It's a long way to the top. The stairs wind up as far as the eye can see. Fray and I ascend in relative silence, broken only by the occasional giggle of a child from above.
I stop when a hole in the side the building, the window from my teenage years, catches my . The others pass and continue their ascent, but Fray remains close behind.
"What?" They ask.
I step forward and peer out, see the ground a thousand meters below, and quickly pull back. It's been so long since I really had time to feel, and now it's all piling up the moment I catch my breath. "I once had a mind to jump. It was years ago, but seeing it again is a little jarring."
They fidget in place, trying to hide how uncomfortable the situation is. "Why didn't you?"
"Honestly, I don't know. I wasn't done." I let out a sigh. "I had things to do like saving Mom, and finding Gibraltar. Then again, maybe I was too scared like everyone else."
I watch the shades of blue fade from the sky, the sun setting and passing the horizon. "I'm done," I reply. "I always thought I'd jump when my task was done. It kept me going."
Fray's silent for a moment, unsure of what to say. Finally they speak, "I understand."
I've been trying to avoid thinking about it, but it gnawed at you. It lingers, this will to meet death and be free from such a troublesome life. "Would I die if I jump?" I ask.
"Most definitely," they reply. "Our place in the loop has closed, I believe. Is that your plan?"
My voice shakes. "I don't know. Would you stop me?"
They laugh at this, an expected response. "Past experience has shown I have little power over what you do. You're stubborn like that."
"Are you making jokes?" I ask, almost offended.
"Not at all. I'm being honest."
I peer out the window again and sit with legs dangling over the side. Fray joins me, but with their legs firmly planted on the metal floor.
"Why am I like this?" I ask. I feel my eyes burn, the tears rising.
"I'm tired of living. I'm sorry to say it but I am." I scoff before continuing, "I know that sounds crazy but I can't help it. I shouldn't think like that."
They shake their head. "You can't help how you feel, Amber. You're not crazy." They look out at the city, darkness settling across the skyline. "You hide it, pretend you don't feel the way you do. It doesn't change the fact that living is hard."
I laugh. "Living is hard." I repeat the words in mind, over and over again. How true that is. "You know, my dad once told me that humanity is a species that's always lived paycheck to paycheck. We've always walked a fine line between prosperity and extinction."
Fray nods. "I think the same can be said about most species. At least you're not alone." They chuckle and lean forward to catch my gaze. "You've made it this far."
"We have, haven't we." I speak walking a fine line of my own, the line between heavy greys and silver linings. "I wonder what I'll live for now."
Fray leans back against the wall. "Whatever you like. There's plenty to live for, I think. You may disagree."
"What do you live for?" I ask. "You mentioned wanting to die, too. What keeps you going?"
"You did, and still do." They reply with a smile.
I smile back. "I'm nothing special."
"To you, maybe. You mean quite a bit to me."
"Likewise," I reply. "I guess I can handle one more day."
"It would be unfair to ask for more." Fray stands and offer their hand to me. I take it without hesitation, embracing both the joy and agony of the sensation. "One day at a time, yes?"
I can't help but feel like the number of days I have left are dwindling, like sand in an hourglass. Still, I take a final look out the window before I reply. "I think that's more than fair."
A lifetime later
The blue sun casts its harsh light on a thriving city.
Fraeia stands before an erected stone. They read the words engraved on its face:
Amberlie "Pariah" Hurst
Beloved Daughter, Loving Mother, and dearest friend.
Her remains the savior and hero of Humanity.
For hours Fraeia stood alone, lost in their thoughts and planning what comes next. Before long came another, a Lebhan like themselves.
Fray greets them in their language, their voice shaking, "Ambassador Diavae."
Diavae nods, "I waited as long as I could, but we're running out of time."
Fraeia scoffs. "All we have is time."
"True. Whenever you're ready then."
Fray lets out a long full of air and drys the streaks of black tears on their face. "No point in waiting. My grieving has already been breached."
"Very well," Diavae began, "First is a meeting with my daughter. I understand you have a mission for her?"
"Yes, and then?"
"Argus will take you to Somnihein, the Rainbow Orchard. There you will ascend and take your new form, your new place in the pantheon."
Then the real work begins, Fray thinks. They try to remember every step along the way, the journey through time that happened a lifetime ago. "What if I make a mistake?"
"You can't. What happens will happen as it did before."
Fray takes a deep breath. "Let's get started then."
Before leaving, Fray lightly kisses their hand and places their hand on the stone. "Until we meet again."
A Long Time Ago, in The Distant Past
Invicta watches as something emerges from the ring, a writhing black mass of tendrils no bigger than her hand.
It beckons her closer, offers her a deal.
"What is this?" Invicta asks.
The reply hurts, the words scratching at her mind like nails on a chalkboard. "I can help you. I must help you."
"I don't understand, why did you call me here?"
In moments the temple, the black sky, everything fades to white. Invicta stands before a figure, an Eden with black hair and golden eyes.
"You look just like her," The Eden says.
"Amber. I forgot how much you look alike."
Invicta's eyes go wide. "Amber? How do you know about her? Is that why you called me here?"
The Eden nods. "Yes. You may call me Gibraltar. I am the goddess of love lost. I am here to help, should you accept it."
"Yes," Invicta shouts. "Please, I'll do anything."
"I know," the Eden replies. "You should know, however, that this will cost you much more than you think. It will cost years, your body, your mind. To accept you must die, but I assure you, you won't be dead for long."
"What?" Invicta asks.
The Eden ignores the question, and continues. "Your ship is earth tech, yes? I'll need its navigation systems to make this work. My people can't replicate the Safeharbor Protocols."
Invicta nods. "Done. What else."
"I'll need your loyalty, and your faith. Is there any faith left in you, I wonder?"
"If it means saving amber, I'm yours, body, mind, and soul."
"Very well," the Eden says.
"Why would you help me?" Invicta asks.
"Because she's worth it. Your daughter is everything, in more ways than one. You'll understand one day."
Invicta frowns. "I'm trusting you."
"As you should. Now hold still."
"Will it hurt?" Invicta asks.
The Eden's smile fades and they blink, as if pain hadn't even been considered. "Tremendously… for both of us."