warnings for major character death, discussion of death, multiple mentions of blood, brief description of a corpse, brief discussion of rape, mentions of knives, and moderate swearing.
When they are seventeen, hell decides to take up permanent residence in Freddie's aching bones.
Once again, it begins in January. Freddie still wakes up in the mornings, expecting Alec to be lying there, breathing softly as he sleeps. But Freddie wakes up alone, and as he sneaks a look over Jack's prone body to two beds over where Alec used to be. But the boys of 1997 are in the 17-year-old dorm now, and whilst Alec's bed was left empty last year out of respect, this year it's occupied by David Summers, the next boy over in the register. Freddie pulls himself out of bed, and then he runs. Freddie's not seventeen yet, but he will be soon.
As the top of the Victory Ground, the children of 1997 are now required to set the example. Freddie doesn't quite know what sort of example his aimless actions are setting, but he runs the ten miles anyway. The years don't make the run any easier; Freddie still finishes behind some of the kids who are younger but haven't run as far. He doesn't really mind; the earlier they learn how to keep running even when their whole bodies are on fire, the earlier they learn how to survive. The Victory Ground is a study in survival. The quicker you learn to master the lesson, the quicker you learn how to live until you're old. Most Victory Children don't learn it quick enough. Freddie's seen the effects of that firsthand.
New Year's Day has come around again. A year since that lonesome breakfast where Freddie thought that he'd lost everything. Oh, how wrong fifteen-year-old Freddie was because breakfast this morning is somehow more lonesome than the last. Once again, no Reynolds finish at the same time that Freddie does; Jack and Natalie are too fast, Nicholas is too slow, Oscar is gone, Michael is gone, Sara is gone, and Whitaker? Whitaker's out in the wilderness, and Freddie isn't completely sure that he's going to make it back. He isn't completely sure that Whitaker even wants to make it back; the boy's been referring to himself as a Whitaker rather than a Reynolds lately, and he's been doing it far too often to be accounted for by mere forgetfulness. It's a willful act of rebellion, and Jack Whitaker wants to know that everybody knows it.
But Nicholas is growing into his bones too, and at thirteen, he's not that far behind Freddie. Freddie brightens at the sight of Nicholas' sunshine smile; the one the Victory Ground haven't yet taken. He's been waiting to see Nicholas since he woke up; he needs to know if Sara was amongst the ghosts.
Nicholas dumps himself into the chair next to him. "Ah," Freddie mutters. "You've gotten to that age."
"What do you mean?" Nicholas asks.
Freddie rolls his eyes. "The age where you're a moody teenager and you've just about given up on life. Especially after running seven miles in the morning."
Nicholas laughs heartily. His voice has fully broken now, and it sets him closer to Michael than it does to Oscar in Freddie's mind. Freddie smiles wistfully as he realises that Oscar, whilst still family, is almost a stranger after seven years. He wants to see Oscar, just once. He doesn't care if Oscar doesn't want to know him, can't forgive him for Freddie holding a grudge out of pure spite, but he just wants to see him. They're Reynolds, after all. He needs to know that there's at least one good Reynolds out in the world, one that wasn't twisted into the cruel machine the Victory Ground makes them.
Freddie jabs into his oatmeal. "So, then. How was it?"
"How was what?" Nicholas asks, taking a gulp of water. "Oh. Right. That."
"Yeah. That." The years seemed to have dried up their mouths; neither of them can be bothered to doll it up. It's the hallmark of a military child; whilst the words may sometimes be laced with steel or poison, no one can ever be bothered to hide their meanings behind turns of phrase and flowery language. Life's far too short for that. You never know when it might end, so every second counts.
"It was fine, I guess. We got three." Freddie nods. Nicholas is ducking the obvious question, and Freddie's almost afraid to ask it. He knows that Sara was not amongst those three or Nicholas would be buzzing right now. He's not. So Sara's gone. Freddie just has to hope that she's still in the world with them.
Here's where that straight-laced no-nonsense attitude comes back to bite Freddie in the ass; he's not quite sure how to ask if Sara is still in the world without tripping over his words, without beating about the bush, unable to just get the words out. He hates that his tongue can't help but trip, can't help but tie into knots at the precise time that he needs it most. But there's nothing he can do about it, so he just has to suppress it. Freddie almost laughs. This is what he's reduced to now. A burnt out husk of the enthusiastic, naïve little boy he used to be.
He gets it out eventually. "Was she amongst them? Did you see her?"
Nicholas doesn't say anything, and Freddie's heart breaks. He shuts his eyes, trying to formulate a quick goodbye because even as his life is being ripped to shreds, he can't be late to rifle practice. The Captains will scold him if he does. He doesn't particularly care, but if he keeps it up he's headed for a court-martial, and that would be disastrous; Freddie has nothing to fall back on. Nowhere to go. No idea how to live if he isn't a Victory Soldier.
Nicholas notices Freddie's maudlin expression and cracks a joke at Oscar's expense, following Natalie's example. It's such a stark change from the bitter news he's just been delivered, and he almost doesn't want to let Sara go, doesn't want to move on. How can he move on so quickly? What sort of brother is he? But as much as Freddie doesn't want to move on from catastrophe to laughter, the joke itself feels strangely satisfying, keeping Oscar's memory alive against everything that tells them that it ought to die. It often feels like Oscar's watching over them in spirit, even if he has another duty in person. Freddie can't help but smile at their own small act of rebellion. There are other families that have always stuck to the rules, either unaware or willfully ignorant of the Victory Ground's manipulation. The Reynolds have never been that type, have always had the devil sitting on their shoulders telling them not to follow authority. If he really thinks about it, that's the mark that shows that Whitaker is just as much a Reynolds as much as the rest of them, as much as he doesn't want to admit it.
If he really thinks about it, Freddie realises that the Reynolds family's inability to listen to authority was what got them killed fifteen years ago. Not Helena Spencer, as Jack likes to remind him at every given opportunity. It was their own fault.
Freddie won't let himself make their mistakes. He won't let himself die before he's old, comfortable and swaddled by warm sheets. He won't let himself die in a trench, broken and bleeding. He won't let himself succumb to disease or dehydration. He won't let his name be printed on the casualty lists that'll be sent to the Victory Ground, those lists that the Victory Soldier crowd around every Tuesday when they come in, watching and hoping that they won't find their family on it. Nicholas checks it every week for Michael, relieving Freddie of his state of worrying about just about everyone in the Reynolds family since Natalie still proves incapable of it, it seems. He needs to have a conversation with her about it at some point; Freddie's losing his mind already. He won't be able to keep this up much longer.
He must be looking maudlin again because Nicholas decides to make him laugh in the best way Nicholas knows how. Nicholas pushes both of their trays into the centre of the table, presses a hand to Freddie's left side and begins to tickle him.
Freddie squirms. He's far too ticklish for his own liking, but he'll endure it for Nicholas. Besides, he knows that Nicholas only means well, that Freddie's temporary discomfort will lead to a fit of laughter that will carry over to last the entire day. He'll happily endure it because the rewards outweigh the disadvantages. He flails a flurry of arms and legs in all directions in an attempt of getting Nicholas to stop, and he only half succeeds, but the manoeuvre works as intended; that maudlin expression is wiped clean off his face and as Freddie sits down again to finish his breakfast, he's smiling. He didn't think he even remembered how to smile, but Nicholas is infectious.
He's still smiling whilst munching on the last of his toast when he hears a tired voice behind him. "Well, well, well. If you told me that I'd be coming home to my brother actually smiling, I'd have gotten home so much faster."
Freddie whips around, clutches the back of his chair to stop himself from falling over, stares up to see the source of that sound, because he knows that voice, he knows that voice -
Sara beams at him, and when Freddie has the chance to push past his shock and take her in, he collapses over the back of his chair. It's indescribable, what he feels, so he just hangs there for a little while, letting relief wash over him. He pants, and he vaguely feels Sara pressing his head into her chest, stroking his hair and shushing him. Freddie's not usually okay with people touching him without his consent, but it's Sara. All of the rules can be broken when it's Sara. Sara has always been his responsibility according to the Victory Ground. Freddie's meant to set a good example, making her into the good Victory Soldier she should be, making her into the independent, lonesome person that he has now become. But as he's already established, Reynolds have a constant inability to do what they're told.
They stay like that for a while, before he hears a "Freddie Reynolds, if you don't want your ass kicked by my father you better get out of here and into the training area, stat." Freddie doesn't particularly want to go, but he has to. He knows that Brandon van Linden's words are just a thin veil for 'You run the risk of being demoted if you do not get out, now.' van Linden finished the war games in seventh; the difference between him and Freddie is the difference between First Lieutenant and Captain, and van Linden wants to rise about as much as Freddie wants to fall; which is to say, not at all. Neither of them wants to change, and if Freddie falls, they will do. Freddie must answer to authority in order to keep his back safe.
He stands up and pats Sara on the shoulder. "Welcome home," he tells her, smiling as wide as he can physically make it. "I'll find you guys at lunch, yeah?" She nods vigorously, and Freddie smiles again before putting his tray into the washing up hatch and following van Linden out.
As he gets out and breathes the fresh morning air, the spring in his step is replenished. He still doesn't enjoy the morning's training sessions, but at least he's a little less lonesome that he was that morning.
Learning about what Sara had to go through later that day is an interesting conversation, Freddie has to admit. It's just the two of them; Sara had specifically requested that it just be the two of them. Freddie's not entirely sure why until she tells him, and when she does, Freddie's not quite sure what to believe. On the one hand, Sara would never lie to him. On the other hand, what she tells him just about blows his mind.
The conversation goes something like this.
"So," Freddie begins, as they're in the mess hall for supper. He would have done this at lunch, but he'd forgotten to take into account that being three years older than Sara, their hours weren't the same. Supper is communal, though. It's the one chance for families to catch up with one another, as Sara and Freddie now do. "Where did you get dropped?"
"Cresta," Sara mutters. "Slap bang in the middle of the sea. Always fun when you've got no life jacket and a big heavy parachute strapped to your back. No wonder so many of them drown."
"Kidwell knows how to survive, apparently."
"Kidwell had to swim home. Managed to do it in three weeks."
Sara raises her eyebrows. "I did not know that. How do you know that?"
Freddie clicks his tongue. "I got home first in my year, remember? Every time that anyone got home, I knew, and I can tell you for absolute certain that George Kidwell got home on the twenty-third day of January, soaked through to the bone, and swearing at the top of his lungs. To be honest, I'm pretty impressed that the boy didn't die of hypothermia."
