When I was coming back home, I knew the person that would be hardest to see. I had seen her family’s home in the town when the train arrived. How does one revisit the past when they know that it’s going to hurt? For the last two days, I had been wrestling with it. Still settling in to being back home. The hardest thing has been the bed. Every time I wake up, I feel like this isn’t real. Like I’m going to wake up again and it’s back in the field. I’m with my regiment on the march, or with my squad on recon, with my head resting on the most comfortable patch of moss I could find. Or rock, if we were out in the Badlands. This is so strange.
Helping the old man with chores was kind of nice too. Turns out, the old timer had invested in some motor vehicles to help out around the farm. He’s simply too old, and he wants to make things easier for the big sis when he leaves the farm to her. Everyone knows that’s what’s going to happen. That girl is born to be a farming girl. Will have to find herself a man who likes to work in the kitchen, because she’s going to be out leading the cows out to pasture when she’s just about to have her kids. Goddess help that poor bastard. There’s been a guy who fits the bill that she has been making nice with. The two are getting close. Little sis says that the only reason they aren’t officially dating is because they don’t know who is supposed to ask who out. I might do something about that, one of these days. Give the boy a kick in the pants. Unlike my younger sister, Big Sis can take care of herself.
I got some questions from the old man when we were out working and I took off my shirt. He saw some of my tats, from the battalion I served with. There were also the tats from the places I visited. One for each city. It was a good reminder of where I’d been. Lily came over to borrow something from the old man. At least, that’s what she said. Her and I ended up talking for about an hour. The old guy just smiled, because he knew that she was there to see me. When she saw how built I had become, I could see her blushing. So cute.
But then the day came, for me to bite the bullet and go see her. To see my regiment’s commander. The youngest ever to serve. Girl was on her way to becoming Battalion Commander. She had told me once that when she got that position, I would be coming with her. Said she needed someone that she could trust, to give her counsel. But I knew the real reason – so I wasn’t busy fighting in the front lines anymore. I was a Squad Leader, but I didn’t lead from the back. There was a reason I was given a sword – so I could put down the enemy. This idea that I could lead troops into battle from the back was so ridiculous. However, she did just that. Anyone who called her a coward for it was getting the beating of their life. Today was the day that I would see her, and maybe get some closure. So many memories.
My blade struck right into the neck of the warhound that was charging at me. Took the mutt’s head clean off. It’s armor wasn’t gong to do much to stop my blade. It was chaos. The shells were impacting everywhere. On the lines were the riflemen. Our trenches were good, and we had strong interior lines. Patrolling the perimeter were the machina. They were supposed to keep hounds like this off our flank. We had such a good position. Behind us was a large ridge that had the command tent. Lining that were our artillery cannons. It was a perfect defensive position. The enemy had to come through a valley to reach us, and our cannon and rifles saw them every step of the way. Once they got to the lines, it was a hailstorm of bullets and channeling attacks. Our channelers were being used as artillery, save for those who were back at the ridge, which also doubled as a field hospital. We didn’t have to worry about the enemy coming in from the north, because that was a cliff, and beyond that was the sea. To the south was mountains that were rocky, tall, and impossible to traverse in large numbers. This valley was the only way in or out of the Vale Woods. By far, this was the best ground a person could ask for to fight.
We had been holding out like this for weeks. The enemy had been pounding us. Despite how good this ground was, the simple reality was that our supplies were running low, and reinforcements had yet to arrive. We were running out of everything. Bullets, shells, channeling stones, machina, and even swords. Hell, even our armor was starting to get worn beyond repair. There was no way we could last much longer. But where would we fall back to? The only way we could go is back. The valley chokes the enemy in, but it also keeps us rather trapped. The Vale Wood was the only direction, and that was risk. The Nether runs deep in that place. We already have enough Mist to deal with due to the near-endless fighting that had happened for the last three days. If we went too deep into those woods, it would react with the Nether, and that is dangerous. There are beasts that only show up in your nightmares who can be summoned with the Nether and Mist mix too heavily. It’s like a drug.
A shell slams into one of the lines. A hole that had existed for almost an hour was now widening. The enemy would have a way through.
“Plug that fucking hole!” I shouted. Why hadn’t reinforcements arrived? Some riflemen and channelers came in and did something that I hated to see – using the bodies of the dead to plug the gap in the trenches. We were forced to use the bodies of dead men and women that we cared for as a method of defense. This meant that impacts in those bodies sent streaks of blood onto the men and women fighting. If I ever got my hands on the person in command who had fucked up with our reinforcements, I was going to break their necks.
