Pyrrhic Victories


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Scene Title Pyrrhic Victories
Synopsis The costs of war are more than some of its soldiers can pay.
Date January 27, 2014

Near Raven Rock, Pennsylvania

The celebrations and wound-licking has gone on for almost a week, now. The fires that dot the hillsides around the complex have sprung up not just from the extensive fighting that went on, but now the average cooking fire or drum fire used to light up the darkness around each smaller camp that dots the make up of a larger gathering. There aren’t that many people around the perimeter of the camp, though, seeing as most of the surviving fighters have been in and out of the central parts of camp, drinking, dancing, and carousing amongst other activities. The perimeter is the place to go when one needs a quiet moment to think. To be. And for some, to mourn.

Luther is one such man who has come to the edges of the main camp. The man is alone despite having arrived with other groups, and carries a large bottle of whiskey hooked around his fingers. He hasn’t drunken even half yet. But then again, the night is young.

About as far from the center of camp as one can get and yet still be a part of the camp, a small fire sends its tendrils of smoke up into the air. The kindling snaps and embers fly now and then, like fireflies in the dark surrounding night. Nearby, lit from the glow of the flame, Chess sits on a fallen log, arms wrapped tight around her knees as she stares into the fire. In her dark eyes, twin miniature fires reflect back at the world despite the tears washed over them every time Chess blinks.

He’s not actively trying to avoid people, or so he’d claim if confronted at the precise moment that he realizes he’s been drawn towards the fire’s glow that stands out against the pitch. Chess’ silhouette, framed against the orange glow, makes him pause and look around first for others. Those seconds pass with only the pop and crackle of the fire enhancing, complimenting the shadows dancing at the edges of the small circle. Not wanting to interrupt but at the same time not wanting to be shot or worse, Luther purposefully clears his throat to let the silent figure sitting atop the log know he’s there. It follows with, “Friendly.” His voice is low, the almost bass timbre possibly familiar, somewhere in the back of her mind.

“Not really,” is the closest thing to a quip that Chess has made in the days since the victory at Raven Rock. Once, Miles had explained to her what a pyrrhic victory was — tonight, she feels its definition in the hollow of her being. She turns to find the owner of the voice — her eyes strain to find him outside of the fire’s bright glow, picking up the details slowly as her eyes adjust to looking away from the fire.

When she realizes the familiar voice belongs to a familiar face, someone she traveled with briefly, someone she knows, something flickers in her expression — there’s a mix of pain and panic, grief and yearning. She doesn’t speak but just gives the slightest shake of her head. No. Don’t. No, don’t what is unclear.

It’s the quip more than her voice that Luther perks to, and while he wants to smile, the first expression that twitches into Luther’s features is his ever-consistent brow furrow. The man lumbers a few steps closer, his progress made slow by injuries and wound dressings that will be slow to heal. But at least he has time on his side. Others, not so fortunate. Her head shake stops him briefly, the wrinkles deepened by the firelight playing off the crags and valleys, off the near constant smudge of dirt and probably still some blood and mud caked onto his person.

But then he pushes forward, stubborn as the man has ever been, the quality having helped him survive this long. Eventually he’ll reach the log where she’s sitting, and there, ease down to a section of it beside her seat.

Her lips press together to keep themselves from quivering, and as he comes around to sit on the log, she returns her dark-eyed gaze to the fire. Apparently he can sit there. At least, she doesn’t tell him not to.

It seems she may just let him sit without any other words. Seconds stretch into minutes, and finally she glances at him through the corners of her eyes. “You look like shit,” she says, at last. She doesn’t look well herself — too thin, too pale, and like she hasn’t slept in days. It’s hard to tell if she’s injured, under the dark layers of clothing she wears and the way she’s huddled. But whether she has any injuries or not, it’s clear she’s a wounded thing.

Luther seems content to let the silence hang between them and barely moves himself once he’s sat down. The man hunches - he won’t be quick to get up from the position soon. When the minutes start to drag on, he too slides a sidelong glance in her direction after an indeterminate amount of quiet. Her words are the first to crack the invisible shell of silence that has settled around them. Luther’s head dips down and without pause he replies, “Yep, feel like shit too.” The call-and-response nature of their exchange is also familiar, an echo of past times made warm by memories of victories. He sniffs the air once, adding, “Smell like it too.” But now, it’s more statement of fact than an attempt at a joke, especially once he’s looking back over to the much younger woman and taking in the state of her. The next thing he utters is kind of gruff by nature, but the concern beneath is there. “Are you cold?”

