1. “It’s really not that complicated.”
Laura eyes the recipe with trepidation. “It’s really not that complicated,” Millium says cheerfully. “Even if they don’t come out right, you can just try again next time. No biggie!”
Laura frowns. “But we won’t have time to make another batch if these ones don’t turn out. We already said we’d be making cookies for our classmates and we can’t give them something we ruined.”
“Why not? Just after I got here I mixed up sugar with salt and gave Rean the cookies anyway. They were awful.” The memory has her cackling. “Oh, man, you should’ve seen his face!”
“Not everything has to be perfect all the time. As long as we have fun I’m counting this as a success. Hey, maybe I can even get Lammy to help us mix the dough!”
“You really shouldn’t summon Airgetlam indoors,” Laura protests, but she’s smiling.
(Millium almost mixes up the salt and sugar again and Laura at first sets the oven temperature twice as high as needed, but they correct each others’ mistakes and end up with something not only edible but actually tasty. Still, Laura thinks Millium had a point. The act of making them might just be sweeter than the end product.)
2. “Close the door.”
Fie thinks their room at the Parm inn is empty for a moment before she spots the blanket-wrapped lump on one of the beds. “Emma?”
“Close the door,” she says, her voice thick with tears. She swallows hard and adds, “Please?”
Fie shuts the door behind her. The room is dark, the curtains drawn against the fading glow of sunset and the lights all turned off. It’s really none of her business. She doesn’t know any of her classmates that well and in spite of Sara’s urging she’s not sure any of them would want to be friendly with an ex-jaeger. But Emma is a nice girl. She keeps an eye on everyone, takes her class president duties seriously, and patiently explains math without making Fie feel like an idiot.
Fie mostly just sat and watched all day while Jusis and Machias argued and Gaius and Emma tried in vain to make peace. Even that much was exhausting. Emma has to be feeling much worse. So Fie crosses the room and sits on the edge of the bed. “Today sucked.” Her frankness startles a laugh out of Emma. “But you and Gaius tried really hard to make things work. It’s not your fault they won’t work together.”
“I think Instructor Sara set the groups up this way to try and force everyone to get along,” Emma says. “Rean and Alisa were already close to making up, but Jusis and Machias aren’t. So she sent Gaius and I to mediate and you because you’re patient.”
“Maybe, or maybe she split us up randomly when she was drunk. You’re thinking too much. Just focus on what you can do for now. Gaius is out there working on his report already. I was going to get my stuff and join him. I’m sure we’d finish faster if the best student in the class helped.”
Emma sits up, the blanket falling away. Fie can just see her red-rimmed eyes in the dim light. “I’d be happy to. Thanks, Fie.”
3. “It’s three in the morning.”
Sara stumbles into the dorm lobby to find it not only still bright but buzzing with activity. Grumbles of “when am I ever going to need calculus anyway” mix with “does anyone see the book about taxation practices I had a moment ago” and “see, this one is like the sample problem, so just follow these steps.”
“It’s three in the morning,” Sara says to no one in particular. She feels significantly more sober than she did ten seconds ago at the sight of all these kids working themselves to the bone.
“Is it really?” Laura asks. Fie yawns so widely she looks like she might fall asleep on the spot, but at least half of the class doesn’t even bother looking up from their work. It smells like coffee and desperation in the overcrowded lobby. Even Millium has apparently reached the end of her energy reserves, her face lined with the same exhaustion as everyone else.
She steps over and claps her hands together, mustering whatever miniscule authority she still has. “C’mon, it’s bedtime. You’ll... you won’t learn anything tomorrow if you don’t get some sleep.” ( You’ll be dead tomorrow , she had almost said. Even hearing the words in her own head makes her feel like someone dumped ice over her. It’s far too soon after the funeral to joke.)
“I think I’ve almost got this,” Alisa mumbles.
Elliot sighs. “Pretty sure you said that an hour ago. You’ll figure it out quicker once you get some rest.”
In spite of scattered complaints in that vein, they all start gathering their things. “And homeroom is cancelled tomorrow,” Sara announces. “Get an extra hour of sleep.”
“You just want to sleep off the booze.” But Machias has a knowing smile in spite of his harsh tone.
Sara catches the expected hell from Vice Principal Heinrich for cancelling her morning homeroom so suddenly, but it’s fine. At least none of her kids fall asleep at their desks.
4. “I should have told you a long time ago.”
The faint sounds of the river running and animals rustling in the distance have been the only sounds for an hour when Emma whispers, “I should have told you a long time ago.” There were at least a half dozen times when I’m a witch would have been easy to say. She always made an excuse and because everyone was understanding they never pressed for a real explanation. Now Trista has fallen and war has started and she keeps wondering if she could have prevented it.
“I doubt anything you shared would have changed the outcome,” Jusis says brusquely. He’s cold and prickly and probably crumbling as much as she is, but she knows him well enough to recognize he’s trying to be kind.
“Neither of you are at fault for what happened,” Laura says softly. “What matters now is what we do next. We’ll speak in the morning once we’ve all rested.”
(For far from the first time, Emma thinks she doesn’t deserve Class VII.)
5. “Why are you helping me?”
Jusis wouldn’t consider himself unathletic after all of his days learning court fencing from Rufus. Still, two boxes filled with books is a lot to carry across campus. He doesn’t regret offering to help after overhearing the librarian worrying about moving all the books to the art and music classrooms but he thinks he may have underestimated how difficult this would be.
He’s so focused he doesn’t notice Gaius until he’s right in front of him. “You look like you could use a hand. Mind if I take one of those boxes?”
“I can handle it,” he says tightly.
“You can, but you don’t have to.” Gaius takes the top box and the relief is instant.
“Why are you helping me?” He winces as the words come out much harsher than he really intended. People don't just offer to help him without an ulterior motive. But Gaius isn’t even from Erebonia and is still working on understanding the class system. He’s the least likely person to be trying to involve himself in social politics.
Gaius just smiles in spite of Jusis’s unfriendly tone. “I’m always happy to help someone who needs it.”
There’s something familiar about the genuine kindness in his smile. It reminds Jusis of Rufus. When they all introduced themselves, Gaius had mentioned having three younger siblings. Maybe taking care of others is just an instinct on the part of big brothers everywhere. “Thank you,” he says softly.
6. “You have to leave right now.”
“If you want to go, you have to leave right now,” Alisa says. She’s still forcing a smile even after the horrific day they’ve all had.
Millium shakes her head hard. “I’m not leaving you guys!”
“We just want you to consider your options,” Gaius says gently. “We’re going to Nord. It’s going to be a long journey and it’s more than likely far away from anyone in the Intelligence Division. If you’re planning to meet with them, leaving now will be easier for you.”
“I’m not leaving,” she repeats. “Claire and Lecter can take care of themselves. Besides, I went to Nord before too. Everyone there was really nice to me. If you’re going then I want to help. Unless…” She frowns, her expression becoming more thoughtful than usual. “Are you guys trying to get rid of me?”
Alisa pulls her into a hug as Gaius says, “Of course not. You’re a part of Class VII, too. It’s a pleasure to have you with us.”
“Great! Then we’re in this together. Next stop, Nord!” Millium leaps out of Alisa’s hug with a massive grin and starts skipping along the path ahead.
“Hey, wait up!” Alisa calls. Her own smile has become much more genuine.
7. “Just trust me.”
“Are you sure you’re okay?” Machias asks, hovering too close.
“I’ll be fine. Just trust me,” Alisa says even though she feels a little woozy after the last group of monsters knocked her around. She knows it comes out a little too defensive to be believable. She just wants to see this trip through the old schoolhouse through, to not be left behind like she has so many times in her life.
“Well, we’re due for a break anyway,” Rean says easily.
“Yeah, I could definitely use a breather,” Elliot replies before she can protest. He gives her a sheepish smile when he notices her staring. “You probably have crazy stamina from lacrosse practice, but I definitely don’t.”
“Oh, no, you’re fine!” Alisa is too used to her mother either ignoring her or judging her for every flaw. She’s still reminding herself now that these are her friends who care about her and aren’t going to pick at every weakness they see. “Actually, I think I could use a little more healing if someone could help?”
“Yeah, I thought so.” While Machias’s words may seem smug, she can see the genuine kindness in his expression. These are her friends and she trusts them.
8. “I’ve been waiting a long time.”
Millium throws open the door to Altina’s room and leaps onto her bed. “Come on, Tilly! We’re going out.”
Altina stretches sleepily and blinks at her a few times until the words sink in. “This is supposed to be my day off. I haven’t heard anything about a mission.”
“No, but this is super important! I’ve been waiting a long time for this. Come on, let’s go go go!”
While she planned to sleep a few more hours, Altina knows by now Millium will never take no for an answer. “Fine. Where are we going?”
“It’s a surprise! You’re gonna love it, believe me!”
Only a few minutes later, Millium is dragging her by the arm through the streets of Heimdallr. She laughs and chatters and continues pulling Altina into conversation no matter how monotone and vague of responses she gets in return. Eventually they arrive in Dreichels Plaza and Millium announces brightly, “We’re here!”