Just then, a runner came bounding over the line and into the trench.
“Sir, your presence is requested at the Command Center!”
I look at the girl like she’s stupid. “Are you fucking kidding me?! Have you seen this mess?! I can’t afford to leave now!”
Shaking her head, “I have my orders directly from Regiment Commander Arietta, sir! You must come right away!” She ducked down as a channeling blast impacted not far away.
Slamming my fist into the wall, I look over at my squad. I motion for a slim man with glasses to come over. You wouldn’t think much of him, but there’s no one with better aim.
“I gotta go to the Command Center! Jibes, you’re in charge until I get back! Have your men be more selective about their targets. Keep your heads down, and watch our right flank! There are too many hounds coming in.”
“Damn machina! Undependable machines can’t do anything right!”
“I hear ya. Hold the lines. Have our channelers save their strength. Have as many riflemen as you can spare get some rations and water. Alternate firing lines, so we can give people a chance to rest.”
“Good hunting.” Turning to the runner. “Alright, let’s get up there.”
Strolling through town was nice. Got a few looks from people who hadn’t known that I’m back yet. Others who saw the cap I wore and the insignia on it. My old regiment and battalions’ insignias were on it. Along with my body, of course. This was such a peaceful place. Horses and carts still exist here, and a few motor vehicles. It’s just farmers out here, and they aren’t the wealthiest lot. Motor vehicles that they get are the big kind, so they can haul crops. No point having something to joy-ride in. That’s a city luxury. Memories of the days when Lily’s dad would drive us into town and I would be sitting with my legs hanging off the back. Good times.
But the good feeling fizzles out when I see it. Stepping through the adorable little fence around the place, I head up the cobblestone steps. This is a really nice house. Arya’s family is among the few truly wealthy in this town. Strange that she became a soldier. Girl didn’t have to. Her family is patriotic, though. An admirable quality. One that was proved by her, in more ways than one. And what does she get for it? As I knock on the door, I can already tell what it will be. But I have to do this.
It opens and there is her mother. Her face brightens up immediately. “Luger! I had heard that you are back home. I’m sure that Arya would love to see you. Come on in!”
“Thank you.” I step inside and see the flag that was given to Arya when she was discharged framed, hanging on the wall. Beneath it is her blade. Would she really be happy too see me? Thinking back to our last encounter, I’m not so sure.
This was one of the nicest hospitals I’ve ever seen. You forget how a proper medical healing center is supposed to be, serving out on the front. The white stone and the gentle white paint color. I’m carrying a bottle of gara rum. It’s in a bag, of course. Don’t want them to see it. But I figured that this is a good gift for a commanding officer. Given Arya’s injuries, a strong drink might just be what the doctor ordered.
I reach the desk and see a pleasant-looking young man at it.
“Hi there. I’m looking for Regiment Commander Arietta Purdue. Is she here?”
The guy looks at some paperwork. “Ah, yes. Battalion Commander Arietta is in room 225.”
Battalion Commander? When did she get a promotion?
“I see. Thank you.”
Walking up the stairs, my stomach is turning. I had heard so many things about the nature of her injuries. Now I would have to see it for myself. I get up the stairs and I see her room’s number just down the hall. A deep breath. I walk in.
The first thing I notice is the flowers. They are sitting in a vase in the table by her bed. The colors call out to me in this drab room.
“Ugly, aren’t they?” a voice asks. I look over, and there she is. Nothing like I remember. Her obsidian-colored hair is as short as ever, but you’d hardly notice over the bandages. Half of her face is covered in them. I look down, and see my worst fears confirmed. One of the healing channelers had told me that she was going to be losing an arm and a leg. Both on the same side. I see her now, and her right arm is missing. Looking down, I see her right leg is gone as well.
“I ask them to take the damn things out, but the fucking nurse doesn’t listen to me. No one does. Guess that’s what my new rank is worth.”
Closing the door, I walk inside. The window is open, and a soft breeze is coming in. The sounds of the people outside, it’s such a far-cry from where the two of us were not five days ago. The screaming and death. The shells. How did we get here?
“I brought you something,” I say quietly.
Her one eye looks at me. From the bag, I unwrap the rum. Even though she doesn’t want to, I can see her smile growing.
“How’d you know that this is what I’d want?”
“I always could read you like a book, Ari.”