"I'm honestly glad that I didn't die of hypothermia, Freddie," Sara jokes, and Freddie lightly hits her on the shoulder. "Anyway, got dropped in the middle of the sea and got picked up by a group of Sea Children and their boat on their maiden voyage." She breaks off after that, and Freddie's not sure whether to prod her to keep going or just to let her take her own time. She seems to be lost in thought, trying to formulate a sentence, so Freddie opts for the latter.
She gets there eventually. "The Victory Ground's kind of fucked up, isn't it?" Freddie notes the swear word, but he doesn't call her out on it. He's spent so long thinking the exact same thing, the evidence for it only piling on and on over the years. It's honestly just refreshing to know that he's not alone in his thoughts. It's nice to know that there's someone he can have this conversation with, someone who isn't Thea because he can never have a quiet conversation with Thea because Jack was released as the year began.
Freddie nods. "Glad you had the same realisation that I did when I was thirteen. I've been trying to bury it ever since," he admits. "I've mostly been failing." Sara smiles and leans sideways into Freddie's shoulder, and Freddie puts an arm around her, rubbing circles into her back like they did when they were little.
"We're bound so quickly," she mutters. "I can't imagine not having Nicholas around to protect me, but the Sea Children aren't bound until they're eight. They get to choose. We never did. It feels like a forced marriage, Freddie, and I can't get the thought off my mind that although mine worked out fine, there would have been so many Victory Children in generations long past that would have gone through hell because their families objected to it, or because they just weren't meant to be stuck together."
Freddie sighs. "That isn't the distant past, Sara. That's a living, working reality. You had Thea and Oscar, bound at birth. Spencer and Reynolds was never going to work out, was it?"
"They seem to have made the best bet of it that they could, given the - wait, did you just call him Oscar?" she asks, straightening up at the realisation.
Freddie smiles to himself. "I guess I got tired of being spiteful. Life's too short for that, sis. In this place, if you make it to twenty years old, you're one of the lucky ones."
He doesn't mention anyone in particular, but Freddie can feel his entire being slump down into his chair as Alec fills his mind again. Sara immediately picks up on it; she's seen that face all too many times before from all of the broken children from the years before her, and she's even more attuned to her broken brother than anyone else. Freddie hates the fact that he's so weak in front of her, but it's Alec. Keeping Alec's memory alive takes precedence over all of Freddie's self-hate, as difficult as it may be.
"Who died?" she whispers and the question, so blunt but whispered so carefully and gently, almost takes him by surprise. Freddie's not used to having to tell anyone; everyone who should have known about Alec's death did already. The Victory Children are a close-knit community; any gossip at all spreads like wildfire amongst the solemn ranks. Freddie's not quite used to having to tell anybody anything. Thea manages to keep her secrets; Freddie will never quite know how she does it, will never quite know how she never manages to let one accidentally slip - oh.
Thea keeps her secrets tucked beneath her sleeves, doesn't she?
Thea keeps her secrets on her forearms, messages to a boy far away in a precarious position. He's not sure quite which ability Thea and Alec inherited when they were bound at fourteen, but he expects that it wasn't the same one that she shares with Oscar. He wonders how much Oscar knows, wonders what he thinks of the Victory Ground given that he didn't have to live a childhood of it, wonders what it must be like not to constantly be aimlessly drifting.
"Freddie? Are you alright?" Sara asks, not quite snapping Freddie out of it but doing something that vaguely gets his attention.
No, not really, he thinks. But he can't say that, can't let Sara know of the pit of despair he's stuck at the bottom of. So he covers all of that up, suppresses it and manages to squeeze out an "I'm fine." Sara clearly sees straight through him, but she doesn't say anything about it, choosing instead to ask him again who died.
Freddie can't tell if that question's better or worse, but he answers it anyway. "Alec," he mutters. "He was a traitor."
"Goodness. Firing squad?"
Freddie shakes his head, looks away from her so he doesn't have to see her face when he tells her. "Jack. Not Whitaker. Jack."
"You heard me."
"Goodness. Do you want to talk about it?"
Freddie shakes his head again. "Not really." He can't keep his face turned away any longer, so he looks back at her. Her eyes are wide, and Freddie can't keep it in. He ducks his head and leans in, allowing her to catch him, allowing her to pull him into her chest. In that instant, the roles are reversed; Freddie is the one in need of comfort and Sara is the one providing it. Freddie shuts his eyes for a minute and pretends that Sara's their mother, the mother that he doesn't even remember but whose Gaelic lullabies he swears he can hear as he desperately tries to get some sleep.
He pulls away, remembering where he is, remembering that he's not allowed to be weak, remembering that even though he's been torn apart inside, the rest of his peers haven't. If he cries, he'll be yanked out of the mess hall, taken to the courtyard and beaten until his tear ducts dried up. He's gone through enough pain in the last year already; he's in no position to willingly accept any more. So he pulls away, fixes his crooked back until it's straight as a rod again, and grasps Sara's hands in his.
"I can't. I just - can't. Tell me about the Sea Children," he mutters, desperate to change the subject, desperate to think about anything other than Jack. Jack, who Freddie knows was released from the jail this morning. Jack, who Freddie never wants to see again for as long as he lives. Jack, who killed his boyfriend; the only person that ever made an effort to make Freddie feel safe. If Jack walked into the mess hall at that instant, Freddie's still not sure he'd be able to restrain himself from killing him.
"Well, I didn't stay with the Sea Children for long, because they tried to get me home by sending me out in one of their boats with an engine equipped with GPS, only that GPS broke on me and I was stuck. On a boat. With no oars. That was fun."
Freddie grabs her shoulders. "Okay, now I'm wondering how you didn't die of dehydration."
"I drifted for about three days, then got picked up by another boat. Only this time, they weren't Antonian."
That gets Freddie's attention. Dreamer's Hold has always been remarkably good at keeping foreigners out of the radius of the isles. The fact that people are getting in means there's a malfunction, and malfunctions never spell good news when it comes to war. He only hopes that they can get the wards back up soon, that they can get them up before anybody sees, before the outside world is alerted to their presence and they have to deal with the big wide world. Freddie's never left Antonia; most Antonians never do in seventy, eighty years of life, if they even make it that long. But in the grand scheme of things, he's barely even left the doorstep. Freddie's got no idea what's happening out there, no idea about all the nations living and breathing and fighting with one another as the Antonian nations do. In another world, he might take his blank canvas and paint a world where there are no wars beyond the Antonian ones, but Freddie knows that humans are too fucked up for that. "Who were they?" he says, finally.
"A Northern Irish couple and their three sons," she replies. "Mother was born and raised Irish Catholic."
"Okay." Freddie draws out the vowel, waiting for her to elaborate. When she doesn't, he prods a little. "Am I supposed to recognise these people from the extremely vague description you've given me?"
"No," Sara replies. "But if I tell you their names, you might just understand what I'm saying."
"Go on, then." Freddie's mind is trying to theorise, trying to work out the most logical options for this strange seafaring family might be, and the only thing that comes to his addled brain is their mother's Gaelic lullabies. Except it can't be; their mother was a Protestant, her family a long line of Unionists. Freddie doesn't know much more about her than that. There are some letters of hers that he's been asking to see since he'd known that they existed, letters that he's been denied access to, and will be until he's sent out to war. Freddie knows that those letters contain reasons for him to leave this place, something the Victory Ground can't afford. They won't let him have them until he's trapped in those cold, cold trenches, with no escape but victory or death, whichever comes sooner.
"Their names were Bridget and Matthew, and their three boys were Neil, Andrew, and Joseph."
Freddie looks at her in confusion again. "I still don't recognise these people, sis. You're gonna have to give me more than just forenames if you want me to have the blinding moment of realisation you aim for so desperately," he says, taking a sip of his water.
Sara throws her hands up at him. "I'm trying to build up the suspense!"
Freddie looks incredulously back at her. "You get to my age and you learn that there's no time for that, sis!" he shoots back. It's a depressing thing to have to admit. Once they throw you out into the trenches, waiting for anything becomes strangely akin to torture. Sara hasn't lived through that yet, but Freddie knows that it's coming. It's the burden of being an older sibling. It's also the burden of being a parent, Freddie supposes, but by the time his children have inevitably gone through the Victory Ground cycle, Freddie's not sure he'll remember the specifics of his own experience. He's not sure he'll even be alive when they're facing their ordeals. He's not sure he'll even be alive long enough to have children.
"Fine," Sara concedes. "The surname of this particular family was O'Sullivan."
Freddie spits out his water. He has the decency to do it over his food, rather than his sister, but still, he's taken aback. "What?"
"You heard me."
"We're definitely talking about our O'Sullivans, right?"
"You're absolutely sure?"
"Bridget gave me very detailed descriptions of her three eldest boys as young ones. They match up perfectly with the records of our three. I'm absolutely sure that it's them, Freddie."
There's a couple of seconds of silence as Freddie processes what Sara's just dropped on him. "Weren't Andrew and Joseph on our side of the family?" he says eventually, noticing the names.
"Yeah, but Tobias was a shithead. At least that's what Matthew told me."
"What about Vincent and Jeremy?"
"Vincent was also apparently a shithead, and - " she breaks off to look at him incredulously. "And you know full well that our father was a shithead. Have you forgotten about Jack the Younger, Freddie?"
Freddie snorts. "Oh yeah, because Andrew didn't straight up get himself shot for cowardice when Jeremy was like three. Have you forgottenwhy I'm named Helena, sis?" Freddie's trying to cover up that dark underlying thought that Andrew's rebellion is typical to all members of the Reynolds family. It came in a form that only five years ago he would have dismissed as unthinkable, but in the position he stands, he can't say that it's not strangely appealing. He can't think about that right now, not whilst he's trying not to break down, not whilst he's still in the public eye, not whilst he's still trying to set a good example for Sara. "Honestly, all of the men in our family are shits." Freddie drops his voice for the next sentence. "No wonder Oscar wanted out."
Sara nods. "That reminds me. You've got to promise not to tell Nicholas or Michael about this. The VG say that it might cause dissidence, and given that there's a war on, we can't have that." Like the letters, Freddie thinks. They're keeping us hidden, keeping us closed off so that we don't have any reason to want out. He doesn't voice his thoughts; Sara doesn't know the first thing about any of this and Freddie's sure that the Captains would rather that it not get out. And Freddie can't afford to fall, not now, not when he's a year away from getting out of this place.
