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for the hunger & nothing less

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Sarah says there used to be people. 

Tally says that she doesn't think she's a person, anyway, she's just a body, and Sarah makes that soft sigh from her nose and pulls her close. That's when Tally feels like a person, head on her heart, listening to the thump-thump-thump like an earthquake, constant, shifting muscle and blood instead of valleys and rivers. She's seen many a heart, but she's never felt one like this. Never laid her head down and listened to it. 

Sarah says she should be careful. 

She says that a lot, too, when Tally's kicking at the old rusted leg-traps people laid for animals. Says it when she's angling sunlight through a glass shard, when she's crouched on a rotting roof. Be careful, Tally, she'll say, and Tally will grin down at her and say nothing because she doesn't need to. Sarah doesn't need words to understand her. 

Sarah says ouch. 

Tally plucks the last length of wire from her leg, clutching it between the blades of pliers. Her mouth is wet: there's plenty water here, a flowering meadow of soft white flowers a little way away, but they're sitting in a house with mouldering concrete. Sarah likes houses. Tally doesn't see the point of them. There's no windows any more, no doors unless something valuable is inside, no warm rugs. Forests are fine for her, forests and all their creepy-crawly inhabitants. Abigail called them creepy-crawlies, but she's long gone up west with the boy she met buried under rubble. 

Thank you, Sarah says. Tally clicks her tongue and starts winding linen around her cut-up leg. She'd walked into the wire. Tally wouldn't have walked into wire. 

But then she wouldn't have found the water flasks they're carrying or the sweet bars in their packs. Sarah knows the old world, talks about it a lot when's it's late and Tally can't sleep for all the fiery moonshine in the world. She drops the wire in a pile and looks at her leg. It'll be fine. It'll scar. Both those things are true. Tally's scarred, scarred all the way from her hair to her toes, though she can't remember the half of them. 

We should go tomorrow, she says, keep moving, and Sarah nods and pats her lap. Tally curls up, head on her thigh like that stray dog she used to have, the mangy thing creeping from building to building. She'd fed it with strips of deer-meat and the gross biscuits, which it had liked, and licked her hand in thanks. It'd been scarred as her, nearly. 

What're you thinking about, she says, and Sarah starts talking. She thinks an awful lot. It's why she does things like walk into wire fence. 

She's talking about getting married and living in a house, which Tally doesn't get. She's never stayed anywhere before. Not even when there's someone pretty as Sarah with her, hair like those black birds they see on the road, eyes bluer than blue, vivid as summer sky. Face sharp like a knife, but Tally likes it an awful lot - an awful lot more than she's meant to, she guesses. She wishes she could speak better about Sarah, use those words she does, all graceful and pretty like the sheen of ice on water. The old world had an awful time for words. 

People used to get married with a ring, Sarah's saying, and Tally closes her eyes and sleeps, listening to the birds sing on outside. 

 

They get up in the morning and go again, Tally bringing Sarah a tree branch to walk with. She aims her bow and brings down a grey bird, rainbow-shiny around the neck, pulling the arrow from it. It'll take cooking. They can do that soon. Til then they've got rabbit meat and some deer strips from last week and the black berries Tally's seen all the way up here. 

Sarah's talking again. She talks an awful lot. Tally likes it an awful lot. There she goes again. She wishes had a different word. Really, Abigail used to say, really Tally, like she was asking a question. 

Out they go from the forest and into the little city. Sarah's breathing hard now, like she does sometimes after dark when Tally bites her thigh and touches her with her fingers and tongue. She likes that an awful lot too. Sometimes so much it's embarrassing. 

What's that? Sarah says, and Tally sees what she's talking about. There's some black shape behind a broken-down wall, shivering. 

Stay here, she says, and goes to look. 

It's a small furry animal, four legs and bright eyes. There's a gash in its middle, and it's sticky, red and brown clumping that fur together. She knows right away it isn't running anywhere, because it can't, though it tries. She puts a hand on its soft head and does the only thing left, then carries it back to Sarah. 

