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The Fire From Within

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Viola Eade burns her bridges.

There isn’t room for regret on this new world, there never was. it was something her dad passed down to her.

Keep going, Vi. Burn your bridges.

She didn’t know if that was a memory or just a voice in her head, a voice with her father’s lilt and accent. It didn’t matter, either way.

So she keeps going, one step after another, one foot away from the wreckage and closer to another. She doesn’t believe in regret, but she does in promises, so when Todd asks her to keep going, keep running, she never looks backwards.

--

It gets harder when the war is over.

The settlers arrive. There are people she hasn’t seen in so long, faces that seem familiar but take longer to dredge up names for, faces that look at her and flicker with the same hesitation that she does.

(Viola knows she’s changed. She just didn’t realise how much.)

It’s the quiet – something she never thought she would resent – the quiet of Todd’s breathing in the night, the quiet in Ben’s noise, the quiet of her own that she turns into, sinks into – it’s when that turns sharp and insistent and starts to simmer inside her, that Lee starts asking her, gently, if she’s getting enough sleep.

They’re baking bread in one of the old healing houses that’s been repurposed into a kitchen; food for thousands of people and only tens of people able-bodied and coping; everyone else adjusting to the new world or recovering from the war, everyone else landing shocked and stricken along the mostly destroyed strip called New Haven.

Lee’s right, Viola isn’t sleeping enough – there’s too much to do, and Todd sleeps enough for the two of them (for the three of them if she counts Ben, who never seems to rest).

The settlers’ arrive and they bring resources and people and memories that Viola had locked quietly away, questions about her parent’s and Simone – but Bradley is there, tired and kind and a smile so sincere that it reminds her achingly, of Todd’s.

--

She keeps going, the cycle of her days falling into meeting people, old and new, into meetings that she sometimes has to attend when the mornings roll over and Ben is slumped next to Todd, eyes closed, hand circled tightly around Todd’s limp one. Falling into keeping her eyes firmly on Todd’s tent, her fists curled at her sides, always, even as Viola helps in the aftermath, takes Lee’s hands in her own when he needs guidance sometimes, rotates from healing tent to the settler ships – the slow process of construction that is so much more immense in the aftermath of a war, of a thousand people replacing the hundreds of dead ones, Spackle and human alike.

The New World is now louder than it ever has been, populated with more humans than Viola has ever seen in one place, than Viola could ever possibly imagine.

And then there’s The Return.

Every day, he arrives at the break of dawn, sits down outside Todd’s tent, and waits.

--

They don’t speak.

Some mornings the Return stays for longer, sometimes Viola wakes early (having fallen asleep on top of Todd, his book spread-eagled between them on the bed), emerges in the early light and almost trips over him, his noise hovering in the air between them.

And he’ll catch her eye and she will keep walking, keep going, almost sprinting away from him, her heart on fire, a mantra in her head that sounds less like her father every day –

Burn you bridges, Vi.

It’s unnameable, the space that has grown between her and the Return, her and Todd’s killer (he’s not dead yet), the flash of that musket across the sand, and the look on the Return’s face in that moment had been awful, like horror; like regret, and she had almost killed him there and then -

Viola hates the Return. Viola hates him for waiting, hates the way he tries to catch her eye, hates that Ben has been able to forgive him but she still cannot let go of this.

(A hillside explosion; a pile of dead Spackle; her heart for Todd and Todd - for the world. Todd dropping so easily and loudly into the sand – Todd for the war.)

And that’s it, isn’t it? It’s always in The Return’s noise, a backdrop, a prelude to whatever, whoever he turned into that final afternoon when Viola had wished, just for a moment, for the ocean to swallow this entire damn world.

Keep going, Vi.

Burn all your bridges.

And Viola has never been one to hold a grudge; she has seen what it has done, what it costs, but this is something she can’t give up, even if she wants to.

(It’s just that the war is done. It’s over.)

(It’s meant to be over.)

