In hindsight, Tyler probably should’ve counted the days.
But he wasn’t used to seeing the sun so clearly, to have to squint every time he turned around. He wasn’t used to his hand impulsively reaching up to shade his eyes, or the feeling of heat on the back of his neck, or the way the sky was blue instead of gray. In the city, time blends together, and the sun doesn’t shine through the clouds, and Tyler had long stopped looking. It only made it worse, looking for something that wasn’t there. He started to wonder if the sun even existed. The times he’d seen it, the times he’d gotten out, grew fuzzier the longer he was in the city.
The Bishop’s torture wasn’t exactly unheard of in the city. Tyler suspected everyone knew of it, but only its victims knew its true extent. They break you until you’re nothing. They convince you that everything you thought was right was wrong. They make you believe, truly believe, things that don’t align with anything you want to be a part of. They undo you, then they mold you into something new.
Tyler tried to fight it. He really did. But the pain was inevitable, and eventually, he began to accept it.
Every night afterwards, he would sneak to Josh’s building in Vetomo’s district. Josh would hear him stumbling up the stairs (noise of any variety, especially at night, was scarce in the city) and wait for him, leaning against the door frame of his chamber. Tyler would nearly collapse onto the floor as Josh closed the door behind him. Sometimes he cried. Mostly he just breathed, just felt his heart slowly crumble in on itself as his heartbeats became slower and slower and slower. He wondered if one day, laying there on Josh’s floor, they’d stop all together.
Josh sat on his cot in the corner and watched him. He knew there wasn’t much he could do to comfort Tyler. All he could do was be near him, and hope that was enough. He never asked for a retelling. Tyler didn’t know if that was because he didn’t want him, Tyler, to relive the pain again, or if Josh had lived through it himself and already knew the extent of its agony. Tyler never asked. In Dema, there was a lot of not talking. A lot of unspoken sentences, a lot of words hanging idle in the air.
If you were quiet, you survived. They both stayed quiet.
That night, after a particularly rough session, Tyler found himself back on Josh’s floor, staring at the beams lined horizontally across his ceiling, his chest rising and falling to the hum of the neon lights in the corner as he waited for his insides to sort themselves out into something that resembled normalcy. Josh was sitting on the edge of his cot. He was holding something. Tyler couldn’t see what from his place on the hardwood, and he didn’t have the energy or curiosity to ask.
In a few minutes, or hours, Josh slid down the side of the bed to sit cross-legged on the floor, less than an arm's length away from where Tyler was sprawled. Tyler glanced over at him, and he looked more serious than he’d ever seen him.
“Tyler,” Josh began. His voice was only a whisper, but in the stillness of the city, Tyler could hear him loud and clear. “Listen to me.”
His words made Tyler’s calming heart only begin pounding again. With a bit of struggle, he pushed himself into a sitting position, and before he could comprehend what it all meant, Josh was muttering plans, strange plans, plans Tyler hadn’t even pondered as being possible. Word by word, Josh breathed hope back into Tyler’s hollow chest, and he soaked in everything he could.
“Three days,” Josh said.
“Stay in the valley,” Josh said.
“I’ll come for you. Okay? I’ll come back for you. You won’t be alone.”
“Trust me,” Josh breathed, and Tyler did.
And before Tyler left to return to his own chamber in Nico’s district, Josh slipped the stem of a flower into his hand. That was what he’d been holding-- a flower. Tyler was sure he’d seen the color before, but he couldn’t find the name that matched it in his already swirling mind. He clutched it in his fist all the way home.
The next day, Josh was gone. His door wasn’t open and waiting that night, and he wasn’t leaning against the doorway, with that beanie pulled low to his forehead, his eyes searching Tyler as he approached. Tyler found that his absence was just as strong as his presence. Tyler went into his vacant room anyways, and laid on the floor, and stared at the horizontal beams across the ceiling, and gripped the stem of the flower like a lifeline.
He wasn’t quite sure how it happened, how one moment suddenly became the next, how he was inside and then he was outside. He did exactly as Josh told him. It was blurry, but it didn’t matter. He was out. He escaped with others, but now, he was so very alone. He couldn’t remember exactly when they left, or why, or where they went. He was starting to doubt that they were ever real at all.
