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The Dog Star That Leads

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The explosion had rocked the sky with echoes of debris for so long afterwards that the first time he was able to hear silence again, it came as a shock. Kurt had liked the quiet growing up, liked having nothing to disturb the nervous workings of his mind but the sharp staccato of air sliced through by practice blades, the familiar, acquiescent displeasure of a body out of concert with the mind, always too slow, too frail, never enough—but as the sounds of grief and terror around him faded and he’d had the time to settle himself back into solid reality he found a part of him missed it. Nothing came to fill the empty space but gratitude, strangled to silence by a guilt just as heavy: the irrational, impudent resentment that their lives had been part of a transactional exchange, returned to them intact, but sullied with the blood of somebody else’s sacrifice.

You couldn’t get something out of nothing. His instructor had understood that. Reunited with his dear and deceased friend, he had understood very well. But that part of Kurt, the child, the lost aimless student who’d sat sullenly in the Derflinger half a year ago, who’d stood and looked up in frozen shock as Instructor Rean—his teacher, their confidante, always the adult, though hardly much older than them all, at the end of the day—marched into the embrace of fate, no future at all waiting for him beyond the deep space’s uncaring edge: who had realized too late that was what the instructor had been hoping for, oblivion washing away all his burdens, and he’d made it so they owed him for it, and Kurt refused to understand. Juna, who had returned temporarily to Crossbell to grieve with family, would have agreed with him; but even without her voice in his head, with the furious edge it gained in the presence of grave injustice, he’d felt very sure of himself then. Which was a rare thing, for him.

 

 

He stayed in Leeves for a while afterwards. Taking advantage of the administrative cogs being stunned into silence, he avoided the repeated requests to sort himself out at home with his worried parents and brother instead of the company of a barebones bed and empty silence where a talkative roommate normally occupied. The dorms were emptier than they had ever been, the dust gathering on flat surfaces, though the lights were still on and the hot water kept running. It should have surprised him; not many were interested in playacting normalcy.

But as it turned out some of them didn’t have a choice.

“Altina!” The loudness, the glad relief of his own voice startled him. The girl at the corner table released her fork, though not before spearing the tines through a fat cherry, so the juices leaked ruby-red through the split, spilling down the sides of half-melting whipped cream to be absorbed into the pancakes’ puffy folds, almost like water into earth, and not at all like it too. “… I didn’t know you were still here. In Leeves, I mean.” He coughed, embarrassed. He rang the sole waitress for a cup of tea with milk, and—“Um. May I?”

He gestured toward the opposite chair. It was true he was used to having to look down to return her gaze, but ordinary habits felt like a farce more than ever now. Uselessness crept like a leaden weight into his movements when he trained, more out of a compulsive fear than his family’s vaunted pride in honor and protection. Not that he had a hair’s breadth of a chance to accomplish either, now.

But that wasn’t what was on his mind when he looked at her. His pity, his fear, his uncertainty: he felt them all the same, though now it wasn’t merely for his own sake. The anxieties of an overgrown child, transformed; now they were well-meaning, even noble, when directed at someone else.

It was mollifying, the effect Altina had on him, and it was something he’d never gotten the chance to come to terms with, not since back when they were virtual strangers, awkwardly molding themselves into friends through the inertia of necessary proximity, the utilitarianism of shared assignments. When he’d heard—from her, a fact shared in that uneasily fragile voice, with neither sentiment nor apology—that she was a homunculus, whatever that had meant to him then, a former asset of the Noble Alliance, and now a glorified agent of the Intelligence Division, her scholarship budgeted for in exchange for watching over their instructor, he hadn’t felt apprehension, none of the necessary skepticism his brother no doubt had to deal with often about the question of her divided loyalty. Juna’s presence must have helped much: her loud declarations of disdain for the Imperial way of doing things did wonders to offload all scrutiny from the strange, pale girl with pale hair and pale green eyes, who spoke of herself with the clinical remove of the dead reading their own certificates.

