Chapter 1: Smoke and Flood
Beyond Birthday stares down at the open window with wide eyes. He is not often caught off-guard, but when he is, he freezes, dwelling in a horrible moment of realization, joints locking into place and mouth dry despite that sharp tongue he possesses.
“You look like you’ve seen a ghost,” A says, smiling at him, looking amused.
“You’re dead,” he says. He doesn’t mean to say it; his mind scrabbles for something more eloquent, something better; but all that comes out is, “You’re dead.”
“So are you,” A says, “In case you haven’t noticed.”
He doesn’t feel dead. He doesn’t feel the cold and the stiffness that comes with being departed; he doesn’t feel the rot and decay that should be eating at his flesh. But he doesn’t feel alive either. There is a distinct stasis underneath his skin – blood does not flow for the dead – and he has no need for his lungs. He has held his breath for as long as he can just for fun, once, in this not-afterlife. If time existed here, he would say he held it for twenty years. But time doesn’t exist here, so he doesn’t know.
He doesn’t feel dead and he doesn’t feel alive. Truthfully, it’s hard to feel anything around here.
“How did you die?” A asks.
“Heart attack,” B says.
A hums and leans back against the driver’s seat. Their fingers tap a rhythm against the wheel, and B might be imagining it, but he swears he can hear the ticking of a clock as their fingers move. Tick. Tick. Tick. Imagined seconds passing in a vacuum where time does not exist.
“How long have you been here?” A asks.
“I don’t know,” B says. Again, trying to look for thoughts that don’t point out the obvious proves to be an exercise in futility. Maybe he hasn’t talked to anyone in a long time.
Actually, he really hasn’t. One minute, someone had a hand in his chest and was squeezing, and the next, he woke up here.
A nods, reaches over to the passenger seat, and opens the door. “Get in.”
They drive down the streets, and by some impossibility, they actually move. B doesn’t know how A is navigating the landscape, but he supposes the little headstart they had to getting here was to their advantage. He’s tried to navigate this place before, but all that happened was him getting lost in the city.
The buildings are all identical, and they tower high over him, reaching up to grey skies – not that there’s any other color around here. It’s dark asphalt and grey air and grey buildings and grey skies. There’s a perpetual fog here, but again, B never feels the cold. The inside of the car – a dusty charcoal, matching its exterior – doesn’t feel hot or cold. Even A doesn’t seem to have any body heat.
He would say it was a relief, because he’s felt like he’s burning for so long, but he’s felt the numbness for so long that he’s just forgotten about it too.
They leave the city behind, and A drives to grey, dusty hills. B will never admit to being relieved by the change in landscape. (He doesn’t ever want to see a door with the numbers 404, 1313, 211, 222, or even just 2.)
He sees lakes and oceans where they shouldn’t be, moats and docks strikingly out of place against an English countryside, and he doesn’t say anything.
They stop every now and then. Not to rest, because they don’t get tired here, but just because A likes to walk around and stick their hands into the water every now and then. B watches, and says nothing, still.
Every time A walks, he hears the tick, tick, tick of a clock.
There is a mountain of flashing screens along a dark stretch of road, and their curiosity gets the best of both of them as they stop by to check it out. It’s been cities and hills for them, and that only changed when B got in the car, so this is a new thing, and they gravitate to new things.
Even if those new things end up killing them, sometimes.
There is a man sitting in front of the screens, and they get the impression that he is being stared at by the screens. Not the other way around. He is staring at nothing, even if he tries to be the one in control, but he has long forfeited the right to be in control, and instead the screens glare down at him harshly.
Beyond thinks it feels a bit just.
Justice, he thinks, and laughs. A gives him a curious look before approaching the man.
It’s a mistake, because as soon as they are less than three feet away from him – with their clock-tick footsteps – he turns, and A freezes, then immediately walks away, back to Beyond, who stares at the man. His reaction isn’t as ‘deer in the headlights’ as it was when meeting A – mostly because he’s known he might see this man someday. A, he was never expecting to see again. They were a pleasant surprise.
This man was expected. It doesn’t make everything easier.
L looks a bit surprised to see them both, even if his face is impassive. They are the first, the experiments, the ones the program tried so hard to turn into spares that they broke them – they know how to tell.
“Looks like you finally kicked the bucket,” B says. A leans their back against the car and crosses their arms, silent, expression saying nothing. B knows they’re warring between very tired and very pissed.
L stares at A, and then at him.
