Bonds of Iron

Disclaimer: I do not own Claymore, and have no rights to the material or characters. This is a work of fan fiction, and is written purely for enjoyment and not for profit.

It was the same old dream.

A flash of movement. The sound of a sword slicing the air. Fine pale hair billowing as a head falls to the ground. Great gouts of blood spurting, staining the ground and filling the air with that distinctive coppery smell. A scream and...

She sat up in bed, blinking her silver eyes in the near-darkness. Throwing off the sweat-soaked sheets, she thought back to the dream that had haunted her all these years.

Still so real, she thought, as if it all happened just yesterday.

In a flash, she recounted the events from all those years ago: the village where they'd stopped to rest, fleeing from the Organization after the failed execution attempt; the surprising welcome extended them by the villagers after the death of the youma; the fight in the village square against the four warriors sent by the Organization to track them down: Irena, Noelle, Sophia, and Priscilla...


Even after all these years, just thinking of Priscilla still brought a lump to her throat.

Lying back down, she tried to rest some more, doubtful that she'd be able to fall asleep again. Despite everything that had happened, she'd never really gotten used to resting on a bed, and she'd never really needed much sleep anyway. Looking up at the wall, she eyed her sword on its pegs. Ruefully, she shook her head, thinking, Raki really hates it when I poke holes in the floor with my sword. With a sigh, she laid back down on the bed, trying to rest, wishing she didn't feel so helpless.

Hearing footsteps in the hallway outside, she listened to them as they got louder the closer they approached her door. Her senses, honed beyond their youma-augmented norms by years of battle, picked up the soft footsteps despite the intervening stone walls and thick door. Hearing them cease just outside, she sat up and turned to face the door just as someone knocked softly on it.

"You know I'm awake," she said, directing her voice at the door.

"May I come in?" a soft voice asked, muffled by the thick wood.

"Yes," she replied.

The door swung open to reveal an old man, his back slightly stooped, his shock of white hair still surprising her the way it always did as she remembered the unruly brown locks of his youth.

"She is calling for you," Raki said to her.

"I'm coming," she said, dressing quickly and stepping from the room.

/ + \

It smelled like a sick room.

Despite the fragrance of the wood burning in the hearth and the mingled perfumes of the flowers in the vases, there was an underlying scent of decay that she could pick up as she walked into the room. It seemed to her, too, that there was something false about the blaze of the fire in the hearth and the illumination of the lamps, as if the brightness of the light was intended to compensate for something drab and gray. Though the room was neat and tidy, it had none of the cozy, homey, lived-in feeling she associated with the village's homes.

It's as if everything has been put away, she thought to herself, putting words to the feeling.

She felt Raki step into the room and close the door behind her. Turning from her thoughts, she looked to the bed where the only other occupant of the room regarded her with piercing green eyes.

Instantly, she was beside the bed, moving with the startling speed that had kept her alive through numberless battles. As she gazed down, the woman on the bed turned to look her in the face and, after a moment, her lined visage broke into a wide smile as the woman addressed her.

"Hello, Mother."

Looking into the aged face of the woman on the bed, she tried to force a smile, but found that she couldn't. She felt herself shaking, and after a moment felt herself calm enough to respond, but still there was the hint of a quiver in her voice as she replied.

"Hello, my dearest."

She looked into the eyes of the woman on the bed, trying to be strong, to be brave. Though she had fought in countless mortal battles, she suddenly found her courage failing in the face of one white-haired woman with a wrinkled face. Turning away from the green eyes that seemed to bore into her soul, she caught her reflection in the polished surface of a mirror. She looked back at herself, her pale golden hair, silver eyes, and smooth, pale, unlined skin seeming to mock her, accuse her, condemn her.

She felt a tug at her hand and turned back to the woman on the bed, who gripped her fingers with surprising strength.

"Your eyes," the woman on the bed said. "Your eyes are so full of sadness," she said simply.

She felt her legs give way, and if it had not been for the nearby bed she might have collapsed in a heap on the floor. She pushed herself up to a sitting position, leaning her weight on her arms, and tried to talk around the lump in her throat:

"I... Cuh... Buh... I..."

Unable to form coherent sentences, she shut her eyes tightly as she tried to will the tears not to spill, when she felt a cool hand against her cheek and, opening her eyes, discovered that she was already weeping.

