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only the end of the world again

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 one.

There are eyes in the shadows. Voiceless, formless; but at night, sometimes, you can see the flash as their eyes catch reflected light.

The eyes are harmless. (Allison is pretty sure they are harmless.)

It's what travels with them that you have to fear.

 

two.

Lydia remembers the day the grid failed. She wouldn't have thought it would be so obvious, all those lights failing in the bright California day. What few lights were left, flickering out in shuttered shops and looted houses. But she saw, everyone saw.

That first blackest night was bad. But the nights that came after - after the power didn't come back, and didn't come back; after they stopped even hoping for it - those nights were the worst.

She looted batteries for the shortwave radio, at first. Then portable solar cells from the UCLA campus. At night she listens to the broadcasts, the thin web of words saying, we are alive, and we are, and us. Listens for hours, and sometimes sends out her own messages, her own long lists of names. Her voice sounds thin and frail in the black, but she keeps talking anyway.

Talks, and doesn't sleep.

 

three.

There was a girl, once. Thirteen, fourteen years old, shy-eyed, mute. Maybe she'd had words, before the world ended. Maybe she'd always been this way. How could Erica know?

Either way she stuck close to them. Slept pressed up against Erica's side, her fists tangled in her leather jacket, shivering with her dreams. Erica kissed her forehead and whispered you're safe, you're safe, I'll keep you safe. I promise.

She tries not to think about the past too much. It's dead, it's gone. Everyone's dead. But sometimes - sometimes she remembers what it was like after her stepdad, after Juan Reyes left her momma again. After her birth father came back.

She'd called Juan daddy half her life. He'd been nice to her, even when she had her fits. He even called her on her birthday, the first couple years after he left. She used to miss him so much.

The first time she had a fit, after her birth father came back - she doesn't like to think about that. Not ever. It's a dark closed box, deep down inside her. Deep.

But when the girl looked at her, silent, a wild desperate look in her eyes - Erica knows what that look means. And the girl never spoke, but when Erica told her you're safe now she listened, she stayed close by Erica's side.

Erica gave her the bite after three weeks. She was so small, so fragile. Thin as bird-bones under Erica's hands. And then after the fever she woke and clenched her fists on air, on nothing, on strength enough to crack rock and smash bone - and smiled.

Erica found her body days later, half-hidden under an overpass. So bloody and so small, as if all the strength Erica had given her had never been.

Erica never learned what killed her.

The girl never spoke; Erica never even learned her name.

 

four.

"Come on," Allison says, low and calm, and her bow raised so high in the air. She's smiling.

(She's terrified. You don't show fear.)

There's a flicker of movement somewhere to the left of her. Something red. You never see them all at once.

But red - jerky movements - the smell of honeysuckle and ozone - Allison knows what this is.

She pulls out an arrow from the quiver on her back, its tip magnesium, wrapped in yellow silk and blessed with a kiss. Lydia made it for her. Lydia makes a lot of things.

One day Lydia will get it wrong. One day Allison will miss - but not today.

Today Allison aims and releases and the arrow flies so straight, so true. And buries itself where she aims it - for a moment she catches a glimpse of the thing, the arrow buried in its raw bloody skin - and then it bursts into flame.  

She can hear it screaming. The noise goes on for a long time, high and thin and pained, and then it stops.

After a while there is nothing left of it but a dark greasy patch on the ground.

"My name is Allison Argent," she says casually, quietly, into the empty space around her. Not a threat, just a statement of fact.

Her name hangs on the air for a long time, as if it has shape, and weight, as if her history has taken tangible form. Here at the end of all things she's better known than she's ever been.

There's no sound, no movement. But she knows they're listening.

They always are.

 

five.

"That's pretty," the boy says, quiet as a breath. His hand reaches out.

Lydia takes a slow patient breath and forces out a smile. Her lips stretch around the shape of it, red and wide.

"Thank you," she says, as gently as she knows how. "Better not to touch it, though."

He's a grubby boy, eleven, twelve years old. His eyes are large and dark, long-lashed - long enough that Lydia might have been jealous. In another place, another time.

Here, now, she picks up white rose petals and tears them, carefully, into four pieces. Drops them into the simmering pot in front of her, and then spits, loud and coarse. The pale liquid inside shivers and turns pearly black.

"Oh," the boy says. "That's so pretty! What's it for?"

It's a recipe from one of Dr Deaton's old books, a potion to bring wealth and increase to a town. Lydia's swapped the thyme for wild oats, the golden honey for mountain ash - hopes that it will instead grow and increase the spells of protection around their camp.

