"Umbrella... I promise I'll make it up to you some day, after I'm done with the Skullgirl. One day you'll understand."
Parasoul stopped in the middle of the corridor. She felt like sighing, but she didn't.
From the other side of the grand wooden doors by which she stood could be heard a unique and instantly identifiable sound: the sound of a small girl crying in the way that only a small girl can, with all her heart and lungs.
Parasoul's frown was barely noticeable, but the iron-hard grip of her fist on Krieg's handle had turned her knuckles white. She wanted to just keep walking, forget the words that had been exchanged...
...but regret pulled her towards the door with strings far stronger than her pride. She opened the door and slipped inside, with her usual grace – but also quietly, guiltily, as though she were a thief with no right to trespass in this room.
A familiar sight met her eyes within: a sight she remembered from many nights spent in here. Well, they seemed like many nights now, looking back, but they never seemed like enough... especially when Umbrella cried like that. Parasoul remembered, when she was young, hearing the air-raid sirens that they used to use during the war – which became repurposed as Skullgirl sirens towards the end. That cacophonic noise had always struck terror into her young heart... but Umbrella's anguished wails were almost as painful to listen to.
Umbrella was in her usual crying place: in the corner of her huge bed which doubled as a play-area, hidden under a mountain of stuffed animals and other soft toys. Parasoul could see the yellow wellington boots she forever wore poking out of the bottom. Umbrella's living weapon Hungern lay on the bed next to the pile, and as Parasoul approached the bed she imagined Hungern shooting her a dirty look with its many eyes. She wouldn't have blamed it if it did.
Parasoul swallowed and wet her lips. Why did she feel so dry and taut?
The crying stopped, or at least quieted down. The silence was welcome, but still tense as a high-wire.
"Please come out," said Parasoul, using her softest, kindest voice. It was not a voice many people had the privilege of ever hearing, but her little sister deserved it... especially after what Parasoul had been lax enough to allow to happen.
"...Go away." Umbrella's voice was small and beaten, her throat croaking from the rawness of her deafening sobs.
"Please, Umbrella," Parasoul pleaded again, sitting on the edge of the bed and leaning Krieg against its side. "Hear me out, at the very least."
Silence followed, only quiet snuffling noises emanating from the stuffed toys. Parasoul could only assume that this was assent, so she continued.
"I'm..." The words wouldn't come.
Parasoul took a deep breath, fighting down the rising wave of frustration and self-disgust. Accepting emotions is not weakness, she told herself: it is only a natural process of release. The weak ones are those who run away from their feelings, and I do NOT run away.
...At least, I wouldn't run away from feelings about anyone else...
"I'm... sorry," said Parasoul, after what seemed like an eternity of mustering her courage. "It was... wrong of me, to treat you as I did."
There was a pause.
"...You said you hate me," said Umbrella, sounding as though she might start wailing all over again.
Parasoul winced. That voice. That pathetic, cringing voice. If she'd heard that voice being used by any regular soldier or – goodness forbid – one of her own Black Egrets, she'd have drilled them into proper shape in a matter of seconds, but just becauseit was her own little sister speaking in those tones... it made her heart feel like a pane of paper-thin glass. Why did children have to be so difficult?
"I know I did, and I'm sorry. I... I promise, Umbrella, I promise to you that I did not mean it."
"...Please, Umbrella, come out of there. I can't tell you I love you if I don't see your face."
There was no reply. Parasoul felt her own throat beginning to ache as well, although of course she wouldn't have admitted it to anyone in a million years. She could feel that heat in the back of her eyes that signalled the onrush of tears, but held them back with a will stronger than steel.
Parasoul was just about to pick up Krieg and leave – anything rather than endure being stonewalled by her own little sister – when the pile of stuffies shifted. Umbrella crawled backwards out of the pile into which she'd recklessly thrown herself, and when she awkwardly tumbled out and landed on her back on the bed, Parasoul couldn't help but smile at how inelegant her little sister still was. She couldn't imagine ever having been like that herself: so small and still pudgy with baby-fat, unused to her body and what it could do.
"Don't laugh at me," said Umbrella half-heartedly, not even having the fight left in her to protest with her usual vigour. Tear-streaks stained her little cheeks, and her pink hair was tousled every which-way all over her head. The hat of her much-beloved yellow waterproof outfit had come off in the pile.
"I'm sorry." Parasoul couldn't remember the last time she'd apologised this much.
"...You really don't hate me?" asked Umbrella hesitantly, afraid that she might not hear the answer she wanted.
"Of course I don't, my dear sister," said Parasoul, slipping off her shoes so she could join her sister properly, sitting cross-legged in front of her. "I have only ever loved you. The things I said..."
Parasoul felt like biting her lip, but again stopped herself. These next words required careful planning. These next words mattered.
"I've told you before about my responsibilities – to you, to father, to my Egrets, to the kingdom and its subjects. What I haven't necessarily told you before is... how that makes me feel. Especially when a lot of things are happening at once, I feel like everything's crowding on top of me, and... well, my duties aren't as light and fluffy as your toys, dear."
Umbrella sniffled and sat up slowly, turning herself to face Parasoul.
