“We need to get out.”
Blaine nodded. Down on the street, a sobbing woman was forced to her knees by a soldier and shot. Sebastian reached out, tugging Blaine away from the window.
“You don’t need to see that.”
“Don’t I?” Blaine asked. “Shouldn’t someone?”
Sebastian cottoned on. “Plenty of people saw that. Have seen that.”
“It doesn’t count if you don’t care.” Blaine’s troubled gaze slid away, and then, slowly, he said, “I don’t want to stop seeing.”
“You won’t.” Sebastian ached to extend his reach, to wrap an arm around Blaine, hold him ... but Blaine still wore that ring. A barrier as sure as the walls of the Quarantine Zone they lived in -- and just as much of an illusion of safety, if you asked Sebastian. “C’mon. Let’s pack.”
Blaine didn’t move, and Sebastian tugged again, more insistent. Blaine went, but it didn’t feel like acquiescence. Sebastian grit his teeth against it, and with teasing and reassurance in turn he managed to get Blaine to pack up his meager possessions. He didn’t comment when Blaine picked up a blood-stained felt rabbit and pressed it to his face, politely turning his gaze away. These were little things Sebastian knew how to navigate since Everything, Then, The End Of The Fucking World and Its Fucked-Up Sequels, whatever you wanted to call it. In today’s world, you made your own reality, and Sebastian ...
Sebastian had designed his with Blaine in mind. He’d had no other choice.
The QZs were supposed to protect them, but well, put armed maniacs in charge of keeping the peace and shit inevitably hit the fan. Armed resistances sprang up in return, Fireflies and riots and crazy-rage fires sweeping whole districts, with anyone not feeling suicidal stuck in the middle as they tried to make a living in a dying city.
Back in the Everything-Then-End Of The Fucking World, the QZs had been a beacon of hope. Relative safety from the infected, shelter, heat, supplies. Everyone had flocked to their promise. Sebastian had too, after a hellish time searching for signs of life in his family, his boyfriend, his sanity because fuck , these things weren’t supposed to happen.. Had heaved a sigh of relief when he’d seen the razor wire-and-concrete protections.
Then he’d had to take that breath again when he’d come across Blaine Anderson, of all people, in a rations line. Blaine, and Kurt, and their daughter, a little sweet thing. Old grievances were put aside so they could protect each other. Solidarity through circumstance, or maybe growing up, or maybe need before want. It had worked, for a while. Then, with time, with the hunger and the slips in the barriers and rising death counts, with the chaos of trapped animals chewing at their legs, it became just Sebastian and Blaine and his daughter.
Then just Sebastian and Blaine. Alone together.
That was years ago, but Blaine had never quite recovered. Always seemed to have a foot in another world, a world where likely his husband and daughter were still alive. His own reality to help him survive, and Sebastian couldn’t blame him. Who didn’t fantasize about an escape? Well. Not Sebastian. He had always accepted things as they came. That was probably why Blaine had once called him heartless.
(“You just don’t … care. ”
Blaine hadn’t even been angry. )
It was good Sebastian was cold. It was good he knew to be ruthless. It was what had kept the two of them alive.
So what if he told himself Blaine appreciated it, deep down?
They left come dawn, sneaking out through tunnels Sebastian had learned smuggling. There was no legal exit from a QZ. So desperate to keep the human race alive you weren’t even allowed to be suicidal -- or, as Sebastian had once heard it, a pioneer .
Nothing new left to find now, though. Just relics, modern history in frozen tableaus.
Sebastian had been as far as the furthest outlet mall out west before, but now they were headed south, needing warmer climates. He kept an eye on the world around them, suspicious of the unfamiliarity, even though he must have walked up this cracked blacktop highway years ago to get to the QZ in the first place. His own car might still be stalled somewhere along the hundred mile winding stretch of it, like all the other stripped cars scattered over the road like abandoned toys.
(“The cow goes moo, the piggy goes oink, the bunny goes -- uh -- hop?” )
Sebastian grabbed Blaine’s hand as Blaine started to lag, long days spent lying in his bed staring at the ceiling punishing him now. Blaine stayed at their hands but said nothing, didn’t grip back. Not a surprise, but Sebastian still frowned. Turned his eyes forward. Kept alert. The only time he let go was when they had to separate to climb over a car, but then they’d reunite, the bridge of their arms a tether -- and though Blaine faltered, he never stopped.
They didn’t speak. The only sound was their footsteps, the rustle of their bags and gas masks against their hips, the sounds of nature reclaiming wild space in whistling calls of wind and bird, the whir of insect activity, the occasional coyote howl.
It was … nice. Nicer than Sebastian had expected, since he’d stuck to more travelled pathways before. The greenery was alive, flowers bursting ripely, bushes hanging heavily with berries, the air fresh and sweet the way it had been in the dull Ohio springtime, driving past green fields. There was also nobody around for miles, infected or otherwise.
“It’s good,” Sebastian told Blaine, as they passed by a burnt-out husk of a gas station whose lettered sign read SURVIVORS INSIDE. “You can’t trust anyone who lives outside the walls. Total maniacs.”
“We’re going to live outside the walls,” Blaine said after a moment.
“Yeah.” Sebastian hefted a shoulder. “And I wouldn’t advise anyone to trust us either.”
Blaine’s gaze flicked back at the gas station, and he frowned.
“That’s a terrible thing to say.”
“I’m not trustworthy.”
“I trust you.”
Sebastian smiled at that. “Well, you’re the only one who should.”
Blaine nodded slowly and looked away. “Do you trust me?”
That surprised Sebastian, who paused them a moment, the sun warm on his back as he turned, tipping Blaine’s chin up with his free hand.
“Of course I do. Who else?”
Blaine smiled, and for a second he could be seventeen again, their first meeting, sweet and faraway from here. Then it faded, his expression undone, and Sebastian set them walking once more, brutally smothering any disappointment.
Those smiles had never been for him, anyways.
For a long time they were just … walking.
They slept during the hottest parts of the spring days, in shifts, then doing most their travelling at night, their flashlights doing the work where the moon failed them. If either of them had been afraid of the dark before, they’d gotten over it by getting a crash course in what went bump in the night during the whole apocalypse thing, and there was something refreshing in a world of caution about being fearless as they wandered. Old country roads gone to weed or major highways whose lights had long since gone out, it was all the same, just a path. In the blackest nights when the moon was gone and the clouds heavy and they couldn’t even really see each other, they still had the warm grip of their joined hands, and that was as good as roadsigns for Sebastian.
Since they had no real destination, it was, as high school motivational posters might have said, all about the journey.
(Sebastian had a silly fantasy about a white tropical beach somewhere, coconut and crab, just the two of them, but it hadn’t been a reality when planes existed so it was even less likely now.)
Sometimes people said the cold stopped the infection in its tracks. Sebastian thought that was bullshit; the only thing proven to help was gas masks to keep out the pollen and amputation of any area that had been bitten or scratched -- and the latter was heavily debated. It was, he felt, and Blaine agreed, better not to freeze your ass off in snows and ice just because you thought Canada sounded neat .
“If we make good time we should avoid this winter,” Sebastian said over dinner (or rather, breakfast) of squirrel stew that night.
Blaine nodded, and abruptly said, “I’d never want to do an Ohio winter without a house.”
“It makes you think about homeless people,” Blaine continued, stirring his stew slowly. Sebastian hoped that wasn’t a commentary on his cooking; skinning something cleanly was harder than it looked, even with how good he’d gotten with a knife. “How hard it would have been for them.”
“Technically, we are homeless,” Sebastian pointed out. He paused, then laughed. “Christ, now there’s an idea that would have made a younger me actually cry.”
Blaine laughed too. Sebastian’s smile grew wider. “I can’t see you crying.”
“I’m sure it happened once or twice, not that I can remember.”
“Uh-huh …” Blaine took a bite, chewed, and there came the overcast shadow to his unusually bright expression; Sebastian sighed and returned his attention to his own food.
That was definitely gristle. Sebastian made a face, flicking it into the flames.
