Eve climbs from the water but she’s not sure it climbs from her. She’s not sure it ever will.
The river sighs, breath bloating in and out around her ankles and she has no idea where she is or how far she’s slipped away, or what got her there.
In her brain, it’s just waterlogged clothes and lead shoes dragged endless miles like a chain gang, twenty-five to life, head down, push pull, breathe. It must’ve been, she’s still doing it. Push, pull, breathe, nosing blind by the collar of some primordial lead choking her forward to heel, chewing past will or want. Keeping her alive . Making her climb on hands and knees out of the noise and black.
Mud squeezes through her fingers and she watches her hands sink for long moments. Her mouth tastes like garbage and lead.
She rattles there in the light until she realizes it isn’t the rattle of steel chains behind her, it’s her own teeth in her skull. It’s water in her eardrums and gunshot-bruised tissue bellowing a throbbing silence.
She breathes harder and harder at the end of the lead, it froths into anger. It comes out in gusts, wounded vibrations like emesis pouring from her mouth and nose until she has to try to plug a muddy palm over it.
And then her other wobbling hand slips sideways in the slick sewage and it’s a decision easily made - just rolling into it and flopping over, beached and dying in the first way instinct’s allowed.
The collar loosens. The danger has passed and that’s all. Nothing else has passed and it never will. It’s fucking useless is what it is.
Dirty water fizzles out between her teeth, she’s clenched them so hard and so long she thinks it might break her jaw to let go. Grip is the last thing animals have, teeth in the enemy, the last light that blinks out at the violent end and she must be animal to hold onto it like she is. Just a stupid fucking animal.
Something entirely animal too leaves her throat and she pounds her muddy fists once into the bank under her back before lifting them and dragging it like paint from her brows down her rattling cheeks, slipping off the wet cliff of her chin. When she next whistles her filled lungs through her teeth, it’s black and gritty.
As she breathes hard and sticks her hands back in the mud for more, she feels it on the bank with her. Less collared lead and more a tapping of flank, a clicked tongue or a snapped finger. Sense signals her before she even knows it has and she lets her head lull to the side in its direction. Something in her knows she’s not alone and she’s not the only one rattling and she has to still on prey instinct.
She tenses the second she sees it, blinks a few times and jostles it loose from her waterlogged brain. If she’d tipped her head further, Eve imagines more would’ve come out, she’ll never stop bleeding from her. But it’s entirely too soon in the kind of way it’ll probably always be.
Eve will never be able to look away.
It hasn’t even said anything and she knows she’ll be stuck in this moment with it until the black takes her back, until it sucks her into the mud. Until the black sighs out harder on a higher tide and lifts her from the shore, away again, slow slide into the deep.
It’s just sitting there on its bottom, legs bunched up a bit so it can wrap its arms loosely around its knees and stare out at the Thames. It sniffles a clog of river water once, wipes the back of its hand against its mouth. It blinks calmly. It’s bloody but it does not bleed anymore. It’s hurt but it does not hurt anymore.
It lightly resettles its lips, a completely unconscious, universal, unimportant tick of no value whatsoever and that’s what finally pisses Eve off enough to rip off another inhuman growl in its direction. If it’s trying to tell her something, it can just fucking do it. She can’t sit there and watch it be like that.
Its head swings toward her and its long hair follows and Eve was hoping that alone would kill her, but it doesn’t. It’s just eye contact. It’s not even all that haunted for a haunting.
And that would figure, wouldn’t it? Eve isn’t haunted by horror, that’s never been what keeps her up. It’s just this. Sitting there, watching her the way she did when neither of them were thinking about much of anything or doing much of anything. She just liked looking at her, Eve thinks.
Eventually it raises its eyebrows, you first, its expression says. Always at her leisure, of course. Even this. Even belly up, always at her leisure.
Eve just shakes her head stubbornly. No .
Villanelle purses her lips, barely concealed mischief even now. “You swam,” she finally speaks.
So it speaks. It speaks and it watches her and it does all of the things Eve will never heal from, that figures .