"I know all that stuff, I just... I'm sorry, too. I know I say... silly things, sometimes, and... I dunno. I just don't wanna fight with you anymore."
Parasoul smiled softly. She reached out to her sister with both hands. Umbrella laid her small, stubby hands in Parasoul's slender yet strong fingers.
"It's all right now, Umbrella. I'm not angry with you any more, just..." Parasoul looked away for a moment. She made half a sigh before she caught herself and stopped it. "Please, Umbrella, try to be more understanding of the things I do for you, all right? I promise I'll try to be more patient in return."
Umbrella nodded, not yet smiling but neither obviously sad.
Parasoul continued, feeling that this well of words had been dammed up inside herself for too long. "Because, you know, one day you'll be the one to take over from me, and father and the people will expect from you all the same things that they do of me now."
"I'll never take over your job, sis," said Umbrella plaintively. "You'll always be there."
"...I'll be there until the very end, my dear Umbrella. I won't leave you until it's my time to go." It wasn't a lie, but not telling the whole truth still made Parasoul's heart ache. The innocent acceptance in Umbrella's face only made it hurt more. She could never know – at least, not yet... not until she was strong enough to take it. But when would that day be?
"But even so, you will have to be as responsible as me one day."
"And as strong as you," Umbrella added immediately, and with feeling.
"...Yes. Perhaps you'll be even stronger." There had to be a reason why the Skull Heart had chosen her. "But if you're going to be like that, you have to do as I say, all right? Because I only ever tell you what's best for you. I promise."
"I never wanted to make you angry... I just... I just feel like you've been getting further and further away from me. Ever since that thing with the Skullgirl happened. You said after you were done with the Skullgirl, you'd make it all up to me, didn't you? You remember that, right?"
Parasoul blinked. "Yes... I do."
"But, ever since the Skullgirl, you've just been pushing me harder and harder and I just-" Umbrella came to a juddering stop, tearing her hands out of Parasoul's to hide her face. "...You don't feel like my sister anymore."
Parasoul didn't move or speak for several seconds. Not even her eyes moved, fixed on the sad scene that lay before her.
She had to admit, she had been a bit harsher than usual on Umbrella, but that was only because of... well. Umbrella would learn why, in time. But Parasoul had done everything she could to make the training sessions as fun as possible for Umbrella, and to let her use her magic with Hungern, which she always enjoyed... but perhaps trying too hard was exactly the problem.
"Umbrella..." Parasoul laid her hands on either side of Umbrella's little face. Umbrella lowered her own hands and looked at Parasoul tearfully, new wetness glimmering in her eyes.
Parasoul paused. These next words... they mattered the most of all.
"There are things that I want to tell to you. Things that I want to explain. But I can't. And it may be that, in time, you will find these things out for yourself, and you likely hate me for it, but... even if you do end up hating me... at the very least, I hope that you will understand WHY I did it."
Parasoul moved closer, leaning forwards towards her little sister.
"Please know, now and for the rest of your life, that I have only ever loved you, with all of my heart. Everything that I have done for you, I have done because of that love. It may seem like a poor excuse in the future, when you finally understand, but... it is my only excuse. I am sorry. Sorrier than I can ever say. Please... when it's all over... just remember why."
Umbrella looked up with wide eyes, mouth agape, her own sadness completely forgotten.
"Sis... Why are you crying?"
Parasoul's hand twitched towards her face – but she stopped it. Those tears could stay there. She wouldn't lie to her own sister. Not now, not ever.
"Even I cry sometimes, little sister. Even if it doesn't happen very often... even if I don't show it. It does happen sometimes."
Parasoul smiled. It was a strange smile, a fragile one; a warm smile that quivered like the last few heartbeats of a small bird. Umbrella remembered that smile because she didn't understand it, but felt the strength of feeling behind it.
And when she came to understand it, in the fullness of time... Umbrella made sure never to forget that smile until the end of her days.
Umbrella merely sat in silence until Parasoul collected herself. She felt somehow that her big sister crying was wrong, but only because she'd never seen it before – not from so up-close, anyway, and definitely never because of her. Perhaps the thing that was wrong was... something else. Not the crying. Something bigger than both of them which couldn't be explained. Maybe it was the thing that Parasoul kept saying she'd understand when she was older.
Why did grown-ups have to be so difficult?
Parasoul allowed herself to wipe away the tears, confident now that she wasn't doing so out of shame, and smiled at her sister again: this time a genuinely strong, bright smile. Umbrella wouldn't remember this one as well, but right then, in the present, it made her feel better.
"Tell you what: why don't we watch Annie: Girl of the Stars together?"
Umbrella's mouth was a little round 'O' of surprise. "But you always say you hate Annie!"
Parasoul laughed. It was a laugh like the dawning sun's rays shining on the fresh dew droplets of a newly-formed leaf after a storm.
"There are very few things that I actually hate in this world, little sis – and Annie isn't one of them."
"Well... okay. I've got a couple of cassette-tapes of Annie-"
"Hidden in a box in your closet, I know. You were afraid that if I found them I'd make you get rid of them." She winked at Umbrella.
"I know a lot of things, Umbrella – much more than you, I'm sure."
And you shall know them too, in time. Please, Umbrella, my dear little sister... remember why.