--

Todd is carrying her as she bleeds out all over him, Todd is running and carrying her and the motion jostles the part of her stomach where the bullet has hit her, Todd tripping along the sand, carrying her into the water and the wide, wide ocean, and over his shoulder all she can see is the end of a long musket, the flash as its fired right at the two of them -

She bolts upright. Viola catches her breath for a moment, then slides out from her bedsheets, padding silently out of her tent and across, past the dimmed fire, and the small makeshift eating area towards Todd’s, set next to the healing tent.

Ben is sitting guard outside the tent, his noise swirling unobtrusively, gently, in the night air. There is no need for anyone to keep watch, not really, but too much has happened for a small compromise like this. Too much had been lost for either of them to ever consider otherwise.

He hears her coming, she can tell from the tilt of his head, the shape of his noise as it shifts, her name rising up in the background. He shifts next to her, making room for her to sit wordlessly beside him on the ground, wrapping her arms tight around her knees.

Viola and Ben share most nights together, one or both of them sitting quietly over a fire, keeping watch on the tent and Todd Hewitt, who Viola misses more and more with each rising and setting of the two circling moons above.

Sometimes Ben shows her small memories – Todd as a much younger boy, chasing cows in the field, getting bit by cassowaries, wrestling Ben and another man that Viola has since learnt is Cillian in the winter mud, tooth-gapped smile and all.

Viola cannot imagine what it must have been like for Ben, to have almost lost Todd and Cillian all at once.

(Or maybe she can.)

And there are not many people Viola has ever considered herself safe or content around, and she has lost most of them already, but Ben, she knows, Ben, she thinks, is what safety looks like as a person, if she could ever trust in something like that. It’s who he is, how the song of his heart is wrapped around Todd and Cillian both.

(That is something else she understands.)

So sometimes, it's easy, and it doesn't quite hurt so much. But only sometimes. The days drag on, and on a good one Todd's noise will flicker, her name will rise up between them and the hope will rise too with it, but the good days are occasional and mostly becomes unbearable, mostly, like tonight, it has become exhausting to hold on so tightly, for so long.

It never ends, Viola wants to say, but the words won’t come. The silence hangs around them instead, pressing in on her mouth, her tongue, all the spaces that pull her further from whoever she used to be, the words stuck in the back of her throat instead where so much of whatever she is left seems to compress there, into a flinching, raw point.

She looks over at Ben instead, and in his noise, the same tiredness, the same understanding swirling between them. So tonight, instead of words, instead of quiet, he gives her a song. It’s the song he used to sing Todd (that she knows he still does every night like a lullaby, like a promise.)

Viola has only heard this fully though, once before (on the day he found them again, the song of his heart bursting outwards towards Todd in a crowd full of people, and the look on Todd’s face, the echo of joy in her own, the aching relief that had swept over her, finally, she had thought-) tonight he lets Viola hear it again.

It’s a hard thing to describe, the way Ben sings now – he no longer uses his voice for singing, (it’s one of a few ways that being the Pathway has changed him), but instead it comes from his noise; he wraps it open delicately for her, like the tuning of an instrument, the unconscious beginning and then his song, drifting – not loudly but full, honest - he gives it to her, this song, full of too much love, too much hope that it almost hurts.

It swells in the night, and as the first verse begins (Early one morning-) Viola feels the wetness on her face.

--

And then, the next morning.

Todd Hewitt wakes up.

--

She doesn’t speak for a long moment.

His eyes are open and looking at her the same way he always has, completely and fully and honestly, the way that lets her see right into the core of him and back out again and this time she can’t speak. “Viola,” his voice rasps, and his noise unfurls with it, like a song, a prayer, her name dancing through the air.

Viola grips his hand, warm and alive, alive, alive, his hand that squeezes right back, and then she pulls him towards her where she kneels by his bed, holding him, feeling his cheek against her shoulder, his arms grasping as much of her as he can.

Here, she thinks, and Viola can see it in his noise too.

She doesn’t want to let Todd go, not ever again.

--

It’s a day and a night before she leaves (she’d sent someone to fetch Ben, and with him had Bradley and Wilf, and Lee, and then more of the settlers, driven by curiosity and rumour alike, and all the time she’d been unable to stop crying, her hand clasped tightly in his, his noise bursting the way her heart was).

