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And Afterwards, I Will See You In A Place Where No Shadows Fall

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“...you're beautiful.” the woman on the ground gasped.

China smiled ruefully. Even with singed hair, a bruised face, and ruined clothing, people still thought she was beautiful. She had had this face for over four hundred years, and yet some things about it still surprised her. Not much, it was true. But a little bit.

China reached out a hand to help the other to her feet, and the woman accepted the aid gratefully. When she stood up and China got a good look at her face, she realized that the woman looked familiar, but China couldn't place why. Then she recognized her.

“You're Melissa Edgely, aren't you?”

Melissa nodded and wiped her eyes with the back of a soot-stained hand. “That's right.” she looked up at China suspiciously. “Why do you know that?”

“I know--” China paused. “I knew your daughter.”

“I only have one daughter. And she's dead.” Melissa's bottom lip trembled, but she did not cry.

“No. You had two daughters. They are both dead.” China gestured to the desolated city all around them. “The woman who did this is not your daughter.”

Melissa shook her head. “No. She isn't. She never was.”

“No, she used to be. I knew her when she was V--” China stopped. That was a dangerous name to speak aloud nowadays. “She loved you. She loved her family. She would have done anything to protect you.”

“But she didn't.” Melissa murmured.

“No. She didn't. Because she died.”

Melissa smiled bitterly, her eyes over bright. “If you say so.”

The two women were quiet for a moment. They looked out over the ruins of the city they stood over. China actually couldn't remember where she was, except still in Ireland. It no longer looked familiar. The burned and blackened ruins were twisted out of recognition, the shattered glass and twisted steel only adding to the alienness of the landscape.

“Do you know where we are?” China asked. “I'm afraid I've lost my bearings.”

Melissa nodded. “Yeah. We're in Haggard.”

China's eyes widened in surprise. “Your hometown?”

“That's right.” Melissa coughed, her throat dry. “Her and that...thing, the man in the armor, came here a few weeks ago.”

“The...armored man, too?” China had not seen hide nor hair of Skulduggery Pleasant or Lord Vile for days. The last she knew, he was laying waste to London, but he had been doing it on his own. She had heard no mention of Darquesse working with him for at least a month. “They were working together?”

“Sort of. They were fighting, too, when they weren't wrecking things and killing people.” Melissa sniffed, and brought a hand to her eyes.

“Mrs. Edgely.” China said, her voice flat and calm. “Is there anyone in your family still alive?”

Melissa could only shake her head.

“Well. That's one thing we won't have to worry about.”

Melissa stared at her. “What?”

China smiled tightly. “If she has gotten the...man in the armor to join her, then we will all die.”

“...what?” the other woman's voice shook, and China didn't blame her.

“The end is coming, Mrs. Edgely.” China stared up at the sky, stained gray with ash and smoke. “And they are going to bring it.”

“Oh.” Melissa sunk to her knees in the dirt. China sighed, and sat down beside her. There wasn't much point in trying to take care for her clothes at the moment. They were all beyond repair, anyway. And there wasn't much point in standing or running when they would all be dead soon, anyway.

“You did the best you could, I'm certain.” China said to her.

“It wasn't good enough.”

“Sometimes, even the best you can do isn't enough, but you still tried.” China rested a delicate hand on her shoulder. She wasn't used to comforting people, but she supposed that the circumstances warranted it. “You tried.”

“I didn't see,” Melissa said, shrugging China's touch off of her. “I couldn't tell that anything was wrong. My own d—my own daughter was turning into a monster and I didn't see a thing.”

“Neither did I.” China said softly. “Neither did her friends. We were supposed to protect her, to save her, but we lost.”

“How did you lose her?” Melissa asked, looking up into China's face, tears now flowing freely down her cheeks.

“We loved her too much to stop her.” China told her bluntly. “We thought we could fix her, but it was too late already. And we didn't want to kill her. And now here we are.” China fussed with the hem of her skirt. There wasn't much point in doing this, except to rid herself of an excess of nervous energy. “Everyone loved her. Or they hated her. There was no way to be indifferent. She was a force of nature, your daughter.”

“That certainly sounds like her.”

China chuckled softly, but there was no humor in her voice. “I never wanted to admit that I loved her. I wasn't supposed to love anyone. But I did.”

“It happens,” Melissa said. “Accidents happen.”

“Yes. They do.” China leaned back on her hands and stared up into the sky. The last time it had been a proper shade of blue was several weeks ago, if she remembered correctly. Every night was orange from distant fires, every sunrise was bloody red with the blood spilled the previous evening, and every day was dull and gray with ash. Even the sky would bend to Darquesse's wrath, and now Lord Vile's as well.

“I'm sorry,” Melissa said. “I'm so sorry.”

“We're all sorry, Mrs. Edgely. It's too late for apologies now.”

“That doesn't matter.” she tried to wipe the tears off her face, but only succeeded in smearing her cheeks with dirt and ash. “Maybe if I say it enough times it will help.”

“I do not think that is the case. If apologies helped this kind of thing, we wouldn't have a problem, now would we?”

“I suppose not. That doesn't stop me from hoping it will, though.”

Melissa edged closer to China. “You really think we're going to die?” she asked.

China looked at her. Melissa's gaze went a little blank and lovestruck, and China looked behind her instead. “I know we are.”

“Do you have anywhere to be?”

China almost laughed with genuine humor at that. “No, I do not.” a smile crept at the corners of her mouth.

“Oh. That's good.”

“Why?”

“I was worried I would have to die alone.” Melissa dug her fingers into the dirt underneath her.

China wasn't sure what to say to that. Dying alone wasn't a fear she shared. She'd been alone enough of her life that loneliness was no longer frightening to her. But she understood why it would frighten Melissa.

“Come here,” China said, and gestured to the other woman.

Melissa blinked at her, then leaned closer. China slowly put one of her hands on the back of Melissa's head and another on her shoulder. Melissa sighed, and relaxed into China's hold.

China lay back, carefully placing her bruised back against the ground, and Melissa came with her. Melissa cautiously put her arms around China's neck and rested her head on her shoulder.

“Go to sleep, Mrs. Edgely,” China breathed.

“I haven't been able to sleep for days.” Melissa murmured. “Nightmares. All I see is fire and blood when I close my eyes.”

“Then don't sleep. Just rest. It makes little difference. We will all sleep soon enough.”

China could feel Melissa's breath on her skin, feel her steady heartbeat which gradually began to slow.

“Do you think it will hurt?” Melissa asked softly. “Dying?”

“For you? Never. She would never allow it. For me? Perhaps a bit more. But she always carried a fondness for me.” Melissa did not ask what 'she' China was talking about. She didn't need to. “But however much it hurts, I am certain that you, at least, will find peace afterwards.”

“And you?”

“I don't know.” China said honestly. “I hope I see my brother again, at least.”

“I hope you do too.”

They lay there, amidst the ash and rubble, and China watched the gray sky. The sky was sometimes lit with a brilliant flash of light, but the flashes grew dimmer and dimmer as time went on. The ground grew colder under their bodies, and even the wind seemed to slow, and a deathly hush settled over them.

The two women stayed wrapped in each others' arms, the Earth dying underneath them, and the sun began to set for the last time.