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when this world ends (I'll be with you always)

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"Chito, this is Yuuri. She'll be living with us from now on."

Often Chito dreamed of the day she had first met Yuuri. A blonde girl not much older than her, but despite her dirty clothes, her smile was bright, and Chito had never seen Grandpa so happy before, and excitement had filled Chito's own heart. Children were scarce in their hometown, and nobody knew where Yuuri had come from, nor did she remember when Chito had eventually asked when they were older. But nobody knew where Chito had come from either; she had no memory of her birth parents either, and her earliest memory was of Grandpa teaching her to read and write. Sometimes Chito wondered about her parents or Yuuri's, but in the end she supposed it didn't matter. Even though they would never see Grandpa again, he was still their family, and the day he had introduced her to Yuuri had been the happiest day of her life.

Soon Chito's dream shifted, and while she and Yuuri were still small, instead of their hometown they ran across green underneath a sky of blue. There was nothing else as far as the eye could see, and the ground was cool and soft against Chito's bare feet. She and Yuuri chased each other, smiling and laughing. Eventually Grandpa approached them, and he carried freshly baked bread. Chito tried not to drool as the aroma filled her nostrils, but even at that age Yuuri had no shame. They ate and shared the bread happily, just the three of them together.

This dream was just a fantasy, Chito knew, but Grandpa's home had always been full of warmth, even as the world outside fell to ruin. Their hometown had been one of the last in the city, although Chito hadn't quite understood what that meant until she and Yuuri had set out on their journey.

Chito opened her eyes, and outside a window she could see that it was still dark. Yuuri slept soundly beside her in the Kettenkrad, a silly grin on her lips. They had parked in an abandoned shed, and although the Kettenkrad was rather cramped inside and the window on the opposite wall was cracked, it was the best shelter they had found from the snow and cold. The snowfall was still heavy, and almost pretty as Chito watched the snowflakes flutter outside the window, but she still didn't much care for snow. It could be melted and boiled into water safe for drinking, no doubt about that, but most times it was just a hindrance as she drove.

She rolled onto her side, and Yuuri barely stirred. It had snowed often in their hometown, and in those days snow had been fun to play in. But with each year the snow came earlier and earlier, and supplies had diminished. People left one by one, and still there hadn't been enough food to go around, and the snow kept falling.

Shutting her eyes tightly, Chito let out a heavy sigh. How long since they had started this journey? She couldn't remember. She had tried to keep track in her journals, but lost count a long time ago. Even the seasons had started to blend together, and snow was the only constant.

She shifted closer to Yuuri, and Yuuri's warmth was familiar and comforting. However long their journey would be, even if it was just an endless cycle, at least she wasn't alone. She tried to smile, and she clutched her blanket tighter as she waited for yet another dawn.

But those creatures had said this world was ending, and again she wondered how many dawns the world had left, and she drifted into yet another uneasy sleep.

"It sure is a tight squeeze, huh?" Yuuri said as she peered over Chito's shoulder as Chito's drove the Kettenkrad.

"And all this snow isn't helping," Chito replied. They drove down a narrow pathway barely wide enough for the Kettenkrad, and it was coated with snow. This area looked to had been a residential area partially unshadowed by a higher stratum, and while Chito usually preferred driving while being able to see the sky, she couldn't deny that being directly underneath a higher stratum would provide some cover from rain and snow, at least.

(And when they did finally reach the highest stratum, would there be anything left to shelter them?)

"Huh." Yuuri leaned against Chito's back. "It snowed a lot too when we were with Grandpa, remember?"

"Yeah, it did." Chito's fingers tightened around the handlebars; Yuuri didn't often speak of the past, but since seeing all those memories on Kanazawa's camera and hearing what those strange creatures had said, she sometimes seemed more somber than usual.

Silence soon began to fall as steadily as the snowflakes did, but then Yuuri spoke again. "Chii-chan, I'm hungry."

Then again, maybe some things never changed.

Chito drove a little further into a road below the underside of a higher stratum, where no snow could fall. Once the Kettenkrad was parked, Chito and Yuuri rummaged through their supplies for rations, and as they ate, they watched the snow fall beyond the edge of the higher stratum. The snowfall was fairly light today, but it had been snowing nearly non-stop for the past several days. At least now they had the cover of a higher stratum, although the shadows cast by said higher stratum made the lack of light even more pronounced, and Chito knew they didn't have much fuel left for the lanterns.

"I wonder who designed this city and what they were thinking," she mused out loud. "I guess they built up because they were limited in space, but if you think about it, some people probably always lived in the shadow of a higher level, never seeing sunlight or rain or snow."

Yuuri stared blankly at Chito. "What if it all came crumbling down?"

"That's morbid, Yuu. The city was built a whole lot sturdier than that." I hope, Chito added privately. After all, this city had withstood centuries of destruction, but there was no one left to maintain it, and soon all remaining activity would cease, just like that robot and these creatures had said.