Altina looks around and then fixes her with a flat stare. “I’ve been here many times before.”
“I’m not talking about the plaza. Over here! Best gelato in the city and the stall just opened up for the year the other day! I waited until you had a day free to come.”
They sit on a bench as they dig in. Millium steals a little of Altina’s almond gelato but offers some of her sour cherry in return. In spite of this not being how she planned to spend the day, Altina can’t help but feel pleased with how it’s turning out.
9. “You’re in love with her.”
“We get it already. You’re in love with her,” Fie says in complete deadpan after Rean spends several minutes waxing about the joys of the orbal bike.
He blushes as several of the others snicker. “It’s fun and it’s really impressive that they built it all on their own!”
“For what it’s worth, I’m interested too. I’d like to take a closer look at it sometime,” Alisa says.
“She must really get around,” Fie teases.
“Why are we assuming the orbal bike is female, anyway?” Machias asks.
As typically happens when Machias asks a question, Jusis answers in the most patronizing tone he can manage. “Because Angelica is involved.”
“Yes, that makes sense,” Emma adds quickly before they can start sniping at each other.
Sara grins wickedly. “Our little Rean is growing up so fast! Young love is so precious.”
“You’re all the worst,” he grumbles, but he can’t completely hide his smile.
10. “Come here.”
When Juna walks into their dorm room, Altina is curled up on her bed facing the wall. She’s still in uniform except for her boots and is hugging a pillow to her chest. It’s not hard to see she’s upset about something.
“Allie, what’s wrong?”
Altina tightens her grip on the pillow. “Nothing,” she says mechanically.
Juna frowns and sits on the side of Altina’s mattress. “Come here,” she says, patting the spot next to her.
By now Altina has learned it’s easier to go along with Juna than try to outlast her stubbornness, so she sits herself up at Juna’s side. Juna hugs her tight. Millium has attacked her with surprise embraces before so it’s hardly the first time, but the burst of warmth in her chest when she’s hugged never fails to surprise her.
“Look, I understand if you don’t want to talk about it. But it’s obvious you’re upset. It might help if you let it out, you know?”
“It’s really not a big deal. I’m just frustrated with myself. I’ve been in the swimming club for more than a month now and I’ve failed to make significant progress. I’m starting to think I never will.”
“That’s not true at all, Allie! Leonora was just telling me the other day how hard you’re working and how you’re getting better every practice. Just keep at it and you’ll get there, okay?”
Altina leans out of the hug so she can look at Juna. “You really think so?”
Juna beams at her. “Yeah, I’m sure! It’s always easier for other people to see this stuff. And I think you could do anything you really put your mind to.”
“Thank you.” Altina flops back on the mattress, staring at the ceiling above. “You were right. I do feel better now.”
Juna flops back too with a giggle. “Told you so!”
11. “We could get arrested for this.”
“We could get arrested for this,” Kurt says once they’re out of the field exercise camp and on the road to Raquel.
Ash rolls his eyes. “No one gets arrested for being underage here unless they make a scene.”
“You do realize I decided to come, right? I don’t need your reassurance. I’m simply making sure we all understand the risk we’re taking.”
“Well, we wouldn’t have to take it if our instructor wasn’t sneaking off at night!” Juna cries.
Altina sighs. “Juna, we’re trying to be stealthy. They’ll hear us coming.”
Musse smiles and skips a few steps down the path. “Field studies really are so much more fun with Class VII!”
“See, she’s got the right idea,” Ash says. “C’mon, stop being so uptight and relax for once in your life. Maybe we can take a side trip and I can show you how to really have a good time.”
This time, Juna takes Altina’s advice and brings her objections down to a stage whisper. “I didn’t come out here to watch you two be perverts!”
“I wasn’t planning on agreeing!” Kurt protests.
“Oh, but shouldn’t we make the most of this little outing? I’m sure we could find a way to make this… educational for everyone,” Musse says.
“You just want to do something obscene with the instructor,” Altina says.
Musse gasps in mock offense. “There’s nothing obscene about true love!”
“I suppose I should have known better than to try to be serious with you all,” Kurt grumbles.
Juna gives him a smack on the back. “Seriously, you worry too much! We’ll find out what the instructor is up to and everything will be fine. Worst case, we get a lecture about following orders like our first field study.”
“I think the lecture is more likely to come from Major Michael,” Musse says.
That makes Juna groan. “...Is it too late to back out?”
“Why are you asking that now and not when I pointed out we’re about to do something illegal?”
“I’m kidding! It was a joke!”
“Juna, stealth .”
12. “What are you thinking about?”
“What are you thinking about?” Millum asks as she flops down on the ground next to Alisa.
Above them is the night sky of Nord, impossibly starry compared to Roer or even Trista. It’s just the two of them. Gaius is with his family. “The last time we were here,” she replies. “I went out to look at the stars and everyone else ended up joining.” Rean, most significantly, but that’s a memory she wants to keep to herself.
“Huh. Must have been nice! Y’know, I was looking up at the stars when I was here too. Maybe we were all looking at them together.”
It’s a nice thought, them being connected by the stars even before they knew each other. Alisa considers the distance to their other classmates now and wonders if they’re looking up at the same sky wherever they are. Whether that’s true or not, she hopes they know she’s keeping them in her thoughts.
“Ooo, I know!” Millium cries. “Once all this is over, we should go stargazing together for real. I think Towa said she liked it. She could probably tell us all about the constellations.”
“Count me in.” Alisa appreciates how Millium can talk about the future like she’s unable to imagine not being able to return to Thors together. It makes her feel more certain, too. “And until then… I doubt I know as much as Towa, but I have read a few astronomy books. I can tell you a little.”
And for the next few hours spent giggling under the stars, there’s no need to think about anything else.
13. “I thought you were dead.”
Ash keeps catching Kurt sending worried glances his way. “Are you sure you’re all right?” he asks for the third time since they left Hamel.
In Ash’s opinion, it’s getting old fast. “Look, I know you’ve spent a lot of time locked away in your ivory tower or whatever and you probably never saw a real fight before you enrolled, but it takes a lot more than that to kill someone.”
Kurt’s eyes widen, but at least he doesn’t stammer out an apology. Between that and the rebellious stunt they all pulled, Ash is starting to develop a begrudging respect for the guy he’d thought was just another stick-in-the-mud noble.
Kurt, meanwhile, is wondering how much experience Ash has with dead bodies. It’s clearly enough to have a good handle on what qualifies as lethal damage but digging any further would be more than a little insensitive. Instead, he says, “I apologize for any offense. You’re right, I do lack that experience. There was a moment after you were hit when I thought you were dead. I suppose I’m still a bit shaken.”
This time Ash pauses. It’s been a while since he’s thought anyone would legitimately give a shit if he died. While some naive pretty boy fretting over him is annoying, the sentiment is sort of comforting. “No one’s getting rid of me that easily,” he replies instead of examining that line of thought any further. “Few bruises, but whatever. I’m good. Stop hounding me.”
Kurt nods. “I’m glad,” he says sincerely before heading over to rejoin Juna and Altina.
14. “You’re never going to let that go, are you?”
Checking the shops on their field studies are a good way to keep their equipment current and replenish supplies, but they’re also an excellent chance to shop for souvenirs and browse local products. Rean doesn’t mind indulging his students a little. After all, it wasn’t so long ago he’d been in their place. Besides, he often manages to find gifts for his friends or the students themselves, plus it’s an ideal time to strike up some conversations with the locals and get an idea of the situation in the area.
Ash and Musse seemed surprised at first when the others started browsing around but both have joined in wholeheartedly by now. They’ve all made their way to a stand that sells sunglasses in more styles than Rean knew existed.
“Oh, Allie, try these!” Juna shoves an enormous pair with neon orange frames embezzled with rhinestones at her.
Altina puts them on. “Hmm, I don’t think these would be the most effective at protecting my eyes,” she says with her usual seriousness. Juna giggles and snaps a photo with her ARCUS II before attempting to find an even more hideous pair.
“Come on, man, live a little,” Ash says from another rack. “I bet those pretty boy looks would let you pull off some wild stuff.”
Kurt sighs. “I really prefer simpler fashions.” From his tone, it’s far from the first time he’s said it today.
“Oh, Instructor!” Musse calls. “Your glasses are a good look, but sunglasses may make a better disguise. Why don’t I help you pick frames that make you look even more dashing?”
“You know, I have it on good authority that these don’t look good on me at all,” Rean says just loud enough for the others to overhear.
“You’re never going to let that go, are you?” Juna complains.
“I still stand by that,” Kurt adds. “They don’t suit your face very well.”
In the end, Rean buys some plain sunglasses that are more Kurt’s style than Musse’s. It’s mostly as an apology to the stall owner for their rowdiness. All in all, it’s a nice diversion on their patrol through the city.
15. “Was that supposed to hurt?”
Juna laughs at Musse’s weak punch. “Was that supposed to hurt?”
“I’m not suited to brawling,” Musse whines. “I’m a lady, you know.”
