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Till the Day is Born

Chapter Text

Eugene Roe is three months and four days shy of completing his residency when the patient is rushed into surgery.

It's not an unusual sight: torn flesh where jaw meets neck, blood seeping through the gauze and bandages hastily applied by the paramedics. Coulda been anything - car accident, knifing, attacked by a wild dog. Hell, looks a bit like when Eugene patched up a gator-chewed leg of a tourist once, her sunburned face screwed up in terror 'till the anesthesia knocked her out.

So he ain't scared no more than usual when he scrubs in, ain't nervous, just aligns his breath with the calm presence of the nurse practitioner as she reels out the vitals rapid-sharp.

Her following words, though, give him pause.

"Paramedics report he was bitten by a homeless man."

He doesn't look away from where he's cutting away the bandages. "Man," he repeats sharply. Feels her eyes on him. "Not animal?"

"Man," she acknowledges, soft accent curling around the word as he begins to hose away the blood. There's something like froth 'round the edges of the wound that he pays particular mind to in light of the new information.

"Merdé, looks like the carotid got nicked. Whoever did this sure meant business," he mutters to her. "Looks like they got 'im here just in time."

Eugene doesn't like to talk much during surgery. Prefers to focus on the job at hand, let his attending physician Doctor Carter do the talking whenever he's decided to directly supervise, or just let Nurse Renee murmur at his side, like she's doing now. Eugene stays quiet now, too, attention and vision tunneling, only thing that matters is suturin' that artery closed, stabilizing the patient, he's lost so much blood already but Eugene knows it ain't too late-

"Doctor Roe."

Renee's suddenly raised voice, in harmony with the rising tempo of the heart monitor, brings him abruptly back. Her voice rises further as several alarms go off at once, and he hears it, doesn't look up from his work as his own heart starts to beat in his throat.

No no no, c'mon, you can do this-

"He's in V-tach," Renee warns him, sharper still, and she's movin' so fast that the AED equipment appears within reachin' distance like magic. "No pulse."

You goddamn bastard, don' give up now, you're gonna make it-

"Clear!"

No.

Their eyes meet above the defibrillators and he knows the defeat in her eyes is a reflection of his own.

**

It ain't the first patient he's lost on the table, ain't the first time he's felt Renee's hand lightly squeezing his arm in commiseration. She never has to tell him aloud that it's not his fault, did the best he could; manages to convey it with a simple touch, and ain't that just her way. Gentle and sweet.

His swipes at his jaw and the 2-day stubble there, smearing a drop of blood lingering on blue-black. Part of the job. Don't think about it. In the small mirror above the scrub sink, his reflection stares back at him, too pale in the harsh light of the operating room.

Oughta get some sleep, he thinks, right before Renee starts to scream.

**

Three months and four days shy of completing his residency, Eugene's entire world goes to shit.

They don't know what to do, sure as hell don't have a procedure for dealing with corpses that fucking rise up a half hour after being proclaimed dead and attack the nearest nurse, ripping her throat out before anyone can move to stop it. No textbook has handy step-by-step instructions for a case like this.

(Step One: Try not to slip in your colleague's blood as you hold down a man that should be dead

Step Two: Look on in horror as it throws you off long enough to sink its teeth into the arm of the nurse who's been by your side since med school, ripping into flesh and tendons like a knife through butter, her scream stealing your breath)

"Strap him down," Eugene roars over the horrible gurgling, moaning sounds the corpse - is it still a corpse? can it be called living when the monitors show no flicker of brain or heart activity? - is making, and together with Renee (sobbing, blood gushing from her mangled arm, mon Dieu, let her be all right) manages to secure the straps tight enough around the flailing body to be safe. For now.

Other doctors and nurses explode into the room, finally, and he can almost breathe now, Renee led shakin' from his side and hands all over him.

"Doctor Roe, are you hurt?"

"Fuck, Gene, did he get you? What the hell happened?"

He simply watches the snarling, still-writhing form strapped to the operating table, and remembers his grand-meré in her ancient rocking chair out on the porch, wrinkled hands smoothin' the pages of her bible lovingly as she read to him. Remembers the way the warm syrupy Louisiana air felt on his bare knees as her soft voice rose and fell on the breeze.

And I looked, and behold a pale horse: and his name that sat on him was Death, and Hell followed with him.

Chapter Text

Part One

It's a beautiful August day in Philadelphia. Birds are chirpin', flies are buzzin', and Babe is scratching furiously at the seat of his jeans as he crouches behind the charred remains of what was once a violently pink Ford Fiesta.

"Jeeeesus Christ," he mutters under his breath, shifting his angle to give himself better leverage, "Who's a guy hafta blow 'round here for a decent shower?"

The man next to him returns from his peek around the other side of the smoldering car and sends Babe a withering look from under his bushy black eyebrows.

"Wouldja quit fondling your nuts for a goddamn second and keep watch on your side?" he hisses, hiking his baseball bat up to aim at Babe threateningly. "I'll leave you here for 'em to snack on, swear on my ma's life. Nice cuppa joe with a healthy side-a Babe brains. Dee-licious."

Babe eyes the filthy face of Bill Guarnere, trying to find the right words. The way he's glowering at Babe, same way he's been glowering at him ever since Babe accidentally let himself be chased by a half dozen or so zombies right into the crusty barbershop Guarnere'd been hiding out in, is making things, ah, a little difficult.

"Bill," he mutters, drawing out the name slowly, "Ah, Guarnere, your ma's been dead ten years. I mean, God rest her soul and Hail Mary and all that, but swearin' on her life-"

"I know that!" Guarnere snaps, interrupting with a sharp smack upside Babe's head. "You think I don't know that? I'm the one that told you that last night, poured out my goddamn drunken heart to ya, lotta good it's done me, so shut up, stop moanin' about your itchy ballsack and watch your side!"

Babe obediently returns to the other edge of the car, trying not to snicker too loudly as Guarnere mutters under his breath "It's a figure of speech, ya smartass," behind him.

A few yards away, Babe thinks he can make out a shock of red hair sticking out from behind a dumpster that's been nudged a little away from the wall to make room for two bodies. Or maybe it's his imagination, since it's rare for Lieutenant Winters to not be hiding it underneath his special Lieutenant hat. Good thing zombies ain't attracted to shiny things, anyway, 'cause in the August sun that thing can shine bright enough to light its own Galaxy.

Turns out it is just his imagination. The sun shines magnificently off of the silver insignia embedded in the otherwise slightly worse-for-wear black hat, no ginger hairs in sight, as the head of Lieutenant Winters emerges fully from behind the dumpster. He nods once at Babe, then starts to make a series of important-looking hand gestures.

"Ah geez, this ain't baseball, Winters," Babe groans under his breath. "Hey, Guarnere, translate for me, will ya? Only three days paired up with this guy and somehow he thinks I've already learnt his weird ass police sign language."

"Fine, cover this side for me then," Guarnere says, and crawls over to replace him. "All kindsa useless, ain't ya, Heffron."

"Yeah, yeah, I get it, love you too."

Babe peers out from around the car again to scope out their objective. It was meant to be a simple supply run, hit up the local supermarket and see what kinda grub they could hustle up. Four days holed up in a barred-up workshop with five other guys and a girl meant that the few canned goods and power bars they'd managed to scrounge up hadn't lasted long.

Least there was running water in the sink, even if it was a shade browner than usual due to recent events.

The street between them and the store is relatively deserted, compared to Babe's hometown down south. South Philly'd been completely overrun in less than three days since government-declared "D-day", despite the generous amount of guns and trigger happy youths that made up his neighborhood, and Babe had barely made it out with his nuts intact. Come home from work in Camden to find the screen door to his childhood home off its hinges, blood everywhere. Didn't even make it two steps into the kitchen before-

Babe shuts his eyes briefly, tightly. No use thinkin' bout that now. That was Before. He's his own man now, alone in the world for all he knows. And right now, they're gonna risk their lives for some goddamn canned peaches, and thinkin' bout the way his ma looked chasing him through their house, oblivious to his pleading, weren't gonna help them none.

"All right, here's the plan," Guarnere says, low in his ear. "Winters wants no guns, the noise'll attract too much unwanted attention, so we'll take our bats an' brain the ones close enough to stop us gettin' in. He an' Nix'll go in, start grabbin', an' when we're finished outside you join while I keep watch by the door."

"What!" Babe yelps, forgetting himself.

Guarnere hisses through his teeth and slaps a hand over Babe's mouth.

"The fuck's wrong wit' you?"

