That August, on a deserted stretch of road, gritty dust chasing their eyes, sticking to their teeth.
The lawman has a tarnished sheriff’s star that may or may not mean anything anymore pinned at an angle on his shirt. He has fresh blood on his hands and the knees of his pants, three days of stubble, something casual and cruel in the set of his mouth. Taylor takes in all these details without blinking, without looking away from the shotgun cocked and ready and aimed unerringly at her.
She unpeels her fingers from the steering wheel, one at a time, the chips in her nail polish and the stickiness of the pleather against her palms. She doesn’t dare look at the passenger seat.
“So,” the lawman says, thumb stroking the barrel of the gun in a way that makes Taylor want to laugh in spite of herself, “tell me how this ends well.”
July is too hot, cracked scorched earth and Taylor’s hair getting ever more blonde every mile they drive.
The radio tunes in and out of static, strains of old music and new horrors, occasional cries for help when they change the station and catch someone’s frantic bandwidth. Tom hesitates sometimes, she sees the stiffening of his profile, and every time she hisses foot down, Hiddleston until he obeys. The world smells of burning rubber, the tyres screaming and shrieking over emptying roads turning to potholes and splitting asphalt.
Taylor dozes in the passenger seat sometimes, behind a pair of sunglasses with a cracked left lens, cats-eye, abandoned in an old rest stop that smelled of ammonia. She had a pair before these, and a pair before them too, but she never seems to be able to hang on to them for long.
“If you want to help them,” she sighs eventually, twisting the old radio dial until something loud and crass spills into the hot car, a spillage of words and misogyny with a beat beneath it, “pick a van, set up some kind of vigilante saviour business. You’ll probably manage a few weeks.”
For a moment, she thinks Tom is tempted. And then his mouth twists, tight, and he floors the gas.
Unlike many of Taylor’s previous partners, Tom can’t say that he wasn’t warned. He cannot say that Taylor lied, or that she pretended to be something that she wasn’t, or that he didn’t have all the details. He’d had them for months.
He had the files, the records, the cork board full of pins and lists of known accomplices that got shorter as they turned up, thrown to the law or the wind or the wolves. He had the grainy footage and the photographs and the autopsy notes. Tom had it all, was in charge of the case, sat by the hospital beds of his colleagues as they found Taylor and she found them right back. He knew who she was when he finally tracked her down, knew exactly what she was capable of.
Somehow, though, Taylor gets the feeling that this will still all come down to being her fault.
Another motel, the sheets unbearably warm and prickly against Taylor’s back. She reaches up to tangle her fingers into Tom’s sweat-slick curls, grown too long, bites into his mouth and flips them over. His eyelids flutter. He always keeps his eyes closed and she always keeps hers open.
Tom’s guilt is sometimes exhausting, sometimes a weight that presses them both down – though Taylor refuses to help him carry it, it’s not her fault – and sometimes it’s useful, in the way that he clutches at her like she’s the last lifebelt and he won’t breathe until she says he can. Tom’s all skin and muscle and maintains a slender vulnerability despite it all, even with his beard growing in where they have better uses for razors these days, and sometimes she fantasises about snapping him, having him tumble through her loose fingers.
She presses her teeth to his throat where his pulse leaps and stutters, and one of Tom’s hands tightens in her hair, pulls just enough to make her snarl. Taylor gave up on regrets about ten thousand miles and fifteen corpses ago, but Tom wraps his around his wrists and tangles it around Taylor and she hates it but no one who isn’t consumed with their own guilt fucks like that.
Taylor’s switchblade glitters on the nightstand, low lamplight while the electricity lasts, and in the morning she’ll flick bills across the desk like money is worth anything anymore and maybe the guy running this place on hope and determination and a baseball bat full of nails won’t tell the cops they were ever here. She’ll cut his phoneline anyway, but the thought is nice. Tom’s eyelashes glow gold in the light, and Taylor traces the lines of her bruises over his bones.
When she’s alone and her current car allows it, Taylor likes to drive with the top down and the wind sharp in her hair. She keeps her lips painted venom red at all times, visible long before her bullets are, and word about her gets around: they talk about her on the radio, and there used to be posters back before paper became scarce. Some people run for cover when she drives past; some run out of their shelters, their homes, waving scarves and yelling: Taylor! like a victory parade.
(Sometimes, they yell Taylor, take me with you! Taylor, please! But she doesn’t slow down, and she doesn’t look back, and she doesn’t think about them, because it’s not up to her to get anyone out of their shitty dying town, this shitty dying world. They need to steal their own car and their own gun and make their own choices, because Taylor can’t slow down, not for nothing, not for anyone.)
