absorbed in his work. "Rusty and a bit the worse for wear, but…ah, you're a beautiful piece of work. If only I could have met whoever made you…"

The elderly stitchpunk bent over and reached inside the glass-and-metal contraption, turning his head toward the window as he did so. 7 ducked faster than thought. She pressed herself close against the wall, quailing at the drop beneath her. Only the sound of 2's continued mumbling kept her from bolting at once.

"Almost there, that one cog's still…ah, there!"

7 heard a sudden screech of metal and a smattering of garbled noise, and then, a sweet sound filled the night air. Light, quick little sprits of sound that joined together in a pattern 7 recognized as music. She raised herself and peeked into the room again.

2 was shaking 5 awake, fairly jumping with excitement. 7 glanced at the funny metal box on the floor and watched in amazement as a wheel studded with small cogs lifted and pushed at metal boards. Somehow, the wheel was making music — music that that was both haunting and sweet at the same time. 7 felt her inner mechanisms quiver at the sound.

"5, 5, my boy!" 2 was saying. "Wake up! Yes, that's it – look at this. I fixed it."

7 ducked back under the sill as 5 stirred awake and turned with 2 to look at the musical box. She moved along the Sanctuary's wall, keeping one hand on her helmet and spear, her mouth overcome with an affectionate smile the entire time.

"Fascinating…" 2's fading voice was saying. "Absolutely amazing…"

7 lifted herself through the next broken window. Her spear and helmet clattered against her back as she hit the floor and she winced, reflexively putting a metal hand to them and going stock still. Thankfully, the music from 5 and 2's box drowned out the noise she'd made. Breathing a sigh of relief, 7 moved quickly through the Sanctuary's echoing hallways.

On the next level up, she found the twins tucked into their little niche. Before the Sanctuary had been abandoned, the twins' room had been some sort of storing room for the humans' scripts and books. Needless to say, when they'd discovered the wonders that awaited them inside, 3 and 4 wasted no time in moving in to claim the room as their own.

Musty tomes that would otherwise be covered in the dust of time and neglect showed signs of loving care, stacked neatly into their towering shelves. While some scripts, like those tomes, were arranged with scientific precision, others were scattered haphazardly across the room. In a corner of the room, curled cozily on the gold-lined pages of an ancient leather book, 3 and 4 slept.

7 smiled and crept forward on silent feet. The twins were curled around each other. 4's arm was dangling over the edge of the pages and his fingers twitched every now and then, as if just waiting to snatch up a page or two of endless knowledge. Knowledge that 1 wouldn't let them have. 7 leaned forward, took the younger twin's hand, and squeezed lightly.

"Soon, you two," she whispered. Looking up at the dark confines of the room, 7 realized once again how trapped they all were. "I'll get you out of here."

The others slept in the highest levels of the Sanctuary. 7 was tempted to skip looking in on them altogether, if only to conserve energy, but she reminded herself that 6 still needed to be checked up on. A little logical voice in the back of her head muttered that if 2, 3, 4 and 5 were safe, the others would be too, but she pushed it back down.

Even if she would never, ever admit it to herself, she needed to see him. It would hurt, as thinking of him always did since the day she left, but…it needed to be done. She was no coward.

For comfort's sake (the spear kept banging against her back with every move), 7 shifted her spear into her hand as she darted through the Sanctuary's groaning rafters. It was only when she reached the bucket-lift and realized that the bucket itself was many feet above her, that she slung the spear across her back once more. Leaping nimbly from rafter to rafter, she catapulted herself all the way to the throne room level.

8's room came just before 1's. Wide but out of the way, it was blocked off from the rest of the world by a wooden plank that 8 pushed back and forth when he came in and out. Passing by, 7 could hear loud, deep snoring that sounded as if the very ground was slumbering. She moved on swiftly, not wanting even to think of disturbing the hulking guardian.

