Miharu's day starts early. She wakes up and sees the sun rise above the sea outside the window, and feels the stretch of light filtering inside the room with her elbows pressed against the windowsill, chin leaned lazily into her hands. She watches the sky change, and wonders, with half-drowsy interest, if there's something peculiar about the way the colors shift, how it turns from deep black to pale pink in minutes before finally settling for a simple, familiar blue.
This sight, of her hometown being awash in morning glow, is something that's earned a permanent spot in her memory. She's seen it countless times before, and even after that day, after everything that's happened, she's yet to stop finding it beautiful. There are still some things war has yet to corrupt, she supposes.
The girl gets up from the bed, careful not to wake up Jill and Milly, and heads for the kitchen before climbing upstairs again to rouse her siblings from sleep. The three of them gather round the rickety wood table and eat breakfast together in established silence. Soon, it'll be time for them to do their chores. Later, she'll have to leave for work, too. It's a clear day, and Miharu's mood lifts a little at that. This means she can dry the laundry – and plus, she'll be able to take better pictures. She gathers the dishes in the sink when they're done and makes a mental reminder to buy more soap when she notices she's nearly out.
The quiet in the rustic kitchen is broken by the soft tinkling of plates and cups under running water and the low rumble of a warship about to take its leave from the harbor. It's nothing she hasn't already reported, nothing they don't already know; but her hand stills nonetheless, and on instinct, she flicks her gaze over to the dusty window facing the sea.
Her nose tickles when she senses the breeze, breathing in the scent of salt and exhaust fume, and with it she feels this sudden, terrible guilt, rising sickeningly up her throat like bile threatening to spill. Hurriedly, she reaches over to turn off the tap. She has no time to be dwelling on this, she thinks, but the feeling persists and she doesn't try to swallow it back down, even when she hears Jill and Milly's loud chattering outside, laughing at something.
There's still so much to do, Miharu reminds herself, and places the clean plates back into the rack.
They're almost out of clean water, she realizes. This house has long had its power supply cut off and with the money she's saved, she doubts she can have them restored. Not anytime soon, anyway.
Miharu ties the ribbon around her hair and remembers the letter she'd gotten on that cold, lonely morning. It had been a month or two after the war broke out. She thinks of her siblings, the pressure of decision weighing down her shoulders, of what she knows she has to do. The corners of her mouth pull into a smile – polite, approachable – but her reflection still looks young and reticent. There's nothing to be unsure about, though: it's pointless to wonder about the alternative of this scenario when she is perfectly aware she would never have chosen to refuse their offer. This is what she tells herself, time and time again.
"I'm leaving." She squats down smilingly on the grass, before the two children. "Don't fret," she assures the worry crossing their expression. "I won't be too busy today. Lock the door if you're scared, and tell me if you see anything." She ruffles Jill's hair as she gets up to her feet, but firmly brushes Milly off when she tries to hold on to her just a little bit longer. "I really have to go," she says.
"I know," replies her sister. Her voice is meek, like she's just broken something, and she looks like she's about to say something more, but then she halts, deciding otherwise, and pulls away from her to stand obediently beside her brother.
"Be good, okay?" Miharu reminds before finally heading off. "I'll be back soon."
She takes the usual path to the city, and sets off for work, like she always does, like she promised to do every day since the morning after that letter. Idly, she watches the busy harbor – she'll make a stop there later – and the soldiers coming and going around it, observes their identical upturned faces, and feels a tinge of unexplained sadness at the realization it's a sight she's gotten herself used to. She spares a glance at the pallid shade of the sky and is hit with the reminder that it's nearing the end of the year. The temperature has been steadily dropping, and she tries not to wonder how the three of them will manage to hold off when the cold becomes unbearable. Under her arm, the wicker basket rocks gently, the pastries inside it bumping against each other as the girl walks in short, even steps. The life Miharu Ratokie leads is a simple one.
From Number 107, she types onto the paper in crisp, black ink. The balloon floats quickly out of her room once she lets go, and Miharu watches it shrink into a tiny red dot, disappearing behind tall rooftops and pale clouds, guided by the rolling wind towards the foamy sea. Only when the lens of her camera can no longer catch it does she look away. She sinks down to the wood panel floor with her back leaned against the wall, tired without knowing why. Relief and worry tug at her chest, and she feels like she's five again, thinking she's just gotten away with something wicked.
