Title: Burn Like Snow
Characters: Sol, Ky
Warnings: Violence, blood, and all the good stuff.
Disclaimer: Not mine, I'm just playing in the sandbox.
Notes: Set at an unspecified point in time, though I'd place this fairly early in their relationship, and Ky is not yet supreme commander.
Burn Like Snow
The dawn breaking over the mountains barely brought any change from the night, a heavy gray cloud cover hanging low between the peaks, making the sky seem oppressively close. Snow was covering everything like a thick, flowing blanket, so that with only slight absent-mindedness, one could relive a childish fantasy of a land of powdered sugar and cream.
The fantasy did not stand up to close inspection, however; the snow had frozen over during the night, creating a treacherous layer of solidity that didn't hold up under the pressure of human footsteps.
Frowning at the expanse stretching before them, Ky resisted the urge to burrow further into his coat in order to ward off the chill that was creeping into his body despite his best efforts.
Winter had come early this year; he had been hoping the good weather would last at least until they had crossed the pass up ahead into safe territory. That safety was little more than an illusion, he knew—nowhere was completely safe, but it was safe enough for an entire regiment of battle-weary men and women, who had been in the field for six months straight and were looking forward to a chance to rest and enjoy a home-cooked meal for once.
Less than half the number he had started out with, though anyone making it back was already a success.
But the snow. The snow was bothering him.
A sharp crackling sound alerted him to the fact that he was no longer alone, though that, too, had only been an illusion. There was the night watch, after all, and a couple of early risers, all of them politely keeping their distance to grant him privacy. He didn't even need to turn and see who it was, knew from the rhythm of the steps that it could only be one person.
No greeting, of course, but Ky knew better than to feel offended.
A tiny point of light flared up in the morning gloom, and a short moment later, a cloud of smoke rose to join his own condensing breath in the air. It took Ky a second to realize that he couldn't even smell it properly, and he self-consciously reached up to rub at his nose, undoubtedly already crimson from the cold.
The snow was going to slow them down significantly, hiding the uneven terrain, its frozen state making it that much harder to walk. The cold, too, was working against them. It had to be colder than zero, a fair bit colder, if no more than a few minutes outside led to him losing the feeling in his cheeks and nose.
Colder than zero meant no new snow, most likely not anytime soon, and while that might have seemed like an improvement at first glance, it also left them with the question of the tracks. It was like leaving a trail of breadcrumbs; only the ones to pick up on them wouldn't be the local songbirds.
"Go over the mountain and risk running into them, or go around and risk running into them. What's it gonna be, boy?"
The voice breaking the silence surprised him a little; he had almost forgotten that the other man was even there.
"I didn't expect you up so early. Finally taking your duties seriously?" Ky returned, throwing him a sidelong glance. It was too cold for a smile, but the snort told him it had come across as a joke, anyway.
"Not hardly," Sol said, punctuated by another drag on his cigarette that almost seemed a bit demonstrative, as if daring him to say anything. "Too fucking cold to stay asleep. Getting up and walking around's better than freezing your ass off."
Despite his words, he was only wearing his normal overcoat, the cigarette balanced between gloveless fingers. Ky knew better than to remark on that, too. The lie was an obvious one, and they both knew it, but questioning Sol about his motives was an exercise in frustration and futility. Better to accept that he was here now, and had chosen to start a conversation rather than a fight.
"Either way, there's a risk," Ky said slowly, cupping his hands in front of his face and blowing. The warmth was only temporary, the air stinging against his skin when he stopped. Shaking his head, he dropped his hands again.
"We'd have to backtrack to go around… we'd lose valuable time. But… taking the direct route gives them more possibilities for an ambush. Some of the gorges up ahead almost require us to walk in single file."
"Running sushi, human style."
"This isn't funny, Sol," Ky said, frowning. Cynicism or not, he hated those kinds of remarks, even if they were depressingly accurate.