Freddie nods, trying to change the subject. "What are they like? Our second-cousins, I mean. Tell me about them. Take me away from these solemn walls for a bit."
Sara does. "Blonde-haired, blue-eyed, the lot of them. Put all six of them in a line and there'd be no doubt that they were brothers, no doubt at all. Not even the fact that none of us know what Oscar even looks like anymore, because ten-year-old Andrew looks so damn much like ten-year-old Aaron did that it's not even funny, and I'm pretty sure that in seven years, Andrew will look like Oscar does now."
"Seven years. Feels like a lifetime not seeing him," Freddie mutters, but he's quick to pull himself out of it, quick to pull himself back onto the rails. "Does the resemblance extend to personality or is it just looks?"
Sara considers this for a moment. "I'm not quite sure. There's the same philosophical air about both of them, but I'm not sure whether that's just a side effect of being a precocious ten-year-old or whether there's an actual similarity there, since we haven't seen Oscar for years and Andrew hasn't grown up enough to either remain in or leave that precocious stage."
Freddie laughs. "I'd love to put them side by side and watch what happens," he mutters. "I expect that we'd find ourselves caught in the crossfire of a battle of two wordsmiths. I wonder who would win." Sara doesn't seem to have an answer to that, so Freddie moves the conversation on. "What about the other two?"
"Joseph's seven and an actual sweetheart. Seriously. Once spent four hours detailing every method he knows to alleviate seasickness when I started feeling a bit queasy. He looks like a carbon copy of their father, actually, more so than any other of them."
"Oh, really?" Freddie's seen photographs of his late parents, but he's not sure if he looks like either of them. Sara's like their mother, for sure, and people have always told Freddie that he looks like his father, but he's never seen the resemblance. It's because I look like Grandfather, Freddie thinks. They can't tell me that because he was a coward, but there's no doubt about it. So they go for Dad because Dad sort of looked like him too. "Does Neil look like their mother, then?"
Sara shakes her head. "Neil's called Neil because he looks like our great-grandfather, apparently. I don't know what the man looked like. The Captains probably have photographs, if I ask them, but I never thought to."
"Maybe you should," Freddie replies. "You never know what you might find." Freddie's seen the photographs already, has seen the records of a long line of rebellious Reynolds, has seen the stubborn contempt for authority in their eyes. No wonder that they were always getting themselves killed, now that he thinks about it. "None of them look like Mama O'Sullivan, then?"
"That's not what I said. I said that none of the youngest boys looked like Mama O'Sullivan," Sara replies. At Freddie's confusion, she elaborates. "Michael looks smack bang like a male-Bridget."
He tips his head back in realisation. "I miss Michael," he mutters. "He's alive, at least. I thought you should probably know that. He and Maria are alive on the Western Front, at least."
Sara nods, starts to talk about her journey back to the Victory Ground, but the bell rings to signify the end of the half-hour lunch period, and everyone starts packing up their trays, getting ready to hit back at the Victory Ground's games again. Freddie, in particular, feels like he's aged about five years in the last half-hour.
As he leaves the mess hall, he's not completely out of the same despondent state that he was in that morning, but at least he's significantly better.
Saint Valentine's Day comes around again. Freddie's got half a mind to just throw himself into training because if he stops to think about anything that day, he might just break down, and he's spent so long trying to suppress everything that giving up the ghost now feels like such an utter waste of it all. Freddie won't let that happen, he can't let that happen.
And he tries, he honestly does, but the old feelings return and there's nothing Freddie can do but spend the free hour he has at four o'clock sitting on the wall and let the memories wash over him. He doesn't even know what he's even aiming for, whether he's trying to make himself feel better or whether he just doesn't want to let Alec go, even as the evidence stacks up against it.
He sits there, on the boundary again, with his legs facing towards the Victory Ground. He used to sit the other way, but he can't do that anymore. He can't risk it. He really can't risk temptation, because temptation is what got Grandfather Andrew shot, leaving his three sons in jeopardy. Temptation is what got the entire Reynolds family killed when they were three years old, except that it's no longer the entire Reynolds family. He's tried to ask Sara about the O'Sullivans' inexplicable survival, but she just shrugs. Bridget wasn't on the Antonian isles at the time, had been visiting her family in Northern Ireland, and Matthew wouldn't talk about it. When Freddie asks why they never came back for their children, if they'd survived, Sara replied with a sentence that still chills Freddie to the bone. It's been over a month, but Freddie can't forget it.
"They did, and they were told their sons were dead."
As he remembers it, the corners of his mouth tug up. He's thought this so many times over the years, thought that the Victory Ground would do and say anything to keep them there, to keep them as the malleable pieces of clay the Victory Ground needs them to be if they're going to make any sort of decent soldiers out of them. Of course, they would. Why Freddie's even surprised, why the fact that these are still revelations eludes him at this point; why was he expecting anything like fairness or decency from the Victory Ground?
It makes him particularly interested to know what's in those damned letters, but he can't ask, can he? He can't ask because that'd mean he'd be marked down in the files, marked down as a troublemaker, marked down so much that he and van Linden switch places. No, he can't ask.
Ah, well. He supposes the eleven months until they're sent out to war isn't that long to wait.
He pulls Alec's photographs out of his jacket. He doesn't really need to look at them, but he wants to and that's reason enough. He thumbs through them, wondering where each one was taken, wondering what was going through Alec's mind as he took those photographs, when he would have gotten time to take them in that busy palace life - oh.
Alec didn't take them at all, did he? They were just props, just throwaway items given to him in order to make him seem trustworthy, to get inside Freddie's skin while he sucked him dry.
Freddie feels like an idiot for not realising it sooner. Jack was right: Freddie is an idiot. He is just stupid for not putting all the signs together, all those obvious signs. If he keeps on like this, he's going to get himself killed.
Yet Freddie can't stop looking at them. He can't stop looking at these mundane tokens, the only physical things he has left of Alec. The memories are pretty, but they're nothing tangible. There's no way that Freddie could take them and build from the ground up. He can thumb through these, can look at them again and again, can pretend that they're real even though there's always that lingering thought of nothing about this was real. Freddie doesn't care. He can pretend that it is for a little while longer.
Even as he's consumed by thought, his ears prick up as they catch the whisper of footfall on the ground. There is nothing they don't catch, having been attuned to the sounds of plane engines and tanks and landmines since before Freddie can remember. Any sound at all will set a Victory Child on edge in moments meant for rest, any sound at all will have them up and gearing for a fight.
Everything screams at him to get up, but Freddie doesn't. He knows who it is already, and he can't physically bring himself to get up, so he lifts his head at the sound to be proven right.
She has to jump up, and the act of it still makes Freddie laugh, even now. "I still forget that you're 4'10 sometimes," he throws out, seeing if she'll bite.
She does. "Though she be but little, she is fierce," she replies. "A Midsummer Night's Dream. Shakespeare. One of the greatest playwrights of the English language. Of course, I don't actually give a flying fuck about the English."
"You should get that on a t-shirt."
"What, 'Though she be but little, she is fierce'?"
"No, 'I don't give a flying fuck about the English.'"
"…Freddie, you give as many fucks about the English as I do; you're half-Irish, remember?"
"And you're a quarter-Scottish. Surely that must mean that I give double the fucks about the English."
"Why the fuck would you want to give more fucks about the English than I do? The English are shits. And in case you hadn't already figured it out: two times zero is still zero."
"…Fuck off, Spencer."
Thea bursts out laughing at that, and Freddie can't help but join her. In this twisting, turning world, there are some things that will never change, and his relationship with Thea is most certainly one of them. Freddie's infinitely grateful for it, infinitely grateful that despite everything else, the physical manifestations of his relationship with her is something that will always remain constant. The niggling thought in the back of his mind reminds him that next year when they're out there in that hell of a battlefield, she won't be Thea anymore, but Lieutenant Colonel Spencer. Freddie manages to succeed in shutting that thought up for a little while longer.
"What's that?" she asks, noticing the photographs in his hands, at last, sitting up as she gestures at them. Freddie knows that it's futile trying to lie, and he's not really up for concocting one anyway, and even though he's eight inches taller than her, she seems so much taller and so much more imposing than she ever did. She's growing into her role already, taking command of one soldier with the same iron fist that she'd use to take command of hundreds.
He hands them to her and watches as she thumbs through them, the same way he's done all too many times over the past year. She doesn't take long, her eyes quickly scanning over each one and then swiftly moving it to the back of the pile. She doesn't do what Freddie does; poring over every photograph like some sort of hidden meaning will leap out of the white borders and prove to him that Alec never was a liar, that everything was just a mix-up. It won't bring Alec back, nothing will, but he still clings to the thought that maybe, just maybe, he'll wake up from the nightmare he's been living. This has to be one of the nightmares. It has to be.
It's not. It's not a nightmare. Freddie just has to keep telling himself that and maybe one day he'll actually believe it. For now, though, there's always the endless days of suppression to take his mind off it.
"Where did you get these?" she asks, and Freddie's not quite sure whether it's a genuine question or an accusation. He finds himself almost afraid to answer, and it's silly, but he has visions of her transforming into one of the Captains and ripping the photographs up if he answers truthfully.
Thea repeats the question, and Freddie doesn't lie. "Alec gave them to me," he replies. "Last Saint Valentine's Day." At that, Thea stops flicking through the photographs, handing them back to Freddie. He's not quite sure what to say, so he goes for a simple statement, one that won't implicate him if it turns out Thea is just a front to get to him. "I should throw them out, really. I don't know why I keep them."
"Nonsense," she replies. "You know exactly why you keep them. You keep them because you can't bear the thought of getting rid of him."
"Yeah," Freddie replies. "Yeah, I guess so."
There's a moment of fragile, frightening silence before Thea replies. "Me too." That's the moment that Freddie knows this isn't a trick, knows that there's no hidden motive behind a cool façade, and Freddie slumps down in relief. Letting himself be vulnerable.
More silence. "I know that he didn't take them," Freddie says at last. "I know that he only had them because he was given them, only gave them to me to gain my trust. I know that these are fake. I know that it was all fake. I know that he didn't love me. I know all of that. But I just can't get rid of him."
