"We've lost," I said, my voice sounding oddly hollow. As if I were whispering down a tunnel, hoping my voice would carry to the end, all throughout the immense chamber.
I sniffed, hard, and swallowed. Something was draining me, emptying me out like water through a sieve. The rush of adrenaline was fading: The thing, the center of breath that had kept me alive, kept me going these past days, these past months, right to the end. Hurtling upwards in a rush of spiraled wind, fighting, fighting, all the way to the top.
My hands were scarred. My chest was hard. My back was straight. My legs empowered. Chin up, glaring at the world. To crush the enemy was my goal. I was going to war.
I bit my lip, hard, but not hard enough to draw blood; teeth sank into sweat-beaded lip, chapped and dry and flaked. Why had I spent months on this?—fighting for the top, fighting the battle, and then the next battle, and the next...climbing, climbing, climbing, always climbing.
We've worked so hard.
"Don't cry," he said. Staring at my face. Studying my eyes.
"We didn't...win," I breathed, suddenly asphyxiated. Sucking air through a tube. We were supposed to win. We were going to win. We would always win, always. Always. No...not always. Everyone loses. But we were supposed to win. We had worked too hard to lose now. Too hard...so hard...
I could not breathe. I could not speak. I could not scream. Could not even cry. Drops of mercury clogged my throat, shutting out the air. The world had fallen away.
"You're not going to cry, are you?"
I wanted to cry, so why aren't you crying?
Do you care?
Of course you care. You know you care.
That's why you're dead to the world.
I looked at him. At his face. His brown, brown eyes, flat in the light.
I let you down...
We were supposed to win...
And now...it's over.
I could not have forced those tears. Not when I was cold and numb and freezing in the dark, confused by the bright lights that surprised me with their presence. I burned then, could hardly see the seam between when I froze and when the match was lit. I sobbed, the tears flowed, and it hurt, because we were supposed to win, because I had been numb and I was dead to the world because it had pitched forward, screeching and screaming over sun-burned glass—
"I'm sorry." And I meant it. And I wanted to hide, lifted my hands to hide from the world, but I couldn't have shrunk, I couldn't have, because he suddenly his arm was clamped over my shoulders, over my side, and he was shaking me, even ruffling my sweaty-warm hair, and suddenly I couldn't stop the tears, couldn't have been frozen just moments before:
I could not have said I'm sorry again, though I would have meant it with every fiber of my being. Because the fact remained that I was indeed sorry. And while I thought, his arm, warm and big, was rubbing mine, as he growled and soothed, "Stop crying!"
And I could not stop.
I let you down.
And he put his arms around me, telling me, Look at me.
And my hand was in his, and somehow it felt right. Because we had done all this together.
We were falling together, were we not?
And I did. I looked at him, eyes burning, face hot with shame and sorrow. But never would I fear another man's gaze.
Especially after all this.
"You did your best," he said. "You did your best, and that's what matters most. Don't cry.
"Everything is a group effort. You alone are not responsible for this.
"If anything, just be ready, more than ever, to take on the next time.
"I'm proud of you, I really am. And I would not have had anyone else out there for this.
"You did your best. So don't cry."
I was choking then, but I nodded. I heard the words. I felt them, felt them deep and to the core.
That was the first shard to penetrate the cold.
And I felt like a lost child. I was a lost child. One who had fought for what seemed like eons upon eons. Watched the skin on my hands shrivel and blacken, watched the calluses form. Slept on my back with a dagger on my chest. In my hand. Ready to stab. Ready to kill.
And now I had one more chance.
"Don't give up."
And I nodded.
And he held me. He held my hand.
And the tears had had their release; I could breathe. I, wrung out and drained and set on fire again, could breathe.
And I lived.
His hands warm, his palms rough.
This is my resolve.
"You did your best," he said again, "just get better for next time."
He set me on fire.
(And I believed him.)