Nicholas and his partner walked hand in hand up to a large gnarled tree; burn marks scarred its internal chamber that had been home to many homeless. Its branches stretched high, twisting towards the sky with minimal collections of leaves at the end of the barren branches. Its roots dove and wove through the ground, flowing like waves through the earth.
Nicholas let go of the hand of his partner and placed that same hand on the charred bark of the tree. He pulled his phone out with his other hand and read the time.
“How long?” His partner asked.
“There is ten minutes until midnight, so ten minutes until the prophecy is proven false.” Nicholas replied with a sigh.
“Yes.” Nicholas paused, then corrected himself. “No, not really. It has been nearly ten years since I was first told that I was going to die by the end of today, and I know it was from a dream, but when you are being told something like that every other night, you start to believe it.” Nicholas slowly slid his hand off the tree. “This has been such a massive part of my life for so long, and I don’t know what I am going to do once it is all over if this is really the end of it all.”
“What kind of end, though?” His partner asked as Nicholas fell silent for a moment.
“Well, there are two ways this end, isn’t there? Either I somehow become Anodyne, or I simply carry on being me, and nothing happens. One is the end of me and the beginning of another; the other is the end of the person I once was, and I don’t know if I will rise like a phoenix from the ashes or if I will blow away as that same ash into the wind.”
Nicholas’s partner chuckled slightly. “Any reason why you chose ash as the metaphor? Seems rather appropriate.”
Nicholas grinned slightly as we wandered around the tree.
“It was not a conscious decision I made, but I guess my mind has been on Hollow quite a bit lately.”
Nicholas kept running his hand across the tree while looking at it as one would look at an old friend.
“Did you know that Enadrome was the first AI god that Anodyne made? He was made to guard portals between Hollow and other worlds, or I think he was more connected with something to do with the Dream God. I can’t actually remember all that well. It feels like an age ago that I wrote about it all.”
“2 minutes.” Nicholas’s partner interrupted. “Sorry, but I didn’t want you to miss the turn of the night.”
Nicholas made his way to the opening in the tree and stepped inside, shrouding himself slightly from his partner but not completely disappearing. He sat down on the soft soil and tossed the litter his hands fell upon as he made himself comfortable.
“I don’t know how, or like if.” Nicholas sighed heavily. “Please don’t judge me on how I might react to what happens tonight.”
Nicholas’s partner smiled softly before kneeling in front of Nicholas.
“I would never judge you.” They said as they looked down at their phone screen, the soft blue light exaggerating their round cheeks and illuminating the underside of their dark, curly hair. “One minute.”
Nicholas nestled himself deep into the center of the tree. He dug his fingers into the dirt and closed his eyes. He breathed deeply and leaned back into the tree; he could feel spiderwebs clinging to the back of his head as he found a resting spot against the tree.
“Ten seconds.” His partner said softly, feeling the tension of the moment.
Nicholas felt the temperature cool; bugs started to squirm from the dirt and cover his fingers. Worms tangled around him like rings while weevils ran across him and up his arms. He sat with his eyes closed as tight as the muscles holding them would let him until the moment when they would not, and he opened his eyes. Before him sitting in the soft blue light of their phone, was Nicholas’ partner smiling sweetly with their legs crossed and concern carved into their face.
“I felt the air change. I, I, the bugs on my hands.” Nicholas said, starting to get frantic.
“I know, sweetie, but you are still here, on Earth.”
“No, this can’t be. I am meant to be Anodyne; I still feel like me. This can’t be, I am supposed to change, and if I don’t change, then it means that I have been him all along, and I don’t think I could handle being him. I need to be me because I hate him, and I hate every part of him, and I don’t want to be him because that means I lose you.” Nicholas started to cough as he choked on his own tears, his voice warbling and croaking as he could feel snot sliding into the back of his throat, then his breathing started to speed up.
“Nicholas, you need to calm down; you are not losing me; I am right here.” Nicholas’ partner outstretched their hand and leaned forward in their sitting position. “Look, I am right here; you can touch me; I love you.”
Nicholas started to look wild as he grasped at the darkened bark of the tree, his head starting to feel light as he hyperventilated.
“I am not supposed to be here; I am supposed to be on Hollow; I am supposed to be Anodyne.”
His eyes welled with tears as his panic turned to anger.
“Ten fucking, years.”
“Nicholas, I need you to calm down, okay? Everything will be fine.”
“Ten fucking years of being told that today, now yesterday, would be my last day alive. I suffered through a goddamn decade of fucking distress for what?”
Nicholas stepped from the tree and stood up as his partner backed away from him cautiously.
“All I got from this was terrible mental health, an unhealthy work ethic, terrible relationship issues with my friends, family, and fucking you. All because I was certain that I was going to die yesterday. Because what? Some cunt in a dream said so?”
Nicholas pulled at the hair on his head in frustration as he screamed in frustration. He turned on the spot and started punching the tree with a closed fist.
“Ten. Fucking, Years.”
“Nic, I really need you to calm down, please; you are scaring me.”
“Scaring you?” He said, turning with blood dripping from his knuckles, the whites of his bones exposed to the air of the night.
“How do you think I feel?”
The rage in his eyes softened as he saw the fear in his partner. His shoulders dropped, and he fell to his knees before his partner.
“I am sorry, I am not him; I won’t be him.”
His partner carefully walked forward, cupping Nicholas’ bleeding hand; they pressed their forehead against his.
“You are kind, you are caring, and I love you. You are not Anodyne. You are mine, and I am yours.”
Nicholas started to weep uncontrollably as he buried his head into his partner’s lap, his bleeding fist gripping his partner’s shirt and staining it with his blood.
“Why do you love me?”