I | II | III | IV | V | Interlude I | VI | Interlude II | VII | Interlude III | VIII (First Half, Second Half) | IX
The first thing Ky noticed upon waking was the feeling of his cheek squashed against sixteen inches of compact human arm. Not really the most convenient way to lie down, the sort of hard-soft sensation and associated cricks one would get by sleeping on a pile of steaks, but it was better than his bedroll anyway, warm and alive and, in the spot right by his temple, the small bump of veins and the softly creasing skin of the elbow.
For a few seconds, he didn't move, held there by the oddly focused sensation of muscles bulging in time with the pounding in his skull and the absolute certainty that if he tried to do more than that, he'd throw up. He wasn't sure what he had done to be in danger of throwing up, but if it involved Sol making himself comfortable like that, stretching out on the cot full length to settle in for the wait, it had to be something big. Well, bigger than usual.
It was good to know that nothing was probably on fire, otherwise Sol wouldn't be here waiting for him to wake up, or perhaps things were on fire and Sol had simply stopped caring. He really couldn't tell, and couldn't quite summon the energy necessary for leaping up and getting on top of things again. It didn't bother him as much as it otherwise might have, as it should have, cushioned as he was between the dull roar of the blood in his own ears, and, at his back, wedged against the edge of the cot, the reassuring wall of ill temper manifest.
He'd been here before, in this position, in the space that considerations of circumstances and morale couldn't quite reach, where everything was suffused with a strange sense of tranquility, where he was allowed to spend a few uninterrupted moments being not actually conscious in the crook of Sol's arm. Ky drew a breath, deep enough that the rush of air seemed like a shock, and felt Sol stir, no doubt aware of his waking long before he himself had been, but not getting ready — thankfully not getting ready — to extricate himself. It gave Ky a few moments to practice breathing again.
Sol was going to want his arm back some time, though, even if Ky didn't feel inclined to relinquish it just yet. Five more minutes of pins and needles stiffness wouldn't kill him, not after spending the better part of— hours? days? maybe not yet a week, or at least, hopefully not— as his personal replacement bedding. Still, maybe it was about time he made an effort. He couldn't keep ignoring the circumstances indefinitely, the fact that if he was out of commission like this, in here, with Sol acting as the final detour sign for anyone adamant enough to get past a whole line of other people to see him, then he was worrying the troops. And before he could get a status report, never mind go back outside to do damage control, it would be necessary to open his eyes first.
He tried, and quickly found out that was a bad idea, the visual impression of the beige tent fabric thrusting into his brain like a knife, bathed in streams of light that shouldn't have been there.
"You smell like half dead things."
The rough whisper slipped in between two beats of his pulse, an oddly considerate gesture when anything above that volume would have felt like a thunderstorm tearing through his inner ear. A puff of breath tickled the nape of his neck, and he thought Sol might be inhaling, snuffling like a dog as if to lend more credence to the insult.
"What..." Ky paused, groping for the words. "...what does half dead smell like?"
A huff-snort, this time closer to the side of his face, and he relished the wisp of relative coolness it brought. Moving very carefully, he inched closer to the bulge of the biceps without upsetting the position of his head too much, but found there really wasn't any 'closer' or 'further' when it came to the source of the heat.
"Are... are we on fire?"
Another sound of amusement, and then the temperature dropped abruptly, plunging a good five or six degrees, and he had to close his eyes again.
"You were giving me frostbite until ten minutes ago." A slight shift, tilting his head more to the left, and Ky had to swallow the bile rising in his throat. Sol reached around him to brush over his face, the rough fingerpads lighting sparks against his over-sensitized skin. "And now I could fry an egg on your forehead. For your information, this is not normal."
"I... know, I..."
...just can't concentrate on ending that sentence.
"Could've fooled me," Sol said, more than able to pack a lifetime's amount of sarcastic derision into a voice that was barely louder than his breath. "Just because you can doesn't mean you should. Can and should, Kiske. For a smart kid, you sure have problems with simple words."
Another shift, and then a small cup was nudging against his lips, the tang of salt-water filling his mouth and wetting his throat. Funny, he hadn't even realized that his tongue was feeling like a stretched-out piece of leather. He took slow sips, the humiliation of being fed like a sick child shrinking against the looming shadow of the bigger question of what had happened, the reason he was lying here like a piece of driftwood in the first place. He couldn't remember anything clearly, all jumbled images and impressions rolling in and out of focus like a game of marbles on a flat, grooveless surface.
Fire, there had been fire, and red lights and screaming... the tang of leaking coolant in the air... valves popping and spraying their scalding-hot steam all over the engine room— airship, they'd been on an airship, and the engine had—
"Where's the ship?!" Jerking upright brought on a wave of nausea, the fierce rocking of the world momentarily overriding the blinding thought of the entire transporter gone, a hundred men plus mounts dead or bleeding out in the infirmary.
"Easy there, boyscout," Sol murmured, pushing him back down before his heaving stomach could demand its due. "Stuck arse-up outside camp. You ran out of juice some five minutes before touchdown."
Sol's hand on his chest kept him from lurching fully upright again, pushing him back down more insistently this time around. "Crew's fine, plus or minus some head injury that makes about half of them think you're Jesus. Not that that's new or anything."
Closing his eyes tightly, Ky tried to counteract his graying vision and calm his pulse down to a more bearable rate. How foolish to forget himself like this, half-panicked at his own inability to separate memory from fabrication — the ship plowing into the ground nose-first, the fuselage splintering and going up in flames, and Sol being here, him being here meant nothing, not when he knew that the other man could lift him up as if he weighed nothing, not when it was so easy to recall the sight of large, black wings...
