The air was getting colder, and Lily could see her breath as she rounded the corner on the last block, jogging up to her apartment building. Despite the low temperature, she was covered in a sheen of sweat, breathing hard and ragged. After Lark had visited her in the summer, she’d started working out harder, pushing herself to be in the best condition she could be in, just in case they came by for another pirate adventure. They never did though, had it really been just this summer? It both felt eons ago and just the other day that Lark had appeared out of nowhere, asking her if she could go anywhere in time, where she would go. It was even longer ago that she’d run through these very streets, not these ones but still, carrying a much younger version of their friend on her back. Were they even her friend? Were they something less? Something more?
Lily pushed the feelings down and out, focusing on chewing up the sidewalk beneath her feet. Thoughts of Lark and her feelings were pushed down as her vision focused simply on finishing her run. She slowed to a walk as she reached the front of her building, pausing to take a few deep breaths before heading back upstairs, grabbing her mail on the way up. She recognized a couple bills poking through, some junk mail as well. Nothing good then, it could wait. She filled a glass with water and drained it, tossing the letters on her coffee table before heading in for a shower.
An hour or so later, after some stretches, the shower, and getting sidetracked with some planning texts, the former Lotus flopped down onto her couch, reading the newest message in a group chat about weekend plans. Lily had been added to it a while ago and never really engaged, simply watching the notifications roll by. She let the phone drop onto her chest, staring at the ceiling. She’d been finding cat stickers all over her apartment, and she suspected a certain time traveler had something to do with it. She had removed some of them, but this one stayed, a little cat in a ninja costume brandishing a throwing star at her.
Oh right, the mail.
Lily sat up, lazily flicking through the envelopes, tossing bills into one pile and junk into another. She stopped when she reached the last one, neither junk nor bill. It was addressed to her, in familiar handwriting in green ink. She opened the envelope, careful not to rip it, as if it would rip her connection to Lark. She pulled out the enclosed letter, and began reading.
There is a desk tucked snugly below the windowsill of the only window in Lark’s bedroom. It is frequently used as a seat, a perch for their ancient sewing machine, or a very uncomfortable impromptu nap platform. The window has a decent view of a nearby park, and on a clear night they can sometimes see the stars.
Today, the desk is clear of its usual detritus. The sewing machine sits neglected on the floor, half-buried by a heap of fabric they aren’t sure they’ll ever get around to tailoring. In its place is a pile of stationary. They’d addressed the envelopes first, and though the memory is distant the green ink is still fresh.
Only a few of the envelopes have a return address. They’ll be delivering them all by hand, but they want those few to know where to find them. Their handwriting isn’t great, but it’s at least legible. They have to make these legible. They aren’t going to be around for clarifications.
The thought nearly sends them off again. They stand abruptly, their chair teetering on its back legs before rocking forward into their knees again. They hardly feel it. Just another day, another somewhere-somewhen-else, and then they can handle this.
They sit back down. They write the letters in fits and starts. The changing topography of the laundry on their floor marks their comings and goings. The stickers on their desk are picked at and pasted over. Sometimes they don’t write for days, weeks in their own time, and sometimes they catch a sudden inspiration and jot the words down as quickly as they can. Some take more drafts than others, and their trash can overflows with clumsy words and scrapped sentences.
Writing Lily’s is… more difficult than they thought it’d be. They’re going to be asking a lot of her. The final draft, when they finally decide to stop agonizing over it and seal it away in an envelope, goes something like this:
You might want to be sitting down for this. I don’t know exactly where this letter will find you, but I know where it will find me. I’ve known where it will find me for a very long time.
I had hoped I wouldn’t have to ask this of you, but I’ve spent years searching for alternatives and haven’t found any. Time, as you know, is a tricky thing. I’ve never been able to change anything I’ve seen, which is perhaps why I stopped looking as closely as I could have. And why I didn’t spend as much time with you as I could have. I treasure the time we did have. I hope you do too.
