He once heard an old soldier say that returning from the front is like entering a different reality, some kind of sacred, pristine place forever untouched by the passing of time. The sight of the first houses in the distance - actual houses with actual roofs, curtains and flowerbeds and crisscrossing slate fences - is like a physical shock, the presence of some otherworldly atmosphere, and by the time one's feet cross the threshold between dirt road and clean-washed cobblestone, one feels like a trespasser, a disturbing element unfit to intrude upon this perfect calm.
Tetsu can't quite match the memory to a specific incident, but he thinks he might have come to understand the words all the same. Field training is nowhere near as bad as the actual front lines, where chaos and grime are constant companions, and every bit of sleep means a chance of waking up dangling out of a Gear's jaws. It's still close enough to begin to feel the disconnect, no longer entirely at ease in the gentle, structured otherworld of the barracks.
Everything is as he left it six months ago, the mess hall with its long, heavy benches arranged in exact parallel rows, the library and the peace to be found in its narrow, book-paved corridors, the training halls with the sounds of the afternoon fencing lessons just getting started — rookies, from the sounds of it, all high-pitched shouts and the inexpert clash of metal on metal, kids half his age who have yet to learn that yelling during a sword fight only leads to exhaustion. It's getting hard to remember that he used to be like that, too; not because he can't recall the humiliation of tripping over a weapon taller than he was, but because it all seems to have been happening to someone else, with himself as just a spectator, aware but separate from who he used to be at seven, or ten, or thirteen.
Pretty soon, it will be difficult to look back on his last few months here and not feel the same way.
Field training is the last stage, the final test. Those who pass pass with flying colors, or not at all. After that, there are no more exercises, no more lessons, no more pause for breath. Just him and his platoons, out there in the middle of nowhere, trying to make a difference. Trying to live up to the myriad hopes that come with being allowed to call himself one of Kliff Undersn's children.
Down the central hallway, a group of younger children pauses on their way to class to stare at him, conversation forgotten at the sight of the much-coveted uniform; white and blue, the colors of a Commander Candidate. The goal of every boy and girl in the compound, the distant prize they are all striving towards, to exchange the simple mud-colored jumpsuits of their trainee days for the radiant cloak of a true soldier, so that they might finally prove themselves worthy of the Commander's trust, repay in some small manner his kindness and his patience.
Tetsu used to be the same, trailing after the older children as they were setting out to join the front, childishly hoping for a glimpse of their secrets, a clue for what to do to be deserving of such honors. His body could never grow fast enough, his mind never quick enough to absorb all he would need to know, all it would take, nervous excitement pooling in his stomach at the thought of having a future, a destiny.
Back then, he never understood why the chosen ones would be so quiet, not harsh or unkind but with their eyes like chips of glass, gazing past the younger ones for whom they had changed from comrades to idols, looking out at something only they could see. Now that he is wearing the same uniform, he can finally see why.
What used to be a destination is only a brief stop along the way, the change of clothes but the beginning of another life. All that once was a promise so easily given - that he would prove himself, that he would do everything to make the Commander proud, and allow him to rest easier — is suddenly an uncertainty, "that" changing into "how" as easily as flipping a switch, sweeping away the self of so many years' time and replacing it with someone who might as well have been taught nothing at all.
Ahead, the cloister opens up into the inner courtyard, and Tetsu belatedly realizes that he brushed past the kids with barely a nod, too preoccupied with himself to indulge anyone. Instead, he is following the example of all the Candidates that leave for the front, making his way to the cluster of almond trees on the other side of the garden. There is a memorial board there, half-hidden between the branches, rows upon rows of glittering rectangles chiming gently in the breeze. Almost indistinguishable from the hundreds scattered across headquarters and the city, in the shadow of some church or monument, honoring the sacrifice of countless soldiers.
The only difference is to whom these tags belonged.
Slowly, Tetsu reaches out and runs one hand along the wall, fingers sifting through the sea of metal tags in an aimless caress. Ten years' worth of brilliant soldiers. Many of them he can read, and many of them he can't, the tags so notched and battered as to be almost unrecognizable, telling a story of their wearers' final moments. Between them, small plaques are nailed to the wall, spelling out the names of those which were lost along with their owners. Every once in a while, some of them go missing from the chorus, only to have a name appear in the wood in their place, etched in by an inexpert hand. Tags taken by a friend, or some half-secret beloved, to be stuffed in a pillowcase as a last echo of closeness.
