No words fell between them. The only thing that punctuated the white noise of the city, of the waning destruction, was his footsteps—not even hers. Aida’d always walked with such grace, as if she were barely a moonbeam touching the ground.
Somehow, it seemed more respectful that way.
It was a strange feeling—Brendan recalled, long ago, being convinced that dead bodies were just disgusting bags of meat, leaking fluid and loosing offal and slowly growing putrid. Death was nothing clean, nothing special, nothing sacred.
Most of that was still true.
Brendan had sacrificed his shirt to bundle up Lance’s innards. Blood had long ago leaked through and was dripping down his front, down his legs, growing gummy and tugging at his skin and body hair with each movement. This was certainly not clean.
Around him and Aida, the cries and wails of fresh loss. The countless silent spirits that had been lost even before that. The countless more spirits wandering aimless outside and beyond. More than that, it had been sudden. No speech, no final farewell. Out of eleven seconds, it took less than one for him to die. This was certainly not special.
But he’d make fucking sure that this was sacred. Lance deserved no less.
They reached home as the sun was beginning to set. Aida entered first, to break the news to Lisa and the boys. Brendan went around back, to rest Lance in a safe place, to clean him up. Slowly, respectfully, Brendan removed his helm, took his spear from his hands. Cut the shirt off of him. Washed him with scented water.
Shit, Lance deserved a lot more than this. He deserved to be the one heading to the hospital with his wife. Brendan should’ve been ready for that. Everything they’d heard about Derrick, everything they’d seen about and around him—as noble-intentioned as he was—pointed to a massive body count. But Brendan had been so wrapped up in picking out his weaknesses, interpreting his movements, mapping the paths of his rage, that he’d missed the most important thing: the beckoning song of his father’s waters.
Maybe he’d grown too optimistic. Maybe he’d actually believed that they’d make it through the battle okay. It was hard to say now. Eleven transient seconds of frenzied half-thoughts and instincts didn’t make for good self-analysis material.
Regardless, the fact remained: Lance had paid the price of that battle. Lance and Carmen… and their child. It felt like more than some kind of crime—it felt fundamentally wrong. They shouldn’t have had to pay that price. Brendan should’ve footed the bill. Death was his destiny, one way or another, and there were few worthier ways he could’ve met it.
A familiar sour feeling swam through the hole in him like a large, dark shadow of a creature passing through the deep, trailing clouds like fresh-spilled blood diffusing through water. This again: the self-disgust that he only ever seemed good at feeding—not so good at defeating.
He felt a hand on his shoulder.
The broken silence felt almost like some kind of affront.
Aida’s expression was tight. The dark, rich, almost violet color to her cheeks wasn’t there. But her gaze was steady.
“I know you,” she continued. Her eyes searched him for a moment, before her brow set. “Don’t you dare blame yourself. Don’t you fucking dare.”
His first instinct was to fight: he wasn’t blaming himself, he was taking responsibility for his failure to do what he should’ve done!
But he could see the pain written on her drawn, bloodless face, etched in her brow. She’d lost Lance too. And yet here she was, thinking about him, worrying about him, hurting for him, too.
It was like a blow to the gut.
“Aida, I’m…” For a long moment, no words offered themselves to him. Then his own brow set. “… I’m not going to start drinking again. I promise.”
She swallowed, but didn’t look away. “I know.”
Another blow to the gut, another long moment of words that refused to surface.
“Then… Gods, Aida…” His mouth twitched and he blinked back tears. “I’m… That’s my… y-you shouldn’t have to… Gods, Aida, why?”
Her brows turned up and her jaw jutted. “Because I love you, you retard! Because—” She swallowed again and pressed a fist into her chest. “Because I know you’ll still be hurting when the rest of us will be starting to heal. Because it hurts to see you suffer alone, when you don’t have to. There’s already so much of that going around and… and I don’t… I don’t fucking understand why you think you should suffer more and longer than everyone else!” Angrily she dashed her fist across her eye, smearing a little kohl. “It’s not like there’s some sort of fucking pain race you have to win or… or… or an agony quota that we have to meet that we’re all somehow falling short on!”
