For Tabaqui. Thank you Sabaceanbabe for the beta!
o - o
Dai is six or seven. He and his parents have lived in a tiny apartment in Boston for two years and he can just remember before: the house on the edge of Saigon.
One memory will always be sharp: how his father had picked him up and held him so tight Dai couldn't even cry; how his mother had tied his wrist to hers with cord and how they'd run, and run, and when they'd stopped running, they were Americans and they were alone.
His father's parents, his aunt, their faces are already hazy and in a year or two, he won't really be able to picture them at all.
Like his mother, Dai doesn't talk much. They share an understanding in the silence, acknowledged in the brush of her fingers on his cheek and the trà sen he carefully, carefully makes her every Friday after school.
His father talks all the time, usually saying things Dai doesn't want to hear. They argue about the tea more than once - well, his father scolds and Dai nods, and next Friday he's diligently counting out the seconds to steep the leaves again.
It makes his mother smile and that's reason enough. He's sure she used to laugh.
Later, Dai will understand how desperate his father was. How young. How afraid as his wife paled and thinned and his son barely spoke at all. How he used words like a buffer between him, the world and the memories of the war he would never, ever share.
By the time Dai is thirteen or fourteen, he hasn't made tea for years; on the day his mother died, he broke every teapot in the apartment. His father picked up the pieces and never said a word.
More often than not he comes home from school with cut under his eye or the skin of his arms red and mottled from twisting. Never bruised knuckles; he never fights back.
"You don't fight," his father says, while they eat dinner. "Why don't you fight?"
Because he'll always be outnumbered, and because he doesn't know how, and because there's no point.
"I will talk to the Principal," his father says firmly, standing and reaching for the telephone.
"No." Dai clenches his fist and can't speak, can't explain. Doesn't have the words.
His father, padded now, graying at the temples and eyes always shadowed with the grief that will eventually take him away, nods. Sits again.
"Then I will tell you why you should fight." His father smiles and for a moment, he's the soldier who pulled them all out of the fire. "And then I will teach you how to win."
Sometimes Dai imagines his aunt and his grandparents made it back to that house on the edge Saigon - that his aunt paints again and that his grandparents sit, drinking their tea.
It's not what happened, but Dai likes to think it is.
o - o
Cynthia-call-me-Cyn (so-much-cooler) is a freshman, like Dai, but unlike Dai she has a plan. She's going to go to LA and be a famous singer - or maybe she'll do theater – but, whatever she does, she's going to be amazing.
Dai believes her, although he thinks she'd have better chances if she didn't party so much, smoked a little less weed. Maybe not. What does he know? He's only in business school because that was what his father had wanted.
Yesterday, her hair was teased into a wild Afro. Today, it's tiny plaits piled high on her head and tied with a thick, violently purple scrunchie. Ringed earrings, eye shadow and lipstick the same vivid shade complete the look.
She drops into the seat across the diner booth and nudges his books to the side, completely oblivious to his ballpoint skittering a long blue line over his notes.
While he's distracted, she steals his cola. "How come I'm the only one you talk to?"
He smirks. "You're the only one who talks to me. Have you even slept yet?"
"Nice try." She shakes her head firmly, adds a flourish of her finger for good measure. Drama students. "I know for a fact Jen Ryman wants to talk to you."
Dai considers. "The one with that sweater?"
"Don't judge a woman by her sweater."
Fair enough. He shrugs and makes a play for his soda; fails completely. "She hasn't."
"I said, 'trying.'" Cyn sips the drink in silent victory. "I mean, don't get me wrong, the whole broody thing works for you, but its a little intimidating."
"You're not intimidated," he points out.
"Well, d'uh." She rolls her eyes and pushes the glass back, half empty. Half full. Whatever. "But I know what an enormous geek you are. You saw Star Wars three times."
"Because you wanted someone to go with you."
"Because I knew you wanted to go, don't even try and deny it."
He doesn't. The movie was pretty good.
"So anyway, you need to get out so much more." She smiles brightly and slides a piece of paper forward. "Call her or I'll dye all your shirts purple."
It doesn't work out with Jen – and it's not even about the sweater – but it's a start and by their third year, Cyn is barely threatening his wardrobe at all.
They graduate in the fall. Come spring, Dai has a job in the mailroom of an investment firm and Cynthia is gone. They tried to keep in touch, they did, but somehow their schedules never worked out and Cynthia always had less and less she wanted to say.
The last time he calls, the number belongs to two Polish girls who've just moved in. No, the previous resident left no forwarding address.
He imagines Cynthia on the stage, imagines she changed her name and made it big before she decided to go home to Detroit. He imagines she met a guy who loved Star Wars as much as she did, had some kids, maybe, and found her way to a life she didn't have to drug herself to love.
