Ash grits her teeth as the rock bites into her fingers, teasing out blood that wriggles down the cliff face in ribbons of shimmering crimson. Flecks of snow spin and dance around her on their merry way down, and she thought the cold would numb her flesh, would make the climb bearable.
Idiot, she chides herself as she hauls herself up another painful inch. This was never supposed to be easy.
And yet here she is anyway, bleeding herself dry in the choking darkness of the night, riding the hazy promise that at the summit, past clouds that blind her, is something better than this.
A chill runs down Ash’s spine, and not because it’s cold. She hesitates, one palm hovering over the next handhold.
“Still at it, I see,” drawls a smug voice. “Oh, my sweet, stupid Ash. When will you realize this is pointless?”
Ash keeps her eyes on the cliff face. It’s not like she has to look, anyway. She can feel her presence hovering a few feet behind her, like static crackling through the crisp air.
“Go ahead. Climb. Reach for the stars that you want oh so badly to be there. You know as well as I do that it’s only a matter of time before you give in to the pain. Before you realize it’s better to let go and fall instead of hurting for no reason.”
Shut up. Shut up shut up shut up.
Ash grabs for another handhold, but her fingers slip off. She pants as she tries again, her breath misting into tendrils of ice, but it’s too late. The words cut deep. The way they always do.
The static intensifies. Ash hazards a peek to her left, and finds her staring back. A ghost, or perhaps some sort of demonic entity. At least, that’s what she’d have assumed if the figure didn’t look so much like herself. A round face, dark hair billowing in the wind, limbs too skinny to be scaling a mountain. The resemblance ends there, because her entire being fuzzes into static whenever a snowflake passes through her, like a radio crackling from interference. As if she has substance, but at the same time, not really.
“Leave me alone,” snaps Ash.
“Leave me alone,” mocks Other Ash. “You want me to go? To quit being a massive thorn in your side? Well, you know what to do.”
Ash ignores her. She takes all her anger and redirects it towards the mountainside, willing herself to make the goddamn climb. But she can’t. Not when the fatigue has caught up to her. Not when she can’t see the summit.
“But you know what you can see?” says Other Ash, as if she can read her mind. “The bottom. All you have to do is look down.”
“I’m not going to do that.”
“Oh, I think you are.”
“Have it your way. I’m just trying to protect you.”
Liar, thinks Ash. And yet she can’t help but sneak a peek. Leagues below, at the foot of the mountain, is a star-speckled blackness, scenic if it weren’t for the fact that Ash knows those stars for what they really are.
Other Ash flits over to Ash’s right side. “Let go. Wouldn't that be so much easier than… this?”
“This isn’t meant to be easy,” seethes Ash. Her foot starts to slip.
“Easy, not easy, it doesn’t matter,” says Other Ash, “because what you’re trying to do is impossible. Hurt yourself as much as you like, but you’ll never reach the summit.”
“I will. I’ll get there whether you like it or—”
Ash loses her grip. She tumbles through thin air, past swirling snowflakes, down into the blackness below, and the shock of it all steals the scream from her lungs.
Not again, are the words that flit through her skull in the moments before the impact.
Not again, are the words that form lumps in her throat as she trails tears on her way down.
Not again, is all she can think, because it’s all she’s ever known.
It takes a mountainous effort to lift an eyelid. When she does, she lies there, one cheek hugging the cold, grey earth. She’d be dead if the world was kind. Or if she was.
No, she reminds herself. We’re not going there.
For the millionth time, Ash hauls herself to her feet, and for the millionth time, she wonders why she does it.
Her hair is a mess, her clothes in tatters, her limbs swarming with cuts and bruises. When did these things stop mattering? Probably around the time she forgot what the sun looked like, and the world shrank to nothing but a mountain and the sullen, desolate earth around it.
Broken bottles litter the ground around her, and it frustrates her to no end that the individual shards look like stars when seen from a distance. Beautiful.
Ash wades through the glass, up an increasingly steep incline, until she reaches the cliff face where it always begins. The rock is gnarled and evil, serrated like animal teeth, but she has to start climbing before—
“Before what?” wonders Other Ash as she materializes beside her. “Before I get here? Oh, Ash, don’t you know I’m always here?”
Ash glares daggers at her. She’s this close to punching her teeth in and wiping that shit-eating grin off her face. “If you’re not going to help me, you can piss off.”
Other Ash’s smile inflates. “But I am helping you. Helping you see the bitter truth. Helping you put away that pride before you fall all over again. I’m the only one around here who’s ever going to help.”
“Well, I don’t need anyone’s help. Especially not yours.” Ash punctuates the last word with a haymaker, but her fist passes through Other Ash like she’s nothing but a gust of wind.
