A/N: This story is set in a compilation between the anime and manga canons; basically, assume the story of the manga, but add the Eden arc from the anime. I'm using the anime ages, and it's set roughly four or five years after the Eden event.
Their eyes meet across the crowded room, and they'd be nothing short of a cliché if it weren't for the fact that they know each other and the crowded room is in a hospital. Even though it's the hospital cafeteria, the unnatural smell of anaesthetic hangs around like a mist, permeating the food and the drink and the thoughts, making everything and everyone that little bit more sterile than usual. He knows that smell is keeping people alive, and he wouldn't mind it, but for the fact that this is a place of logic and not emotion and emotion is exactly what he needs right now.
"Drink it." she says. She pushes the cup towards him with hands that just scream too small, and the smell of anaesthetic gets mixed up with the smell of ground coffee beans and makes him feel almost nauseous. He picks the cup up and sniffs it weakly, recoiling because it smells of burnt and burnt smells of gunpowder and hell, he's got enough of that in his day-to-day life anyways.
"It isn't milk." he accuses softly, trying to worm out of it. He catches himself and frowns. Is this really the time to be childish? Maybe it's exactly the time to be childish, in this world of sterile logic and burnt coffee. Maybe it'd cheer her up, like old times. Maybe not.
"It has milk in it." she offers, sipping her own cup. She's wearing Sven's hat, even though Sven always taught her to take off her hat indoors, and it reminds him that she's getting more and more like Sven every time he sees her. Same pedantic, pragmatic wit, so different from his own, and the same half-cocked smile that isn't really a smile but a disguise to stop people seeing what's really going on under that damned hat.
She flashes her eyes at him, and he drinks in the faint accusation, the fragmented irritation that she showed him when she was younger and they were more like brother and sister than estranged cousins. He knows she won't carry on the conversation until he drinks, and she has him over a barrel because she's got all the time in the world and he's supposed to be doing a job later. So he sighs, and sips. The coffee even tastes burnt, and it warms his spine on the way down, turning bitter when it hits his throat. It might have milk in it, but it sure ain't milk.
"So. Why are you here?" she asks, smiling with faint approval. It's the same smile he sees Tearju use from time to time, the smile of a woman who's a mother but not a mother, who's mature but still searching restlessly for that one thing that'll make them complete. Except, Eve could never be a mother, Adam was an illusion, and the human race never even got started. The Garden of Eden fell from the sky and they all laughed and patted each other on the back, pretending for all they were worth that nothing was going to change, that they were always going to be as close as they were back then.
"Sven told me what happened. I was in the next town over." he says. He unconsciously leans back into his chair, tilting it back on the legs. He's really dying to put his feet up, because life isn't kind when you've got no money and a lot of bills, but he refrains because it's a hospital, for goodness' sake, and you've got to behave well and be prissy in hospitals. He also refrains from asking more, like why she would suddenly collapse in the middle of a fight, or why the doctors were milling around her like spectators at a zoo.
"I see." she replies.
I see, which is a very different thing from thank you or I appreciate it. I see, which is what people say when something inconvenient happens but you can't do anything about it. I see fits her perfectly, a damned sight better than that mangy hat, anyways, so he can't really blame her but he's still vaguely insulted.
The silence hangs as strongly as the anaesthetic, and the moment is as pregnant as any he's experienced before, which is kinda fitting because it's a hospital and there's probably someone having a baby somewhere in the damn place. The hustle and bustle of the cafeteria, of doctors trying to sneak apple juice without paying for it and shouts for more curry rice, chef, more curry rice, leaves them behind. It's just them, having a moment they both wish they weren't.
He leans forward, the front legs of the chair rejoining the ground with a clack, and makes his excuses. He'll visit her again, if she wants him to, of course, and he'll be sure to smuggle her some ice-cream or something, anything that she can't get in this oppressive chemical world. As he stands to leave, he gropes around for something to say, something to remind her that he's still him and they can always go back to the old days if she feels like it.
"Keep eating." he says, and walks away without looking back. She rearranges the hat on her head and smiles. She got the message.
The first thing he does is blame her.
After all, it's hard enough being a Sweeper under ordinary circumstances. How is he supposed to do his job when he's distracted by the Princess being in hospital and Sven squawking down his mobile about how insensitive he was for going off to make money so he could eat?
She doesn't miss how he uses her old nickname, or how playful the accusation is, or how bitter-sweet it is that his concern for her got him into a mess. She also doesn't miss the irony of the fact that he's in the bed next to hers, or the bandages streaking like ticker tape across his chest. She doesn't miss a lot, nowadays.
The job went wrong, he explains, as if it's an everyday hazard. Which, of course, it is, but not for the Black Cat, not for Train freaking Heartnet, the guy who saved the goddamn world. He says it as if it's a minor inconvenience that there's a bullet lodged somewhere in his right arm and another wedged somewhere in the muscles of his back, as if it's nothing big that he can't move around too much because the doctors are scared the one in his back will shift and maybe sever some nerves and paralyse him. Better safe that sorry, they said with telling gravity, and suddenly Train was the one in bigger trouble, stealing all the attention like the child he was.
They chat, slowly at first, and then the forced captivity starts to break down all the walls that sprung up between them in their separation. Suddenly it's all starting to tumble out, like waterfalls rushing down mountains and falling into the vast sea of things that should have been said earlier, things that are important in their mundaneness. He talks about milk for a while, waxing lyrical in a way that makes her think he could have been an author, maybe, if he weren't a childish gunslinging ex-assassin. She talks about Sven, how little his habits have changed, how he let her have his hat and how friendly he's been getting with Tearju.
