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Turn to Ash

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Flames lick up the walls, consuming banners and ancient tapestries. Clan crests and memorials from simpler times. Paint cracks and peels back to reveal the charring canvases of thousand year old paintings. Masonry scorches and the beams above snap and fall, trailing embers and ash to the floor. Smoke swirls in the air, black and heavy, stinging the eyes and asphyxiating the lungs. Gustav holds an arm to his face, shielding his nose and mouth from the fumes. He squints his eye against the searing heat, shoving panicked students out of his way as he searches.

He should get out while there's still time, while there are any exits still reachable through the blaze. He can't, not yet. Not until he finds her, or makes sure she's already escaped. He'd smash his own head in if he made it out only to find she was still inside, trapped and waiting for the conflagration to consume her.

There's a sharp sudden flare to his left, bursting up the wall and taking an old targe down with it. Gustav ducks to his right, landing on his knees at a crouch with an arm raised behind him to protect his head. The falling shield hits between his shoulders, knocks him to the floor. His face connects with the flagstones, the skin of his cheek splitting over the bone.

"Strong," he hisses through clenched teeth, lifting himself up with one arm. "Strong."

There's a bit of singed ribbon on the floor by his hand, an all too familiar shade of red, twirled into a bow, with a glittering diamond on either side. Gustav growls and snatches it up, struggling his way back onto his feet and casting his gaze about, frantic to see anything through the fumes.

"Teacher Michelangelo!" He curses her, furious that she would dare to worry him so.

Another scrap of red cloth catches his eye. This time it's the hem of her dress, poking out from beneath a fallen rafter. And something more, pale and delicate, with an ornate garnet ring. He curses her again, and launches himself at the beam, lifting it off her and hurling it clear across the wide hall. It shatters against the wall, but he's not focused on that, he's already kneeling, scooping her up into his arms and holding her against his chest.

She flops in his arms as he moves her, like a well loved doll. He supports her head on one arm. The front of her dress is soaked, and Gustav's fingers come back red when he touches her. He slaps at her cheek until she slowly stirs, lashes fluttering as she opens her eyes, then tries to bring her vision back into focus.

"Ah," she smiles, her voice dangerously frail. Damn her. "Teacher Gustav."

She turns her head, and sees her hairpin clutched tightly in his hand. "Oh. Oh no. My hair..."

"Shut up." He's so mad at her, his hand fisting the damp fabric of her dress. Damp, and getting steadily damper. "We have to go."

The fire burns closer to them, snaking its way across the floor, crackling and twisting and consuming. There is nothing but flame and smoke and ash. He can't find the exits anymore.

"Teacher Gustav, please," she lifts one hand to clutch weakly at his. "My hair."

He sighs, frustrated and still so angry with her, but he clumsily pins the bow back into her hair. His fingers shake when he brushes a few misplaced ringlets away from her face.

"How do I look?" She has no right to smile like that, he thinks. No right to smile when the school is burning around them, when her dress gets wetter with every shallow breath she draws.

He swallows, his mouth is dry, his throat hoarse. A bit of blood has started to collect at one corner of her mouth, and he catches it with the pad of his thumb before it can trail down to her chin. "Elegant."

She smiles again, and he finds he can't hate that one. He smiles too, his anger slowly bleeding out of him. She reaches up and brushes her fingers lightly over the tear in his cheek, and even her small frown doesn't make him want to keep being mad at her. She starts to tremble, and he holds her closer, one hand in her hair. She feels so small in his arms. Fragile and cold. She shouldn't be so cold when their entire world is flame.

"I hope Teacher Klauss found Allen. I hope they're safe."

"I'm sure he did," Gustav swallows the hard lump that's formed in his throat. "I'm sure they made it out together."

Gustav keeps her close to his chest with his strong arms. He keeps holding her as she slowly stops trembling, as the light fades from her always shining eyes.

He holds her as the inferno reaches them, holds her while his boots crack and her dress ignites.

He holds her close to him, and makes sure her face, and her elegant hair, are the last things to burn.