“How did that happen?” B asks. He knows the date, so this gives him a bit of a timeframe as to how long he’s been here, but he wasn’t around to see L die. Did he get shot? Stabbed? Drowned? Burned to death? Died in his sleep?
Those felt too merciful.
“Heart attack,” L says, after a moment. He probably debated whether or not the information was supposed to be given, but they’re all dead, so it doesn’t matter. Nothing matters in the land of the forgotten, the unliving and the undead.
“Kira,” B says. He caught the early parts of the case.
A turns to him, having been told what they’d missed in the time they spent getting a ticket to Greyhills, Nowhereland.
L nods, then turns back to the screens.
“How tragic,” B mutters, not really meaning it, as he walks back to the car, “To be killed by the one person who could stand toe to toe against him.” He goes around to open the door to the passenger seat, and A opens the door to the driver’s seat after him.
They drive, leaving L to his screens and to the dust.
They find him again some time later, walking around with his hands jammed into his pockets.
“I can’t find Mr. Wammy,” he says as he approaches them. A has been trying to hold their breath under the lake, but even drowning is impossible in this not-reality. B turns away from them for a moment; he’s got his pants rolled up to his knees and his shoes beside him as he sits on the wooden dock, and his feet are in the water, making ripples across his black surface as he moves them.
Okay, so maybe he found them more than they found him. Not that they’d admit it.
“Did you follow us here?” B asks. A is underwater again. B never likes it underwater. Too many faces stare at him there.
“No,” L says. He turns to look at A in the water and B thinks he squirms. Maybe he is unnerved sometimes. Possibly by his mistakes that end in death. His mistakes always end in death.
“Go away then,” B says.
L doesn’t go away. He stays until A climbs onto the wooden dock and kicks him into the water. B thinks he deserves it.
When he finds them – or perhaps maybe when they all meet by chance, or maybe they were really supposed to be meet, because there’s only three of them here – they let him join the ride, as long as he was on the roof.
L’s sceneries are of tall libraries with no discernible entrances or exits, but the roads still lead to them anyway. The spines of the books on the shelves all have titles, and all three of them know that they are all first editions, because L never settles for less, but when they open the books, the contents are not what they should be.
B opens Paradise Lost. A opens The Holy Bible. L opens Beowulf.
They all read:
The human whose name is written in this notebook shall die.
“Curious,” A mutters, while B stares at the lines that are printed on the pages over and over again, as if trying to find out what it means.
L closes the book in a sharp snap and throws it down. A reminder of his failure – or maybe of a plan still in the works, but a plan meant to sacrifice something that could have gone a lot less messy.
L is not known for ‘a lot less messy’.
A and B share a look, and then a smile, and then a shake of heads. Of course.
The libraries wind and twist, and sometimes they have tall glass windows reminiscent of the ones usually found in cathedrals. There are no bell towers around, nor are there bells, but all three of them hear the resounding rings anyway. B sinks into the passenger seat, A taps their fingers along to the ringing, and L looks outside the window.
The bells rang for A’s death, and they rang for L’s mourning. The bells did not ring for B, or if they did, he never heard them.
The clock ticks for A, who never had a lot of time (actually they did, but with every day, B saw those minutes slip away faster than he could think to hold them; maybe this is how the universe compensates, to give the echo of a clock to the one who was robbed of time – was it robbery if they chose to throw it away themselves?). It doesn’t tick for L, and it doesn’t tick for B.
Sometimes the libraries are water-logged, but that’s usually when A is particularly pissed at L. Sometimes there’s ash and the smell of books and flesh burning, but that’s when B is mad. Sometimes the roads fork and screens appear where they shouldn’t be – in the water, on top of buildings – and they glare at the car accusingly, bearing their harsh white lights down on the road. If B looks out the window, he thinks he can see the asphalt bubbling.
A says they never see anything.
L just hums, nods, and rests his head on the window glass.
“The human whose name is written on this notebook shall die,” A reads, when a book floats up to the surface of a familiar lake. Of course, they don’t expect anything else written in the book. It’s just that one sentence, written in what is either very tailored handwriting or very edgy font.
The pages are all pitch black, and in a landscape that’s already monochrome, they seem to suck color and light out of everything.
A feels like they’re staring at a black hole.
B takes the book out of their hands – The Silence of the Lambs, its cover reads, one of both their favorites – closes it and then chucks it back into the lake. It splashes, and neither of them see it sink to the bottom.
L is watching them both as they stand at the edge of the lake. B kind of wants to push him in. Maybe he’ll see the faces too, staring at him with their sunken eye sockets and their empty holes for mouths.
