Part 35: Chapter 30There won't be a post-update post to this update, obviously. This the last update to the story, but not the last update to the LP. I really hope you enjoy the finale!
They continued into the dark expanses of the cave, leaving Porky to his fate behind them. Lucas's mind was heavy with different thoughts and emotions as they pressed on towards the final Needle; knowing that his brother was that masked man the whole time, and that they were almost definitely going to fight again over the Needle, was proving to be a bit much for him. Nobody said a word as they walked on ahead, towards the very deepest area of the cavern far below the surface of the world.
Duster and Kumatora could only imagine the thoughts going through Lucas's mind as they continued on forward. The boy had been through an awful lot in such a short amount of time, and less than an hour ago he had learnt that not only was his long-lost brother still alive, but he was working for the most reprehensible man that was ever known.
"Hey, Lucas?" Kumatora asked as they continued on ahead. The path was just as straightforward as the rest of the cavern: the path zigzagged a lot, but there were no branching paths to mislead them. Lucas tilted his head a bit, to let Kumatora know that she had his attention, but he didn't really feel like speaking. Porky had forced Lucas to realize a lot of truths about himself that he wasn't too fond of, and even after their sort-of-victory over the villain, he felt almost ashamed of how he had acted, especially in front of his friends.
"I just, uh, wanted to say," she said slowly. She felt like she was walking a very thin line when it came to feelings in general, but Lucas could probably use the emotional boost, so it was definitely worth a try. "That we...um, Duster and I, we got your back." She didn't know if that was the wrong thing to say, given the circumstances, but she said it anyway.
As if to demonstrate, another of the sentient sparks was hovering over the path, erratically zooming back and forth over the walkway, in front of them.
All together, they handled it the exact same way they handled everything else - but Lucas's heart clearly wasn't in it. He fought the thing and it backed away, but unlike before Porky, he had a certain lag to his attacks from the physical and emotional exhaustion of it all.
"She's absolutely right, Lucas," Duster added, adding to her sentiment. "We've stuck by you until the very end, and that's not about to change. Whatever happens up there, at the Needle, you can count on us to see you through."
He understood what they were trying to do, and he loved them for it, but they couldn't understand exactly what he was feeling. He had been without his brother for three years, and he had given up hope long before his father had of ever seeing him again. And now he was about to fight his twin brother, possibly to the death. "Thank you, guys," he answered, although it was nearly a hollow response.
Farther down the jagged path was, surprisingly, a natural hot-spring, located deep under the earth's surface. Unlike the bluish-purplish gunk of the cave, the water was a perfectly-healthy clear with a milky tone, and although it was surrounded by less-than-friendly-looking stalagmites, it was still a hot-spring.
After their battle with Porky and his crazy machine, a dip into a hot-spring was just what they needed for a quick pick-me-up. It did nothing to calm Lucas's nerves or sooth his hesitations, but the unusually warm water, even for a hot-spring, worked wonders on the knots in his shoulders and the aches in his feet.
The walk after the hot spring was uneventful. There were some more sentient sparks and living diamonds roaming over the pathway occasionally, but between Porky and Claus, they were hardly given a passing thought, and Lucas put in the same amount of effort to subdue them as the first one.
The crooked, jagged path began to smoothen out the farther along they walked, and soon, after about another minute of walking down its straightening path, they felt a strong breeze coming down towards them from whatever was hidden in the far reaches of the cavern. They knew they were close - and their assumptions were realized when they saw the familiar pulsating glow of the Needle off in the distance. The warm, friendly white of its light beat softly to some unheard rhythm just over a few bends and rises and falls in the remaining distance.
For Lucas, the prize wasn't quite the Needle. He was going to make sure that he pulled it, of course: for everything Porky had done to him, he loved his home and the people he lived with - his father, Alec, Duster, Kumatora, Wess, Lighter, Fuel, Bronson, Tessie, Nippolyte, Isaac, Abbey, Abbot, Biff, Butch, Matt, and everybody that was with him during the hardest parts of the last three years - too much to let Claus risk everything, even if he wasn't himself. But for Lucas, the prize was Claus himself. His greatest victory would be if he could somehow get through to him. For every time they had met, Lucas had felt some kind of ethereal connection with the man in the mask, and he didn't believe for a second that the masked man didn't feel it as well. If he could just get through to Claus with that, he believed, deep in his heart, that he could rescue his twin.
He didn't have to wait too long to test out his theory.
Claus was there, in all of the Pigmask drab he had worn since they first met. The same helmet, repaired nicely after the dents and dings they had given it at...the temple that had Ionia's Needle, along with the sword and the large gun strapped to his right arm. He wore the same thick jacket and the same puffy orange pants. It was the same Claus, kneeling before the Needle.
They approached him silently, although Lucas had no intention of making a surprise attack. If Claus was still as impressively adept at combat as ever, then he probably knew they were there anyway. Lucas felt the same feelings he felt with him the other three times they had met: a weird, not-unwelcome feeling of complacency and belonging, which totally calmed his nerves. He had hoped the same feeling would wash over him again, because, even though Claus was right there and they'd have a spat over who'd get to pull the Needle, that warm, calming sensation gave him the confidence and the resolve to go through with what he needed to do.
Claus took a moment before standing back up. Lucas couldn't see what he was doing in front of the Needle, but...whatever it was, it looked important to him. Claus had beaten them to the Needle by a fairly large margin, so unless Porky had given him the command to wait for him to arrive before making the move (which Lucas didn't doubt), Claus simply...didn't want to pull it yet.
He spun around, looking at his four adversaries. A red-headed woman with powerful PSI affinities; a balding man with a poor leg and exceedingly well-trained senses; a simple, faithful, loyal dog that had followed them to the bottom of the earth; and his equal: a nervous, blonde-haired boy that had also been blessed with the ability to pull the Needles. He had underestimated them once.
He made sure not to do it again.
Claus knew the lightning would be reflected off of that cursed badge the boy had pinned proudly to his shirt, but taking him out wasn't the priority. He knew that they were impossible to defeat as a team, so he took them all out in one shot, leaving just him and his equal to battle, on fair terms, for the right of pulling the Needle.
Lucas didn't feel any pain from the electricity as the Franklin Badge dutifully bounced it all off of him and back at Claus. The same couldn't be said for his companions; the bolt of lightning was so powerful that, even though it was aimed at him specifically, the shock was more than enough to instantly knock the others off their feet. It was an intense attack - it was like Claus wanted to fight him and him alone, and did everything in his power to ensure that the others would not interfere. They had told him, only a few minutes ago, that they would have his back and that they would see him through this to the end, and in just one hit, they were each rendered unconscious.
