In college, I went on a date with the son of my mother’s coworker. I couldn’t remember if his name was Jason or Justin, so I spent the entire night maneuvering my way out of saying his name. He... [+]
There isn’t a lot to say, after all. The missions always leave something behind: an imprint on their skin, calluses on their fingertips, a heavy, empty silence that bleeds from the walls and settles into the air. And on nights like these, they can feel it. Even as they peel off their sweat-soaked suits and scrub the blood and dirt from their hands until their palms are raw, they can feel it.
It’s why, when he stumbles into the kitchen that night, Liam makes six cups of tea instead of one. It’s why, even though she could do it just fine on her own, Valerie lets Piper’s gentle hands tend to the gash on her forearm. It’s why Archie doesn’t immediately retreat into his room like he always does, why the ever-efficient Nia leaves the mission report unfinished on the counter, why Taya and Jamil sit a little closer than strictly necessary and no one really minds. It’s why they all linger in the living room for just a few moments too long.
“Maybe we should all get some sleep,” Nia says finally, after some time has passed. Her hands are wrapped tightly around the mug that Liam had pressed into them, and her eyes and voice are tired, but she makes no move to go to her room. None of them do. Maybe they aren’t ready to fall asleep yet.
Maybe they just don’t want to be alone.
“Can we--” Liam hesitates, and then scrubs at his eyes. “Is it okay if we just, stay here?”
Slowly, Viriya nods, and a little bit of the tension in the room seems to ebb away. Then Piper waves her hand and a pile of blankets floats down from the closet shelf, and they’re clambering onto the couch together, squeezing to fit and laughing softly as Archie and Liam tousle for the best spot.
(And Liam wins, but only because Archie lets him.)
Taya curls up against Jamil, who squeezes her hand and intertwines their fingers. “Maybe we should play a game?” she suggests quietly, because it doesn’t take long for it to become clear that none of them will find sleep any time soon.
“Not truth or dare,” Liam says immediately. “Every time we play, Val forces me to relive some embarrassing story.”
“You just have so many great ones, it would be a shame to let them go to waste,” Valerie taunts, settling her head into his lap with a grin. He retorts with a none-too-gentle tug on the end of her dark braid, and she swats at his hand with a scowl but still doesn’t move. Nia chuckles a little, and Taya hides a giggle behind her hand. This is how it has always been, will always be, between the two of them, something so simple and easy that somehow it makes everything a little lighter. The brightness of their banter is almost contagious.
Piper pauses in thought. “What about Never Have I Ever? The um, non-alcoholic version?” she offers.
“I don’t see how that’s any less revealing than truth or dare,” Valerie says with a pointed look at Liam, and shrugs, “but let’s do it. Can I go first?” They all nod but almost instantly regret it when a catlike grin flickers across her face, highlighted in the silvery moonlight that comes in through the window. “Never have I ever had superpowers.”
Four collective groans are joined by her pleased laughter and Nia’s indignant cry of, “Really, Val?”
Archie cackles at the others’ expense and high-fives Valerie as the four superpowered teens reluctantly lower a finger each.
“You’re gonna pay for that,” Jamil says, his voice dangerously low. He’s always true to his word.
It’s sometime around 6 A.M., and the sky has already started to lighten when their laughter begins to taper off, when the delirious high from the night slowly starts to fade away. As it leaves, exhaustion sinks back into their bones, and the hollowness in the air makes itself known again. It’s suddenly harder to ignore.
“Nia?” Taya inquires carefully, receiving a soft hum in response. “What happened with the mission yesterday...those kids--” she swallows tightly and clutches Jamil’s arm a little tighter. She doesn’t--can’t--finish. She doesn’t have to.
“There was...there wasn’t anything more we could’ve done,” Nia responds, and her voice is heavy and shaking enough to make Taya wish she hadn’t said anything. But maybe they all need it, the quiet reassurance from their leader that it’s going to be okay. Maybe Nia needs it too.
And so Archie says, his voice somewhat strained, “Sometimes...sometimes you just, can’t save everyone.”
They’ve all heard it a million times before. From their mentors, their parents, each other. It doesn’t dull the blow any, though; the words still ring in the air, sharp enough to sting in how truthful they are.
For a moment, it’s painfully quiet.
Then Liam looks at Archie with bright, earnest blue eyes, his hand still tangled in Val’s hair. And his voice is tired, but there’s hope buried somewhere underneath. “We keep trying though, right?”
Slowly, Archie swallows against a tight throat. “Yeah, kid,” he says, and the barest trace of a smile crosses his lips. “We keep trying.”