“Tut-tut,” chides Other Ash as Ash curses herself for scraping her knuckle against the cliff face. “You’ve gone and hurt yourself again. And for what? Nothing, same as always. Here, why don’t we take a breather, have some fun for a change?”
Ash’s eyes widen as Other Ash pulls out a bottle from god-knows-where. Ash knows that label. It’s her favorite. It’s her go-to when… when…
“No,” she yells, half in defiance, half out of fear of what she’ll become if she accepts the offer. She climbs and doesn’t look back.
“Fine, then,” calls Other Ash. “I’ll finish it by myself. See you in a bit!”
She climbs. Bleeds. Hurts.
And she falls every. Single. Time.
It doesn’t matter how many of Other Ash’s words she deflects. Or how often she resists the urge to look down into the comforting darkness below. Or how close to her heart she holds the hope that the world is bigger than this.
She learns to close her eyes during the plummet. It hurts like nothing else to watch Other Ash’s face light up when she slips. To consider that, perhaps, Other Ash has a point.
No, Ash tells herself as she stares up at an invisible summit after having landed in a hill of broken glass. It hurts to move. Other Ash doesn’t know what she’s talking about.
“Keep telling yourself that, sweetheart,” drawls Other Ash as she hovers a few feet above. “You’ll come over to my side soon enough. Just a few more climbing accidents should do the trick.”
Ash gets to her feet, and prepares to fall.
She’s been climbing for god-knows-how-long and Other Ash hasn’t shown up. It perplexes her so much that she calls out to her, only for the echo to answer.
Not that she’s complaining. She’s never climbed this far before. She can feel it in her bones, a newfound vigor, the last morsel of strength she needs to haul herself out of the pit. She’s so close that she can graze the clouds above with her fingertips, and she swears she catches a glimpse of the sun, ready to welcome her with its sweet, golden warmth…
“Fancy that,” says Other Ash, materializing a few feet above her. “Ignore her for a bit, and she sets a new record. Is that how pathetic you are? Can’t even climb a bloody mountain when I’m around?”
“Please,” whimpers Ash, and she hates that she has to beg. “Don’t do this.”
“Do what? Help you? But help is all I’m good for!”
Ash chokes back tears.
Other Ash’s face softens in mock sympathy. “Aww, don’t take this the wrong way, sweetheart. I just want to remind you that you’re a worthless piece of human garbage. You’re nothing of value, Ash. Need me to say it again? Nothing. See how easy it is to let go when there was never anything to hold on to from the start?”
Ash barely hears her. She’s already halfway to the ground. Falling. Weeping.
It’s cold down here. Not so bad, really, once you get used to it.
As she lies somewhere at the base of the mountain, her eyelids too heavy to lift and her spirit broken beyond repair, she thinks to herself, not for the first time:
Because Other Ash had been right all along, hadn’t she? Nothing has changed, and nothing will, as long as either of them exist at the same time.
Ash lets herself unravel, and for the next eternity the world shrinks even further into nothing but the dull echoes of her sobs and the tear-filled valleys gouged into her cheeks.
“Isn’t this so much more peaceful?” asks Other Ash.
Ash doesn’t bother opening her eyes. Not when she’s seen that smug smile too many times to count.
“You’re not like me,” murmurs Ash. “You don’t have to climb. If you’ve got nothing better to do, why don’t you fly on up there and tell me what it’s like? It’s not like I can find that out for myself, anyway.”
The silence stretches on for so long that she can’t help opening her eyes. And cocking her head in confusion. Because that smug grin is gone.
“Did you hear what I said?” Ash tries again. “Why don’t you—”
Other Ash zips away, so quickly that she leaves several glowing afterimages, and disappears around the side of the mountain.
Ash closes her eyes again, deciding that she’ll have enough time as she’s resting her weary soul to wonder what the heck just happened.
The silence grows and gnaws at the edge of her skull until she has to sit up and look around. Where did she go? Despite herself, Ash gets up and makes the trudge back to the cliff face.
Still no Other Ash.
She grabs onto the rock. It’s only routine at this point. No drive, no objective, no pain. Hoping to coax Other Ash out of the silence, partly out of curiosity and partly to give her something to do, she starts climbing.
Until she’s sure she reaches her record altitude. Other Ash is bound to pop up any second now, and push her back down.
Except she doesn’t.
A tiny spark of hope flickers into existence inside her. Is this it? Is this the climb where she finally—
Her foot misses the ledge. She gasps and plummets, but none of that’s new. What is new is that Other Ash never showed up.
And still. She. Fell.
When Ash next picks herself up, she’s more confused than ever. It was never Other Ash’s fault, she realizes. It’s all… me?
Something’s missing. Something that’s stopping her from reaching the summit.
Something? Or someone?
Ash skirts the base of the mountain, shoving through mounds of glass, until she finds a cave nestled into the rock. She takes a deep breath and enters.
