Mary was taking visitors in her room when I arrived.
Two children sat at the foot on the bed, flicking through tablets. Mary peered over their shoulders inquisitively, only looking up when I made a noise.
“Gale,” Mary said, evenly. “Glad you could visit again.”
I coughed, turning my head to the side.
I hadn’t adjusted to being out of the dark yet. It was stupid, but the ways the walls were tight around me made my head swam.
But this wasn’t about me. This was about Mary.
Her two kids slowly looked up from their tablets and Mary snatched them up and set them to the side.
“Jess, Tim,” Mary said, nudging them one by one, carefully avoiding justling them closer to her legs. “This is Gale. I told you about Gale, didn’t I?”
Jess squinted her small face at me, then shaded her eyes like I was the sun. “I thought Gale would be a bit bigger. You know, like on TV.”
“Cartoons aren’t real life,” Mary said, soft. “There’s plenty of shorter heroes.”
I rolled my eyes and took a seat on the doctor’s stools. “How’s your legs?”
“The doctor says I should be able to leave in a few days. They just need to make sure there’s no more clots forming, and there are no long term repercussions beyond what’s already been seen.” Mary’s smile was a bit more strained, but it was genuine when her eyes settled on her kids. “It’ll be rough, but I can still walk.”
“Gale’s really short,” Tim agreed, sliding off of the bed. Mary tensed up as he neared her legs, but miraculously, in that way only small children can pull off, he nimbly avoided the trailing edge of her leg buried under the blankets.
“It’s why you need to eat better,” Mary fussed at them. “I don’t want to hear about my sister letting you skip your vegetables.”
I blinked. Being on the end of that moral lesson wasn’t what I expected. “Yes, you need to drink plenty of milk, too.”
“So we can be strong like you?” Jess raised an eyebrow. That’d be sarcasm from any other mouth, but my sense of the air felt no trickle of false hood.
Mary laughed sweetly, and put her hands on their shoulders. She squeezed. “Yeah. So you can be strong like me.”
Tim wrinkled his face. “Milk’s awful.”
“But you like ice cream,” Mary said.
“I do,” Tim agreed.
I hesitated, and looked around for a nurse. Mary’s face stiffened a bit.
“Go find your aunt, alright?” Mary said. “She should be right outside.”
I pointed just out of sight, then poked my head out.
Mary’s sister was older than she was, and bore the lines of someone that had a hero in the family. Stress, worry. That strange placidic combination that only came from constant stress.
To be a civilian in a house of heroes. What developed from there?
It didn’t matter, her face lit up when the children arrived, and within moments, she reached into her purse and pulled out a few peppermints for them.
I breathed, and slid back into the room.
Mary was gone. All that was left was the thin steel core that was Ironmarrow. An aging, but still powerful hero, eyeing me.
“Got yourself into more trouble?” the hero asked.
I sat back down on the stool. “Seems like all I ever find is trouble.”
The hero laughed, leaning back in the bed. “I’m out.”
“I wasn’t going to call you back in.”
“I’m still out,” Ironmarrow said. “I have a family. It was stupid to get back involved. I got lucky.”
I looked away from her and over to the window. A bird nest had formed, the shattered remnants of egg shells. Couldn’t guess the species. Guessed that I didn’t have to.
“Thank you,” I said.
Mary laughed. “There’s no need to thank me. I did it myself.”
“I didn’t need to call on you,” I gave her a slight smile. “You just did it. You had every right to just not show up.”
“There’s never a right to not help,” Mary returned. “And I wish more had answered.”
I shook my head. “I saw things down there, Mary.”
“There are many things in this world,” she muttered. “There are many things I wished I had never seen.”
She grunted, and threw herself forward, gripping the edge of the bed. I paused and looked at her, seeing her legs shake.
“Don’t worry. Physical therapy should have me at least walking. I’m counting on the pension from the Association to cover the rest.”
“My estate will cover it,” I said, off hand. “If the Association doesn’t.”
“I’m not too proud to not accept that, too,” Mary said, her hands leaping from the side of the bed to the window, hauling a chair for her to sit in.
I breathed in and out, opening my dry lips.
“You have to not let it budge you,” Mary cut in.
I paused. Hesitated. “I saw…”
“It doesn’t matter. You need to not let it budge you. It’s important. Your ideas… your heroics. They need to keep coming up,” Mary stared out the window. “It makes more sense when you have someone to protect.”
I thought about all the people I was trying to protect. It burned around my heart, made my chest heavy. My lungs thick.
But I saw the things in the dark. Heard the blast of the gun again and again.
“You need to be able to fight even when they aren’t doing right by you, either,” Mary said. “It’s rough. You might get shuffled around by whoever you’re trusting. To keep you safe. To keep you from finding out what’s going on.”
She hissed as her hands wavered, and I was at her side in an instant. “Are you okay?”
“Just… stiff. Broken. Rebecca’s been helping me.”
My fists clenched. “Can I do anything?”
My left hand stung like fire from the contraction, and I idly did stretched to try and get it back into shape.
Mary slid back against the bed. “Honestly…” the hero said. “There’s nothing much I can do for you. Nor that you can do for me. Keep everything safe. There’s a lot of people putting trust in you… and you have a habit of getting into trouble.”
The north was on fire. Dauphin island had almost claimed our lives again.
The east held mysteries.
The west held criminals.
Supplies were running low.
People were dying.
The nation was on fire.
The radio blared doomsday.
I somehow led Mobile.
I needed to keep it running. Maybe keep up hope for a bit longer.