The fire cracked, pop. Threw embers. The light of it gleamed on Blaine’s wedding ring that slid down his finger, sized for more well-fed times. Blaine was terrified of losing it, and Sebastian was startled to realize Blaine slept with his hand curled in a fist to protect it. Before, they’d had separate bedrooms, and that door was always closed to him. Now, under the sun and stars, there were no secrets.
“You could put it on a chain, you know.”
Blaine blinked at him. “What?”
“The ring,” Sebastian said. “Your ring.”
Blaine offered his hand out. “It’s a wedding ring.”
“It being on the ring finger was a bit of a tip-off, yes.”
“Then you know I can’t take it off.”
“It’s not like I’m suggesting you toss it,” Sebastian said. “Just … move it elsewhere.”
Blaine returned to eating, shaking his head. “No.”
“C’mon,” Sebastian said. “It could be like -- closer to your heart. Whatever.”
“It’s a wedding ring,” Blaine snapped. “It stays on the ring finger. Discussion ended.”
“Fine,” Sebastian ground out, “don’t come crying to me if you lose it.” Blaine flinched, and Sebastian instantly felt like a jackass. “Hey, I didn’t mean …”
“I’m going to bed,” Blaine said, setting his half-eaten food down. “The ground. Sleep. Whatever.”
“You just woke up an hour ago --”
With a petulance ill-suited to a man creeping towards forty, he retreated to the softest patch of ground under the tree they’d picked, and rolled over, putting his back to Sebastian. Sebastian shook his head, and though he’d lost his appetite himself, forced himself to continue eating.
He’d choke on as much gristle as it took to be strong enough to survive.
A few days later, after a series of thunderstorms that soaked them through and flooded creeks they’d been crossing, shunting their path back to civilization, they came to a mid-sized town -- or maybe village was a better descriptor. There was no sign, so just Nowhereville, West Virginia by Sebastian’s guess -- and it was the first tall buildings they’d seen in awhile, silently agreeing it was smarter to keep to less-travelled paths after a herd of clicker had driven them off their last highway. The sunset was brilliantly red, and felt unnecessarily ominous as it painted the world around them in bloody shades.
“I don’t like it,” Sebastian said, staring at the quiet streets and red-brick buildings. It was like something from a Rockwell. “We should go around.”
Blaine didn’t say anything, or even nod, but he stepped off the main road into the tall grasses that ringed the village, which was sheltered by a wide river on one side, and a bluff of reddish dirt on the other. Sebastian followed, keeping an eye on the town as it fell to the left behind them. It was a half-hour’s hike to get to the top, legs straining and trying not to slip on the soft dirt, before they finally hit a peak crowned by a short stone wall and a plaque referencing some old Colonial bastard. Sebastian leaned against it as Blaine hunkered down to retie his laces, taking a sip from his water flask, eyes closing briefly.
If they could trust others, this was the kind of place you’d claim. Set up a community, farm the nearby land, take advantage of how naturally defensible it was with the bluff on one side and the river on other. As was, chances were somebody else had had that idea and they were waiting down there like jackals to snag unsuspecting travellers …
There was startling energy there and Sebastian’s eyes flew open.
“Look.” Blaine pointed. It only took a breath to spot the problem: down in the town square there was a flurry of movement, still visible in the fading light. A small group was backing away from a rush of runners; one gunshot, two; a runner went down, but then the gunman was hit by an unexpected clicker whose rattling shriek echoed all the way up to where they stood.
Nobody was screaming. They knew better than that; sound attracted more.
“They’re dead meat,” Sebastian reported, watching as the still-living trio rushed to climb on top two cars crushed together, then taking fire at the clicker. Judging by how it kept clawing hungrily after them, they missed. “Terrible aim.”
“We should help,” Blaine said urgently, and Sebastian grabbed his elbow before he could do something crazy.
“We should die, is what you’re saying.”
“Sebastian!” Blaine so rarely said his name; it made Sebastian’s grip loosen, and Blaine jerked away from him.
“Don’t do it --”
He made another grab for Blaine, but he was darting down the bluff, boots kicking up dust as he skidded dangerously fast through red dirt and grass. Sebastian swore, and for a moment that went on far longer than he cared to admit, he contemplated walking away. Finally turning his back on the depressed deadweight he had saddled himself to because, what, they had known each other for all of five minutes in high school and Sebastian liked his ass …
You could be free, something whispered in the back of his head. Relying only on yourself.
“I need someone to watch my back when I sleep,” he said aloud, and it was some old desire to hold onto appearances that sent him skidding down that hill.
He couldn’t be the crazy guy who talked to himself in public. He couldn’t be -- alone -- with his thoughts.
“Christ,” Sebastian muttered when he caught up with Blaine at the bottom of the bluff, Blaine drawing his gun and cocking it. “At least put your mask on. That’s too many for this place to be clean.”
Blaine glared at him. “I’m not stupid.” He tugged his mask on, and Sebastian mimicked him, hiding the roll of his eyes. Then his own gun was in hand as they crept silently around a large old church; the shrieks of the runners and the chittering of the clicker was louder here. They were making good time before a shift on stone announced a runner emerging from behind an overturned car for them; Blaine slammed it in the chin with the butt of his gun, and Sebastian stepped in smoothly with his knife, grabbing the runner’s hair and slamming the blade deep into its rotten, mushroom-filled skull. It choked, then died.
They were alive, in a way. Sebastian never did get over that oddness.
“C’mon,” Blaine said, then set off again. Sebastian dropped the body and followed. They got to the square to find at least seven runners swarming up the overturned cars, grabbing at the threesome with needy hands, cries rising and falling like broken waves. Blaine took a step forward; one of the survivors, a young woman, saw them and screamed.
“Please,” she begged, and then her stomach was torn open.
“Blaine,” Sebastian murmured, reaching for him, but Blaine didn’t need to hear it. He stopped, shoulders slumping, and they silently watched the strangers die. Once the last of their screams had faded, he finally made contact, cradling Blaine’s shaking shoulder.
Time to go. Blaine turned around, and Sebastian couldn’t read his expression through the flat glass planes and dark branching mouthpiece, but he knew him. He offered his hand, and Blaine accepted it, his gun dangling sadly from his other. Sebastian squeezed Blaine’s limp hand, and then they walked off together, carefully skirting the feeding frenzy.
Not that they actually needed to eat you. No, then this whole thing wouldn’t be pointless, would it?
They stopped at midday, and Blaine offered to take first watch.
Sebastian lay down in the shade, throwing his arm over his eyes. He tried to sleep, but Blaine was too quiet; Sebastian peeked, and saw that Blaine was sitting there, knees drawn up to his chest, staring off to nowhere as he slowly spun his wedding ring around his finger.
Kurt had lost his before he died; Sebastian had noticed that. He’d pretended not to notice that Kurt had lost it by throwing it at Blaine after a blazing row where Sebastian had lain his bed and felt like he was eight again, listening to his parents build up to their spectacular climax of a divorce.
That was why he had never gotten married. Well, that an inability to hold onto a relationship for more than six months and the end of the world. At least one of those hadn’t been his fault, too.
“You’re thinking loudly,” Blaine suddenly said.
Sebastian lowered his arm. “ I’m thinking loudly?”
“Yes,” Blaine said firmly, then hesitantly continued. “Do you … want to talk about it?”
Must be a good day, then. Or it was just the recent reminder of their mortality.
“I’m fine,” Sebastian said. “Don’t worry about it, tiger.”
Like Blaine needed more to worry about. Like Sebastian had anything to worry about, except for the obvious.
“Okay.” Blaine dropped his hands, and his chin to his knees. “Sorry.”
“You don’t have to apologize.”
“Okay,” Blaine repeated. “It’s fine. You sleep.”
Sebastian nodded, and shifted his arm back over his eyes. Sleep still didn’t come, but he tried to think a little quieter, for Blaine’s sake.
Weeks passed. Summer was coming in, hot and clinging.