"Sorry," Babes says, grimacing against his grimy palm. "So lemme get this straight: the two fancy officers wan' us to offa ourselves up as bait while they take their sweet time-"

"No, idiot, this way they can come up behind us and watch our flank." Guarnere's glare softens a bit, not really noticeably, but enough that Babe feels the knot in his stomach release slightly. "Hey. Babe. Winters is smart, he knows we're a good group. He wouldn't make up a plan that would get any of us killed, 'cos he'd just be worse off in the long run, see?" Guarnere chuckles under his breath, tongue curled against the roof of his mouth. "Not sayin' to trust 'em completely, 'course. Now let's get this thing over with already."

The sudden burst of adrenaline rushing through Babe's body as they rise from behind their makeshift hideout makes his hands shake around his baseball bat. He clenches them tight as he can around the wooden base, knuckles turning white, as they run as quietly as possible towards the shop.

Ahead of them, seven groaning undead bodies are beginning to turn towards the sudden movement.

"Let's get'em!" Guarnere growls, and with a grin Babe swings his bat as hard as he can at the nearest zombie, its mouth opening wide to let out a groan as its bloody, rotting hands rise to grasp at him.

The first impact of the bat jars Babe through to his bones, and he clenches his teeth to stop them rattling as he swings again, this time hitting the zombie's face dead center. Its head bursts open like a rotten watermelon, the stinking dark brown mess of gore and bone and brain tissue narrowly missing Babe's face. He runs past it, full steam now, hearing the body drop with a sickening splat behind him as he swings at the next one. Slightly ahead of him, Guarnere's already left two bodies seeping dark brown goo from their burst skulls onto the pavement, and is cackling under his breath as another zombie crumples under the force of his swing.

"Aaaaand he's hit another home run, folks, by golly looks like he's headed for a record season," Babe says, deepening his voice to the cadence of a 1940's sports commentator, and draws a snort of amusement from Guarnere as they tackle the last remaining zombie between them and the surprisingly intact window of the store.

Babe shifts to let Winters and his buddy slip past them, and they all flatten themselves against the glass doors, peeking around the store front to check up and down the street.

"See, whadda I tell ya?" Guarnere huffs, and nudges Babe with his elbow. "Easy as pie. Nothin' ta worry about." He glances down to where Captain Lewis Nixon, hatless unlike his cop buddy, is trying the locks. "That bein' said, any day now, Captain. Streets won't be clear for long."

"All right, all right, almost there," Nixon says, dark eyebrows knit in concentration. "You know normally, degenerate that I am, I'd just break the glass, but this is a private party. Don't want any unwelcome guests crashing it." With a satisfied sound as the doors give a welcome 'click', he uncurls and gestures to Babe and Winters with his head. "Shall we?"

**

"Honey, I'm home!" Nixon calls out lazily as they slip through the fence out back and let themselves back into their temporary hideout. At his voice, the three people inside let out sighs of relief and come out from behind the desks and shelves scattered around the workshop.

"Took you long enough," mutters the sullen-faced man nearest the back door, hands slackening around his rifle. "It's getting dark out, thought something went wrong out there."

"I know you worry about me when I'm not around, sweetheart, but daddy can take care of himself," Nixon replies pleasantly, and receives a sneer in return. "Nice to see you too, Toye."

"How'd it go?" asks Harry Welsh eagerly. The gap between his front teeth is even more noticeable than usual as he grins broadly at the sweaty remainder of their group. "I gotta say, you guys, all jokes aside, you really did have us readying a three-man Plan B when you didn't show up on time." He flushes suddenly and glances back to where Kitty Grogan stands back timidly. "Er, that is, a two-man one-woman Plan B. Sorry, Kitty."

"That's fine," she replies, smiling shyly as she steps forward. "Are you all okay?"

Babe tosses his backpack full of loot onto the floor and collapses with a groan, not caring that he's probably ruining his only pair of pants even further. "You shoulda seen us, Kitty. Like a coupla goddamn heroes, me an' Gonorrhoea here." He coughs at the look Harry shoots him. "I, uh, I mean, a, a coupla gosh darned-"

Kitty laughs at his discomfort and pulls his backpack up to empty its contents. "Really, Harry, Babe, it's a sweet gesture, but I don't have a problem with you boys and your language. I'm afraid it may be a bit too late for trying to save my virtue from being tainted."

She fingers the knife strapped to her belt, and all six men in the room have a sudden vivid flashback to when she'd singlehandedly cleared the side office of its undead inhabitants the night they'd occupied the workshop.

"Well said, madam," Nixon says with a smirk, from where he's unloading his own backpack onto a desk. "Welp, fellas, lady, looks like we've got enough to last us another week if we ration properly and don't throw any Thanksgiving feasts in the near future." He pulls out a bottle of dubious-looking whiskey and brandishes it with a flourish. "Although we may have a feast of a whole different kind tonight, since I say our successful operation calls for a celebration."

This draws cheers from everyone, including Toye, who still looks sullen but seems to perk up a little at the sight of alcohol. Winters looks content, simply smiles warmly at the room at large and swigs from his water bottle.

**

"The fact of the matter is, boys, moving around will be dangerous, yes. We'll be exposed to the elements a lot of the time, which won't seem to be an issue now during one of the hottest months of the year, but will definitely start to become a problem if things don't change for the better soon. However, considering the military declared D-day 2 weeks ago and have nothing to show for it as of yet, we may have to adapt accordingly... and sooner than we'd hoped."

The festive mood that has kept them chattering happily throughout the evening- fresh grub in their bellies and Nixon generous with his whiskey pouring (like a young, wiry, alcoholic Saint Nick)- has stretched into a sort of contented drowsiness that has Harry and Kitty snoozing on their respective cots. The rest of them, careful to drape giant oilcloths over the windows overlooking both front and back streets, are gathered 'round the lone gas lamp on the floor in the middle of the side office.

Winters gives them each a long look, making sure they're following his train of thought. "So if things do indeed fail to change in any way, that means we'll have to start thinking long-term. Water may cut tomorrow, it may cut three months from now, there's no way to tell. We'll have to prepare for that eventuality. The supermarket we raided was by some miracle untouched by other looters, but it won't be for long." He trails a finger down the map of Pennsylvania he has laid out between them all, gas lamp casting shadows across South Philly.

Babe looks down, stupidly thinks, Look, Simba. Everything the light touches is our kingdom, and shakes himself in irritation. Gotta listen. Gotta remember this. This is important, Winters seems to have a point somewhere in all the jibber-jabber.

Babe also carefully makes a point to stop dipping into Nixon's apparently bottomless supply of cheap looted whiskey.

"If we were in a more deserted, or spread out area, then maybe - and that's a pretty big maybe - we'd be able to set up some sort of stronghold, but at the moment we're in one of the worst places in Philly we could be. Look around us."

Everyone follows his finger up the Delaware River, and to where his finger stops, resting to the left of the winding blue line.

"The Liberty Bell?" Joe Toye snorts at him, and takes a long drag on the cigarette he's smoked almost clean down to the filter. He stubs it out roughly, barely missing the edge of Lieutenant Winters' precious map.

Winters doesn't look angry at this lack of respect. Hell, he doesn't even look slightly peeved. Instead he throws Toye an amused glance, which Toye returns, looking taken aback.

"Well, yeah. Among others, that too. That too," he says slowly, and pokes around in an almost triangle pattern. "Like Joe's pointed out, we've got the Liberty Bell, JFK Plaza, Betsy Ross House. Basically, thousands of tourists. More bodies than we can handle, just the seven of us." He digs his nail in slightly, creating a small dent in the glossy paper. "We have University City here, to the west - at least four major campuses equals thousands more in one condensed area - which thankfully we're partially protected from by the Schuykill."

Even Toye doesn't have any smart-ass interruptions as Winter's dirt-encrusted fingernail lands on its final destination. There's a brief pause.

"Well, shit," Guarnere says.

"Shit is right," Nixon drawls from where he's lounging at Winters' side, and tips back a shot of whiskey. He laughs hollowly. "One of the biggest hospitals in the State! And right smack dab in our neighborhood! Anyone else feeling like a logistical fucking genius?"

Winters clears his throat softly. Nixon's eyes flick up to meet his instantly, long-ass eyelashes throwing shadows, and he nods for Winters to continue. "Sorry. Go on, Dick."

"Well, there's not much else to say. Stay here, we'll be overrun in a week. Maybe less. I know we've got a comfortable enough position here, and I hate to be the one to say it, but we should probably plan to move out within the next two days."

Silence falls. Everyone's either nodding solemnly at the map or, in Nixon's case, inhaling the last drops of whiskey in the bottle.

"I propose getting a good night's sleep tonight, and a bright and early start tomorrow," Winters finishes, looking at the tired men around him. "Get Harry and Kitty's thoughts, make a solid plan."

Five weary "Aye"s follow, and they leave the map where it is as they unfold from their sitting positions. Babe extinguishes the light and they all crawl off to sleeping bags or filthy cots, trying not to think too hard about the days ahead.

Chapter Text

"Hey, Roe. How's the shoulder?"