A sharp exhale. "You're so blind, Freddie," Thea replies. "You're blind if you think for a single second that Alexander didn't love you with everything he had. You're blind if you think that he wouldn't have burnt down the world to keep you safe. You're blind if you think he wouldn't have given everything up for you. You're blind if you don't remember what he said on the tape, minutes before his death. He could have gone to the grave, with his secret safe, without giving Jack the satisfaction he has now. He didn't. He condemned everything about himself, right down to his own name. All because he loved you. He loved you, Freddie. Never forget it."
Freddie turns and looks at her in incredulity. "How can you say that? How can you be so content with the fact that I'm still in love with a liar?" he snaps.
"Because all the people I love are liars," she snaps right back. "I can count the people I love on my fingers, and all of them are liars. I won't condemn you for loving a liar because I'd be condemning myself as well. If I called you bad, I'd be calling myself ten times worse. And I refuse to be ashamed of the people I love."
It takes a minute for Freddie to comprehend the weight of her statements, but once he does, he's back to incredulity. "Don't give me that bullshit, Spencer. I can give you three different examples of people you love who aren't liars."
Thea scoffs. "Go on, then."
"My brother lies to everyone about his mental state. Seriously, the number of times I've had to tell Oscar to go back and make sure Henry's got support because Oscar's left him when he's about to have a panic attack, just because Henry told him it was fine, jeez. That boy needs to learn that when someone says they're fine, they're never fine. You're down to two, Freddie."
"Just a coincidence that the Ducartan-born boy just decided not to come back after the wilderness, is it? I don't think so. Alexander has always been a schemer, and I'm not surprised that he's probably been working for the Ducartan Army all this time. It's just a good thing that he won't be using that mastermind brain of his against us. You're down to one, Freddie."
So Freddie goes for the one he knows isn't a liar. "Adam Mendelssohn."
Thea's silent for while and Freddie knows he's finally got her. She nods. "You're right, Adam wasn't a liar," she replies, and Freddie smiles, triumphant at last. "Adam was the lie."
"What?" Freddie asks.
Thea doesn't give him a straight answer. Instead, she gestures vaguely at his photographs. "You're right, those might have been fake," she replies, tucking a hand inside her jacket, scrambling around a little until she apparently found whatever she put it in there to find. "But this couldn't have been." She pulls her hand out, taking a flash of something colourful with it, and hands it to Freddie.
It takes him a minute to work out what it is. He's astounded when he does.
It's another photograph; not like the small, white-rimmed ones that Freddie's got, but a wide, colourful photograph that takes up the entire paper it's printed on. That's the first thing that Freddie notices.
The second thing he notices is who the photograph is of.
It's of five boys, smiling at each other. The one on the right end has his hand stretched out, seemingly holding the camera. He's done a good job, considering the state of cameras on the Antonian Isles. They're young, far younger than Freddie is now. Young and seemingly untouched by the world. The world has not broken them yet.
The third thing Freddie notices is that Alec is one of those five boys, sitting there, beaming at the camera like there's nothing in the world that could rattle him. He's younger than he was before Freddie even met him, but he's got the same beautiful golden eyes. Freddie smiles at the sight of it and isn't ashamed of himself for doing so. He hates admitting that Thea's right, but he can't ignore her earlier declaration. If he loved Alec, and Alec loved him in return, then what does he have to be ashamed of?
"Thank you," Freddie replies. "Thank you for showing me this."
Thea tuts and him and shakes her head. "If you can say that, you haven't looked at the photograph properly. Have another go."
So Freddie does. He looks closer at the photograph, and he notices it immediately.
He's the boy sitting next to Alec, on his left side. He's small, smaller than his three peers. But as Freddie looks into those startling blue eyes, he transcends the years. The boy beams just as Alec does, but this time, Freddie knows that that smile hides a storm. It's a fact that rings truer than Freddie'd like to admit, but Reynolds are all the same. The same coping mechanisms, the same mannerisms, the same haphazard smiles plastered on to mask everything out there. These things run straight through the scores of broken children, Freddie himself included.
He misses Oscar. He really does miss Oscar. He's grateful to see Oscar again, even if it's just a photograph that must be at least five years old.
Freddie's really not surprised that Alec and Oscar were friends. Of course. Of course, they were. Of course, those self-sacrificing bastards would be friends, probably with about five minutes of meeting one another. Of course, they were.
This comes with another revelation, one that has to be confirmed by a question. "How old were you when he gave you this?"
"Thirteen," Thea replies. "He slipped into my hand as he barrelled me over on New Year's."
Freddie's revelation is confirmed, and he's amazed. "You knew," he mutters. It's not a question; it sounds like an accusation, even if Freddie doesn't mean it. "You knew who he was for years. You knew." Thea has nothing to say to that. She nods, but it's a pity of a nod as if this is the first time she's admitted this to anyone. To be fair, though, it probably is. "And you didn't tell anyone."
Thea nods again, exhales sharply before replying. "My loyalty to the people I love is greater than my loyalty to my country," she whispers, even though there's no one else around to hear it. Freddie can understand why she does; such a declaration would be enough to be considered dissidence, enough to warrant a full investigation, possibly leading to a full military trial on grounds of treason. A sentence like that could get you killed. That's something neither of them can't afford.
"You're a plucky bastard, Spencer," Freddie replies. "Keeping a secret like that in this place. I don't know how you didn't break." I would have done, Freddie thinks. He kicks himself for it, but he knows that he would have done.
"It's a good thing he gave it to me and not to you, then, isn't it?" Freddie whistles in agreement. "You still aren't looking hard enough, Reynolds. Have another go."
So Freddie does. He looks closer at the photograph, and it takes him a while to notice it. He has to look at all four corners, all four edges, has to trace over every single pixel searching for the secrets before he notices it.
He's on Oscar's other side. He looks exactly the same as Freddie remembers him, but it's weird to see him sitting and smiling, rather than being on the tips of his toes and pricking his ears up in an attempt to keep in control. Freddie's always known that he needed it so much more than everyone else did, not being Victory Ground born, but he never would have guessed that.
Thea's earlier words come crashing back down on him now. Adam. A lie. A big, fat, fucking lie.
Because Adam wasn't the naïve little Scottish boy that Freddie had always thought him to be, that the Victory Ground had always thought him to be. Had they known? They seemed not to have known with Alec up until his death, so Freddie finds it perfectly believable that - unless they've been lying this entire time. He wouldn't put it past them at this point. He really wouldn't. Were they playing him, like they're still playing Amalia, like they might just have been playing Alec? Freddie's not quite sure, but he finds himself in the same fragile position now that Adam always was, unable to quite discern whether he can trust the Victory Ground or not.
That's a stupid question. He can't trust the Victory Ground. He never could. Freddie doesn't know how it took him quite this long to realise it.
As for Adam? Adam is a smooth bastard and Freddie doesn't quite know how he missed it, but he can't blame himself. If Adam was playing all of them, then that's not Freddie's fault. It's not Freddie's responsibility to be constantly alert for every possible threat to the Acothran nation. It's Intelligence's responsibility, and he doesn't know if Intelligence missed it or not, but if they did, then that's not Freddie's fault. He's got too great a burden on his back already. He refuses to take on any more.
He looks back at Thea. "You're just as much of a liar as the rest of them, aren't you?"
Thea snorts. "If you're asking me whether I'm a foreign spy, then no. I'm not."
Freddie doesn't laugh. "You know what I meant."
"I know. Yes. I am a liar. It's one of the side effects of a Victory Ground upbringing." Freddie knows exactly what she means. From the day they were born into this barren world, they were taught to lie and scheme in order to survive. It's inbred into them. Freddie can't help but think that he'd taken to those traits much more easily than some of his peers had.
"I guess we're all liars," he mutters.
Thea nods. "We are all liars," she mutters back. "Some of us are better at it than others."
"Who's the best liar you know?"
She has to think about it, and she doesn't give him a straight answer. "Someone who's lied all his life. Someone who's grown so accustomed to it that he doesn't even know that he's lying."
"This sounds like a very depressing person," Freddie replies, laughing as he does so.
"Yes," she replies. "Yes, he is. And before you ask, yes. I love him."
Freddie's not quite sure what to say. He doesn't know who this boy is. He assumes that it's someone Thea met during that year in the wilderness, that year where she was gone for so long. But he's not quite sure, and he'll never be quite sure. He doesn't ask; if Thea wanted to tell him she would have done. So he defaults to the only statement floating around his mind. "He must be extraordinary to be deserving of your love," Freddie says. He's sure of that; anyone Thea loves is extraordinary. Freddie only wishes that someday, he'll be considered that extraordinary by somebody. Alec was probably the only person who ever did, and Freddie's not even sure of that. How depressing.
Thea nods again, solemn again - how did she get so solemn? How did any of them get so solemn, a pack of thirty-five seventeen-year-olds that haven't seen the worst of life yet, but are already so broken? Freddie doesn't think that there's much more within them to break, but he knows that the Victory Ground will find a way. The Victory Ground always finds a way.
Thea pulls her watch out of her pocket, an old bronze pocket watch that all Victory Children have. "Five to," she says into the air, even though Freddie knows that she's said in explicitly for his benefit. "Time to head back, then. Time to go back to the land of necessary hell." She jumps off the wall and turns around, waiting for Freddie to do the same.
"Time to go back and see what new ways the Victory Ground is going to try and break us next," Freddie replies as he jumps off the wall.
Thea laughs. "They've already broken us in every way that they possibly can," she replies, still laughing despite the grim truth she's just unleashed.
And even though Freddie knows that that's true, he can't help the words that dislodge themselves from the back of his throat and slip past his lips. "They'll find a way," he replies, reeling back every last scrap of emotion as he prepares to go back. If Freddie lets that emotion slip away from himself when he's around the Captains, he will fall. He can't afford to fall, so he resigns himself to the only truth he knows. "Just you wait and see. It might not be today, but they will find a way to break us."
The way is found. It's a few months after Saint Valentine's Day, but the way is found.
It's the seventeenth day of June when it happens. It's almost funny, really, that it happens on Freddie's seventeenth birthday. Freddie's never really liked his birthday, but now he's got a reason to have a serious aversion to it.
It goes something like this.
Freddie doesn't dream that night. That's the first sign that something's up. Freddie doesn't dream, neither blissful nor terrifying. All there is as he sleeps is a vast expanse of absolutely nothing at all. It's the most comfortable night's sleep that Freddie has ever had in years, although that's not really saying much.
