A/N: Dedicated to my dear friend Middletails.
This wasn't happening.
It couldn't be happening.
The instant the bullet struck and she crumpled to the ground he leapt down to her, not even seeing or hearing if the others were covering them or returning fire. In that instant, the chaos around them melted into the distance as he distraughtly looked for any sign of life.
Tearing his hat and headset off, he leaned close, desperately trying to listen for a breath, or even a mere gasp, but heard nothing except his own panicked heart grating against his ribs. Screaming for a medic, he lifted her into his arms, the blood oozing from her wound onto his uniform, creating an odd, dark pattern of despair and regret. He wrestled a glove off with his teeth, not even tasting the foul flavor of metal, sweat, and gunpowder. Pressing two shaking fingers to her neck, he hoped what he felt was her pulse and not just his own adrenaline. All the while he called her name frantically, plaintively, as if doing so would wake her—and him—from this horrible nightmare.
"C'mon, Boss! Got to move, bring Alicia." He heard Largo's voice, though the words took a moment to register.
He lifted her easily, the panic bolstering his strength. Turning her in his arms, he tried to press her bloodied chest against his in a desperate effort to slow the bleeding as they moved. He felt each agonizing step, each hastened heartbeat, as he raced towards the medical tent, praying he would be fast enough.
"You need help?" That was Largo again, running next to him, and keeping a rifle trained on the distance ahead. Others flanked them, guns at the ready, but he didn't bother to look to see whom.
He just gave a quick shake of his head and shifted her slightly in his arms. If this was going to be the end, he wanted to be the one holding her, no matter how awkwardly.
Into the field hospital he dashed, leaving Largo and the others outside. Breathless from the run, his voice was hoarse as he called for someone to help. A medic gestured to a cot and he set Alicia down onto it, telling her—and himself—it was going to be all right.
An instant later, a medical team swarmed around her. Vital signs were read. Orders were shouted. Supplies—he couldn't have named them if he had tried—were carried in. It felt like a trance as the medics' deliberate, benevolent movements blended into a vile blur.
He heard something metallic and unyielding hit the dirt floor, resounding with a ghastly thud. It was the armor plating that she wore around her legs and back when in the field. "Beetle-tastic" he had called it so many months ago, much to her confusion and annoyance.
He winced at the memory. It hadn't protected her.
But then, neither had he.
They began cutting off her clothing. Calculated, acute snips instantly reduced the uniform she was so proud of to nothing more than a pile of bloodied, filthy rags. That's when they closed ranks around her, blocking what they were doing from his view. He took a few steps closer, trying to look over their shoulders, just trying to see if she was all right. Just trying to let her know that he was there.
One of the doctors turned around and snapped at him. "Get out! You're in the damn way!"
He didn't move. He wasn't going to just leave her there. Not alone.
"Get him out of here!"
One of the medics—Fina, he was certain her name was—put a hand on his chest and gently pushed him back. Guiding him a safe distance away from the cot, she said, "Please. Let us work, Lieutenant Gunther."
Feeling utterly helpless and useless at the moment, he did as she asked and kept his distance despite the burning, desperate questions that were consuming him. Was she breathing? Had they stopped the bleeding? Was the Ragnaid they'd given her working yet? Was she going to be okay? Over and over these raced through his mind but he did not speak them. No, he didn't want them to kick him out. He had to be there, no matter what the outcome. She deserved that, at the very least.
He wasn't sure the exact amount of time he stood there in trepid silence and watched the medics work on her. At least they didn't stop. He'd seen that happen before where there was no hope. They'd simply administer painkillers and move on to the next wounded soldier. But they didn't do that here. Whatever they were doing, they kept at it. Tirelessly.
And that brought him a bit of hope.
However long it was, by the time he heard the word "stable," the blood she'd left on his chest was dry. He wanted to walk over and find out exactly what the prognosis was, but the doctor gave him a wary eye and he remained where he was for the moment.
Right then, as if noticing it for the first time, one of the women began to remove the red scarf Alicia always wore in her hair.
That's when he spoke up. "Please, leave that. She'll want it."
"It's filthy. We don't want to chance an infection."
"Let me have it, then," he said, a sigh holding firm behind the demand.
Fina took it from the cantankerous woman and brought it to him, gently placing it in his gloved hand.
"Is she going to be okay?" he asked, almost dreading the answer as he folded the scarf into the pocket of his jacket.
Her answer was annoyingly ambiguous. "She lost a lot of blood. We'll have to wait and see."
He gave a nod and watched as the rest of the medical team dispersed.
The perky, blonde medic touched his arm reassuringly. "I promise we'll take good care of her, Lieutenant. I know she means a lot to your squad."
"Thank you." To the squad, yes, she meant a lot. To him, so much more.
Fina gestured to a small, crooked stool in the corner of the tent. "You can stay with her for a little while, if you'd like."
He carried it over to her bedside and sat down, contemplating what to say to her. Instead of words that he needed coming to him, all he could hear was his father's voice, distant and forlorn.
