Slightly AU fix-it fic with spoilers for the entire series. For Perseid.
During a recess period in fifth grade, Erik Fleischer declared that Siegfried Kircheis could have been friends with anyone, that it was pure bad luck that Reinhardt von Musel had been the first to latch onto him and chase all the other boys and girls away.
Reinhardt broke his nose and bloodied his shins as a matter of principle, but wasn't particularly bothered by the statement itself. Reinhardt knows: at the very core of things, underneath the surface layers of good-natured ease and compassion, Kircheis is more demanding than war.
When the transmission comes through, he's in the middle of a session with Hildegarde, Mittermeyer, Mecklinger and the young Alliance ambassador, trying to explain why there's no negotiating the fact that the crown on his head privileges him with at least one more ballot than the rest of the voting pool combined.
"We are not going to put up with perpetual accessory-induced headaches and the whims of the ignorant hoi polloi," he points out while the incoming message signal flashes.
Minz doesn't look convinced. "Your Majesty has already proven that tradition taken to senseless extremes will eventually be overthrown," and it's as if he truly believes that by digging in mulishly enough he can topple the Empire with the force of his obstinacy.
Reinhardt's contact with Yang Wenli had been limited, but he doesn't remember the man to be this infuriating. Just one more reason to mourn the passing of a noble enemy who had had the grace to take no for an answer.
"Excuse us," he takes refuge in the excuse of the call.
Five minutes later, not even Minz protests when he ends the meeting and strides from the room at the fastest pace Imperial dignity will allow. He isn't thinking of the message as he leaves. People make a blur in the corridors around him, there's a jumble of exclamations and hand-waving, and he isn't really thinking of anything at all.
They travel by ship -- not his retired lady Brunhilde, gleaming white and beautiful in her hangar and as stripped of functional purpose as a nuclear warhead with the peace treaties gone through, just one of the regular transports whose cargo had been shuffled in favor of the royal entourage. He's aware of Hilde seated coolly by his side, and Kesler on the other side of her shuffling papers.
Some of the newer batch of aides look as though they're holding back from gossip only by lingering shreds of survival instinct; they keep sneaking peeks in his direction until he hits his endurance threshold for avoidable stupidity and orders them out of sight or risk being stashed out of sight, in the cargo bin if necessary. Five minutes later, there's just him and senior staff and the thrum of the ship's engines.
Hildegarde lays her palm on the back of his hand for exactly one second before retrieving it. He times it, which is how he knows that she's timing it, too.
"Thank you for coming," he says.
"I'm honored to have the opportunity," she murmurs, and smiles. One of them should have stayed behind to smooth over the inevitable difficulties that crop up, but he'd wanted a family reunion, and as his wife she's earned the right. "You must be excited."
"Yes." It comes out cold, though he doesn't mean to be disagreeable. It's simply a reflection of how he feels at the moment, practical and detached, like this is just another diplomatic trip to another unstable planet, and honestly, his mind is already circling around Minz' latest proposals and how much to give, how much to dangle like a carrot. He's been cruising for so long on auto-pilot that the gears have rusted together.
"You'll get along, I think," he adds.
"I've heard many wonderful things about His Excellency," and it's a testimony to her diplomatic skills that the banality manages to come out sounding sincere.
"He's a wonderful person," as if she'd been asking for confirmation. "Kind, capable, as upright as they come. One hardly needs a conscience with him around."
"I see," she says. Nobody says anything else for the dozen hours it takes for them to reach Odin.
"Why isn't he awake?" he ignores the sweat beading from their pores, fear almost palpable in the room. "What are you doing?"
"We've done what we can to flush the poison, my lord," says the eldest of the physicians, white-bearded and wrinkled and the only one still composed in the face of a nobleman's wrath, "but the damage has been done; chances of recovery are -- " he pauses, flicking a glance at Reinhardt " -- not encouraging."
The urge to smash something through the window spikes. "I will pay you -- handsomely -- for every day he remains alive," he says in the voice he'll one day use to announce royal proclamations. "And should that condition cease to apply, I will see to it that no planet in the galaxy will support your practice."
The Baroness' manor is as lovely as ever. She's divided her time between tending her plants and patient since the incident, and it's no suprise to anyone who knows her that both have flourished in her care.
She steps forward to greet him as he exits the transport; "Little brother," she says, running fingers of mist and cloud down his cheek. It's been half a year since his last visit. She's lit up tonight, glowing radiant like a modern-day Madonna, and he's never seen anything more beautiful or frightening.
"Where -- "
"Resting inside," and he's through the front door and past the foyer before she can begin the pleasantries to make Hildegarde welcome.
His last visit had come just after the Alliance's surrender had been ratified. He'd half-expected it to be the requisite wake-up call, drawing on Kircheis' obligation to open his eyes and exclaim over the prize he'd sent Reinhardt out to retrieve. Instead he sat watching Kircheis' pale face and gaunt wrists unmoving on the bedsheets, treaty in hand, following the hypnotic rhythm of the respirator until he dozed off; after he woke, he left the room, kissed his sister, and told her he loved her, loved them both, but he would return again for two occasions only.
