He’s standing barefoot on rocky ground. He can hear the ocean waves crashing against his ears, and stinging salt burns the back of his throat. Fog shrouds him, as thick and opaque as smoke, and though the stench of brine assures him that there is no fire he feels an overwhelming sense of foreboding all the same.
A shiver runs down his spine and he tenses, forewarned. The wind picks up, and he staggers as one furious gust clears the path before him and suddenly he can see.
Anjali stands there, ten paces from him on the crumbling clifftop. Knotted bracelets adorn her forearms and wrists, coloured twine bright against her skin. Her eyes gleam in sudden sunlight. Her face is blank.
She turns to face him, back to the abyss, and smiles, soft and idle. He doubts it’s an expression he’s ever seen her wear before, but it’s hard to be sure when his vision has at once turned blurry, eyes welled up with tears.
He tries to go to her, but his feet feel rooted to the ground, his arms heavy as lead. He can only watch, as she walks towards him, strides long and assured, and he can feel himself turn to ice. He knows how this ends.
She is two metres away, almost within reach, and despite himself he starts to hope. Anjali opens her mouth, half raises a hand in greeting, and closes the distance. One step, two steps.
She takes the final step towards him and vanishes before his eyes, disappearing into the salty air. He feels the ghost of her hand brush his shoulder, and he stumbles forward, finally able to move, but there’s nothing and no one there, and he falls to the ground, scraping open his palms. He turns, pushing himself half upright, and watches in horror as the cliffside crumbles around him. Rock crashes into sea, until his stone pillar is all that remains, and slowly that too shrinks, the platform receding, but it does not fall.
No man is an island, and yet here he is.
He is alone.
And Red wakes up.
He wakes up gasping for breath, smothering the sound in his tear-soaked pillow. He’s taken to sleeping on his front lately, despite the discomfort. The nightmares are back with a vengeance, and it helps him keep himself quiet. He’d managed to put his mornings of waking with screams lodged in his throat behind him - the aches and pains are a worthy trade off to not feel like he’s regressing.
He turns his head to look across the room at the other reason he suffers sleeping on his stomach every night.
Aditya sits in the middle of Red’s single room, legs akimbo, surrounded by his notes. He’s clearly been at work for a few hours already, and Red surveys him as he pushes himself upright. Green is curled around his ankle, dozing, and every once in a while Adi runs the back of a finger lightly, absently over her scales, but for the most part he ignores her. The bags beneath his eyes are deep and darkly defined, a stark, gut-wrenching contrast to the bubbly kid he used to know, and, not for the first time - and he imagines not for the last - he feels his heart break all over again. He wonders if one day it will shatter beyond repair.
Sometimes he worries that Adi has shattered beyond repair. His tendency to be hyper focused is nothing new, but these days there is a brittle intensity about him, and he worries about what will happen when that breaks, and he worries about what will happen if it doesn’t.
The kid has been staying over almost every night, but Red doubts he’s been sleeping much. He’ll gladly endure the mild discomfort and worse, to avoid adding to his hurt.
It’s been three weeks since Anjali disappeared.
“Twenty-two days,” Adi says, as Red makes his way over and drops to the floor beside him. He taps at a far away piece of paper as she speaks, folding himself in half to reach.
“Twenty-two days,” Red repeats, for lack of something else to say. It hardly matters - despite their state of seeming disarray, Adi’s notes are meticulous, with comprehensive timelines and lists the length of his arm indexing various items of evidence, however insignificant. He talks through his thoughts and theories and all Red needs do is sit and listen, and provide a sounding board if needed.
There is little to be said that they have not already discussed. Anjali disappeared in the middle of the night, leaving home without alerting anyone that she was doing so. If nothing useful has turned up in the last twenty-one days, it’s unlikely to do so now.
She’s left before, sneaking out for secret meetings and jobs that she cannot tell her elder sisters about, because they’ll worry, and does not recount to Adi, because then she will. Even Red has only the faintest idea about what webs she was entangling herself in, and why.
She’s left, but she’s never stayed gone. The longest job she’d taken before had lasted just under three days, and she’d told Red beforehand, to ask him to cover for her. As they slowly draw close to a month now, it’s becoming more and more apparent that this, whatever it is, is something else, and that leaves them, Adi and Red, the people left behind, here where they are: on the floor of Red’s one room cabin, surrounded by papers and knowing nothing.
They don’t have a body. In his worst moments, Red almost wishes that they would, and he hates himself for it.
He doesn’t want his best friend to be dead. He doesn’t want her gone - he wants her here, sprawled out on the floor with them, challenging Green to a staring contest, needling Adi and badgering Red into going swimming with her, in the hidden cove four miles along the coast.
But he is not naive. And though he bites his tongue around Adi, chokes himself on the words and unshed tears clogging his throat, he knows that the more time that passes, the more likely it is that Anjali won’t come back. He knows it deep in his mind. There’s a reason his dream self keeps finding her at the edge of cliffs.
There’s a single sheet of paper, less cared for than the rest, crumpled and smoothed out and crumpled once more. The ink runs in multiple places - Red finds new damp spots every few days he looks at it. Adi had written it that third day, after they had all spent a sleepless night waiting for a return that never came. He’d tried to list reasons for why Anjali might up and leave, in an effort to allay his worries. His handful of hard-thought suggestions had been immediately countered by the scrawled words that took up most of the page: “she wouldn't leave me.”
It’s a compelling point. And Red, once bitten and twice shy, might have been able to convince himself that Anjali hadn’t cared enough about him or his friendship to stay, but it’s harder to believe that she would leave her brother. Adi had been the most important person in Anjali’s life.
Has been - is. Is the most important.
Adi had sobbed the words into his shirt that night - Red can feel them burnt into his soul. He hasn’t seen him cry since, but he’s sure he has been.
A compelling point. And so, here they are, still looking, still waiting, still trying, even though Red has all but given up hope.
Adi yawns, and Red takes his cue and slowly shifts closer, dislodging Green as he does - she starts, affronted, and slithers away to hide beneath his bed.
He wraps an arm around Adi as he starts to list - he’s now certain that Adi did not sleep last night - and guides him, gently. Hopefully exhaustion will grant him more than a couple hours sleep this time.
He thinks, that maybe Anjali has gone somewhere beyond them no matter their efforts. And he thinks, maybe, if that is the case, that if this - taking care of the people left behind - is the only thing he can do for her, then maybe this is enough.
Not ok, never ok. But enough.