"...How long was I out?"
"Does it matter?" Sol said somewhere above and to the right of him, and then the refilled cup was pushed against his lips before he could think to protest. "Drink. Can't have you kicking the bucket on my watch, the medics would skin me alive."
If he'd had the mind to spare, Ky would have rolled his eyes. Instead, most of his attention was focused on swallowing, feeling the salty burn in the back of his throat. "Yes," he managed at last, fully aware that he was failing to impress Sol with his authority even more than usual. "How long."
Sol shrugged. "Day, day-and-a-half."
"What?! Why didn't you—"
"Wake you? How many fingers am I holding up, kid."
Squinting, Ky tried to focus on the hand waggling in front of him, the bright, wavering aura making his eyes water. It wasn't truly there, he knew, just a figment conjured by his over-taxed mind and body, but its constant swaying was making his stomach roil again.
"Four," he moaned, throwing an arm across his face to block out the persistent play of light. "Now go away. Both of you."
There was a pause, indicating that the real answer had been one or five or anything in between, and he didn't need to look to know that Sol was staring at him crossly, muttering something about stupid fucking kids and their stupid fucking stubbornness playing stupid fucking battery for a stupid fucking ship, before the cup returned and he was once more thoroughly occupied with swallowing.
Technically, Sol was right, he should have been in the infirmary receiving an energy transfer from a support caster to get back on his feet, but the idea of lying there, in a space not his own, weak and confused and shot up on painkillers courtesy of a well-meaning doctor, wasn't at all a pleasant thought. Better to be here, where recovery would take more time but where he at least felt more foolish than vulnerable, and Sol knew him well enough not to push any drugs on him, could glare anyone into submission who tried.
Sometimes, he wondered how Commander Undersen had managed, and whether it made him a worse leader not to be able to go it alone — or to be able, but to simply not want to now that he knew what it was like to have someone at his side, someone so steadfastly unimpressed that formalities and reassurances, even feeling torn up over it, ceased to be of importance entirely. Maybe it did, and yet, if given the choice, he'd rather grasp this with both hands than let it go.
"Your lieutenant sent word, by the way," Sol said, pouring more salt water. "Made it to Berlin okay. He'll see about pitching another airship our way."
"Good... that's good."
"If all goes well, we'll be gone before the inquisition ever gets here."
Ky frowned. "Inquisition? What on Earth—"
With a shrug, Sol held the cup out to him again, and Ky found that he was now able to hold it without shaking too badly. Amazing what a bit of convoluted Order business could do for his head.
"They palmed a prototype off on us." Sol was frowning, staring straight ahead.
"Are you sure."
"Sure as I can be without checking it for myself. Sent a couple of the engineers here to take a look at what's left of the engine room, but I won't be surprised if they find the damn thing looks a lot different under the hood than what we're used to. Pretty clever, sticking it in one of the old hulls."
Wiping his mouth, Ky swore softly.
The practice wasn't new or even particularly uncommon, had been going on for longer than he'd been alive — gunners being outfitted with magic rifles that would explode in their hands, detection equipment that, in Sol's words, wouldn't be able to detect the boot kicking it off a cliff, maps so ill-conceived as to be nearly useless, medicine where one could never tell whether ten cc would kill or save a man, or turn out to be so diluted they could pass for water. He had seen it all somewhere along the line, knew that even though he checked and double-checked, there was never any telling when some supplier or another became stupid or greedy or desperate, when the resources ran out and they would just send along whatever half-baked, half-finished thing they had been able to hash out rather than owning up and causing a panic or endangering their contract with the Order.
In a way, Ky thought, they all had to be grateful it had taken the builders this long to start cutting corners on the airships.
A fragment of memory rose up, disjointed and uncertain, of the reactor amidst the flames, the huge machine creaking and tearing at the seams, and so close to it, he had sensed the flow of magic, had been able to feel—
"I think they might have done something to the float stone," he said slowly. "When I was in there, it felt strange... like the magic was all wrong..."
Sol looked at him sharply. "Wrong how?"
"I'm not sure... just odd, kind of... thick. Like goo." He paused, searching for a better expression for the oil-slick sensation of the current, but finding none. "Maybe they were trying for more power, maybe trying for... who knows. A reasonably skilled mage should be able to pick up on it, I think."
"Worth passing along, at any rate. I'll tell your fanboy next time he radios in."
Ky briefly contemplated an objection to the moniker, but settled for a sigh. Then, another thought occurred to him. "We'd better take along the crew. And anyone else who got a good look at the interior. If they're really sending the inquisitors to retrieve this thing..."
Sol nodded in agreement, versed enough in the ways of the upholders of justice and morals, who would rather seek to suppress any knowledge of an experimental airship that was prone to catastrophic failure than risk inspiring public distrust in the Order's decision-making.
From a certain angle, Ky even understood it, more than used to treading the line between truth and deception. The further one went down the chain of command, the more people were out of the loop, until one hit the common ranks full of soldiers who were scarcely literate and struggling to face the nightmare of battle every day, who could do nothing but seek solace in the hope that their leaders would at least not put them in danger needlessly. To burden such people with the intricacies of bureaucracy, the pettiness, the in-fighting, the contradictions, was simply more than they would be able to bear. And yet, the censorship invoked by the inquisitors was absolute, with little room for shades of gray, certainly not enough room to acknowledge any failings on the Order's part sub rosa among the high-ranking officers. It was better to dodge where he could, and seek alternative means of keeping people out of harm's way.
