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the age of bronze

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dedue wakes up.

for a minute, he’s not so sure where he is. everything is bright and breathtakingly familiar: sunlight streaming through the high window, the smell of cardamom and fresh coffee in the air, his father humming away in the kitchen. the chill of winter nips at his nose, but most of him is tucked safely away beneath an old woolen blanket, patterns familiar and intricate as the day they were woven.

for a minute, dedue does nothing. he stares at the ceiling, listens to the sound of his own breathing. he’s home, of course. there was never any question about that.

for better or worse, he doesn’t get to think about it for very long.

he hears his sister coming down the hall long before he sees her; sana tosses the beaded curtain in their doorway aside with a flourish and a scowl, one hand propped on her hip. she marches herself to his bedside and peers at his bleary face.

“wake up, stupid,” she says. “it’s late. ma made breakfast ages ago.”

“i am up,” dedue insists.

instead of answering, sana reaches over to pluck a pillow from her own bed and flings it at his head, all in one swift motion. this is a language they both speak well. dedue catches the pillow on reflex.

“not till you get out of bed, you’re not,” she tells him. “if you don’t get up in the next five minutes, i’m telling abbu to feed your breakfast to the goats.”

she is kidding, probably. it is a threat, not a promise. dedue, like all little brothers, is an expert at calling a bluff.

“i think i had a bad dream,” he says. he hugs sana’s pillow to his chest. it smells like bronze and jasmine, the metal she works with and the perfume she wears. he remembers the day she bought it—the annual harvest festival in a neighboring town, where she’d tripped over every single word she’d spoken to the pretty girl working at the marketplace. she’d wrestled him into the dirt on the spot for laughing at her about it. she'd gone back to buy it again every year since.

he’s struck with the oddest urge to fill his lungs while he can.

“oh?” sana asks, curious. she pitches forward, lands belly-first on her bed. it’s not graceful, but that’s okay. sana has never pretended to be anything more or less than what she is.

“it feels like something bad happened,” dedue tries to explain, sitting up a little. the blanket falls away, his bare arms turning gooseflesh in the winter cold. “or... something is going to happen. something i’m forgetting.”

“silly. how can you forget something that hasn’t happened yet?” sana kicks her feet in the air behind her, chin propped expectantly on her fists. she hasn’t brushed or braided her hair yet, he notes. it spills over her shoulders, messy and pale. “do you remember anything that did happen? in the dream, i mean.”

“i don’t think so,” dedue murmurs. in the kitchen, his father is singing, an old nonsense tune that he used to sing to dedue and sana when they were small enough to fit one on each knee.

he closes his eyes. even in the dead of winter, duscur overflows with life. birds chirp in the trees, the hardy little kind that never flies south for the season. in the street, he can hear children playing, shouts echoing off the colorful walls of houses.

he thinks he can pick out his little brother’s voice among them—avi’s laugh is joyous and bright, an easy giggle that betrays his shy smile. for a child who always clings to his mother’s skirts at the market, he never seems to have any trouble making friends.

“one moment, it was there,” dedue says to sana, staring down at his hands. the skin on the inside of his open palm is lighter than the rest of him, rough, calloused from field and forge. “the next, all gone.”

he feels, not for the first time this morning, like the whole world is sliding out of place while he is standing still. a deep shiver passes down the length of his spine. it bites like the wind. it lingers like judgment.

sana rolls her eyes.

“whatever it was, it was just a dream,” she tells him, yawning. the words are rough but fond, warm in a way that sana always is, beneath her sharp tongue and quick hands. he knows this as the truth, the only way a metalworker knows how to love. “the world’s not gonna end anytime soon. there’s too much left for us to do here.”

wordlessly, dedue tosses his sister’s pillow back to her. it lands atop her blankets with a near-silent thud. the space in his arms suddenly feels empty.

“but what if it does?” he asks. something thin and desperate and unfamiliar has crept into the edge of his voice while he wasn’t looking. the street outside their window has grown quiet. the air in his lungs has grown sharp like the northern winds that blow across the desert year-round, chilling him to the bone.

sana sits up now, something unknowably sad written on her face in a text he can’t decipher. “nothing truly ends, dedue,” she says. “even if the world goes up in flames tomorrow—there’ll always be someone left to carry on.”

she sounds so—he wants to tell her to stop. but that’s always been sana’s job, hasn’t it? it’s sana who takes charge, sana who takes care of things. sana, strong-willed and bolder than he's ever been, brave enough to cut a path forward.

“come on,” she’s saying. “it’s time to get up. i wasn’t kidding when i said i’d give your food to the goats, you know.”

dedue smiles. it comes out wrong, like it doesn’t fit right on his face. too measured, too guarded, too cold.

“we don’t even have goats, sana,” he says, pulling the blanket back around his shoulders.

“didn’t we?” sana says, soft and somber, terrible and true.

dedue looks at her.

dedue wakes up.