"Sure it isn't," Sol conceded, tapping the cigarette to make the ash drop into the snow. It didn't even sizzle, robbed of its heat before it hit the ground.
Sighing, Ky chose to return to the subject at hand. Arguing semantics wouldn't get them back to civilization.
"I'd prefer to go around under normal circumstances, but… they've burned down the last depot for the next hundred kilometers, and… that ship isn't going to find us."
"So that's what that was all about, yesterday," Sol said, and Ky looked at him in surprise.
"How did you—"
"—know that you were upset about something? You were clenching your ass tighter than usual."
He smirked in the face of Ky's withering glare, but relented eventually. "Don't worry, I don't think anybody else noticed."
"They bombed it clean out of the sky," Ky murmured, redirecting his line of sight to the pale clouds. That ship had been carrying a whole supply of medical equipment and ammunition, all things they desperately needed. "I don't think we can afford…"
"The mountain, then." Sol let the butt of the cigarette drop to the ground, where it sputtered and died.
"Yes," Ky nodded, trying his best to school his features into something resembling a neutral expression. It definitely wouldn't do to let his mood affect the rest of the troops.
Despite the fact that the conversation seemed to have drawn to a close, both of them remained, silently staring up at the line where white was melting into gray.
Eventually, Ky shifted, turning to go. "I'll tell them to bandage the horses."
There was no noise to tell him that Sol had moved, but he could still feel his gaze lingering on his back as he swiftly made his way to the other side of the camp.
"What are they doing?"
The question was whispered, almost lost on the wind howling around the rocky outcroppings—not directed at them, but at the horde of Gears bumbling along in the cirque below.
They didn't appear to be driven by any special purpose, though the fact alone that so many were grouped together in the same place, without dispersing or trying to tear each other apart, hinted at Justice's underlying control. Sol could see them even without any aid, silently counting numbers, trying to assess the extent of their strength.
Behind him, the scouts were more huddling than crouching together, worried looks etched into their faces. They were all looking the same these days, pale and frightened, children sooner suited to wielding a flail or a sickle than a sword.
All, except one.
"Dormant." To his left, Ky lowered the binoculars, squinting to adjust his eyesight.
They had been forced to stop a while ago when the news came in, brought by a sweat-drenched scout because radio communication had broken down between the peaks.
"About three-hundred, from the looks of it…"
"Three-hundred and sixty," Sol said, recounting as he spoke, and pretending he couldn't feel those eyes on him, thoughtful and steady instead of disbelieving or wary. "There's a couple of chameleons in there."
"Where?" Ky lifted the binoculars again, scanning the area.
"Over to the left, where the rocks are. Look for their shadows."
"I see them."
Sol didn't reply, waiting for the boy to finish his own head-count. It was a bit disconcerting, this lack of protest, of resistance, when Ky seemed so severe in everything else—just the type to get into a huff over being corrected, seeing it as undermining his authority. Not that Sol was being particularly respectful; that was a game he didn't feel like playing even on the best of days, with people who weren't children.
Shouldn't it all be relative, from your perspective?
Still, Ky had never been like that, taking offense at any bit of advice, when Sol had been so sure he would, instead keeping the real disagreements for when they could actually afford the time to properly… disagree.
"They could be bait." Ky let the binoculars sink again, his brows creasing just slightly.
"Maybe, but not very likely."
Justice rarely used tactics beyond brute force, simply attacking with a berserk fury that struck terror in her opponents.
I suppose we should be thankful like good little boys and girls, that she likes seeing us squeal way more than she likes wiping us out in one go.
"Even so…" Ky paused. "Even so, if they're not under orders right now… something is up. If there's one group, then there are more. And we can't allow them to get any closer to the villages. It won't take much for them to notice us, anyway. And if they do…"
…then the queen beast does.