"I should draw up the paperwork, then," he murmured, but found himself meeting a physical resistance deep within, his body exhausted far past capacity and only his mind chafing against the unauthorized command to rest.
Now that the shock of waking up with his memories out of order was subsiding, and strategizing was taking on a pleasant kind of familiarity, the feeling of serenity was starting to trickle back in, too, making him relax more than he meant to. He wasn't even aware that he was twining his fingers through the hair at the nape of Sol's neck, an automatic gesture born from many nights of sharing a bed, until Sol hummed low in his throat, moving closer.
"I'm starting to think I should knock you out more often, if this is the result."
"You'd take advantage of an injured man?" Ky asked mildly.
"Oh, so you do admit you're laid up."
"Sir? Sir Badguy?"
The quiet call pulled him out of his thoughts just in time to catch Sol's hackles rising at the honorific, steadfastly refusing its weight. Then, he realized that the voice was in fact a whole lot closer than he'd initially thought, the soldier nervously shuffling his feet in the small antechamber.
Ky flushed, at once aware of how their position had to look to an entrant, sharing a one-man cot with his shirt undone and Sol half-naked, one arm encircling his waist, before he realized that he needn't have bothered — the slight sway of the inner curtain revealing that the soldier had entered the tent backwards, determined not to disturb anyone's privacy. Sol, who wouldn't have felt the slightest bit awkward about being caught buck-naked and dancing on a table, made no move to let go.
"We've completed a first sweep of the engine deck, sir. The main pistons are practically worn through... I've never seen anything like it. Wouldn't be surprised if the whole thing just gave out mid-air, sir, but maybe you ought to take a look at 'em yourself."
"Hm. Be there in ten," Sol said. "And you better tell your team to start packing. We'll need a few extra hands in Berlin."
The soldier hesitated. "...Understood. Um. Sir? Is... I mean, uh, is the Commander going to be all right, sir?"
"The Commander is doing just fine, soldier," Ky said, cautiously raising himself on his elbows and smiling at the clink of buckles as the man snapped to attention, still facing the other way. "Thank you for your concern."
"Sir! My apologies, sir, I didn't know you were—"
"It's fine, please don't worry about it. I'll be up shortly."
"Sir! Yes, sir!" Once again, the buckles chimed, followed by the rustling of the outer flap as the soldier exited.
Flexing his arms, Sol sat up and started fishing around for his shirt. "You will, of course, do no such thing."
This time, Ky hit the pillow with a thump, the instinctive jolt upon being restrained barely able to raise the hairs on Sol's forearm. Grinning, Sol leaned down, intent on forcing his glare to become slightly cross-eyed. "You know, if you're crazy enough to play energizer bunny for a fucking ship, how about you do something else crazy and stay. in. bed."
"I have to talk to the crew, at least," Ky said, treated to the odd sight of the unreal bands of light flaring up along Sol's eyelashes whenever he blinked.
"Don't make me carry you to the infirmary," Sol murmured, pushing closer until they were almost nose to nose. "I'll do it. Ass-first."
"Threatening a superior officer?" Ky raised an eyebrow, though he was pretty sure it didn't look at all suave, more a bleary-eyed, sleep-rumpled approximation of it.
For a moment, Sol's smirk was electric. "Hmm. Court martial's gonna have to wait."
And before Ky could find a comeback to that, Sol delivered a swift nip to the tip of his nose.
His undignified yelp only elicited a smirk in response, Sol forever childish enough to derive satisfaction from derailing an argument by pulling the rug out from under his feet, and by the time Ky managed to wrestle the blanket into some semblance of submission, the other man had already swaggered outside. Sighing, Ky eased himself back down, rubbing at his burning cheeks.
Stupid. No wonder he calls you kid. Now get out there and win the war.
He closed his eyes, pressed his palms against them, fatigue rushing in on the heels of embarrassment and determination, doggedly refusing to stay down. He couldn't seem to manage more than these little bursts of activity, his head clearer but considering the task of hunting down his boots and his sword and chasing after Sol a feat. Still, there were other things he could do, other things that were just as necessary. Reaching out, Ky felt around for the chair he always kept close at hand, stacked with a clipboard and emergency stationery for just such an occasion, and found it missing from the tent entirely.
The giggle burst forward almost of its own accord, incredulity mixing with exasperation and the realization that Sol knew him all too well, that he was lucky if the chair was just stuck in a tree somewhere and not a smoldering heap of wood behind his tent, as Sol thought absolutely nothing of moderation when it came to making his points. In a way, it was kind of nice to have his health considered worth incinerating a chair over, and it wasn't as if he couldn't get up, retrieve the necessary items from his desk...
Taking a breath, Ky wormed his way back inside the blanket to ward off the sudden chill, his body temperature still flipping from hot to cold at the drop of a hat. In a minute... he'd get up and get to work in a minute, just this once inclined to enjoy the lingering heat trapped under the covers, oddly content with the knowledge that he might have a little while before he would become absolutely indispensable again, that Sol was for whatever reason willing to man the ship until then...
Watch it, you're getting complacent.
He nodded to himself, fully aware that it was the truth, that Sol had lured part of him away from his duty, gotten him started on shaving off a few minutes here and there for something nice to add to his day. Small things, insignificant things like getting a rub for his bruised back or butting heads over something completely superficial just for the pleasure of a good fight, but they took up time he could have spent in other, more useful ways. Still, it would have been foolish to resent Sol for it, when it had been his own decision, when it was so nice...
