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At What Cost?

By Chris King

At What Cost?

'Never thought it'd end like this, huh? Huh, Maria?'

- Dominic Santiago's final words

Anvil Gate, seventeen years after Emergence-Day.

The war was over, finally, over. After twenty years of fighting it was done. It almost didn't seem real. War had been so constant, a permanent fear tearing at the soul of everyone in Sera; it felt wrong somehow, as though the fighting would break out again, worse than before. Sergeant Bernadette 'Bernie' Mataki stared out of the window watching the sun rise slowly over the horizon. She could see small pinpricks of darkness blotted on the sun, King Ravens, carrying the heroes and wounded alike, back to civilisation. There wasn't many places left that they could go, Anvil Gate certainly was the nearest, according to Baird's constant moaning anyway.

Off in the distance she could hear the sound of celebration, ever since the news had come of the radio the entire population of Anvil Gate hadn't gone quiet. It was a miracle, after months of stony silence and constantly expecting an attack would be round the corner, Bernie thought it was amazing that they could actually shout this loud.

Bernie wondered what life would be like now, now that the war was over; both the Locust and the Lambent were dead. If the reports were right the Queen had died along with the rest. No Queen, no army, no fighting. Bernie didn't know what she, let alone anyone else, would do. What could she do, even when she'd travelled across all of Sera to get back to the COG, she'd been fighting. It was all she knew how to do, no matter how old she was; she was a soldier through and through. The last time peace had fallen the Lambent had risen, but she hadn't been peaceful then, she'd been expecting the return of the Locust, like Marcus and Dom, stragglers had still fought them. She'd still been protecting civvies from Stranded and Locust alike, but now the Locust were gone and the Stranded had stopped attacking. There was no conflict, nothing, a few Stranded, but an army wasn't needed for those scumbags.

Bernie was pulled out of her reverie by the crackling of her earpiece, she'd kept it in out of habit more than anything else, but she had been hoping to hear news of the one squad she was closer to than any other squad in the COG army, Delta. Cole, Anya, Dom, Marcus, even Baird had his moments where he was less of an asshole than he usually was. Ever since they'd left for Mercy she'd wanted to see them again, they were family, all Gears were, and she wanted to make sure they were safe.

"This is Delta to Anvil Gate, we are five minutes from your position." The voice of Anya Stroud announced into Bernie's ear. Bernie couldn't help but smile, at least Anya was okay, she'd gone toe-to-toe with the Locust Horde and she'd survived, Helena Stroud couldn't have asked for a better daughter.

"Copy that, Delta," Bernie said, pressing her finger against the earpiece. "You alright?"

"You know it, baby!" Cole cheered. "Delta's back on top!"

"Yeah, almost being killed by a giant flying insect that made Hoffman look like a kitten was so fun, it was like a holiday." Baird moaned into the mike, Bernie could picture that familiar sneer on his lips. Baird didn't smile, a smirk or a sneer maybe, but not smile. Bernie always found it so odd that he was friends with Cole, the cynic and the thrashball player who was almost impossibly uplifting, it shouldn't have been possible. If it wasn't for the COG it probably wouldn't have been. "We should do it again next year."

"I'll get Dizzy to set us up with some moonshine, Blondie." Bernie grinned. "The Grubs can even make an appearance, bring back all those happy memories."

"No thanks, I like them just the way they are, dead. Baird out." Baird snapped, cutting the communication. Bernie couldn't stop the smile forming on her lips, sometimes annoying Baird made her life so much better, other times, not so much. He had proven to be useful, even kind in his own kind of way, and that was enough for Bernie. They all had their ways of coping, Baird's constant whining was his. Cole wrote to his mamma even though she had long since died, Dom tried to put on a brave face, but everyone knew he was still grieving, still hurting about Maria. Anya did her best to live up to the reputation of those around her and those that were already gone, Hoffman, Dom, Carlos, Marcus and her mom were only the first of many.

Only Marcus seemed able to block it all out, keep all his anger and emotion, good and bad, locked behind a door in his head, that couldn't good for anyone. Bernie didn't know when that door would break down, but she knew it would, it had to. She'd only ever seen him lose control once before, the day Carlos had died to save Marcus. Since then Marcus had locked himself away, even from his best friends, his time in the Slab had only made things worse. No one should have to go what he'd gone through, no one.