Entering now is like stepping into a dream.
Kircheis is in bed, eyes closed, and his breath hitches before common sense reasserts itself and he notices the disconnected tubes, the respirator pushed to one side. He approaches the bed, kneels when he reaches it, stretches out to take one of Kircheis' cool unresponsive palms in his own. It's habit by now.
When Kircheis' eyebrows twitch and the indentation of the pillow shifts, Reinhardt leans forward to bury his face in his arms. He doesn't look up when he feels fingers brushing hesitantly through his hair, Kircheis' other hand flexing weakly against his.
"Reinhardt-sama." It's not even a whisper, just a snatch of air trying and almost failing to push past the threshold into sound. Vocal cords fallen into disrepair. He tries to smile, but doesn't lift his head.
"Don't talk," he says into Kircheis' sheets, "later, we have later," and knowing it's the first time in two years that this is true, he breathes out deeply and falls asleep right there with his knees on the ground.
Days pass before he allows another attempt at speech; in the meantime Kesler and Hildegarde come to pay their respects and offer congratulations while Reinhardt watches Kircheis' expression, warm and edging on confused.
"My empress," he introduces Hildegarde, trying not to flush or look away when Kircheis' eyes widen. They slant towards him a moment later, teasingly, while Reinhardt rolls his eyes and reminds himself that he's a soon-to-be father and far too worldly to be embarrassed by romantic digs.
When Kircheis opens his mouth to greet her, Reinhardt deals him his Thor's Hammer death glare and he subsides meekly back into silence. It's for his own good -- Kircheis is sensible, level-headed, but sometimes his sense of self-preservation takes a week off and that's what got them here in the first place and /breathe/, Reinhardt tells himself, /breathe/.
He doesn't try to fill up the gaps with one-way conversation -- not polite, he thinks, and refuses to think further. Annerose might have filled Kircheis in on the current situation of galactic politics or not, but Reinhardt talks about the weather, palace gossip, opera (which really makes Kircheis's eyes crinkle), or sits by his bedside and plays with his fingers.
There's been a distance between them ever since he arrived, illusive and unremarked upon. He's aware that it stretches beyond his arrival -- for all its trauma Westerland lies years back in his memory, but to Kircheis it should be a thing of yesterday, still vibrant in the foreground -- and that they haven't said a word about it doesn't mean anything; this is Kircheis, who can turn moralistic judgement into silent pity, and it's that more than the prospect of anger that Reinhardt shies from.
"You're a Grand Admiral now," Reinhardt tells him, "would you like to be a Duke?" and Kircheis just shakes his head, like it's the most ridiculous joke he's ever heard.
Kircheis is back, his sister is content, it's the idyll of their childhood once more and there's no reason he shouldn't be thrilled out of his mind. Hildegarde returns to Phezzan to deal with the ever-turning wheel of national affairs, giving him a brief, professional bow before she leaves and a flash of wistful smile that disappears like cobwebs after twilight when she turns.
Annerose pours him tea. Earl Grey, without sugar or cream. "I have a room prepared for you," she says, concealing the rebuke only halfway.
"Later," he pleads just as indirectly, and she sighs and pushes back a lock of his hair before sliding the plate of raspberry tarts over.
He doesn't tell her that he'll be fine despite aching joints and muscles born of sleeping in an armchair because time has stopped for them temporarily, and neither exhaustion nor discomfort nor the protests of backside can harm him before the suspension ends. She should understand: time hasn't touched her since the day she followed the Emperor's men into that big black car, and he wonders if even Kircheis' awakening is enough to shake the sand in her hourglass into flowing again, what it means for her, caught forever in stasis, and whether it's to be mourned or envied: a flower never given the chance to bloom, a flower never given the chance to wither.
On the day Kircheis says "Good morning," everything wavers.
"Good morning," he says after a beat. He takes a seat between the bed and the sunshine pouring in from the french windows that open on the garden, where he can count every faint freckle in Kircheis' face and read the exhaustion hidden in the slant of Kircheis' shoulders. He wishes suddenly that they were discussing this over tea, which would at least give him an excuse to look away.
"You don't look well."
Reinhardt laughs, sharp and startled, because if anyone has the right to use that phrase right now, it's not the person in the sickbed.
"Yes, and you look like you're ready to take on the ten-thousand-meter year-end marathon," he stretches his legs out in front of him. He's grown a bit these past two years; possibly he's taller than Kircheis now, and that thought isn't nearly as satisfying as he'd once have imagined.
Kircheis doesn't remark on the attitude, just cocks his head and observes Reinhardt so steadily that Reinhardt expects a list of his recent transgressions to drop out of thin air.
"So," he says, "I don't know how much my sister's told you about what's been going on. What would you like to know?"
"How have you been?" The killer is that Kircheis looks perfectly sincere as he says it, as if it really is the first thing on his mind.
I've missed you.