His body clock wakes him up, not the terrifying dreams that call his eyes open, lest he lose his mind. Not because someone else wakes up before him and acts as his alarm clock. If the dreams don't come, Freddie's usually woken by Attwood yelling to the entire room that it's time to prepare for the morning run. Freddie checks his watch. It's 4:10. Attwood hasn't yelled yet. That's the second sign that something's up.
The third sign that something's up is George Burnett asking, somewhat incredulously, "Summers. I might just be seeing things, but can you check whether that's blood on Reynolds' bed?" At that, Freddie sits up, his eyes darting around over his sheets, trying to find the aforementioned blood, trying to find whatever it is that has caught Burnett's eye. He finds nothing and is confused for a few seconds before he remembers that there are two Reynolds boys in their year and that by asking Summers, Burnett must have meant Jack.
He looks over to see Summers peel himself from his sheets, cross the space between them to Jack's bed. Jack's on his side, facing away from Freddie, facing towards Summers. Freddie watches as Summers' eyes widen momentarily at whatever it is he must see. "Yeah, that's definitely blood," he says, far too calmly, before flipping Jack over onto his front and pressing two fingers to his throat. Checking for a pulse. The thought that Jack might not have a pulse terrifies Freddie, but it also exhilarates him. He waits for Summers' next sentence in anticipation.
Summers doesn't say anything for a while, shifting his fingers about on Jack's throat, moving his attention to Jack's wrist after that apparently yields no results, even though Freddie has to admit that he knew from the instant that Summers put a finger on Jack and Jack didn't immediately bolt up and try to grab his arm off that Summers was not going to find a pulse. "No pulse?" he hears Trenton say from Summers' other side.
"Doesn't look like it," replies Summers.
"Should we be doing CPR or something?" That comes from van Linden, but it's said with no real sense of urgency, betraying what he's always thought about Jack: that the boy was better off removed from this world. Looking around the room, looking about to see none of the other boys with the same furious energy that they did when they had when Alec was dying, Freddie knows that they all share the same sentiment.
So does Summers, as he steps from Jack's bed, declaring, "I would, but I honestly think that he's been too far gone to be saved now." Freddie looks around the room again, and no one dares to look at anyone else. They're all looking down at their own white sheets, trying not to look at him, trying not to look at the boy that's finally lost his boundsman as all of them have done over the years. Freddie doesn't have the words to tell him that it's really not as disastrous for him as they think it is.
There's bitter silence again as Freddie wills someone to say something, anything at all, but no one does. No one does, and Freddie can't bear to be in this warm dorm room with a corpse and all of his peers watching silently, so pulls himself up and out of bed. He pulls his training clothes out of the box underneath his bed, the one he's had ever since he was given it at three-years-old, the one that's held pretty much the entirety of Freddie's life. How weird it must be for other people, who don't have to tuck and turn to fit themselves into a box, two feet long by two feet wide by a foot high. He doesn't know if he could live that life even if he wanted to, now that he's grown so accustomed to this one.
He changes, peeling off his nightshirt and trousers, peeling away the safe layers of the dorm room and exchanging them for battle armour. He's not quite there yet, he knows, but they're halfway through the year already. The shadows of war loom over them all, both here and in the girls' dorm barely half a mile away.
When he's done, Freddie stands up and straightens his back. He looks over at Jack. Summers was right; the deathly pallor of his face betrays everything. There is no doubt at all that Jack is dead, and Freddie can't help but be consumed by relief. It's selfish, and tomorrow when they have to do pair exercises it'll be hell without Jack there to provide the support that Freddie's always known, but Freddie doesn't care. Jack's dead. Jack's dead, and Freddie's torture is over, and all he can feel is sweet, sweet relief. He doesn't quite know what the rest of his family would say upon knowing that he doesn't grieve over the death of one of their own, but Freddie doesn't care. He doesn't fucking care. Jack was dead to him last November when he slipped that knife into Alec. The fact that it's now a physical reality means nothing, changes nothing. It is simply a truth in Freddie's mind becoming a truth in reality. He's selfish, and he sticks to that mentality, and unlike Oscar, this is one that will not be changing.
He straightens his back, and he looks about at the boys of 1997. "There is no use in just sitting here," he declares to the room. "There is no use in grief; we do not have the time to spare."
"Then what do you suggest we do?" asks Burnett. "What do you suggest we do, if you're so wise, if you can hold your head up high and say that, minutes after finding out that the most important person in your life is dead?"
Freddie shakes his head and shuts his eyes. There are far too many things that he wants to say, but he cannot say any of them here. He suppresses all of those things down, pretends that he's mentally tucking them into the wooden box alongside his night clothes. In their place, he yanks out the old remnants of the boy who was the first to return; that the best thing he can manage right now. "He would not have wanted this," he replies, finally, gesturing at Jack. "He would not have wanted us to sit and pity him. He would have wanted us to carry on in the spirit of our great nation, and he would have wanted us to find his killer and bring him to justice, rather than mourn his death. That is what we do now."
In the minutes that follow, the roles from November are immediately delegated again - except they're not carried out. Attwood and Trenton take that all-knowing look at each other again, reading each other in a second, and then neither of them move. Freddie can tell why in an instant; there is no point. There is no point in telling anyone about this until after the morning run, no point in bringing down the younger children with this news. With Alec, it was inevitable. With Jack, it doesn't have to be. Even the boys of 1997 won't fall today; none of them are particularly affected by the loss of the most zealous member of their year group. Freddie should be the most affected one, but they all understand why he isn't. To put it simply, there is no one left to mourn the dead boy, and that's almost tragic, but there is no time to think about that right now.
van Linden and Burnett are up next, crossing the room to Jack's body. As Burnett picks him up in those big, strong arms of his, van Linden is busy smoothing out Jack's sheets into a square, draping them over his bed. Burnett lays Jack back down with care that Freddie knows he would not have afforded him if he had done it. The pair of them fold the sheets over him, and Jack's sheets become his shroud. It's nothing new; all of them know that when they die they'll be treated in a similar fashion, but the moment is still chilling nonetheless.
They all stare in silence at the shrouded corpse for a minute, before Freddie claps to break them all out of it. All the wooden boxes come out from underneath the beds, and the boys begin to change.
Since he's already changed, Freddie is ready to leave. "I'll go and tell the Captains what's happened," he declares. He's met with a few protestations, but he shuts them down. "No, I insist. The quicker we get his body out of here, the quicker we can move on to finding out who did this bloody deed."
With that, Freddie heads towards the door.
The summer sun has already risen, and as Freddie feels the rays on his skin, he's reminded of that blinding, blissful dream he had before everything went to hell.
It doesn't feel uncomfortable. It feels perfect.
He tells the Captains what has happened. They begin to ask him a few questions, but he carefully reminds them in the politest voice he can muster that he has ten miles to run that morning and that he'd rather leave the murder inquiry until after breakfast. It's a smokescreen for the fact that he really doesn't care, but they seem to buy it and tell him that Jack's body will be removed during the hour and a half it will take most of them to run. They also tell him not to tell anyone about it until they can make an official declaration, but Freddie puts on his polite voice again and tells them that they don't have to, that by the end of breakfast everybody will already know. They nearly scold him for being so insolent. Freddie doesn't give a fuck.
Then he heads to the track and meets with the rest of the children of 1997. None of the girls ask him where he's been; none of them have to. The boys have already told them in the time it's taken for Freddie to get to the Captains' Building and back. He scans over the group, looking for Natalie. He finds her, and she stares straight back at him. She doesn't say anything, but her eyes say it all. It might be indiscernible to anyone else, but to Freddie, to a fellow Reynolds, it's all far too easy. She asks him, Are you sad that he's dead? As much as Freddie wants to do otherwise, he shakes his head.
It's the truth, the bitter truth, and all Freddie can do is tell it.
Natalie looks back at him. That makes two of us, her eyes say, before Captain van Linden appears in the box above the track and they're all called towards the starting line. Then they run. That is all.
Freddie trudges into the mess hall as his bones ache again. The morning run is as painful as ever, but no more so, and that's almost surprising when he thinks about it. He's thought about what he would do if Jack ever died far more than he'd like to admit, his reactions ranging from the furious to the depressed and he's surprised to find that there is nothing in particular stirring up within him. There is nothing at all, and this is never how he'd imagined that it would go, but he remembers being thankful for it with every single pound of his feet upon the ground.
The kitchen staff hasn't been informed of Jack's death this time, either, so when Freddie goes up to collect breakfast everything is as it should be. Apart from when Mrs. Callaghan asks him if something's up with Thea and Freddie's stumped for a minute, asking her what she means, and Mrs. Callaghan replies, "Well, she hasn't been to the hatch yet. She's normally first, or well before you, at least," and even though Freddie registers the backhand insult in her words, he ignores it in favour of the greater meaning of that sentence: Thea's not back yet.
Why isn't Thea back yet?
Freddie knows that Thea wasn't behind him; he saw her lap him midway through the sixth mile - which would have been her seventh. So where is she?
He's still asking that question of himself when he finds Natalie at one of the tables and sits down next to her. "Do you know where Thea is?" he asks. "Mrs. Callaghan hasn't seen her and - well, you're a lot faster than I am at this." Natalie doesn't reply for a moment. She doesn't ignore him, per se, she just seems to be trying to formulate her next sentence, and Freddie knows that he's not going to like it. He knows that he really isn't going to like it. "You might as well tell me straight," he adds. "I can take more than you think."
"I didn't see it happen, but there are rumours from the young lot," she replies. "Apparently, Thea was arrested by the Captains on suspicion of murder."
Freddie leans back in his chair. He's not surprised at all. In fact, he should have gone straight to that conclusion when Mrs. Callaghan first told him that Thea hadn't appeared yet. Thea has more than a sackful of motives to want Jack dead, so it's not surprising that she'd be the first suspect. He has to ask something though, even though he's pretty sure he already knows the answer "On what evidence?" he asks.
"On her statement after Alec died last November," Natalie replies. "I didn't hear it, but you must have done. 'I am going to fucking kill him.' That's enough for them to put her in jail."
"No, it isn't," Freddie replies. "People say that all the time in this place. Everyone has said that about pretty much everybody else - that doesn't mean we're all thrown into jail."
"It's enough when you declare intent to kill someone and six months later the person ends up dead," replies Natalie. "Much as nobody liked Jack, justice must be served."
"Justice isn't served by arresting people willy-nilly. Shouldn't we at least wait for a cause of death?"
