2238-02-24 - Even If It Hurts

A wounded Gage fights his way back to the ranch alone, certainties shaken by the wreckage of a blown-apart heavy raider. Nate's waiting there for him with letters from Ines and difficult questions.

Date: 2238-02-24

Location: The Ranch

Related Scenes: 2238-02-25 - Against All Odds

Plot: None

Scene Number: 1666

Jump to End

The thing is, it wasn't the first time a building had fallen on him.

Technically, it'd been a wall last time, back on the Argyros Naval Base during the cylon bombing. Compared to the others, Gage'd come out relatively well -- a limp, but also a cigarette and plenty of other marines around to help. This time, he was alone. He didn't try to stifle the pained cry as a crack echoed somewhere in him when a chunk of the roof collapsed on him.

The pain stayed with him as he pulled himself free, back to his knees and began firing again -- as he detonated more of his explosives on top of the cylon with the rocket launcher, and intensified later, when he saw the raider explode and tumble to the ground in a flaming wreckage. It lingered, still, when after a brief, fighting retreat, he returned later to comb the airstrip looking for something, anything, and hoping not to find it.

The pain didn't cease, however, when he found nothing. Nothing was not confirmation, just a lack of conviction.

It was somewhere in his ribs, but also a tightness in his chest that made him stop more often than he'd liked as he moved from the mine to the ranch. He welcomed it, focused on it and let training take over -- let it dictate his path as he near-on stumbled into a patrol, a thin sliver of bare foliage between him and three cylons, as he counted his rounds in his head and came up short, finger hovering over the trigger of his rifle all the same. Gunfire from further south drew them away shortly enough, sparing the Tauran a fight he knew with a certainty he would've lost.

He kept moving, stumbling with exhaustion by the time the familiar hills and fences marking the outer boundary of the ranch came into view. For a moment he stood there, letting himself breathe. But still, the pain.

-

To all outside appearances the ranch is derelict, empty of all life. Darkness clings to the structure and fills its belly, every aperture thick with pitch. This is by design: no lights now, and if things go poorly, maybe no lights ever again. For those weary moments of standing in the silence of a world rendered in winter black and white, for all the world Gage Tomak may as well be alone, the only heartbeat on this side of the horizon.

It's a safety measure designed to deflect attention should the strike on the mine stir hornets out of the nest there, but it's hardly something that requires enforcement. The only thing that hangs more thickly in the air than the shadows or flakes of still-falling snow is a kind of breathless tension. For the temporary residents of this some-time respite from discovery and inclement weather, the night hangs over them like Damocles' sword, dangling by a silken thread, and no one knows whether or when it will fall.

Inside, people huddle in rooms swiftly chilled once the furnaces were doused, motionless and murmuring in words that before long will stain the air white with mist. Pen lights and other tiny sources of illumination allow movement from one room to the next when it's necessary.

In an upstairs bedroom, a boy with blond hair and swiftly-knitting scars on one of his wiry legs sits on the edge of a bed that until recently contained a sick pilot, ignoring silent and solicitous glances from the other occupants of the room -- a father, the father's young son. He has an unopened letter in his hand and tears on his angry face, a sharp and persistent fear carving hollows into his narrow chest.

Like all the rest, he's waiting to see if the sword falls.

-

Perhaps the Tauran takes comfort in that moment -- that sense of being alone, truly alone. Certainly, the lack of lighting and sign of life at the ranch doesn't seem to deter him and, after a moment, he spurs himself to movement, rifle held at his side despite instinct otherwise -- so as not to be shot by whatever watch remains.

Gage's not the first to arrive at the ranch, not with his indulgence in searching the wreckage of the raider on the airstrip -- though he is probably one of the few to arrive alone. He ignores the looks he gets -- curious or worried or otherwise -- footsteps creaking the wooden stairs as he climbs them, stopping outside of Nate's room. There, his weight creaks the floorboards as he shifts, hesitating.

What should he say to the boy? What could he say? She got away. She's not dead in an explosion so intense he couldn't find any trace of her. She's fine.

Even in his head, the words felt hollow, lacking the conviction he'd hoped for. Fingers flexing, he took a breath and pushed into the room, putting on a face -- the taciturn marine come home.