"So we don't have anything to fear?" Yuuri grinned smugly as her shrill voice cut through Chito's thoughts. "That's a relief!"

Chito sighed. "We've already climbed so high, so why are you worried about that now of all times…?"

Yuuri shrugged her shoulders. "Just curious."

Chito said nothing as she bit into her ration bar. Sometimes - actually, all the time was more accurate to say - she didn't understand what was going on in Yuuri's head.

When they finished eating, Chito stood and adjusted her helmet. "We should explore a little," she said to Yuuri. "There are a lot of homes here, so we might find something useful."

"More food would be great," Yuuri said as she also hopped to her feet, and she was also sure to sling her rifle over her shoulder.

After making sure the Kettenkrad was secure and protected from the snow, Chito and Yuuri set off and climbed the stairs of the nearest apartment building. The streets were narrow while the buildings towered high, almost as high as the next stratum up. Power lines zigzagged all over them, and Chito was thankful most of them appeared intact. Sometimes she and Yuuri came across downed power lines that were still live and thus too dangerous to go near, even with the Kettenkrad, and often finding accessible detours to get around proved difficult.

Chito shuddered; if she and Yuuri really did encounter a true dead end with nowhere else to go, what would happen to them?

Most of the homes Chito and Yuuri came across were empty at a quick glance. Some of the doors were shut tightly with no windows low enough to climb through, and while Yuuri had suggested shooting out the locks, Chito had refused. There corridors were too narrow for bullets, and they didn't have much ammunition left in the first place, and Chito wanted to consume as much gunpowder as possible. So they climbed another set of stairs to find a higher row of connected houses, and once again each door had a narrow strip with writing on it, much like those graves, but Chito couldn't recognize most of the characters.

Her booted foot brushed against a pile of snow that had fallen through the cracks. Maybe these homes were like graves too, a place to store memories of those long passed. Those creatures had said this world was going to end and that this city would soon slumber too, and when that time came, only memories would be left, but what good were memories if there was no one left to remember?

She frowned. Ever since hearing those words, she couldn't be certain of anything any longer. She and Yuuri had no real destination in mind, so they simply had to find supplies and continue on for as long as possible, just as they had promised Grandpa. For one more day, and then another, and then another after that…

"Hey, Chii-chan?" Yuuri said suddenly, turning to face Chito, and her expression was blank. "What's wrong? You're being awfully quiet."

"I'm just cold, that's all," Chito muttered, and her cheeks flushed. But she could be certain of one thing at least - Yuuri.

If she lost Yuuri…

Her thoughts muddled, she took another step forward, but the floor beneath her foot crumbled. "Ah-!" she screamed, flailing wildly to try to brace herself but unable to grab anything to stop her fall. Yuuri reached out without hesitation, and her fingers latched tightly around Chito's wrist. As Yuuri pulled Chito to safety, against her better judgment Chito looked down, and suddenly she felt dizzy all over again.

Why had the people of old built this city so stupidly high?

"Chii-chan, you have to be more careful," Yuuri said once Chito's feet were firmly planted on the ground, and Chito didn't quite care for her smug tone. "You're always telling me that we have to watch out for dangers like this."

"Yeah, yeah," Chito said as she waved her hand dismissively. "We should find someplace to rest and get out of the cold for a bit."

Yuuri nodded but said nothing, and they found a home at the end of the corridor with a rusted lock, so the door opened easily. Once inside Yuuri ushered Chito to the couch and made her lay down, and while she was surprised by Yuuri's sudden fussiness, Chito didn't resist. The couch was pleasantly soft, and just being indoors like this was enough to feel warm again. If the snow kept falling, traveling through the cold would be dangerous, but they just simply didn't have the supplies to stay in one place for long.

As she watched Yuuri search, she was reminded of that same dream she sometimes had. She could imagine herself staying here with Yuuri, never again worrying about the cold or getting lost, but it was always just a dream and nothing more. Her eyes hurt; if their time wasn't limited by dwindling supplies, she would've loved to settle down someplace like this with Yuuri. It didn't need to be a big, fancy home; it just needed four walls and a roof, like the home they had shared with Grandpa a long time ago.

"Hey, Chii-chan, look what I found!" came Yuuri's excited voice as she rushed toward Chito.

Chito sat up, and much to her surprise Yuuri was holding a book. "You're excited about a book?"

"Not just any book!" Yuuri sat beside Chito on the sofa and opened the book, and Chito's mouth began to water. "It's all about food!"

"It must be a cookbook," Chito said as she wiped her mouth with the back of her hand, and she stared as Yuuri turned the pages. Fish, bread, potatoes, and other foods she had never seen before - it all looked so delicious. She only recognized a handful of characters in the text, and most of the pages were worn and torn, but each page held colorful and detailed photographs that almost appeared edible. No wonder Yuuri was finally excited about a book, Chito thought idly.