Eugene looks up from his cup of watery coffee and wipes his mouth with the back of his hand.

"Sore," he replies. "Nothin' like yesterday, though. Swelling should go down completely by tomorrow."

His colleague and fellow trauma surgeon Dr. Timothy Bryan, whose previously impeccable mustache is starting to meld with two weeks' worth of unshaven facial hair, takes a seat in the folding chair across from him, movements heavy. He pulls his own can of tuna out from his pocket and pops it open. "Glad to hear it. Not that I thought for a second it would go any different - you're a fucking tough son of a bitch."

Eugene allows himself a small smile, and Bryan nods once in what looks like satisfaction before digging two fingers vigorously into his tuna and scoopin' half the can into his mouth.

They're in Gibbon Building, which he, Doc Bryan, and the other survivors had finally managed to secure as a hideout after a week of roaming, in groups of two or three, from hospital coma wards to parking garages. A lot of them'd been either unable or unwillin' to go home to their families and loved ones, due to the chaos that had begun to rapidly spread through Center City shortly before and continuin' after D-Day.

Chaos is a tame word for the two weeks of hell that'd followed Eugene's fateful First Contact in the Thomas Jefferson University Hospital's Emergency Center. In a matter of days there'd been numerous patients turnin' on doctors, who in turn attacked nurses, other patients, visitin' family members. A majority of the Thomas Jefferson University Hospitals in the area were all either adjacent to each other or otherwise very close by, in turn connectin' with the nearby university campus, creating a sprawling complex of constant bustle and activity: the perfect breeding group for a viral epidemic.

If that's really what this is.

Eugene rolls his left arm in its socket and bites his lip against the dull flare of pain in his upper left torso.

He'd been with one of the radiologists (Jackson? was it Jackson?) on the raid yesterday, back to back, with a circle of reanimated corpses all 'round them (drippin' putrid, stinkin' flesh and tissue from their bones- like something outta those comics he'd read as a teenager, depictin' the Hiroshima bombing of WWII). Closin' in. Had nothin' but a rusty crowbar and furious desperation between him and the horde, something like luck keepin' him just outta rotting arm's reach, when the solid body pressed against his back had suddenly shifted downwards. Thudded to the floor.

“Get up!” he'd roared, tryin' to turn and pull him up and look in fifteen directions all at once, but his scrabbling fingers had merely slipped over the hot blood gushing from the gaping holes where the man's left cheek and eye had been. Nearly got bit himself as he'd tried to wrench the body away to safety, in a gruesome tug-of-war with the frenzied opposing side sinking teeth into mangled feet and legs. The others had caught up with them by then, but too late to do anything 'cept grab Eugene and run, trippin' and sobbin' prayers under their breath.

He hadn't even noticed his arm was dislocated till they'd collapsed behind the safety of the barricaded doors.

"Roe."

His eyes refocus, drawn back to the present by the soft almost-question.

"I didn't know 'is name," Eugene says, low, a muttered confession into his cup of coffee. He doesn't meet Bryan's eyes, but knows the other man knows who he's referring to. "I washed 'is blood off my hands and face and I can't recall 'is goddamn name."

Fury rushes through him suddenly, a forest fire ignited by the sheer futility of it all, and he throws the cup as hard as he can to the ground. The crash of shatterin' ceramic does nothing but irritate his frayed nerves and he wants to open every window in the building and scream.

Bryan doesn't flinch at the noise or flying shrapnel, but just sits in his chair with his arms folded and watches him unconcernedly. Eugene stares down at the expanding puddle, chest risin' and fallin' rapidly and his pulse in his ears, waitin' for a rebuke.

After a long silence, Bryan sighs, ducks his head, and leans forward to rest his arms on his knees. Eugene sees the strong lines of his body droop just a fraction, and he doesn't bother to lift his head when he drags his gaze up to meet Eugene's.

"This is survival," Bryan says quietly but firmly. "This isn't the ER, this isn't surgery with stats and clipboards and protocols and years of experience under your belt. This is fucking Apocalypse Now shit, Roe. War. Plain and simple. Only, for the first time in damn history, it's a war with no shades of grey, just clear cut good guys and bad guys, and the bad guys are kicking the good guys' underdog asses to hell and back."

He pauses, maybe to collect his thoughts.

"That means a helluva lotta death- people we know, people we won't get a chance to get to know. You continue blaming yourself for every man, woman, and child you can't save and...shit..."

Bryan shakes his head and stands, muscle in his jaw clenched.

"You'll just end up chipping away at yourself bit by bit till you're practically fucking dead, before the zombies even get a chance to take a bite out of you."

**

Eugene's grateful that he ain't got a lot of time to himself.

Doc Bryan's words still roll around in his head, but what with the tasks split evenly among them all- patrols, near-daily supply runs to stock up on food, water, weapons, and medical supplies (in this new uncertain world they know they'll need as much as they can hoard), even simple things like inventory and learning how to fire a gun- his mind ain't got the chance to replay the gruesome death of his colleague like it had the night before.

They all gather for their daily meeting in the gift shop on the first floor at 11:30 am. Despite being mid-morning, the room is darkened by the furniture piled up against the windows linin' the walls. Eugene can hear the horrible groanin' sounds coming from outside, a constant reminder of the company they keep with only a wall to separate them. It's been gettin' louder every day, and what had been a barely audible murmur in the beginning days has grown exponentially in volume.

They're not the kind of ragtag group Eugene's seen in countless survival movies depictin' apocalypses: there are no whimperin' children, no helpless civilians rockin' in corners, immobilized under pressure. They are 11 in total - and all doctors or nurses, 6 men and 5 women. Eugene doesn't think it strange that there ain't any non-medical professionals in the group: with death and destruction all around, it had made sense in the beginning to stick to what you knew, and they'd all gravitated towards each other without a second thought.

Sitting across from him in the circle of fold-up chairs is Carwood Lipton, one of the most acclaimed neurosurgeons Jefferson has (or, had) to offer. His tired expression mirrors those of his colleagues', and he rubs a hand over the patchy stubble on his cheeks as he does a head count. He pauses when he's finished, like he's silently crossing a final name off of an invisible checklist.

It ain't like they'd gotten together and voted on a leader or anythin', but Lipton has always had a quiet yet authoritative sorta way to him, leading and taking care of others like he was born to do it- though not in a flashy way, mind. So it just seems natural to let him lead the meetings and gather reports. If anything, there's a general kinda feelin' that everyone's just glad it ain't them that's gotta step up to the plate this time. Glad they can stick to followin' orders.

"Well," says Lipton, "We're down one man today, and I'm mighty sorry to say it. According to what you all reported on yesterday's run, there was nothing you could do. Best make our peace and be done with it."

There is a general sort of shuffling as everyone shifts morosely in their seats.

"Gene, where does this leave us food-wise?"

Eugene clears his throat. "We cleared out Jefferson's cafeteria kitchen yesterday, good as, so... 'nough to last us 'bout a month if we add what we have already."

"All right. Now, Spina, could you tell us what you told me this morning?"

Everyone looks around to Ralph Spina, a scruffy-looking nurse practitioner who usually worked down at the Methodist Hospital in South Philly, but had happened to find himself trapped in the Jefferson ER alongside Eugene and Bryan when he'd accompanied a routine patient transfer. Wrong place, wrong time.

Eugene don't know him all that well 'cept that he's a tough South Philly native, with a big voice and even bigger balls in the face of danger, and has proven himself to be dependable and near fearless; for that alone, Eugene feels respect for him.

Spina also seems to be able to sense when Eugene is in a talking mood and when he ain't, and seems content with just sitting beside him sharing the silence when it's the latter. Eugene hasn't met many people who can read him like Spina can, and for that he's grateful.

Only, this morning, Spina's softly rounded cheeks are almost alarmingly pale, his eyes narrow slits over dark, deep-set bags - similar to the ones Eugene knows are growin' darker by the day under his own eyes. He looks halfway to death's door, a far cry from his normal cheer and goodwill.

"Sure, Lip," Spina replies, and Eugene notes how small his voice sounds. "Okay, uh, I know alla ya either went on the raid yesterday or heard about it, so this won't be news, but it's gettin' fuckin' bad out there. As in, stiffs rubbin' shoulders, they're standin' so close, bad. And when I was on patrol last night I noticed somethin'. Dunno if it's because this is the new party spot or they're smellin' blood or God knows what, but we've never had so many stiffs outside this building as we do now. Just waitin', kinda millin' 'round, but not movin' on after a while like before."

Spina looks nervously at the covered windows and lowers his voice further, as if the zombies can hear him.

"There's more comin' in from outside Center City, too. From the roof I could see 'em comin' in from all sides last night, like they're bein' drawn here. I just got a bad feeling, ya know, like our time's runnin' out." He shrugs stiffly. "Just my opinion, and that's what I told Lip here."