Juna rolls her eyes. “Don’t give me that. I know how heavy your arts rifle is. You don’t have any trouble with the recoil either.”
“I’m stronger than I look, true, but that doesn’t mean I know anything about bare-handed fighting.”
“Wait a minute, has no one ever taught you how to throw a punch?” Musse pouts but Juna keeps going. “I swear I’m not making fun of you. You just seem to know everything.”
“Well, it’s not something I was ever taught and I’d imagine it would be difficult to learn from a book.” Musse sighs. “Perhaps we should just wait until the instructor gets back. I might be able to talk him into some private lessons…”
“Oh no you don’t! Come on, I can at least show you how to throw a real punch without breaking your fingers.”
Juna patiently explains the fundamentals as she corrects Musse’s form, showing her how to keep her wrist straight, tuck her thumb outside her fist, and start with her legs. “And most importantly, you have to commit to it. If you don’t you’ll lose every fight. I know you can be one of the most stubborn people I’ve ever met.”
“Interesting, coming from you,” Musse teases.
“Hey, I mean it in a good way!” She pauses and when she continues, it’s more hesitant. “Honestly, I learned at the police academy that if I ever have to fight against someone for real without a weapon or a combat orbment I’m starting at a disadvantage. A lot of people are going to be much bigger and stronger than I am. Half the point of practicing is for confidence. If we’re ever going to use this stuff for real, we have to go all in when we’re training.”
Musse blinks at her a few times before stepping back and throwing a punch straight into Juna’s arm. “I have to admit there’s something satisfying about that.”
Juna rubs her arm. “That’s gonna bruise,” she grumbles, but then she grins. “All right, let’s give this a try for real!”
“Ready when you are!”
16. “I can explain.”
Fie sighs dramatically as she slumps in her stool. “Our sweet little Elliot has gone to the dark side. How long did it take for Machias to break you?”
Elliot rolls his eyes as he grabs his drink from the vending machine. “I’m pretty sure Machias considers canned coffee a crime against humanity. I can explain the caffeine kick without him. It’s just from too many late nights studying at the music academy. We’re in for a long night and you know we’ll be busy tomorrow.”
“Well, there are worse habits. At least it’s not booze,” she says cheerfully.
“Of course not! You know I’m still underage!”
Fie smirks at his flustered reaction. “I’m glad some things haven’t changed. If you turned into Sara I don’t think the world would make sense anymore.” She pauses for a moment, letting him sit down next to her and crack open the coffee. “So how were things in the infirmary?”
He shakes his hand in a “so-so” gesture. “No one is seriously hurt. There’s a kid who hit his head but the students in the medical team have that under control. A lot of them were a little banged up and even more were really shaken.”
“They have a few weeks of training and they were just on the front lines of an attack by Ouroboros. Honestly, it’s kinda impressive none of them are having a complete meltdown.”
“Yeah, they really weren’t prepared for this. This was way more serious than anything I saw during our first field study,” Elliot says.
That makes Fie snort. “The most eventful part of my group’s first field study was Machias and Jusis fighting constantly. Poor Emma and Gaius were at the end of their ropes trying to keep them from escalating by the time Sara got there.”
It all seems so minor compared to the swarms of archaisms led by an Enforcer and the head knight of the Stahlritter. They weren’t going toe-to-toe with threats on that level until after many months of working together and even then they were outmatched. It wasn’t fair to throw a bunch of kids who had barely started their training onto that kind of battlefield.
Fie notices his frown and bumps his arm. “Hey, they made it through. And these students have Rean and Towa to look after them. They’re going to be fine. All we have to worry about is getting ready to help out tomorrow. That’s why we came in the first place.”
“You’re right.” He quickly chugs down the rest of the can of coffee, laughing when Fie wrinkles her nose. “I’m going to go check in again with the kids on the medical team. Pretty sure they could use a little reassurance if nothing else.”
“I’ll go find Laura and see how securing the area is going.” She pats him on the back as she passes by. “We got this.”
17. “Love is overrated.”
“Love is overrated,” Ash says with the air of an instructor starting a lecture. Kurt groans, resigned to enduring a speech he’s clearly heard too many times before. “Too much work and too much of the time it’s really about money or looking good or some other dumb shit and you end up hating each other anyway. Instead of bothering with love, just hit a club and look for a decent lay.”
“ASH!” Juna screeches, her expression absolutely scandalized. “You can’t just say that stuff out of nowhere!” She dives for Altina and tries to cover her ears.
“I believe I told you I am no small child,” Altina grumbles as she dodges. “Anyway, aren’t you being too negative? If you want proof love exists, just look at our instructor.”
Musse gasps. “Oh dear, say it isn’t so! Has someone managed to capture my beloved’s heart right under my nose?”
“Damn, he actually made a move on someone?” Ash asks. Even Kurt and Juna perk up at the prospect of gossip about their instructor’s love life.
“Romantic love isn’t the only kind. Instructor Rean loves all of his former classmates and I’m sure he loves us, too. He has shown repeatedly he will put himself in danger to protect the people he cares about from harm. What can you call that other than love? I might not be able to explain it well, but calling that devotion ‘overrated’ seems childish.”
“Who’s teaching you this shit?” Ash mutters.
“Well, I think it’s beautiful,” Juna says. “Allie is already way more mature than you’ll ever be, Ash!”
And just like that, the conversation steers away from the topic of love. Kurt is just glad he didn’t have to hear Ash wax on about the ideal qualities in a one-night stand yet again.
18. “Watch me.”
“All right, just watch me go through the basics. Let me know if you have any questions.” Rean prepares to cast his line.
“I got one,” Ash says. “Why the hell are we fishing in the middle of a field study?”
Juna sighs. “Would it kill you to be polite for once in your life?”
“I recall us wondering the same thing on our first field study, though,” Altina says.
“Don’t get me wrong, I ain’t gonna complain if we spend time screwing around.”
“It’s not ‘screwing around’,” Kurt says, not looking up from his bobber. “We can’t remain on high alert for the entire day. It’s important to take mental breaks and fishing is an ideal opportunity for them.”
“Well, I’m certainly not objecting. Instructor, perhaps you could correct my form?”
Juna groans. “I’m not even surprised anymore.”
“Musse’s predictability is comforting,” Altina agrees. “This isn’t only about taking a moment to center ourselves, though. Fish are a good source of sepith and can be traded for a wide variety of accessories.”
“Not to mention it’s super fun! Instructor Rean keeps track of everything we caught and who landed the biggest one.” With her hands on her hips, she puffs her chest out proudly. “I have a few of the records myself!”
“We all have some,” Altina says, her competitive side coming out.
Ash smirks, pounding a fist against his open palm. “In that case, you’re all going down.”
(It’s not as easy as that, but by the time they stop both Musse and Ash have the hang of fishing and are just as enthusiastic as the other three. Rean smiles all the way to Ordis after watching how much fun his students had with his favorite pastime.)
19. “I’ve missed this.”
“I’ve missed this,” Alisa admits, then thinks about the situation they’re in and backtracks. “No, wait, not dealing with Ouroboros and having danger constantly looming over us and wading through political drama and—”
“We know what you meant,” Emma says kindly.
“Too bad. I wanted to see how long she would go,” Machias teases.
“Oh, thanks! In that case, I guess I didn’t miss you after all.” Alisa tries to look stern but her suppressed smile makes her mouth twitch.
“You humans are always so dramatic,” Celine complains.
Emma smiles at her familiar. “Oh, Celine, it’s okay. You can admit how much you missed everyone, too.”
“I-I certainly did not !”
Alisa can barely hold her glare for another second before she cracks and starts laughing, followed by Machias, Emma, and Rean. “I’m really glad you’re all here with me,” Rean says. “I’ve missed spending time together, too.”
20. “I don’t believe you.”
Alisa wakes up to quiet sniffling. Millium is still curled up next to her, her breathing deep and even, but Gaius is up already. She crawls out of the cave they spent the night in and finds him with his knees curled to his chest and his head to his knees. She’s pretty sure he’s crying, but it’s so quiet she’s not sure. “Hey, Gaius?”
He startles but quickly tries to smooth it over, scrubbing at his eyes and shooting her a tired smile. “Morning.” His voice cracks on the word.
“It’s okay,” she says softly as she scoots to sit next to him.
“I don’t believe you.” It sounds a lot more harsh than she really meant and she scrambles to explain herself. “I mean, if you don’t want to talk that’s okay. I’m not going to force you. But I’m not dumb enough to think you aren’t upset.”
“I don’t want to make you or Millium any more worried,” he says quietly.
Now that she thinks about it, she doesn’t think she’s ever seen Gaius actually upset. He’s always been an even-tempered influence on their more excitable classmates. Maybe it’s because he has younger siblings. The people of Nord had been composed when their field study nearly turned to war, so it could be a cultural influence as well. Even so, they’re all in a terrible situation right now and she doesn’t want him to feel like he has to bottle up all of his feelings. “We’re in this together. If sharing it will make you feel better then go for it.”
