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Survivors Guilt

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PM doesn't have nightmares. That doesn't mean she sleeps well, just that it's never bad dreams that wake her. Too many years in the desert has destroyed her ability to sleep soundly. Each noise wakes her, jolting her out of sleep and sending her heart pounding. It may only be the rustling of a plastic bag, or the soft thumb of footsteps in the shifting sand, or any of a thousand little noises, some mundane and some terrifying, but she reacts the same to each.

She's wired for hours afterwards, restless and tired, and eventually resigned to her fate as someone who is perpetually tired. PM's grown used to this, used to waking at night, but she's not quite used to others. Every time she nearly drops off, there's some sound: AR snoring, WQ sighing, WK stirring, the quiet thump of shells falling over in the fire, and she wakes up instantly, hand reaching for her sword.

Eventually she just gives up on sleeping and takes a seat on a rock, acting as the lookout. Perhaps tomorrow she'll be tired enough to sleep, but tonight she can't manage it, not with all these unfamiliar sounds.

Her eyes look out over the desert and the darkness lingering all around. Somehow, the light has actually made it darker, and though she can usually see fairly clear at night, all she can see is blackness around her. Her unhelpful mind conjures up monsters in the darkness, things with sharp teeth and bright white eyes, and she shivers

She's on her feet before she really hears the noise, her body acting before her mind can even understand what's happening. The sword is in her hand and her heart thrums in her chest like a war drum, and she looks around for the monster in the dark. But there's no monster. There's just WV making soft choking sounds, kicks his legs in the sand and looking as if he's about to wake up screaming at any moment.

PM sets the sword down and goes to him, pausing just above his body. She's not sure what to do. PM knows she should wake him, but should she risk it? What if he thinks she's a monster from his dreams and tries to hurt her? What if he wakes up on his own and screams, and then everyone will be awake too, and anything out there in the dark will hear them, even if they can't see the fire. PM forces herself to make a choice, and she drops to her knees, settling her hands on WV's shoulders and giving him a shake.

WV wakes up, hands flailing helplessly in the air. He's obviously confused and still half-asleep, moving slow like molasses, and PM catches his hands before he can smack her in the face. She holds tight to them and to him, and waits for WV to stop panicking, speaking as soothingly as she can, "It's okay. You're among friends. I'm not going to hurt you."

She is careful not to promise him that no one will hurt him, or that he's safe. PM doesn't want to lie to him. They've all heard too many lies for one lifetime.

He seems to wake up all the way, his white eyes darting about madly before settling on her. WV stares up at her, and much to her surprise, she realizes that he's crying. It seems to get worse the more he wakes up, and by the time she helps WV sit up, his chest is silently shaking, and tears keep rolling down his cheeks. He opens his mouth as if to explain, but all that comes out is a devastated sob.

PM gets an arm under WV and pulls him onto his feet. He leans against her, as if the thought of standing on his own is unbearable, and she walks him away from the campfire and the sleeping bodies there, not wanting to wake anyone else. They make their way to the steps of the frog temple, and that's where they sit. Her eyes adjust to the dark once they're not sitting right beside the fire, but before they do, there is a moment when she can't see WV at all. The only proof she has that he's still here are his quiet sobs, and his side pressed against hers.

She doesn't know what to say to him, or how to make this better. All she can think to do is to just hold him as he cries, so she does, putting both arms around him. It must be the right thing because WV's arms grab onto her and hold on tight, hangs clutching desperately as her wrappings as if she's about to vanish. He weeps and she does her best to soothe him, though the more he cries the more she feels like crying to. She doesn't though; just like she hasn't cried the past hundred times she's felt like it.

Eventually the sobbing begins to subside, and he trades in relentless misery for a less devastating vein. Only when he seems to be settling down does she ask, "Did you have a bad dream?"

WV nods, and when he speaks, his voice trembles softly, "I. I dreamed about the Battlefield again. And the Sovereign Slayer."

It has been years since she's heard his name, but it leaves her with a bad taste in her mouth. The Sovereign Slayer. Jack Noir. She had arrived there afterwards, after Prospit's moon fell, after the Red Miles had blanketed the Battlefield and devastated both sides. She has forgotten so much: the colours of her uniform, the faces of her friends, the furniture of her little home, and the things on her mantle that she remembers treasuring, but can't remember why anymore. But she has never forgotten Jack Noir, or the bloody Battlefield.

Her hands tighten quietly in the dark and she wishes she hadn't left her sword by the fire. PM forces herself to touch WV's head, attempting to soothe him. She's not so good at this, but she tries for his sake, "He can't reach us anymore."

"It's not. It wasn't him. I-it. In the dream," WV hesitates, and the words all come at once, a rush of panic and pain, "In the dream, I wore the ring. I had. I had a snout and. I was the one on the Battlefield. I. I was the one who killed everyone. And. In my dream. I was the one who killed the boy. I," And with that, he falls silent, shaking too badly to speak.

Her hands rub over her back, but she's left off-kilter by what he's said. It's been such a long day, and she hasn't had any time to really let what happened sink in. PM takes a moment to compose herself, to push those feelings away with all the others, and when she speaks, her voice is steady again, "That's not you. You didn't do any of those things."

