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The Last Living Tree

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Jasper startles awake—a hitch of breath, a snort. His nose and mouth are crushed against the hard bone of Monty's shoulder. In his sleep, he'd wrapped his arm around Monty's waist and slid his hand up beneath the hem of Monty's shirt, to rest his palm against the warm, soft middle of him. Now he wants to dip beneath the blankets, and hide himself there in the glow of light filtered through the heavy down of their comforter, press slow kisses to the round of Monty's stomach and the sharp edge of his hip bone. But he can't. A loud beeping sound is blaring somewhere above him. Repeating, and repeating, and repeating.

He groans, and pulls himself away from Monty, and falls back down on the bed with a gutted sigh. His left arm is still trapped beneath Monty's body. Around him, all he can see is white. 

White walls, white floor. Their white bed. The white curtains over the window screen. A white chest of drawers and a white table, with Monty's gleaming, colorless computer, and the strange, delicate glass sculpture Jasper refers to as the light bulb tree. The only other place Jasper has seen that is this pale, this clean, this bright, is Mount Weather. Some mornings, he wakes up and thinks he is still there, or there again: in the quarantine wing, in the infirmary room.

The beeping has not stopped. He rubs at his eyes with the back of his fist, stifles a yawn, and forces himself to focus on the blurry object above, until the last scrim of sleep has been blinked away and he sees it, at least, clear. A little drone, hovering in the air over their bed. On its video screen, the name BELLAMY blinks, in bold, black caps.

Jasper moves his shoulder, jostling Monty's sleep-heavy body until he finally stirs. Monty tries to swat him away. And Jasper only smiles, and, moving with a lazy, slow attitude that the drone, he's sure, or the man behind the drone, would not like, he curls his body around Monty’s again, runs his hand all the way up Monty's back and cuddles, briefly, close against him. Presses a kiss to the back of his shoulder. 

He hears, muffled by the pillow, a pleased little groan.

Then: "Nottttttt getting up."

Jasper pokes him in the side. "An obnoxious man is calling you."

"An obnoxious man is poking me." 

"I love you, but I will answer that call whether you’re awake or not. The noise needs to stop!”

Monty mumbles something unintelligible, but still manages to turn himself awkwardly onto his back. "Alie," he says, voice cracked from morning disuse, as he stretches and fidgets against the sheets, "accept call."

The beeping stops abruptly, and the screen flashes to life. Bellamy, who is obviously not in bed, but who might be anywhere else based on the scrap of background behind him, stares at them with a thin expression around his mouth, his eyes narrowed. "I'm sorry to wake you," he says. He does not sound, to Jasper's ear, sorry at all. "But we have an issue in the library. Our connection is down again."

Monty stares up at him. Bellamy's head and torso hover unsteadily, in a slight but disorienting way, as the drone floats in the air above them.

"And you want me to fix it," Monty says, slowly, blinking slowly.

"Yeah. If you could."

"I can." Obviously, he might have added, if his tone had not already made the sentiment clear. He passes his hand down over his face, rubs briefly at the bridge of his nose. "Give me... fifteen minutes. And stop overloading the system. The library is the most—"

"Complex part of the structure," Bellamy finishes. "And I'm not overloading it."

Jasper bites down on the corner of his lip, half-hiding a smile. For all of his virtues, Bellamy has not yet completely mastered self-control, and Monty, who has more than one person's allotted amount of control, most of the time, has known him long enough and well enough and through enough catastrophe to judge him for this fault, blatantly and mercilessly.

"Anyway, good thing it's just the library system and not the circadians that blew or else I wouldn't know it's eight in the morning right now," he's saying, as he drags himself into a sitting position. The drone rises and readjusts to meet him, leaving Jasper out of frame. He slides down lower, barely peeking out beneath the covers, hides himself safely against Monty's leg. "Think you can hold out for a few minutes?"

"We'll manage," Bellamy's voice answers gruffly, and Monty swipes his hand to end the call and send the drone away.