7 stopped before she could reach 1's room. It was down a ways from 8's and she could find it if she followed the hallway, but…

Grimacing, 7 deliberately turned her back and stalked on to the throne room to see 6. If 8 was sleeping peacefully, 1 was fine. She didn't need to see him if he was already safe. She didn't need him at all.

Somehow, 7 couldn't even begin to convince herself that was true.

Her first mistake was thinking that no one in the throne room would be awake, that 2 was the only one suffering from temporary insomnia. She nearly walked into the open. It was only because 1 chose to shift into a beam of moonlight that she was saved from getting caught.

As soon as she saw the older stitchpunk, 7 jumped back and crouched behind the throne room's outside wall. Her mechanical heart clicked rapidly in her chest and she furiously pushed a hand against the surrounding fabric.

Stop, she commanded irritably, but the infuriating machine refused to listen.

She needed desperately to leave. This was a mistake. Just thinking about coming back was a mistake. He'd said he would protect them, and he was a tyrant and a coward and a stubborn, stubborn old fool, but he was true to his word.

The murmuring was so quiet she almost missed it. 7 paused and furrowed her smooth forehead, concentrating on the silence weighing down on her shoulders. All was quiet, and then…there it was again: 1's voice, so quiet and subdued she nearly mistook it for a creaking of the rafters above her head.

Muttering to himself, like always, she thought dismissively. Crazy old fool…

Against her better judgment, 7 inched closer to the throne room's entrance. She needed only to turn her head a little bit and she would be able to peer inside, but reluctance to face him, to ever confront him again, kept her back. Words drifted to her waiting ears.

"…mistakes…don't know how I could have been such a fool…"

1, calling himself a fool? 7 couldn't resist the temptation. She craned her neck around the wall to sneak a quick glance and saw his turned back. He was seated on a wooden plank by a white calendar, his face buried in his hands. He was so…still. 7's gaze traveled from his immobile form to the calendar propped up in front of him. The last time she had been here, the calendar — was that what it was called? — hadn't. Her shutters scanned the numbered rows until she landed on one digit that was different from the rest.

Crossed out by dark angry slashes was the number 7.

A chill skipped down 7's spine. No. No, this wasn't right. Whatever this was, and she wasn't sure what it was, it was making the gears inside her head whir much too quickly. She needed to get out. She needed to get out right now, before she learned too much, before she heard something she couldn't afford to hear…

7 moved on silent feet toward the bucket-lift. It hung in the night shadows, an easy escape route if not for its notorious creaking and groaning…she could probably wake 8 with all the racket it would make. Panic started to build somewhere beneath her heart, like a hearth of burning coals ready to send the wildly clicking machine bursting into flames. She needed a quicker way down than jumping from rafter to rafter; she needed…

Her optics settled on the bucket-lift's endless cable. Without a second thought to safety or practicality, she was heading for it determinedly. She had barely managed to maneuver herself into the bucket with the tiniest amount of creaking, and had just reached for the cable to zip-line to the ground level, when she heard him sigh.

Under 1's unforgiving hand, 7 had heard too many sighs from the rest of her comrades. She'd learned to tell one kind from the other. This one…this sounded like it came from the very bottom of his chest chassis. It was the sigh of someone who had given up.

7 squeezed her optics shut for a moment, tamping down the not-so-little voice that screamed at her to keep going, and turned.

He was…looking at the calendar, and…

While she watched, 1 lifted a single hand and pressed it against the number 7. His caped shoulders fell, his proud frame crumpling with another heavy sigh that seemed to let out all the air in his body.

At that moment, 7 leaned forward a fraction too far. The bucket-lift automatically protested and lurched unsteadily, spilling her out and slamming her into the floor's edge. Her spear had already begun to fall by the time she snatched it up in one hand and pressed it against the wooden floor. 7's feet swung wildly in the air and she, shocked at the sudden lack of ground beneath her, gasped and yelped as she struggled to hold on for dear life. Her fingers scrabbled desperately, leaving sharp gouges in the woodwork. She turned her head to look below her. Far, far underneath her dangling legs, the empty space went on for ages before finally ending with the Sanctuary's floor. 7's stomach slipped out from beneath her.

