The Glorious Six (Six Chances)

by

elmwynn

(98) Part III | 16.4: Brother, 0650 Filial Affliction (1)

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A note from elmwynn

Re-cap:

Cvetka greets Cadence and Werner's unit in Aquarius and reveals that they areall  in the palm of her employer's hand. On the Kaiser's orders, they are sent back to the capital to deliver Werner and Marionette Engel, leader of the Verbundene Augen movement, to the employer. However, they are forcefully detoured to Werner's hometown along the way. 
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Meanwhile, Werner finds himself on a detour as well through what appears to be childhood memories of the other five. He must cut the intrude out of him, but Shion keeps putting up roadblocks around the way and contradicting herself.

 

Filialleiden » Filial affliction brewing at 0650 hours

 

Eisburg, Capricorn

 

Ludwig Waltz, eldest son of the esteemed Waltz family, had a routine. Every morning he greeted the sun with a cup of coffee: two teaspoons of sugar—no more, nor less. And that’s how he started this morning.

Continuing on with his morning ritual, he read the political column of the morning paper and nibbled on a slice of bread spread with jam and ham. His wife sat beside him and rubbed circles into his bad hand until it was time for her to leave for work at the local newspaper. A local branch of the Enlightenment Committee, to be exact.

After he finished up breakfast, he made his way to his work station just a room over. It was as meticulously kept as he’d left it: a single desk pressed against the wall; a low, dustless shelf housing tools and metal gears; and a small window to let light in. His most recent project rested on his work desk, his lenses and apparati hanging on metal extensions and appendages with alligator clips. A train ticket to the capital balanced at the corner of his desk, paired with a letter that ended with an ‘innocent’ question—

‘You’ll be a good son and support your father with us, won’t you?’

Bypassing the letter and ticket, he retrieved his toolkit from his shelf, parked himself in front of his desk, and tinkered away.

He used to view this as menial work—a secondary profession taken up by family members who couldn’t be exemplary—but now he loved the delicateness and intricacy of it all.

Of course, he wasn’t as good as his sister Viktoria. She had years of clockmaking on him. But, he supposed even if they’d started at the same time, she’d still be better. She had a steadiness about her and had inherited the same sharp eye his brother had gotten from their mother. It had taken months for Ludwig to get over the fact that he would never be the best even at clockmaking. But he was coming to terms with it: there was no need to be the best. And the words that had started the journey to this realization were told to him by a Transmutationist at a field hospital during the Reservoir War:

“You’ll never be able to walk or use a conductor ever again.”

Even so, Ludwig’s subordinates had still respected him and had treated him no differently when he’d received his honorable discharge. He’d thought home would offer the same.

It had taken a month after he returned for reality to settle in. It started when Mother began deferring her expectations of him to Werner, who irritatingly met all of those expectations head on. As time passed, Mother had even asked off-handed questions whenever he was in earshot: “Werner, you want to be like how your brother used to be, don’t you?” Her disappointed sighs whenever he had to ask Werner or Viktoria to get something from a higher shelf for him were just the icing on the cake. But her ever watchful, judging ice-blue eyes—flecked with the prettiest of golds and silvers—had been the real terror.

The last straw was when he’d made his way into their household trophy room and saw a newspaper article clipped above all of his medals and honors. The headline was still burned into his mind to this day—“War hero makes the ultimate sacrifice: saves subordinates so they can fight another day.” The article was encased in a golden frame.

Several nights later when Werner had come with the results of his V-Type test, Mother had thrown a fit. She’d sobbed, wailed, demanding that he get re-tested, asking him why he had to be a Projector. And after Werner had no answer prepared for her, she had bemoaned to herself: “Why do I have three useless children? Why do I have to have such terrible luck? What will people think about me…?”

That night had also been the first time Werner had ever sought comfort from Ludwig. But instead of offering it, Ludwig had cruelly reveled in his brother’s failure and had left him only with: “There’s no such thing as luck or chance, Werner.” In other words, it’s all your fault.

Ludwig’s words only became crueler from them on, his anger hotter, his jealousy more potent. And as a result, he’d lost his siblings through his own volition. Eventually, he’d left home and never came back. No. He’d abandoned his siblings and left them in that house to fend for themselves.

It had taken Ludwig years to come to terms with it—his injury, the war, his family. But by that time, it was too late. The thing was, once a bridge was burned, there was nothing left that could be used to build it back up. All he could do now was amend from a distance in any way he could.

Ludwig blinked out of his thoughts and checked the clock resting at the foot of his desk. Three hours had already passed. Damn.

“Dwelling on it won’t do anything,” a peacekeeping agent who’d been assigned to do psychological evaluations on Conductors after the war had told him. “I recommend you find something to keep yourself occupied. You’ll lose your mind otherwise.”

And so Ludwig started tinkering away. Piece into piece, gear into gear, smooth and concise.

A knock at the door half an hour later drew him from his work.

Odd.

He hadn’t been expecting any visitors.

He put down his tools and made his way through the kitchen to the entrance. When he opened the door, he found a young woman with wispy platinum blonde hair perfectly combed to her waist. A blemishless white sunhat rested on her head, and a pure white dress enveloped her thin figure.

“Viktoria…?” Ludwig did a double take. “What are you doing here?”

“Didn’t you hear?” Viktoria cast down a tight, distant smile. “Werner’s coming home.”

 

* * *

 

Ludwig Waltz, eldest son of the esteemed Waltz family, was dressed in his best Sunday morning wear. Even though it was a Tuesday. Even though he had two large orders to be finished with at the end of the day.

Ironic. He made things that told time but didn’t have enough of it on his hands.

At the moment he was waiting on the small train platform in town beside Helga Wolff, maid of the Waltz house and mother to Gilbert Wolff who was one of his brother’s friends. Ludwig had never understood how Gilbert and Werner got along.

Ludwig checked his wrist watch.

His sister was still not here despite being the one who informed him of Werner’s arrival. Neither was Mother. Even though she always stressed the importance of timeliness. Hypocrite.