But, Lucas decided...
...that was for the better. He had realized, immediately after the feeling of complacency washed over him, that he wouldn't, that he couldn't, fight Claus. He knew that if things went poorly for him, his friends, probably including Boney, would want to jump in and defend him. But he couldn't fight Claus. He was his brother.
They faced each other down, standing just before the final Needle. Claus had prepared his sword in his left hand, and his large cannon on his right, ready to engage his rival with all the trained intensity he had been preparing for the last three years. Lucas, by contrast, was unarmed, and he had no advantages over Claus in PSI either: if they were anything alike, then Claus would have gotten stronger with every Needle he pulled, and they were tied at three Needles apiece.
Claus didn't waste any time.
He opened by firing a powerful, wide shot from the cannon on his arm. Lucas didn't run: he could see the shot arc through the air, aiming right for him with deadly precision. He knew it was going to hurt. But he just couldn't fight against his brother. He had to at least try and reason with Claus. He remembered that Porky had called him a 'soulless robot', and that he had retained no memories from his past life. He needed to see for himself.
"Claus," he called, trying to reach out to his brother once the shot hit him hard on the chest. "Claus, it's me. It's Lucas."
Claus said nothing in response; he dashed forward, his sword at the ready, and again, Lucas made no attempt to parry or avoid. He made a direct hit with the whole of his sword - it wasn't a blade of tempered steel, but of some kind of radiant energy. It couldn't cut or pierce, but it hit like one of those Hippo Launchers from the building.
Lucas flinched from the hit, clutching his side in pain, but Claus didn't give him a chance to recover, and shoulder-barged into him, knocking him back. Lucas had to watch his step, careful not to trip over any of his fallen comrades, and quickly regained his balance. But Claus didn't stop, and he wasn't going to.
"Claus!" he called out again, louder, just in case his brother didn't hear him the first time. "It's me! Lucas! You're my brother!" He was positive that Claus could hear him that time, but he didn't stop his next charge. With another quick dash and another swing from the sword into Lucas's gut, he doubled over in the sudden pain, bringing his face down, where his nose promptly met Claus's knee.
He was pretty sure he was bleeding out of his nose after that hit, but that wasn't important. Claus was ignoring every attempt Lucas made to reach out to him: he had received a directive from Porky, and that was all that mattered to him right then and there. His enemy stood before him, and he would be struck down, no matter what.
Lucas didn't believe that for a moment, though. There was an undeniable connection between them, every single time they met, and although he had never seen Claus so much as change his expression since donning the mask, there was no way, no way, he didn't feel it too. He just had to get Claus to realize it.
His earlier resolve to not fight back had not wavered, although the pain in his face was pretty severe. He decided it couldn't have been too aggressive to heal his broken nose before Claus did something even worse, and maybe put up a psychic shield while he was at it.
Claus wasn't having any of that, though. Once Lucas put up his shield, he began to adjust some parameters on the gun on his arm, before pointing it at his brother and firing again. This time, though, the shot it fired wasn't blue, and it didn't exactly sting once it, too, hit him dead-centre...
...but he could feel the shield he had just put up around himself simply vanish, just like that, made painfully evident when Claus punched forward, slamming the barrel-end of the gun into his cheek. Lucas desperately wanted to help his brother, but he certainly wasn't making it easy for him.
He still couldn't fight back, he knew, but he couldn't just stand there and keep taking the beating Claus was unabashedly giving to him. Still dazed from the knee to the nose and the punch to the face, he did his best to back up and widen the distance between him and Claus. Facing forward, he began back-pedalling, keeping his eyes on his brother while he widened the gap, fully expecting Claus to try and stop him. And he did: when he saw Lucas trying to retreat, he took aim with his gun and fired another shot. At least this time, he knew it was coming, and quickly dodged to his side, letting the shot arc harmlessly through the air.
"Claus, stop it!" he tried again. "I'm your brother! Your parents are Flint and Hinawa! We're both from a village on the Nowhere-" Clearly not interested, Claus lunged forward again, his sword at the ready, and whacked at Lucas once, striking him with the tip right between his ribs with practiced precision. He suddenly felt his limbs go numb and the wind knocked out of him, but he was still plenty aware when his brother swung again, hitting him in the neck with the butt of the handle.
What was it going to take to reach his brother? Claus was really laying into him, and not even giving him the opportunity to respond to any of the aggression he was being given. Every time he tried to heal himself, Claus would leap ahead and beat him with that orange energy-sword-thing of his. Whenever he tried to run away, Claus would take deadly aim and fire with his gun. If he tried to put up a shield, he'd just rip it away. He could hardly get a word in edgewise without Claus jumping down his throat.
But with every hit Claus made, Lucas refused to go down. His resolve to get through to his brother only intensified - with a black eye and bruised cheeks, Lucas would get back up, undaunted, and try to reason with his brother once more. "Claus!" he would yell, and every time, the masked boy wouldn't respond, like Lucas was yelling to someone else. "Try to remember, please!"
But for Claus, there was nothing to remember. There was only the great Master Porky's directive.
Which he would stop at nothing to accomplish.
He knew Claus was capable of PK Love - he had used it against them at...Ionia's temple - but between trying to reach out to his brother and trying to not get himself killed from every other one of his attacks, the fact had momentarily slipped his mind, and he was unprepared for the incredibly destructive wave that was PK Love Omega. He had used it himself a few times, and for the first time, he knew what it was like to be on the receiving end of the blast.
He could feel the pain leave himself after a moment, as his eyes began to narrow and close. He was barely hanging on as he was between everything else Claus was flinging at him, and with that last attack, his body couldn't take any more, and he slowly tipped forward, his vision narrowing and the sound in his ears leaving, just as the ground began to rush up-
And just as suddenly, he was wide-awake again. He put one foot forward, catching himself before he toppled over, standing back upright. All at once, his wounds were gone. His eyes didn't hurt and his cheeks weren't bruised. It was...it was as though Claus hadn't even struck him at all.
He felt a tingle in his left pocket, like something inside it was trying to get out. Surprised, but focused enough to keep his eyes on Claus, he quickly reached in, digging around for whatever the thing was - and pulled out a razor and a lipstick.