Eugene remembers how crowded the streets had looked yesterday, how much harder it'd been to get across the road to Jefferson ER unnoticed. Spina's right, that part ain't news, but hearing about the newcomers from outta town sends a cold frisson down his spine. Merdé.

Lipron nods gravely. "Thank you, Spina. Hearing this made me think it's past time for us to find a new home. I know we've talked about what to do when this time came, and I trust you all remember?"

10 heads nod in unison, Eugene's among them.

"I think today's as good a time as any to put some distance between us and this hellhole. I'm thinking it might be better to start heading either south or west, get some space between us and the metropolitan areas," he continues. "Now, I know half of us are Philly natives, so if you want to split off and try to find your families, or would rather stay here where you're familiar with the territory and there's enough supplies to last you for a while, now's the time to speak up. This building is as well-fortified as we can make it, and our stash of weapons has gotten large enough that neither finding your way out nor staying put are suicidal options anymore."

Cautiously, hands begin to rise into the air. Lipton acknowledges them each in turn.

Ophthalmologist Suzy Bender wants to find her husband and kids: cell service cutting and them living near Quakertown means she's had no contact with them since before D-Day. Her voice shakes when Lipton asks how she thinks she'll fare on her own, but steadies when steely-eyed, muscled Nurse Martha Colbright drawls that she'd accompany her. ("Been workin' with ya for four years, think I'm gonna let ya off the hook that easy, huh?")

The three remaining women exchange glances and announce their intentions of staying put for now. Eugene knows they'd all worked together as OBGYNs at Jefferson for a long time, but very little else about them. He tries to brush off the guilty feeling: after all, they'd been stuck together for 2 weeks, and he can't recall exchanging more than greetings with 'em.

Bryan's cigarette glows in the semi-darkness and for a moment, his eyes are illuminated clearly. He's starin' straight at Eugene, expression unreadable. Eugene raises an eyebrow back.

"I'm with you, Lip," Bryan says, still lookin' at him, and forcefully exhales a breath of smoke. "Let's fucking get the hell out of here."

Eugene breaks his gaze and glances back at Spina, who looks torn, eyes flashing from Bryan to Lipton to the women and then to the man sitting next to him.

"Whadda bout you, Shifty?" Spina says a bit desperately, "You stayin' or goin'?"

Nurse Shifty Powers, the youngest of their group, looks a bit forlorn as he answers, "I really wanna stay with you fellas, but I just wanna go home to my family. If..." He chokes a bit, and they all carefully ignore it. "Y'know, if they're, if they're still out there."

Lipton looks sympathetic, and reaches out to pat his knee. "That's fine, Shifty. We'll sure miss you when we're out there, though. I doubt any of us will ever come close to being as good a shot as you."

This makes Shifty smile, and Eugene feels a pang of despair at how young it makes him look. Just a kid.

Bryan's eyes are still burnin' holes into the side of his face and he realizes he's now the last to speak.

"I sure as hell ain't stayin' here," he says finally. Bryan leans back in his chair and crosses his arms, the furrow in his brow relaxing. Eugene can't get a read on what he's thinkin'. "Doctor Lipton, you got space on your team?"

Lipton's smile is genuine. "It's all yours," he says. "Glad to have you on board, Gene."

**

After they take an hour to split the supplies between the two groups and take a break for lunch at noon, everyone who's leaving goes to their separate rooms to gather their belongings.

Eugene's packin' his things - an extra set of scrubs, two packs of smokes, coupla towels and a bar of soap, a bible he'd found at the front desk, and a water bottle, plus the sharpest pair of scissors he could find, bandages, a dissecting knife, bone cutter, suturing needles and thread, enough drugs to knock out an elephant, and a tourniquet - when Bryan leans on the door jam and knocks on the open door.

"I see you're ready to get this show on the road," he says, eyeing the instruments Eugene's wrapping in towels as a safety measure. He reaches behind him and pulls a gun from his back pocket. "You grab something from our weapons pile downstairs?"

Eugene looks down at the scalpel in his hand, and wraps it slowly. "I... I don't like guns," he admits reluctantly. "I know I'll need one, but... I jus'..."

He trails off, not knowing what to say. Maybe it's because he's treated so many people with gunshot wounds, but he hates the look of guns. Hates the sound, hates the way men act when they're carrying, like they're so damn cool, having somethin' in their pocket that could instantly take a life. Feels wrong to be able to play God like that. He glances at the crowbar lying beside his backpack on the cot and thinks back to yesterday, wonders with a pang if having a gun then would have changed anything.

Bryan watches him for a moment, and then sighs and stretches out his hand. "Here."

Eugene blinks down at the gun, and doesn't comprehend for a second. "What?"

"Just fucking take it, I'll get another one," says Bryan irritably.

Eugene slowly reaches out to take it. He ain't familiar with guns and can't tell what kind it is, but it's heavier than it looks and feels awkward in his hands.

"You know how it works?" asks Bryan, crossing his arms and leaning back on the door frame. "I know Lip was showing you the other day, but..."

"I know enough," replies Eugene.

"Good. When we get out on the road, we can work on your aim," says Bryan. He sounds confident.

"You a good shot?" asks Eugene. They haven't been using guns much so far - too loud, draw too much attention - so he's never seen him in action.

Bryan shrugs. "Good as any civilian can get, I suppose. I used to go to a range on my days off - thought if I owned a gun, might as well get familiar with it."

Eugene blinks at him. Somehow, it's not a huge surprise to learn that Bryan owns a gun.

"Wish I had it with me now," Bryan muses.

"Where is it?"

"Desk drawer back home." Bryan bares his teeth in a smile at the irony. "Didn't think I'd need it on a regular work day, you know? Only had it in case of a break-in or something. Fat lot of good it's done me."

Packing finished, Eugene hoists his small backpack onto his uninjured shoulder and walks towards him. He makes sure the safety's on before sliding the gun into his right pocket. "Thanks," he says.

Bryan rolls his eyes. "Whatever. Let's go. Now that we're actually fucking leaving, I'm getting sick of just sitting around doing fuck-all."

"Yeah, know what ya mean."

Together, they walk down the stairs to where Lipton is already waiting.

The plan for their team and the Ophthalmology team is simple: get their share of the food, water, and weapons, plus their personal belongings, over to the parking garage of Jefferson across from their building. There are two ambulances they've already stocked with bedding, 5-gallon water cooler bottles, generators, and other things like toilet paper (Bryan was very clear about not having to wipe his ass with leaves if necessary), keys left in the ignition for a time just like this, when they'd need a hasty escape. Gas for the ambulances and generators was the one thing they hadn't been able to scrounge, and it had been a brief topic of conversation, but the consensus was that they'd be able to pilfer it from other abandoned vehicles when on the road.

"Ready to move out?" asks Lipton softly. They all fall silent, looking around at each other.

"Good luck," says one of the women staying back, and gives Shifty a brief hug. "Don't do anything reckless. Hope you find your folks okay."

"Thanks, Gloria," Shifty mumbles, and sniffs loudly. "It's been real nice knowin' you."

The words make a few of them flinch, namely Spina. He has a backpack too, which Eugene is surprised to see. He'd thought Spina was gonna stay back as well. Guess he'd been wrong. Must be tryin' to find his folks, too.

"Remember everything we talked about, all right?" Lipton says, and hugs her as well. "You find things getting worse around here, and I want you three in the remaining ambulance and out of here as fast as you can, okay? It's loaded and ready to go whenever you want."

Everyone starts hugging each other then, but Eugene doesn't move to join them, just nods goodbye. He notices Bryan does the same.

"God speed," Gloria whispers, and they're out the door.

**

Emerging from the semi-darkness into daylight blinds Eugene momentarily. Warm wind washes over his face, and for a second he looks at the sunlight streaming almost serenely through the trees nearby, hears the whoosh of the breeze making the leaves rustle against each other, and almost forgets what they're about to face.

Almost, anyway. The tight knot in his stomach reminds him almost immediately.

As soon as the door is shut behind them, they crouch behind the fortress of random furniture they'd built on the first day to protect the main entrance to the building.

"Okay, here we go," Lipton breathes, "Don't use your guns if you don't have to, all right? Those of you who haven't been on any raids, stick with someone who has. Run as fast as you can, don't stop for anything."

They all nod gravely.

"Follow me on the count of three. One, two-"

They burst into the sunlit street as one, and immediately Eugene has to swing his crowbar into the head of a stiff that appears growling in his path. It drops, almost taking the crowbar with it before Eugene yanks it out of its skull, tearing a sickening half of it away with him in the process.

"Go, go, go!" Lipton yells as Spina stumbles over a body writhing with maggots in the middle of the street. "Keep moving!"

