i. december 1, 20XX
It's quiet here, most of the time. Peaceful. Even in the later hours of the afternoon there exists only the occasional shuffle and murmur of my fellow guardsman -- each repetition becoming less and less coherent as the night falls -- and more often than not, I find myself nodding only out of habit rather than understanding. Murmur. Nod. Murmur. Nod. A loud sip of coffee, and a reciprocating nod before I can stop myself. Here, in this barren, monochromatic, endless stretch of tundra, there exists only the shifting skies and routine patrols to look forward to. And then there are, of course, the monthly rations and supplies sent by the empire, the red and yellow sleds emblazoning themselves shamelessly against the snow. I would imagine the whole outpost to be nearly colorless without them. Noiseless, too. It is said too often that the lack of nearby cities or centers -- or much of anything, for that matter -- stagnate the hearts and mouths of the men and women here, leave the recruits of our outpost wordless, and dissipate the pleasures of food and drink and company as quickly as the influxes of new faces. This, I cannot disagree with. We of the forty-fourth outpost are a humbled and needed people, a refuge to those unable to go directly to the front lines or remain useless at home, and I cannot blame the less conversational of us for being so.
The canteen of coffee sits cold between my thinly gloved fingers, the warmth of its contents having long lost themselves to the frigid air. I shiver, almost reaching for the note tucked into my breast -- before casting a quick, cautious glance to the man seated adjacent to my post.
He hasn't seen anything. Or if he has, he either hasn't bothered to say anything about it or hasn't deemed it important. There are still strict uniform policies here, after all, in spite of the general laxness. While we lookouts are offered greater freedom in selecting our outerwear in comparison to the other officers -- as evidenced by this redheaded man's similarly colored scarf and gloves -- the prohibition of free floating and hidden objects beneath our uniforms still applies, as do the punishments and confiscations to go along with them. And my partner, this lanky, freckled, mumbling apology of a man, would no doubt submit to them before I could ever have the chance to keep the note. Couldn't risk that. He's staring forward at the moment, brilliant scarf masking the freckled nose and cheeks beneath the material, and I sigh inaudibly.
It takes me a moment to realize he's actually speaking.
"Sorry, I wasn't paying attention." I apologize quickly, leaning a little closer in his direction. "Could you repeat that?"
I can almost see the beginnings of his temples blend into the scarf. He stammers incomprehensibly for the briefest of seconds, eyes hesitantly darting between mine and his pockets at least four times, before finally removing his hands from his person and gesturing towards me. An offer of some sort. I shake my head, not quite understanding. He glances down again. Another moment or two of contemplation -- or embarrassment, at this point it could be nearly anything -- and he pulls off the thick crimson pair of gloves, pushes the extra wool away from his mouth. The lined fabric presses warmly against my fingers.
He smiles sheepishly, unsure of what to say. "Y-you, um --" He coughs a little. Clears his throat a little unsuccessfully before beginning again. "You looked cold," he admits, using a free hand to play with the edge of his scarf. "I-I didn't want you to be."
He stares expectantly at me, in equal parts of both nervousness and shyness. I stare back, albeit out of surprise at having heard his voice for the first time. My smaller hands slide perfectly into the thicker gloves, welcoming the transferred heat, and I return his bashful smile with one of my own. His freckles nearly glow at that.
I realize that this young man should have a name.
ii. december 12, 20XX
His friends would call him Rudy, if he had friends. For the most part, the officers around here call him Rodrick, "boy", and "you over there", and that works just as fine. He's actually only several years younger than I am in spite of his appearance, having just turned twenty in the past month, and he's so embarrassed by his thick, sing-song accent among the northerners at the base that he finds it easier to remain silent. The stammer is more of a nervous habit. And with him standing nearly a head taller than I do, the physical aspects of our record-keeping and shelving duties have never been easier. He tells me twice over breakfast that I've been the first to talk to him so familiarly at the base -- the first to actually tell me, the second to try to correct the statement -- and his youthful self-consciousness is so refreshing that I can't help but laugh into my coffee. He's a good kid. Big family, no money, almost no schooling, but with a decent upbringing. Rudy has two brothers and three sisters to take care of when he gets sent back, and when he gets his paycheck after the four-year contract, he says he'll use it to put the youngest, Ruby, through college. The stammer disappears when he talks about them. We sit so long at the table that the porridge goes cold.
He asks, one day, if I have anyone waiting for me back home.
