“To exact revenge for yourself or your friends is not only a right, it’s an absolute duty.” - Steig Larsson
The chipped wooden wheels of the two battered and decrepit carts screeched ominously with each revolution across the sun scorched ground. The stench of rotten flesh and decomposing corpses drew the voracious appetites of countless black winged scavengers that circled Zaria and Grant as they trudged on a seemingly endless march through the wastes of Los Angeles. Soaked through with sweat and blood, the crimson cloths wrapped around Zaria's hands hung limply like moss dangling from a pine bough.
Tanner swung open the gates of New Kennedy, his eyes resting for a brief moment on the two lonesome figures. He sprinted for the two inbound soldiers that were now only meters away from the entrance, but with each shambling step Tanner could see their bodies weaken, led on only by the desire to arrive home. He came to a skidding halt and his eyes moved from Grant, to Zaria and finally to the carts who’s scents were now permeating the area around them.
“No...” Whispered Tanner, his head shaking. Grant’s legs spasmed and he dropped to the ground like a pile of stone. He narrowly caught himself on his hands with a grunt of pain. When he looked up to meet Tanner’s disappointed face, Grant’s own eyes were filled with more pain than Tanner could bare to see.
“I’m sorry,” Zaria mumbled wearily. Her body lurched forward as utter exhaustion took hold of her. She would have struck the ground had Virus not appeared at the last possible moment and caught the collapsing woman in his arms.
"What the shit?" Virus demanded, looking up quickly to Tanner. Virus followed his friends morose expression passed Grant and to the two carts adorned with a cacophony of cawing carrions that plucked at the dark tarps covering their wooden frames. "How?" The word was choked and nearly inaudible as it escaped his lips.
"We were ambushed," Grant said into the dirt beneath his gaze. "I- I only made it out by luck. Zaria was inspecting another location and was out of range when the IED's went off. We never saw it coming..." Grant's voice was harsh and the two Mercenaries could tell he was biting back tears with all of his mighty strength. Tanner placed a hand on Grant's shoulder and looked over to Zaria.
"Virus, get her to Petrovich." Tanner ordered. Virus nodded and was gone, leaving a small dust devil in his wake. "Grant, we're headed there too. This," Tanner said, dismally indicating the carts of bodies, "This is not your fault."
Grant hauled himself shakily to his feet and staggered after Tanner who paused to allow the giant to use him as a crutch. Tanner glanced down at Grant's beaten boots that were now coming apart at the soles. His stained clothing was coated with sweat and on a second look at his face, Tanner could see his lips were split and bleeding from days in the sun with little water. The march back would have been easier without carrying all of the lost men back, but he knew that neither Grant nor Zaria could have left a single soul behind.
Tanner and Grant passed beneath the gates just as Virus returned in a blur and began hauling the carts himself. Virus' nose didn't crinkle, nor did his face contort in any form of disgust at the scent of rotting flesh. His eyes were hard and unwavering. His steps were steady and nothing in his posture gave way that he felt any pain at the loss of his men and his friends. He owed them that at least. Owed them in their final moments above the ground to see that their leader could be strong for them no matter the situation.
Petrovich stood over Zaria's sleeping form, his brow creased deeply as he listened to her pulse and ragged breaths. Her chest shook with each intake of air, breathing through dust filled lungs. Once Petrovich was certain that her vitals were steady, he hooked her to an intravenous drip to rehydrate the small woman and began digging through his bag for his bottle of aloe vera. It was a blend that Zaria had made herself and brought to him in the event that some of the residents got severe sunburn. Not unlike the already incredibly burnt skin on her own frame. Pooling a large amount of the blend into his palm, Petrovich began spreading it over Zaria's exposed skin, starting with her face and ending with her muscular arms. He then placed the bottle back in his bag and began removing what clothing he could to address any other injuries. Removing her boots, Petrovich was appalled at the level of damage done to the poor woman's feet. They appeared to be more blister than smooth skin and some had started to become infected while others bled, dark and oozing. Petrovich cleaned the appendages as diligently as possible before wrapping them in gauze and propping them up at a slight angle. He then untied the blood soaked, torn bandages from Zaria's hands and started working on the almost identical injuries to her feet.
With the more immediate injuries handled, Petrovich searched over Zaria's muscular form for anything out of the ordinary. Upon locating a small cut under her ribcage, Petrovich felt gingerly over the affected area until he located a small, jagged lump buried beneath the skin.
"Shrapnel." Petrovich slid his rolling chair across the floor to his desk where he removed a scalpel from a jar of sterilizing solution. With absolute dexterity, the old doctor made a minute incision and was able to remove the sharp piece of steel that had lodged itself in Zaria's body. He carefully stitched the incision closed and leaned back into his chair with a sigh.
