"I have to see her, Tom"
Tom glared, his ears drooping and a low growl escaping from his muzzle.
Allison sighed. "I know you don't trust her. But I can handle myself"
Tom raised an eyebrow. Even before, he'd always been a man of so few words that even now it wasn't hard to understand him.
I never said you couldn't. But the rules aren't the same here.
Allison bit her lip and sat heavily on an old crate, examining her reflection in her sword.
The safehouse they'd managed to find, an old janitor's closet where Tom used to have a private smoke in the old days, was nothing if not serviceable. It wasn't as if either of them needed much now, anyway.
"I still don't understand. She was never like this. We...we were different" Allison said to herself. She'd developed an unconscious habit of speaking most of her thoughts out loud, just to hear a human voice every now and again.
Tom snorted, not unkindly.
We don't have time to think about the past, or whatever you felt for her.
To the surprise of both, Allison laughed.
"You act like I don't feel it anymore, Tom" she replied.
Another snort, although this time the true meaning evaded her. When she did not respond, Tom let out another low growl, this time almost affectionate.
I know you do.
Allison sighed softly, reaching for the bundle of supplies they'd acquired amidst the inky chaos of the studio: rope from an old stage rigging, tools from Lacie's workbench, and a genuine cutlass from Joey Drew's old office, which he'd purchased at an auction some years prior.
Allison looped the rope around her chest a sheathed the sword through one of the knots to hold it in place.
Tom stood, reaching for his monkey wrench, but Allison stopped him with a shake of her head.
"I'll be alright, Tom. I'll use the maintenance tunnels. There's no ink in there, I'll be fine" she insisted.
Tom let out a broken whinny of a sigh that Allison had heard a dozen times over since their partnership began.
"I'll be back" she assured him.
Tom did not respond.
It was just as well. She knew what he was thinking.
The area surrounding the janitor's closet where Allison and Tom had made their camp was always devoid of living ink. Sure, the ordinary stuff sloshed about in the corners and in the hollows of the floor, but those trapped in the studio had learned not to approach the hideout.
At first, Allison had felt guilty. They were lost souls, just like her, trapped in deformed bodies and desperately clawing their way through the darkness.
Then Tom had lost his arm, and she'd had to watch him (literally) howl in pain as his limb melted off his body like wax before she learned there was no room for pity when the world was ending.
And yet here she was, crawling through dusty old maintenance tunnels trying to locate the woman she still pitied and still adored even after everything they'd both been through.
She wondered if whatever part of Susie was left felt the same.
Probably not. They'd never been together.
At least, never in the normal sense. The more she thought about it (and, indeed, there was plenty of time to think now that she was trapped in the studio), the more she regretted all the things she hadn't said that might have brought them together just for the briefest of moments before the end.
Maybe she could have prevented it altogether.
Regardless, there was always something about Susie.
Whatever they were, it started in the dark of the recording studio when Allison was packing away her things and Susie had stumbled in with a nearly empty flask screaming insults that would better have suited a toddler.
Then she'd collapsed against Allison's chest, empty bottle tumbling to the floor with an empty clank while she angrily muttered something about the gall of Joey Drew.
Afterwards, they'd become what most would have considered companions in the few brief months before the world ended. They might have been more if the apocalypse hadn't arrived so soon.
The truth was, they were in the same boat: women being used by Joey Drew, manipulated to bring him success while they fought to even stay a part of the studio.
Most days, Allison would step out of the recording booth and find Susie, with her fluffy curls and her bright eyes, holding coffee for two.
Allison became certain of one thing over the course of their friendship, or whatever title could be given to the time they shared.
Joey didn't deserve Susie.
That never stopped Susie, however. She pined. Over coffee she would talk about all her dreams of becoming Susie Drew, about how she'd win the man back so he'd never turn a stray eye towards another woman.
Allison tried not to scoff at the thought of Joey Drew being faithful to anyone, much less his wife.
One morning Wally was telling his favorite joke which everyone at the studio knew but still laughed at when Allison realized she might be in love.
Susie laughed at the joke, and Allison felt her throat go dry and she had to run to the bathroom and try to talk some sense into herself.
The world would be cruel to a union like theirs.
