The teacher’s shrieks still echoed uncomfortably in Mono’s ears as he helped Six out of the dumpster they had fallen into with a breath of relief, glad to get out of the stench. It had been a close call, but luckily the two of them had made it out alive despite all the odds they faced within the school’s dangerous hallways. His joy was short-lived when he quickly realized that it had started to rain as their feet hit the ground with a splash, reminding them that they weren’t safe yet.
At least we didn’t need to worry about staying dry in the school He thought, before grabbing Six’s hand gently and leading her away from the building, into the streets of the Pale City. The rain bore down on them, and his heart dropped as he realized that Six was lagging behind as well as shivering. They had to find some sort of shelter quickly, before either of them got sick or caught by stray viewers. The pitter-patter of their steps echoed as they ran through the streets and the rain, hoping to find a place to rest or some food.
Luckily, they had found some canned food and a raincoat for Six, which oddly fit her more than the ratty cardigan she now wore underneath. She didn’t seem to be as cold anymore because of the rain, and she looked a bit happier. More like herself, maybe. The duo searched the empty streets for what felt like hours, before they spotted the gnarled branches of a tree from somewhere behind tall buildings. Mono began to lead them through alleyways and deserted streets cautiously, making their way towards the lone tree.
After an eternity of trudging through the rain, they entered an alleyway that ended abruptly, blocked by a tall wooden fence that remained intact. Behind it, Mono could see the tree’s branches reaching up to the gloomy skies like hands desperately grasping for freedom. It didn’t take long for the two children to scale the fence and drop on the other side, cautiously looking around the enclosed area. The backyard was small and cramped, with overgrown grass hiding the ground they walked on. The tree they had spotted was slightly uprooted, and a swing hung from one of the sturdier branches, moving ever so slightly in the wind. Mono stopped to admire the garden filled with flowers near the edge of the fence, some of them accidentally trampled where they fell, as Six went on to check the apartment.
Mono startled as Six called out to him, turning back to his companion with a sheepish grin, which was hidden by his paper bag. She looked at him pointedly, and he let out a quick apology.
“Door’s locked, window’s too high.”
“It’s not too bad, we can just sleep outside here. The roof will cover us if we stay by the door and keep us dry.”
Six shrugged, and went to sit down by the apartment’s wall as she tried to pry open one of the cans they had found. While she did that, Mono went back to the flower beds to admire the plants that survived. He didn’t know any of their names, but the pretty yellow, orange, purple and white flowers were his favourites. He grinned as an idea popped into his head, and eagerly started picking the prettiest flowers he found as Six watched on from her place, seemingly puzzled by his behavior.
After he had gathered a decent amount, he went back to where Six was and sat down beside her, laying the flowers before himself as his companion watched on like a hawk. He ignored her staring and smiled, starting to pick up a few flowers to begin a new project.
‘Clearly, he’s lost it’ Six thought, looking at Mono then at the flowers. Why would he need to cut them if he was going to leave them on the ground? ‘He must have a plan, then. Hopefully it’s not going to get us into trouble’ she reasoned, then went back to trying to fish out anything that wasn’t a vegetable from her can.
She attempted to tune him out, but Six couldn’t help but watch as Mono took two flowers and began weaving them together into something, completely focused on his task. It made no sense, but the gentle way he manipulated the flowers had her entranced. One by one, more flowers were tied to the original chain, and soon enough Mono held up a blooming circle with a happy sound. The yellow and purple flowers clashed a bit together, but it still looked oddly nice, in a way.
“What’s that?” she questioned, eyeing the craft with confusion. Mono turned a bit towards her, still holding the circlet.
“It’s a flower crown. It’s like a normal crown, the type kings and queens wear, but made out of flowers, and you wear it on your head!”
“Like the rest.” she felt a smile tug at her lips as Mono perked up a bit like an excited puppy.
“Yeah, like that! Except these ones wilt pretty quickly, since they’re real plants and they’re no longer in the ground, but they’re still fun to make or wear while they’re good! I had one before I arrived near the Wilderness, but I couldn’t bring it with me because it started to smell really bad after a while, and wearing crowns on top of a bag isn’t the best look. Or maybe...” he paused, taking the crown and putting it on top of his paper hat, making Six laugh a bit at the sight of it.
“How do I look?”
Mono looked back at her, and she could almost see the gears turning inside his brain as he seemed to think. After a moment, he took the crown off his head and plopped it onto her own.
“In that case, you can wear it!”
Six had frozen in place, looking at him with wide eyes, confused and bewildered. Mono spoke up quickly, as if he thought she would be angry.
“It’s fine if you don’t want it, but I can’t wear it and I thought it would look nice on you. You can take it off, I won’t be mad-” She grabbed his wrist and he stopped, looking at her silently.
“Show me how to make one.” She could practically see his smile through his mask as he took some of the leftover flowers and began to enthusiastically explain.
Mono guided his companion’s hands as she slowly weaved the flowers into a chain. They had decided to pick a few blue flowers, since almost all of the purple and orange ones had been used for the first crown. She learned the movements quickly, but seemed to be taking her time to carefully make the flower crown, as if she was afraid to mess it up. He helped her when she needed an extra hand, and spent the rest of the time talking about anything that came to mind while watching her work. He was talking about how he crossed the cafeteria with a bully’s head on when Six spoke up for the first time during her work.
"Why the hats?"
He went silent, unsure of what to answer. He figured that he could lie and say that he just found them neat, but it didn’t seem fair to lie about that. She was his best friend, and he knew he could trust her with the truth. He realized that he must have been silent for a while, because Six looked like she was about to say something, but he spoke up first.
