As Schönkopf drags himself up the metal stairs towards his final perch, a sudden, powerful stillness crashes into his chest, sinking into him as he sinks into his own weight. The semi-permanent buzzing in his ears, invisible scar of many, far too many (far too few?) battles evaporates, and the metallic tang of blood surrounds him, an old friend, as he loses himself, perhaps for the first time, to reminiscence.
Thirty-seven years old, and with more history behind his eyelids than most men twice his age ever even hear about. Thirty-seven years old, and his fingerprints can be seen, only barely, on the corner of the photographs that will no doubt adorn future textbooks. Thirty-seven years old, and maybe his name will one day be uttered once or twice as a fun curiosity of times long past.
The Empire soldiers crowd the base of the stairs, though they all know they won’t dare climb up its steps. Death has come for Walter von Schönkopf, but she might just leave without taking their trembling hands in hers. If, of course, they show due deference to her avatar’s now dulled, yet still fearsome blade.
He thinks about his first metamorphosis: a child, led by his grandmother’s hand, waving farewell to a nation that he’d grow to look at in contempt. Leaving had not been as easy as the FPA’s propaganda pieces had made it seem, suspicious eyes turned his way becoming, in time, as familiar as his own reflection, but his shoulders had remained pulled back, his head held high above the disdain. He had had no great love for his new home’s decaying democracy, certainly not enough to die for it, but well… His options had been limited, and he’d always shown a penchant for brawling, so military service had emerged as an almost inevitability.
Life afterwards had been a string of lukewarm surprises, never teasing in him the focus he saw twinkling in his peers’ gaze. He had wondered, in passing, if his severed roots were to blame for the boredom, if everything seemed transient only because to him it had been, once upon a time.
Admiral Yang had been a welcome break from the monotony — his mind sharper than obsidian, than diamond, yet concealed behind layers upon layers of languid defeatism. With the Rosen Ritter’s help, the man had accomplished the impossible with half a fleet and no casualties, though that hadn’t seemed to bring him any amount of pride or satisfaction, and Schönkopf had found his Byronic attitude more than a little frustrating.
The excessive, self-flagellating nobility Yang drowned in had dredged up from Schönkopf a cynicism that he had managed to temper up until that point, and he had begun to revel in his self-appointed role as the devil on his commander’s shoulder. There had been some wicked glee in being the tempter, even if his influence had been limited to token suggestions of rebellion. Yang had never paid much mind to his comments of that treasonous nature, had never even wavered in his tortuous path of upholding a dying system that seemed insistent on ignoring his good sense, and that righteousness, so inadequate against the grim backdrop of war, had kept Schönkopf’s interest piqued.
There had been something else as well, something unnamed and unnamable that had kept him orbiting around Yang, something that couldn’t simply be attributed to his understated charisma, so unlike his rival’s leonine fervor, but cold and limpid as a hidden mountain spring.
A memory comes to the surface of his mind, unbidden: their last conversation before the battle of Vermilion, that small pocket of time when the FPA had been both saved and doomed at once, when they all had felt as if they had been teetering at the edge of the precipice, soon to be swept up by the tide of history.
He had seen Yang on his usual seat, legs crossed on the table directly in front of his commander’s chair, as he had stared at the emptiness ahead of them. He had looked pensive, melancholy despite the upturned corners of his lips — self-deprecating, perhaps, though that might have been Schönkopf aligning his expression with the man he had grown to know over the years.
“Contemplating the ephemeral nature of your own life?”
Yang had turned his sad little smile to him, then, and Schönkopf had been struck, all at once, by the realization that his admiral didn’t desire destruction only because not even his well-deserved end he’d be able to enjoy without the cloying guilt that only brandy seemed to soothe. Apart from that, his possible demise hadn’t frightened him; rather, he had acted indifferent towards it, like a child tends to play coy regarding the toys they wish to ask for.
“I’m not a man capable of philosophizing, much less about my own imminent mortality.”
Schönkopf had laughed. “What you are is a man incapable of lying convincingly.” Leaning his hip against the desk, he had stared Yang down. “Why doubt your win? You haven’t failed yet,” he had said, crossing his arms.
“On the contrary, I have done nothing else.” Yang’s voice had been light — Schönkopf had rarely heard it sound otherwise — though tinged with the despondence of a man utterly exhausted by his continued existence, as it echoed in the then empty bridge.
“Well, on the bright side, they do call death eternal sleep. That must make its looming presence a bit more bearable for you.”
“Who is this “they”?”
“You should know better than me. You are the historian, after all.”
Yang’s eyes had been two black holes, drawing Schönkopf in even as they crushed him under the unrelenting pressure of this man’s deep, deep sorrow. Schönkopf had never seen a genius so burdened by their own greatness: Yang Wen-Li could have held the universe in the palm of his hand, if he had so wished, yet he hadn’t, and at the time Schönkopf hadn’t been able to reconcile how that strict adherence to his already unwieldy ideals could exasperate and charm him in equal measure.
“Military History. My knowledge is only of killing, not of dying.”
Schönkopf had wanted, impulsively, to touch him, to smooth the wrinkle between his brows, to hold his hands and make him forget the blood that stained them red, but that hadn’t been his role to play. He could listen, but he could not console. He could beckon Yang forward, but not absolve him of what had come before.
“For all our sakes, I hope that knowledge serves you well.”
The quiet had returned, then, more solemn than it had been at first, as they gazed, side by side, into the darkness just outside the windows.
Finally, Yang had spoken.
“And you? Afraid of having your epic reach its conclusion here?” His words had tried for derisive, but his tone had been far too kind for that. Yang had always been, without fail, far too kind.
“I can’t say being blasted by a cannon and burning alive sounds very enticing, no.” Schönkopf had thrown a wolfish grin his way. “No, you know I’m fated to go with an axe in my hands.”
Yang’s smile had slipped off, perhaps in understanding that neither had been willing to be honest, for once, about their anxieties, and Schönkopf had wanted to tell him the purest, darkest truth he held within, those three blasted, too-sentimental words that hadn’t been his to use.
I love you is so trite a phrase, and still he had wanted to whisper it against Yang’s lips. Yang, who had recently become engaged, who had been out of reach even before that, who Schönkopf had wanted regardless.
His admiral’s gone now, of course, and soon enough Schönkopf will follow, as he always promised himself he would. He can’t help but regret leaving Karin behind once more — a bad father to the end — but he won’t lie to himself with his final exhale by pretending he isn’t looking forward to seeing the Magician again, at last where nothing can reach him anymore.
“I never did forgive you for going first,” Schönkopf murmurs, feeling the numbness bite at his edges.
As his grip on reality falters, he can almost imagine that familiar, half-apologetic laughter that somehow always managed to land on the wrong side of hollow, and Yang’s tired, though ever-so-slightly amused voice telling him You know I needed the rest.