There was a time before the sky started falling, before water started running out and people started stabbing each other for gasoline and batteries, before December felt like June and clouds disappeared and cities started crumbling to dust and riots and desiccation. Back then, Taylor was a girl in a dress with her curls and her dreams and her heart, and she wanted things to be better and she wanted to help people and she believed that this was going to end. But it didn’t end, it just got worse and worse, and Taylor learned a lot of things in a short space of time.
Nowadays there is only her, and her gun, and an engine that works, and the dust she leaves behind.
Tom is restless, tired in the passenger seat in a dirty t-shirt, and he liked the running to begin with. He was wide-eyed, not naïve – never naïve – but hopeful, maybe, or at least relieved from living under his regime of trying to support a crumbling law with not enough manpower and splintering principles of his own.
He’s a genuinely good person, which is awful, though Taylor helps him forget it from time to time. Occasionally he tries to push for a touch more of her history, to find a kindred spirit, but Taylor won’t let him. He knows her past: has read it in black and white, knows who she was and then what she did and who she is now. She doesn’t want to resurrect corpses, tell stories that she has no use for anymore. There is now, and her survival, and that is all.
They’re down to the last can of gasoline in the trunk, a box of bullets in the glove compartment, water sloshing in its sealed containers in the back seat. Taylor keeps the cheap shitty whisky in the footwell, wrapped in an old purple sweater with birds on it. She looked nice in it, Harry always said so, but she’ll never wear it again.
They stop to stretch their legs on the outskirts of an abandoned town; the air is still and thick, and there’s no sound, though Taylor is jumpy for it, flicks the safety of her gun off. Tom leaves his weapon tucked into the back of his jeans, running his hands through his hair, the curls unruly and in need of washing. Taylor peers through the empty window frames of the nearest abandoned buildings, establishes there’s nothing left to steal, nothing left to destroy. Things were looted, things were stolen, and she imagines that the population dwindled until desperation forced the survivors to run. They pass through a lot of towns like this; if she’s being honest – and Taylor rarely is, these days – then she’s cleared out a few herself.
She finds Tom on the hood when she gets back, sprawled out, all slender limbs, and feels something almost fond tug at her heart. He’s looking beyond her, at the endless stretch of road that they’ll cover this evening, and tonight, and tomorrow, and the day after that, and probably the day after that too. There’s no sense in stopping. Taylor refreshes her lipstick where it’s fading, ruffles her hair, and sits beside him.
They’re quiet for long minutes in the oppressive warmth that never abates these days. Taylor reads the tension in Tom’s shoulders, in his jaw, in the way his lips work but his mouth never opens. But she’s always liked the horizon the way it looks reflected in his eyes.
Tom sighs, at last, and puts on his sunglasses.
“Taylor, Taylor,” Calvin was panting, “Taylor, we don’t stand a chance.”
Somewhere to the left of his head, a bullet crashed into the wall. Taylor curled her nails into the palms of her hands, took a breath, then two.
“You don’t know that,” she said, quiet. She’d had eyes on two guys outside, wasn’t sure if there were more of them, but they had more ammunition and weren’t holed up under the bar in an old shitty dive, the floor still sticky though the people who’d spilled all the drinks were long gone. There were no lights, and what she could see were Calvin’s eyes, wide and shining.
“Look,” Calvin said, and his hand was around her wrist a moment later, “we can surrender. We can get out of here that way. We don’t have to die.”
Taylor closed her eyes for a moment, used to calculating the odds by now, and then she said: “you’re right, we don’t.”
She was almost at her car when she first saw Tom, holding his gun in wavering hands, just another one of the ghosts holding up what used to be the law. His shirt was creased and he looked tired and Taylor was dressed in snakeskin silver, liberally splashed with Calvin’s blood.
It was a risk, but Taylor’s always taken risks, and she’s getting better and better at them. She tilted her head, coquettish, bright, and said: “are you coming, or what?”
Tom didn’t even hesitate.
“Do they have the manpower to look for you?” she asks Tom.
He's reading a battered book, the cover peeling back – something earnest and pretentious that he picked up when Taylor was sweeping sodas and candy into her bag, someone’s forgotten library. Taylor used to read too, but she doesn’t do much these days except plan and count and occasionally sing along to the radio, old songs that used to mean so much more.
She doesn’t even dream these days.
“They’re already looking for me,” Tom says without looking up, and Taylor hears the sharpness of the breath between her teeth.
“Are you helping them?” she asks, quiet and even.
“What would I get from that?” Tom asks, carefully folding over the corner of his page. “If they caught me, there’re no resources in the prisons and the riots are getting worse, and if you caught me…” He smiles at her, rueful, though his eyes are serious. “Well, I know what you did to Jake.”
Taylor loved Jake and had thought he loved her, though she hasn’t made that mistake about anyone since. Jake thought he was a lot cleverer than her, but he wasn’t. Not in the end.
