It wasn't a bad place. It was just lonely and boring. All the beautiful in the world couldn't make up for that. He didn't know how long it'd taken him to figure out that he didn't need to gather food, or eat it, or sleep. Or piss. Or... anything. He could spend forty days lying on his back, staring up at the weak sun, and get up feeling as fresh and strong as the day he'd... something.
Arrived? He didn't remember doing that. Been born? He was pretty sure he'd done that someplace else. That was one thing you couldn't do alone, after all. And there was nobody else here who might've produced him. He'd looked, for what felt like forever, with some nagging voice in the back of his head telling him that the seasons should change, the length of the days should change, but they never did.
Every now and again he felt like he ought to be looking for something—no, someone—but then he'd hear noises in the distance, go follow them, and find that (for a while, anyway) there were birds to watch, watching him back from high above, or great furry fanged things that looked at him with silent compassion. They only ever made him more lonely, because they'd leave (always, somehow, when he wasn't looking) and remind him that he couldn't. Then he'd remember that he wanted to, but didn't know where to or why, and he'd lose himself in black days where it just wasn't fucking fair.
At some point, after one of the blackest times, he started making marks in a particular tree with a favourite piece of sharp rock. He carried the rock with him, never went far from the tree. There were pools of fresh water towards the sunrise and dry, dark caves towards the sunset; he didn't need shelter, or water, but both felt nice. He moved between the two, a routine for himself, and stopped every day at his tree to make another mark, licking yesterday's sap from his fingers when he moved on. He stopped one day when the sunset side of the tree's trunk was a mass of sweet sap, ants swarming around the small scars, afraid that he'd kill it if he kept carving the days. He spent hours counting the notches, then counting them again because the number couldn't be right. Just couldn't be, but the marks couldn't lie.
He threw his sharp rock into a pool, that sunset, wrenching muscle in his shoulder, neck and back and pretending that the dull, sudden pain was why he screamed out loud.
The ants went away, just like everything else did, but only once the bark was healed and the sap stopped coming. The tree occupied his mind for days because he could see it changing, see it healing little by little. He'd done this. There was a thrill under the guilt, pleasure at seeing something happen that he'd set in motion, but he didn't hurt any more of the trees. It was enough to know that he could, that his world wasn't entirely beyond his control. Sometimes, carefully, he cut the tree to taste a little sap and to remember. It was sweet, and that made his body shake and feel good. His toes dug into the moist loam between the tree's roots when he suckled one of the open knots. He became aware of something that he needed, something beyond food or water or sleep, and he almost found it in tasting the tree, but guilty feelings kept him from opening the bark too often. It was wrong to damage the tree to make himself feel good.
The day he realised that, the sky turned almost as dark as night, and enough rain fell that he needed to run to the shelter of the caves. Even shivering in the dark, he liked the sound of the rain; there was something right about it, like one of the things he needed to remember. Rain, and sweetness on his tongue, and not hurting something that wasn't hurting him. He knew all of those. He held on to them tighter than he'd clutched his rock, and slept while he waited for the rain to stop.
Dreaming. That was why you slept, even when you didn't need to. He woke up shaking, hot, hair sticking to his face and neck, aching for a touch and mad at himself for forgetting what he'd dreamed. He tried to get back to it, just to catch another glimpse of what had left him feeling so alive, but it was as useless as trying to leave the forest. He touched himself, instead, grasping and pulling and rubbing with both hands until the ache drained out of him in heavy spurts and left him laughing, softly, one hot arm flung across his face. Laughing reminded him of... someone. It stopped his heart feeling like lead in his chest and made the air feel right in his lungs for the first time.
It was still raining but he felt like finding something to eat, like emptying himself onto the cave floor had cost him a little.
His hand went to his lips, too slow to catch the unfamiliar vibrations of sound.
He'd known words, in his thoughts, but they'd never wanted to come out, before. And there were holes, missing words, and he'd been scared of those.