Sitting down in a chair beside the bed, I crack open the bottle with my knife.
“Got any cups?”
She looks right at me. “Really? Like we need them. We’ve shared canteens and even silverware out in the field. Let’s get to chugging!”
A snort. “Careful, babe. Don’t want to drink yourself to death.”
“I honestly don’t care,” she whispers. The cold look is back. Best not to push it.
“Okay.” I take a swig, and then am about to pass the bottle to her. Then I realize that I’m sitting on the side with the missing arm.
“Oh shit. Sorry, Ari.”
Once on the right side, I pass the bottle to her. She takes it and starts to gulp it down. After a couple seconds, I grab the bottle and tilt it back down.
“Goddess! Slow it down, babe!” Deciding not to bring up the potential death part. “Leave some for me! This shit was expensive!”
There’s this brief moment of a smile. “Whatever. I’m the one on the hospital. Patient’s privilege.”
In an instant, I realize what I have to do. I can’t go easy on her. I can’t be overly nice. What she needs is to feel like her life isn’t changed forever.
“Yeah, well, I can do this.” I grab the bottle and pull it from her grip. Take another drink. This stuff is so smooth!
“You know it, sugar tits!”
“If I had both my arms, I’d beat your ass for that!”
A quick wink, and that’s when I realize how far the game had gone. Tears start running down her face.
“If I had both my arms…I’d…I’d…” Then the sobbing started. She puts her head in her hand.
“I’m a freak, Lu! I’m a fucking freak!”
Quietly, I get up and sit on the edge of her bed. She shuffles over, and I lie down beside her. My arm goes around her. The healers have repaired all the surface damage when they did the surgery. I sit there, just holding the girl as she cries. Words should come to me, but they don’t. There’s just the noise from outside, and her crying. This was a woman who had never once shed tears. Growing up, I’ve seen her get some really ugly scrapes, and she was just fine. Now she’s crying in my arms.
“We had to move her room downstairs. She couldn’t go up and down the stairs without help. We remodeled the old powder room.” Her voice trailed off. Didn’t want to talk about it. Understandable. We come to the door, and it’s shut.
Her mother knocks. “Arya? You awake?”
“Yeah, mom. What do you want?” The gruffness of the voice. That doesn’t bode well.
“Someone’s here to see you, sweetie.”
I could hear her whispering, “probably another person from the Temple. Great.”
“The door’s open.”
I looked over. “I got it from here. Thanks.”
“No problem. I know that she’ll be happy to see you.” With that, she shuffled away. Poor lady. I just knew that Ari had been not the best company since she got back home.
Opening the door, I stepped inside. It was so dark in here. The only light was from an open window. In front of it sat a luxurious chair that looked so pleasant to sit in. On the far wall was the bed, unkempt. In the chair, I saw very familiar black hair. I could tell that it was infinitely longer than when I had last seen her. Bet that drove her nuts.
“So, which person from the Temple are you?” She didn’t even turn to look.
“The kind who brings booze.”
In a flash, she looked up.
“Lu!” The girl tried to stand. Prosthetic leg? Not bad. The arm was gone at the shoulder. Nothing to be done about that. Still, at least the girl wasn’t totally ruined. Her attempts to stand ended in her collapsing into the chair.
“Dammit! Fucking leg!”
I hurry over, putting my hand on her shoulder, sitting in a chair opposite her. “It’s alright, Ari. I don’t actually have booze today. Sorry.”
Settling back into the chair, she smiles up at me. The patch on her right eye makes her look very distinguished. It’s bigger than a normal one, so it can cover the rather noticeable scar on her face from the explosion. It really is a miracle she survived.
“Screw you! They won’t get me booze anymore. I’d walk to the store, but this damn leg never works right. Every time I get to walking with it for more than a few feet, it kinks on me and then I either fall over or have to be helped to a chair. It sucks! Stuck in this damn house all the time.”
Looking down at the leg, I think I see the problem. “Give me your leg.”
She cocks an eyebrow. “Why…?”
“I think I see the problem. The axis where the leg moves isn’t lined up properly. I can see where it’s grating against the edge. It can be straightened, with a little elbow grease. So yeah, give me your leg.”
Grabbing the base, she props it up on my knee. Feels so weird, messing with a girl’s leg like this. I grab on to the top half, then the bottom, right at the joining axis. I pull as hard as I can, until I hear a click. Looking at it, it’s lined up.
“Alright. Try it now.”
