Benji knew this drill all too fucking well.
First, the initial welling of panic, overflowing the banks of—no! Taking up arms. Donning the gifts of… of the gods. Debating if he would need the frog statue this time. Grabbing it off its dusty shelf despite himself. Yelling at Ahi to get his fat ass moving. Bribing him with snacks. Herding Jeff, Abel, Lisa, and all the boys to the shelter. Cyril settling on the roof like a gargoyle.
Second, the agitated waiting. Huddled in the safest corner of the shelter. Heart pumping. Stupid super-senses straining. No words, but so many prayers. Heavy, irregular, stifled breathing. Hands shaking, movements jerky. Jumping at the slightest thing that goes amiss, the slightest sudden sound that isn’t right.
And then, the adrenaline wears off.
This was the worst part, the not-so-agitated waiting. Having to stay quiet. Having to keep from moving, lest the movement send out ripples of—fucking no! Having to stay alert, as time dragged onward. Wondering what was taking so long, wondering why something doesn’t just burst in and kill them all already. Telling Ruben to settle down and keep Hector quiet for the fifty-gajillionth time.
Fucking Ahi lying there like a—like a lump, eyes closed. He’d probably fallen asleep the moment they settled in.
And then—finally—the aroma of dry desert sands, subtle and yet powerful all at once.
Benji turned towards the ladder leading to Dovile’s sniper tower. Aida was already halfway down, her feet almost silently and quickly trading rungs with her hands, tattoos shifting on her skin with each movement. No one else seemed to notice. They never did—she never announced herself, because she took for granted that her smell would give her away.
Maybe if he pretended not to notice she’d act like a normal fucking human being.
Okay, that was the stress talking. He loved Aida, and she was still alive. Thank the absentee gods.
Of course, if she’d been assigned to messenger duty, that meant Ange was…
Okay. Try not to think about it. Imagination was always worse than reality.
He stepped forward, making a point to draw attention to Aida.
“What’s the news?” It came out a whisper. Benji had been going for something less meek-sounding.
Jeff and Abel straightened, watching her intently. Lisa slowly rose from her seat, slow, tentative steps inching her towards the ladder.
Aida dropped to the floor, her earrings swinging to and fro wildly before quickly settling, and turned to face them. There wasn’t so much as a spot of color in her cheeks. Her brows partially shadowed her eyes—but that, and the messy smears and smudges of kohl, only seemed to make her sockets deeper, and cast a flat look in her eyes. Shadow clung to other planes of her face, as well, hollowing her.
Benji knew that look. He hadn’t seen it for a very long time.
It chilled his blood.
“Sasha lured Derrick to the Ruins. Minimal damage to Bakersfield.” Her voice was level, and yet seemed to draw silence around it like a clo—no, dammit, no. Everyone was all but holding their breaths, that’s all it was. “We managed to calm him down there. He is unconscious and en route to Regency Hall.”
“But, like, no one got too badly fucked up, right?” Jeff asked, just barely above a whisper himself.
A slow, flickering blink. “Lance is dead.” Less level this time. Quieter. Smaller. “He took a hit meant for Carmen.”
A drop, rippling gently outward. Reeds only just bouncing with the sweep of water.
It was like he was floating down a river, watching the scenery as he drifted by.
Jeff, pulling back slowly, yielding to his seat. His palms pressed to his temples, before sliding to the back of his head as his gaze rolled upward to the ceiling.
Abel, shading his clenched eyes with his hands, bending forward until his elbows were planted on his knees.
Lisa, her eyes wide and staring at the ground, and yet somewhere far beyond. One of her arms wrapped around her stomach, and the other hand clutched at the center of her chest.
Senbast, eyes dropping to his gun as his finger ran along the safety.
Galen, his face screwing up more in confusion than anything else.
Ruben, stepping forward, jaw jutted and expression taut with fury, screaming that he’d kill Derrick as his voice cracked and tears raged down his cheeks.
The bunker, standing strong and quiet, with rows and rows of tables and sewing machines and reams of fabric remaining utterly still.
(Ruben. Ruben, please come here.
NO! NO! I’M GONNA KILL HIM! I’M GONNA GO RIGHT NOW AND I’M GONNA KILL HIM!
Ruben. Listen to me. Derrick was angry, just like you are. Do you think Derrick did the right thing?
NO, ARE YOU CRAZY, MOM!? THAT FUCKFACE KILLED LANCE! HE WAS GONNA KILL CARMEN!
Lance… Lance only wanted his loved ones safe. That’s why he lived, and fought, and… and died. So you can do what Derrick did, and kill because you’re angry, or you can be like Lance.
But it’s not FAIR, Mom! Derrick is WRONG, and he gets to be alive! It’s not fucking fair! It’s not…
I know, honey. I know. It’s not fair at all.)
Bakersfield, teeming with people who probably weren’t even aware of what had just transpired.
(It’s not fair, Mom, it’s not fair…
Aida, are you hurt?
Good… good. Is… anyone else?
Sasha sustained some wounds, but Dovile healed them. Carmen isn’t wounded, but her water broke so she’s headed to the hospital.
The world, unperturbed by this lone departing spirit—and by this lone arriving one—in the face of so many others, past and present.
(Galen, sweetie, come here. Senbast, you too, please. The danger’s over for now, you can put the gun away.
I… need to clean it.
… Okay. Okay.
Am I supposed to be crying, Mom?
You don’t have to, sweetie.
But you’re crying.)
What the fuck did their powers avail them, if nothing flinched at the death of a hero any more than the death of anyone else? All they ever did was draw the attention of Fate, as cold and uncaring as the rest of the cosmos.
Shit, Lisa. We… we got this. Fuck. You just. Do what you gotta do.)
Only the gods ever cared. And they weren’t around. Mortals cared too, but… but they didn’t matter.
I’m okay. I’m gonna get out of here. Garden, or something.
Forget me, Lisa. Go check on Carmen.)
Lance is dead.
That wide, stupid, cocky smile. The testosterone-laden, too-loud whoops of victory. The puzzled crinkle of his brows that made him look like a dumbass. The surefooted swagger that would’ve been a strut if it weren’t for the fact that he didn’t realize he was doing it.
Gods, he was… had been so beautiful.
Ashore, suddenly, under the harsh heat of the—gods, no! Couldn’t these thoughts just… leave him alone for one. Fucking. Second?
Lisa’s hand on his shoulder. He didn’t turn. He didn’t want to see.
“Benji. Can you promise me you’ll come to the hospital when you can?”
Why couldn’t they just forget him? He didn’t want to matter. Mattering meant having to fight… all this.
But they mattered. Damn it all. They mattered to him.
“Yeah, okay. I’ll be there.”