It was one of the Magypsy mementos he had been forced to collect during his entire journey. Through a hygiene product and some makeup, the Magypsies had never truly left him: they all insisted that he keep a memento of theirs as proof of their friendship before they disappeared, and now, from wherever they were now, they were coming through for him.
But...at the cost of the memento itself.
The razor and lipstick began to glow a powerful white, before being wrapped in their own glow and simply vanishing into the air, much like the Magypsies themselves had done before. There was absolutely nothing remaining of the memento any longer, and now, the Magypsy it belonged to had truly disappeared forever.
Lucas was lost in his own thoughts, staring at his hands, where the razor and the lipstick used to be. He had pulled Needle after Needle, ending their lives for the greater good, and they were repaying him by saving his own, even now, from beyond the grave.
Claus wasn't nearly as interested in some personal baubles that Lucas had been lugging around for whatever reason, and quickly capitalized on the boy's distraction.
He wasn't unaware that all the wounds he had done to Lucas had simply...healed themselves, somehow. He hadn't felt the boy use any PSI, because if he did, there was no way he would have let him hold the focus long enough. But he didn't suspect the razor and the lipstick either, and simply resigned to wailing on his opponent again.
Lucas couldn't thank the Magypsies enough. He felt so greedy and selfish, for basically killing them, and they still helped him out when he needed a miracle the most. Had they somehow known? He didn't doubt that the other mementos would come to his aid as well, but he didn't want to lose any more mementos: they were all that he had remaining of the Magypsies and their very existence. He wasn't sure if he was ready to let them go.
But even with the Magypsies' help, he wasn't sure he could win this fight in the end. Claus wasn't getting tired, and he wasn't listening to anything he was saying. What could he do? Every time he considered breaking his own personal restrictions to defend himself against his brother, he would remind himself of just who the boy behind that mask was, and then he...couldn't do it.
Claus had dashed forward again, his sword at the ready, making a quick leap towards his opponent with the weapon held high, ready to cave Lucas's skull in with one fierce strike. Lucas was watching, but he wasn't as quick as his brother on the draw, and only realized how little room he had left to avoid just as the sword was coming down on him.
But before the sword was on him and his head was smashed into two, he could swear...he could swear that time itself seemed to slow around them. Just before Claus brought his weapon down, everything seemed to move slowly, allowing him to practically watch his own demise in every minute detail just as it was about to happen.
And then he heard a voice.
It...it sounded familiar. Like he had only heard it recently, somewhere. It was a woman's voice: it was very soft and it spoke in a gentle whisper, the last syllable of his name echoing in his ears, just before time's flow resumed. Thanks to that sudden break in the action, he got up the mobility to make a quick step to his left, forcing the swing of the sword to whiff his side entirely. He could feel the hairs on his arms raise towards the sword as it swung by, though - it was entirely too close for comfort.
He backed away from Claus again, quickly glancing along the stone floor for anyone that had reached out to him. He found Kumatora first, thinking it was her, but she was still incapacitated - she had roused herself awake, but she was far too wounded to even move a muscle, much less call out to him. Besides, it sounded like the woman was right there, standing right next to him...
Claus had heard no woman speak, however, and quickly resumed his offensive, lunging back at Lucas again with his weapons at the ready, going in for another horizontal slice at his enemy's shoulder. Lucas, distracted again, couldn't dodge completely in time, but still enough to not take the full brunt of the damage.
"Come on, Claus!" he shouted at his brother, trying again. "This isn't...you're not who you think you are! You're not Porky's shadow, you're my brother! We lived in Tazmily; our father raised a flock of sheep in a stable! We collected seashells down by the beach!"
Claus continued to ignore his opponent. He didn't even wonder why Lucas wasn't fighting back, and why he kept shouting illogical nonsense the whole time. To him, Lucas was simply a threat that needed to be neutralized. He answered his adversary's delusional yelling with a pair of more shots from his cannon, each one hitting their marks directly.
The earlier charms of the razor and the lipstick were losing his weight with him, as he felt his eye beginning to swell and his blood beginning to drip from his nose once again. He kept on his feet, ready to simply take anything else Claus had to throw at him.
With trained finesse, the masked boy began to dash up to Lucas once again, his sword held at the ready by his side to uppercut his foe. Lucas was ready to dodge again, but he didn't know how, or when he could react without Claus reading him like a book.
Just as Claus was getting within striking distance, time began to ease itself once more, and he heard the same gentle, soothing voice ring in his ears again.
He could feel his heart lighten and patter at the woman's voice. He could practically envision the woman speaking to them, just by how she spoke. She sounded very loving and caring, but she was also deeply concerned, judging from her tone. She wasn't angry or sad or anything: her voice carried a worried, anxious way about her words, and it was clear that, wherever she was, she didn't like watching her boys fighting.
It had been years since he heard her speak to him, but only a day or so since he had last seen her. For the briefest glimpse, even in this time's slowed flow, he could see the woman speaking to them in the distance, standing next to the final Needle, worriedly watching Claus run up to Lucas with his weapon prepped to finish the fight in a swing.
Lucas could watch each of his running footsteps as they hit the ground, and how tightly he was holding onto his sword. If Claus could hear her, he didn't show it at all, but thanks to her intervention, Lucas at least had the time to read his brother's attack before he swung, managing to step back just as everything resumed its normal pace. Claus hadn't expected his enemy to be so light on his feet, and quickly swung again, simply meeting air once more.
There was little deviation to their current patterns. Claus would sometimes swing his sword and fire his cannon; Lucas would either dodge the attacks by the skin of his teeth, or he wouldn't be so lucky and he'd take the hit. Between every strike, Lucas called out to his brother, explaining details of their past, to try and jog his memory, so sure that Porky hadn't destroyed Claus and had simply locked him away. The matter was simply finding the right key.
A close shot from the cannon stunned Lucas once the blast dissipated against his chest, leaving a searing, punching pain in his gut. The masked boy took the chance to continue with his offense, head-butting his enemy with the thick of his helmet into his chin, causing Lucas to bite into his own tongue. He cried out in pain as his mouth quickly flooded with his own blood, but Claus didn't give him a chance to retreat, and whacked him in the hip with the fat of his sword.