It settles on the table on the opposite side of the room, between Jasper's tablet and the tiny little plant they stole from Farm Sector.

"Are you really going to rush over there?" Jasper asks, as Monty hauls himself to his feet. In his absence, Jasper rolls all the way to the edge of the bed, landing on his back, tangled in the blanket. 

"Yeah. I mean. It is my job."

His job. His purpose. The middle dresser drawer makes a neat little rolling sound, metallic and clear, as Monty pulls it open. Jasper watches him, pawing through clothes, the mussed-up way his hair stands out at strange angles, his bare feet and his faint reflection in the sheen of the floor. After a minute, he pulls himself up and gets out of bed, opens the curtains, lets in the glow of morning sun—bright and cloudless today, a spring day, by the calculations of Alie's mighty mind—and then comes to sit at the table. He slumps low, pretending he is boneless.

“Monty, question. Would you rather live on Mars, knowing its survivable but nothing else about it, or on Earth, but you have to live underground for the rest of your life?”

Monty doesn’t answer right away, but then he doesn’t, usually. Jasper only looks up when the silence feels like it has mutated from merely thoughtful to uncertain. Monty’s half-dressed, shirtless, fly still unzipped, watching Jasper as if the true answer were written on his face.

Jasper raises his eyebrows. “Too on the nose?”

“Um—no.” He drops Jasper’s gaze, clears his throat. “I’d live on Mars. So, are you cooking today?”

"Yeah. Murphy's on shift with me." He runs his finger along the middle bulb of the sculpture. He knows Monty is looking at him again, glancing at him, pretending he is not. He knows the question unnerved him, and that he does not want it to linger. "Don't worry," he adds. "I have a busy day planned."

"I'm not worried." Monty pulls a shirt on over his head, tries to fix his hair, fails and then turns and runs into Jasper, who has crossed the space between them, who stops him with two hands to his shoulders and a pointed look.

"Don't worry," he repeats. And then, thinking that he might kiss him, he is surprised when Monty leans in and kisses him instead. A morning kiss, at first, and then too long just for hello again and here it is, another day. Lingering and slow and Monty's palm light against his cheek, something to lean into, to melt into.

"You want to know something funny?" Monty asks, as he pulls back. His thumb runs back and forth against Jasper's cheek, and his voice is so low, so secretive, that Jasper can only give the slightest nod in return. "I knew we'd end up here eventually. Sharing a room, together, with a contraband plant."

"Right back where we started," Jasper murmurs. Which is funny. Because they are so far from the beginning, and parallel to it, all at once. "Except more of this—" Press of lips to lips, broken up by a smile, soft but certain—"and we're not smoking the plant."

Monty laughs, a short, choked sound. "To put it bluntly."

"Oh, that's funny."

And then he has his palms to either side of Monty's face, pulling him close again, pulling him in.

The truth is, that when they took the plant out of the tiny, still struggling nursery, and hid it in the pocket of Monty's old Ark jacket, and carried it home, the thick, black soil still clinging to their fingers, Jasper did not think the small, frail thing would survive. And he had regretted suggesting their thievery. He set it on the desk, examined its glossy, dark leaves, the hints of thin, organic roots poking out of the dirt. He tried to memorize it. He anticipated himself mourning it, knowing he would mourn, knowing that even if every other plant and fruit and vegetable they grew survived, if this little bit of green did not, he would feel it like the reopening of an old and badly healed wound. 

And instead of dying, it held on. Monty's practiced care was truly to thank, but he liked to believe his own scarred hands did their part, too. Reaching out to it, tentatively living thing to tentatively living thing. Amazed as it flourished, and as he himself—survived. Tending to the plant gave him a certain purpose, the first purpose in a long time that felt worth the effort, that felt like something more than selfishness, that felt bigger than the narrow, useless survival of the self. He would protect this little plant as if it were the very last plant, because outside of Farm Sector, it perhaps might truly be the final iteration of its kind. 

His own last living tree.

