by A.M Morning
Everybody says that the world in unsalvageable. Fourteen-year-old Aiden thinks otherwise.
The battlefield raged.
It wasn’t supposed to go this way.
The battle raging at the quaint, coastal town of Eastcliffe was supposed to be short and easy, nigh-effortless in execution as The Ravens - the last group fighting against the totalitarian government known as The Catago - drove their enemies away from the peaceful town.
To be completely honest, it wouldn’t contribute much of anything to the rebellion - at least not in the long run. The Ravens could win the battle and the Catago could shrug off the blow or vice-versa. It was a battle for morale, a signal to the rest of the world that The Ravens weren’t done fighting, even if the Eight-Year War had already concluded ten years prior to the battle at Eastcliffe.
Whether The Ravens won or lost, the battle wasn’t supposed to strengthen or loosen the Catago’s ironclad victory.
But nothing ever goes the way it should.
Because the thing is, the battle at Eastcliffe was important, and it could’ve changed everything, had The Ravens accounted for the ambush that came out of left field and decimated their far too small fighting force.
If only we’d sent in more people, one of the rebels, Rico Espinoza thought, mind running itself ragged with alternate scenarios in which The Ravens were the ones winning this battle.
“Sir?” Somebody asked from behind him. Rico jumped.
He turned to face the woman he was leading out of her house, which happened to be in right in the middle of the cross-fire.
“Are you alright?” She pressed.
Rico cleared his throat.
“Yes, yes, I’m fine. Just, uh - don’t call me sir. I’m only sixteen.”
Rico rolled his eyes and withdrew a dagger from the pouch at his side, chopping off a small section of his cloak and handing it to her.
“What am I supposed to use this for?”
Rico froze as he tucked the knife away, the golden undertones in his skin becoming more apparent as his face heated. “Kerchief,” he said, grasping the woman’s hand and tugging her along as she pressed the ratty piece of fabric against her mouth and nose.
As they ran through the town, Rico felt an overpowering sense of sorrow rush over him.
He’d visited Eastcliffe a handful of times before - it’d always been a pleasant place, smelling of fresh fish and coffee shops - heaven to Rico’s senses and a welcome reprieve from the chaos of his life.
But now? Now it smelled of blood and sweat and death and all Rico could hear was the screams of allies and enemies alike as they fell victim to guns and knives and swords.
Every single one of Rico’s instincts screamed at him to run and run and run until Eastcliffe was out of sight and out of mind.
Buth his conscience wouldn’t let him do such a thing - and neither would his job. The leader of The Ravens - Rico’s father - Jacinto, had ordered him to get the citizens out of harm’s way and to the transports (taxi cabs and buses and beat up minivans brought along by The Ravens for the express purpose of getting the civilians out.)
“C’ mon,” Rico muttered, jogging beside the woman he was helping. He'd pulled the remains of his cloak - he’d chopped off so much of it for ‘kerchiefs that it was little more than rags - up to cover his mouth and nose to avoid inhaling more smoke.
As he scrambled over the hill that separated the town from the road, tears sprung into his eyes. Heavy smoke, Rico figured. He coughed several times, hard enough that his ribs throbbed and tears started to drip down his ash and dirt-smeared face.
Where is this smoke coming from? We’re getting pretty far from the fires.
He saw the source soon enough.
The round of vehicles that’d arrived only moments ago had been set on fire, the metal melting at the ferocity of the flames - not natural - magic. The Catago’s team of sorcerers must’ve spent weeks psyching themselves to amplify the flames - magic couldn’t summon fire, but it could amplify it.
They were ready for us.
Rico cursed and ushered for the woman to go hide… somewhere. Surely there had to be somewhere she could go - she knew the town better than he did.
“Find somewhere to hide if you can, and keep that ‘kerchief over your face. I’ll figure something out.”
She nodded and tilted her head towards a dilapidated building - an old bar, judging by the half-lit neon sign at its front.
Rico sighed and smiled softly, a pressure lifting off his chest - she had somewhere to hide, now he just had to figure out what to do about the destroyed vehicles. He swore under his breath upon counting the vehicles - that was all they had on hand. If only they’d known about the sorcerers and had sent the transports in blocks so they couldn’t have all been destroyed at once - it would’ve been okay.
Or hell, had guards posted to make sure the transports were okay while the drivers went out to get civilians out of the town.
Footsteps came up behind him, and Rico flinched, whirling around and yanking his gun out of his holster.
“Who’s there - oh, what’re you doing here?”
Standing before him on the hill was Martin, Rico’s closest… friend?
