Fandom: Guilty Gear
Contains: Alternate Timeline beginning around GGX, boom and stabbity. Now with some actual Sol/Ky. It only took us about eight chapters.
I | II | III | IV | V | Interlude I | VI | Interlude II | VII | Interlude III | VIII (First Half, Second Half) | IX | X (First Half, Second Half)
Going off the Record
It was close to nightfall by the time some semblance of routine settled over the camp again. The rains had finally stopped around noon, leaving the downpour to collect and congeal in all the unwanted places, mixing with oil and coolant. All around, soldiers were beginning to put their own affairs in order, taking apart and scratching gunk out of the fine parts of their weapons, taking turns at fetching supper from the mess tent. Horses to be fed, wounds to be wrapped, the aftermath of a battle that had gone better than they could have hoped, a sense of tired, happy elation sweeping through the men that few emotions could match.
Ky had shrugged out of his damp overcoat, hanging the garment to dry on one of the corner poles that marked their makeshift command center, a sheet of canvas stretched taut across four free-standing struts. A favorable south wind had picked up that ruffled the awning and the maps on the table, chasing away the smell of burnt flesh, a battlefield set alight to prevent it from spreading disease. Here and there, a few embers were still flickering in the distance, their dying glow providing a sense of closure.
From a little ways away rose chanting, foreign words mixed with the soft beat of cymbals, the ringing of a band of chimes, and if he listened closely, he could pick out a few words, lines of old prayers rendered in that foreign tongue. Amazing, for a community that had lost everything, home and livestock and more than a few of its children, to let fear and sorrow fade as soon as they knelt together, singing the first notes of a psalm. Sometimes, he caught a glimpse of them, firelight shadows flashing in all directions — some of the women dancing, small bells tied to their wrists and ankles, their long headscarves swaying in time with their movements.
A couple of the soldiers had decided to sit with them, drawn by that strength of spirit, but Ky had refrained, unwilling to disrupt their private mourning with his presence and everything he stood for. People rarely behaved the same once he entered the picture, too focused on his rank, on paying respects where none were ever due, and so, it was enough to listen in for a time and continue his work in preparation for tomorrow.
"You really think this is gonna help?"
At the sound of the voice, Ky lowered the stylus and took a moment to stretch his arms, stiff from the tension of the fight and the subsequent clean-up. In front of him, the pile of blank metal tags clinked, waiting to be filled with names and dates of baptism, as well as the stamp of his personal seal. "Ultimately?"
Sol pushed back from the table, balancing his chair on its hind legs, and exhaled a puff of smoke. "Generally. Have yet to see a town lord who was thrilled to get a drifter colony."
"You'd be surprised what a bit of piety can do," Ky said, picking up a tag and beginning to stencil in a new name from his list. Names he had gotten where he could, where people spoke enough of any language to understand the soldiers' intentions, and baptismal dates he made up as he went, unlikely as it was that any but the oldest members of the community had ever received a ceremony by an ordained priest.
Drifter colonies formed much more often than the Order generally cared to acknowledge, people turned nomads upon losing their homes and never finding another place to stay. Some went as far back as three or four generations ago, gypsies, outcasts, or simply farmers from a land that had fallen to the Gears, forever without welcome. Their lives never amounted to much in the eyes of the brass; a couple of huts or caravans, a small number of animals as the most they could live off with no land to call their own and barely any opportunities for trade. Most towns jealously guarded their wealth and reserved the right to hand-pick those they accepted, usually chosen for their skills in a craft or good health — rarely the old or children, with the food rationed and the orphanages already overflowing, and rarely anyone who couldn't blend in, anyone whose habits or skin color marked them an outsider. A naming tablet was usually the only way to grant them even a shred of protection, by pronouncing them officially recorded by the Order. At least, it would mean they might not be accused of being thieves or vagabonds, witches or whores or whatever pretext could be manufactured for turning them away right at the gates.
"Most people will comply when it comes to doing the Lord's work." He picked up the stamp, and pressed it down on the thin plaque, leaving the imprint of the Order's crest paired with the lightning blade he had chosen for himself.