Just because it's nice doesn't mean you can... this army is still your responsibility, and yours /alone/...
Again, there would have been no way to refute the statement, nothing to say to it except "I know," but by then, Ky was already drifting away from his inner critics, sliding off into a deep, dreamless sleep.
When he woke again, it wasn't due to a noise or the unrest of fever, but simply due to his body deciding that he had slept enough. For a few moments, Ky simply lay there, not sure of the where or the when, but recalling that feeling of contentment, bone-deep and sure, the last vestiges of the dream — for it had been a dream, a recollection lifted from the depths of his consciousness by longing, the wish to return to a different time— a time that wasn't necessarily easier or simpler, but which stood in stark relief against the certainty that regardless of what they thought or wondered or didn't know about each other, between the sphere he kept close to himself and the sphere Sol guarded as his own, there lay scattered the handful of important things that both of them understood.
Or at least, that was what it had seemed like back then.
Right here and now, in the privacy of his own mind, Ky could acknowledge the thing for which he had lacked the words, the thing that never bore thinking about because it had both been far down his list of priorities, as anything to do with his own life had been in the war, and far larger than he'd cared to admit, perhaps larger than either of them had cared to admit. He still didn't have the proper words for it, wasn't even sure they were necessary so long as he could recognize the cues, but a facet of it had been safety; a part of him had enjoyed the feeling of security, of having something to return to, had felt happy to offer protection in return — not just for the world he loved, with all its countless people, but something smaller and more personal, something that cursed like a sailor and sent him rolling down muddy hillsides, something that buried its face against his throat and tensed whenever his questing fingers met the bulk of the headband.
In hindsight, it was almost funny how much the thing stood out, drawing his eye against his will, flashy, cracked, unwieldy, and entirely too much like its wearer. A barrier he couldn't touch, holding off everything he wasn't supposed to see.
And even knowing what lay beneath hadn't answered any of his questions, seeing the jagged red glow of butterfly wings etched into skin, familiar and terrible, and realizing the enormity of all the things he didn't know...
I wanted to... even if you didn't want me to... I wanted to know, so I could do for you what you did for me.
Inwardly, Ky shook his head, staving off the chorus of questions with one hand, ever so ready to come spilling back out whenever his thoughts took off down this road. No use wishing for things to be different, no use wondering about what he couldn't change. One of these days, he was going to find the man, ignore all the stupid bullshit meant solely to bait him, and not stop zapping him until he got some real answers. There were days when it was so very tempting to just drop what he was doing to go chase the idiot down, not to rest until he got him, but that was a thought that existed outside of duties and obligations, outside his responsibilities and his position, in a pretend-world that revolved around only two of them, making their own rules.
For now, there were too many other things that needed his attention, things less selfish and more immediate. Drawing a breath, Ky braced himself, and allowed the real world to flood in.
The first thing he noticed was the muted play of sunlight on the blankets, and past a set of windows, the lush green of grass, blossoms drifting among the gravel paths and trailing along the edge of the fountains. A landscape he knew well, though not exactly from this angle, one he had strolled through on more than one occasion to gather his thoughts or have lunch in the shade of the trees — he was looking out at the Jardin du Luxembourg.
Blinking in confusion, Ky dug through his memory, but found he couldn't trace anything that had happened after he'd let the shield fall. Just fragments, light-hazy flashes of people shouting, of the lieutenant's slack, ashen face, his own hands, sticky with blood, and he didn't know, just didn't know whether the lieutenant had even been alive at that point—
He jerked upright, ignoring the protest from his sleep-heavy limbs, just intent on getting out of here, on finding someone who would be able to tell him—
The cry took him by surprise, nearly sent him slipping to the floor still half-tangled in the blanket, his head protesting loudly at the sudden upheaval of its position. He caught himself on the headboard, shivering against the sudden rush of hot-cold sweat, and by the time the Earth stopped trying to throw him off, he found his arm gripped by frantic, fluttering fingers.
"Heavens, sir! You shouldn't even be up yet!"
He squinted, instinct registering the tugging and pulling as nonthreatening before his vision cleared enough to give him a face to the voice, a short, young girl in the blue-rimmed cap and apron of an apprenticing nurse doing her best to usher him back into bed and trying not to look like she was manhandling the savior of humanity.
"Sir Kiske, please. You must rest."
"'m not a sir anymore."
The awkward pause made him realize how stupid and nonsensical that must have sounded, his long-since internalized response to any type of fussing, but it seemed to help the cause somewhat, because the nurse gave a nervous titter.
"Well, um... we don't know what else to call you."
"It's... it's fine, I..."
Ky tried for a smile, was sure that it came out looking more woozy than friendly, but things were slowly starting to click into place. Someone, perhaps Jarre, had had the good sense to get him to the police headquarter's own hospital wing, away from prying eyes, and if this was the ward for the magic patients, then the girl — fifteen, maybe sixteen, and by the heavens, if he had really been that out of it, why had they sent someone so frail to look after him — had probably been in fear of her life.
There was another reason the Order mages had had several well-trained comrades to watch over them; getting a drained magic user to the infirmary was the easy part compared to stopping them from going on a delirious rampage, their body caught in the throes of drugs or backlash from the energy transfer. The story of the one ice mage who had managed to kill himself and thirteen other people by freezing the entire medical tent was a standard cautionary tale for every squad not to let compassion stop them from knocking out their mages in any way they knew.
For them to send a tiny, untrained girl to care for a high-level lightning user... he'd really have to talk to someone about that, once he had his wits back. At the moment, it would have to suffice to make himself appear as harmless as possible, allowing himself to be guided back against the pillow.