By the time Grant and Tanner reached Petrovich's home, the old doctor had fully taken care of Zaria's injuries and was now seated with his head in his hands. Tanner pushed the metal door open wide for Grant to fit through and guided the giant to the second cot down the way.
"You think that one will hold?" Petrovich quipped. His smile disappeared quickly however when neither of the two men's faces followed suit.
"Is she gonna be okay?" Grant rasped. He lowered himself, with the help of Tanner, carefully onto the cot. Petrovich came over swiftly and, assuming his feet had taken a similar beating to Zaria, began removing his boots to treat the wounds.
"She has extreme exhaustion and dehydration. The injuries on her hands and feet have a mild infection, so she is slightly feverish, but its nothing that can't be taken care of. Her sunburn, as well as yours is intense, but should be fine in a few days. Also, I removed a small piece of shrapnel from her lower ribs. Luckily it had been stopped by the bone. So, overall, yes, she will be fine," Petrovich thoroughly explained.
"Good," Grant groaned. He started sitting up when Tanner placed a hand on his shoulder to keep him down. "Tanner, there's something I gotta tell you," Grant stated, brushing Tanner's hand aside.
"It can wait Grant, you two just need to focus on-,"
"It was Rogue," Grant spat out. The color in Tanner's face drained immediately and his hands went cold as ice. Flashbacks of Rogue's savage attack on he and his brothers were like gunshot wounds in the forefront of his mind. "She wiped out the town before we got there."
"How- How do you know that?" Tanner stammered. Grant didn't miss the way Tanner's hands trembled in shock. Or was it fear?
"We found a survivor who was mortally wounded. He made it out of the edge of the towns border and Rogue left him alone. Before he died, all he said was, 'Yellow Eyes,'" Grant explained.
"She left him alone after he escaped the border?" Petrovich cut into the conversation.
"Yeah. On the walk back, Zaria said that she found some evidence that might mean she was being forced," Grant answered.
"She's biased," Virus said from the door. Tanner looked into his friends face. It was the second time in a year that Tanner had seen that look of betrayal. It was a snarl that crept up the side of his dark skinned face and lit a raging fire behind his almost black eyes.
"Well let's not be rash, Virus," Petrovich spoke softly, "What do you know about Rogue? Is something like this possible for her?"
"No one really knows anything. No one except Zaria and she can't help us right now," Tanner hissed.
"Then lets wait until she wakes up," Grant pleaded. "Rogue's my friend too. I say we give her the benefit of the doubt. And Zaria's not an idiot."
"There are two carts of bodies that say otherwise!" Virus snapped. Grant's body trembled and his massive frame rose to its feet quicker than anybody thought the man could move. In one large step Grant was in front of Virus, holding him high on the wall with one gigantic arm.
"You don't get to use them for your own vendetta!" Grant bellowed into the Scout's startled face. "You're not the only one that has to deal with this shit! You didn't have to watch them die!" There lasted an impenetrable silence following Grant's outburst. Virus stared solemnly into his enormous friends face, battling the twisting emotions stirring in his chest.
"Grant, put me down," Virus asked, "Please." Grant sighed and lowered Virus back down to his feet.
"Sorry," Grant murmured. Virus pinched the bridge of his nose and let out a sharp breath before looking up at Grant.
"Me too. I shouldn't have snapped at you, especially like that. We will wait until Zaria wakes up and hear what she says before we make any moves. Until then, I'll order the men to be on the look out. Also, cancel any operations outside of our controlled zone. Tinman, let's get the men working on some graves. It's gonna be a long night," Virus rambled off before moving for the door. He paused and spoke softer than usual, "Petrovich, take care of her," and he was gone.
"Yes sir," Petrovich muttered uncomfortably.
"Get some rest Grant. We'll discuss further once you've slept," Tanner ordered before following Virus and closing the door gently behind him.
"Doc, you have any ideas why Rogue wouldn't kill that guy just for being out of the town border?" Grant queried. His enormous form lumbered tiredly over to the cot and took a seat as cautiously as his aching limbs could bare. Petrovich pondered the question for a minute as he applied the slimy green aloe to Grant's burnt skin.
"I have my suspicions, however speaking them without substantial evidence would do no one any good," Petrovich offered distantly. Grant nodded his understanding and reclined back onto the tiny cot he inhabited, ignoring the cries of the thin aluminum legs that held it aloft. Grant turned his gaze from the ceiling to Zaria's resting shape that hardly moved apart from the haggard, quaking breathes that wracked her insides and shook her small frame.
