Disclaimer: I own nothing. Well, aside from my twisted brain and a thing for bad guys with a potential story to tell. But I sure don't own the AA series.
A/N: this is the first chapter of what is going to be a rather long story. Which is, if you didn't guess already, entirely about Quercus Alba from AA:I. Why him? Because he gets no attention in the fandom at all, and I always go for the underdog. And hey, a corrupted ambassador who was once a war hero sure would have one heck of a story to tell.
I already tried my hand in giving him some kind of backstory in another fanfiction I wrote, but it was nothing really detailed, and in the end I couldn't resist actually writing a fic about his past. What can I say, I needed a NaNoWriMo project anyway.
"Ambassador Alba was a Cohdopian hero. He saved the royal family from danger countless times. So what bothers me is, why would a man like that create a smuggling ring…? Even with all the authority I have, I still haven't been able to figure out why."
- Franziska von Karma.
Rain had been coming down steadily out of an ashen sky since early morning, turning the dusty paths surrounding the military training ground into mud. By that time the recruits were soaked and trembling with cold even as they ran; now they also had to struggle not to fall at each step, either from exhaustion or from the mud making the paths slippery.
Army recruit Quercus Alba had no idea how long they had been running with the sergeant screaming for them to keep going, not to stop if they didn't want to face consequences. Nor did he want to know: he was certain that if he knew strength would leave him and he would just crumble in a panting heap on the ground, like some other recruits had already done. All he did was focusing on running, not paying attention to the sergeant's shouts, to his and his comrades' panting breath, to the biting cold, to the rain, the mud.
He'd just run. And not think. He was not to think.
Never to allow himself to remember that there had been a time without yells and mud and rain, when at the end of the day he wouldn't drag himself to the barracks with his muscles screaming for mercy and his stomach still hurting with hunger. Back when he would laze in the shade of the trees in the fields around his house throughout summer days before going back home to his find warmth, a home-cooked meal and laughter.
Dianthus, Cohdopia, 1966
While not quite as strong as it had been throughout most of the summer, the heat that day was strong enough to make the temptation to snooze all day in the shade of the old oak tree too powerful to resist. Not that Quercus had even tried to resist: after all, this was his last day of vacation before going off to university, so he could as well allow himself to laze, couldn't he?
The young man yawned and folded his hands beneath his head to use them as a pillow, enjoying the faint sound of leave rustling in the breeze above him, the only sound that could be heard aside from-
… Aside from his sister's shrills, apparently. Quercus groaned a little as the all too familiar voice of a little girl reached his ears, his groan easily covered by the rustling leaves above his head. He shut his eyes a little tighter and stayed motionless, pretending to be asleep. Maybe she would leave him alone if she thought he was-
"Ow!" Quercus gasped, olive green eyes snapping open when something – someone – jumped on him, literally. He frowned and looked up at the freckled little girl currently sitting on his stomach.
"Got you!" she exclaimed, a smug look on her face. "Now you're awake! Stop ignoring me!"
"I couldn't possibly ignore you if I were blind, deaf and dumb," Quercus muttered, sitting up to make her get off his stomach, but he was more resigned than annoyed. Had it been anyone else to just jump on him while he slept his reaction would have been far less controlled, but he had always been lenient with his little sister, like pretty much everyone else in the family: Laureola was a late child to their middle-aged parents and the youngest of all three siblings, and for all of them it was hard being angry at her for anything short of setting the house on fire.
His sister sat cross-legged on the grass and giggled. "You look funny."
"I look like someone who was just awakened from a nap by someone jumping on their stomach," he grumbled a little, reaching to run a hand through his brown hair to get rid of any grass or leaves – not that he had much success, for most of the bits of grass and leaves in his hair stayed stuck in place and he had some trouble untangling his hand as well. Maybe he should give in and actually use a comb at some point, he thought. His mother would surely appreciate it.
"You're just grumpy," she said with a shrug. "You always are. Like an old man."
He sighed. "What did you wake me up for, Laurie?" he asked, deciding that changing the subject would be better than starting an argument: any time they started arguing over anything, it was hard telling when they'd stop. Both of them would dig their heels and refuse to admit being wrong, with the result that each and every argument would drag on for hours… or until someone else, usually their mother, told them both to just shut up.
Laurie seemed taken aback, then she pouted. "What, you forgot already? You promised!"
Quercus blinked. "Promised?" he repeated. "Promised what?"
That was most definitely not the reply his sister had wanted to hear. "So you forgot! You make a horrible big brother!" she complained. "You promised you'd help me build a tree house before leaving, and you're leaving tomorrow!"
Oh, that. Quercus raised an eyebrow. "Laurie, I don't think a 'whatever, now let me read' qualifies as a 'yes'. Let alone as a promise."
"It does! You promised and now you have to keep your promise! I'll tell mother if you don't!"
