Some quick notes:
-this takes place sometime before or during MRF. "post-nevermore" would be a better way to describe it.
-this is, self-evidently, in an AU. honestly it's more AU than canon, because despite paying eighteen whole dollars for MRF i cannot force myself to read it more than once.
-this is slice-of-life fanfic, aka there is no real "plot."
My sister wakes before dawn, which means that her voice is the first thing I hear as grey light draws me toward consciousness. She has a voice that would be generously described as "husky," but since we're related, I'll be blunt—she couldn't carry a tune in a bucket. At least she's aware of that, and doesn't strain it to screeching. Or maybe she isn't aware of it—in the months that we've been living together, we've yet to comment on how she sings, or even that she sings at all. But in any case, her voice is twisting through my mind, grounding me in this world.
Slowly I haul myself out of bed, smoothing the covers. I stretch, breathing in the chill air. It almost always feels like autumn, in a way that my old home never did. Maybe it's the clouds, maybe the world tilted on its axis from all the meteors that hit it, maybe it's because we're surrounded by water. All I know is that it means that I have to wrap up just about all the time, so I shrug on my sweater and slip on socks as I head to the kitchen.
My sister, typically enough, is in her bra and jeans and nothing else. She's sitting on the floor with her hands curled around a steaming mug of coffee, her legs folded and wings opened. She's always been thin, I suppose, but ever since food became scarce she's gotten almost insectoid in her leanness. Her eyes look larger in her face, and I can see the hard lines of her bones as they press against her skin. Her feathers, once a glossy and beautiful brown, look as brittle and dead as leaves in late autumn. It doesn't seem to bother her—but then again, nothing really does.
As I walk into the room, the song dies in her throat and she blinks up at me. "Hey."
"Put a shirt on," I tell her. "And not one of mine." Even though we share a bedroom (one of the two rooms in this house, not counting the bathroom), both of us are fairly neat. So whenever she shows up with one of my shirts stretched across her shoulders, bottom only hitting her navel, I can tell that she's doing it on purpose. Her idea of a joke.
"I'm fine," she says. "Are you going to go down to the far beach today?"
She always says the far beach.
She never says your mother's grave.
She never says our mother's grave.
I nod mutely and head to the makeshift stove. We haven't got much in the way of a kitchen—a mostly-handmade woodburning stove, a pot with a lid that's too big for it, a few chipped bowls and bent utensils, and an overlarge wooden spoon. But we have enough to cook with, so I boil rice in silence. When it's ready, I spoon it out into two bowls, and push the one with more on it towards my sister. Her mouth twists as she pushes it back and grabs the bowl I had planned on having myself.
"Aren't you going down to the farm?" she says. "You need the energy."
"Like you're not going to fight the fishboys," I shoot back. "How many calories do you burn chasing after them? How much energy do you lose nearly getting yourself killed?"
She shrugs, and the motion throws her collarbones into sharp relief. For a moment they look like wings, stretching like they'll be able to rip free of her flesh and fly her sternum right out of her body. Her mouth is still twisted—I know that look. She's convinced herself that, for whatever reason, she doesn't function like a normal human being. She's said those words to me.
So I try another approach. I soften my tone. "Look," I say, "You need to eat. You're no good to anybody if you don't eat."
"I'm no good to anybody anyway." She says this so calmly that I know she's thought it before, over and over, has said it to herself at night as she sits on the far beach and watches pale moonlight glimmer over the ocean.
I snort so hard that I manage to do a spit-take without actually having any drink to spit out. "Are you crazy? You're the reason I'm alive right now! You're the reason half of the kids on this stinking rock are alive right now!"
She flinches back as if I'd slapped her. For a moment I can see her eyes widening, and then she shoves herself to her feet and scrambles out, still shirtless.
We haven't talked about that. Ever. We've skirted around the subject, of course, and I've asked probing questions that she's either answered bluntly or shrugged off. But between my working on the farm and in the hospital, and her more or less spearheading the attack against the fishboys that are trying to claim this last, miserable part of the island for their own, we haven't had much time for long conversations. One time I tried asking her about her life before all of this, and she had stared at me for thirty straight seconds before saying, "Everything I cared about is gone. I don't feel like having that happen again. Fuck off."