Matin was out of breath and shaking. His eyes, which were the same grey-green shade as military uniforms, glinted with water - whether they were tears caused by the smoke or some tragic event, Rico couldn’t be sure. The sun had darkened his skin and bleached his hair, but his usually tanned skin had gone very pale - though, with worry or shock, Rico couldn’t guess.
“I-it’s your dad. Jacinto.”
Rico froze in place, his hands curling themselves into fists tight enough to make his knuckles pale - not nearly as pale as Martin’s face, considering the fact that Rico’s skin was significantly darker than his friend’s.
“What. Do. You. Mean?”
“He - he was stabbed. But, uh, don’t worry! It’s not that bad, they said, it’s not that bad…”
Martin said something else, but his words faded away and became little more than extra battle sounds. White noise, that was all it was - nothing existed in Rico’s mind except for horror.
Rico’s throat clenched and without warning, it became very difficult to breathe. Pain shot through his chest as if he was the one who had just been stabbed, and he grabbed at his dark hair, coming close to tearing it out until Martin grabbed hold of Rico’s arms and bit by bit, pulled them to his sides. Martin rubbed the back of Rico’s hand, threading his own fingers with Rico’s, squeezing once, and then gently slipping his hands away.
Rico let his hands fall to his sides - he didn’t have the energy to lift them again. His legs felt heavy, heart slamming against his ribcage, his heart twisting itself into a knot.
Giving him ample time to move away, Martin leaned in and pressed a soft kiss to Rico’s mouth, holding his face in his hands and touching their foreheads together. His eyes slid shut and he exhaled softly.
“You okay?” He asked, voice soft as he opened his eyes.
Rico swallowed and shook his head.
Martin pulled back and Rico felt the aching urge to pull him back, but he didn’t have the energy to move, or even speak. He hardly had the energy to breathe.
Martin smiled, eyes wet and the corners of his mouth not quite reaching his eyes.
“Hey, I swear, your dad is going to be fine. It’s a small wound on his thigh, the other guy is dead. You have more serious wounds. The… the Catago retreated. I don't know why, they’re obviously up to something, but don’t worry about that now, m’kay? We’re just going to head back to headquarters. You and your dad will eat, get fixed up, then go to sleep, and you’ll wake up fine, okay?”
What are we? Was what he wanted to say. Neither of them had outlined their relationship - they weren’t ready for that. Besides, commitment during a rebellion was a frightening thing - who knew when it could be ripped away? Rico had been attracted to people before, dated before - men, women, those who didn’t fit into either camp - but he’d never felt this before.
The words died on his tongue before they left his mouth, remaining in the world only as a love letter that Rico never got to sign. All Rico could do was choke on the ghost of those three simple words as he fell into Martin, shaking as one arm wrapped around him and the other ran a hand through his hair.
How lucky I am, Rico thought. To be loved in this way.
He didn’t say a word until the day after the next.
Rico and his father recovered from their injuries quickly, as did the majority of the other wounded rebels - not everybody was so lucky, though, the deaths of some of their injured comrades serving as a grim reminder to the rebels of the tragedy of war.
His father had become his old self again. Every battle, he became colder, more hardened, like refined steel. It was very different from the jovial, humourous man he usually was. But luckily, he’d returned to his former self, walking through the halls and nodding cheerfully at his fellow Ravens.
Everything was back to normal - as normal as it could get when you lived like this, at least.
It didn’t stick.
Only a few painfully short days passed before Rico’s father became lethargic and nauseous, eventually collapsing on the floor of his room.
Nobody knew what’d happened, and so the leader was rushed to the infirmary. And when he finally came to as his healers desperately tried to figure out what was wrong? He requested nothing but a pen and paper.
People filtered in and out of the ailing leader’s room, their heads bowed and faces grim as the healers spent every waking hour trying to figure out what was wrong.
Rico mostly sat in a chair beside his father’s bed, refusing to give up and barely paying the healers and other Ravens any notice as they went in and out of the room.
He only got up with coaxing or to take care of his needs, and barely spoke to anybody.
One day, as his father’s condition was somehow still worsening, one of the healers tapped his shoulder. “...Rico?”
Voice weak and hoarse, he mumbled a single stunned and confused word.
The healer at his shoulder sighed, her shoulders drooping.
“He’s not going to make it. I’m so sorry.”
Rico buried his head in his hands and screamed himself hoarse.
At first, Rico had planned to stay with his father until the man had passed on, but he wound up throwing the door open as he desperately tried to talk with his father as he neared his final moments, but the man who’d raised him all alone and given him all the love he had to offer had become mostly unresponsive, and if he spoke, it wasn’t to Rico, but rather his wife, whom he’d divorced fifteen years prior. He stumbled into the kitchens and grabbed a bottle of vodka, struggling to open it as he stumbled through the halls as though he were already drunk.