"Weird," he said, making the sound slowly and testing the breath with his fingers, then doing it again with his fist pressed to his throat.
Words felt better out of him, just like the drying splashes on the dirt did. He did both, a lot, after the rain stopped—both together, sometimes, and for a rare treat he'd visit the tree, pressing his body to the rough bark while it was still sensitive from being touched, and taste a little, pretending it was a kiss or that the raised knot of healed bark was flesh against his tongue. He could coax a taste of sap with nothing but slow scrapes from his bottom teeth, and the wounds healed almost at once.
Once, after one of the dreams, he emptied himself a second time, collapsing among the roots, chin and fingers all sticky with fragrant sap. The tingle in his mouth went all the way to his toes, beautiful, and as he swallowed, a fragment of his dream burst to life in his head, real as his thundering heartbeats.
"You seem confused." Eyes that didn't match, that laughed at him. Lips that looked painted with berry juice, but weren't. Voice that was both cutting and soft. And a smell, incense, sweet like the sap, swallowing every clear thought... "Sweetness can mask poison. You know this. Leave here."
A huge bird, high above the canopy, kept pace with him as he ran from the place, its shriek echoing for miles when he broke new ground, climbing a steep slope where the trees gradually gave way to rocks and scrub. There hadn't been high ground, above all other places. The forest had always been flat. He'd settled in his place before the rain. He'd wandered, at first, but when the frustration started to turn into despair, he kept his movements between the pools and the caves, making a home of it. He'd stopped looking beyond his small territory. He hadn't expected anything in the land to change.
Well, maybe that had been his mistake.
It was colder, at the crest of the new slope, and as his skin pebbled, he remembered covering himself with clothes. He didn't think he'd ever had them in the forest—definitely hadn't missed them ever before. So he was cold, hungry, craving a sweetness that he couldn't get from forest fruits. None of that felt good. He missed not knowing.
A river ran in the far valley. It made sense that rain went somewhere, but no sense that the landscape was rearranging itself around him. Worse, it was frightening, and being frightened made him angry. He could go back down the way he'd come, back to his caves, assuming that the forest would stay put, or he could go down the far slope to the river and hope it was warmer there. Or that he found something to cover his body with. If he had clothes he could be warm anywhere...
"What is it you want? What is your deepest desire?"
Dreams weren't always memories. He knew it, but he knew that voice—the one that had sent him away from the tree. He'd heard the voice, seen that face for real, somewhere, before he forgot. Before the forest. He wanted to trust it, but didn't quite, but was glad to hear it anyway, even if it was only in his head. Another voice to see how his own compared.
"I want clothes," he said, hesitantly. "I want to..." It dried up, as he descended towards the river. He'd spent enough time talking to himself, back in the forest; his own voice, his own hands. Small stones hurt his feet, slippery, sharp shale on the steep slope. He lost his footing partway down and slid four lengths of his body on his back, the shards cutting into his skin until he cried out. Nothing had hurt like that in the forest!
"FUCKING HELL!" he roared. Some words felt better than others, coming out, and those felt great.
He bled. Could feel it running down his back, down his legs, as he limped to the bottom, to the riverbank.
"I've been hurt worse..." He had. There were scars on his body. He'd given them no thought, before, but scars meant injury, like the tree when he'd cut into its bark. He'd healed before, so he'd heal again. That made sense, but when he washed off the blood in the shallows of the river and counted the old, healed wounds, he almost choked on not remembering. His eyes stung.
The great bird circled overhead, moving up and away from him until it was just a black pinpoint in the sky.
"Fuck you," he whispered. "Go, then. Fuck off and leave me. Everything else does."
The water turned icy around him, so cold he had to leap up and out, but he stood on the plant-carpeted bank feeling something colder inside his own body.
Finally, he knew something about himself.