"...I'm sorry for startling you, miss."
"No, no. It's quite all right." She flushed, making an attempt to tuck in the covers. "I shouldn't be... I just didn't think... you weren't supposed to wake for a while yet, is all. Um. I... I better go fetch the doctor..."
Before Ky could reply, or perhaps find the presence of mind to ask her about Andreyev, she had vanished from his side and slipped out the door, her quickening footsteps fading down the hallway. Pressing his palms against his temple, he tried to clear his mind again, pushing any worry for the lieutenant or the nurse away and focusing solely on the drill.
Every mage learned the wake-up routine as part of his training, the best way to check himself for injuries and ask the relevant questions. He was in an unfamiliar room with no memory of how he'd gotten there, for the moment unguarded though not unsupervised. A plain white bed, a washbasin and a set of towels, a wooden crucifix over the door. Standard issue, nothing to worry about here.
Turning his senses inward, he listened for the flow of magic, the intricate pattern that belonged to him alone, now healthy and whole again; if he had received a magic transfer, it had been some time ago, long enough for the supporter's energy signature to change and become entirely his own.
Safe to use.
Rolling his shoulders, Ky called forth the lightning, a flicker jumping between his fingertips that was more a swarm of blue-green fireflies than a spell, and immediately felt something in the room surge in warning. Wards, they had warded the place against patients going berserk, of course, and if he tried to do anything stronger than that, he would raise an alarm and most likely activate a dampening field — nothing a skilled magic user couldn't break out of, but it demanded concentration, which was something an out-of-control patient wouldn't have.
The sparks collected into a spinning whorl, slowly wavering to form a small star. Tricks he had taught himself long ago, when he had still barely been tall enough to peer across the counter in the Order mess hall, small fancies to keep practicing magic even while bent over a book, or a map, or a bowl of stew. The star stretched to become a vine, curling upwards along his wrist, leaves fluctuating in and out of existence along its length. Technically, the children had been forbidden from experimenting outside of training, most of them too unstable to try, but Ky had found it to come easy and naturally, and had seen no harm in trying as long as he was alone. Sculpting magic required far more control than just gathering it up and hurling it at a target, and lightning was the most fickle of them all, a type that was not content to stay in any given form, constantly straining against the shape it was in.
The vine uncurled from his wrist, slipping free to start looping in on itself, becoming a tangle of rotating rings. Ky nodded to himself and closed his hand around the magic, felt it puff out of existence as he did so. If he had the mental coordination for conjuring complex shapes, it meant he could rely on it for bigger and more dangerous spells, trust himself to make decisions without being influenced by the side effects of the supporter's magic.
With things as they were, he was going to need all he had soon enough, depending on how long he'd been out, how well things had worked out in the end. He remembered giving orders, eternally thankful for whatever it was that allowed him to stay lucid enough to keep thinking even while half-conscious, to realize that, no matter if he survived or not, no matter if Andreyev survived, they were now in the middle of an international crisis.
'International crisis,' as if. Just call it a war, because that's what it's going to boil down to. You know they've got more than enough hardliners itching for action against Zepp. The only thing that ever held them back was the Gears, and these scientists just gave them the perfect excuse... /you/.
Insanity, all of it, to even think there were people ready to plunge headlong into another feud, that two hundred years of suffering somehow hadn't helped to quell avarice and hatred even a little — take Zepp, destroy Zepp, what did it matter to pit human lives against human lives, and if there had ever been any doubt, someone from the Flying City was just as eager for conflict, whoever was backing the good Doctor Meirth was just as interested in fanning the flames.
A new war, in the name of the Heavenly Kingdom.
Closing his eyes, Ky shuddered, something in him shying away from the thought of taking up arms against his fellow man.
Who are we, Lord, that we cite Your name for our strifes and call them just?
Shaking his head, he pushed himself upright again. Lying here and pondering all the sordid possibilities wasn't going to change anything. Someone had left a change of clothes folded on a chair beside the washbasin, and it was only now that he realized he'd been in his underwear the entire time, the old uniform most likely ruined beyond repair. If someone had thought to bring him something to wear, maybe things weren't quite as bad as he dreaded yet, since the small, mundane gestures were the first to go in a time of conflict and upheaval.
Splashing a few handfuls of water on his face and neck, he shook out the shirt, and found it to be the same as the spare he kept in his office, which meant Bernard or Jarre had been here in the interim, had found the time to be here.
I think when this is over, I owe a few people a drink.
What lay underneath his pants, though, half-crushed under the folds of fabric, didn't really look like it came from either of the two men, a handful of white marguerites that looked like they had been hastily pilfered from the flowerbeds outside. It didn't take much guesswork to figure out who had put them there; used as Ky had become to finding flowers on the doorstep to his own home, and this was a maiden's gift through and through, picked and smuggled inside while she was on break. Her being in the room when he awoke had likely been nothing more than an accident.
Scooping them up, Ky let them sink into the basin, inexplicably glad for her girlish whimsy, dangerous though it had been, a reminder of everything that was at stake, and an encouragement at the same time. He really ought to thank her, he thought, if he got the time.
"—don't care what you were doing in that room, Marianne." The door was pushed open again, revealing the same gray-haired doctor who had directed the medical team at ground zero, all flaring white coat and resolute temper. She had her elbow resting on the handle, both hands occupied with carrying a tray, and was turning back to argue with someone out of sight. "Honestly, you girls these days... this isn't fairy tales, this is medicine. You don't just drop in on a level four lightning user, you come to me."