Ludwig himself wasn’t ready for the reunion. Usually, he’d get at least two weeks’ notice in a curt but detailed letter whenever Werner was to come home. Today he’d only had two hours to prepare and wrangle out his apprehension and work out conversations in his head.

A horn bellowed loud and clear as click-clacking resounded down the shaking tracks in front of him. A sleek black train with clear tubing running down its body slowed to a stop a meter away. The clear tubes which had been pulsating with blinding white light dimmed as the locomotive let out one last horn.

Ludwig’s heart hammered.

A man stepped out from the closest train compartment. Not Werner—Ludwig felt mild relief at this—but someone familiar still: Gilbert. The young man looked older than Ludwig remembered, now sporting mild stubble and a scar just below his right eye.

When they locked eyes, Gilbert stiffened and started towards him almost aggressively: “What are you doing here—ow!”

Frau Wolff smacked Gilbert upside the head again. “You haven’t seen your mother in months and you don’t even greet her first?! What kind of son are you?!”

“Ma, I’m sorry—ow! Ma!”

Instead of accepting the apology, Helga pulled Gilbert into a tight hug and buried her face into his chest. Without hesitation, Gilbert returned the gesture and melted into the embrace.

Feeling somewhat uncomfortable, Ludwig looked away from them and towards the train just as a duo boarded off the same cart. Ludwig recognized Werner first.

His brother’s uniform was even more immaculate than usual. Some of his medals were missing though, causing Ludwig to wonder if they’d gotten dirty. Beside Werner stood a wiry young man with curly black hair and a medic band sewn onto his sleeve. The duo whispered to each other as they paced forward, amusement flickering on the medic’s face and a smile on Werner’s. Upon noticing Ludwig’s presence, however, the smile slid from Werner’s face.

Ludwig tensed and made his way over to them.

Werner stared at him in response. Stared at his wheelchair. Only for a brief second. But he stared at it. “It’s good to see you, Ludwig. I wasn’t expecting to see you here. I was going to visit once I was situated.”

Ludwig opened his mouth, raised his hands, but froze and clenched his fists. Damn. “It’s good to see you too.” He nodded at Helga. “Frau Wolff heard from Gilbert that you were coming home and told Mother.”

Both Werner and the medic stared at Gilbert.

Werner then gestured to the medic: “This is Nico L. Fabrizzio, a combat medic in my unit. Nico, my brother Ludwig.”

Nico brightened and extended a hand. “Pleasure to meet you.”

Ludwig accepted the shake, noting how Nico didn’t flinch at the sight of his hand. “I’ve never met someone from Werner’s unit before. Are you local to the area or…?”

“Not exactly…” Nico chuckled.

Peeling out of the train came a man in a captain’s uniform. Behind him filtered out a cluster of uniformed soldiers of varying rank. The soldiers were caged around two figures with cloaked hoods pulled over their heads.

It had to be an operation of some kind, Ludwig figured. Only reason for an entire unit to come to this town.

One of the hooded figures turned in their direction. An older man with a gaunt face. Ludwig recognized him immediately, and his heart thundered as Friedhelm Heimler stared back at him with eyes widening in recognition. The man’s gaze flicked to Werner and then back to him again. He shook his head once.

Before Ludwig could digest the action, his attention was drawn away by twin shadows falling along the platform. He looked up to see Viktoria drifting on towards them in a dress that was impossibly whiter than the one she’d worn when visiting him. Right beside her came Mother: tall, thin with perfectly tied up blonde hair and a floral-printed dress. Her ice blue eyes were crinkled with practiced sweet warmth and tender affection. Each step she took was gentle and precise. Between them padded a single dog with dark fur and pointed ears: Fenrir.

While Mother kept as far from the dog as possible, Viktoria held her loosely on a leash and allowed Fenrir to guide her along—at least until Fenrir suddenly charged forwards and ripped the leash right out of Viktoria’s hands. The dog bounded towards them, target locked and loaded: Werner.

Werner stumbled—no, scrambled—backwards into Nico who took one look at Fenrir and scrambled away himself. They crashed to the floor together as Fenrir launched herself onto Werner and began monstrously, viciously licking his face.

Ludwig ogled the scene.

“Fenrir!” Viktoria exclaimed as she bounded over and pulled Fenrir away. “Sorry, Werner, she’s just so excited to see you—”

“Werner, honey,” came the soft, feathery voice, as sweetly sick as always. “What are you doing...? The floor is dirty.”

Nico rose first and offered Werner a hand, but Werner bypassed it and stood himself.

Eyes lingering on the gesture, Mother continued, “Viktoria, you need to take better care of that thing. It’s embarrassing to see it slobbering around.”

Viktoria dipped her head and pulled Fenrir aside. The dog whined in response, tail wagging, eyes still glued to Werner. “Right, I’m sorry.”

Ignoring the discomfort in the air, Mother took a step forward and pulled Werner into a tight embrace. “Welcome back, honey.”

Werner tensed, causing Mother, Viktoria, and Ludwig himself to stiffen. A beat after, however, he returned the gesture as he normally would—one arm around the back. The embrace lasted twenty seconds exactly. When the two peeled away from each other, a man was standing just behind them wide-eyed. The captain.

Tense, the man looked between them all. “Is... this your family, Waltz? How did they know we would be here now? Did you tell them?”

“I wouldn’t have the means to, sir,” Werner replied before gesturing to Gilbert who was still being embraced by his mother. “It seems as if Second Lieutenant Wolff let news of our arrival travel.”

The captain relaxed slightly and turned to them. “I’m sorry. I haven’t introduced myself. I’m Volker Weingartner. You can just call me Volker”—He eyed Werner and Nico—”Of course, that’s only because you’re not in my division.”

Very funny, sir,” Werner said.

“Oh my, a humorous captain!” Mother chuckled pleasantly before introducing herself. She then squeezed his sister’s arm: “This is Viktoria, my daughter.” And placed a hand on his shoulder: “And Ludwig.”

Weingartner regarded Ludwig for a moment before nodding and offering a salute. Ludwig startled before returning the gesture. It felt good.