“Aida, I’m not trying to win anything!”
She angrily brought her fist down to her side. “That’s not the fucking point, Brendan!”
“No! The point is, Aida, he’s not the one who should be here!” Brendan moved his hand sharply over Lance. “This should be me!” He looked back to Aida. “You and I, we knew the price of Derrick going crazy again better than anyone else! We see it around us every goddamn day! I should’ve been the one to pay it, not Lance!”
Aida stepped back, her hand dropping from his shoulder. Her eyes welled again, but she pressed her lips in a thin line. “Why would you say that?”
“Because now Carmen’s paying it too! And their child!”
“So what does that make me? Mashed brains? What about Senbast? Shit, what about Sanura?”
Where the hell did that come from? Brendan shook his head. “What?”
More tears welled in Aida’s eyes, but she held her anger firm. “Are you seriously telling me that you hadn’t even at least considered what kind of price we would have to pay in your fucked-up accounting if this,” she motioned over Lance’s body, “were you instead? Your life doesn’t exist in some kind of void, Brendan!”
A third blow.
“Aida, I… that’s different.” She crossed her arms, glaring at him expectantly. “For starters, I’m—I’m not Senbast’s father, or even some kind of fatherly figure—I’m only barely okay at being a… a brother, I guess you could say… I’d be a shitty dad… and besides, he’s got you and Dovile and Sanura.”
Still, she didn’t budge. “Let’s call that a compelling argument. So what about Sanura? What about me? How would this price be okay for me to pay?”
“I’m not—that’s not what I’m saying! It’s not okay for anyone!” Aida pressed her lips into a thin line and lifted her brows, as if saying ‘You think?’ Anger welled in Brendan, sudden, black, and caustic. “Fuck, Aida, how can you ask me this with Lance’s dead body right fucking here? Shouldn’t this be enough evidence?” Her gaze dropped then, and her mouth twisted. But he’d already started—the wave had gathered. There was no choice but to let it crash. “Are you saying that it’s better this way?”
She took a shuddering breath and put a hand over her mouth. “Gods, no, of course not… I…” She dropped her hand, looking at Brendan beseechingly, tears trailing down her face. “I just want you to see just how fucked up and pointless this whole line of thinking, this… measuring of lives, this morbid fucking comparison you’re making… is!” She paused. “Brendan, the daughter of Lord Anubis, weigher of souls, is saying this! That should fucking tell you something!”
No. It wasn’t enough. She didn’t get it. There was no debate about this—Lance’s life was worth more than his, hands down. She had to understand. Brendan pushed onward. “Sanura has a life outside of me. You have a life outside of me. Carmen’s his wife, for fuck’s sake!”
Silence followed, then. Gravelike. Aida’s expression slowly smoothed and her deep, dark eyes went flat.
“I see.” Her words were even flatter. She took a trembling breath and stepped away, squaring her shoulders. “Well. You… you seem to have this part handled. I’m going to… go with Lisa and the boys to the hospital.” Without waiting for a response, she turned and headed back into the building.
Shit. He fucked up.
She didn’t respond. He started after her, then stopped when he realized he didn’t know exactly what to apologize for.
He fucked up good.
He glanced over his shoulder.
Not only did he fuck up talking with Aida, he’d defiled Lance’s death with anger and harshly-traded words.
“Shit, Lance.” A rock formed in his throat, his voice crashing and breaking against it. “I’m sorry.” He turned to return to the body. “You deserve so much better than this. At the very least you should’ve had one more day. You should at least have seen your baby.”
A pebble dropped in his mind, sending its ripple outward.
Except… well, he’d already angered Aida. This would just be another drop in the bucket.
He began the ritual.