Utilizing Branch's lab for something other than sheer insanity felt alien to Vera. Yet it had everything that they needed, so it'd have to do. For once, that lab would be used to save lives, instead of ruining them. In all the time that Vera had been at the compound, the lab was one of the few mysteries that remained; it being off-limits to anyone outside of Branch's most trusted staff. The very table that TK was one was most likely the same table that had Demoreo strapped down to for months and months on end, injections, surgeries and other tests that stripped him of his humanity and turned him into a monster happened there, as did whatever tests that had brought his wife back. TK had collapsed in the elevator, leaving Vera and Dr. Faraday to drag him to the lab, now with Branch's team of doctors buzzing around, doing what they could to save him.

He had lost a lot of blood, more than he had let on, but they could save him with the large reserves of blood that Branch had stored for himself. It turned out that both Branch and TK were the same blood type, a fact that she was champing at the bit to joke with him about when he came to, until then she was watching while on another table a surgeon was working on Shar's leg. There were fears of infection because of all the undead present, and they would amputate it to ensure that any infection didn't spread throughout her system.

Tyler sat curled up in a ball next to Vera, her arm draped over his shoulder. The cut on his stomach wasn't deep, just required some stitches. Now he sat and waited, quiet and stone-faced, while the doctors operated on his mother in front of him. He knew that they'd be taking her leg, but he hadn't budged or protested, either.

"It'll be okay," Vera said. "You know that, right?"

"Where's my dad?" he asked.

"I... Well, umm..."

"He's dead," TK sat up on the table, pushing the doctors aside.

"Damnit, Tom," Dr. Faraday scolded him, "there's time for that later."

"She's right, Mr. Gabriel, we aren't doing stitching up this wound and..." one doctor protested.

"It'll heal," he said, looking down at it. "Look, already has stitches in it. You're free now, Branch is dead, but you still did whatever the fuck he wanted, don't pull this Hippocratic Oath shit on me now."

"He can't be," Tyler said.

"He is. I saw it with my own eyes. But your dad, what he did… it was a brave thing. He killed Branch."

"TK," Vera said. "Not now, okay? Just let them finish stitching you up and..."

"Tyler, you need to understand this. He's dead, but he died as a good man. He died a man, not a monster."

"Okay, that's enough, TK," she warned again, glaring at him. Tyler jerked away from her and out the door, Vera shaking her head and pointing at TK before following him out the door. "Hey, Tyler. Stop. I'm sorry."

"Is it true? Did he die?"

"He did," she said. "I'm sorry that I didn't tell you, but I just... shit, I don't know, I needed to explain it to you, so you'd understand."

"I thought they could save him, that they could somehow reverse it all and that he'd be my dad again."

"He was your dad, Tyler. No matter what. I'm sorry, but when I saw that TK went after Branch, I knew I had to help. He was hurt and, well, your father... You saw he wasn't himself, but after he saw you, that changed. I saw something in him again, something inside of him woke up, was able to fight away all of that torture and remember who he was."

"Wait, you mean he remembered me?"

"Of course he did." She wiped a few tears away. "You woke him up, sweetie. He saw you and it changed him."

"How did he even get up there?" TK asked.

"I led him to the elevator, and we both stuffed in there, which, ohhh god, it was a pretty tight fit and..."

"The boy doesn't need to hear this, doll. He gets it." Will rounded the corner. "Don't ye?"

"Yes, sir."

"Let him alone, will ya?"

"Hey, he wanted to know, and he deserves to know and..."

"Boy," Will grabbed him by the shoulders. "Yer pop was a fearsome fella. I know I was 'fraid of 'em, but something changed out there. She thinks it was you. Guess that sounds 'bout right."

"I know," he said. "I'm just gonna go check on my mom, okay?"

"Sure," Vera said, folding her arms and leaning against the wall. Stuart made an appearance and in a rare showcase of emotion, the brothers embraced before Stuart pushed him off and Will departed with a slug to the shoulder.

"Fucker," Will chided.

"Whatever, knew ye'd make it," he said. "Where's the doc?"

"Stitching up Gabriel."

"Well fuck, tell 'er Elsie's fine, alright? Just made her a cheese sandwich and sumwit."

"Look at you," Vera smiled, "taking care of someone else like anything matters."

"Keep yer damned wench's mouth shut, will ya?" Stuart scoffed, stomping off.

Both of them stood in silence for what felt like an eternity before Will broke the silence. "Quite a fucked day, eh?"

"Yeah," she said. "How about Stuart and the little girl, huh?"

"Stone killer an' he's fussing 'bout some girl and dolls and shit."

"What's next, Will Farrington settling down?"

