A Play-by-Nova roleplay game.


FLASHBACK - The Weight

Posted on 19 Jul 2018 @ 3:03am by Alice Mathieson-Song & Lucas Bird
Edited on on 19 Jul 2018 @ 3:35am

Mission: I Don't Care, I'm Still Free

2511, After the war is over.

Even though the dog tag wasn't exactly a legit one the weight of it in his hand felt the same as all the other had. This was his last stop, possibly one of the most difficult. Being back home was weird, people talking about him as he walked away, conversations halting as he walked up. He'd picked his side and lost, some of the people here would never let him forget it. Some of their sons had only gone to war because he'd gone, they'd followed him into battle like they'd followed him at play and that weighed heavily on his heart. It was because of that he felt it his duty to make sure their families knew how they really died, to take home their last letter and their remaining dog tag. They all died with honour, every damn one.

He looked down at it in his hand, before pocketing it. None of the families had known who was left when the survivors had been ordered to surrender, no one knew who had been held as a prisoner of war, or who had faced execution for whatever reason. This last call was the latter. He'd had to stand and watch as the man who was the reason they survived was executed. Once he'd been caught there was nothing any of them could do, Luke felt sick just thinking about it. He walked up to Alice's front door, and knocked.

"Jiang, please get that," Alice called out. She turned her attention back to the company books for a moment, then realized she didn't hear a response or the sound of him running to the door. He must be upstairs, she thought as she stood and headed to the door.

A quick touch at the door, and it displayed the camera feed from the porch so she could look who was standing there. It took her a long moment—it had been a few years since she'd seen him last—but recognition lit up her face.

"Lucas!" She opened the door and held her arms out to invite a hug.

He probably should have had a shave and sorted himself out a little more before doing all these, his friends parents had barely recognised him at first, but he'd wanted them all to know as soon as possible. It was only fair. He heard voices inside, and then a long pause before the door opened. When it did Alice greeted him enthusiastically and he couldn't help but step closer and accept the hug she was offering him. It was nice to be greeted with a smile instead of a glare, all those before had known why he'd shown up at their door. In some ways that made it easier. This was going to be horrible.

"Hey Alice," he said before pulling back. "I'm surprised you recognised me."

"You probably would have given Jiang a fright if he'd been downstairs to answer the door for me. I doubt he would have remembered you, let alone recognized you even if he did." She took half a step back inside. "Come in, I'll get you something to drink or eat?"

"Probably, it's been a while since I could get to a barber," he replied stepping over the threshold at her invitation. "You know I'd never say no to tea," he added, a ghost of a smile crossing his lips at the memories of them all discussing business over tea.

"I have some dragon pearl that Joan—who runs the general store now—just got off a new supplier. She insists it's good, but I haven't tried it yet." Alice shut the front door behind Luke, then lead the way into the kitchen.

"Sounds good," at least some people had decided that the war was over and people needed to get back their lives. They'd picked a side and had won or lost and now it was time to move on. He wasn't sure if those people made it easier or harder for him to try and scrape his life back together. He took a seat at the counter and ran a hand through his long shaggy hair, he may have looked like a scruff-ball but at least he was a clean scruff-ball, no matter how shitty he felt his mother would never let him get away with not showering. He watched her as she got the tea ready, the weight of the dog tags heavy in his pocket. She was so happy, carefree right now, and he was about to tear that all apart. He clasped his hands in front of him, forearms resting on the flat surface in front of him and tried not to break his own fingers.

"So," Alice said, setting a mug in front of Luke, "I can't tell if your long face is just because of what you've been through, or if there's more to this visit than just a social call." It had taken her a minute to realize there had been anything weighing on him, and a few more as the tea had steeped to decide if she wanted to even ask about it or just enjoy the company of an old friend.

Luke sighed, so here it was, the moment he had been dreading. He took a sip of his tea before reaching into his pocket.

"Both," he replied, pulling Yáng's dog tag out of his pocket. "I'm sorry Alice," he said, letting the small metal plate hit the counter, and the chain coil haphazardly next to it. "I'm so sorry, they caught him supplying us with food and there was nothing I could do, I..." he stopped talking, his jaw clenched as his throat clogged with regret and guilt. He could barely bring himself to look at her.