I’m being vague. I do that. I’ll get right to the point — Lily, the day you’re reading this is the day I die. This is not a joke or a prank, though I sometimes wish it was. I’m going to ask something of you now. You’ve been a good friend to me, and I can only hope I’ve given you enough to retroactively make up for this.
In this envelope there is a card with a time and a place. At that time and that place, I need you to find me. There are more instructions in my apartment, when you’re ready. That’ll be the return address on the front of the envelope. I trust you’ll do what’s best.
P.S. I’m sorry. You’re the bravest woman I know.
The pen color switches to a darker green halfway down the page, like the first pen ran out of ink midway through. The post script is scribbled hastily at the bottom of the page, and at times their handwriting slips into something a little more slanted, though still legible. This is the first time they’ve told her their last name. This, if they are to be believed, is the last time they will tell her anything.
There is a small card tucked in the envelope alongside the letter, carefully inscribed and folded neatly in half. For once, there is not a sticker in sight.
She didn’t believe it the first time she read it. She barely believed it the second time. By the time Lily had finished a third reading and was beginning a fourth, drops of moisture had soaked into the paper, threatening to smudge the green writing. She couldn’t do a fifth, as the letter swam in her vision and she set it on the table, tears silently dropping to the floor.
What did they mean? Lark couldn’t be dead, they couldn’t be. Lily didn’t want to think about the pieces that were clicking into place in the back of her mind, the wistful glances, the lingering moments they had spent in contact with her, their sudden appearance and subsequent piracy, it had all been because of this. How long had they known? How many of those moments had there been, Lark filling up their personal scrapbook with memories to look over before their death? The postscript ran through her head, but she brushed it away. There was nothing else there, it was wishful thinking. Lark doesn’t, didn’t, do love confessions.
Lily remained like that on the couch, head held in her hands, shoulders wracked with silent sobs, for who knows how long. Lark would, they always would. When she finally managed to take a breath, she caught sight of something. Oh shit, the card. She hesitated, hoping that this was still all part of some big joke, that the card would have a little message scrawled on it teasing her. But Lark didn’t do that, they were mischievous, not cruel. Lily took the card from the envelope with a trembling hand, unfolding it to read the enclosed message.
The place was vaguely familiar, she knew the street and could look up the building on the way. The time, shit. Lily checked her phone, the time was soon. Shit shit shit. Lily jumped to her feet, running to her room to grab her shoes before she stopped, flicking off the bathroom light that she had accidentally left on. She stopped dead in her tracks. The shower. If she’d read the mail first thing she might have been able to stop it, she could’ve gotten there sooner. Tears welled up in her eyes before she blinked them back, she couldn’t afford to waste time crying. She slipped on her shoes and flew to the door, stopping as soon as her hand touched the knob, as a familiar emerald light filled her apartment.
“Lily!” It’s a familiar voice, though rendered less so by the apparent youthfulness of it. “You’re still here!”
There’s a twelve-year-old Lark standing in her apartment, their eyes wide and green and relieved. They’re across the living room from her, and for a moment they’re frozen. She looks so sad. Their hand, outstretched, falters slightly. “Oh. You know now, don’t you?”
In a blink of cut-out movement, they’re a few steps closer. The Lark glances off in a seemingly random direction, worry visible on their face. That wasn’t their stop. They cross the rest of the distance quickly, reaching out to latch onto her arm. “There isn’t much time left.”
With their free hand, they shove open the door and start to usher her out. They’re tense, and they keep looking over their shoulder as though expecting to be stopped at any moment. No one else appears, no older Lark showing up to kick them back to their place in the timeline, and they briefly meet Lily’s eyes before looking anywhere but. “I need your help. Not me, but me. You know?”
“I would’ve come sooner, but I… it’s- well, I’m here now, maybe there’s still time.” They’re determined, and they’re so so young and so so so alive. Time keeps pausing and shuddering around the both of them, but they don’t pause even as the world itself does. “We’ll have to hurry.”