Running ahead of him to the left is Bryan, armed with a machete (Eugene can't think of where he coulda found it) and ferociously clearing a path, zombies droppin' away from him left and right. Shifty runs behind him, a large knife glistenin' in his hand. His face is terrified, but the first zombie he encounters doesn't get a chance to do anything but flail as Shifty sinks the knife right in between its eyes.

Everything stinks of death, and Eugene chokes on the heavy stench in the air as they near their destination.

The only problem with their plan is that the front of the garage is wide open and leading straight into the road, as per hospital procedure, and there are zombies staggering all around the ambulances. Eugene, panting and beginning to sweat from the exertion, runs faster so he's next to Lipton, their designated driver.

There are two zombies directly blocking their path to the driver's side of the first ambulance.

"I got this one," he yells to Lipton who flashes him a thumbs up, and Eugene knocks one zombie aside so he has time to brain the other one, giving Lipton the chance to open the door. The first zombie snarls as it's thrown back by the force of Eugene's swing, but doesn't fall, and Eugene's forced to turn on his heel and swing the crowbar with all his might as it lunges forward again.

He knocks down a third appearin' from behind the ambulance as Lipton starts the engine, the rumblin' sound coverin' the thwack of his crowbar hitting the side of the zombie's head with such force that the spine connectin' it to the rest of the decaying body snaps cleanly. The head drops and rolls between the wheels and underneath the ambulance, and Eugene jumps back to let the headless body fall forward to hit the ground as if in slow motion.

"Get your fucking ass in the car, Roe!" screams Bryan.

Eugene doesn't need further encouragement. As soon as he's scrambled into the passenger's side next to Bryan, who's squished between him and the gear shift, Lipton floors the gas pedal and Eugene has to brace himself against the dashboard to keep from flying head first through the windshield as they drive, tires squealing, out of the garage.

"Are we all okay?" Lipton asks loudly above the stereo, which appears to have turned on with the engine. Acoustic guitar fills the cabin, along with the deep growling voice of Johnny Cash.

"Will you partake of that last offered cup, Or disappear into the potter's ground, When the man comes around"

Eugene fumbles with his seatbelt as they run over five zombies at once, ambulance shuddering and lurching.

"Anyone bit?"

"No," Bryan and Eugene shout back. They're all panting and sweating and shaking from adrenaline.

"What about Spina?"

Eugene shoots Lipton a questioning look, which Lipton doesn't see because he's too busy wrenching the steering wheel to the left to avoid the wreckage of a car in the middle of the road. Eugene's breath is knocked out of him as the g-force throws his body into Bryan's, only his seatbelt keeping him from flying out of his seat.

"What about Spina?" Eugene asks Bryan, who shoots him a look of annoyance.

"Motherfucker changed his mind halfway and decided to join our team," he says sourly, and gestures with his head. "He's in the back."

In disbelief, Eugene twists and peers through the small partition behind Bryan's head, through the glass, and jolts in surprise when he meets the wide brown eyes behind it.

"Jesus Christ," he says under his breath. Bryan huffs out a laugh beside him. The warm air hits Eugene's neck.

"Guess he just couldn't get enough of us, huh."

"Don't blame him," laughs Lipton as he turns left into a smaller back road. "Not to toot my own horn or anything, but I'd feel safest in our group if I were him, too." He pushes a button on the dashboard that opens up a link between the front and back. "Hey Spina, you doing okay back there?"

"Gettin' carsick," Spina's voice crackles through the speakers. "Otherwise... yeah, not hurt or nothin'."

They all laugh. It feels good, and Eugene can feel the tension slowly leak from his body.

"Good, good. Sit tight, once we're clear of the city I'll find us a gas station, and one of us will switch with you."

They'll be out of the city pretty damn fast, Eugene thinks. They're drivin' faster than Eugene's comfortable with, down backstreets littered with bodies both dead and undead, but... well, at least they're on the move. He glances out the mirror; his workplace for the last 7 years has already disappeared from sight.

"Weird, huh?" Bryan mutters, like he's read his mind. He's turned off the stereo with an irritated flip of his wrist.

Eugene exhales loudly in agreement: in his heart, Louisiana will always be home, but he'd been ready to accept Philadelphia as a substitute. He'd been at the hospital more than at his apartment, and so in a way, Jefferson ER was more like home than anything.

"It's all fucked up," continues Bryan, lighting a cigarette. He offers one to Eugene, and he accepts gratefully, rollin' down the window a tad to let the smoke out. "Though I'm just glad to be rid of the dead weight, as fucked up a thing to as that is to feel."

"Tim," says Lipton in light admonishment.

"Well, it's true!" Bryan snaps. "You two are the only ones I'd pick to be stuck in a fucking life or death situation with, no offense to Spina. Colbright was the only one of the women I'd trust to watch my back out here, and Shifty may be a fine shot but I could hear him fucking sobbing in his room at night, you know? It's nothing personal, I just think things turned out... satisfactory."

Eugene keeps quiet, but inside he agrees with Bryan.

Lipton shakes his head and opens his mouth to say something, but Eugene doesn't get to hear what he's about to say because suddenly Bryan cries out, "Look out!"

Eugene looks out the windshield, and only manages to catch a flash of red hair before Lipton slams on the brakes. Eugene's body is thrown forward to be caught by the seatbelt, and then whipped back again. His head connects solidly with the windowsill, and the world goes black.

Chapter Text

The day started out so well: balmy weather, a hearty breakfast of beans and (slightly moldy) bread- even a decent cuppa joe that Toye cooked up over the portable stove they'd found under a pile of motorcycle v-twin engine parts in the back.

But now Babe's starting to lose feeling in his shoulders and arms and he for sure ain't gonna keep quiet about it.

"This damn backpack weighs more'n I do," he complains loudly, shifting it around. "The fuck you put in 'ere, Gonorrhoea? Bricks made outta solid gold?"

Guarnere, walking ahead of him with Harry bouncing alongside, shoots him a grin over his shoulder and cackles. "Shut ya whiny piehole, Babe, ya don't even got the heaviest pack."

Babe picks up his pace up to a jog so that he's no longer in the very back of the procession. When he passes Guarnere, he makes sure to jostle his shoulder, hard, but it backfires when his solid weight is unmoving and Babe's the one that stumbles to side.

Harry squints at him from Guarnere's left side and laughs toothily. "You okay there, Babe?"

"Shaddup," he mumbles back, "Ain't my fault Gonorrhoea's built like a sack-a potatoes."

"Hey, who you callin' a potato, ya scrawny little shrimp!"

"Shut the fuck up back there, you'll bring the whole fuckin' city down on us," Toye snaps from up ahead, shifting his own backpack and cracking his neck. "Babe, quit complainin', at least you're not carrying the entire damn water supply."

Kitty makes an apologetic face at him as he jogs past her. "I honestly wouldn't mind carrying some more stuff..."

Babe grins at her. She can't be more than 80 pounds soaking wet, and her own rucksack is already making her walk a little funny from the weight. Her tiny forehead is beaded with sweat, and she has a cute little furrow in her brow.

"Nah, s'all right. Ain't your fault Gonorrhoea got a little greedy back there in the store. 'Least we won't go hungry in this mess... one less thing ta worry 'bout, right?" He winks at her, and her worried expression softens a bit. "'Sides, we make ya carry any more'n that and I reckon Harry'll have an aneurysm tryin' ta be all gentlemanly an' such."

"Hey, I heard that!"

At the front of the group, Winters' arm shoots up above his head, hand in a fist, and they all stop walking down the middle of the narrow road and crouch down on the sides in an automatic response.

They haven't been walking far yet, only about 10 minutes away from the little mechanic's shop they'd called home for three days. Winters is leading them towards a large parking lot they know is sightly to the north. It brings them closer to the center of the city than they'd like, but the plan is to find a few decent vehicles that are sturdy and roomy, so that they don't have to risk walking out in the open anymore, and they all agreed that it's a risky move they're willing to take.

Babe, his pack pulling his weight backwards in an uncomfortable way, maneuvers himself forward so that he reaches Winters and Nixon, where they're huddled together at the end of the street beside a large dumpster. The smell is rancid, of stale piss and leaking garbage, and it mingles unpleasantly in the air with the now-constant stench of rotting flesh.

Babe wonders idly if police officers have some sort of fetish when it comes to hiding behind dumpsters.

"What's the holdup, boss?" Babe asks under his breath.

Nixon looks askance at him, and there's a beat before his eyes crinkle in the corners in amusement. "Yeah, boss," he drawls at Winters, earning himself an annoyed look. "What's the plan?"

Winters just nods his head at the intersection up ahead.

Babe peers around them and sees dozens of zombies wandering aimlessly over the white paint of the crosswalks, shuffling around the few prone corpses scattered throughout. Beyond the intersection is their destination, a sprawling parking lot surrounded by a high wire fence and some trees and bushes.