Alice stared at the dog tag on the counter. There weren't words, but even if they'd come to her she wasn't sure she'd even be able to say them. So instead she stared at the dog tag, clutching her mug. She'd spent many nights laying in bed wide awake, her mind going over all the possibilities as word has continued to fail to come about who had lived and died at Serenity Valley; the alliance had made it well known that those who hadn't died had been taken into custody but the bureaucracy failed to release any information. Every time Jiang had asked when Daddy was coming home next, her heart had broken a little more as she'd assured him it would be soon—she'd needed to believe.

"It's probably best Jiang didn't answer the door," she finally said, her hand settling heavily on the dog tag. She looked to Luke. "It's not your fault, it's the fault of the Ba Wong Nien Mohn. They started this war because they couldn't stay out of our gorram business, you and everyone else who went did so because there was no real choice. If not for the farm and Jiang, I would have been right at his side." She wiped her eyes, fighting the urge to cry. That could come later. "He and I had actually argued who would stay and who would go."

He barely breathed as he watched her stare at the dog tag, he almost spoke several times, but he didn't know what to say. "I owe him my life, I owe both of you my life," he shook his head. "We'd have starved to death otherwise, no need for the famous 'deep flank offensive'," he said bitterly. At least with the others it felt a little more official, he had been their commanding officer after all. This was a friend, who had risked everything to help them and paid the ultimate price.

Alice reached over and put her hand on Luke's. "If it's any comfort—I know it is only a small one to me—he knew the risk, and he gladly took it on in order to ease suffering and save lives. Did those damn Purple Bellies at least let him have a proper burial?"

"I did it, he's with every body I found that I recognised, we had to petition for proper burials for them all, but I can show you where it is..." he replied through gritted teeth.

"Thank you for that. We can find a time after you've been home a little, settled back into the swing of things, for you to take Jiang and me. We might make a camping trip of it, since Yáng had been telling him he wanted to take him camping when the war was over. You'd certainly be welcome to join us for the whole trip, there's something about being able to just stare at the stars that can help. You know?"

"Taking you there is the least I can do, the rest we might have to play by ear, if you don't mind..." he replied quietly. He honestly didn't know when or if he was ever going to be able to stand in front of those graves.

"Of course." Everyone mourns in their own way, and Yáng hardly would have been the only one he knew that died given what he'd said about burying all he recognized, Alice thought to herself. "Too many died in this war, how many did we lose from our community?"

Luke nodded gratefully and his gaze dropped to his mug. He took a long sip and set it back down on the counter.

"If they weren't already dead, I buried every single one of my friends in serenity valley," he said, unable to look up as he blinked back tears. You'd think he was past the crying by now, but every single time he'd taken a dog tag back home he'd faced everything he'd shared with that friend all over again. From the laughter, to the scrapes and bruises, to their final moments. "I led them to their deaths, every single one..."

Alice took a deep breath, staring into her own mug. "Tea isn't strong enough for this conversation," she eventually said and ran the back of her hand across her eyes again. Then she turned to a cabinet behind her. "Yáng and I had been saving this for our tenth anniversary, then the war was still going, so it was to be his welcome home." She turned with an unopened bottle of whiskey in hand.

Luke's eyes flicked up to the bottle in her hands, shaking his head. "I couldn't."

"What else am I going to do with it now? I shouldn't be drinking alone, especially not like this." She set the bottle down, then turned her back again to collect two glasses.

Luke nodded mutely, pushing his mug of tea a little further away. He didn't want to cry anymore, at least he'd managed not to completely break down in front of his friends families, though maybe he should have let them see how much their deaths had affected him too.

Clink, clink. She dropped the two glasses to the counter top and picked up the bottle. It took a moment's effort to rip the paper seal and get it opened. When she'd poured about a generous shot's worth it each, she slid one towards Luke.

"For Song Yáng." She lifted her glass and waited for Luke before she knocked it back in one gulp. It took him a moment to pick up the glass, but he did, repeating her sentiment before knocking it back. It burned a little, but it tasted fantastic, and he set the glass back on the counter waiting for it to be filled with Amber liquid as he tried to decide which name to say next.

"Harry Fisher," he knocked back the second shot. He'd been the first to die. They'd all passed basic training, and had been deployed to fuck knows where. An alliance bomb had a building collapse and Harry had been caught under it. They didn't get him out in time, he'd been choking up blood and they couldn't get him to medic quick enough. "I warn you, this is a long list..." he said as he set his glass back on the table. He didn't want to insult her by saying she couldn't handle that amount of alcohol, but the truth was he wasn't sure he could.

