Chapter 2: After the War
Tougou woke to another day without particular expectations. He managed to get his eyes open, blinked against the drowsiness, looked around . . . and took a double take: Lars Alexandersson was on the neighboring bed, asleep. The man was in full armor, dust-covered and looking worse for wear, but it was him. "Lars?"
At his calling, Lars woke. His disorientation mimicked Tougou's, but then he jumped down from the bed, looking sore and stiff, only to cross the distance to the other bed. A brilliant smile spread across his face. "You're awake." His smile was so infinitely happy and genuine that Tougou felt unworthy to receive it. Lars supported himself on the bedrail, and all in his look told that he had trouble believing the news. It was the same disorientation Tougou had had upon first waking up: the same perception of a miracle.
In the same wordless understanding, Tougou and Lars kept looking at each other. Tougou lifted his hand weakly, and Lars grasped it in his. Their brows furrowed in affection. Then Lars bent his head, laughing a little. "Yeah...," he said softly. Lars squeezed Tougou's hand tightly before he had the heart to lay it down on the bed. The smile was still on his face and directed at Tougou. "How are you feeling?"
The mirth overtook Tougou, too, for a moment, and the hacking coughs came out painfully. When he gathered himself, he finally came up with an answer. "Nothing to do but laugh it away, and the laughing's not so good."
Lars nodded. "Pain?" He suspected there was some that medication could have alleviated. He had noticed how Tougou's eyes had lost their focus when the throes had hit.
"It's not that bad. Could do without, but it's okay." The corner of Tougou's mouth twinged. "You look like you've been dragged to hell and back."
Lars swept a hand through his hair and could feel dust particles scattering about. His uniform was soiled, and he could imagine he looked like a heap of mess. Once he had gotten back and the critical issues had been dealt with, he had rushed straight to the hospital. "It looks bad, doesn't it?" he said.
"A little wild," Tougou said slyly and almost managed a grin.
"Yeah...," Lars gave a soft chuckle. "Haven't taken time for grooming lately."
Tougou heaved a painful laugh, but then he sobered again. "It's over now? Where's the girl?"
"She's no longer around." Lars averted his eyes as he said that, while Tougou sank back into his bed, oddly content at the answer. "And, yes, it's over. It's been... it has been a handful. I'll fill you in later, but I think we'll be all right."
"I never doubted that," Tougou said, chiding.
"I know." Lars' voice was dry as he shared in the lie.
Lars didn't want to leave Tougou's side so soon, but he was starting to feel he must. His lieutenant was looking pale, and probably would tire easily. His leaving would give Tougou a welcome chance to rest.
As Lars seemed undecided, Tougou made the decision for the both of them. "Lars, take a moment. Get a shower and get something to eat. Rest some yourself. I'll be here."
"All right, but I'll be back. We'll talk later."
Tougou nodded that it was okay to go, and Lars left, after a brief clasp of hands, though he was still battling reluctance.
Lars was visiting, as usual. He couldn't help noticing how the food tray wasn't gone.
"The food not good?"
"It's fine." Even leaning back, Tougou looked tired. "Just taking a break."
Over the past days, Lars had had the ungrateful task to break to Tougou what had been going on, piece by piece. He had known that the task would come, but he had avoided spilling his guts instantly. Tougou had other worries, even though resting had done him good. After returning, even he had needed time to put all the pieces in their rightful places. Tougou was apt at getting the picture, though, even when Lars hadn't attempted to paint it in such vivid colors.
"You can't be thinking of going back!"
"We didn't have all the facts," Lars said quietly but determinedly. They had undertaken a challenge that had been bigger than any of them. If he could convince himself that there was another way, he still had an army to convince, faction leaders first of all. Lars hesitated. "Jin's still young. He's only twenty-one."
Tougou wasn't sure which one of them belonged on bedrest, but he wasn't so sure it was him. "I can't believe I'm hearing this," he said and sunk back, but Lars only shook his head unhappily, frowning. Determined beyond the breaking point, even when clearly torn.
"He wasn't right about everything, but he did the best he could. So did we."
"I ca—!" Tougou started, but he held his tongue. He couldn't believe this, but Lars had heard that from him already. He couldn't believe Lars was siding with a man who had started a war. All of this, all that they had done and planned and risked, for nothing?
Lars seemed particularly susceptible to wearing out his welcome. He looked around sadly, particularly downcast when he spotted the tray again, and sunk into silence by Tougou's side.
They even received a distinguished guest one day. The honorable Jin Kazama came for a visit, his refrained, taciturn self, sporting a visible limp. He nodded carefully to Tougou, who thus had the privilege of a first-time, personal meeting of the famed prodigy—or controversial enigma, depending on one's viewpoint. It was not so much a meeting of him as it was of Lars, but he was around as Jin Kazama and Lars exchanged a few words: cryptic in meaning, stocked in shared importance. Tougou found himself phasing out even during the short interval and wasn't averse when Jin left, with the goodbye words of wishing to see Lars soon and formal wishes of a speedy recovery to him.
Tens of thanks to Gypsie for the proofreading!
Published February 1, 2011.