She was dreaming. Not a normal dream, not something that could be picked up on and changed by some cognitive sense of place. The lights didn't shine too brightly, the walls never shifted and the voices didn't echo or ring away in the distance like some myriad of hopes and goals that may or may not come to fruition. This dream was dark, yet not a nightmare. The room itself was shrouded by night and, as she craned her neck from side to side, Zaria felt at home in the tiny shack where she and Rogue spent their lives together.
Rogue. Her lithe frame sauntered gracefully toward Zaria from some shadowed nook that she couldn't make out, but she didn't care. Zaria smiled at the blonde, violet eyed woman who drew closer and closer to the tiny bed in the corner of the room where moonlight from the lone window danced across her tan, naked body almost eerily. Such soft, white light that created deep shadows in the dips and valleys that was the landscape of her figure.
"Zaria," Rogue whispered gently as she noiselessly climbed atop Zaria and straddled her with elegance befitting a graceful feline.
"God I missed you," Zaria sighed in return, staring up with wide, pale blue eyes that took in every aspect of her love as if it were the first time she was seeing her.
Rogue's head dipped low. Her blonde hair eloquently framed her angular face as it encroached upon Zaria who lay staring up at her love in breathless desire. With each centimeter that Rogue drew nearer, Zaria's heart pounded harder, louder against her chest until the tip of Rogue's nose brushed against Zaria's own. Their lips, a cells breadth from touching, pulled like a magnet, the electric poles of north and south yearning to collide and in the brief hairs of a second that it took, Zaria was dazzled by the resplendent mutation of deep purple to vibrant green that was reserved almost solely for her pleasure. And when finally their lips met it was as if all the of the world's pain was gone. As if the world itself had stopped so that in that short time, spread out to last an eternity, Zaria's heart and mind were at peace and the only object of her attention, the only piece of existence that occupied her mind was the woman whose heart was pressed to her own and whose lips felt like waves of the ocean as they traipsed across her body.
Outside of Petrovich's home where Grant and Zaria rested, the world was quiet save for the almost rhythmic metallic chime of over a score of shovels striking the earth. Not a single soldier digging spoke as their hands blistered and chaffed. Not until the countless graves were deep and the markers were fitted could they allow themselves to rest. Behind them, through the gates into town came the morose sound of a hammer striking nails into wooden coffins that were far too decrepit for the good men that would be lain to rest within. Virus worked diligently, hauling them two at a time until each resting place had a bed to fill it.
With the fall of the moon came the rising sun, and the bustling town of New Kennedy rose with it. The graves had been lain several hundred feet from town in a plot that was reserved for the men and women of Lance that had past on. Each resident of New Kennedy paid their respects as the day passed on, some even approached Tanner and the other soldiers to share there condolences. When the last of a small group had left him, Tanner peered around for any sight of Virus, but could find none. Climbing up the staircase to the rampart, Tanner looked out toward the gravesite, but still failed to locate the elusive Scout.
"Where'd you go?" Tanner asked beneath his breath. Deciding that Petrovich was probably awake by now, he strode back down the rampart and made his way to Petrovich's office.
"Come in," Petrovich called at the sound of two quick raps on his sheet metal door. Tanner came in quietly, his dextrous feet barely making a sound on the asphalt floor.
"How's she doing?" Tanner queried. Petrovich sighed and stood from where he sat at his desk.
"Her injuries are healing, but she is still needs to wake up. Grant left first thing this morning. There was no stopping that man from seeing his friends off," Petrovich frowned. Tanner smirked.
"He stayed longer than I thought he would. When do you think Zaria will wake up?"
"I couldn't say. Could be tonight, could be tomorrow. Its up to her at this point," Petrovich answered.
"It was a pretty traumatic event. I've seen the bodies," Tanner ignored the cold shiver that ran down his spine at bringing the sight back to mind. Petrovich was about to open his mouth when a loud cough escaped Zaria's chapped lips.
Her eyes were open slightly and as she looked drearily around the room, the haze of sleep quickly faded and the recollection of the attack scorched her memory in a flood of fire. Zaria spotted Tanner and Petrovich pacing quickly toward her, but refused to let them halt her. She rolled over, expecting her limbs to work. When they didn't and she collapsed onto the floor, she realized she didn't even have the strength to fend off their attempts to help her up.
"Let me go," she rasped in frustration.
"Zaria, you need to let your body recuperate, you're still recovering," Petrovich demanded as gently as he could despite the firm grip he had around her arm. Her legs quivered beneath her body weight despite the amount of pressure relieved through the combined help of both Tanner and Petrovich.