He fidgets for a while, lacing and unlacing his fingers together and shifting how he’s sitting. Just when Alisa thinks he isn’t going to talk, he says, “I’m worried about Nord. War in Erebonia is going to involve the highlands. Even if everyone can stay safe, nature is delicate. It will be a difficult winter.”
Alisa doesn’t have a magic solution, but she sets a hand on his shoulder. “They all seemed really resourceful when we met them. I’m sure they’ll find a way.” She hesitates but thinks it will help more than anything else she can say, so she adds, “And I know the wind will be with them.”
Gaius’s smile is much warmer this time. “That it will.”
21. “Sometimes, being a complete nerd comes in handy.”
“...Oh no,” Alisa says, flushing bright red when she sees the time. “I’ve been rambling about this for almost half an hour? You should have stopped me!”
“Why would I do that?” Machias asks. “I was genuinely interested in what you were saying. I’ve enjoyed our orbal science classes, but I admit I don’t have much of a background with the technology. It’s helpful to hear from someone who’s better informed than I am.”
“There is no way you wanted to hear about ARCUS maintenance for this long.” Roer is a city of engineers and enthusiasts, so it makes sense there for people to talk at length about the minutiae of orbments. It makes a lot less sense at a military academy in Trista.
“I guess sometimes, being a complete nerd comes in handy.” He smiles at her but then quickly backpedals. “Not that I’m saying you’re nerdy, or anything, I meant—”
She waves him off with a laugh. “It’s fine! Guilty as charged. I’m just happy to find someone else who’s interested in one of my hobbies.”
He hesitates. “Well, if you wouldn’t mind, perhaps we could discuss this again in the future?”
“Yeah, I think I’d like that.”
22. “I don’t owe you an explanation.”
They have about a minute of blissful peace in the hot springs before the argument starts. “Leaving a letter with your father and contacting Sara suggests you intended to come with us all along. Were the dramatics really necessary?” Machias asks.
Jusis scowls. “I don’t owe you an explanation.”
“You—we were worried about you, you know! Why do we even bother?”
“I don’t recall asking anyone to worry.”
Elliot sighs. “Well, the quiet was nice while it lasted,” he whispers as the bickering continues.
“To be honest, I’d be worried if they didn’t start fighting eventually,” Gaius says. “It’s starting to really feel like we’re back together again.”
Rean laughs and then claps his hand over his mouth, but he didn’t need to bother. Machias and Jusis are far too involved in their argument to notice anything going on around them. The topic of this argument is hardly comedic (and he’s already planning to talk to Jusis again later and make sure their earlier conversation really sunk in), but the atmosphere is just like another day in class.
“Hey,” Sara shouts over the fence, “can you be a little quieter? Some of us are trying to relax over here!”
Millium’s cackle carries in spite of the distance. “Aw, I think it’s great. They’re bonding!”
“We are not bonding!” they protest in perfect unison that has the rest of the class cracking up.
Rean makes a mental note to apologize for the noise once they’re done.
23. “We have to be quiet.”
“We have to be quiet,” Juna hisses. Ash considers pointing out she’s being the loudest of any of them but knows that would only lead to her protesting even louder and he’d like to actually have a chance to hear what Herschel and Schwarzer are discussing behind closed doors.
The entirety of the new Class VII creeps up to the door. Musse smirks, a deadly combination of girlishly eager and ruthless; Juna bounces on her toes like an excited child; Altina lingers at the back, her slightly furrowed brow betraying her interest; Ash shamelessly presses an ear to the door; and Kurt looks like he’s questioning every decision that led him to this point but sticks with the group regardless.
Of course, moments later they’re reminded their volume doesn’t matter. “Why do we always forget he can sense our presence?” Juna grumbles as they head back downstairs.
“I didn’t forget. I was hoping he’d be distracted enough to not notice,” Altina says, unflappable as ever.
“Then you should have said something earlier!”
Towa giggles as their voices fade out of earshot. “You’re lucky to have such a nice group of students who care about you.”
Rean looks down at the smiling faces of his classmates in the photo album and thinks of all the people who, in spite of everything, are looking out for him. “Yeah, I really am.”
24. “You’re trembling.”
After they arrest Duke Albarea and return to the Courageous, Laura spots Jusis sitting alone and lost in thought. She approaches slowly but he shows no sign of reacting. “You’re trembling,” she says softly.
He looks up slowly and stares at her, but his eyes are empty like he’s not truly seeing anything. “I suppose so,” he says, his tone as bitter and self-deprecating as she has ever heard from him. She can see him straighten up, trying to be stiff and unyielding enough to stop himself from shaking.
She takes a seat next to him on the bench. “That wasn’t intended as criticism. I know these past few days have been difficult for you.”
“The past few days have been more than difficult for the people of Celdic,” he says coldly. He visibly stops himself from continuing and takes a deep breath. “I shouldn’t—I didn’t mean to snap at you.”
“I know.” He’s clearly too raw to be thinking much about anything he says. Her own father has always been her anchor, the truest and most righteous person she’s ever known, and she has trouble imagining what he must be feeling about the duke’s atrocities. But if she’s learned anything from being in Class VII, it’s empathy for people whose situations are different from her own. She considers her options, then asks, “Would you prefer if I left you alone?”
“You can stay.” Please stay , he doesn’t say, but she can see how much he’s struggling to keep himself together. She understands the pressure to be calm and collected as a noble all too well. Being able to lean on a friend and not stew alone in one’s thoughts is invaluable and she’s glad he trusts her with this.
The silence that follows is awkward for both of them. Laura doesn’t like sitting still when there’s so much to be done and Jusis still isn’t truly comfortable being this vulnerable in front of anyone. They’re both willing to try, though. She stays and watches him slowly become a little less unsteady and a little more present as they sit quietly together.
“Thank you,” he says after the long silence.
And even though the whole experience was far out of Laura’s comfort zone, she means it when she replies, “Anytime.”
25. “I want an answer, dammit!”
“I want an answer, dammit! How are you so good at this?” Ash whines as Musse wins a fourth round of Vantage Masters.
Musse smirks. “Oh my, demanding a lady’s secrets? How bold!”
“Why does everything you say always sound dirty?” Juna complains from where she’s flopped on the nearby bench.
“Musse’s moves always position her perfectly for the next round,” Altina says. “It almost seems like she knows exactly what cards she’s going to draw.”
“It only seems that way in hindsight.” Her grin takes on a sharp edge. “Though there’s something to be said of making strategic adjustments seem effortless. Ash here certainly seems a bit flustered.”
Ash leans forward, his competitive spirit renewed. “I got my eye on you. If you’re pulling something I’ll find out.”
She refrains from pointing out her constant watch is likely the only reason he hasn’t cheated. “Another hand, then?”
Five rounds later, Juna pulls them away by insisting they get some food. Musse is a little disappointed in her unbroken victory streak.
26. “It was you the whole time.”
“Oh, Fie. Coming to join me?” Sara raises her can of beer in the air cheerfully.
“I want to be a bracer after I graduate,” Fie says.
Sara pauses and then lowers her drink. “What made you decide that?”
“A few things.” She twirls a lock of hair around one of her fingers. Sara’s not sure she’s ever seen Fie this fidgety. “I want to know what Xeno and Leo are hiding and why they left me behind. It’s not like I have any leads and joining the guild is one of the best ways to keep tabs on jaegers. It’s not just that. It’s the best way I can think of to do my part in finding out what’s going on in Erebonia. And I liked being able to help people during field studies.”
This isn’t something she’s suggesting on a whim. It’s clear she’s put a lot of time into thinking about her next steps. Sara remembers the girl who tried to avoid participating in the orienteering exercise on her first day and had to be forced to make the call on joining Class VII. Fie really has come a long way.
“There’s one other reason,” Fie says, scuffing her foot against the ground. “I didn’t really know anything besides being a jaeger before I came here. But when things didn’t make sense, there was always someone I could look up to.” She finally looks Sara in the eye with a tiny smile. “It was you the whole time. I want to help the same way you do.”
Sara blinks at her and then laughs. “I’ll remember that the next time you make fun of my drinking habits.”
Fie smirks, finally starting to relax from her serious mood. “That has nothing to do with this.”
“Aren’t students supposed to respect their instructors?” She knocks back the rest of her drink. “But really, the guild will be lucky to have you on board, Fie.”
27. “Tell me again.”
“Tell me again why I decided to work in government,” Machias says as they sit at a table at the Long Lau Tavern & Inn, grabbing a quick meal before meeting up with Alisa.
Emma giggles. “You wouldn’t be happy anywhere else.”
“True enough, though days like today when I’m swimming in red tape make me a lot less sure.”
“I’m sure you’re making more progress than I am.”
“Oh, you’re doing fine,” Celine says from where she’s curled on her own chair. “It’s hard to relax with you two complaining this much.”
Machias and Emma share a knowing look at her poorly hidden concern. “Of course,” he says. “We should rest while we have the chance and think about something else. It’s been a while since I’ve been outside Heimdallr. A change of scenery is probably doing me some good.”
“I’ve been travelling around recently. I enjoy spending time with you, Celine, but it’s nice to have someone else to share a meal with.”
“Being able to try the local food with everyone was always a highlight of our field studies.”