Admittedly, that had only been a week after she saved my life, but it set a tone for all of our further interactions.
So instead of following her, I grab the bowl with less in it and start eating. She'll be back eventually, but not before I'm already gone.
I finish the rice, pull on another, larger sweater, jam my feet into my work boots, and head out for the farm. It's less of a farm and more of a garden—when the island flooded, so much was lost. In the days after we managed to salvage some plants—mostly tubers, but there were a couple of apple trees that had been brought in fully grown, and their roots were strong enough to withstand the water. And then almost a month in, when we were still exploring the rocky ridges of our new home, Miranda the bird girl found wild asparagus growing in a cave. That had been a good day—we had boiled the asparagus with some tentacled thing that the fishboys traded us, and eaten until we were all sick. That was back before the war with the fishboys started.
It feels so weird to say that word: war. I'm thirteen, for God's sake. I shouldn't know anything about war.
But I do. I know it in the way that my sister's shoulders are set when she walks out in the morning, in the way that Antoine the wolf boy was hauled into the makeshift hospital, his guts falling out even as he pressed his hands over his slashed-open stomach. We tried to stitch him up, but there wasn't enough skin left. So we tried to glue his stomach closed, but he died before we got halfway through.
I clench my hands into fists so hard that I can feel the skin between my knuckles beginning to split open again and take deep breaths. The air has warmed up slightly since when I first woke, and outside the smell of the ocean is so strong that if I close my eyes it feels like I'm underwater.
It doesn't feel like I'm underwater.
It doesn't feel anything like being underwater.
Thank God for that.
For a moment I stand still, breathing in the air and curling my toes up in my boots. And then I finally finish the walk to the farm. Even after the end of the world, we still need to eat.
Chisa the supergirl is already tending to the field when I arrive, and we work together in silence. Another thing I'm not quite used to yet: just how empty this cold world is. The ocean stretches out as far as I can see, and only sometimes do gulls soar overhead. Out of the two-hundred-fifty or so mutants that arrived on Paradise, maybe fifty of us live on this last bit of it. Sometimes some kids come in on the boats, rescued from other islands like our own. Sometimes some kids die.
And out of the fifty of us, we've developed a new naming system. No need for surnames, but letting people know what you are is considered polite. Back when Dagworth and his crew were still here, that was a capital-I Issue, the kind that led to fistfights and then worse. And then they broke into the recently-rediscovered compound, and then…
Well, and then Split Night happened.
Now we just give each other the heads up. Chisa the supergirl is a farmer, Antoine the wolf boy was the boy that five different girls crushed on.
Ella the human is trying to figure out what it means when nobody wants her around. Ella the human thinks that maybe, just maybe, she should have let those Doomsday freaks give her wings, because then she wouldn't be slowly rotting to death in air that's half brine if she could get away from here and find help.
And my sister isn't much of anything, anymore.
I suppose I should feel sorry for her, sorrier than I do. Because I do feel sorry for her, but mostly I just don't understand her. She's sad, obviously, but she's like a rusted knife. She's beaten down and warped and that's only made her more painful and deadly.
Chisa and I don't talk, but she's gracious enough to slow herself down for me. As we work side by side, I keep glancing over at her. She's all muscle, and a year or so older than me, but she moves like a little kid—all fascinated wonder and cautious touches. Like she could break the world if she pressed too hard. How she manages to combine this with her efficiency, I don't know, but it's amazing to watch. It almost beats the shame bubbling up in my chest that comes from knowing that I'm slowing her down, dragging her back like a ton of bricks tied to her back.
But we finish all the same, and we make good time.
Once we've put the tools back in the shed that's made out of the same salvaged sheet metal as the rest of this place, she straightens up and puts her hands on her hips like Wonder Woman used to on comic book covers.
"So Rick the bird boy and Allie the ticking time bomb should be way done with getting the fish netted and gutted," she announces. "Y'wanna come with and get some?" When she lifts her hand to shove a stray strand of hair back behind her ear, I realize that she's blushing. Maybe she's too warm under that oversized jacket of hers.