Under the moonlight through an apple grove they spotted a swollen, misshapen giant of a creature that moved in lumbering steps, swarmed by smaller runners and clickers like a queen bee with its hive. A bloater; Sebastian had heard of them, but never seen one. The stage of infection that came before they ended up splattered on the ground somewhere, releasing spores.
“Jesus,” Blaine breathed, once they’d put a hundred yards between them and it.
“I wouldn’t want to have to take that down,” Sebastian said, with great feeling.
Blaine nodded emphatically. “Definitely not.”
They saw bridges collapsed under the weight of too many cars. They saw a small nomadic group living in a graveyard who shot at them when they’d stepped too close; Sebastian had felt a rare thrill of real fear when stone had chipped near Blaine’s head in an explosive spray. After a gunfight they’d gotten away, then saw a towering tree growing through a car in the middle of a highway. They saw rotting runners nailed to trees, still squirming and hissing, and rotting humans swinging from tree branches. They saw a baseball diamond turned to a field of blood-red flowers, swaying gently in the breeze. They saw a lake with a dozen canoes drifting eerily, unoccupied. They saw two clickers melded together in one misshapen thing. They saw a thousand deer, tails white against the night as they ran silently through the grass.
Sebastian saw Blaine smile more. Saw some of that tension slip from his shoulders, saw him actually talking. It came in fits and spurts, a rusty tap needing work, but it was like … it was like Blaine was coming alive again.
“I love this,” he’d even said one night, staring up at the miles of unspoiled starfield. “It’s so beautiful.”
“Yeah,” Sebastian agreed, resettling his backpack. “That’s a plus for no light pollution.”
Blaine smiled. “I’ve always wanted to see the northern lights,” he offered. “It would be easier now.”
Sebastian grinned back. “I think we’re headed the wrong direction for that.”
“True.” Blaine shrugged. “But who knows where life will take us.”
“Yeah, I never would have guessed ‘zombie apocalypse’ myself …”
He’d never called it that before, but at some point, you had to accept the obvious.
Blaine’s eyes widened. “Don’t call it that!”
“What? Why not?” Sebastian squinted back.
“You’re not supposed to,” Blaine explained. “It’s … tacky.”
“Tacky? Did I skip over Miss Manner’s Guide To The Living Dead?”
“Obviously.” Blaine nudged him. “Besides, they don’t eat people. Not really.”
“That’s true …”
“I hate it,” Blaine admitted, tone turning thoughtful. “It’s such a waste. All this death, for nothing.”
It paralleled his own thoughts so neatly that Sebastian had to reach over and wrap an arm around Blaine’s shoulder, pausing their pace through farmfield furrows to half-hug him. Blaine froze, let out a slow breath, then relaxed. Almost pressed himself against Sebastian fully … but then, before long, Blaine pulled himself away.
“We should keep moving,” Blaine said, tugging his backpack strap straight.
“Yeah. Let’s.” Sebastian followed him; Blaine didn’t take his usual grip of Sebastian’s hand, and Sebastian couldn’t quite bring himself to reach out.
It felt like something had shifted, but he couldn’t say what.
Summer became fall, their feet ached, and they accidentally walked into a city at twilight because the only other roads had collapsed into impossible-to-traverse canyons of junk and infected just begging to give you either tetanus or a bad case of life after death.
“Should we go around it?” Blaine asked, staring at the concrete jungle with concern.
“It would take too long,” Sebastian said, which Blaine already knew, because he nodded.
“We’ll be fine,” Blaine said, and then moved to climb over the schoolbus blocking the way. Sebastian followed, and they paused on top of its rusted yellow hood, staring out over the miles of stalled and stripped cars. It was like a ship graveyard. Sharing a look, they carefully jumped down and made their way into the heart of the city, weaving through the wreckage. They hadn’t been in a city since the QZ; it was odd to be swallowed up by concrete again. This was greener, though, and falling apart in a way even the most ragged quarters of the QZ never had been. The stink of moss and vines in close quarters, even a deer running by in leaping strides.
There were also no infected and no people, that they could see. A ghost town.
Sebastian stepped a little closer to Blaine, but kept his hands free, one resting on his gun, head turning slowly to listen for any sounds.
Night fell, the moon high and painting deep pockets of shadows that seemed to pulse when you looked at them too long. His foot hit a rock. It bounced and echoed, skittering across the sidewalk. Blaine looked back at him reproachfully, and Sebastian winced in apology. Blaine’s hand was on his gun now, and they picked up their pace while still trying to move silently.
The buildings were getting taller. Spindly skyscrapers, some apartment buildings tipping like a jenga tower mid-fall, stately stone buildings looking unchanged except for end-of-days graffiti and threats. The streets, oddly, were cleaner. Odd was not good. Sebastian gave up on pretense and unholstered his gun, slipping his finger to caress the trigger. They were coming up to a broad four-way intersection, which looked so untouched it could have been the Before if it weren’t for the absence of streetlights and faces and cars. Just wide-open spaces ...
A clatter sounded. Blaine’s head shifted. They stepped aside in tandem, moving into the shadows of an old bank, and then froze at the sight of two men, bearing machine guns, turning the corner. The pair talked quietly, too quietly to be heard, but their bearing was casual. They must not have seen the intruders. Blaine glanced at him, eyes wide, and Sebastian nodded slowly.
Guns like those they hadn’t seen since the QZ either. Guns like those meant resources, and you didn’t fuck with people who had resources unless you had any to give back, and they were down to eating snails. Sebastian had an inappropriate, longing surge for a little restaurant in Paris that he would never see again, and then his mother, overseas with it, and then he and Blaine started to move once the duo had their backs to them. They turned the corner to the opposite direction where the men had come from, and stopped at the sight of an encampment in the street, spilling out from large buildings. Armed adults moved around the barriers, smiling, chatting, faint music even playing.
He’d never been so unhappy to hear Niel Diamond. It left the two of them like deer in headlights.
“Dammit,” Sebastian hissed, and they slowly began to retreat. Except once they turned around, they saw that the patrolling pair were coming back … and then they looked up, and saw them right back.
“Hey! You two!”
“Run,” Sebastian ordered, but Blaine started to raise his hands slowly.
“We just want to pass through,” Blaine called to the men. “We don’t want any trouble.”
“Put your guns down,” one man, a redhead, ordered, after a glance at his bearded friend.
“Don’t do it,” Sebastian told Blaine, his finger tense on the trigger. “Don’t.”
“Only if you lower yours,” Blaine said, ignoring Sebastian without a look at him. “I’ll put mine on the ground, slowly, just please, lower yours too. We can work this out, gentlemen --”
Gentlemen? Blaine was going to get them killed. Sebastian couldn’t see anything, not the guns or the men’s faces or even Blaine. All he could think of was his aching feet, and the comfortable weight of his own gun in his hand. Mouth dry, his arm swung up, and everything zeroed in on the red hole that blasted into one of the redhead’s forehead.
The echo of the gunshot seemed delayed, the second one tripping on it. Both men dropped, and Sebastian grabbed Blaine’s arm as alarmed shouts came from the direction of the camp.
He ran, dragging Blaine along. There was resistance, but it slackened when a burst of machine gun fire chased them to a clear street. Someone was shouting at them, and something split a line of fire across his leg. They ducked around the next corner, and Blaine pointed to an alley; they ran for it, spidering up and over a chainlink fence, another alley, then shouldering up against an ajar red door that tore the pair of them through a blood-stained coffee shop, then out a shattered window. Down the street. Around a corner. The shouting was becoming more indistinct, distant threats that had no words, only intent; Blaine pointed at a mall across the way.