And yet, Allison would have protected Susie from it all. She would have fought tooth and nail just to make certain Susie's big green eyes stayed bright and innocent.
Weeks went by and Susie grew bitter. Their coffee
dates breaks were less frequent as Susie spent more and more time trying to get Joey's attention. Allison eventually realized she, Allison, wanted some kind of revenge, to break Joey's heart the way he broke Susie's.
She should have stopped her.
Then came the proposition, which had Susie practically glowing for nearly a week.
The next week, there was no Susie, and the week after, there was nothing else, either.
Allison had jumped willingly, and she could still remember the moment she'd stood at the edge of the ink, forcing herself to clear her mind of all her anger and bitterness towards Joey and his treatment of Susie and instead focus on the way she used to smile.
All these thoughts passed through Allison's mind in a flash, and she sighed to herself and adjusted her satchel.
She didn't understand why she continually sought out the fallen angel. It was useless to try and save her; they needed Him, the mysterious savior she'd never met and was certain she never would) meet.
Maybe she was lonely.
Or maybe she was making up for lost time, for all the things she didn't say and all the times she let Susie walk right into Joey's schemes because she wanted the man to suffer more than she wanted Susie to stay with her.
This form she wore was made of all the good parts of Susie, every time she had smiled just to smile, with her dimples and the tiny gap between her front teeth, or laughed at the lipstick stains on her coffee cup, or sang in the break room while mixing far too much sugar into her coffee.
It was the form Susie might have had, if she thought of herself the way Allison did.
The ink sloshed about her ankles and calves, but she paid it no mind. She could hardly stand the stench of ink before. Now, she could barely remember smelling anything else.
Allison knew she was getting close when she heard humming. When she wasn't obsessing over her scarred face in some shattered bathroom mirror, Susie was humming the old Alice Angel theme song.
Allison had always deemed it too dull to be of any value, but when Susie sang it, it almost felt like a work of art.
The other unfortunate souls, swallowed up by the ink in various horrific forms and guises, never ventured near the angel's lair. Convenient, yes, but Allison was constantly reminded of the reason, and she would bite her lip and try to remember the way Susie would unconsciously twist her reddish blonde curls between her fingers when she was in the recording booth.
She neared the entrance to the workshop and paused. It was always hard to tell just who Susie was at first. The ink had corroded her mind, shattering her psyche into fragments that battled for control over her new form.
There was one piece that was the Susie that Allison remembered, but it was so rare to see that more often than not Allison just sat among the rafters, watching the angel pace back and forth angrily.
She knew that one day there would be no Susie left, but she tried not go think about it.
The humming had stopped, and Allison froze.
For a second, it was quiet.
Then the angel began to cry, and Allison knew she was safe.
Alice never cried, but Susie had always been prone to it.
She sheathed her blade and stepped out into the open. The angel turned on her instantly, fright and rage across her face.
Susie's new appearance hurt to look at. Not because it was ugly, however (Allison had met men on the street who made Susie's marred features look like the sunset) but because she didn't deserve it. In spite of everything she'd sacrificed, she was left deformed, unjustly tossed aside and left abandoned in the dark.
Recognition sparked across Susie's face, and she glared, annoyed.
"Oh, look, heaven's perfect little angel come to mock me" she drawled, folding her arms and sneering.
Allison sighed. Even when she was dying, Susie was acting.
"I suppose I've had worse greetings" she replied.
Susie huffed and turned away. "What do you want?"
"The same thing I always want, Susie. To talk to you"
"It's Alice!" Susie insisted, not for the first time.
Allison inhaled sharply (or as close to inhaled as she could get, having no lungs) to calm her nerves and her temper. If Susie was angry, it was easy for her already fragile psyche to crumble and for her to sink back into the inky abyss of insanity. But before she could speak, Susie laughed.
"What am I saying? I'm not Alice. I'm...I'm a copy. A mangled image of her" she murmured, half to herself. "It's not fair! I should be...I was first!"
"Susie - "
"You!" Susie shrieked, turning on Allison and approaching, her face even more distorted than usual by her furious grimace. "It's not fair!"
