She could not have anticipated how quickly such a feeling could become ugly familiarity. The world was broken, and in what little of it had been repaired, there was no place for someone like her.
Her hands would not close naturally around the grip of a tool, and her optics would not tell her what was needed to make a building stand strong. Her limbs quaked to move as they once had, and she had never truly understood how disappointment might cause someone to cling to something beyond reason.
Hadn't understood until reality itself had resolved to teach her, or so it felt when she pulled herself so tightly into the most weather-tight corner of that silent room. Folding arms and legs together in the smallest, closest way that she could manage, resting her head atop them in an attempt to blot out all that she could see. There she waited, in the closest thing to darkness that she could create, and hoped for something to change before she had cause to move again.
Some spark from out of the shadows that her metallic body contained. Some understanding of what she was meant to do in such a situation, how she could reclaim the expressions with which people had once favoured her.
She would have helped, she would have tried, but her body betrayed her in the attempt to become proficient at something new. Nails would slip from fingers that had been bent roughly back into shape, and the harsh, repetitive motions required for most repairs ground painfully in her joints. If there was a way, she couldn't guess what-
The slam of a door swinging wide was enough to make her jolt, drawing more deeply into the shadows, as though she could learn to spontaneously disappear. But as the door resounded in its closing, banishing the light that it had briefly admitted, he was always quick to look to her. Brows furrowed and nostrils flared at the sight of her, but for once, no words of bitter criticism oozed from his lips. Instead he stalked firmly across the room to the table that occupied its corner, surface splintered, two legs uneven. There he deposited that which he'd carried in the crook of one arm, turning abruptly to stomp back toward the door that had admitted him.
Only when it had slammed again in his wake did she dare to move. Slowly, obediently, her limbs folded out of their current arrangement, and she crossed the slats of the makeshift floor in order to inspect what had been left.
Square in shape, irregular in surface. Wood and metal, perhaps the size of her own head. Some manner of tense, immovable mesh at its front, a long, gaping crack in the lowest edge of its back.
It was with a start that she realized – only dust and damage had rendered it unfamiliar to her. Such a thing had been seen before, polished and new, sitting on tables amidst the silk and perfume of salons or banquet halls. Wherever there was a need for unobtrusive music.
The thought seemed to strangle her inside, closing tight over all that she felt and drowning it in desperation. It had been so long since she'd heard, since she'd played. Since there had been any music in her life whatsoever.
It had to be broken beyond use. Whatever time it had taken for the world to deteriorate in such a way, that stalwart radio would have spent wearing down to the point of obsolescence. She couldn't dare to hope, even as she pressed the tip of a silver finger to one of the buttons that lined its top.
The spark was sudden enough to be a surprise, the hint of energy passed between her and the machine to which she tended. It seemed to linger in the hand that she pulled so abruptly away, cradling it in the other as she searched it for any sign of damage.
But there was none to be found, and the hiss of static had invaded that dingy room.
It couldn't be. It had to be broken, no use, no longer needed or working. Because-
The first sweet, meandering notes found their way through the dust-clotted speakers, and every part of her seemed to tremble in answer. Hardly audible, yet it was as beautiful as everything that she remembered, perfect as nights that had been spent spinning beneath the stars. When her limbs had been draped in coloured silk, and she had been loved for what came most naturally.
Slowly, she pulled herself closer to that low table, laying her arms atop the struggling radio and pressing her forehead to its front. Where she could feel nearest to its resilient mechanisms, the parts of it that were most like her.
They were together in that struggle, weren't they? Two useless things in a world that had once cared so much for them. It understood, more than the people who struggled in that meagre settlement ever could.
Yet it was not like her. A machine, absent the spark of life that she claimed from her heart.
The heart that seemed to grind more slowly with each passing day, suspended and coddled by wire deep within her chest. The settlement was faring no better than it had before her arrival, and with each week that passed, the large man seemed more eager to blame her for the fact. Reddened face, fists like hammers, fingers like the grip of shaking vises. He would return hungry and stained with dirt, and when his eyes fell fierce on her, she braced herself against the brunt of his desperate anger.
The reason she endured – if she was truly honest with herself, it was an ugly one. On that course, the settlement would fail soon enough, and none of them would survive without it. She would be the only one who remained when there was no water to be drawn or food to be found.
Then she would take the radio that watched her pain from that uneven table, and she would wander out into the wastes alone. Even if she ground to a halt before finding others who would love her, the next person who found her there would have to be kinder.
The next person wouldn't throw her against the wall that way, spitting desperate curses at her on account of their own struggle. Soon, there would be no thick hands to close around her wrists, hauling her upright only to dash her down again.
There she lay, clicking within as her mechanisms struggled to absorb the shock of the experience. Overhead, he stalked this way and that, spitting broken words at the air as much as at her.
“And she wouldn't be dead,” he hoarsely insisted, “If you would just do what it is a golem's meant to do. What is it? What is it that makes you hate us so much that you could just sit there and watch us die?”
