As you feel yourself materialize into the space, the instructions run through your brain on loop, a mantra. Get in. Get him. Get out. It thrums beneath your skin, falling into sync with your heartbeat. Get in. Get him. Get out. And then your eyes open, and it abruptly stops, drowned out by overwhelming silence, and you find yourself drawing in a sharp breath. The clearing is painfully familiar, and that alone makes your heart clench, but it is also beautiful in a way that you’ve never seen it before. He always understood it better than you did, the singular charm of this little space in the woods secreted between the tall trees.
You knew it would be different here, but you never pictured it as quite so fragile. This world has an iridescent sheen, gleaming like the silvery, undulating waves of color on the surface of a soap bubble. Sunlight streams in generously, washing the space in a white glow that seems to shine right through the trees as light through the thin crystal of dragonfly wings. The ground is dotted with pearlescent blossoms, and, forgetting yourself, you bend to pluck one, bringing the folds of pale petals toward your nose as vague images of clumsy bouquets fisted in plump fingers prod at your memory.
By your hip, a sharp heat burns a warning through the pocket of your jacket and onto your skin. Four. Your left hand instinctively clutches the marble of glass tucked into your clothing, as though soothing its ire.
You glance back at your other hand and immediately, the flower falls through your fingers—not slipping, but phasing straight through the flesh, no more solid than mist. You follow it with your eyes as it floats to the ground, and when you stretch a tentative arm downward, you find nothing but a tingle of cool air as your fingers pass through the translucent petals. Just as you rise and begin to drink in the rest of the scene, a figure emerges from the woods with a name on their lips.
It’s him, and it isn’t. It’s his wiry body and untamed hair, his jaw and his slightly lopsided smile. And yet, the creases and dents you know his face to have accumulated are smoothened out, his features fuller without the shadows under his eyes. As you let this register, all you can do is clutch him in a frantic hug and feel relief crash into you at how his shoulders and torso are firm, solid under your hands. He disentangles himself, turning to you with a quirked brow, amused.
“You good, ‘Lex?”
As if on cue, heat explodes from your side, and you feel yourself flinch. Three.
“Yes. Look, we need-” You trail off as a mass of rusty fur emerges from behind him, and two guileless brown eyes and a round snout are pointed up at you. “Ruby?” you gasp. The canine bounds around your legs, and you’re about to bend and catch her in your arms when you feel her tail graze—no, pass through—your shin. A flash of cold shoots up from your leg and settles uncomfortably at the base of your skull. Still a ghost, then, you can’t help but think. He doesn’t notice, chuckling as he pulls the both of you down onto a pair of stumps.
“Yes, of course. Since when is she not with us?” he smiles broadly, and you find that your own words are lost as you take in how open the expression is on him, how he seems loose in a way you haven’t seen him in ages. At your silence, a small crease appears between his eyebrows. “...Alex?”
A few odd seconds tick by as you can’t bring yourself to move. Even as the next shock of heat insists (Two), you pause, because you don't want to see his face shatter in the way the rest of this world, this crystalline mirage, seems like it might with just the wrong touch. A sharp inhale, and then:
"Miles, it's not real. It's fake, all of it's fake—it's not the real world. This isn’t home, this isn’t the woods, and that’s not-,” your eyes flick over to the red mass of fur buried in his arms, “that’s not Ruby.”
You meet his eyes, ready to see breaking, and are instead met with a bemused expression.
"I... I know, ‘Lex."
With a calmness that is still at odds with the trembling fingers you know, he brushes his hand over and through soft fur, wincing slightly as you both watch the digits phase straight through the dog’s form. He withdraws the hand and meets your eyes before extending it towards you, reaching for your palm. When skin meets skin rather than slipping through a translucent mist, his eyes widen.
“It’s… really you.” His tone goes steely. “What are you doing here?”
“What are you doing here?” You round on him, furious. He knew. He knew, and he stayed.
You can see the tension fill back into his spine, rigid as his body pulls taut and away from the contact. “It’s better here. For me to be here with Ruby and you and…”
“But I’m not here! I’m at home, in the real world, where you should be too. Do you even know how worried we all were?” You’re trembling now, and you don’t know if you want to reach out and shake him or if you want to turn away and cry. “What were you even thinking?”
“I was thinking this would be better. This is better!”
“You’re being insane. Look, we have to leave. I only have—” you feel a sharp heat pulse at your hip as the orb flashes. One. “—one minute,” You reach out to him, and he flinches back.
“Miles, please! We need to get out of here, we need to get back to everyone, to everything…”
The drumbeat in your chest thunders, and with it, the mantra returns. Get in. Get him. Get out. Wrestling him to the grass, you wrap your hand around his wrist as your other palm closes around the orb.
There are tears in his eyes now. “I’m happy, ‘Lex. Don’t you want me to be happy?”