Oh. Hello.

Bet you all thought I'd forgotten you, huh? No chance. I've sunk too much into this story to let it just go to waste. I did have a difficult time between the last chapter and this one, being really unsure about where I was going to go from then on. But I think I have it figured out. And you'll be seeing me more often from now on.

Check out my DeviantArt (same username) if you want to see what I've been working on! It's all (mostly) 9 related. Essentially, in the past few months me and a few others have created a sub-fandom all our own. But enough about that. Here's the new chapter!


"Are you ever going to put her down?"

9 watched 6's mop of hair sway as he shook his head. "No."

"Six—"

"Nope. Never…never ever."

0, for her part, wasn't complaining. It felt good to be back in her right mind, even if she was still fighting off the blackness that crept around the very edges. Having 6 there helped. He'd scooped her up in the snow and was currently in the process of carrying her back to the library with the rest of the search and rescue party. She was wrapped in 1's blue cloak and warming back up, but it was slow going.

"She's going to have to walk on her own sometime," 5 laughed.

"Not yet." 6 hiked 0 up a little higher to plant a kiss on her forehead. 0 sighed and curled closer: oh, she'd missed that.

They followed their footsteps back to the library entrance, pleased to see that nothing had happened in the hours they'd been gone. 3 and 4 practically killed themselves tripping over the pile of books at the entrance to get down to 6 and 0. They began frantically flapping signs at her, trying to see if she was sane, if she was safe and whole and her again. All 0 managed to get out was a nod and a small smile.

At the pile of books, 6 finally let her down, not wanting the change in incline to disrupt his equilibrium and send them both tumbling down. Instead he adjusted the cloak around her shoulders and took both of what remained of his mate's hands, leading her up and back into the library, fighting the urge to pick her up again once they were back inside.

"Back again, I see!" 2 said jovially, beckoning a twin over to translate for him. "How are you, my dear?"

0 looked down at her still broken hands and sighed, then looked up at her room and back to 2, miming falling asleep.

"Of course, of course. Will you be alone or—" 0 vigorously shook her head, latching onto 6 quickly. "Naturally. If you'll bear with me a moment, though, I can fix at least one of your hands." He gestured to the repaired fingers that sat on a nearby book. "One hand is better than none."

0 hesitated, then nodded, holding her right hand out. 2 deftly fitted the fingers into the open slots on the end of her palm, then flipped her hand over and reset the delicate wires on the base of the fingers. He flexed his own hand and 0 repeated the gesture, bending each finger slowly. "Good. That's good. We'll whittle some temporary wood ones for your left over the next day or so. Okay?"

'Thank you.'

"Think nothing of it. Now, I believe you have a nap to attend to?"

6 nodded with a tired grin of his own and led 0 over to the candlestick elevator, pulling them up to their nook. 6 used a book to block the entrance and afford them some darkness and privacy and clambered into the hammock, opening his arms to his mate. 0 hesitated.

"Zero?" 6's brows contracted. She looked so small and lost, enfolded in a cloak much too big for her, her shoulders hunched and her eyes not meeting his own. He signed as he murmured, "Please come here."

0's lip trembled and she fell forward, her knees buckling below her. 6 scrambled to catch her at the last moment, gripping under her arms and heaving her into their hammock, using his own body as a mattress for her, the cloak left on the ground. 0 fit her arms around 6's shoulders and draped one leg over both of his, curling as close as she possibly could. 6, for his part, wrapped his arms around her middle and held her tightly, feeling her tremble on top of him, bone-deep shivers that wracked her tiny frame. He never took his eyes off her as he reached down and grabbed their blanket from the other side of the bed, draping it over the both of them. It hurt him to think of how terrified she'd been, trapped in her own forced nightmares. It ached to think of how much he loved her.

"Oh, Zero, Zero," 6 murmured, fluttering kisses all over her face and head, trying desperately to convey to her without words how much he'd missed her. When her shaking subsided a little bit, but not quite fully, 0 finally looked up at 6, determination and hurt and want shining out of those silver optics. She cupped his face in her one good hand, kissing him firmly, a kiss to tell him she would never leave him again, not if she could help it.

"I love you," 6 breathed when she pulled away, saying the words aloud for his own benefit. He kissed her again. "I love you." A third time. "Zero, I—I love you so much, it-it hurts."

0 gave him a timid half-smile and shrugged, still unable to understand him. 6 copied the smile, taking her right hand and kissing each of her fingertips, folding down the middle and ring finger after he'd pressed his lips to the copper and laying it on his own chest. 0 looked down at the sign, their sign, and blinked slowly, biting her lower lip again. She pressed it into the stripes and ink stains. She could never leave this. He would never let her.

"I love you," 6 repeated, kissing her forehead and giving her body a squeeze. "You will never be alone again, ever."

Finally, after weeks of thunderstorms and loneliness and beasts and nightmares and lullabies, finally, they slept.

