They demanded fear. Hissed it into the air, until every swaying was a tremor, every falter was a shiver. They dropped the bombs, burned out the buildings, hollowed the ground, emptied lungs, emptied chests. They were the jagged crush behind gravity, the reflection in the dark that shouldn’t be, the weight that tore the air out of the bottom of his lungs. The fingers against his chest, too slow, too deep, that should have bruised skin, and instead tore through bone.
They demanded fear, and some hearts, fragile and no less breakable than any other, just aren’t built to bend under. So, he gave them the only other thing they deserved, and he hated them with everything he had.
It should have been hard, maybe, for him to hate so well. Or it should have tasted too sour to swallow fully. Or it should have stuck in his chest, like sick that he just hadn’t retched back up yet. But it was easy.
Easy as watching loved ones burn in fires that grabbed for them like tidal waves. Easy as smelling smoke kindled on bones and fueled by flesh. Easy as breathing ash. Easy as bleeding. Never difficult to do. Only difficult to bear.
So, on every breath, every beat, every step, he loathed, he cursed, he condemned, he detested, he hated, until it hollowed him out. Until there was nothing left but bare bone, scarred skin, callused muscle, worn too far. Until he was only the acrid coal in his stomach, and the hardened ice in his chest. Until there was nothing left. But what they demanded, and what he gave.
And even emptied out, reduced to a falling hammer bent on breaking, he never hit blindly. Never without the precious and irreplaceable, things deserving his defense, at the edge of his sight, cradled at his back.