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Ornithology at the End of the World

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Blue Jay | Cyanocitta cristata

Ramse is sixteen when they meet. Cole is thirteen, nearly fourteen, all skin and bones and bad attitude, his eyes older than his years, his tongue turning sharp at the slightest provocation. Decades down the road, people will give Ramse looks that vary from pitying to hostile to imploring, like he should be able to fix Cole somehow. He keeps quiet. He has no need to excuse himself or Cole to anyone, and even if he did, it would be pointless. None of them saw Cole at fourteen, fifteen, sixteen, twenty-one, thirty. Ramse doesn't deny that there's plenty wrong with Cole, but it's nothing anyone can fix, and only a fool would try.

They start out by insulting each other, almost coming to blows before nearly going their separate ways before reluctantly deciding to stick together, just for a few days.

A few days turn into a few weeks turn into a few months, until one morning Cole is gone, and so is the food and supplies they've taken pains to gather. Ramse looks at the tracks leading away from the camp, and every imprint and broken branch leaves a mark in him.

There's anger, but it's on the surface, shallow.

There's hurt, sinking into him like a stone.

There's regret in the marrow of his bones.

Cole would laugh his head off if he heard even a fraction of what's going on in Ramse's head.

Cole, who isn't here.

"Cole," Ramse says. "You godforsaken coward."

He should gather up what little he has left and go. Erase the last six months, start over. Pretend he never met Cole. Build an immunity to the memory of him. Forget.

He sits down on the ground. The grass is damp and cold, but he stays where he is. It takes hours. It takes all day. But eventually there's a rustle from the woods, the sound of hurried, careless footsteps, and when Ramse looks up, there's Cole. He's wild around the eyes, fear and defiance and relief in every line of his body.

"You left," Ramse says, because something can be obvious and still worth saying.

"I came back," Cole says.

There's really only one thing Ramse can think of in response to that. It might be the most heartfelt thing he's ever said.

"Asshole."

Cole licks his lips and tries on a smile. "Yeah," he says and moves to sit down across from Ramse. He digs out food from his pack and they eat. Cole tells him about a blue-feathered bird he saw, and Ramse thinks of his mom, and of all the books on her shelves he never read, and says that they might find out the name of the bird Cole saw if there's a library in the next town they come across.

They both know it's bullshit. Even if there are books still left that haven't been used for kindle, they won't risk going into a town just to find out what some long forgotten dead nobody once decided a blue-feathered bird should be called.

"Who needs books, anyway," Cole says. "I'll point it out to you next time, and you can come up with a name."

"Cole's Flight," Ramse suggests, grinning as he ducks a dried piece of meat Cole throws at his head.

It's the closest they ever get to talking about it, but Ramse doesn't mind. Cole has proven that he's capable of leaving, but also that he's capable of coming back. They're both better off knowing that.

 

Red-tailed Hawk | Buteo jamaicensis

Ramse is twenty-one and Cole is eighteen, full of impotent anger and restless energy. The temperatures drop at night, and they wake up pressed close together, their breath visible in the early morning light. They have each other, but that's all they have, and the promise of another long winter to come leaves them both on edge.

"I'm cold," Cole complains, tucking his face against Ramse's throat as if to make a point. The tip of his nose is freezing.

"Suck it up, princess," Ramse says, but he doesn't push Cole away. "It's only gonna get colder."

Cole makes an irritated noise. "Yeah, I know that."

"And you know I know you know," Ramse says. He doesn't feel like getting up.

"Fucker," Cole mutters without heat. He shifts so his head is resting on Ramse's chest. "What if we don't make it this time?"

He's talking about the winter soon to come, the cold nights and hard days, too much isolation and not enough food or warmth, even when they do their best to share. Ramse makes a noncommittal sound at the back of his throat and almost leaves it at that, because either they make it or they don't, and usually it would be Cole saying as much.

"What if you don't, or what if I don't?" Ramse wonders.

"What if we don't," Cole says. "C'mon, like you'd survive a week without me."

"Ye of little faith. I'd make it through at least a fortnight. A whole month, even."