He was never religious on the Ark but he understands something of that feeling now.

And when he comes home, again, he'll bring it home with him.

*

The fastest way to the kitchens is through the gym, which is long and narrow and filled with a myriad of stark, silver exercise equipment, the floor padded with thick rubber mats the color of dull steel. Even through the door, Jasper can hear the thud of a heavy bass, driving the music someone has turned on much too loud, and threading through it, the steady clack and hum of the machines, the unsteady and ragged breathing of the people on the machines.

Inside, he finds Octavia, in the far corner beating the stuffing out of a man-sized punching bag; and Emori, steering a stationary rowing machine; and Miller, pounding the artificial pavement of a treadmill, his sneakers thumping along on the track to the beat of the music. Raven is doing pull-ups, dangling from a silver bar that juts out from the wall. She calls his name as he tries to slide unobtrusively past her, lets go and lands lightly on her feet as he turns on his heel and comes to a halt. He has his hands deep in his pockets, his shoulders beginning to slump. Raven grabs a towel from a nearby bench and wipes the sweat from her face. "Jasper," she says again, "hey."

The music is so deafening that he can barely hear her, even standing right next to her. 

"Raven?" he yells back, and raises his eyebrows in question.

She rolls her eyes. "Alie, turn the music down."

The unrelenting bass drops down a few notches, and Octavia, coming down from a roundhouse kick, calls back over her shoulder, "You know some of us were listening to that."

"Yeah, and some of us are trying to have a conversation without shouting," Raven answers, sending the retort over Jasper's shoulder and then shooting him a secret look, narrow eyed and sly. The look does not read as anger, but only as fond annoyance, so that he feels like he should smile. 

She slings her towel over her shoulder and picks up her water bottle, takes a long drink. No rush, he supposes, and asks, “Trying to have a conversation about what?"

"Oh—" Obvious question. But her set look falters, and her steady gaze becomes uncertain and jumpy. She passes the back of her wrist across her forehead. "I just wanted to ask if you were going to Luna's thing tonight. The yoga and meditation thing."

Yoga and meditation. He’s familiar with the idea, less sure, at first, why she should associate it with him. To hide the realization when it comes, he wiggles his eyebrows, contorts his mouth into an exaggerated, curious curl. 

Perhaps Raven is wishing, he thinks, for the music to rise up again, to drown them out. Or perhaps not, because then she would have to try to sound casual over it, and she has a hard enough time with that, anyway. 

"I'm not sure yoga and meditation is my thing," he answers. And then, because he truly wants to know, "Is it your thing?"

He cannot begin to picture Raven with her legs pretzel-crossed and her eyes closed, imagining herself in a meadow or under a waterfall, or whatever people think about in the throes of meditation, cannot picture her practicing such stillness, and not wanting to claw out her own eyes.

"I don't know," she admits. "Maybe not. But I thought I'd try. I thought it might be—" 

In the few moments of her hesitation, he sees again scraps of uncountable memories, moments of his own despair, because he knows she's speaking around them—might be a way to push those dark monster-worries aside, nightlight in the deadnight, flashlight in the underground—and then moments of hers: what she's trying to confess to him, so lightly that no one else will hear it, the tiny sliver of it threading through her voice. He remembers carrying her out of Arkadia, thinking in the first moment that she was heavy, and in the next that he was glad for the real human weight of her, for the persistence of the body, that they were both still alive despite themselves, alive and corporeal and earth-bound and obstinate and real. He remembers all of this in split-second memories that do not flash across his mind but rather inhabit his whole body, a moment of disorientation before he returns.

"I mean I thought it might be worth it to try."

She's waiting for him to say something, he realizes. Miller is watching them from the treadmill, pretending he is not watching them.

"I don't think I can make it tonight," Jasper answers, at last, which is the truth, but he knows from the crestfallen and lightly annoyed look about her face that she thinks he is just blowing her off. "Next time, though. I'll give it a try."

"Okay, well.” She straightens her shoulders, levels her voice. “It'll be here at eight, if you change your mind." 