Mother pressed, “Werner, you usually write when you’re coming home. I had to learn from Frau Wolff that you were comin—”

“This isn’t a routine leave,” Werner interjected curtly. “We’re on a delivery operation. Although it hasn’t been labeled as covert, the implication is clear.”

Ludwig tensed as did Victoria.

Had Werner interrupted her?

Mother placed a hand over her mouth. “Oh no… I didn’t realize. Oh, honey, I wish you would’ve told me. Now I feel terrib—”

Werner’s lips dipped. “That would defeat the purpose of the meaning ‘covert.’”

“We’ll only be staying for a day,” Weingartner inserted before addressing Werner: “I’ll leave you to catch up, Waltz. We’ll be checking in at the local inn in the meantime. Meet us there in two hours—”

Mother gasped. “Oh, with all due respect, Captain Weingartner, that’s nonsense. He’s just come home, and you’re taking him away from me already?”

A tense pause.

“I’m joking, of course.” Mother chimed before addressing Werner: “But I’ve just had Helga and Viktoria tidy up your room, dear. You should stay the night at home. I’m sure Gilbert is planning to spend the night with Helga too.” Turning back to Weingartner, she clasped her hands together and gasped. “Oh, I know just the thing! Your Werner’s superior officer, aren’t you? Why don’t you join us for dinner? Helga’s already preparing more than we can eat.”

Weingartner and Werner exchanged looks.

Something akin to guilt flickered in the captain’s eyes, before he complied, “Well, if you insist, Frau Waltz—”

“If I may, would it be alright if my combat medic”—Werner gestured to Nico—”join us? He’s never had a Capricornian dinner before.”

Mother’s lips tightened at this suggestion. She turned Nico over with her eyes, the corners of which crinkled with disgust. It was all very subtle, so Ludwig doubted Nico even noticed. But, of course, despite her evident displeasure, she smiled brightly and said, “Why, of course, Werner.”

 

* * *

 

Dinner was awkward.

Frau Wolff made a fantastic feast, as always. Presentation was spot-on: white-laced tablecloth beneath colorful dishes of golden pasta, browned meat, lightly-seasoned vegetables—Maultaschen, Sauerbraten, Spätzle, and so on. The food looked picture-perfect. Almost too good to eat. Mother wouldn’t have it otherwise.

Once they were all seated—Mother, Viktoria, Ludwig himself, Werner, Nico, Gilbert, Helga, and Weingartner in that order—around the long rectangular table that Ludwig had grown to hate, conversation began.

The conversation was trivial. Weather, work, how their duties were going, and so and so forth. The captain made compliments about the house decor: the large windows that took up half the wall, the grandfather clock resting above the archway leading to the stairs, the dustless chandelier above their heads, and the white piano placed just down the hall in the visitation room.

As usual, Ludwig lost focus halfway through only to return at a random time:

“Are you the one who designed this all?” Weingartner was asking good-naturedly. When Mother answered affirmative, he said, “Well, I must say, Werner takes after your precision and work ethic.”

“He really takes after his father,” Mother responded. “He retired to clockmaking after the war. He’s quite good at it.”

“Yes, that would be Ulrich Waltz, Cold Wall of the South, right? I never had the pleasure of fighting beside him during the war, but I’ve heard stories.”

“Oh, I’m very lucky. We’re so blessed that he can still serve Capricorn even though he’s retired. He was invited to Die Hauptstadt, you know?”

“To the capital?” Weingartner pressed. “For the conductor convention I’m assuming?”

“Yes, he actually just asked us to come along to the capital recently,” Mother explained. “We’re taking the Zweiblitz-43 at 4:55 tomorrow morning.”

Gilbert and Weingartner tensed, while Nico and Werner continued working on their meals.

“Oh my! Is that the same train you’re leaving on?” Mother gasped, before her lips curled into a smile. “Well, this is all the more reason to come, Ludwig!”

Ludwig put a piece of goulash in his mouth, chewed, swallowed. “I have a lot of orders to get through, Mother.”

Mother hummed and cut through a piece of meat with one stroke of her knife. “Well, we can’t all be on top of things, can we?”

Silence stretched on.

Nico cleared his throat and gestured down the hall. “About that piano—does it work? If it does, you should play somethin’, Werner. I haven’t heard you play in forever—”

“You haven’t practiced in a while, honey,” Mother interrupted sweetly. “Are you sure you want to play? I mean, everyone’s tired. I’m sure they want to have a nice, quiet dinner to enjoy—”

“I’ve been practicing,” Werner answered, rising to a stand. “Of course, I’ll defer the choice of entertainment to the audience.”

“Oh, I’d love to hear you play, Werner!” Viktoria gave a slight applaud. “I don’t think I’ve heard you play since we were young!”

There it was again. That steadiness Ludwig didn’t possess himself.

Weingartner tensed but then smiled thinly. “I’ve always been interested in the cultural differences in the musical arts.”

What?

Werner inclined his head and made his way to the piano. He slipped off his gloves, sank into the chair, and rested his hands on the keys. After a dramatic pause, Werner’s fingers began gliding across the keys slowly, fluidly. Slow, methodical. A Capricornian classic.

Ludwig was rather surprised.

Werner’s playing was actually... good. While Werner had always been good at the piano, he’d always ‘missing something’—or so Werner’s piano tutor had said to Mother years ago. Not too long after that, Mother had ended Werner’s piano lessons; and Werner had never touched a piano again. Or so Ludwig had thought—

—suddenly, Werner slammed his hands down on the piano and ran his fingers down the keys before chaotically jumpstarting into an entirely different song. His hands leapt up and down the keyboard, crisscrossed over each other, and danced dizzyingly. The notes that hit the air were upbeat, short, jumpy, fast.

“Hey, Gilbert,” Ludwig whispered to him across Werner’s empty seat, “did something—”

Gilbert quietly sighed, closed his eyes, and rested his head against the back of the chair. “Better not to think about it. It’ll only hurt your head, Ludwig. Trust me.”