"Shhh," the woman on the bed said in low, soothing tones, "don't cry now. We've both known for years that this day would come."

"It's not fair. After everything, it's just not fair!" she protested, throwing back her head.

"Life isn't about fair or unfair," softly countered the woman, "it just is. You know that. Being a Clay-"

She found herself shushing the woman on the bed, a finger gently but firmly on her lips, interrupting her.

"Don't call me that," she admonished. "Not you. It makes me feel like a thing. A tool."

Nodding, her eyes widening, the woman agreed, "Never that. I'm sorry." Her grip tightened.

"It's all right," she responded.

The woman patted her hand and continued. "Being a warrior of your organization," she said, "you've seen how unfair life can be. Sometimes it's like it has no meaning at all, except what meaning you give it. But even now, after everything, I'm happy to have been able to share my life with you."

Despite the tears, she felt her eyes widening in wonderment. For a long moment she could only gaze down into the woman's face, unable to find her voice. There was a peace, a confident serenity in the woman's face that she suddenly, fiercely envied.

When did I lose that? she asked herself silently.

Or did I ever even truly have it?

"When did you become so strong?" she finally asked.

"You would never have allowed me to love you if I weren't," the woman answered.

"I don't want to lose you," she whispered under her breath, as if saying it out loud would make it real.

"You won't lose me," the woman answered, shaking her head slightly. "It just means that we'll be apart for a while."

She could feel Raki close, and from the corner of her eye saw him hovering nearby, as if unsure or unwilling to intrude on them. The woman on the bed looked toward him and smiled, then patted her hand again and turned to her.

"So tired." the woman said, sighing as if in exhaustion.

"I'll be waiting for you on the other side," the woman said finally, as if she had taken the time to gather her strength. Gazing up at her, she added, "But I'm good at waiting. I'll expect you to have a lot of stories to tell me, Teresa."

"Cuh... Cl..." Even now she couldn't say her name.

Turning to face him, the woman said, "I'll be waiting for you, too, Raki."

Numbly, Teresa watched as the light fled from the woman's green eyes and her eyelids closed in quiescence. She felt her grip grow light in her hand, and then the woman's hand slipped from hers and her chest stilled its movement.

Teresa flung her arms around herself as she stared at the lifeless woman, her grief rendering her mute. Tears flowed freely down her face, and she felt as if something hard were clamping down around her heart, constricting her breathing.

She didn't feel herself collapse to the floor, only realizing she was no longer on the bed when she turned towards the moving form of Raki. With an incoherent cry of "Clare! No! Don't leave me!" Raki flung himself upon the lifeless form of his dead wife and loudly gave voice to his grief.

/ + \

The funeral had been short and simple.

Life in the village was hard, even now, so by necessity the ceremony was short and lacked artifice. After a simple yet heartfelt invocation to the twin goddesses of purity and love, Clare's body, wrapped in her shroud, had been lowered into the grave. The rest of the villagers left, then, most to go back to the daily concerns of living, some to visit with and comfort the remaining members of the deceased's family. Aside from the gravediggers, only one other stayed.

Teresa had kept silent watch with the gravediggers until they finished their task.

Wrapped in the numbing cloud of grief, Teresa watched mutely as the woman she had loved as daughter and friend was consigned to the earth. The feeling she had had since Clare died, as of something steely-hard and cold constricting her heart, had stayed with her ever since, and the hardness and the cold extended to encompass all of her, rendering all emotion distant, as if she were watching herself, observing herself unable to feel.

Returning to the house that Clare and Raki had shared, the house she'd helped build all those long years ago, she felt again that icy detachment, not just to the building but towards the people gathered inside. She knew all of them, felt varying degrees of affection for them, but at the same time she felt as if a vast chasm separated her from them, and she could only watch from afar as they interacted.

Seeing them all, observing them, she was shocked to realize that children she'd watched over while they'd slept in their diapers, or toddled and crawled and learned to walk, were old. Most of them had children of their own now, some of which were themselves having children.

Some of them were noticeably absent. Life being what it was, many of those already slept the long, quiet sleep.

Where did all the years go? she asked herself.