She raised her hand as if to strike Allison, but Allison easily caught Susie's wrist and glared, trying to ignore the buzzing of the ink beneath her fingertips.
"Stop acting like a child! If you would stop obsessing over your looks and start thinking, maybe - "
"You wouldn't understand! He...it made you beautiful! You, the imposter! You don't deserve that face, you don't deserve him)!" Susie screeched, her natural voice nearly lost in the echo of the ink.
Allison flinched, and Susie's body seemed to deflate. Allison let go of her wrist and she turned away, her eyes drifting to an ink-splattered poster depicting the perfect version of the face they both wore.
Silence hung in the air for a long moment until, against her better judgement, Allison reached for the deformed woman in front of her. Her fingers had just brushed the ghostly white shoulder when Susie jerked away.
"Don't touch me!" she hissed. "I'm not..."
Allison didn't need to ask how the sentence ended. She'd heard it so many times now, although it was difficult to tell for how long. It could have been hours, or it could have been decades.
"I wish you wouldn't, Sue"
Before, only Allison had ever called Susie Campbell "Sue". It was part of their "thing", as Wally had always referred to it (he had always seemed to know more than he should). Allison would use the nickname when they were alone, or when Susie showed up to work bleary eyed after a failed date or a night at Jackman's.
Before her eyes would always light up when Allison called her that.
It wasn't before any longer.
"Alice!" Susie snapped, her voice once again wavering on inhuman again as she stamped her foot into a nearby puddle, causing flecks of oily black to scatter across the wooden floor.
Allison only sighed, trying to pretend that Susie hadn't always been quite so stubborn.
"You'll always be Sue to me" she admitted gently. She said it earnestly, as if hoping Susie would hear the "I loved you the way you were. I loved Sue"
The angry expression etched across Susie's deformed face softened, and she seemed to shrink back ever so slightly.
"I hate you for it, you know" she said, in a voice so small that Allison could barely hear it over the perpetual hum of the machine that pervaded the studio.
"I know" was all she said. "Maybe you're right to"
Susie crossed her arms and hugged her own chest tightly, the way she used to do when Joey smiled at her and her heart tried to beat out of her chest.
For the first time, Allison wondered if they still had heartbeats.
"I'm not. I shouldn't blame you" Susie continued, not meeting Allison's gaze. "But somewhere in me...it's fair. I know it is. You were always better"
For a moment, Allison wanted to laugh. She wasn't certain she knew how to, so instead she opted to chuckle softly.
"Of all the things I used to think were impossible, you saying that was definitely at the top of the list" she said.
Susie put on her best pout under her new face and rolled her eyes. "I'll never say it again"
Her fingers twitched, and Allison remembered her time was short. Susie was never around for very long. Soon, "Alice" would return, hungry for ink and desperate to be beautiful. She needed to leave. She was already reaching for her sword, instinctively mapping out the road back to the safehouse in her mind when Susie let out a sigh.
"When you get out of here - "
"If" Allison corrected, adjusting the rope looped around her torso.
"When" Susie repeated pointedly, "Promise me something"
Allison paused. Promises didn't exist in the ink. Honesty had long since been swallowed up in the blackness. Even before the ink, she supposed, truth held no position under Joey Drew. Schemes behind closed doors, cynicism and bitterness festering like open wounds as more and more employees sacrificed every ounce of virtue in hopes of getting just a fragment of what they had earned.
Allison knew Susie wasn't any different. Even now, she was haunted by the memories of what she had given up just to be, only to have it all snatched away, driving her to the brink of insanity where she now stood, quivering on the edge of a precipice.
And yet, Allison paused.
"Don't forget me"
Allison was sure if she was still human, she would have felt a pang somewhere in her chest. She reached out, gently resting a hand against the unmarred side of Susie's mask for the briefest second.
For a moment, there was Susie and Allison, normal and pure and in love, the tiniest of fantasies as it flashed through Allison's mind.
This new form didn't have a heart.
Then why could she feel her chest pounding like a schoolgirl's?
Susie twitched again, and, with speed she'd gained when she'd lost her heart and lungs, Allison came to her senses, turned, and darted away, leaving Susie to stalk the empty hallways once again, searching and searching for something she'd already found.