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All traces of nostalgia’s been scrubbed clean of the capital, if he can even call the feeling that: the word rolls sticky sweet and wrong out of his mouth, mawkishness undeterred by the bitter taste clinging to his tongue, or the sight of concrete buildings reaching for the sky, the sleet-dirty water gathering in patches on the sidewalk. Tarpaulin covers the steel bones of something unfinished, protected from the rain, but elsewhere there’s only dust, lingering with the debris of old thoughts, things torn down and uprooted. 

Ash spares neither pity nor lament, nor even homesickness: Raquel is a city of excess, and one can hardly miss a place he’s never left. Work’s taken care of but he sticks around for another hour – another distraction, like the branch campus had been, hardly a breather when he’d always been outrun, and wasn’t he supposed to be done with defying fate, anyway? Schwarzer the boy wonder, Vander and all his talk about honour and pride and glory; believe in yourself they’d preached, voices warm as honey and as frigid to him as any frozen spring, and what did it say about Ash when both of them had given in, in the end? Nothing he hadn’t already guessed. His hand had felt slippery around the gun, and through the ache in one eye he forced the other open, milky sclera shot through with the colour of violence and hunger; but in that moment of collision all he had to do was let go, and let the truth out.

I’m staying here. There’s my family– the training centre– and there’s also…

It isn’t nostalgia. He avoids familiar streets, homely corners, slack-jawed children clinging to their parents like a blindly-loved stump. There’s nothing sweet about it, the way he catches himself looking past the swerving cars, only half-relieved when proven wrong – the way he sometimes forgets to catch himself at all, and then there’s just an empty strip of road, strangers with blurry heads and someplace to be, and the walk sign, blinking in his peripheral in languid mockery. 

Save it. You’ve practised those excuses in your head a hundred times already, I can tell. No need for me to be the hundred and first.

Ash didn’t actually leave until two weeks later. There were a handful of better conversations after that, and he still remembers the stupid get-together Juna had insisted on before their sendoffs, the paper hats and ratty mascot merchandise and greasy hamburgers washed down with bubbly soda. How calm Kurt had been, awkwardly assuaging the watery edges of Juna’s eyes – as if she didn’t still have a dream, another hero to run headlong and starry-gazed towards – rebuffing condolence with every step like another well-rehearsed manoeuvre. How that should’ve been the end of it, like how the gunshot ought to have sealed his future, like so many things that never came to pass. 

They’ve been apart and grown up for longer than the little sham of a play he called friendship, but the years pile up, and as the edges start to blur the small things fling themselves into sharp clarity: the logo on the tea tin he’d privately delighted upon seeing in stock, the testy edge of his voice when a checkmate’s nearly clinched, his smart aleck smiles and triumphant truisms and weary silences he pretended were discreet – how he so often looked like he sought the last word and so rarely got it.

Ash looks ahead. It’s far too late, and he’s overdue a return; the city is a sea of anonymity, and it isn’t nostalgia that makes his footsteps drag as he thinks, Except this once, spoken mutely to a man he pretends is a boy he can still recognize in a crowd, even after all these years.