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soft as a siren

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She's a dot of red on the water, too far out for anyone else to see, and she's drowning.

There's salt water in your mouth and the current wraps around your legs but you swim until she's caught you by the neck, her arms tight around your shoulders and her face buried in your skin and she's so cold.

"Oh, god," she says, the words half lost in the water. "Thank you."

"Just breathe," you say, and your legs are cramping and she's as heavy as the sea, but the shore doesn't seem so far. No one's watching and you swim until your toes catch on the pebbles and she's still holding on, even as you stumble onto the sand.

"Thank you," she says, and takes your hand, her fingers fitting close against yours. "Thank you."

 

 

 

She can stand by herself in a short minute, brushing wet hair back from its patterns across her cheekbones, and she smiles.

"I didn't think anyone would come," she says, and steps close again, her hand finding yours. Her swimsuit is red and chaste, that retro style you keep seeing everywhere this summer, and her hand is still so cold against your skin.

 

 

 

"I'll be here tomorrow, if you are," she says. Her toes trace patterns in the sand.

 

 

 

She's sitting on the beach, her toes dipping in and out the water and her hands splayed out behind her. Her head is tipped towards the sun.

She doesn't say anything until you join her, pull off your shoes and let the tide wash over your feet.

"I thought we'd stay out of the water today," she says, and smiles bright as the sunshine.

 

 

 

She kisses you as the surf washes over your ankles, sand trapped between your toes.

 

 

 

Falling asleep feels like drowning, some nights.

When you sleep she's in your dreams; the usual kind, that fall away to nonsense in the daylight. You can barely remember them once you're awake - only the way she calls your name, and you can't refuse.

Some nights you just stare at the ceiling, at the darkness, and think of the sea.

 

 

 

The days come and go like the tide, and she holds your hand and smiles.

 

 

 

She appears like a dream in the middle of the night. "We have to go," she says, taking your hand, her fingers cold over yours. "The city is burning," she says, as she tugs your coat over your shoulders and brushes your hair back from your cheek.

There's no light; black stillness outside your window and you don't think to turn on the lamp, not when she's standing there with her fingertips brushing your neck. "You should pack some things, while you can," she says, and steps away.

"We don't have much time," she says, and there's your beach bag at the foot of your bed and you pour whatever you can find in the darkness into it; trip into the shoes you left by the door and she takes your hand again. She smiles, her teeth bright in the shadows, and you follow her.

The door to your apartment stands open, the hall light like a beacon. You must have left it unlocked in your rush to be home and safe and warm. Your fingers fit perfectly between her knuckles, as she squeezes your hand tight and steals you down the stairs and out.

"But it looks fine," you say - the streets are cold, and clear, and empty. The night air smells like clean sheets left in the frost; no smoke, no tang of ash in the darkness.

"You're hardly awake," she says, the gentle reproach as she pulls you along. She tugs you closer, her hand tucking under your arm, her warmth pressing close and the fire roars close, somewhere, just behind you.

Together, you run.

 

 

 

Your lungs burn and still you run, until the dark, calm sea spreads like a ribbon at the edge of the city and your feet slip on the sand and only her grip on your arm keeps you up.

"There," she says, hushed in a way that must be breathless, and the lighthouse turns its beacon on you, just for a moment, before it flashes past. "There's a storm coming," she says. "We have to hurry."

The wind whips at your hair, tugging it loose. "Wait," you say, as your heels sink into the sand. The burning city is warm against your back but you don't turn to look. "It's too close. We have to keep going, we can get to -"

"The storm is coming," she says, and, "We don't have much time. I don't know where else we could be safe." Her hand slips under your coat, curls around your ribs. There's the roar of the waves, the storm beating closer as the sea sucks at the pebbles and you're so cold, suddenly, the heat of her pressing close the only warmth you can feel.

"We're almost there," she says, as you stumble towards the rocks. "Just a few yards to go," she says, and her arm is tight around your waist as the night makes every step treacherous, the path through the rocks a twisting sea of shadows as the salt spray cuts across your cheeks.

You're almost there. She'll keep you safe.

 

 

 

The door closes behind you, and the darkness is absolute.

"I'm right here," she says, and kisses you.

 

 

 

There's someone else here, but she says you'll meet her later. "You'll like her," she says. "She saved my life."

She takes you up, and up, and up to the where the beacon burns and flashes the warning out into the darkness. The wind scalds cold when you step out outside, her hand linked in yours as you hold onto the railing.

The city burns. The storm rolls in, the waves crashing endlessly like a herald of the end of the world, and in the snapshots of lightning you watch the city burn, and burn, and burn.

Her hand is so perfectly warm in yours. Her smile burns brighter than the flames, pours hot against your mouth.

 

 

 

You don't move until daylight, until she draws you close and kisses you again and the lantern glass is still hot when she presses you against it.

 

 

 

The darkness comes and goes like lighthouse flashes. The sky stays the cool grey of a warning, of a storm on the horizon. You'll go, eventually, find what's left of your apartment and sift through the ashes, but the city is still smouldering and she wants you to be safe.

You stand by the railings and watch the waves roll in, the sand slipping grain by grain.

"I'm so glad you're here," she says, and brushes the hair away from your cheek.

 

 

 

There's something the other side of the lamp, down against the glass, but you can't quite look at it. You're sure it's nothing, but every time you turn your head towards it it's like winding a tight spring; not matter how hard you push there's no more twist left in your neck.

"Come look at this," she says, leaning on the railing.

It hurts when you try. An inch more and you might shatter.

"I'm cold, she says. "Come warm me up."

The city has stopped burning. You'll go back, eventually, but her fingers slip through yours perfectly and there's no rush at all.

 

 

 

You have to --

 

 

 

"Don't," she says. The door has no handle, and your fingers slide against the sheer metal, catching on nothing. "Stay with me. I'll tell you a story."

 

 

 

 

 

The city glows in the distance, lit bright and alive in the street lamps and tower blocks and the shifting rush of the roads; apartments and tail lights and the carnival that set up the day before before everything burnt.

They must have built it up again so quickly. It doesn't look like it was ever ruined at all.

She takes your hand, and you smile.