The topic of Sven's liaisons with Tearju bring them sharply back to silence. It's an issue that should be tiptoed around, and hell is he going to tiptoe with a bullet in his back, so he just goes quiet, staring at the ceiling as if it has a bull's eye painted there. She gives a sallow smile, and pulls the brim of her hat further down over her face.
"I know, Train. They're doing it for me." she admits. He feels better after that.
The first day is a learning experience for him. He avoids hospitals like the plague, doesn't know how they work and isn't too keen to find out. But find out he does, when the nurse (tall, male, tanned like leather) arrives to examine Eve. He starts to pull the curtain across, but Eve stops him with those tiny hands because she knows Train and obviously their relationship isn't quite awkward enough for her.
And the gunman lies there, trying with all his might not to look as Eve's clothes fall one by one to the floor and the nurse appraises her slim frame with that pitying professionalism that marks out a true nurse. But she's looking straight at him, her eyes staring into his and begging for something, like a starving cat staring at a fish it knows it can't catch. It reminds him of the old days, the days where he was a hero and she was a princess, and she'd look at him with eyes that masked the same grudging dependence that he'd had with Zagine. And as soon as he makes the comparison, he crumbles like an old castle wall. He flashes his gaze back up at her face to show her, to tell her he's giving in, and then allows his eyes to ghost across her body.
She's gotten even smaller since the last time he saw her, more like a child. It's almost painful to drag his eyes across her slim shoulders, the fragile neck, and then lower to places infinitely more delicate and that he'll later black out, erasing the memory like he used to erase people. She doesn't even seem embarrassed, standing firm under his gaze with a knowing serenity that reminds him of someone else, someone he's trying so damn hard not to think about. He blinks and returns his attention to Eve, to giving her whatever it is she's looking for in this strange parade. Her alabaster skin barely disguises the bones anymore as she stands there, wearing nothing but Sven's old beat-up hat, and suddenly the image strikes him as tragic and funny at the same time. He almost laughs. But the bottom drops out from his stomach as he meets her eyes again, and he feels her thanking him for not being disgusted, for looking. Her eyes never leave his for the entire time she's being checked.
Things are strained for a while afterwards. He can't look at her, can't even glance in her direction without shadowy triangles appearing in his head, without his mind screaming that Sven's going to kill me. It's pathetic and he's ashamed, he's ashamed that he's ashamed, that Eve was the one who stood there naked as the day she was born (born or made? He isn't sure of the specifics), and he's the one embarrassed. It hurts worse than the bullet in his back, and now he's thought about it he's strangely aware of the sensation of cold metal under his skin, even though he's sure he shouldn't feel it-
Oh crap. He wonders, in a fashion that's childish and adult in all the wrong ways, whether she expects him to do anything in return. Immediately he scrubs the thought from his mind with triple industrial strength mind-bleach, because there's no way he could ever do anything like that, not unless his life or her life depended on it-
She's standing above him (fully clothed, thank goodness), looking down with an expression that's more mature than anything he's seen. He realises, a day and two cups of coffee too late, that she's in pain. She's not in pain like he's in pain, in that shallow physical sense, but she's in pain because her heart is eating itself from the inside out. Later, it'll be that expression that haunts his mind, not the sight of her unclothed.
"Keep eating, Princess." he says, as his own stomach growls. She smiles. It's not forgiveness, but it'll do.
Her nanomachines are killing her. That's what Sven tells them, his face gaunter than it has ever been before. There's a slight tic in his eye because he's honestly dying for a cigarette, and he looks oddly vulnerable without his hat. His voice is flat, one uniform beat like the heart machine that flatlined next door three hours, seventeen minutes and forty-six seconds ago. It's a strange way to think of the event of someone dying, but it's the one both he and Eve seized upon. It's easier to pretend that it's just machines breaking down, rather than the last gurgles and rattles of a departing soul.
Eve pulls Sven's hat further down over her face. He's learning quickly that it's her way of saying I see, of accepting difficult facts because you know them to be true. But he doesn't like the way that it obscures her eyes, how it covers her expressions so mercilessly. He needs to see.
She's not eating enough. That's what it comes down to, in the end, Sven says gruffly, as if Eve's to blame. But she and Train both catch the waver in the man's voice, the hairline crack in the emotional dam containing all the guilt and all the would'ves, should'ves, could'ves. He ploughs on, telling them in unnecessary detail how the nanomachines are leeching nutrition to keep replicating, right down to the molecular process of the damn thing. It's rationalisation on a plate, and Eve jumps onto it with a strange delight, talking science with the her adopted father until it becomes heartbreakingly clear that he's way, way out of his depth and that he learned all he knows in a succession of midnight reading sessions. The shadows under his eyes are like a stab in the gut.
Tearju's there too, floating around somewhere with the doctors and the scientists, talking nanomachines and nutrients like it's a second language. For her, watching Eve waste away is like watching herself die, some sick joke engineered by Fate, aided and abetted by a healthy dose of mad science. And Train understands, like he understands that actually, despite being immobile and waiting for surgery, he's really best off out of all of their little family. He understands a lot more since he came to the hospital. It's like the smell of anaesthetic that floats around and seeps into everyone's skin is tying them together with an invisible rope, hardwiring a network between their minds.