She'll test it tonight, on a patch of mountainside half a mile away. Erica will be there; if the potion doesn't do what she hopes - if it brings bad luck, breaks protections, calls the demons to them - if she's wrong, the werewolf might even be able to get her back alive.

"It's to keep us safe," she says, and the boy looks up at her, his eyes so trusting, so wide.

"You're so pretty," he says, and Lydia looks at him again. Thin dirty-faced boy with a bruise round his eye and a long scar on his arm, short dark hair curling tight against his scalp. He's wearing jeans and a woman's shirt that doesn't fit him, flaring around breasts and hips he doesn't have. And a pair of peach-coloured flats with bows on the toes, almost worn through.

"You're pretty too," she says, heart twisting and a lump in her throat. Trying so hard to keep it out of her voice. She doesn't know, she doesn't know - but she can guess.

Lydia likes pretty things, too.

She pulls a tube of lipstick out of her pocket. It's the last one she has, right now - but she can find more, when she goes out with their next looting party. Or she won't, or she'll die tomorrow, die tonight on the lightless mountainside.

Nothing matters that isn't now.

"Do you know what this is?" she asks him, and he nods at her, eyes so wide.

"Can - can I try - "

He's stuttering over it, so shy. So Lydia smiles again, as wide and gentle as she knows.

"Yes," she says. "I'll show you. This is magic too."

They put the lipstick on together, Lydia showing him how to apply it with steady careful hands, and afterwards his smile is so red. So bright.

 

six.

At night, Erica runs. Slow steady laps round the perimeter of their camp, just inside the circle of Lydia's protections - behind the magic that is invisible even to her wolf eyes, the magic that lights her up when she gets too close to it. Hot shivers run down her spine, pool between her legs.

She's never told Lydia what it feels like, to her - what Lydia's magic feels like.

Sometimes she thinks Lydia might know. On those nights when Erica slows and stills, when she comes to Lydia's tent beneath the white stars. A werewolf doesn't need much sleep, but she needs a little.

Erica can sleep anywhere, but she likes it best here. The tent smells dank and musty, old. This is what it means, when the world ends: there is one tent for them, only one tent, always. Even when the rain comes down for weeks and wet mould springs up, mildew-white. Even when a demon lurks beneath the pale earth below it for three days so that on the fourth it can leap out at a lonely child, and its blood spills out to stain the cloth - its blood, and the child's.

But Lydia is there, in the lonely dark. The warmth of her body, her breath.

Sometimes Erica thinks she can taste the magic on Lydia's skin.

Erica runs in the daytime, too. They're growing food in the camp: tomatoes, potatoes. Corn. They have chickens now too, smooth pretty brown eggs for the children to gather in the morning light. But Erica still runs in daylight, hunts - with Allison or alone. Deer, occasionally, when they can find them; more often rabbits, or the stocky black-eyed demons that lurk in damp places. The deer and rabbits are too lean, stringy and tough with hunger and fear. The demon-flesh tastes better: sweet and rich, fat-marbled, tender. When they catch one, Erica and Allison skin it outside the camp, bring the meat home in anonymous dripping pieces for the others to cook.

Food is food. They're all hungry. No-one else has to know.

 

seven.

"No," Allison says. Gently, kindly. "You're not ready. Not yet."

The man twists upwards and stares at her, incredulous. "You fucking kidding me?"

Allison smiles. Keeps it mild and sweet and kind - but she can see where this is going. They've been hurtling towards it, all the days and weeks and months she's been training him to join her patrols. He's not ready yet, and she's seen this coming. She hoped different, but she knew.

"Not just yet," she says. "Your aim is good, really good. And when you've got the reflexes -"

"Fuck you, bitch," he says, and Allison's stomach sinks. "I've got all the reflexes I need."

He lunges at her, and she wants to shake her head at him, wants to tell him exasperatedly to stop being so stupid. Wants to teach him. He's so confident of his own strength, twenty-three year old man fresh out of college, bulked up with years of sports and weights. His muscles bigger, shoulders wider, than anyone else he knows.

She's small, slim, nineteen years old. And he's a child, telegraphing every move he makes. Against a werewolf, a demon? They'd eat him for breakfast and pick their teeth with his glistening bones.

He's never fought anyone stronger than him before.

Allison has never fought anyone else.

She stands against him, waits. Takes the punch that leaves him wide open, takes the opening and pins him to the ground.

She's got a knife to his throat before he has time to blink.

