The horizon glows red and the air is heavy with acrid smoke and floating debris. Charlie stumbles aimlessly, struggling to take a breath. Her eyes are red and swollen. Her skin is blackened with soot. Her ears ring painfully, still echoing the sound of the blast.
Monroe passes out from the pain twice before finally freeing himself from the weight of the wall that had fallen on him during the explosion. His arm is broken and his head is bleeding, but he's alive. When he looks around, squinting through the angry blowing smoke, he suspects he might be the only one who is.
Hours pass before they find each other, though they'd both been searching for someone else. "Miles?" she asks, her voice nothing more than a scratchy whisper.
He shakes his head in the negative.
She notes that his eyes are mirrors of her own. Red. Swollen. Shocked. Grieving. One side of his head is matted with dried blood. The other has chunks of wild curls sticking out in odd directions. He's holding his arm in a makeshift sling.
He can tell she's limping, favoring her right leg. Her hair hangs in long oily clumps and her jacket is torn and singed. Her dirty cheeks are smeared with trails from tears he doesn't think she even knows she's shed. He's pretty sure she might be on the verge of panic.
But then, so is he.
The fire still rages in some places but they get as close to it as they can. Their voices are frantic. Scared. Calling out, they walk side by side at times, looking through smoking ruins and narrow alleyways with guns drawn. If they wander apart, it is never far. Never out of sight. They have made an unspoken agreement to stick together.
For now anyway.
They see others searching for loved ones but the faces aren't ones they know or trust so they steer clear. They yell for Miles until their voices break with the strain and the smoke. They turn over bodies, burnt and ruined. They look at boots and clothes when the faces can't be identified.
None of the bodies or the boots belong to Miles.
"He's dead." These are the first words Charlie has spoken since she first found Bass that morning. Exhausted, they sit under a tree on a hill that overlooks the town. The smoke hangs over it like a low-lying cloud blurring the sunset beyond. Hot spots of flame still burn here and there, glowing through the darkened haze like beacons. Sometimes they hear crying moans, but the voices are unfamiliar.
"Maybe not dead. He's been through worse than this." Bass tries to comfort her but can't look her in the eye because if he did, she'd see. She'd see that his every thought echoes her own. Miles is dead. Has to be. The whole town's main street is reduced to smoldering rubble and main street is where he'd been.
Charlie's shoulders shake as she breaks down. She knows Miles is gone no matter what Monroe says. She knows it in her heart. He's dead.
Awkwardly, Bass reaches out and touches her shoulder but she jerks away. "Don't touch me."
He settles back against the trunk of the tree, leaving her to her grief. He has plenty of his own to wade through. He has a good vantage point and when she cries herself to sleep, he keeps watch, his thoughts heavy. Scattered.
She wakes when the night is thick and black save for the glowing embers scattered across the town below. "You should sleep now." Charlie's voice sounds rusty and unused.
He doesn't answer but does roll onto his side (the one without a broken arm) and closes his eyes. He's just drifting off when she asks, "Do you think my Mom and Aaron are ever coming back from Idaho?"
"Should have been back by now. Should have been back six months ago." His tone says what his words don't. They aren't coming back.
"Maybe that's good." She tries to sound brave, but fails. "If they don't come back, I don't have to tell her that Miles is dead." Charlie closes her eyes. "Nobody left to tell. Everyone I know is gone."
Bass doesn't point out that the same can be said for him. He doesn't have to. She knows. They are more alike than they are different. "Let me sleep, Charlotte."
And so she lets him sleep.
In the morning when the dew sparkles on the grass around the blackened town, they say goodbye to Miles. Bass builds a cross out of wood and they push it into the dirt under the tree where they'd sat the night before. There is no body to bury, but that's not the point. It's symbolic.
"Goodbye brother," Bass says, his voice cracking.
"Gonna miss you so much," she whispers as the breeze blows her smoky hair around her face and into her eyes.
It is here, standing next to an empty grave, where their shared loss and hopelessness pushes them together. They might have never found common ground when they had others to share it with, but alone they become allies. Not friends. Not really. Not yet.
In the weeks following the blast, they fall into a rhythm. They had only been in the region as a favor to the Nation of Texas and with Miles gone, neither of them cares to complete their mission. Instead, they wander.
Weeks turn into months but they stay together. They avoid towns now, not sure if the attack that took Miles from them was a one-off or a new trend. The Patriots are long gone, and this new enemy is still undefined and their goals unclear. Monroe and Charlie don't want to draw unwanted attention, so they lie low as much as they can. The don't back away from a fight, but they don't start any either.