Before he could probe further, Ludwig’s attention was drawn away by the combat medic. Nico was subtly tapping his fingers on his legs beneath the table as Werner played. It took a moment for Ludwig to realize that Nico was playing imaginary notes on piano—different from what Werner was playing. A duet, maybe?

At some point, the song reached a crescendo, and after seeming to hit an imaginary set of chords, Nico rested his hands. Werner seemed to follow suit. For three seconds. Abruptly, Werner picked up the song again, hands flying out in a musical flurry.

Nico stared and froze, looking almost a bit hurt.

The song reached a closing with another crescendo and a powerful chord. Applause followed. Werner turned and dipped his head slightly.

“That was… different, Werner,” Mothersaid as the applause died. “Very… raunchy. It’s good to dabble in more unrefined song sometimes.” She sighed. “Say, Viktoria, you’ve actually had some practice recently, haven’t you? Why don’t you play us something to help dinner go down?”

Viktoria tensed subtly before she smiled softly. “Of course—”

“I would enjoy listening, but I have to make a business call,” Werner said, rising from the piano and putting his gloved back on. “Please excuse me.” He stopped short, glancing down both ends of the hall. “The phone was…”

“Down the hall to the left…” murmured Viktoria.

Werner nodded before heading down that way. Ludwig watched him go as Viktoria settled by the piano and began playing.

Ludwig excused himself to use the bathroom a couple minutes after. Instead of heading to the area, however, he headed to the living room where their main phone was located. He paused by the door leading to the room and pressed his ear to the wall. Although it had been some time, he still had muscle memory and recalled his espionage training from his younger years during the war. That and the war stole his legs but not his hearing:

“—I understand.” Werner’s voice.

A pause.

“No, it’s fine. I can handle it. I was just being dramatic. Honest. Besides, Nico is here with me.”

A stretch of silence.

“Right? Who knows how long it’ll be before he chases after the next thing…. Yeah, and how broke you’d be if you came at my every beck and call too, Allen.”

A beat.

“No, really. The family business comes first.”

Another pause.

“Right… That’s what I meant—your family comes first.’”

And then an extended stretch of quiet.

“Dammit!” A clang and rattle resounded—the phone slamming back down on the receiver. “What did I even want from them anyways? Stupid...”

Ludwig pulled away and made for the restroom. He waited in there behind the door as he listened to the clock tick over the sink. After seven minutes had passed, he peeled out and headed back into the living room. Bypassing the numerous open windows that let in way too much light, he approached the phone resting on the main table and picked it off of its receiver. After turning the dial, he connected with the operator and requested to be connected to the line that had been called previously.

“Alright,” the operator popped cheerily, “and that would be the Capricornian General Military Historical Archives, right?”

What…?

Ludwig’s mind raced before realization hit. He was certain it wouldn’t have dawned on him if it weren’t for his former experience: “No... Connect me to the line that you connected to just before the previous call.”

There was a crackle then a pause followed by, “Is this some sort of joke?”

The sudden curtness of the operator’s voice caught Ludwig off guard.

The operator sighed. “Whoever was calling from this line last started talking to himself before I could connect him to anyone. He spoke over me too when I was trying to get him to clarify.”

Ludwig tensed. “What did he say?”

“I don’t really know. It didn’t make any sense, but it sounded like he was trying to get help.”

 

* * *

 

Dinner ended with the same false niceties it began with. Being the only victor of the night, Weingartner left for the local inn with a bottle of wine and a container full of leftovers after pulling Werner, Nico, and Gilbert aside for a private chat.

Afterwards, Werner excused himself, the combat medic, and Gilbert up to his room to discuss a ‘subject of importance.’ Meanwhile, Helga left to tend to the dishes. This left Ludwig alone in the dining room with Mother and Viktoria. The silence was heavy. Ludwig wanted to at least bid Werner a farewell before leaving but being in her presence was unbearable so he excused himself early.

Instead of winding down the garden path connecting to town after he departed, however, Ludwig made his way around the back of the house. He grabbed hold of the vines growing up along the arbor there and pulled himself up along the wall. His legs dangled uselessly below him, but he’d trained himself to not rely on them. He eventually hoisted himself up onto the roof that extended out just beneath Werner’s bedroom window. He lay there for a moment, catching his breath.

Back in the day, he would climb up here and knock on Werner’s and then Viktoria’s windows after their curfews and make them stargaze with him. They’d lay for hours staring up at the sky. But never when there was a full moon out.

Shaking off the memory, he pulled out a compact mirror from his pocket and held it away so that he could see the interior of the bedroom.

Espionage training really had its uses. Manipulators weren’t the only ones who could do it.

Ludwig watched as the door creaked open through the mirror. Three stiff figures stepped into the room: Werner, Nico, Gilbert.

“Man, talk about exhaustin’.” Werner sighed as soon as the door was shut. “I’ve been in rooms with bosses from Gemini, Sagittarius, and Aquarius—all at once. Those meet-n-greets have nothin’ on this.” He threw a look over his shoulder at Nico. “Thanks for stickin’ with me.”

Ludwig stared.

What? Why was Werner talking like that?

“Always,” Nico replied. “Kinda interested in Werner’s family myself, to be honest.”

Werner turned on his heels and arched a brow at Gilbert. “Anyone else ya gonna invite ta the party, Gil?”

“Well, it’s my mom, alright? Of course I’m gonna ring her up and tell her I’m coming home.” Gilbert shrugged. “She’s old. Don’t want to give her a heart attack. Told her to keep it on the down-low, but I forgot how much of a chatterbox she is...”

“I gotcha. I ain’t pointin’ fingers.” Werner walked around the room, inspecting the bed, the desk and its chair, and then the shelves along the walls. “I like a man who’s dedicated ta his family. Hate a man who ain’t.”

“Hm, I like the sound of Werner stroking my ego. Only if it was actually him, and only if you were sincere.” Using the chair to rest his feet, Gilbert sat up on the desk. “Well, whatever.”

What…?