"You don't have the reflexes," she says, soft. "You don't have the speed. You're too cocky, overconfident. And if I let you leave the camp with me, you wouldn't come home again."

He's staring at her, rage in his eyes. She can feel his muscles under her, tensing.

"And you're fucking stupid if you think you could flip me faster than I can use this knife. You think I wouldn't? You think I'm just some skinny girl, too scared to do it?"

His lips are parting, pulse pounding. She can feel the frantic rhythm of his heart.

"Eight months, I've been fighting every day to keep you alive. And what do you fucking think is out there? The things I've been fighting are so much scarier than you. You think you can do what not even a demon can? Go ahead and try."

There are footsteps behind her. Allison recognises them, smiles slow and knowing. She knows who's coming.

If he's not scared yet, he will be.

"Her name is Allison Argent. Do you know what that means?" Erica's voice, behind them, is honey-soft.

They both know he's heard stories, rumours. They both know he doesn't believe.

Below her, he shakes his head.

"It means she hunts werewolves. People like me. I am so strong, so fast. I can catch an arrow out of the air, I can heal from almost anything. You've seen what I can do." Erica pauses, smiles so slow, so cruel. "She's been trained to hunt us since she could walk. We used to try and kill each other, before everything - and she almost did. She almost killed me. I never even came close."

Allison waits, while Erica steps softly through the dirt towards her. Waits, and smiles.

"The only reason we are all alive is because I am a werewolf, and Lydia knows magic - and because the Argents have been hunting werewolves for three centuries. Because they've trained Allison for it all her life."

He's scared. The way he's looking at her, pulling anger down like a mask over his features - he's trying to hide it, and maybe he's even succeeding; maybe he's even hidden it from himself.

But Allison can almost smell it, thick and hot on the air.

"If I say you're not ready, you're not ready." Now her voice is coming out cold. "But you can go out and test it yourself, if you like."

"That means you die," Erica whispers, faux-helpful. Her lips are bruise-red.

"We clear?" Allison says.

He starts to nod. So angry, still.

Before she lets him stand she gives him a scratch down the throat, just deep enough to remember her by.

After, Erica takes the bloody knife from her hand, licks it clean. She looks at Allison under her lashes, hot and obvious.

Allison waits for a while, until the man has walked away and left them both (shivering still, fearful).

"Yes," she says, finally, to Erica's impatient smile. Erica's always been so eager, so wild. Allison's always been drawn to it - "I suppose we have time."

 

eight.

Lydia doesn't like to sleep alone. That's what she tells people, smiling coyly, looking up through her lashes - hyperaware of what they are seeing when they look at her, what they must think.

There's no point trying to keep a secret, here. Everyone knows she spends her nights with a wolf, with a hunter, with both of them at once.

Lydia is a witch. She knows what they call women like her.

But she's been called other things, too - there's a word that's only one letter different, and she knows that word; knows slut and whore and shameless. She's all of those things. Lydia doesn't give a damn.

If everyone's busy looking at her love life, well. There's other things they don't see.

Lydia has a secret, and she keeps it between the bodies of the women she lies with at night. Lydia doesn't like to sleep alone - Lydia doesn't sleep. Can't.

Short naps, sometimes, while the sun is on her and she's resting with her head in the soft warmth of Allison's lap, sprawled over Erica's stomach. Sometimes.

But most of the time she drinks coffee, or strong tea made of pine needles and honey and deer bone and formic acid, brewed under open sky. The tea has fewer side effects. Keeps her awake and alert and alive -

Lydia hasn't slept a whole night through since that black evening a werewolf tore into her flesh, her mind, and broke her.

How else do you think she survived the apocalypse? Lydia already knows how it feels when your world ends. How it feels when the bright world you thought you knew cracks open, and all the blackness inside comes spilling out for you to see.

Lydia already knows how it feels to lose everything.

She already knows how to live through it.

 

nine.

Erica remembers. Teeth, claws, hunting Lydia through a black house. She was stronger than anyone, faster than anyone. Allison's hands were sure and steady on her bow -

Of course she remembers. Of course it matters. Even here, even now.

She lies between them both, the werewolf who almost killed her, the witch she almost killed. Naked, pressed so close there is only room for memory between them.

Erica thought she was going to die. She almost killed an innocent victim.

She'll never forget.

She'll never let go. None of them will ever let go - not until their strength fails, their lives fail. Not until the black end.

Fear, loss, memory. They grip onto it so tight, grip onto each other so tight.

They have their past. They have each other.

What the hell else do they have?