Now that he wasn't devoting most of his resources to staying vertical and being worried sick about his lieutenant, Ky recognized her, one of the Order's veteran doctors, one of the few women, who had spent most of her life stitching soldiers back together and had decided that the change in uniform wouldn't make her task any different. They hadn't spoken much, little more than a few words of greeting on the way to and from a job, but he'd read her file, seen her work, and that was all he needed. Few military doctors were especially friendly; surrounded as they were by rowdy soldiers and unstable magic patients, being imposing and authoritative was more important than holding hands. Most of them were generals in their own right, commanding their staff as they would a small army.
"—act like you're in a hospital. Are we clear?"
"Crystal, ma'am," squeaked a voice he recognized as belonging to the nurse who had been here earlier.
"Good. Now go fetch that Bernard fellow or whoever. They'll want to know."
With a curt nod, the doctor pulled the door closed, and turned her piercing gaze on him.
"Doctor Perrine," Ky inclined his head. "I'm glad to see you well."
"And I'm not glad to see you out of bed, Sir Kiske," she said, gesturing with her tray for him to sit back down.
"I'm fine now, doctor. Thank you for taking care of me all this time."
"Oh, what hogwash. A patient telling the doctor he's fine. Well, not on my watch. We all took the Kiske oath back in the war." Perrine placed the tray on the small nightstand and fished a trumpet-shaped stethoscope out of her coat pocket. "Go on, go sit down. You know how it goes, sir."
"Pardon?" Ky asked, slightly bemused to have an oath named after him without his knowledge, and seated himself on the edge of the bed.
"'I swear by God and all the heavenly angels that I will not listen if the Commander says he's fine, and if I in any way value his health and well-being, I will bribe his Big Angry Shadow with a sixpack,'" she recited, a smirk curling at the corners of her mouth.
Ky couldn't help the grin, not sure if she was kidding or not, but at the same time all too easily able to envision the soldiers pooling money for that sort of thing, and... he hadn't been that bad, had he?
Doctor Perrine gave him a look. "You were one hell of a patient to care for. Now don't talk."
The stethoscope was cold against his bare skin, but there was little sense in objecting to the procedure as the doctor shuffled from side to side, checking his pulse, his breathing, his temperature, shining a light into his eyes and concluding the routine with a probing spell. Ky couldn't suppress the shiver as it swept over him, his own aura trembling upon contact like the surface of a pond in the wind — proof that he hadn't fully recovered yet, if such a simple thing could upset his balance so much.
The doctor narrowed her eyes.
"You're still suffering from drain symptoms," she said, turning to her tray, and began mixing medicines from various bottles. "I'd much prefer you stay here. You've put three of my best supporters on vacation, you know. Here."
A glass was shoved into his hands, and Ky frowned. "No. No drugs, doctor. I can't afford—"
"This isn't a drug, Commander, this is just a salt and nutrient cocktail to keep you on your feet. I know you're going to try and march out this door the minute my back is turned, and if I had any common sense at all, I'd tie you to the bed. It's a miracle we're even having this conversation. Honestly, for the longest time, I was more worried for you than your lieutenant."
Ky swallowed. "How— how is he? He's here, isn't he?"
"What he needs right now is rest. Lots and lots of rest. As do you, I might add, but I can already guess how this is going to go."
When she noticed his anxious stare, she sighed, her expression softening a little. "He will be fine, Commander. I have no idea what on Earth happened down there, but whatever you did... you saved his life." A slight smile. "Now, finish that up, if you want to be around for him to thank you for it."
Obediently, Ky downed the glass, trying not to grimace at the bitter, fish-oil taste of the concoction. "Am I free to go, then, doctor?"
Slowly, she nodded, though her sour look suggested she had been wishing to find something wrong enough to keep him confined to the bed for a while longer. "You can lead a horse to water, Commander, but you can't make it drink. And with you, I already know I'd have more luck with a stubborn mule."
Lips quirking ruefully, Ky set the glass down and began buttoning his shirt. "Our fight never changes, doctor. Just the battlefield."
Perrine didn't look up, screwing bottles shut and putting her instruments in order. "You'll find Sir Andreyev down the hall. Just five minutes, no longer."
"Thank you very much," Ky said, bowing as she gathered up her tray and turned to go.
In the door frame, she paused to look back at him over her shoulder, a shadow of weariness settling in her gaze as she did so. "Sometimes... I feel like all of this should have ended years ago. For everyone of us."
Picking up one of the drooping marguerites, Ky smiled softly. "If more people feel that way, then it just might."
Andreyev's room was nearly identical to the one he had woken up in, simple, functional furniture and white walls, undecorated save for the cross over the door. The lieutenant himself was almost as pale as his sheets, his breathing so shallow that at first glance, he seemed barely alive at all. However, Ky had witnessed death often enough to note the differences, the near invisible signs that separated a deep sleeper from someone at the threshold — the slackness that suggested relaxation instead of the life fleeing the body, the tiny butterfly twitches of muscles working even during rest, and that certain ineffable quality which defied words but was nonetheless real all over, suggesting the presence of a soul.
Carefully, Ky stepped closer, though he knew he needn't have bothered to be as quiet as he was. Two small, four-pronged units had been placed on Andreyev's thickly bandaged chest, both flaring a light green, one infused with a tracking spell to check his breath and heart rate, and raise an alarm if necessary, the other exuding the thick, cotton cloud of a sleep spell to keep his rest even and undisturbed by nightmares. Hell to use on a mage, whose powers would be constantly working to repel the influence, but perfect for someone like Andreyev, who needed to be spared remembered pain.
