Katelyn woke up on the beach, feeling wrecked—like she had drank too much and then gotten hit by a bus. She pushed herself up to her knees, unthinking and without opening her eyes. She opened her mouth and was sick onto the ground, coughing against the bile that rose up from her throat. She rolled on her back to where she was laying before. She felt something warm lying against her. She couldn’t remember where she was, or how she had gotten herself there; it certainly wasn’t her bed.
She sat up carefully, holding her head and shielding her eyes against the sun. She slowly opened them, feeling them sear against the cool air. She paid her attention to the world around her, and tasted salt and burnt air, and heard dead silence except the sound of the ocean beating. Katelyn looked to her side and saw Erin lying there.
She remembered everything, and the acid was rising in her throat again. She turned Erin over quickly, dropping her head to her chest, listening desperately for a sign of life.
Erin groaned quietly, and tears sprang off of Katelyn’s face without any pretense of strength. Katelyn pulled Erin until she was sitting up and in her arms.
Erin coughed, her lungs sounding like they were rattling in her chest. As the sun rose over their heads, Katelyn sobbed and kissed Erin’s face until she was sure that not one pore had been harmed.
“What happened?” Erin said groggily, leaning her body into Katelyn’s, too sore and tired to open her eyes still.
“Nothing,” Katelyn said, beaming through her tears. “We’re alright. Both of us are all right. Our world didn’t end, Erin. We’re okay. We’re going to be okay. I don’t know how, but we’re going to be okay.”
Erin slowly raised her head to Katelyn’s and kissed her. “We’re okay?”
“We’re okay,” she said, holding her hand tightly.
A sick feeling hit Katelyn in the pit of her stomach. She had forgotten for a moment that she had more responsibilities than those that she could see before her eyes. The world was more than Erin and her, watching the sea as it lapped quietly onto the shore.
“Oh god,” she whispered, burying her face into Erin’s neck.
“Katelyn, what happened?”
“I don’t know. I left her when I saw you fall. And then I passed out. I don’t know. I don’t even know why we’re alive. Hell, I don’t even know for sure that we are.”
Erin groaned as she tried to rise to her feet, “Don’t worry. We are. This hurts too much for us to be dead. Though, I’m sure someone tried.” Erin’s slow growing composure gave Katelyn kernel of faith that just maybe everything would be okay. Just maybe they might all make it through this. Erin sighed softly, “Can you get up?”
“I don’t know,” Katelyn whispered, her body aching just sitting on the soft ground. The idea of her dread felt sort of ridiculous, because she should have been happy to be alive. She should have been happy to wake up next to Erin one final time. But here she was asking for more from this universe. Katelyn always had to ask for more than she could possibly deserve.
Groaning and gasping, she rose to her feet and tried to retain her balance as she coughed and looked out at the sea. She gagged on the ash that was caught in her windpipe; Erin’s fingers grazed the back of her calves in circles.
Katelyn could hear what it really meant. Are you sure you want to do this now? Will you be okay if she’s not? Will you come back if she is?
“I’m fine,” Katelyn said softly between wheezes before she turned down the stretch of the shore. Instead of making her feet move through the sand, she saw a dark figure coming towards her, looking almost as ragged as she felt.
“Hey, Katie,” she said, looking terrified and broken. She looked down at Erin sitting on the ground and nodded at her. “What happened?”
Katelyn set her jaw firmly and said what she knew had been true since that tree first fell down, “Dan Schneider finally tried to kill us.”
Erin’s arm was slung over her shoulder, and Katelyn was taking as much of her weight as she could bear. Somehow, Erin seemed to take the worst of it all, and her body just wasn’t able to recharge, no matter how much of cool, salt air she had tried to inhale to cleanse her system. The three of them had been sitting on the beach for hours, until it filled with tourists who were just happy that the weather had cleared up before they had to go home from their vacations.
When they couldn’t take the happy soccer moms in tankinis anymore, Erin and Katelyn made their way to their raggedly little car that Katelyn had parked on the rode behind the shore. They hadn’t talked about anything. Katelyn was too afraid for words. She was too afraid that whatever had saved them was going to decide that they weren’t worthy. She was too afraid that Erin wouldn’t be okay. She was afraid that Lucy was expecting her to come back. She was afraid that Erin wouldn’t believe that Katelyn didn’t want to. She was afraid that her own body felt like it was trapped inside a plastic bag.
She kissed Erin on the forehead before helping her into the passenger seat. She held her close and whispered, “Thank you.”