It was a familiar voice, younger but still familiar. Lily turned to see the twelve-year-old Lark standing in her apartment, arm outstretched. They looked so sad, a grief-stricken expression that she’d never seen Lark wear. They had a sort of tired sadness when they thought she wasn’t looking, in those few moments when they’d let the mask slip.
Lark jumped forward, a moment of paused time slipping between them. Worry flickered across their face as they glanced off in a random direction before opening Lily’s door. They all but pushed her out, looking back hesitantly like a child who’s about to be caught. Were they? If another Lark could come and stop them, why couldn’t they stop their own death? Lily met their eyes and nodded mutely. She had so many questions and yet her tongue was lead in her mouth as she ran with Lark, time starting and stopping repeatedly, like someone clicking a stopwatch at odd intervals.
“Lark, what’s going on?” Lily’s questions came out as stuttering fragments to passerby as she ran through the moments of stopped time, kept moving by the hand of the younger Lark. “Why are you dying? Why didn’t you tell me?” She didn't know if a twelve-year-old would have the answers, she didn't care. She didn't really expect an answer either, everything was just going so fast she couldn't think right.
Lily says their name strangely. It’s their name, but it’s not them she really wants to talk to. Other Larks don’t call each other by name, not really. It nearly makes them pause, but then their grip tightens. Their thumbs pop out through messily cut holes in the sleeves of their shirt, and there are a few band-aids scattered across what’s visible of their hands.
They aren’t the Lark that she knows, or the one that she wants. They hardly come up to her shoulder, and though they don’t act their age they don’t have the ancient knowing or the exhaustion of their future counterparts.
But she’s the Lily they know. Lark just keeps holding onto her arm, fielding her questions as they run. Their legs are shorter than hers, but they don’t ask her to slow down.
“I’m not supposed to do any of this.” And they know, deep down, that this isn’t going to make a difference. But they have to try. They have to know they tried. “I tried to tell you earlier. I nearly did, but they wouldn’t let me. I wouldn’t let me.”
It’s still hard to imagine, the days where they’ll look back on everything they’re doing now and want to stop it. It isn’t fair that they already know they’re going to give up before they even get the chance to try.
She asks a question they don’t expect, and Lark glances sharply at her. There’s something very nearly despairing in their eyes. Does she not remember? “You helped. You-”
They nearly trip over an uneven segment of sidewalk and have to watch where they’re going again. The stiff canvas fabric of their pants is already worn thin around the knees and shins, but this time their grip on her arm keeps them upright. Their voice is quiet, but it seems loud in the stillness of a pocket of stopped time. “You asked me to trust you.”
Lark kept running forward, clutching Lily’s arm as they guided her. She could run faster, but kept pace with them, hoping there was some point to all this. They talked about how they weren’t supposed to do this, how they tried to tell her earlier, but Lily hadn’t really interacted with a young Lark like this. She remembered younger ones, and the older one that she’d become friends with and...become friends with.
They turn back to look at her and if Lily’s heart could break a second time it would have. There’s something so desperate, so pleading in those eyes, like she’d just betrayed them in one of the harshest ways. They stumbled over a piece of sidewalk and the echoing silence of stopped time surrounded them both.
Now the real question, Lark. Do you trust me? I promise that I’ll catch you.
It felt like a lifetime ago, but she still had both of them. The ninja cat sticker was on her laptop, and the sword with a multicolored ribbon had gone on her phone the very next day, replacing the lotus flower that had once been there. But she’d gotten those from a different Lark, a younger one. Had they really remembered her promise all these years?
Tears welled up in her eyes as Lily pulled them both to a stop, kneeling down and taking the younger Lark into her arms before they could protest, holding them tight against her. The dam didn’t break, though some threatened to spill through the cracks. Hundreds of unsaid things, confessions and admissions that they hadn’t experienced, an uncountable number of things that Lily wanted to say that she just couldn’t. This wasn't the Lark that she was mourning. They didn’t deserve that burden.