Quercus mentally kicked himself for saying anything that could be even remotely taken as a 'yes' or even a 'maybe' and decide to switch tactics, wracking his brain for an excuse not to have to spend his last day of vacation working to build a tree house in record time. "I'd love to help, Laurie, really. But I'm not feeling very well," he finally said, faking a cough before resting back down on the grass. "Maybe when I get back for Christma- ouch!" he yelped, sitting upright again as she slapped him. "Stop that!"
She stuck out her tongue at him, but didn't hit him again. Instead she crossed her arms over her chest, a stubborn look on her little face. "Liar! You're feeling just fine, you weren't coughing until a minute ago!"
He crossed his arms as well. "Well, what if I said I sprained my ankle instead?" he asked somewhat challengingly, a small smirk on his lips.
"You weren't limping when you got here, and I'm sure you didn't move! You lazed in the shade all the time!"
"Prove it, gnat."
Laurie shrugged. "I don't need to. Know you're a liar."
He chuckled. "Oh, you do? And how?"
"Because your nose is long. Like Pinocchio's when he tells a lie," she announced with the solemnity of someone stating the tenets of the universe. "So you tell lies, too."
Quercus snorted a bit, but he wasn't surprised. She used that argument often, whether to prove a point or to just make fun of his nose he couldn't tell. "Well, that stung. But the answer is still no. Why don't you ask father?"
"But he can't! You know he can't! His back hurts and he can't lift weights!"
"Eclipta, then," he said, but he already knew it wasn't an option: their older sister definitely wasn't the kind of person who'd climb up a tree with planks, a hammer and nails to build a tree house. Not to mention she had just found a job that she hoped would allow her to go living on her own soon, and she was focusing all her time and energy on it.
"She won't, you know that!" Laurie protested.
"Then it really sounds like you should wait for me to be back for Christmas, then," Quercus said with a shrug. "Then we will-"
"Not fair! You promised!" she said, her voice suddenly shaky, and Quercus instantly knew it was quality acting time. He shut his eyes so he wouldn't see her.
"Tell me you're not giving me the quivering lip," he said.
"You are, aren't you?" he asked, eyes still shut.
"I can just keep my eyes closed until you get tired."
No reply. Minutes passed.
"… I take it you're not going to get tired."
An affirmative hum.
"Laurie, even if I got to work now there is no way I could get a decent tree house done in just one afternoon. The most I could do would be making a platform and nailing a few planks to make the roof, but nothing more. Water would get in when it rains. I'd also have no time to put any protective paint on the planks, and the tree house would rot eventually. It wouldn't be so great, don't you agree? I'd need more time to do something better. And you want a good tree house, I bet."
She said nothing, but Quercus could just picture the gears turning in her mind head, and went on. "So, what if we reach an agreement?"
Another brief silence, then, "What agreement?"
Quercus breathed a little more easily. Now that was more like it, he thought, finally opening his eyes. No more trembling lip. Perfect. "I promise I'll build you a great tree house as soon as I come back for Christmas, and I'll bring you a present from Allebahst. How does that sound?"
She was tempted, that much was clear – especially when it came to the present. They lived at the very outskirts of Cohdopia, only kilometres away from the northern border with Borginia, and most people who lived there had never been in the capital of Cohdopia; the thought of getting something nice from there was something Quercus knew she couldn't resist.
"But it must be a nice present," she finally said, a wide grin on her face. "Something pretty!"
"The prettiest I can find," he promised with a chuckle. "So, what do you think?"
She frowned in through for a few moments. "Only if you swear you're going to build me the best tree house Cohdopia has ever seen when you get back!"
"Fine, fine," he said before putting his hand over his heart in a somewhat dramatic fashion. "I promise I'll build you the best tree house Cohdopia has ever seen once I'm back. Have we got a deal?"
He raised an eyebrow. "What else is there?"
"Can you make me a flower crown before you leave?" she asked eagerly. "I tried to ask mother, but she's busy, and Eclipta never has time. And father doesn't know how to… hey, you're not listening!" she protested.
"I heard you," Quercus said, his gaze still fixed on the man who he could now see walking up the road leading to their house; even from that distance there was no mistaking the slump of his shoulders and the worried frown on his face. "Fine with me. Why don't you go picking the flowers you want in your crown? I'll be in my room packing up the last few things. Bring the flowers over and I'll make you the crown."
"Sure!" Laurie seemed enthusiastic, and only a moment later she was scurrying off to pick wildflowers. Quercus allowed himself to smile as he followed her with his gaze, then he got up, arched his back a little to get rid of some of the soreness what came with resting on the ground and quickly strode through the field and to the road leading to his house, trying to catch up with the man.
Morus Alba turned to face his son, and his frown melted in a smile. While in his early fifties, he often looked older than his age; worry had a hand in that, certainly, but each time he smiled Quercus could see ten years sliding off his shoulders. "Quercus," he greeted him. "Have you packed up already?"
