So maybe Kureha's shoulder's aren't very soft. It's something she's fine with; it isn't like she's ever eaten anything more than she needs to (and a few times she hasn't even had that) and so she's all lean muscle, like the stories they tell about panthers sometimes. And so maybe, as proud as she is of her streamlined physique, her shoulders aren't soft enough to be the most amazing pillow. Which didn't use to be a problem, and yet here they are.
It isn't jealousy. It isn't, because really she's just glad that Noel is sleeping. She hasn't been doing so well this last week, three nights spent on the toilet and twice when Kureha had to get Filicia because the nightmares were bad and she'd learned within days of being deployed here that Noel wouldn't want anyone else to be there when she woke up … (she sometimes thinks about that night, the harsh and desperate fingers clawing down her neck, how the scratches bled and still smelled faintly of engine grease, how Noel hadn't looked her in the eye until a week later…) Noel should be sleeping, since it's so hard for her in ways it shouldn't be, especially since she's only a year older but often seems more tired and age-worn than even Rio-sempai, stretched so thin and fragile that the sun shines through her skin. But right now Kureha can't help but feel a little tinge of judgement over Noel's choice of sleeping arrangements.
Then again, that slacker probably has big, rounded fat shoulders and doesn't mind if Noel drools all over her uniform. She'd heard about the mess that Rio-sempai had to deal with, the utter lack of respect for the uniform and all it stood for, when they'd dragged the idiot back to Clocktower fortress. So she'd probably even enjoy getting slobber on her jacket and not even think about putting a towel there instead. Kureha scowls even harder, somehow, and hangs another shirt on the laundry line. Someone has to keep this base running, even if Private Sorami can't be bothered to actually perform the duties required of her. Noel, of course, should probably also be helping with these things but if she's sleeping, then that's probably best. She's seemed so exhausted at mealtimes and during drills, and they need their engineer in top form to fix Takemikazuchi. Also Filicia has said many many times that for Noel, rest is the primary objective and Kureha doesn't want to get another reprimand from her.
Kureha stomps over when the first basket of damp clothes is empty, stomps as quietly as she can because waking up Noel isn't something she can bring herself to do, even if it's for a good cause like showing her subordinate how things should be done here, laxness be damned. Stomps over and glares at her stupid smiley face and points at the other three laundry baskets emphatically. And -- And stupid smiley childish Kanata who can't even play the bugle right is smiling (of course) but it's different, more like the shy little grin that shows up sometimes after a lesson from Rio-sempai or while she's washing dishes. And her eyes are huge and soft like they were in Takemikazuchi when the lens she listened to did its job and then Noel had smiled, really smiled for the first time Kureha had ever seen.
Kanata's eyes dip down slightly to Noel's sleeping, drooling head (and of course there's spit staining Kanata's uniform and who's going to have to wash it out next week) and then flick back up to Kureha, full of silent, shining apology. She shrugs, but only with one shoulder and so carefully that Noel doesn't even budge, and Kureha sees for the first time that Kanata's arm is supporting Noel's back so that she doesn't fall.
"I'll cook tonight," Kanata whispers. Even her whisper-voice is annoyingly cheerful. "I know you did my job today, since I'm --" She gestures at Noel's slumped body with a half-grin and shrugs her free shoulder again. "It's only fair." There's so much quiet care in the way Kanata's holding Noel, so much soft strength, and it makes more sense now why Noel drowses so easily next to her. Kureha glares a little bit harder and pokes out her tongue, because even being the best living pillow in the fort doesn't excuse shirking duties, or coming from a weird village with friendly ghosts or honking the village awake with something that gives a bad name to music, let alone the 1112th. Then she stomps away and hangs up the rest of the laundry stupid smiley Kanata can't be bothered to touch. When she looks at the two of them in the courtyard and catches the smooth little rubbing arcs Kanata's thumb makes across Noel's back, she doesn't smile. Not even a little bit.
