Chapter One Hundred Fifty
Atlas + Phaeods, by rhetoric
Word Count: 1,334
She didn't want to have the conversation. She'd much rather if she could go to sleep, lose herself in unconsciousness for a few hundred years, and wake up with the conversation as nothing more than a distant issue, long forgotten and long healed. A frown tugged relentlessly at the corners of her mouth but she fought it, though managing 'expressionless' was the best she could do. Exhaustion clung to her like a gasoline-soaked blanket; heavy and dangerous, considering how very little distance she was from yet another fire. The dark lines under Atlas' eyes looked more like bruises than anything else, but she figured they were fifty-fifty. Everything still hurt, every breath scorched her lungs with agony and made her wince, but she continued to sit upright in her chair, eyes affixed to her reflection as if she could intimidate herself. She had determined she would comb her hair, and while the act was small, it dealt wave after wave of pain to her skeleton - still, calmly, and fully ignoring the quiver in her hand, she ran the brush over her filthy hair in slow, deliberate strokes. Dried blood knotted up her curls in more places than she cared to admit. The pungent scent clogged her nostrils as she went. Quietly she ran over the events for the trillionth time.
She'd spotted a small cluster of shivering, bloody bodies still breathing. They were the ones she'd been searching for, the ones that had called her from the between world, had forced her to rise from her otherwise-grave. Her heart clenched in her chest with bittersweet relief. She knew not by what miracle they had survived, but she praised the ancestors and wiped the tears from her eyes.
Atlas ran, despite the unsteady wobble in her legs, to her family. The reunion, thick as cake with emotion and grief and agony, was nearly silent. Words held no power in relation to what they had all experienced. Her silent army of corpses settled to the ground in a gruesome circle around those left alive. Hands were on her shoulders and arms, a few pressed gently against her back, as everyone gathered without instruction.
It was time to go home, she thought, and for an instant, everything was white and clean and painless.
She crumpled into his arms and it was all he could do to keep from weeping. Phaedos clutched her tightly, one hand caressing her knotted and dirty hair, his nose pressed against her forehead, breathing her in. She smelled like war and torment and blood. Elseron was beside him, his eyes focused on his daughter, his mouth drawn into a tight line, etched with something akin to disapproval. For a moment, Phaedos wondered what he'd done wrong to lose the Guardian's respect, but then he caught the glimmer of control in the man's winter-blue eyes. It wasn't disapproval at all - it was simply the best Elseron could do to keep the pain and relief and exhaustion from showing.
Phaedos didn't want to let her go; it was the last thought in his mind that made sense to him, the one thing he knew above everything else. The idea of parting from her was worse than reliving everything they'd been through. Still, he could see a certain need in the man standing so close, a kind of gnawing want that Phaedos couldn't allow Elseron to suffer through.
They had all been through enough.
"Here," Phaedos said, hoisting Atlas into his arms and holding her out to her father, "Why don't you take her to her chambers and let her get some rest? I'll help everyone else find quarters and bring the dead to the morgue."
Elseron eyed him for a long moment, his expression never wavering, before nodding and taking Atlas' small weight from Phaedos. He said, "Down the hall, the first door on your left is to the council's office. Tell whoever is on duty what you need, and if they question you - which they will - tell them they can find me in Atlas' chambers if they are bold enough to interrupt me."
Atlas had dreamed she was on a beach. Diamond-clear sand glittered in the blazing sun, a topaz ocean stretched forever ahead of her, the waves lapping softly at the glorious shore. Crouched, she scooped up a handful of sand and watched it sparkle as it fell between her fingers, catching - for an instant - the entire strength of the sun and reflecting it back at her. A breeze blew gently, not even strong enough to tug at her hair, and the cloudless sky darkened to an amber pool as the sun began to sink behind the ocean. She was alone on the beach; no life squaked above her, nothing disturbed the sand below. She did not feel frightened to be alone in a place she didn't recognize - there was something calming about the view that she let settle the discontent in her mind. She never thought to look behind her at the unbridled glory of Atlantis, risen from the depths and gleaming like a beacon in the ever-darkening light.
She blinked and the memory of the dream faded. Her hair was combed and her body screamed at her to heal it, to address the wounds that littered her muscles and bones. Three slow, paced knocks sounded at her door and she rose from her chair on unsteady legs. She forced her voice to remain even as she called, "Come in."
It was time. They needed to be told, whether she wanted to tell them or not.
The door swung inward and soon her chambers were filled with faces she knew all too well. They had all suffered for her, all sacrificed, all had the same blood on their hands. Melody and Arisa had showered and she could smell the soap wafting from their skin; though they'd rinsed off the soot and dried crimson guilt, their bruises and cuts remained. Phaedos was a mess; still covered in dirt and blood, his wounds not even cleaned, sweat dripping from his forehead. Elseron was bandaged up but still needed a shower, his too-keen eyes studying her face as if he could read her speech in her eyes. Dante, the poor beast of a man, was healed but the exhaustion in his eyes gave away his misery. He kept a gentle hand on Melody's hip, keeping her close to him as if he thought the war might not be over. Beside them, Will observed his surroundings with the eyes of a stranger - a man that had no idea where he was, no grasp on the great secret he'd been sucked into. Eden and Pilot settled onto one of her lounge chairs, Pilot's arms protectively twisted around her stomach, his chin on her shoulder. Even in silence they seemed to be communicating, but Atlas shook off the thought. It was time, she reminded herself again.
"I have called you all here for two reasons. The first is to express my most profound gratitude to each of you. You've done more than I ever could have expected out of anyone, and you've done it without question or doubt or expectation. I owe you each my life and more. The lives of my people, the success of my homeworld. Our doors will be forever open to you and yours, without question or doubt or expectation. For the rest of time you will have a safe place here in Atlantis. If there is anything you need, do not hesitate. The wealth and magic and skill of all of Atlantis is at your disposal." She hadn't expected to be interrupted; a hushed silence had settled over the group since the end of the war - as if they all shared the same fear that to speak too loudly, to address what had happened, would bring it all back. And so she continued, taking a single calming breath, "The second is to tell you all that I am stepping down from the crown."