Warm rays streamed down from the midday sun and coated the backs of laughing children who ran around outside the schoolhouse. Despite the light breeze and cloudless sky, Daniel’s brows couldn’t help but furrow in worry. Rui, who sat beside him on the school’s white paint-chipped steps, had a similar expression. She picked at the grass anxiously, her eyes on the children.
“So the Assembly was able to identify the plane…” she said quietly.
Daniel took a deep breath. “Yeah. They recovered a piece of the wing with a symbol of Earth surrounded by gold laurels, definitely The Federation.”
“They’re awfully close, then.”
Daniel nodded, lips pulled into a grim frown. A breeze blew by again, startling the schoolhouse’s shutters. They banged against the wall—both Rui and Daniel jumped, but none of the kids seemed to notice.
Rui sighed, going back to picking grass. “Since the Empire is doing such a fantastic job at keeping them back...” she rolled her eyes. “What the hell are we gonna do? What can anyone do?”
Daniel looked out across the schoolyard, watching a few kids tumble over into a pile of laughter and flailing limbs. They sprung back up and clumsily began chasing after each other once again. A knot formed in his stomach as he thought about what would happen if their little commune was caught in the middle of the war.
He had no answer for her.
Daniel meandered up the dirt path to the hospital. The structure, walls made of cottonwood planks and a roof of slanted stone shingles, stood tall at the top of a small hill. He passed by two massive log pillars that held the second floor’s balcony up and entered through double doors, a familiar receptionist greeting him from behind their desk. He smiled back then followed creaky planks down a long hall, numbered rooms lining the white walls.
A nurse backed out of one of the rooms, holding a clipboard and pen. She caught Daniel in the corner of her eye, doing a double-take before grinning brightly at him.
“Welcome back!” she greeted him, “I hope you know how admirable it is that you’ve been coming here every day.”
Daniel returned her smile. “How’s he doing?”
“Fantastic! He just woke up.”
His eyes widened. Already? It’d only been a few days since the crash. “C-can I see him?” the words stumbled out of his mouth.
“I’ll see if he’s up for it.” She tucked the clipboard under her arm and grabbed the knob. As the door closed behind her Daniel’s mind raced. It was a miracle Valtteri had woken up so soon, an injury like that would take most people out for at least a week, right? Daniel ran a hand through his dark, curly hair and leaned against the wall, relieved. All that mattered was that Val was alright.
Creak. The door groaned open, revealing the nurse. “He said you can come in for a bit.” She stepped aside as Daniel eagerly slipped into the room, the door clicking shut behind him. Valtteri sat upright underneath a cream white sheet, a fresh bandage wrapped around his head. Most of the room was bare besides some medical equipment and the chair and table next to Valtteri’s bed, the latter of which had a small radio on it. When Daniel entered Valtteri’s head turned only slightly, his right eye giving Daniel a groggy glance before returning to the blank wall opposite him.
“You owe me some money,” he said quietly, voice hoarse, but lighthearted.
Daniel took a seat in the chair and leaned forward on his knees. “That’s the second time I’ve saved your ass,” he said, smiling, a small attempt at lightening the mood. Valtteri’s uncovered eye turned down and his fists balled around the sheets. Daniel’s brow twitched in guilt—perhaps it was a bit too soon for jokes.
He was about to apologize, when Valtteri blurt, “I hate this place, Daniel.” The words tumbled out of his mouth like a landslide.
Daniel blinked. “Why?”
“Well this, for one,” he gestured to the bandages, “and two, it’s a shithole. Not that I’m ungrateful for you rescuing me back in Ansfield, but stopping in an actual town would’ve been nice. Somewhere with shops and cars and literally anything we were used to back home.”
“You were never particularly fond of our hometown, either, though.”
“At least it wasn’t a farm,” Valtteri said, finally meeting Daniel’s eyes.
“This isn’t one either, Val.”
“Then why are there pigs, cows, and crop fields?” One of his eyebrows cocked up, the fog beginning to lift from his eye.
“I—” Shit, he kind of had a point. “...A farm isn’t so bad.”
A chuckle rumbled in Valtteri’s chest, his grip on the sheets relaxed. “It’s just not really my thing.”
Daniel sighed, then cleared his throat. “Do you remember when we were kids, you, Marie, some others and I would run out to the plains and try to catch lizards? Or whatever else we could find.” A laugh. “Then once we figured out how to unlock your parent’s cellar, we’d take as much as we could carry out there and drink until the moon was centered between the stars?”