Only Kanata would think about a sentinel building being lonely. Kureha's getting used those kinds of ridiculous, wasteful emotions, since she has them constantly and then has to open her big mouth and share them with the world. Even on a mission with heavy backpacks and not enough water and a time limit that somebody clearly can't be bothered with, she just opens her mouth and blurts out whatever. Which ends up being sentimental garbage. And her big shiny hopeful eyes are maybe getting a bit too serious or her mouth is getting a little too firm but Kureha starts saluting the building because really it has been doing a wonderful job for more years than any of them have been alive and maybe it's nice to give it a little recognition. And maybe Kureha doesn't want to let Kanata feel like she shouldn't be remembering the things nobody else will, or maybe it's because when Kanata pouts it's obnoxious and tiring and those backpacks are exhausting enough, given how much further they have to go. (Or at least that's what Noel said earlier and she's good with maps like she's good at most things even if she never seems to think so herself) And it feels silly to stand in the middle of nowhere, paying respects to a building from Before like it has feelings, but her backpack feels a little bit lighter when she hauls herself upright. Though she could just be getting used to it.
And then Kanata's going on and on about boars and her stupid backward village again, and Kureha's not scared in the least but she is the assigned gunner at the fort and so she has to be alert and ready for anything because out of the three of them she's the only one who stands a chance against a wild animal or an enemy soldier, so her fingers are tight on her rifle strap and she's reminding herself that Kanata's right for once and their ruined, boar-mauled backpacks aren't worth carrying even though her stomach pinches at the thought of abandoning equipment… She berates herself for missing when she fires but even more for the relief that floods through her when she lets her finger off the trigger because Rio-sempai isn't here and someone has to be good enough and strong enough without her and she's the only one they have. Not Kanata, who's a musician and who ate weird berries and miso growing up and doesn't know the way the world works, and not Noel who's brilliant and kind and clever but also broken in ways only Filicia seems to know about and sometimes stares at her hands like they’re live vipers when she thinks no-one is looking.
So Kureha squares her bony shoulders and pretends everything is under control until Kanata sees the last sentinel and runs ahead so vibrantly happy that she'll probably trip on herself and not even notice and it's stupid but also something warm and shining that Kureha can put in her angry, empty stomach until she's running and so is Noel and it feels a bit like they're the girls they never really got to be, racing to put their hands on the wall first. Filicia steps out and leads them to a wall to carve their names and when they walk to the hot spring cave where there's Rio-sempai and food and laughter, the rifle strap on her shoulder almost disappears, almost loses its frightening weight. The next morning, Kanata is farting through her bugle again (though to be honest it sounds more like music than ever, which is kind of impressive) and Kureha wakes feeling hopeful, with an almost-smile on her face.
Winter comes and it's too easy, so she should have known. Kanata's trumpet playing gets better and better and the circles under noel's eyes get less and less and she's even stopped jumping when anyone says her name in a moment of quiet. And Rio-sempai smiles like she means it and eats enough and leads training exercises with the kind of attentiveness Kureha has dreamed of, and even though she's quiet sometimes when they break out the sake after dinner it's because she's thinking and planning and everything seems perfect. And then Rio-sempai leaves and everything's quieter and winter has never seemed this dark before, Her thick wool overcoat isn't warm enough and she's having her nightmares again, like she hasn't in years and she hates them, hates herself for hoping this time would be different and the one person who mattered most wouldn't leave her behind without a real goodbye. But she squares her shoulders and pretends she knows what she's doing because someone has to.
Someone has to and Filicia is looking out the window with the same sadness as when she brought home watermelon and Kanata's hopeless and sniffles a little after every reveille and even though she's trying to do her best just like Kureha it's not enough. Nothing is enough and Kureha shivers in her bed at night and pretends it gets better when Kanata gives her an extra blanket or offers to sleep on the same mattress. Kanata doesn't understand this kind of cold, she thinks, but doesn't hate her for it. Sometimes seeing how she smiles even in this bleak weather and empty building makes the hollow in Kureha's chest a little less. She smiles whenever Kanata gets worried (and sees herself in the mirror once, realizes that Rio's smiles were more often for others tan for herself, feels sick for knowing it) and pretends not to notice how Noel has all but disappeared into Takemikazuchi, working long and strange hours building, building, as if a working tank can chase away the ghosts and echoes of the half-frozen hallways.