B hopes he does. Because they look an awful lot like the children who died trying to live up to a man who was never really worth it.
“Mr. Wammy’s dead too, if L thinks he was going to find him here,” A says, staring at the spot where the book had plopped into.
B nods. “It’s not like we can do anything about it.”
A hums. “Maybe it’s just messed-up people who end up here,” they say.
B looks down at where they’re sitting with a flat look.
A concedes with a shrug. “Point.”
B sits down next to them and drops his feet into the lake. He can feel hands grab at his ankles, but they don’t pull him down.
A looks at the water with an expression of disgust. “That’s dirty.”
Only here would the water ever feel dead. B laughs, mirthless, and A brings their knees up to their chest with a sigh.
“Do you know where we’re going, A?” B asks, the only question that he’s been coming back to ever since A drove by him in their possibly-stolen car.
“B,” A says, “I have not known where I was going since I was four years old.”
B nods. He wasn’t expecting anything else. In fact, he hasn’t known where he’s been going since he set foot in Wammy’s either.
In life they wandered. It is not a surprise even in death – or not-death, whichever – they do the same.
“Okay,” he says, lifts his feet out of the lake, tracking tar-water with him, and stands. He holds out a hand to help A up. They take it.
Both of them wait for the tar to slink off of B’s pants and into the water before turning back to the car. “Let’s go.”
“Hey, L, how is your last name pronounced?” A asks one not-day, when B is half-asleep in the passenger seat and almost tipping towards the gear-shift. A slowly puts the car to a stop and turns towards L, and it might be his sleepy brain confusing dreams for reality – because funnily enough, dreams have not disappeared in this nightmare land – but B thinks he can see cogs in A’s eyes.
L looks confused and alarmed when he turns to them.
“Is it Law-li-et or Law-li-eei?” A asks, “Or Law-light?”
“How do you know my last name?” L asks.
A and B share a look. A tilts their head towards him. “How do you think?”
L has never believed in B’s ability to see death. B thinks that maybe the Kira case had a lot more to offer than just one murderer with the ability to cause heart attacks all over the world at the same time.
L has never believed in a high power, B knows. Maybe he started to. He can see it in the man’s eyes, the way puzzle pieces click despite how hard L tries to pry them apart.
“I see,” L says, putting a thumb to his lips as he lets the information sink in.
Beyond almost scoffs. This is not a case. The dead have no use for cases.
He almost does tilt towards the gear shift when he falls asleep while A resumes driving. He dreams of stained glass windows and a night where he catches A before they go through with their plan. He holds them and they both sit there in their dorm, crying. L Lawliet breaks neither of them.
They find Mihael Keehl in a burnt down church. A and B are more welcoming of him than they were with L.
He is confused, the poor boy, and getting in the car with three dead people doesn’t help.
He doesn’t know he is dead. Rather, he doesn’t want to acknowledge that he is dead. Acknowledgement precedes acceptance, and acceptance precedes dealing with it, and Mello does not want to deal with it.
So they drive, and he’s surprised to find the screens, and the smoke, and the water. He almost gets dragged to the bottom of one lake because he’s too curious, and warnings do nothing for him and he wades into the water, fully unprepared for the corpses that look too much like his classmates.
B dives into the water to get him and A drags them both to shore. L watches, because that’s what he always does – he always just watches the fallout.
Mihael Keehl never gets near the black tar-water again. He just watches when A, too used to feeling like drowning, swims in lakes and miraculously never gets dragged down; when B, too used to A and their water, sticks his feet into the tar and lifts them back up with no problem.
L never approaches the water either, and when asked, he says that he got pushed into a lake once and almost drowned.
“Did you see them?” Mihael asks.
“Them?” Mihael says, “Dead children.”
L doesn’t answer. Mihael thinks it’s a yes – he saw his friends underneath the water, all shriveled and rotting. He saw Matt.
He wonders what L sees, if he even cared enough to open his eyes under the water, and looked into the nothingness of his failed successors’ eyes.
(L never tells any of them – he saw them all; dead children, dead parents, the Task Force, Quillsh Wammy.
He saw eighteen-year-old Light Yagami stare up at him accusingly. How dare L let go of his one chance of not spiraling down into being a murderer again.)
Mail Jeevas is found walking by the sidewalk. From a distance, his body looks like it’s riddled with so many gaping holes that it should be physically impossible for the strips of flesh that constitute his frame to be able to walk. When their car approaches him, however, he looks fine.