They ran, breath panting, feet setting up a thunderous pattern, Sebastian white-knuckling Blaine’s arm in his hold; more gunfire, shouts, but not close, like hearing a wolf’s howl on a cold night, they needed to get inside -- no time for niceties, Sebastian raised his gun and fired again, shattering a display window in a diamond spray that they leapt through, glass scoring their cheeks and a mannequin sent flying to skid across the oil-slick floor. They didn’t stop, making deeper into the mall, down an escalator, past a fountain that bubbled with a collapsed infected who sprayed spores, couldn’t risk stopping to put on masks so they just held their breath and dived through to the other side, lungs burning, legs burning, everything tense as the hard, rattling breath that begged to escape --
Clear air, but an obstacle; the roof caved in past at least four stories, sunlight streaming down on the mess of beams and plaster and concrete that formed a mountain to block the way forward.
“There!” Blaine said, pointing to a small gap where a beam rested against the wall. Sebastian eyed it doubtfully, but they had no choice -- they both heard an echo --
-- in the distance that was no real echo, but the dogs at their heels. They rushed the narrow, dark crack, more an absence than an entrance, and Sebastian tried to nudge Blaine through it first, but Blaine shoved at him instead.
“It doesn’t look stable,” Blaine insisted hurriedly, eyeing the structure; he wasn’t wrong. “If anything moves when you go through, I have more of a chance getting in second.”
That was true. Sebastian moved to the gap, slouching to fit, and Blaine made an impatient sound.
“You have to let go of me!”
Sebastian looked back, unsure, then realized he was still gripping Blaine’s arm. He let go, to see that Blaine’s arm had gone white, a handspan of red marking the boundary where the blood needed to rush out. Sebastian opened his mouth to apologize, but Blaine shoved him.
Sebastian shook his head, trying to clear his muddled thoughts -- was this even a good idea, he shouldn’t leave Blaine behind, he had to leave Blaine behind, that dead weight -- then moved to slip into the gap. His shoulder brushed the beam; it groaned, shuddered, stopped. Holding his breath, Sebastian inched his way through the gap as fast as he could, feeling his way through the dark.
“C’mon, c’mon, c’mon,” he muttered under his breath, fighting the urge to turn back.
Blaine would be fine. They still had time. Sebastian shut his eyes for a moment, and soldiered on, groping out the open side of the gap --
Something grabbed his arm.
Sebastian’s blood ran cold.
It bit down on his wrist, nails tearing into his flesh. Growled. Nausea rose.
“ No! ”
Copper exploded across the tip of Sebastian’s smarting tongue, and he shoved himself through the final bit, tackling the creature that was making work of him, his fingers twitching weakly as nerves severed. They fell to the ground in a tumble that smelled of mildew and death, and Sebastian reared back, pistol whipping the thing across its forehead. The flesh split and poured yellow-black, but it still didn’t release his wrist, and Sebastian aimed the gun, tugged the trigger --
The creature shifted. The bullet went through Sebastian’s mutilated hand and exited out the back of the infected’s skull, blowing an ugly splatter up behind its head. Sebastian exhaled, the edges of his vision going black for a moment, then tried to tug his hand free. It took two tries, and then Sebastian fell back, looking around frantically as he pressed his arm to his chest.
No more infected. But he was -- he was --
Blaine was there, grabbing him.
“What the hell happened --”
“Are they behind us?” Sebastian asked, swaying briefly despite Blaine’s hold on him, the whole world swaying like the earth was buckling.
“Yes, we have to -- no, you can’t -- fuck --”
Blaine let go. Sebastian continued to move with the ocean he’d suddenly found himself in, and kept moving, until pain flared dully along his side as he hit the ground. A flurry of gunshots splitting the air, a loud rumbling -- god, was this really an earthquake? -- and then Blaine was back, grabbing him and hauling him up.
“Get up, Sebastian,” he ordered, voice as cajoling as the one he’d used on his daughter, all those years ago, Sebastian watching them together and so sure Blaine had been destined to be a dad, one of those things Sebastian had never wanted for himself, the ways their lives were never meant to align -- “Get! Up!”
That was more drill sergeant, or maybe coach during practise. Sebastian levered himself up with no conscious decision to do so and Blaine dragged Sebastian’s uninjured arm over his shoulder, wrapping a strong arm around his waist.
“Blaine,” Sebastian managed thickly, then spat blood.
“We’re going to fix this,” Blaine assured him.
“I’m bit,” Sebastian said, and swallowed laughter. “I know it’s not zombies, but Blaine, this is really -- I’m fucking dead.”
“No, you aren’t. I can see the infection, it hasn’t --”
“There’s nothing you can --”
“I don’t believe that!” Then Blaine froze, staring at something; Sebastian blinked eyelids which grew heavier with each thudding heartbeat at the sign declaring a hardware store. An inkling of a horrible idea hit him.
“Blaine, no --”
“We have to.”
Blaine walked them to it, half-dragging Sebastian, who shook his head. That swaying feeling was coming back. He might vomit.
“It’ll be cleared out,” Sebastian said weakly.
“I’ll find something.”
“I’m not sure …”
“I can’t lose you,” Blaine snapped, and his tone was still hard, hard enough to break something in Sebastian, who stopped resisting, let Blaine drag him through the dusty interior that was indeed cleaned out of anything useful. Blaine was muttering under his breath, but Sebastian couldn’t hear anything over the pounding in his ears.
He must have blacked out for a few seconds, yet he was still moving -- what was that smell? Had he thrown up? Or was it something else? Something that smelled like -- engines, his car blew out on the way to a QZ ...
“Sebastian, you can lie down, but you need to hold out your arm. Okay?”
Cajoling, teacher, daddy-voice was back. Sebastian opened his eyes with difficulty, fairly certain the world had spun more since he’d closed them. He was on -- the ground, this was the ground, why was Blaine wrapping a belt around his bicep …?
“Blaine -- what --”
“It’ll be okay.”
“What are you --”
“I just need you to hold still for me, okay, Sebastian, please --”
Sebastian couldn’t move. He hurt too much, blood on fire. He tried to tell Blaine that, but blood and bile bubbled up from his lips instead. Then he saw a gleam in the darkness, bright and cutting, like that damn ring …
Blaine had an ax. Sebastian mangled a cry.
“Blaine, what the fuck --!”
Blaine ignored him. Adjusted his stance. Kissed the ax blade to Sebastian’s arm. God. His arm. The wrist down was mangled red; the wrist up was the pale blue of his veins turning a sick green, climbing higher, interrupted only by laddered torn flesh. A middle-school rhyme came back to him in a distant sing-song: Across the street, not down the road …
“I have to -- I’m sorry.”
“You don’t -- don’t --”
Sebastian couldn’t do this. He’d bleed out. Die. He’d survive. Be useless. He couldn’t -- he couldn’t -- that was his arm -- and for the first time ever since the world had fallen apart around him, Sebastian Smythe well and truly panicked.
“No, no, I changed my -- no, stop, Blaine --!”
He tried to jerk away, but he had no strength left. It was like a waking nightmare, frozen, forced to watch the world move around him. Blaine raised the ax.
“I’m sorry,” Blaine said, or shook, voice trembling, as he tightened his grip, knuckles white, that ring. “I have to, I’m sorry --”
No, no, no, this couldn’t be happening, this couldn’t --
“No, Blaine, just let me go --”
“NO!” Blaine was barely anything to him now, blackness stealing what tears welling in his eyes hadn’t, a vague shape beyond his understanding. “Stop moving.”
“Blaine, please --”
“Shh,” Blaine murmured, and his fingers briefly touched Sebastian’s cheek before there was a rustle and a grunt of him lifting the ax again. “It’s okay, shh …”
Blaine swung. Blood sprayed in an arc over both their faces. Sebastian screamed, and everything after that, it wasn’t his to know.
He had fevered dreams.
Deer falling to wolves by the thousands, throats torn out, hearts eaten still-beating. Those three people they’d failed to save, getting in one of those beat-up clunkers and driving away, laughing. Kurt, braiding flowers, something about, “For you sweetie --” and his daughter’s laugh, bright and pealing, saying, “Uncle Seb!” the way she’d used to. His mother, falling to the blows of a mob, or maybe just dancing ... Blaine’s voice talking from somewhere too close to be as far away as it sounded, a litany of “I’m sorry”s and “Please don’t leave me”s ... His last boyfriend, blowing skunk-smoke kisses in his face, and then his arm, curled around his own neck, squeezing.