“For being here. For being okay. For being mine.”
Katelyn smiled and shut the door, knowing that she had something that she had to do before they could find somewhere to lay their bodies down. She held up her index finger, asking for just a minute before she took Erin somewhere safe.
She ran across the beach, to the place where Lucy stood and tried hard not to watch Katelyn and Erin and their small acts of love.
“You need to find somewhere to rest. I wouldn’t go home,” she listened to her own voice as it came out in harsh, military orders.
“I know. I was just waiting until you two were gone.”
“You need to get off the planet as soon as possible.”
Lucy cowed, looking at her feet, “I know,” she mumbled.
Katelyn softened, grabbing Lucy softly by the elbow. “We’re going to go rest, but I’ll come find you later. We can talk for a little?” she said gently. “I’ll come find you later.”
She left before Lucy could respond. She needed to get back to Erin. She needed to get to sleep.
They went home and threw belongings into suitcases and bags and the backseats of their car. Then they checked into a tiny motel that was the cleanest and cheapest thing that they could find on short notice. They fell into the room, and Katelyn fell into bed after putting the monitor on the windowsill. But Erin was flying around, putting away the suitcases full of things, making a racket that Katelyn could only half believe was possible. She had never known Erin to make that much noise, and she didn’t know where she had found that energy.
Groaning, she rolled out of bed and went to stand behind Erin, grabbing her fingers tightly. She kissed her on the neck and whispered into her ear, “What are you doing?”
Erin’s voice cracked in the center, like that concrete slab in their backyard, “I can’t sleep. I just—I see things every time I close my eyes. Your body. You. I. I can’t sleep, Kate.”
Katelyn held Erin in her arms and walked them to the bed, lowering their bodies down, and holding them tightly. “You don’t have to sleep. Just lay with me. Let me hold you, Erin.”
Katelyn started to sing softly and brush her fingers through Erin’s matted hair. “Let me hold you."
She sang in that shadowy motel room until Erin’s breathing leveled out in deep rhythm with the song. Then she let Erin’s breathing become her own lullaby.
Katelyn woke with a start when she heard the monitor click back to life. She tried to extract herself from Erin’s body without waking her, but she saw Erin’s shoulders shrug and relax, a sure sign of her coming back to consciousness.
The static cleared and the voice of the anchor man, strong and clear, came over the intercom, “Breaking news: Dan Schneider has been jailed. Due to an instantaneous trial, he is serving a life sentence. Scott Fellows has become the head of our government. Repeat, Scott Fellows is now the ruler of our planet.”
Katelyn couldn’t catch her breath. It seemed too brilliant to be true. It was too easy. They weren’t going to be killed. They never had to answer to Dan Schneider ever again.
They were efficient up there, if nothing else.
After a sharp beep, signaling a private message instead of a radio signal, Scott Fellows' voice came smoothly through the radio, “Misses Tarver and Sanders, you are welcomed to come back and serve the rest of your time with The Agency. However, you are free from your bonds. You may leave if you chose.”
The radio clicked off as quickly as it had come on.
Katelyn’s face broke into a grin, and she kissed Erin hard on the mouth, feeling how real and true she was, knowing that this wasn’t some twisted dream. Erin pulled her back into the bed, back into her body, and they slept without dreams.
The afternoon was blue and bright and filled with thick, fluffy clouds as Lucy bit at her lip and spoke, “You could come with me, you know. You would be great as a Fighter. We’ve been looking for people like you.” Lucy’s eyes were wide and vulnerable looking, like they always were. Katelyn was a little afraid to look into them, for fear that she would fall into their trap again, like she had that first time and then the countless times after.
Lucy had ripped her heart out and stomped on it and still pretended like she was the one who had put the world back together. She still acted like everything could be just fine between the two of them. Sometimes Katelyn’s insides burned like she ate hot coals for dinner when she thought of Lucy expecting a life from her-- after the way she had hurt everything.
Katelyn swallowed back the bitter ashes rising from her stomach, trying to say something horrible about Lucy and all of her expectations and all of her chaos and all the damage that she had actively caused. Before she could work the words out, Katelyn spotted the smudge of ash that smeared across Lucy’s cheek and felt that familiar rush of icy guilt flood into her stomach. She had hurt Lucy, too; she had left her own marks of destruction.
“Come fight the good fight with me,” Lucy whispered softly with something in the back of her voice growling. “You were always such a good fighter.”
“Oh Luce,” Katelyn said, rubbing that ash off of her cheek. “The fight left me a long time ago.”