It's not what happened, but Dai likes to think it is.
o - o
Everyone calls the old man "Uncle Tran" and Dai does the same, though he's the only one who carefully avoids looking him in the eyes when he does. There isn't a lot of time for respect in the soup kitchens, but he can give the guy that.
Uncle Tran is there most of the weekends that Dai volunteers, shuffling in line with the rest, smiling more than most. Dai figures he can't be more than fifty, fifty-five, but he's stooped and gray, and the lines around his eyes are deep.
When the mood strikes him, Uncle Tran likes to talk and, when he has the time, Dai listens, because Tran weaves the pieces of his past into a present that lives and breathes.
Half in Vietnamese, half in English, he talks about his childhood in Nha Trang: the boats in the harbor, the towers at the mouth of the river. It's alien and it's achingly familiar. Some of the others ask questions, but Dai is silent, always. As is right.
Sometimes Tran talks about the war, words clipped and poetic in turns as he remembers the heroism and slaughter, the beauty and defeat: everything that he saw as a medic in the ARVN.
For every word Dai's father spoke, there were three he kept close enough to choke him. Even though Tran's stories are never about himself, Dai can tell Tran isn't the type to choke.
One night, when the others have gone and Joey is kicking around the kitchen, swiping the counter, Dai asks Tran about his family.
"I'm lucky," Tran says. "I had no one left to lose."
Dai isn't sure whether to congratulate him for that or not, and in the moment of his hesitation, Tran is gone.
Uncle Tran doesn't come in the next weekend, or the weekend after that.
Four months later, Dai imagines the streets took him. They don't care about history and he tells himself he's too old for fairy tales.
(Except, except, maybe Tran had family he didn't know about. Maybe they'd found him and taken him home.
It's not what happened, but Dai likes to think it is.)
o + o
"You are so wasted."
Dai groans and rubs a hand over his eyes. He's wasted and he's on the floor. He's pretty sure he wasn't on the floor.
"Yeah," Hal says as he crouches and drops a hand on Dai's arm. "You were definitely not on the floor."
Wait, he said that out loud?
"Dai totally said that out loud," Hal says, and Dai feels the hold on his shoulder relax. "Ben? Little help?"
There's no reply, but another hand carefully grips Dai's arm and helps him back to his feet. The room spins, but he doesn't fall. Mostly because the hands are still there, keeping him steady.
Hands are handy.
Hal laughs under his breath. "Seriously? 'Hands are handy?' You're on the best drugs the doc has and that's your material?"
"Dai's hilarious," he means to say, but there's no response this time, so he probably didn't.
Vertigo hits as he's gently deposited back on the infirmary cot that, apparently, he managed to fall right out of, despite one side being next to the wall. Anthony will never hear about this.
"Anthony will absolutely hear about this."
Dai opens his eyes, Hal is a foot away, a shadow outline in the muted light.
"We need to go look for Dad," Ben mutters from somewhere in the darkness near the door.
Staccato memories immediately present themselves for his attention, washed in shades of orange and red. Fitchburg. Mechs and skitters, the bike engine stuttering and the absolute certainty he wouldn't make it.
Gun shots. Skitters down.
Weaver's face swims in his memory; he made a report. Wait, did he make a report?
He only realizes he's struggling to sit up when a hand against his chest pushes him back.
"Hey, you're good. It's all good." Hal pauses and Dai guesses he's considering what he's just said. With the alien invasion and constant threat of death, and all. "You know what I mean," he concludes. "But you busted a couple ribs and decided not to tell anyone until you almost fell off a freaking roof."
Hal sounds frustrated: disappointed, not angry. Tom Mason by any other name. Dai would laugh if the twinge in his chest didn't make it seem like a terrible idea. Besides, maybe it's kind of … it's okay someone cares, he guesses.
"Anthony was here for a while, but Weaver sent him out on patrol a couple hours ago. I'll let him know you appreciated it. When I'm telling him about the whole falling out of bed thing."
There's a really good chance Dai will never, ever be allowed to forget this.
"Nope," Hal agrees. "Anyway, we're out of the good painkillers, so Anne had to give you a sedative - that's why you're stoned. She's pretty sure nothing's bleeding inside, you're just going to be laid up for a while."
Dai only realizes he's let his eyes slip closed again when there's a tug next to him. He blinks them open to see Hal's leaning over, haphazardly trying to pull the bedding back into place. It's just about surreal (comforting) enough that Dai lets him do it.
"Hal." Ben hisses, more urgently this time, and Hal flinches.
"Familiar, huh?" Dai actually hears himself, this time, and is rewarded with a flash of a rueful grin as Hal straightens and turns.
"We'll go out again in the morning," he says evenly, no trace of the flinch in his tone.