So the one with the eyes that didn't match had done that. Left him. That made it hard to trust the little whispers from his dreams, but so far they'd been right. To leave the forest, the tree and the sap. To ask himself what he wanted. His head was clearer, now, and he didn't ache so constantly to touch himself, to find sweet things to eat, to distract himself from his situation with good feelings. He didn't need to eat, so he didn't eat, not trusting anything. He didn't need to sleep, but he still did it because he liked to see a new day and put the old one behind him. It felt right, but so had the forest, so he didn't trust sleep either. Especially when he started to truly remember his dreams.
There'd been a forest that had seemed like the entire world. Weird-eyes had taken him there... or been there, anyway... time and again, the second he woke, he tried to push the memory back, past the dream-forest, to find out what came before. He always failed. Weird-eyes had clothes, but in the dream, so did he. They looked warm, compared to nothing at all, and only kept him thinking that it wasn't how things should be—walking around with nothing over his skin, not even fur like the animals had. The river had never gotten any warmer and the valley was colder than the forest, much colder at night. In his dream, Weird-eyes left him alone in the forest.
"So that's how I got here."
It made his stomach hurt to think about that part. It was the same sort of hurt that tried to call him back to the forest, to the tree and its sap and the few things he knew of that felt completely good.
He let the dreams come more and more often as the days grew shorter. There was shelter in places along the valley, but the caves were full of the same loose shale that had shredded his back and legs; he had to collect branches or dirt to lie on and it was better, warmer, if they were dry. The river valley looked like it was going to go on forever, like the forest once had, so when the nights became longer than the days, and too cold to bear, he gathered as much as he could into one cave, piled up big stones to cover much of the entrance, cutting out the wind, and went to sleep.
"Leon." Weird-eyes had a voice you could listen to forever. "Leon."
Leon! His name... he clutched at it like a physical thing, determined to carry it with him out of the dream. Found himself clutching at Weird-eyes, instead, the weird eyes wide with surprise, but a small smile lifting his lips. "Why, Detective. You might give me the wrong idea."
"Is this real?!" Leon... Leon... had never been able to grab anything in his dreams, before. Only watch himself, watch memories without touching anything or understanding anything. "You... you're warm..."
"Leon." Weird-eyes put a hand to his face, amusement all turned to concern. His clothes felt perfectly soft against Leon's skin, so soft, nothing like his heap of insulating greenery... "Think. Think," Weird-eyes pleaded. "Find me. You must find me."
"But I found you," Leon protested, crushing the slight body against his chest, pushing his face into the soft, dark hair, believing it until there was nothing left.
"Wait," he whispered, clutching at nothing but his own knees. Outside, it was raining and the river roared in flood, sounding as angry as his—as Leon's heart.
"Leon." He said it out loud, his voice uncertain. "That's me. He's right. Leon." A name to go with the voice and the scarred body. "Leon."
Lightning ripped the sky open and a roll of thunder shook the hill, echoing, deafening. Shale cascaded down, clattering on the rocks outside the cave.
"Shit." Nothing that violent had ever shaken his place, before. His fear answered the thunder. He could hear his own heartbeats. What was he meant to do, go out in the sheeting, icy rain and look for Weird-eyes, because of a dream? He'd die out there, die of cold, and he didn't think Weird-eyes wanted that.
Think, he'd urged. His fingers had smelled like jasmine, against Leon's face.
Well, what was dreaming, if it wasn't thinking? It'd been warm in the dream, Weird-eyes had been warm, and it was better to get buried alive under the hill than to freeze to death out there...
The storm started to calm a little, as he drifted back to sleep. Way easier to think without that noise from outside. He thought about the jasmine smell and how Weird-eyes had rested in his arms without resisting at all, like they knew each other. Really knew each other.
"But you left me in the forest," Leon said, as Weird-eyes looked up at him from a picnic blanket spread with sweet things and a tea set.
"Only for a moment. Please, sit. Enjoy the afternoon with me."
"But it's night," Leon grunted, not sure why he wanted to be so contrary about it, when the sun was shining brightly above the trees.
"Truly, you have no imagination," Weird-eyes said, offering him a cup on a saucer. "Jasmine tea. Sip it slowly, now."