Claus continued to dig into Lucas, landing blow after blow, determined to end his life and fulfill his great Master Porky's command to eliminate the opposition and pull the Needle himself without incident. Again, Lucas's vision was beginning to fade, his mouth already overflowing from the blood gushing from his tongue and dripping sheets out of his mouth. He began to fall once Claus struck him with his left fist, digging between his ribs, and he reached out, gripping onto his brother's jacket for support. Not that he really had the strength to keep his grip as he continued to tumble, with the taste leaving his tongue and the colour leaving his eyes.
The last thing Lucas saw was the barrel of Claus's gun, as it pointed right between his eyes while he stumbled to the ground from the beating. He could practically see the elements of whatever the shots the cannon fired were made of as they came together, ready to fire once again and finish him off, when, again, their mother came to his rescue.
Again, Hinawa didn't sound upset over watching her oldest son brutally kill her youngest; she simply sounded distraught. Like she knew everything would work itself out in the end, but she couldn't bear to watch the whole thing unravel before her eyes. In time's slowed momentum, Lucas watched as every nuance inside the cannon worked to piece together another blast, its insides glowing blue as the weapon was very nearly ready to fire. Claus's expression didn't change at all, but he could hardly tell through the dark visor of the helmet.
And just then, time sped up again, bringing them both back to reality - just in time for Lucas to see the shot fire from the cannon, and miss at point-blank, harmlessly blasting into the stone beneath them and fizzling out in an instant. Lucas could barely make out many details through his failing vision, but, with another tingling feeling in the pocket of his shorts, the only proof that he was even beaten to such a bloody pulp at all was a bad taste in his mouth.
Lucas was at Claus's mercy, lying flat underneath his feet, even with the regenerative powers of the Magypsy memento. But, for that moment, Claus's priority was no longer his enemy. He had heard a woman speak to him - not through his ears, but, as illogical as it seemed, inside him. The woman's soft, caring, but worried voice had captured his attention, and, just then, he had forgotten all about Lucas and his great Master Porky's command.
Had that red-headed woman said it? Was somebody else there, with him and his equal, as they duelled to the end? His attention was totally diverted to finding the owner of the voice that had distracted him, and in his mistake, he felt the surely kick of a foot against his own chest, strong enough to knock him down to his knees.
Lucas felt awful about having to do that: he loved his brother very much, and even though Claus was ripping him apart without so much as a care, he still couldn't help but feel an awful sting of guilt when all he did was push his attacker off of him. He tried to rationalize and justify himself for just the one hit; he didn't know how long Hinawa was going to keep him distracted, and he'd rather not find himself looking down the barrel of that cannon again. But, with that kick to Claus's chest, Lucas saw the most shocking thing the entire fight - something that gave him hope that his brother was still there, and that Porky's control was beginning to waver: his expression changed.
With his focus entirely on Lucas once more, Claus resumed their battle, firing more shots from his cannon and swinging more hits with his sword whenever he got close. "Claus, listen to me," Lucas tried to say, doing his best to dance between every attack, but he wasn't trained with such militaristic accuracy as his brother. "You heard her, right? You heard that woman just now, I know it." For once, his enemy wasn't talking gibberish, although he continued to refuse any acknowledgement of his correctness: he was the enemy, and enemies must be defeated, for his great Master Porky.
"That was our mom, Claus," he continued, and then, almost reflexively, swallowed. Their mother had been dead for three years, but, then again, so had Claus. The fact that she was somehow speaking to them was a little hard to believe, but he knew his brother had heard her too, so he wasn't crazy: he placed his trust in their mother with whatever she was doing, wherever she was. "She loves us, Claus. She wants us to stop. Please, just...forget about Porky."
He was at a loss for exact words, trying to reason what he should say to his brother to get him to snap out of it. But it was getting increasingly difficult to form any thought at all between the constant beatings.
Claus had closed the gap between them again, running back up to his foe with his weapon prepared to slice him apart once more. Lucas was expecting it, and was ready to duck and dodge away, but, like a game of chess, the masked boy was reading his opponent two steps ahead, and instead feigned the attack altogether, opting for a swift, high quick into Lucas's other eye, immediately bruising it next. Caught by surprise, he recoiled, yelling out in pain and reaching up to try and soothe the pain somehow with his hand, reflexively reaching into himself for a Lifeup, even knowing that Claus would feel it and stop it right away.
Which he did: the moment he felt Lucas's PSI beginning to well up inside him, he reached forward with his cannon, pointing point-blank at his rival again, making sure that no distraction would cause him to miss this time. With whatever his adversary was using to instantly heal all his wounds, he knew this shot wouldn't kill him outright, but it would lead up to another attack that would very nicely.
Lucas tumbled over the stone, his clothes singed and smoking from the attack while he tried to keep himself upright. All of his senses were firing at once, overloading his perception until he didn't know which way was up. But, half through determination and half through luck, he managed to stay on his feet, still clutching his eye.
His vision was rattled; everything he saw came up double, and his ears were ringing from the shot. But he could still feel, and after a bit, he felt a very familiar sensation from nearby. It felt like the PSI he could sense emitting from Kumatora whenever she used it. He took a chance, opening both his eyes, trying to steady himself as he looked towards the direction the emanation was coming from.
His mind began to race while Claus took the time to fire. Should he heal himself? Put up a shield? Counter with his own? Claus would be too busy concentrating to stop him from doing any of those things, so it wouldn't be too difficult. However, between the panic of watching his brother ready another attack that would definitely use up another memento (at best), and the pain from his entire body from the last point-blank shot and his throbbing eye, he couldn't focus long enough to make a choice-
"Lucas! Look out!" he heard a voice say, just as Claus fired his own PK Love. He looked up, toward his brother, and there, standing between them, was...a silhouette. He couldn't quite make out who it was through his bleary vision.
The person stood between him and Claus, his arms spread wide, willingly using himself as a shield to stop the fierce attack from hitting the boy. Suddenly, a brilliant flash of light illuminated the area, framing around the human shield, and the only other noise to accompany the loud crashes and explosions of the monstrous attack was a man's pained shout.
He couldn't believe it. His father had caught up to them, and, selflessly, he jumped between his two quarrelling boys, taking the whole of the attack for his younger son. His excruciating yell had lasted as long as the attack had: Flint had never felt anything like getting hit by a PK Love before. It felt as though he had fallen face-first into a huge batch of roasted coals. He began to slouch; his elbows began to bend; and there were streams of smoke coming from his armpits and his ankles. But he lived up to his reputation as one of the toughest men in Tazmily by continuing to stand.