I can feel the note nearly throbbing against my chest. His cheeks are a little more flushed than usual today at our post, the frosty air kissing our exposed skin with each gust of wind, and I register too late than I've been staring at him longer than necessary. A second or two too long, a moment's give into what could or should be the answer. Rudy glances away almost immediately, features indiscernible. Mutters an apology to hang in the space between us. And then there's the question tugging at the edge of my mind -- if I really do or don't have anyone waiting for me, if the note should mean much of anything out here, if deciding to reciprocate the contents of the note at all should change how I answer this young man's question -- and again I'm reaching for the slip of paper tucked into my breast, wondering. If Rudy notices, he doesn't mention it. I let the question slip into the gust of wind, give a small chuckle, and tell him that I don't, not really.
The relief on his face is genuine. I spend the next two shifts describing the floating spires and sky-bridges of my home city -- pushing away the memories of dark-haired men and letters, crowded trains and old, hand-me-down rings -- and keep Rudy preoccupied enough not to ask anything further. Not to engross my thoughts with anything more than what matters, anything more than our civic duties at the base to protect the empire. The imminent war is priority, I'm aware. The complexities of relationships could be handled later.
I tell myself this more often than I should.
iii. december 17, 20XX
The pen sits too heavy between my fingers, at times. I twist the ring over and over again in the light as I stare at the creamy page, still blank. Still unmarred with what would surely be scribbled and crossed-out lines of apologies and explanations alike. I'd planned exactly one hour to write at least half a page, another thirty minutes afterwards for editing, and all I could come up with were flimsy, dismissive excuses for why I hadn't replied in weeks. My skin was too dusky for the color of the metal, I'd thought of penning at first. How could I ever expect to become a proper married woman with something like that? The looming threat of war would force him into the draft and there wouldn't be a point. My duty was to the empire, not the house. I couldn't possibly afford to splurge on a dress, much less a ceremony. A hurried exchange of a letter on a train was no way to propose.
In the end, the page sits as perfect and unmarked as the minute I'd taken it out. I can't bring myself to do it.
iv. december 22, 20XX
The attendees of the assembly are as fidgety and impatient as I'd expected them to be. No visits to home allowed just yet, in spite of the general dormancy of the rebellion over the past months. The supervisor's voice booms over us in the speakerphone, listing telltale signs of attacks to the base, possible disturbances, and other required topics, such as the correct manner to alerting the central controls of the base in case of emergency. A typical gathering, in other words. After giving a quick glance to the officers around me -- three out of the four are sleeping, the odd one out much too invested to notice much of anything -- I mimic the supervisor's face at Rudy, who, surprisingly, seems just as attentive. He mimics it back, grinning.
v. december 24, 20XX
The base is strung alight with celebration, and I welcome the hushed quiet of the night with gratitude. The note and ring remain unreciprocated against my breast; the page and pen remain untouched. But I don't bother dwelling on it now. The guards on shift are allowed cups of eggnog and hot chocolate as part of the Christmas Eve festivities, along with small parcels of shortbread and chocolate, and I chew on a particularly buttery biscuit as I gaze absentmindedly into the tundra. Rudy takes small, short sips of piping hot chocolate beside me. Makes small, out-of-the-blue conversation here and there: How did your family celebrate Christmas, growing up? What was it like here? Does it always snow during the holidays? Where did they find all the rations for this sort of stuff?
Then, unexpectedly: "What's that plant hanging above us?"
I turn fully towards him for the first time of the night before looking up, curious. And, for once, find heat rising to my face for reasons other than the bitter cold. "Mistletoe," I explain, doing my best to brush off an intrusive thought. "Some prankster must've put it up there."
"You're supposed to kiss under it," I say too quickly, thankful for the darkness. "Just ignore it."
But his mouth is warm and sweet and briefly pressed against mine all of a sudden, refusing my suggestion, and I could care less about the fact. He pulls away and grins bashfully down at me, an apology already forming on his tongue. I steal the words before they can leave his lips.
I decide, as I secretly allow the note and ring to fall a good several stories to the ice below, that shortbread and hot chocolate make a very, very good combination.
vi. december 25, 20XX
I hadn't seen it coming. Never would I have been able to see it coming. It's quiet here, with half the base dead and the other captured by the rebel forces, and I can't help but glare at the redheaded, boy-faced traitor standing before me. He hadn't allowed me to get hurt -- something of our friendship had meant something, apparently -- but the betrayal stings all the same, stabs just as deep. There's something indiscernible in his expression as he reads the proposal over and over again, the worn paper giving easily to his blood-stained fingers. Disappointed, almost. And then I'm being hauled up by my restraints onto the rebel ship, our shared gaze broken by the movement of my fellow prisoners, and he's barely casting a glance into the closing doors to acknowledge me.
He's holding the ring so tightly it's as if he wants to crush it.