Leon knelt, watching Weird-eyes over a picnic basket that could've catered to a banquet. He took the cup, noting that it felt right in his hand. Familiar. Was it his?
"What did you mean, find you? You're right here. You mean out there?"
"You will not find me where you are now," Weird-eyes said, turning his own teacup slowly between his hands. "I cannot help you until you find me."
Leon sloshed a little tea over his thigh—he was wearing clothes, again, blue jeans and something black on top. Weird-eyes winced, very slightly, and closed his eyes as he sipped his own tea.
"So I can't find you out there 'cos you're not there, but you can't help me until I do. Great. That's just fucking great..."
His tongue froze on the point of a name. Weird-eyes tensed, everything about him rigid, waiting. He stared off into the distance, but when Leon tried to do the same, everything was blurry. It made him feel queasy.
"Did this really happen?"
"This?" Weird-eyes passed a hand over the picnic. "Yes. You remember this."
"But not like this."
"Then why don't I remember?"
"I can tell you that," Weird-eyes sighed, trying to smile, "when you find me."
"Great." Leon found himself patting at the pockets of his clothes, sloshing out yet more of his tea in his search for...
"Be careful with the tea!" Weird-eyes snapped, pinning him with a hostile stare. "Why do you never listen to me?!"
"I don't even know you!" Leon yelled back. "All I know is, you know my name! I don't even know yours!"
"Wait," Weird-eyes begged, his own tea spilling as he reached across to grab Leon's wrist. "Please, don't..."
He tossed what was left of the tea onto the grass, and Weird-eyes' hand passed right through him.
"Fuck," Leon panted, blinking up at daylight. "Fuck!"
Picking a fight with his own dreams—yeah, that'd help. Felt good, though; as much of a release as when he touched himself, which, come to think of it, he wanted to do now. He didn't, though. The rain had stopped and he had a sneaking suspicion that the quiet outside meant that the river had gone away.
It bothered him that the thought didn't worry him more.
"... hey..." Everything felt different, as he crawled out of his pile of brush. It was warm outside, as warm as that sunny afternoon in the dream, and there was cloth against his skin. His thigh was wet, blue jeans stained with the tea. "Hey, shit." He found himself smiling so broadly that it hurt the hinges of his jaw.
His feet were still bare, and the black top barely covered the top of his arms, but it felt better. Better. He walked taller than he had before. His hands seemed to belong in his pockets as he strode along the dry and dusty riverbed. The clothes felt comfortable, but strange after being without.
Rivers led to the ocean, he thought, so Leon walked the way the water used to flow, noting that the valley got shallower as the hours passed and that the harsh shale slopes gave way to soft, eroded red rock; baked and dead, but peaceful and unthreatening. The day seemed longer than the day before; longer even than the days under the forest canopy. Had Weird-eyes done all this? Clothes, warm sun? Or had Leon carried a piece of the picnic-dream back with him? Did dreams do that? He couldn't remember.
The smell of jasmine from the dried stain on his thigh left him wondering. Weird-eyes smelled like that. His skin was soft, his shape... nothing like Leon, whose limbs were always everywhere. At dusk, Leon sat on the rocks above the riverbank, studying his own, broad hands and his dusty, large, narrow feet, until he'd decided that Weird-eyes was beautiful by comparison. Then he slept, warm and peaceful in the grass at the base of a rock, and didn't dream.
He woke up ready to touch himself, though, and thought he could taste sugar and jasmine, as he knelt in the dry grass with his zipper open, making sounds he'd never made before. He slumped forwards against the rock, when he came, and the stains had baked dry before he could move again.
The clothes felt even stranger on his body, after that; not quite chafing, not hurting just... tight. Touching him, a constant reminder as he walked that day, keeping him sensitised to everything. Even to the hot breeze. It moved his hair, tickled between his fingers, pulled up dust in warm swirls around his ankles. It all reminded him of the frustration he'd felt in the forest, before he'd learned to touch himself after the dreams—of his craving the tree's sap, even though he'd only just taken some.
