This is something no one ever tells you: rebirth is painful.
Of course it is. You take all the pieces and parts of your life and compress them in tightly before it all gets reshaped, reformed, and who’s to say it’s still “you” who comes out in the end. It’s messy, it’s ugly, it’s painful. Birth itself is nothing in comparison.
But the baby who used to be Alice sleeps peacefully. It had cried for hours after its original body had faded to ash, but quieted as soon as Jirou took it into his arms. It weighs hardly anything; he wonders if it would simply float away, if he let it go. Even after hours of walking, it hardly feels like anything is weighing him down. A part of him thinks that if he looks down he would only find a bundle of empty swaddling clothes, just like before.
(good-night, she’d whispered to him, as though curled safely in their bed and not lying on the battlefield, her body turning to gray ash and crumbling even as he tried to hold on — even as he’d clung to her and tried to say her name though nothing but silence filled his throat oh, oh god, oh Alice.)
“My,” says a voice behind him. He would know it anywhere, and a thousand years will not be enough to forget. “After all you’ve done, they still turn you out with an infant on your back? That’s hardly civilized behavior, don’t you think?”
Jirou turns slowly.
Cassandra smirks at him, one hip canted out and her fingers tucked into her pockets. There is blood at the corner of her mouth, and she meets his eyes directly before she licks it away. Rage surges inside him, a cold hungry thing that sees that blood and wants to make it Cassandra’s own, to rip her apart and spread it everywhere until the earth is saturated with the blood. He puts his hand on his sword, and in the crook of his other arm, the infant stirs and burbles at him. It’s like a splash of cold water, and he looks down at the baby for just a moment; an instant later Cassandra is there, close enough that he can smell her skin under her perfume, clean and cold. He jerks back, but she catches his wrist in one hand, and the touch burns.
“Tsk,” she said. “Is that how you treat an old friend, Jirou? Or a lover?” She leans in so that her lips are against his cheek; he can feel every word shaped exactly against his skin. Between them, the infant breathes quietly. “What would Alice say?”
Jirou hisses and yanks his hand away from her. He has the uneasy feeling he managed only because she allowed him: he is tired from hours of walking, whereas she has the easy relaxation of the well-rested and -prepared. Cassandra’s eyes are bright and reflect all of the full moon, and her teeth all gleam in her wide smile. She reaches out again and before he can quite stop her, she has her fingers tangled in the baby’s hair. It opens blue eyes and looks up at her unblinking.
“How cute,” Cassandra says, and that’s as far as she gets, because she has to leap out of the way before he guts her right there. She licks her fingers as though stung and laughs. The baby remains silent.
“You,” Jirou says. His voice cracks. “I will never allow you to–”
“Hm?” Cassandra waves a dismissive hand, though her eyes go narrow. “Never allow me to do what, Jirou? Touch Alice? It’s a bit late for that, isn’t it?” She tosses her hair. It’s utterly familiar, completely careless, and Jirou bites his cheek hard and tastes blood.
“Alice trusted you,” he says. He points the sword at her, and the blade remains steady, aimed for her heart. “You betrayed her when she–”
“She loved me,” Cassandra says. Her eyes go narrow and she smiles when he stops with his mouth open, his accusation caught midsentence. She frames her hips with her hands and licks her teeth. “You remember, don’t you? Jirou?”
(you match, she’d laughed, tying a scrap of ribbon around the ends of Cassa’s long hair, then reached to tug the matching one in his own and her eyes were bright with affection as Cassa mimes irritation but kisses Alice’s cheek anyway, pretty pretty Sage Eve and her snake-eyed beloved guardian.)
“Ah,” says Cassandra. She purses her lips and laughs again, a throaty pleased noise. “You do remember.” With a swagger in her hips, she comes towards him. Jirou bares his fangs and keeps the sword steady, but when she puts her hand against the flat and pushes it gently aside, he cannot find the strength inside himself to fight her. He does lean back when she comes too close, turning his body partway to put his bulk between her and the baby. Her fingers touch his face, cool and strong, and tilt him back to face her. Her smile is wide and red.
“Jirou,” she croons. “Where will you go now? Even a hero has his flaws. You don’t even know how to care for a child, do you?”
“I’ll protect him,” Jirou says. “That’s what matters.”
“Of course,” Cassandra purrs. “But who protects you, then?”
Her arm moves, lightning flash, and she catches him by the throat, spinning to pin him against a tree branch; his sword goes flying and stabs into the ground some distance away. They’re eye-level with each other, and when Cassandra leans up, her fangs flash in her mouth with each word. “I could bite you right now, Jirou Mochizuki. Wouldn’t that be the best irony? The hero of the Kowloon War, the one who defeated the Kowloon King when no one else could, changed! Wouldn’t that be funny?”
Jirou sucks in a breath and stops breathing. Cassandra’s green eyes are bright with amused madness as she leans in. Her breath is warm upon his cheek before her mouth drifts down, pressed there against the corner of his mouth. He lets out a shaky breath and wonders when he’d become so cold: after Alice’s death, surely, unless the viper’s poison had entered his veins long ago.
(Cassa kisses confidently and without fear, nothing sweet or delicate about her: she knows what she wants and she takes it, her hands in his hair as Alice giggles at the look of shock on his face.)
Pressed between them, the infant starts to cry.
Cassandra jerks back at that. Jirou sucks in an immediate sharp breath and adjusts his grip as the baby begins to thrash, sobbing like all the pain and horror of rebirth is there in its eyes again, all the things it cannot possibly remember yet. He bounces the child awkwardly and wishes for Alice’s ease with children, and isn’t that the real irony of the situation? He looks up to see Cassandra staring at the child with her teeth gritted.
She looks up. For a moment Jirou sees something he recognizes rather than remembers. Her mouth twists into an exasperated scowl.
“She always does that,” she says. “Ruining my fun! It’s not fair.”
Jirou looks blankly at her. The infant continues to cry, though softer now: its wails are dying to whimpers, and it clings to Jirou’s coat like he might simply leave it behind. “Cassa–”
Cassandra blinks, and that fleeting moment is gone. She flips her hair back over her shoulder and bares her teeth in something that is not really a grin. “Jirou,” she says. “You might want to go by boat if you’re trying to avoid my siblings. They’re quite angry about what you did to our father, you see. They’d take any excuse to get you.”
He frowns. Without breaking eye-contact he shifts a little, ready to break for his sword. “… and I’ll believe you because … ?”
She laughs and blows him a kiss. He swears he feels it, there upon his cheek. Before he can reach his sword, however, to retaliate or threaten or —
he doesn’t even know what, really
— she’s gone. Jirou pulls his sword from the ground and looks down at the baby in his other arm, who has now fallen silent and looks at him with large wet blue eyes. He can still (already?) see traces of Alice looking back at him. He touches one round damp cheek with his thumb and the baby smiles like the sun coming up — like Alice did, once upon a time. Jirou smiles back because he has never been able to resist.
“We’ll get there soon,” he murmurs. He looks up to the sky; in the distance, the horizon is still black, but dotted with stars.
Jirou sheathes his sword and starts moving.