Today is a special day.
Cog wakes up and goes through his morning routine, donning jumpsuit and Warren’s old cap. He slips down to the cafeteria, says his “good-morning”s to Bartholomew and Franz and the others already there. Cookie smiles while giving him his breakfast, handing over a sizeable cloth-covered basket. It’s warm, and he can smell the scent of freshly-baked bread (and even more tantalizingly, the teasing undertone of gingerbread) wafting out from under the woven fabric. Her eyes are kind and as warm as the basket, and Cog remembers to say his thanks. No need to look for Penny or Berk, they know where he’ll be today.
It’s a special day, after all.
He finds Christian and Boris at the entrance of the fortress already waiting for him. There’s a minor pang in his heart when he sees the black hair and glasses from a distance, but he pushes those feelings down for now. There will be plenty of time later to deal with those emotions. Nonetheless his fingers itch, craving paper and pencil, and his mind strays to the box under his bed. Not today though, there will be no letters to the dead today.
He finally reaches them, Boris scowling and muttering that he’s late (he isn’t) -- but there’s no real heat to his words. Christian gently rebukes the prince before flashing Cog a small smile, offering t help carry Cog’s burden to no one’s surprise. The train tickets are safely tucked into his coat pocket he explains, as he tucks the basket under his arm.
Cog’s glad for the reprieve, yet the basket’s warmth has been pressed against him for so long that its absence leaves him feeling cold. But not for long as Boris catches up, legs working furiously to match their longer strides. He complains about taking the train, as he does every year, and Christian reminds him that the horses don’t like Cog and the gliders can only fit two of them and the cars are for military personnel only, Boris we’re not going to abuse your status as prince to borrow one for the day. The banter is familiar, almost traditional after these four years, and Cog lets the sound of their voices wash over him, filling him up to the brim.
They don’t take the train often, so Cog spends his time staring out of the window as Boris tries to sneak the cold cuts out from the basket without drawing Christian’s attention (it never works). The rhythmic sway of the train is nice, lulling him half-asleep against Christian’s shoulder.
It’s a little longer before they get to Meriden Village. They lunch on bread and a few meat pastries (the cold cuts have mysteriously gone missing along the way), saving the rest for later. Basket now lighter, they disembark once they get to the town. Cog’s heart twists with bitter sweetness as he takes in the familiar and changed sight. With eveyr year his old home seems a little more foreign, a little more alien. A little less like home.
There’s always a few things that stay the same though, constants that will never change. Like the flower shop he stops by, picking up his annual order. The bouquet would have withered if he brought it all the way from the fortress, and besides, the flowers here have always smelled sweeter anyways. The scent brings back memories of his young nose buried in fragrant hair and warm hugs and laughter, and if the others notice the wetness of his eyes they’re kind enough not to comment.
The plot of land looks well maintained, grass trimmed and weeds pulled. Cog remembers hearing from the mayor that there’s a new caretaker now that the previous one has passed away. He doesn’t remember much of the old man, saw less of him over the years as his joints deteriorated, but he was always kind during these visits and Cog appreciates that. Another face to miss, then.
The others have stopped a while back, close enough to still give support but far enough to afford him some privacy. Cog’s grateful for that, too. Out of habit he traces the letters carved into the grave stones, sharp incisions word down by half a decade’s worth of weathering. LINDA KLEINSCHMIDT, AMALRIC KLEINSCHMIDT, and next to them a slightly older and more worn-down CATHERINE KLEINSCHMIDT. Gone but not forgotten. A well-loved and missed member of the community. Taken too soon.
He places the flowers at the base of the headstones, kneeling down to rearrange some of the leaves and blossoms before settling, sitting down in the adjacent grass. It’s easy, almost, ritual by now, and yet the words still get stuck in his throat. He coughs, and tries again.
“Hi, Dad. Mom. Sis,” he says quietly, shifting from where he sits, cross-legged. His thumb rubs at the corner of one of the stones, the edge pressing its mark into his flesh leaving its indentation there.
“I’ve been doing well this year, been keeping busy. Remember the robot I mentioned a few years back? The fortress has been keeping me occupied since he keeps breaking his arms and legs. I swear, it feels like I have to fix him up every other week. When I’m not working on him I’m either helping the dock workers with other repairs,or hanging out with Christian and Boris. I know you guys would’ve liked them.”
He fiddled with a leaf, folding and unfolding the glossy green, tracing pale veins with a finger. Cog smiled sadly.
“You would’ve really liked Boris, Linda. He’s completely hot-headed, and stubborn like you, but he’s really different too. He’s bad at saying sorry, so when he says something wrong he’ll go and hide for days until he thinks you’ve forgotten about it, but he’ll do his best to make up for what he said.” Cog’s smile turned wistful. “And he’s really good at cooking, I think you would’ve liked his roast beef. And he’s always ready to go flying with me-- I’m glad he’s my friend.”
“And Christian… sometimes I fool myself into thinking you’re still there, Dad. But even though he’s got the glasses and hair and is into medicine too, you guys are completely different. He’s… I guess he’s like Linda? Or maybe a mix between you two. Sometimes he seems bossy and he’s always chasing after me and Boris, but he cares so much. There are times where I worry about how much he loves and how much of his heart he just gives away.” Cog leaned forward, lowering his voice. “And he’s got the biggest crush on Esther, you guys should see it.”
“He’s… clumsy, too. I’ve told you about how we’ve met, and nothing’s changed. He still manages to break his watch every other week, and in ways I haven’t thought possible. I didn’t even know I could fix some of these damages. I wonder if you could’ve done it with ease, Mom?”
“His watch isn’t the only thing I’ve learned to fix though-- Christian’s been teaching me some first aid as well. Not that I’m good at it-- guess I wasn’t meant to be a doctor like you.” He laughed awkwardly, rubbing at his neck. The sun cast long shadows between the stones as it sunk lower in the sky, heating the ground and warming him. At last he clambered to his feet, brushing grass off his knees as he turned to address the graves again.
“I guess that’s it for today. I know you’re not actually getting my letters but… it helps, you know? And I can only make it here a few times a year, so all those times in between… for all those other days of the year, I have at least that way to talk to you.”
His stomach growled, a reminder of the time and the basket still not fully empty. And the people waiting with it. Waiting for him.
“See you guys next year, then.” There’s no reply except for the rustle of grass in the wind. Cog gives each gravestone a final pat before walking off, looking back several times at the three markers he was leaving behind. But looking up, in front were those still waiting, still there in his life, and those were the ones he walked to. Boris’s earnest face, Christian’s outstretched hand, those were the everyday constants of his life now.
The train ride back is quiet, but the silence is amenable. Boris’s chatter has died away and Cog leans his head on Christian’s shoulder again as the three watch the sun set and the countryside flash by, Meriden receding into the distance. Looking back at his hometown disappearing over the horizon, Cog is surprised to find there’s barely a pang of homesickness. Instead he feels content, sated deep down in his heart, and even more so when he thinks about his bed, his room, his friends, family now, waiting back at the fortress, in his now home. But he’ll be back next year, and always the year after that.
It’s a special day, after all.