They hunt together and eat together. They sleep side by side. They don't talk much. When they do, it's rarely meaningful. Sometimes they just need to hear a voice other than their own.
Sometimes they think they see Miles in the distance.
It's never really him.
They visit Willoughby roughly a year after Rachel and Aaron had left for the west coast to be Nano slayers and six months after Bass and Charlie had left with Miles. Nobody has heard from Rachel or Aaron but the Nano has also been silent, so maybe they won that battle even if they lost their lives doing it.
Charlie figures they'll never know. They even ask if anyone has heard from Miles. It's the longest of long shots, but they have to ask. If he was going to turn up, surely it would be there.
Bass asks her if she wants to go to Bradbury to look for Rachel and Aaron. She says no. She misses Aaron a lot. She misses her Mom a little. But the ache their absence leaves is nothing compared to the hole in her heart where Miles once lived.
They get drunk that night, sitting next to Charlie's Grandpa's grave. They toast the ones they've lost. It's a long list. There almost isn't enough rotgut in the bottle to cover them all.
Charlie asks if Miles was her father.
Bass tells her the truth.
Somewhere in the Plains Nation, they stumble into a skirmish between two war clans. They fight alongside the underdogs because they know that's what Miles would do. Swords flash and bullets fly. When the battle is over, they are approached by a big man with dreadlocks and an eye patch. He asks them to be his guests for the night.
They might have said no but Charlie has a cut that needs tended and the clan leader offers bandages and salve. He also offers himself for Charlie's sexual pleasure but Bass apologizes, telling the hulk of a man that Charlie is spoken for. "She's my wife," he says without hesitating.
Charlie nods in agreement and when they are shown a small tent to use for the night, she goes with her 'husband' and even sleeps snuggled next to his heat just in case anyone looks in.
When she wakes, she feels more rested than she can remember. She pretends it's the salve.
A week later, they are camping on the bank of a river when a soft rain begins to fall. It's a warm summer rain and Charlie strips and climbs down into the shallows, washing dusty skin heated by the road. Bass stands on watch, trying not to look at her.
When the rain picks up suddenly, coming faster and harder; Bass yells for Charlie to come back to shore. She turns his way and is only steps from the edge when a surge of water rushes toward them. Charlie reaches out for his hand but their fingers only glance off each other before a big ugly wave drags her away.
"No!" his anguished cry is swallowed by the roar of the water as he stumbles into the rush, searching for a glimpse of her. Debris sails by on the choppy waves. An uprooted tree and a rusted washing machine but no Charlie. His heart hammers and his head throbs. He can't lose her. Can't. This moment makes him realize once and for all that he hasn't lost everyone important. Not yet.
He stomps through knee high swirling water, watching the surge and glancing at the trees and vines that line the river. When he sees her at last, his heart lurches with hope. She's alive, hanging onto a narrow birch tree. He scoops her up, naked, wet and shivering. He holds her close to his body, sharing his heat until her teeth stop chattering.
As he carries her back toward their original spot, the rain slows and the rushing water in the river calms to a more normal speed. She dresses shakily under a dripping tree. He offers to help with her buttons and she lets him.
Later they find shelter in a half burnt out house. One room is still mostly intact. Scraps of floral paper hang from the walls in strips. A fire pit of sorts has been built in one corner out of an old wheel rim. A hole in the roof serves as chimney. A prior squatter had even left a small pile of wood chunks which are thankfully dry. Bass uses them to start a small fire.
He lays out their bedrolls and settles on one, patting a space at his side. Charlie settles into it, her arms wrapped around herself for warmth. She stares into the fire and listens to the rain. Her thoughts swirl around in circles. She thinks about those she's lost.
She thinks about the one she has left.
As the flames begin to crackle and the heat sinks into her cold skin, Charlie finally begins to relax. Bass hands her his flask and they share the contents. She watches him and her gaze makes him feel unmasked. "What?" he asks.
Charlie says nothing, but her gaze searches his, saying what she's can't put into words. She reaches up with a shaky hand, stroking her finger along the scruff of his chin.
Understanding dawns as does a feeling of utter relief. Bass lets out a shaky breath and then leans closer. "Are you sure?" his voice is barely audible against the background of softly falling rain.
Her eyes are wide and bright and in the flickering glow of the firelight, he can see that she is.
A/N Title from the Vance Joy song by the same name. Leave a comment if you'd have a minute. I'd love to hear from you.