"Phillip Tang" sniper shot, through the throat. Bled out. "Tommy Vale," Sniper shot through the head, same day, should have kept his head down like he was told. "Elias Green," Gunned down on a charge. "Tam Akira," throat slit by enemy scouts. "Irina Chase," "Haruka Samson," killed by the bombing on Athens. "Serena Corné," Mowed down by an alliance tank, Du Khang, she'd pushed him out of the way, saved his life.

Ten shots in and fuck was his head feeling fuzzy, but each face floated in front of his eyes, clear as day as he said their names. Eyes lifeless and bodies bloody and scarred...

It was all Alice could do to keep up. Repeating each name as he said it, and she started pouring just a little less each time—as a matter of speed, fuzzier judgement as the drink started going to her head, and at least a little bit of concern for if the bottle would last.

The Battle of Serenity Valley. "Francis Styre," tank round went straight through their sandbags, week 1. "Reggie Tang," shot during an enemy offensive, week 3. "Vester Consuelas," sniper, week 4. "Wong Anne," machine guns, week 5. "Alex Sven," Machine guns, week 6.

He opened his mouth to say the last one, but the name got caught in his throat. His eyes were blurry and he could barely see the glass in front of him at this point. He sniffed and swallowed, tried again but still the name wouldn't come.

Alice walked on wobbly legs around the counter, keeping her hand on the wooden surface to help steady her, and took a stool next to Luke. She settled her hand on his shoulder and gave a squeeze. "It's gonna hurt, nothin' can be done about that, but better to remember in pain than forget, right?" She could only guess who could give him this much pause, who would mean that much to him. She hoped she wasn't right, but she was nearly willing to bet her whole farm that it was—his best friend, his brother in law. She poured a little more into each glass, filling them equal to what they'd been for Yáng.

He blinked, trying to see clearer, the alcohol he'd dumped into his system making it almost impossible to hold back the emotion that was overwhelming him. He blinked again and he lost the battle against his tears. "Jeremy Jones," he whispered, squeezing his eyes shut, against the anguish, guilt and regret boiling under his skin. He opened his eyes and downed the last shot before pushing the glass away. He sniffed again, stared down the glass for a moment, and then his shoulders sagged, as his head dropped forward into his hands.

"Jeremy Jones." She repeated it with effort to make sure it was clear, then likewise emptied her glass. She wiped her eyes again, reaching for the bottle to close it. "Tell me your favorite memory of Jeremy, before we both break apart into blubbering drunk messes."

Luke was pretty much a blubbering drunken mess already, but he wasn't going to argue with her. "The day he told me he liked Heather, he was jittery all gorram day, and then when he finally blurted it out he looked at me like I was gonna lay into him right there. The look on his face when I grinned, happiness, relief and excitement all rolled into one, and just a hint of fear that I was joking and was still gonna shoot him for even daring to think about her like that..." He shook his head, a breath of laughter half formed before it died and a sob burst out in it's place.

"Those two were so good together. They made a couple of beautiful children too." Alice took a deep breath. "The first time I met Yáng, he was covered head to toe in grease. And I'd been tasked by my father to find out why the ship supposed to be making our deliveries was still sitting in port. The captain sent me to the engine room to ask, and I walk in, and Yáng was belting out some opera as he was lying under the engine to wrench on it. This is where he'd jump into the story to remind me what song he was singing—I could never re–" She nearly choked on her words as she realized what that meant. That part of the story was now lost.

Luke looked up at Alice as she stopped mid sentence. He didn't even think as he moved, pulling her into a tight hug. He didn't know what to say.

She wasn't sure how long she cried into Luke's shoulder, but when she heard Jiang in the doorway, she sat up and wiped her eyes, sniffling hard.

"Mama, what's wrong?"

"Come here, Sweetheart, I have to tell you something." She looked to the counter, trying to remember where she set the dog tag. There was a small metallic clatter as she collected it into her hand and moved to get eye level with her son. "It's sad news, so you'll need to be strong. But remember that it's okay to cry if you need to."

Jiang's eyes fell to Alice's hand that held the dog tag. "Daddy isn't coming home, is he?" Tears started to moisten his eyes, and he sniffled.

"No, the Purple Bellies got him." She handed him the dogtag. "Now Lucas here, he was good enough to see that Daddy got buried properly, and later, probably a week or two, he'll take us there so we an say goodbye."