If he had to take a stab, he’d guess it’d been around 3 days since he got out. He’d been alone for the past 2, probably. He’d been out here before, of course (though he couldn’t remember how many times, or for how long), which was probably why he was less than enamored with the colorful landscape. He had been mindlessly wandering the valley, from one end to the other, back and forth, back and forth. The journey took half a day one way, and his legs ached. He stopped to rest during the night, but he didn’t sleep. He hadn’t eaten, either, but he wasn’t hungry. He’d gone longer in the city.
What had Josh called this place? Trench?
Trench was so bright in the day, and it was so, so dark in the night.
Tyler settled himself for his third (fourth?) night in this new world, between two trees wedged in the side of the valley, right where the cliffs shot out of the ground. He felt at least a little hidden, here. Not so exposed. The sun was like a spotlight. It felt as if the entire world could see him, and also as if no one cared enough to watch. Both were equally terrifying.
As the sun said its final farewell for the night, Tyler marvelled in the way that different times of day made this world different colors, as if he was looking through a dyed lens. Right now, Trench looked red. Bright red, not bishop red. Definitely not bishop red.
Darkness settled, and Tyler curled in on himself. He didn’t try to sleep. He didn’t want to. How could he, in a world so unknown? Even the valley itself was nothing like he imagined it. This was the place Josh told him to stay, right? This was the valley he was talking about? How many valleys could there be? It felt pointless to stay in the same place for so long. In some ways, it felt like he hadn’t really left at all.
Josh had been relaying the information quickly, after all. His hurried whispers could hardly be made out in Tyler’s memory as he repeated to himself everything that Josh said-- or everything he thought he’d said. There was a chance Tyler could’ve misheard. Maybe he wasn’t supposed to stay in the valley after all. Maybe he was supposed to meet Josh somewhere else. Or maybe, Josh wasn’t coming back for him.
Tyler shook his head firmly. No, he told himself. Don’t go there. He’s coming. Josh said to trust him, and Tyler would.
But as the night lengthened, he couldn’t help but question. He had nothing better to do. In a world so big, so new, so scary, it was easier to resort to the inventions of his mind, even if that meant torture.
He began to ponder the possibility that this was all just a dream. Or a fantasy that he’d made up to cope with Dema-- it wouldn’t be the first time. Everything he thought he knew could be nothing more than imaginary.
He didn’t know if that thought was irrational or not.
Even Josh, the one thing he was sure about, could disappear in the blink of an eye.
He stood up. It was dark, it was black, and it was swallowing him whole. He had to move. He didn’t know nor care where he was going, but he couldn’t stand to stay in one place any longer. He’d done enough of that in the city.
It’s not like Josh isn’t real, he reasoned with himself. He was definitely real. He had to be. There were too many things that wouldn’t make sense without him. He would still be in the city if it weren’t for Josh. That’s something. That’s not nothing.
But a part of him (a bigger part than he’d like to admit) felt like Trench wasn’t worth the fight, the struggle, the pain. A part of him felt like he’d be better off going back.
And, Tyler realized with a terrifying start, nothing was stopping him. Josh sure wasn’t.
He thought himself in circles for hours, and came up with a reasonable synopsis.
The only thing standing between him and Dema, between him and home, was a day-long journey and his own self-conscious. Out here, he felt so wholly alone. At least in the city he had had Josh. At least in the city he saw other people, saw other signs of life. At least in the city there wasn’t so much unknown.
The sky was getting lighter again. Had he really been walking that long? He could barely see the tip of the sun yawning awake over the cliffside opposite him. The world was slowly bathed in yellow light, and Tyler started marching towards the sun. Maybe, he’d find some warmth in its beautiful, blinding beams. Maybe, the brightness would eventually become bearable to look out. Maybe, he’d find whatever he came out here to find within that strange color that tickled the back of his memory--
He turned his eyes up to the blinding sun and barely got a glimpse of Josh’s haloed face, half of it hidden behind a bandana of that color, before he was attacked by the biggest bear hug he’d ever received. Together they stumbled, two bodies but one shadow, and for once, Tyler didn’t push away the touch of another human, instead welcoming it, squeezing himself further into it, pressing his eyes into Josh’s shoulder, hiding himself from the blinding light of this new world. Protection from the stagelight, if only for a moment. He accepted the warmth and relief that flooded him, knowing that he was no longer alone, knowing that he never should’ve had doubts about his best friend. Knowing that each moment is only a product of everything that has come before it, and now he threw it all away.