A startled gasp was the only sign of 1's presence. 7 felt her optics widen and whipped her head around to look up. 1 stood over her, his narrow eyes wide with alarm and surprise.

"7," he said in shock. Just as quickly as he had come to her aid, he drew back into that cold façade she hated so much.

"Having a little trouble with gravity, are we?" he sneered.

7 mustered up all the dislike she could while dangling tens of feet above the ground. It wasn't hard. "Move," she commanded slowly, "or do you want me to fall?"

He frowned and stepped aside without another word. 7 pushed her spear from her clutching fingers and grimaced, her inner mechanisms straining with the effort as she struggled to pull herself back to his level. She only managed to get to her elbows before a hand was thrust in her face.

7 blinked uncomprehendingly for a moment. Then, very carefully not meeting his smug gaze, she took his hand. He pulled and she pushed, and she finally stumbled back onto solid ground. It took her a minute before she was able to order her whirring heart into some semblance of a normal heartbeat, but by then, the world was just beginning to come back to her through a haze of fear. 1 was with her. And he was holding her upright, one arm around her back and the other crossed over her shoulders.

She shrugged out of his hold. "Don't touch me," she said crossly, still not meeting his eye, and moved to pick up her spear where it had fallen. The instant it was in her hands, a wave of calm spread through her. She was in control. This…this situation wasn't going to go his way. She, 7, was in control.

Yet it was he who spoke first. "What are you doing here?" She looked back and saw him staring in bewilderment at the bucket-lift. "And what were you trying to do just now? I've never seen you act so clumsily."

7 pursed her lips. "I was trying to get out," she snapped. "And why do you care if I'm here?"

1 turned back and narrowed his optics at her. "This is my territory," he said arrogantly. "As I recall, it ceased to be your home when you left."
7 tried to hide the flash of fear that went through her by pivoting on her heel. "You're just as conceited as I remembered," she hissed. "I'm leaving."

She had not even completed her third step before he spoke again. "How long were you standing there?"

7 looked back with a smirk on her face. "Long enough," she said meaningfully. 1 got the message and took in a low, hissing breath, drawing himself up like an animal preparing to defend itself.

"Relax," 7 said dismissively. "I only came to check up on the others."

"They're fine," 1 replied tautly. "I look after them."

"So you say."

1 bristled. "If you don't believe me," he said in a dangerous tone, "6 is in the throne room."

7 hesitated. Trapped between two equally bad choices, her pride and mindset were at stake. On the one hand, she could just leave and risk looking like a coward…like him. On the other side, if she went in to check on 6 and challenged 1's authority, she would most likely walk into yet another trap she couldn't afford to spring.

In the end, habit won out. Even after four months of physical distance, the urge to challenge 1's self-imposed authority was too great. Making sure to give him a steady frown as she passed him, 7 stalked through the throne room's entrance and headed for 6's corner. 1's unsteady footsteps shadowed her silent ones.

6 was curled up in the darkest corner of his niche. She could hear him murmuring in his sleep, as he always did when he was too far in dreams to be woken easily, and smiled faintly at his blanket-covered form.

"What did I tell you?" 1 whispered behind her. "They're fine. They don't need you to check up on them."

7 closed her optics briefly and turned to face him. "They don't?" she repeated. "How do I know that? Last time I was here, they were miserable!"
"They are safe," 1 insisted.

"From what? From the Beasts? Of course they are, but what about from you, 1? Are they safe from you and your tyranny?"
Anger flashed across the leader's face. He spun on his heel, brilliant cape swirling behind him. His walk was steady and quick with frustration, making her wonder what he carried his staff around for if he didn't need it. Not to be outdone or ignored, 7 followed him doggedly until he stopped in front of the calendar.

"I don't need to listen to this," 1 said in a hushed whisper. "You're the one who left."

"You were stifling me," 7 growled. "I couldn't take it anymore. I left because I wanted to."