Sol tilted the chair forward again, crossing one leg over his knee to better spread out the maps he had been leafing through. As usual, his gaze was indecipherable, no way of telling whether the answer had surprised him or meant nothing at all, but Ky thought he might have seen something, regardless, some small glimmer of dark humor. "Not a very Catholic way of looking at it."
"Perhaps not, but... we're down to the kitchen sinks, aren't we," Ky said softly, placing another tablet on the completed pile. "How do the routes look?"
"About as well as you'd expect. Map's off, but not much. If we follow the river west, we should be able to use the canyons, save us some time. Should be all clear," Sol said, circling the area with a red pen. "The heavy gadgetry's going to slow us down either way, not like it's been much use so far."
"Strip what we can use, leave the rest. I don't see why they keep sending siege weapons to the field, anyway." Turning over a new tablet in his hands, Ky threw him a speculative look. "You think it's going to be Zaragoza, then, too?"
Sol shrugged, an easy roll of his shoulders that was just a bit too smooth to be entirely natural, the gesture of someone working on more than mere conjecture but entirely unwilling to explain himself. "It's logical, at any rate. If it falls, it's open season for the hinterlands and free passage to south France."
"That wouldn't do, no. With a bit of luck, the 37th will make it there just as we do. In that case—" He cut himself off.
The chanting and music had stopped abruptly, a silence settling in their wake. Steadily, voices began to rise from the crowd, growing until it escalated into shouting, an indistinct wailing as the shadows flashed erratically, people leaping to their feet with a sudden purpose. Frowning, Ky rose from his seat, listening to the chaos of voices, but finding himself unable to pick out even a single word for the way they were tangling and tripping into each other in their haste to reach the open air.
"Sounds urgent," Sol said, head cocked to the side to listen, but just as ill-versed in the strange dialect as he was.
"I'll check. I'd rather not—"
"—find some idiot hitting on the chieftain's daughter?" Sol finished, pushing back the chair to follow after him.
"I should hope not," Ky said, quickening his step down the little hill.
Most of the men knew how to behave themselves, strict as the honor code was and harsh as the punishments were, but there were so many things that could go wrong, regardless, some inconsiderate word, some misinterpreted custom, and most soldiers were from humble backgrounds, the Order their first taste of a wider world. If there was one thing he wasn't looking forward to, it was settling a dispute in a language he hardly understood, especially if the group was sounding more agitated by the second.
Coming out between the tents, the first thing he saw was that the drifters didn't seem to be poised for a fight. Most of them were simply standing or kneeling by themselves, raising their arms towards the sky, voices rising and falling in a rhythm that seemed like a litany or fervent prayer. A small group was clustered around the soldiers, wringing their hands and clamoring entreaties, the men looking completely out of their depth in the face of this many desperate people.
"Captain Arroyo, what's happening?"
The captain whirled, hastily signaling for Ky to retreat. "Sir Kiske! Stay back, they're—"
It had been the wrong thing to say. Within moments, Ky found himself surrounded on all sides, people rushing forward to crowd around him, laughing, crying, dozens of hands reaching for him, trying to feel his hair, his arms and hands, even the loose straps meant to fasten his shoulder armor, awed exclamations rising whenever someone managed to touch him. At his back, Sol cursed, shoved into the throng along with him, but a quick glance confirmed that the drifters were barely paying him any heed, just trying to brush past to get to Ky, to move closer in any way they knew.
Pushing the sheer strangeness aside, Ky fell back on all the lessons he'd received as a trainee, the sage advice of Commander Undersn as he lectured on the people's needs and expectations. It wasn't too different from dealing with a panicked crowd, so he did his best to respond to their urgency, to smile, meet their outstretched arms halfway, murmur words of comfort in Spanish and French in hopes of conveying calm, of making himself understood.
"Oi, Arroyo, the hell's going on here?!" Sol again, a good head taller than everyone else, peering around to find the captain in the crowd.
"I— I don't know, sir!" Arroyo replied, surfacing somewhere to the left and surveying the near-hysterical people in complete bafflement. "All I know is... we were praying, and then someone mentioned the Commander, and all of a sudden they went nuts!"
"Don't know about you, kid," Sol shouted, leaning forward to make himself heard. "But your fans are a little too hands-on for me. Let's break up this autograph session!"