Claus had ceased his attack on his foe for the moment, sizing up the friend of his enemy. As an opponent, he had to respect anybody or anything that could withstand such a powerful PK Love full-on, and since he didn't feel any PSI from the man, he couldn't have known or prepared for it. He was very hardy, although from the sad, drooping look of his face, he didn't look like he was going to stand for much longer.
There was a moment of stillness between the three of them. Lucas was far too stunned to form a straight thought: first their mother had brought herself to their sides, trying to get them to stop, and then his father arrived out of nowhere, taking the entire PK Love Omega for him. Flint was staggering on his feet, trying his hardest to stay standing, to keep his eyes up and on his boy behind the heavy mask. He knew he was smouldering, but what mattered more to him was that his older son, the one he had gone into the mountains every day for the past three years to search for, was right in front of him - and beating the hell out of his younger son.
Claus looked into the man's eyes, searching his memory for any recollection of the cowboy in front of him and why he might matter to the situation at hand. But he was drawing a blank: to him, Flint was just some person that was at the very worst place at the very worst time. He protected his opponent from his attack. Well, if this man was so eager to be his pincushion for the sake of his rival,
he would oblige. Claus held nothing back as he let out another powerful PK Love Omega, this time aiming specifically for the cowboy instead of the blonde one sitting behind him. Again, Flint let out a horrible scream of pain, feeling his chest and his legs practically burst into flame as he took the shot for Lucas once more. His clothes began to flake off in pieces from the explosion, leaving his torso bare, exposed to the sheer strength of Claus's PSI.
For Flint, the attack lasted many hours, yet knowing that it was Lucas he was protecting, he stood there for as long as he could, until finally, the attack lifted him straight off his feet just as it ended, flinging him backwards, towards his son.
He hit the hard stone with a thud, the momentum carrying him across the ground, sliding on his back towards Lucas, who quickly crawled towards him. His skin all over his front - his face, his chest, his stomach - were all burnt, and his clothes occasionally sizzled and crackled with dying embers. Lucas wasn't sure what to think, or what to say: his older brother had just detonated their father. The situation was getting awfully dire.
"L-Lucas," Flint said quietly, reaching towards his boy with a shaking, smoking hand.
"I'm here, dad," he answered, already concentrating on himself for some PSI. Although his father's wounds were worse than anything he had ever seen before, he was still going to try his very hardest to make sure Flint pulled through.
Flint had no grip to speak of, but he rested his hand in his son's. He knew what he wanted to say, but his words kept faltering just as he was about to say them. He wanted to say he was sorry for the past three years; he wanted to tell his son that he loved him very much; he wanted to encourage Lucas, believing that if anybody could get through to Claus, it would be him. But he said nothing.
Lucas did what he could, as quickly as he could, knowing that Claus wasn't going to be recovering from his own attack for much longer. Flint didn't look any better, but he had to place his faith in his PSI - just to be safe, though, he quickly reached into his pocket, withdrawing another razor and lipstick, placing them gently in his father's limp hand. "Dad, hold these," he instructed softly, closing his father's fingers for him. "Don't let them go."
He looked back to Claus. He was ready to continue with their battle, and to fulfill his orders: the older cowboy must have known what he was getting into, stepping onto the field of battle and putting himself in harm's way, so he wasn't going to show any mercy. He took aim with his cannon, pointing just between his rival and the man, ready to take them both out at once.
Bravely, Lucas stood up, returning the favour his father had given him by openly taking the shot. It wasn't nearly as deadly or destructive as the PK Love, and even though he was already beaten and bloody, who he was protecting was more than enough incentive to get up and brave the blast. It hurt, and it knocked him off his balance, but at least their dad was safe from the hit.
Claus continued on his relentless offensive; it didn't matter to him what their selfless actions were, just as long as the blonde-haired one was dead at the end. Although he had to concede that he was too drained for another incredible PK Love Omega, he had at least enough left for a smaller one.
Lucas couldn't move; he could feel the attack coming, and he knew it was aimed straight for him, but he couldn't try to dodge out of the way with his father behind him. The best he could try to do was put up a shield and brace himself for the impact, but, addled and hurried, he couldn't piece the shield together in time, and he wound up taking another hit for his father.
This time, though, he couldn't feel the blast as it collided with him, knocking him back down, flat on his back. With all of his other injuries, the wave hit him like a train, and, like what had happened twice before now, his vision began to quickly fade and his breathing began to slow. Just as he began to feel numb and cold all over, he faintly felt a tingling sensation in his pocket, and suddenly, all of his pain had left him once again.
The bruise on his eye disappeared, and the burns from all the shots and from the PSI melted away in an instant. Recharged for the third time that battle, he quickly got back up to protect his dad again, standing up to Claus once more. Although he wasn't really certain how much longer he could do this: even with the mementos rescuing him from the brink, he didn't know how much longer, mentally, he could take the pain.
"Claus," he tried again. He wasn't having a whole lot of luck reaching out to his brother, and even their father couldn't get through to him through that mask. But it was better than just standing there and taking it. "That was our dad, Claus!" he yelled, keeping his eye on his brother as he charged back up to him, his sword by his side once more. "He had spent the last three years looking for you in the mountains. He looked so hard for you, Claus." Swiftly, Claus was upon him once again, thrusting the tip of his sword into Lucas's belly. It wasn't made for thrusting, and likewise it couldn't cut or pierce, but it hurt all the same.
He nearly hunched over in the pain, but knew that if he did, he'd just be opening himself to some more strikes. Inevitably, Claus tried to read his opponent ahead, lowering his shoulder to barge into Lucas's face when he bent forward, but wound up beating into nothing when Lucas quickly stepped aside instead.
"What about Boney?" he quickly asked, grunting out his words through his beaten stomach. "What about our dog? You, me, we love that dog." Lucas pointed to Boney, still lying near-comatose from the electric shock at the beginning of their fight, though like Kumatora, he showed signs of life, occasionally twitching, but he wasn't anywhere near 'okay'. "Do you remember Boney? Remember how we used to play fetch and go digging for things in the front yard?"
Clearly, though, Claus didn't, and simply kept attacking. Spinning counter-clockwise, he managed to get his adversary in the teeth with another high-kick, moving too quickly for Lucas to react.
Just as he was beginning to wind back down from his own attack and follow up with another, their perceptions of time began to slow once more. Lucas could make out the ruffles of his jacket and the rotation of his feet as he spun back around, readying his sword for another swing, as though he was remembering it rather than watching it. Recognizing the pattern, he was certain it all meant that Hinawa was about to try and intervene again - thankfully for his teeth.