Valtteri rolled his eyes, not in an unkind way. “I went along with you just to make sure you didn’t hurt yourselves, and I only gave you that wine because my parents were dicks. It was some of their most expensive stuff—they were pissed when they found out, but the trouble I got in was worth the looks on their faces.”
“Whatever you say. I know you liked us.” Daniel leaned back, smiling impishly. “The point is, this place is kind of like those fields, at least if you let it be. Plus, Marie may be…” he faltered for a moment. “She may not be here right now, but you’ve still got me and now Rui.”
“Rui hates me.”
“I can convince her otherwise.”
“Sure you can.”
Daniel grinned. “I’m sure I can as well, thank you!” The corner of Valtteri’s mouth strained as he turned his head away—he was holding down a smirk.
“I’m going to sleep. Can’t feel how itchy these bandages are while unconscious.”
Daniel nodded, taking the hint, and stood. “I’m glad you’re alright, Val. See you soon.”
Light beamed through the window next to Valtteri’s bed, highlighting the bits of dust dancing around in the air, as Daniel turned to look at him one more time. Despite the peaceful evening, Daniel couldn’t help but feel a prickle of unease when he glanced at Valtteri. He shut the door, exiting into the hospital hall.
Val will be fine.
His brow furrowed.
He’ll... be fine.
Valtteri glared out of the hospital window, regarding the sunbeams streaming in with an acute annoyance. They burned his uncovered eye, while the other was trapped within rough bandages that tore at his skin whenever he so much as breathed. An IV pumped painkillers into his blood, leaving him with murky thoughts and a dull throb behind his bandages.
Even though his face was burning, itchy, and his head was foggy, he was still able to focus on one thing in particular: Daniel. Valtteri would never understand the younger man’s persistence in trying to make the barn of a commune out to be more than what it was. He was never going to love the place the way Daniel did, certainly not enough to compare its pastures to the unending hills of the north. Nor would he ever accept the leadership of the commune the way Daniel did so nonchalantly.
He balled his fists, sheets caught between his fingers. The Assembly took him and his ideas for a joke—they were the reason he’d stewed in frustration for hours. They were the reason he’d taken a walk to cool off that night. How could they have not seen something like this coming? Did they want their meager community to burn to the ground? Maybe… maybe it should’ve, after all it was the reason he was lying in that stupid hospital bed, wrapped in sandpaper with a needle stuck in his arm.
Beebeep! beebeep! beebeep! the heart rate monitor yelled, startling him from his thoughts. Valtteri’s nails left imprints on his palms through the sheets, his eye twitched. Then, he closed his eyes for a moment and took a breath. He just had to keep trying. The Assembly would see he was right eventually. They had to.
Cheap hospital pillows wheezed when he slumped against them, exhausted. This dismal place was killing him. He scowled at the popcorn ceiling. Soon, he thought, I’ll get out of here.
Indistinguishable chatter echoed up the dining hall’s tall pine walls and past the log rafters, carrying the aroma of freshly baked bread, crispy grilled bell peppers, and lightly charred patties. Daniel perused the buffet, stomach growling, and eventually picked out a modest burger and fries. After packing the lovingly paper-wrapped items into a basket, he met Rui by the entrance. Most folks had been eating inside the hall since the crash. Having a roof above one’s head provided an air of safety, though it had been getting quite crowded, so he and Rui had decided to spend the night dining under the stars.
They exited the hall’s warm glow and stepped into a cool summer night, swollen with the song of crickets and cicadas. Log benches lined the dining hall’s outer wall, most sitting there, empty, except for a group of four encircling one of them. They were all leaning into the center as a garbled voice sprung up from the middle. Daniel and Rui exchanged a glance of curiosity, then made their way over to the group. Static hummed behind the mechanical voice, which Daniel quickly realized belonged to a newscaster.
He craned his neck over the shoulder of one of the group. “What’s happening?”
“Listen,” they said. He did, straining to hear over the cicadas. Rui slid up beside him.
“...and just yesterday, the Federation of World Powers Army passed into the northern Eastern Range. The emperor urges residents of the Eastern Province and its surrounding areas to prepare for the event that the Federation decides to push further. He also made a request in a press conference earlier this morning.
‘These are unprecedented times we’ve been met with,’ the emperor began. He continued, ‘I know it has been a challenge for all Haelians, especially for our brave men on the front lines.”
A few groans sounded from the group, followed by a couple exhausted “here we go”s.