“They’ll have my notes,” Tom says, like Taylor said something, like this is a conversation. “Your list of accomplices, your list of victims.” He smiles again, but there’s no mirth in it, and for a moment Taylor doesn’t know this man in the car with her. “I sometimes wonder which list I’ll end up on.”
Taylor swallows, and it’s harder than expected. She can see her knuckles are white on the steering wheel, the skin strained brutally.
“That’s up to you, isn’t it,” she manages, her voice entirely even.
Tom opens up his book again. “Is it,” he murmurs.
Taylor drove for one hundred and twenty-three miles with Jake beside her in the passenger seat. She kept the radio up loud, and Jake didn’t make a sound. Well, he couldn’t, with the duct tape over his mouth, wrists and ankles bound tight, while he bled inexorably out, slow, slow, slow.
Back to August, the broken road, the exhaustion, Tom’s silence either fear or passive-aggressiveness, the battered sheriff star, the shotgun.
“So,” he says, “tell me how this ends well.”
Taylor’s thighs are stuck to the seat with sweat, her throat is sore and dry, and she’s fed up of men and their ultimatums.
She could have stayed in the cities, hoped for the best, accepted her rations, locked her door with three different chains, maybe slept at night, maybe not, died of something accidental, died of something deliberate with someone desperate for her last handful of worthless dollars. Taylor thinks about that girl sometimes, the one she had to murder to survive, and sometimes she thinks about missing her, but that girl was built for a world that doesn’t exist anymore, and never will again. Whatever they do or don’t do, nothing will ever be the same again, and whatever bright future the survivors scrape together, it’ll be too late for Taylor. She’ll be a legend of these roads, fists and teeth and bullets and hope, and if that’s her legacy, she’s fine with that.
But her legend doesn’t involve being killed by this fucker, defending nothing, there’s nobody else out here, he’s just drunk on his own power. Taylor is drunk on her own power sometimes too, but she has higher aspirations.
“He one of yours?” she asks Tom, without turning her head, without breaking eye contact.
“No,” Tom replies, succinct.
He’s the one that moves, bullet straight through the windscreen, takes the lawman down before he can even blink. Taylor floors the gas, drives over the body in two quick vicious bumps, and they’ll need to change cars soon enough, they’ll need an intact one, but for now Taylor just drives, the hint of breeze through the broken windshield, her heart beating in her ears, Tom absolutely silent beside her.
John left her at the roadside, a sore sobbing teenager with grazed knees and elbows, but he didn't know that just because she hadn't learned all her lessons yet it didn't mean she hadn't learned a thing or two.
For one thing, he didn't know about Joe, who had told Taylor that he loved her, who held her while the news reports panicked as the stock markets crashed and the oceans boiled and people turned on each other like the animals they really were. I've got you, you'll be safe, Joe promised her, and Taylor and her hopes believed him.
He did leave though, the phone line that hadn't been cut yet buzzing in Taylor's ear, and part of her was furious at being left and part of her was furious that he couldn't do it to her face, couldn't tell her like an adult.
Gasoline is too rare these days for anything but emergencies and Taylor wasn't going to waste even the shittiest of booze, but there are plenty of flammable liquids out there and the spark of a lighter and Joe and his new girl and their safe haven weren't so safe after all. Taylor wondered, not looking back as smoke skimmed over her shoulders, if he'd made the same promises to that girl that he'd made to her, if they were ever more than rhetoric.
Taylor tracked down John herself, once she'd cut off her curls and stolen every shade of her new favourite lipstick from every drugstore that she passed, along with band aids and whatever painkillers the first wave of looters had missed. She stood in his headlights until his car slowed and stopped, and she made sure his face lit with recognition before she put a bullet through the heart that she had never owned in the first place.
It would be ironic, really, if after all her crimes, the ones that finally bring her down are the men she loved and lost and exorcised in the only way she could.
It’s entirely possible that Tom doesn’t know that he isn’t in love with Taylor; she spent a while thinking he did, and now she’s not so sure.
She arches beneath him, his mouth stained with her lipstick so it looks like blood, his eyes too blue and too close, his hips so small in her hands. From what she can gather, he was good at his job, kept his cool and his patch of the world together even with everything that’s happened, and she has no idea how he could do that, because he seems so fragile, so vulnerable when she holds him.
All things considered, Taylor would respect him more if he was playing the long game, leaving a trail of breadcrumbs to drag her down. He wouldn’t be the first to try, but she’s dealt with that before. She left Conor tied up at the roadside, and she thinks that someone found him before he died of dehydration. If they didn’t, well, it’s not like Taylor makes a habit of looking over her shoulder.
Tom murmurs her name, a plea, a prayer, and he’s smart, too smart for this. More than once, Taylor’s wondered if he’s got Stockholm syndrome, spent too much time pinning her locations to maps and reading about the people who travel with her, drag scarves over their faces and help loot what’s left of America, until one by one they fall behind her. Tom knows more about her past than Taylor is willing to remember, and he above all should know what the choice he’s made means.
