The day had seemed lovely from the very moment she had opened her eyes. Waking for once without an ache in her back, curled up in a comfortable position against a log. Gentle sunshine caressing her skin, the murmuring of the creek refreshing against her ears. Ritmo’s smile the first thing she saw as she sat up and stretched, energised and ready for another fruitful day by the side of her best friend.
The colours vibrant as they trekked towards the next Notalium deposit, the trees, the cliffs, the skies, devoid of the usual coat of grey paint that would drip and drip and drip onto everything beside it until all became monotone. A reminder of the world as it used to be before Al Niente - beautiful and striking. A world that the two of them must restore to its former glory, and were determined to do so.
Stepping foot into the awe-inspiring city, mysterious with its utter lack of occupants, dull in its ever-familiar greyness. Filled with buildings and streets constructed entirely out of stone, the heels of her shoes making funny clicking sounds that echoed in the silent air as she walked, so unlike the squeaky wood and hard dirt of home. Soon enough, Ritmo was devising the funniest ways to hop across the ground, endeavouring to create the most rhythmic sounds he could. A musician through and through, determined to weave music out of anything. His energy so infectious that she couldn’t help but join in, a smile gracing her lips as her foot caught in the cracks and Ritmo had to rush to steady her, his fingertips warm against the skin of her arm.
Spirits soaring high, she believed this day couldn’t get any better.
They arrived in the city centre, where the jagged, sharp edges of Notalium pulsed blue, the only spot of colour in the drab grey.
It was routine by now, as Ritmo performed the very same set of actions she’d witnessed every day for the past two weeks. As she stepped away to give him some space, he set down his bag and pulled out the Tuner, the tiny inlaid crystal of Notalium glinting under the sunlight.
And his hands began to move, the sight just as captivating now as it had been when she’d first seen him use the Tuner, when they were years younger. Nothing had changed. The way his hands flew across its surface was just as magical, eluding any words that she tried to describe it with, still enough to make her breath catch as a haunting melody filled the air. Her focus split between the dance of energy above the Notalium and Ritmo’s expression - eyes closed, a small smile on his face, any hint of worry or fear washed away - like he’d fallen into a trance.
The first hitch in the melody didn’t scare her. It happened, sometimes, for everyone made mistakes.
The second hitch made her pause, frowning. Ritmo never messed up twice, for the first time was enough to make him pay even greater attention to his task. They didn’t know the precise consequences of failing to Tune, for it was too dangerous to test it. Who knew what effects it could have on the two of them? That’s why Ritmo had staunchly promised with boyish bravado, once, that he would never fail, that he would never let anything happen to her.
The third hitch filled her with an emotion she hadn’t felt in a long time - the rapid tendrils of panic, ensnaring her heart. The memory of Ritmo’s uncharacteristic uncertainty at the beginning of their journey surfaced, his downcast gaze and mumbled words stark in her mind as she took a step towards him, the boy who held music in his heart and always seemed to shine as bright as the sun, yet whose light seemed to be dimming.
The pointed hands on the Tuner began to spiral wildly out of control, cracks showing on the glass surface and spreading rapidly, fissures opening up everywhere. The once strong, beautiful melody turning awry, morphing into the angry screech of a force more powerful than either of them, somehow echoing and growing ever louder in the open space of the town square. Snaking into her ears and forcing its way into her mind, unable to be stopped by the feeble barrier of her hands.
Eyes screwing shut, her knees buckled and she sank to the floor, the weight of the awful, awful sound too heavy for her. Despair and grief and pain all mingled into one, clamouring to be heard in her heart as the sound washed over her, pressing down with intent.
Over the cacophony, she felt something else brush against her ear. A sound far more easy on the ears, far more familiar, dragging her out of the void and back into the present, gasping as air flooded her lungs again. Forcing her eyes open, her gaze fell upon Ritmo.
Ritmo, who had somehow remained standing. Ritmo, whose eyes were wide with worry and the glint of very real pain, sweat dripping down his brow. Ritmo, whose hands were tightly gripping onto the tuner even as it seemed to come alive and jolt erratically, struggling like a caged bird trying to escape.
It was as if Ritmo believed he could somehow control the volatile beast they had unleashed in their foolish carelessness and hubris, force it into submission through pure force of will alone.
Or perhaps he was simply holding it back, away from her.
She found she couldn’t get to her feet, the world shaky and unsteady around her as the very air itself seemed to shimmer and warp with ancient power. She could only crawl, her heart racing as she reached a hand out towards Ritmo, begging someone, anyone, that she would be able to reach him.
Ignoring Ritmo shaking his head, his lips shaping her name. She wouldn’t stop and run away, no matter how much primal fear screamed at her to heed his words, to save herself. She couldn’t abandon Ritmo. She didn’t know what she’d do when she reached him, but there had to be something. She was an engineer, she was the one who had completed the Tuner, she’d think up some solution -
The sound disappeared in but an instant, leaving behind a silence that was just as deafening. Her shaking hands touched flesh that had once been alive, once been her best friend, the boy for whom her true feelings were kept under lock and key, too large and terrifying to understand.
Flesh that was shaped like Ritmo, but which was utterly still and cold, all the colour sucked out of it and leaving only a grey doll. A mocking facade of her friend, for Ritmo was…
She wiped away the tears still staining his cheeks, the liquid the only warm thing in this cold, cold space. The grey seemed to spread, from the lifeless boy to her, as she dragged his head onto her lap. Her fingers trailed the shape of his face, which she had once yearned to touch, but never like this. As if praying that she could somehow wield that same magic that seemed to run in Ritmo’s veins, to bring him back to life with her touch alone.
But she was nothing more than an engineer. And science had never succeeded in finding out what lay beyond death, let alone bringing departed souls back into the world of the living. There was no hope here.
She could only hug him, her head bowing as her tears fell, eliciting no reaction as they both sank into the grey that hungrily ate them up with glee.
Until there was no trace of the girl and boy that had, just minutes ago, run through the streets with childlike abandonment, eager to save the world.
Overhead, birds soared through the sky, enjoying the sunlight on their wings, proclaiming this day a wonderful day unlike any other.