"War doesn't determine who is right, Welkin. Only who is left."
He heard those words he was only seven, the cryptic response to his deduction of: "But we won, so they must've been wrong, Dad."
Now, fifteen years later, he fully understood. At this point, who was left? Isara was gone. Alicia might be too, soon. He shook his head, not wanting to think that way. He needed to stay positive for her. She deserved that.
Taking off the glove he'd forgotten, he tucked it under his belt and reached to hold her hand. The calluses she'd earned from her rifle brought a brief smile to his lips, but it disappeared as a question—one he felt selfish for thinking—lilt in his mind.
Did she know?
Everyone else seemed to. A gentle, knowing grin he caught from Largo when the huge man saw the two of them talking. Then there was a smirk and a laugh from Rosie when they were at the beach and he stammered through comparing Alicia to a seagull.
Oh, and Faldio, of course.
Just over a month ago, Alicia had found the two of them sitting in the mess hall, talking about times at school and other things that seemed to be forgotten amidst the war. Carrying a basket of freshly baked bread that smelled of rosemary, she set it down between them. Her hand brushed his shoulder and she reminded him not to be late for the tactical briefing. He gave her a nod and a smile, promising not to get sidetracked on his way to the meeting. As she walked away, he watched her every movement with a wistful grin.
"I can't recall ever seeing you have it this bad before," Faldio teased when she was gone. "I just hope you have more sense than to tell her that she somehow resembles an insect. Your idea of what makes a compliment has never been on target."
He'd laughed at the time, a nervous, telling chuckle that Faldio had hit the mark on all accounts. Now, those words stung, just reminding him that others saw it.
But did she?
Could she have understood what he was trying to say the night before?
"You're the only reason I haven't completely lost it, Alicia," he had told her.
But those weren't just words. It was the pure, unadulterated truth. She had been the first to give a smile when things were looking dim. She had staunchly supported him on that first mission, even when the others thought he was insane to try and drive the tank under the river. She strived to keep the peace among members of the squad when they had their disagreements.
But perhaps the single most important thing she did was not believe him.
A month ago, on that dreadful night they returned from the coast, the journey seemed hours longer than it was as the tank's engine rumbled with a despondent timbre. He refused to ride in it, not wanting to sit next to his sister who had been shrouded in her Darcsen scarf. All the while as they walked, he kept his gaze on the ground, fighting the smoldering in the corners of his eyes and the tightness in his chest and throat. He forced himself to hold all emotions in check, just for the sake of the squad. They didn't need to see their commander upset. The mission had been successful and morale needed to remain high. Fortunately, no one dared to speak to him as the Edelweiss bore the body of its pilot back to headquarters. If they had, he was certain that the façade of acceptance he put up would instantly crumble.
Somehow, he made it back and even managed to give a report. Alicia stood next to him as he tersely informed Captain Varrot of the outcome of the operation, the status of the equipment, and finally, the loss of their tank pilot.
"I see," the woman said, adjusting her glasses as she looked up at him. "My condolences, Lieutenant."
"Thank you, Captain," he replied with a tight nod before she quickly dismissed the two of them.
Then, despite the late hour, he insisted on going to his office under the guise of doing paperwork. Alicia questioned this, wondering if he was going to be all right. He lied. He was fine, he said, sitting down at the desk and staring blankly at a requisition form that had been left on it days ago.
Closing the door, she stepped around to him, her footfalls echoing with caution as she approached. "I don't think you should be alone right now."
"I'm fine," he repeated, not even looking up at her. The words on that paper were burning his eyes, whatever they said.
"No, you're not, Welkin," she said, touching a hand to his shoulder. It might have been the harsh truth, but her voice was so delicate, it didn't matter. "No one can just be 'fine' after seeing his little sister killed."
He still didn't look at her. His eyes fell to the butterfly she had given him as a gift for The Feast earlier in the day. He'd put it in a jar, with holes carefully punched through the lid. Twigs, leaves, and dirt made up its tiny home and he watched as it spread its spotted wings, beating a simple, methodical rhythm as if the problems outside in the world didn't matter.
"You may think you have to hold it together for them," she said, nodding towards the door, yet not taking her hand from his shoulder. "But you don't have to do that for me, or yourself."
Only then did he give her a despondent sideways glance, one that said that he was thankful she was there. Curling his toes inside his boots, he made a desperate effort to distract himself from the tears that threatened to fall.
She slid herself up to sit on his desk, facing him, and quickly replaced her hand on his shoulder. Keeping her eyes focused on the wall behind, she stared at one of the many shadowboxes that displayed his pinned butterflies. "Don't fight it. Let it out."
Crossing his arms on his desk, he dropped his head down onto them, his hat flying off with the quick, sudden motion. She rubbed his back; her touch was warm, reassuring, maternal, even. Pent up, sorrowful whimpers escaped his lips. She whispered his name, as if those two simple syllables were a vow that this would be their secret.
