Shion is climbing an endless mountain, hand over hand, foot over foot. He can’t remember how long he’s been climbing for; he doesn’t know how much further there is to go. His lungs are burning and his body aches and he’s climbing.
Every few feet, some of the rocks he grips onto slip and shift. He could fall at any moment. Occasionally the rocks come away altogether, tumbling down into blackness. He hears them hit the ground below with sickening, fleshy thumps.
It helps to think of them as rocks.
More than anything he wants to screw his eyes shut, against the smell so thick he can taste it, against the constant burn of tears, against the reality in front of him. He keeps them fixed ahead, seeking out the next handhold, a step at a time but still as fast as he can go, got to get out of here, got to go, got to save her, got to got to got to
Above him, Nezumi is silent, steady, moving calm and efficient as if he’s seen worse things, done worse things, no big deal. Maybe he has, Shion thinks.
Shion’s next handhold is a tree branch, sticking out from the mountainside. It has gnarled twigs at the end, like fingers. He wraps his hand around it and hauls himself up, but as he does so it snaps, weakened wood giving way under his weight. Greenstick. His heart jolts and his breath catches and he’s lower down, but not dead. There are other fingers around his own arm, a blue-black cape hanging down. Nezumi pulls him back, meets his eyes, nods once before continuing to climb.
They keep going.
Shion wakes up alone, sweating in his room above the bakery, and runs immediately to the bathroom. After he’s finished being sick, he rests his forehead against cool porcelain, screws his eyes shut and then regrets it because of what he can see when he does. There’s no hand to pull him back now but his own.
The gun is cool and dark and inanimate in his hand. It should feel heavier, weighed down with significance and doom, Shion thinks. Maybe he just can’t feel anything right now.
Nezumi’s blood is on the floor.
It should be scarier than this, looking at someone and knowing that they’re about to die, that you’re God and all-powerful and they’re about to be extinguished. When he holds the gun out, his hand doesn’t shake.
There’s so much of Nezumi’s blood, it’s everywhere. It’s all Shion can see.
The soldier doesn’t make a noise when the shot hits, but Nezumi screams on his behalf. He’s crying now too, crying as well as bleeding.
More blood on the floor.
When Nezumi is safe, then things will be okay. That’s what matters. Shion fires again, again, again.
Nezumi is crying and there’s blood. Shion can’t think.
In the bathroom of his and his mother’s home, Shion’s hands shake and shake like he’s going to come all the way apart. Is he safe? Are they safe?
Everything is light; everything is burning.
Shion remembers carrying Nezumi, running and running, almost there now, almost free. The heat ripping through his chest as he falls backward, red blooming across him. The look in Nezumi’s eyes. He has no breath left to make a poor-taste joke about hearts breaking and being broken.
He’s still falling into dark, and still looking into those eyes. There are worse final sights.
He is made of fire, unmade and put back together at the atomic level, bones knitting, torn muscles being sewn back together, skin closing flawlessly where scars should have been. Nothing has ever felt more wrong. Beside him he can hear Nezumi’s voice. He’s screaming, too.
When the light dims enough for Shion to open his eyes, Safu is standing there. She’s smiling.
Shion sits forward, watches as she dissolves away, no trace that she was ever there at all besides him and Nezumi, side by side and horribly alive. The finality of it feels like being shot through the chest all over again.
This time when he wakes up he lies in bed, touches the smooth skin where the scar should have been. He traces the other scar, the one that snakes around him, he’s still here, he’s still Shion, it happened and he’s real. It’s rough beneath his fingers, a little shiny.
He rolls onto his side, lets himself think about warmth instead of heat, of small smiles and finality. Then he cries until he falls back asleep.
There are some nights where he doesn’t dream at all, and everything is as dark as that terrible place, the mountain of corpses, the waste tunnel he fell down as he died, the black stain which the old city left on everything it touched, him and Safu and Nezumi and all of them, a parasite in their throats or a great burn scar down their backs. He sees nothing; he dissolves into the air until there’s nothing left.
Even without nightmares, Shion sometimes wakes up and feels like he’s drowning in it all, like he’ll never be able to breathe again.
This time Shion knows he’s dreaming, because he and Nezumi met in a storm but kissed goodbye in the sunlight of freedom. There’s rain drenching them now though, piercingly cold and clinging, thunder banging and clattering above them like fists on a window pane. Nezumi’s mouth is firm and warm and he’s pulling away just when Shion wants him to push in further. The city is ahead of them, ruined wall and truths revealed, but Shion isn’t looking at it.
Nezumi’s face is carefully blank as he steps backwards, each step taking him impossibly further away, like a camera zooming out. Shion wants to yell at him, no, come back, I need you here to rebuild with me, everything smells like the warmth of Nezumi’s clothes but he’s vanishing into the distance, eyes unfeeling, Shion’s throat is closed over and the scream won’t come out, he’s falling, the gap in the wall is dragging him back, he couldn’t save her, he can barely see Nezumi now, it’s so dark, his eyes are screwed closed and he can’t open them, he’s falling,
There’s a hand closed around his wrist, secure; another at his shoulder, shaking him awake.
The smell is still there, stronger than he’d remembered it, and maybe a little different but still the same underneath. The hand on his shoulder moves to card through his hair, over and over, rhythmic, soothing. The hands are steady and sure and never tremble.
He wants to open his eyes, but he’s scared of what he might see. He wants to open his eyes, but he’s scared of what he might not see.
“I’m here, Shion.”
There are grey eyes, full of concern, sad and worried, looking straight back into his own. Shion feels something pass through his chest, under the skin where the scar should have been.
The steady hands move, a thumb brushing back and forth over the mark on his cheek, rough and a little shiny.
Shion pushes forward, twists his fingers into dark blue fabric, breathes and breathes and breathes.