I closed my eyes and I waited. The pain flowed through each breath, rising with my chest, sparking with each twitch of muscle. Letting go of each sigh was a tiny relief contained within a few seconds.
I don’t remember when I closed my eyes. I don’t remember when the air stilled and the sound faded into nothing but a soft, persistent static. Was I imagining it? Was this my failing attempt to escape the pain? When had the pain begun?
Time moved and didn’t move. It flowed through my mind as fluid thoughts that I couldn’t string together, things I might have been thinking, but might not have. Beyond me, all was still. I could feel it, the never-changing of the air beyond my closed eyes. Did I dare to look? What would be looking back at me? I knew, and I didn’t. I remembered, but I doubted my memory.
I opened my eyes.
He was staring up at me with an expression somewhere between remorse and guilt. Why would he feel guilt over me? Our eyes met and stayed. There was something… strange about the way he stood there, only him. Unchained, unguarded, just looking up at me in that way that conveyed a million thoughts roiling through his head that he couldn’t put into words for me. I didn’t remember him being alone here, in this moment. I didn’t remember him standing like that, looking like that. It didn’t happen like this.
When had the pain gone?
I closed my eyes again. I could feel his still on me. Slowly, I shifted my body, expecting pain and finding none. Pressing my feet to the smooth stone, I pushed. The chains groaned, but I kept on, feeling the metal dig into my skin. The air echoed with a sharp crack, and my feet hit the ground, stumbling. My bones creaked as my arms fell forward limply, broken bits of chain falling to the floor with whispered impacts. My gaze rested on my shackled hands. They balled into fists, twisting. The chains between them snapped, and I carefully wedged my fingers into the space between flesh and metal, peeling them away. The bent and misshapen remnants fell to the ground as a million flecks of fading sunlight. They didn’t matter anymore.
I was dead.
The dust hung around my ankles, unsettling, leaving a trail behind me as I approached him. The world around us was nothing but flat, desolate earth against a red horizon, the stone that was my final moments casting a shadow over us. His eyes glowed so dimly in the half-darkness cast over us. One look into them and I knew that the sorrow etched into his face wasn’t just for me.
In the black-shrouded corners of my mind, I knew that I had felt anger in the moment that was meant to be this one. Hatred, unhindered rage. But I didn’t feel that now. I didn’t want to. Instead I just… smiled at him. His eyes sparked briefly, brows knitting together. But he didn’t speak, and neither did I as I lifted my hand to press it to his cheek. The moments between us ticked away, one-two-three. And then his arms were around my shoulders, holding me to him like I was a frail, insubstantial thing in danger of being lost to a gust of wind or a blink of an eye. I only smiled wider, slipping my arms around him in return, coaxing his grip to lessen so I could cradle him to me. I would not slip away this time.
He hid face against the nape of my neck, shoulders sinking. His breath was warm, his pale yellow tears warmer. My skin bristled faintly as rosy tendrils crawled over it, reaching from his arms for me. They grew over us, slithering up my neck, poking tentatively at the edges of my mouth. And it was just us again. Us on this endless expanse of nothing but dust and a rising sun that would never break over the horizon.
Just us, the dead who were still dying.