And then they find the soldier.
It's like every god she's ever tried praying to is laughing, or testing any threadbare faith she has left, or it's like Filicia says sometimes when she's tired and life has no reason, no right or wrong, no logic to run by and all they can do is try their best and fail anyways, but fail with peace or honor if they're lucky. Before she even registers Kanata's worry or understands what she says about how Romans look just like them (this is hard enough when her stupid, childish subordinate is committing treason, even where nobody else can hear it) she's diagnosing the girl -- Advanced hypothermia and malnutrition, possible concussion, going into shock. Her own jacket is never warm enough for her but that's not because of winter and so she switches it out quickly; the cheap, chilled-through wool against her uniform can't make her shiver any more than anything else at this point.
She uses all she's ever been taught to scout out sightlines as they carry the girl between them, eyes darting around to ensure there aren't any strangers who see them. Twice, Kanata calls a halt because she hears boots in the snow, and Kureha finds herself filled with a weak wonder at Kanata, at how many ways and times she might have underestimated her before. They lay her down on Rio-sempai's bed because it's available and close to a fireplace. And Noel freezes over when she enters the room, shrinks into herself and looks at her hands like they're poison, again. Then kicks them all out and while Kureha had looked towards tending to the strange, frail girl as a distraction now she's left with nothing but Filicia and torture and the code of conduct that has held her together even as she shatters and shatters, but the Roman girl can't be older than her by more than months and she's so thin it's painful, and her best isn't enough. It isn't enough. She isn't --
"I think, if I really needed to, I could shoot," Kanata says, and from her eyes (still bright but full of more fire than raptrous joy) Kureha knows with iron certainty it's true. Even though it shouldn't be. She can't stop shivering, even with a scarf tucked regulation-neat into her jacket, even with the determination that sits heavy like armor on her tense shoulders, because Kanata shouldn't be like this, all fire and knife-sharp focus. Kanata can't be like this, no matter how many Roman fairytales about fortress maidens she's heard and chosen to believe in, no matter how hard it will be to keep their people, their town free from the sadistic monster held by thick ropes in the cellar.
Kanata, who looks on her life with such wonder as if every second is the new beginning of the whole world, Kanata who laughs and cheers each one of them on in her own miraculous way, Kanata who falls in love with glass dolphins but still sends money home and buys treats for Yumina's children before ever spending a yen on herself, Kanata who fixed the broken things in their tiny unit, even the ones nobody saw… Kanata shouldn't be the one to shoot someone dead, shouldn't have to carry that weight inside herself, shouldn't dim her light.
Kureha knows death like an old friend, in certain jagged ways she still can't always voice. She's seen it so many times, so many ways that it shouldn't be too hard to see another even if she caused it. She's the company gunner and she's been trying for a year and a half for her breathing to be as easy with a gun shouldered than without, trying to be enough. Somebody has to be, and everyone needs Kanata the way she is, needs that boundless faith and loud joy to get them through this. Kureha's seen enough death to know that this would break her, no matter how strongly she believes in that story Aisha gave them. No matter how much she means it, how true it is that her fingers could pull the trigger without hesitation.
Kanata has callouses on her hands from the garden and her trumpet, has hands that are suited to building and growing, smells of valve oil and miso, not gunpowder and metal filings, hasn't spent hours and bullets bought with her own wages hitting target after target after target while flinching at the gunfire a little less each time… Kanata was never meant for battle, Kureha thinks, and curses her own hands and their weakness, curses her fingers that shake and shake around a rifle stock but stay nimble and sure with bandages and sutures. Curses her own failings and swallows, swallows, chokes against her own dry throat while her weak fingers clench tighter and tighter and her fingernails seek out blood.