Was that the motive he'd chosen to assign to her in that day's rant? Hate? Not once, in all of those months, had he guessed that she would help if she only knew how. That if he had been patient with her, had let her work within her body's limits, she would have done what she could for the sorry, failing settlement.
But they were far beyond that, weren't they? Even if he had apologized in that minute, had offered her a tool and promised to teach her its use, she would have refused. She'd have cast it aside, the way he did when he wanted to put his hands on her instead, because people like him deserved to die.
Deserved to waste away there, amidst the ruins of a world that had been far more beautiful than they could ever imagine.
“This is the only thing you've ever got to work,” he roared in a tone that sounded nearly giddy in its madness. One hand thrust toward the silent radio in indication. “The one thing, and it's as useless as you are. You're a joke, you-” Words seized in his throat as a new impulse seemed to take him, turning him abruptly toward the radio in full. An intent that could be read in his posture, shoulders squared, hands drawn tight again. When one of those fists was raised high over the defenceless radio, it was confirmed, and impulse took her as well.
Forcing her up from where she had been sprawled across the uneven floor, ignoring the way her body continued to click and groan in protest. With all the momentum she could manage, she threw herself forward, catching hold of his shoulder in a vain attempt to lower that threatening arm.
Even as her hands closed over it, he spun, casting her aside again. Tumbling against the wall that stood alongside the door, closing in on every spasm that her body forced her to endure. As it struggled to set itself to rights, she pushed herself up on hands and knees, turning her head in a vain attempt to sort out the stiffness that had seized her neck.
And there it was – the spark for which she'd waited so long. The knowledge, clear and simple, of what she had to do.
His attention had lingered on her only long enough for the spitting of a curse, and he'd turned back to the radio, no doubt intent on punishing her for what was seen as her cruel inaction. Her body was cooperative enough to bring her back to her feet, and in the closest corner was the tool he had thrown aside upon entering.
For once, her fingers settled tight around its handle, and its weight felt natural in her hand. She knew its heft as she knew her own body, and as his fist was raised high again, her arm lifted in mimicry of the movement.
Never had she brought it down with such strength. Every part of her body, swinging the weight of that tool forward and down against the back of his neck. He was stumbling in response, and it was all of the encouragement that she needed to repeat the motion.
A thin spray of blood was released from where it struck his skull, and for a vital moment, he was down on one knee. She fell on him with abandon, beyond thought, raising and dropping that dented tool with all the strength and speed of repetition that her limbs would allow.
He met the floor on his back, reaching up with hands that no longer seemed to move under his control. She took advantage of that new access to his reddened face and bulging eyes. His hands fell away, and she had to be certain that they would remain flat against the floor.
That face, twisted so often in rage, was no longer recognizable as what it had once been. Blackened and pulverized where it wasn't pooling red, and something in her shoulder was seizing anew, preventing the movement that had dominated her for what felt like the passing of minutes.
He wasn't moving any longer, and never would.
The thought seemed to douse her in that momentary hush, stunning and electrifying her with its implications. Joy and terror met and mingled as the tool, warped beyond its original shape and use, fell from her open fingers.
The word was a far worse jolt, turning her toward the door and the insistent pounding that sounded from beyond it. Too urgent, too persistent – they must have heard.
“Joseph, are you all right?”
No, he wasn't all right. He was broken, and rightfully so, and they wouldn't understand. Even if she could speak to them in the words that they knew, they would never believe what she had to say. She had to leave, had to be gone before the caller grew worried enough to open the door. But where could she-
The evening's orange light rushed in upon her, admitted by the sudden opening of that rickety door. Her optics raced in an attempt to contain and quantify all that it revealed, and framed by its brilliance, two dark silhouettes stood in silent regard of what she had done.
She must have expected it.
The tense metal tie that bound her wrists together, the hastily erected pole to which they were fixed. The length of pipe that struck her side, opening a hairline crack in her surface.
She had to have realized that they wouldn't forgive her. When she'd taken up that tool for the first blow, she had known that it wasn't the start of a new freedom. Rather an end, the only swift escape for which she could have hoped.
Perhaps it was better than fading away. Focusing her vision on their furious faces, she could believe that she had done something to fight for herself. She had fought against something ugly, and the consequences were something that she could accept.
She wasn't a doll, and she had tried. She'd accomplished something for her own relief and release, and though they could try their best to break her, they would not succeed in taking that knowledge away.
It was what she clung to as the pipe fell again, a promise made to herself. Something beneath her surface was seizing even in an attempt at normal operations, and surely it wouldn't be much longer.
Perhaps someone would still find her, someday. They would repair what was left of her, and she would still have a chance at the future that she had imagined. Until then...
The sound was a jolt beyond any she'd experienced before, dashing her thoughts to pieces and drawing her taut against the imprisonment of the pole. Through blurring optics, she could see the surprise that it caused among those who had fallen on her in such anger. The way they pulled back and away, parting before something that she could not twist to see from that angle.
One of their voices was raised in hoarse, furious protest, broken about the edges. “This isn't ou-”
Interrupted before the complaint could be properly voiced, overpowered by the strength of a fierce, feminine voice. Too brash and abrupt to be musical, yet in that moment, it was the sweetest sound.