The thing is, Sven goes on, is that they don't just don't have the money. Sweeping's a difficult game, and not a particularly profitable one; they can't pay for high grade nutrition and the vast amount of calories she needs. It's like they're being backed into a hole by the problem that dogged them when they were all together so long ago, eating cup noodles out of necessity. It's like Creed and Eden were just sideshows to the real evil, the nagging lack of money that's finally closed in to pick off Eve at her weakest. And it's so unfair that it hurts, it really hurts, and Train finds himself wishing to anyone who can hear that he hadn't wasted money wrecking stuff and being gluttonous way back then, so that Eve could have eaten more and maybe she wouldn't look like an orphaned waif today.
As soon as he thinks it, she looks at him, the connection between them zinging through the air like lightning bolts through telephone wires. And she smiles, as if to say thank you, and he prays even harder than before. But it seems like no-one's listening.
He's scared, this time. Honestly and truly, he's scared. It's almost time for his surgery, and the nurses are discussing how to move him onto the stretcher with minimum disruption of his back. Eve's put one of her tiny little hands on his arm to steady him, and he's almost laughing at it all.
It's not like being in battle, like clutching your hand over your stomach because you're afraid your guts will spill out if you don't hold them in. Being in battle's better, he thinks, because at least you can fight. Your destiny is in your own hands, then, not in the hands of some guy in a mask who's cutting you open. How're you supposed to fight when you're drugged up and asleep?
He moans about it to Eve, fully aware that he's being selfish. She's trying her hardest to comfort him, and he's descending further and further into useless panic. He forces himself to take a deep breath, then another. The smell of the air is strangely relaxing to him now that he's been breathing it for a while. In fact, it's worrying how quickly he's adapted to the ins and outs of hospital life, of having nurses turn him to avoid bedsores and trying to bribe the Princess to get him a bottle of milk on her daily trip out of the room. She generally does it without him asking now, but the first time, she merely gave him a saccharine smile and asked just how much he wanted it, heralding an hour of mild torture during which he admitted (falsely) that he adored teddy bears, that he was scared of spiders, and that he wanted to profess his undying love to Kyoko. He'd received not one, but two bottles of milk for his efforts, and it had become a daily routine since. It had been the first time they'd joked, really joked, since before Eden, and the laughter soaked through his bones and down into his guts. Eve had brought herself a cup of coffee- he'd sniffed, asked why everyone liked the stuff. She said it was like life in a cup, liquid warmth that flowed down your spine, settling in the pit of your stomach. Not for the first time, he was surprised at how poetic she'd become in hospital; there was always some thick book sitting by her bed, just in case she was bored.
But there's really no time to reminisce, because strong hands are lifting him from the bed as if he were as light as a feather. He's lost weight recently, he remembers, because he's been trying to cut down on what he eats so Princess can have more- he's making up for his greed in their Sweeper years. Of course, the doctors went crazy at him. Nothing scares doctors more than when you start losing weight for no reason, especially if you're immobile in bed and there's no possible way you could be exercising. They threatened to set him up with an IV, and he relented a little bit. He can't imagine how scary it must be, to know that your life depends entirely on the machine next to you, that if there's a single loose bolt or something springs a leak, you could die and you wouldn't be able to do anything about it.
He realises, as the nurses carefully rearrange him in the stretcher, that he's growing to fear the dependency that goes with illness. He wants to fight for himself, look after himself, feed himself. And every time a nurse comes in to do something he can't do for fear of paralysing himself (and committing himself to endless dependency), it burns in his gut and makes him almost angry. He's grown dependent on Eve, too, in a way. She's the one who gets his milk for him. And he couldn't live without that. He pauses. Even in his own mind, it sounds like a bad joke. He's always depended on her, really, whether he realised it or not. She's entertained him, down the years, helped him out, took care of Sven for him. He owes her a lot.
She looks down at him, and walks at the side of the stretcher bearers all the way to the operating room. No one questions her right to do it, despite how tiny and washed out she looks. Those mid-air telephone lines spark again, and she gives him a look of utter, immovable confidence, like a wall of iron. He can't die, she says, because he's the Black Cat. He's Train Heartnet. And even though he knows it can't be true (because anyone can die, like Zagine died, robbing Train of his rival, his mentor, his target), it still feels like she's reinforcing his heart. He frowns for a moment, and she mirrors him. Then, he lets his face break out into that old, cocky smile, the one that she used to hate when she was young and trying so damn hard to catch him up. She mirrors that, too, except it looks strange on a face that small, and white, and delicate. But then it twists, so it's more like her smile and his smile put together, and it looks perfect on her. And when they finally take him into the surgery room and put him under, he's okay, because he taught Eve a new smile and if that's the note he ends on, it's worth it.
His head swims. Nothing makes sense, and everything is fire. It hurts, a lot more than before, and he keeps hearing voices but they're all garbled, floating somewhere out of his reach. It's strange, that Eve's in the one he really wants to hear now, that he's aching for, just like he ached for Saya's voice after she-
No. He can't think like that. He won't even think the word dead, because that asks questions he's not ready to answer and hopefully won't be ready to answer for another fifty years yet. Instead, he concentrates on trying to hear, hunting the sound like a cat hunting a mouse.
"How...what's happeni...he okay?"