She only had that much to say, but it was enough: just as soon as she was done and their time resumed it's normal pace, Claus's feet got tangled up in themselves, and, unprofessionally, he slipped, falling onto his back. Further giving Lucas hope was that once he hit the ground, Claus grunted in pain - the first time since they had met that he had heard the masked boy make any noise at all.
He wasn't about to admit to any weakness, though. That woman's voice and her trickery with his eyes simply caught him off guard, that was all. Claus nimbly rolled back, springing back onto his feet, readying himself for another assault on the still-stunned and surprised Lucas. They were still within arm's reach of each other, which Claus was more than willing to exploit, but Hinawa stepped in a second time right away, before he could fire off another shot.
Claus had his sword drawn, ready to attack Lucas once again, but, remarkably, he simply stopped mid-attack. He kept his grip tight on his weapon, and he kept his deadly, emotionless stare at Lucas, but for some reason, he wasn't attacking. They were standing less than a few feet apart - Claus could have kept tearing into Lucas if he simply swung and fired some more, but he simply didn't.
Lucas's jaw was in a lot of pain from that last kick. But watching his brother go from beating him into the ground again and again, to pausing halfway through his swing, caused him just as much surprise as he was sure Claus was feeling. They simply stood, watching each other, and Claus eventually lowered his weapon, gazing into his rival as a series of memories came flooding into his, and Lucas's, minds. Were they his own? Or was that woman, wherever she was, tricking him with hers? The first memory he ever had was receiving his first order from the great Master Porky, so he doubted the former...but, he was willing to watch what she had to show.
"To think that we would be blessed with two children at once."
"Hmm. Somebody up there really likes us, huh? I'll bet they'll accomplish things together that they couldn't alone."
"I'm sure they'll argue a lot, too."
"Yeah, well, they're boys. It's a fact of life."
"So, what do we want to name them? Do you have anything in mind?"
"Oh, I was thinking naming this one Bertrand, and this other one Cornelius. How does that sound to you?"
"Absolutely awful, hun."
"Well, if you're going to be a critic about it, how about we name the older one...
...and the younger one Lucas?"
"Claus and Lucas? Hmm...it fits them really well. I'm sure they'll love their names."
"And I'm sure we'll mix them up a lot when they get bigger. We'll probably have to be corrected by our own kids when they're old enough."
"I wouldn't doubt that for a second.
And give me an honest answer this time. Don't try to tell me you want them to be the village idiots or something."
"Aw, you know just how to ruin my fun."
"And you're stuck with me."
"And I wouldn't have it any other way. But, hmm...well, I guess I want them
"You know flattery will get you everywhere with me."
"I like to think I learned my lesson early."
"You've been a great student. And in fact, I want them
"All joking aside...that's great. We have a set of goals for our boys to meet when they grow up."
"You know, I just hope that, whatever it is they do and wherever it is they go in life, they see each other through it to the end."
"Seems like a reasonable request. And I'll be right here, with you, watching them grow."
"And you too, hun."
"Claus and Lucas, huh...
At some point during their reminiscing, the others had woken up. Kumatora was first to pull herself back together, just barely enough to concentrate and use some PSI on herself, followed by the others. Flint was revived thanks to the memento Lucas had left him, leaving him fit as a fiddle, but he knew better than to try and intervene a second time. Not that there was a lot to intervene with: for the past few minutes, Lucas and Claus had simply been standing there, watching each other. Not with any intensity, either; one was simply looking into the other. Flint couldn't have begun to guess that they were sharing a special memory with one another.
But, just as suddenly as they entered their trance, they were brought back out of it. Lucas was first, shaking his head lightly from his daze, bringing himself back to the present. Claus continued to stand there, weapons at the ready, watching his brother behind the visor in his helmet. Lucas knew his brother was there. She had brought him back. He didn't imagine the memory they shared just then.
Claus stood uneasily before his brother. He felt a heavy weight on his head, and an exhausted grip in his hands. He looked down, bringing his two hands up, looking at what he was carrying. In his dominant left hand, he held some kind of orange baton, gripping onto it by a steel handle at the base of a long beam of energy. In his right hand was a heavy steel box, with a rounded opening at the tip. He could feel his fingers wrapped around a number of gears and rings, and with every flex, they pulled and resisted while the box hummed and threatened to burst at any given moment.
He remembered where he was, who he was, and what he was. He remembered his name as Claus, son of Flint and Hinawa of Tazmily village, brother of Lucas, grandson of Alec. But he remembered the past three years as well, as Porky's second-in-command; he remembered being the Pigmask leader, and the things he had done, and the crimes he had committed not just against his fellow man and his own family, but against his home as well.
And all too clearly, he remembered the past fifteen or twenty minutes. Lucas's chin was stained with blood when he bit into his own tongue because of him. His cheek was bruised from a recent kick, and his clothes were torn, and his skin was dark from burns he had fired into his own brother. He remembered his father, and how he had tried to stand between them and reason with his long-lost son, and how he simply shot the fully-grown crying man down. Worst of all, he remembered not feeling a thing about it.
He could stop the fight right then and there. He could put down his weapons and take off his mask. He could rejoin his brother and his father, and they could go back to the home he hadn't seen in three long years. But could he really, knowing what he was responsible for?
Lucas had made no movement to try and reach out to his brother again after their reminiscing. He was confident his brother had come back to them, and that he was no longer Porky's robot. Claus was grateful beyond words for his brother's understanding, and he was sure that if he asked, Lucas would have forgiven him for everything...but he just didn't know if he could forgive himself.
He attacked Lucas again.
He wasn't sure why. Maybe to stall for time so he could come to an understanding with himself. Maybe because they were supposed to be fighting anyway, even knowing that they really had no reason to anymore. Whatever the case, though, with his grip loose on his sword, he swung at Lucas, hitting him on the shoulder.
It wasn't so much a strike as it was a tap, though. It confused Lucas: he knew it was his brother that was attacking him now, not the masked boy that worked for Porky, and yet he kept trying to continue their battle, for whatever reason. He could see the quiver on Claus's bottom lip, and he could see the hesitation and the shivering in his body as he barely made the swing at all. He clearly wasn't interested in the fight at all.