Now he wondered if the forest was even still there. Could he go back, if the riverbed led nowhere? Or would he find Weird-eyes at the end of it, ready to tell him everything like he'd promised?
All I know is, you know my name! I don't even know yours!
Leon pushed the hair out of his eyes and quickened his stride. He wished he'd been nicer in that dream. What if Weird-eyes had been in there, for real, and was too offended to come back? That would be bad, since he hadn't come across anything else that could answer any of his questions.
When I find you, what then?
Twisted feelings in his gut told him that it couldn't be that simple. Weird-eyes had said he wouldn't be found... but had to be found... how? Where?
More questions. Leon wanted the answers. He decided he was sick of not having them, of knowing that he'd come from someplace else but not knowing where.
"I wish I knew your name," Leon said, wishing that his own voice kept him better company. Like his own hand, it didn't feel like enough, any more. It didn't travel far enough into the silence.
Next time he dreamed, he'd ask Weird-eyes his name.
The shadow of the great bird kept pace with him until sunset, then left him alone again.
"Where were you, before the forest?"
Weird-eyes set a cup of steaming tea on the table between them, and Leon marvelled at the softness he was sitting on. He didn't recognise the place, and the details blurred when he tried to look closer. He could look at Weird-eyes and at the table, and the cushions they were both kneeling on. "Please, don't rush the tea."
Leon felt his lip curl slightly—what was with the guy and his god-damned precious tea?—but Weird-eyes was suddenly looking over his shoulder, breathing faster, the way a person did when they were scared. When he looked back at Leon, the fear was there in his eyes. White teeth worried, delicately, at a plum-coloured lip.
"Before the forest... don't remember." Leon turned the teacup on its saucer. It was delicate and finely painted, fancier than the one he'd had at the picnic. His hands felt too big for it. "First thing I remember is being there."
Weird-eyes was wearing white, all white except for fine black stitching at his collar and cuffs and black studs in his ears. He looked... "Hey," Leon said, leaning over the low table. "I don't know your name."
"I know." Weird-eyes hadn't poured himself any tea. He clasped both hands in his lap, and kept moving them. "I may not help you remember it."
"Oh," Leon said. It didn't make any sense, but that didn't feel as wrong as he thought it should've done. "But I knew before, right? Before the forest?"
"Before." Weird-eyes studied his face, his gaze flickering like he didn't know where to look first. "Yes. Please think. Please try to remember."
"I'm heading for the ocean," Leon said. "If there is one. Stuff keeps changing. Out there." He took a small sip of tea—felt Weird-eyes watching, and put the cup back down to show him it was hardly touched. "The... these. Clothes. Was it you?"
Weird-eyes shook his head, chewing his bottom lip again.
"No, Leon. All I may do is spend this time with you, when you dream of me."
There should've been more important things to do than sit in silence and sip tea, but Leon couldn't think of anything. Weird-eyes wanted something from him but couldn't ask, and wanted to help him but couldn't do anything out in the real world. But company in his dreams was way better than none at all.
"Only until the tea runs out," he blurted, when the cup was half empty. Weird-eyes jerked, startled out of his own thoughts. "Right?" There was only a blink for an answer, but Leon knew he was right. "You're not doing this, are you? But you left me in the forest..."
"Long ago. Another forest. And only for a moment." Weird-eyes put both hands on the table. They trembled for a moment before he pressed harder and stopped them. "I cannot help you until you ask. Until you ask me by name, Leon. Find me."
Leon grabbed the empty answers like a lifeline; wanted to grab the smaller guy by the collar and shake some more out of him, but Weird-eyes gave a huge gasp, springing to his feet... no, yanked to his feet by something Leon couldn't look at; Leon's teacup smashed like it'd been hit with a rock, and there was nothing left to reach for.