B wonders for the first time in his life if there is something wrong with his eyes. They don’t work in here, of course, so he thinks what he’s seeing is how people normally see things, but he doesn’t thinks they see trypophobia on legs either.
Mihael jumps out of the car before they’ve even stopped, and runs up to a very confused and very lost Matt.
He smells like gunpowder.
The reunion is long and tearful, and A and B both look away, giving them their privacy. They don’t know what L does, if L even cares for privacy or for the feelings of his successors. They don’t think he does. He didn’t care for them.
They leave the car and walk a few ways off. They’re in a city right now, so it’s from B’s memories and nightmares, and A traces the number on the door. It’s a 2.
“Did you mourn?” A asks.
B sits down on the steps leading to the door. “Of course I did.”
A nods. They move away from the door to sit down next to him. “I’m sorry.”
“I’m sorry too,” B says.
They say nothing more and wait for Mihael and Mail to finish their conversation, which isn’t for a long, long time, and time doesn’t even exist in this place.
They fall asleep. B leans his head on the bars of the handrail. A leans their head on his shoulder. When they wake up, however long that takes, Mihael and Mail are still talking, sitting on the ground, laughing.
L is in the car, looking fascinated. They think he has never known friendship, and for a brief moment, pity him.
Then they remember he’s not worth being pitied.
L stays on the roof. It’s a rule. A is in the driver’s seat and B is in the passenger’s. The backseat can fit three people but Mail does not want to sit beside L, and Mihael says nothing against that opinion, and A and B are more than happy to kick him out of the car.
A gets a kick out of speeding down the road and hearing thumps when L grabs onto the edge of the car. Mail starts rolling down the window so L can have something to latch onto, only to roll it back up again after a few seconds to pin his fingers painfully against glass and metal.
Mihael watches, amused, but says nothing. B starts laughing outright.
“He deserves it,” Mail says, after they stop by a bridge that’s half-burnt but is impossibly still standing. L is somewhere on one end, fingers reddened.
The four of them are standing in the middle and leaning over the rail that feels like it just cooled down from the fire. It’s still slightly warm to the touch.
Below them, the water is as black and ominous as ever. Still, they see a huge shape moving in it, swimming towards who knows where. They don’t want to know. They don’t want to get in the water. They don’t want to know why A’s subconscious produced this nightmare of a memory.
“Do you ever just want to jump?” A asks.
All the time, nobody says. They all know anyway. Maybe it’s the common ground that they have for getting to this place. Maybe L’s the only one who’s different. They don’t know. They didn’t ask. They don’t want to ask.
“Do you ever just want to push L off this bridge?” B asks.
“All the time,” all of them say.
Mail picks up a book, reads what is inside, and turns to Mihael.
“How did you really die?” he asks.
The library seems to shrink to the space they occupy, and at the same time expand with the silence that drops between them. The others are in different corners of the library – A and B are up the mezzanine, L is crouched in a chair that faces a coffee table with an unfinished chess game – and they’ve both been left to their privacy. There’s plenty of privacy to be had in the world of the dead, and at the same time not, not when your secrets are bared for everyone to pick apart.
“Heart attack,” Mihael says.
Mail nods. “Who was it?”
“Might have been Takada,” Mihael says, “Might have been Yagami.”
Mail nods again, closes the book, and places it back on the shelf.
“How about you, how’d you die?” Mihael asks.
“Shot,” Mail says, “I got shot at a lot.”
“Oh,” Mihael says, as the image of Matt’s body ridden with holes suddenly makes sense, and makes him nauseous. Mihael is not easily nauseated.
The smell of smoke wafts through the room for a brief while. There is a child singing a hymn, but when they turn there is no one there.
A’s mind looks like tar-water and smells like rain. When the cities flood, nobody asks, and A drives, and B sighs and tries to go to sleep, trying not to think of screaming himself hoarse as he stares and holds A’s dead body.
B’s mind looks like fire and ashes and smells like burning flesh. Door numbers blaze in the greyness of the landscape. Only a few people know what they mean. One of them cares too much. One of them doesn’t care at all.
L’s mind looks like winding roads and libraries with books that only have one sentence. Harsh screens proclaim judgment as the five of them drive down the streets. There is a grave on top of a hill that has an angel staring down at it, looking cold and uncaring. They think it’s an avenging angel. They don’t know. The plaque reads: Here lies Justice.
(They all laugh. As if Justice was ever alive.)