Looking around agitatedly, she searched for a familiar face, one that could serve as an anchor in the sea of impermanence, but all around her she could see the handiwork of time. Little Taki, Clare and Raki's firstborn son, sat by his father speaking soft words, his brown hair shot through with gray. Angela, Taki's eldest daughter, sat in a corner nursing a baby with an expertise that could only have come from previous experience. Raki was the most changed of all, nowhere in the grieving form of the stooped, white-haired man could Teresa see the laughing brown-haired boy who had so ingenuously captured Clare's heart those many years ago.

Turning at a tug on her sleeve and a softly-spoken word at her elbow, Teresa turned to look into the worried, slightly frowning visage of Michael, Clare's grandson. Looking at the young man, tall enough now that she had to look up at him slightly, she vividly remembered the little boy who had once hugged her around the knees and proclaimed proudly, "You're so pretty, Auntie Teresa! When I grow up I'm going to marry you!"

Where did all the years go? she asked again.

She could remember that there was a time when she had been happy, when she felt vital and alive, when she would sometimes surprise herself in the act of smiling or of breaking into laughter.

All it had cost was a young girl's life.

And in the end, she hadn't been able to hang on to any of it.

/ + \

In the distance, Irena was lying in a pool of her own blood, bleeding from the wounds she'd inflicted when Priscilla had attacked and her guard had dropped momentarily. Off to the sides, Noelle and Sophia lay exhausted, subdued despite their having attacked her in tandem. At her feet knelt Priscilla, frozen in fear as she struggled to cope with her first defeat. The smell of blood and the stink of fear filled Teresa's nostrils.

She had sent Clare back to their room in the inn to gather their things, and while the child was gone she readied to deal swift death to the girl kneeling in front of her. A part of her that was as cold as ice and hard as a sword's tempered edge screamed "This girl is a threat! Kill her now while you still can!" and as she raised her sword her standing form blocked the sun from shining on the kneeling girl, shrouding her in shadow.

As her muscles tensed to strike the death blow, her mind wandered to thoughts of another young girl, one whose simple joys filled her with so much happiness that it nearly drove her to tears. Looking down at the trembling girl, the sudden thought of all the little things she would never know caused her to hesitate.

"NO!"cried out that cold, calculating part of her. "They've already tried to use Clare against you! Last time they just restrained her, but what about next time? They could put her in danger so you couldn't save Clare and yourself at the same time! Who knows what they'll try next?"

Unable to refute the argument, she readied herself to strike once more, but once again Clare's pure, open smile filled her mind's eye.

No, she decided. I will not buy Clare's happiness with this girl's life.

"I must be getting soft!" she proclaimed as she sighed and shook her head while sheathing her sword. Just then Clare emerged from the inn and this time it was she, not Clare, who pulled the other into a tight embrace. After gathering her things from Clare, she turned to her fellow warriors.

"Come after me all you want!" she proclaimed in ringing tones. "I'll beat you all down every time."

And that was when Priscilla's mind finally snapped.

The girl had been kneeling there in fear, fear at her helplessness in the face of a seemingly invincible foe, and that fear had slowly turned to stark terror as Teresa stood poised to execute her. Wrapped in her terror, her mind vaguely registered what was going on as she was given a reprieve and the object of her terror turned to walk away.

And that was when her terror combined with her confusion to become desperation and she sprang into action.

"No! I won't forgive you! I won't lose!" shouted Priscilla as she grasped her sword and turned to rush Teresa from her kneeling position.

It was a clumsy attack, and normally Teresa would have brushed it aside, but she had been walking with her arm around Clare, and Priscilla, blinded by desperation, had attacked her from that side. Her own reactions propelled by fear, fear that Clare would be hurt, that she might lose Clare, Teresa struck out aggressively, turning aside Priscilla's thrust and striking off her head in one smooth motion.

As Priscilla's blood fountained into the air, her head rolled to a stop at Teresa's feet and she stared into Priscilla's dead eyes and saw the expression etched on her face.

The girl had died in terror.

She had seen many of her fellow warriors die in her time, some with expressions of rage, some of fear, some of surprise, but never before had she seen one die with such an expression of piteous despair written on her face.

It was the face of someone who had been confronted with the knowledge of their mortality and, failing to master their fear, had been shattered by that knowledge.