Its lips are blue and its eyes are sunken with bruises, but Eve imagines she looks much the same. They’ve spent the same amount of time in the cold water.
Eve’s jaw won’t unclench, her body still thinks she’s dying and her blood won’t let her so she doesn’t say anything. She’s just stuck there. How can a person be stuck in a place like that? She just keeps her teeth in it because she has to, it’s not her fault.
“Really far,” Villanelle marvels, two fingers flicking out, a roguish caress along the horizon like she’s mapping it finger to finger so Eve can see what she’s done. “While hurt, too . Look-” she taps those same two fingers against her ragged shoulder until Eve looks down and sees the way her own shirt frays around the hole in the harmless aching meat of her pectoral.
She doesn’t feel it. She’s never taking it out.
Eve looks back up and she knows her expression has turned hostile. She has no idea what she’ll do if she doesn’t take it as an insult.
It’s blameless and it tastes worse than the lead in her mouth.
But like all of her worst qualities, the vitriol only makes Villanelle smile happily in one of the few ways she can never force to be ingenuine for all of her games. An awful liar when it actually counts.
“You swam,” she says again and smiles wider like they’re sharing one of Eve’s secrets, she’s making fun of her too and Eve doesn’t understand but she doesn’t like it.
Eve shakes her head and for what? If Villanelle can lie in this manner, both sitting there and not, then Eve is entitled to her own, she reasons. She needs it.
Villanelle’s teeth break through and she grins wide and fascinated in a way Eve’s never managed from anyone else. “You swam,” she says with finality, nods once, sure of herself, pleased even as she inflicts that on Eve.
Eve growls through her aching teeth.
“Not well, of course, but - well enough. You lived, you know?” She makes a charming gesture with her chin, disarmingly indicating Eve in her entirety, top to bottom to remind her all the pieces are still there.
Not all of them.
“Stop looking at me like that, I threw you in the water but I didn’t make you swim. Even if I knew you would.” It’s arrogant the way she says it, like she’s bragging not about something she did, but something Eve did. Proud, insufferable.
Eve narrows her eyes. She’s never wanted anything less.
“I’m not being mean. I know why you swam, it’s beautiful. What did it feel like?”
“I didn’t feel anything,” Eve wrenches her jaw open to say - lets go and feels it because that’s what happens when you don’t die. Eventually you have to feel it. The hinge of her jaw grinds up along the fragile bones of her temple and she thinks it always will. It will never work right again.
Villanelle presses her lips together.
“I felt like a chemical reaction. I felt like god was working me like a stupid meat puppet. I felt like I needed to fly south, like I suddenly remembered a migration route I’ve never taken. I felt fucking awful, yeah? Like shit. How do you feel? Dead? Just…super dead? Yeah, great. Me too.”
“Super dead. Pushing flowers or whatever.” After a beat, Villanelle concedes to the mood and her smile slips off her face. An unweighted, minute swing of her head has her hair sliding off her shoulders. “I feel…” she looks upward, and finally grimaces at the whole thing,
“ Cheated .”
“Isn’t that the point? Isn’t it all about who can cheat best?” Eve says bitterly and slings a handful of mud out into the mirror of the river to watch the moon wobble in it. “We lose. I lose , anyways. You don’t get it. You’ll never have to get it.”
“Sore loser,” Villanelle teases, which is fucking rich.
“You should see me play bridge.” Eve breathes out heavily through her nose, but it doesn’t do much. It all just sits there under her ribs with nowhere to go. “ You’re taking this relatively well. Did you…” She grimaces and glances away for the first time.
It’s just going to have to be a thing she has to club from her subconscious at every rising tide of memory. The thud of lead on flesh, the scramble, the drop, the black, the blood in the water. She’ll put those in order obsessively forever even when she doesn’t know she’s doing it. Like one, two, three, four. Like twisting a doorknob four times every time it's used, this will be a pattern she lives in.
Yeah . She suffered.
“You were so young,” Eve says blankly, her brain is just feeding her things she doesn’t want.