“Hey, I am bein’ sincere. Honest.” Werner fell back onto the bed, kicked his legs up on the bedpost, and folded his hands behind his head. “Anyway, this is a cute town. Not what I expected. Can see where ya got your small-town boy charm from.” He stretched out his arms and framed the ceiling. “Ya know if I ever retire from the biz, settlin’ in this kinda place doesn’t sound too bad.”

Gilbert scoffed. “The town’s alright. Haven’t had leave since the border conflict with Aquarius. Feel kinda guilty. Not only is Werner not here, but neither are any of the locals out serving who’re form the area. Not on leave yet. No one to drink with. Greta isn’t here either.”

“Greta?” Werner squinted before his face brightened. “Ah, right, the Specialist medic. Your girlfriend—”

“She’s not my girlfriend,” Gilbert grumbled.

Werner yawned. “Ever thinkin’ of actually askin’ her out? Like to a dance or somethin’? Ya know the Twin Cities isn’t known for just its bars and casinos. Not as good as Cancer for romance but we still have our dance halls.”

“Uh, after what happened back in October when we were there”—Gilbert crossed his legs—”I think I’ll pass. Anyway, you rang your underworld overlords in the Twin Cities earlier, right? Any news?”

Nico stiffened. “Carl and Allen—what did they say?”

All of the names were unfamiliar to Ludwig.

Werner stared back up at the ceiling. “Ya know I had this sorta weird scenario in my head where when I’d ring them up, they’d say”—he cleared his voice and suddenly his voice and tone changed—“‘Cadence? What are you talkin’ bout. Cadence is standin’ right here, talkin’ and walkin’. Who the hell are you?’”

“What kind of scenario is that?” Gilbert arched a brow.

“I mean, I still don’t understand a lick about vitae. The others’ve explained it ta me, but it’s over my head. Who’s ta say that we all haven’t had a psychotic break at the same time, and I’m just a figment of Werner’s imagination? Could be possible. In fact, the more time I have my thoughts just ta myself, the more I think it.”

“Hell, don’t say shit like that.” Gilbert picked up a soft-cover book laying on the desk and threw it at him. “I don’t even want to imagine dealing with the possibility that you’re some permanent resident in Werner’s brain.”

Werner caught the book with ease and seemed surprised at the fact. “Still holdin’ that grudge, aren’t ya?”

“Not a grudge,” Gilbert replied, shrugging. “Just don’t forgive you.”

“Well, that just means you’re a good friend.”

Nico hung his head and gave Werner a sympathetic but exasperated look. “Cadence… can you stop avoidin’ the subject?”

“Ya know me so well. Anyway, it’s kinda embarrassin’. Seems like that my body’s about passed out right now back in Gemini. Allen and Carl kinda threw me in a hospital for the time bein’ and went about business as usual. Wish I could be nappin’ over there instead of here.”

Nico frowned.

“But I feel kinda selfish for just up and leavin’ ‘em with all the kids though.”

“It’s good that your body is gettin’ rest at least,” Nico supplied. “But… I sorta noticed you haven’t been… I haven’t seen you sleep, Cadence.”

“Well, I haven’t been,” Werner admitted, pulling himself up into a sit. “I’ve been havin’ a hard time sleepin’ since Cvetka made her dramatic entry. Can fall asleep just fine. Stayin’ asleep is a different story.”

Gilbert frowned. “What is it? Like… dreams? No, nightmares? Werner said you guys share dreams sometimes. But Atienna said something else.”

“Well, it depends on the person,” Werner replied. “I’d like ta think the dear lieutenant and I share a more profound bond than the others, so we connect more and share more and stuff. Not intentionally, ‘course.”

Gilbert scoffed. “Profound bond?”

“We share the same bad history with older women.”

Gilbert froze then grunted: “Hey, now that I think about it, why the hell did you run from Fenrir like that?”

Werner flinched. “Hey, dogs are evil, okay—”

“You should never trust someone who says they hate dogs.”

“Pretty sure the sayin’ is ‘never trust someone who hates cats,’” Werner returned. “Ya’ve never been chased down an alleyway at the black of night by a pair of huntin’ dogs before, have ya?”

“There was a candy store we’d go to all the time,” Nico explained. “Well, we’d steal from it actually. Eventually, the owner bought a couple of huntin’ dogs and we were all chased down ten city blocks. Don’t think I’ve ever seen Francis run so fast in my life.”

“Actions have consequences,” Gilbert returned before nodding at Werner. “Doesn’t explain why it happened though. I thought pretending to be other people was your skill set. And I mean, Werner’s the one who adopted Fenrir way back when. Didn’t he tell you or something?”

Werner tensed. “Well… I can’t…” He rubbed the back of his neck. “Alright, I don’t want any of ya ta freak out now—”

“Whenever someone starts off with that, I can feel a migraine coming on,” Gilbert muttered.

“See what I mean?” Werner offered a lazy grin before shrugging. “Anyway, I think I’m startin’ ta lose some of the memories that I’ve gotten from the others. Like, they’ve been teachin’ me ta read Common, I think. I know that ‘cause I can read it, but I didn’t actually remember them teachin’ me it. But I was relyin’ on Atienna and the lieutenant for written Capricornian, and—well—can’t read it anymore. Forgot Werner’s brother was in a wheelchair too—”

It didn’t make any sense to Ludwig. Did Werner have a brain injury—

“This isn’t giving you damned brain damage… is it?!” Gilbert surged to his feet and gestured to Werner’s hand. “Why’re you just telling us this now?!”

Werner smiled again, apparently more amused than upset. “Panickin’ ain’t doin’ nothin’. Plus, was afraid ya’d hire out another Monadic priest to exorcise me out or somethin’.”

Gilbert glowered. “You remember that but not the other details?”

“What can I say? You’re a memorable guy.” Werner swung his legs over the bed and faced the window. “But you should go home now, Gil. Ya haven’t seen your ma in forever. She seems like a sweet lady. Ya’know, ya could always try at jumpin’ ship here and—”

“Don’t even suggest it.” Gilbert waved him off. “I complain a lot but a stipend is a stipend. My mom relies on me. We’d be broke without me serving.”