"I did though. I killed them all," WV looks up at her, and his white eyes shine with firelight, "I led the uprising. I convinced them to follow me. And they all died because of me. And he just. He left me alive."

The words hit PM hard, harder than anything else he's said, and this time a quiet tremble enters her hands. She turns her mind on it, forcing it out at the cost of her voice, "He," PM says, and she can barely speak, her voice coming out in a whisper, "He left you alive."

WV nods, stumbling over his words like blocks half-buried in the sand, "I don't know why. I don't understand. He killed them all. He killed everyone. There were. There were bodies everywhere and so much blood, and the smell. I. I waited for him to kill me too. I waited and he just. He looked at me. He just looked at me, and smiled. And then he flew away and-"

"And he left you there," PM finishes his sentence. It's getting hard to breathe. She can see him now, Jack Noir, and his smile, and how pleased he was to see the crowns in her hands. He hadn't even cared about what she'd done to his minion, or the way his blood turned the stream red.

WV nods, pulling his knees close to his chest, and his voice waivers when he speaks, like it might stop working at any more, "He didn't say a word. He just. He left. He left me there with all the dead. I. I wasn't worth killing. And. I don't understand why. Why did I live?"

He means it rhetorically, but she knows the answer. PM hears Jack's voice echo in her head, his casual heartless sneer staining her memories: Looks like we got something in common.

PM unseated her King and Queen. WV rose up against his own royals. To Jack, that must have made them equal somehow, cut from the same cloth. It made them just like Jack, and so they had been worth sparing, worth saving. And the Battlefield, the entirety of Prospit, somehow they had been worthless and had counted for less than PM and WV.

She's not even fully aware of how badly she's shaking until WV presses his hands against her shoulders, saying softly, "PM? Are… are you okay?" And as she tries to insist that she is, she finds herself torn apart by sobs. This time, it's her turn to cry, and WV's turn to hold onto her tightly, to just let her weep with such violence that she feels like she may die before she finishes.

PM hasn't cried in years, not since long before she came to this Wasteland. She didn't even cry when she destroyed her entire way of life for a little boy and a green box, but she's crying now, years and years of pent up frustration and rage and despair washing over her. It feels like she'll cry an ocean and drown them all, and it's only WV's arms that keep her upright.

He doesn't make promises he can't keep, and he doesn't tell her that it's okay, because it's not okay and it never will be again. WV doesn't say a thing. He holds her and he cries too, and they both cry against each other like children, weeping with a hopeless abandon that frightens her.

And then, as swiftly and violently as it comes, it leaves her, and PM's left trying to catch her breath. WV's still holding tightly to her, and she rubs his back, swallowing the lump in her throat and drying her eyes. She still feels off-kilter, but also shockingly light, as if some weight she's been carrying all these years has finally lifted, even if only briefly.

"I gave him the crowns of my King and Queen," She confesses, because she has held this inside of her for too long, and it has quietly rotted, but now she grabs the root by both hands and pulls it free from her soul, "He had a package. I needed to get it from him and the price was their crowns. I went to them, I asked their counsel, and I took their crowns. And while they abdicated, Jack Noir destroyed my home, and your army, and he left me alive because he thought I was just like him."

WV goes still and she closes her eyes, waiting for his reaction. She's willing to accept it, whatever it is, hate or rage, or disappointment or something else, something unknowable, or maybe no reaction at all. Whatever he has for her, she'll take it.

There is a long silence, and when he speaks, it is as someone who has finally seen the light in the darkness, "He. He left you alive too."

"Yes," She says, and he hugs her tighter, and she does the same, not caring when he starts to shake, "He honoured his agreement with me. I brought him the crowns, and he gave me the package. I don't-... I don't understand why. Not really. He could have killed me. He should have... but he didn't."

They both lapse into silence. Jack's words are in her head again, trying to crawl up the base of her spine and wrap around her neck, desperately attempting to choke her into silence, but she won't be silent any longer. She's carried this around for years now, but she won't carry him one step longer. PM won't be ashamed of this. She hopes WV doesn't hate her for this, but she doesn't regret telling him. She doesn't regret finally saying the words out loud.

He lays his head against her chest, and when he speaks, it catches her off guard, "I'm glad he didn't," WV he hesitates for a moment, like he's afraid of putting his foot in his mouth, but then charges forward again, "If he had killed you... I would have never met you. And. I'm glad I met you. I'm really glad I did."

PM presses one hand against his head, and when she speaks, her voice is thick again, but she doesn't cry this time. She doesn't need to cry for something like this, "Me too."

They sit in comfortable silence on the stairs of the frog temple, and for once, the night doesn't seem so dark or frightening. She's barely aware of when WV falls back asleep, only noticing it when she realizes his grip has loosened. PM looks down at WV and she finds herself smiling a little.

She's spent years in this place, years wandering alone through the desert. There have been days when she nearly went crazy, and days when she thinks that maybe she did, just for a moment or two. There were days when she came across others, and months and months with no one but herself for company, and no matter who was around, she was always alone.

Except. She's not alone anymore.

PM wipes at her eyes and lays WV down so his head is resting in her lap, her hands still touching his head and chest to remind him that he's safe. Her sword is over by the fire, but she doesn't worry. She doesn't need to reach for it right now. PM has something more important to keep her hands on.

She yawns and waits for the sun to rise, keeping her silent watch over her subjects.