-

There are plenty of silent looks of inquiry and surprise to chase Tomak up the stairs, and at least two people look as though they might approach him, consternation in the furrows that appear on their foreheads: wasn't he supposed to be with the pilots who were leaving? Did they die? Did they not make it out? Are there no reinforcements coming? Whether it's something in his expression or his gait, though, they hang back. He reaches the landing without being accosted.

Just as well, because the moment the door opens and his broad-shouldered silhouette is visible to the room's occupants, there's a blur of kid vaulting up off of the bed, a bulleting streak of pale hair and ferocious relief that will, unless he's dissuaded, slam bodily into the marine with arms reaching for a hug around Gage's waist, all of that fury still written plain across his face. It won't be kind to the marine's ribs in the least.

And then he's lifting his head, turning it, expecting someone else to be coming through that door, too.

-

The noise that forces out of the marine's throat is some part pained groan, and some part relief. Pain or not -- it's written on his face for a moment -- the marine doesn't dissuade the boy, his right hand holding the rifle safely away, the left resting briefly on the boy's shoulder. Something shifts in his expression, however, when he sees Nate look past him, behind him -- for the pilot who has been his shadow for so much of the last month -- and is now definitively not present.

Some part of it -- that not there -- fuels the gruffnesss in the Tauran marine's request to the other man: "Give us a moment?"

Gage waits -- to exhale the breath that has been crowding at his throat -- and for the inevitable question that will come from Nate.

-

Beckoning his own boy, the man sitting on the opposite bed eyes Gage sidelong, visibly trying to read the Tauran's closed-off expression, his own full of the same questions echoed in faces downstairs. But he, like the others, seems to feel it's best not to ask; he wraps an arm around his son's shoulders and steers him out through the door, then gently and quietly closes the door behind them. Footsteps creak their way down the hall, probably intentionally audible -- a signal that nobody is lingering behind to eavesdrop.

Like most kids, Nate is quick. He blinks up at Tomak as the marine asks the other man to leave, and he seems to draw his own conclusions from that: the way he stares up at Gage contains dread and horror and anticipatory grief, mouth open and expression in the process of gradually crumpling into something overwhelmed and upset. He's clearly assuming the worst.

-

It's perhaps no surprise that the Tauran struggles with the words. Even at the best of times, such a conversation would be best left to someone -- anyone -- else. But these are not the best of times. His fingers, still on Nate's shoulder, squeeze briefly at the expression he sees gathering there, forcing the words out of his throat: "She made it out. She and King. They'll bring back help." The words ring hollow in his ears, but only because he knows what he saw. Because it's enough to plant the seeds of doubt.

His exhausted thoughts follow down that trail for a moment, and he sways. She's alive, beats a refrain in his head for a moment, a concerted effort to make himself believe it, as his gaze refocuses on the boy. He notices the letter -- notices it's not opened.

"Would you read it to me?"

-

Watching the Tauran with sharp, canny eyes, Nate seems uncertain for some long and pensive moments...but his expression eventually settles into something tentatively like hope. Surely, Gage wouldn't lie to him, and if the marine looks grim for a man reporting something like that as a success then it must be because he's worried about the pilot's illness.

Nate puts on a brave face, serious and reassuring, and pats Tomak's back with one of the arms still wound around his waist. "She'll be okay. Picon doctors are good."

He's practically forgotten the letter in his hand, now half-crumpled. Extracting himself, he takes the few steps necessary to put himself back down on the edge of the bed, rubbing at one eye with the back of his wrist before he begins to open it. There are two letters inside, as it happens. One marked 'For Nate,' written in the usual flowery penmanship (that was once, in another lifetime, a point of pride for the former socialite and sorority belle), and the other, folded, marked 'For Gage.'

"Which one should I read first?"

Because he TOTALLY wants to read the one that isn't for him.

-

The weirdness of being reassured by a child is not lost on the Tauran -- Nate's words about how good Picon doctors are earns a brief smile, and as the boy heads back towards the bed, he moves over, easing down onto the floor. He bites down on the pained groan that threatens to surface, shifting his weight until he leans back against the bunk in a way that doesn't cause more pain. If he turns, he can see Nate, but perhaps fortunately for him, he's looking forward when he asks, which one.

His heart skips a beat, and for a moment, he stops breathing. When the pain -- additional pain -- forces him to suck in oxygen again, there's something breathy in his voice: "Yours, of course."