I swallow. "Um," I say, which is how most of my conversations with her start. "Yeah, that would be nice."
She grins at that, wide and bright. I start to smile back, but she's too quick. She loops her arm through mine and tugs me downhill, towards the east beach. I'm wearing work boots, but I still stumble a little.
"I keep telling you," she says, "I keep telling you that they taste great raw."
Even through all the layers we're wearing, she's still warm, and her arm in mine is like holding a bit of the sun.
"And I keep telling you," I say, "I don't have your superhuman digestion. I can't afford to lose ten pounds from a stomach bug."
"I'd bring you food!" she protests. "You wouldn't lose a pound, I swear." She turns her head and smiles at me, beaming and toothy.
Smiling back is as easy as breathing, and a stab of guilt hits me when I realize that not once—not once—not once today have I thought of Iggy, my kind-of boyfriend of several months. I mean, he kind of ditched me. Not that I blame him for that! There was an apocalypse, and I technically should be dead. But he kind of ditched me, I'm holding hands with Chisa the supergirl, and I'm going to let myself be talked into eating raw fish.
For a moment, I can forget that my sister is either pissed at me or locking herself up in her own mind. I can forget that we're technically at war, even as the breeze blows in salt water and the far-off cries of the fishboys. I can, with a little work, forget that finding food is a constant, never-ending job, and that if a bad storm comes in I would probably die, regardless of any last-minute acts of heroism.
The walk down the beach to the fish-house is one of the moments in my life where everything is clear and lined up, where the sun might as well be shining because it all makes sense. Chisa's hand is in mine, now, and we fit together like two puzzle pieces. The waves are pulling at the ground, the air is cool and clean, and if I gaze out over the water I can see for miles.
And then I hear Rick and Allie talking. They're sitting on the pier that stretches out away from their shack, legs dangling over
"—even Maximum Ride?" that's Rick, his voice hoarse from a faulty DNA melding. He's older than Max, about nineteen. He was probably a failed prototype.
"Yeah," Allie says. They're older than Rick, older than everybody, and covered with scars to prove it. Under the greyish light their shaved head and bony shoulders make them look alien. Next to Rick's dark brown skin and even darker wings, against the backdrop of the ocean and the sky, they look like they've been carved from marble and brought to life. They look like a robot from a sci-fi movie, one of the ones that are evil but not quite part of the system. They look like they could go off any minute. "Especially her." They spit into the water.
Chisa glances at me, and I very pointedly stop walking. She raises an eyebrow but doesn't protest. Rick and Allie are two of the most stand-offish people here, with my sister either just outranking them or falling short by fractions of an inch. Come sunset, they haul the day's catch to the center square so we can all eat, but aside from that they're practically nonentities. A couple of weeks ago the rumor was that my sister was in cahoots with them, hauling kids offshore and shoving them overboard. Which had to be one of the stupidest rumors ever, considering.
So to hear them talking is rare, but to hear them talking about Max? It's two mysteries at once.
"I guess, if you say so," Rick says slowly.
Allie shrugs. "Look, she would have come back if she made it. And the other kids, the ones who flew off after her—they would have come back if they made it."
"You sound like you don't care either way."
Another shrug. "If anything, I'm glad she didn't. She came across as a real asshole when I met her, and sharing an island with her wouldn't be my idea of fun. We'd probably have to deal with Split Night, version two."
I'm suddenly not so interested in listening to their conversation.
"Who the hell do they think they are," I mutter, my hands balling into fists. I realize, too late, that I'm squeezing one of Chisa's hands.
She gives me a look and squeezes back. "You're not going to get anything from fighting them," she whispers.
"They can't just say stuff about my family," I hiss. "My family who might be dead."
Allie's bark of a laugh cuts our whispered conversation short. "Are you kidding? Split Night was the best thing that happened to this rock."
"Not funny," Rick tells them.
"Not joking," Allie retorts. "It sent a message."
"You know what that message was?"