Ky stayed silent for a moment, his face a calm facade, betraying nothing of his thoughts—that he was already mentally tallying the expected losses, calculating how to best use their limited resources, how to keep as many alive as he possibly could. Sol wouldn't have believed it himself, if he hadn't seen it, hadn't seen the kid poring over personalized condolence letters to the families of fallen soldiers whenever he had a moment to spare.
"So, we hit them?"
"We hit them."
"…ome in… ba… Base? …Command… Kiske?"
Ky winced against the loud explosion of static against his ear, trying to adjust the channel to a better frequency, to little avail. "Kiske here."
"Alpha wing… ere …pursuit… successfu… arget… estroyed…"
The voice was still heavily distorted, almost drowned out by the hissing noise, but the message was easily understood. If they hadn't been successful, there would have been no message.
"Understood. Return to base, Alpha."
The reply got lost in another burst of static, and then the channel was switched off. Ky returned to peeling his blood-soaked gloves off his hands before they could freeze solid there, reaching up to push his dripping bangs out of his face and unwittingly dragging the gore further through his hair.
The battle had been brutal, but not nearly as brutal as it could have been, if they hadn't had the element of surprise on their side. Ky drew a deep breath, stretching just as much as the soreness permitted—minor things, all minor, nothing that warranted any special attention, nothing that would slow him down—
"So there you are," came the familiar voice, Sol rounding the monstrous bulk of a charred beast that looked like part lizard, part nondescript deep-sea worm, shaking himself off in an attempt at getting rid of the foul-smelling substance that was covering his uniform.
There was an odd pause as he drew close, subjecting Ky to an intense stare he didn't know how to decipher, nostrils flaring almost as if… Ky shook his head. That was ridiculous.
"Gut fashionable this season?" Sol finally said, a hint of a smirk hovering at his lips, reaching out nonchalantly to pluck bits of tissue from his hair.
Ky stayed still, not sure why he allowed the intrusion, since the gesture was usually meant to annoy him—and annoy him it did, having his hair ruffled like a little kid. But now, it seemed more friendly than provocative, even though the glint in Sol's eyes was the same.
Who knows… who knows what he's thinking. Sometimes, I think I understand… and then it all gets turned on its head again.
"And in three different colors, too. I see you're going for something daring."
That elicited a weary chuckle. "What, only three?"
Sol picked another bit from his hair and made a show of examining it. "Eh, three and a half."
"You're not doing so bad, yourself," Ky observed, nodding at the streaks of gray-green something slowly freezing solid against splashes of pink and red.
"You kidding? Something sneezed all over me when I was trying to kill it. I've never been so insulted in my life."
"Gear snot, how lovely." Ky made a face. "Stop touching me."
"You weren't complaining when I was touching you a second ago. I'd have thought you could tell by the smell."
"It's not that much different from how you usually smell," Ky retorted, trying very hard to keep from smiling. He knew he didn't have the time, but banter was nice, this was nice, a welcome transition from the battle to the inevitable aftermath, when he would have to deal with everything else.
It's… not so bad. I think… I think we did okay.
Silence descended between them, Sol pleasantly picking the last bits of Gear intestines from his hair and Ky trying to decide on how to proceed from here.
This battle had further exhausted their already limited supplies, not to mention the troops. They were still a good way from anywhere, but now they would be forced to set up camp for the night close by, a place Ky really didn't want to stay in, because it wouldn't take the enemy long to catch on.
"Puts a kink in our plans, doesn't it," Sol eventually said, voicing Ky's own thoughts. It was funny, in a very frustrating and yet sometimes oddly comforting way, how it was always "their" plan until Sol found something in it that he didn't like. Ky noticed that his fingers were still there, plucking lightly, almost involuntarily, and that was strange as well, but not entirely unpleasant, either.
"I'm afraid so. We won't be able to get very far… people are already at their limit. But we should at least try…"
Ky frowned. With this group destroyed, any others in the surrounding area would become active, though the outcome would have been the same either way, most likely even worse. Remaining here would be beyond foolish; they needed to cover as much distance as possible before nightfall, and camp out in a location that was much more to their advantage.