Werner gave him a look of odd sympathy.

“Anyway, I’ll wait around until Werner gives me a direct order to get off his ass himself—which hasn’t happened in the past ten years.” Gilbert checked the watch hanging above the bedroom door. “But, my ma’s almost done with her shift here so I might dip now after all… Are you sure you’re good to be here by yourself, Cadence?”

“You’re Greta’s knight in shinin’ armor. Not mine.” Werner arched a brow. “As long as that dog doesn’t come here.”

“Fenrir usually stays with one of Viktoria’s friends. Your mom can’t stand dog fur.”

Werner spread his arms. “Then we’re all set.”

Rolling his eyes, Gilbert departed with a wave.

Nico lingered.

“You too, Nic. Ya look like ya had a late one.”

“You too, Cadence. Even if you can’t, you’ve gotta try sleepin’.”

“Got it.”

Nico took in a deep breath. “But, about the song you played…”

A scowl ripped across Werner’s face. “I’m all for critics ‘cause they’re good for publicity but what in saint’s name was that—she called my song ‘raunchy’? Even I’m insulted. What is wrong with that woman?”

“Don’t mind her. The song was really great, Cadence.” Nico frowned. “I wonder if she’s always like that…”

“Weird that she and Werner’s family are ridin’ the same train as us to the capital, ain’t it?”

“Definitely.”

Man…

After a long stretch of silence, Nico pressed, “Hey, that was our song though, wasn’t it?”

“Yeah. It was. Why?”

“Oh…” Nico stared at the floorboards. “I thought… we were going to—I don’t know—finish it together some day. I thought that was the whole point of writin’ it.”

“Well, you weren’t around, and I got a bit of inspiration. Can’t wait for ya ta come back and waste that rare spark of brilliance, can I?”

“True.” Nico chuckled, strained. “Well, it was fantastic. Ophiuchian Way material.” After another pause, he continued, “Y’know... if something… if you need…” He rubbed his arm. “I’m always here for you, Cadence, y’know that, right?”

Werner’s back was to Nico, so the combat medic couldn’t see Werner’s expression. But Ludwig could. The look of hurt, anger, disgust, and pain on Werner’s face contrasted so greatly with his parting statement: “Thanks, Nico. Can always rely on ya, can’t I?”

 

* * *

 

Ludwig wasn’t able to focus on his work when he returned home that night. He couldn’t even fall asleep. And this time it wasn’t because of the nightmares. He’d told his wife his worries when she arrived home: the unexpected arrival of his brother, Heimler at the station, his brother’s behavior.

“You don’t think the reason your brother is back is because something happened at the front, do you?” she whispered in response. “You don’t think they’ve found out, do you?”

He reassured her that that wasn’t the case. But once she was asleep, he crept out of bed and made his way out the house.

Their town was small. All the houses still maintained the old Capricornian design: white paneled-walls fitted over with thin, wooden crisscrossing lacings with little space in between them. They all looked the same—the houses. The only way Ludwig had been able to tell whose house was whose when he was younger was by peering into the gardens. Those were always different. His mother’s garden always held the most beautiful of flowers, no matter how impractical.

But Ludwig wasn’t headed to anyone’s house in particular. His destination was a bit more uninhabited:

There were rolling golden wheat fields a little ways away behind the town. They’d only recently started growing in the past couple of years because the government had built a series of vitae-fed ley-lines and insulatub tubes cutting through the country that just so happened to go right through town. Ludwig enjoyed admiring the fields and the glow of the vitae from inside the transparent ley-lines and tubes whenever he couldn’t sleep. It calmed him—

Ludwig stopped short on his stroll as his nostrils curled.

It smelled like smoke.

His heart hammered as he rushed forward along the dirt path until he found a single stamped-out cigarette laying on the ground at the entrance of the fields. After making his way past the wooden fence post guarding the area, he found a figure illuminated in gold before the rows of wheat.

Werner. His brother stood there facing the field in silence.

The tiny hulls and sleek bodies of the plants reflected back the pulsating glow of the vitae encapsulated in the tubes and ley-lines cutting straight through its center. The warmth of the vitae meeting the natural cold of the environment caused the fields to ripple like a golden sea.

A dumbstruck expression of awe was cut clear across Werner’s face. There was a glimmer of wistfulness there too. Longing. He almost looked lonely.

The wheels to Ludwig’s chair snapped against a stray twig on the ground as he crept forward, causing Werner to turn to him in surprise. There was a beat of silence as they locked eyes.

“Ludwig. You’re out late.” The stolid mask was back on.

“So are you.” Ludwig fell into place beside him. “Can’t sleep?”

“I needed to collect my thoughts.”

“So do I.” Ludwig faced the fields. “It’s beautiful, isn’t it?”

“Yes, it’s an important resource to Capricorn.”

Ludwig looked back at his brother. Up close, there didn’t seem to be anything out of the ordinary. But that was just a skill that Mother had taught all of them. Ludwig almost laughed at the thought. At least she’d taught them something useful. But—

“Do you come here often?”

Ludwig stiffened, struggling to find his voice. “Every other night.”

“I can see why.”

Ludwig’s mind went to the cigarette—

“Ludwig, what does family mean to you?”

—and his mind went blank again. He stared up at Werner and found the man staring back down at him—just like that night when he’d had sought comfort in him after the results of his V-Type test had come in.

Ludwig didn’t really understand it, but this was his chance. He was certain. A redemption. But—

Say something, Ludwig urged himself. Say something!

No words came out.

Eventually, Werner excused himself and returned home, leaving Ludwig to himself in front of the field.

 

* * *

 

Ludwig took the long way back home to let the numbness make its way out of his mind. On his way back, he passed by the local inn. It was a stone-faced building with crisscrossing wooden beams lacing its front. A sign reading simply Rastplatz stood guard at the entrance.

Although the inn was usually dark, tonight its windows were bright. Faintly, he could make out conversation—maybe a bit of laughter—resounding from within.