And suddenly all the bristling about his lost purpose and scattered family, the simmering indignation that threatened to boil over and spill out his mouth as prickling protestations—he’d felt them as they wilted in his throat, on the tip of his tongue. They’d felt so small in the presence of this stranger; this odd, too-short girl, who talked of her purpose not with complacent pride, but like her body was a thing caged in glass, and she’d stepped out of it and into the shoes of her Noble Alliance overseers, who had been unable to see her any other way but as a stepping stone to power, an extension of their ambitions. There was only one way to react to that, it seemed: and his weak heart had seized the chance, and refused to let go.

Kurt felt the echoing spasm of that feeling as he pulled up the chair and took his seat. It was a little something like guilt, or perhaps glee.

“I’m waiting,” Altina said simply, and when he gave her a blank look it took a moment for her to acknowledge the cue for her to continue. “—for an order from the Intelligence Division. Usually it would come from Major Arundel, or one of his aides, but with him and the other Ironbloods waiting to stand trial at the moment…”

At the moment frowning hurt as much as smiling did, and his resulting twist of mouth was akin to pinching his own skin between thumb and forefinger, and pressing hard. He endured.

“I’m not sure the Intelligence Division will still exist after this, Altina. Not without anyone left to run it.”

She took tea with her pancakes; stirred the metal spoon in dark amber liquid with absentminded inertia. Kurt had a sudden thought of sediment; imagined the sugar gathered at the bottom of the porcelain seabed like sweet sand. Certainly it went with the indulgent swirls of chocolate decorating her chosen confection. “That’s not confirmed yet.”

“I spoke wrongly,” Kurt said, with that shielding, tempered humility he defaulted to in the looming threat of awkwardness. His classmates had provided good practice for that. His next words were softer: Kurt pulled from memory the sound of Mueller’s voice as he’d bent down, explaining things in a manner he imagined his younger brother would be able to understand. He was going to a post in Liberl’s embassy. He was going to the western front, to help fight off the attacking forces. He had been transferred to another division; he was going to leave, the shadow of disgrace clinging like mud on his heels.

“You should consider it, Kurt. There’s more to your future than just the Vander’s duty.”

So this was what it felt like, to be on the other side of that conversation.

“What I mean is, you don’t have to stay in Leeves if you’d rather be somewhere else. If the Intelligence Division comes ringing, I’m sure they have more than enough problems at the moment than to be upset over a little delay. That’s what I think, at least.”

“Yes, of course,” Altina said. “I admit that sounds… prudent. I thought about following through on the idea myself. But there was a problem. I didn’t have anywhere else to go. With Instructor Rean and my si— with Millium gone, too—” she screwed her eyes shut for a moment, the twist of her mouth geysering a sorrow that nearly made him flinch, “Juna asked me to stay with her for a while in Crossbell, but I turned her down. I didn’t want to impose.”

“Altina…”

“She looked so sad, saying goodbye to me at the station. I wanted to tell her she shouldn’t— that it wasn’t her fault—”

“I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have said anything.”

“Then don’t,” she said, with a forceful terseness, though her voice was like paper, hanging onto itself as water lapped at its edges. Then she checked herself; the tired slump of her shoulders, a parody of released tension, was as much an apology as anything else. “Kurt, your tea. It’s going cold.”

“… So I’ve noticed,” he replied, faintly dumbfounded, and tipped the cup to his mouth for a long sip. “It was a hypocritical remark, in any case. Had I taken my own advice I would be home right now, not floundering here, to provide you with my… unwanted company.” He smiled vaguely to show, perhaps to himself, that he meant jest. A sentiment he was still capable of, it seemed. He tilted his face aside and murmured, “I really am sorry. I understand you knew them long before we ever did. I just saw you sitting here, and I thought... It wasn’t good for you to be alone.”

It surprised him, how easy it was to admit that. Two years ago it had seemed like an insurmountable wall, to translate the emotion driving a needle in his heart into words; instead he’d stood there and watched as the needle turned into a stake, and then a squirming wedge, driving the distance between him and the crown prince. Until Kurt had seen fit to look over his shoulder like a prisoner condemned, the transfer slip to the branch campus signed and stamped, and saw someone he no longer recognized as the flaxen-haired boy he’d spent many sunny afternoons sparring against, in the days when war was a game and wanton bloodshed a thing of legends.