It's Eve's voice, and he latches onto it like a lichen to a rock. She's confused, asking the doctors about him. He can't make out what the doctor's saying, only that it sounds deep and low and solid. It's the comforting voice doctors use, he realises, and he wonders if something's happened to him. He pricks up his ears, sharper than before, ignoring the undulating pain and the burning in his shoulder.
It's too broken for him to make out, like listening to an old radio with the aerial down (like the radio in Sven's old crap-mobile, he thinks). He catches the word complications, and it's like the world's closed in, like this is some sappy movie and the camera's zooming in for the money shot. Complications is a crappy word, he thinks, even worse than I see. His head swims again and the words become untouchable, like he's trying to catch moonbeams on the roof with her again. It all fades away.
It's not as bad as it seems, the doctors tell her. The complications were with his arm, not his back, and he's in no immediate danger. In fact, the bullet in his back was a while away from the nerves, so he probably was never in any danger of paralysis anyway, and isn't it funny?
And it's not funny. It's the first time she's been angry, really angry, in ages, and the words pour out full of shadows and malice. It's not funny, because haven't they seen how he struggles with relying on other people, and haven't they thought about what comes now, all the work he'll have to do?
When Train stirs, they're alone. She tells him, carefully, that he can move now, leaving out the bit about how he could always move and how much of a bad joke it's been. And to her horror, he immediately springs out of bed, landing adroitly like the cat he always was and still is. And he looks so shocked, so very surprised when his legs buckle under him, unused to carrying his weight. The first time he's tried to walk, he falls. She looks at him, the startled look on his face, and feels like she's going to cry.
It's slow going. The physio team at the hospital are good, but the frustration that he can't walk rolls off him in thick, heavy waves. It clouds the room worse than the anaesthetic smell, but it's healthy, because it shows he's got fire, that he'll keep going until he manages it.
She sits on the edge of his bed with him, now, making sure not to move too much. It feels somehow more insensitive to be up and walking now, now that he has the chance and can't take it. Now their talks are more like whispers, but they still hear each other alright, because now more than ever they're listening. But the anger and the frustration are building up in him, and he needs release.
It takes a while (longer than she expected, and she's ashamed of that, somehow), but eventually, he releases. She makes an innocuous, innocent comment, and he snaps, bitterness colouring the words and sarcasm dripping off his tongue. And even though she knew it was going to happen, even though she was expecting it, she starts (inexplicably) to shake. His mouth drops, his face pales, and he leans forwards and he's so, so sorry, and somehow that's worse than the fact he snapped at her.
Days later, Sven walks in, hiding a limp (she's so good at spotting them now, after all this time in hospital), and tells them he has good news. He just finished a big job, without breaking anything (he throws a glance at Train, who flashes him a cat's grin), and they're got a little money. On top of that, the news has finally gotten out that Eve's sick, and their friends have rallied. Rins and Jenos have thrown in a lot, and Jenos says that he had to physically restrain Rinslett from going out and robbing a bank that very minute. A package has come from Leon and the kids, with a few tiny scrapings of money and some home-made cookies, because that's all they can afford to give. Annette's thrown some money into the pot, too, probably more than she can afford. Even the unlikely sources are cropping up. There's been a long e-mail from Kyoko, telling them that if they set up an online fund, she'll wire some money into the account. And Sven still remembers how creeped out he was when he found a tall hat in his doorstep, stuffed full of money and flecked with a few spots of blood. Quite how Charden knew where to deposit it, he didn't know, seeing as Tearju kept their location secret, and they hadn't told him. Finally, he brings out a pair of envelopes and tosses them to Train.
Train misses them by a mile, and they fall to the floor. Immediately, she picks them up and hands them to him, saving him the embarrassment of admitting he still can't get out of bed that easily. He thanks her with his eyes, and tears open the first envelope. The paper's stiff and heavy, good quality stuff, so he's almost not surprised when he sees Sephiria's signature adorning the bottom. Almost, but not quite. He reads the letter aloud, mimicking her voice to match her polite, formal writing style. But even with Train's jokes, it's touching. She tells them that Kyoko contacted her (it seems she'd contacted everyone), telling her about Eve's predicament; she promises to wire a not-inconsiderate amount of money to them, so long as they tell her which account to send it to.
When Train opens the next letter, he pales. Literally. She starts, reaches forwards and places a hand on his neck, and his pulse slows at her touch. Sven politely looks away, for reasons he's not sure of. It's somehow intimate. Eventually, Train chokes out the word, and it's not angry or sad but just shocked.
He opens the letter, his hands shaking. They shake so bad that when the envelope splits open, the contents fall out. There's three wads of notes, and put together they're as thick as his arm. There's no letter, just a scrap of paper adorned with Creed's elaborate curls.
Money cannot buy forgiveness, but take it anyway.
Train leans back, the breath forcing itself from his lungs, and lets the silence take him. She smiles. Thanks to the exploits of the Black Cat, she can follow his instructions, and keep eating.
It's strange, really, that a lump's forming in his throat and he can't look away. He's seen her naked before, but somehow this is more private, more meaningful.
He made his first real accomplishment today. At first, it was just a step, and then it became another. Then it became three steps and a wobble. He corrected it, but there was still a strange sway in his walk that wasn't there before, like he was perma-drunk or something stupid like that. Despite his lack of balance, he managed to make a full circuit of the room, before falling onto his bed and panting in elation. For the first time since his mistake at the job, he felt capable, independent. He was so happy, he almost missed the sound of Eve clapping, throwing her tiny hands together with childlike abandon. A smile lights up her face, and it's the smile, the one that's his and hers together.