Natalie turns and looks at him, narrowing her eyes. "You sound awfully defensive of her. I know we're getting past the whole Montague and Capulet thing, but I'm wondering whether you were involved in this." Freddie doesn't say anything, choosing instead to pick up his fork and have a stab at his oatmeal. "Freddie, were you involved in this?"
"No," Freddie replies. "No, I wasn't. Yes, I hated him. But no, I didn't kill him. And quite honestly, I don't think Thea did either."
Natalie nods at that. "If you say so. I'm still not quite convinced, but I'm not Jack. I'm smart enough to let the evidence speak for itself." She begins to pick at her own breakfast, and that's all the two of them have to say about it.
Until, that is, Sara and Nicholas come barrelling into the mess hall along with the last of the Victory Children to complete the morning run, trying to corral a group of two to four-year-olds in after the slow mile that they've been running for at least half a year now. After they're in, the doors are shut, leaving everyone stuck inside.
Freddie knows what comes next. As Sara and Nicholas sit down on the other side of the table, Nicholas opens his mouth to speak, but Freddie shushes him, waiting for what he knows comes next. He knows that what Nicholas is about to say warrants a discussion, and that must wait until after what will happen in just a moment.
They're packed in like flies, all 500 Victory Children. Captain Hatford opens the door, and every single one of them snaps to attention. Even the two-year-olds. "At ease," Captain Hatford says, and they all sit back down again. "As you may already know, one of our own was found dead this morning." There are murmurs around the room. "Captain Jack Reynolds was one of our finest soldiers and it is with absolute certainty that I and my fellow Captains declare that he would have made a brilliant officer on the front lines.
Captain Reynolds' death is currently being treated as suspicious and investigations into in are underway. I have no comments on what might have caused it, and, more importantly, if there is a person responsible for this. We will keep you updated as the case proceeds. I would like the Reynolds family to see me this morning after breakfast. You have been exempted from morning training. Thank you very much for your attention."
He leaves, and so do some of the early lot who have been forced to say for the express purpose of listening to Captain Hatford's declaration. The ruckus starts up again, and once it does, Nicholas turns back to the rest of them and whispers, "So who here actually thinks that Thea did it?"
"Nope," replies Sara. Freddie shakes his head, too. Natalie doesn't say anything, but that's not a no, either.
"Good," replies Nicholas. "Because I don't either. And I think that the Captains are going to ask us whether we want to prosecute or not."
"Oh, they're definitely going to do that," replies Natalie. "The question now is if we actually want to."
Freddie leans back in his chair as he realises that everybody is looking at him in anticipation, and he doesn't know why, because the last time he checked, Natalie's still older than he is and is, therefore, head of the Reynolds family in Michael's absence. But clearly, Natalie's not taking on that role, so Freddie's left to it again.
"I don't know," he replies. "I don't know what we're going to do, and I don't know how to feel about Jack being dead, and I don't know why you expect me to be in control of all of this shit when what I really want is to go and hide in a corner somewhere."
"Yes, I think we all want to do that," replies Nicholas. "But the fact is that your cousin and my second cousin is dead and if we decide to prosecute, Thea is probably going to also end up dead. I know we hate them, but I'm not killing a Spencer when I'm quite sure she's not guilty. But what do we do?"
"Who could have done it, then?" Sara asks.
"What even is it?" replies Nicholas. "I know that we're treating his death as suspicious, but how do we know that his death was murder at all? We haven't seen the body."
"Yeah, and I'm still not sure it's murder. No wounds; none that I could see, at least. He could have died of illness."
Natalie slumps back in her chair. "Here's what we do. We ask for an autopsy when they ask us. We ask for an autopsy, and we go from there."
The Captains ask them if they want to prosecute.
The Reynolds ask for an autopsy.
It comes back two days later.
It's a long, long document, and Freddie won't regurgitate because quite frankly, it's nothing to write home about, but the gist of it is that Jack's body was fucked up on the inside, and the professional opinion is that this was chemically induced.
There was a large amount of honey in Jack's stomach, honey where there was nothing in the mess hall that he possibly could have eaten containing honey.
It cannot be discerned for certain, but when Captain Hatford delivers them the Reynolds the result of the autopsy, he tells them that the honey was probably used to mask some sort of poison. Therefore, they are treating his death not only as suspicious but as murder. He asks them again if they want to prosecute.
The Reynolds ask for a day to think about and discuss it.
The Reynolds meet again at lunchtime.
It goes something like this.
Freddie's sitting back, sipping a glass of water, watching as Nicholas writes bold headings on pieces of paper and lays them out on the table. Suspects. Motives. Means. Opportunity. As if they were police and this was an official investigation. Freddie watches as Nicholas tries to think of people who might want Jack dead, then thinks about it some more, then declares, "There are a lot of people who would want Jack dead."
"Yeah, and that's why we're in this mess," Freddie replies. "We're in this mess because Jack pissed everybody off so much that we have no idea who could have done it, we have no idea which poison was used to kill him, and we have no way of shortening down the list because he was poisoned and you don't have to be there when the person takes the poison. You certainly don't have to be there when they die, if you use a slow-killing one."
Nicholas bangs his head down on the table. "There is no way that this is going to end without Thea getting sent before the firing squad, is it?" he moans.
"Not unless we don't prosecute," Freddie replies.
"If we don't prosecute, we look like idiots. We look like we're reneging on 200 years of the Reynolds-Spencer feud," replies Sara.
"If we do prosecute, we send a woman who we all know isn't guilty to her death. We'rereneging on 200 years of the Reynolds-Spencer feud anyway," he replies. Sara huffs and leans back in her chair. So do the rest of them.
"I don't get it," Nicholas replies. "They must know that there are at least a hundred people who wanted Jack dead. Thea's just at the top of the list. That doesn't mean she did it. Why do they want to off her so vehemently?"
"Because the Spencer name was supposed to have died out five generations ago, and by some miracle measure of pure stubbornness, they've managed to survive all this time. With Alec gone, Thea is the last one. Get rid of her and the Spencers are out of their hair forever. They're trying to eliminate both them and us. We cause too much trouble for them."
"That's stupid," replies Nicholas, and Freddie can only nod. He didn't mean for it all to spill out like that, but Nicholas and Sara are teenagers now and Freddie's had it up to his neck with keeping secrets. He can't do this anymore, so he lets it all fall out. Nicholas looks at him again. "What do we do, Freddie?"
Freddie thinks about that for a moment, then straightens his back and looks around at the other three Reynolds at the table. "Give me half an hour with Thea Spencer," he replies. Natalie starts to protest, but he shuts her down. "Just - trust me on this one. Give me half an hour with Thea in her jail cell, and I will tell you whether we decide to prosecute or not, since we're not going to be able to decide otherwise. I can't explain the reasons for whether or not we decide to prosecute, so don't ask. Is everyone agreed?"
He's met with nods from the other three, and Freddie feels a strange rush of pride that can only come from having people under his command. As much as he knows that he'll hate the war, he can't help but think that he's one of the most well-suited people for it in the entire class of 1997. He is. No one is taking that away from him.
He goes to visit Thea in the Victory Ground jail, and though the Captains tell him again and again that it's a bad idea, that facing his boundsman's killer might stir up previously buried emotions that would lead to either of them doing nothing good, Freddie insists on visiting her.
In the end, they let him in. The door swings open to reveal the same cold, cold room that he went to see Jack, last November. Freddie exhales sharply at the thought of it. He can't think about last November now. He has to focus on the matter at hand, focus on the woman at hand.
She's sitting in the corner on the little wooden stool like Jack was. She doesn't seem to acknowledge the door opening or Freddie's presence but just continues to aimlessly stare at the opposite corner of the room, as if she'll find her salvation in between the cracks. What a ridiculous thought, Freddie thinks. What a ridiculous thought to think that any of them could be saved now.
She's used to it, Freddie knows. He remembers the time that she and Jack spent a month in here, in adjacent cells, no doubt. He remembers the bitter trial and thinking that Jack and Thea might have just had the motivation to kill each other someday. Now that one of them is dead, there's no doubt that Thea's sackful of hatred for Jack makes her the most likely suspect, no doubt at all.
Despite all of that, Freddie still doesn't think that Thea did it.
No, that's a misrepresentation.
Despite all of that, Freddie knows that Thea didn't do it.
Because he already knows who did. All he has to do is to confirm it.
Freddie moves into the room, shutting the door behind him, moving into the corner, moving into Thea's line of sight. "Long time no see," he says, and Thea looks up.
"Fuck off, Reynolds." There's a certain defeat in her voice that Freddie wants to take away, that he wants to rip out until only the ferociously protective Thea is left. He wonders if she was like this for the entire month she was in the jail when they were eight. He's almost too afraid to ask.
"I didn't come here just so you could tell me to fuck off," he replies. "I came here to ask you something."
She looks up at him. "And what is that?" she asks. Her voice is cold, but it's not a defeated cold anymore. That's progress, at least.
"Have you ever talked to anyone about it?" he asks. He doesn't need to clarify what it is; they both know full well what he's talking about. Freddie doesn't want to say it outright, doesn't know how to discuss it without having a knife flung in his face. Thea has no knives right now, but she's still got her fists if Freddie puts a finger out of line, and he's wary of hitting a wrong nerve. Especially on something like this.
Apparently, Thea doesn't share the same need for discretion. "Have I ever talked to anyone about the fact that he raped me?" she asks. "Because if that's what you're asking, the answer is no. I was eight, Freddie. Eight-year-olds shouldn't even know what rape is."
"Yet too many do. Yet there you were, attending a full military trial because a boy decided to rape you and you did the only thing you knew to defend yourself," Freddie replies, acknowledging it at last. "You must be glad that he's dead."
"Yet there I was," Thea agrees, standing up. It doesn't make much difference; the height difference between them is still as pronounced as it was when she was sitting, but it seems to make a difference to her. The sparks start returning to her eyes, the same way they always did when she was gearing up for a fight, and for a moment, Freddie starts tensing up too, as if she's about to go for him. It wouldn't be the first time he's had a fight in this jail cell. "I hated him, Freddie. I won't pretend that I didn't."
"But you didn't kill him," Freddie replies, letting himself relax a little, finally letting slip what he came to the cell to say. He already knows it, but he has to hear it from Thea herself.
"But I didn't kill him," Thea agrees. "I would have slit his throat if I was going to kill him. I hear that that's not how he went, in the end."