"Oh, fuck off. So what's eatin' you?"

"I want to know what happened to Demoreo and Branch. Has anyone gone out there yet?"

"The whole bloody tower saw them fall, love," he said. "No reason to worry about anything. They're both gone."

"That's not a bad idea," TK exited the lab, pulling on his jacket over his blood-stained shirt. "I'm going up there. Who's coming with me?"

"Fine," Vera said, trying to sound disgusted, but morbidly curious.

The three stood before the elevator, waiting for it only for TK to get frustrated and make for the emergency staircase without a word. Will sighed and motioned for Vera to walk in front of him like some sort of gentleman. TK was still a mystery to her, at times cold and distant, other times full of life and energy. Now that Branch was gone, there were a lot of questions that would need answering, and she wasn't sure who would be the one to take over the daily operations of Branch Tower.

The crushing weight of that responsibility could be enough to drive someone mad, or maybe Branch would just be replaced by someone worse. She wanted TK to just take over; him serving as the catalyst for the past few weeks, anyway. This seemed like his responsibility. Branch was a madman, but there was order under his rule. Now the infrastructure that he left behind was still in place for the time being, but it wouldn't be long until that would fall apart without Branch at the helm.

There were three sets of stairs to the main lobby, them emerging from the back, off to the side. The receptionist sat at her desk. Mascara streaked down her cheeks and balled up tissues surrounding her work area. TK Gabriel stood just outside of the door, at the top of the steps waiting for them, overlooking the scene. The door was hard to open, the suck of air followed by a whoosh and a blast of warmth from the sun and the whipping winds of the wasteland. TK was leaning against the metal railing with a foot up, munching on an apple from the reception area.

"I always forget about the fucking apples," he said. "But seriously, fucking apples, the gall of this guy."

"Yeah..." she crossed her arms and walked down the steps towards the two bodies. She had watched them jettison from the building in person, saw the glass that had survived the nuclear holocaust, withstood some of the most powerful winds and exposure known to man, smash under the strength of Demoreo. Branch was probably dead just from being smashed up against that glass, never mind the fall itself. "Why hasn't anyone even checked on them yet?"

"There's lotsa shit going on right now," Will said. "There was no way that either of 'em coulda survived that."

"He was a good man," she said. "I know that neither of you got to see that. But he was a good man, and he cared about his family. He didn't deserve this."

"None of 'em did," Will said.

"This isn't about who deserves what, this is about survival," TK said in between bites.

"What about hope, then? Don't these people deserve hope?"

"What is there to hope for?" TK said. "This is all that's left, hoping for more won't get anyone anywhere."

"You don't see the hope? The hope that Demoreo could break through when he needed to, to fight off whatever they had done to him to save his son? That's hope, TK," Vera said. "I'm sorry that you can't see that, but that's hope."

"This is a giant fucking monument to the man who destroyed the world, full of people trying to live like things were before, who cheered on the destitute murdering each other or being fed to his creations," TK inspected the core of the apple before tossing it at Branch's corpse and wiping his hands on his pants. "That's not hope."

"So what now, then? You take over and give us something different?"

"Different?" He said, shaking his head. "I don't know what you are thinking. I'm out of here first thing in the morning."

"So you'll just run, then? You'll come here, fuck everything up, then leave?"

"This isn't my home," he said. She wanted to slap him, but Will wrapped his arms around her shoulders and gave her a squeeze. He could tell that she was getting upset, but this was his way of telling her "not now."

"Then what will we do? There are still thousands of people here. Some are good, some could be good."

"I don't know," he said, walking back towards the door. "You two might as well take care of things. They all know him, anyway," he nodded at Will. "Maybe you can change things. Maybe not."

With that, he walked back into the building, snatching up another apple from the reception desk and disappearing past Vera's line of sight. She was angry, confused and scared at all that had gone down that day. People had died, some good, some bad, some just trying to survive, and their little world was thrown into chaos. TK Gabriel was at the center of all of this and his plan was to leave, suggesting that Vera and Will take the place of Branch as the integral cogs to keep things running.

"Wait, can we do that?"

"Dunno," Will said.

"Fucking Gabriel," she said, kicking up some sand.


"We should clean this up or something, shouldn't we?"


"Okay, well," she took a deep breath. "Call Stuart and get him to send a team out here to pick them up. Have Branch incinerated, but not Demoreo. We'll hold a memorial service for him in the arena."

"Kinda weird, innit?"

"Just take care of it, please?"

"Alright, alright, fuckin' hell, woman."


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About the author


Bio: I used to write about professional kickboxing. Trust me, I was good. Now I write science fiction.

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