Even if, like Nate, he totally wants to hear the other one.

-

'Write a letter,' Gage suggested, and Ines took that instruction very seriously indeed. It's a full letter, not a short note. With one last opportunity to say things she may never get to say otherwise, she clearly had no intention of leaving question marks to plague the boy should she never see him again.

"I'm sorry I'm not there to say all of this in person. Gage and I talked about it and we decided a letter was the best way to keep you safe - because you're brave, and you would probably want to go with us tonight if you knew everything." He shoots the marine a frown, then continues. "But you deserve to know what's happening, and why."

"I need medication and treatments we can't get here - not even from the old hospital. Without them, I'll probably die. There are prisoners in a nearby mine that the soldiers here want to set free, too, and Aldrich went missing this morning - probably to try to help the prisoners in his own way. For all of these reasons, we have to do something tonight, together. If it all goes well, Hunter and I will reach our base at Northholt and send help back to the ranch. We're all very good at what we do (I promise - even though I crashed!). If anybody can do this, we can. I just wanted you to know, in case I can't tell you myself, that it wasn't..."

There's a long silence. "...that it wasn't easy...to leave you behind."

Sniff. "When the Uprising happened I spent a month alone in my fallen city. I wasn't a soldier then - just a student. A silly girl - I don't think you or Gage would have liked me very much?" Probably that sentence isn't written as a question, but that's how Nate inflects it, skepticism in his quirk-browed expression. "She's still a silly girl," he opines after a moment, dry as hell. After a beat he continues, "I know what it's like to find yourself alone in a situation like this and I promise you, Nate, if I could have stayed, I would have."

"Gage stayed for me. When he saw a pilot shot down he stayed, even though he'd already been stranded for a week. He spent a month giving up so many things, just so that I could stay alive - so I owe it to him to do that, and to help the rest of you do the same. Now he's planning to stay behind for you, too. There's no one I trust more to keep you safe."

Deep breath. "I think we're going to succeed, but it's going to be very dangerous. If-"

There's another long pause. He's reading it silently to himself. He does eventually circle back, subdued, but not over-emotional -- probably because what he's reading didn't actually come to pass. "If the worst happens and you don't see us again, I hope you can forgive us. These were hard choices to make, but we did all of these things out of love. Sometimes that means taking risks to keep other people safe - even if those other people might not want you to. Chin up, though. I'll probably see you in a few hours, and then we can all laugh about how dramatic and mushy this letter is. Hugs, Ines. PS: Take care of Gage for me. He acts like he doesn't need that, but I think sometimes he does.""

-

There's a brief smile -- which he tries to stifle -- when the boy shoots him a look, but Gage keeps silent. In fact, his eyes close, as if he's imaging the words in Ines' voice. Even when the boy sniffs, he keeps his eyes closed. She's still a silly girl. It makes him bark a laugh, and then a moment later wince in pain. "Yeah, she is," he agrees, gruffly.

When the boy trails off, he finally opens his eyes, half turning to study Nate as he reads silently. When he finally finishes the letter, he exhales a low breath. "She's a silly girl, but she's our silly girl, yeah?"

-

The thought seems to surprise Nate, who tilts his head as he gives that question some thought. "Yeah, I guess so," he agrees, in a tone that suggests he's still thinking about it. It has a 'why not' sort of tone too casual to plumb the depths of what's meant. But then, he's just a boy. And then again, he's a boy quick on the uptake: "She'd prolly get mad if you said that though."

Already underneath his words comes the sound of paper crinkling, one letter set aside in favor of the other. He opens it with the greediness and haste of youth with sudden access to secrets beyond its years, eager -- only to slowly frown, disappointment cresting in expressive features. "It's in all funny letters."

When he holds it out, it reveals a page of neatly-printed words, all in Tauran, using its alphabet.

-

Sometimes, it's just hard to fault the logic of a guileless child. "Yeah, she would. Good thing she's not here, huh?" Some tension he wasn't even aware of shifts, when Nate speaks again. He shifts the rifle -- half resting across his legs -- to the floor beside him. Still within easy reach, but like he's deliberately setting it aside for a moment, so that he can take the letter from the boy.

"It's Tauran," he says, briefly. "It's my -- my native language. Tauran is better to curse in, and I'd imagine she's not happy with me right about now. I... I hurt her pretty badly, just before she wrote this letter," he confesses with a tightening of his jaw.