It’s late when she leaves, but the Return is sitting outside Todd’s tent, still waiting.

And Viola pauses, for a moment, though he must know. Tells him, “He’s awake.”

His noise shifts, slightly, and memories flicker in the space between them. The glint of a metal band; the light reflecting off a rifle. Somewhere there, is acknowledgement, is relief.

And the similarities come close but it’s not enough. Viola thinks nothing ever will be. And all of a sudden, she’s exhausted. Todd is alive, is awake, for the first time they are both safe, and she cannot even keep this. Her fists clench, and she feels it rising – the fire, the anger, Todd is alive and still the Return is here, still asking a question she can’t answer, that he has no right to.

She thinks The Return understands, that he can wait forever, and she’s overwhelmed by hatred once more, and it never ends, the fire grows, and she tucks her heart and anger closer together, and the relief at Todd, awake and alive and filling all the parts of her that she keeps just for Todd is eclipsed by it all, once more, and though she’s keeping her face neutral, but the Return must see something of this shift in her all at once, turning over and over again, or maybe like recognises like.

And maybe that’s it, then, or maybe it’s not, but she can see his noise open towards her, reaching out, in comfort, or acceptance maybe –

And she turns, almost running, back into the tent, towards Todd in his bed, hair overgrown and falling into his eyes, and all at once she feels calmer, feels that never ending fire smoulder back into embers, at least for now.

--

Viola doesn’t acknowledge the Return again, can’t bring herself to, and she knows that Ben wants her to accept the Return, forgive him, and maybe once she would’ve. Once Viola would’ve done anything for peace (Once, she did, and she’s been recovering from it ever since.)

Todd and the Return are also building trust, or something that looks like it, hesitantly. They can’t afford not to, not with thousands of people relying on them, and Todd has never been one to hold grudges but something in her also resents that, this something that it’s taken Viola this long to realise might never, ever leave her.

--

It takes a little time – which is still a lot longer than he wants – to move. To breathe. To take two steps without falling over.

It’s not easy, for any of them. Ben tries to spend his days with Todd, reading and teaching him through ways of the noise, ways to open up, to make it sing the way it had when Todd first woke up. But he’s busy, as the Pathway, between the new settlers and the Spackle, only really finding time at night, where he still keeps vigil, his song drifting and swirling in the air, just loud enough to match Todd’s own, ever constant noise.

Because now that Todd’s awake, Todd doesn’t ever want to sleep again. Not with how long he’s spent under already (not that he could with the nightmares).

It’s one of the many things Todd doesn’t have to say to Viola for her to understand. A look, a flicker between them, his hand in hers, and that’s enough.

(It always has been.)

When he finally has the strength to leave his tent (it was a half miracle that he stayed in bed for as long as he did, but Ben and Viola together are a formidable force), the sight outside overwhelms him.

More people than he’s ever seen in his life – thousands¬ – are walking, talking, building, thousands of people living.

Todd can’t help the tears after that, there’s a feeling rising up in his noise and his body and he doesn’t know if it’s pain or relief. Viola is there – because she always is – and she takes his hand.

“I know, Todd” she says, and it’s that simple, because she does.

--

It’s three months after Todd has waken up, and Viola is late to a meeting with the head of one of the settler ships that just landed, a man with copper hair and fair skin who hasn’t developed his noise yet, the Return is there, waiting outside his tent, their  tent.

Todd is recovering, slowly but surely, his footsteps uneven but determined, hair short again (Lee had offered to cut it for him, and it had been one of few quiet afternoons in the new settler colony, Todd clumsily guiding Lee through his noise, making small, silly comments about Lee needing a haircut of his own, Viola holding each of their hands in one of her own, her silence reassuring Lee just as much as Todd’s noise -) and the burn across his chest sealed and formed into a red disfigurement across his skin.

The Return is here, again, because even now that Todd is awake he still visits occasionally (and she hates it, she hates-).