"Wait!" Ky yelled back. "If we can just get them to listen, maybe—"
He might as well have been whispering for all the attention Sol paid to his protest, a sphere of flames launching into the sky and exploding with a deafening bang. The drifters skittered back amidst frightened gasps, cowering and burying their faces in their hands.
"What? They're listening now."
Favoring him with a glare, Ky moved closer, bending down to catch a glimpse of their features and show his good intentions.
"I'm sorry for my subordinate's behavior. Please don't be alarmed, I only wish to speak with you," he said in Spanish, the closest language there was, but if anything, this only upset them more, some beginning to weep softly when he tried to offer his hand to help them back up. He frowned. Rash as Sol's actions had been, these people simply couldn't be strangers to magic, knew more than enough about persecution to scatter and run when they feared violence or capture. In fact, some were huddling right next to Sol, despite the fact that he'd been the one to set off the fireball.
Shaking his head, he turned to Arroyo. "Captain?"
"You speak the language, don't you?"
"Not too well, sir," the captain said, scratching the back of his head. "My grandmother's from the region, but I was a rather poor student. I can only get the gist if they talk slowly."
Ky nodded. "Still, I'd like to request your help. We're not getting anywhere like this... please let them know them that I apologize, and that there's nothing to be afraid of. I just want to know what's happened, what they need."
"Right away, sir," the captain said, before turning to translate.
A murmur went through the group, people glancing anxiously between each other, still not quite daring to look up. Again, not the behavior of a people that was expecting to be pursued by an oppressor, and they wouldn't have sat down to celebrate together, wouldn't have given out their names if they thought anything might be used against them. He had walked through enough slums to know how the poor and the downtrodden protected themselves, all banding together and proclaiming to have the same name, or no name at all, to have ten leaders or no leaders or anything in between, and their ability to simply disappear into the night, to slip into a back alley or the underbrush, never to be seen again.
Eventually, an old woman rose and came forward, her long, colorfully decorated headdress a sign of her status. The chieftain, or perhaps a priestess, Ky couldn't say for certain, but he had watched the old woman lead the people into camp, gathering them around herself in spite of her frailty, seeking to grant them security with the reach of her thin, bony arms. Now, the tassles on her scarf were nearly brushing the ground as she bowed, choosing her words carefully.
Arroyo had pursed his lips, trying to pick the meaning from her quavering speech. "She says... she says to forgive their poor manners. Her people... aren't received well in many places. So to be saved by the blessed one... is a day... of great joy for them."
"The blessed one?" Ky asked. "Does she mean God?"
"I don't know, sir, but I'm pretty sure that's what she said."
"Please tell her we are all God's children," Ky said, giving the old woman a reassuring smile. "Those who would say otherwise have closed their ears to the teachings, and their hearts to their fellow man."
The old woman nodded, blinking the sheen of tears from her eyes, bowing once more as she answered.
"Hearing the blessed one's words... makes her happy. She asks that they may be allowed to... receive his benediction." Arroyo paused, his frown deepening. "Sir, I... we've already explained the tablets to them. I have no idea what she's saying."
Ky didn't reply. In a corner of his mind, something had begun to tick, the same faint nagging sensation he knew well enough from before a battle, telling him there was more to a situation than met the eye. "Who is this blessed one?"
With a serene smile, the old woman raised a finger, pointing.
From the first day on, Kliff Undersn had sought to make clear to his pupils the difference between the rhetoric of command and the reality of it. Ky quite vividly remembered the posters he would bring to his lessons on politics and propaganda, the broad, elaborate woodcut prints showing a sea of spears united under the waving sword-and-crucifix banner, and knight captains decked out in full regalia, seated atop a rearing war horse, heroically pointing towards a distant, unseen goal. They'd all had a good giggle about it, most of them just ten or eleven but already versed enough in the ways of war to know that this was not how it worked, had never been how it worked. It would still be a while before they fully understood the meaning of those lessons, why the Commander had smiled and ruffled their hair indulgently, but hadn't derived the same hilarity from what seemed to them a brilliant misunderstanding, someone's misplaced illustrations of a fairytale.