Cole huffs a laugh into Ramse's jacket. "That's weak, man."

"Yeah, yeah, yeah. Laugh it up."

They're quiet for a long time. Cole breathes against Ramses's chest, warmth pooling in on every exhale and leeching out on each inhale.

"I've never kissed anyone," Cole says, half-muffled by fabric.

Ramse eyes the top of his tousled head for a moment, then says, "I know."

He can almost hear Cole rolling his eyes.

"Fuck you, I know you know." Cole shifts and rises up on an elbow. There's a contemplative look on his face, like –

Ramse's stomach swoops. It's not an entirely new reaction where Cole is concerned, but right now, he looks like –

Yeah, there it is, that set of his brows and the tilt of his jaw, like he knows he's about to do something stupid, but it's not enough to stop him from doing it.

Ramse thinks he's ready for it, but when it happens and Cole kisses him, it still takes him a second to get with the program. Cole's lips are dry and cold and clumsy, but when Ramse slides a hand into his messy hair and pushes up into the kiss, the inside of Cole's mouth is hot and slick and welcoming.

"Yeah?" Cole asks when they part, the air between them warm and damp.

"Yeah," Ramse says.

Above them, a bird of prey glides across the sky on silent wings. Any other time Ramse would point it out to Cole, likely to find Cole already looking up – but right now Cole is looking down with dark, wide eyes, a flush deepening the red of his cold-bitten cheeks, and Ramse doesn't feel like giving away an ounce of the attention he's getting. He closes his eyes and pulls Cole down into another artless kiss.

Later, when they pack up and get ready to move camp, Ramse keeps glancing up. It's a clear, cloudless day, and the sky remains empty.

 

Bank Swallow | Riparia riparia

Ramse is twenty-five, Cole is twenty-two, and for the first time in years, they're not alone.

"This won't work out," says Ramse. He says it more than once, in the early days. Atari or no atari, they were better off before Cole made a deal with the devil.

"It will," Cole says, every time. "It has to."

There's a hunger in him that goes beyond starvation, and the way he looks at Deacon with that glimmer of hope shining through – it makes Ramse's skin crawl.

Watching Deacon watch Cole is almost worse. Whether he wants to re-make Cole in his image or just wants him, Ramse doesn't know. Cole claims not to see it, but there's something covetous and greedy in Deacon's eyes when he looks at Cole, and it leaves Ramse feeling sick to his stomach.

Cole starts getting impatient with Ramse's doubts. "When have we ever had it this good, huh? Food, booze, warm place to sleep. Security. Something that's ours."

He sounds more and more like Deacon, parroting his words until he believes them.

"At what cost?" Ramse asks, the argument weary and worn, easily ripped apart by Cole's desperate need for more.

"Don't take this the wrong way, man," Cole says once, "but weren't you sick of only ever seeing my ugly mug? I mean, look around. All these people, all this food. This is a community. We're building something."

Murderers and cut-throats, Ramse thinks, but he stays quiet for a change, knowing the observation won't be welcome. He tries to do that more often than not, tries to give Cole his space. If Cole gets to test his wings, maybe he'll discover the trap for himself without needing Ramse to point it out to him.

At the end of the day, though, and despite his best intentions, Ramse utterly fails at hiding his discontent. He can't stand by and say nothing while Cole gives up his soul. It's not in his nature.

"I wanna show you something," Cole says one day, and Ramse follows him into the woods surrounding the camp. There's a river nearby, with birds nesting on the banks of it. They swoop in the air, catching food, flying in and out of their burrows. There are dozens of them. Hundreds.

"Deacon says they're swallows." Cole shifts on his feet, his eyes on the birds. "They live in these, these colonies that can get really big. Bigger than this, even."

It's just the two of them, no one else around and nothing to hear but the trees, the river, the birds calling out to each other. Familiar. Painful.

"The fuck does Deacon know about birds," Ramse says softly.

Cole shrugs and says nothing.

It isn't all bad, or even mostly bad, and that's the kicker. Everything they own is built on bones, everything they eat is drenched in blood, but if you don't think about it, it's just like Deacon says. It's good living.