"I'll remember." He turns away again, with a wave over his shoulder, then spins all the way around on a whim, back toward her, snaps his fingers in her direction and asks, "Raven?"

She's already shaking out her arms, ready to jump up and grab the bars again. "Yeah?"

"Would you rather walk for thirty seconds over hot coals or take a two-minute plunge into a freezing lake? No swimming required. It's just very cold."

Her eyes narrow. She's thinking about the question, or about how best to tell him that the question is stupid. He'd accept either answer: anything honest, anything forthright, words that mean what they appear to mean on the surface.

"The lake," she answers, with a short, decisive nod. "The freezing lake, no question."

"Obviously," Miller adds, over his shoulder, while Emori says, lightly, with easy confidence, "I'd go with the coals."

In the middle of the ensuing discussion, Jasper slips, all but unnoticed, out the door.

*

"You're late," Murphy announces, as the kitchen doors slide open to let Jasper in. "The minions will be here in twenty minutes."

"Yeah, I know. I'm sorry." Not that he seems to have missed much, as far as he can tell: the long, metal tables are clean, but bare, all of the pots and pans and utensils and dishes still stacked neatly on the open shelves, only two baskets of unprepared and unsorted ingredients sitting on the far left table, by the arrival chute. The two television screens on the opposite wall are still turned off, which isn't surprising, since Murphy has always preferred silence while he works. He and the other kitchen volunteers argue often about the screens, on which they display recipes and instructional videos, on which one could just as easily watch old pre-war television and movies from the shaky community library.

"And you know they don't like it when you call them minions," Jasper adds. He peers into one of the baskets, which is half-full of grains.

Murphy is standing by the arrival chute, currently closed and the light next to it a harsh and unblinking red. From far away, a low rumble sounds, as of caster wheels rolling, the slow metallic slide of a steel belt curving down and over itself. The light turns yellow, then green, and the door to the arrival chute slides up with a pained grumbling sound of its own. 

"I wouldn't call them that to their faces," Murphy says, as he grabs another basket and hauls it over to the table.

"Yes, you would. You do."

"Okay, yeah." A half-shrug, a half-rueful smile. "I do."

This latest basket is full of vegetables. Murphy picks one up and turns it around, tests its weight, examines its color under the bright fluorescence of the overhead light. An eggplant, deep purple and almost comically large, with a light green cap decorating the top. A year ago, Jasper wouldn't have known what such a strange plant was, would not have believed such colors could come from nature, and certainly not from the depths of the underground, but by now he's just about memorized all of the information that remains about vegetables and fruits and greenery and grains, food preparation, recipes, growth. Now he takes the eggplant from Murphy's hands and tries its weight in his own palms, while Murphy dips his head back in the basket again. 

"These look good," he admits, somewhat grudging, somewhat awed, as he takes out a handful of tomatoes and arranges them in a row on the tabletop. "Like they finally know what they're doing over there." The distant rumbling sound picks up again, and Murphy turns around to grab the next basket as the door slides up. "Don't tell him I said this, but Bryan's a pretty good farmer. Even after all that time thinking he was a soldier or whatever."

"Mmmm." Jasper peers into the second basket, which is filled with a variety of lively-looking greens. Sparks of life in the echoing white room. "Yeah. Fuck being a soldier anyway."

"Says the ex-gunner."

Jasper shoots him a look, faintly annoyed, a reflex without malice. Says the guy who held me hostage and threatened to kill me. Not that such a distant moment still resonates—a history so ancient, it comes back to him now soft and out of focus, about as real as the tension of the trigger beneath his fingertip and the battering of his heart in this throat—

But the greens cannot be thrown loose on the table, so he slips around the end, grabs a couple of large, metal mixing bowls from the nearest shelf. "So tell me this," he says, as he sets them down next to the baskets, "would you rather live the rest of your life alone, dependent only on yourself, or as part of a community, but you have to do grunt work every day until you die?"