"I'm almost done, yes," Quercus replied as he began walking to the house along with him. "But I can still unpack and stay," he added. As much as he was looking forward to university, the anticipation was soured by the knowledge his parents were going to face sacrifices to pay for his studies. Universities in the capital were the best the country had to offer, but the fees were expensive and the most recent tensions with neighbouring countries, especially Borginia, had strong repercussion on commerce; that wasn't a good time for merchants like his father.
His father shook his head. "Don't even think about it, Quercus. Just go. I couldn't give Eclipta this opportunity, and even though she's talented enough to find her way in any case I still regret it. I won't make that same mistake again with you or Laureola."
"But if things get worse-"
"They could, but they could also get better," his father cut him off. "You're still young, but I've lived long enough to know things will change eventually. This is far from the first difficult time we've had," he added.
Quercus knew it was true: Cohdopia wasn't new to wars and tensions of all sorts with neighbouring countries. While it was a relatively small country it had a number of natural resources a lot of countries were strongly interested in, and its shape didn't help defence: being a thin stretch of land that bordered several hostile countries meant that an attack could come from anywhere at any moment. Then there was the Babahlese region, the eastern part of Cohdopia: a piece of land that jutted out from the Allebhastian region and stretched to the east, bordering with even more countries that were both very interested in its mines and on less than friendly terms with the Cohdopian royal family that resided in the capital, Allebahst.
That resulted in the necessity of a strong army and a strongly militarised country, necessary to make sure the borders were protected; on the other hand the solution added internal tensions to external ones, for the people in the Babahlese region – most of them being miners with little to no influence when it came to politics, for all decisions were made in Allebahst, the capital of Cohdopia – didn't truly appreciate the constant presence of soldiers on their land, especially in face of the almost complete lack of representation in the government. All in all, the situation in Cohdopia had not been stable for a long, long time.
"Then we could wait for a more favorable moment," Quercus tried to argue. "I'm nineteen; waiting a year or two before I resume my studies wouldn't be much of a loss. Meanwhile I could-"
"You don't have to concern yourself with any of this," his father said, lifting his hand to cut him off. "Business may not be going as well as it used to, but your sister can already earn her own money, I do have some money saved up myself and I have still hope for better times. Paying for your education is my priority as for now – all you have to do is your best, Quercus."
He nodded. "I will. I'll try to find a job to pay for my studies myself. Also, I… looked up for information. With either a stable job or documents proving I study at the University of Allebahst I can obtain permissions for you to move to the capital as well. Just in case things get really out of hand," he added. Even though they lived in a small town that had nothing of interest for an invading army, they were so close to the northern border that the possibility a war could break out between Cohdopia and Borginia made him fear for the safety of those who lived there – most of all his family's.
His father blinked, staring at him as though he had never seen him before. "My, have I zoned out for years and nobody told me? One day I'm scolding a boy for fighting with his little sister, the next I'm talking to a man," he laughed, putting a hand on his shoulder, and it was only then that Quercus noticed, truly noticed, how much taller than him he had grown. Morus Alba had never been an especially tall man, but it wasn't too long ago that Quercus had been a boy who had needed to crane is his neck to look up at him. "And looks like this does prove my point – it would be better for all of us if you were in the capital to study should a war break out, don't you think?"
Quercus chuckled. "Point taken."
His father patted his shoulder. "Now don't worry about it, it's not like a war is bound to break out. Borginia is not at its best, and I can't picture them starting a war anytime soon. We'll be fine; just don't speak like you just spoke to me to your mother or your sisters; you'd only worry them. Now I believe you said you still have things left to pack up," he added as he opened the front door to walk in, and even though his voice was gentle Quercus knew him well enough to know the argument had ended.
"Yes, father," was all he said before heading to his room, not noticing his father's thoughtful, proud gaze as he watched him walking upstairs.
Quercus' lungs were burning by the time he finished the last lap, and he apparently wasn't the only one, for no shout of relief or triumph was heard once they finally, finally stopped running: all they could do was let themselves sink to the ground, uncaring of the cold and the mud, drawing in convulsive breaths. Quercus couldn't even recall sinking to the ground as well, but he must have, for moments after realizing the training was over he found himself on his knees, chest heaving as he drew in convulsive breaths.
Unable to think of anything at all but how good it felt just to breathe, it took him and his comrades a few instant to actually realize what it was the sergeant had just barked at them.
"What do you think you're doing on the ground? I've never seen such a spineless bunch! Get up! Another lap for you all!"
No, it couldn't be. It just couldn't. He didn't have any strength left, Quercus thought, shutting his eyes tightly while pleas and cries of dismay filled the air. The sergeant, on the other hand, wouldn't budge. "Another lap, I said!" he barked. "Get up now! You can't face a battle if you can't even endure some running!"