"I've worked hard," he says. "The coup succeeded, the Alliance flopped over on its back, I have able subordinates working for me...you'll like the new people. The Earth cultists are still making trouble -- would you believe they had the imbecilic gall to assassinate Yang Wenli? -- but we'll round them up sooner or later with Oberstein on the case."
The flicker of Kircheis' eyes at Oberstein's name isn't unexpected, and Reinhardt pauses before going on.
"The war's ended, people have defected, people have died. We knew going in that that would happen, didn't we? I tried to minimize the damage, I /tried/. It was -- Westerland was a mistake, and I'm sorry. For everything that came after, too."
"Reinhardt-sama -- "
"The Alliance surrendered only because we made a deal with a slimy slug, Reuentahl and Fahrenheit are dead by my mistakes, soon I'll have a son by a woman who calls me 'Majesty' in private, who's useful to the running of the state, and men are executed for trying to revenge the family they lost because it was more efficient for our forces. That's what I've been doing."
Kircheis says, "You don't have to tell me this," and falls silent afterwards, which tells Reinhardt all he needs to know.
He stands and heads for the doorway, quick and furious, longing for the respite of no-time, and slams the door shut when Kircheis doesn't call him back.
The history books will call Reinhardt an idealist who requires the world to rise above his standard, pulling it up by force if it should prove unwilling.
What the world doesn't know is that Kircheis is an idealist, too: if Kircheis were a word in the dictionary, idealist would be the first definition underneath the pronunciation and part of speech; he escapes notice only because he's perfectly willing to make nice with those who fall short of his own moral code, willing even to be affectionate and fond of them.
But he doesn't, in the end, trust them, and Reinhardt had always been smug in the knowledge that however courteous Kircheis was to the adoring throng around him, there'd been something setting himself and his sister apart, a guarantee of exclusive claim.
He'd never imagined wishing otherwise, or anticipated a day when it would work against him.
"It's not fair."
It's past midnight, and he doesn't bother to turn on the lamps, allowing the shadows to wash across the room. In the darkness it's impossible to see whether Kircheis' eyes are open or closed, but Reinhardt knows he's awake.
He moves towards the bed, stopping a foot short of the edge.
"Hm?" Kircheis still sounds unruffled, infuriatingly calm, as if Reinhardt's temper tantrum has very little to do with him, really, and will pass if he just waits long enough.
It's difficult to keep his voice low in deference of his sister sleeping two rooms over. "What gives you the right to judge? You weren't there. You were gone, and you don't know -- it's easy for you." Saint Siegfried had been one of the nicknames awarded by their junior class, and Reinhardt had mocked it mercilessly even while acknowledging the truth of it, because he's never known anyone as innately, helplessly good as his friend: a moral cat, always landing on the right side of his conscience.
"No," says the cat.
"Shooting pitiful creatures in self-defense is not the same as trying to balance efficiency and ethics in a treasonous campaign."
"If you could give me one instance -- "
"I was awake for three days before you came," Kircheis says, and the shock of Saint Siegfried interrupting him is enough to make him pause and take a closer look; what he finds is Kircheis looking at the end of his tether, features sagging momentarily into a caricature of weariness, "wondering what I would do if the worst case scenario had occurred, and you had become a monster." The twist of lips belongs to someone else. "When Ansbach drew his weapon, for a second before I acted I wondered if he might be justified."
He's imagined similar scenarios, Kircheis judging him, Kircheis finding him lacking, but the confirmation hurts more than anything he'd imagined, and he fights to keep his voice steady: "And you decided I was still worth salvaging?"
"And I realized I didn't care." Kircheis draws an arm up to his face, covers his eyes. "Reinhardt-sama, you don't need to tell me anything."
It takes a few moments for the meaning of the words to penetrate, and when they do, he wonders if he's interpreting them wrong. Because Kircheis is an idealist, holding himself to standards the gods would find difficult to match, holding those nearest him to the same, and the day he gives up on his ideals is the day they can start digging his grave. Giving them up would be like giving up a part of himself.
Before Reinhardt is aware of moving he's by the side of the bed and gripping Kircheis' hands, holding on so tightly he suspects it's cutting off circulation, but he doesn't care; right now he doesn't care about anything but this. This isn't anything he could have foreseen.
"I'm sorry," he says with every bit of penitence he's learned since Westerland, trying not to sound like a frantic child, "it's okay, you won't have to make that decision again, I'm trying, I'm making up for it, it'll all be okay now that you're back."
Kircheis doesn't say anything in response, but he frees one hand to runs his fingers through Reinhardt's hair, down his back, not pulling away as Reinhardt gasps and babbles, and Reinhardt knows that he's been forgiven; that the forgiveness is costing Kircheis everything but will still be offered, always, helplessly and unconditionally.
"I'll be good from now on, promise," he says finally, and Kircheis releases something that sounds halfway between a sigh and a laugh, and it means that he probably hates Reinhardt a little now -- that he probably always will -- but he'll never leave, never be capable of it, and as long as Reinhardt has that certainty, he's prepared to deal with everything else.