So no tears came, no silent sobs, just a tight embrace, solidarity, protection. A promise kept, reforged. Lily loosened her arms, staring into those green eyes, so young and full of life, and gave a firm nod. Her grip didn’t disappear completely, hoisting Lark up and swinging them onto her back like a backpack, an oddly familiar position for both of them.
Lark starts to protest when Lily stops, and they want to scream because they should be running if they want to have any hope of making it on time but this is Lily and she was nice to them and everything is awful.
It takes them too long to realize that she’s hugging them. They don’t quite hug back, too tense to do more than endure it.
That’s what they tell themself, anyways, but they still find their forehead resting on her shoulder when she pulls away again. They look into her eyes, wondering if she’ll notice that their eyes are so much lighter than their older self’s and if they’ll remember to tell her that hers are pretty and if she’ll cry when she sees the Lark she wants to see.
But those wonderings aren’t important. The clock is still ticking. They allow her to pull them up onto her back after only a moment of doubt. They don’t have time for doubt. They hardly have time for anything, and they can’t make more this close to the end.
They hold onto her shoulders as best they can, pointing further down the street with one hand. “That way. Or-”
The chimes haven’t really stopped, Lark has just been ignoring them. They adjust their point, drifting slightly to the right as they try to pinpoint the exact direction where the not-sound is coming from. “That way. But the buildings are in the way.”
Their eyes are dry, and now that they’re off their feet they feel very tired. But they can’t rest yet. “Hurry. There isn’t much time left.”
Lark was tense in her grip, and Lily released them with only a little bit of awkwardness. They had rested their head on her shoulder, so maybe they needed it a little bit too. She looked into their eyes, so much paler than those of the Larks she’s befriended, but full of so much sadness and weight that no child should have to bear. Not for the first time, Lily wondered what had caused this much pain, if they had always known they were going to die.
And why they hadn’t told her.
Lily shook that thought off, that was for when she was alone at night, not now. Lark was here and needed her. They climb upon her back, holding onto her shoulders. They’re a bit heavier than the last Lark she carried like this, but she can still hold their weight. At this point, she’d hold the weight of the world if it meant they didn’t have to carry it. They pointed to where they knew their older self was, probably through some Lark-based connection they shared. Apparently buildings were in the way, but that hadn’t been a problem for her before.
“Just let me know when to change direction!” Lily yelled over her shoulder as she took off in a dead sprint, pouring every ounce of energy that she could into running in whatever direction Lark pointed her in. She dodged traffic, sidestepped pedestrians, and had more than a few swears thrown at her. She could make it, they were right. If she ran fast enough, she could stop this. Lark didn’t know everything, there could still be a way out of this. She just had to get there in time.
The clock in their mind keeps ticking down, but they can do this. They’ve got Lily on their side, and that has to count for something. She’s faster than Lark would be on their own, and they hold on tightly to her shoulders as they round sharp corners and cut through crowds. The air cuts around them, cold as ice. Their fingers are wind-bitten and red within moments.
“Right here,” they call, briefly pointing before burying their face in her hair as she scrambles to follow. She smells like shampoo, a spicier kind without the floral notes that older Larks tend towards. It’s nice, as nice as anything can be at a time like this. They don’t know how she keeps her footing in the snow, but they don’t have the spare energy to question it.
They’re so close now, they can see the building and the flashes of green light through the windows of the second floor. The chimes are so loud, and the timer keeps ticking down.
“That one! There!” For a moment hope soars in their chest, because maybe they still have time. Time to fix things, time to set things right, time to-
The clock in their head is never wrong. The clock in their head says there’s ten seconds left, and that isn’t enough time for anything.
“No.” Abruptly, the young Lark is dead weight on Lily’s back, and they wind their arms around her shoulders and their legs around her waist as though squeezing tightly enough could keep them anchored there. “I’m sorry.”