"We'll have to either risk scaling that fence, or walk around it till we find the entrance," Winters says sotto voce. "Both are risky, but trying to scale it... With that horde right there, and Kitty being as tiny as she is..." He shakes his head. "We'd be on an awfully short time limit."

"We could try getting rid of'em all first?" Babe says hopefully.

He grips his baseball bat tighter, thinking of how pants-shittingly scary and yet at the same time thrilling it is to go up against a zombie with nothin' but his strength and reflexes. There's a gun tucked into his underwear- he'd taken it from a half-eaten body of a security guard coupla days back -but Winters was still firm on his no-guns policy, and Babe couldn't blame 'im. Still, would be fun to get to use it sometime.

"Well, there's no getting around a little fighting," Winters agrees, "But probably best not to take all of them on headfirst. We'll go around the left flank fast as we can, sticking to the fence, try to avoid contact as much as possible."

"We go around," Nixon repeats, and sighs. "Sounds like a plan."

"Babe, I want you on point."

Babe jerks. "Who, me?"

"No, undead Donald Trump," Nixon says sarcastically, but Winters waves him off.

"Yeah, you. You're the fastest, and so far have the most kills of any of us. I'll have Guarnere bring up the rear. You comfortable with that?"

Winters' dirty face is intent as he peers at Babe from under the glint of his Special Hat. Babe swallows. Ain't like he's scared, no way, and by now he's learned to trust whatever plan Winters comes up with, but...

Ah, fuck it.

"Heck yeah," he replies forcefully. Nixon sighs and disappears behind them to pass the message on.

"Good," Winters says, and smiles a little at him. "I know we can count on you, Babe. Just follow that fence till you get to an opening: once we're inside, stick close. Head for the biggest, toughest looking jeep or truck you can find, got it?"

"What if we don't find any keys?" Babe asks, a little doubtfully. It's something that's been bothering him since the morning, when they'd all agreed on their plan of action.

Winters unexpectedly smirks.

"Nix has picked up a couple things over the years, one of them being the ability to pick locks and hotwire vehicles. You didn't hear it from me."

He sounds a little proud, bit too proud if ya ask Babe, for someone whose job description was stoppin' that sorta thing from happening.

Nixon reappears by their side. "We're good to go."

"Okay, Babe, you got the lead on this one. Stand by for my mark."

Babe looks out at the zombies and grins to himself, baseball bat at the ready. Time to die, again, you disgusting motherfuckers, he thinks a little gleefully.

"Go!"

He springs up and runs as fast as he can at an angle, beginning to clear a path for the team. His only focus is the zombies between them and the glorious parking lot ahead, and he can hear Winters and Nixon beginning to run out behind him as he-

"Heffron!"

Winters' scream behind him gives him pause. Something moves in the right corner of his eye, too large and too fast, and he turns in horror as out of nowhere an ambulance roars into view. He has no time to run out of the way, no time to do anything but turn his body away and throw his arms up to shield his head, as the screech of rubber on pavement echoes off the buildings around them.

Crash.

**

"-telling you, look, I'm sorry, okay, I didn't see him, he ran out so fast-"

"Ain't no fuckin' excuse for what ya did, ya sorry-ass piece-a shit, thought we just had ta worry 'bout the freakin' undead monsters but noooo, now we gotta look out fo' stupid mothafuckas like you who don't know how ta fuckin' drive-"

"Calm down, Guarnere, this isn't helping-"

"I ain't takin' no more orders from you, ya fuckin' Quaker, you really tryna protect the guy that fuckin' killed Babe-"

"He didn't fucking kill him, shut your goddamn mouth. Not his fault your idiot friend ran out into the street, not looking where he was going!"

Babe's entire body hurts, but the first thing he feels is warm fingers trembling against the skin of his neck.

"Can y'hear me?" a deep, soothing voice murmurs in his ear. "Hey, you gonna be okay. Open y'eyes fo' me."

Blearily, Babe tries to open his eyes, but moans when he feels a sharp twinge of pain in his cheek. "Hurts," he whispers.

"I know. Can you flex yo' right hand fo' me? Good. Now the left."

"Behind you, Guarnere!"

"I got it!"

"Thanks Joe, leas' I know who out here's got my back, and ain't tryna fuckin' run me ova-"

"Hey, he said he was fucking sorry, all right?!"

"We can't stay out in the open like this! Dick, we gotta go!"

"Affirmative- Nix, get Kitty out of street and find shelter. Toye, Harry, cover them. Listen, what's your name?"

"Lipton. Carwood Lipton."

"I'm Dick Winters, and we've got about five minutes before this intersection is overrun. We won't be able to hold them off for much longer. Harry, watch your six!"

Babe manages to get his eyes open, and a perfect blue sky swims into view. The soothing voice continues in his ear, and under its command he wiggle the toes on both his feet and moves his head from side to side. His head is pounding and he can taste copper in his mouth.

"Bryan! Gimme a hand here," the voice in his ear pulls away to call out, and a blurry figure appears above Babe's head.

"He ok, Roe?" 'Bryan' asks. "His friends are going fucking psycho on us over there. He'd better not be dead."

"He's banged up real good, but he's lucky he turned his body away at the las' second. Seems his backpack absorbed most'a the impact. Clavicle looks fractured, but otherwise no broken bones and his spine's intact. Losin' a lotta blood from the head and thigh wounds, gonna need stitches an' plasma, fast. We gotta get him inta the ambulance."

"What? Fuck that shit, we'll patch him up quick so we can get out of here. And dammit, you shouldn't be on your feet, Roe, your head is bleeding, you've probably got a fucking concussion-"

"I ain't leavin' 'im here like his," argues Babe's angel in his deep voice, warm fingers still cradling Babe's head. Roe, thinks Babe fuzzily. "Help me get 'im up."

"Roe-"

"Now! 'Fore we got more company to worry 'bout!"

There's a pause. Babe can still hear Guarnere cursin' up at storm somewhere out of the periphery of his blurred vision - Good ol' Gonorrhoea - and is thinking about closing his eyes again when the arms under his head suddenly shift, another pair of arms wrap around his legs, and he's being lifted off the ground.

Every single nerve ending in his body protests this at the top of their lungs, and Babe gasps wetly around the blood slowly gathering in his mouth. He spits it out weakly.

"I know, I know," Roe says in his ear. "I got ya, you gonna be okay."

He keeps saying the same thing, over and over, and as Babe finds himself lifted onto a stretcher, he begins to believe it. He'll be okay. He closes his eyes finally and lets the darkness envelop him again.

**

Babe wakes to the feeling of an engine rumbling. He cautiously shifts his body, and is surprised to find that the pain has lessened to a dull throb in the background. Wincing, he slowly opens his eyes.

"Hey, look who's back," a voice says warmly. His voice. Roe.

Babe blinks. The stretcher he's laying on gives another shudder as the car- ambulance, he corrects himself- takes a sharp turn.

"Vomment ca vas? How you feelin'?"

Babe turns his head slowly to the side and catches his breath as he finally connects a face to the voice that's been accompanying him ever since the accident.

His dark eyes, so dark Babe can't properly see what color they are beneath the thin, straight brows, are narrowed in worry above deep shadowy bags that seem to pop out of his face in contrast to the pale skin around them. His face is pointy- like a fox, Babe thinks, all sharp angles and chiseled jaw. His lips are chapped as all hell, probably due to the fact that he can't seem to stop biting them.

His hair is even darker, almost pitch black, and it's unruly and sticking up oddly in places where it's not covered in a bandage, like he's run his hands through it over and over. It's a face that Babe thinks definitely matches his voice.

"Heffron?" he says worriedly, and reaches his hand up to feel his forehead. Babe closes his eyes briefly: the warmth from Roe's palm seeps into the skin of his forehead in a way that makes his entire body go limp with pleasure.

"S'Babe," Babe mumbles back.

Roe's brow furrows in confusion. "Huh?"

"Babe," Babe repeats. The fingers lift from his head, and he wants to protest. "M'name."

"Your friend said it was Edward Heffron," mutters Roe.

"Yeah, well, ev'ryone calls m'Babe."

Your friend, it finally registers, and Babe suddenly feels wide awake, drowsiness abruptly leaving him, and he tries to struggle to a sitting position.

"Whoa, now, slow down!" Roe says sharply, and his warm hand returns to settle on his chest, gently keeping him where he is. Babe relents. "You've gotta broken collarbone, so I don't wan' any sudden movements from you, y'got me?"

"Fuck," Babe mutters. Broken collarbone. Fantastic. Explains why his right arm is fastened tightly in bandages and a sling made out of what looks like a torn up T-shirt. "Where's Gonorrhoea, Doc? And Winters? Harry?"