He doesn’t wait for her to answer, though, and sets down the bottle of whiskey between them before he starts to shrug off the heavy jacket that’s keeping much of the chill air out as it does the sight of more bandages hidden. The man shakes one arm as he works it from the confines of a sleeve.

The bottle is reached for and uncapped, a swallow drawn from it before she manages to finally shake her head and answer, voice husky from the burn of the alcohol. “No, I’m fine,” she says quickly.

The act of kindness is a step too far, though, and those tears she’s been holding at bay come despite the effort to numb them. Chess turns her face away from Luther, letting her hair fall like a privacy curtain between them, shielding him from the sight of the tears that slide from her squeezed-shut eyes.

Chess lets another long moment pass, enough to take a breath and steady her voice before she speaks. “Do you need a first-aid kit? There’s one in my pack.” It seems from the angle that she’s speaking to someone somewhere to her right, despite the fact that Luther sits on her left. To her credit, her voice sounds almost normal — if a touch rough, raw. It’s at least not shaky. It’s a small victory.

A grunt here, a rustle there, and Luther extracts himself out of the jacket. He starts to merely offer it over at first, but seeing Chess turn away causes his jaw to work in the pause. He gives the moment its due, gaze remaining in her direction if not directly upon her and intrusive. Once she’s steadied herself, that’s when he reopens the jacket this time and reaches with it to lay over her shoulders like a mantle. “I’ll be fine,” he says a little quieter, “Medics patched me back up. Sure I’ll probably feel a few of these every time it rains.” Then he reseats himself, looking back to the fire but with an ear tilted towards her. Listening.

His hand moves to the bandage that peeks out from beneath his shirt, fingers picking at an itch on the tape holding the pad in place. His chest rises and falls in a drawn in breath and sigh to release some of the tension, to push back the twinges and throbs. Picking at physical wounds isn’t the same as the mental or emotional, where the injuries aren’t likely to heal nearly as quickly. Luther starts off quiet, his broaching of the subject of the dead and missing nearly inaudible. “Trish was a dentist. Even when we’d just gotten back from a mission, she’d be checking our teeth. Said it was important, without teeth, you couldn’t eat right, couldn’t talk right.” A beat skips before he concludes, “Bit the tip of a soldier’s nose right off.” It might be crazy. It might be disgusting. But that’s what the groups Luther ran with were mainly known for. He swallows dryly, then holds his hand out for the exchange of the whiskey bottle.

Her shoulders hunch, up and in, at the feel of the jacket being laid upon them — as if she could retract within herself and pull away from the coat and, with it, the attempt at human contact. At the same time, her expression twitches to something more contrite, like she knows she should accept the token of friendship, but can’t. Unless it’s the offer of alcohol. She can accept that.

The bottle is pressed back into his hand, and her own hands curl back into the too-long sleeves she wears. Another day, Chess might have laughed at the story or offered one of her own. But another day, there would have been another man sitting with them, and it’s that absence that she feels more keenly than anything else — more than the cold or the pain or the heat of the fire.

A few seconds tick by, and Chess swallows hard, then speaks. “I’m sorry.” The words sound robotic, perfunctory, but they come with effort, to empathize, to care about something other than her own loss.

She doesn’t. But she knows she should.

“He died saving me. How do I live with that?” she finally says, after a few more seconds.

Receiving the whiskey, he tips the drink back for a long swig as well before setting it back to within reach of her sleeved hand. Her shrink away causes a frown of sympathy, but he settles beside her, not far enough to be uncomfortably distant, yet acknowledging of the need for space. That's why they're out in the perimeter rather than the center, isn't it?

He leans forward once he speaks of the woman in his recent past. The man's form shudders like one of the dancing shadows in the firelight; the hitch in his breath, the clearing of his throat, the sudden raise of his arm to wipe his forearm over his eyes bear evidence of a sweep of emotion over the man too. Luther looks away as she gives her condolences, the angle of his head understanding, grateful for the effort nonetheless.