It took Bernie quite a while to navigate the many passages Anvil Gate without being stopped, or slapped on the back, or offered beer and moonshine. She felt the cold stone floor through the soles of her cat-fur boots and sighed, it'd take her ages to find a good leather to re-sole them with. At least that would give her something to do, her job in the new world, find leather.

The King Ravens were already descending by the time Bernie had reached the grass outside the fort. She still had her Longshot strapped across her back, just in case, it smacked against her legs as she walked but she didn't mind, it reminded her it was there, her back-up if the Grubs came back. Other Gears were assembled around the landing Raven's, some cheering, others looking curiously at the faces of the almost legendary Delta Squad.

Bernie saw Baird and Cole first, as they jumped off the Raven, Lancer's in the hand. Cole waved her over, a huge grin plastered on his face. Baird merely nodded to her, rubbing the lenses of his goggles with one gloved hand. "See you and your old man made it okay then." He said when she'd joined them, in way of greeting.

"You sound so pleased too," Bernie smirked as he replaced the goggles on his head. "Anyone would think you cared."

"Don't spread it, baby." Cole thundered, his deep voice shaking with laughter. "Damon's got a reputation to uphold, know what I'm sayin'." Cole was the only person Bernie knew that could call Baird, 'Damon', and get away with it. When she'd tried it he'd glared at her and refused to talk to her for a week, a mild improvement in her opinion.

"Yeah, as the nerd. What you cooking up next, genius?" Sam shouted over the noise of the Raven's, leaping down from the other one.

"It's me that makes sure we're still living with power," Baird retorted, giving Sam a glare. "So don't bitch about the one who knows how your generators work."

"Can't you two be nice, for once?" Jace, the youngest member of Delta asked as he, Anya and Marcus joined them. Bernie almost did a double take when she looked at Marcus. She'd grown so used to seeing him in armour, whether he was on duty or not, that she was nearly unnerved to see him free of his chest plate and gloves. He held his doo-rag in his hand, the thin material shifting through his fingers like sand. Bernie had almost forgotten that he had hair, and had to resist the temptation to stare at the short black hair which been concealed by the doo-rag for so many years.

"Be nice, to her?" Baird asked, as though his question didn't need answer. Sam and Baird hadn't got along from day one, probably because she insulted his intelligence or offended him in some way, either that or he was just doing it to annoy her. "I'd rather go another round with the Queen."

In an attempt to stop the shouting match that would, as it usually did, follow Baird's words Bernie spoke the one thought that had been bugging her since she'd seen Delta. "Where's Dom? He is with you, isn't he?"

It was as though the world around her drained of life. The smiles slipped off every single member of Delta's face, Baird had lost his glare and stared at the floor, his hand going to the back of his neck. Cole, who had been grinning like an idiot ever since his return, was now serious, all good humour gone from his face. But it was Marcus' face that told her everything, though no one had said a word. He scarred jaw had gone slack, the piercing blue eyes, which were the only indication of what he was feeling, had lost their life. Whatever spark had been in their depths had died out at the mention of Dom's name.

"He isn't..." but she didn't need telling, not really. Marcus had made it clear what had happened, and he hadn't even opened his mouth.

"Yeah," Marcus nodded, his gruff voice as empty and as void of emotion as his eyes. "He's gone."

The simplicity and rawness of what Marcus said cut Bernie deeper than any excuse or story ever could. They'd all dealt with grief, with loss, family, friends, loved ones, but to lose Dom. Bernie felt herself going numb, Dom, the survivor, the last of the Santiago's, was dead. It felt as though a part of her was gone, something that Dom with all his eager questions about Carlos and his loyalty had friendship had taken with him. But whatever Bernie was feeling, she knew that it was nothing compared to what Marcus was feeling. She doubted he even knew what he was feeling, to lose Dom, the person he'd been closest to for almost a lifetime, his brother, was gone.