“Tyler,” Josh breathed into him, and the relief in his voice was as obvious as Tyler clinging to the back of Josh’s hoodie. “I was looking for you all night. ”
The voice came as such a shocking comfort, not only because it was his voice, but simply because it was a voice other than the one bouncing around in his own head.
Josh gently pulled Tyler off of him, managing to keep a tight grip on his upper arms. He held him steady and in-tact, an arm’s width away, so he could look at him, inspect him up and down and meet him back at the eyes. Tyler hadn’t thought about it until he was being examined, but he supposed he looked like a corpse walking, all eyebags and matted hair and clammy skin. Only with Josh’s fingers digging into his skin did he realize he was shaking. Probably dehydration, or sleep deprivation.
“I told you to stay in the valley,” Josh said, his voice weak, not angry. Tyler blinked and looked around. He hadn’t realized he’d walked so far. They were halfway up a steep hill, the valley in the distance behind them. “I told you to wait for me there,” Josh repeated, his eyes suddenly turning to worry. “You remember that, don’t you?”
Tyler remembered. Of course Tyler remembered. Now that Josh was here, repeating his own firm words, it seemed stupid to even think for a second that they weren’t real, or that Josh had been lying, or that Tyler had made it all up in his head. Of course he was real. Of course this was real.
Josh gripped his arms tighter, his thumbs pressing into Tyler’s biceps. Tyler had to force his eyes up to Josh’s before his friend spoke.
“You didn’t think I, like, wasn’t coming back for you, right?”
Tyler didn’t know how to respond. There was no viable excuse for his own mind. Instead, he let himself fall back into Josh’s arms, hiding his face again. He never wanted to be away from him, ever again.
“I was out here,” Tyler muttered, his voice merely a whisper, “for days.”
“I know,” Josh said, his voice falling off at the end of the word. “I’m so sorry, Ty. The convocation happened sooner than we expected.”
We, Tyler repeated in his head. The word felt foreign, even inside of his skull. Such a simple term, so short and easy and quick, yet it was so fresh and complicated.
Tyler wouldn’t trade that stupid, pointless, two-letter word for the world.
"I'm sorry," Josh repeated.
Tyler was silent.
“Say something,” Josh whispered. “Say anything.”
Tyler thought about it.
“I’m exhausted,” Tyler said, his voice broken from disuse and fatigue. Josh laughed near Tyler’s ear, and Tyler smiled into Josh’s green-clothed shoulder. He pulled away again, and they shared their grins with each other.
Tyler swallowed, turning his eyes to the ground. “You said I wouldn’t be alone.”
Tyler could sense the genuine confusion radiating from his friend. “You’re not, Tyler. You’re not alone. See?” Josh reached down and grabbed Tyler’s hand. “You’re not alone. You never were."
And Tyler realized he was right.
He stared at their hands, connected. They never would’ve done this in the city. Never would’ve been allowed.
Josh suddenly let go and crouched, plucking something from the ground. When he straightened again, he showed Tyler the yellow flower with what seemed like a million petals-- yellow , that was the color-- before gently sticking it behind Tyler’s ear.
Tyler closed his eyes, and a million suns danced in his vision.
“There,” Josh said, Tyler could hear the smile and satisfaction curled into his friend's voice before he opened his eyes. “Now, you’ll always have your own personal sunshine, in case you find yourself in the dark again.”
Tyler can’t help but reach up and gently tap the soft yellow flower, run his fingers over the velvety color, down to the strong stem. It almost feels like a pencil. He could almost be in the city, writing illegally.
Not illegal out here, he told himself, and joy flowed through him at the thought of it.
“Trench is so… bright,” he said stupidly, but Josh only grinned bigger.
“Isn’t it great?”
Tyler turned his face towards the sun again, and this time, he didn’t find the warmth and glow so stifling. “Yes,” he decided. “It is.”
“You hungry?” Josh asked, and Tyler nodded, a smile finding its way onto his face, a foreign feeling, but one he liked. He was so hungry.
Immediately Josh began rambling about the exotic fruits they had back at camp, and together they walked through Trench. For the first time in approximately three days, Tyler began to see the true beauty of the new, colorful world.
This. This was worth the fight.