Mihael’s mind looks like church aisles and confession boxes, like stained glass windows and angel statues, like echoes of Our Father thou art in Heaven hallowed be thy name and burning buildings. A sings along to the church hymns under their breath. B puts a hand on their shoulder and gently tells them to please stop.
Mail’s mind smells like gunpowder and sounds like beeping machines. They never see where the noises come from, but they’re there, and they’re loudest when Mail is sleeping, blissfully unaware of whatever’s happening outside of his slumber - whether or not there’s a hurricane and L’s just been brought inside the car, but he’s sadly soaking wet; or if there’s a wildfire outside even when there’s nothing to burn; or if the church they’re driving through is having a mass, but A isn’t stopping, and the altar vanishes right before the car crashes into it; or if the library books are falling out of shelves, and in the distance, they can hear someone screaming, their voice swallowed up by the loud rings of a church bell.
Light Yagami wakes up inside a helicopter.
The interior of it is dusty, like it’s been sitting here for years and years – and when he moves, dust shakes off of him too, as if he’s part of the machine itself (part of the decoration, looking pretty, his brain thinks), and he resists the urge to shudder and let dust fall off of him further.
Instead he carefully opens the door and extracts himself from the seat before getting as far away from the helicopter as he can, and then tries to shake the dust off himself. This must be what discarded objects feel like, he thinks, when they are left to rot and sit on shelves. China dolls and paperweights. Unloved books. Empty picture frames.
Light feels a kinship with them, for a second, before he realizes that he’s been patting down empty dust. When he turns around to look at the helicopter, it’s gone.
He is standing in the middle of a field. A familiar one.
There’s a sharp sound, and then something hits the ground in front of him- it falls down like a shot down bird, and Light flinches, thinking of gunshots, and metal scraping, and begging for his life while bleeding on the ground through too many bullet wounds. Images storm his brain mercilessly, notebook pages flipping too fast for him to read anything, and yet somehow he knows the contents by heart.
He flinches still.
Light Yagami takes a few seconds to inspect the concept of connecting two splinters of himself – perhaps he is the epitome of man’s duality – before he steps close to the Death Note that has fallen onto the ground.
There is no writing on the cover page, contrary to what he expected, and all he sees is smooth, unmarred black. His hands do not burn when he touches the notebook, not like he expects it to; there is no sharp snap on the base of his skull like there was when he got his memories back.
He opens the note. There is no rule page either.
And instead of pages of paper stained with ink from hundreds of names, there is a face staring up at him cruelly. Realistic and out of place, and corpse-like. Its eyes look like they’re almost bulging out of their sockets, and its teeth are stained yellow and red. It grins so wide, the skin has stretched and broken and bled.
Light does not have enough time to drop the notebook and scream before the nightmare jumps out the page and steals his voice before it escapes his lips.
“Do you know how it feels like to have someone walk on your grave?”
It’s B’s turn to drive, so A is in the passenger seat on the edge of falling asleep, and they don’t know who said that. They snort. “I don’t know. Did anyone give me a grave?”
They do notice when B stiffens. They incline their head. “Sorry.”
“I dunno. I think I know how it feels,” Mail says, “I died a week before my birthday, if I remember that right. I think I knew it was coming because…” he trails off for a moment. “There was just that small second of free-falling, you know? A long long while before I died. It was just a random thing, and I didn’t pay it any mind after but it was horrible.”
Mihael says nothing and looks out of the window. The first few strains of a church organ playing reaches them as B drives them down further.
A sits up properly and rubs at their eyes. They yawn. Funny. They don’t even need sleep in this limbo. They hear B immediately say, “Get some sleep,” and pause, wondering whether to laugh or be touched at his kneejerk reaction.
They can feel Mihael and Mail staring at both of them; maybe L heard what he said from where he was on the roof, but A knows he doesn’t care. He never does, really.
A leans back on against the seat to close their eyes. Just before they do, they see something dark drop from the sky, and suddenly it’s there – that one horrible moment of free-falling – and A shudders. Outside, lightning flashes, and B sighs as he slows the car to a stop so L can get inside before it starts to rain.
L looks pensive when he’s finally inside, and B starts the car up again.
“What is it?” Mihael asks.
B stares at the road. A does not look at the rearview mirror.
L makes a curious noise. He says, “He’s here.”
The skyscrapers have grown to even more impossible heights. Mihael tuts as he steps out of the car. Thunder rumbles overhead, and both A and B appear to have silently agreed to stay in the car, but the storm still seems to be brewing.