“You're all screaming for blood,” the new voice observed, drawing gradually closer to her line of vision, “And beating a girl. Somehow I doubt you've got the moral high ground in this situation. Now back off, or I paint what guts you've got across that wall.”
With that final word of warning, the owner of the new voice finally stepped within view. Recognition drew the golem as straight as she could stand against the pole's restraint, waking the memories that she'd almost abandoned in that dismal little village.
She'd seen such people before, little more than a metre in height and as narrow as human children. The one who stalked through that parting crowd, however, was no child. What she wore had been stained by weather and struggle, and her hands were experienced in the grip of the gun that she held against her shoulder. A tangle of vivid red curls could not conceal the horns that curved back above her ears, ridged and black as the unviolated night.
When that newcomer turned to regard her in full, it was with eyes like polished copper, wide in their interest and keen in their feeling. Lips parted to hint at the jagged nature of teeth within, and for the first time in far too long, kind words were spoken in her direction.
“Listen,” the other woman urged her, “It's going to be all right. Can you talk? Can you move?”
The former's answer was known, but the latter – she hadn't dared to pull at that which bound her to the pole, not with so many near and angry. With the stranger's gun holding them at bay, however, she found the courage and opportunity to strain against her bindings.
Weaker than she would have expected, cracking against the persistent force of her body. A quiet, protracted creak heralded the breaking of metal, and her hands fell freely to her sides.
That small triumph was acknowledged by a nod of approval from the newcomer, and more firm, coaxing words. “If there's anything you can't bear to leave here,” her rescuer instructed her, “Grab it now. We're leaving.”
That was enough to prompt renewed protest from one of those who stood closest, who glared with the greatest fervency. “She killed one of our own,” he argued, provoking mutters of assent from those who were not too intimidated by the threat of the gun's twin barrels. “Bludgeoned him to death in cold blood. This won't-”
The voice of the newcomer, the red-headed puck, cut cold through his attempted explanation. “Look at her,” she instructed him with a sideways nod in indication. “Even from this distance, it's obvious. Not all that damage was done today, or all at once. If she killed one of you guttersnipes, I'm guessing she had cause. Now – make so much as a move in her direction, and I blow out your knee.”
Leaving. Only when the other woman spoke with such strength in her defence did the golem dare to believe it. To be quit of that place and in safe company – it was more than she could have hoped for in those long, lonely weeks. And it was encouragement enough to set her in motion, testing the limits of her damaged body with a few slow steps. When it failed to fail her, she quickened her pace, and those who had called for her destruction parted before her.
The newcomer moved to stride at her side, scanning the crowd with those narrowed, fascinating eyes. The golem knew her path, crossing the length of that sorry town to the house where she had been confined. Like leading a parade, far too aware of those who followed close behind. Those who would still see her shattered if an opportunity presented itself.
When the door was reached, the newcomer nodded for her to proceed. “Get whatever it is you need,” she ordered again, gesturing in vague acknowledgement of those who lingered close. “I'll keep an eye on them.”
She answered with a nod of her own, pushing aside the door that had admitted the man's hated figure so many times before. Amidst fury and vengeance, no one had bothered to move him, and her gaze fell cold upon the blood that congealed around his head. Her steps carried her across his stiffening form, and her arms were brought tight around the waiting radio.
With that cradled close to her chest, she turned to repeat her steps in reverse. Across his defeated body, to the door. Out into what little remained of the light, greeted by a dozen frowning faces and the only one who held them at bay.
The puck's attention trailed from the radio to her face, and another nod of affirmation was offered. “All right,” she repeated, firm and encouraging. “Just stay close. We're both walking out of here.” A sentence delivered more loudly, a clear challenge to those who stood nearby.
And more of an outrage than one of them was willing to accept. As he stepped forward, lips parted to protest, the gun bucked against the grip of its mistress. His belly was laid open, blossoming red, and the light in his eyes began to dim before he met the ground.
When the focus of that alarmed hush came to rest on the puck, she answered it with little more than a shrug. “My aim was off,” she dismissed the gun's echoing report and its ugly result. “Anyone else want to try? Might be more accurate next time.”
It didn't look as though any of the settlement's remaining residents were eager to gamble on that possibility. Silence reigned, and as though in a dream, the golem found herself walking toward that narrow gap in its makeshift walls. Her heart seemed to spin desperately at the thought, the possibility, the slim hope that was swiftly becoming a reality. The rest of her was held in quiet suspense as she preceded her rescuer through the opening, and slowly, her optics swept across the line of fiery colour that graced the horizon.
Fields of rubble and ruin, a world laid to waste. Yet for the first time, looking upon it gave her hope.
“Well, that was an ugly business,” her rescuer observed as she stepped through the narrow gap and continued to stride ahead. Turning to face the golem from three paces beyond, that gun finally lowered and her jaw split in a wide, welcoming grin. “I'm Iha,” she introduced herself, casting another of those sideways nods in indication of the shattered world at large. “Seems like we've both got a knack for finding ourselves in trouble – what say we go see what sort we can dig up together?”