“Yes, I agree. Being able to experience so many different places was wonderful, too. Being here in Crossbell reminds me of those times. And it’s been interesting to see the blend of cultural influences here. There are massive skyscrapers and some of the most high-tech buildings on the whole continent, then you have places like this heavily influenced by the east. I wish I could look around some more.”
“Hey, don’t get too relaxed,” Celine chides. “That party tonight is a prime target for Ouroboros. You guys need to be on alert once we finish here.”
“Yes, of course,” Emma says. “We’re here to see what’s happening behind the scenes with our own eyes and find clues about Vita. I haven’t forgotten.”
“Don’t forget helping Rean and his students however we can,” Machias adds. “He can’t go anywhere without getting into trouble.”
“Now that you mention it, I do feel like my field studies with him always escalated more than the others.” She sighs. “Well, at least right now we can be there for him. Let’s get ready and head over.”
28. “This is why we can’t have nice things.”
Rean draws an X through another of proposed design. “Is it that hard to come up with something appropriate?”
“Aw, come on, man, why are you like this?” Crow complains. “You should all be jumping at the chance to see the girls in something sexy!”
“You can be as reckless as you want with your own life,” Machias says, “but some of us would rather not die before graduation.”
“Come on! Live a little! You can’t tell me you wouldn’t want to see them in something like this.”
The new design Crow slaps in front of them just makes Elliot look confused. “How would this even stay up? I don’t think clothes work like that.”
Machias sighs. “Crow, I know you’re not exactly an academic, but at least try to make your drawings obey the laws of physics.”
“This is why we can’t have nice things. You’re all a bunch of killjoys! The whole point of us doing the outfits is to make things more interesting. By the time they get a good look at them it’ll be too late for any changes.”
The door slams open and Alisa storms in. She smacks her hand down on the sketchpad and leans over, a frighteningly cold smile on her lips. “You need your life to be more interesting ? I can make that happen.”
Everyone else slowly backs away. Fie slinks into the room and stands next to them to watch the show. “No, no, I’ve got it loud and clear. Boring designs only!”
“There’s nothing boring about being tasteful!”
“With the way they’re going at it, you wouldn’t even know we’re on a field study,” Machias grumbles.
Elliot laughs. “I think that’s part of the fun of getting ready for the festival.”
29. “I’m not going anywhere.”
“Guys, I’m really sorry. Please just go back to sleep.” Elliot’s face is buried in a blanket, but his shoulders are shaking and he still sounds like he’s crying.
“I’m not going anywhere,” Fie says, planting herself stubbornly at his side.
“Me either,” Machias agrees. “How heartless do you think we are?”
“No! It’s not—I just— you have to be tired. Today was awful.”
It’s a fair assessment. The day had been a series of terrible events from Crow’s assassination of the chancellor to their struggle against the Panzer Soldats to the chaos of fleeing Trista. They don’t know where the rest of their classmates are or if they’re even safe, the whole country is in a panic, and they’re holed up in a busted windmill without a real plan yet.
“Do you wanna talk about it?” Fie asks.
He shakes his head but after a sniffle continues anyway. “I’m just worried about everyone. About Rean and the rest of our class, but also about everyone else in the school and the town. The noble students will probably be fine but I don’t know about the commoners.”
Honestly, the other students haven’t really crossed Fie’s mind. She’s been in survival mode most of the day. Even now when they’re safe for the moment, she can’t picture gentle, wise Edel or mischievous Vivi on a real battlefield. She wonders, not for the first time, how Elliot can manage to think and worry about others all the time. Maybe he’s the most tired of them all.
“They’re all students of Thors Military Academy,” Machias points out. “I have no doubt they can handle themselves. It wouldn’t make sense for the army to do any harm to the townspeople once they surrendered, either. Image is important in a civil war. They want to look like they’re in the right. Attacking civilians would only harm their cause.”
“Everything is gonna be fine,” Fie says, patting Elliot’s back. They stay there for a long time helping him calm down until they all doze off at each other’s sides.
30. “You don’t see me.”
Fie has always preferred to fill her combat orbment with quartz that keep her moving quickly and dodging attacks. This master quartz is a little different from what she usually uses, but she has to admit it’s growing on her.
“Okay, yeah, this one’s perfect for you,” Alisa says, lowering her bow. “I don’t even know where to shoot.”
Fie’s grin is obvious in her tone. “If you don’t see me, you can’t catch me.”
“Whoa, super cool!” Millium squeals. “I can tell you’re here, but I have no idea where exactly.”
Fie circles around behind them mostly just to see them flinch at her voice coming from somewhere unexpected. “It’s some kind of stealth enhancement. It’s not like I’m actually invisible right now, but I’m almost impossible to pin down.” She frowns as she feels the effects end. “Doesn’t last very long, though.”
“I doubt that would matter if you struck quickly enough,” Laura says. “That makes you a perfect fit. Your speed is your strongest asset in combat.”
“Not sure how much it would matter against someone strong, though.” She twirls her gunswords around. “How do you feel about testing that out?”
In a flash, Laura’s sword is drawn. “I would be honored.”
“Well, if they’re happy for now let’s keep going,” Emma says. “We have so many different master quartz with support effects that we’ve never really tested. It would be a shame to just let them collect dust when they could help turn the tide in battle.”
Millium jumps up with her hands in the air. “Yeah! I want one at least as cool as the one Fie’s using!”
31. “I can’t keep doing this.”
“I can’t keep doing this.” Fie’s so far past frustration that her voice is utterly calm. She stands up, walks to the couch, and flops over, burying her head in a throw pillow. Elliot pokes at her foot tentatively and she pushes his hand away.
“It’s a difficult assignment,” Emma agrees. “Maybe we should all review the examples again?”
Fie flaps her hand in Emma’s direction without looking up. “My brain is fried. Give me ten minutes.” She curls up and goes to sleep right there.
“Whoa, being able to nap like that would be super cool!” Millium gushes. “It’s kinda like a superpower.”
Elliot laughs. “I wouldn’t go that far, but I’ve heard being able to sleep anywhere is a sign of a good soldier.”
“Man, they should teach us how to do that instead of math! When am I gonna use this stuff in real life?”
“You’d be surprised,” Emma says. “You might not ever have to graph an equation again after you graduate, but you’re still going to use the skills our math classes taught you. Pattern recognition, problem solving, using logic to understand the world around you—all that comes from math. And there are actually a lot more fields that use math than you might think.”
“Yeah, there’s a ton of math in music theory,” Elliot adds. “I’m actually glad this year has given me a pretty solid foundation.”
“It’s still weird to have someone who’s planning to wander all over the country doing magic tell me math is useful,” Millium grumbles.
“I’ve always liked math, but it was never really about whether it was useful to me. There’s something comforting about it. One plus one always equals two. I liked that certainty.” Emma puts down her pencil as her expression takes on a wistful quality. “After Vita left, I doubted a lot of what I thought I knew. Then when I began to study for the Thors entrance exam, I had to be careful of the differences in what’s widely known about history and I barely knew anything about orbal science or military tactics. It was nice to have something that never changed.”
“Okay, yeah, I get it, math is great and useful and all that. That doesn’t make this make any more sense.” She gives her best impression of a sad puppy. It looks out of place on her normally cheery face. “Maybe I could appreciate it more if I understood. Help me?”
Emma smiles. “Of course.”
“I could probably use an explanation, too,” Elliot admits.
Fie yawns widely and hops off the couch. “Guess it’s time to get back to business.”
32. “You could have died.”
When Rean wakes up three days after the end of the Northern War, it feels a lot like waking up in the mountains a month after the fall of Trista. He’s exhausted and filled with shame and directionless anger and not being able to protect everyone.
Back then Celine had been there, ready to fire back at every provocation. This time there’s just Altina, her brow furrowed even though her mouth is as unexpressive as ever. “You could have died,” she says. Her voice wavers just slightly. For her it may as well be a sob.
She definitely doesn’t deserve any of his frustration, so he swallows it back. “I’m sorry,” he says instead.
“You must not use your power. The risks are too high.” She only knows how to plead by pointing out the rational decision. Her tiny changes in expression are a different story. Please stop, her eyes say, you can’t keep doing this to yourself.
“I’m sorry,” he repeats. Honestly, he wishes he could make that promise. But he knows the moment someone else is in danger, he’ll do everything he can to try and save them regardless of what happens to him.
Altina nods like she expected that answer, but he still feels her disappointment as she slides off the stool without looking at him. “I need to make a report.” She leaves the room without looking back.
33. “Prove it.”
“I’m fine,” Fie grumbles.
“Prove it,” Machias snaps. Fear has always made him angry.
“Both of you need to calm down.” Elliot is fully aware of the irony that he’s the one to say it, but the fact is someone has to avoid freaking out here. He casts a healing art on her and kneels down next to her to look at her eyes. She shoots an annoyed glare at him. Well, she’s alert and aware at least, he thinks.
“You guys are making a big deal out of nothing. Just give me a minute and I’ll be fine.”
“Head injuries aren’t something to just brush off!”