They'll understand. They'll understand we'll have to move as far as we can… nobody wants to die through false kindness.
Suddenly, a heavy hand landed on top of his head. "Let's get you cleaned up, before you turn into a Ky-sicle."
"Haha, very funny," Ky muttered, shrugging off the hand and turning towards the base camp.
Suddenly, the radio at his belt crackled again. "…ommander… Alpha… you… ere…?"
Blinking in mild surprise, Ky unhooked it and brought it to his ear. "Speaking."
More crackling, and then the noise faded, leaving the squadron leader's voice to ring through in a distorted shadow of itself.
"…Commander, you… ight wanna look at this."
The small collection of houses huddling against the side of the mountain barely even deserved to be called a village. The buildings were more simple wooden huts than farmhouses—though you had to wonder what they thought they were farming up here, with rocks all around and barely any green—the tiny church by far the most well-kept construction around, and that told Sol all he needed to know.
Perhaps the most amazing thing about the settlement was that it wasn't abandoned.
"I can't believe there are still people this far out," Ky was saying, marking the location on his map. The thing was so tiny nobody had even bothered putting it on the record, and Sol knew that this alone was bothering the boy severely.
"Maybe they missed the memo about the coming apocalypse?" Sol suggested, only half in jest.
With these remote villages, you never knew—some of them managed to survive like tiny, stubborn islands in a raging sea, because sheer luck let them—Justice either not knowing or caring, with her sights set on something that would put up more of a struggle before she inevitably crushed it.
Ky frowned harder. "It doesn't matter—they can't stay here. If the Gears find this place…"
Blood in the water. This'll be a one-stop buffet and nothing more.
The village mayor… elder… whatever he was—Sol had never been able to memorize all these different customs and couldn't have cared less, anyway—was surprised to see soldiers arriving in his little town, but was by no means unaware of their purpose.
He was the typical wizened old geezer this job seemed to require, with wild bushy eyebrows nearly hiding his sunken eyes. He had to lift them in an almost comical fashion to peer at his visitors, while his granddaughter silently poured tea into three mugs and then tried her best to make herself seem part of the nonexistent wallpaper.
"…I understand that the situation is grave," the old man said after Ky had finished outlining the circumstances. He took a deep breath and then waved at the girl, who seemed to take this as her cue to bring him his pipe. The old man serenely filled it with fresh tobacco and lit it, drawing a couple of times before continuing. "…But we will not leave."
That wasn't the word Sol would've chosen for the occasion, but the audible disbelief in Ky's voice was probably the most impolite thing he could manage. Just their luck, running into someone who had already lost his marbles.
Ky cleared his throat, hastily catching himself. "I mean, I beg your pardon? Perhaps, my explanation wasn't—"
The elder drew on his pipe again. "Your explanation was perfectly clear, young man. But… this is the lot in life granted to us by God. And so He will… we shall be spared."
Okay, that one isn't just past his expiry date, he's stark raving mad.
It was really tempting to say that out loud, but that wouldn't get them anywhere. He threw a sideways glance at Ky, whose eyes had darkened at that invocation, clearly not pleased yet not about to criticize. A strange fragment from his own childhood education on the matter surfaced momentarily, making him wonder…
Heaven helps those… how did that go again?
"But the Gears won't—"
"We have faith, young man."
The old man stared at Ky for a long moment, as if daring a holy knight to say anything against his beliefs, but Ky stayed silent, even though he obviously wanted to say something.
"Hey, wait a second—"
But Ky was already pushing back from his seat, preparing to leave. "I'm sorry to have taken up so much of your time." He bowed slightly. "Thank you for the tea, Miss."
Once they were outside again, Sol finally voiced his displeasure. He thought that he had shown remarkable restraint in the face of so much idiocy, and the entire way Ky had folded just like that was bothering him all the more.