Villanelle makes a dismissive sound, lifts a single-shouldered shrug. “To you, maybe. To me, I was the oldest I’ve ever been.”
The oldest you’ll ever be.
“Was it cool? Did it look cool? Feel free to lie. It really hurt,” Villanelle pouts and sure, Eve’s eyes flick back and down to the sluggish drool of blood spilled down the front of her wet clothes, but it's over and so is she. Nothing’s bleeding anymore, it’s just loose memory and something to be angry about, something she must want to see in that moment, if, in fact, hauntings are manifestations of our own making. Eve’s not sure who would torture her better than herself.
But the way it hurts feels more loving than Eve would ever afford herself so maybe it’s something just a little bit more.
“Was it…” Eve’s choked off in her own throat again, she can’t ask that either.
Was it anything I could have stopped?
That question can join the list of things she can’t even ask a dead person. Did you know you were dying? Were you scared? Did you see me reach for you? Did you see me give up? Were you alone?
Villanelle’s expression finally folds and Eve imagines it has something to do with whatever these unaskable questions look like on her muddy face. Distress flashes briefly, but it's a fast moving front that blows through into calm.
“I just really didn’t want it to be a breath thing,” she admits, resigned. “You know, the - hm, the dying from inside like that. I didn’t want that.” She bears her teeth in a goofy grimace, probably for Eve’s benefit more than anything.
Eve works the other questions around her mouth, sore jaw grinding.
“Don’t ask me the other things. You’re imagining with all the time in the world, not the way it happened. Cattle slaughter is probably slower than mine. Unclench your teeth, you’ll break them. You have nice teeth. You’ll need them.” She makes a silly show of her own teeth, then snaps them together with a click like she’s demonstrating.
Eve sighs out hard and sits up in the mud, feet stuck out in front of her and hands buried in the muck behind her back. She pushes her tongue against the back of her teeth a few times and tries to resettle her bite. The way Villanelle watches her expectantly finally has her mirroring the gesture. A silly snap of her teeth.
Dementedly, laughter bubbles up in her throat like vomit and despite how she tries to hum, it tumbles out. Something is very wrong with her.
But Villanelle’s the same, breath or not, on a bank or at the bottom of a filthy river: always so eager, already brightening at the lead, ready for the punchline. Wants everything with her, open hands that never overfill. Wants everything , even when she’s not there anymore.
“Well,” Eve gives her, fills her palms for however long she can, “I got to take your breath away one last time.”
It’s not so mysterious, the two of them, at the end of it all. If we’re just chemical equation and migration in our bones and instinct in our blood, love is just reaction , bioluminescence, magic with sexless explanation if you know enough to look for it. Why would you look for it, though?
Every piece of Eve lit every piece of Villanelle. The explanation is self-evident, they don’t need to look any further. They let it all happen, they’re here on a river bank and Eve loves her even dead in the water. Go on. Try to explain it.
Villanelle laughs hard and Eve thinks, that’s the point, I guess.
“It was so quick, though,” Villanelle marvels, a disbelieving laugh as her expression casts outward and far, head shaking back and forth.
“Well. Small blessings.”
“No, not dying. Us. I had you didn’t I? Like for real, I had you,” she whispers fiercely, like she can still feel it between her fingers. Eve hopes she can.
Villanelle’s fingers dig into her own palm, holding tight, knuckles bulging. “ Just then, just right there. I had you. I was had, too.” A snort of wet breath leaves her nose and Eve pretends she can’t see the way Villanelle wipes lingering clot from the corners of her lips. “I wasn’t wrong? Don’t lie, I need to know for real this time.”
Eve nods hard enough her popped eardrums scream. “Yes. Yes . You did. I had you. You had me, Christ ,” she curses. “It’s at the bottom of the damn river too.”
Villanelle nods, pleased and settled with that.
“That’s it? That’s all you wanted?” Eve chuckles, incredulous, heartbroken, really, but she’s not sure if that happened before or after. We break things all the time, see.
“Well. More would have been nice.” Cheeky, but not insincere.