Sarah looks sad when she puts it in front of her, reaching out to touch the fur. Tally's wondering if she can make something from it, else stitch it together and keep it. It's awful soft where it's not bloody. 

You know what it is? she says. 

You killed it, Sarah says, angry, face dangerous, and Tally flinches like a wolf's sprung at her. It might well have done. Sarah's like a wolf, or a wolf without a pack, anyhow. No. Tally's her pack now. They're a pack of two. 

Sorry, she says, which is something she doesn't say a lot. It was dying. 

She sighs and puts her hands on her thighs, hair falling around her shoulders. She keeps it long. Brushes it out. Brushes Tally's out, too, making pretty patterns with her fingers. 

I used to be good at being kind, Sarah says. 

Tally flips the knife. Wood handle, not soft like rotting beams but hard and smooth under her hand, blade blackened with charcoal so it don't shine and scare prey. Charcoal around her eyes, too, to hide the gleam. Eyes shine, Abigail said. She says, I think you're kind. 

You don't have anything to compare me to, she says back. 

 Tally puts her tongue behind her teeth and presses into the space where she's missing one and says, You're kind, more firmly this time. Sarah sighs again. It's like she needs something, but Tally can't guess what when she's not saying anything. Words again, or the lack of them. She wants to burrow into her warmth like a rabbit seeking shelter. She doesn't dare. Not when she's angry. 

 Sarah says she's sorry. 

Tally says she's sorry too. She is. She's sorry Sarah's upset, even if she's not sure why, and she's sorry she doesn't feel like she's kind. She can be mean, mean like a sharpened blade, parting flesh so smooth it takes whole seconds before blood wells. But to Tally she's nice, even when she wants her not to be. 

I just don't know what will be waiting for us out west, Sarah says. What are you hoping for?

Tally shrugs. She doesn't know. East, north, south; they're all the same. It's about moving. Moving to find resources, clean streams and animals to hunt, those though are thin on the ground. The soil's poison, and there's not many creatures that can eat what crawls through it. West is just a place to go. She runs her tongue along her molars, dipping into the space where she's missing one. Says, I want to see the sea. 

The sea. Sarah looks exhausted. Tally wants to see waves grey as the rubble, water blue as her eyes. She wants to vanish into the icy blanket and never be seen again. They could swim all the way to somewhere new. 

It's a long way, Sarah says. Are you sure?

I want to see the sea, she repeats. She's sure now. It's a long way, but what else are they going to walk for? They might as well aim for somewhere. Sarah looks at her and smiles, one of those tired small smiles where her eyes crinkle and her lips tilt but nothing else moves. 

All right, she says. We can go to the sea. 

Tally beams. 

They move on again once Sarah has rested and Tally has skinned the animal, cooking it over a low open fire. Sarah is the best with fires. Tally can make one, but Sarah seems to talk to it, singing a flame out of hiding. 

It's an awful big place to walk through, these ruins. There's bones of all kinds, some animals and some buildings, arching ribcages draped with green. Concrete chunks grown into flower blocks. Moss and lichen swallowing up steel and stone. 

In that city, a half-footstep behind Sarah, Tally's hands work. It's delicate, plaiting together wires hair-thin, not work she could do by sight even if she wanted to. She scans their surroundings, watching for threats, and her hands knot and tie, knot and tie. 

They rest for the evening on the edge of the city, where the ruins bleed back into pure greenery. Tally watches Sarah's sure hands draw a spark, then a little fire. It catches between one breath and another, twice as bright as the sunset and far warmer. She shuffles closer, fingertips straying dangerously close before she draws them away, smiling. 

I love you, you know, Sarah says suddenly. 

She looks up, blinking, and says, I know. 

She does. Sarah tells her she loves her all the time. She said it the first time after she had had kissed her, their palms pressed together, Tally's head on her shoulder. Tally had been surprised, and not, all of a sudden. Of course Sarah loved her, because she loved Sarah, and that made sense, for two people to feel this way. 

