Everyday Things

They kept an upright piano at the inn: a few generations old, and a bit run down.

Mr. Kranich had it tuned promptly every six months, even though their daughter was the only one in the family who could put two notes together. But since the little girl liked it, and guests too, the piano at the Kranich's was an irreplaceable piece of the stay of any traveler who spent at least a night in Nebelheiss.

Unfortunately, there was now nothing left: not of the piano, not of the inn, nor of the entire city.

“Are you alright, Grus?” Meise tapped on her shoulder, taking her away from her burning bedroom. Grus took a deep breath.

“Yes, I was just spacing out for a minute.”

There was nothing unusual in a piano in the music room, but everyday things especially were what she feared would plunge her back into that hellish night. Until someone pulled her out.

This time it was Meise. Usually — and as she thought so, her cheeks warmed — it was Elster.

Meise refrained from asking more. Her parents died at war when she was six, far from home, and sharing the pain with her brother kept it bearable. She heard from Captain Finken that Grus wasn't as lucky: no relatives alive. As for her parents, her last moment with them was when they both took their last breath.

When Grus — who had started speaking more, and smiling, sometimes — acted as if her mind was elsewhere, Meise would rather ignore it. Even if she wanted to help.

She wasn't like Elster, who always kept going — even when she knew to be hopeless.

Elster too noticed, in fact, that Grus had grown quieter, less mindful. But as Meise opted for hoping Grus would feel better on her own, Elster approached her with a shower of questions.

“You can play the piano, Grus?”

Meise rapidly went from admiring Elster's fortitude to cursing her monumental lack of sensitivity. Side effects of never knowing when to give up.

Grus opened her mouth to reply, but she seemed to struggle with words. She nodded her head, hesitantly.

“That's so nice! Can you play us something, then?”

Grus started to get dizzy. All those who came to the Kranich's Inn used to tell her the same thing. And so did her dad, her mom, the old man from the shop, all those who she used to see everyday — and who now only lived in her memories, engulfed in flames in a single night.

Her legs were weak and her head was spinning. Must've been all the smoke — she was short of breath, too. But she couldn't cry, not yet, she had to bring Mom and Dad out of there. Then they could all rest, out in the open air.

But Grus, who could no longer remember if she was in Altenwolk or in Nebelheiss right now, burst into tears anyway.

“Hey... did I... did I say something wrong?”

Grus brought her to the music room again, just the two of them this time.

“Listen, Grus, I'm sorry if... I mean, earlier... I didn't realize...”

Elster didn't know what to say. But since she was Elster, she tried anyway.

Grus recovered after a few hours, in her bed. Meise calmly explained to her what had happened, while Elster didn't dare to wait for Grus to wake up. But Grus wasn't mad at Elster — she was mad at herself.

She asked herself for how long she would've had to fear a piano. A chair that looked a bit too similar to one of those they had at the Inn. A clock, a pen, a sentence spoken in a certain way.

Or fire.

She held back tears and clutched her bedsheet, trying not to let Meise find out how she felt. Meise knew, but said nothing.

She didn't want Elster to hate her, or to think she was a crybaby, so she decided to tell her everything. Or at least, something.

She didn't want Elster to feel at fault with her. Even though...

“I'm the one who's sorry, Elster.”

Elster didn't expect that.

“You? What are you being sorry for?”

“I... I scared you.”

“You didn't scare me. No, I... sorry, really, I don't... I'm... I'm a blockhead.”

Grus burst out laughing. There was something comical about Elster calling herself a blockhead.

“No, really, don't laugh... I didn't mean to make you cry. It's just, I thought... maybe she's just being shy as usual...”

Ah, so that's what she thought it was. Shyness.

Grus had no recollection of ever being shy before that time. An affectionate, cheerful child with an awfully chatty mouth: that's how the guests at the Kranich's Inn described her. Now, out of all those things, she was left as just a child.

“It reminded me of the life in Nebelheiss. That's all.”

Elster looked at her worried.

“I'm so sorry.”

“Don't worry about it.”

“Of course I do!”

Elster took her hands in hers and Grus hoped her heart would not jump out of her chest.

“I know you still think of Nebelheiss, but you live in Altenwolk, now. You're one of us! I can't just let you feel bad.”

She was always so...

“I'm... I'm sorry if I just don't get anything sometimes,” she continued, “I don't know how you feel. I can't understand it.”

“I don't want you to understand it.”

“Alright, but I don't want you to suffer alone!”

Grus asked herself time and time again during those few months if the attachment she had to Elster wasn't maybe too much. If, maybe, falling for someone (whatever "falling for" meant to her) at first sight, so intensely, wasn't stupid. But Elster, every time, did something that made her hard to keep out of her head.

For the good of her nerves, Grus let go of Elster's hands and came closer to the piano.

“Anyway... since you asked me if I can play it...”

Elster, however, seemed hesitant.

“Are you sure you can do it?”

Grus nodded, caressing the keyboard.

“I'm not very good, but someone liked it.”

Elster took a chair and moved it beside the piano, signaling Grus to start when she wanted to.

It was true. Grus wasn't especially good. But for Elster, seeing her hands dance unsure on the keys and make up a melody was such a charming magic show she couldn't keep her eyes off it. Even when Grus got a note wrong, Elster had her jaw dropped in awe until the end.

Grus finished playing with a deep sigh, soon covered by Elster's enthusiastic clapping.

“Not very good? That was amazing!”

Grus laughed, her heart a bit lighter.

“My teachers were muuuuuuch better than me.”

“You had more than one?!?”

“Travelers who sometimes lent me half an hour of their time to teach me something.”

“So that's why you're so good!”

She thought Elster's smile could sweep away any cloud of smoke she'd be trapped into. Maybe the piano wouldn't scare her that much anymore, as long as she didn't leave her side.