For once, it's true.
Something in her stomach twists at the thought and she brings her knees close to her chest when that happens, burying her face inside them. She doesn't like to think of work as something more than an obligation, something she has no choice in. She can't help it, though. Is this how those soldiers feel like? Does this make her the same as them? Does this make her worse? (Isn't there a difference?)
Miharu hates to wonder.
The afternoon air is cool as it blows into the room, still with the same familiar salty scent mixed in with the noxious smoke. It's starting to sicken her. Unthinkingly, she climbs up, and closes the window with a swift pull, slamming it hard against the sill and leaving the glass trembling in its frame. After a moment, she decides to draw the curtains shut, too. The sunlight narrows into a slit of white on the opposite wall and lingers there for a second before it fades altogether.
And it's then and there, standing in the quiet dim of the room, that Miharu feels as if she's all alone – and somehow, at ease – in the world.
"What's wrong?" Miharu slides another portion of bread onto her plate before passing it to Jill's. Even she has to admit it looks neither fresh nor appetizing, but it is food – and it's the best they can manage for now, so she ignores the dry, solid thud it makes as it lands and the plate clatters against the table, and when she sees her brother's expression is still reticent, forces her tone to raise, and urges: "Eat up. You'll get sick. The bread will go stale tomorrow, so don't let it go to waste."
"Okay," Jill says and nods after a beat of silence. She catches the uneasy flickering in his eyes, but at least he and Milly have something to eat, now, and the sight of them struggling to chew on the pieces of bread is enough to deter her from souring the moment even further by pressing on about it.
"Just put up with it for now," she says, instead. "I have a feeling things will be better soon."
It isn't a completely empty promise. Her higher-ups have been satisfied with her recent reports, and they say if she keeps it up, she might, just might be in for better payment. Only as long as she's willing to spy for Zeon, of course, they never fail to add. Miharu had felt her heart clench at the words the moment she heard them, had paused before she signed her affirmation – but now, sitting in front of Jill and Milly, sipping soured milk and biting into stiff bread, the thought of being able to somehow make things better for them, in whatever way, soothes her hesitance away with such ease she almost wonders if it'd ever been there in the first place, or if it had been worth it to allow herself to feel an emotion so selfish.
"Really, Sis?" Milly's voice is hopeful as it interrupts her thoughts.
Miharu's lips curve into a small, gentle smile. It's as genuine and resolute as she feels. "That's a promise."
"You're always so reliable, 107," says the man, who punctuates the statement with a hearty laugh. The bag jingles merrily as he tosses it lightly from his hands to hers. Miharu catches and holds it close to her chest, the grip of her fingers tight around the cloth. "Not to mention so young." His tone shifts into something else – sour; that's the first word that comes to mind – when he says this, as does his expression. "I hadn't expected our newest recruit to be this little girl."
"…I'm flattered," she says, tentative, unsure of anything else more appropriate. She shifts her weight from one foot to the other, gripped with an unwelcome sense of discomfort, and brings one of her hand around the handle of her bicycle, leaning slightly against it. The vacant lot they're standing at – the designated meeting place – is overgrown with grass, and the blades tease wetly at her legs, itchy but not quite a bother. Miharu thinks it's time to excuse herself; but the Zeon soldier looks as if still he has more to say. And so, never having been one to defer authority, she remains exactly where she is.
"It's not a compliment," he replies simply. His face is turned away and his voice is as flatly somber as before. She can detect no pity in his words and she isn't sure if she's supposed to be pleased or offended by that. She chooses neither. It's not as if there's any point in caring. "That's all I wanted to say." He brushes the dark fringes absently out of his eyes and looks to his shoes. "You best get going, kid. It's getting late. People will be suspicious."
It's true. Their shadows stretch thinly under the steadily dying light of the sun, splaying across the dirt and grass, the still-muddy puddles from yesterday's rainfall. It's so dark already, even as the sun is setting, and a quick glance at the gloomy clouds is enough to convince her it will rain again tonight. Jill and Milly will be worried if she stays around here too long, especially in this kind of weather. She doesn't even bother to register the possible double meaning of that statement.