Slowly and tentatively, the moment blossoms into something tender. Or maybe it was tender all along and he didn't realise it because he was so wrapped up in his success? Either way, her hands were creeping to her head, hesitating a moment before seizing the brim of her hat. With a solemn, certainty, she removed it.
He knew, of course, what he was going to see. It's obvious that the only reason Sven gave her the hat was because she felt naked without her hair. But it's still poignant, that he's looking at her, bald as a baby mouse, and he doesn't feel like it's strange or ugly, but he feels that it's really just her.
She explains, haltingly, that her long years of using nanomachines to turn her hair into a weapon made it highly concentrated with them. She cut it off herself, so she didn't need so much food to get better. She goes into the mechanics of it, not able to resist the lure of rationalisation. He listens attentively, drinking in the knowledge, but waiting, waiting for the sign-
It comes in the form of a gasp that's just that little bit stronger than any of the others, a halt that's just that little bit longer, a shiver that's just that little bit more. He reaches out a hand and cups her chin, feels the first tears force themselves from her eyes and drip down onto his thumb. All of a sudden she's on top of him, pressing her head into his chest, his hand stroking the bare back of her head. She can't stand it, because it's like her body has a cancer and it's eating her from the inside. And he thinks that, maybe, those nanomachines really are a cancer, a parasite eating away at the host. She presses closer to him, finding her way subconsciously around the bandages to find a spot that's right for both of them, a spot where they can be close without being hurt. She's ashamed of her weakness, but he isn't, so he holds her close until her sobs stop shaking through his chest. Those phantom telephone wires howl her thoughts directly into his mind, so loud and clear that they're like his own. Even though he no longer smells the anaesthetic in the air, it doesn't matter because the connection it forged is permanent now, bound into their bones.
It's strange how it happens. One moment, he was Train Heartnet, ex-eraser, indomitable sweeper. Now he's more, somehow, even though he can hardly walk. It's a mystery to him, all wrapped up in the little girl who's not such a little girl anymore, crying into his chest because she knows he won't let her down. He realises, with the dulled surprise of noticing something that was always there, that he loves her. He loves her like a sister, like a daughter, like a mother, like a second-aunt-third-cousin-twice-removed. To hell with it, he loves her like a wife too, because she's what he wakes up to and he can't imagine it being any other way anymore. It's some sort of pulse that sweeps through him, every time his heart beats, washing away any doubts about age or Sven or even the fact that she's dying, slowly but surely.
The walls that sprung up between them are broken now, lying on the floor like an ugly mosaic, unnecessary and worthless. They'll build new walls, walls to keep danger and poverty and the creeping, skulking sickness out, and they'll do it together.
"Keep eating, Eve." he says, ghosting his thumb across her eyes. "Keep eating until we can find a way to fix this."
She nods with the simple confidence of a child. It's well placed, because he's Train Heartnet and he'll do anything to make her well again.
The money isn't enough. When Sven tells him, something inside him snaps, something that's dangerous, treacherous, black. All of a sudden he's up and out of bed, to hell with his stupid wobbly legs, with his fists balled in his old friend's stupid cheap-ass tobacco-stained suit, shouting questions he doesn't want the answers to. Sven's reaction is wise but swift. A single well-aimed blow sends him to the floor, those wobbly legs crumpling like paper. Sven brushes his hand through his hair, and immediately Train's attention goes to Eve, who's holding that damn mangy hat like a shield. Foolish impotence (bitter as coffee) swirls in the back of his throat. His rage dissipates; he's calm again, now, like he's jettisoned some weight that was sitting in his chest.
"I'm sorry, Sven, Princess. I don't know what came over me." he says, although it's a lie. He knows exactly what came over him; the urge to kill anything that threatens Eve. It's like his old self has just been sleeping all this time, and has suddenly woken up cranky. The urge is fire on his ribs.
"We got a lot of money, but it won't last forever, and I can barely afford to feed her cup noodles on a Sweeper's pay." Sven says, his hand still rustling through his hair, like he's searching for an idea that got lost in there somewhere. "We need a permanent solution, not a temporary cure."
Truth has a way of hitting you where it hurts, so he leaves them alone for a while, talking in hushed whispers with Teaju outside the door. Tearju still hasn't so much as been in the same room as Eve yet. Train used to understand the sentiment, but not anymore. Why could she possibly forsake the Princess, her own flesh, her own blood? The anger kicks and flares, but that mental phone line is tingling so he wrestles it down. She's looking at him, with wide, hooded eyes, stained with what might be fear.
"Sorry, Princess. It's just...Hah. The past's catching up with me, I guess." he says. It feels heavy as the words roll off his tongue. He guesses that means it's true, or at least truer than he wants it to be.
She walks over to him with those tiny elfish footsteps, like she's not even touching the ground. The anaesthetic smell is completely gone now, so he can smell her. She stills smells somewhat of blood, but it's okay because he does too. He misses the smell of her shampoo, but that doesn't matter either. He's missed her smell more. She puts her hand on his arm, with only the slightest of trembles in her hand. He scares her. He beat Eden and Creed and Doctor. He beat Torneo and Flora and Shiki. He was her rival, long ago. He's done all the things she can't.
"Train. I'm here." she says, tightening her grip so much that her nails dig into the skin. The Black Cat inside him hisses, but she still holds him with that iron will of hers. Perhaps she'll be the one to do what Chronos, Creed, even Train himself failed to do; maybe she'll be the one to tame the Black Cat. He's looking forwards to it.