Before Rick can go on, Allie half-heartedly shoves him. "Come on, she's not that bad."
"She's not that great, either."
"Never said she was."
They start bickering. It's strange to watch, because the most I've seen of them has been at night, when all of us eat dinner together. Speaking of which…
"If we're going to steal raw fish, we're going to have to do it now," I tell Chisa. "It's late afternoon already and I have to help cook." I'm not an especially good cook, but I show up. I'm more consistent than the kids who stay home sick with radiation poisoning and need their food brought to them-which I have to do before we call the island to dinner.
Chisa frowns and glances over to Rick and Allie. "Do you want to?" she asks, her voice quieter than usual.
We walk back up the hill. Halfway along our hands find each other, and by the time we reach the town square we're walking shoulder-to-shoulder, fingers entwined. I'm trying hard not to make a fool of myself, not to stumble over my words the way I first did with Iggy. But the bitter anger at Allie hasn't subsided, and it's making it easier for me to stop myself from getting lost in how warm Chisa's hand is, and how her hair feels when the wind whips it across my face. It isn't exactly a pleasant sensation, but for whatever reason, her hair is much softer than mine is. It's strange—we've both been bathing in the same seawater—but pleasant at the same time.
We split paths at the square, with her going off to do whatever it is that she does and me heading toward the kitchen.
The kitchen is the one place on the island that's always hot. There's the perpetually-boiling water as Myrnah the lizard girl tries to get the salt out of it, the crackling warmth of three wood-burning stoves manned by Saketh the not-quite-a-fishboy that are responsible for feeding all fifty of us. There's an oven, but it is (was) gas-powered, and none of us know how to repair it. So we buried it out back and it's kind of an icebox now, even though there's very little ice.
Cooking is simple, comforting. Keep an eye on the rice, boil the fish, make sure that Stefan the bird-boy, the one who's a little simple, is washing the vegetables alright-it's an easy routine that my body picks up while my mind, pardon the pun, sits on the back burner.
And I think: I'm thirteen. I should be getting lunch at summer camp, not feeding fifty people.
But that world, the world of summer camps and irresponsibility, died in fire and water. I am what's left. And we need to eat.
We finish cooking—tonight we're eating carrots and seabird with our rice, rice is the one thing on this island that isn't in any short supply—and bring pots of food to the center of the island. There are already kids waiting there, kids with eyes as big as the bowls on their laps. There are a couple of kids who can't work, which means that this meal is the only one that they're going to be getting today. And as much as I want to fill up their bowls to the brim, I can't, because the war party hasn't come back yet and my sister, my sister, she's in the war party, and I need to be able to help her if she's hurt. So I dole out portions, making sure that Chisa and the other farm kids get a decent share, making sure that there's enough for everybody, making sure, making sure, making sure.
I keep my eyes on the horizon, on the near beach where the boats come in, and I don't notice Chisa's hand on my wrist until she takes it away.
And then Phoebe the bird girl, the closest thing we have to a leader, starts talking. Phoebe's oldish—not as old as Rick and Allie, but maybe older than my sister.
"I'd like to thank all of us who helped make this meal," Phoebe says, and the kids obligingly go along—"all of us, all of us," their voices like waves lapping at the shore.
"And I'd like to thank God for giving all of us another day alive," she continues, and the murmur goes on. And despite myself I feel my mouth forming the words. It's so easy to fall in, it's like going to church again and knowing the hymns not from practice, but from muscle memory. This rock is our church, this tree is our steeple, there are no doors, but here are our people.
"And I want to say that—we, all of us, we're tough. We're strong. We can—"
There's the creaking of wood and the thudding of boots of in the distance, and my head snaps to the horizon, traces a line down to the near beach. And somebody else says it before I do, but we're all thinking the same thing.
"The war boats are back!"
The war boats. Pierpont had two lightweight boats docked on the near beach when the disaster hit, and they were salvageable after…
Kimsa the dog girl and Harold the advanced human prototype stripped out the engines and built them up, and now each boat can hold up to seven kids, plus weapons and first aid gear. The war party itself is ten kids, and my sister leads. Her wingman is a wolfgirl named Leah, and I know every kid in the party because they've all been over in our house at once, drinking thin instant coffee and laughing while my sister sits with her legs folded and her eyes flicking from face to face.