"Hit me back," Claus pleaded silently, just barely above a whisper and just barely loud enough for Lucas to hear. He wasn't positive that he had heard what he thought he heard, and he simply stood there while Claus whacked him again with the baton, not even hard enough to push him off-balance. "Please," Claus said, louder, but still softly. "Just hit me back."
The whole fight, he ever broke his promise to not attack his brother a single time, to get Claus away before he could have really died. He was happier than he could say that Claus was Claus again, and that they had beaten Porky's hold over his brother, but now his conflicted brother was still trying to fight him, albeit gently, and he was begging for Lucas to fight back.
What could he have done?
Shutting his eyes as tightly as he could, he balled his right hand into a fist, taking a pathetic swing at Claus. If he couldn't see it, then he hoped he'd be able to forgive himself for any hit he managed to make. He counted himself lucky when he missed, but he also felt sorry, because he hadn't done what his brother had asked him to do.
Claus frequently paused in between strikes, looking hard at his brother. He hadn't seen a mirror in such a long time, on Porky's orders, afraid that if he had seen himself, it might remind him of his humanity. Lucas looked so much more defined after three years. He had a much fuller head of hair, and his jaw was more defined, and his fingers weren't the fat, stubby little things he remembered them to be. They were identical twins, and to look at Lucas and how he had grown, and how he had looked so different from three years ago, was like seeing himself for the first time in his life.
Lucas kept up his own 'assault' on Claus, fighting back against his brother without any of the ferocity he knew he was capable of, thanks to Porky. If his eyes weren't shut, they were looking away - towards the Needle, or his friends, or to the rocky ceiling above, or to the black stone below, but anywhere than not having to watch himself fight his brother. Inevitably, one of his stray fists managed to connect softly in Claus's chest, not even hard enough to knock the wind out of him, but hard enough to tear Lucas apart.
They continued with their back-and-forth, trading blows one after the other in front of their audience. Lucas was confused and despondent over why his brother would ask him to do this, and more often than actually fighting back, he would simply stand there.
Likewise, Claus had a lot on his mind. He had a lot to answer for, he knew. He had done so much, and now, beyond his own reasoning, he was still there, fighting his brother. Hardly to death, like he had been just a few minutes ago, but the fact that he couldn't put down his weapons for some reason was wracking at his heart. He often took to Lucas's strategy of throwing his senses to the wind, trying to spare himself the guilt of having to beat up his twin brother.
For one final moment, time seemed to slow for them again. It wasn't an opportune moment for Lucas: Claus was not in the middle of an attack, and he wasn't about to miss with another lethal blow or anything. Hinawa had simply caught them in between blows, where he and his brother would simply look at each other, trying to appreciate having found their other half after so long.
Hinawa sounded relieved. She sounded proud about her two boys, and, like they had always known her, she sounded gentle and motherly. Lucas's long journey had come to its end, and Claus was himself again. There was nothing they needed to be upset about any longer. Although...her choice of words confused Lucas.
Claus looked around on the spot. He and Lucas were in some dank cave, hundreds of feet below the surface. Behind him was the final Needle, its lustrous glow the only light source for them to battle in. In front of him was his dear brother Lucas, himself. Behind Lucas was his beaten, half-naked father Flint, his clothes torn to shreds from earlier. He looked so relieved over finally having found his boy after so long. Next to his father was their dog - Lucas was right. He loved that dog. Boney was the second-best friend he could have asked for, next to Lucas. And next to Boney was Duster, the village thief, and some girl he had never seen before; odd choice of company, but if they were close friends of Lucas, then they were his close friends, too.
"That was mom, wasn't it?" he asked quietly, searching for their mother. He had just heard her speak to him. There was no mistaking it: their mother had spoken directly to them, but she wasn't anywhere nearby.
Lucas's heart leapt into his throat when he heard his brother speak, without asking him to fight. His brother had really come back to him. "Yeah," he managed to squeak, trying to meet Claus's eyes behind that visor on his mask.
But Claus was beginning to grow confused. "Where is she?"
If Claus had forgotten about the one event that had brought every single thing that had happened for the past three years around...Lucas honestly couldn't blame him. There were some days when he liked to forget that their mother had never left them, and that their father hadn't become so self-destructive over his grief, and that his brother hadn't disappeared off the face of the earth. "She's," he choked, looking to Claus's visor, trying to find his eyes through its dark tint. "She's...not here. She's gone."
Claus didn't need any clarification. Whether he knew the answer all along and he just didn't want to believe it or not, Lucas couldn't tell. Once his brother gave him the honest truth, he finally managed to drop both his weapons. His sword fell out of his hands, the energy making the blade dissipating once it hit the ground, and his cannon smashed against the stone with a heavy thud. With his hands free, he reached up to his helmet, quietly working some of its knobs and gears, and suddenly, it gave out a loud hiss of steam as it let go of his skull, allowing him to easily lift it off his head.
...they were whole again.
He looked just like Lucas had remembered him. They shared a similar cowlick in their hair that wouldn't come out, no matter how hard they washed. His hair was the same fiery red, having grown out quite a bit since he had last seen him. Their complexion was similar, down to the dimples in their smiles. They had the same coloured eyes, and the same body build, and their teeth were just as healthy.
Claus felt the same sense of belonging and brotherly love Lucas was. He had no idea what he was missing the past three years, and in fact he believed he was missing nothing at all, but regardless, after having found it again, there, in that cave, he found his familial placement as Lucas's brother and Flint's son once again.
But, this whole time, he was still heavily wrestling with what he had done when he was with Porky. The animals, and the people, he had tortured, and the habitats he had wilfully destroyed. He had very nearly brought about the end of the world, all for, and because of, Porky. At first, their mother's words had confused him as well, but as he thought more and more about it, he began to realize what she had meant. She wanted Claus to go to her.
Lucas's heart raced when he saw his brother go through the same motions he had seen three times before. Each time, Claus ended by striking him dead-centre with a powerful lightning bolt. At first, he didn't know what was happening: he immediately jumped to the conclusion that Claus was trying to attack him again. But then he remembered the Franklin Badge, still dutifully pinned to his shirt - there was no way Claus would make the same mistake a third time, so he was willingly firing an absurdly powerful bolt of lightning towards him, just so it would be reflected back.