When she speaks again of her loss, the man is silent at first, at a loss of what to say. He doesn't ask who "he" is. He knows by the way she says it. "In the only way you can," his words come slowly, rolling from his mouth like boulders being pushed uphill. By the time he gets it out, he's looking back at her. His normal, perpetually furrowed brow smoothes down over grey eyes still shining with a sheen of wet. "You make the sacrifice count for something."

Her hand uncurls from where it’s held against her thin form, reaching for the bottle again. Sharing a bottle is so much easier than sharing her pain, even as he offers his to her, to build a bridge between them. She casts a sidelong look at him when he speaks those words, and then returns her gaze to the fire.

How? is an easy question; the answer is always much more complicated.

Chess doesn’t ask it.

Instead she reaches for a straightened coat hanger she’s been using as a poker, pushing a log closer to the center of the fire to catch flame.

“Fuck that,” she says, eyes narrowing as she stares into the fire.

How indeed. It’s never an easy answer, and even a man of Luther’s years of living hasn’t figured that part out. It’s her briefest of curt responses though, that gets even a tiny huff of a laugh, a sardonic sound. “Or you can try anger,” he suggests after the beat passes, after she’s poked the log. “For some people, they haven’t run out of that fuel yet.” He wipes the rest of the welled tears away with a knuckle, blinking at the fire and deepening the introspective mood. He doesn’t state the rest of his thought, but he takes a breath and slowly straightens from the hunch. “Do you have somewhere to go?” Not that he’s asking her to leave, but rather the opposite. Maybe an offer.

The wry quip earns Luther another side-eyed glance, but Chess looks away, brows drawing together as he wipes his eyes. She takes a breath, releasing it in a shaky, shuddery sigh. It’s hard not to cry — harder when someone nearby is crying.

The question sits unanswered for a long moment. It might be the first time she’s thought about it — in the quicksand of grief, the question hadn’t occurred to her. How to carry on, how to function, how to breathe, yes. But not where.

“It doesn’t matter,” she says, reaching for the bottle to take another swig. This time she coughs, at the burn, at the salt of the tears that she keeps swallowing back.

The whiskey bottle gets to stay in Chess’ hands awhile as Luther remains watching the fire for a time. After he makes that implied offer, he lets it hang in the air undetailed. It’s likely he’s also pondering it too, this offer that’s sprung into existence before he’s put thought to it. But now that it’s there, he leaves it on the proverbial table. Her response gets a short snort as he finally looks back over, mouth opening as if to say more. But the sight of her makes him stop, dissolving whatever phrase he had ready into the chill night with a low rumble. “No, Chess. It does.” The rough edge of his voice is sanded down with a working of his jaw. “It matters. You matter. He knew. And that’s why…” The thought slows and fades off, turned back from the edge.

He instead finishes with a shake of his head to dislodge it and states aloud, “You don’t have to come with me, but you can’t stay here.” And there’s some weight to those words. Like he’s going to make sure that she doesn’t wither right here.

Her eyes flash his way when his words hang on that precipice, tense jaw muscles working as she prepares to lash out at however that sentence ends.

What he does say makes her heave a sigh, and suddenly she’s up on her feet. The bottle is left on the log, the jacket shrugged off to fall in a heap in the dirt. Chess grabs the few possessions she seems to have — a backpack, her bow and quiver, an assault rifle, until she’s weighed down with what amounts to half her own weight — still a light burden compared to the grief and anger she carries within.

“Got it. Thanks.” The words, meant to be dry, cutting, break in the middle as Chess turns away, to head away from the fires and into the darkness of the wilderness.

Luther makes the inward concession - tense energy is better than no energy. Better than lying down and dying of broken spirits. Although, he also recognizes, it's not nearly as healthy to process feelings this way. By trying to catalyze the reaction and console the young woman, he's gone and driven her off. The man watches her pack yet makes no move to stop her.

Her dry acknowledgment and thanks cut the tension but wind up taking a stab at the man's stoic silence. His gaze drops to stare at the ground and a pained grimace goes lost and unseen as Chess moves away into the darkness. Once she's disappeared into the shadows, the man finally turns back to the fire. A quiet sigh escapes him, and his hand reaches for the whiskey bottle.

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