Freddie shakes his head, exhaling sharply, smiling as he does so. "Honey," he says. "Poisoned honey, they think." Thea straightens up upon hearing that, and Freddie can practically see her mind whirring away as she thinks, pacing back and forth along the back wall, playing with her hands, reviewing all the evidence, putting it all together.
She comes to her conclusion not two minutes later with a soft "Oh."
"You've got it, haven't you?" Freddie asks. "You understand?"
Thea nods, turning around to face him. Then she spills out the same conclusion that Freddie came to earlier, after the results of the autopsy after he'd had time to think as he ran the ten miles that morning. Freddie usually mentally shuts down whilst doing it, focusing only on the beat of his feet on the track, but today he'd spent it thinking. He'd sat through Nicholas trying to work out who did it to no avail, already knowing who did it. He just needed to see Thea, to prove that his conclusion was plausible because she's the only one in the Victory Ground who would know the full story, who would be able to put all the pieces together and come to the same conclusion, the one that Freddie's quite sure now is correct.
The conclusion they both come to goes something like this.
It starts nine years ago, during that military trial, during that time where there were two counts of assault and one of them was sexual. The boy watches as the person he loves gets put through a storm that she never asked for, watches as she's punished for something that was never her fault. The resentment starts then, but he does not act on it. He's not in a position to act on it, even though he knows about a dozen ways to. Both Freddie and Thea were there, both of them saw him react with eerie calm. They'd thought that was always his way, and perhaps it was, perhaps it still is, but they both know now that his calm hid a storm, a devastating one that built and built until it was finally unleashed. That was the first motive.
It continues later, during that intelligence mission to Morcastle. Both Freddie and Thea were there. Both of them saw the full spectrum of the various preparations of execution methods and weapons and, most importantly, poisons. Both of them had reason to enter that secluded garden, one left to the open air, unlike all the other poisonous plants that Morcastle grew. There was a reason that it was left to the open air. Because it contained two plants only: rhododendrons and azaleas. Two plants with bright, beautiful flowers that were absolutely deadly to consume. They were left to the open air so that the bees could get to them so that when they produced honey, it too was deadly, able to kill within a day or two. That's what killed Jack, in the end. Hailing himself from Morcastle, as they both now know, he would have known that too. It would have been far too easy to obtain a jar of that honey. Captain Hatford was right. That was the method.
It continues into the next year, and that, in particular, is what tipped Freddie off. The boy leaves, his mission complete, but not before cornering Jack in the square and telling him that he'd personally kill him if Jack even so much as thought about touching Alexander. Freddie's thought all these years that the boy meant Faulkner, and perhaps he did, perhaps he still does, but Freddie's also sure now that he knew that Alec would have been going out not long after he returned. After all, Alec was not Alec to everyone; he was only ever Alec to Freddie. To the boy, he would have always have been Alexander. They would have known each other since they were small, longer than Freddie ever knew either of them.
The story finishes in late November, with Alec's death. He got shipped home; Captain van Linden told them both that he got shipped home. The boy would have known, possibly even seen his broken body. He would have known that Jack had just broken the terms of what the boy considered as an agreement.
And so, the death threats became a reality.
Freddie's not quite sure how the boy managed to do it, whether he came and left the Victory Ground without been noticed by anyone who would. He supposes that since they've all gone through puberty, the only people he'd have to worry about are those who would recognise on sight the physical traits of the old Mendelssohn family, and that list is confined solely to the Captains, the Reynolds, Jane, and Thea. It would not have been hard to avoid those twenty people in a sea of five hundred.
He'd done it. Both Thea and Freddie know that he'd done it, and both of them understand why. But no one else ever would, because no one else would ever know that Adam Mendelssohn was a lie. This was a secret to be kept between them, and they'd go to their graves carrying it if they had to.
That is the conclusion they both come to. That, they are quite sure, is the truth.
When they're done revealing the truth, they both look at each other, not quite sure what to say next. The air between them has changed; it's nowhere near the same as it was when Freddie came in, now that they've had this mutual epiphany.
Freddie breaks the silence at last. "Thank you," he says. "Thank you for doing that."
"You're welcome," Thea replies. "I may go to my death now, knowing that I do not die in vain. If I die to protect him, then my death becomes worth it."
Freddie shakes his head again. "Except you're not going to die." Thea's head snaps up. She paces forward a little so that the distance between them doesn't feel like an eternity anymore. "You're not going to die because we're not going to prosecute."
Thea narrows her eyes. "Why would you do that? You could be rid of me so easily. Why don't you want to take it?"
"Do you want to die?"
Freddie's not quite sure how to answer that, so he returns to her earlier question. "None of us Reynolds think you did it. We're not stupid; we know that if you were going to, you would have used a knife."
Thea nods. "You're right. I would have. I told you I would have."
"We're not prosecuting, Spencer, because we wanted him gone as much as you did, me most of all. I'm not prosecuting because I actually kind of liked your boyfriend and if the truth ever were to come out, then I don't want him dead as well as you."
Thea's silent for a while, before straightening up again, standing on the tiny little stool so she can actually look him in the eye, and declaring, "Thank you."
"Don't. You owe us now. We're going to lord it over you for all eternity," Freddie replies, smirking, moving to open the door. It pulls open with a clank.
As he leaves, he hears one last, "Fuck you, Reynolds."
The door clanks shut, and Freddie smiles. And then he goes to find the Captains.
The Reynolds don't prosecute. There are a couple of murmurs in the mess hall later that day as Thea reappears, having been made to run the ten miles to earn her supper. Mrs. Callaghan, for one, seems delighted when she sees the familiar face.
Thea doesn't sit with them. She doesn't dare to. How could she dare to, when everybody thinks so vehemently of her? Even though she and Freddie know the truth, they are the only ones in this place who ever will. She eats alone, and even though Freddie's heart goes out to her, wants her to not be so miserable because damn it, Victory Children look out for one another, he doesn't act on it. Thea would not accept it even if he offered; she's be so insistent of this act of penance, atonement for a crime she did not commit but would go to her death for if it meant keeping Adam safe.
Thea's right. They're all a pack of schemers and liars. Liars for different reasons, maybe, but liars nonetheless.
A few people ask them why they decided not to prosecute, decided to let her go, but Freddie just shrugs and lies through the skin of his teeth. "She's the best soldier in our year," he replies. "It would be a waste to let her die like that."
Then Freddie sits, ramrod straight, as they lean in close and mutter, "Don't worry. I know she didn't do it. But none of us can say that, can we?" As they pull away, Freddie nods. All he can do is nod. The best thing about them all being Victory Children in this situation is that Freddie knows that everyone else knows what Thea's preferred style is, and poison most definitely isn't it. Nonetheless, there's a certain comfort to be found in knowing that he's not alone. They're too old for that, too old to consider everything as a solitary pursuit. That's not how you survive in war. There are no singular heroes, no individuals who swoop in and save the day You survive by working as a team, by knowing one another and by trusting one another to get the job done. The Victory Ground might always have taught them otherwise, but the old Victory Children know that it's not the way forward. It cannot be. That is not how the victory is won.
As the hustle and bustle of the mess hall rings out around him, Freddie sits back in his chair and smiles. The place may be hell, but the people within it make it the closest thing to home that Freddie has.
It's not perfect, and he knows that he's going to lose it in half a year, but he'll take whatever he can get.
Of course, Freddie's not allowed to be happy for more than a few months at a time, so when everything gets ripped away from him a tad earlier than he expected it to, he really shouldn't have been surprised. He doesn't know why he is still surprised, why he hasn't learned by now that the Victory Ground, all the way from the Captains to the newborn children, are a pack of liars and hypocrites.
The last loss of the year goes something like this.
It's November again, the first day, exactly a year since he last Alec that frightful cold morning. Freddie's been preparing himself for war, as all of the children of 1997. He's had to get used to being paired up with Thea during pair exercises; though they've never been bound, that was the best solution the Victory Ground could come up with, given that both of them were alone. It's not so bad, really; he knows Thea like the back of his hand. Their fighting styles clash a little, sure, but they've spent so long fighting with other that the transition to fighting alongside each other is nothing, nothing at all.
He's at breakfast once more, exhausted again. Thea's slowly moved closer to the Reynolds at the breakfast table over the year, and by now she's once again sat alongside them, once again sharing caustic remarks and planning battle strategies using the various items on the table. They've officially reneged on the 200-year-old Reynolds-Spencer feud, and Freddie honestly can't say that he's sad to see it go. It takes up too much energy, actively hating someone like that, energy that Freddie doesn't have, energy that he can't afford to waste.
Captain Hatford comes into the mess hall, and all of the Victory Children snap to attention. "At ease," he orders the room, before picking his way through the maze of tables and chairs and children to where Freddie himself is sat.
Once he gets to the table, he pulls a letter out of his jacket pocket. "This arrived late last night. We have processed it and marked down the relevant information, but we think that it should probably come to you. There are no exemptions on grounds of this." At that last sentence, Freddie knows that whatever this is, it's bad. It's always bad if the Captains have to tell you that there are no training exemptions, that you're still going to have to go through the motions even if you feel like you're falling apart.
Captain Hatford puts down the letter on the table and leaves the mess hall. The Reynolds look at it, not quite sure what to do with it. He looks around, seeing if anyone else will be brave enough to pick it up and open it, but Nicholas and Sara are looking at him expectedly, and Freddie sighs. It's him again. Why the fuck is it always him?
He picks up the letter, flips it over and opens it.
The first thing Freddie notices is the Ducartan Army emblem at the top of the page, and if that isn't a sure sign that there is nothing good, then Freddie doesn't know quite what is.
The second thing Freddie notices is that it's short. It's so short, and Freddie can scan over it in about ten seconds. When he does, his stomach drops to the fiery pits of hell. That - that's it. That's all he has to say.
To whom it may concern,
It is with great regret that the Sector C of the Ducartan Army reports that the corpse of what we believe to be one of your Victory Children has been found.
It is with greater regret that we must also report that Jack Reynolds, originally known to you as Jack Whitaker, is the individual in question, and his corpse was found in such a state that it is our opinion that it should not be returned to you. If you object to this and would indeed like the corpse, we are more than willing to return it to you. Otherwise, we will dispose of it in Ducartan fashion.
Captain Michelle Avery.
