Chapter 1: Duck
Duck returns home after the events of that night.
Out of the corner of his eyes, Duck could see Minerva scoping out his apartment with inquisitive eyes. It occurred to him that as often as she had appeared to him in his home, she had never actually been there. He hung up his keys and his hat on the hook by the door.
"You can, uh, you can have my bed, Minerva. I'll sleep on the couch."
Minerva brushed him off.
"Nonsense, Duck Newton. This is your home, it would not be polite of me to take your own bed. This… couch, was it? Will suit me just fine."
Duck was too drained to argue. He nodded, then gestured to the fridge, "I'm gonna get changed, but you can help yourself to anything in there if you're hungry," and didn't wait for her to reply.
He shucked off his uniform and tossed it right in the laundry hamper. In a clean tee shirt and pajama pants, he went back out to the living area to get Minerva settled.
As Duck pulled out the sofa bed, Minerva poked around in the fridge, opening containers, sniffing the food inside, occasionally tasting the contents with her finger before putting it back. By the time Duck got out the spare blankets and spread them out over the thin mattress, she settled on some leftover ravioli, eating it straight out of the container with a spoon, perched on the kitchen counter.
“Well,” he said, “I’ve got the sofa bed all set up. You turn in whenever you feel tired, Minerva. I’m gonna head to bed.”
“Certainly, Duck Newton,” she replied. “Don’t let me keep you up. You did very well today, Duck. You fought a glorious battle and I could not be prouder.”
Any other day, those words would spark pride in his chest. Now, the giddy feeling of his earlier victory was cold and dead. He tried to feign confidence for her sake. “Thanks, Minerva.” But the words sounded flat and insincere.
“What is the matter, Duck Newton?” Minerva asked, sliding from the counter with the grace of a martial artist and striding towards him. “You seem upset. By rights, you should be jubilant. Rejoice in our victory, Duck!”
He felt punctured, deflated of all hope and joy and energy until there was nothing left but hopelessness and despair.
Minerva’s face fell. “This is about your friend, isn’t it. The one who died tonight.” Duck winced.
“I, too, have lost friends,” Minerva said, her voice soft, usual bluster all but gone. “ I understand how you are feeling. If I could spare you from this, I would. But I amI’m so sorry, Duck Newton. There is no pain in the world like losing someone dear to you. But do notn’t forget that we won today. We defeated our enemy! You have made so much progress, you saved Leo Tarkesian, we fought side by side at last and won - together! Though your town is not yet safe, you and I succeeded tonight, Duck Newton!”
Her enthusiasm did nothing to break through the guilt that threatened to eat him alive. “Sure don’t feel like success, Minerva.”
A knowing look passed across her face. “Ah. You blame yourself for your friend’s death, yes?”
Duck didn’t know how to respond to that. So he nodded.
Minerva, for the first time, looked like an ancient being. Like someone who had seen civilizations rise and fall and stars burn out and die. He had never thought a lot about how old Minerva must be, and everything she had seen, but looking at her weary face right now he could imagine.
“Sit with me, Duck Newton,” she said, taking his hand and leading him over to the sofa bed. She seemed to hesitate, as if unsure of how to say what she needed to tell him.
“I… I have seen many of my friends die, Duck. You know this. And every time, there has been the temptation to blame myself for their passing. I try to convince myself that if I had been there, I would have been able to alter their fate. It… it never gets easier, per se. But after a while, you begin to learn that the universe simply doesn’t work that way. It’s unfair, but that is the way of things. To wallow in guilt this way, Duck Newton, it is not for warriors such as you and I.”
“But what’s the point of being a warrior,” Duck demanded, “If you can’t save your friends from dying?”
“To stop your other friends from dying. Remember, if not for you, Leo Tarkesian would be dead right now, and I would still be trapped on my homeworld. Death is a greedy and vile thing, Duck, and overruling fate is something neither you or I could achieve. Your strength does not make you invincible, Duck Newton. When it is time, we let our friends go. That is the way of things. It is a hard lesson to learn, but blaming yourself for what is inevitable will do you no good.”
Duck pulled his sleeve over his palm and scrubbed his tears away.
“Don’t be ashamed of crying. Tears are a gift, Stars know I’d be the last to judge you for them,” Minerva said, with the ghost of a rueful chuckle at the end.
“Thanks, Minerva. I know, I just… somehow I never expected this would happen. I wish I coulda stopped it.”
She nodded sagely. “That is a natural reaction, Duck Newton, when violently confronted with one’s own mortality. But the only way to go is forward; we honor the fallen by continuing the fight.”
“Yeah,” he mumbled, “I guess you’re right. Carry on in his memory, and all that.”
“Precisely. Now you, Duck Newton, need rest. It won’t fix everything, but fragile species like yours often feel better after sleep. Go, I’ll see you in the morning.”
He wiped at his eyes again and stood. “Thanks, Minerva. I’ll see ya.”
But even after he’d turned out the lights and climbed into bed, he didn’t sleep. Instead, he thought of Minerva, an alien far from home. He thought of Aubrey, heartbroken, alone in her room at the lodge. And he thought long about Ned. Who, for all his talk of selfishness and opportunism, took a bullet in the back to save someone else’s life.
Chapter 2: Aubrey
Aubrey, alone, faces a new day.