Preparation, all of it, for times when they would need to know that truth had become a term stretched to breaking, that command was a place where fiction and fabriation gathered. That, if given the choice, most people would prefer the pristine, polished allure of a legend even if they were the ones who had first called that legend into being. In his campaigns, Ky had traveled far enough to see how feeble that allure had become, how little it was doing for the people who had seen the worst of it, were about to see the worst of it. The sight of a bold knight under a valiant banner was just another man in a bright cloak, and that man was just another body at the end of the day, one of thousands of human sons, born to simple people with simple lives, dying an inglorious death. He had seen them all, the masses of dead-eyed people, numb and empty from the years and years of loss, ready to take their own lives, the idea of choosing their own death a sweeter promise than the call to arms, the demand to fight the good fight.
No. He shook his head, mouth too dry to speak. No, they wouldn't. Not this. They aren't stupid enough.... they /wouldn't/.
The days of the Order as a symbol to rally around, waning. Commander Undersn, wise and strong and beloved by many but now nearing seventy, his back slowly bending to the weight of his sword. Himself, part of the last batch the Commander had personally trained, and the last of his children to survive, to carry on a crumbling legacy. And Captain Arroyo, still translating, telling of the street preachers announcing the arrival of a golden child, a savior sent by Heaven to aid humanity in its darkest hour.
"What the fucking hell?!"
Sol's voice, full of irritation, so plain and no-nonsense that it formed a counterweight to the cannon ball that had lodged itself in his stomach, yanking him sharply out of his trance and back to the real world. The real world, where Arroyo and the other soldiers had gone pale and wide-eyed, torn between belief and disbelief, and over a hundred hopeful souls were gazing at him, waiting for his answer.
It would only be good and right to reject such a damning burden, blasphemy and insanity all wrapped into one — and to extinguish the flame of hope that had kindled in their eyes, easily the only thing that would keep them going.
Taking a deep breath, Ky stepped forward, baffled by the steadiness in his own voice as he spoke, the smile that shouldn't have been on his face at all. "Captain, please let them know... that if it is their wish, I will gladly sit with them, and grant whatever I can to set their hearts at ease."
In the end, Ky wasn't entirely sure how he had passed the evening. He remembered it, of course, sitting there in the midst of all these people, surrounded by their joy and gratitude, clasping their hands, reciting verses with them. Eating a bit of roasted meat and trying not to feel guilty about it, knowing it came from the last of their livestock, sacrificed in his honor before he had a chance to stop them. It should have been a wonderful thing to see the drifters so happy, to be able to give them at least a little bit of strength, some kind of reason to keep their heads high. And yet, it felt like he had been grabbed and shaken hard, losing touch with that single point somewhere deep within himself, that one grain of absolute space, a steady, calm center to help him brave any storm that he had always managed to hold on to, even if it was just with the tip of one finger.
It was that gratitude and fervent faith that did it, the eager readiness with which he went from just a person to something far greater, when he hadn't been doing anything other than carrying out his sworn duty, protecting people wherever he could. But nothing human could grant the security that people craved, when armies were mowed down with barely any effort, when no place in this world was truly safe, and the distant, invisible comforts of an intangible God could no longer offer a respite.
Miracle worker, then, instead of commander. God's Chosen instead of a mere man.
Ky understood that, understood the reasons and the need for it, and yet, he only had to think of the level of secrecy necessary for such a plan in order to feel mildly queasy. High Command had to have known he wouldn't agree, that only an utter fool would agree, and had thus used the priests and missionaries to disseminate a new legend, people who were already accepted as speakers of a divine truth. It made him wonder just when the plan had been born, whether it had anything to do with his own successes, or whether that plan had existed for longer than he was alive, to simply use the next commander candidate when worse came to worst.
There was a measure of comfort in the thought that Commander Undersn would protest on his behalf, was probably protesting right this minute, although the outcome was already fixed. He would have to accept it and bow out, just as Ky had to because the snowball had long since become an avalanche when even a group of drifters in the middle of nowhere had already heard the new gospel. It was sufficient to make him dread the reception in the next crowded town, with a thousand or ten thousand citizens, all starving for glad tidings.