Quercus tried to get up, but his legs gave in and he fell on his knees again. He was about to just give in, admit to himself he just couldn't do it, but then his eyes fell on one of this comrades: he was resting on one side on the ground, apparently too spent to move, his right cheek pressed to the muddy ground – and for just one instant he could have sworn it wasn't a man lying on the ground a few feet from him, for just one instant he saw once more a little girl's body lying among ruins like a broken doll.
Quercus Alba gritted his teeth and tried once more to rise. This time he managed, and he was the first one to.
"Hey, Quercus, I brought the flowers!"
Quercus turned to the door to see Laurie standing there with a bunch of flowers in her hands. He smirked. "I hope you didn't pick any of our mother's potted flowers this time. I'm afraid all of our joined forces wouldn't be enough to save you from her wrath if you did."
Laurie giggled a little. "No, I only picked wildflowers. See?" she said, putting them on his desk for him to look – and indeed, there were only wildflowers there. It looked like their mother and her potted plants could give a sigh of relief.
Quercus, who was trying to figure out if he should bring some more long-sleeved shirts or not, raised an eyebrow. "That's a lot of flowers for just one crown. You could put about half of it in a vase. I'm sure mother would appreciate that."
His sister shook her head. "Nope. I want to try making one for you. I'll watch you while you make it so that I can learn."
Oh, that again. "We've been through this, Laurie," Quercus said with all the sternness he could muster with her, which wasn't much to begin with. "You don't get to put flowers on my head, ever."
She pouted. "But I want to make you a flower crown!"
"Why don't you make one for Eclipta?" he suggested. "I'm sure she'd love one."
Laurie stared at the flowers with a thoughtful frown, as though trying to decide whether or not her big sister deserved the great honour to have a flower crown made just for her, then she nodded. "Alright. But you have to teach me."
"Of course," Quercus said, putting the last pair of trousers in the suitcase and closing it with some effort before pushing it off the bed and onto the floor, making room for them to sit. "Come here with the flowers and I'll show you."
Laurie didn't walk so much as she danced to the bed. She dropped about half the flowers on his lap before sitting cross-legged next to him, waiting for him to start. "Do you need some thread or ribbons or…?"
"No, no need to," he replied. "These are long-stemmed flowers. It can be done without if you know what you're doing. Here, look…"
Thankfully Laurie was observant enough and a fast learner, and soon enough – after a few tries – she had grasped the basics and grown confident enough to start chattering again instead of staying silent and focused. Quercus should have known that pause wouldn't last.
"… And what if you find a girlfriend in Allebahst and you decide to stay and never come back?" she was asking worriedly, causing Quercus to almost break a flower's stem.
"What?" he asked, wondering if he had heard wrong.
"Mother said that girls are pretty in the capital," she explained. "And if you find a girlfriend there and don't come back you'll never build me the tree house."
Quercus laughed. "I'm going there to study, not to find a girlfriend," he said, still laughing. "But I promise that if I ever get one I won't let her distract me from my sacred mission to come back and build you a tree house. Better now?"
She giggled, but she still had a small frown on her face when she turned her attention back to the flower crown she was making. "A bit."
He raised an eyebrow. "What else is wrong?"
"I don't want you to stay away that long," she said, pouting again. "I won't know who to play with at home when mother and father are busy!"
"There's always Eclipta," Quercus pointed out.
"But she never pays attention to me," she whined, and he had to admit she had a point: he was the middle child and thus the age gap between him and his younger sister was not enormous – he had been twelve when Laurie was born – but Eclipta had been twenty already then, and busy as she was with her own life and goals she had never been that close to her youngest sister; Laurie was simply born too late to remember when things were easier for everyone and their sister smiled a lot more.
"She's busy," Quercus finally said. "But I'm sure things will get better once she gets used to her new job."
"But it won't be the same thing," she muttered unhappily. "You're my favorite brother."
"I'm also the only brother you've got," he said a little absentmindedly before he realized he was supposed to say something reassuring. "In any case, I'll be back soon enough. And I'll build you the best tree house Cohdopia has ever seen," he reminded her.
That seemed to brighten her mood again. "And you'll also bring me something nice from Allebahst!"
"And you'll write every week!"
"That goes without saying," he chuckled before holding up the now complete flower crown. "Here. All done."
"I'm done, too!" Laurie exclaimed, holding up her own flower crown. It was a little scrawny, but it was rather good for a first attempt.
Quercus nodded almost solemnly. "It looks good. I'm sure Eclipta will love it. Now let's see how this looks on you," he added, reaching to put the flower crown he had made on Laurie's head. She straightened herself and gave a bright smile.
He pulled back and tilted his head a little, rubbing his chin in thought. "Yes, just as I thought. It's almost too pretty for you."