She makes like she will try, but then looks over at me, holding up her arm. Nothing more needs to be said. Taking her hand, I help her up. The girl trembles a little, trying to find her balance. I pull her against me, so as to be a crutch to lean on. We take a few steps, until she finds her footing and realizes that it is alright. Her lean on me gets less and less tight as she gets more sure of her footing, until she then moves away entirely. The girl is walking on her own! Something that I could tell had been there very little was her smile. It came back very soon. Just then, she stumbled a bit.
“Well, I got my ability to walk a little back. That’s something.” Sitting back down in her chair, the girl motions for me to sit as well. “Why did it come undone?”
“One of the screws is probably loose. If you got some tools, I can take a look at it.”
Shaking her head. “No need to call me that.”
With complete seriousness. “No matter what happened, you’re still my Commander, Ari. Always will be.”
“Then get me some booze! Something strong. That’s an order.”
I give her a halfhearted salute. “Yes ma’am!”
“So, the war’s over,” she groaned, taking another shot. “Who won?”
“We did. Remember the battle that mangled you? Well, turns out that we had been holding off a major front by the enemy. They were supposed to link up with the forces coming in from the southeast. Never got there. The 4th Battalion crushed their front, because their artillery couldn’t get to them. Our navy never showed because they were busy engaging the fleet that was also moving to attack. It was sheer luck that our Battalion ended up holding off a major enemy front. And good that we retreated when we did. The enemy battalion that we were fighting was just one of three. The other two were being held up by the battle, but were moving reinforcements in to crush us and push forward. If we hadn’t have retreated when we did, it would have been a slow attrition until we had nothing left, and then we would have been destroyed.”
“Well, at least I lost my eye and my limbs for something. What happened to you after the battle?”
“Our Battalion was virtually destroyed by the end of our slog back through the Vale Woods. There was some ugly fighting in the Nether. Monsters you wouldn’t believe. When we finally got back to friendly lines, less than an eighth of our forces had survived. Those of us who were still able to fight were folded in to the Fifth Battalion and then were part of the final push into the Republic’s territory. I was given command of the 16th Regiment, but it was all for nothing. We never saw any action during the final battle. They had us guarding the supply lines. Guess someone at command figured that we’d seen enough. Little mercies, right?”
She nodded, taking another shot.
“I found out about two weeks later, when our Regiment was just sitting around, guarding trains that were going nowhere. The war was over. The Republic sued for peace, and the Empire accepted their surrender. Yay us.”
A groan. “I hear that. I didn’t bother following the news. Heard some stuff about it being over, and that we had won, but I didn’t care enough to look into it. What did I care? The war took away my entire life. Fuck it.”
“You still got your life, Ari. And now you can walk again. That’s something.”
She gives me a look that tells me that that was the wrong thing to say.
“I can’t walk without help. Even if my leg works right again, I can’t go places by myself. If something goes wrong, someone has to be there to help. I can hardly see where I’m going thanks to having no depth perception. Whenever I do walk, my leg hurts. Oh, and eating is a giant pain in the ass because I can barely see my food and you have no idea how hard it is to eat with one hand. I’ll never be able to live my own life, Lu. I’ll be depending on people forever. Once my parents are gone, who will it be? Who will look after me? What will I do? No brothers or sisters to fall back on. What will I do?”
Staring at the floor, I feel ashamed. Then I look up. “I’ll be here. If it comes to that, I’ll look after you.”
Can’t meet my eyes. “Yeah, and what are you going to tell Lily? I bet she’s all over you now that you’re back home. What will she think when you tell her that you are taking in another woman to look after? I bet that will go down great.”
“I’ll tell her that the woman who saved my ass in the war, and my Commander, needs my help. So that’s what I’m going to do. If she doesn’t like it, that’s on her. Not me.”
She tries to look strong. Tremor in her hand. “Thanks, Lulu.” Looking over at her bed. “Can you help me back to my bed. I’m kinda sleepy now.”
I lay her down, and then cover her up. I’m headed out the door, when I hear something.
“I got a promotion.”
Turning to face her, I nod. “I know. Congratulations, Battalion Commander.”
“Dismissed, Regiment Commander.”
I snap to attention, and salute. “Sleep well, ma’am.” The greatest woman I have ever known, still a soldier. Even now, with her all mangled, I know that I’m her lesser. That’s fine. It was paid for in blood.
Until next time, a quote,
“Old soldiers never die. They just fade away.” – Gen. Douglas MacArthur