He knows who’s here, of course. Kind of hard not to when L appears to wait for only one person other than Mr. Wammy. He supposes he’s always expected Yagami to end up in wherever this is but it doesn’t mean he likes the idea.
They find him writhing and screaming on the ground, screaming at nothing, and several feet away from him, a little black notebook with an empty cover, an empty page where the rules should be, and empty pages. There is nothing inside the notebook. Mihael doesn’t think it means that there’s nothing written. It’s that there’s nothing – the pages are black, and they don’t look like they’ve been painted over with black ink. They don’t even glisten. It’s like staring into a black hole – the pages appear to suck in all color and light and Mihael’s ears ring the longer he touches the notebook.
He drops it, and when it hits the ground, he thinks it sounds like a war drum being hit. He doesn’t even know when he picked it up.
L approaches Yagami and stops when he’s a few feet away from him.
Light Yagami twists and turns and screams, and doesn’t see any of them, too lost in his own torment. Mail sits down and looks up at the sky. Mihael stares at the notebook on the ground.
They wait for Yagami to snap out of it for a very, very long time.
“Do you need me to drive later?”
B raises an eyebrow at A. “We don’t need to sleep in here, wherever this is.”
“Mm. Doesn’t mean we can’t. Do you need me to drive later?”
“It’s fine, Beyond.”
“It’s fine too, A. I can drive.”
“So you don’t hit anyone in the face?”
The raised eyebrow drops so he can give them an irritated expression.
“Admirable effort,” A says.
“Mihael and Mail might crash us.”
“What do you think happens if we die here?” A asks. They tap their fingers on the dashboard, and B hears the clocktick again. Tick. Tick. Tick. If A notices, he doesn’t know. He’s not even sure they’re aware of their clocktick footsteps.
“I don’t want to find out, I think,” B says, “I don’t want you to go trying it out either.”
A gives him a raised eyebrow this time.
“Do you think I actually want to deal with Mihael, Mail and L?”
“I’d say you’d want to deal with L.”
B huffs. “Maybe by punching him in the face.”
“Because he doesn’t give a shit about us? Is that a good enough reason or do I have to get into detail?”
A shuts up.
They sigh. “Sorry.”
B takes a long moment before he sighs too. It’s not really worth it to be angry here. There’s nowhere for that anger to go, in the long run. Everything here is in stasis, until A makes it rain, or until he makes things burn, or until the road winds and they break through stained glass windows and gunshots become a symphony while he tries to make sure A doesn’t start screaming.
“Do you know who they’re waiting for outside?”
A is looking out the window when he turns. There’s someone out there, writhing and screaming, but B doesn’t know who he is, and his eyes no longer show numbers and names here.
“I have no idea who that kid is,” he says.
“Me neither,” A says. “You know we could just leave all of them here.”
B laughs. “Are you going to leave them here?”
“You’re the one in the driver seat.”
“You’re the one who stole this car.”
“Who said I stole it?”
That actually gets B to shut up this time.
A laughs. “I woke up in this car,” A says, “I think it was the car I was in when they drove me from my last orphanage to Wammy’s.”
B nods slowly. He understands.
Outside, the others still wait for whoever the newcomer is. B realizes he’s not really keen on sharing a car with someone he doesn’t know.
“Huh,” he says, “Wanna leave them here?”
Chapter 4: Bridges and Corpses
tw: discussions of suicide
“So where’d you wake up?”
A is balancing on the rail of very old bridge. Beyond has no idea where it’s from, not that it’s important that he should. Knowing where they’ve copy-pasted bits and pieces of their memory-sceneries isn’t going to help them. There’s no helping being dead.
There is helping being an idiot and walking on a rusty railing like an acrobat might a tightrope. A has both feet carefully planted on the metal, arms outstretched, taking one slow step at a time. Below them is a far, far drop. Beyond can hear rushing water, but from how high up they are, he can’t see the river. It’s jarring. The water sounds so close.
“Get down from there,” he says, scratching a nail against the black polish of their car’s trunk. He imagines the sheet of metal decaying under his fingertips.
A hops and spins, landing on one foot, now facing the other direction, turned away from him. B frowns at the dull thunk their shoe makes against the fragile rail.
“Since when did you become a daredevil?” he asks.
A laughs. “Excuse me, did you forget who climbed the top of the cathedral tower and – ”
“Don’t -” B starts, tone clipped, “ - remind me.”