Roe sighs almost imperceptibly. "We've been on the move for the past 8 hours or so. Kinda slow movin', since there's so many abandoned cars on the freeways. Your friend Guarnere wouldn't let you outta 'is sight; he's sleepin' over there by your other friend- Toye? and Spina, one o' ours. The rest are up front or followin' in a car behind us."

Babe strains to look beyond his feet into the darkness, and can barely make out the bulky forms slouched on the other end of their cramped quarters. "Oh," he mumbles. "Persuaded ya t'lettem join ya, huh."

Roe breathes out a laugh. Babe looks up at him, at the lights from outside crossing over the underside of his jaw, and feels his heart skip a tiny beat.

What.

"Your friend can be mighty persuasive," Roe says with a small smile, busying himself with the bandage wrapped around Babe's left knee. It twinges a little but Babe ignores it. "I wasn't gonna leave you, an' he refused to let me- uh, 'abduct' you. His words, not mine."

Something inside Babe warms, and he can't take his eyes off the dark lashes fluttering long and thick over Roe's pale cheek as he carefully unwraps the bandage, intent on his work and oblivious to Babe's scrutiny.

"Weren't gonna leave me, huh?" he says without thinking.

Roe finally looks up from what he's doing, and when his dark eyes meet Babe's, Babe's traitorous heart gives another quick skip. His breath catches in his throat and he tries to cover it with a cough. Suddenly the ambulance seems short of air, their close proximity seems unbearably close, and Babe struggles to maintain even breaths as they smile at each other.

"Mais, ain't your fault Lipton nearly killed you," Roe answers with that small half-smile again, oblivious to Babe's breathing issues.

"So-" Babe wracks his brain. Wants to keep him talkin' in that low, soothing voice somehow. "Uh, Roe? That a last name?"

"Yep. Eugene Roe." His hands start to move again, but his eyes haven't wavered from Babe's.

"Gene," Babe says, rolling the name around his mouth. "Yeah, I can work with that. Uh, you a doctor, then? All of ya? Or you just takin' this thing for a joyride?"

He must've said the wrong thing, he has no idea, because the smile abruptly drops from Roe's mouth and he breaks their shared gaze, busying himself with Babe's leg again. "Yep, we all doctors. 'Cept Spina there, he's a nurse."

Babe laughs loudly. "A nurse?" he says, feeling delighted. "What, he gonna dress up in one-a those tight white uniforms an' feed me soup?"

Roe shakes his head in what looks like annoyance. Something heavy sinks to the pit of Babe's stomach at the sight. Damn. He said somethin' wrong again. He feels frustrated with himself.

"Nurses get a bad rap," says Roe thoughtfully. "People think they jus' there t' have a good beside manner an' tuck ya in at night, wipe y'ass an' be unhelpful at the front desk." He shakes his head again. "They don' realise that without 'em, we doctors can't do our jobs. A good nurse practitioner like Spina? Hell, he'll know almost much as I do 'bout what t' do with a patient, has t' be able t' know how I'ma proceed in surgery, be able to keep track of the patient's vitals an' assist me at the same time. He's the one what helped me get you fixed up."

He looks up at Babe and smiles wryly. Babe feels ashamed.

"Sorry. I didn't..." he trails off.

"S'okay," replies Gene. "Common misconception. Not y'fault." His hands are incredibly gentle on Babe's leg, like he's afraid he'll break.

A snort and a rustle of clothes draws Babe's attention away from Gene's strong, long-fingered hands. One of the slouched figures stretches, and a prominent underbite appears out of the shadows.

"That you I hear jabberin' away up there, Heffron?" Guarnere growls, and it makes Babe laugh happily. Goddamn, it's good ta be alive.

"Fuck you, Gonorrhoea, if you'd been the one leading point I wouldn't be in this mess in the first place," he shoots back, and grins wider as Guarnere crawls forward and into the light streaming from the small partition next to Gene's head.

"Yeah, ya got that right," Guarnere snaps goodnaturedly. "'Cause there's only one damn idiot in alla South Philly that's dumb enough ta get himself run ova by an ambulance in the middle'a the apocalypse, and it sure as hell ain't me."

"Aw, Bill, I didn't know ya cared!"

"I don't," Guarnere huffs, "I was ready ta leave ya for dead, 'cept our kind-hearted doc here wasn't gonna let ya bleed out on the streets and wanted me ta babysit ya, ain't that right, doc?" He lowers his voice. "Oh, an' doc, uh, when you're finished with this pile a no brains here, can I get ya ta look at somethin'? Only it hurts when I piss..."

Babe snorts at Gene's small sigh. "Yeah, okay, think I got somethin' for that."

**

When the ambulance finally comes to a stop, Guarnere hastily fumbles open the back doors and hops out, grumbling about needin' to piss again, nearly knocking Spina over in the process. Behind them, Babe can see the headlights of another vehicle that must hold the rest of the group.

A man wearing scrubs the same light blue shade as Gene's appears in the open doorway as Spina and Toye scramble out as well. He's got a light brown bandana tied tightly around his head, and a no-nonsense look about him. Babe's already got the feeling that he's not someone you wanna fuck with, and it's confirmed when he opens his mouth and Babe recognizes him as 'Bryan', the guy with the sailor's mouth who wanted to leave Babe behind.

"We're gonna try to see if this place has got any gas left," he says to Gene, motioning to where Babe can see the flickering light of a gas station a few yards away. "Do you remember if we loaded those empty jerrycans or not?"

"Don' think so."

Gene moves away from his side, leaving Babe feeling a little bereft. Bryan's cold eyes flick towards him and Babe resists the urge to curl under the blanket Gene covered him with earlier and hide.

His lip curls up and he looks about to speak when Winters appears at his side, with another slightly shorter man with a long cut across the right side of his face and the remains of blood splatter across his receding hairline. Babe doesn't recognize him. He also notices, with a bit of alarm, that Winters is no longer wearing his special hat. He's not sure when this happened, but Winters looks different- younger, maybe, less official- without it.

"Babe, glad to have you back in the land of the living," says Winters warmly, letting Gene jump down before pulling himself up into the back of the ambulance. "Doc fix you up all right?"

"Of course he fucking did," growls Bryan from behind him, arms folded tightly across his chest. Gene mutters something to him and leads him away, leaving Babe alone with Winters and the other man.

Babe grins up at Winters. "I'm doin' okay, thanks for askin'," he says, not having to fake the cheer in his voice. It's nice to see him. "If I had to be run over, I'm just glad it was by a buncha doctors, ya know? I got lucky."

Winters chuckles, and reaches over to ruffle his hair. "Yeah, I guess we got lucky," he says, and glances over his shoulder. "Speaking of which, Babe, meet Dr. Carwood Lipton."

Ah, so that's who he is. The man that almost ended Babe's life at 23 years and 3 months. Lipton, who's also wearing scrubs- though unlike the others, his are green- pulls himself up to Winters' side and looks uncertainly at Babe, like he's afraid Babe will lunge at him in revenge for what happened.

"Nice ta meet ya," Babe says, deciding at once that he wouldn't hold a grudge. Lipton's eyes are so full of worry and remorse that he can't help it. Looks like a goddamn baldin' puppy dog.

"Same," replies Lipton, and looks relieved. "I really don't know what to- it's my fault this- I should've been watching the road more carefully."

Babe snorts and waves his uninjured left hand in the air, brushing the apology away. "Nah, it's all good, doc. Gene gave me some pretty decent shit, an' I can barely feel a thing. Also says my collarbone won't need surgery! That's good, right?"

Lipton smiles widely and shakes his head in disbelief. "That's- that's real good," he says. "He tell you it'll probably be about a month or two before you can use your arm again?"

Babe nods confirmation and looks up at Winters, whose smile is looking tight around the edges.

"Sorry, boss," he blurts out. "I know this kinda put a hamper in our plan- an' it was a real good one, too! Where'd ya get the other car, anyway?"

Winters looks like he doesn't know whether to laugh or ruffle Babe's hair again. "Nix made do with one off the street, but it stinks like its previous owners and he won't stop grumbling about it. We'll try to find a bigger one soon." He pauses. "And enough of this boss nonsense, you know you can call me Dick. You hungry?"

"Nah, I'm good."

"All right. Get some rest, we're gonna make a short stop here and then continue driving South. We've already crossed the border into Virginia, gonna continue to head to a less populated area, get our bearings. We'll be driving all night. You let us know if you're feeling uncomfortable."

"'Kay." He's starting to feel drowsy again. "Nice ta meet ya, Lip."

Lipton smiles and pats the cot gently. "You too, kid. Sleep tight. I'll get Gene to check on you in a bit."

Yeah, that'd be nice, Babe thinks as he feels himself slide into unconsciousness again. The blanket he's under smells stale and dusty, but he's warm and not in any pain, and if he closes his eyes he can imagine Gene Roe's dark eyes watchin' over him as he falls asleep.