Kanata gives her a small sad smile that's full of so much understanding it makes her sick, makes her wonder if she ever really knew this girl in front of her, whose shoulders are strong, whose eyes are unwavering, whose hands squeeze her forearm and feel like absolution, forgiveness, and the warmth Kureha hasn't felt since Rio-sempai left. Maybe before that. And maybe that warmth is what keeps her from breaking again when she goes downstairs and sees Filicia, finds that Colonel Hopkins has disappeared, and suddenly Noel is speaking with a voice she should never have to use and Kanata with her miracle ears claims she’s heard an order for ceasefire and there’s nothing she can do now. Only take her seat as the gunner of the 1112th and her pride as a fortress maiden and pin her threadbare hopes on Kanata, this Kanata with her fiery eyes and solid shoulders and unshakeable belief, treasonous or not. The armies are charging at sunrise, and Kureha’s just glad she’ll get to see another morning, can barely think to ask for anything more.
The least surprising thing in the sudden silence of peace is Kanata. Every morning she plays to the sunrise. Sometimes it’s reveille. Sometimes, something from Rio’s book. She never plays that song, though, not since the battle. One time, Aisha hums it while resting and Kanata freezes, before excusing herself and it makes Kureha sick to her stomach, angry and lost because Kanata loves music more than anything and that melody more than other music. But it makes sense a few minutes later when she follows her outside.
Every soldier still stationed here, which really is the majority from both sides of the battle, looks at Kanata like a hero, or a goddess. They come up to her and give their thanks in Roman or Helvetian or a broken mix of both. And Kanata shrinks away (she should never shrink like that; she was built to take the whole world inside her and ask for more), shrinks away and won’t meet their eyes with hers, and oh, this is why they’ve gotten so much dimmer.
“I-I really didn’t do anything special. I was just following orders,” Kanata stammers to a cluster of seasoned, ragged Helvetians.
“If Aisha hadn’t shown me how she knew that song I wouldn’t have managed anything,” she mutters to scruffy young Romans.
The thanks keep coming, and the worship, and Kanata looks more terrified and lost and fragile than Kureha has ever seen her and so she isn’t even thinking when her legs surge forward and she’s guarding Kanata with every bit of her scrawny body, hoping she can be enough this time without breaking.
“Don’t you idiots have anything else to do with your time?” she bellows, and the soldiers all stir and murmur. Miracle Klaus protect me, Kureha prays, and clenches her fists so tight her nails break skin. “Private Sorami is very tired, just like the rest of you! There are so many soldiers staying at our base to rest before marching home, and everything’s confusing, and all she wants is some peace and quiet, okay?” Kureha’s panting now, red-faced and furious, and she feels more like a panther than ever. “Don’t you think she’s earned that?” The Helvetians in the crowd look ashamed and the Romans confused but at least they back away a little. “SHOO!” she screeches, and her fists raise up and she’s running through anatomy and where to punch to make it hurt but not break anything, and they finally, finally scatter.
She looks back at Kanata briefly and then turns away, because there’s something in Kanata’s face, mostly in the eyes, that makes Kureha’s spine burn, a little. She glances around to make sure no idiots will bother coming back and marches off, one, two, one, two. Kanata needs peace and quiet, and so her duty’s done for now. Besides, she has a secret mission to complete, and only as much time to complete it as it takes Kanata to return.
When she sees the glass dolphin on her pillowcase that evening, Kanata smiles like when she saw butterflies in the summer meadow, like a golden sunset spreading across her tired face, and Kureha gives herself a quick, self-satisfied nod when she’s sure Kanata isn’t looking. Mission accomplished.
Kureha scowls and taps her fingers on the rope of the bridge before glancing at her watch, again. She’s made it three minutes without looking this time, which is definitely an improvement. Mostly. Kanata just sort of leans on her slowly and blinks with too much innocence, like she doesn’t know what Kureha’s doing. And her lips are doing that dumb almost-pouting thing and Kureha manages, somehow, to scowl even harder. She has very talented face muscles and has had a lot of practice recently, but even still it’s barely something she can hold for more than ten seconds without feeling like she’s pulled a muscle.
“I just hope this new recruit isn’t late,” she explains, instead, and her voice is a little gravelly. Which just makes Kanata’s eyes do that other thing where she might be laughing inside her own head but also could just be constipated, and Kureha (for once) isn’t all that happy for the newfound confidence Kanata has.