“Greedy.” Stern, but not unaffectionate.
“Yes. Forever. Until I had so much of you it was only us. I wouldn’t even need me!”
Eve laughs, helpless, shakes her head and clicks her tongue. “I can’t believe I ever thought you were complicated.”
“I can’t believe you ever thought we were complicated.”
Eve reclines back on one elbow, she’s so tired whether she’ll admit it to her bones or not. What they feel hardly seems relevant or proportional. “You surprised me, you know? I thought I knew everything about you. Considered myself a bit of an expert. I’m a little arrogant aren’t I?”
“A little? Yes. Yes. I love it. The wronger you are the harder you dig in! How could I ever be bored of that? I must do all of the seeing of you, because you refuse to help. I am expert. You are just nosy. ”
Eve laughs. “ The wronger I am, the harder I dig in,” she muses. “And you’re at the bottom of a river.”
“I am. In three days they’ll find me a few kilometers downstream, exploded grossly, bloated out from sewage and hungry carp and the ugly holes your government blew in my beautiful chest. It will be like science and virtue to them, won’t it? It’ll be horrible. Don’t look. You’ll stomach it, you’re sick like that. But I won’t. I’m not meant to be seen like that.”
“And how are you meant to be seen, Eve?” She asks kindly, it’s not as bad a fit on her as Eve used to imagine it would be.
Eve breathes out slowly through loose lips. “From really far away.”
Villanelle disagrees, Eve is sure.
“I will never get over this,” Eve realizes aloud, simple fact, detached. “I will never move on from this.”
It’s not tragic, it’s so fucking relieving. It moves her, it’s everything.
“Okay,” Villanelle allows her. “That’s DNA too, you know? The, ah - the hurt we need our bones to remember. Hurt we want our blood to carry, ugly children running around with our faces and our anger. That’s animal.”
“Why, though? Why?”
“Why, why, why, Eve, please,” she gives her a teasing glare. “Because we were so beautiful and terrible. Because to them we were always going to be mounted trophy first, fireside story later, animals always . The hunt is always afoot!” She extends her arms out, grip, stock, barrel and guard, mimed rifle, lines the city in her sights and mocks the recoil against her shoulder like she’s taken a shot at them.
Eve can almost hear it.
Villanelle lets the shot follow through the correct way, absorbs it expertly and breathes through to steady it - even mimed, assassin through the thick of her. “You were not hunting me and I was not hunting you - we never were. We were free and we ran and we killed and we fucked. And they wanted that to hang above their fireplace right where they could keep it: dead and for themselves.”
Eve swipes the back of her hand across her wet eyes and coughs it up, needs it out of her. “They killed you.”
“They did! Isn’t that horrible? Isn’t that just how beautiful I was? They would have killed you too, I told you you were special and look. Look!” Her two fingers tap the hole in her shoulder, the one matching Eve’s.
Eve’s hand grabs her own wound so hard she feels it, finally . It hurts so bad and it’s the best she’s felt since it came from the water.
“Hunt our most glorious to extinction! That is our time-honored tradition on this shit rock. I would rather be tiger than housecat. I would rather be dangerous than alive. It’s a compliment, Eve. If you know how to wear it. It’s not your fault I wear everything better. I hope you don’t think it’s yours either.”
Eve sees it, then. Pride, not like sin, but like grace. She looks so good like that.
“It’s going to make me so fucking sad. Right? It’s going to? I can’t feel my hands.”
Villanelle hums, a rare flash of what Eve knows at last to be empathy that pulls at her lovely mouth and draws a little murmur of sadness from her chest. It’s there, she fucking told them . She can care, she’s just brave enough to ask for something actually worth caring about.
“I want to lie and tell you that it doesn’t make me happy. Do you need that?”
“I don’t care. God, I don’t care, Villanelle. I couldn’t care any less. You can want to be missed. You can want it to hurt me, you can feel it that way,” she breathes out, tries to measure it so it doesn’t all come pouring out.
