"Not to go all responsible adult or anything, but are we gonna talk about what happened earlier?" Chase asked quietly, nudging Nico's arm. They were hanging back from the others, watching Molly beg Karolina to take her and Klara to the park.
"I'm fine, Chase," Nico replied softly. Karolina didn't need to hear this. Molly and Klara needed to hear it even less. They'd been through enough already.
"Not what I asked, but okay, cool. Me too. Except I don't have a magical staff that eats people when I get mad."
"The Staff of One doesn't eat people, and that man was about to hurt Molly and Klara."
"That giant plant with teeth you summoned was totally gonna eat him until Karolina zapped it, rainbow-style." Chase demonstrated by waggling his fingers.
"I said I'm okay," Nico snapped. She didn't want to talk about the Staff of One, or how lately it seemed to respond to her fears and anger more than her conscious thoughts and desires. She didn't really want to talk about anything.
"Geez, relax. Don't take everything so seriously. It was just a question."
Nico turned away and pretended to look busy smoothing out her skirt and adjusting her corset. "Well, I don't need you to ask, so you can stop now."
"Just because you're the leader-"
"That's right, Chase, I'm the leader, so I have to be okay!" Nico replied, so loud that Karolina turned around to look at them, concern written across her face. Nico forced her lips to twist into a smile long enough for Molly to distract Karolina before she started to ask the uncomfortable questions that Nico couldn't ever answer.
Every time she closed her eyes, she remembered. The blood. The fear on everyone's faces. Being hungry, scared, tired, freezing, lost. What it looked like when the life faded from someone's eyes for the final time. The screams, the sickening snapping sound a neck made when it broke. The acrid smell of burning flesh, the way it seared her nostrils and made her feel sick to her stomach. Sometimes at night she tossed and turned for hours, pretending to herself that it was because she couldn't fall asleep and not because she was scared of her own nightmares.
Then there were the older memories, faded but never gone. People they'd lost and left behind, horrible things she couldn't unsee. They'd all lost so much together, but she'd lost something in Murder World that she couldn't even begin to explain to the others. She kept wishing Gert was here, so she could have someone to talk to. There was Chase, or she could try talking to Karolina or even giving Victor a call, but it just wasn't the same.
"Hey," Chase said softly, reaching for her arm. "You don't have to do everything alone. We're still here, right?" He sounded bitter about it, but she thought that came from an older, deeper wound than anything Murder World could have inflicted on him.
"We lived, but how many other kids aren't going home? Nara, Kid Briton, Red Raven, Mettle-" She would never get that image out of her head. Never. And Hazmat and Reptil had to go home and look the rest of their team in the eye and tell them what happened. At least she and Chase had gotten out together. "How are we supposed to forget what we saw? What people do when they're desperate?" Betrayal wasn't something new for Nico, but she'd never realized how quick people were to suspect and betray each other when their own lives were on the line. She'd never wanted to know. Betrayal was supposed to be cold and calculated and planned in advance.
"Yeah, well. I've done worse things," Chase muttered darkly.
"For a good reason."
"We all need to keep going, Nico. That's what I know." He had a hard look in his eyes. Sometimes Nico forgot. Not about Gert. She could never, ever forget losing her best friend, the same way she knew Chase hadn't forgotten losing his girlfriend. What she forgot was that most of the time, Chase was only pretending.
"I know. I know that," she said, quiet again. He looked away, and so did she, awkwardly shifting on her feet and reaching across her waist to hold onto her elbow.
"Nico?" Molly ran over, tugged on Nico's arm, and then grabbed both of the tassels hanging down from her hat, rocking back and forth excitedly on her feet. "Are you guys coming to the park? Karolina said we can get ice cream and go visit Julie after."
"I'm coming," Nico said, swallowing and trying to force herself to smile again.
Molly stepped back and let out a long-suffering sigh. "You don't have to pretend."
"You and Chase keep pretending to be happy. Like everyone did after Gert and Xavin were gone. I miss them."
"I know, Molly," Nico said softly, reaching out to pull her into a hug. "We all miss them."
When someone's hand touched her shoulder, her head snapped up – but it was only Karolina. She was tired of being startled by the smallest things. She was tired of having nightmares. She was tired of missing people who were gone forever and wishing the Staff of One would let her use the same spell twice, so she could go back in time and make everything different. Even if she could go back, though, she wasn't sure where she would start. Her parents? Alex? Gert? It said something about her that spending a few weeks in a place called Murder World wasn't necessarily the worst thing that had ever happened to her.
Karolina knew something was up, and Nico couldn't even be mad at her for trying to get Nico to talk. They were too close and they'd been through too much together for Nico to fault her for wanting to help.
"Why don't we all go have some fun? We deserve some time off," Karolina said, smiling gently.
"Come on!" Molly grabbed Klara's hand and started running for the door of their current hideout. After she rubbed Nico's shoulder, Karolina let go and hurried after the girls to keep an eye on them.
Before Nico could follow, Chase caught her arm. "I mean it, Nico," he said seriously. "It's just us. Always has been, always will be. We can't trust anyone else, but we trust each other."
"It's different now. I don't know if I can be the same person I was before."
"Yeah, but it's not the first time. We keep going. That's what we do."
It was what Gert would have wanted, was the unspoken thing he wasn't saying. It was what they had to do, for the kids who hadn't come back. Nico took a deep breath, let it out slowly, and then held out her hand. Chase slipped his fingers between hers wordlessly, and they followed the others together.