The pathos of it all, the sheer waste of a life that had barely even been a life struck her suddenly, and she thought of all the lives lost, all the suffering inflicted over the years, because the Organization saw its warriors as no more than tools to be used and discarded. As girls they would suffer through the terrible pain of the transformation, some dying from the sheer agony, only to go forth and fight and die, either in battle or by the hand of a friend, to halt the monstrous, inevitable, irreversible transformation into youma.

And now another girl lay dead at her feet, barely tall enough to walk without her sheathed sword dragging on the ground, her soul shriveled from fear because they had sent her against a foe too strong for her to fight.

All because the Organization had begrudged her her happiness with Clare, had adjudged a young girl's life less important than the Organization's hard-won reputation.

A reputation built on the bodies of its dead warriors.

Hate swelled in her, a hot black wind that promised to take the pain away.

/ + \

Irena screamed in frustration as she saw the blood spurt and watched Priscilla's head fall to the ground. They had tried so hard, and yet Teresa of the Faint Smile had defeated them handily without even needing to tap her youma power, and now the one warrior who had the potential to defeat Teresa was dead.

Any further screams she might have given voice to caught in her throat as she looked up and saw something truly terrifying. Not even fighting all four of the Organization's top warriors had managed to push Teresa into releasing her youma power, even while they themselves were doing so, but suddenly down the street she could see the Organization's mightiest warrior bathed in the aura of her youki.

Eyes glowing, hair blowing in an unearthly wind and her features starting to distort, Teresa screamed at them in a voice filled with vitriol. Hate and loathing dripped from every word.

"Damn you! Damn you all! I'm going to kill all of you!"

/ + \

She felt it in her bones, a call as sweet as sin, the call of the youma blood that flowed in her veins, edging her towards sweet madness and forgetfulness. She tensed her muscles to kill, to destroy, it didn't matter who or what as long as she killed and destroyed, when she felt something tugging at her waist.

Quickly glancing down she saw a small pair of arms encircling her hips.

Confused, her mind tickled by the memory of a memory, she traced the arms to a small body, the small body to a face that overflowed with tears, the tears to a pair of piercing green eyes.

Gazing into those eyes, Teresa's mind was suddenly flooded with memories: Clare embracing her, unable to form coherent words; Clare doggedly following her as she walked to her next job; Clare attacking that bandit who sought to rape and humiliate her; Clare holding her, weeping for the pain reflected in Teresa's eyes.

Clare restoring her long-buried humanity to her.

All of a sudden she felt the hate and the power drain out of her.

Sweet twin goddesses, she thought, I almost...

She had almost lost her humanity.

This little girl, barely half her size, had not only restored her humanity to her. She had saved it, and her, when she had nearly lost it altogether.

With an inarticulate cry she picked the girl up in her arms and buried her face in the girl's hair.

/ + \

Irena felt something cold and hard pressing under her chin, forcing her head up. She squinted into the sun before Teresa's unsmiling countenance shaded her from the bright rays as the flat of Teresa's sword forced her head up and she addressed her with a steely glint in her eyes:

"Go back," Teresa said. "Go back to the Organization. Tell them if they send anyone after me they shouldn't expect to see that person ever again."

As she narrowed her eyes and prepared a retort, Teresa cut her off and continued in a low voice full of menace:

"Tell them also that if any harm comes to Clare, any harm at all, then I will return to Sutafu and kill all of you."

With that, Teresa of the Faint Smile turned and walked away, holding the brown-haired girl's hand. Unable to move because of her injuries, Irena could only turn her face to the ground and try to hide her tears of pain and frustration.

/ + \

Teresa reached into the trunk at the foot of her bed and lifted out a bulky bundle. She unwrapped and laid the items out on the bed, then sat back a moment.

I never thought I'd be using these again, she mused.

Looking at the things she had laid out, she contrasted them to the simple homespun she wore. The gray fabric of the old uniform and the dull gleam of the armor seemed almost alien to her, as if they had belonged to someone else.

These are the trappings of a warrior of the Organization, she thought. I wonder, when was the last time I was truly that?

After she and Clare had arrived she'd never worn them again, choosing to blend in as much as she could, as if the clothes of a simple village girl could hide her silver eyes and pale hair, and the faint but ever-present smell of blood that clung to her skin. She had fought many battles since coming here, some with youma, some with men, some with warriors of the Organization, and each time she'd faced them as if she were someone who was of this place and not a near-invincible warrior from a shadowy Organization from the mysterious East. Despite the dangers involved in fighting ravening demons, marauding bandits, and demon-augmented hit squads, she'd faced them all in the guise of a peasant girl, stubbornly clinging to her identity as a member of this village.