It's harder than he would imagine it to be, to focus. To make himself read the words. For a moment, his fingers tighten, and he imagines doing what Nate did -- leaving it unread, stewing in the possibilities. He lifts a hand to his chest, massaging there -- probably not even conscious he's doing it -- before he exhales a breath, and starts reading, silently.

-

Nate's eye-rolling scoff is flawlessly executed. Adults are so dense. "I know what Tauron is, it's a whole entire planet. I did go to school." And then the questions, as much a part of Nate as his bloodstained jeans and dirty-blond hair, this time uneasy, knit-browed. "What do you mean? Hurt her like how?"

The letter, as Tomak rightly guesses, leaps straight to discussing that very thing.

I'm so angry with you.

I understand why you have to do it - I imagine you couldn't live with yourself if you left them all behind. But I know that because I'm asking myself how I'm going to do the same once I have to leave you at that gods-forsaken mine, and I'm so angry that you're putting me in that position. After you stayed for me. After everything. I wonder if you could do the same, if our positions were reversed.

It's a good thing King will be there. I don't think I could go through with it otherwise.

Selfishly I wish you wouldn't, but I suppose you wouldn't be who you are if you didn't, and the world would be a much poorer place for the loss of that man. Which doesn't mean you're not still a frakking asshole: you are. But you're the frakking asshole who maybe really did get me out of there after all, and

The letter line-breaks, the sentence abandoned partway through.

There are a lot of things I could write here, but if I try I may change my mind about leaving, so I won't. I think you already know, anyway. I think the odds are definitely against us tonight, so it's lucky for the both of us that I've never been very good at calculating those.

You promised me, Gage.

Don't forget.

I.

-

"She thought I was coming with her. I let her think that, would've let her keep thinking that until we reached the raider. I didn't want--" the marine's mouth snaps shut, as if belatedly realizing he's pouring his heart out to a kid. "...I was an ass," is what he concludes, tersely, as his gaze falls onto the letter.

There's some comfort, in reading Tauran. It's his native language, and there's a poetry and familiarity to it that immediately brings a pensive expression to him even before he's sunk very far into the words. The more he rests, the more his expression stiffens, like he's working hard to keep whatever he's feeling from spilling out.

His hand pressing into his chest tightens. "I still am an ass," he concludes, jaw tightening as he lowers the letter.

Of course, that won't be enough for a kid -- he knows what they're like, their curiosity. And so, he says, "Your letter was nicer. She's angry at me, with good reason. And reminding me of a promise I made her not to die," his lips sketch the outline of a smile, faint. "Whatever happens, kid, you're going to stick with me, right by my side. I'm not going to die, that means you're not, either, okay?"

-

Nate hangs on every last word with the kind of intense solemnity that says he's committed to his unanticipated role of confessor, but the way his eyes tick off to the side and his brows slide together says he doesn't really understand the nuances of the problem -- even if he does understand the cause and effect. "Just so she'd go? But she was sick, so she had to." His face tightens in consternation and bafflement. "She said she'd die if she stayed so you were just trying to help."

Tomak's inner landscape is a mystery even to most of the adults in his social spheres, so it's probably no surprise that Nate can't get much foothold on it based on his jaw-tightened murmur alone. "I don't think you're a-" He hesitates, then goes for it: "-ass." And then the side-glance, to see if he's going to get into trouble, whilst trying to look as though he's not checking to see if that's going to be a thing.

It's easy enough for him to promise to stay close -- he just nods a few times; he's used to that instruction now, probably -- but he looks troubled, anyway. "So if they're coming to get us, why would we die? They're coming like, soon, right?"

-

"It aint always that simple, Nate," Gage struggles to explain -- to himself, as much as the boy. "Sometimes we want to do things that aren't logical, because... because it feels right."

It's as much Nate's wary use of the curse as it is his determination that makes the Tauran smile, roughly. "Thanks," also, "Don't let anyone know I used that language around you, all right? Our secret."

"I don't know. Maybe." He passes a hand over his eyes. He can smell the remnants of battle -- the smell of explosives and gunfire -- and it makes his expression harden, inadvertently. "You ought to try and get some rest, kiddo." He should, too, but of course he won't, because Gage. Instead, he refolds that letter, carefully, and then slips it into the pocket of his pants.