And yet, what use was there in worrying about it? Right now, he couldn't do anything, out in the highlands with a horde of Gears at his back and Zaragoza as their next target — it would be weeks before he could even think about lodging a formal complaint, in hopes of explaining to them just why the creation of a human messiah was nothing less than tactical suicide. For the moment, though, all it was doing was getting in the way of his plans and his ability to lead. Moments of doubt and fear for the future, the Commander had once said, were better reserved for a free and quiet hour, when they could be properly taken out the back and shot.
The only thing to do was to shove everything aside, to try and regain that precious center of calm so he could make it through the coming days. Rest, then, time to wash up a little and shave off two or three hours of sleep before he would have to give the order to pull up the stakes and deal with the fact that the news of his promotion had spread like wildfire among the troops.
At this hour, his trek back to his tent at least went uninterrupted, without anyone to disturb the tidying of his mental space; the careful wrangling of that giant, ugly revelation into a far-off corner, the tallying and shelving of the things that awaited him on the coming day, each of them more important than his personal discomfort. Keeping that space in order was important if he wanted to have his priorities straight and still be able to sleep, not be kept awake by the myriad small worries that would crop up during a day — supply lines breaking down, weaponry malfunctioning, stubbornness or foolishness or simple accidents. By the time he had finished arranging his to-do list, however, it was much too late to gracefully back out of where his feet had pointed him — not his own tent, not even anywhere close to it, but to a place almost on the opposite side of camp, boots and a tattered overcoat strewn carelessly on the ground, the air smelling strongly of cheap tobacco.
If anything, Sol seemed as surprised to see him as Ky was to find himself there because he said nothing, staring at him from where he was seated on the edge of his cot, holding up a flaming fingertip to dry a pair of socks.
Wasn't paying attention to where I was going was an embarrassing thing to admit, certainly, but what stopped him was the simple question of why, why his subconscious had picked this place out of the hundreds of tents to stumble in on, if it had to pick a place at all.
"Got lost or something?" Sol was looking at him strangely, his tone not as snappish as it should have been.
"No, I..." Ky shook his head. "I apologize, I should..."
Go, for one, and stop stuttering for another. Anyone else, and he would have made them lose confidence in him by now, standing in their private space and fumbling for an explanation like an indecisive trainee.
"Ah, hell." With a sigh, Sol reached for his backpack, slumped against the foot of the bed, pulling out a slim metal canteen and holding it out to him. "Here."
Rolling his eyes at his continued stalling, Sol waved the canteen up and down. "Yes, it's what you think and yes, it's non-regulation and yes, feel free to write that down in my file, if you can still find room. Now close the flap, it's getting drafty."
"I... thank you."
A snort as he trudged over to accept it, Sol pointedly inspecting the socks. It seemed as good an invitation to sit as any, and so he did, mindful not to take up too much room, slowly turning the flask between his hands. This close, the scent of cigarettes was even stronger, a handful of butts congregating at the side of the cot — two, three, six, much more than Sol was usually wont to go through in a day, never mind a few hours. An odd thing to focus on, but the alternative was examining the fabric of his pants, if he didn't want to intrude more than he already did.
"'S not going to drink itself, kid. Or do they make you take a vow for that, too?"
"No. No, I suppose not." Slowly, Ky unscrewed the cap, wrinkling his nose against the sharp aroma of juniper. Usually, he avoided alcohol just like painkillers, no more than a polite taste at a reception or party, anything that could throw him off his game and potentially cost lives, his own or someone else's. Just a small sip made his eyes water, but there was also something pleasantly focusing about the burn, something that drove home just where he was, and what he was doing, and that reality couldn't get any more off-kilter than this. Cautiously, he took another sip.
"Guess they got you good, if you aren't even bitching me out for this."
"I've never 'bitched you out' for that," Ky said. "That would be—"
He stopped. Sol was giving him a sidelong glance, a glint in his eye that was part amusement, part something he couldn't readily identify. "There. Reboot complete."
His lips twitched, more at the tone than the words themselves, a quip hidden in the gibberish Sol didn't feel like sharing. "It'll take me a while to swallow that."
"Who says you have to?"