"Hey!" she protested, and stuck out her tongue at him.
He grinned, reaching to tap the flower crown so that it would cover her eyes. "What? I said almost."
Laurie pulled up the crown so that it wouldn't cover her eyes and looked up at him. "Well, your nose looks funny," she said almost solemnly, as though she had just made a very important point.
"Your point being?"
"That I'm prettier than you are!"
"That's hardly a fair contest," he pointed out – handsome he wasn't, and that was a fact.
Laurie seemed to feel bad about it, though, for she bit her lower lip for a few moments before speaking again. "But you have pretty eyes," she conceded.
"Why, thank you. I'd say the same of yours, but I can't see them clearly," he muttered, reaching to tap the flower crown again to make it slide lower to cover her eyes.
"Hey!" she protested, half-yelling and half-laughing. Quercus was about to add something, but he shut his mouth when he heard the front door opening and closing downstairs.
"Sounds like Eclipta is back. Go give her your flower crown," he suggested, and Laurie immediately nodded, eagerly rushing outside with a hand holding the crown on her head in place as she pretty much bounced downstairs.
It took so little to make her happy, he thought with a chuckle as she listened to her merry babblings as she gave the flower crown to their sister – who apparently appreciated it a lot. Quercus found himself musing that if just getting to make a flower crown had been enough to cheer Laurie up so much, getting a present from Allebahst and the tree house she longed for at the same time was going to put the biggest smile ever on her face.
But he was wrong: when he'd see her again there would be no smile – the next time he'd see her, her freckled little face would be no more.
When they made it back to the barracks that day they were all so tired that the only thing that kept from collapsing on their bunks and falling asleep right away was the cold: their uniforms were soaked with water and covered in mud, and before they allowed themselves to drop dead they needed to take them off and allow themselves the luxury of a hot shower.
Quercus went through it as if in a daze, unable to even feel it: he was too tired for that. By the time he was done and made it to his bunk, Quercus knew nothing but his need for rest – and for the first time in months he forgot to take one of the pills he kept hidden in the mattress, those which granted him a dreamless sleep.
And for the first time in months, he dreamed again of the day the sun went out.
It was mid-morning when the train stopped at the station with a long, somewhat lazy-sounding whistle. Dianthus was a small town, little more than a village, and Quercus was the only one to get off the train at that station. The station itself was empty, as he had expected, and he didn't mind: he was actually only supposed to arrive in the late afternoon, but he had decided to catch the first train so that he could surprise his family. Of course, he was going to pretend he had forgotten to buy Laurie a present so that finding it on her pillow later would be even better.
That meant he was going to have to walk through the village with his suitcase, but he didn't really mind: after having been away for almost four months he was certain he'd enjoy the walk through his hometown. Quercus breathed in the cold air – it felt so good after the months spent in a big, crowded and much warmer city – fixed his scarf and grabbed his suitcase before walking out of the station to head home. He barely had the time to take a few steps, though: moments after he had stepped out a sudden noise that sounded like an engine filled the hair, causing him to stop in his tracks.
"Wha…?" he began, then the noise grew stronger, and Quercus realized it came from above. He looked up, and he had just a moment to see the shape of a small plane flying above the station – the next instant all hell broke loose.
The explosion was terrible, deafening, annihilating; Quercus was thrown on the ground several meters away like a rag doll. The impact with the ground made him cry out in pain, but it was nothing compared with the blind panic that flooded his mind as he found himself unable to see anything past the dust that clouded the air, his eyes and throat burning. For a moment he thought he was going to die, but then a more rational part of his mind took charge again and he decided to move forward: whatever had happened could happen again and he knew he shouldn't stay there. He coughed and managed to get up and walk away, almost stumbling on the ruins of what had probably once been the building, pulling his scarf up so that it would cover his mouth.
Somewhere – above him and around him, everywhere – there were still those noises, the roars of plane engines and deafening explosions, but the smoke kept him from seeing anything and his mind refused to realize what it mean, what was happening, it couldn't be, it couldn't-
And then a gust of wind rushed over him and dissipated some of the dust and smoke and he could see, truly see what was going on.
Most of the town was either gone or on fire, buildings torn down and craters on the streets – and in the midst if the rubbles he could see, through the dust, still forms that looked horribly like human bodies. And planes still flew over the town, still dropped bombs, tearing down more buildings and opening up new craters; there were people screaming and running away from the buildings, looking for cover they could not find, but Quercus didn't spare them a glance: his eyes were fixed toward one end of the village, where his house was.
There was a plane flying over the area, and he could see clearly the explosions and the smoke coming from there, and something was on fire, and… and…
His family. His family was there.
"No," he managed to choke out, and he didn't stop one more second to think: he immediately began to run through the town and to his home, paying no attention to the bombs that kept falling; he didn't care, he only wanted to reach his home to see his family and make sure they were fine.