-

"Right," Nate says, on logic and its lack in certain affairs. He clearly has no idea what Tomak is talking about, but if he admits that the Tauran may not trust him with these confidences again, so he makes an effort to appear as though it all makes perfect sense.

At least until he bristles. "I've heard worse," he says, and then mellows into cool-guy casual as he adds, "And I don't snitch."

He, too, glances over his own letter before folding it up and tucking it away. He also looks skeptical about the thought of sleeping, though he has the pinched look of a kid destined for unconsciousness in spite of himself.

Before he's even willing to make the effort, however, he has one question that requires an answer: "You're not gonna leave again, are you?"

-

The rough laugh spills from the Tauran inadvertently, cut off abruptly a breath later when it causes a jag of pain through his ribs. "You're a good kid, Nate," he says, with a rough kind of fondness, borne as much out of the marine's exhaustion but no less genuine for all that.

It should be a simple answer. One he could even lie to and mean it at the time. But Gage owes the boy much more than that, for many more reasons than he'd ever care to explain. "Not unless I'm dead, kid. Here till the end. Too fra-- too stubborn to do anything else." With a grunt, he shifts around, reaching for the blanket to tuck it over the boy, making sure it covers his feet, much in the same way he did with Ines.

-

As it was with Ines, so it is with Nate: Gage's verbal assurance is all he needs. He still sighs theatrically about the necessity of having a bedtime in present circumstances -- even if it's really more about being rested to prepare for whatever may come -- but he does lay down in the bed so recently abandoned by Ines without any protest. It seems for those few moments as though quiet may descend, leaving each of them alone with their own thoughts.

Only Nate breaks the silence with one last question. He tries to be casual about it.

"What's gonna happen to me when they get us outta here?"

-

It there was ever any moment where Tomak might wish for an abrupt and violent war to break out to interrupt the current conversation, it's probably this moment.

It's a moment before the marine answers, and when he does, it's with carefully chosen words: "I'd guess they'll try and find your relatives and place you with them." He scratches at his chin, exhales an inaudible sigh, and adds, "Ines and I--" he stumbles to a stop for a moment, fingers pressing at his chest. Then, finally, he continues, "We're soldiers. Eventually, they'll move us on from Picon, to the next war zone, wherever that might be. Whatever happens though, we'll keep in touch. Correa's better at writing than me, though."

For a moment, there's a brief smile, almost hidden. "She wrote a book, you know? Well, she didn't really write it, but she created it. Maybe she'll do a book about you, too. You should think what you want your character's name to be, tell her when we... when we see her." The last few words are rushed, like they almost don't make it out.

-

Nate says nothing about his relatives. He may not have any. He may have some, but not know where they are. He may have some and not care for them, or not be able to bring himself to believe they're okay, or-

In the end, all that matters is that he doesn't take them down a tearful avenue into his own past, silent on the matter. When he does speak, his voice is smushed by the way the pillow's pressing his cheek. "I know I can't stay with you guys." He does sound sad about it, but resigned, too. At least it isn't a surprise.

If he's looking at Nate, he'll see the dubious expression on mention of Ines as a writer. Not long ago, he was giving her the same look when she insisted that she was a soldier. Nate is a difficult boy to impress.

It's a look that turns thoughtful for a while after that. Maybe contemplating that possible reunion?

"Maybe Ringo," he says, finally, pensive. He sounds absolutely serious about that.

And drowsy. Serious...and drowsy.

-

There's a flicker of a smile, quickly suppressed, at the boy's dubiousness. "Ringo. Ringo Lowjack has a good ring to it," Gage says. "I bet he'd get up to all sorts of misadventures. Climbing trees and breaking his arm, throwing rocks into a cave and getting knocked on his ass by bats, getting stuck down a--" one could definitely get the feeling the Tauran is reciting the playbook of his misspent youth, though perhaps mercifully, he goes quiet after a look back at Nate.

Who probably missed the whole thing.

Oversharing done, the Tauran shifts his weight, trying to find a comfortable spot that won't hurt his ribs. Apparently it doesn't exist, since finally he grunts his frustration and climbs to his feet, pacing within the small room. Occasionally, his hand reflexively touches his rifle, but it also presses to his chest now and then and once, to the letter tucked into his pocket. Someone won't be getting any sleep any time soon.


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