I have to know, she decides as the darkness presses in from all directions like a damp piece of cloth. I have to know what makes her tick.
A dull violet light, equal parts ethereal and nightmarish, beckons to her from the far end of the cave. It's Other Ash, back against the wall, knees pulled up to her tiny chin.
She hisses when Ash approaches.
“Why don’t you want to see the summit?” asks Ash.
Ash sinks to her knees. Seeing Other Ash like this, huddled into herself, face streaked with tears, surrounded by broken bottles that she’s sure didn’t come from outside, Ash finally realizes:
“You’re scared, aren’t you?”
“Scared of what?”
“Of falling. Failing. Hurting.”
Ash cocks her head. “Why would you be scared of those things? You’re not…”
Ash knows what to do next, and it’s a beautiful feeling. She has to stop thinking of this scared, broken girl as an “Other.”
Because she’s really just… Ash.
“I hate this place as much as you do,” says Other Ash. “But I hate falling even more. I hate feeling like things might get better, only to find out they don’t. And they never, ever do. So why… why bother?”
Ash hesitates, then takes Other Ash by the hands. They’re cold. She’s glad to find that she can touch her, at least. “Because I have you, silly, and you have me. Don’t you see? It’s not about whether or not we get there. It’s about trying to.”
“Even if we fail a million times over?”
“Especially if we fail a million times over.”
Other Ash frowns. “Sounds stupid.”
Ash gets to her feet and begins walking back to the entrance. “It’s up to you,” she calls over her shoulder. “You know where to find me.”
Her breath mists in the air as she dangles from an overhang. Other Ash appears soon enough, but her presence seems smaller, more muted.
“I could use some help here,” calls Ash.
Other Ash hovers uncertainly around her. “What do you want me to do? Catch you?”
Ash would shrug if she could.
“This is a waste of time,” mutters Other Ash. But the conviction in her tone has melted like ice.
“It doesn’t have to be,” gasps Ash. “It can be something beautiful. We can be something beautiful. We can—”
She loses her grip.
But she doesn’t give in to fear as the wind screams past her. She smiles, and closes her eyes, and hopes.
A few heartbeats away from kissing the ground, she sneaks a peak to find a figure streaking towards her like an angel descending from the heavens.
“Idiot!” yells Other Ash as they collide.
And become one.
Ash hovers in place, suspended an inch above the ground like a puppet on a string, her limp hair caressing the earth below.
Before bursting with light.
She flips upright and lets the wings unfurl: huge, golden, diaphanous things tearing through the back of her clothes and radiating outwards like a star. It shocks her to be able to flap them and maintain her position in the air, but at the same time it feels… right. The thing she was missing.
There’s only so much left to do. She bids farewell to the broken bottles, fills her lungs with air, and, riding a wave of triumph, launches herself skywards. As the cliffside rushes past in a blur, she wonders how she ever thought she’d manage the climb without her wings.
Just before she reaches the clouds, the wings fade. Other Ash phases out of her and they both hover in place, neither rising nor falling.
“What if things don’t work out at the summit?” asks Other Ash. “What if we reach the top, only to be sent back here?”
Ash shrugs. “That’s the way life goes, I guess. But it doesn’t matter. What matters is we’re always heading in the only direction that matters: up. Even if there’s a bloody mountain in the way.”
“I don’t want to go back here.”
“Me neither. That’s why we ought to make our time at the summit count, right?”
Other Ash nods.
Ash takes her hands. “Besides, if we end up back here, we know how to get out.”
They become one again, and the wings return. Ash takes one last glance at the stars below before bursting through the clouds.
Into beautiful, blinding light. She drinks in the golden warmth of sunbeams washing over her, marvels at a fuchsia-tinged sky, goes breathless at the sight of actual stars winking at her from the cosmic beyond.
But she doesn’t stop flying. The mountain shrinks, tapers away into nothing, as if finally admitting defeat. Ash tumbles into a bed of snow on a ledge, and lies there as she lets her giddy breaths die down.
She sits up and, legs dangling over the edge, drinks in the view as the clouds part for her. Lush emerald forests. Streams so crystalline you could cut facets into them. And the sun, oh, the sun bathing everything…
“I almost forgot what the world looked like from up here,” says Other Ash as she phases back out and plops down on the edge.
“Enjoy it while it lasts,” says Ash.
They sit in silence for a few heartbeats, until Other Ash breaks it. “I… uh… just wanted to say… thank you. For not giving up on me.”
Ash’s only response is a hug, which Other Ash accepts with a sigh of annoyance. One of them phases out of existence in the other’s arms, until all that’s left is a girl sitting on a ledge at the top of a mountain, content to lie back down in the snow and close her eyes, and smile while doing it.
She’s in no hurry, after all.