Kanata smiles blandly and leans a little harder on her (and she’s still growing ok, it’s not fair to pretend she’s a guardrail. Also patently untrue). “Do you think maybe she fell into the lake?” Kanata asks, and if it weren’t for that thing with her eyes Kureha would actually think she were serious. Instead she does the mature thing and pokes her tongue out. Where Filicia can’t see.
And then Kanata perks back up like a puppy and says she hears Klaus’s motorcycle and so they all get into a sort-of formation and stand at attention, even though they haven’t buttoned down all of their dress coats and don’t look formal, but really. In this stable peacetime, who could they possibly be sending for garrison? Probably just some half-washed, dreamy-eyed child with pants too big for her and no sense of decorum --
And then there’s Rio, looking too uncomfortable in her skin while her words come out formally, holding procedure like a lifeline and her eyes say sorry, say may I may I please, say forgive me say I’ve missed you… and Filicia is her usual self, all warmth and love and “Welcome home.”
Rio hugs Filicia tight, then Noel, then Kureha and then ruffles Kanata’s sloppy haircut and squeezes her shoulder before she takes her rucksack up the steps. And it’s so bright, even for a summer’s day, so bright that her eyes are a little watery in protest so she has to blink, and blink, and breathe. Kanata leans into her again, slow and steady and annoying and warm. Leans into her and sighs a little with her eyes bright as ever, and smiles.
“Shut up,” Kureha grumbles, but lets Kanata comb through her hair and retie her pigtails anyways. Kanata always gets so emotional, and needs things like this to calm herself down to have any chance of functioning like a human from a normal village, or a soldier with even a shred of respectability.
When they’d planned the celebratory dinner they’d all hoped, a little, and so there aren’t any green peppers in any of the dishes. There isn’t much Rio seems comfortable with telling them, only that she’s back and very glad to see them all looking so healthy. Rio and Kanata are so alike in many ways, and Rio’s eyes cloud over the one time they accidentally mention the war-that-wasn’t. One of those smiles Kureha knows too well shows up on Rio’s face and she loses her appetite, looks to Kanata desperately. Kanata, who’s sometimes childish but always a miracle, starts talking to Rio about what she’s learning on trumpet these days, and odd words like vibrato and cadenza and lip-trill and marcato fly between the two of them. It’s like listening to Noel practicing her Roman with Yumina for all that Kureha understands, but Rio stops looking like she’s going to run, or find somewhere to cry alone. That’s the important bit. She thinks back to Filicia saying “Welcome home,” looks around their cozy table with its food and light and growing joy and thinks she’s never heard truer words in her life.
She didn’t expect to be the first to leave. With the way Rio dreams and the way Kanata believes, and with the sly grins Noel makes over her blueprints, she’s been expecting an airship and a maiden voyage for months now, since the electric anticipation of that first balloon trip hasn’t really ever died down. But, as it turns out, even in peacetime materials are hard to come by, and they still haven’t found a way to hold enough fuel to go anywhere distant without the fuel weighing down the airship enough that they can’t have any supplies. Or that’s what she’s heard, from Noel who was mostly explaining it to Aisha when she arrived, which meant it came in small words that are easy to understand. Sometimes, Rio and Noel talking about aeronautics is like Rio and Kanata talking about music and Kureha doesn’t know what’s exactly being said, only the ways their voices rise and fall, how their hands move. Sometimes she and Filicia sit with tea and talk of simple things, like the supply and demand of their bootleg or which letters need to be sent where, or how to keep Rio and Kanata from falling off ledges when they try to see too far without noticing where they’re standing.
It’s been months of correspondence with the capital to even find a school that will accept her, and she’s fairly sure Rio used her authority as Empress in the end, because from the little she knows it’s a good school, too good to take a soldier from the middle of nowhere without any documented education. She’s been reading all the anatomy books Rio and Filicia and Noel (and surprisingly, Aisha) have been able to find her, charting out muscle groups and bones and ligaments and nerve clusters until she dreams them, until the ancient ink sinks into her fingers and stays there, until things like cynanche and haemoptysis make sense the way cleaning rifles and pickling vegetables do. Until she knows that she can breeze through her probationary exam and work hard and save lives the way she’s always wanted.