He immediately reached for the badge, intent on ripping it off and tossing it away. He wasn't in terrific shape, but he still had a Magypsy memento or two. He could survive the hit. He had just found his brother again, after three years, please, don't let him do this, don't take him away again, they had just become a family once more, don't
Before he could get his hand over the brass of the badge, the lightning arced powerfully through the air from Claus's hands, aiming straight for Lucas before diverting towards the Franklin Badge at the last second. Like twice before, he felt the recoil from the hit, but not any actual pain. He staggered back from the strike as he was forced to watch the lightning bounce back, covering his brother from head to toe.
Claus didn't yell out in pain from the hit, but the pained look on his face was all Lucas needed to see.
The lightning bolt didn't prove immediately fatal, but no amount of Lifeups was going to save him. Lucas could give him one of the remaining mementos, and in fact he desperately wanted to, but he knew Claus would just do it over again and again if he needed to. He didn't understand why he had done what he did, or why their mother had told him to, and he wasn't sure he wanted to understand, but, as Claus painfully staggered towards his twin brother, he had to trust in their decisions.
With short, heavy steps, Claus stuttered his way towards his brother, quickly opening his arms and embracing him the moment they were close enough. Lucas could feel the static cling of his brother's hair and his clothes once they hugged, and he could feel the natural warmth of his skin against his body. He could feel his brother wrap his arms and hands around his back, pulling him tighter, and he could smell Claus's scent, unforgettable and unique after three long years. They had reunited after so long, and it was already time to say goodbye.
"I'm sorry it turned out like this." Claus's words were broken and quiet; as he slowly slipped off his feet and laid on his back, even Lucas had to lean in closer to actually hear what he was saying. "I'm really happy you could be with me just before the end, Lucas."
Although he was quiet and he was having difficulty speaking, he sounded so casual about it. Like him dying in his brother's arms after a three year absence was no big deal. "Yeah," Lucas replied, his own voice cracking. "I'm glad to see you too, Claus."
"Thanks." They were quickly joined by the others, each gathering around Claus in his final moments. Duster and Kumatora paid their respects from a distance, letting the family their time alone. Flint knelt on his knees at his boy's head, and Boney quickly stepped up to Claus's side, his tail wagging to try and cheer Claus up, and over smelling that familiar smell again after so long, but he understood the meaning of the scenario. "Dad," he said, reaching up with a hand to his father. "I'm sorry I didn't listen to you."
Flint gently took his boy's hand in his own. He held back his tears. He didn't want his boy to see him sad just before he left. He had to be strong for Claus, and Lucas. "It was a while ago," he finally managed to answer. "It's okay."
Claus looked over his family. He was so happy to be with everyone again. He had lost them for so long, and here they were. They were a family once more.
I hope," he coughed. It was nearly time. "We meet again someday, Lucas." His eyes began to glaze over, and his grip in his father's hand was faltering. "Thank you for everything, man. I couldn't have done it without you." Lucas said nothing - it wasn't something he needed to reply to. He just continued to hold his brother in his arms, watching Claus breathe his last, miles away from home. "I'm...I'm sorry."
"I love you," Lucas quickly said. He needed his brother to hear it before he left.
"I love you too."
Then he was gone.
His brother passed away in the light of the final Needle, someplace far away from home, surrounded by his loved ones. Claus was only as old as he was, and not only did he have to watch his brother die, he had to hold him as he did. He was thinking surprisingly few thoughts. Not about the Needle, or the Magypsies, or Porky, or saving the world. Just about his brother.
Flint wasn't taking it any easier than Lucas. He had to watch his son pass away, right before his eyes. He had been denying the truth for three years, and when it finally came true, he had to witness its finality in person. He was told that the greatest tragedy in life was outliving your children, and just as Alec had experienced before him, his heart was torn apart, seeing his sleeping boy lying there on the cold obsidian, in the clothes the Pigmasks had dressed him in. But he still had a son to look after.
You'll forgive him, won't you?" Lucas didn't answer - he was in a far-off place at the moment. He was focused entirely on Claus, and so far as Flint could tell, his words had gone in one ear and completely out of the other.
"He's my brother," Lucas uttered softly, to Flint's surprise, and then he said nothing more. Flint took that to mean that he would.
"This is it, Lucas," he continued, standing back up. "Claus wouldn't pull the Needle, so you could.
Are you ready?" Lucas looked up at his father. The pain and hesitation were clearly evident in his eyes. "I'm not being insensitive. I hope I'm not, anyway. But Hinawa and Claus have entrusted fate entirely to you. They want you to bring the world around with the Dark Dragon - they want you to turn this place into the paradise it's meant to be."
Lucas couldn't help but think about Porky, of all people. It was Porky that had brought them to where they were to begin with. Porky saw the perfection of the Nowhere Islands and aspired to taint it and turn it into something it wasn't. It was because of Porky that he had lost his family.
But at the same time, he knew his father was right. His mother loved and believed in him, even now. His brother had shown him the greatest trust a brother could have in another, be ensuring that it would absolutely be Lucas that pulled the Needle and fulfill the promises he had made to the world by turning it into something great. Could he pull the Needle, knowing the darkness he had in him for Porky Minch? Could he risk everything he ever knew and everyone he ever loved by pulling that Needle?
Let's make the Dark Dragon sealed underground our new friend."
Friends. He looked to Duster and to Kumatora. They didn't have to follow him all over the planet, in search of some shiny sticks in the ground protected by some magical transvestites. But they did, because they trusted him, and they believed in him. They both smiled to him warmly, stepping aside for Lucas, giving him an unobstructed path to the Needle. "Pass your heart onto the Dragon!" insisted Flint, trying to rouse whatever courage Lucas had left. "Pray to it from the bottom of your heart. Ask it to protect all life in this world. I believe in you, Lucas."
"I believe in you, Lucas," echoed Duster. "I've followed you here, and I'll follow you and the Dragon, wherever they take us."
"I believe in you, Lucas," said Kumatora warmly. "It's been a slice. You're a great kid, and if anyone can convince that Dragon to rescue our world, it's you, no doubt."
Between their praises and their reassurance, Lucas didn't need to be doubtful. Ever since the beginning, he had worked to this very spot, with his friends, to do exactly what he was about to do. Porky was gone. He didn't need to feel any more hate.
All eyes were on him as he rested his hands on the tip of the final Needle. He could feel the energy emanating from all around him: from the Needle; from under the ground; and from his friends and family, supporting him in his very final objective. He knew Claus and his mother Hinawa were there, with him, ready to pull the final Needle with him and welcome the dawn of a new world with the Dark Dragon.
He was ready.