Eve cobbles enough of herself together, to get her answer. “You knew I would swim. How did you know I would swim?”
“They hunted you too, Eve. I know you, I know what you are. An animal swims. ”
Eve throws a hand out, a helpless, limp gesture. “And now what? What does that get us? Being rare and beautiful, constantly slipping around the outside rim of a funnel, circling the drain until our hide is hung on a wall?”
“I don’t know. I don’t think about it. You are the one always thinking,” Villanelle says affectionately, a hint of bite. “But? Sometimes we have a really nice day. And I think that’s all I’ll really remember.” Villanelle’s gaze shifts into distance and she nods to herself. “A really nice day. Isn’t that worth it? Being beautiful? Finding something beautiful? Wouldn’t you take that over them and how they live?”
“You’re beautiful,” Eve croaks. “You are . You know that.”
“Yeah.” Villanelle smiles to herself, sure. “I am. I must be, you chased me too! We were spectacular. We were like - that,” she concludes with a loud snap of her fingers on the final word like a struck match, triumphant.
“You’re here, Eve. You wish you hadn’t swam, you wanted to sink, but you’re here and even now you’ve managed to put me here too. That’s you. You even love like an animal, filthy and mean. It is so sexy.”
Eve laughs and she can’t help but agree. They fucking were. Like - that.
“You like seeing me,” Villanelle points out, smug and lovely.
“I love seeing you. Want to stay forever?”
Villanelle laughs, flattered the way Eve was aiming for. “Yeah? Forever? At least sleep on it.”
“I’ll never sleep again! Keep me up. Watch me slip away. Watch these evil things in you and in me eat me whole. Watch me be the horrible thing you know me to be. Watch me run, watch me kill, watch them hunt me until I lose. Watch me love you anyways. That might be all that’s left.”
“Aye, and to think you could’ve been saying these things to me longer than a day!”
“I’m not so sure I could. That wasn’t the chase, that wasn’t the kind of things we were, that wasn’t the game. Nothing just exists. Everything is made. Including us.”
Villanelle hums, wistful. “Well. It sure was a nice day.”
“Yeah. It was a nice day.”
Villanelle turns slightly, still not fully facing Eve. Eve’s not sure she can, she’s like a refraction Eve can only catch just so or she’ll vanish in dimension. Villanelle holds one hand out, inviting. Her palm is open between them and Eve’s body knows what it is even if she doesn’t.
She can’t make her hand reach for it and she won’t be able to and Villanelle knew that when she held it out to her. She knew when she threw her off a boat. It’s not in her, she’s not wired that way.
“I can’t,” Eve reminds her. “Remember? I swam . I’m a fucking animal.”
“Eve Polastri,” Villanelle diagnoses, nods heavy and slow, like she’s only just now gotten it. “Eve Polastri, the fucking animal .” Her teeth bite into her lip as she smiles and there’s no point, Eve marvels. There’s no point falling in love with someone unless you’re going to fall in love with the way they’re in love with you. Villanelle died and it’s for better or fucking worse, because Eve’s still in love with the way Villanelle loved her.
What a terrible fucking thing to do to a person. Make them love themselves. Make them love how they can be loved. Make them swim.
Villanelle’s grin turns ugly at the edges, veneer worn away as she loses the thin veil of humanity she glosses on like lipstick - that’s the one Eve likes. Her laugh is brackish and stupid and it makes Eve laugh too, how can she not?
“Eve Polastri the fucking animal!” She crows into the night.
Eve splashes a fistfull of mud at her stupid chest - that’s the way they fell in love, see. It was gross like that. Hands in mud, black and blood on ribs and dirty water in their teeth.
“Oksana Astankova the fucking human,” Eve adds quietly when the worst of the fit peters out. She wipes her hand right across the front of her own ruined shirt.
Villanelle’s eyes shine, it’s still there, it’s not sunken in and Eve feels relieved tears on her cheeks because she can bear to look at it. She can feel it.
“You think?” She shakes her head like it’s ridiculous. “Yeah, maybe. Go on, then. They’ll never believe you.”