I just need a breather, Rico convinced himself as he slumped against the bathroom wall. He’d managed to open the bottle and tipped it back, gulping it down as he tried to wrap his head around the reality of the situation.
He cried until his eyes burned and his face was flush and his cheeks were wet. He cried until the tears running down his face looked more like long cuts, cuts that would scar and never really heal, scars that would fade but the skin would remain split, and they would remind him.
The bathroom door opened and Rico recoiled away from the hallway light, quickly raising an arm up to his face and vigorously rubbing his eyes until they were raw and bloodshot, but not as wet.
Martin stood above him, his grey-green eyes not once meeting Rico’s amber as he gulped and passed him a letter. “I-it’s from your father,” Martin muttered.
As Rico was about to tear the seal away, Martin’s hand gently grasped his wrist.
“He said to open it if things ever got really bad.”
A strange sound, somewhere between a laugh and a sob left his mouth. How much darker can things get?
Martin eyed the bottle in his hands.
“How much have you drank?” He asked, prying the bottle out of Rico’s hands.
He reached for it, fingers slipping off the smooth surface as Martin yanked away from him, accidentally throwing the bottle to the floor where it shattered with a sound that sounded more akin to a gunshot that shattering glass, spilling the alcoholic contents to the bathroom floor.
“Shit,” Martin said, hissing the word out between his teeth. He pulled Rico to his feet, slinging one of his arms over his neck.
“Thanks,” Rico managed to slur out as Marin led him out of the bathroom, side-stepping the pool of vodka on the floor.
“It’s not a problem,” Martin said, biting his lip and swallowing once, twice, three times.
They stopped outside Rico’s dorm.
“I’ll just get somebody to clean up the spill and then I’ll be right back, okay?” Martin said, smoothing Rico’s hair back and brushing tears away from his eyes.
“Okay, okay, that’s - that’s good, I’m okay with that,” Rico stuttered out, sliding down the wall.
“Go inside your room,” Martin said, voice quivering.
“Right, right, that’s a better idea.”
Rico stumbled to his feet and leaned forward, planting a sloppy kiss on the corner of Martin’s mouth, surprised when he was gently pushed away.
“Not right now,” Martin said. “You’re not in your right mind right now. I’ll be right back and then maybe tomorrow we can stay in all day, okay?”
Rico nodded and stepped inside his room, shutting the door and flopping down on one of the beds - he wasn’t even sure if it was his,
He didn’t care.
Rico spent most of the next week in his room as the still grief-stricken Ravens tried to coax him out. He pondered that question over and over again, and every single time the thought struck him, he’d be compelled to tear off the seal and read what was reserved for an even worse event. How much darker?
Martin died the next week.
Rico locked his door.
Two years later
Rico sat in his desk in the centre of the main room of the underground Ravens base, tossing his father’s letter from hand to hand.
The dirt walls were covered with plaster, although sections of that plaster had been peeling for eight years, and every time those sections got large enough to be a problem, they’d be covered with duct tape.
The peeling plaster had only just started to peel away from the walls when Rico had first entered the room and the young age of ten-years-old. His father had promised it’d be fixed, but that never happened, and everybody was too busy too often to care about something as mundane as peeling walls.
Rico figured that it had to be at least one in the morning. He didn’t go up to the surface very often, usually staying down where it was safe and you had to rely on your instincts to tell the time.
He leaned back in his chair, running his hands down his face.
Two whole years…
Today marked the anniversary of the day his father had died, and horrible things were occurring.
Members were dying in the simplest of missions, falling to the blades and guns of the Catago, and Rico had no idea who to trust, as he’d weeded out three moles in the past year.
How much darker?
He decided that things couldn’t get much worse, and tore open the letter.
If you’re reading this, it means that I didn’t beat the poison and that things have come crashing down. I’m sorry to leave you in this sort of position, and if Bryson or any other older members are reading this letter instead of you, then I can completely understand. The heir rule was a poor decision on my part, and do not feel like you are disappointing me should you choose to relinquish leadership to somebody else.
On a different note, there is a spot of hope.
Do you remember the boy I told you about those years ago? He won’t save you on his own, there will be work to do and he will need to learn just like everybody else, but he could help, at least. Send a letter inviting him to you - he resides at New Horizons in Vecuria, on Union Lane.
Rico buried his head in his hands, his entire body trembling with the force of his sobs.
He raised his head and grabbed his pen.
It was time to write a letter.