Freddie puts the letter down on the table and looks up. His insides are churning around and he has to look up to confirm that he's not alone, to confirm that he's not the only one who's torn up. Nicholas and Natalie have their eyes shut, and Sara has her head plonked down on the table. Good. He isn't the only one. For once, he isn't the only one. That's reassuring, at least.
"Do we want his corpse back?" Sara asks, into the table.
"No," replies Natalie. "If it's already bad, then imagine what it'll be like when it gets to us and it's further decomposed. Just let the Ducartans deal with it."
"Agreed," replies Freddie. There's a certain disconnect to it. He's spent months not really grieving for Jack, but not ten minutes after Whitaker's gone, he already feels like he's suffocating. Why? Why the fuck is it always him? Why does the universe have it in for him? He swallows the lump in his throat and keeps on going.
"I guess we're down to five, then," says Nicholas. "Let's try our hardest not to bring the number down any further." They all nod. It hurts, but they nod because they've only got each other left and it hurts that Nicholas has finally acknowledged that Oscar is not one of them anymore and never will be again. That fucking hurts, but they can't think about it right now. They've all had seven years to grieve over Oscar. Whitaker is the one they need to grieve over now.
But they can't grieve out here. They can't grieve out here, where the Captains could come in at any moment and they will fall if they grieve. Out of respect for both Jack and Alec, they'd left the war games standings as they were when they first finished them last All Hallows' Eve, so Freddie's still in sixth. Still on the precipice. Still hanging on. He just has to keep hanging on.
Later, when he's tucked in his bed and Freddie's exhausted but he's been covering up everything all fucking day, the dam breaks. He can't risk making any noise and alerting the other boys to his moment of weakness, so he wads up one of the corners of his bed sheet, stuffs it into his mouth, covers the whole thing with his hands, and cries. Silently. He shuts his eyes and lets himself cry because he fears that he might burst if he doesn't.
He doesn't know it yet, but that cold November night is the last time that Freddie cries for years.
It's December, and he has to tell someone about this.
He has to, or he's not going to make it to January, will lose this war before he's even begun. He has to let it out.
There is no one to let it out to.
As impromptu head of the Reynolds family, Freddie can't appear weak. If he can't keep in control in front of his family, three other people, then how the hell is he supposed to keep in control when in charge of a two hundred people? He knows that he's broken down in front of Sara before, but that was the start of the year. A lot can change in a year. A lot has changed in this year. So Freddie knows that just as he isn't the same person as he was a year ago, he isn't allowed to do the same things as he did a year ago, and that involves showing any sign of weakness.
Of course, there's Thea, but Freddie doesn't want to tell her, either, doesn't want to burden her with worrying about him next year when she'll not only have two hundred people under her command but eight hundred. Freddie's not quite sure how she's going to do it, but he doesn't want to make her job any harder than it needs to be. He hates to admit it, but Freddie has known her for too long to hate her now. He's not quite sure what lies in the gap between them, whether it's respect or friendship or, dare he say it, actually liking her. He's not sure about anything, but he knows that it's not hate, as he's insisted for so long. Goodness, how could he have been so stupid? How could he not have seen it? How did he miss that? He's going to need to fine-tune his observation if he's going to make any sort of a good Captain.
There is no one to let it out to.
Freddie might just burst, but he'll find a way. He'll find a way to survive.
The way is found. It's a few weeks later, but the way is found.
It's New Year's Eve again. He knows that the children of 2001 are gathered out at the front of the Victory Ground, and Freddie knows that tonight His Royal Highness Frederick Ashbridge will come bearing ghosts, and Freddie knows that tonight Whitaker will be amongst them, and there will be no one for him, because he's only been at the Victory Ground for two years, because even though that sounds like a long time, it's nothing compared to the lifetime that the rest of them have had to get to know one another.
It's New Year's Eve, and Freddie sits on the wall, legs facing to the outward world. He's been in this position far too many times before. He could go. He could go so easily, slip away because really, there's nothing left for him here. Mendelssohn and Faulkner went on New Year's Eve, the day before they were due to be sent out to war, took the opportunity to make something better than this. And Freddie envies them, he honestly does. But he just can't bring himself to leave. His duty has come knocking at the door, and Freddie can't help but answer the call.
Besides, that's not the reason he came out. No, he came out with a pen and a piece of paper, to write a letter to a dead man, to write a letter to the only person he could ever open up to without any hesitation, without and fear of being shamed. This is the moment he's allowed to ramble, allowed to write a long, rambling letter in the best handwriting that Freddie can muster. He won't get time when tomorrow comes around.
The letter goes something like this.
I would call you Alec, but I actually want this letter to reach you, and I feel like it's not going to if I call you by the name that you only let me have. Like the post office in the sky will deliver this to the wrong person if I don't address this properly.
I don't believe in heaven, but I'd like to believe you're there. I know that both you and your sister believe in reincarnation, of turning on the wheel, but I don't. I'd like to believe that you're there. You must be there, right? You have to be. There is nowhere else that you would be, no reason for you to be anywhere else. Not ones that hold any weight, anyway.
I wonder if you can see me right now. I wonder if you can see this broken mess that I've become, the broken boy that you never wanted me to be, that you tried to prevent by giving me those photographs. And I tried, Alexander, I honestly did, and your photographs still keep me sane, but they're not enough to keep me from this cycle of destruction I'm headed on. They're enough to make me want to live, but they're not enough to keep me alive. I don't know if I'll be alive by this time next year, and the thought of that is terrifying, Alexander, it really is. I don't know what to say apart from that.
I wonder if you know that Adam avenged you. You must know, right? I know that you wouldn't have wanted him to, but I wonder how you feel now that he did. I wonder a lot of things about you and him. I wonder what you called him, I wonder what he called you. I wonder how old you were when you first met each other, what his first reaction was when he found out you were dead. I wonder all these things and I'll never know the answers to any of them, but it feels good to wonder. It feels good to know that my brain hasn't completely died. Not yet.
Okay, I think I've stalled long enough. Here's the reason that I wrote this letter because I know that if you're reading this, you know that I don't really care for all that stuff.
I can't do this, Alexander. I can't do this. I can't fucking do this, and I don't know how I'm going to make it through the next month, let alone the next year. I wish that I had you here because it might just have been okay if you were. But you're not here. You're gone. You're gone and - damn it, I loved you.
I loved you. I love you. I will love you.
And that's such a weird thing to write because I've never said it or written it before, not to you, not to anyone. But I'm sick of secrets. I'm sick of lying. I've been fucking lying my entire life, and I can't fucking do it anymore. Your sister's right; we are all liars in this place, and you were just as much a liar as the rest of us. But I can't lie to you. I could never lie to you. I refuse to.
This letter might not ever get to you, but I hope that it does. I hope that you read this so that I don't feel so alone. Because tomorrow, I'm going to be surrounded by people again, but I'll be so fucking alone. I don't even know if your sister and I will be on the same front, whether our battalions will be close together. Chances are that they won't be. We may have been paired together for the last few months, but there is nothing holding us. If the Acothran Army wants to push us apart, then that is what must be.
I'm done. I'm so fucking done. I hope this gets to you.
Do me a favour? If you do end up reading this, send me some luck. Send us all some luck. There's no room for saints in this place, not even you, but no one ever said anything about luck. I'm going to need as much of that as I can get. We all do.
Freddie puts down the pen and folds up the piece of paper. He can't quite believe he's about to do this, can't quite believe that he's about to stoop to this. But there is no other way that he can think of that would make this act feel complete.
He tucks the piece of paper inside the balloon and blows it up, ties it off, seals the paper inside it and seals all his emotion, everything that he's got to hide if he wants to survive.
Then he tosses the balloon into the sky, watching as the wind carries it up, up and away and out of sight. He knows that no one on the island will dare to shoot it down. It's an old legend on the Antonian isles; if you send a letter inside a balloon to a lost one, it'll reach them in heaven. Freddie's never believed in that old legend, never thought that he'd ever have any reason to use it, but there is nothing else he can think of. He has to try. It's the only thing he can do.
He doesn't know how far it'll get. He knows that Alec won't see it, that the likeliest outcome is that the letter will end up in the middle of the sea, but he'd like to believe that he will. Belief and faith aren't enough to keep him alive, but they go a long way into making those things a little more bearable.
Freddie won't get any sleep tonight. After his break finishes, he's to report to the Captains' Building, alongside all of the other children of 1997, and he'll find out precisely where he's going. And then the transport will come, and they'll all head out.
Ah, well. This was always inevitable.
Time to face the music.
He's in one of the vans when he checks his pocket watch to see that the time is drawing close to midnight. He looks around the van to see if any of his peers are still awake, or if they've taken the sensible decision to try and get some sleep. Most of them have, but Freddie can't.
He has his mother's letters in his pocket. He's been given orders not to open them until they reach the front lines.
They're being sent to the 10th Battalion on the Western Front. Thea will take command as Lieutenant Colonel, and Freddie couldn't be more relieved at that. The military hierarchy has been ingrained in them all their lives, but both of them know that it'll be far easier to turn their battalion into an effective machine if they already know each other, if they already know how to work together, if they already know how to read each other without even trying.
Freddie knows that quite a lot of them are going into this battalion since it had suffered heavy losses over the past year to the Carians. Not all of the children of 1997 are - they've got to spread it over the army, after all - but there are ten people in that van, including Freddie himself. Kingdom of the Hearth, his ass. The Carians are just as ruthless as the rest of them.
Freddie will be in charge of Company A, with Jane Cox under him as First Lieutenant. Attwood is joining the men in the trench as a Sergeant Major. Burnett, Nixon, and Walters are going into various positions in the other three companies that make up the 10th Battalion, whereas Natalie will be heading up Company D with Phillips under her as First Lieutenant.
Company C is headed up by Captain Michael Reynolds and First Lieutenant Maria Cox. Freddie knows that Jane derives as much comfort as he does at knowing that there's family not even three miles away. The missing officers from Company B are being sourced from elsewhere in the nation, whatever that means. He guesses he'll find out when he gets to the Western Front.
Freddie doesn't know what the year ahead will bring. He doesn't know if he'll survive it. All he can do now is sit inside that van and stare at Thea, the black pin in her hair now exchanged for one that tells everybody of her military position. She stares back, her face set. There is no room for anything else anymore, no room for grief, no room for loss, no room for weakness, no room for anything. If they are going emerge from this victorious, if they are going to win this fight, they must become the paragons of soldiers they have raised to be.
If Freddie must sacrifice everything he is in the pursuit of victory, then so be it.