And then, he finally cried.
For all that shouldn't have happened.
For a broken promise to his father to always watch after his sister.
For a childish dream his sister clung to even in the last few breaths of her life.
For a girl too young, too compassionate, too innocent, too idealistic to be taken.
That dream, it was a fantasy they'd talked about as children. He'd told her wanted to fly and she promised she'd make it happen. For years she tinkered with her real father's plans for the contraption, creating new drawings, and making models. Even after she joined the militia, she kept working on that dream—their dream. Countless hours of her free time were spent building a frame in the shop with some of the other mechanics. She'd take him to see it once in awhile, always telling him, "I promise we'll fly someday, Welks."
He hoped she was flying now.
With that thought, the second, more violent wave of tears came. Those were the tears that brought the shuddering, the incoherent cries of utter anguish, and the ones that finally rid him of the tension and trauma. As they started, he felt Alicia run her hand along his back some more, up and over his neck, slowly rustling through his hair to the crown of his head.
That particular touch was the most soothing feeling he'd ever experienced. She seemed to be gently pulling the pain from him, coursing it up through his body, helping it all escape.
After a good, long while, his breaths became less hitched, more focused, and the tears stopped. He started to sit up, and she kneeled next to him. When he looked at her, he saw that her cheeks were damp.
She didn't need to explain. They were both close to Isara. Hell, they were all family.
Now, sitting next to her in the makeshift hospital, watching her chest rise and fall with a slow, shallow breath he rubbed his forehead. "I'm sorry," is what he whispered to her. "I'm sorry, Alicia."
There was so much to be sorry for.
Sorry for making her hold animal droppings while he explored a wild goat trail.
Sorry for not scouting more carefully before assembling the squad.
Sorry for all of the missed opportunities to say how much she meant to him.
Last night was definitely the worst of those missed opportunities.
It had been the perfect setting for something honest like that. There they were, sitting out in the meadow next to their hometown, looking up at the night sky. The Lion's Paws she had planted six months ago—the day they'd met and the very same day that Bruhl fell—blossoming all around them.
The conversation moved from the mission they'd just been assigned to how they planned to rebuild Bruhl once the war was over. It was refreshing to talk not of things left behind, or lost, but those that could be found, nurtured, grown. She told him that whenever they talked, she felt things were going to be all right. He answered by saying that she was the reason he was still sane. But instead of going further with that, he stood up and stepped away.
She didn't let him get too far. "After this war, there's something I want to tell you," she said.
He knew what it was. It was what he wanted to say moments before, but it seemed that neither of them wanted to burden the other. Not that night. Not the night before a decisive battle. Not the night before one of them might not come back. It wouldn't have been fair. Would it?
Right then, she embraced him and rested her head on his chest. As he wrapped his arms around her, he couldn't help but relish her touch, her nearness, and especially her scent. It was an intoxicating fusion of the rosemary from the bread she'd baked, the Lion's Paws she picked, and even the grass she crawled through in battle. It was beautiful.
In those few moments there was perfect stillness as they just held each other, eyes closed, ignoring the problems that surrounded them. After awhile, she looked up at him, her eyes softly searching his, following his every glance with tender desire.
He wanted desperately to kiss her at that instant, but didn't. Not when things were so uncertain in the world. He glanced away, but didn't release her just then. A few more moments of peace in each other's arms, and he finally—regrettably—told her they should get some sleep.
They parted, and if she was disappointed, she didn't let it show. He went back to the tent to try and find rest, but his mind wouldn't let him. He didn't sleep at all, spending most of the night contemplating what he should've done and reliving those precious moments. It was amazing how she fit perfectly into his embrace, how her breathing mirrored his as they held each other, and, how hours later, he was still able to smell her on his uniform.
It was the very same uniform he wore now, covered in her blood.
Now, if he had it to do over, he would've told her.
He would've kissed her under that star filled sky.
Hell, he would've gently laid her down on the soft grass amidst the rows of her beloved Lion's Paw and made love to her.
He touched her cheek and made a silent promise that when she woke up, he would tell her. He would tell her everything.
"Boss," Largo said as he walked into the tent, breaking into his thoughts, but being polite enough to keep his distance. "We got a meeting."
He gave a nod and stood up, but didn't take his eyes from Alicia. A meeting meant a mission. A mission he didn't want or need at the moment.
"You dropped these," the large man said, offering his hat and the glove he had torn off earlier.
"Thanks," he replied, tucking both into his belt.
Taking her kerchief from his jacket, he placed it on the cot, just within her reach, just in case she woke up while he was gone. She'd told him months ago that it reminded her of her bakery days and how much she wanted to remember those happy times. He wanted to make she sure had it, and those memories.
One last touch to her hand and he told her, "I'll be back soon, Alicia." He trusted it was the truth.
He hoped they would return from this new mission to find her awake and well.
He hoped this nightmare of a war would end quickly.
Most importantly, he hoped she knew.
Because, as selfish a thought as it was, he needed her.