My sister is in front, and even from here I can tell that she hasn't put a shirt on. Or she has, and she had to take it off, because there's bloodstained cloth wrapped in strips around her lower stomach, and as she walks she's leaning heavily on a wooden spear, a fishboy spear, the tip of which is dark brown.
I put down the container of food that I'm holding and tear down the beach. I don't know what I'm shouting as my feet take me over grass, over rocks, over sand, and I'm barely aware of the other kids behind me. My world narrows to the red on my sister's stomach, the blood seeping through a makeshift bandage.
Finally, finally I'm close enough to see how bad it is and—
Oh, god. The smell. I'll never get used to it. I press my fingers lightly to the spot just underneath my sister's ribcage, nowhere near the wound. "Are you okay?" I don't expect my voice to sound as broken as it does.
When my sister speaks, she sounds like I do. "Healing." Her eyes go to the spear that she carries. A good handspan of it is bloody. "Clean wound, no splinters. I'd know if it was infected." She would. It's happened before. "I'll eat, and go lie down, let you sew me up, but we're roasting squid tonight and the party gets… rowdy. Leah'll need help."
That's good enough, and the best I'll get from her, so we fall into step.
Behind her, the other kids are swarming her war party, cheering about a squidlike creature that Leah speared and begging to touch stolen spears covered in drying blood.
And I wish, I wish I could be one of them. I wish that I didn't have anybody to care about, because my sister is a rusty knife and she's stabbed herself into my heart. Her and Iggy and Nudge and Max, and Chisa wants to be close to me, wants to help me, but first I have to patch these wounds.
"Hey," my sister rasps. "Good news." She fumbles with her free hand to reach into the pocket of her jeans, and pulls out a whitish rock. I stare at it as her hand trembles. "You can put it," she hisses as her foot comes down wrong on a bit of rock and her body twists to compensate, "You can put it on the far beach."
She presses her hand, now a fist, against my stomach. I peel her fingers open, take the stone.
"Thanks," I say, swallowing the urge to ask her if she really thinks that a rock, a piece of rock, is in any way a way to make up for getting herself stabbed. I already know the answer. So instead I ask another question. "Do you have… do you have a name yet?"
And we don't say anything for a while. She doesn't eat dinner—I don't suppose she needs to, the war boats are stocked with salted fish and carrots. She lets me sew her up and I try to ignore how white she is, and how she doesn't make any sound to indicate pain, not even the bitten-back gasps that I've heard from the rest of her party. She even pulls out fresh bandages to wrap her stomach with and lets me put cloth on both ends beforehand.
But she doesn't put a shirt on when she goes out to roast the squid, and I'm not sure if this is a joke or if she just forgot. It's a chilly night and it's not like she wraps her wings around herself to keep warm.
Me, I bundle up. I pull on another pair of socks and grab her anorak, the one that she hasn't used since the second-to-last week of winter, I shove my feet into my boots and lace them up tightly, and I stick the crystal in one hand as I head out.
The light from the fire doesn't carry far, and the moon isn't the best source of illumination. But my feet know the path. This island is becoming part of who I am, part of my muscle memory, and I make it to the gritty sand of the far beach without stumbling once. I walk down and down, to where the water laps up, and I sit down with my boots in the surf.
"Mom," I say, and it's impossible for my voice not to break, for the tears not to come. "Mom, today was a good day. I had enough food, and I talked to Chisa. You remember- remember her, right? I've told you about her before. She's really nice. And I didn't get into any fights. And my sister got you this." I fish the quartz out of my pocket and hold it up, and it gives off a halfhearted glimmer in the moonlight. "I think she meant for like a headstone, but remember back when I was eight and I wanted to be a hippie? And you said okay, and you got me a little pink quartz stone necklace and a flower crown, and I wore 'em everywhere?"