All they can think to say after that is, “I tried.”
And then their weight is gone, but something else lingers. The green of the timestream envelops them, and, unlike every other time they’ve harnessed it, that energy escapes into reality. Lark is spirited away unharmed, but their afterimage flickers for another impossible second. Within their outline is a raging fire and a rushing river and the crackle of potential energy, all of time collapsing in on itself.
Lark gave them directions and Lily ran like her life depended on it. Not hers, but arguably one that's worth more than hers. The wind bit at her, tugging at her hair and her passenger, not enough to disrupt either of them but just enough to make the journey slightly more harrowing. Lily almost slipped and fell at several points, a spectral blue leg appearing to stabilize her and keep her going. She couldn't stop. Every second she hesitated was a second Lark didn't have to lose.
Slowly she stopped listening to Lark's directions, anticipating where they direct her to go. At first Lily didn't understand it, wondering if there's some sort of sixth sense she had about Lark, but that wouldn't make sense. It's only once it got louder that Lily realized what she'd been following.
Faint chimes were echoing down the streets and reaching her.
Lily dug into the slush with renewed effort, following the sound of Lark's arrival and disappearance as quickly as she could. Her breath came out in ragged gasps as she pushed herself harder and harder, knowing that if the roles were reversed Lark would do the same for her, right? Before she could answer that hypothetical question that she's not quite sure she wants to, she heard Lark pipe up once more. Lily saw the building, saw the emerald flashes lighting up the windows in time with the chimes. She kept moving, kept running. She allowed herself to feel a little bit of hope, the hopeful tone of younger Lark infecting her as she pushed towards the last part of her journey.
Then she felt Lark go slack before tightening around her. And Lily's heart plummeted.
She wanted desperately to untangle them, to reach down and hold them tight. Their apology is a knife in her heart and Lily knows that no matter how hard she wanted to, she can't change time. She skidded to a stop, standing there, reaching up a hand to tousle it in the tangled silver locks of the child on her back, the best apology she can give. Saying anything would cause the tears gathering in her eyes to spill over and drop to the ground. But as her hand ruffled in the hair and Lark said those two words, Lily couldn't help but respond.
"I know you did, kiddo. You did the best you could."
She barely managed to choke back a sob, so many words left unsaid, so much more she wanted to say to them, to the Lark she knew and lost, to the child that knows their ending. Before she can say any of it, however, chimes reappear. For a moment she's hopeful, and Lily glanced around frantically, desperately searching for the silver hair and crooked smile of a time traveler who cheated death and couldn't wait to tell her the story.
Instead, the chimes continued, doubling, multiplying, a chorus of metal and crystal and glass singing in discordant harmony, all familiar sounds that Lily faintly remembered, singing a beautiful chorus as the weight is lifted from her shoulder, abruptly disappearing. Lily whipped around in shock, seeing the flickering emerald outline of the child she had carried here, the child who had trusted her, the child who had just wanted to live. And within an instant, the outline shattered, the crackling, sizzling energy escaping into the air, into Lily.
It burned, it hurt, it seared her face, her chest, her skin, her soul. Lily cried out as she fell to the ground, and she couldn't tell how much of this pain was from whatever had just happened and how much was from losing Lark a second time. She let out an anguished sob, not caring who saw her crying in the snow, who saw her mourning. Lily had just lost the most important person in this world to her, again, her hopes raised and dashed against the rocks.
The knees of her pants were soaked through and cold by the time she turned her attention skyward. Green light no longer flashed through the windows of the building, the chimes no longer rang. Lily drew herself to her feet and began moving towards the building, each step the last thing she wanted to do in this world. She pushed her way into the building, taking the steps two at a time. No longer racing to prevent the inevitable, but calmly approaching it, taking the steps to its door, the one that she knew contained Lark's fate. The last thing she wanted to do in this world was open that door. But Lark had asked her to do one last thing.
She couldn't save them, but she could bring them home.