It's been four weeks – the likelihood of Tom Mason being found alive is slim to none.
Dai hopes like hell he didn't say that aloud.
From the way the brothers are glaring at each other, instead of him, he guesses not. Wonders vaguely what it must be like for another person to have so much of a hold on you - to be able to expect so much from them in return.
He gestures towards the door. "Hey, look - go. I'm good."
"It's too dark." Slowly, deliberately, Hal pulls his rifle strap over his head and leans his gun against the wall. Like he's trying to reason with someone who doesn't even speak the same language: show, don't tell.
When Ben steps forward, burning-bright eyes tracing the path of the rifle intently,
Dai wonders if maybe Hal has it right. The unharnessed kids are mostly harmless, but Ben and Rick are … they're something else.
Ben's hand clenches in a fist; relaxes again. "I can see," he says.
Hal's patience disappears abruptly as he falls back on the right of an older brother to lay down the law. "No. Enough, okay? We go in the morning."
Ben glares for a second, then the sense of other is gone and he's a fifteen-year-old kid, stamping out the door.
That's not going to work forever.
"Tell me something I don't know," Hal mutters as he turns back.
Dai cranes his head to look at the other cot. "So were you here for Uncle Tran?"
They blink at each other.
"Who's Uncle Tran?"
Dai shakes his head. "No one. I meant Scott. Uncle Scott."
There's a constant rattling wheeze coming from Scott, but he doesn't seem to have even woken up. With the amount of noise they've been making, that can't be good.
Hal huffs and arranges himself at the foot of Dai's cot, back to the wall and knees drawn up to his chest. "No, he's out. Anne's down to, like, vinegar and peroxide. Lourdes will be by to check on him soon, they're taking it in shifts."
"Okay, so?" Dai raises an eyebrow in query, Hal's eyes roll.
"So I came to see how you were doing. What's that thing about, you save a guy's life and you're responsible for him?"
Gun shots. Skitters down.
Enlightened, Dai grins. "You took out the skitters."
"You know anyone else who could make that shot? Aside from Maggie. And Pope. And Weaver. Most of the other scouts. Tector." Hal raises a finger. "And Ben, it turns out. When he can pull the trigger."
"Me," adds Dai.
Hal grins and starts to lean forward; he's going to leave.
"That's a Chinese thing, right? So I think you're safe," Dai says quickly.
Hal's brain is operating on slightly fewer drugs and it takes a moment for him to back track. He laughs and leans back again. "So that means I don't have to look out for you? Great, because you're worse than Matt and Ben. I mean, combined."
"I'm worth it," Dai lisps in the worst imitation of the commercial ever, which leaves them both laughing: too tired, too hurt and too drugged to care.
Dai cares a little more when his ribs grate their way through the soft haze of the sedative. He curls in on a gasp and hisses the breath out. Hal's holding a canteen towards him when he manages to look up again; the water has the tang of purifiers, but at least it's clean.
The door of the infirmary darkens again and when his eyes adjust, Dai makes out Ben, slouching in the doorway. Matt leans against his leg, blinks sleepily and clutches something - a book - tighter against his chest.
"Dai still stoned?" Ben asks. His voice is warm and amused; it's nothing like before.
"Dai's fine," Dai rasps. "Dai's great."
"What's the matter?" Hal's already on his feet, much faster than earlier, which gives Dai some suspicions about how ready he'd been to leave before.
"Nothing," Matt says, rubbing at his eye. "I woke up."
Ben smiles crookedly, half-apologetically. "Yeah, I woke him up. Sorry."
Hal nods and starts forward. "Okay. Back to bed, bud."
"No." Matt swerves out of his brother's reach and then pushes past, holding up the book as he goes. Hal takes it reflexively.
"You said you'd read to me." Matt claims the vacant spot at the foot of the bed, curling up in almost the same position Hal had taken, and there is no way Dai is going to find that kind of cute.
He drops a hand over his mouth to make a hundred percent sure.
Hal looks helplessly to Ben, and then both turn wordlessly to Dai with such identically chagrined expressions that only the thought of jarring his ribs again stops him from laughing.
"You heard the man," he says, from behind his hand. "Start reading."
After a few awkward moments they manage to figure out an arrangement where Dai shifts his legs and Ben and Hal sit side by side against the wall with Matt lying like a noodle across them both.
Hal opens the book, coughs quietly to clear his throat, looks momentarily appalled and then, like he'd had to with everything else, mans up. "Bill and Fleur's cottage stood alone on a cliff overlooking the sea, its walls embedded with shells and…"
Dai closes his eyes and imagines that, tomorrow, Uncle Scott will be awake, Anne will be smiling and someone, somewhere will have seen Tom alive.
Imagines that soon, somehow, they'll win.
It's not what happens, but Dai would have liked to think it was.