That sucked. The whole thing sucked. But Leon didn't doubt, any more, that he really had to find Weird-eyes; the guy was in trouble, scared even, and you didn't leave people like that when you... when you had feelings for them.
"Shit." Leon pulled the collar of his black top away from his throat, trying to cool off. The night was sweet and warm, but he felt like he was burning. The rock he was sleeping next to was still radiating the day's heat back at him, and for a minute he wished the river would come back so he could take a long, cool drink. He'd hardly even had a sip of that tea. "Feelings." He had lots, some good and some bad, but having them about another person—that was different. And for that, you needed there to be another person, and that was how things ought to be. Not alone in a place where nothing else was alive. Most of the time. The animals that had come and gone in the forest hadn't shown themselves since he'd left it. Only that bird, and Leon half wished it wouldn't. Or that it would do anything other than watch him, safe out of reach.
From the look on Weird-eyes' face, Leon guessed that he wasn't the only one wishing things were different. Did he have feelings, too? Was he stuck somewhere by himself, too?
"I'll find you," he said, but the silence and the darkness ate up the sound of his voice. All he had to do was figure out where to look, and get there. And remember a name.
Leon wiped his forehead with the back of his wrist. He ought to be desperately thirsty, with it being so hot. Why wasn't he? People ate and drank, and made a big deal out of it, like Weird-eyes with his pretty tea things and his picnic. It was something you did with other people, did to enjoy. And you were usually allowed to get to the bottom of your cup without dreading it.
"Why don't I remember? Why can't you tell me?"
This time, the sound of his own voice made him uncomfortable, made him feel watched and weird, and he lay down again, loosening the button at the waist of his jeans, easing down the zipper, pushing down the cloth, coaxing his cock into feeling good but thinking about Weird-eyes instead of what his hand was doing.
His sharp cry tore a hole in the darkness, and dawn came.
As he followed the dust river's course, Leon ignored the way his body reacted to the clothes, to the breeze, to the baking sunlight. Instead, he made a mental list of everything he knew about Weird-eyes, then of everything he knew about himself. They were both pretty short lists, but he knew more than he'd thought. Like, he knew that Weird-eyes could do stuff that ordinary people couldn't and that he loved sweet things to eat, and animals, not to eat. He knew that, before the forest, he'd been looking for something. He guessed he knew what, too, but had no idea why. Seemed pretty damned hard to lose a person who wanted to be found, in Leon's opinion. His gut told him he was good at finding people.
So what else did he know? Leon pushed his hands into his pockets again, and knew for a fact that he usually kept stuff in them. Coins. Keys. His lighter... Christ in hell! How long had he gone without cigarettes? The notches in the tree weren't even the half of it... it'd be years, he reckoned, if there was anything like the seasons to help him figure that out. Hell, without a watch, without even a fucking body clock to guess by, he didn't even know how long the days were. The sun rose and set, and lately the length of the days had varied, but it wasn't the right sun. In his head, the sun was yellow, cheerful. This fucker was huge, orangey-red, always looking like it was about to plunge into a sunset.
It all added up to weird, and Leon wasn't sure he liked weird.
Pretty sure he liked Weird-eyes, though, which made it seem all the worse that he couldn't remember the guy's name.
"So I was looking for you. I must've known your name then. And none of this weirds you out; me being here, talking to you in my dreams and shit..."
Leon stopped walking, for a moment. "I sound fucking crazy."
He thought he'd come close to crazy, a couple of times already. There was something else he knew; people weren't cut out to be on their own like this. Having a place to go was good. A goal was good. It'd keep him from losing it, just like those angry words that felt good did; like stroking his cock did. Maybe he was even getting bits of himself back, that way, like he'd gotten the clothes in the dream. Little pieces of him that needed pulling together to make a clear picture of the truth, like clues in a case...
"Why, Detective. You might give me the wrong idea..."
Detective. Weird-eyes had slipped that in so easily, it'd slipped right by. Leon rubbed his face, which felt dusty and disgusting. Detective...