“A situation like this requires cooperation. What I humbly ask is that you do what you can to assist our freedom fighters, so that they can continue to push back the jaws of tyranny and keep us all safe—”
The radio clicked off. “Enough’a that,” the person snorted, “Don’t know why he bothers lying. It’s not like any of them actually give a damn about civilians.” Murmured agreements followed their sneer.
A girl chimed in, ‘The jaws of tyranny,’ he says,” she snickered at the emperor’s words, “as if those jaws aren’t his own. What’re he and his soldiers gonna do? Replace the Federation’s regime with his own?”
“Hell, he can’t even do that right!” the first person laughed. “Immediately retreating from the border and pooling money into god knows where instead of medical supplies and rations for his already demoralized citizens and soldiers? I could lead a war better.”
Daniel shifted uncomfortably. In Ansfield, and most towns as far as he was aware, Emperor Emrys Haelan was considered a flawed but overall benevolent ruler, as all the first Haelan’s descendants were. The commune’s stark opposition to that narrative had been a shock when he and Valtteri had first arrived, so he tried to stay away from political talk as much as possible. Though that had become nearly impossible with the approaching war.
Rui let out a prolonged hum and crossed her arms, a familiar sight to Daniel. It served as a placeholder, dangling in the air as she thought in the silence between words. “What about the resistances?” she finally said. Daniel had heard of the rebellious groups she was thinking of. There were dozens scattered throughout the Haelian Empire, parts of the far north, Terres Nord, and the Empire’s southern neighbor, Abrasador. Some dated back a decade or so, but most were fairly new. “One of my assistants came back from a supply run the other day and said he’d overheard the store owners talking about a couple of ‘em not too far from us. Though, I guess there’s only so much truth to small-town gossip.” She frowned.
“You’ve got a point, though,” the girl said, “I’ve heard most are pretty small, but they’ve got potential, right?” She looked up at Daniel. “Hey, aren’t you the guy who came down from the north a year or so ago? Do you know what the Federation’s soldiers are like?”
Daniel shifted uncomfortably. The girl—Emma, he remembered—noticed. “Sorry. I know whatever happened must’ve been horrible, no pressure to say anything if it’s too difficult,” she said sympathetically.
Most of the commune knew Daniel’s story, the events leading up to his stay in the commune, but it nevertheless startled him when someone asked about it so directly.
“Ah, well,” he began, his voice low, “they… are ruthless. Their technology, in terms of weapons, is a bit more advanced than our own.” He took a long breath. “Seems like they take prisoners. Even if they’re just civilians. I, uh, don’t know what they do to them.” His heartbeat sped up, his chest tightening. Rui took his hand in hers and gave a squeeze. It helped, but just a bit.
“I see… I’m sorry.” Emma gave him a pitiful look.
He cleared his dry throat. “I-it’s fine. Rui?” His friend looped her arm around his and began leading him to a set of benches farther down the side of the hall.
“Are you okay?” She asked as they sat down.
“...No,” Daniel sighed. “I’m worried about them—my sister, mother, father… The Federation isn’t known for its kindness.”
Rui pulled him into a side hug, her cheek against his head. “They’re resilient. They’ll make it through this.”
Daniel laughed bitterly. “That’s the thing, I don’t know if they are. We’ve had an easy life up until now. Ansfield is—was—a wealthy town and we lived in one of the better areas of it. I was on track to be an engineer, Marie a gallery artist. Not captives or runaways.”
“Your sister is an artist? You never told me.”
“No, what does she make?” Rui eyed him with genuine interest.
“Oh, she mainly paints portraits.” He smiled, images of newspaper littering Marie’s side of their bedroom floor and color splashed canvases leaned against a mural that stretched from one end of her wall to the other. “Though, sometimes she’d paint the fields right outside town. She loved them so much that she plastered them right onto our bedroom wall.”
“She must be quite skilled,” Rui mused.
Daniel gave her a playful eh, sort of look before she lightly punched him in the arm. They laughed, then Daniel thumped his head against the wooden wall behind them. “No, you’re right, she is.”
“You think she’d paint me?”
“Hah, she always hated when people asked her that, but,” he looked at Rui’s delicate face and shining black eyes, “for someone as pretty as you? I’m sure she would.”
“Oh, stop.” She shoved him again, blushing ever so slightly. “You know what? Once you find her, I’m gonna ask her myself.”
Daniel’s eyes shifted to the distant mountains once again, narrowing at the sun that dipped behind their peaks. “I hope you’ll get that chance.”