Ryan and Crystal watched the stream of humanity pouring into the wormhole from the only empty space remaining in the Volksgarten, a stretch of grassy field that was perfectly manicured and would by, by the end of the day, the only part of the entire park not crushed under millions of footsteps. Well, Ryan was watching. Crystal was twisting, pulling up stone from beneath the dirt and welding it in place to create barriers to try and keep the damage of the impending fight away from the crowd.
“Are you sure you don’t need my help?” Ryan asked.
“I’ve got this, love, don’t worry. You just keep an eye out for our dance partners, yeah?” Crystal wiped sweat from her forehead and took a deep breath, giving lie to her words.
“You’re going to be drained by the time they get here at this rate,” Ryan said.
“Nah. I’m just needing air right now, not even at thirst yet.” Crystal gave him what he was sure was meant to be a reassuring smile, but her eyes betrayed her. They was a haunted look behind them.
“Crystal…” Ryan started to say, but Crystal cut him off.
“Ryan, you’re still Nascent. Remember? Kali shows up and you’re not at full power, you could die permanently. I die? As long as you get my nanoverse out of here, there’s no risk of permanence. I’ll be out for the rest of the fight unless I get a really clean death, but I’ll be fine. You…this could be it for you.”
“That’s been the case since we started,” Ryan said. Crystal did a double take, and Ryan couldn’t stop himself from letting out a genuine smile for the first time in what felt like days. “I’m not saying I want to die or that I’m okay with dying, I’ve got a lot left to do…but that isn’t new. Every fight we’ve been in, I’ve been nascent. At least this time the wormholes are made. People are going though. Hell, we’ve got millions through already. If I go down-”
“-I won’t let that happen,” Crystal interjected.
“Crystal, please, let me finish.” Crystal looked surprised, and Ryan couldn’t blame her. Since they’d met, had he ever asked for that? If he had, he couldn’t remember it. “I’m not saying I want to die. But it doesn’t matter on the big, planetary scale at this point anymore. If I die, the rest of you can keep the fight going. They can keep evacuating people, save as many people as possible.”
“So…what are you saying?” Crystal said, after giving Ryan a moment to make sure he was finished.
“That you don’t need to be afraid for me anymore. That, if anything happens, we did it. You did it. I never could have gotten this far without you, and humanity isn’t doomed anymore. So…you don’t need to stress about my well being anymore. Let me worry about that, okay?”
Crystal studied Ryan’s face with an unreadable expression. “You said everything about that?”
Ryan nodded and smiled.
“Good. I just want to make sure I’m not interrupting you when I do this.”
Crystal answered by smacking him in the back of the head, hard enough to sting but not too much to hurt. “You’re a bloody git, Ryan Smith.”
“Ow, what the hell?” Ryan rubbed the back of his head. “I thought you’d be glad about all that!”
“I am,” Crystal said, but her eyes flashed with anger. “Bloody hell, it’s the biggest relief I’ve had since…since everything died last time. But I’ll be damned if that means I stop worrying about you, you absolute wanker. You think I’ve just worried about you because I wanted to finish the job? That hasn’t been true since…well, I won’t say the first few days, because I’m not going to lie about that, but at least since Graham Island. I worry about you dying because I don’t want you to die. So that means you conserve your power to decrease the chances you die until you finish Apotheosis, and you get my nanoverse out of here if I end up dying. I need you to get out of this alive because I care about you, even if you’re a twit.”
Something in Crystal’s anger got through to Ryan, and he found himself having to blink back tears. Outside of Isabel…Ryan didn’t think he could remember the last time someone had straight up told him it mattered if he lived or died. Not on his own merit. For months now it had been about if he was going to save the world or not. Hearing this…he wanted to give her a hug. Instead, what he could give her right now was a joke. “And because Isabel and Athena will kill you if you let me die.”
Crystal studied his face for a moment. Apparently, she liked what she saw there, because some of the tension drained away. “And because of that, yeah. I honestly don’t know which one I should worry about more.”
“Honestly?” Ryan said. “I’ve seen Athena take down a Linnorm and run a sword through a downed foe because she was pissed off. Having seen that, I’d say…you should absolutely be more afraid of Isabel.”
Crystal snorted. “You’re probably right. Athena could only kill me. Your sister is bloody creative.”
“Damn right I am,” Isabel chimed in on the comms. “Sorry, I came back just in time to hear I was scarier than Athena for some reason, and had to comment.”
“Isabel,” Ryan said, his heart spiking. “How’s it going elsehwere.”
“Good news is, no sign of Kali yet. Bad news…the Asgard has jumped in. Anansi’s pinned down by Loki in Accra, Freya and Athena are going at it in Tokyo, and Dianmu and Cassandra are dealing with a quintet of Valkyries in Hyderabad. They’re just sending one person per portal, though. I think they’re just trying to keep us from being able to focus on one place. The good news is that means they’re not concentrating their forces yet either. Chernobog and the Slavic deities are hopping around to provide relief, and a few portals are pretty much untouched. We can’t take the Olympians or Caaninites away from them though, otherwise we’ll leave something wide open. We’ve got it under control for now, but…”
“…but it’s exactly what we were afraid of.” Ryan finished for her. “Any signs of the super soldiers?”
“Which means they’re probably with Kali. Great. Isabel, what are they targeting?”
“The portals and the gods,” Isabel said, knowing where Ryan was going with the questions. “Civilian casualties have been minimal. I’m not sure if it’s just because they are focusing on the biggest threat or aren’t interested in wholesale slaughter, but either way it’s been pretty contained. With crowds this dense though…” Isabel’s voice hitched, and Ryan didn’t want to try and imagine what horrors she’s seen through the unblinking cameras of her drones.
“Thank you for the update, Isabel.” Ryan knew his sister. If she wanted anything right now, it would be a few quiet minutes to process or a chance to talk to someone one on one. “Let me know if you see any of the soldiers – and if anyone’s portal clears up and they’re still fit to fight, send them our way.”
“Will do,” Isabel said, and he voice cracked on the words. “Crystal, can I borrow you for a minute?”
“Sure thing, love. I’ll switch to private channel.” Crystal gave him a quick nod and stepped away. She was working on the barrier again and Ryan did his best not to eavesdrop, but overall he could still make out her reassuring tone.
“Ryan!” a voice shouted from the crowd, drawing his attention.
Ryan glanced towards the voice. Jaqueline. He jogged over to her. “Hey there!”
“Ryan, this is my husband, Kevin. Kevin, this is Ryan.”
Kevin was a good looking guy. Clean cut, wearing jeans a T-shirt. The kind of guy whose mere presence helped make it look like this line was to get into a football game, not an evacuation for an entire planet. He offered Ryan a hand. “Thank you,” he said. “For getting us out first.”
I’m using you as bait for a trap for a monster again, and I’m going to leverage you for political benefit if this goes south. Ryan shook Kevin’s hand. “I’m allowed to make things a bit personal, even with lives on the line.”
Jaqueline smiled and mouthed her gratitude as well, but the crowd was moving, and Ryan didn’t want to hold up the line. The meeting Ryan had been hoping for had served its purpose. People had seen, so if Ryan needed to leverage them, there would be people who were able to back his claim.
The fact that it was a huge relief to see they were going to be safe was just a coincidence.
He could almost convince himself of that if he really tried.