Jiang put on the dog tag as he looked up at Lucas. "Thank you, Mr Lucas." Tears started to roll down his cheeks, but he held his head high.

Luke froze hearing Jiang, he'd already seen more than one kid break down over the loss of a parent. He watched as Alice told her son what had happened. "No matter what anyone says, he saved lives, you got that?" he asked, oh boy was he ever drunk but he was trying to keep his voice gentle, poor kid was already crying. "and call me Luke, yeah?" he added, not for the first time.

"Okay, Mr Luke," Jiang managed between sniffles. "Mama said Daddy went 'cause the Purple Bellies were takin' all the food. He was sneaking what little we could keep from them to people who were fighting. Did he bring you food?"

"Yeah he did, he brought lots of us food, and the purple bellies didn't like it when they found out,"

"They shoulda learned to share," Jiang said simply. "I'd still have my daddy if the purple bellies just shared." He clutched the dog tag, looking down at it.

From the mouths of babes... Luke sighed. "It is more complicated than that, but if you strip it down..." he paused. He was waaaaaay too drunk to be having this kind of conversation with a child of any age. "He died standing for something he believed in, with his back straight, his eyes open, and his head held high, he died a hero, but that doesn't make it suck any less... I'm sorry kid,"

Jiang wrapped his arms along his mother's neck, squeezing her into a long hug. After a spell, he moved to Luke, and held out his arms in offering of a hug. Without hesitation Luke pulled Jiang into a bone crushing hug. There were promises on the tip of his tongue, assurances that should the kid need anything he only had to wave, but that could all wait, until he was less drunk and didn't sound quite so preachy. When he could say it right and not sound like a tool. Jiang pulled back and Luke let him go. He sat back with a sigh and reached for the half cold mug of tea still sat on the counter and downed it in one. He set the mug back down with a sigh and looked at the pair of them, he wasn't sure when he'd stopped crying, or when the tears had dried on his cheeks but he knew the felt itchy and dry from the salt.

"I should go... Is drunk in charge of a wilfully stubborn animal a crime these days?" He asked, not really expecting an answer. He'd always liked riding, and it was more peaceful than driving some kind of mechanical thing around. He needed some peace about now...

"Depends who you ask, the Sheriff will likely make an example of you, but her deputy is guilty of his share of riding under the influence, and will probably let you off with a warning," Alice answered, missing the rhetorical nature of the question, as she sat down again and reached across the counter to collect her own forgotten tea mug. She emptied it in one long pull. "You're welcome to stay here instead, I can make up the guest room?"

"No, no," he said with a shake of his head. "Don't put yourself out on my account,"

"It's nothing. I insist." She laid a hand on Jiang's shoulder, and he leaned against her.

"I'm not gonna win this discussion so I'll quit while I'm not too far behind, you got a free stall for 'Bolt?" he asked. If he was staying then his horse would need a place to rest that wasn't tied to the fence outside too.

"Yeah, we'll have one of the hands see to him. Rima is best with the horses, I can call her."

"Have her meet me out there, he won't go with anyone unless I introduce them first," he said with a smile, that and his horse was gorram enormous. He didn't doubt Rima, but he did want to be sure she could handle him.

"I'll call over to the the bunk house, and have her meet you out front." Alice nodded to Luke, and then looked to Jiang. "Go get a fresh set of linens for the guest room, so we can get it ready while Rima and Lucas get Bolt settled for the evening."

"He said to call him Mr. Luke, Mama."

"And that's what you'll call him, because he's older than you and he told you to. But I'm older than him, and one must always respect their elders."

"Only by two years Ma'am," Luke teased, calling back over his shoulder as he weaved his way back to the front door. His Percheron was going to be less than impressed by his state of being that was for sure.

"Don't you dare call me ma'am, Lucas Nathaniel Bird," Alice called after him, though there was a hint of a laugh in her voice.

"I thought that was the proper way to show respect to an older lady..." he replied, the alcohol in his system meaning he hadn't really thought through his reply before it came out of his mouth.

Alice was about to fire back when the door shut behind Luke on his way out, and she shook her head. When she directed a look at Jiang, he took off to do as he was told, and Alice tapped at the panel inset in the wall near the entrance into the kitchen, pressing the intercom button for the bunk house.

Luke Bird

Alice Mathieson-Song




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