Then there's Max, who looks at Cole with amusement and what Ramse hopes is genuine attraction. Cole looks back sometimes, awkward and curious and a little bit shy, trying to cover up his flushed cheeks with a frown when he catches Ramse smirking at him.

"Go on, man," Ramse eventually says, taking pity. "It's fine. I'll still be here."

After the first time, instead of going back to his own tent, Cole comes to Ramse. He's damp with the light summer rain still falling outside in the dark, and Ramse gets his hands wet burying them in Cole's hair as he licks away the last traces of Max from Cole's lips.

Ramse is not a covetous man. He may feel a pang of jealousy quickly suppressed, but he also meant what he said: it's fine.

Cole can leave as many times as he wants. As long as he keeps coming back, Ramse will always be right where Cole left him.

 

Common Raven | Corvus corax

Cole is thirty-one when he dies.

After Deacon and the West VII, after Elena, for a couple of years it's just the two of them again. They make do, like always.

Most of their time is spent foraging while bitching at each other, and the harder things get, the more they gripe and snipe. Doesn't take away from the hunger or the fear or the ever-lurking threat of winter, but it's comfortable, routine. More often than not, Ramse ends up playing the part of an optimist; one of them has to, it's in the unwritten rules, and the colder it gets the more Cole seems to relish being the pessimist.

I'm done, I'm tired, Cole says following the sound of a gunshot that leads them to a campfire. We gonna do this or what?

It's two against six. They've survived worse.

Yeah, says Ramse.

He'll never stop wishing he could take back that yeah and, for once in his life, look at Cole and say no.

The soldiers don't mean to kill Cole. Not that quick, at least. They leave when he goes quiet, for all appearances intending to continue the interrogation later. They don't realize what they've done.

Ramse keeps calling Cole's name, hoarse, desperate, doesn't stop until he gets to him and finds cooling skin, eyes half-open, unseeing.

The world ended when Ramse was eight years old. He remembers; this is what it feels like. Cole's name is lodged in his throat, and he thinks perhaps it will be the last thing he'll ever say.

There's no one nearby. They're in such a bad state from the beating that Ramse isn't surprised the soldiers don't think them capable of staging an escape, but purely in physical terms, he's been through worse. Leaving Cole to rot here in this concrete cage? Unacceptable. Not gonna happen.

He gets the two of them out through the exhaust tunnels, kills a perimeter guard, and gets as much distance as he can between them and the facility before he collapses. He drags Cole into the dubious cover of thick bushes that are starting to lose their leaves and lies down next to him, hoping, somewhere deep down, to never wake up again.

The next day he digs a grave. He doesn't have a shovel. It takes forever. A big black bird alights on a sturdy branch of a nearby tree.

"He's not for you," Ramse tells the bird, and it croaks back at him. Cole's name is no longer the last thing he's ever said, and that means he'll have to live.

 

Phoenix

Ramse is thirty-six years old when Cole comes back.

He thought it was duty that kept him alive after Cole was gone, but now, with Cole alive and breathing in front of him, real as anything, he's not so sure. Maybe some part of him has always known Cole wouldn't let something as insignificant as death to keep him for long. Maybe he's been waiting for this all along.

And here I am, Ramse thinks. Right where you left me.

I can undo all this, Cole says. Put things back the way they're supposed to be.

When has Ramse ever told no to Cole? He doesn't stand a chance, not when Cole is right there, close enough to touch, tough and stubborn, reckless and driven, more vulnerable, more easily wounded, than either of them like to admit.

Whatever the world is right now? It doesn't have to be this.

Cole is supposed to be alive. Ramse has people depending on him, and he's tried to do right by them, but Cole is supposed to be alive, and he is, he can be – all he needs is Ramse's permission.

I can change it.

Ramse looks at the machine that already brought Cole back to him once. He imagines a world where Cole never died.

"Do it."

It takes two more senseless deaths waiting to be undone, the scent of Jones' blood heavy in the air, but then, in a flash of blue fire, it's over.

Cole disappears, time resets.

The world is reborn.