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Be Here Now

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His recovery comes too slowly. Dominia—all of the Elements, but Dominia most of all—reminds him that he came close to death, that the battles he fought took a tremendous toll on his body, cushioned from the blows by Vendetta's shock absorption or no. She is too devoted to mention the psychological damage, though that is no quicker to heal. As ever, his people are more patient with him than he is with himself.

Fei and his companions are doing what they can to help the other calamity survivors rebuild, and perhaps that more than anything else makes Ramsus desperate to recover soon. Has he not been bested enough times already? Can he not at least contribute to the cause of peace?

The town of Nisan has fared better than most settlements on the surface, and has a climate that makes it relatively hospitable. In another generation it'll likely be the capital of whatever society develops in the new etherless world. When Ramsus leaves the house that he and his people have been staying in—it doesn't feel like it's "his" home, and he's not sure whether it ever will—he can hear activity elsewhere in the village, the sounds of someone doing reconstruction work on a building, the happy shouts of the children that Jesiah's son looks after.

A short distance away from the houses, but not so far out that it starts to be vulnerable to roaming wildlife, there is a clear, bare-dirt area that they've taken turns using for training. Most of them have adjustments to make to their fighting styles, now that they can't augment physical ability with etheric talents. Currently, though, the makeshift training yard is empty, with the others—everyone hale enough to contribute—busy working to ensure the settlement's survival.

Ramsus takes a stance on the packed dirt and draws his sword. The wounds to his body have healed and his strength will only return if he fights for it. Everything takes fighting for. It always has. (He will not think of all the things he fought for only to lose them anyway.)

His muscles remember what to do, even if it takes more effort when he's so out of practice. He's drilled in these exercises for years, for almost as long as he's had the physical independence to do so. In that sense they're comforting, a reminder that he has held onto some accomplishments despite all that has gone wrong in the last year. Despite his creators' wishes, he is still here, and they are not. He is still here and he can, will move forward.

He's been there long enough to warm up, long enough to start to feel the meditative calm of repeating kata, when there's a sound of movement behind him, a scuffing like leather on stone. Ramsus spins instantly, sword raised, eyes wide, ready to intercept—

Sigurd, who is standing still some twenty feet away, his hands held out as if to indicate he's not a threat. In his right he holds two wooden practice swords, their blades clutched in a grip that must be uncomfortable even with hands as large as his.

Ramsus' heart is pounding. He pointedly slows his breathing to try to force his heartbeat to follow suit. "What brings you here?" He sounds guarded. Wary. He doesn't like hearing it in his voice but it's hard to help it. The man in front of him now isn't the boy he would have trusted with anything a dozen years ago.

"Practicing alone never seems to yield as much progress as working with someone," Sigurd says. "I thought you might want a sparring partner."

Ramsus stands there for too long trying to unravel that statement, looking for veiled accusations or insults, before he can make himself put the search aside and respond. "That does sound helpful, thank you." He sheathes his own blade and unbuckles his sword belt so it won't be in the way when he's using the practice one. "I didn't realize you still used the blade."

Sigurd gives him a brief smile. "Bart was very willful, even for him, about his weapon of choice, and I had to learn it well enough to help him. But I never entirely left my early training behind."

That could also be a coded statement, but Ramsus doesn't let himself hope so. The past is as distant as a floating city when they have all been made Lambs; there is no way back. He lifts the practice sword and tests its weight as Sigurd steps back to a decent sparring distance.

Ramsus looks across the training field at him and for a moment can't move. He can see his Sigurd in the man standing there, the talented and determined young Lamb who overcame the damage experimental Drive did to him and promised to be at Ramsus' side when they fixed what was wrong in Solaris. But he sees a stranger, too, a man with a casual manner and tousled hair, a man with crows' feet beside his one remaining eye, a pirate and protector of a king.

"Kahr?" His voice is so gentle and familiar. The past is gone. Ramsus breathes.

"Ready," he says, bringing his blade up into a proper stance.

For a moment it looks as though Sigurd will press the issue, ask him to explain, but for a mercy instead he simply attacks. It's a straightforward move, a lunge and a downward slice, easy enough to deflect as Ramsus takes a quick backstep. His turn to attack, then: a slash sideways that should catch Sigurd in the (distractingly bare) stomach.