Time passes. His arm's fully recovered now, and has been for a while, but he still hangs around the hospital. They kicked him out of the bed, but they somehow knew they couldn't keep him out of the room, so they didn't bother trying. The guy who got the bed got a surprise too when the guy who saved the world wandered into his room with a bottle of milk and a cup of coffee. He'll have to get used to it. Every so often, Train wonders what would happen if he came in through the window, but he doesn't want to push his luck. He'd just gotten used to having his legs back, and he didn't need to go breaking them.
Eve's getting better, slowly but surely. Even though they both know it's only temporary, that a solution still needs to be found, it's heartening. She's filling out, regaining her lost weight and then some. He's starting to notice the inches she grew whilst he was away, now she's growing into them width-wise. The bridge of her nose is just level with his mouth, and that's the way he likes it.
The hospital staff are accommodating them. Nurses, he realises, are generally the best and wisest human beings that he's ever known when it comes to matters like this. They looked on at the two without questions, until one day a nurse came in and proceeded to teach Train how to do her checkups, on the condition that he'd report honestly. He'd been unsure at first, but Eve shot him a glance, and that was that: he was now her personal nurse. Every day, he'd pull the curtains across, avert his eyes whilst she undressed (she was a lady after all, she joked), and map every part of her that was even a fraction bolder than the day before, praising her for every one. He'd tease her in the gentlest possible manner about how she was going to need some new dresses, or how all the boys were going to drool when she got out. She'd smack him lightly around the head, making exaggerated sighs about his 'bad behaviour', asking him what Sven would say if he knew he'd seen her like this.
It was short, but bitter. Train had been honest about it, at least, telling him how he was going to do her checkups from now on and watching his best friend realise exactly what that meant. He'd predicted it, and met him outside the hospital; he was glad of the precaution. Sven erupted, with all the strength of a volcano, brandishing all the anger a gentleman, a hero and a Sweeper could muster. Train sympathised with him, he really did, because Eve was practically the man's daughter, for goodness' sake, and if Eve was his daughter, he wouldn't want anyone to see her naked. Sven rushed him, lost in the moment; Train's response was as wise and swift as Sven's had been when he erupted. He dodged Sven's straight with all of his old agility, and knocked the man to the ground. He still looked oddly vulnerable without the hat.
"Sven, tell me. Who the hell else would you trust to do it?" he had asked, with Eve's quiet, knowing smile on his face.
They still weren't on speaking terms, but Tearju told him that Sven was coming round. She thought he was past being angry and was just embarrassed, and that eventually he'd just rock up, pretending like it had never happened.
He was getting along better with Tearju, too. She'd been working hard to find a lasting solution to Eve's problem. He'd confronted her about her absence from Eve's bedside, and the response surprised him.
"We've been trying to leave you two to it for a while now." she said, pushing her glasses a fraction higher up the bridge of her nose. "It's not like we can give her anything that you can't."
True to her prediction, Sven returns. He shoots Train an apologetic glance, and tells them that the money is more than half gone. Eve frowns, but she's not too sad; she'll be out of hospital soon, so she can start trying to bring in money for her own treatments. Later that night, the two men stand in the very same place they fought before, and shake hands under the moon. Train really does feel like a man now, more than he ever did when he was fighting Creed; what battle didn't give him, life has.
"Train. I trust you." Sven says, rubbing a hand through his hair. It's thinning from all the rubbing he's been doing recently. Train just smiles, as a way of promising that he won't ever break that trust.
The next day, it's hard to be worried about the money. Eve's skin is looking healthier than ever, radiant almost. She grins as he checks her over, flourishing when she sees the appreciation in his eyes. Shyly, she points him to the emerging curve of her hips, the very mirror of Tearju's; she's growing up. He laughs and flicks her forehead, asking what Sven-daddy would say.
"S'not his business." she pouts as he examines her back. "I'm a lady now."
He can't help but agree with her. Jaws drop when she walks the hallways now, despite her baldness under the hat; she's attracted a few wolf whistles from some of the merrier male nurses. He's in two minds about it, because on one hand he refuses to even entertain the thought of anyone dating her, but on the other hand, he wants to put her on a pedestal for all the world to see.
In the end, he doesn't have to worry about it. His Princess is more than capable of taking care of herself, cutting down any hopefuls with a frosty glare and a saccharine smile. He just forgets, sometimes, that she's even capable of being so cold, so logical; he's much too far under that outer shell now.
Still, what he really wants, more than anything else, is for her to grow her hair out again. He knows that she could use the nanomachines to magic it back anytime she wants, but she knows it'll make her progress slower. He wants to see the day when she can grow her hair back without any fear of repercussions; he wants to smell her shampoo again. But until then, he can smell her and the coffee she drinks, and that's good enough.
When they leave, they leave together. It's an unspoken agreement they reached long ago, in this place of anaesthetic air and mental telephone wires. It's a triumphant exit; the nursing staff have grown accustomed to them as time went by. He wonders if they have conflicting emotions; whether saying goodbye to a friend is a happy occasion for a nurse, or a sad one. He owes these people a lot, more than he could ever repay.