"Where are they? Where are the men?" Zaria barked, still struggling in vain to free herself from their hold.
"They were buried last night, all of them," Tanner promised. "No one rested until it was finished." Zaria sighed, her head drooping so that her chin nearly rested on her chest. Her legs had begun to regain their strength and she carefully took a step away from her two detainers.
"I need to see them."
"I'll take you," Tanner assured, "Can you walk?"
"I'll manage," Zaria seethed through clenched teeth. Without stopping to put on shoes, she stumbled forward, swearing under her breath with each aching step she took. Rock and gravel dug painfully into the sores and blisters covering her feet and Tanner followed behind her diligently, knowing better than to offer her a hand. He used to know a man with the same conviction. Back in the time of the Mercenaries, Karma would refuse help even from those closest to him. It wasn't that he viewed it as weakness, or out of doubt for their abilities. To him it was something that he owed himself, owed others to display his own strength and to grow stronger alone so that when someone needed him, he had no need to wait or be helpless. As Tanner watched Zaria trudge forth, hissing through clenched teeth as rock and dirt chewed open her wounds, he smiled in lamentation at the memory of his long past friend.
"I should tell her. Not today, but someday," Tanner mused.
Dripping with sweat and leaving crimson footprints in her wake, Zaria stopped several feet away from a single grave whose top soil had begun to settle and dry in the morning heat. She knelt down ever so carefully, not trusting her legs to support the motion, and reached a tentative hand up to trace the name scrawled across the plain white crosses hammered into the earth.
"Murph. I'm sorry I couldn't save you... I-I just.. I wasn't..." Zaria let the words trail off as the memories of eruptions and gunfire and screaming and blood and bodies assailed her. She toppled forward from where she knelt, gasping for air in wide-eyed shock. Cold sweat dripped from her brow and soaked her back. Tanner reached out and placed a hand on her shivering shoulder.
"Zaria are-" Zaria turned quickly, trapping his hand and shoving her palm into his throat. The unexpected motion allowed her to easily topple Tanner to the ground where she glared down at him, snarling.
"Don't touch me!" She spat in vituperation, the wail of mortars dropping from the sky ringing in her ears and the mask of the sniper that had shot Murphy and countless others plastered across Tanner's face.
"Hey! It's me! It's just Tanner," the Mechanic groaned, his hands held above his head. Zaria came quickly back to reality and crawled backward swiftly to sit in the dirt, covering her mouth with her grimy hand. Tanner could see her wide, fear filled blue eyes over the top of her fingers and forced himself to smile against the contrasting tears that leaked down the woman's face leaving barren crevasses through the caked dirt that resided there.
"Oh my god, I'm so sorry!" She choked out.
"It's okay," Tanner swore, extending a comforting hand toward Zaria as he moved toward her. He pressed past her massive flinch and wrapped her in his arms. "You're going to be okay."
"It's all my fault," Zaria whimpered, "If I was smarter, if I trained harder I could have spotted the IED's. I could have killed the sniper. Tanner I'm so sorry!"
"Enough of that," Tanner insisted, "This was not your fault. There was nothing you could have done that any of the other men couldn't have. No one is at fault here."
"Then why does it still feel like it? Why do I hate myself?" Zaria pleaded. Tanner could hear the yearning in her words for some sort of answer, anything to console her troubled mind.
"Because you survived. Now your punishing yourself by thinking of all the things that you could have done, but in reality, there was nothing. Nothing could have changed this outcome. I'm sorry Zaria, but you don't deserve to beat yourself up over something that you couldn't control. However you do owe these men to keep fighting and finish this damn thing."
Zaria bobbed her head in understanding, "Did Grant tell you about Rogue?" Tanner released a low groan. "Guess that's a yes."
"We will deal with Rogue when the need arises. We don't have the power to stop her if she's out of control. If it came to a fight we'd need all the man power we could get."
"She had to have been forced. I know her, she wouldn't do what she did by choice. Every kill was squeaky clean. Executed to be as painless as possible..." Zaria argued.
"And the unit that murdered our men?" Tanner asked.
"Messy and brutal. They didn't care..." Zaria recalled. She hauled herself slowly to her damaged feet and stared out at the field of fresh graves before her. "Seraph needs to be put down."
Tanner surveyed the plot before him, thinking back on each soldier that he'd had to bury since his fight with Seraph had begun all those years ago. Some of them he almost couldn't remember and that saddened him endlessly.
"I want you to do it," Zaria stated suddenly.
"Do what?" Tanner asked in confusion.