Sebastian woke to a new world.
Sebastian experimentally raised his arm, ignoring the wave of blinding pain, feeling as if his fingers were twitching, but seeing nothing but the bizarre stump of his elbow.
“How are you -- how are you feeling?”
Sebastian tried making a fist. He did. He had? He hadn’t. He had nothing to make a fist with. Which was a shame, because he kind of wanted to punch Blaine, and that was his dominant hand.
Had been his dominant hand. Did that make him left-handed now?
“Your fever broke two days ago, I was -- so grateful, you have no idea --”
It must have worked. No sign of infection. He was starving, but he didn’t feel sick. Fever must have done it, scoured him clean, inside-out.
So it seemed the rumours were true. Here Sebastian was, living proof. Living.
“Can you -- can you hear me, Sebastian?”
“Yes, Blaine,” Sebastian said, voice crackling from disuse. He swung his gaze to Blaine, who sat there, hands twisting atop his thighs. “How could I fucking not.”
Blaine stared at him, then down at his lap, mouth working silently. Sebastian, exhausted, slumped back against the dirty mattress he’d woken up on.
“I made soup,” Blaine finally said, quietly. “Are you hungry?”
Sebastian sighed. He was almost beyond hunger, that’s how hungry he was. “Of course.”
“I’ll get you some --!”
“No,” Sebastian said, eyes shutting. “Let me sleep.”
“You need to eat --”
“You need to eat --”
“Or what?” Sebastian cracked an irritated eye open to glare at him. “Or you’ll force feed me? Hack off my other arm so I can’t stop you?”
Blaine was silent once more, and Sebastian shut his eyes again. He was half-asleep when Blaine spoke one last time:
“I’m sorry. I had to.”
Sebastian ignored him in favour of satisfying his exhaustion. At least it was simple.
The autoshop was big enough, yet it never felt smaller then when Blaine was there.
Sebastian couldn’t look at him, pretended to sleep -- did sleep -- as often as he could to avoid it, staring at the car lifts and the broken-down car (no gas) and the cheerful, faded signs declaring Service with a smile! Free air freshener with each consult! Oil changes done by the best!
He’d had an ego about his car. What guy didn’t? After it had broken down on him halfway to a QZ, he’d walked. He’d walked the soles off his too-expensive sneakers, afraid to stop with the howls of wolves in the air. Only the clothes on his back and ...
His phone and its charger. No service. Kept it alive because games were a good distraction for bored kids. About five years ago, when Blaine was having a fit locked inside their bathroom and needed monitoring, he’d turned the thing on, and played Solitaire until Blaine’s choking sobs died off along with his screen.
And then he’d tossed it. Another relic of a bygone age, useless keepsakes.
“Move it,” he told Blaine, the first words he’d managed in ages.
He was staring at the blood-stained ax, resting near Blaine’s side of the floor. Blaine nodded, and left, hiding it somewhere out of Sebastian’s current realm of invalidity in the shop.
“I should have cleaned it,” Blaine said softly when he returned. “Should have moved it. Should have -- sorry.”
“‘Out, damn spot?’” Sebastian raised an eyebrow at him, challenging. “Like that would help me forget?”
Blaine’s eyebrows snapped down, dark pair to the circles furrowed beneath his eyes, almost inhuman looking in his brief rage, mouth opening, but then he … backed down.
Sebastian swallowed disappointment as Blaine turned tail and fled.
They were, essentially, trapped inside the mall.
Even if Sebastian was in a condition to be moved, they couldn’t. They could still hear patrols outside on high-alert after the … incident .. and this end of the mall was closed off. South exit caved in, stores built up against another building to the north, security screens in front of all the windows and doors, elevator defunct, the gap they’d entered through collapsed, and the rising doors of the autoshop could only be opened with power, something in short supply since the collapse of modern society.
At least it wasn’t the worst place to be trapped, just because someone had camped out here for a while, leaving behind rations, a mattress, and a stack of airport novels.
As to the occupant -- well, he had tried to eat Sebastian’s arm.
Sebastian stayed in the autoshop, recuperating, or more honestly alternating between frustration and mind-numbing trance states brought on by reading about the adventures of an intrepid reporter who never seemed to die no matter what situation he ended up in.
“You’ll regret that someday, buddy,” Sebastian muttered, pressing the book to his knees as he carefully turned a page with his free/only hand.
He’d been indulging himself in the crazy-talking-to-himself hobby more. It echoed Kurt’s snide voice in his mind -- “There’s no reason we can’t do the apocalypse in style,” -- Sebastian forced to have his clothes patched with careful hands ...
Fuck. Sebastian could do with a drink. He’d happily be an alcoholic if alcohol wasn’t harder to get than food, these days.
Maybe Blaine would find some as he explored and Sebastian could guilt him into handing it over. Unfortunately, Blaine hadn’t found anything half as fun, just scribbling his findings on a copy of the mall map he’d torn down from an info stand, insisting on going over what meager information and supplies they had ad nauseum.
This was a bunch of ramen, a pack of water bottles, a ladder, a car jack, a pack of cards, a screwdriver broken at the hilt, and that fucking ax.
“We can climb the cave-in,” Blaine suggested, as their food stores grew lower.
Sebastian raised a doubtful eyebrow. “Seems like a two-handed job to me.”
A pointed wave of his amputated arm, which Blaine could never quite look at.
Blaine shook his head. “Right … well, we’ll think of something!”
Sebastian bit back a sharp comment. If Blaine decided to abandon him right now, he’d die, and Sebastian wasn’t keen on that. He’d survived. Now that the damage was done, he could accept there were ways to work around one arm, as long as it meant continuing to draw breath. There was always a way. He’d swallowed that bitter pill long ago.
What he couldn’t take was Blaine’s forced optimism. He’d never had much a taste for hypocrisy.
“Maybe we could use the ladder,” he offered, once he’d reigned in his temper.
“I’ll work on it,” Blaine promised. “Don’t worry.”
Sebastian couldn’t help a side-eye at that, and a frowning Blaine did as he’d so mastered, and left.
It was getting colder out.
Sebastian could feel it, left/remaining/only hand pressed against the metal of the garage door, his heat leeching away. Rains came through the hole in the ceiling, washing over the mall floor, and the smell of rotting things only grew stronger.
“We should move before it starts to snow,” he told Blaine.
“I’m trying,” Blaine shot back, then crumpled. “I’m sorry --”
“Then what the hell do you want from me, Sebastian!”
Blaine shook his head, dismissal painting the lines of his face.
“If only that were true.”
“What’s that supposed to mean --”
“I’m going to go check outside.”
Blaine climbed out the hole in the roof. Sebastian watched him go, rubbing his aching, bandaged stump. He didn’t return to the autoshop until he saw Blaine return.
Blaine found Sebastian. He looked grim.
“There’s no way down. No fire escape or anything.”
“Great. We’ll scratch that one off the list.”
“You don’t have to take that tone …”
“Tone?” Sebastian snorted. “I’m just being me.”
Blaine stared, then sighed. “Sebastian …”
“Look. We just have to find a way to next door. It must have functioning doors.”
“There’s no way to the other building, I’ve checked …”
“Where there isn’t a door, you make one.”
“Just like that?” Blaine’s shoulders slumped. “Okay. I’ll scout out for a place.”
They had no tools, and those walls were all concrete, but neither of them said anything.
Blaine smashed the glass that encased the elevator chute, then used the ladder as a way up to it, climbing the cables to the second floor -- safer than climbing the caved-in section, he said. He had hopes of checking out every floor this way.
Sebastian did aimless circles, taking peeks at his arm. It was healing, no longer the open wound it had once been, but it wasn’t a pretty sight, lumpy and pink and scar-stretched.
“This is why he never went to medical school,” he said to himself, giving it a poke and immediately regretting it as he was swamped with the pain of tenderness.
Blaine came back bearing gifts: a decorative throw and a pillow.