Some of the nurses are waiting in the foyer for them. One presses a sheet of instructions into his hands, telling him what food she needs, how often, where to buy it. Really, it should have been given to her, because she's perfectly capable, but it feels right somehow that he takes it. A last few wolf whistles echo through the crowd, and Eve smiles at the people she's come to regard as family. She sees flashes of concern in their eyes, as if they're scared that they'll have to treat her again. She hopes not, in the best possible way.
As soon as they walk out of the door, it's as if a brand new page is starting. The air is so fresh, so clear. He's forgotten how nice it is, to be outside in the sunshine. He hears her taking deep breaths, acclimatising herself to outside, to wideness and sky.
A car backfires, and they shoot impish grins at each other. Their ride's here. Sven pulls up with Tearju in the passenger seat. A bald patch is starting to show in his hair. Eve smiles, and tips her hat to him, like he taught her. Train's arm snakes itself around her shoulders.
As they drive, Sven brings them up to date on what's been happening. Rins and Jenos have stopped beating around the bush and finally moved in with each other. Kyoko's been offered an acting role in a TV show about a fire witch. And Leon's gotten a contract as a professional skateboarder, which is bringing in enough money to keep a roof over the kid's heads. It seems no one's heard from Charden, although it'd take an awful lot to put him down. Creed's fallen into a spell of depression, but Echidna's confident it'll pass. Life goes on.
"Sven. Would you like your hat back?" Eve asks, tentatively. Train's hand grasps hers; he knows she's not quite ready yet. Sven makes some non-committal grunt.
"Don't worry." Tearju whispers, winking. "I've been working on some hair growth tonic for a while now."
Sven hears and swivels round to yell at them, entirely forgetting that's he's driving. As the car threatens to bounce off the road, it feels just like old times- except that now, they can appreciate them.
In the end, the car rolls to a jarring halt. It was an old car when they rode around in it as Sweepers and it's even older now, but it's like an old friend, and not one of them could ever bear to see it go. They jump out, and find themselves at the bottom of a familiar hill on top of which a familiar house perches like a hawk. It's Tearju's house.
"Wait, so you guys have been living here? Together?" Train asks, and Sven immediately flushes red. Tearju just giggles and shoots Sven a sly sidewards glance that he misses completely. Eve smiles, touches the brim of her hat, and begins the long walk upwards.
It's not a huge house. Tearju lived alone, had no need for the room. It's feeling crowded as soon as they go through the door. Train notices several of Sven's jackets hung on the coat-rack; it seemed he'd already made himself at home.
"It's good to have someone else in the house, I suppose. Especially seeing as he does the cooking." Tearju confides as Sven dons his apron and commandeers the kitchen. It makes Train remember how long it's been since he ate anything other than hospital food. His stomach growls in a way that it hasn't done in a long time. Suddenly, he feels home.
In the end, they have to share a room. They played cards for the bed; Eve won by a stately mile. Still, it's not like the fold-out couch isn't comfy. Besides, he says, he would have given her the bed even if he'd won. She cocks her eyebrow, and says she'll take his word for it.
Sven rarely disturbs them, for which they probably have Tearju to thank. It's a good thing, too; they're still in their hospital routine, a routine that's probably too intimate and trusting for an outsider to understand. He still performs a checkup, every day, and she giggles as he pinches her thighs and teases her. Sometimes, he can't help but stare at how gorgeous her skin has become, or how womanly she looks now.
They have different ways of filling their time. Eve often wanders around Tearju's library, exalting in the quiet, the emptiness, the knowledge. She'll pluck a book at random, and devote her entire day to it. Train, meanwhile, finds himself watching Sven cooking. His cat eyes are starting to learn the techniques and the surety that the older man's hands possess. He likes baking the best, though, because it's just such a tactile experience. There's something strangely fulfilling about putting ingredients together, rather than blowing objects apart.
He wants to get some money, though, apart from their little food fund that's dwindling dangerously low. More than anything, he wants to get Eve a dress. She usually just dresses in Tearju's old sweaters and jeans, but it seems wrong to him that she doesn't have any clothes for herself. Eve point blank refuses to entertain the thought; she maintains that she's already a burden on everyone financially, and that she'll make do with what she's got. They're even had arguments about it, deep into the evening, arguments that shake his core but in a good way because he's arguing for her.
Eventually, curiosity grabs him by the scruff of the neck and drags him to the library to see what she does in there all day. He finds her seated by the window, a book as thick as his arm on her lap. She glances up at him with mature eyes, but carries on reading.
"Y'know, you read so many books, you could probably write one." he jokes. She looks up, something like surprise on her face.
"...You're right. We've had plenty of adventures, so I wouldn't be lacking for material...I could write about the war with the Apostles of The Stars." she says, as if she's tripped over a stone the size of an elephant. "Why didn't I think of this before?"
From that day on, they spend most of their time in the library. She's the author, but he's the muse and editor in chief. Their days are punctuated by silly little arguments about word choice and grammar, but those little arguments always seem to add a little to the lush accounts unfolding on the page. Tearju and Sven ask everyone's permission to be used in the book. Apart from Rinslett (who isn't particularly pleased with being identified as 'a voluptuous thief'), almost everyone thinks that the book needs to be made, that an account needs to remain to testify to the event.
It takes shape slowly at first, but then starts to gather momentum, until the story is like an avalanche of passion and action. Even Tearju, a connoisseur of books, is impressed. Train finds himself completely unsurprised by the quality of the thing; he always knew Eve had it in her.