The Return shifts as she goes past, and Viola doesn’t want to, but she pauses, just for a moment, and that’s the mistake. In that instant he opens his noise to her – unfurls it fully in a way she’s never felt any of the Spackle do before, opens it directly into her so that a wave of information rolls over her before she can ignore it-

Consensus on forgiveness, on the aching need for peace that rolls through the Spackle, no the Land as one –

And they’ve given her a name, for her blazing eyes and steady feet, they call her Light-bringer –

Consensus on forgiveness, forgiveness offered freely, this is what we have fought for –

Light-bringer, light-bringer –

For bringing the stars down from the sky -

(and a hillside explosion; and a pile of dead Spackle; her heart for Todd and Todd for –)

And Viola runs, runs away from the damn Spackle – shaking, full of anger and something else entirely coursing through her body.

--

Todd finds her (and she should’ve known he would, he always does) by the small river in the woods near the place where the first settler ships arrived. The river, a trickle that, since the dam was released in what feels like a long time ago now by the Spackle, is one of the few water resources they and the thousands of other people are relying on. 

His noise is loud, full of concern as he approaches, coming up to stand beside her, sounding a little breathless. Healing takes a long time; this, out of most things, is one of the easier lessons to bear.

He takes one of her hands, uncurling the clenched fist with ease and slipping his own fingers between hers. She grips him back, squeezes reflexively.

(After all this time, it still feels like home.)

Viola tips her head back, watching the grey, cloudless sky occasionally emerging through the green spread of foliage.

“A year,” Viola says. “A year since I first landed.” It was jarring to think about, but even more than that - that so much time had passed and Viola hadn’t noticed, wouldn’t have even remembered if it wasn’t for Bradley, if he hadn’t brought up the data logs early that morning, and had squeezed her, once, tightly on the shoulder when he showed her.

“Feels like nuthin at all,” Todd replies, and Viola thinks, suddenly, that he’s not the one who had to wait months for the other to wake up. (And that fire coils in her once more, and she pushes it down, that’s not fair, because this is Todd -)

Todd reads this in her silence, the way she reads his body language. She looks at him, and his eyes slip downwards in a way that she knows he’s thinking about Mayor, about all that happened between them.

Viola has never felt any remorse about his death the way she knows Todd does. Watching him walk into that churning, dark ocean, she had felt nothing, it had been relief and this aching emptiness, that false finality, false hope, all at once.

And then…and then……..

Take a breath Vi. Then take two.

She grips Todd’s hand tighter and that’s what pulls her back. And the words are stuck, raw and tight in her throat but she gets them out anyway.

This, at least, Viola has to release.

“The Return” she begins, and she matches Todd’s gaze when he looks at her, “– he offered me forgiveness. And a place within the Spackle. To help be an ambassador, like Ben.”

Because that’s what it had been, the rush of information sent right to the core of her – it wasn’t invasive, it had just arrived, and Viola hates him for it. For offering her the thing that she had given up so much for, that she had lost Todd over and then herself, had offered another chance, like he had any right to give that up to begin with. Viola hated the Return. She hated him because there was no other way to accept Todd’s almost-death, she hated him because he’d taken her hope, he’d taken Todd, she hated him because she didn’t know how not to.

(It’s what catches her most. How the understanding and hatred are the one and the same, how they are both bound by the frustration of knowing - of knowing there are some things she can’t escape).

And now Todd is here, alive, and she still can’t let go.

Todd is here, Todd is breathing and walking and clutching her hand as tightly as he used to like their lives depended on it, like they once did, how he’s always held her every time like he was never going to let go again.

It’s why I love him so much, Viola thinks – and oh, that thought alone quiets her, just for a moment.

“Vi,” Todd says, and she looks at him, everything in her rising, looking back at him, asking. He doesn’t say anything more, but he takes her hand that’s he holding, and brings it to his lips, kisses her fingers gently, one by one.

They’re both blushing, but he’s answering, his noise between them is full of understanding.

Of course it is.

--

It gets harder and harder to ignore him, the Return. To let it simmer.

He gives her space, he gives her time, he doesn’t look her way or ever tries to. He never asks for forgiveness again and Viola Eade does not to start fires, not now, because she broke that rule before, and it ended with Todd in her arms and a whole world gone quiet.