The intermittent sounds of movement from the other side of the table cease, and when Jasper glances up, he sees that Murphy has stopped with a tomato in one hand and the other gripping the side of the basket. Only his thumb moves, passing back and forth across a shine of light on the tomato's red skin.

"Have you been taking advantage of your boyfriend's still?" he asks.

He says it like it’s a joke, but Jasper feels something harden within him, like his blood slowing, or his muscles knotting up with tension like hard, taut ropes. He doesn't answer, doesn't move, but he knows that Murphy will read him even in his silence and his stillness, because he was always perceptive in that way. More perceptive than anyone gave him credit for. Always knew what comment would hit and where, and never as reckless with his words as people thought. He was like that even when they were kids. And it meant something in the Sky Box, where everyone protected his own, where station looked out for station, no matter what.

Jasper picks up the second basket and tips it over until all the greens fall free into the larger metal bowl. And he tries to laugh it off: "Funny how a person has one relapse and—"

"I didn't mean it that way."

He did. But it's okay.

For a few minutes, sorting ingredients, neither says a word, and in the silence of the kitchen, even small sounds echo far beyond their reach.

"The community," Murphy says, abruptly, as he stacks two empty baskets together and sets them on the floor. "If you still want to know. Grunt work and community until I die."

Jasper nods. In times like these, of course, what other answer is there?

"And two years ago?" he asks. 

On the ground; in the forest; for their first time in their lives, staring out across an endlessness that could have been all theirs. All he remembers is a paralyzing fear of the places where the shadows overlapped, the unexplained noises in the trees. And of Murphy: an exile, and a runaway.

"The same," he says. "My answer would be the same."

*

The observation deck, which Jasper privately thinks of as the dream screen, looks very much like an old earth movie theater, or like what theaters looked like in the movies, as far as he can tell. This room is smaller, though, with only a double line of chairs arranged in front of the screen. And then, the screen itself: it stretches up to the ceiling and nearly down to the floor, from one end of the wall to the other, so massive that it dwarfs anyone who stands or sits in front of it, and whatever it displays seems to become the whole world.

Jasper does not expect to find anyone here after dinner. But when he slides open the door and sees the back of a familiar blonde head, there in the middle of the first row, he feels neither shock nor surprise.

When she hears the slide and click of the door, she turns around, and offers him a slight and guilty smile, a tiny wave. The lights have been dimmed and, on the screen, an assortment of maps is arrayed. As his eyes adjust, he notices that she has her tablet in her lap, a stylus between her fingertips.

He walks around the back row and takes the chair behind her and one to the right, leans forward with his arms crossed on the back of the seat in front of him. "You look like you're planning a campaign," he says.

Clarke sighs, and the last of the smile fades. She slumps down in her seat. On the tablet screen, he can read a scattering of half-illegible handwritten notes. "Campaign as in election, or campaign as in war?" she asks, and he feels that old weariness flowing from her, and it saddens him.

How old habits never die. 

Is he the same, following the same path, stuck in the deep ruts, the scenery around him changing, the same old broken pieces inside clanging and clattering around?

"You tell me," he answers.

At the center of each of the maps, a loud red dot: a nuclear reactor, a disaster site. Wavy red and blue and yellow lines flow inscrutably out in all directions from each one, each a different universe, a different story that might be told. And they're in the middle of one, and it’s too soon to know which.

"Just thinking about the future," Clarke says. She still sounds small and distant, self-deprecating in the way she shrugs, after, and looks back at him with apology across her face. "I know there's no point to it. Just—" She cuts herself off, then turns around again, collects herself, shakes her shoulders back and tilts up her chin. "You know Wells once told me that my mind is always running, and I needed to learn to slow it down."

Jasper hums, thoughtful. "My father once told me that my feet were always running."

Clarke glances back, uncertainty in the corner of her mouth, not sure if she should smile.

"I was four at the time."

