Catia liked breathing. There was something pleasant about the liquid feeling of a breath, pulled gently over her tongue, warmed in her chest, pressed back out. It was soothing, the gentle tug on muscle. It rooted her into the world, with the sweetness, sharpness, spice, sourness hanging in the air.
But she didn’t need to breathe, and just now, it seemed selfish.
The crash and roar of the rockslide had shocked her out of two or three breaths. The sudden darkness and the ringing in her ears made her forget for another long moment. She blinked, and waited, perfectly still. The ringing died down. Her eyes slowly turned the darkness into gray, shifting shadows. Fynn’s breaths began to echo in the newly shortened space.
“Catia?” Fynn called.
She took in air, just to respond. “I’m here.”
“Are you all right?”
“I’m fine,” she murmured. “Are you?”
He didn’t answer at first. On her left, she heard his heels grind against the rough floor of the cave, saw him shift, touch his chest, his shoulders, as if he had not yet thought to check. “Yeah,” he said.
Satisfied, Catia listened for the hum of the breeze that had been there a few minutes before, a constant companion while they walked, wandered, discovered. A long count of five and she paused. It wasn’t there. She stopped breathing on purpose, and hoped he didn’t notice.
Blinking a few more times, and the darkness cleared a little more for her.
Fynn stumbled forward, found the wall. He traced it around to the tangle of stone and dross. He slid his fingers gingerly into the cracks, as if he weren’t quite sure what they were, and then he hesitated. His shoulders tensed. She snapped to his side, hand on his elbow, just in time to keep him from yanking on the stones. Something shifted above them, something hissed and slid and threatened.
Fynn held his breath too, then slowly let it out.
“I really wouldn’t do that,” Catia whispered.
“There’s no other way out,” he said.
Catia glanced over her shoulder at the short spur of cave they had been left with, and wondered how much more debris there was, waiting to fall if this bit came loose, how much more space it could take from them. There may not have been any way out at all.
“At least, let me,” Catia said. He didn’t need to waste his air, pulling at the immovable.
Gingerly, blindly, Fynn stepped back.
One stone at a time, Catia prodded at the rubble. What seemed firmest, she left alone, let them hold steady. She looked for stones that shifted under her touch, rocked against each other with nothing more than a soft clack. When she found one, she lifted it delicately away, then looked for another behind it that was loose, unnecessary, waiting to be pried away. Heavy pieces rolled away behind her, and she moved quickly to escape sudden slides, and held her breath, held her breath, waiting to hear the breeze gush in.
“Sometimes, I forget you can’t die,” Fynn said behind her, after what must have been hours.
Throwing one more stone to the back of the cave, Catia looked at him. She knew full well that he couldn’t see her attentions.
“It’s actually comforting to see you so calm, if I don’t remember you can’t die,” he said. There was a narrow break in his voice, a crack without any real threat.
Catia didn’t have an answer. She hadn’t taken a breath in a long time, and her own voice would creak on the first word. Of course, he hadn’t really asked a question.
“Do you outgrow panic?” Fynn asked. “Or do you just not feel it anymore?”
Catia considered it. Considered him. His shoulders were rounded without being hunched, arms draped over his knees. Head up, his mouth a carefully optimistic upward curve, and he breathed easy. In, out. In, out. In, and out. She resisted the shallow urge to count them, to painstakingly count down. “I can still panic,” she whispered.
There was a short, punctuated silence. He had heard it. “Why?” he asked. And the crack had widened.
Catia touched the next rock, slid her fingers across the sharp edges, cool skin to cold stone. “This is a miserable waste of time,” she said. It was, perhaps, more honest than she had intended, but it she heard the gall in her tone. The hard line of it felt good, sliding along her spine. Better than other things. “Time is the only thing that can be wasted.”
Fynn didn’t say anything. Catia could hear him tense behind her, breaths a little shorter, movements a little more contained so that his clothes didn’t rustle, and the gravel didn’t crunch beneath him.
“Your kind always talks about your cyclical eons,” Catia murmured, letting the edge stay in her voice. “You see your patterns, events recreated, monuments destroyed and rebuilt. I promise you, it’s all still linear. The present is a strange alchemical machine, turning the future into the past, and never the other way around. You lose moments. They never return to you. You lose things.”
She glanced at him again. He was looking at the rubble beneath his toes, or at something that wasn’t there at all. His eyes had dulled, his jaw had tightened, angry and awed.
She’d never seen that expression on a human face before.
It was all too aware. The hours might have been tangible to him, their threads spinning past quickly enough to cut tender skin, but he didn’t flinch. He seemed too shocked. If he touched his fingers, she believed he would feel the blood between his fingers, but not the wound. Not yet.
Each moment was a flicker in the massive span, a blink, a gasp, a mote that flashed and burned when it drifted into the fire. Gone, and far too precious to go unmourned.
And then, Fynn turned. The lines of his face changed in the dimness, less exact, and exactly something else.
Blinking, she tried not to feel a sudden ache as she realized she had only seen a shadow’s trick and he was, simply, afraid.
She slipped up beside him, quiet, and slow enough for him to feel her move in the dark. She pressed her hand against his shoulder.
“Relax,” she said. “I’ll get over it.”
And he laughed in the dark. It was too quick, too loud, but it softened the lines of him under her hand, and let him hang his head a little, breathe in and out again. She squeezed his shoulder, carefully smiled, and ran back to the wall of rubble.