It took him no more than fifteen minutes to reach his home, but it seemed so much more, for he had completely lost track of time. In some points the road was no more, and almost blinded by the dust and dazed by the deafening explosions all around him he almost fell into some crater several times, and once he stumbled on something that felt horribly like a dead body.
But in the end it didn't matter how much time it took him to reach his home, because he was too late, he had been too late from the moment the first bomb had been dropped. Only later it would occur to him that the first explosion must have made him lose consciousness for some time - only for a few minutes, perhaps, but a few minutes too many. By the time he arrived the planes were gone, the bombings had stopped – and what he found was nothing much a pile of rubbles in the middle of burning fields where his house had once stood.
For a moment Quercus almost managed to make himself believe he had made a mistake, taken a wrong turn; he almost managed to make himself believe that he was in the wrong place and that he wasn't staring at what was left of his home. But then he saw it on the other side of the road, broken but still standing – the oak tree in whose shade he had spent whole afternoons snoozing, the oak tree he had promised his sister he'd build the best tree house Cohdopia had ever seen in, the oak tree that stood in front of his house – and he knew that he was in the right place, that the pile of smoking ruins really was what was left of his home.
"No," he wheezed, limping to the ruins, barely aware of the dust and smoke and of the pain coming from the ankle he had sprained while running there. He found himself unable to even think as he desperately tried to see someone, anyone among the rubbles, and failed to. "Mother? Father? Anyone…?" he finally breathed. That feeble voice, was it really his own?
Quercus coughed and was about to call out again, but then his voice died on his throat as he saw something a few feet from him, something jutting out from under some debris – an arm, wedding ring glinting weakly on one finger from the light of the fire that burned in what had once been the garden. "Mother!" he called out, kneeling next to it; he ignored the painful impact of his knees on the debris and began furiously removing as much rubble as she could from his mother; maybe she was still alive, maybe she was only unconscious, maybe-
But then he removed another piece of debris and the arm fell – just fell – onto a smaller pile of debris. Quercus found himself staring at the severed arm for several seconds, unable to move and think and react, as though his mind was just refusing to process what he was seeing. And once it did, once he knew, he found himself unable to even scream; he could only drop the debris he was still holding and scramble back, his eyes fixed on the severed arm, every detail – the burns, the stark whiteness of the bone, the smell of blood and burnt flesh – mercilessly etching itself in his mind.
The cry that left him was more a cry of denial than one of despair, but it was still something; at least now he could tear his eyes off his mother's arm. He staggered away of a few steps, his hand covering his mouth, but aside from that no reaction came out of it, the sense of unreality too strong to allow him.
For a moment he dazedly thought that it couldn't be happening, it just couldn't, it was only a dream. He must have fallen asleep on the train, he thought. He was sure sleeping and would soon wake up to realize he had missed the station. He would have to take another train to get back and he'd probably be late and his family would mock him endlessly for that mess-up, but it didn't matter, it really didn't matter, because when he'd see them they'd be alive and laughing and-
And then Quercus' mind seemed to shut off, leaving him unable to think at all so that it wouldn't have to process what he was seeing now that the dust was starting to settle and the smoke was being dissipated by the wind – a small body lying beneath some rubbles with its face to the ground like a broken, discarded doll.
"Laurie," he rasped and for a few moments he didn't move, his ears buzzing, his mouth dry. And then it dawned on him that it wasn't a dream, that it was true, that his house was destroyed and his family… Laurie…
"LAURIE!" he finally cried out, rushing to crouch by her side. He frantically removed the rubble from her, picked her motionless body from the ground and took her in his arms to take her away from there, to look for help because she could be alive, she could still be alive – but that hope was shattered the moment he looked down at her.
The explosion that had torn off their mother's arm had left Laurie's body intact from the most part; her blonde hair and plain white dress - a dress that had been white, once - were partially burnt, but she still had all her limbs, none of them missing. But her face… her face simply was no more. Quercus found himself staring at what was nothing but a bloody hole with something flashing white in it like grains of rice; it took him a few instants to realize it had to be some of her teeth. Her lower jaw seemed to be missing.
It was in that moment that Quercus' mind finally, truly shut down. He said nothing, he thought of nothing; all he did was hold his sister's body in his arms and stare at what was left of her, barely even blinking, barely even breathing, not even noticing when it started to rain.
He would never know how long it lasted, minutes or hours: what happened next would always be foggy in his mind. Next thing he knew, he was startled out of his trance by a hesitant touch on his shoulder – but even then he didn't turn to face whoever was there: he was unable to tear his eyes off the small, broken body in his arms.
"Quercus, is it you?" a voice he would have recognized as a neighbour's had he been paying the slightest attention reached his ears. "Thank God you're alive, I feared… oh, my… Laurie…?"