That is all over now, she reflected. This all ends tonight.

Stripping off her blouse and skirt, she felt as if she were shedding not just her peasant girl guise, but also all her ties to the life she'd built here over the years. For the first time since Clare's death, emotion pierced her shell of icy detachment, filling her with a sense of loss so profound she found herself shaking. She felt again as if her heart were encased in something cold and hard, tightening her chest and her breathing.

Donning the gray uniform of the Organization's warriors, feeling the prickly stiffness of the aged fabric on her skin and the skin-tight fit of the cut, she felt the sensation of tightness in her chest magnify and expand. With each piece of armor she put on she felt it grow tighter and go further, until, having put on the last piece, she felt as if her entire being were encased in invisible restraints. She felt like a prisoner in her own skin.

Glancing into the mirror, she barely recognized the sight that greeted her. The Teresa that looked back at her seemed carved out of some pale flesh-colored metal, cold and unyielding. She looked about at her room and felt again that icy detachment, unable to remember at that moment how it felt to belong in this house, to these people, to this village. She felt like a stranger in her own home.

Taking her sword down from the wall, she felt a jolt run through her. This she recognized. This felt comfortable. This in her hand... felt right.

Holding her sword up in front of her, she studied it carefully. Though the sword had seen hard use over the years, it was in incredible shape, having never once required more than a few strokes from a file or whetstone to maintain its edge.

The Organization does build things to last, she thought to herself, no matter what else they might do wrong. These clothes, this armor, this sword... Even after all this time, it's almost like the day I set out on my first job.

If only the warriors themselves lasted as long as the equipment they carried, she finished ruefully.

She was sheathing her sword at her back when she heard a sound from the doorway.

"Come in," she said, just as a light knock came from the door.

The door opened to reveal Raki, eyes still a little red from weeping. She could see from the set of his shoulders and the stoop in his posture that he was tired.

"So you're really leaving," he began, seeing what she was wearing.

"Yes," she answered, tersely, simply.

Seemingly taken aback by her answer, it was a while before Raki could ask, "Why?"

Now it was Teresa's turn to be unable to immediately answer. Looking away, she was unable to put her thoughts and feelings into words until she caught her reflection in the mirror again.

"Because I have to," she finally said.

Raki moved up behind her and said, "I don't understand."

"Raki," Teresa began, turning to face him, "you should know that for us, for those of us you call Claymores, it's only a matter of time before the demon half takes over. Clare..." For a moment Teresa was unable to continue.

"Clare was my humanity." Teresa said finally. "While she was alive I couldn't hear the call of the monster inside me. It's like it wasn't there at all. Now that she's... gone, however, I can feel it all coming back. I need to go away before I endanger you all."

"And what are you going to do? Where are you going to go?" Raki demanded.

"I'm going to go back to Sutafu, back to the Organization. And I'm going to let them carry out my death sentence," Teresa concluded.

Raki inhaled sharply. "No! Clare would not have wanted this! You can't want this!"

"Raki," Teresa said softly, reasonably, "this isn't about what I want. Not exactly. I don't want to die. But when the time comes I want to die as a human, not as a monster. And I don't want to destroy everything you and Clare and I have worked for here. This is the only way."

"No it's not," countered Raki hotly.

"It's the only way that I can be sure," she answered.

For a long time neither of them said anything, to the point where the silence became uncomfortable and Teresa turned to leave, thinking everything had been said.

"Clare always loved you better, you know," said Raki suddenly.

Teresa turned a stricken glance at Raki, searching his face for condemnation.

"I don't mean it that way," Raki said quickly, seeing her expression.

"Then what do you mean?" asked Teresa, puzzled.

Gathering his thoughts, Raki said, "It's something Clare said to me once. I'd been jealous that my own wife was paying more attention to you than to me. She told me she was worried about you, because you seemed unable to open up to other people. Since you'd already allowed yourself to open up to her, she wanted to show you as much love as she could, because she knew that if you wouldn't accept it from other people then you'd accept it from her.