He went over the grass and approached the back of the building. His wife would fuss about him getting his wheels dirty, but that wasn’t important at the moment. Keeping low, he made his way to the nearest window and cautiously peered inside and found a large room.

The room’s walls were wooden, and it was well furnished with leather cushions and rows of beds. Gauging by the amount of furniture inside, it could probably house five people. Even so, only two figures occupied it.

Ludwig’s heart nearly shot out of his chest.

Sitting rigidly at the center most table in the room and facing each other were Friedhelm Heimler and Marionette Engel herself.

After recovering from the sight of them, Ludwig knocked on the window.

Marionette and Heimler startled and stared at him before both coming to the window and shoving it open.

“Ludwig?!”

Although Ludwig was disturbed to see them in his hometown, he was relieved to see them unharmed. He considered them allies, after all.

He had stumbled upon one of the meetings of the group that would eventually become the Augen when travelling to the capital for the required annual ‘Health Assessment for Non-Service’ check-up a couple years ago. It had been much smaller back then—too small and unfocused to be called a ‘movement.’ Just a collective of bitter, retired Conductors who came together to speak about their grievances. He’d met Heimler there and the love of his life too. It was much later that Marionette took the reins and harnessed their feelings. Ever since then, his wife had been hard at work weaving the Augen’s messages into the newspapers. Meanwhile, he’d been gifting esteemed officers limited edition watches for joining the movement.

Ludwig managed, “Why are you here? Are you… being detained?

“A private named Stein was on guard over us, but he left just now to drink with the others,” Heimler supplied. “I’m not sure when he’ll come back.”

Ludwig pulled himself closer. “What’s going on?”

Heimler and Marionette exchanged looks, Heimler’s more of a glower than anything else. Marionette then elaborated on their failed demonstration, her capture, and their journey through Argo. Ludwig felt faint after hearing the story’s end.

Everything they had worked for—everything he had been doing to make up for his mistakes, to serve his country—was crumbling away. But. Something didn’t make sense:

“Why would they send such a small unit to transport someone with a high profile like you, Marionette?”

Heimler and Marionette exchanged looks again.

“Ludwig.” Heimler opened his mouth, froze seemingly in fear, shook his head, sighed. “About your brother…”

 

* * *

 

Ludwig Waltz, eldest son of the Waltz, had a train ticket in his hand and a suitcase on his lap. Before him stood a sleek black train no different from the one he’d seen last morning.

Werner and his military unit boarded half an hour before Ludwig had even gotten to the station. After hearing the exact details of the unit’s ‘delivery operation,’ Ludwig could understand the rush.

As soon as he was allowed, Ludwig boarded the train himself. He didn’t bother to wait for his sister and mother to load on with them. He was going to spend several hours in Mother’s presence anyways. He was going to shorten that time any way he could.

As he was making his way to his compartment, a woman who was squeezing by stopped short and stared at him.

“Oh, we’re the same,” she said.

He glanced at her.

She had fiery red hair tied up in a ponytail and wore a white-polka-dotted blue dress. A white bandana was wrapped around her head. And. She was missing an arm.

But Ludwig didn’t stare. Because he didn’t like it when people stared at him.

“You look kind of familiar…” She peered at him. “Have we seen each other before?”

Now that Ludwig thought about it, she did seem a bit familiar. But where from? She obviously wasn’t a local and had probably been on this train when it had arrived here. It didn’t seem like she was off-boarding yet either.

“Oh.” The woman pulled back, eyes narrowing. “You’re from that time. Disgusting…”

Ludwig recoiled. “What?

The woman brushed past him, waving her good hand in the air. “Well, it’s good that you don’t use a conductor anymore. You can see where that got you.”

 


 

Threshold

 

“Come on, Maria,” a fifteen-year-old Conta sighed. Despite the exasperation in her voice, there was fondness in her eyes. “You’re always saying strange things. First about Virgoan myths and now about Capricornian fairy tales…. Where do you get this from?”

Sunlight was bleeding through the wooden planks overhead. The ground was muddy and damp. The air was thick and lingered on the tongue.

Werner wiped sweat from his brow and regarded Conta silently. A sudden tightness gripped his chest as he observed her. The admiration in the girl’s eyes was clear. How Maria had never noticed it—Werner didn’t know.

They were tucked beneath a seaport deck in an unknown location. He wasn’t sure why they were here: hiding, resting, unknown. Everything was fuzzy, but still Werner’s purpose was clear. He had to get out of this predicament and return to that moonlit room. Anything else was a mere distraction. He had managed to find an escape route out of Cadence’s memories earlier and had ended up here. The details of that event were unclear.

But he wanted to stay here with Conta a little longer.

No. That wasn’t it.

His head was pounding, his mind foggy. But he needed to find an—

—exit.

He blinked.

Suddenly the air had cooled, and there was an earthy scent on his tongue. A book rested on his lap, and heavy vines draped down around him. The wind whistling through the vine leaves reminded him of whispers. The chirps of birds filled up in the beats of silence. That sound and the ground which was littered with black feathers was the only evidence of the flock’s presence.

Werner studied the book in his lap. The title was written in Virgoan. Aries: From City-State to Feudal-based Monarchy.

“You’ve been very interested in Aries recently, Atienna,” a milky voice whispered from above.

Werner looked up as a shadow spilled over his face. An older woman with dark skin and a warm brown gaze sparkling with intelligence smiled down at him.

Mother.

Werner blinked and then winced at the bleach-white brightness that suddenly greeted him.

It was hot again, but hotter than Olive’s memory of Aries. A dryness had thinned out the air, and Werner could feel grit in-between his toes. When his eyes adjusted to the brightness, he found sandy dunes stretching out endlessly before him. The sun’s reflection off the grains of sand was blinding.

“Jericho, what are you doing?”

Werner turned and found a woman draped in a white cloak extending a hand out towards him. A familiar snake tattoo graced the right side of her face.

“Are you unwell?”

Werner caught Theta’s hand before it reached his cheek and stared over his shoulder at the figure hovering there.