1 was nearly trembling with anger. "That's not true," he said, and his voice was so quiet, so restrained and filled with pain, that 7 fell into silence. Suddenly, she couldn't bring herself to move. 1 came toward her on measured paces, his familiar narrow face drawing close to hers, and she still didn't move a single thread. Her spear hand trembled. Her entire body trembled. Suddenly, she was all too aware of gravity pushing down on her shoulders.

1 came to a stop just before her. He was so close, if he leaned forward just the slightest bit, they would be touching.

"That's not true," he murmured again. His hand came up to her cheek and she balked inwardly at the unguarded tenderness of his touch. She could only stare at him in some kind of paralyzed, intrigued terror. It kept her rooted to the spot, staring wide-eyed into his tapered optics, her entire body shivering in anticipation of what he was about to say. 1 noticed her body's reaction and smirked. He noticed everything.

"You know why you left."

7 shook her head. His metal fingers scratched along her cloth at the movement. "That was a long time ago," she whispered. "I was…I was caught up in emotions, I was scared and I needed someone. I didn't know what I was getting into."

"You knew exactly what you were getting into." 1 furrowed his brow at her. "You knew what you were doing to us. To me. And it scared you, I know it did. You have always been so strong, so untouchable, and you were too close to me, and you knew it. So you left."

His hand had been burning her cheek. Gravity pushed it to fall limply to 1's side and he turned from her, wearied shoulders hunched beneath the ache of wounds long faded away. 7 felt something pang painfully in her chest and jumped, startled by the sudden flush of grief that welled up within her. Frightened, she tried to crush it…and failed miserably.

"You saw me here." 1 gestured to the calendar. His fingers found the slashed 7, and his gaze was as harsh as the marks that crossed it out. "I know you better than anyone, 7. I know you're not an idiot, and I know you know I'm not one, either. So tell me…"

He swiveled on her with a gaze that, once upon a time, she'd been sure would pierce through her very cloth and set her gears on fire. Now, she only felt like a pinned deer, trapped in headlights threatening something more frightening to her than death.

"Did you think you wouldn't hurt me, 7? Did you think you could just leave without saying a word, without explaining, and forget about everything? Did you think I wouldn't mourn you?"

7's fingers curled around her spear's shaft. The words were rising up inside her, but they would not come free. 1 nodded in disappointment.

"You know what you did," he said quietly. "You abandoned us. You abandoned me."

7's breath came unstuck from her throat, and the words spilled out. "Stop," she said, and surprised even herself with the strength of her voice. "Don't."

1 recovered quickly. "Don't what? Bring up the past?"

"I was afraid," 7 said. "And I went to the coward for comfort."

1 only frowned. "You call me coward," he said quietly, "but you're the one who ran from what you couldn't control."

No.

Her hand came up to strike the look off his face. He intercepted her halfway, trapping her wrist between his metal fingers. 7 made a furious sound in the back of her throat and resorted to the other hand — her spear hand. 1 found her train of thought faster than she did and had grasped her free hand before it could move against him. For a tense moment, they struggled against each other's hold. Then, before she could so much as say a word, he was kissing her. The spear clattered to the floor.

It was not a nice kiss. Behind it, she could feel the force of every slight they'd ever exchanged, whether in jest or true insult; she could feel his pain, his hurt, the sharp, burning betrayal he'd felt when she had left him without saying why. It frightened her that this stitchpunk who could seem so heartless with so little effort, their steadfast leader, was simmering with pain beneath his cold surface. His resentment held her; she didn't even think of pulling away.

He broke away before she could. 7 didn't know when her optics had closed or how she always knew to hide her gaze when he touched her, but she had to remind herself to look up when he backed away. All of the resentment she'd felt boiling within him was displayed openly on his face. Instead of the answering frustration she should have felt, there were only weariness and the dull remains of her resolve.

"You shouldn't have done that," she said quietly. Wasn't this hard enough without him complicating it further? 1 only huffed in response and folded his hands behind his back, thinking. 7 knew that look. He could go on for hours when he was like that, just standing and brooding the day to death.