"Clare was the heart of this family, and because of her, and for other things, we all love you, even if we're not really sure how to show it. This is your family, too, Teresa, whether or not you know it. We will accept you no matter what. And we'll be here waiting for you to come back to us.

"I'm hoping that you'll realize that before you get to wherever it is you're going. I know I can't stop you, but I don't want to have to explain to Clare why I let you get yourself get killed."

With that, Raki turned and stepped from the room, leaving Teresa to her thoughts.

/ + \

Before she could leave, there was one more place that Teresa had to go.

A goodly distance from the town, on a cold, wind-swept and rocky hill, Teresa had long ago built a small hut, her retreat for when the presence of other people just became too much for her to bear. It was arduous enough a trip that few ever casually came calling. Clare, of course, would come, often alone, sometimes with one of her older children, but she'd spent many a day and night here, alone but for her thoughts and the ghosts that always seemed to follow in her wake.

A short way from her hut was a memorial of sorts.

Standing among the swords set evenly-spaced into the hard, stony soil, Teresa felt the weight of the deaths she had caused, as if the shades of the dead warriors were watching her with condemnation in their eyes. She looked about at the shallow graves set with swords as grave markers, thinking back to all that had happened over the years.

Nineteen, she thought to herself. Nineteen of our warriors I have slain by my hand. Eighteen rest here, but nineteen of their lives have I taken in my desire to be free.

The first, after Priscilla, had been an accident. The girl had been following the scent of youma, only to discover its killer. Spouting the Organization's rules at her, the girl had demanded her death and leapt to the attack. Perhaps, misled by her peasant's clothing, the girl had thought her soft, an easy kill. One exchange of blows later and the girl was on the ground, bleeding out her life through the gaping wound in her side.

The next eight had each come singly over the following years. Each had gone to great efforts to mask their youki, but each time she had sensed them coming. Eight times she had asked them to leave, to forget her, and to live. Eight times she had been refused.

The last nine had been a concerted attack by the single-digit warriors of the Organization. What they could not accomplish with stealth, they attempted to do by force. They had failed with four, so they tried again with nine.

She gazed at the symbols engraved on the swords. She had known the owners of many of them before she went renegade.

Irena... Sophia... Noelle... wasn't once enough? Did they have to send you again?

"Why couldn't any of you have walked away?" Teresa demanded of the unquiet dead.

"Is that really what you want?" a soft voice asked from behind her.

"Hello, Michael," said Teresa, without turning.

After a moment to gather her thoughts, Teresa turned to face Clare's grandson.

"I was wondering when you were going to say something," Teresa said.

Michael looked down for a moment, flushing in embarrassment, before looking back up at Teresa and saying, "You looked busy."

When Teresa didn't say anything, Michael gestured at her, clearly indicating what she was wearing.

"So, you're really leaving?" Michael asked, unknowingly echoing Raki.

"Yes, I am." Teresa replied simply.

"You can't." he insisted.

"Why not?" asked Teresa, nonplussed.

"Because I can't marry you if you leave." he asserted.

Michael's statement was so unexpected that for a moment Teresa was unable to reply. After the surprise had faded, though, Teresa felt bitter laughter welling up from within her.

Shaking her head, Teresa looked away and said softly, "Michael, Michael. I'd have thought you'd have outgrown such childish dreams by now."

Michael reached out to take Teresa's chin between his thumb and forefinger. "This is no childish dream, Auntie Teresa," Michael insisted, turning her to face him.

Teresa could have easily resisted his pull, but chose to look Michael in the eye instead. "Michael," she said, "monsters don't marry humans. And if the humans don't stay away from the monsters they end up dead."

"Is that why you want us to walk away from you? Because you think we're going to end up dead one day?" Michael asked, not letting go of her chin.

"I wasn't exactly talking to you, but yes. I don't just think you'll die, I know you will," she answered.

"You must live a very lonely life, Auntie Teresa," he said.

Stung by the pity she saw in his eyes, Teresa pushed him away roughly. "Better to live and be lonely, than to die a monster!" she replied hotly.

Michael had stumbled when Teresa pushed him away. Getting back up, he took a step toward her. "You're not a monster, Auntie Teresa."

"Not yet," she said.

Reaching for her hands, Michael asked, worried, "What do you mean?"