Sigurd catches his blade with an agile twist, stepping into the attack rather than away. Their guards click together as they push against each other's strength, blades locked. Sigurd's good eye is bright, shining gold, like nobody else's that Ramsus has ever known. He remembers that gaze, soft and warm and fond—

He pushes himself backward, hard and fast, and sees the moment when Sigurd staggers from the loss of opposing force. Facing a real enemy he would seize that moment, lunge toward that vulnerability and make of it a victory. Facing Sigurd he can only wait, frozen, heart in his throat as if they're cadets again and he's desperate to see the boy he sponsored succeed.

And of course he's off-guard again when Sigurd takes advantage of his hesitation to press the attack, a series of quick glancing strikes that force him to retreat as he parries. He has to dodge to one side to break the pattern. His heart is pounding, adrenaline up, already far more engaged than he has been in any solitary training.

The match takes them around the whole of the training yard, clashing and breaking off, taking turns pressing the offense. Ramsus is breathing hard, his hair damp with sweat; Sigurd presses him harder than any sparring partner has in years, as if for him this is serious, as if it's a real battle, as if—

As if it's a real battle, as if he too has no patience for a failure, for the wreckage everyone else has discarded

Ramsus falters, struggling to push away the thought, but it's so intense, so overwhelming, and his breath is coming too fast and he can't move even though he needs to bring his sword up to parry the next blow before it lands—

And instead of a bruising blow it's Sigurd's hands that land on his shoulders, warm and solid and not painful at all. "Kahr," he says, still patient, still calm. "Breathe. Look at me. Be here now."

For an instant Ramsus hears it in Raquel's voice, another moment long gone, when she said to Sigurd what Sigurd says to him now, when she talked him through the delirium of the drugs leaving his system and the adamant core of his determination shone through. Then the meaning catches up to the memory and Ramsus follows the orders as best he can, looking Sigurd in the eye and trying to focus: the warmth of that gold. The spill of pale hair down the side of his face. The way he, too, is breathing hard. The way he holds on as if he's keeping Ramsus from flying away. His face is more angular than it used to be but the expression of concern is so familiar.

"You should have been the Earth Element," Ramsus says before he can think better of it. "The solid one."

Sigurd smiles at him and he can see echoes of the boy in the man so easily. "Jesiah would have been a good fit for the impulsiveness of fire."

Something loosens slightly in Ramsus' chest that he didn't realize was tight. Sigurd can think of those days and smile. "I missed you so much," he says, the words spilling free without permission. He tenses again; he shouldn't have said that, shouldn't have ruined this delicate truce over the past.

But Sigurd answers, "I missed you, too." He's still holding on. "I wasn't... It wasn't that I wanted to get away from you. You know that, don't you? It's that I needed to get to my family. If Bart and Margie hadn't been in such danger, I... Things would have been very different."

It doesn't change what happened. The world has still been shaken to the core between then and now. Nothing they counted on back then remains. And yet here they are, with Sigurd's hands on him, with Sigurd's expression affectionate, despite all the years and distance and all the ways Ramsus has failed both other people and himself—

No. Be here now. Ramsus drops his practice sword in the dirt and lifts his hand to cup Sigurd's face, warm skin and the faintest hint of stubble under his hand. The first time they kissed was like this, except that Sigurd then was so nervous, and Sigurd now is so confident. But when they overlap in Ramsus' mind, both versions are equally welcoming.

He stretches up to press their lips together and Sigurd leans into him as if the past twelve years are that easy to bridge, as if this kiss is the most natural thing in the world. It should be harder. The weight of all that time and all that trouble should matter. But despite all that he is here, now: the patch over Sigurd's eye, the still-alien surface smells of dirt and grass, the way the sun feels on his shoulders with no Solarian dome between him and it. Sigurd opens his mouth to deepen the kiss, dropping one hand down to Ramsus's waist, and Ramsus is so grateful for the discovery that after everything, there can still be moments like this one. Perhaps the future doesn't need to be as bleak as it seemed. Here, now, where he's wrapping an arm around Sigurd to pull him closer—for the first time in a long time Ramsus finds he's able to hope.