“You’re the one pulling me away,” Werner stated. “What’s your intention?”

Shion regarded him as she met his gaze. There were black feathers scattered at her feet. “You never relax, do you?”

That simple sentence was confirmation. So that meant that at the moment, he was simply being dragged around. In other words, he was powerless and without control.

Shion took a step forward. “No!”

Sharp pain rang through Werner’s temple at the shout, forcing him to squeeze his eyes shut. When he opened them, he found himself sitting upright and pinching the bridge of his nose. A solid wall stood rigid before him. To his left and right were a set of bunk beds. The trench. No, a memory of the trench.

Shion was nowhere in sight.

“Are you feeling alright?”

Werner lowered his hand. Nico was standing at the entrance looking concerned as always.

“Another headache?”

Werner recalled this event. It had occurred approximately fifteen days after he’d turned in his report regarding the events in the Twin Cities to the capital. The following days had been proceeded by intense headaches lasting several hours and by flashes of Cadence’s childhood memories. Maria, Atienna, and Jericho had also been subject to this, so their collective assumption had been that being physically at the place where Cadence had spent most of her life had allowed for more of her memories to spill into them. Of course, as it usually happened, he had received a larger sum of it all than the others had.

That aside, since this was his memory this time, perhaps this indicated that he was closer to returning to that blue moonlit room. Presumably, if he assumed that this pattern of events followed the previous patterns, playing along with this memory would allow him to reach his destination.

It was an unstable, untrustworthy set of rules. And Werner disliked assumptions. However—

“It’s manageable,” Werner replied just as he’d done one month ago.

Nico didn’t appear convinced, approaching him and holding out a bottle of large white pills. “Here, try this.”

Werner inspected the pill bottle and read the description. “Drowsiness is a side effect. I can’t risk not being alert at this time.”

Nico chuckled. “You wouldn’t be missin’ out on much. It’s just trainin’ and a routine conductor check-up this mornin’, right? I’m sure Gil can handle it. He was complainin’ about bein’ bored earlier.”

“No, it’s my responsibility. This isn’t a medical hospital, Nico. There could be an attack at any moment.”

“You sure?” Nico held out the bottle again. “I mean, Stein and Vogt are always takin’ naps around this time. That doesn’t seem really fair.”

Werner paused. “Is that why they’re always late?” He frowned. “I’ve been too lenient with them recently.”—and this Werner still believed.

Another sharp pain shot from temple to temple. This was when a memory of Nico tending to a wound on Cadence’s cheek after she’d tripped and cut herself while helping Nico escape from his childhood bullies had played through Werner’s mind. This time, the memory did not come but the sensation remained.

“The trainin’ routines and check-ups are long though, aren’t they?” Nico peered at him worriedly. “I don’t doubt that you can handle it, but do you wanna really deal with all of their grumpy faces when your head is screamin’ at you? I love them to death, but even I need a break sometimes.”

“Avoiding something just because it’s painful is irresponsible.”

“Irresponsible?” Nico considered this. “That’s a heavy word. Responsibility can be shared sometimes, can’t it?”

“Not when it’s delegated. That’s unacceptable.”

“That’s an even heavier word. Why isn’t it acceptable?”

Werner paused, feigning consideration. “In this circumstance, it’s selfish.”

Nico hummed. “Okay, that’s a fair point, but still… Avoiding things you don’t like isn’t always a bad thing.” He pointed to the entrance, faintly beyond which the pitter-patter of rainfall could be heard. “That’s what umbrellas are for, right?”

Werner counted fifteen seconds before saying, “You say strangely philosophical things sometimes.”

Nico chuckled. “I’ve actually been keepin’ that one in my back-pocket for a while now. Never think of the right thing to say until the moment’s passed, but I guess today I got lucky.”

“There’s a Capricornian word for that,” Werner informed him. “Treppenwitz.”

Nico repeated the word before offering a smile. “Well, did my treppenwitz work?”

This was when Maria and Cadence had barged in at a 75% synchronization and had convinced him or perhaps influenced him—he still wasn’t able to tell even now—to accept the medication. But now, they did not come.

There was simply dead silence.

Werner hesitated before reaching out to accept the bottle. Relief cut across Nico’s face as Werner popped open the lid and downed the pills with water from a canteen Nico offered.

Nico sank down on the bed opposite and began to rifle through the medical pack he’d brought along with him. Werner watched him for a minute before his eyes began to feel heavy and the pounding in his head lessened.

How far did he have to play this out?

“Nico,” he said, “I’m going to rest my eyes for a moment. Could you wake me up when it’s time for the morning session?”

“No problem, Lieutenant,” Nico popped, brightening. “And should I tell Gil to start preparin’ for the exercises if you don’t wake up then?”

“I will wake up,” Werner said—this time with more determination than he had said with originally. “Because you will wake me up.”

Nico blinked and then offered a wan smile. “‘Course, Lieutenant.”

Grimacing inwardly, Werner laid back down on the bed and used his hand to block the rays from the v-lights glowing along the side of the walls. He shut his eyes, counting the seconds ticking by as his pocket watch thumped above his chest.

This was pathetic and embarrassing: ‘resting,’ while things were developing on the surface without his knowledge. But there was no point in dwelling. Focus and forward: out of this place.

Despite not exerting himself, Werner suddenly became aware of a fatigue hanging over his body. This was different from the drowsiness he’d gotten as a side-effect from the medicine. This sluggishness hung heavy in his limbs and hazed over his thoughts.

Was it one of the others on the surface in the override?

His mind started to drift—

Avoiding things, are you?

Werner forced open his eyes, and was met with a blinding blue orb above. The moon—no. It was the iris of an eye—ice blue with flecks of gold and silver—gazing down at him.

A nightmare. And an exit.

 

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About the author

elmwynn

Bio: Hobbyist writer, epidemiology graduate student, case investigator, retired weeb. I don’t have flashbacks; I have cringebacks. And the person who rings me up the most is Spam Likely ♡
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(If you’re reading this, have a great day!)

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