Pulling away, Teresa stated in a flat voice, "What I mean is that eventually, the demon half will take over and turn me into a monster. That is why I'm leaving. I have to leave before I start killing the people of this village."

Michael gave a snort of disbelief. "It'll never happen."

Teresa's eyes turned flinty. Was he mocking her? "What would you know about that?" she spat at him.

"Nothing, really," he admitted. Then, before she could retort, he added, "except that 'actions speak louder than words.'"

"Oh please," said Teresa, "this is not the time for your sayings."

"I think it's the perfect time," he insisted. "Auntie..." he began, then changed his mind.

"Teresa, look at me," he implored. His hands reached out for hers, and this time, she didn't pull away.

"Teresa," he began in a soothing voice, "we all grew up with Grandma's stories of how you met, how you saved her from those bandits, how you fought the other Claymores..."

"Please don't use that word," she interrupted. "It makes me feel like a tool, like something to be used. If you must call us something, then call us warriors. It's how we refer to ourselves."

"All right," Michael agreed. "Anyway, you fought those bandits without caring what would happen to you, and later on you fought the other warriors, Grandma said, because 'you had chosen to live for the girl.'"

"Clare was special," interjected Teresa.

"Yes, she was," agreed Michael. "But so are you," he insisted.

Teresa was shaking her head in negation when Michael asked, "Tell me, how long does a Cl... a warrior normally last before the demon starts to take over?"

Distracted by her misery, Teresa answered without thinking. "It depends on how strong you are. The Organization creates new warriors every seven years, so you might say that on average we last about that long. Some die pretty early, either from the youma or from pushing themselves too far. With the stronger ones, no one really knows, but eventually everyone succumbs."

"Really?" Michael asked ingenuously. "Then you've already lived more than five times as long as you're expected to."

Teresa's brows furrowed. She hadn't thought of it that way.

"Teresa, listen to me," he pleaded. "If you've lived all that time without succumbing to the demon you keep insisting is inside you, then I don't think you ever will."

"What makes you so sure?" she asked, still not convinced.

"Because time and again your actions have shown that you're willing to do anything for the safety of those you care about. Saving Grandma from those bandits. Fighting the other warriors. Making sure no youma or outlaw ever even gets near this village. Rushing out into the snow, barefoot and unarmed, three winters ago when Boris' daughter got lost. Leaving to go off and die because you think it's going to keep us safe."

"You knew?" she asked incredulously, gripping his hands so tight it hurt. "Were you listening when Raki and I argued?" she demanded.

"No," he managed to say, despite the pain. "But I guessed."

Wordlessly, Teresa released his hands. Freed from the almost bone-crushing pain, Michael exhaled heavily and massaged them for a while before addressing her again.

"Teresa," he said, "do you really think that we'd be happy if you went off to die?"

Teresa shook her head. She wanted to say yes, wanted to reason that they were safer if she were dead, but her heart was no longer in it.

"I just don't know what else to do anymore," she finally admitted.

"Then let us take care of you now," he said gently. "Let me take care of you."

Teresa suddenly gripped his hands tight and pulled him close. Looking into his eyes, she whispered, "How can you love me?"

He returned her gaze without flinching. "How can I not?"

Teresa found that she could not meet his gaze. Turning away, she said, "I am not human. You may be right, I may never become a monster, but I will never be human."

Pulling her into a rough embrace, Michael declared, "I don't care."

Teresa gently but firmly pushed him away, breaking his embrace. Stepping away, she loosened the clasp that held her spaulders in place. Letting her shoulder armor fall to the ground, she unfastened her tunic at the front so he could see the ruin of her torso.

She wanted to turn away, to close her eyes, anything to avoid the horror and disgust she knew she would see in his eyes, but she owed him this. Gathering her courage, she spoke.

"Look, Michael. Take a good look and tell me you don't care," Teresa said, glad despite herself that her voice had come out steady and strong.

For a while, that's exactly what he did. He just looked.

Then he started to walk toward her.

Teresa tried to read the expression in his eyes as he came closer. She was so puzzled at the look he directed at her, at it, that she was taken wholly by surprise when he put his arms around her waist...

...and kissed her there.

Teresa uttered a small squeak as she felt his lips press a soft breath on her there.

As Michael straightened to look into her eyes, Teresa found her hands reaching up to clutch his face. His smiling face, that held no revulsion in its gaze.