"I think for once it's you who's ignorant of my position," Ky said, swirling the flask and hearing the liquid slosh inside. "Even if I refuse... what will it do, other than smash people's dreams? If they even believe me. My word against that of every monk and preacher in the land. If I'd known, perhaps... but I didn't."
"So you're just gonna go along with it?" Sol had finished wadding his socks into a ball, and was fishing for his packet of cigarettes. He flipped back the lid, scowling when he found it empty, and crumpled it in his fist. The next time he opened his hand, it was to shake off the ash.
"It's not like I want to. I know I can't be that guy. Anyone with an ounce of sanity wouldn't want me to be that guy, either, or anybody." Ky bit his lip. "It's not the obligations I dread... but... they can't hang this on me. They can't hang a hundred-year war on whether or not I get impaled tomorrow."
"I get why they would, but... this isn't a calculated risk. I almost died fifteen times just last week."
"You know what? If I do, and the chances aren't exactly minuscule... do me a favor. Throw some dirt on me and get on with it."
"...Yeah. Right. Sure."
Sol flexed his hands, examining the earth at their feet, and for a moment, Ky wondered if he had gone too far, burdening someone just because he was durable and unfazed, so unlike all the soldiers who depended on his leadership and skill. Maybe this was what had led him here, the vague idea that Sol wouldn't care, wouldn't think any more or any less of him no matter what. Before he could think to apologize, though, Sol reached over, plucking the canteen from his hands and downing the contents in one long gulp.
"Remind me to never try and get you shitfaced, Kiske. I can already tell you'd be an honest drunk."
"Is that what this was supposed to be?" Ky asked, glad to latch onto something utterly inconsequential in the wake of this mess. He had crossed the line, had stretched their odd not-quite companionship beyond its limits, and this was Sol giving him an out, giving both of them an out.
"No. But it would make for a nice counter-campaign."
"Designed to utterly humiliate me, of course?"
"Minor details." Sol waved his hand dismissively and leaned back a little, intent on shaking off the atmosphere. "First, we get you wasted, then we'd have to teach you to swear—"
"I'm French. I know how to swear."
"No. You're the complete opposite of French. Whatever that is. Your Frenchness is stuffed into a deep, dark hole, and one day it will erupt and kill us all."
Ky gave him a wry look. "I think I'll settle for letting you pick up my slack in that area."
"What would be step three, then?"
"I'm kinda vague on that, still. Something involving no pants in public."
Ky wasn't quite sure what to attribute the giggles to. Maybe it was the expression on Sol's face, like he was earnestly calculating the level of depravity needed to turn public opinion around, or maybe it was the alcohol, spreading its warmth and a certain kind of relaxation, but suddenly, he couldn't hold it in any longer, all the tension spilling forth in peals of laughter. Dimly, he heard Sol give a huff of his own, but then, he was sprawled backwards across the cot and too busy clutching his stomach, his outburst adopting a slightly hysterical edge the longer it went.
"...no pants... in public," he managed eventually, hard-pressed to catch his breath. "That's.... your solution... to everything, isn't it."
Sol shrugged, a faint smirk curling at the corners of his mouth. "We're talking about stopping people from thinking you're Jesus. You're not exactly making it easy."
"Yeah. I guess so." Ky reached up, wiping at his cheeks and pressing his palms against his eyes. The hilarity was slowly fading, leaving a kind of pleasant emptiness in its wake that he only knew from that special point, the absolute space. He sighed, drawing his legs closer, for the moment perfectly content to enjoy the return of that acute, perfect calm.
"Hey, don't you go falling asleep here." A hand was nudging at his hip, just enough to give weight to the protest but not enough to actually shove him off the bed.
"Okay," he mumbled, still preoccupied with himself.
"I'm kicking you out in an hour."
The cot swayed, followed by the sounds of clinking buckles as Sol started rummaging through his backpack and grumbling about smokes.
Unseen, Ky smiled, the first time he'd truly felt like it all evening. "...Okay."
- TBC -
A/N: Remember the days when this fic was meant to be a two-parter? No? Neither do I! XD Poor Ky, he seems to be spending an inordinate amount of times in this fic either down for the count or asleep, but I figure, the things he gets hit with kind of warrant it. Thanks for your patience, dear readers; we may be slowly getting somewhere.
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