(“You let Styles live,” Tom remarked, voice a slur, cheap shitty vodka and stargazing in what used to be a parking lot.
“Something like that,” Taylor agreed, though Tom made it sound so easy and it wasn’t, not at all.
She’s still got the scars, but it’s alright: she knows what wherever Harry is now, whatever he’s doing, he’s got his too.)
Taylor shuts her eyes, and for a moment, she floats.
The rearview mirror starts getting crowded.
Tom turns another page of his book and pretends not to notice, and Taylor keeps her eyes on the dashboard gauges, and starts the clock.
“We’ve been on the road with other vehicles before,” Tom points out, when he’s in the driver’s seat and Taylor’s kneeling on the back seat, squinting and counting. “We even drank with some of them, remember? They were nice.”
“You must’ve made a terrible cop,” Taylor replies, and then laughs. “I mean, of course you did.”
“I found you, didn’t I?” Tom replies.
Taylor doesn’t turn, but narrows her eyes, runs her suspicions through her mind, but they keep coming up blank. Tom could be playing her, could be leading her into a trap, but at gut level she knows that he isn’t. It would be simpler if he was.
“You weren’t supposed to leave with me, though,” she points out, thumbing off the safety on her gun. The cars behind are too far away for a shot, they’re not pushing their luck, and Taylor isn’t stupid enough to waste ammunition on nothing. It makes her feel a little better, though.
“How could I resist?” Tom says, and the sincerity in her voice creeps cool fingers up her back.
Taylor ignores him, and rummages in a bag for a box of nails, sharp little fuckers, and winds down the window to fling handfuls of them onto the road behind them. It might not be enough, they might even guess what she’s up to, but they’re a long way behind and it could look like she’s just stuck her head out of the window, flying hair and the bright slash of her mouth.
She wants to thin their ranks, get a little blood in the water.
The only person Taylor feels actually bad about is another Taylor, who had a smile like sunshine and broad shoulders that she loved wrapping her arms around, and she thought she loved him and didn’t realise that she didn’t until it was a little too late. She didn’t say anything, because they were together, much younger and hoping for better, and she’d rather have Taylor by her side than any number of more complicated lovers.
She thought that she’d made it, that they’d both made it, streaking away from the law with cans of gasoline and bags of cash that was worth a negotiable amount, but in this quantity would get them reasonably far, and Taylor was laughing beside her, boots pounding on the sidewalk.
The back window of the car shattered and Taylor ducked, driving blind and hopeless, while her Taylor, that boy, that man, tugged at the scarf across his mouth and coughed blood all over the dashboard.
“Hang on,” she begged him, voice cracking, a whisper, saying it over and over until her lips were numb and the words were a meaningless blur, and she only found she’d been crying later on, when she was far enough away to brake and crawl over to where Taylor was slumped in the passenger seat, crumpled half into the footwell.
He’d already died, blood dark on the upholstery, and Taylor pressed her face into her dirty hands and sobbed, young and scared for the last time.
Tom doesn’t see the butt of Taylor’s gun smacking his skull, sending him crumpling to the ground, still so angular, something graceful even in defeat.
Taylor tries not to reveal too much of herself to anyone, because she’s not stupid, not anymore, and the only person she’s got left to trust is herself. She’s got maps and plans and favourite highways, and she can’t leave anyone knowing them.
Well, there’s every chance that she might run into Harry on one of them one of these fucking days, but that’s a whole other story, and maybe she’ll win this time.
She hesitates, remembering the first time she kissed Tom, and he pulled away and wiped at his face, and she thought she’d left lipstick on his skin, but it wasn’t.
“Maybe get rid of the remnants of your last boyfriend,” he told her, and Taylor remembered pushing Calvin into the line of fire, a vicious frantic shove and a hail of bullets, but the first shot wasn’t theirs, and Tom’s expression told her that he knew it.
They’ll find Tom in the end, and maybe he’ll surrender, and maybe he won’t. She looks down at him, lit in the sputtering failing neon of a sign, two or three letters of an indistinguishable word. Taylor will leave the car here, but she’ll take the fuel, the water, the ammunition, the rest of his novel, and she’s not sure how many of the people following her will make it here – she won’t look back, but Tom did, reported the smoke spilling toward the sky, so at least one car crashed – but maybe they’ll find Tom, and maybe they won’t.
She considers the gun in her hand, the blood trickling down the nape of Tom’s neck from the hairline fracture, and he looks so small, so defenceless without those eyes to pin her down. She bites into her lower lip, cracking skin and waxy lipstick, and considers her resolve.
Later, Taylor drives into the dark, the radio crackling static into the night, and dares, fucking dares them to catch up with her.