"Mr. Detective..." He remembered that in so many voices. Mocking, fond, angry, seductive, anxious... all of them Weird-eyes, his own reaction always heavy in his chest or gut, or light like laughing gas in his head... dizzy and confused... the moments welled around him like a dust storm. When he shook it off, he was on his knees, panting, coughing from the dry, red dust and listening to something that sounded alive.
High pitched, small-animal sounds. Lots of them, coming at him from beyond the horizon. Getting closer.
"What the hell?" Maybe he was imagining it. That sounded like a whole lot of little animals, and he'd never seen anything bigger than a small flock of birds, in the whole time he'd been stranded... stranded. That was a new concept, and one that felt bad, but he didn't have time to worry about it. He'd barely gotten to his feet before a carpet of squeaking black engulfed his feet—engulfed the whole riverbed and most of the banks. The edges of the furry tide were skittering along the lowest rocks, along the base of the hill.
Thousands upon thousands of black rats. The mass of movement made his skin crawl, and the noise was bad, but he wasn't scared. It was more like the memory that he ought to be scared. Nothing in this place had been out to hurt him... yet... and he could see... smell... that the rats were frightened.
They mostly avoided him, though some ran over his feet, up around his shins, before diving back into the heaving pool of black on the far side of him. It lasted maybe a hundred heartbeats, long enough for the noise to start driving him crazy, before the last wave of little bodies passed him, and there were only a few, sickly stragglers ahead.
Shaken, wondering what the hell so many rats were running away from, and aware that, whatever it was, he was walking towards it, Leon started moving again.
Miles of dust were dotted with rat-piss, rat dirt, and every now and then, he found a lifeless little body, or one that was too weak to do more than twitch and gasp at his feet.
"Shit..." He couldn't bear that. Should he break their necks? "Hey, rat. Rat." Leon knelt beside the third or fourth one he found like that, stroking his finger along its heaving flank. All fur and muscle, he could feel the energy draining out of it. The life. He could taste it, almost, and it twisted him up inside. "What're you running away from?" Yellow needle-teeth showed as a spasm shook the rat's body. "Shit."
It felt stupid, wanting to cry over a rat when so many others had run safely past him. Some deep instinct told him that there were always plenty of rats. But he was sick of feeling helpless, and hated to see the thing suffering when it was the first animal he'd got near enough to touch. He felt a hot tear slip down the side of his face, cutting through the dust and sweat. It splashed uselessly next to the rat's head and got swallowed by the parched dirt. The rat gave a peaceful little sigh and stopped breathing, glassy-eyed and still. When he looked away, he saw another small body twitching in misery. "Fuck... fuck... I hate this, all of it... D would know what to do..."
His breath caught in his throat.
"D? D? Oh, that's..."
The ground had begun to shake, the noise a hundred thousand times worse than the rats. Way worse, even, than the thunderstorm that had shaken the valley. Something told him to get up, to get out of the way, but there was nowhere to go; either side of the river bed, the hills were more like cliffs, and anyway, he couldn't move, because he remembered D. His weird, odd-coloured eyes, one from each ancestor. His pet shop, in Chinatown, at home... home was a city that heaved with people the way the valley had just heaved with fleeing rats. Home was a pet shop where the animals asked you nicely for some of your tea, where D never closed the cages, where justice happened whether you wanted it to or not; where a hidden world ran riot, knowing only its own laws. D's laws. But home was gone...
A wall of water hit him, covered him, drowning everything. Instinct made him kick upwards while there was still light to aim for. The water was way more powerful than he was, and he never broke the surface; his hands touched bottom, right before a crosscurrent tossed him against a wall of rock. He gasped, couldn't help it, nearly died of terror when his lungs filled up with water, but... but fuck, it hurt, and he hated it, and he couldn't control where the water was tossing him, but he wasn't drowning. Wasn't breathing, wasn't drowning, wasn't dying. And he should be.