"People of the past were so lucky if they had food like this!" Yuuri exclaimed, and she was starting to drool as she stared at the photographs.

"But now they're all gone…" Chito muttered. She bit her lip, and tears stung at her eyes; how could the people of the past thrown so much away?

Yuuri slammed the book shut and stood. "But we're still here, so let's see what we can find! Maybe we'll discover real food to go with this book!"

Chito nodded without thinking, and they searched the home in silence. It was small like the others in this building, with only a single living area and a bathroom, and both the bed and couch were small as well. There were a few cabinets and most were empty, and the bookshelf mostly held cookbooks and other large picture books with beautiful illustrations, and while Yuuri seemed to like them - maybe now Yuuri would finally understand the value of books, a part of Chito optimistically hoped - the rest of Chito's mind was still elsewhere.

She opened the night table near the bed, and inside the drawer was a small white box engraved with colorful flowers she had once seen in once of Grandpa's books. Carefully she lifted it, and it was surprisingly sturdy and heavy in her hands, and she gently opened the lid with her thumbs, revealing a photograph and two gold rings with clear stones. The box trembled in Chito's hands, and once the lid was fully opened, she heard music.

It was a simple song, nothing like the song of the end those creatures had been singing. Rather, it was a bright, hopeful song, like a clear blue sky, and the box vibrated in Chito's hands. The melody was repetitive with only a handful of different notes, and the quality was screechy at best, but it wasn't as if Chito actually knew anything about proper music, so she couldn't say she disliked this song. As the music played, her eyes watered, and she tried to wipe away her tears with her sleeve.

"Oh, that's music, isn't it?" Yuuri said as she came beside Chito. "It's kind of like the rain song we made together, before we met Ishii."

"Yeah, I guess it is," Chito mumbled, lowering her gaze.

Yuuri's smile vanished. "Chii-chan, you've been out of it for a while, haven't you?"

Chito's cheeks flushed. "H-Huh? What are you talking about?"

"Ever since we met those creatures, you've seemed down. Is it because they said the world is going to end?"

Chito bit her lip; Yuuri could be surprisingly sharp at times. "Don't you understand what that means? There's nothing left, so why are we…?"

Yuuri reached into the music box and took out the photograph, which depicted two women, one with red hair and the other with blonde hair. Their arms were linked and they wore the gold rings in the box. "These women look happy, don't they?" Yuuri said, although her voice was soft. "I bet they were like us."

"Like us?" Chito said carefully.

That familiar smile returned to Yuuri's lips. "You say there's nothing left, but that's not true. Even if the world ends, you have me. That's what you said, remember?"

"But…" Chito's fingers tightened around the box. "But are you really happy with just me…?"

"Of course." Yuuri's smile didn't waver. "I'm happy because I'm with you. That's love, isn't it?"

"Love?" Chito glanced at the photograph in Yuuri's hand, and both women had bright, hopeful smiles. "You love me?"

Much to Chito's surprise, Yuuri's cheeks glowed red. "I mean, I'm not very smart, and maybe I don't understand that the world is ending. But I remember that relief I felt when I found you in that darkness, in that building with those statues. I was scared, but I had you. So even if this world ends, I'm not scared because I know you're with me, and I love you."

Despite herself, Chito couldn't help but laugh. How could Yuuri say such things so bluntly? But Chito didn't mind. "Yeah, that must be love," she found herself saying as she raised a hand to touch Yuuri's cheek.

Yuuri's smile brightened, and she kissed Chito. It was a gentle, clumsy kiss, and Chito remembered something from long ago. While they had still lived with Grandpa, Yuuri had suddenly declared she would marry Chito, and Grandpa had said that as long as they loved each other, they could create their own family. Chito had been embarrassed beyond belief, but she hadn't disliked the idea either.

When their lips parted, Chito pulled Yuuri into a tight embrace and buried her face in Yuuri's shoulder to hide her tears. Even at the end of the world, that she still has Yuuri - maybe she was the luckiest girl in the world, after all.

Eventually, after finding a little bit more of supplies - Chito and Yuuri left the photograph and music box where they had found them, as they were precious memories of two women in love - they made their way back to the Kettenkrad and shared a meal of hot soup and water. Much to Chito's surprise, the snow had stopped and in the far distance she could even see blue sky.

When they finished eating, they settled in their usual spots - Chito in the driver's seat and Yuuri in the back with her rifle and the supplies. "It's not such a bad life," Yuuri said as she leaned over Chito's shoulder. "We eat, sleep, and travel - pretty simple, huh? And I get to do it all with you!"

A smile tugged at Chito's lips. "Yeah, I suppose you're right," she said as she turned the ignition key. The engine rumbled, and the Kettenkrad pressed forward through the fallen snow.

The world was ending, Chito couldn't deny that. Maybe they were the only living beings left in this city. But she had Yuuri, and she loved Yuuri, so even in this dying world, she was content.