“I found them in a stockroom. Here …”
He went to place them on the mattress Sebastian had claimed, and Sebastian shook his head. The sight of the small comforts filled him with uneasiness, which was irrational, so he tried to smother it. “You should take them. You just have floor.”
“You’re the injured one.”
“I’m healing,” Sebastian said brusquely. “In fact, you take the mattress.”
“No, I can’t --”
“Do it, and I’ll take that hideous pillow.”
“Hideous?” Blaine held it up, staring at the faded pattern of owls curiously. “I think it’s cute.”
“More your style than mine,” Sebastian said, shrugging. It pulled at the skin of his arm, and he winced, rubbing it. Blaine glanced up at the movement, then returned his attention to the pillow, squeezing it.
“You never liked things just for being -- cute? Pretty?”
A memory from a different place, a different time: “Shame about Blaine. He was pretty.” How hard it was to reconcile that carefully put-together Blaine from eons ago with this bearded, armed, and bootcut-jeans one that kneeled before him. Still handsome, of course, and somehow, that made Sebastian’s ever-present anger these days rise sharply to the surface.
“Never was that kind of gay.” Sebastian looked around, deliberately pouring on the scorn as he continued: “I’m sure you’re wishing it was Hummel trapped in a mall with you instead.”
Blaine dropped the pillow, fist curling around the gleam of his wedding band as he jumped to his feet. He rounded on Sebastian, a storm raging behind his eyes.
“That’s low, Sebastian!”
Sebastian didn’t flinch. “But true.”
“I never said that!”
“Yeah, well, I know you. Never needed to say a thing.”
“Right.” Blaine threw his hands up. “So no need to ask. Just assume.”
“Christ. I am not doing this.”
Sebastian turned his back, clumsily running his hand over his face, fingers no-longer-there twitching with the desire to do it more neatly. He kicked at the mattress, biting the inside of his cheek.
“No, we are doing this. I want you to just say it!”
“Say what?” Sebastian whipped back around, stepping into Blaine’s space, glaring down at him. Blaine jerked his chin up, mouth twisting. “What am I not saying?”
They held gazes for a tense, breathless moment, waiting for something to snap, and then Blaine went to speak but -- he was interrupted by a sudden, rattling bang on the garage door. They fell silent, heads turning to stare at the corrugated metal. The room echoed with its begging, bang bang bang, underwritten with a pained moan that echoed up into a shriek. Not human. That was a relief. They stepped apart, no eye contact made, and quietly moved to either side of the room. They settled into opposite corners, trying to ignore the animalistic knocking, Sebastian on his mattress, Blaine leaning against the tool chest, hugging his knees. Sebastian lay down, trying to find a comfortable position, not that he’d been able to in the months since he’d come out of his feverish sleep.
He dreamed of classics class in university, droning over The Velveteen Rabbit to a comfortable weight on his arm, and his last boyfriend, who he’d been just about to dump when the apocalypse had taken care of that by making a monster of him … odd dreams, disjointed, taunting him with promises of understanding ...
He woke up in the -- night -- day? -- to an itchy nose.
Groaning, Sebastian reached up to scratch his nose. It didn’t seem to ease it, tugging him more out of sleep, and he opened his eyes. No hand in front of his face -- oh.
It wasn’t like he didn’t know about phantom limb syndrome. His brain really needed to catch up with itself.
Lowering his hand (ish) and kicking the helpless rage he felt, he used his other hand to scratch his nose, then paused as he heard something … skittering? rolling on the ground?
He turned his head, and squinted. Blaine was lying on his side, head pillowed on his arm, eyes just visible in the dim light, tracking back and forth. His hand moved; gold streaked across the ground; his hand moved, batting it back.
The ring. Sebastian shook his head, and went back to sleep.
Blaine was glowing with triumph.
“I found a way out!”
“Under the elevator!”
“I was on the fourth floor. There’s a manager’s office there, and there was paper half-burned, I thought it was useless, but it’s actually blueprints. Apparently there’s a service tunnel to next door, on the ground floor of the elevator shaft.”
He pulled out this charred blueprint with a flourish, unrolling it for Sebastian to see. Sebastian nodded slowly as he scanned it; Blaine wasn’t wrong.
“Problem: the elevator is on the ground.”
“There’s a few inches, so what? Have a Drink me! potion?”
Blaine pointed with a showman’s flair -- (he didn’t sing anymore, not since his daughter, but Sebastian couldn’t blame him; he couldn’t remember any words himself) -- at the car jack that Sebastian had been using as a footrest. His eyebrows went up.
“Oh,” Blaine echoed, almost mischievous. “If we can get it up just enough to slip under and open the hatch, we’ll be good. C’mon.”
Blaine grabbed the car jack, grinning, and Sebastian followed, quietly amazed.
In rare good luck since they’d entered this miserable place, the plan worked.
They got the elevator up, and Blaine was able to shimmy under and pop the hatch with the ax, after a cautious look at Sebastian, who forced his face even. Once it was open Blaine gazed back at Sebastian expectantly, hopefully, and Sebastian had to smile, though it soon faded.
“We shouldn’t just rush in there,” Sebastian said, crouching outside the gap and staring at the tiny hole.
Who knew what was hiding in that darkness. He was running out of arms to sacrifice just groping around.
“Yeah …” Blaine peered into it, and shone his flashlight. The light flickered; Blaine impatiently gave it a shake until the beam steadied. “There’s a ladder, it goes down, about fifteen feet … looks like spores, too.”
No surprise. They gathered in closed-off areas. Another good reason to avoid small spaces.
“Should throw a rock and see what comes running.”
“I’d rather nothing know where we are …” Blaine looked between Sebastian and the hole, then nodded to himself. “I’ll go in. Scout it.”
Sebastian’s gut gave an awful twist. “No.”
“Sebastian,” Blaine said, uncertainty flicking across his eyes for a second. “I need to.”
“Right. Blaine knows best. I forgot.”
Blaine glared at him, and then shook his head. “I’ll just see if there’s anything down there, and take care of it.”
“You could die.”
Blaine muttered something under his breath -- Sebastian had no idea what, though the tone wasn’t flattering. He wondered if Blaine was cursing him out. How ungentlemanly.
“I could die anywhere,” Blaine said aloud, peering back into the hole. “Anytime. That’s what life is.”
Sebastian reached out to grip Blaine’s ankle, breaking an unspoken boundary they’d refound, a line redrawn as harshly as the first time, when Blaine had screamed “Don’t touch me,” at Sebastian’s attempt to comfort, a little blood-stained felt rabbit between them ...
“Doesn’t mean you should take unnecessary risks.”
“‘Unnecessary risks’,” Blaine parroted, mouth twisting. “I’ll be fine.”
“You can’t promise that.”
“Well, I am.” He’d almost forgotten how damn stubborn Blaine could be. It made his teeth grind. “So I’m doing this, and you can’t stop me.”
“Fine.” Sebastian rolled his eyes, let go. “But remember, if I’m in no position to stop you, I’m in no position to save you, either. Doesn’t matter what I hear.”
Blaine looked him over inscrutably, then shrugged, tone bitter when he replied.
“Fine. I’m not asking you to. Stay here.”
With that, Blaine pat his gun, his knife, tugged his mask on, then shifted around to slip his feet in the hole and climb down. Sebastian watched him disappear a piece at a time, listened to the dull sound of booted feet on the rungs until they faded, and kept his vigil, looking on silently.
Nothing for a good long while.
Was that a distant scuffle?
Some kind of shriek?
Sebastian leaned forward, straining to hear --
A gunshot. Echoing. One. Two. Then no more.
He swallowed, shut his eyes, and started to count.
Kurt had died in a random stabbing. No rhyme or reason, never sure who it had been, and Sebastian had broken more than a few fingers trying to find out.
Their daughter had been infected. She’d been discovered, and taken care of. He was sure Blaine had never forgiven Sebastian for not getting her out, but …
He hadn’t known. He’d never known. She’d seemed so healthy, so herself, smiling at him all rosy-cheeked and sweet, listening to his not-at-all child-friendly bedtime stories with shock and awe.