Teresa found herself unable to form coherent sentences. "How? Why? What..." was all she could manage.

"I love everything about you, everything from your fine pale hair, to the way your silver eyes reflect the light, to the timbre of your voice, to the grace and strength of your hands, to the way your clothes hug you, to the way your skirt flashes your calves when you walk. If I can love even the smell of blood that clings to you, did you really think that I could not love this, too?"

Teresa could only gaze in wonder into his eyes.

"Does it hurt?" Michael asked, breaking their gaze to look there.

"No," she assured him, shaking her head. "It only looks that way."

Bringing one of his hands up, he touched her there. "Loving someone," he said, "really loving someone, has very little to do with what's physical. What's in here," she felt him press his palm on her chest, "matters a lot more. This doesn't disfigure you, or make you less than human. It doesn't change who you are inside."

Cupping her hand over his, the one on her chest, she gazed up at him with eyes filled with amazement. "When did you become so wise?"

Pulling her against him with his other arm, he smiled down at her. "Well, thirteen years ago I decided I was going to make a certain sad-eyed beauty my bride. Seeing as how the only thing I have going for me is stubbornness, I decided that I ought to have some redeeming quality or other."

Michael marveled at the bright ringing tones of Teresa's laughter. For a moment her eyes lost their ever-present sadness, and her voice rang with joy.

As Teresa laughed she felt as if something inside her had snapped suddenly. She realized she no longer felt that oppressive sensation of cold, steely hardness in her chest, as if whatever it was that had moulded itself around her heart had cracked and fallen away.

She could feel the change in the air, too. Gone was the feeling of condemnation she had felt from the unquiet shades of the dead warriors. It was as if, hearing her laughter, the spirits of the dead had finally receded to sleep once more the sleep of the earth.

Eventually sobering, Teresa pressed her face into Michael's chest. She was surprised to find that she had already decided. She marveled at how well they seemed to fit together, but she also owed him the truth.

"We can never have children, you know," she murmured against him, unsure of how he would react.

Tightening his embrace, he said into her hair, "And when was the last time you tried?"

Pulling back slightly, she hit him on his breast with her balled up fist, hard enough to get his attention. "I'm serious," she said, looking him in the eye.

"So am I," he averred. Pulling her close, he declared, "Who knows what the future will bring? I don't. And I don't care, even if we never have children. All I want is you."

"Don't tell me you actually expect us to 'live happily ever after?'" she asked archly.

"Why not? Like I said, when was the last time you tried?" Michael answered.

She laid her head back on his chest and closed her eyes, listening to the steady sound of his heart beating. After an unmeasured time, Michael whispered into her hair.

"Let's go, Teresa. Let's go home."

/ + \

Raki woke from a light sleep to hear the distinctive jingle of Teresa's armor as she walked. Sitting up, he thought he heard her door slam shut, followed by the muffled clangs of her armor hitting the floor.

Strange, he thought. Teresa has always been considerate. I wonder if there's something wrong.

Raki was glad that Teresa had returned, but he was also worried about her. He quickly crept down the hall, meaning to see if there was anything he could do for her, and was about to knock on her door when his eyes widened as he heard muffled moans and bed creaks coming from beyond the door.

He quickly turned around and tiptoed back to his own room. Tucking himself back into bed, Raki found himself grinning widely as he composed himself for sleep.

Welcome home, Teresa.

/ + \

Curled up in bed with the sleeping Michael, Teresa thought back to the day's events. She had many happy memories here, but for the first time she felt something else, too. A deep feeling of quiet contentment filled her, lulling her fears and insecurities.

Looking into Michael's sleeping face, for the first time Teresa felt a hope for the future. She didn't know what the future would bring, but she was content to live and build a life with the man lying sleeping in her bed.

And after? she asked herself. She had not thought that far yet, but was content to wait it out. At least, I know now, that I will have an after.

Though Teresa could regulate her body temperature to disregard even the winter's cold, she found that snuggling up to a warm body was much more comfortable. As she curled up into Michael's warmth, she felt his arm come around her, holding her close.

Pleasantly, contentedly exhausted, her thoughts turned to her departed "daughter" as she felt sleep steal over her.

I'm sorry, Clare, she thought, but it looks like you're going to be waiting a while for those stories.