It’s not good for you to be alone. Kurt had held his tongue then, and held it still, even as Cedric languished in his room for weeks, a never-ending rotation of servants and physicians coming in the door and then out of it, like rote memorization. But it was effortless to say those words now, to her. To Altina, who had been given life as a tool for war; Altina, whose survival she hadn’t asked for, who had defied her purpose, though not without great cost. You couldn’t get something for nothing after all.

Kurt had looked at her and felt sorry. Fortunate, too. His grief, his terror, his aimlessness… they were all such small things, after all. So impossibly petty and meaningless.

“If I may ask you a question, Kurt,” she said. He could picture the water edging her voice, a foamy sea-blue against the frail green of her eyes. He remembered the coastline that bordered Musse's hometown, the smell of salt in the air, and his lack of patience for Juna, who had grown up in a landlocked state. “What are you going to do next? The cr— Cedric escaped before he could be taken into custody. Are you going to look for him? Once things have settled some.”

“I don’t know,” Kurt said and it sounded more like a laugh. “I hardly know my plans for tomorrow. But… perhaps. It doesn’t sit right with me, to leave things unresolved like this.”

“Juna talked to me about it, shortly before she returned home. She said that I have to find… closure. That was the word she used. She told me it will be hard, but a necessary thing.” Altina shut her eyes again. Her expression was ashen, like a study in neglect. “I didn’t fully understand what she meant then—she seemed upset about that, too. But now, I think I do. It wasn’t something I’d ever gotten the chance to come to terms with, back when Millium left the first time, or when Instructor Rean was captured, when he used that power of his one time too much… But Juna is right. I have no choice now, either way.”

“Closure,” he murmured. The word sounded warped when he said it. He wasn’t sure it applied the way Altina meant, not when what he imagined was an irrevocable picture, the sight of the crown prince in handcuffs, standing for trial. There was a part of him that imagined something else, of course: but he knew just as well that was the child speaking. The naïve, would-be guard who fought with wooden swords and fantasized in idle moments of the gallant tales of Dreichels and Roland. Kurt would listen to that child, would hang onto that scrap of unspoiled hope with all his strength, but when reality inevitably came to collide, his seventeen-year-old self could hardly say he hadn’t expected it. “Yes. I suppose I do too. Funny, isn’t it? I was supposed to be his protector.”

“I should have been there,” she said. “I was the second prototype; I should have been the one to save everyone. But Millium…”

“Altina,” he said.

“Why did she do it,” she whispered. “If she hadn’t— if my sister had lived, I wouldn’t have anything to worry about anymore. I wouldn’t have to be here, looking for closure, trying to make myself feel like it was alright, it was alright because the curse was defeated, that they gave themselves up for a good reason, that it was alright that I’m still here and they’re not.”

“It’s not your fault.”

“I was supposed to protect him, too,” Altina choked out, every word damp with restrained tears, and it was then that he laid his hand over hers, an overlapping of skin and ridge of jutting bones. He’d always been so embarrassed of his own body, of his smallness and weakness, the youth in his face and the fragility of his muscles. She was such a small girl, more thin than lithe. It was hard to remember, sometimes, this was a hand engineered for battle, every knuckle and every finger given form and substance so she could become a soldier in someone else’s war. Almost as hard as it was to believe that his own trembling hand had once been destined to hold a heavier blade, to fight alongside the boy who would grow up and turn his back on him, and go on to nearly set the world aflame.

“It’s not your fault, Altina,” he said again. His voice sounded distant to his own ears. He squeezed. “We’ve both failed in our purpose. What matters is what we do next.”

He didn’t quite believe himself, even as he said it. A pathetic try at reassurance.

He wasn’t sure if she did, either. But she was silent, and when she turned her hand sideways beneath his she squeezed back, and didn’t let go for a long, long moment.