“Daddy, one more,” she’d said, curling chubby fingers around his, gaze pleading. And Sebastian … Sebastian had left. Needed to get to work.
Incredible the kind of cat-in-the-cradle bullshit that could be pulled on you even after the apocalypse. Fuck. He’d never asked for that. Never asked for any of it. Should have left earlier, found himself a nice little abandoned shack in the middle of nowhere and shot anyone who got within a hundred yards of him.
But he couldn’t pretend being too smart to sleep alone was the only reason he’d stuck around. He couldn’t pretend he didn’t …
He was at nearly a thousand mississippi's when he heard footsteps.
Sebastian followed Blaine back to the autoshop, a little dazed.
“There were a couple clickers, and one on the wall, but other than that, it was fine … I took care of them. That ax saved my life when I ran out of bullets ... there’s a door on the other side. I had to jimmy the lock but it leads out! To a storeroom I mean, I think it was once a Brooks Brothers actually --” Blaine showed off a bowtie he’d curled around his fist like a bandage, miming a playful punch “-- I couldn’t resist, well, just one more door between us and freedom! We’re set!”
The manic energy was hard to manage after the tension of his wait. Sebastian blinked slowly, rubbing his aching temple, and stared at the cloth-wrapped hand.
“You’re not hurt, are you?”
“Huh? No, I was … well, I hate punching them, I don’t want to get a cut … I was thinking how nice brass knuckles would be but for now wrapping my hands seems good …”
Blaine began to unravel it, continuing to chatter (“-- wish I still had the stuff I used back when I was boxing, that was great, sporting goods on floor three was cleaned out though except for hockey pucks, lots of hockey pucks --”) as Sebastian looked unsurely at their scattered things. Should they leave? It had to be November, at least. They didn’t have much in the way of winter wear. Should they just use the tunnel to get food and come back here, where it was safe?
No. Nowhere was safe. Nowhere was safe. He couldn’t let himself forget --
Blaine had fallen silent, staring down at his now-bare hand. Stomach plummeting and drawing out memories of torn flesh and the cleaving of an ax, Sebastian stared, but he didn’t see any kind of injury.
“What’s wrong ..?”
“I …” Blaine turned his hand over, to and fro, frantically, looking at it like he might tear it off himself. “It’s gone!”
Blaine’s head darted up, eyes wide and frantic. “I need to go back.”
Sebastian grabbed Blaine when Blaine tried to march past him, shaking his head at Blaine’s radiating terror. Blaine stilled, but couldn’t contain his trembling.
“Let me go, Sebastian.”
“What’s going on?”
“My ring. It’s gone.”
Sebastian looked and realized Blaine was right. No ring. Not even really a tan line. Like it had never been there. Sebastian swallowed.
“I -- I don’t know what --” Blaine shook his head. “I have to find it.”
“Blaine, it’s --”
“Don’t say just.” Blaine jerked away from his hold, sending Sebastian a sullen look like a starving, mean stray. “Don’t ever say that.”
It sparked something in Sebastian, this implication. That Blaine was the only one standing here, less than he once was. So he did as he’d always done best, and lashed out.
“And what if it’s gone forever? What then.”
“It’s not!” Blaine gave him a shove, propelling himself back, away from Sebastian. “It’s not!”
“But it could be. What then? Are we going to stay here until we starve so you can find it? Sorry, buddy, but dying for a useless hunk of metal isn’t on my to-do list --”
“Shut up!” Blaine hissed. “Why are you being so mean.”
“I’m being realistic! For fuck’s sake, Blaine, I’m the one who told you how to keep it safe! But you didn’t listen --”
“It wasn’t right! I couldn’t -- god, you’d never understand, why would I think you could …”
Sebastian pinned him with a look. “Understand what? Losing things?”
Blaine sucked in a breath, gaze darting to what remained of Sebastian’s right arm, and then his shoulders drew a tight, angry line as they straightened out.
“You think amputation is anything like losing your soulmate?” Blaine asked, and now it was Sebastian’s turn to be shocked, the callousness of the words ugly in Blaine’s normally kind mouth. “To losing your child?”
“Don’t use her like that. Fuck, even he deserves better than that --”
“Like your insults are any better --”
“Maybe not, but -- shit, Blaine, you’re not the only one with family! Loved ones! That’s all of our stories!”
“You love nothing,” Blaine told him, his now-bare left hand unfurling and then slamming into a tight fist over and over, hitting his own chest, eyes growing damp past the hot anger radiating from them. “You have no idea --”
“Fuck you,” Sebastian spat back. “Fuck you and -- you know what? I have done -- everything for you -- we’re only here, alive , for you to yell at me because of all I’ve done --”
“That’s not true!”
“Then what the hell do you think --”
“You’re the one who shot those guys!”
The words rung out, somehow more damning than anything else said so far. Sebastian shook his head, trying to figure out Blaine’s logic.
“What the fuck does that --”
“You shot those guys . And then we had to run, here , and you got attacked, you got us trapped, and it was your fault.”
Blaine didn’t look triumphant, more desperate, as the words landed low in Sebastian’s gut, sure as a hit, making him flinch. He battled a swell of guilt with righteousness.
“I had to!”
“No, you didn’t,” Blaine informed him. “They were going to talk!”
Sebastian snorted. “No, they weren’t.”
“They were lowering their guns!”
Sebastian blinked. No, that wasn’t -- he tried to think back to that day, the moon full overhead, the distant music, the two machine guns. They’d raised them, hadn’t they? The barrel up, the imminent threat, Blaine next him -- god -- Blaine --
“No, they were -- they were going to shoot.”
“They weren’t! I was handling it,” Blaine insisted, a hitch to his voice. “And you -- you went and did that! You murdered them!”
“I had to!”
“Why do you think that!” Blaine ran his hands over his hair. “You think I don’t know that you do these things , but I do, I always have, and I -- I always told myself you had to, but you -- you just shot them --”
“To protect us. Protect you.”
Blaine gripped his curls, mouth turning down, and he stared at Sebastian for several long seconds, tired lines around his eyes standing out all the more starkly. His brows lifted, almost marvelling.
“You really believe that, don’t you?”
“It’s all I have to believe,” Sebastian replied, and the truth of it scared him.
What was he without Blaine?
“But we’ll never know, will we?” Blaine said, shaking his head, hands sliding down to cup the nape of his neck, holding onto himself. “Because you -- you tell yourself this, but when it comes down to it, that’s what you do, you -- I -- that’s not how I want to be protected.”
“Then what the hell do you want?”
“I want you to -- I want you to talk to me.”
“About what. The weather?”
“About --” Blaine swallowed a choked, laughing sound. “God, you can’t think of anything? How about your arm? Don’t act like you haven’t been silently judging me over it --”
Sebastian shook his head stubbornly. “I haven’t.”
Blaine sneered at him. “That’s a goddamn lie, Sebastian!”
“You saved my life, Blaine. I fucking know that,” Sebastian shot back, and pointed at Blaine with the stump; Blaine flinched. “You’re the one who can’t face what you did.”
“Because you’re blaming me!”
“I’m not! Christ, do you know what really bothers me? You want to know the real reason I’ve wanted to just -- just go?”
Blaine turned his face to press his mouth against his arm, brows furrowing, throat bobbing, and then he glanced back. “If you want to leave, you should.”
“I’m not saying that. I’m offering the why. Yes or no, Blaine, it’s a simple fucking question.”
Blaine took a deep breath, then stepped forward, releasing his neck and spreading his hands out to Sebastian. “Fine! Yes! Talk to me.”
“Because you’re pretending you give a shit.”
“I -- what’s that supposed to mean?” Blaine asked, almost like he hadn’t intended for it to be a question, the words reluctantly dragged from him.