A turns to him for a second and then shrugs, like there is absolutely nothing bothering them. Not even the memory of being young and climbing to the highest point of Wammy’s intent on pitching themself off of it. Beyond is aware of how a part of the rail dents when they take their next step.
“I wonder when the dead go when they die,” A says, “I wonder if they can even die if they’re already dead. Do you reckon there’s another term for it? Something less lengthy than ‘the complete ceasing of existences leaving not even a trace, or any evidence of being, behind’?”
“Yes, I do think there’s a term for it, and it’s still several words long, but not as lengthy. It’s called ‘get off that railing before you fall off, idiot’.”
A laughs and jumps off the railing. B fixes them with an unamused stare as they come up beside him to sit on the trunk. The sound of the water under the bridge calms to a murmur, and when B looks out ahead, he finds that he can see the river this time.
“Well look at that,” A says, “It’s closer now.”
“This place never makes sense,” B says.
“I think in some way, it does,” A says.
Perhaps in a limited scope, he thinks. It fashions itself out of their memories, of their ideas, of their emotions. Since they’ve left L, Mihael and Mail behind eons ago (or at least, it feels that way), all B’s seen are his cities and A’s bodies of water, oftentimes littered with floating corpses. He hasn’t seen a cathedral, or heard gunshots, or been glared down by the harsh light of an exaggerated monitor.
He doesn’t know how the place does it. The same way he still doesn’t know how he’d been able to see names and numbers until his eyes hurt. It’s easier now that he doesn’t have to, although on habit, he still looks at the space above A’s head.
Somehow he finds comfort in that.
“You know when I…” A pauses and licks their lips, taking a second to think about how to phrase things. “When I started to get really horrible with the pressure, I always did imagine it to be a long drop.”
B turns to them and says nothing. He leans back on his hands, waiting.
“I – I don’t know how to talk about it. You know I never cut myself because I thought that would make it obvious,” A says. They look down and start picking at their sleeves. “And I didn’t want it to be obvious. If they noticed – hell, if you noticed – I’d get sent to Roger, maybe get watched all hours of the day, and they wouldn’t have let up on my workload even then, I know they wouldn’t have.”
They’re rambling now, still picking at their sleeve but not really seeing what they’re doing. Beyond doesn’t stop them.
“So I thought about it. Thought about all the ways I could do it. It was constantly scratching at me,” A says. B can hear the rushing of the waters again. “But I never knew when I was going to do it. Never knew when I could. It was like – I don’t know. I knew I wanted to die, but I didn’t do it. Not for a long time.”
A draws in a breath and then lets it out in a laugh. “And then I did. It was sudden. I just thought – I’m tired. I want out now.”
B nods. He remembers. He hasn’t forgotten it since the day it’s happened. He moves one knee up to his chest, resting his chin on it. “Was it a long drop?”
“No,” A says. They turn to him, finally, and the bridge underneath them creaks. The water is loud. “It wasn’t a long drop at all.”
The sudden silence is suffocating. B feels his ears ring, and he closes his eyes and rests his head on his knee, groaning a little at the pain.
The car shifts as A stands. They pat his shoulder lightly.
“Come on,” they say, and he feels them move away. A car door opens. “I’ll drive this time.”
They end up at a beach. B actually stumbles out the car as the wheels halt from kicking up sand, A parking them very close to the waves – not that they’ve had much of a choice – and he has to take a moment to steady himself. And then he laughs. He hasn’t seen a beach in a very long time.
It might be A’s, but he knows they also haven’t seen a beach in years.
“Oh, wow,” he hears them breathe out behind him. The car door slams and then they’re beside him after a minute.
“This yours?” he asks.
“I think so,” A says, “If it is, I barely remember it.”
“Well, here’s your long overdue beach vacation, I guess,” he says. He walks back to the car to check the wheels. He doesn’t think the sand is going to cling to it once they’ve left this scenery behind.
When he turns back, A’s shoes are on the sand, and they’re wading in the water, which is just as dark as the rest of the lakes and rivers they’ve seen in this hellscape.
“A, get out of there,” he says. Lakes are good and all, but he doesn’t know what’s in this place’s oceans.
Something fast enough to drag people away and never let them come back, maybe?
A just waddles into the ocean faster, and then stumbles, and then surfaces, laughing. Their clothes will be dry when they crawl back up to shore, so that’s not a problem. B tries to see if he can see dark shapes in the water. He finds none.
“You’ve stuck your feet into lakes before,” they say.