“Anything at all,” I said, faint, distant.
“You have threats to fight. Defenses to marshal,” Mary’s face gleamed with steel again. “Let me handle the civilian matters. We still have things to marshal and people to squeeze dry for aid.”
“It seems wrong relying on you like this,” I said.
“I will do my part as long as I can,” Mary said. “But you just focus on getting us through until I don’t have to do it, alright?”
She showed her age, her tiredness, the lines in her face. Had she fought in veitnam? Had she fought in any of the border skirmishes, had she fought in the Hungarian campaign?
Who was I to doubt her now, when she had already gone through so much?
“Also, if you could,” Mary laughed. “See if I can get a shrine. I’m a bit vain, you see.”
Seth greeted me at the front of the Fourth Wave Church.
Fresh construction. They were still moving things in and out; church donations and labor paid in food and good will. They were becoming a community center, after all, running their own camps to keep people fed.
“Gale,” Seth greeted, shooting me a grin. “Congregation’s not up for the moment, if you wanted to make a speech.”
“I’m fine, anyway,” I said. “No speeches for me.”
“A shame, you’re such a good speaker,” Seth said, stepping inside. I followed after him. Statues. Shrines. Memorials. “What brings you here?”
My head turned to where I knew my shrine was. An awkward nervous heat built up around my chest.
“You’re still collecting my donations, right?” I asked, idly.
“I am. Decided to finally use them?”
My hands slid into the folds of my pack and took out the folded piece of paper Rebecca had given me. I unfurled it, fumbling with it before getting it right.
“You have space on a memorial for these names,” I said. Flat. “Put the donations towards that.”
Seth paused, looking them over. “Are these heroes, or…?”
“Association employees,” I said, even flatter. “You’ll find them a shrine.”
“There’s no need to twist my arm on it,” Seth protested. “The Fourth wave honors many kinds of heroes.”
I saw something in his face that flickered, wildly, like the face of the darkness under Dauphin island. Saw Colton bleeding reflected in his eyes. Something savage and forgotten.
Didn’t like the church.
I moved past him. Aware my uniform was in tatters. Could hear whispy bits of it drifting behind me.
“Do you need a tailor?” Seth asked, idly.
“No, I think I’ll just stick to armor instead of wasting resources.” I flicked my right hand as I walked towards my shrine. “They’ll recognize me regardless of whether or not I have a cape.”
Seth shrugged. “It detracts from your mythos if you’re not that recognizable, you know. We’re not changing your statue regardless.”
“Of course you’re not,” I said, taking a deep breath.
It seemed wrong to have this much opulence dedicated to the dead. This much macabre gold and brass festooning what was ultimately a corpse. Were we working towards this?
My shrine opened before my right hand and I stepped inside, sweeping in. When I died, would my shrine die with me, or would they inflate my legend? Make me into something I wasn’t?
Ornate state in bronze. I stared at my own eyes and saw an alien face reflected there. They were dead in that place in the ground. They were dead, and they weren’t human.
But they had screamed the entire way. They had dug their fingernails into that earth and screamed.
And Excelsior had lied to me that I had been the rightful leader. He had sent me to my death and thought I might get help here.
I was lucky.
I was a fool.
We were lucky.
I didn’t know how much longer our luck could hold.
“There’s not that much different, I’m afraid,” Seth said, stepping beside me. “Just a few more phone numbers.”
Those people in the dark deserved a statue. Many statues. People who had worked, hidden, forgotten, in a tomb, to try and save us deserved far more remembrance than an idiot vain enough to think themself a leader.
But the statues were all to me.
“Perhaps you should stop flagellating?” Seth suggested. “People like you. People think you’re awesome.”
“They’re worshippers, Seth,” I said. “There’s miles between people liking me and people worshipping me.”
“You can be a beacon,” Seth said.
“Where’s Colton’s Shrine? Or Hands? Or Excelsior?” I asked, looking around.
“When they save the entire city twice, they’ll get theirs,” Seth grinned, patting my on the shoulder.
I jumped at his touch, whirring around. Fist clenched.
With a startled noise he ducked the punch and backed up. “Alright, so you’re a bit jumpy there. Got it.”
I breathed, my eyes wide, and stared at him. His eyes settled on something behind my nose, between my eyes, like one would admire a statue, carved out of gold. Or something broken.
I didn’t like that.
“Perhaps it’d be best if you left for a bit,” Seth said. “I think you’re a bit flustered. Have you slept since you got back?”
I hadn’t. There had been too many things to take care of.
I stared at him, my chest heaving.
Seth very gently herded me out of the room, then tossed me a bottle of water from a fridge.
I caught it automatically and drank.
“Go find somewhere to rest, alright? We can go back to the conversation when you’re better.”
Colton’s house smelled of sweat and things I couldn’t parse. I held onto myself and struggled with the straps on my armor until my fingers ached, and only after that did I manage to get my arms to move enough to get the damn straps off and set them to the side.
Then I slept like the dead, passing out into the crater on the bed that was starting to resemble my outline.
Colton cried out in the middle of the night and I bolted awake, throwing the blankets off of me. My arm lashed out again, but it was too dark in the room. I thought I saw eyes and I swung at them pathetically. Where was Cassandra? Where was the gun? The light?
Colton hissed softly from the bed and curled up tighter.
My heart thumped and thumped and thumped.
I couldn’t say when I got back to sleep. It didn’t come quickly, and though in that furtive desperate darkness we looked for each other (I could only imagine, because I was looking for someone) we never met again, and we drifted back before anyone could sooth us.