“That you are an emotional zombie. For years I’ve had to all but wipe your ass while I looked out for you, and you could barely -- barely look at me -- and then -- and then when it’s my time to go you suddenly -- suddenly you’re willing to just do something like that. It’s not what you did. It’s that -- it’s that you only …”
Want me when you can’t have me. Sebastian swallowed, and turned away, covering his mouth and its unforgiving tremble with his hand. He felt sick, as sick as he’d been when the infection had first grabbed him.
“Really?” Blaine snapped, and the fury in his voice gave Sebastian pause. “You -- you said it yourself. After she -- after I lost them -- I, I was done Sebastian, I was -- but I couldn’t. Not when you -- you needed me -- and I’ve hung on, and that was for you, but you -- you didn’t do it for me, don’t pretend you did it for me --”
“So what you’re saying,” Sebastian began, speaking over Blaine, turning back on him with disbelief, “is that all this is some sick kind of revenge?”
Blaine’s eyes widened, then narrowed. “Forget it. You don’t hear a word I say, do you?”
“Oh, I hear plenty, trust me.” Sebastian reached over, grabbing him when Blaine tried to step away, fear lancing through him. “But why don’t you illuminate me some more.”
Blaine sighed, and it was like finding a dead jellyfish on the beach, empty and sad. He didn’t try to tug away, just bored holes into Sebastian with his hard, wet gaze. “Why bother? All we do is talk past each other.”
“Then walk away,” Sebastian told him, feeling like he’d absorbed all the anger that had fled Blaine. “Turn around and walk off and leave. But if you don’t want to do that, tell me what it is you mean!”
“I can’t make it any clearer!” Blaine told him, a hint of a waver to his voice. “You don’t protect me, Sebastian, you protect what I do for you.”
“What …” Sebastian let go of, stepped back, unease splitting him inside. “What’s that supposed to mean?”
“It means …” Blaine laughed, short, sharp, bitter. “That I could have been anyone.”
“You can’t really believe that,” Sebastian said, and it was his turn to marvel, searching Blaine’s face frantically for some suggestion of jest.
“If it had been me who died instead of Kurt --”
Blaine hadn’t said that name since Kurt had died. Sebastian sucked in a breath.
“Blaine, I fucking hated your husband.”
Sebastian hadn’t said the name either, and he didn’t feel like joining Blaine there quite yet.
“I know you two -- butted heads, but I also -- I saw you two together. So many times. Just … talking.”
Sebastian couldn’t even be angry; it was like seeing a map written in a topsy-turvy dimension, like Alice had come back and told him to look down for the sky.
“I --” Sebastian shook his head. “About you. I was telling him off, half the time!”
Their daughter, upon hearing that Sebastian had been to France, had instantly assumed that Sebastian knew how to do French braids. “Pleaaase, Uncle Seb?” Sebastian, not being a twelve-year-old girl, had turned to Hummel, and Kurt had taught him. “You’re a natural,” he’d told Sebastian, smiling kindly, and sometimes, sometimes things were good between them.
They were rare, but -- maybe hate was too strong a word. They’d shared something. Of course they had. Everyone did, who had seen what they had. But Sebastian -- Sebastian had known where he stood. He’d always known.
How could Blaine not? Was that really what this was? You love nothing? Sebastian could laugh.
“That’s only a half --”
“Blaine,” Sebastian interrupted again, but this time his tone had gentled, such a terrifyingly vulnerable thing that left him incapable of hearing his own words himself without cringing away, rather registering them with how they landed across the landscape of Blaine’s raw expression, “I love you.”
Blaine half-smiled, confused, then slowly shook his head. “What …”
“I’ve always loved you,” he continued, gesturing to encompass Blaine. “It could never have been just anyone.”
Blaine was now just staring at him, mouth parted, brows drawn low, a faint shake still tugging at his otherwise still gaze. Embarrassed, Sebastian continued, words growing softer but no less steady:
“And fine, if that’s selfish. If it’s selfish to love you and want to see you stay alive, because I need you, because I think you needed me … then fine, I’m selfish. We all fucking knew that’s what love is anyways -- selfish, horrible, desperate … but it’s love.”
“It’s love,” Blaine echoed, and then, “Why did you …”
He didn’t finish, looking almost confused, and Sebastian shrugged helplessly.
“Never say anything? I figured you knew.”
Blaine looked to his feet, then jerked his chin up. The sweet sting of embarrassment was reflected in his face.
“I think …” he grew even more shame-faced “ … I did know.”
“Yeah.” Sebastian huffed, tucked his hands -- hand -- into his pocket, shrugged again. He couldn’t pretend it didn’t hurt. You love nothing. “Yeah. You did.”
“No more apologies, Blaine.” Sebastian nodded at Blaine’s left hand. “You had your reasons, and I had mine. That’s … human.”
Blaine curled his hand into a fist, then slowly, slowly, smoothed it out, and then they both stood there in a silence that just verged on awkward, not quite making eye contact. It had been a furious argument and a whimper of an end, a just-forged sword slipped directly into water, and Sebastian had only steam left to breathe. His chest felt tight and hot, and he sighed to release it.
“I really don’t blame you for saving my life,” Sebastian said quietly. “And I’m sorry if you felt like I had. I probably would have done the exact same thing.”
Blaine crossed his arms, mouth moving softly, still not looking at Sebastian, and then carefully replied:
“I’m sorry … that you had to save me. And I’m … god, Sebastian, I’m thankful. I am.”
Sebastian smiled at that, and Blaine suddenly made a choked sound, shoulders hunching, and Sebastian stepped forward, offering an open arm; Blaine squeezed his eyes shut and with another half-sob he moved to hug Sebastian, tight and all-encompassing, tucking himself under Sebastian’s chin, and Sebastian held him back as fiercely as he could, some weight he couldn’t name slipping from his shoulders but leaving him with a feeling of grace. Of … peace.
Truth be told, he wasn’t sure he’d ever known what that felt like before now.
That night, a blizzard raged outside, early winter come calling.
They slept tangled on that dirty mattress, breathing each other’s air, hearts beating against each other, feet tucked together, intimate and warm.
Blaine’s left hand was still curled in a fist, but now, Sebastian’s curled around it.
“I really am sorry about your arm. I wish there’d been another way.”
“Eh, it’s fine. I’m a leftie with jacking off anyways …”
“Right. … Where do you find the privacy to do that, exactly?”
“Privacy? No, I’m just very quiet. Ninja masturbation.”
“I …” Blaine laughed, nose crinkling at him. “That’s a skill, then.”
Sebastian, fond, nodded, and finished clumsily packing the last of his things; thankfully, Blaine hadn’t offered to help.
“Ready?” Sebastian asked, standing up and slinging the pack on.
“As ever.” Blaine adjusted his straps, smiled grimly. “Let’s get going.”
They slipped under the elevator, through the tunnel.
They both looked for the ring, not pausing, but flashlights sweeping the dark, lighthouses in the night, but nothing to be found, nothing to be warned for. There was only the dead and the soft puff of the spores, swirling through the beams, a quiet reminder of what awaited them all.
They left through the storeroom, up and out, through a field of empty mannequins and scattered hangers. Blaine briefly paused outside to stare up at the half-burned logo, thoughtful reflection curling his mouth, and then he looked back to Sebastian and smiled, offering his hand. Sebastian accepted it, his heart maybe a touch softer in his chest.
They left the city hand-in-hand, making tracks in the snow, their way soon swallowed up behind them by further falling drifts, with only forward to go.
“We should find a settlement,” Blaine said, and Sebastian nodded.
“Yeah, we should.” He knew they needed the help, now. “But we keep an exit strategy.”
“Of course.” Blaine leaned into him. “I think we just proved we can never be trapped.”
“We did, didn’t we?” Sebastian let out a huff of a breath, watching his breath swirl and part the air. “I guess we make a pretty good team.”
He sent a sly grin at Blaine, who smiled back, almost shy.
“We do,” Blaine agreed. “It’s why we’re still here, isn’t it?”
They squeezed each other’s hands, a warm moment that spread like waves on a tropical shore, the future of possibilities, white beaches and northern lights, and in understanding, they kept walking.