She sighed. "What do you need?"

His head jerked up in surprise. She had never asked him that before. "What do I…?"

"Need. Everyone needs, 1. Even you. So what do you need from me? An apology? For me to beg for your forgiveness? What, 1? What do you need?"

She knew what he would ask for before he did. For all his hatred for "pointless queries" and curiosity, she knew he couldn't rest until he knew why she had left. When he asked, she wasn't quite sure what to tell him.

"All I want from you," he said softly, "are your reasons."

"My reasons for leaving?"

1 gave her an unreadable look. "No. Your reasons for coming back."

The correction threw 7 off guard. She blinked blankly at him for several moments before she could untangle her wits. He wasn't asking for the reason she'd already given him; her excuse for coming back, now that she thought about it. He wanted to know why she had come back in relation to him.

"I…" She failed almost as soon as she started. "I don't know," she murmured, and avoided his optics to evade the disappointment she knew would appear there. "At first, I really did believe I was only checking up on the others. And then…I saw you by the calendar, and…"

Some of 7's old spark leapt into her, igniting a small flame that she fanned desperately. If she didn't, she knew, she would never leave. She lifted her chin proudly. "I'm not as heartless as you think I am. I felt the pain just as much as you did when I left. But someone needed to fight; someone needed to keep the Beasts away so you could protect the others. That's why I left. It's what the Scientist meant to happen — he meant for there to be a defender and a protector."

She took in a deep breath and lifted her chin a little. "I came back because I needed to explain. I couldn't leave things the way they were."

1 remained silent for a long, long time. 7 held her breath.

Finally, just when she'd started to think he had turned to stone, 1 stirred and offered her a smirk that was only half filled with bitterness. "You never could," he said. "Hah. Imagine. Leaving me for your duty."

He lifted his hand to her cheek but nearly took it back again. When she didn't move away, he returned his hand to her cheek and ran a finger over her cloth.

"You never change," he said.

Slowly, hesitantly, she smiled. The weight on her head and shoulders had finally begun to lift.


"7!"

Half consumed by the shadows, the lithe stitchpunk turned at the sound of her name being called. Her gaze immediately found 1, who was watching her leave from a window up near the throne room. He shook his head at her, and it was only then that she saw 2 leaning out of his window. He waved happily, bathed in the soft candlelight emitting from the depths of his room.

"Goodbye, my dear! Thanks for checking up on us!"

7 smiled and tilted her helmet at him. Far above 2's window, 1 leaned out over his window sill and shook his fist at his brother.

"2, you old fool, go back to sleep!" he shouted. 2 only smiled wider.

"And thank you for checking on 1. You know, he worries about you."

From this distance, 7 couldn't see 1's face, but his tone was all she needed to picture his expression. "2!" 1 roared. "To sleep!"

2 laughed that warm, gravelly laugh of his, and ducked back into his room. 7 laughed quietly to herself and looked back up toward 1. He stood there for a moment, a pale figure trapped against the pitch-black interior of the Sanctuary, and then, with a flip of his brilliant-red cape, he turned, and was gone. 7 stayed where she was, her fingers shifting indecisively around the shaft of her spear. Then she pivoted on her heel and sped off into the darkness, finding her footing easily. She'd never felt lighter in her life.

And maybe, she thought to herself, after the last Beast is dead and gone, we won't need a defender or a protector anymore. Maybe we'll finally be able to just be ourselves.

7 didn't know what believing in fairytales meant. But she did believe in hope. And hope she would, until the very end.

-Fin-


A/N: If you're going to read and/or favorite, please leave a review!

To clear up any confusion, 7 left because: 1) She was afraid of 1's increasing control over her and her emotions and 2) She would rather fight than be protected. I couldn't see 7 as someone who would just sit by while someone else did the defending. Her purpose is to defend; 1's is to protect. 7 has to fight the Beasties off so 1 can carry out his purpose. That's what I got from the movie, anyway.

Thanks for reading,

-Kimsa