“Machias, you’re not helping. Fie, you had the same classes with Instructor Beatrix we did. You know what first aid for head injuries is.”
She sighs but gives in, having spent too much time in the infirmary to deny Instructor Beatrix’s lessons. “I don’t feel that bad. My head hurts and I’m kinda dizzy, I guess.”
“Okay. Let’s get back to the windmill so you can take it easy for a while. You okay to walk?”
“It’s not that bad.” But she’s a little unsteady as she gets to her feet and doesn’t complain when Machias hovers at her side the whole way back. As soon as she’s curled up in her blankets, she’s fast asleep.
“It’s probably just a bruise, but we should keep an eye on her for the next day or so,” Elliot says. “If she really does start feeling worse, I’m sure she’ll say something.”
“You’re right,” Machias says. “And, well, thanks for taking control of the situation. I’m sorry for freaking out on you like that.”
Elliot laughs. “I’m the last person who can be upset about that. I know you were just worried. Fie knows that, too. We’re all going to have to support each other to get through this and see our classmates again.”
34. “I might never get another chance to say this.”
Three days before they’re scheduled to leave the Class VII dormitory for the last time, Millium says to everyone, “Guys, I might never get another chance to say this, so I’m gonna do it now.”
Jusis groans, not looking up from the paperwork in his lap. “Please tell me I’m not going to have to spend the next three days of my life listening to rehashes of the same overwrought farewells. We’ve already agreed to see each other again.”
“You could at least let her finish before you start complaining,” Machias grumbles.
“What was it you wanted to say, Millium?” Gaius asks patiently.
“Well, uh, you remember last month when we ran out of toilet paper and I said I totally wasn’t the one who changed the last one and didn’t tell anyone? Yeah, I may have, y’know, kinda not completely told the truth about that.”
There’s a long pause as everyone processes her rambling confession. “Why are you telling us this now?” Rean asks.
Millium looks down at her feet. “Well, I felt really bad about it but there was never a good time to fess up and I started thinking we’re all leaving soon and then I’m never going to be able to apologize and I’m going to carry this guilt around for the rest of my life! I can’t do that!”
Laura walks over, puts a hand on Millium’s shoulder, and says, “I think we can forgive you for your transgression.”
“It was a whole month ago,” Fie comments from where she’s curled on the couch. “I can’t remember small things that far back. I barely remember what I had for breakfast yesterday.”
“Hey, wait a minute, you all blamed me for that!” Sara complains.
“To be fair, it had been you the last three times it happened,” Machias points out.
35. “Do you regret it?”
An hour into their study session, Juna suddenly asks, “Do you regret it?”
Kurt frowns. “Helping you study? It’s taking a while, but I can tell you’re making an honest effort. I don’t mind.”
“I know I’m bad at physics, you don’t need to rub it in! No, it’s… well, the main campus. I remember you said coming to the branch campus was ‘a rash decision’.” She punctuates herself with air quotes. “Do you still feel that way?”
“Well, regardless of my feelings, it was a rash decision. I didn’t consider every angle when I made my choice. Still, I’m satisfied with my time so far at the branch campus. Each day is fulfilling. The facilities are nice, the instructors are all very knowledgeable, and I’ve learned a lot from our field studies.”
“Okay then,” Juna says, but she’s still frowning.
Kurt tries to think about what he missed. “Ah, and I suppose without the branch campus I never would have met you and Altina. I’m glad to be able to work and learn alongside you both.”
In an instant her mood does a 180. “You’re a pretty good classmate yourself,” she teases. “Might even keep me from failing our quiz tomorrow! Seriously, though, I’m glad you’re happy here. But if you’re ever worried about stuff, Allie and I will be there to listen, okay?”
He smiles back at her. “I appreciate it. Oh, and you used the wrong formula there.”
Juna’s groan echoes through the study room.
36. “Tell me I’m wrong.”
Alisa sighs and steps back from the worktable. “All done! Thanks, I really needed an extra set of hands.”
“You’re the one who did all the work,” Elliot says. “I just did what you told me. I’m glad I could do something to help, though.”
“And I bet George will be glad we got some of the maintenance done, too. He’s swamped right now.”
“Yeah,” Elliot says, but he’s frowning as he stares blankly at the ship’s metal walls. Alisa wants to say something but she isn’t sure what. She hesitates long enough that he continues softly, “You’re really talented, Alisa. Everyone else in Class VII is. I wish there was more I could do. We all know I’m the weakest link.”
“Where is this coming from?” She’s surprised and her words end up harsher than she meant.
He sinks into himself further. “I mean, it’s obvious, isn’t it? I’m not good at fighting. I’m not smart or strong or important like the rest of you are.”
“I’ve never thought you were any less than anyone else in our class.” He looks skeptical and she scoots closer until he looks at her. “You can tell me I’m wrong but I’m not going to just take your word for it. You’re the best at healing out of all of us. I feel safer whenever we’re fighting together because I know you’re there to help if something goes wrong and I know everyone else agrees with me. And you’re not stupid. I’ve spent enough time around you to know. Besides, you were the one who made the concert happen.”
“That doesn’t matter. We’re fighting a war. Compared to that, the school festival is nothing.”
“Excuse me?” Alisa plants her hands on her hips. “I’m not going to listen to you say that didn’t matter. The festival is one of my most precious memories with all of our classmates and our concert would never have happened without your hard work. The whole reason we can fight is because we want to take back those days we all spent together.”
“But… but I’m a coward,” he says, quiet and miserable, like he’s confessing to some grave sin. “I’m always scared when we have to fight. Everyone else always seems so brave.”
“Then you’re not seeing us clearly, so listen up. I’m scared too, Elliot! I don’t know where Mother is, we don’t know what the society is up to, we’re going up against soldiers with far more training and experience than us, and we never know what’s going to happen next. When I see you’re scared it’s actually kind of comforting because I know I’m not alone in being afraid. And I’d be willing to bet I’m not the only one who thinks that.”
“You really think so?”
He looks so lost and small that Alisa wraps him in a quick, tight hug. “Yes, of course I do. You have to talk to one of us sooner when you feel this way. I’m sure any of our classmates would be more than happy to tell you that you’re wrong.”
37. “Lie to me then.”
Elliot waves when he spots Machias but grimaces when he comes closer. “Oh man, please tell me you got some sleep last night.” When Machias doesn’t protest, he sighs. “Lie to me then?”
“So much sleep,” he deadpans. “Most rested I’ve ever been.”
“You really need to take better care of yourself.”
“You’re one to talk,” Machias scoffs, which is fair. The dark circles under Elliot’s eyes are just as bad as his. Accelerating their way through high-pressure professional schooling doesn’t exactly leave them with a wealth of free time. That’s part of why they agreed to meet up at least once every two weeks to check in and hold each other at least sort of accountable.
“Okay, so we both need a break,” Elliot says. “I helped Fiona make soup and she’s got fresh bread in the oven. We can eat a real meal while you tell me about whatever crisis the government is in this week and then we both get a solid night of sleep. Deal?”
“Only if you’ll tell me more about that professor who has no respect for modern music.”
“You have no idea. I never thought anyone at the music academy would make me wish for Instructor Sara’s level of professionalism.”
That startles a laugh out of Machias. “I didn’t think that was possible. Honestly, some of my professors are so uptight about tradition and decorum they barely seem connected to reality. I’ve started to miss her honesty if nothing else.”
“We learned a lot from her. I’m not sure I would have been able to choose music without everything she did for us last year. She really was a great teacher in her own way.”
“In spite of her complete inability to grasp appropriate behavior around her students, I don’t disagree. Just make sure you never let her hear you say that. She doesn’t need the ego boost.”
38. “You’ve thought about this, haven’t you?”
“There’s a train to Bareahard tomorrow morning,” Jusis says. “I’ll be on it. I already have a ticket.”
Emma and Laura don’t say anything for a long moment, each scrutinizing him. Finally, Emma breaks the silence. “You’ve thought about this, haven’t you?”
He’s surprised they’re not immediately moving to stop him. “I believe this is what I must do.”
“You will always be welcome here in Legram,” Laura says. “That won’t change. However, I can understand your concern for your house and the people you’re responsible for. I would be glad for your help here but if you feel this is your duty, I will not argue. I wish you the best until the day we meet again.”
Their support knocks him off balance. Emma seems to realize and gives him a sad smile. “If you want us to try and convince you to stay we can, but you’re hard to sway once you’ve made a decision. After being in your group for every field study I know that much. Thank you for everything and I sincerely hope you find what you’re looking for.”
“...Thank you. And thank you for your hospitality, Laura.”
“Think nothing of it. We’ll see you off tomorrow.”
(Laura had clearly intended their parting to be temporary, but it’s not until much later he realizes Emma had thought it permanent. She had planned to leave herself after lifting the fog. Once the entire class has reunited in Ymir, he pulls her aside. “Let’s agree to watch each other and make sure we don’t distance ourselves again,” he says.
She smiles sheepishly. “Yes, I think we need someone to tell us to stop overthinking.”)
39. “We need to talk about what happened last night.”