He'd like to reach out and put his hand on her shoulder or wrap his arms around her from behind. Every time that he's thought she was dead, or might be dead, those moments of gentleness between them were what he remembered most: waking up dazed and cotton-brained on the top floor of the dropship, Monty dead-asleep on the floor next to him, Clarke pushing his hair back from his face and her palm lingering against his skin, searching out fever.

"Let me ask you this," he says, as Clarke turns her tablet off. She half-twists in her seat to look at him. "Would you rather live as a queen, obeyed by everyone and responsible for everyone, or as the lowliest, least respected worker?"

He knows what she'll say, waits patiently with his chin resting on his arms as she bites at the corner of her lip and pretends to think. 

But then she says, "I'd be the queen"—flicks her eyes up so she's looking right at him, and forms each word like only a queen would, clear and slow, and he understands that he should have known this about her all along.

Nice to be surprised, though, even after all this time.

She stands up, then, clears the screen, tucks her stylus in her jacket pocket and her tablet under her arm. "See you tomorrow, Jasper," she says, and reaches out to give his shoulder a light squeeze. But instead of letting go, she hesitates, opens her mouth to say something more, and closes it again. And: "You're doing okay, right?"

He'd like to be flip, but he can't, not in response to a question asked so softly and with her hand still on his shoulder, not when her voice makes all his old scars hurt and a hard ache rise up in his throat. "Yeah." His voice cracks, so the word is almost impossible to hear. "Yeah, I'm better. Good days, bad days, right?"

He rests his hand over her hand and presses down as hard as he can.

"Right," Clarke answers. "Good night, Jasper."

"Good night, Your Highness."

After she leaves, he slumps down into his seat, feels like he's deflating, has to clear his throat and rub at the corners of his eyes. The screen, a blank, searing white, emits a static-hum.

"Alie," he commands, "turn off the lights."

And the lights fade out, and now all he can see is the brilliant white screen, and his own arms and legs and the backs of the chairs in front of him, dim in its glow.

"Alie, show me—"

The forest. The mountains. The oceans. The cities. The stars.

"Alie, show me a sunset."

The vision starts out brilliant, a ball of pure light at the center of the screen, hovering directly over the horizon, and the sky all around torched in pinks and oranges and gold. Between him and the sun is a vast field of gently waving grasses. The sun itself is too vivid to be directly observed; he examines instead every slight variation in the colors around it, how they darken slowly, over time, as the hazy round brightness in the middle sinks and sinks. Shades of purple—first lavender, then a darker color, like a new bruise—gather at the edges of the sky, deepen and darken and spread. The circle of the sun becomes smaller; its halo fades; and the purples streak across and through the oranges and pinks. He keeps watching as the twilight builds and the purples shade to blues and the line of the horizon becomes a distant fire-orange, like the world has started burning, but only at its farthest edge. He keeps watching as the last of the colors fade, as the grasses become no more than shadows, wafting, as the blues start to settle into black. The screen fills his whole vision. He cannot feel the breeze or hear the small sounds of the insects in the grass, but he can see the coming darkness, and he feels that it surrounds him, how it merges with the darkness of the room until the very last of the light is gone.

*

The sun has only started to dip beneath the horizon when Jasper picks the lock at the top of the stairs and sneaks into the house. Becca's mansion is as clean and white as the bunker below, but uncomfortably airless, and eerily warm. The surfaces are dulled shadows, looming and treacherous. With the power cut and the lights off, it has precisely the silent and abandoned air one would expect of a home at the end of the world.

In the living room, where the curtains have been left open on a sweeping view of a once neatly trimmed lawn, sloping down a gentle hill, the seeping pink of the sunset has suffused every surface with a diluted blood-tinge. Jasper knows that the fire has already burned. But when he stands in the middle of the room and looks out as far as he can, taking in the room and the pink cast along the furniture and the brilliant glow along the horizon, he feels that the inferno is still raging. That he is watching it blaze all over again.