"Good morning, lieutenant."
Over the years, Ky had held the hands of many men as they lay injured or dying. In infirmaries, on battlefields, he had murmured encouragements and prayers to ease their suffering, watched their eyes light up at the thought of someone come to be with them. He had taken more confessions than he could begin to count, listening to the innermost regrets of soldiers he hardly knew by more than name — drinking too hard, gambling too much, abusing the name of the Lord, lying with someone besides your girl, breaking your sister's favorite toy, not telling your father you love him — little pieces of so many people, so tragically, beautifully unique, and it´was humbling to know that he had likely been the last person in this world to talk to them.
He had never spoken as himself, forever the commander for whom they had laid down their lives, and now that he finally could, he found it surprisingly difficult to find the words. What was there to talk about that wasn't self-evident, hopefully self-evident, all his gratitude for years of friendship and service? What use was there in speaking of worth and appreciation as if they were a revelation, sudden and momentary, rendered bright and obvious before the awareness of loss?
Gingerly, he wrapped his fingers around Andreyev's open hand, felt the tracking spell leap as it sought to separate the lieutenant's heartbeat from his own.
"I hope you realize that this was a very, very stupid thing to do. I'll be expecting you in my office to have an extended talk about your combat performance. At this rate, I will have to refresh your memory a bit in the ring."
He chuckled, unable to make his stern disapproval even the least bit believable in the face of the idea that a tiny part of the lieutenant's brain might be aware enough to listen, and was now utterly inconsolable at receiving a lecture. Somehow, he had never been able to gentle his words enough to make Andreyev accept them as advice or concern, make them light enough to pass for teasing. At times, he wondered if it was perhaps his fault, too used to Sol, for whom everything held the potential for a joke or a game, never quite able to bridge the gap and shake off whatever it was that made him more legend than comrade, more leader than friend.
"You'll just take it as an order if I tell you to get well soon, so... I'll tell you to take it easy instead. Out of the two of us, one has to be the well-behaved patient." Giving Andreyev's hand a brief squeeze, Ky turned to go. "Rest well. I'll... we'll make sure the world is still standing until then."
The sudden shout was accompanied by the clatter of chairs and equipment as at least forty officers leapt to attention, sending pens and office utensils sailing to the floor. Before Ky could hope to return the salute or dismiss them, most of them chose to break with decorum of their own accord, rushing around their desks to bury him in a wave of exclamations and well-wishes.
He found himself alternately nodding and shaking his head, unable to get a word in edgewise, smiling, clasping hands, bowing his head for the motherly attentions of his secretary, who was so beside herself that she had abandoned her usual stiff propriety and was trying to check his temperature. Bernard seemed to be taking it a little better, content with squeezing his shoulder, though he was squinting a good deal more than normal, and Jarre was mostly shuffling his feet and muttering something along the lines of, "Please, don't ever do this to me again, sir."
There was no way to properly apologize for the worry he had caused, so Ky decided not to try, and apparently, the soldiers had collectively decided that it was enough to shake hands and to be allowed their own small litanies instead. It took a while for the excitement to die down, for the officers to realize that yes, they had been going in for the third shake in a row and yes, they had been calling the Commander names, and yes, the Commander seemed strangely happy about both.
How couldn't he be, though, knowing that he was loved by so many people, not as a symbol but as a fellow human being, precious enough to be scolded and cursed? If he had ever needed a reminder for why it was worth it to keep fighting, it had always been there, right in front of him, in every single one of these faces, some laughing, some trying hard to look like they weren't fighting tears.
I know you always claimed not to get it, but weren't you ever glad to be needed in some way...?
Eventually, the group began to disperse, shuffling backwards to their desks to pick up the fallen items. Miss Eloise mumbled something about cleaning and ducked away without meeting his eye again, to reconstruct her cool, efficient exterior. The only ones who remained were Major Jarre and Bernard, who was gathering his papers and pulling his reading glasses from his breast pocket, ever ready for whatever task Ky might set him to.
"It's good to have you back, sir," Jarre finally said, ducking his head in something that was half a bow, half an attempt to hide his flushed face. "In case you, uh, couldn't tell. Is Lieutenant Andreyev—?"
"It's good to be back, major," Ky said, smiling. "The lieutenant is recovering well, though he'll have to take it easy for a time. I'm sure he will be with us again, soon."
Gesturing for them to accompany him, he started off in the direction of his office. "Now, then, I require a full report of the situation. Everything you know, it doesn't matter if it's hearsay. It might still be useful. And I would really appreciate it if someone could tell me what day it is."
Bernard blinked. "You mean you don't know, sir?"
There was an awkward pause.
"...it's the 25th, sir. Whit Monday," Jarre said, the beginnings of a grin flitting across his face. "That's one hell of a timing you have, sir."
"Whit... Monday. Really," Ky said slowly, trying to rein in the inappropriate urge to laugh — three days, only three days since the incident, and depending on what he did now, certain people were sure to deeply rue the day they had first decided to push the legend of the Order's messiah.
At his left, Bernard nodded, apparently on the same page. "It might be beneficial for us to move soon, sir. We've tried to keep things under wraps the best we could, but... there were a lot of people at FIRC, and some have started talking."
The major snorted. "'Talking.' A couple of the diplomats were scared shi— I mean, they were pretty shaken, sir. We, uh, kinda had to cut a few lines to keep them from sending a message home. Some are pretty reactionary, and it doesn't help that the Cardinal's there to stir things up."