"I'll be leaving now," Miharu says, and doesn't forget to add a polite thank you afterwards. The thought approaches her that she could look a little more grateful – the bonus is less than what she was led to expect, but it is still is extra income, and it will at least be enough to afford better food – and then decides to tack on a smile for it. It doesn't stay on for long, though, because the man doesn't even seem to notice.
"Good luck, kid," he says, but by then the girl has already turned round her heel to climb onto her bike, and from her comes no acknowledgement.
It turns out it isn't as cloudy near the city as it is in the outskirts of it; the sky above her bleeds slowly into lilac as Miharu navigates past empty, dimly-lit corners and pedals through abandoned stores, heading towards the harbor, towards the lonely house standing on the edge of town.
The first signs of anything unusual in a long time come late in November. Miharu rushes out of the kitchen and to the front yard, camera in hand, gawking at the huge warship whose model she has never seen before. Quickly, she follows the first instinct to snap photographs. The only clear view of the ship she manages to catch is blurred to unrecognizability due to weather and interference, but she reassures herself it's okay. She'll be sure to make up for it later.
The girl takes her usual route from her house to the base the warship just docked into, her features polished into a pleasant smile, the woven basket dangling from her wrist. She's just in time to greet the exiting soldiers when she approaches them, a skip to her step. At the front of the queue is a lanky man who, upon closer inspection, looks far too young to have that mop of gray hair framing his freckled face. Miharu runs up to him without warning and her smile broadens by millimeters when he stumbles backwards a step, successfully caught off-guard. She almost giggles.
"Mr. Soldier!" she greets sunnily, gesturing to the assortment of sweets she's carrying. "Care to buy something?"
Dumbfounded, he balks for a moment, before registering her offer and peering down to the contents of the basket. "There's nothing in there worth buying," he decides, with no hesitation, looking plainly unimpressed.
Miharu scrunches up her face the most childish way she can convincingly emulate, and insists: "It's all locally made – and delicious, too!" The same tagline she repeats to all the foreign soldiers she comes across. "Come on, won't you please have some?"
The young man smirks at her. "Hey, you're pretty cute!" he comments, but then in the same breath adds: "Looks like you have a tough life, though…"
She wastes no time in being flustered. "Buy something, then!"
He waves her off guiltlessly, "Maybe some other time."
Miharu decides to just stop once it's clear to her she's not going to make the younger boy behind him cave in to buying biscuits or a candy bar. Regardless, she stays close to the gates, keeping her ears out for mindless chatter between the soldiers. She's too preoccupied with trying to look inconspicuous that it fails to occur to her until much later how young most of them look. There's a boy and girl talking in worried, hushed tones about something she can't quite pick up, and just ahead of them, the young man from before is shouting nonsense at a trio of children, who laugh and ignore him.
Exhaling a sigh, Miharu wonders if this just isn't her lucky day, after all.
Her preconception soon changes once the skirmish starts. The information she leaked them must have been useful. Taking care to remain on the sidelines, Miharu struggles to keep her grip on the camera steady as she attempts to capture as much footage of the Federation mobile suit as possible. It's white and large and powerful, and in the distance, she can almost feel the fury of it trying to hold its own in battle. She's curious about who the pilot might be. She's so mesmerized by the fierce duel that when a stray blast from the side blows a nearby wall to bits of rubble threatening to imminently crush her, she's a second too late to react.
Concentration broken and instincts taking over, she holds onto her camera and makes for the shortest route home by turning the corner – only to come dangerously close to a passing tank. It comes to a sudden halt with the bumper centimeters away from her, and for seconds, she is caught in utter shock.
"Watch where you're going!" yells one of the soldiers. Recognition flashes over his eyes and the resulting look of surprise on his face mirrors the one written on hers. "What are you still wandering around here for? You should be running away by now!"
Miharu takes the opportunity to stuff the camera into her basket. Good, she thinks, far more relieved than she ought to be. He's not suspicious.
"Terribly sorry, Mr. Soldier," she feigns fluster. "Bye!"
And as she runs, she thinks she might've heard him mutter something in disapproval, but she's too much in a hurry to pay attention.