"People don’t like me because I look different from them. Back when life was still normal, the other kids would get really mean, always poking fun at me, but it got worse when the televisions started acting up, and they blamed me for it. They thought I was causing it and decided to take it out on me with fists and kicks instead of words. I found the bag after one of the nastier fights, and I decided to put it on to hide the bruises that would show up. They started leaving me alone after that, so I kept it and told myself never to take it off. They still bothered me about the bag, but at least they didn't try to kill me over it. As for the rest of the hats, I needed to find other things to wear and to help me blend into places with more risks, and the habit sort of stuck with me, I guess. It helped me express myself too sometimes, but I always preferred the paper bag over the other hats."
"Hope they died."
He looked up at her with a frown, confused at her statement. She avoided his gaze, instead choosing to focus on the nearly-finished crown in her hands.
"They hurt you. They would deserve it."
"They probably did die, after the incident."
Six nodded, but thankfully didn't say anything about it, continuing to weave the flowers together instead. They sat in silence as she worked, and Mono began to fiddle with the key attached on his coat, regretting having brought up that part.
"I’m sorry, Six."
"I made you feel uncomfortable by bringing that up and-"
He looked back at her again as she stood up. His heart dropped as he watched her, thinking that she finally had enough of him and his problems. His mind screamed at him to tell, no, beg her to stay, but he only hung his head so as to not have to watch his only friend leave him, tears starting to prick at his eyes. He only looked up when she went to sit down in front of him, and he could see the finished flower crown in her hands through his tears.
“Bag. Take it off.”
Mono hesitated, staring at the girl in front of him. A part of him said to do as she said, but his fear of her reaction was stronger.
“What if- What if you get scared like the others and decide to leave o-or worse? I can’t lose you too, Six, not after all we’ve gone through together.” he whispered.
“Won’t leave. Now off.”
He knew that fighting against her was useless, and that this day would come sooner or later, although he wished it would always be later. He sighed and braced himself for the inevitable as he took off his bag, holding onto it tightly in his lap. He couldn’t bear to look up at her, not when he probably looked like an overly-emotional mess.
She didn’t know what to expect when he took off his mask, but the pang in her heart when she saw his resigned and grief-stricken expression bare before her was definitely not on the list. Six waited a moment, taking in the boy before her, the bag serving as his armor gripped tightly in his grasp. He looked beyond miserable, tears silently coursing down his face, and the tight feeling in her chest returned as she realized he was still expecting her to leave, scream, to do anything but stay. Her heart broke while she watched, and she promised herself never to let him feel this way around her again. She didn’t know how, but she knew she would find a way. She pushed the thought back as she placed the blue and yellow flower crown on his head delicately. His gaze immediately snapped up to meet hers, full of confusion and fear, and she bit back a gasp. His eyes were grey, but were not just grey; his were glitching like a television screen with no signal, constantly changing and shifting in colour. She held his stare stubbornly and handed him one of the cans of food they had found insistently, trying to change the subject to the best of her abilities.
“...Y-You’re not scared?”
“No. You need to eat-”
She was interrupted by the arms around her, tugging her in a crushing hug as she felt Mono sniffle into her shoulder. The tension in her limbs melted and she shifted them in a more comfortable position, slowly rubbing his back as he sobbed and clung to her like a lifeline. She said nothing as she held him close, and she felt a pang of anger rise as she took in her companion’s heartbreaking reaction. How many times did he trust other people he was ready to give everything up for? How many times did they run away, scream in fear or disgust, hurt him to the point where hiding felt like his only option? She growled a bit at the thought, her grip in his coat tightening as he tried to pull away before giving up. She vowed to track down anyone who made her Mono feel the need to hide and make them regret ever laying a hand on him. The thought startled her at first, but she knew that it felt right deep down. Her Mono. No one else’s.
Mono kept his face pressed against Six’s shoulder even as his sobs subsided to silent tears. He was still scared that she would change her mind and leave him when morning came, but she stubbornly kept her grip on him, resting her head on top of his. He felt safe in her arms, and Mono was content with staying pressed against her side for all eternity. Unfortunately they couldn’t afford to stay here, with the threat of the Tower and all the viewers lurking around. They would be a hassle to deal with, but they had survived until then, and they would continue surviving whatever this hellhole had to throw at them.
He noticed that Six had taken off her raincoat to dry it, leaving her in her thin cardigan once more. He started to pull away but was stopped by the vice-like grip around him.
“Stay.” he rolled his eyes fondly, wiping away the last of his tears from his cheek as he spoke up.
“‘Not leaving, I just need to take off my coat, and it’s a bit hard to do that when we’re hugging.”
Six grumbled a bit, but let him go long enough for him to pull off the long coat and drape it over the both of them before returning to her embrace.
“Sleep. I’ll guard.”
“You sure? I can take first shift-”
“No shift, sleep.”
He knew it was pointless to argue, but he smiled despite himself as she gave a small hum of content, then shifted again to allow them to lean more comfortably against the wall. He resumed his place at her side and snuggled up against her, both of them safe and warm under the cover of his coat.
As the two of them laid there in rest, Mono could pretend that this was all a nightmare; that they were just two kids amongst many others, who went to school where they learned mathematics and history instead of survival skills, who lived in loving families with a tree and a swingset in their backyard, who didn’t have to fear that any moment could be their last. He could pretend that they were normal, not just kids against an entire world who wants them dead. He knew that it was hopeless to dream of such things, but the thought of him and Six living peacefully brought him a bit of hope for the future, something to look forward to. They could find a safe place on the outskirts of the Pale City or somewhere else entirely to settle down and grow up, with a warm bed, a roof over their heads and a large backyard to play in. When he finally fell asleep in Six’s protective embrace, he dreamed of a boy with his face unveiled and a girl with raven hair laughing as they played tag under a clear sky in an open field.