Aubrey was tired of crying. She had cried all the way back down the mountain. She had wailed as the EMTs had pried her off of Ned, off of his blood-soaked body. She sobbed into Duck's shoulder as he led her away, leaving a dark blotch of tears and snot on the olive green fabric of his jacket. She wept into Dani's hair as she held her, waist deep in the hot springs beside Barclay. She fell asleep still crying, sniffling into her pillow.
When she woke up, it felt like every other morning. Aubrey stretched out her back and groaned as her spine crackled. Her whole body was sore and the wound in her leg throbbed dully. She smacked her lips around the cottony feeling in her mouth and wondered where everyone was. The lodge was disconcertingly silent. None of the usual sounds of its inhabitants up and about.
Then she remembered.
Everything came crashing back down at once. Janelle. The mountain. Dani. Ned.
Despair settled over her like a tangible, suffocating weight. A sob forced its way out of her throat before she was even aware of it, and she clapped a hand over her mouth to stifle any other treacherous cries. She couldn't cry any more. Childishly, she didn't want to. It was shaping up to be an absolutely awful day, but the thought of crying just made it feel worse.
She had fallen asleep in the clothes she was wearing the night before, jacket and all. They felt gross, dirtied by sweat and dirt and blood (Ned’s blood). She didn't have the energy to change, but she forced herself to anyway, pulling on the first clean outfit she could find and leaving last night's clothes on the floor where they fell.
Numb, she wandered out of her room. Downstairs was quiet. There was no Dani, early riser that she was, drawing or reading in the window seat. No Barclay bustling around the kitchen preparing the day's meals. No Mama making her rounds, boots thumping against the hardwood floors.
There was no sign of Barclay and his breakfast. She didn’t want to eat. She didn’t want to do anything, but her body needed food. As if in a trance, she poured out a bowl of frosted flakes from the cupboard and reached in the fridge for milk.
Only, there was no milk. The dairy shelf in the industrial-size fridge held butter, eggs, and cream cheese. But no milk.
No fucking milk. For her fucking cereal.
She brushed away a few rebellious tears. No. She would not cry over fucking milk. She’d just have to find something else.
She was about to gather her strength in pursuit of new breakfast when she was interrupted by the sound of the front door of the lodge opening. A brief investigation found Duck in the main room, looking around anxiously.
Aubrey was suddenly acutely aware of how alone she was, and desperate for any kind of familiar human contact she ran to him and threw her arms around his neck.
Duck grunted at the impact but held her tight nonetheless, usual hesitation all but gone. They clung to each other, safe havens in the midst of tumultuous loss. But eventually, Duck pulled away.
He looked pale and gaunt as if he hadn't slept at all. Duck looked pretty good for a man of forty-something but today it seemed as if he wore every year and more on his face.
"You doing okay, Aubrey?" He asked, voice like gravel.
She nodded, unable to speak.
"I just want you know, um, I'm here, you know? Like if you want to… talk to me or anything. It's real hard, Aubrey, and I'm so sorry, but I'm here for you if you need me."
She nodded again.
"Well, I guess I came by cause Kirby was seeing to- to his things at the Cryptonomica. And he said that Ned had left some stuff for us. He wrote us some letters, apparently. We should go get ‘em, if you feel like you're up to it."
No. She wasn’t up to it. It was too soon. Going back to the Cryptonomica would bring all the guilt and grief rushing back and she didn’t have the strength to deal with it right now.
But she had to do it. She had to be strong for Duck. To honor Ned’s memory.
So she choked back the words of a scared little girl and said “Sure, Duck. Let’s go.”
He gave her a smile, but it didn’t quite reach his eyes.
Aubrey spent the ride to the Cryptonomica staring hard out of the window, not really seeing what was passing by. The trip seemed to last for hours, but as they pulled up in front of the Cryptonomica, it felt like they had only just left.
Kirby was there when they stepped into the chill, air-conditioned interior of the museum. His ponytail was a mess and his eyes were red and bloodshot. "Hey Duck, Aubrey, thanks for stopping by.”
“No problem, Kirby,” Duck replied. “You got something for us?”
“Hm? Oh, yeah. It’s, um, he left them on his desk. Over there.” He gestured with a pencil to the office.
On the desk, beside a pile of brochures and a water bill, were two letters on crisp, white stationary. One was addressed to Duck, the other to Aubrey. Duck took his and settled into the swivel chair, elbows leaning on his knees.
This was it. These were Ned’s last words to her. After this moment, he would never speak to her again. Yesterday, she would have been fine with that. But now?
She just wished he were here.
So she read her letter.
I want you to hate me.
She almost laughed.
Really, Ned? Hate you? Fat chance, dumbass. She couldn’t hate him now. She wanted to. Oh, how she wished she could hate Ned Chicane for what he did to her, but that was impossible now. How foolish she was to send him away. Yes, he had wronged her terribly. But all she wanted was her friend back. She needed Ned back. She…
She leaned her forehead against her knees and cried.
She felt Duck sitting down beside her, wrapping an arm around her shoulders and pulling her in close. She thought, belatedly, that she had been crying on him a lot lately, but she didn't care. This was beyond anything she had the strength to cope with. This was grief the likes of which she had felt only once before and never dreamed she would experience again.
She pulled away from the embrace and looked into Duck's face, streaked with his own tears.
"Did you know his middle name was Kelly?"