White splotches against dusky skin, spreading and rising in irregular shapes.
Rem wants to laugh.
Time is a cruel thing, he thinks. For six years, he lived as Taz’s shadow, bled for him, fought for him, killed for him. For ten years, he stood behind Taz, watching, aching, longing.
Rem drags his gaze up, the weight of sixteen years heavy on his chest, to meet the flat gaze of the man he loves.
There’s nothing to be done now, and they both know it. Taz will leave him behind. Rem won’t make the climb in this state. They’ve fought too bitterly for this chance to leave the godforsaken metal walls of their city.
He looks behind Taz at the smooth surface of the metal border rising in the distance. Gently sloping outward, it looms and stretches upwards an impressive height to meet the slim, life-giving, horizontal sliver of blinding light that bisects their world in half: The Seam. Above this, the metal continues, curving to canopy the city, enclosing it in perpetual darkness and trapping the toxic fumes slowly poisoning the population.
“I won’t wait for you,” Taz’s low voice breaks the silence, the sound a lovely, terrible thing.
Rem closes his eyes and smiles, “I know.”
He doesn’t look, can’t bring himself to. Rem doesn’t want to be scared of Taz, who is ferocity and hope and bright things in a desolate world of dark sepia. But sometimes, he's afraid he'll look and find nothing human left in those golden eyes.
Taz makes no sound as he leaves, so Rem waits until his own heartbeat slows to open his eyes. He’s made up his mind. If he’s dying anyway, he’ll at least get a glimpse of whatever lies beyond The Seam, whatever it is Taz has been dreaming of, before he goes. That much, he knows The Chemist can give him.
Three hours of careful slinking through the city’s dank underbelly later, Rem reaches the southern peak of the city limits. The walls from either side of the city join here in a sharp “v" pointing outwards, hence, "the peak." Directly north lies a nearly identical peak also pointing south, though the metal walls there curve outward from the peak like huge wings, carving graceful arcs on each side of the city until they eventually straighten, drawing closer together to merge with the walls from the southern peak.
If The Chemist had set up shop near the northern peak instead, Rem could have visited his mother’s grave one last time.
On shaky legs, Rem makes his way to a small, nondescript door wedged between two dilapidated buildings. It is the only entrance to the best apothecary south of the toxic lakes.
“Are you sure?” Toka asks, with an edge of judgement that Rem finds vaguely insulting. The Chemist is a small woman, younger than most would suspect, and brilliant enough to buy safety and survival with her reputation alone.
Rem grips the small pouch she's given him in exchange for the provisions he'd packed; he won't need them anymore.
Toka looks at Rem with a frown—looks at the smile pulling at his lips. Smiling, smiling, smiling, always. It's the most heartbreaking lie she's ever seen.
It's taken a lifetime for them to successfully circumvent border security for this one window of opportunity to approach the wall.
He’s never been this close to it. It’s a strange thing, colossal, intimidating in a way that even Rem, with darkness and death writ into his bones, finds unsettling. He takes a small step back, like the wall is a threat, but panicked flight seems exceedingly foolish at this point.
Rem swallows. A bitter tang rises up in the back of his mouth.
The time has come.
Opening the pouch, he takes out one of three syringes, holds his breath, stabs the needle into his chest, and depresses the plunger.
His blood thrums, adrenaline floods his system and strength returns to his limbs as his head clears. Heartbeat thundering in his ears, Rem reaches forward and traces the first hand hold. Taz has already been this way, deep gouges in the wall marking his passage.
Sinking his clawed gauntlet into the metal with a dull clang, Rem follows, as he has always done.
It's not enough, he thinks.
Sweat stings his eyes but he can't spare any energy to wipe at it. His neck and shoulders burn from craning to look upward. Rem's arms can't stop shaking, the strain of holding himself against the vertical face of the metal wall is excruciating. The sheer drop down barely enough of a deterrent against letting go.
He doesn't want to rely on the rope he attached to one of the anchors Taz left. The metal of the wall doesn't seem hard enough to hold his weight from a single point. Even resting on his feet causes the spikes on his boots to sink downward, digging long gashes into the metal.
He's barely halfway to The Seam and he's already used the second syringe.
Blind with pain and exhaustion, Rem nearly loses his grip entirely as he reaches for his next hand hold and meets nothing but empty air.
Scrambling, Rem frantically digs his climbers back into the wall, muscles locked and holding on desperately, afraid to move. After a tense moment of panicked panting, Rem opens his eyes to look up.
There's a ledge.
It looks about two feet wide, a foot deep or more, and it's going to be his saving grace.
Trembling, he hauls himself up so the ledge is level with his waist. Carefully, he twists his body so he can sit, leaving one gauntleted hand lodged in the wall until he is fully turned around. The relief whites out his vision and rings in his ears. Rem can only sit and breathe, fighting nausea and dizziness for several long moments until they subside and he comes back to himself.
A ledge. In the middle of the trail Taz made.
Why would Taz waste time carving out a ledge, especially on the brink of escaping a world he didn't belong in? For a moment, Rem's sluggish brain can't catch up to the wild hope rising in his heart.
He was extremely fortunate there was an imperfection in the wall here, that's all.
Looking out blearily, Rem can admit that the city has a certain macabre charm from this height. From here, he can see clear to the opposite side of The Seam, one of two sections where the line of light stutters. With the southern peak to his left and the northern peak to the right, he's looking straight on at the longest blockage that interrupts The Seam.
With light streaming through the blockage at precise intervals, curving around cylindrical edges, it almost looks...like an enormous hinge.
But, the Collectors would have tried if it were possible to somehow lift the heavy metal ceiling encasing the city. They guard The Seam and hoard the fresh water and clean air that comes through it with savage greed, leaving nothing but slow death for the people living below them.
Then again, maybe they wouldn't have tried.
Maybe the poison coursing through his veins was eating his mind.
The last syringe is losing effect.
He's so close, the edge of The Seam not thirty feet above him.
It's so bright here. Bright like golden eyes in the dark.
Pain eclipses all else.
The edge, he can touch the edge. With a hoarse shout and a final surge, blood vessels bursting in his eyes, Rem swings one arm up over the edge, then the other. Hanging over the edge like this, he can finally, finally see into The Seam.
Pupils contracting against the harsh light, he doesn't understand at first when gold suddenly floods his blurry vision.
Gold eyes, gold hair like a flame, and Taz has never looked more beautiful. His face is contorted, no longer that blank, hollow expression that's devoid of all emotion. Taz began wearing that dead face so many years ago that Rem had almost forgotten what he really looked like.
Eyes blazing, shouting furiously in Rem's face, Taz is incandescent with life.
"Liar," Rem murmurs on an exhale, smile curling over his lips, deliriously content, "you said you wouldn't wait."
Strong arms try to pull him up over the edge, but his boots catch, still embedded in the side of the wall. Rem doesn't have the strength to pull them out.
He holds; he holds; he holds. He chokes on the blood flooding his mouth and coating his tongue; it pours from his nose and his eyes and his ears. Taz is gone and back in a blink, speaking urgently to him, indistinct through the red haze. Even Taz can't compete with the acid agony eating through his veins, splintering his bones and dissolving his sinews.
Blackness rapidly encroaches on his vision as his arms weaken, climbers slipping off swollen, boneless fingers as he slides backwards.
He doesn’t feel the pull as he's hauled up over the edge, or the impact when his body collapses on top of Taz, doesn’t hear the wretched cry torn from that beloved voice. He only hears a deep, resounding pulse. Like a heartbeat.
His world explodes into brilliant white.
Outside, the sun glints off an old, heart-shaped locket that's cracked open just enough at the seam to let the light in.