Sooner rather than later, the book is finished and edited. They send it off, praying that the subject matter (as well as the authors) will ensure them a publishing deal. It comes immediately. No right-minded publisher would refuse a book written so well, and by two of the heroes that saved the world. The days speed by, until a little wrapped package arrives on Tearju's doorstep.
"Hey, Eve. It's our copy. First one off the presses." Train smiles, taking the book from the package. It's pleasingly heavy, and there's something satisfying about the weight of it in his hands.
"Read the dedication." she says, ghosting up behind him. He opens the book to the first page.
"This book is dedicated to everyone who appears within it, and to the friends we've lost along the way. I also wish to thank the nurses who aided my recovery and ensured I could write this book. Finally, my greatest thanks to Sven Volfied, who took me in as his daughter, to Tearju Lunatique, who was responsible for my birth, and lastly, to Train Heartnet, to whom I dedicate my love."
He's shocked. Stunned. Somehow, he knows she isn't talking about sisterly love or anything like that. It's love, that big, mysterious adult thing, and it's in print for the whole world to see. Those mental telephone wires scream at him, louder than ever before, and suddenly, finally, they're kissing. Her mouth moves soft and warm against his, searching for something, anything, drinking him in, and why the hell didn't they do this sooner, why did they waste so much time? She's pressing herself against him and he's pressing back, trying for all he's worth to get closer to this miracle, this new-grown woman who's changed his world. Her hands are at the back of his neck, pulling him closer to her face, wanting more of the soft ghost of his lips on hers-
She gasps, and pulls away. Her heart's beating as fast as a rabbit's, and her tongue tingles. He's the same, with his mouth hanging open and his hands still on waist like he's forgotten all about them. She breathes, one-two, one-two, until she's ready. Then it starts again, warmer and hotter and harder than before, and all her breath is being wasted in gasps and pants and sighs inside his mouth. He looks into her eyes, and sees something change there; some spark has ignited, grown into a full blaze. It's the same spark she had when she was young, when she was his rival, when all she wanted to do was beat him. But there's something new in there, something imperious and irresistible, and the kiss deepens into something more primal. He's suddenly acutely, painfully aware of the swell of her breast pressing against him, the new-found curves moulding themselves to his. It's all going too fast, and he's the one who pulls away this time, trembling and warm.
That imperious spark is still lit in her eyes. He realises, with a swoop of his stomach, that this is the last part. This is the part of herself she's never show anyone before, the blazing point of selfishness she's been hiding all this time. She's never asked for anything, he realises, but that's going to change. She's not the Princess, she's the Queen, and no is not an option anymore. She's no longer afraid of showing the selfish needs she has, and she's finally ready to take something for herself. His heart leaps when he realises that that something is him.
They're still looking for a lasting solution. They still can't stop the nanomachines from leeching nutrients, but they made enough money from the book to buy the nutritional food for years, if necessary. In fact, she's writing a new one, a novel this time, based on her experiences in the hospital and after. It's fiction, but at times he sees it skirt dangerously close to the truth, so much so that there's a certain scene in the latter-most chapters that he can't bring himself to read without blushing. It doesn't help that she demands they 'recreate it', so she can 'get her description just right.' More than ever before, she's a woman now, a fully grown up woman, and he's faintly in awe of her. He's still slightly worried that Sven will kill him if he ever reads it, but old Sven-daddy seems to have his hands full with the strange chemistry blooming between himself and Tearju these days.
Absently, he strokes her hair. She's grown it out again, now that she can. It's soft as silk, like a curtain of silk flowing down her back. He loves the feel, the smell. She often makes little jokes about how he really is a cat, sitting there grooming her like that. He can't really help it, he says; she looks beautiful in her dress. He's finally convinced her to get one for herself, calling it a present to him. She agreed, on the condition that he pay her back with a slice of his renowned Black Cat Gateau. He's really gotten to be quite an excellent chef, because her nutritional food isn't the tastiest thing in the world, and it never hurts to have an extra meal.
"Keep eating, Princess." he smiles, placing the fork gently in her mouth. She smiles smugly. (She has him whipped and he knows it. What can he say? She's got a thing for taming cats.)
The world's finally peaceful, although who knows how long it'll last. He hopes forever, but that's ridiculous. He'll settle for a lifetime.
"Yup, keep eating. There's plenty more to come."
A/N: Phew. Well, at about half past midnight, I got the idea for this; I spent the entire next day writing it out in four three-hour sittings. The idea came about whilst I was reading a Black Cat character death fic; somehow it reminded me of a famously brilliant FFVII fic, Springtime In Winter. This is a kind of tribute to it (read: the same sort of thing, but vastly shorter and inferior). I'm not sure if it came out well or not; frankly, I'm terrified of reading it and discovering all the mistakes I made. I've abused recurring themes, I've abused sentence lengths, and I've abused the word 'and' more than I ever have before in my life (and hopefully more than I ever will again).
I don't own any of the characters contained in this work. I feel it's a justified high T rating; although it contains swearing and some sensitive material, descriptions are far from explicit, and seeing as there are no age restrictions for buying novels anyway, you can probably find far worse stuff at your local bookstore. The title is (very) roughly translated as 'In Sickness And Health.'
I felt somewhat justified in making Train more mature in this fic, simply because it is set a while after the canon, and 4-5 years can make an awful lot of difference in a person. Plus, he already has a deeper side to his personality. I may edit this fic later, when I'm capable of looking through and making it better, but right now I'm going to leave it as is. Oh, and TrainxEve fans? Don't say I never did anything for you.