“This is an entire ocean,” B says, and motions to the horizon. He can’t see any islands. The clouds are grey and thick and endless.
A pauses. Then, “I don’t think I can die here.”
“We’ve talked about this. I’m not talking about it again,” he says. He opens the car. The keys are still in the ignition. “Now come on.”
A just dives underneath the waves. They don’t come back up for a while. He sighs. He doesn’t know how deep the water is, even if they should only be standing at somewhere with it up to their waist; with the track record so far, he fully expects an entire abyss one step into the waves.
He climbs onto the roof and sits there, frowning.
The sun doesn’t set. Granted, there is no sun around here. It’s all dim light with no identifiable source, and when B stands too still, he thinks the cold is trying to burrow into his bones with the fierce anger of someone scorned. He’s not sure. Sometimes he shivers but he can’t feel anything.
A hand sticks itself out of the water. It’s grey, with black veins, and it looks rotten and old. It’s not A.
He leans forward, ready to dart – to the water or to the car, he doesn’t know – and then a head follows the hand.
The face is familiar. It’s of a young boy, with wide, cursed eyes, and B thinks it’s been so long since he’s seen that face in a mirror.
The boy tilts his head sharply, making it bend at an unnatural angle, more than B can ever do, what with muscle and bone to account for, but the kid’s head is just…hanging…at the side. A bit like a broken neck. Like the bone has snapped trying to carry the weight of that lifeless head.
B stares at the corpse. It stares back.
“Where’d you wake up?” it asks.
His frown deepens. “None of your business.”
It giggles, the sound ringing around the beach, high and mirthful and malicious. “Where’d you wake up, B?”
B drops down from the roof to pick up a rock, and in the split second he holds it, he realizes it’s a skull. A very small one, but very clearly a skull. Old and brittle and thin. He throws it at the corpse, and misses wildly.
“Where’d you wake up, where’d you wake up?”
He makes a noise of irritation as he stands. He turns back to the car, intent on climbing up the roof again, but someone’s already sitting there.
A’s child-corpse stares at him, grey and rotting, and looking very very young and very small. Younger than when they’d died. He sees that one of its eyesockets is full of wriggling maggots.
“Where’d you wake up?” it asks, voice soft, but somehow just as warm as he remembers it.
It smiles at him. When he doesn’t answer, it reaches out and brushes its cold fingers across his cheek, the touch light.
“Your bed,” he says, in a whisper. “I woke up on your bed. In our old room.”
The corpse seems satisfied with his answer. It nods, and then climbs down the car slowly. It runs towards the water, and then stops just as the waves crash against its feet. It turns, and then waves at him. B remembers for a moment that A never said goodbye.
The one swimming in the water is still there, head sticking out, staring at him, but it turns its attention to the other as it walks into the waves, wet clothes sticking to its small, decaying frame. He sees the rotting mass shaped like his younger self rise up a bit, extending a hand, and the dead A takes it with a grateful nod.
They both shoot him one last glance before they move deeper into the water, and B watches them as they disappear into the dark waves, and then he can’t make out even their silhouettes at all.
A surfaces a minute later. He half expects them to be grey and rotting, but he’s not complaining to find they’re not.
“Do you think we can drive the car into the water?” A asks. They start swimming to shore, and as soon as they’re in shallow water, start to walk towards him. The water slides off of them like an oil slick, and B makes a face in disgust. At least they’re dry when they reach him, although they’re still running their fingers through their hair.
“I don’t think I’m inclined to stick around to see you try.”
“We crashed it into altars.”
“We never reached the altar,” he says.
A thinks about it for a moment and then shrugs. “Okay, so maybe the ocean will disappear if we drive the car into it.”
“Like I said, not inclined to stick around to see you try.”
“I thought you were scared of fire.”
A looks down. “I’m sorry. That was tactless.”
He just lets out a breath, slowly, willing himself to relax. He fails. “What’d you see underwater?”
“Nothing much,” A says. “I’d say the usual, but the usual is seeing familiar faces.”
“You didn’t see anyone?”
“Not one,” A says. “But the water was deep. Unnaturally deep.”
“To be expected,” he says. “No fishes either?”
“No,” A says, giving the water a glance. “It’s empty space under there.”
It’s fitting, he thinks. A vast ocean of nothing that’s deep enough to drown in. Maybe this isn’t A’s landscape after all. Maybe this afterlife, whatever and wherever this is, does make some amount of sense.
A climbs up the roof and watches the clouds ahead. B joins them, and neither of them say anything.
it's been a while