"And here I thought humanity had learned something during the last century. Fucking nutcases. If the guy upstairs really were that fond of helping out in his own vegetable patch…"
"Heaven helps those who help themselves," Ky murmured softly, a strange echo of his earlier thoughts. He didn't even take offense at his words, not like Sol had been hoping he would, in a moment of utter irrationality where he just wanted to punch something. "…But I understand that some wouldn't see it that way."
"Give me a break," Sol growled, watching the boy put two fingers to his chest, to the cross Sol knew was hidden beneath his uniform. "You understand? All I understand is that the guy's fucking insane."
Ky looked at him for a long moment, the hardness in his eyes not really directed at anything. "I may not like it, but I understand. In a way. I understand that anything else… might simply be too hard for them to take."
"What's so hard about making like a tree and leaving?"
"If you've built your whole life around a single thing… that can be hard to let go of. Perhaps… it would require that person to change forever."
Sol wanted to reply to that, but something stopped him, something that came wrapped in a memory of the scent of formaldehyde and chlorine. He shook his head.
Ky sighed, and started walking. "Let's go back. I need a map for this."
"Oh, come on now. You're not that cute. You can't possibly be that cute."
"What do you expect me to do, Sol? Leave these people to die?" Ky said sharply, whipping around to stare at him.
Glaring hard, Sol wished not for the first time that he could shake some sense into the foolish child. He would have, too, if he weren't so certain that it would accomplish nothing, that Ky would still do this, alone if necessary, or die trying. He would have, if he had thought for even a second that Ky had no idea what he was doing, that he wasn't thinking exactly about everything it would cost them, and more.
"Let's go get that map. We're gonna need a solid defense for this," he muttered, briskly resuming his step, so that he didn't have to be subjected to that goddamn grateful smile.
"All clear, sir, as far as I can see. Radar's being a bi—I mean, the radar is being wonky."
Ky suppressed the amused snort that wanted to escape him at the soldier's hasty correction—what was it about him that people thought they couldn't talk how they usually talked? He was sure Sol would have a ready answer to that, if an incomprehensible one.
"Understood. Just do what you can and try to keep an eye out."
"Will do, sir."
The radio clicked off, and Ky returned to gazing into the darkness beyond the pass.
At his side, one of the snipers shifted on the ground, adjusting her grip on the ray gun, and muttering something in rapid Italian that sounded like "radar" with a couple of curses attached.
"We'll just have to make do, Private," he said softly after a moment, the foreign words slow to come to him.
It hadn't been meant as a reproach, but she whipped around to stare up at him, a guilty flush spreading across her cheeks that was visible even in the blue-tinged gloom.
"Oh no, I didn't mean—" she said quickly, in heavily accented English. "It's not the radar, it's…" She waved her hand. "It's in the earth. Veins of ore, crystal formations deep within, and other things."
The woman ducked her head. "Not that I, uh, think you don't know this, sir. I just… people love blaming stuff on technology whenever something goes wrong. You know?"
Ky nodded and smiled in what he hoped was an encouraging manner, though that seemed to have the opposite effect as the sniper flushed harder and fell silent.
"You know a fair bit about these things."
"Oh! Oh, not really, sir. I just grew up tinkering with this stuff. My father used to be a sonar operator for the 7th fleet off Sicily. I… I couldn't have followed in his footsteps, though, not after…"
Not after they blew that fleet out of the water, and Sicily along with it, in the first assault on the Mediterranean.
It had happened before he was even born, almost twenty years ago, but the thought of an entire island wiped clean…
"I'm sorry, sir."
Ky realized he was frowning again, and shook his head. "There's nothing to apologize for. It's good to know that there's someone to help out in case we're having problems."
If at all possible, the woman turned even redder at the compliment, but didn't reply. Ky scanned the area one last time, detecting nothing.
"I'll leave the field to you, then. Report immediately if there is even the slightest thing unusual."