There’s a few days left until her train comes through town, and the balmy summer weather makes every hour feel like a dream. Rio and Filicia are patrolling again, which she’s pretty sure means something very different, lately, and Noel and Aisha are chattering in rapid-fire Roman. Noel says something that makes Aisha laugh and smiles big and bright and proud, and Kureha smiles too, smiles for her joy and shuts her latest textbook. It’s too nice a day to miss.
Kanata’s fiddling with a trumpet valve on the grass next to her, tongue poking out as she peers into the casing and then hums in victory. “I found the dent,” she announces, and then her face scrunches up again and she puts the valve in backwards and slams it down vigorously
“If you break that trumpet I don’t know if you can get a new one,” Kureha spits out, alarmed. Kanata just smiles wide and kicks her ankle gently, playful.
“I’m doing what Naomi told me, so it’ll be fine.” Then Kanata does that horse thing with her lips and Kureha doesn’t laugh, but only barely. Kanata puts the valve in the right way and lets out a long flurry of notes that echo against the Fortress walls and hums again, not tuneless but aimless, and flops onto the grass. “Hey, you’ll write letters, won’t you?” Kanata’s face is so neutral that the question isn’t. Kureha swallows, breathes. “Because if you do then I’ll have your address, and I can write them too.”
“I’ve heard that school might make me very busy,” Kureha murmurs, and shivers a little when Kanata’s face tightens. “But I’m not a slacker like you, so I’ll find time somewhere.” Kanata giggles and nods, and somewhere else Shuko screeches, and everything still feels dream-like. But she’s leaving in a few days, when her train comes through town, and that should feel real, shouldn’t it?
She’s riding in a freight car, because that’s what soldiers do. The hay scratches along her neck uncomfortably, and her rucksack has more books than clothing in it and she’s caught halfway between smiling and crying because she’s done it; she’s finally learning to heal like she’s always dreamed of, she can finally look at another person and see what should be saved, not where to aim. The dinner last night had felt like a wake, half joyous but with hints of mourning and far too much sake passed round and round with fond memories and searching looks. She’s fairly sure she’s gone twenty miles before she gives in to curiosity and opens the battered caramel tin Kanata had pressed into her hands when they said goodbye. There are three onigiri inside and two sweet biscuits from the bakery, the kind with lemon zest that she always looks at longer than the rest. And maybe she starts blinking a lot all of a sudden but there’s nobody in the train car with her to notice, or care that maybe her uniform got a little stained, too. It’ll wash out, though, like it never happened.
There’s a piece of folded paper in the tin as well, and Kureha pulls it out with trembling fingers. The letters are shaky but deliberate and obviously Kanata’s handwriting, she notices, as she traces her own name and finally, finally opens it at the creases and reads in the dim light.
i’m pretty sure you’re on the train now, because You’re much better than i’ve ever been
about not eating before you’re supposed to. I hope the tracks are working like they are
supposed to and it doesn’t get too bumpy. I remember on my first train to Basic Training
it was so loud and rattling that I could barely sleep. I know I said that I would write to you
when I knew your address but you know I’ve never been patient and so i guess i couldn’t wait
a Woman once told me that if I thought about a person enough then that person would receive
my feelings and Rio has taught me this is true, I could hear her on the wind when she played. I
will be thinking about you a lot, I think, and so if you hear something on the wind at your school
it is probably just me, not a Ghost and you are not crazy. I will wait for your letter and again,
I know you will do well in school because you are one of the smartest people I know.
Good luck with everything and I will miss you.
Kureha reads the letter again and again, before folding it and placing it reverently into her breast pocket. Her eyes are damp and stinging with salt, but when the train rounds the next curve and the horn sounds, the echoes sound almost like reveille, like the last ringing-out of a golden trumpet, and she smiles, listens. Because oh, she hears, oh, she feels.