They'd met up north, close to the eastern coast. Sarah had been dressed in all black, a hood over her face, boots scuffed and worn and trailing coat-tails swaying in the breeze. Tally had been worried, at first, that she was going to try to hurt them - because Abigail had been there then, and another girl. But she hadn't, and she'd been surprised when Tally offered her some food, and said she didn't have a place to go to. 

Later she said she was confused, because people weren't usually nice to each other. Tally had told her that there were only a few of them left, after all, and that she didn't want to hurt anyone, and Sarah had made that sad sigh and stroked her hair. 

She hasn't asked if Sarah ever hurt people. 

I love you too, she says, because that's what people say when they're told they're loved. She crawls into Sarah's lap, arms around her neck, fiddling with her work behind her head. Puts her lips to her temple. Her cheekbone. Her cheek, warm and soft.  

Sarah says, What are you doing? 

Tally takes her arms from around her neck and sits back on her thighs. Then she shows her what she's been making. 

Sarah stares down at the object in her cupped palms. Her lashes lower like the wings of a landing bird, lips closing, and Tally can't tell what she's thinking. She bites her own lips, nervous. Says, It's-

I know what it is, Sarah says, and looks up at her. You made this? 

Tally nods, swaying from side to side, worried. Then Sarah puts a hand on her face and kisses her, properly, a deep kiss that has her feeling like she can fly. She loves those kind of kisses. 

Sarah takes the object from her. It's a tiny circle, a little thing, from thin wires and thinner strings, looped around and around like a wreath. 

It's a ring. Tally's best attempt at one, anyway. 

Sarah slides it onto her fourth finger and kisses her again. Says, Do you have one? 

Tally smiles and draws the other from the pocket of her jacket. This one is gold where Sarah's is silver, the wires she'd cleaned last night so they were shiny and bright. 

It had seemed important to her, when she was talking about rings and getting married. Tally doesn't quite know what being married involves, but she can do the rings. She likes the idea. She can thread through petals in spring and unripe berries in autumn. It'll be pretty. 

I love you, she says, safe on Sarah's lap, uncaring of the scary wild darkness around them. They have their fire. It'll keep away what ranges out there. None of the ghosts of the earth can reach for them in the light. She presses her fingertips to the indents between each dip of her spine, chin slotted perfectly in the crook of her shoulder. This must be what it was like before, all the time. This warmth, and this comfort. If she found Sarah in this wasteland, how easy would it have been to find her an age ago? 

Maybe easier. Maybe harder. Tally doesn't know or care. The world is over, and it's all they can do to draw out a living from the scraps that remain. That's what Sarah had said once, angry, tired, and Tally hadn't known what to do with all that anger in her. She still doesn't. She's never been anywhere better than here. 

What are you looking for? she asks, whispers into her neck, into the silence between crackles of the fire. Sarah, what are you looking for?

Sarah says, It doesn't matter. 

Sarah says, I suppose I found it. 

Sarah says, I love you, and Tally closes her eyes and hopes that will be enough for them, both of them, to survive.  

 

 

 

 

(They crest the hill, and there it is: the sea. 

It is grey, and restless, and surges and breaks endlessly beneath the bitter whipping wind. The sky is an almost luminescent ivory, clouds a massing darkness over the sun. 

Tally looks to Sarah. Her face is upturned, and she is breathing the salt air in like she is dying and it will save her. Her hair is blown back, a tumbling midnight mass, and her eyes are so much bluer than any water Tally has ever seen. She is beautiful. Beautiful like a sunset, like the first strike of lightning, like the breaking of spring. 

Sarah turns to her, and Tally sees the expression in her eyes. 

They hold each other there, by the whipping wind and roiling waves. It is impossible to tell who falls first, who pulls the other forwards. But one moment they are there. The next they are not. The only moving figures in a landscape of shades fall away, into the sea, and there is a rushing of wind broken only by the seabirds, circling, circling, calling out).