Nothing that Alie can show him downstairs will ever make him feel like this: like a human being again, on the ground, at home and taking that home for what it is now, seeing that it is a wasteland but that at least this charred landscape, this singed earth, these fallen remnants of trees are real. Down in the bunker, the shine on the screens gives the whole joke away. They are safe and at peace and what more can he want except to break out of an endlessness of waiting? Waiting for the world to be safe again, understanding that perhaps it never will. Waiting to feel real air on his skin again, to hear the sounds of the animals, who have survived by mutation just like him, waiting to stare up and shade his eyes from the unbearable brightness and heat of the sun. The surface is messy and frightful and raw. He has never been more terrified, nor more awed, by anything else in his cramped and narrow life; he has never wanted anything more than to accept this terror and this wonder and to live fully within it and to feel fully alive.

One last question:

Would you rather struggle to live, sacrifice everything in the hope of survival, understanding that a muted survival may be all that you get and perhaps not even that—or live precisely on your own terms, and die on your terms too?

He can feel the warmth like the aftermath of a tremendous blaze, all around him, pressing in. He won't stay long. He's hearty space stock and this amount of radiation, for just a few minutes, every now and then, won't kill him. But the mansion isn't sealed tight like the bunker is. Some of the toxic new-earth air seeps in.

The sunset has all but burned itself out, the sky now inked with deepening purples and blues, lavender streaks like thin traces of clouds, and Jasper is ready to go home. Then he hears it: the distant creak of the bunker door opening, the slow clunk of footsteps against metal. His heart stutters, and he has to warn his breathing calm again.

"Monty?" he asks, but doesn't turn around.

The footsteps come closer, no more hesitation to them, the only sound except for Jasper's breathing in the utter quiet of the empty house.

"Yeah. What are you doing up here? You know it's not—"

"Safe. I know." He glances back, sees that Monty is near, then reaches for his hand and pulls him close. They stand shoulder-to-shoulder, watching the last blurred orange glow sinking into the earth. Monty squeezes his hand so hard that it hurts. "I haven't been up here long, I promise." 

He lifts Monty's hand and kisses his knuckles. Beneath his eyelashes, he can see the smooth fall of Monty's skin, the back of his hand and down his arm. And he does not want to look up. In the dimming fire of the end of the day, he must look monstrous himself: radiation scars along his neck and etched across his cheek, over the hand that dares to hold Monty's hand, like the most secret parts of him made visible. He's a creature of the new earth. This does not often make him sad. Except now, kissing Monty's skin, reluctant to let go.

He can hear the stutter in Monty’s breath.

And then, abruptly, Monty grabs him by the back of the neck and tugs him forward, until they are pressed together, chest against chest. The light has nearly faded. Monty is a shadow among shadows, grasping at him, keeping Jasper close and his nose and mouth crushed against the side of Jasper's neck. And Jasper claws at him in return, grabbing for anchor, twisting his fingers up in Monty's shirt, matching his breathing to the scared hitch of Monty's lungs. 

"I'm sorry," he whispers, inaudibly at first. "I'm sorry."

I'm sorry you worry about me. I'm sorry I've fallen into bad habits again. I'm sorry I get scared sometimes, and don't know what to do.

"It's okay." Monty's voice sounds thick and wet and low, like even these few words are hard to form. He has Jasper crushed against him, and when he loosens his grip at last, and starts to pull away, he traces the scar along his cheek and almost manages to smile. "Just come downstairs with me, okay."

Maybe he thinks he's talking Jasper off the ledge again.

Maybe they'll walk downstairs, and lock up the bunker door, and return to their little white room and their bed with the thick white comforter on top, and Jasper will find words for what feels, now, like an impossible idea. That he truly wants to live, that he is rearranging again what that means and how, and when. And maybe Monty will understand what he means, even though the concepts are alien to him, and he'll understand the drinking and the sunset and even the old scars, and he will no longer be afraid. Or he will be less afraid. Maybe. At last.

Jasper pulls them apart with great reluctance, threads his fingers through Monty's fingers, palm against palm, and returns with him to the safety of the underground.