"God, Marcus," Bernie started, taking a step closer to him, putting a hand on one of his massive shoulders. She could feel them shaking beneath her grip, though his face was dry, she could tell he was holding in sobs of anguish. All she wanted to do was to tell him it was okay, but it wasn't, it was far from okay. They'd just won the war, stopped the fighting, but for Marcus, he'd lost, his best friend was gone. Nothing he could do would change that. She was suddenly aware of the mutterings and watching Gears and civvies alike, all staring at their hero in his darkest hour, it wasn't right. "Let's get you inside, sweetie."

They walked in silence, only Anya, followed them, Baird and Cole attacking as barriers, shielding Marcus from view. He didn't seem to notice Baird's thinly veiled threats to the rest of the Gears, he only stared straight ahead, not looking at either Anya or Bernie. It was still there, buried inside his head, the door that he'd kept locked for all these years. Bernie was sure that whatever dam he'd set up against his emotions was going to break, now he'd stopped fighting, now all that he could do was think.

She led them to a small empty room inside the Fort, avoiding the major throngs of Gears and civvies. It was only when she'd pushed the door shut behind her that Marcus seemed to relax. His shoulders hunched and his face, which he'd set into an emotionless mask, crumpled. He dropped onto a chair, his head in his hands. It took Bernie three seconds to recognise the silent tears that were no escaping Marcus' eyes, she'd only seen them once before, when Carlos had died. Died to save Marcus from himself, she wondered if that was what Dom had done, died the hero's death, like his brother.

"It's okay, Marcus, it's okay." Anya breathed, moving forwards, so as her arm was around him. He either didn't notice or didn't care that Bernie was in the room with them, Marcus wasn't usually fond of diplay's of affection, of any kind. Now, however, he just sat there, sobbing his eyes out.

"I should have done something," Marcus said his voice barely above a whisper. It had more emotion in than any order he'd barked before, it was like Carlos all over again. "I should have saved him, got him out of there, I left him there, I should have gone back for him."

"Marcus, there was nothing you could have done." Anya countered, her voice wavering almost uncontrollably. "Dom told you to go, told us all to go. You'd have died right along with him if you'd stayed."

"I should have stopped him, I knew what he was gonna do, I hesitated and now..."

"He's gone, Marcus, but it wasn't your fault." Bernie told him quietly, pulling a chair from under the table and sitting on it so as she was in front of him their faces level. She wasn't talking to the normal, sensible Marcus, the Marcus who always knew the right thing to do and would no matter the cost. She was talking to the broken kid who Adam Fenix had alienated all those years ago, the remnant of Marcus' family had died with Dom. He frowned at her, his mouth opening slowly as though he was going to protest but she cut across him. "You would have dragged him out of there if you could, just like Carlos. I know you Marcus, and if you could have stopped him you would. There's nothing you can do, he made his choice, now you make yours. Live the life he gave you, don't waste it, not now."

He didn't say anything for a moment, his piercing blue eyes shimmering with unshed tears searched her own. She held his gaze until he spoke again, his voice far calmer and controlled now. The tears were slowly fading and a small smirk graced his features. "You Islander's speak some weird shit, you know that?"

"Blondie may have mentioned it." Bernie smiled, squeezing one of his huge arms. "Doesn't stop me being right, sweetheart, Dom's a hero, just remember that, okay?"

"Yeah, thanks Bernie." She nodded as he rose to his feet. That was all that would be said, nothing else, no other words of comfort, it was over. But even as he turned away from her, Bernie knew he wouldn't be the same again. A part of him, no matter how small, had died with some. But he'd continue, he'd live on because that's just who he was. He wouldn't be the same, but none of them would be, Cole, Sam, even Baird would be touched by what had happened, because Dom had meant so much to them all. They'd fought, laughed, almost died together, some bonds could never be broken, even in death.

Bernie watched Marcus and Anya leave, noticing as they did that Anya's hand had slipped into his, and just as the door closed he wrapped his hand around hers. At least someone would be able to comfort him, be there for him, even if he didn't want it. There was someone for everyone, and maybe, just maybe, Marcus wouldn't think that he was alone anymore. She hoped he'd be able to let go, finally unlock all those doors he kept shut in his head, Anya had been there from the beginning, if anyone would understand it was her, Bernie just hoped he'd see it like she did. He deserved to be cared for now more than ever, now that Dom was gone for good.

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