Carol sat on the edge of her bed, staring down into her guitar case. Of course, there was no guitar actually in it – rather, inside a frame designed to ensure that they did not shift or cut whilst carried, there lay four large sickle-shaped blades.
Carol stared at them.
The last few weeks had been, well... wonderful. In every way. She was living a (relatively) normal life again, she was free of the curse that had stolen her first life from her, and, most importantly, she had her friend back... the best friend she'd ever had. This wasn't to say that Carol had forgotten all the things that had happened before – quite on the contrary, she kept mulling it over in her mind, still trying to connect the dots. What exactly had changed? Why had she been able to go home?
Why was Painwheel... back to being Carol?
The door opened.
"Hey Carol! I got the- oh."
Carol started guiltily. "Filia! I was just, uh-"
"Please, you don't have to explain yourself," said Filia, setting down the milkshakes on a nearby table, "least of all to me. If there's anyone who understands how people can change it's me, isn't that right Samson?"
"...Right," Samson answered cagily, unsure of whether his host was trying to catch him out.
"I just... can't believe it," said Carol, back to staring at the blades with a strange, lost look in her eyes. "It seems like I've been fighting FOREVER to get back to my normal life – to get back to being Carol... and now that I am..."
Filia leaned down to look right into Carol's eyes.
"You miss Painwheel?"
"I-" Carol blinked. "I... do. I really do. It's strange, but... even after everything I went through as her, even knowing how happy I am now that I don't need her anymore... I miss her. I miss that monster. I can't explain it."
Filia smiled kindly. "I can sympathise. Believe it or not, Samson, I think I'd miss you if you went away."
"That ain't happening any time soon, kid," Samson growled protectively.
"And I'm glad of it, even if I don't know the reason why."
Carol looked up at Filia. That same look was still in her eyes.
"Does it mean that... I'm still crazy? That I still haven't healed?"
"You'll never heal completely, Carol. The scars will always be apparent – both the ones on your face and your soul." Carol's hand flew up to her face, her fingers brushing lightly over the marks her stitched-on mask had left behind. "But missing Painwheel isn't necessarily a bad thing, when you think about it."
Carol frowned inquisitively. "What do you mean?"
"Well, even if she was the monstrous side of you, she was still strong. She was your courage in the face of impossible odds: the perverse determination to say no to everyone who attempted to control you, just because you still could. Painwheel is who you are – and who you might still be – when you're backed up against a wall with nowhere else to go. In a very real sense, Painwheel is your inner, most unbreakable strength given form and voice – just like my Samson is." Filia smiled that angelic smile of hers, affectionately twiddling a lock of Samson.
"I don't belong to you, kid," Samson muttered, but not very convincingly.
"...The will to fight," said Carol, very slowly and quietly. "The will to survive."
"But you don't need her anymore – at least, not for now, thank goodness," said Filia, picking up the milkshakes, handing one of them to Carol and taking a seat beside her on the bed. "You no longer have to devote yourself just to surviving: you can truly live, as you were meant to. The life that they almost succeeded in robbing from you forever is now yours again. Enjoy it."
Filia began draining her glass with every sign of relish and gusto, but Carol's lay cradled in her lap, still full to the brim. She still stared at the Buer blades, as though trying to stare through time.
"...Sometimes, this doesn't feel real," said Carol. "I feel as though it's all just a dream that Brain Drain's inflicting on me, and when I wake up I'll be back in the Lab and... and this taste of the happiness I could have had... it'll drive me even deeper into insanity."
Filia looked at her friend, and was alarmed to see that the smaller girl's shoulders were shaking.
"Carol! No, no, please don't think that – this is real, VERY real, and I can prove it because-"
Filia paused. Could she really inflict that knowledge on Carol, in her current state?
"How can you prove it?" asked Carol, her desperate need for an answer showing in her face as well.
"...because you're crying," said Filia, smiling sympathetically. Again, Carol reached up to her face, this time to feel the teardrops and look at the wetness on her fingers. "Do you think Painwheel could cry like you're doing now? Do you think she could even imagine it enough to dream about it?"
Carol swallowed the lump in her throat. "I... I guess not..."
"Like you said, she's a monster – a useful monster, one that you'll never throw away and never should – but a monster nonetheless. A monster isn't capable of feeling regret, or guilt, or in this case... sadness. A monster doesn't mourn, nor does it grieve. That is something only a living, thinking, FEELING human being can do: one whose survival is assured, one who has a future to worry about. You're back, Carol, back for good, and don't ever let me catch you doubting it again."
Carol's eyes shot wide. Before she knew what was happening, Filia had thrown her arms around Carol's body, enveloping it in a genuinely open hug completely free of any sense of awkward self-consciousness.
Carol's dry lips finally cracked into a small smile. Filia could be so... improper, sometimes. But in a nice way. She'd been the same even before she'd lost her memories, caring nothing for protocol (which had always bugged the hell out of Carol) but always being very genuine and warm in her expressions (which had exactly the opposite effect on Carol).
"Guh," said Samson under his voice, in a tone of poorly-disguised disgust. "Girly stuff. You know how I feel about you kids getting all touchy-feely with each other." Filia actually chuckled at this, which made Carol smile wider.