"Laurie," repeated, his voice distant to his own ears; even later he wouldn't be able to tell whether he was replying to the other man's muted question, trying to call out for his sister once more or numbly repeating what he heard. His arms held the small, cold body tighter, refusing to let go. She was growing colder and her blood had soaked the front of his shirt, and he couldn't let go.
"I'm sorry," someone was saying somewhere above him. "Borginians… bastards… destroyed everything…"
"My suitcase," Quercus finally murmured.
"My suitcase," he repeated dazedly. "Back at the station. I have to get it back. Her present is in there. I promised her."
"I promised," he repeated, and then he didn't speak anymore – he fell silent and finally tore his eyes off his little sister's corpse to glance up, where the sun was supposed to be. It was still hidden from sight, no light making it through the smoke of the fires and the dust the bombing had raised. It had gone out.
And in that moment Quercus Alba was sure it would never come back.
"Quercus? Hey, Quercus!"
Quercus' eyes snapped open to see the vague outline of someone looking down at him, a hand still on his shoulders. "Wha…?" he mumbled, sitting up.
"You were talking in your sleep," his comrade, another recruit, let go of his shoulder and sat back on his own bunk. "Something about a promise and the sun going out. It didn't sound like you were having fun at all, so… uh… well, I didn't do something utterly stupid by waking you up, right?" he asked somewhat worriedly.
Hadn't he been too busy chasing the memory away from his mind, Quercus might have even chuckled at the other young man's worry; Papilio Palaeno, always so eager to help, always wanting to make himself useful in his own clumsy way, insufferably cheerful most of the time.
"I am fine," he just said. "Thank you. For waking me up," he added, and this time he was sincere.
"You're welcome," Papilio said, keeping his voice low not to wake up the others. "What was it about? I mean… it's fine if you don't want to talk about it," he added quickly.
No, Quercus didn't want to talk about it. "I can't remember. But whatever it was about must have not been pleasant. Goodnight," he said a little dryly, resting back on his bunk. But he didn't close his eyes to let himself drift off to sleep; he didn't dare.
It looked like he still couldn't hope to have a dreamless sleep without at least taking a pill, but for now taking one was out of question: he couldn't let anyone see him as he took the pills. Nobody knew he had them, nobody knew he needed them, and nobody was going to ever know – he couldn't take the risk of letting anyone know how much he needed some dreams-suppressing drug to keep his sanity: even with the a war going on to pressure the army to take as many recruit as possible, he doubted they'd keep him in their ranks for one more second if anyone were to find out that.
Then again, he thought tiredly, perhaps there would be no more dreams, not that night. After all, he had already dreamed the worst part; what came next had been nothing but a natural consequence of the bombing that had changed his life.
He knew now that there simply had been no other option for him.
It turned out that Laurie's body was the best preserved one, most likely because she had been upstairs when the bomb had struck; the house had collapsed on itself, the ground floor ending up in the basement, where the stacked wood had caught fire, and crushing the bodies of his parents and older sister beneath tons of rubble right after the explosion. Their remains fit into a couple of boxes – rather small ones.
They were buried together, all of them, like all the families that had died together; and it was a high number, so high. The town's population had been decimated, and the few survivors wished more than anything they had died along with their loved ones. It was clear Dianthus would not be built again: its surviving inhabitants were to simply leave, find another place to live. Most of them were planning on moving in with distant relatives in some other town once they were done burying their dead.
Quercus didn't know what to do, nor he was in the right state of mind to make any decision about it. Of course, he knew that leaving was his only option: he had nothing left. His family was gone and his house was no more, destroyed with everything – objects, pictures, anything – that could prove his family had even existed. He was alone, he had no place to go, and he had little money: all his father had left him wouldn't be enough to cover the expenses for university for more than another couple of semesters, and there was simply no way he could take the law degree in so little time. He would drop his studies, that much was a given. And then… then he didn't know what he could do.
There wasn't anything in particular he was particularly good at, he mused bitterly as he stood in front of the ruins of his house. Nothing. And there were still moments when that was all he wanted to do – nothing. Just sit back and do nothing and wait to wake up from this nightmare.
But that wasn't going to happen, he had grown to realize. Nothing would be the same again.
Quercus scowled and turned his gaze away from the ruins to the other side of the road, where the fields were. Most of the field had burned and his house was gone, but the oak was still there: it was broken but not dead, only part of it having taken the damage of the explosion that had destroyed his house. New sprouts would soon start showing, and someday it would stand again just as tall and imposing as before – but Quercus wouldn't be there to see it and would never again rest in its shade. He would be… somewhere else. Hell only knew where, for he had no other relatives.