"Of course, sir."
She seemed relieved to be able to return to military protocol, and Ky didn't need to look back to know that the other snipers were relaxing just slightly as soon as he had turned away. Briefly, he wondered whether he really was that unapproachable, before chasing the thought away and resuming his trek down the slope, towards the commander's tent.
A mug slammed down in front of him with a little more force than necessary, startling him out of his concentration.
Sol withdrew his hand, muttering something unintelligible about food, before busying himself with his own mug. It was a steaming kind of broth just shy of being too salty, but Ky sipped at it gratefully, not caring how it burned in his mouth.
Sol glanced up at him over the rim of his mug in mild surprise, before his expression seamlessly morphed into a glare.
He had a peculiar thing about having his kindness shoved in his face, and Ky freely admitted, if only to himself, that it was part of his reason for saying thank you, apart from due gratitude or politeness. There was a certain element of pleasure in seeing Sol twitch and glare accusingly whenever he realized that he had done something he hadn't really meant to do, for whatever reason.
"The instruments are still having trouble," Ky said after a while, reaching out to brush a few scattered drops of soup from the map. "I don't think we can rely on them, but… there's no sense in telling the troops that we're basically blind and deaf."
Sol stayed silent, leaning against one corner of the table.
"The outpost still isn't responding, either. I've got no idea if they can even receive us." He paused. "…How were things on your end?"
"Nothing," Sol said, and downed the rest of his mug in one go, despite the liquid being scalding hot. "But that doesn't mean…"
It came out quietly, almost apologetically, and he was sorry, in a way, for expecting Sol to see them coming when their instruments couldn't, when the rest of them couldn't, just because he had better eyesight, because he had enough experience to predict…
It's more than that, and you know it is. Nobody can predict these things, not like that. Sometimes, it's like he's pulling it out of thin air…
So many incongruities, things that were simply lacking an explanation however much he tried. And Sol, of course, impenetrable as always, putting his talents out in the open, doing so many impossible things…
Take it or leave it. Not much of a choice, is it?
Ky would never understand why a man like that wasn't at least a sub-commander, for no matter how much Sol's more insufferable qualities could drive him up the wall, his rudeness, his improper conduct and his tendency to disregard orders, it wasn't like he didn't have the ability, and Ky had seen him risk his life to save people, however much Sol liked to pretend. And if he could recognize that, there was no reason to believe Commander Undersn hadn't recognized it ten times over.
Then again, it wasn't like people weren't following him, anyway. If I weren't so sure he really didn't care for the responsibility, I'd wonder if he resents me for taking it off his hands.
"Once the weather clears up, the connection might be better. I'm loath to send any kind of messenger… and it's not like they'd be much faster than us."
Faster at dying, maybe…, came the little voice in the back of his mind, and he shook his head because that thought wasn't his, that biting sarcasm belonged to someone else.
He looked up at Sol, who hadn't even acknowledged his words with a noise or a gesture, to find him standing perfectly still and staring straight ahead, beyond the pale folds of the tent, at something Ky couldn't see.
"Sol? Is something…?"
Sol's eyes snapped back into sudden, sharp focus, and he knew then, even without the words, what it meant.
"Doesn't matter. They're here."
A/N: ...I'm pretty sure I'm ripping off every wartime movie I've ever seen here. XD C&C is, of course, very welcome.
1) Title adapted from a poem by Amy Lowell. Pretentious author is pretentious.
2) I had a specific place in mind when I wrote this, and you might even be able to guess where it is from a few hints. No, it's not Italy. XD
3) Yes, I gave them magic guns. Because fighting raging twenty-foot beasts with nothing but crossbows is a little... laughable. Sorry, Ishiwatari-san, but no.
4) I'm pretty sure everyone of rank in the Order can give commands and hold a conversation in at least six different languages, and the soldiers can swear in a couple of more, not counting the dialects. *laughs*