“When I did?”
Katelyn was fucked if she knew how Lucy’s eyes managed to be so big and deep and clear, showing how broken she was.
“I am, too, Luce,” she said, tucking a strand of her black hair behind her ear and getting her fingers stuck there for a minute. “I am too.”
Katelyn wished she could get deeper into Lucy’s head. With Erin, Katelyn could always tell what she was thinking—how she felt about her, but Lucy’s head had always been this impenetrable island that she could never find herself sitting in or understanding. She didn’t know anything about it, not the topography or the way the waves hit the shore.
She had always been so confused by Lucy’s thoughts that it made her want to scream. She supposed that she should have known that things wouldn’t end well between them.
They sat in together in silence, listening to the world as it heaved a sigh of relief. The wind blew through tree branches calmly. The world had a lot to be relieved of, Katelyn thought, if it really knew everything like everyone here seemed to think it did.
Lucy’s voice sounded a little constricted, “So, what are you going to do?”
“I’m going to let it go. I’m not going to save the world anymore. Like I said, I’m giving up the fight."
Katelyn listened to the birds chirping and felt like her peace must be slotting in with the happiness that was coming together over the rest of the world.
“Where are you going to go? You know that The Agency is going to come after you. How long do you think you can hide?”
Katelyn looked up at the clouds that sat in staccato stacks across the sky. It was bizarre to take in the enormity of it all after everything that had happened to her recently. “Oh,” she said with a happy sigh, “I have a reason to think that they won’t. In fact, The Agency as you and I have known it has completely dissolved.” She smiled at herself with satisfaction at the revolution that she had somehow caused without even trying. “I think things are going to be very different back home, and no one is going to come looking for me.”
“You’re going back?” Lucy said, her voice tinged with hope.
“Home? Back to where I was born? Oh no. I couldn’t—I can’t ever go back there. I don’t have it in me. Really,” she said, looking into Lucy’s eyes and trying to be as kind and honest as she could find it in framework to be, “I don’t know where I’m going. But it’s an awfully big universe out there.”
“So I’ll never see you again?”
Katelyn hated the way tears were building up against Lucy’s eyes, and the way they sort of hung like icicles from her eyelashes. But she knew it wouldn’t be any kinder to lie to her, even if that old, flooding sensation of wanting to wipe Lucy’s pain away was pressing against her mouth again.
“Probably not, Luce. And that’s probably for the best. You know, some of me will love you forever. But some of me will never really be over what happened between us. I’ll never get over that anger at you. Or the shame that can't get over from how I treated you. Not really.” She brushed Lucy’s shoulder gently. “And I’m sorry about that. But we couldn’t ever be together after what happened. I’m not even sure that we could really learn how to be friends.”
Katelyn coughed away something stuck in her chest, wanting to believe that it was nothing but smoke and ash, but knowing that it was an entirely different kind of destruction.
“Will she go with you?”
It was the question that she knew had to come eventually. It was inevitable like Erin always was.
“If she’ll have me.”
Lucy almost smiled, “She will. She loves you. I’ve never seen anything like it. And I knew that you loved her too. I’m not stupid—I knew we don’t have any hope now. I just had to ask. It’s just, I wish you looked at me like you look at her. Like she looked at you.”
It started to rain, mixing big droplets with the tears that began to drop off of Lucy’s cheeks.
“We never had that, did we?”
“I don’t think so. I thought we did. But now that I have this, I think we were always going to explode. We weren’t right for each other, not from the beginning. But I’m still glad it happened.”
“You taught me who I was. And you were my first love,” Katelyn pressed her lips softly onto hers, feeling her own brow wrinkle under the twisted pain of it all, “I will always love you a little. And I will always, always be happy that I met you. You’re an important part of my life, Lucy Hale.” She sighed and took a step back, her hands dropping from Lucy’s shoulder.
They were separated by distance, for once and for all, just like they had been separated by emotion for such a long time before that.
“Goodbye, Katie.” Lucy said, looking down to where her tears dropped to the ground, her voice knotted like a strand of costume store pearls.
Katelyn took a deep breath and turned around, thinking about how it was the second time she’d had to look in Lucy’s eyes for the very last time. But this time, the world was not going to go dark, and she had another pair of beautiful brown eyes to go home to. She had a pair of brown eyes to call home, instead of only her self-pity to console her. The walk wasn’t so long, not even in the rain, when you got to go home to someone you loved—someone who loved you.