His eyes fell on the part of the oak that was seemingly untouched by the explosion, and his heart sank when he realized that it was right there, on those undamaged branches, that he had planned to build Laurie a tree house. The best tree house Cohdopia had ever seen, he had promised her. Now he would never get to keep that promise – and what was worse, perhaps if he had built it before leaving, when she had asked him to, there might have been a chance for her to be still a alive. Maybe she would have been playing there, and not inside their house, when the bombs struck; he would have come there to find the home in ruins and their parents and sister dead, but maybe he would have found Laurie still alive – shocked and terrified, but alive. And he would have been there to help her; he would have had a reason to live.
What did he have instead? Nothing. Nothing but the bitter knowledge that perhaps, if he hadn't been so lazy and had kept his promise, his sister could still be alive now. Quercus shut his eyes and hung his head, so overwhelmed with grief and loss that even breathing was painful, and for a moment he thought that it should have been him, that it wasn't fair that he should live while his parents and sisters had died, leaving him behind. Still, he didn't shed one single tear. He couldn't manage to even cry.
"Did you know someone who lived here, boy?"
An unknown man's voice snapped him from his thoughts. Quercus turned to see a tall man wearing a Cohdopian army uniform standing a few feet from him, a cigarette hanging from his lips. A Lieutenant, judging by the grades.
"Yes. I lived here," he found himself replying.
The man took a drag from the cigarette and released some smoke before giving a low whistle, his eyes scanning the ruins. "Then you're lucky to be alive, son," he said, sounding so casual about it that Quercus felt the first pang of anger in what felt like forever – the only real emotion he had felt in days, past confusion and dizziness at first and then grief and loss – and he found himself clinging to it, embracing it.
"I'm not your son," he spat out. "And I was not lucky."
The man seemed unfazed. "You lost your family then, did you not? My condolences," he said. "Wish we could have done something about it, but the Borginian raid was unpredictable; not even a declaration of war before striking. Caught us completely by surprise, those cowards. And now they even try to claim it wasn't them – like we didn't all see the attack was carried by their planes with their bombs!"
His words did nothing to soothe the anger Quercus felt, but they did have the effect of changing the object of his hatred – his newfound anger, so strong it made his stomach hurt, was all for Borginia and its bombs now. "Why?" he found himself asking. "Why raid this town? There was nothing here. No important industries, no weapons, nothing. Only the people."
The soldier shrugged. "Beats me. Maybe they just felt like shedding some blood, those bastards. Now it is war, and they'll get what's coming to them. You'll see. Which is exactly why the army is here. Tell me, boy, do you have any idea what to do now?"
"No," Quercus replied, a part of him already knowing what he was driving at. "I take it the army is here looking for recruits."
The man chuckled. "Yes. If we are to fight this war and win, we'll need as much help as we can get – especially from young men like yourself. And since you lost so much to those bastards," the man added, looking at the remains of Quercus' house once more and then past it, to the hills beyond which the border was. "I suppose it would only be fitting for you to fight them. I'd be craving revenge in your place. Aren't you?"
Quercus scowled, anger still burning so hot and bitter in his chest that it was a true relief; so unlike the horrible dizziness and helplessness he had felt until that moment. "Of course I am," he growled. "How could I not?"
The man gave him a small nod. "In that case, do come to the town square. You can sign up and get through the medical examination right away; if you're considered fit, you'll be sent to a training camp right away. We're rather speeding up things to have more troops ready in the shortest time possible," he added, as though Quercus had asked for any explanations.
But he didn't, not then and not later. He merely nodded and followed him back to the centre of the devastated town, to the square where the army had settled to look for recruits. He silently signed up – he was lucky to still have a document to prove his identity, since it had been in his wallet all the time – and waited for his turn to be examined.
The psychological test had been reduced to only a few questions he had no trouble lying to by simply not mentioning the pills he had used to sleep without nightmares for the past week; it looked like they were in too much of a rush to have new recruits for the war to bother with carefully examining each recruit's psychological state.
The physical examination was the only thorough one. Quercus went though it as if in a daze, not saying anything unless he was expressly asked something, and before he knew it a copy of the certificate stating he was fit for joining the army was being pushed in his hand. Not even a week later he was in a military training camp, his only personal belonging being the clothes he had in his suitcase, which had been found still by the station.
He had only kept his clothes, throwing away the law books he now had no use for and burying the gift he had bought for Laurie – a small music box with a floral motif on it – along with her and the rest of his family; he still couldn't tell whether it was because he had wanted her to receive her gift regardless or because he couldn't stand the idea of keeping a memento like that.
But right on the first day even his civilian clothes, the last of his belongings, were stored away as well, replaced with a brand new uniform provided by the Cohdopian army. Quercus still couldn't know he would wear nothing but army uniforms for the rest of his life, or almost; in time he would come to refer to the day he had worn it for the first time as the first day of the rest of his life, always refusing to dwell on the part of his life that came before that. The past did not matter, he would tell himself. The past was dead and buried, and never to be thought of again.
Recruit Quercus Alba, serial number 1336972, was ready to start his army training.