He's never felt the need to take one, though he has a face to a handful of the names: mostly older boys and girls who took to looking after the new arrivals for a time, until it was their turn to join their comrades in battle. In a way, it's a comfort, more so now than ever before; he used to stand here in the shade of the trees, feel the pride and history behind that silver wall, but now there is the awareness of what each of them must have felt, those dead and those still alive and out there, who came down here to strengthen their resolve.
Not an answer to his questions, but for the moment, it is enough to feel the connection, to believe that maybe—
"There you are."
"Sir!" At another time, with another voice, he might have been better at keeping his composure, an embarrassed flush shooting up his neck at being caught unawares. "I didn't realize you were back."
"And with any luck, nobody else will for a while yet, either." The Commander grins, brushing leaves out of his hair, and Tetsu realizes he must have come the long way around, ducking through the bushes lining the opposite wall. "To think, one day, I'd have to start sneaking into my own army."
"I thought you were up in Belgium, sir?" Tetsu says, his hand still itching for the salute he isn't supposed to give. The Commander isn't one to care for formalities, unwilling to waste time with titles and ceremony, to take up any perks a common infantryman isn't entitled to. Tetsu knows as much from all the meetings he sat in on, every time the Commander started drumming his fingers when introductions took longer than the actual conference, but he still never managed to drop the "sir" in private, even though the Commander all but outright told him to. Small talk isn't his forte, never was, forever lacking the words to return a joke in kind. The Commander is one of the few who doesn't really mind.
"And not give you a proper send-off, m'boy? Not for the world. They should stand to get things done without me for a couple of days." Shaking his head, he reaches into the lapels of his coat, drawing out a crinkled manila envelope.
Orders to be read in the privacy of his own room, and Tetsu accepts them without further question, examining the splotches of ink along its surface. Probably penned during the ride here, more than enough evidence how much the Commander couldn't afford to leave, and yet...
He came... just to see me.
Still strange to be thought of as precious, even after all these years, not an obligation or a charge but someone to be valued, like the nickname for the Candidates isn't just something someone stuck on them in jest. He never found out whether the Commander used to have children of his own, but he's beginning to suspect it doesn't matter, that each of them might consider themselves one in their own right.
"Thank you, sir."
"Oh, nonsense." A quick wave. "Are you ready, then?"
"The Lieutenant General's report was favorable, sir."
"No, I meant... are you ready?"
The question throws him, the words skittering away so quickly that his jaw is left working on its own. It should be so simple to stand tall and say, "Of course, sir," even if he doesn't feel sure in any way; the response of a subordinate, a future Commander, and in battle, no one would have the time to ask, or the luxury to meditate upon an answer.
Shame, creeping past his collar and up into his cheeks, forcing his gaze downward. "I... I don't know, sir."
"That's all right."
Tetsu blinks, risking a glance at the Commander's face for any hint of sarcasm or disappointment, but finding only the same gentle, knowing face that always guided him through times of uncertainty, nudging him towards the realization that there rarely was a recipe, rarely anything that couldn't, and wouldn't, change at a moment's notice.
"No one is ever truly ready, you know."
"...Not even you, sir?"
The Commander laughs, the sound full of genuine amusement, tilting his head back to look at the sky. "Never, dear boy, never. There isn't a day when I'm not wondering whether I'm doing the right thing, or the good thing, or the sane thing. ...It's not really a comfort, is it? But that's the way it goes. The things you'll really need... are up here—" he taps his temple, followed by the spot right above his heart, "—and down there. And both of that, you've got in spades."
A pause, a small smile. "There's no expectation of mine that you have to fulfill, except one."
Clasping the envelope more firmly, Tetsu nods. He can give his word on that, the only thing he knows will never change.
"Yes, sir. I'll give it my all."
It is only much later, after countless fields have been reduced to ash, after the fall of that final bastion, after he lost his name and found a new one and once again starts to remember, that he has seen enough and done enough to understand the hint of shadow in Kliff's eyes when he embraced him on that day. To understand the pain, the hope against hope, the love he never quite knew the reason for, and realize that all along, he was promising the wrong thing.
There was only one thing he was ever asked to accomplish, and even though he has found himself still alive — inexplicably, undeservedly, for a measure of alive — the one thing he can never do is come back.