The higher-ups are fairly pleased with the recordings, and compensate accordingly. That afternoon, Miharu celebrates by treating the three of them to a lunch of half-decent bread bought from one of the few grocery shops that haven't been closed down or otherwise ruined in the wake of Zeon's attack. They still have to save up money, though; this is as luxurious as it will get, she knows, and so she tells Jill and Milly to savor the taste of fresh bread as best and for as long as they can.
She stores the rest of the money into the dresser drawer. "For the day we get out of here," she says, and can't help smiling to herself. She wants to believe she can still hold onto that dream.
The third time she sees him is next morning, when she catches him alone in the city – or what's left of it – walking around amidst the ruined aftermath of yesterday's battle. Miharu slips beside him from behind a particularly large fragment of a building and greets him casually – "Hey! Mr. Soldier!" – and pauses momentarily when she notices too late he's out of uniform. Then, she's quick to draw the approximate conclusion.
"It's you again." He doesn't seem too bothered. There's a look of playful cockiness on his face she hadn't noticed before, and Miharu doesn't know why, but it puts her on edge. Her practiced smile doesn't waver a bit.
"Well, Mr. Soldier," she begins, "it looks like you've been thrown off the warship."
He shrugs, noncommittal, "I guess you could say that." It's a tone that suggests the truth is that he in fact hasn't; but it's also a tone that suggests he'd rather not delve into it, and so Miharu opts to be polite and not to pry. She shouldn't get ahead of herself, in any case. She'll have many more opportunities to gain information out of him, later.
"You don't have a place to stay, do you?" she makes the offer straightaway. "There's still room at my house, if you're interested."
"Hm? Do you mean that?" The young man raises an eyebrow. And here she'd thought he was the gullible type the first time they'd met. "I expect there to be a catch."
"No way," Miharu refutes, and then, as if deciding it wasn't convincing enough, she shakes her head, too. She looks up from the ground to face him again. "I won't mind if it's only for a few days. So, do you take the offer or not?"
"Sure," he says, and shrugs once more, like he wouldn't care either way. This irritates her, for some reason, but she turns her back to him, and doesn't let it show.
"My name's Miharu," she says. At the same time, she maneuvers her footsteps around the crumbled bricks and smashed glass, careful not to trip. "I live with my brother and sister. You don't mind, do you?"
"Not at all," comes the reply. "I'm Kai Shiden."
"Pleased to meet you, Mr. Kai," she says. That certainly has a better ring to it than just "Mr. Soldier", doesn't it, she decides seconds later – and even chuckles at that, but still she doesn't look behind her. She swings the basket gripped in her fingers, gesturing to him. "Let's go."
The abandoned house is at the far outlier of the city, surrounded by unmarred grass and tall trees, with a clear lookout of the busy harbor. Miharu leads him to the secluded path hidden behind mossy rocks and foliage and they share a short, idle conversation before the sounds of the townspeople die down behind them and their own mindless chatter dwindles soon after.
She stops walking just a few feet from the door. "This is the place. Nothing special, is it?" That's certainly an understatement, she thinks to herself.
"Beggars can't be choosers, I suppose," replies Kai, resignedly. There's nothing mean-spirited in it, but then again, one of the first things she's come to notice of him is that there's hardly anything at all she can pick up from the way he speaks. He gives off the impression of being closed-off and guarded without really sounding that way. It's likely because they've only just met properly a few minutes ago, but maybe it's something else. In the end, it only adds to the list of things about him Miharu can't help but be wary of.
"So," she starts, off-hand, behind the rim of her mug, "about that ship you were on…"
"Yes?" Kai – who's barely touched his breakfast – calmly turns his attention to her.
"It's really quite something!" Miharu doesn't need to feign astonishment because it's true.
"I guess so. Do you like ships?"
She nods. "I grew up by the sea, after all."
"Technically, the White Base is more of a space warship, though." Kai doesn't look as if he's aware he's babbling. His hand cups at one side of his chin and he taps his fingers idly against his cheek. Miharu wants to believe it's just because he's a naïve person after all, but then he narrows his eyes, just slightly, perhaps a tip-off to something – and she's forced to reconsider.
"I see," is all she has to say.
Realizing there is no way she'll be able to progress this conversation without giving herself away, Miharu hurriedly changes the subject and insists he should rest – he does look tired, doesn't he, and who is he to turn down hospitality? He has nothing to say about this, fortunately. She gives Jill and Milly the usual warnings and fetches a spare blanket from the upstairs bedroom.