"And as I've told you before, perhaps that's something you should've considered when you chose a female host," said Filia roguishly. She gave Carol one last affectionate squeeze before they parted – this simple gesture sent a shiver of delight running down Carol's spine. She couldn't remember the last time someone had been so nice to her...
NICE? We don't need nice. We don't need this other girl, we don't need that parasite, we don't need ANY of this. We've always survived alone, just you and me...
Carol's eyes flew to the blades but she hid her horror before Filia could see it, reassuming her smile with barely a flicker. Filia gasped happily.
"Now that's what I wanted to see! I've always said you have the prettiest smile."
"...You used to say that even... before," said Carol, her eyes briefly alighting on Samson.
"Then I guess some things never change." Filia smiled along with her, and it made Carol's heart sing to see a smile so genuinely devoid of any kind of malice or deceit. One could attribute Filia's lack of guile to her lost memories, but Carol suspected that it was something far deeper than that – something that even memories couldn't change, for better or worse.
"Now, aren't you going to finish that milkshake I got for you? If you don't I'll have to do so myself – I do hate seeing good food go to waste." Filia winked at Carol charmingly, causing her to jump, shaken out of her reveries.
"What? Oh! I'm sorry, I'd forgotten all about it," said Carol, raising to her lips the glass she'd been absentmindedly holding in her lap the whole time. She paused. "Although... I wouldn't mind letting you have it, if you'd like another..."
Filia rubbed her upper arm uncomfortably. "Weeell... I would like another, buuut... I'm trying to cut back on sweet things," said Filia, her smile changing to a self-deprecating grin as she stroked the back of her neck (which tickled Samson's underside, causing him to lift up a bit away from Filia's hand). "Not to mention, if anyone deserves a treat, it's you, Carol." That angelic smile again.
"Plus she ain't in any danger of ballooning up like you do, thunder-thighs," Samson remarked to Filia, his great toothy maw stretching into a grin as he chuckled darkly.
Filia gasped, scandalised. "And just WHAT do you mean by that?"
"I like your figure," said Carol a little sadly, observing the frothy bubbles on her milkshake as she gave it a stir with the straw. "It's very round, and full, and soft... everything mine isn't."
"Aw, Carol! I'm sure you'll grow into your body someday – someday soon," said Filia, full of concern. "You've just got to give it a bit of time since you've been so malnourished for so long, so remember to eat regularly and well, you hear me? In fact, it'd be easier for both of us if you ate dinners with me: i could just give you the extra I know I shouldn't eat myself," said Filia, regretfully eyeing Carol's milkshake (she hadn't even touched it yet!).
"Mmm... okay." Apparently satisfied at long last, Carol took the straw to her lips and finally started in on the 'shake. Still, she wore a thoughtful expression as she stared at the blades once again.
You know you'll never be free of me.
'I don't want to be. You're a part of me, remember? We work together.'
That we do, girl, that we do. Enjoy your new old life while you can, stripling – because when desperation pushes you to the brink of sanity once again – which it will – I'll be there, waiting for you.
I'm the one who fights in your corner when everyone else has deserted you.
I'm the unbreakable backbone of your spirit; the last tattered bastion that stands between your mind and complete and total despair.
I am the last light that shines in the cold void of your heart when all others have gone out, and my colour is blood-red.
Remember me, Carol. My name is Painwheel, and my face is a mask of rage and death.
Remember me, and the debt you owe to me...
"...Hey, skinny kid! You okay? You're kinda zoning out."
Carol snapped back to the present, thanks to Samson's dulcet tones. She'd finished the milkshake and was still attempting to drain the glass – in vain, as it happened, save for some froth left skulking at the bottom.
"Sorry, I was... just remembering something." Carol paused to think for a moment. "Say, Filia?"
"Where's the nearest beach?"
"From here? Ooh, um... I guess that'd be the Crescent – about an hour's walk, maybe?"
"Great. Let's go there." Carol stood and strode across the room to the door.
Filia blinked. She looked at Carol in a new light, a confused yet interested smile on her lips.
"You seem to have become very decisive all of a sudden."
Carol smiled back. "Yeah, well... let's just say I feel the need to repay a debt to an old friend. Let's move quickly – I want to get there before the sun goes down, so we can watch it set."
"Ooh, how romantic!" Filia giggled playfully, standing up and smoothing down her skirt – as she looked down to check that it was in order, she saw something.
"Aren't you going to take your... um, your case with you? You normally take it everywhere."
Carol stared at the blades again from across the room.
"...I'll leave them there for now. I can come back and pick them up later, can't I?"
"Then I'd prefer to do that. C'mon, Filia; I'll close the door."
"Right!" Filia bustled across the room as only she could.
Carol looked at the blades one last time as she closed the door.
'That's one cross I don't have to bear... for now. But I promise: I'll always be grateful to you, Painwheel. Even though you're a monster... you were always the monster on my side.'
To the empty room, just as the door slipped closed, Carol whispered "Thank you."
She was gone.
The blades lay silent and still, gleaming inside their case. Although they were obviously weapons, not a speck of the blood that had spattered and caked them barely a month ago remained on their shining metal surfaces.
Their mistress would return. The blades knew this. The struggle for survival never truly ended. Even if Carol was happy to have a brief respite, Painwheel was far from dead.
Live while you can, Carol. Hopefully, the next time you need me... you'll be fighting for more than just the freedom to live your own life.
The monster sleeps...