Katelyn's hair was dripping when she walked into the hotel room. “Hey, you,” she said, leaning in the bathroom doorway, watching Erin as she packed up the small collection of toiletries she had purchased for the run-down hotel that they had stayed in. “Are you feeling better?”
“Me? I’m fine. I’m still a little sore still, still a little tired, but I’m okay,” she said, not looking into Katelyn’s eyes. She had showered, and her hair was still wet in spots, clinging to the nape of her neck. “How are you? I mean, how did it go?” She gnawed on her lip until Katelyn was a little nervous that she would bite it off.
“Run away with me.”
Erin dropped the bottle of shampoo and the dental floss in her hands, letting them clang in the sink. “What?” she asked, eyebrows rising into the ceiling of her hairline.
“I can’t go back there. I can’t go back to our planet. Fellows let us leave, no harm done to us, sure. But i cant go back. You’re welcome to come back if you want, but...” She peeled at the string on one of her sleeves. “Or you could come with me, and we could build a life out there. We could see everything in this world and all of the other ones. Run away from all of this with me.”
Erin looked her in the eyes, her brows knitted together, until they smoothed and a smile broke out across her face.
After Erin had scrambled together the last of the things they had managed to get out of their old bungalow into suitcases, she stood at the window, looking out at the clouds that were melting grey into blue sky like pats of butter.
“It’s not a bad planet,” she said quietly, moving her fingers back and forth between playing with the curtains and twisting the buttons on her sweater. Some days Katelyn was sure that Erin’s hands would fly away like little birds or butterflies.
“No,” Katelyn said, sprawled on her back, looking up at the ceiling. “It’s nice here. That little place we had that picnic on once? That beach. That’s nicer than anything we have back home. It’s nice here. Just disorganized. Everything is so unconnected. Everyone is just running around like chickens with their heads cut off.”
“I think it’s nice. Even the disorganization. It’s nice that way. Even if everyone is like chickens, whatever that means.”
Katelyn laughed, “I spent a lot of my early missions on farms.”
“You are so bizarre,” she said chuckling a little and slinking down onto the bed to lay her head on Katelyn’s shoulder. “But you’d look good in a cowboy shirt or boots or an apron. Whatever it is that you wear on the farm,” she said, laughing and kissing her on the cheek.
“You’d hate being on a farm.”
“You don’t know.”
“It smells funny.”
“You could work out in the yard and I could work in the house and raise horses. Or we could go live on an island somewhere. Where the water hit the beach and we could see it from the front porch. I could make you sweet tea.”
Katelyn gave her a glare before she laughed. “Do you want to stay here?” she said, her voice soft and raking against her throat. “Because we could, if you wanted to.”
“I don’t know,” Erin said, rolling onto her back. “I don’t know if I want to be here forever. But I like it now. There’s so much to see here. You and I, we could see everything that there is. Here. And anywhere else.”
Katelyn smiled, staring at Erin’s straight nose and full mouth, and how the cream of her skin mixed with the chocolate brown of her eyes. She rolled over onto her, pressing up onto her elbows so Erin’s eyes would align with her own. “When do you want to leave?”
Katelyn pressed down onto her lips, feeling Erin’s breath melt into hers. She pulled back, and looked at the slight blush that spread across Erin’s cheeks and blended down to her jaw. “Really. When do you want to start our adventure?"
Erin pulled Katelyn down to her by the back of her neck, arching her hips up to Katelyn's.
"First thing tomorrow morning," she said, grinning wickedly.
As they exited the motel’s automatic sliding doors, the sun was pulling up above the horizon, dappling the world in thick pink light as reds and gold pressed themselves out across the sun. Their hands were laced tightly through the each others. The light wrapped around their fingers, painting them in rings and bands that bound them together like the universe had seemed to be doing from the very start.
Katelyn sat in the driver’s seat of the car with all of their possessions crammed in the trunk, taking one hand on the wheel while keeping the other on Erin’s hand, not trusting herself to let go of her; she wasn’t going to lose Erin right when they were on the brink of having everything together.
“You ready?” she asked, blowing a puff of nervous air out of her mouth.
Erin smiled in that small, warm way she had when she was really, truly happy, “Yeah. You know where we’re going?”
Katelyn laughed and loosened her grip on the wheel a little, letting go of Erin for a minute to start the car and throw it into reverse. “I have no idea.” She started out of the parking lot, reaching back for Erin’s hand, and sunk into the seat, “But we’ll know when we get there.”
Erin smiled back at her, her eyes glowing with the reflection of the sinking sun.