I sniff and rub at my face. When the tears are gone I sit in silence for a long moment, listening to the cheering from around the bonfire. A shadow flits across my face, and when I look up at the sky my sister is circling. She's easy to pick out—the shape of her outstretched wings is like what raptors looked like, back in Arizona. From this distance, in the dark, I can't see how dull her feathers are, or the bandage wrapped around her stomach, or her steely-eyed stare. She looks like a huge bird, wheeling and free, unconnected to the world.
"Mom," I say slowly, tearing my gaze away from my sister and back to the water below, "Sometimes doing the right thing is really hard. I think that… she wouldn't mind it if I called her Max, you know? And maybe that's what she called herself, or maybe she had another name that she gave up when the world ended. So maybe being Max is easy for her. But she's… she's not. They don't even look the same anymore."
The ocean doesn't answer back. It never has. It never will. I could be talking to the old world, or to the skies that the Flock flew off into.
"I'm sorry you never got to meet her. I… I don't know if you would have liked her." The truth hurts, but I force the words out anyway. "I don't know if I would have liked her. I mean, her personality traits include holding her breath for a really long time and staring at things, and that's… pretty much it, if you discount the violence. But now she's important. And maybe she's somebody I'd like, deep down inside herself. And maybe she's somebody I'd hate. But she's somebody, Mom, you know? And even though I don't know… why she does the stuff she does… she still did it."
I roll the quartz around in my palm, testing its weight, and chuck it out over the ocean. It goes pretty far before hitting the waves with an almost-invisible splash.
Maybe it'll get washed up. Maybe it won't.
I turn around and head back, towards the war party. They've died down as they've stuffed themselves on squid, and they're sprawled out by the fire, cuddled up in twos and threes. Leah's the only one who isn't sleeping or close. She's sitting cross-legged, her eyes going between the fire and the sky. In the warm light, her umber skin glows, and her eyes have flecks of mica in them. She looks more alive than the rest of this island, in this moment. If Chisa's soul flew out of her body, it would look like Leah the wolfgirl.
I'm stuck in that moment, staring at her, when my sister lands. It's not silent, like the Flock's landings were—she almost falls flat on her face. But it's functional, and she pulls her wings in and goes to sit next to Leah, who throws an arm around her shoulders and leans close to whisper in her ear. My sister murmurs something back, and I feel ashamed and betrayed, with a fair amount of guilt for the latter. I'm about to go, to try to forget about how stupid I am, how useless, when her eyes catch on me.
"Ella," she says, and gestures at her free side. "Come sit." A pause. "If you want, I—"
I settle next to her, and Leah leans forward to catch my gaze.
"Heyo, Ella," she says, and her voice sounds like music. A bit rough, and close to a baritone, but music all the same.
"Heya, Leah," I reply. Her mouth curves into a grin as she settles herself closer to my sister.
My sister wraps a wing around me. This close, I can just about feel the gooseflesh on her body. It doesn't seem to bother her.
"You know you can call me whatever you like," she says abruptly. "Why don't you just pick a name and have it done with?"
"That's not what I want," I say, picking my words as well as I can. "I don't want to stick a label on you like a can of jam. You're a person."
"Didn't your mother name you?" she asks. I frown at your mother, but it's a step up from Dr. Martinez.
"I'm not your mom," I say.
"And thank god for that," Leah mutters. "This would be even more awkward." She tugs herself free and stretches, long and lean, before stumbling a few steps away from us and nudging apart a pair of cuddlers to slip in-between them.
"Go on," my sister says.
"Just…" There are a thousand words floating in front of me, but I can't seem to find the right ones. "What do you like? Maybe name yourself after that. Or pick something that… you want to be, I don't know."
Max would be better at this. She did pick her own name, after all. But Max isn't here, and I am.
We stare at the last bits of the fire in silence.
congrats if you made it through 5k words of angsty post-apocalyptic bisexual ella martinez, here is a cookie. you will probably get another if you review and tell me what you thought of my characterization and worldbuilding. if you didn't understand an implication that ella made to an Event that took place, i'd suggest leaving a non-anon review so i can talk to you about it. i'm totally up for clarification work!