"How did she seem when you found her?"

2, 5, and 9 had gone to what had become the workshop in the old library, a nook surrounded with books standing on their ends. 2 and 5 had seated themselves on a pair of books stacked on top of each other, several scraps of wood scattered between them. They'd split a pair of nail clippers and were using the sharp ends to whittle out 0's temporary fingers. 5 looked up from the wooden finger he was working on. "We thought she was dead. At least, I did."

"Yeah, I did, too," 9 nodded. He was sitting on a wooden thread spool, his lightstaff in hand. He was slowly polishing the bulb with a rag. "She was just…so still. So tiny."

"But 6 didn't let her leave," 5 added with a smile. "I'm happy for them. It's good that they each have someone who understands them."

2 sheared another scrap of wood off the finger in his hand. "What will we do now?"

"We have to go after it," said 7, entering the workshop. "We can't let it live. It's too much of a danger, to all of us. It was only through luck that Zero's even alive now."

2 sighed. "I agree."

"What? But—" 5 said nervously, almost dropping the finger, "but it could kill us."

"It could do much worse than kill us," said 9. "That's exactly why we have to kill it."

"Oh, alright," 5 sighed, looking back down.

7 patted his shoulder, then turned to 2. "One was asking after you."

2 smiled slightly and set the finger down, grabbing his cane and standing with its help. "Thank you, my dear. He probably can't see something and needs my help. We'll need to be looking into fixing his eye soon."

7 made eye contact with 9 as 2 hobbled out. She smirked and jerked her head towards 5, who didn't look up from his project. 9's eyes widened and he imperceptibly shook his head; 7 rolled her eyes and jerked her head again, more firmly this time. 9 looked from her, to 5, and back to her, finally setting his jaw and nodding. 7 smiled again and gave him a thumbs-up before walking out behind 2. Even then, 9 remained silent, gently sliding the rag across the light bulb's surface, his eyes carefully trained on 5.

"Didn't you want to talk to me?" 5 suddenly asked, looking up at 9 with his one optic.

"Oh! Um…yeah, yeah I did." 9 set the lightstaff to the side, standing and wandering about the small space, his hands clutched together behind his back. "I've been…thinking."

"Yes?"

"Well, um…I really don't want this to sound bad."

5 smirked. "I doubt anything you say to me could sound bad." He paused, then his optic widened. "Oh, um, I mean…we know each other so well. So I think I could figure out whatever you were saying. Trying to say. Um." He quickly looked back down at the finger, falling silent, a bright green glow in his cheeks.

9 smiled softly. "You're—you're such a good friend, Five." He sat beside the Cyclops, drumming his fingers on his knees. He laughed, chokingly. "Which is why I'm so nervous about this."

"Nervous about what?" 5 felt something flutter in his chest, but he pushed it down like he had so many times. 9 probably just wanted to ask him about guard rotations or something mundane like that…but 9 was never nervous. Especially about mundane things. 5 sheared off one more scrap of wood and put the tool and mostly-complete finger down, turning his concerned gaze on 9.

9 tapped his toes on the floor, a pressure building in his chest. He was finding it difficult to breathe at the moment, and he certainly couldn't look up at 5, for fear that he'd take the coward's way out again, like he had so many times. But no. No more running, no more avoiding the fact that 5 made him feel like he had something to take care of, something to cherish and love and hold. "I just—" He paused, closing his eyes and breathing in deeply, counting to ten and coaching his thoughts into words.

"Nine, what is it?"

"I think—and I don't want you to think that this is just because I can't have Seven, because remember, I was the one who turned her down. And I don't want you to think that it's just because I'm lonely or whatever, or because you're available and I think you're lonely, because I don't! And I really—I really care what you think of me. I do."

"Why are you—"

"I like you!" 9 finally blurted, almost screamed he was so nervous. He clapped his hand over his mouth, obviously not intending for it to have been that loud. He still didn't dare look at 5. He slowly lowered his hand and said, much quieter, "I like you…a lot. I might even love you." He clutched his hands into fists on his knees. "Please say something."

"Nine." 9 finally sighed and looked up at his old friend, jerking slightly when he saw 5's mouth contorted into a goofy smile. He tentatively returned the smile, tightening his hands slightly. "Are you—is this a joke?"

9 shook his head. "I don't think I could joke about something like this."

5 released a bubbly laugh, his optic positively alight. 9 searched his face frantically, trying to see 5 was laughing at him, if this was all a joke to him, but before he could really delve into the neuroses behind rejection, 5 was upon him, arms wrapped around his shoulders, mouth crashing down on his own. 9 made a small noise of surprise, but quickly wrapped his arms around 5's waist, throwing himself into the kiss with the passion and fervor that had been building in his stomach for months. It was intense, but ultimately almost silent, private and passionate and altogether their own, an oasis in a desert, the calm before a storm.