“We need to talk about what happened last night.” Emma has been waiting for someone to say those words to her all day. Though she managed to slip out of explaining her use of magic on field studies, the trial they faced in the old schoolhouse the night before was impossible to ignore. Any confrontation had been delayed by the festival, but the moment the bonfire dance ended she was sure she was in for an interrogation.
She has never felt so awful about being wrong. All students were told to return to their dorms after the announcement of the destruction of Garrelia Fortress. Her classmates are all around her in the lobby, none of them paying her any mind.
“How can a fortress just disappear?” Elliot asks quietly, hugging a throw pillow to his chest. They all know his father avoided being there because of the festival.
“Panicking isn’t going to do us any good,” Jusis says.
“If only we could all be so calm,” Machias scoffs. “We’re on the verge of war!”
Fie yawns and stretches from her position on the couch. “It’s not like freaking out is gonna change anything, though.”
“Do you think we’ll have to fight?” Alisa nervously plays with her hair. “If this really is war, I mean.”
“We may need to decide that for ourselves as we move forward,” Laura says.
“Whatever happens, we can figure it out together,” Gaius adds. “That’s what we’ve done so far.”
Millium looks up from her ARCUS with a sigh. “Well, I haven’t heard anything yet, so I don’t think anything is gonna happen right away. That means we’ve got some time while all the government stuff is sorted out.”
“We’ll get through this as a class,” Rean says. “Like someone said yesterday, Class VII is the finest Erebonia has to offer.” He smiles at her.
Emma swallows hard. These are her classmates, her comrades, her friends. She wants to trust them and wants them to trust her in spite of all her secrets. “That’s right. I’m sure we’ll be all right.”
40. “I never stood a chance, did I?”
There are a dozen more productive ways Rean could spend his free day. He’s not even close to catching up on the assignments from his absence, he’s tired enough he could sleep the whole day away, and at some point he has to talk to someone. Instructor Beatrix always has tea and good advice, Patrick has been a friendly ear ever since the year began, and Machias and Elliot are thirty minutes away by train.
Instead, he takes the train to Heimdallr and heads out of the city to Himmel Cemetery. Crow would probably be the first to scold him for what he’s doing, wasting one of his precious free days to sit at a grave and avoid everything else. After all, Crow had dedicated his dying moments to telling them all not to look back.
(Rean tells himself Crow would indulge him anyway. He honestly cared about them all in spite of what he’d done. In a way it makes everything worse.)
It’s still morning by the time he arrives and the cemetery is deserted except for the old groundskeeper who eyes him suspiciously and a cat napping nearby. He weaves through graves until he reaches the resting spot of his former classmate and kneels before it.
“Hey.” His voice cracks and he’s overcome with the thought of how stupid this is. There’s so much to be done and here he is speaking to the dead like they can fix what he’s wrought. “North Ambria is going to be part of the empire now. I helped.”
Birds are chirping in the trees and a cool breeze cuts through his jacket. Fall is here. Last year they’d been in the thick of festival preparations. This year he’s not sure what his class is doing and it’s equally likely he has or hasn’t been told. He’s barely going to have enough attendance to graduate at this rate, struggling to accomplish in two years what the rest of Class VII did in one.
Rean digs his fingers into the damp grass, dragging himself back to the moment. “All I ever wanted was to take back those peaceful days we all spent together as a class. In the end I never stood a chance, did I? The moment you shot the chancellor it was already too late. No, it was long before that. Maybe if I had been stronger, listened better, noticed more, I could have saved those days. Saved you.”
There’s no response. If he’s being honest with himself, that’s a big part of the reason he’s here. A grave isn’t going to ask if he’s okay and comfort him and tell him it’s not his fault. He can’t deal with that right now, not with the guilt and despair still so raw, not with his powers more dangerously unstable than ever, not when he’s dreading every time he receives new orders.
But this, too, will pass. The world keeps on moving and he must, too. Forward, relentlessly. The words echo in his head unprompted.
“Yeah,” Rean says, quiet but not nearly as desperate as before, “ I’ll keep moving forward.”
41. “I feel like I can’t breathe.”
Gaius likes Trista but he still misses Nord. Of course he misses his family, but he misses all of the mundane parts of everyday life there from waking up early to milk the goats to being able to see nothing but nature for miles.
Trista is a small town but it’s so lively, especially with all the students around. Gaius has been trying to paint Nord yet he can’t seem to capture the feeling of the landscape he can see in his mind on canvas. He slips out of the art room with a sketchbook, hoping to find somewhere that makes him feel at ease.
Eventually he finds his way to the area near the old schoolhouse. It’s easily the most secluded spot on campus and probably in the whole town and while it’s too enclosed to really feel like Nord, the atmosphere is a little similar to the ancient quarry in the highlands.
As he sits and begins to sketch, he hears the sound of a familiar violin. It stops and starts, going over intricate patterns of notes slowly and then speeding up. Sure enough, a shock of red hair is just visible at the edge of the clearing. “Elliot?”
Elliot nearly jumps out of his skin. “O-oh, hello, Gaius. I didn’t think anyone else would be here.”
“I just came out here to sketch, but I can leave if you want to be alone.”
“No, no, it’s fine! I… it’s going to sound weird, but sometimes there are so many people and sounds in town and on campus that I feel like I can’t breathe. It’s just… easier to be somewhere quiet for a while.” He doesn’t look up and fidgets sheepishly with his violin.
“It doesn’t sound weird at all. Actually, I came here because I felt the same way. Would you mind if I sat here and sketched for a while?”
Elliot smiles. “As long as you’re okay with the sound of me trying to figure this new piece out, I don’t mind at all.”
For the next several hours, they each concentrate on their own art. Somehow Gaius feels more comfortable there than he has all week. And this time when he finishes his sketch he gets the sense of warmth and freedom he wanted so badly to portray.
42. “I’m only here to establish an alibi.”
“I’m only here to establish an alibi,” Sara tells Emma and Machias as she drops into a seat at their table in the library, brazen in a way someone responsible for students definitely shouldn’t be. “If the Vice Principal asks, I’ve been working very hard over here all day. Yup. No slacking off for me.”
“Do you have any shame?” Machias asks.
“Left that behind years ago! Life’s more fun that way. If you don’t loosen up you’ll go gray before you’re twenty. So what are you kids doing here?”
“We’re organizing a study session for everyone,” Emma explains. “Right now, we’re working on compiling everyone’s strengths and weaknesses so we can figure out who can help with what.”
“If you’re going to crash our planning, the least you can do is actually help,” Machias says.
“If that’s all you want, then sure, might as well.” She pulls out an impressively thick notebook with plenty of bits of paper sticking out of it. “I’ve got pretty good notes about how all of you are doing in your classes. Probably got everything you need right here.”
Machias looks at the notebook and back to her. “Given the way you act most of the time, it always surprises me when you show some actual effort.”
“But Instructor Sara always comes through for us,” Emma points out. “She was watching over us on our field studies to make sure we weren’t in over our heads.”
Sara grins. “And I got to travel around to try some local booze on the academy’s dime.”
The ensuing outburst from Machias is so loud the three of them are nearly kicked out of the library.
43. “Are you drunk?”
“Hey, Rean, c’mere for a minute,” Sara calls when Rean returns to the dorm late in the evening.
He groans as he makes his way over to her. “Please tell me I don’t have to remind you I can’t drink yet.”
“Nah, not tonight. Just humor me for a bit while I’m still your instructor.”
Those words kill any protest he has. It won’t be long now before she, along with everyone else in Class VII, leaves Thors behind. While Rean should be glad to be rid of her ridiculous demands and unprofessional behavior, he’s already dreading the next year without her.
“Don’t look so gloomy. I thought we got all the tears out of everyone’s systems on your last free day,” she teases, but it’s a little flat. She’s clearly in a thinking mood tonight. “Listen, I really am sorry I won’t be here to see you through the rest of your time here.”
“I’d never deny you the chance to escape Vice Principal Heinrich’s lectures.” His smile feels out of place on his face. “It’s obvious how much you love being a bracer. I don’t blame you for going back now that you have a chance. Besides, Erebonia is going to need you and Fie to help out with everything to come.”
“That doesn’t mean you don’t need help, too. Things are going to get even tougher for you from here on out. I just wanted you to know that even if I’m not your instructor anymore, I’m always willing to lend an ear. This isn’t the last I’m going to see of you or any of your classmates.”
Rean looks at her, pulled between gratefulness and fear for the future ahead. Finally, he decides to keep things light. “Wow, you’re being awfully sentimental tonight. Are you drunk?”
“Brat,” she says fondly. “I’m barely buzzed!” She pauses and then adds, “But seriously, write to us, okay?”
“Yeah, I will,” he promises.
44. “I still remember the way it tastes.”
“Something smells wonderful in here,” Gaius says.
“It sure does. I would have come to this reunion just for Sharon’s cooking,” Fie announces with her usual straight-faced humor. “I still remember the way it tastes.”
Alisa giggles. “She might have been looking forward to this just as much as you. She looked so happy when she was planning everything.”