"The White Base is leaving tonight, you know," Kai says, offhand. She thinks he almost looks delighted when she stops in her tracks, eyes widening. He turns to the ceiling and closes his eyes, and continues: "They've been having problems with the starboard engine lately. If it were hit in that spot, the ship would probably be stuck here."
Miharu, alarmed, tries to salvage the situation: she plays the ingénue. "Kai…"
As expected, he buys none of it. "Don't worry about it. I know how you feel, Miharu, having to take care of your younger brother and sister."
From Number 107, she signs later, no idea of what to think of this. A little while later, she receives the message – and she has no idea of what to think of that, either, even as she's hugging Jill and Milly goodbye, even as she's perfectly aware it's not as if she's in a position to decline.
Best of luck, he'd said.
"Jeez," Kai says, backing off, rubbing at the nape of his neck. "Don't surprise me like that…"
I'm more surprised than you are, Miharu would've retorted, had she the slightest of nerve. Wasn't he supposed to be kicked off?!
"Sorry," she says instead, meekly, and crawls slowly from underneath the officer's desk. She's too late to conceal the gun in her hand and awkwardly clips it to her belt once she's gotten up to her feet.
"Miharu!" he exclaims. "What in the world are you doing here?"
"I," she begins, and immediately regrets what comes next: "I wanted to be with you. That's why I came aboard this ship."
Maybe it's because she's a painfully shoddy liar. Maybe it's because it's actually half-true. Maybe it's because Kai sees through her so effortlessly nevertheless, looking at her as though he could understand. She still isn't sure if she can even put her trust in him but when she considers the circumstances, she realizes she has no choice but to oblige when Kai spares her a nod and a smile and gestures for her to get out and follow him along the hallway outside.
"If the White Base blew up before we get to South America, neither of us would survive," he jokes, and places his hand on her shoulder in reassurance. The gesture is enough to ease Miharu into a smile.
"You have a point," she says, and watches him leave. The girl slides herself down onto the chair and waits. She remembers her siblings and thinks: maybe she can make it.
And then the ship rocks again, shaken by the knock of another blast, and Miharu stumbles backwards, vision swimming dizzily as she reels from the fresh, concussive impact of her head against the floor. A direct hit; she feels her shoulders tremble and leans the side of her body against the wall, struggling to regain footing, shaking off the pulsing ache in the back of her skull. The door swings open with an electronic click and suddenly Kai's there, a lifejacket in hand, yelling something at her with abject, uncharacteristic worry written across his face. The resulting pang of guilt in her chest makes her feel as though she can't hold back the urge to break down.
"The information you gave them couldn't have caused an attack like this," Kai assures her, voice lighthearted despite all, and Miharu doesn't know why, but it only makes her want to cry even more.
"Kai!" she manages to say, pulling away from his shoulder, ignoring the dampness ringed around her eyes. "Please, let me help!"
"Miharu! It's too dangerous!"
This is the least I could do, she doesn't cry back.
"Kai! Steer the plane towards the enemy!" Miharu yells once she finds the position of the lever. The Atlantic Ocean is violent beneath the Gunperry, the crashing waves and the thrum of machinery loud in her ears. Red light blips in the scope's crosshairs and she thinks, yes, she can do this; she can help Kai defeat the enemy! They'll win this battle; and maybe, once this is over, he'll help her go back home, to see Jill and Milly again, and maybe, just maybe, all will be forgiven in the end.
"Look, Kai! The enemy's coming straight at us!"
If she could just pull the lever at the right time—!
Her grip loosens instinctively from the handle before she lets go of it completely. A hot unending flash of white consumes the world and then she loses footing on the floor, falling back, the blast carrying her far, far away, just above the open, endless stretch of sea. She's flying, soaring, with no weight in her body to bring her down. It feels so free.
The light, Miharu thinks. It's so, so bright.
The girl outstretches her arm, reaching for empty air, something that isn't there. She didn't forget to tell Jill and Milly to hide the money, did she? They'll stay safe somehow, won't they? She's sure they will. They're strong children. That's obvious. She's their sister, so she should know that better than anyone. It's silly to even consider doubting it. She knows they'll make it.
And after all – the world won't be this awful forever, will it?