The anger rises and rises the more she tries not to let it, a crawling burning thing in the centre of her, embers that press hot against her eyes, her heart, her voice when Viola, still, occasionally, reads aloud to Todd and when she catches the Return pretending not to look at her and there is so much rage and noise in her head that it’s almost overwhelming.

Viola has never needed Todd so much, has never let her need so much of anyone until now.

(Keep going Vi, burn your bridges.)

And then; the stars above. And then; look back at the tent, at the boy and the whole world he carries in his heart. The smoke curling upwards from the firepit, drifting and dissipating into the night.

I don’t know how to anymore, Viola thinks, with a lump in her throat. She closes her eyes against the night, tips her head back, thinks about survival. Thinks about Todd.

And wonders when the two became so similar, why it always cost so much.

(Wonders if it always will).

--

Viola wakes one night, quiet but fully, as she always does, from another dream. It had been Todd and the world; Todd and the war; Simone screaming as the scout ship crashed, a blaze of fire filling her vision – and then she gasped awake into the night, heart pounding. I

It’s never going to be enough, she thinks. It’s never going to be done.

And then, she senses him before he’s even fully awake, the way she’s seen a hundred, surely a million times now, ever since they first waded out of a swamp hand in hand, fire burning behind them, even then – his noise uncurls between them and surrounds them as he wakes up, her name as always the first and loudest question in it.

She rolls over so that she’s facing Todd, answers it before he probably even knows he’s been asking.

“Bad dream,” she whispers. Viola can tell Todd’s not fully awake, from his noise (but mostly from knowing Todd), and he squints at her in the dimness of the tent.

“I’m okay,” she whispers again, somewhat less truthfully, but the concern had started rising in Todd’s noise.

He knows her better than that though, and blinks at her twice in the dark before reaching out his arm, shyly at first, and then pulls her close. She tucks her face into the softness of his shoulder, clinging against his shirt.

(Six months since he’s woken up, and still, she’s missed him more than she could ever say.)

“You’re okay,” Todd whispers back to her, and Viola breathes against him, into him, in and out, in and out, holding him, holding her, holding each other, as close and tightly as they can.

“I don’t know how to forgive him.” Viola says after a moment of this, and she’s never had to explain herself to Todd. He understands who she’s talking about. And before he can reply, Viola continues.

“How did you do it?” Viola asks him honestly, because it had seemed that the cycle of loss between the Return and Todd is one that could have never ended unless it ended with the not just one, but both of them, face-down and dying in the sand. And yet.

“Seem’d like I had better things to worry ‘bout.” Todd says, and she can feel the slight helpless grin form on her face, she can feel her heart shift in response.

“You don’t hav’ to.” Todd continues on, slightly more seriously, “Viola Eade, you don’t ever hav’ to give that to anyone else again,’ if you don’t want to.”

Todd has always been this, has always made Viola as honest as she ever could be, and here in the dark that trust is the only anchor she’s had in what feels like a very, very long time.

Burn your bridges, Vi.

No, Viola lets herself think. I want to build them.

(And that voice in her head, it no longer sounds like her father at all. It never has. It’s only ever been her).

And so finally, Viola reaches down, digs past the anger and hatred and exhaustion she’s carried, that she’s had for so long, that maybe has always been there since she first landed on this new world. Viola reaches and reaches and, then, finally lets go of the thing she hasn’t been able to say, until now.

“I think I want to.”

“Okay.” Todd breathes out, and then he says, into her hair, into the quiet, into her quiet that Todd can read as easily as she can read his noise-

“Okay,” she breathes back, and this time, she means it.

“We are,” Todd says, “We both are. We made it, Vi.” It’s a truth, simple and plain in the way only Todd Hewitt would ever offer.

It was only a beginning, the two of them older, exhausted, but alive. Alive, in spite of everything, still full of hope, in spite of everything. And maybe not safe, that’s something neither of them have been for a long time, that maybe they never will be again. But that’s okay.

It’s okay, Vi thinks, feeling the rhythm of Todd’s heartbeat against her own, the outline of his burn pressing against her chest.

They’re together, and that’s what matters. That’s what’s always mattered the most.

She made it.

Viola Eade made it.

They both did.