“It is always an honor to serve my lady’s most trusted friends,” Sharon says. “And it’s a privilege to see you all doing so well.”
“I’ll say.” Fie’s grin takes on a familiar teasing edge. “I hear we have a virtuoso on our hands.”
“Well, I’ve heard we have the youngest senior bracer in history here,” Elliot replies, his ears only slightly pink.
“I’ve been glad to hear what everyone has accomplished,” Gaius says. “I apologize again for missing so much.”
Alisa shakes her head. “Don’t be sorry. I know it must have been important. Besides, there’s plenty of time now to catch up.”
“And over a good meal,” Fie adds. “That’s the best way to catch up.”
45. “How much of that did you hear?”
“So, okay, I know I overreacted, but this wouldn’t have happened in the first place if you hadn’t…” Alisa trails off with a groan. She’s been trying to practice her apology in the mirror for the past twenty minutes and it’s going nowhere fast. It’s just so hard to be straightforward and admit she was in the wrong. She barely knows Rean but she’s pretty sure he’s just as eager to put this whole incident behind them as she is. It's just that since her mother seems to disapprove of everything she does and Sharon is too indulgent to ever really scold her, it’s been a while since she’s made a proper apology to someone.
She sighs and decides to go take a walk downstairs and get some water before she short-circuits. But when she opens the door Emma is standing right there. “Um, you forgot your notebook downstairs.” Emma holds it out with one hand, the other up in surrender.
Alisa takes a deep breath because flying off the handle at another of her well-meaning classmates is definitely not how she wants to start this year. Instead, she motions for Emma to step into the room and shuts the door. “How much of that did you hear?”
“Well, I didn’t want to interrupt,” Emma says, her eyes not quite meeting Alisa’s. “I really didn’t mean to eavesdrop.”
“I know you didn’t. So?” Emma blinks at her blankly and Alisa sighs. “Am I completely hopeless?”
“Oh, far from it. I’m really glad you both seem to be trying to make up. If only Machias and Jusis would follow your example.” She hesitates and then continues. “Maybe as an apology for overhearing I can help you practice?”
“If you really wouldn’t mind, I could use the help.”
(It takes a bit but Alisa and Rean do stumble their way into apologizing. It’s nice to clear the air, but the way Emma runs up to her and smiles and says she’s proud of her after they come back from their first field study is almost as nice.)
46. “What happens if I do this?”
Fie grins when a familiar face drops by the bracer guild shortly after she arrives in Legram. “Hey, Laura. Been a while.”
“Hello to you as well.” Her smile looks a little strained. “If it isn’t too much of a bother, I was hoping to ask for your assistance with something.”
“Course. That’s what I’m here for.” She vaults over the desk, eager for any excuse to put off organizing files. “What is it?”
With her eyes averted, Laura pulls out her ARCUS II. Like Fie’s, it’s barely been used yet. “I’m finding myself a little confused with some of the new features. I consulted the manual, but I’m still having some trouble.”
“I’ve just been poking around, but sure, I can give it a shot.” She takes the orbment and flips it open. “I see you have the quartz figured out.”
“Yes, that’s similar to the original ARCUS. What I’m having trouble with is the messaging function. Millium sent me one and was quite… insistent that I respond as soon as possible.”
Fie laughs. “Oh, yeah, I got one of those too. I think she sent it to everyone. Orbmail can go through the Round of Seven just like calls, so we can send and receive them even if we’re not on a communication network. It’s pretty cool.”
“Indeed.” Laura’s tone makes it clear she isn’t following at all. “So how do I go about replying?”
“After the message is open, you just click here and here and it opens up a reply. Then you use the keyboard to type whatever you want.”
“And what happens if I do this?” Laura presses the upward pointing arrow, turning on the caps lock. “Oh, this is much easier to read.”
“I think we’re all going to get a kick out of your messages.”
47. “Why are you whispering?”
Fie kneels down next to the flowerbed. “Hey there,” she whispers as she reaches out to gently touch one of the petals.
“Why are you whispering?” Laura asks.
“Edel says talking to the flowers helps them grow. I figure since Vivi is always so loud, they might like something a little more quiet.”
“That makes sense.” Laura crouches down next to her and brushes her own fingertip against a velvety petal. “They’re lovely flowers. Do you know what they are?”
“Not sure what they’re called, exactly. I got the seeds from someone in the corps.” Fie pauses. Until just a little while ago, that would have marked the end of the conversation.
But Fie grew into a girl who loved naps in the sun (and the shade, for that matter), who enjoyed gardening and whispered to flowers, and who was fiercely loyal to her friends. The people who raised her that way couldn’t be all bad, Laura thinks. The world is complicated. They had all learned that from their field studies if nothing else. “They seem to be growing quite well,” Laura says, hoping to brush over the awkward silence.
“Yeah. Edel thinks they’re herbs. She said she was going to check some books to find out what kind.”
“I’d imagine they have some practical use, perhaps for cooking or medicine.”
“Makes sense. It would make me happy if that’s the case. Maybe these little plants will be useful to someone.”
“Well, I think they’re already wonderful,” Laura says. “I feel calmer just looking at them. I’m sure you’ve enjoyed caring for them and watching them grow as well.”
There’s a hint of a smile on Fie’s lips. “Yeah, you’re right. Whatever they really are, my flowers are precious to me.”
48. “You make me want things I can’t have.”
“You make me want things I can’t have,” Crow says quietly as they shuffle their Blade decks for another hand.
“If you’re trying to make me go easy on you, it’s not going to work,” Rean replies easily, riding the confidence of three consecutive wins.
“So mean! Fine, I don’t wish I could keep these easy days at the academy going. I’m totally happy to let you go through the next year without me to brighten your lonely school days.” If there’s something slightly off about his smile, the dim light of a fading sunset through the academy window hides it.
“I’m pretty sure Angelica would drag you to graduation no matter what you tried.”
Crow snorts at that image. “At this point, I’m starting to doubt her, Towa, or George will ever let me escape their nagging.”
(Months later, only Towa and George cross the stage and receive their diplomas. Rean sits alone in the audience while the rest of Class VII lines up for their own diplomas and wonders if anything would have changed if he’d said something.)
49. “I don’t want to screw this up.”
“Hey there, ‘Instructor’,” Sara greets, grinning from ear to ear. “To have not one, but two students following in my footsteps! It almost brings a tear to my eye. I hope your kids are making just as much trouble for you as you all did for me.”
“Well, I wouldn’t go that far.” Rean tries to shove the mishap at the start of the orienteering exercise from his mind. Still, it’s hard to escape the feeling that Sara knows everything even though she’s halfway across the country and he’s her most direct contact at the branch campus. “They’re definitely a unique group of kids.”
“I’ll say. Black Rabbit, a transfer from Crossbell, and a Vander kid, right? And the Golden Rakshasa for a principal on top of everything else.”
He sighs. “How do you even know that?”
“Don’t underestimate a bracer’s information network!”
“I’m guessing Elliot told you all after he called me.”
“Fine, ruin all my mystique," she whines. Rean wisely chooses not to point out she never had any. “Really, how is everything going? Must be weird going from student to teacher so quickly.”
“It’s definitely an adjustment. At least Towa is here with me. As someone who used to push work onto her, you should know just how capable she is.”
“Hey! Knowing your weaknesses and using resources effectively is basic tactics! Well, it’s nice you’re both there to keep each other from being too overwhelmed.”
“Yeah.” Rean leans back in his desk chair with a sigh. “Honestly? I hope I can help guide my students and make the new Class VII as special for them as the old one was for me. I don’t want to screw this up.”
“You’re not gonna screw anything up,” Sara says like it’s a ridiculous worry. “You were an excellent student and there’s not a doubt in my mind you’ll make an excellent instructor. I’m sure you’ll get through to your students just like you did all your classmates.”
It’s hard to believe in the reassurance, but Sara’s words have always been hard to ignore. She’s just too blunt and genuine. So he nods and tries to believe in what she said. “Thanks, Instructor. I’ll do my best.”
50. “People are staring.”
“People are staring,” Juna whispers to Kurt as they walk through the streets of Saint-Arkh. She’s clearly trying to be discreet but still loud enough he assumes Altina and Instructor Rean can hear her. “I guess he really is famous.”
Rean has retreated behind his fake glasses that still don’t look good on him at all. He’s smiling, but it’s not real. They’ve seen him smiling at Altina when she’s hard at work, at students when they ask a good question in history class, and at the kids playing in Leeves. This is polite, distant, rote, the kind of smile that looks more like a grimace under closer inspection.
“So this is one of the most historical cities in Erebonia,” Altina says. “Instructor, please give us more details. I believe a better understanding of our surroundings will help us be more efficient.”
He beams at her. “I’m glad to see you taking the initiative, Altina. While Saint-Arkh is well known for its historical significance, today it’s also an important cultural hub. Its two nicknames of ‘the Old Capital’ and ‘the City of Arts’ reflect that.”
Rean continues to speak and both Juna and Kurt notice he seems much more relaxed now that he’s distracted. They both look to Altina as she nods along and then join her in asking questions.