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I'm Standing in the Ashes

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There's only one gun that's ever made a sound like that. Nate hasn't heard anything like it, before or since. Even during the annexation, the war, no gun ever sounded like that. A crack like lighting, a boom like thunder, the kind of storm that shoves your head under water, strips you down to your waterlogged bones. He couldn't breathe when he heard it, felt its impact even after the bullet lodged itself between someone else's eyes. Her eyes.

God.

Nathan Brand once watched a man douse himself in kerosene and light himself on fire, on the steps of the Capitol in Washington DC. He was close enough to hear her scream, when a teenage girl in Boston was shot down for tucking flowers into a soldier's' rifle. He was in Anchorage when they got the order to scorch the earth, and his platoon cleaned house like good soldiers do, and left nothing but smoke and ashes behind.

Watching Nora die was the hardest thing he's ever had to do.

But it's not over yet. He's still watching, though it's been over and done for God only knows how long. Every time he shuts his eyes, like his own personal theater from hell. 3... 2... 1... Thunder rolls, and her screen's already gone black, show's already over. Except it isn't no matter how hard he tries to will the memories away, because he's still awake, still alive, and he's still watching as his wife fucking dies in front of him in a play by play he can't switch off with a tv remote.

It should have been him, he knows it should have been him. Why couldn't it have been him?

Golden hair edged with blood, hazel-green eyes overwide with the ghost of surprise, freckles of blood across an expression that is anything but restful. Her head is thrown back back just enough to stretch her long neck, and he feels sick seeing the bruise on her collar from this morning, when he pressed her up against the shower wall until she fell apart in his arms.

This morning when their song came on the radio, and he pulled her in to kiss her with coffee-infused morning breath, and she sighed like he was the best thing she'd ever tasted. This morning when she was laughing, teasing him for the comic book he'd left on the kitchen counter, smiling at him with stars in her eyes, like he was something worth smiling for. This morning when the sky was blue and the grass was green and the neighbors were gossiping over their white picket fences, as clueless as his own family about the first bombs falling, two hundred miles north of Sanctuary Hills. This morning when his wife was still alive.

This morning.

When was this morning? Today, yesterday? Ten years ago? A hundred? Why does it matter? Nate couldn't remember begging for anything before in his life, but here he was on his knees. Please, God, please not her. Anything but her. and God. Nora, I am so sorry. I'm so fucking sorry.

It was like stepping into Kansas after spending your life in Oz, everything suddenly shifting into blacks and greys, pale shadows in comparison to the colorful, incredible world you once knew. Like the light from Nora's eyes, everything good was gone. The world was gone. He saw the bombs drop himself, right before the Vault doors shut out the dust and fire that stretched like broken fingers across the reddening sky. All that fighting, all those years dedicated to his freedom, his country, and for what? Everyone died, anyway. His wife died.

His wife is dead.

Nora is dead.

And his child? His son?

Gone.

"Get off me, bitch!" Nora was still yelling behind his eyelids, struggling against the grip of a stranger in a white biohazard suit, holding their son against her chest; she was breathing hard, coughing from the cold, but she looked ravenous. Capable of more than violence. The gun was pulled as if from thin air, the carrier swapping unarmed for aiming during the fastest second that ever crossed the clocks. Nate's panic blurred into terror, and helplessness washed through every inch of him as he watched behind a pane of glass as thick as his middle finger. He could see the fear flash in Nora's eyes, just like he saw the moment she made her decision. The moment she decided this was worth dying for. "You want him, then kill me." she said, and her voice is like a wind chime, smooth, musical, even when she must have known she wasn't going to live. "I'm not giving you Shaun."

She had to have known. She had to have known. Oh God. 

She looks at him at the end, hazel-green wet with tears, fierce with determination. She opens her mouth to say something.

Oh God, I'm going to be sick.

The gun goes off.

Nate gags, but nothing but coughing comes. He shakes with each bark of pain, until his chest feels as broken as his heart.

But it isn't over. It starts again, when he closes his eyes to try to shut it all out, and he's as helpless as he's ever been against his memory haunting him. The resignation in her eyes. Her retort. The gunshot. Rewind. Replay. Repeat. Goddamn.

Each time his memory turns it over, there's another detail to notice, another fact to weigh: The stranger in the white biohazard suit is a woman. There's another person wearing an identical suit, watching from the side. His wife's murder weapon is a .44 pistol. His wife's killer has a scar across his eye, a bald head, a leather jacket. His wife looked at him before she was shot, opened her mouth as if to say something. The last thing she sees before she dies is her husband screaming her name.

His throat feels raw, thinking about it. Or from screaming. Or from coughing. Maybe all of it, who knows. Nate doesn't give a damn why, but for a moment it's all he can think about, until the memory restarts, jump starts back into action, the same war-hardened ferocity he sees in the mirror reflected back at him by his wife's killer.

"At least we still have a back up."

Her killer shows him a maniacal smile, all teeth, no mercy, before leaving the Vault with Nathan's son.

Shaun.

His chest convulses like he's being shocked by a defibrillator, and the second fit of coughing that follows is so violent he retches blood across the thin ice that coats the floor. He must have been holding his breath, his chest is on fire. He's almost relieved when he thinks he'll die of asphyxiation, until his breath comes back, coming a little bit easier each time he pulls air into his lungs. He swallows the bitter taste of iron off his tongue.

He can't will himself to move. Not yet.

He sees Nora's eyes, the way she looked at him, the way her mouth moved as if to say something. Last words that died with her. Finally, he opens his eyes, blearily looking up at his wife's pod.

Nate doesn't know how much time passes, him curled up on the floor like some kind of sick, rabid animal, staring up at his dead wife like she's a haloed angel come down from heaven on his judgement day. He wishes he'd died with her; thinks maybe he has died, and this is what hell is to him. After all, the weight of his sins is more than the world on the shoulders of Atlas. It must have been days since he stepped out of cramped cold of his pod, but he knows the laws of survival make that impossible.

He wants to lay on this gold, hard, ice-covered floor until he sees Nora again. But he knows he can't do that. She'd never forgive him for that, not without knowing with certainty what happened to their child. Not without trying to save their son.

So he does get up, he does go on. But he never forgets.