"I thought as much," Ky said, nodding. "Good work. Who are we dealing with?"
"Silesia, Wallachia, Tuscany... mostly the small, unstable ones, really concerned with their autonomy. Ambassador Eisan from Germany and Lieutenant Commander Cylek from the Polish delegation have actually offered their assistance, should we need it."
Both of them ex-soldiers, used to emergency situations and not liable to immediately lose their temper, and given where things would end up in the long run, Ky knew they were going to need all the cool they could get.
"What about Zepp?"
"Quiet as mice so far, sir. We've got everyone confined to their hotel suites... our men are checking everyone who goes in or out, in case one of our over-eager friends tries something," Jarre said, though his expression managed to sufficiently convey his stance on the matter. "That bastard Meirth seemed awfully calm, though."
Drawing a breath, Ky flexed his hands, pushing away the unwelcome surge of anger. In due time, he would have questions of his own, but for now, it was useless to ponder them, and even more useless to listen to the small, tight coil in the pit of his stomach, instinct and rage balled together as one, that it hadn't been an accident, couldn't possibly have been an accident. It was times like this that he missed Sol's presence most of all, having someone so hot-tempered that it was easy to let him fume and hurl insults for them both, and be the rational one instead.
"As expected," he murmured, chasing the thoughts from his mind. "The Cardinal?"
"Well, sir... he's by far the loudest, trying to get everyone up in arms. Affront to the Vatican's goodwill, attempted murder of Our Savior—" He paused, allowing Ky the moment to suppress a wince, "—Attack on servants of the Holy Catholic Church, breach of blacktech laws on twenty-four accounts, death to the heretics, fire and brimstone on their floating Gomorrah, the whole nine yards. I swear, some of us almost got whiplash going from traitors to loyal subjects again."
"I expect he is willing to back up his threats?" Ky asked.
"Hell, sir," Jarre muttered, smoothing over the lapels of his uniform and glancing at Bernard. "I like him better when he's screaming bloody murder. Don't care if it's all an act, at least we can tell what he's doing that way. It's amazing how many friends this guy has."
Bernard nodded gravely. "I'm afraid several communiques went through before we could stop them, sir. It seems he was bribing hotel staff to deliver them. I'm not sure where they went, but given that he's affiliated with the Ministry..."
"...it's not all that hard to guess," Ky finished, frowning, uncertain whether to consider this a double-cross on part of the Church or walking right into a trap.
Likely both at the same time, plans and back-up plans piling on top of yet more agendas, both sides thinking each other fools while engaging in a bizarre gamble with a fixed goal and the world as their gaming board. The most frightening idea was that the specifics of the outcome didn't seem to matter very much to either of them — Gregory and his allies didn't seem to care whether they could fool Zepp into selling their new super-weapons or whether they went to war without them, and whoever was backing Meirth didn't seem to care whether the in-fighting ground lords would turn the robots against each other first or just move against Zepp, confident they could win.
Win what exactly, Ky didn't know, as he was pretty certain by the time they were done, there would be nothing left. Humanity had nearly been crushed trying to shake off the yoke of the Gears, but fighting against each other, driven by centuries of ignorance and mutual blame...
Rounding a corner, they had reached the wing housing Ky's office, a carpeted corridor with doors opening to the inner courtyard of the Palais, and a row of floor-length, wrought iron windows opening to the front with its sprawling lawns and large fountain. The view tended to stop first-time visitors in their tracks, gazing upon something so peaceful and meticulously kept, and the reason it stopped Ky now, made him freeze in mid-step so suddenly that his companions stumbled, was one of similar wonder, dumbstruck at what he couldn't see...
Flowers, the entire fountain had been transformed into a sea of flowers — roses, daffodils, the knotty pink bulbs of peonies, hundreds upon hundreds gently bobbing on the water's surface. Ky's fingers met the glass, an incredulous smile tugging at his lips, and he took this moment to send a prayer heavenward, a few simple words wrapped in relief, gratitude, gladness. If the people found themselves laying down flowers for the one they called their savior rather than crying for vengeance in his name, their hearts moved by compassion instead of blind fury, then maybe, there was a way after all, a way to keep everything from going to pieces.
And love shall save the world... isn't that how it goes?
With a last lingering look, Ky turned away to face his two subordinates. "All right. Bernard, please contact any delegates reasonably sympathetic to the situation and arrange a meeting post-haste. Also inform Miss Eloise that I will be requiring her services and of any staff she can spare; I'll need them to take dictation like they've never taken dictation before. Major, I want all officers present in the grand hall in fifteen minutes, and get me someone to clear up the space in front of the Place de l'Etoile."
"Well, then, gentlemen. Let's get to work. We have a war to stop."
A/N: This chapter is also called, Ky: "Wait, I have more things to say!" But I couldn't very well let this story become "The Sol/Ky without Sol/Ky." XD In any case, comments and thoughts are very welcome, as always.
- Statistics indicate the gratuitious "shirtless Ky" moments are at a new high. Mrowr.
- The management would like to apologize for the sore lack of Potemkin in this fic. This shall be remedied in future installments.
- Yes, the IPF is in the Palais du Luxembourg. Why? Pretty men in a pretty building. (Seriously, have you seen that place?)
- Research suggests that 2182 will see Whitsun in May (margin of error: I suck at math).
<< Return to Chapter VIII, first half? | Continue to Chapter IX? >>
<< Return to Guilty Gear Index | Return to Fanfiction Index >>
<< Return to Guilty Gear Index | Return to Fanfiction Index >>