He'd fallen, once, and it felt like this; timeless, endless, helpless; pain he couldn't measure in his chest, tearing to get out, to be a scream when there wasn't enough air in the whole world for that kind of scream...
He broke the surface, scream drowned by water; his spinning head expected the river's bank, but the water was so deep, endlessly deep; when he clutched at a crevice in the rock face he saw the whole valley in flood, felt the flow trying to drag him onward and wanted to scream again... this was all wrong, he should be dead, he couldn't make a sound that wasn't anguished, useless retching... felt like his arm was breaking, hanging on to the hole in the rock, but he didn't let go. Let the river tear him in half. Let it...
He shook his head, banging his forehead against the rock, tears slipping down to join the river. He was twice his weight with water, too heavy, too tired; there was no oxygen in his blood, nothing to make his muscles obey such a stupid command.
Leon. Climb. Now.
His foot found a hold. His trailing hand found the rock and clawed at it. He pushed with his leg, reached upward with his arm, felt grass under his fingertips. Again. His elbows supported him on the grass, his foot slipping as he tried to push his weight upwards once more...
Just once more. Once more.
He slumped over the sharp edge that crested the valley, feet trailing in the water, water pouring from his mouth, from stomach and lungs... agony... he crawled forward, getting a knee over the ridge, spine arching as the flow of water turned to coughing, to heaving, to a battle between the water inside and the air outside.
Somewhere, the part of him that mattered was still falling.
"Oh... Leon..." The voice hardly cut through the sounds of his body fighting the water, the water rushing by just inches below him. "Leon. You must get up."
Somehow... god, somehow, though he weighed more than twenty men, he crawled to his feet. He stood, swaying, shaking and coughing out sprays of bloody water. He hurt. He couldn't wipe his eyes fast enough to keep his vision from blurring. But D was there, just a few paces in front of him. He was holding out both hands, looking so... so untouched. So perfect. Leon wanted to weep or rage about that, but he didn't have enough breath.
"D..." he whispered, instead. "Please."
There was no way his feeble whisper had carried even the few paces between them, but D stretched his hands out further, nodding. Leon was too tired to really wonder what would happen, if they closed the gap. He put one foot in front of the other; a slow, clumsy shuffle that made him feel like a pile of shit in a rose garden, next to D. D's white sash was fluttering to his right, like even the breeze hesitated to touch him. Another step and Leon's foot slipped. He looked down... down... down... and realised that there was nowhere to go. He'd climbed on to a shelf of flat grass that was only a long stride wide; D... D was standing calmly on thin air, black-slippers pointing daintily into the chasm below. Just out of reach. Leon yelled... maybe screamed, wordless and accusing, angry and afraid. The hugest question. D's hands went to his mouth for a moment, his eyes widening in pain, and then he reached out again, firmly this time, palms upwards.
"I will not let you fall."
His soft-spoken confidence felt like an embrace, like something warm and many-limbed wrapping itself around Leon, stopping the shivers.
"You... did before..."
His throat felt like he'd been eating razor blades. He could taste blood and dirt and bile. His knees weren't going to keep him standing upright very much longer, and if he fell, he'd probably fall in the chasm anyway.
D looked further away than ever, though neither of them had moved. His look said it all—more than a river of words could say. Sorry. Please. There's no time...
Leon jumped, spending the last ounce of strength in his body, and he was falling again, sickeningly fast... but he was falling with D, the slender body curling around him like soft vines, the white silk a pillow for his head, and he wasn't frightened any more. D was whispering his name, over and over, the voice turning into music and medicine. So sweet. So sweet.
They should've hit bottom like a falling rock, but his bare feet slid over smooth wood; D was laying him down, kneeling, cradling him. His shoulder was stained with blood from Leon's lips, but nothing hurt any more. There were so many stars, above them. So clear and perfect, and everything was so still, except their breathing.
"You can sleep now," D said, his voice shaking. "Just sleep." Leon breathed deeply as the soft fingers brushed against his cheek. Jasmine.
He closed his eyes and slept.