Chapter Text

Eugene's head is poundin' so much that it's hard to concentrate on pumping gas.

He can feel Bryan shooting him concerned looks, but ignores it. Eugene hadn't liked the over-protective way Bryan'd reacted when he'd vomited out the back of the ambulance, right after hauling a bleeding and unconscious Heffron into it- and a little part of him, despite understanding his reasons, also disapproves of the way he'd responded to Lieutenant Winters and the rest of Heffron's friends when Lipton agreed to let them join up.

"Roe."

Eugene shifts his weight as the jerrycan in his hand grows heavier. At least they'd managed to find a full gas station, after trying three others that had already been sucked dry. Guess it helped that they were in the middle of damn nowhere.

"Gene, I know you can fucking hear me."

Eugene's stomach clenches for a second. In all the years he's known Bryan, he can count on one hand the times he's heard Bryan call him by his first name.

"I know you know," he replies after letting the silence hang heavy in the air. He returns the pump to its holder carefully.

He hears Bryan curse under his breath, then the sound of his footsteps, quick and irritated. He keeps his eyes on the ambulance they'd pulled into the space next to them, and clenches his jaw against the temptation to look at Bryan.

"You're bleeding again."

A soft touch to the bandage swathing his head makes him jerk his head away to the left automatically.

"Get your fucking ass over here, Roe," Bryan snaps. "Don't think for a second that I don't know you're not taking anything for the pain. What, afraid that since you used so much on that idiot back there, we'd run out if you treated yourself? Stubborn bastard."

Eugene can't help the snarl that escapes him and he turns to his right, anger building, so they're face to face.

"No, I didn't take anythin'," he growls, voice coming out louder than he woulda liked. "Heffron needed it, but I don', and you know it! Things're gonna jus' get worse from here, we gotta ration-"

"Fuck rationing," Bryan hisses instantly, interrupting, and takes a step forward so that their chests are almost touching. "You are more goddamn important to m- you're more important than worrying about our stupid med supply running out. Jesus Christ, listen to yourself."

Eugene tilts his head up a fraction, returning Bryan's glare in force. "Lipton took a look at me earlier, says for a grade 3 it ain't that bad. The pain an' the dizziness are already fadin'. He's a goddamn neurosurgeon, and even he didn' tell me nothin' I didn' already know. S'back off."

Bryan ignores him and lifts the bandage away from Eugene's head a little.

"Spina did an ok job wrapping you up, at least," he says quietly. The heat in his eyes has died down a bit, and it's less anger now, more somethin' else Eugene can't put his finger on. "Glad he's good for something."

"Y'don't give him enough credit," Eugene says, and can't help the little smile that creeps the corner of his mouth up. Funny, how protective Bryan can get. "Gotta stop bein' so distrustin' all the time, Tim. Hell, I remember you even hatin' on Lipton the first few days after we met 'im properly."

Tim lowers his hands slowly from Eugene's head, and places one on his shoulder, as though in acknowledgment that somehow they've graduated to first names without verbally agreein' on it. The warmth from it spreads through Eugene's scrubs to the skin underneath that's still tender from his previous injury. "Yeah, well. Lip proved himself, Gene. We'll see if the rest will follow."

They stand there under the buzz of the dying neon light until Lipton calls their names.

**

Nixon is swiggin' from a flask he's pulled from his pocket, and Eugene aches a little at the thought of alcohol. He could definitely use some of that right about now. His confrontation with Tim had concluded peacefully, mainly thanks to the fact that they're friends who've worked side by side for 4 years, but now Tim and Gaurnere and Toye are all snarling at each other like a coupla fightin' tomcats and it ain't helpin' his headache none.

Eugene can see Lipton and Winters exchange wearied glances over the map Nixon has spread over the hood of the ambulance, like the parents of a group of scrappin' children. It's almost funny. Eugene's mind drifts to the back of the ambulance, where his patient is sleeping peacefully, unaware of the dick-measurin' contest happening mere yards away. He's of half a mind to just walk away and curl up next to him, concussion be damned.

"Really? You wanna get rid'a us so you an' ya boyfriends can ride off inta the sunset? Ya don't say. Well I, for one, am shocked, ladies and gentlemen, just fuckin' knocked right outta my boots!" Guarnere is saying, sarcasm so thick it's almost tangible, and pulls a cigarette from behind his ear.

Tim promptly smacks it from his hand, sending it flying. The cigarette rolls forlornly on the ground off to the side and drops into the nearby gutter.

"Really? You're going to light a goddamn cigarette when we're standing in the middle of a gas station?" he asks incredulously. "Are you out of your fucking mind?"

Guarnere's face twists in fury, and he responds by planting a fist directly into Tim's face.

Everyone else curses with varying degrees of filthiness (Nixon, unsurprisingly, managing to come up with an astonishingly original combination of swears) as Tim lunges at Guarnere's waist, and they fall rolling to the ground, yelling and spitting at each other as they grapple.

"That's enough, Guarnere!"

The roar is so unexpected that for a moment, Eugene doesn't recognize the voice. Judging by the look of shock on Guarnere, Toye, Harry, and Nixon's faces, he's not the only one. Towards the back, Kitty has a hand over her mouth. Lipton and Spina look nonplussed.

Dick Winters, his face no longer in its usual calm expression but now frightening and cold, stands a little to the side of where Guarnere and Tim are still lying on the ground. He suddenly looks 8 feet tall, and Eugene watches him with something like admiration filling him. He understands now, in a way he hadn't before, how Dick Winters had managed to rise through the police ranks at such a young age. The power he's exuding now is so intense that he's almost glowing with it, and despite his filthy and somewhat disheveled uniform, he exudes nothing but authority. The kind of authority you don't question, just obey.

Guarnere doesn't answer, but roughly pushes Tim off of him and gets to his feet, eyes never leaving Winters'. He walks the few feet it takes to stand so close the tips of his boots are inches away from Winters', and his eyes travel disdainfully down his body, then slowly up again, as though he sees something lacking.

The silence is tense and nervous; even Tim is staying on the ground, watching them through narrowed eyes, his lip cut and dripping blood onto his scrubs.

"You finished?" asks Winters, eerily calm.

"Yes. Sir," Guarnere sneers finally, managing to make it sound like an insult. "Just about wrapped things up."

There's a general sign of relief as they all gather back around the map, Guarnere and Tim carefully picking opposite ends of the hood to stand. Tim stands next to Eugene, and Eugene can feel the almost imperceptible tremor of anger still running through his body.

Nixon looks from Guarnere to Tim with a raised eyebrow. "Well, now we've got that out of the way," he drawls, "Let's talk logistics. Dick, Lip, I know you two talked on the way up here about heading further south, but I want you to take a look at this." He points to a spot beneath the border of Virginia. "We're right about here. The Blue Ridge mountains and that whole 'Country Roads, take me home' mess stretches over here, which we want to avoid if possible. Big population of locals in this town here, plus tourists and an airport right here means we do not want to get all up in that."

"Yeah, that's why we're gonna keep driving, right?" asks Toye, sounding annoyed. As usual. "Stay away from all that shit?"

"Hold on, hear me out," Nixon says lazily. Eugene admires how he seems to put as little effort into speaking as is humanly possible. "See, I agree that getting as far away from this area I just mentioned as possible is a great idea, but then I got to thinking, hey, high ground. Maybe not such a bad idea. You know. Somewhere else. Somewhere just as mountain-y, but not as tourist-y. So if we head southwest on this freeway, following the Appalachian range, we find ourselves over here, in West Virginia."

Everyone cranes to look at where he's pointing.

"I think I get the general direction this is headed," Lipton muses. "Can't say I'm opposed to it. High ground, a decent sized lake-"

"-camp out for as long as we need for this whole shebang to die down," Nixon finishes, sending Lipton a look of appreciation. "Exactly. Source of food, probable wildlife, fewer humans which means fewer brain-eating monsters."

"What, is this the fucking Walking Dead, now?" Toye looks exasperated. "We're just gonna hole up in a campsite, wish for the best? Don't any of you watch any TV? That never fuckin' ends well for anybody! Plus it's boring as shit."

"Well, Joe," Nixon says, a note of irritation creeping through the lazy drawl. Even he is starting to look fed up with the mouthiness of the two Philly natives. "Do you have any suggestions for the group?"

Toye shuffles, looking unsure now that the spotlight is on him. "Uh, well, y'know back about a week ago? On the radio, 'fore it became just the Emergency Broadcast thing? The, uh, I heard mention of a Camp Pendelton-"

Groans and sighs of impatience interrupt his speech. Even Harry, who up until this point was merely watching the excitement from the sidelines, crumples up a piece of paper in his hands and tosses it in Toye's direction with a loud "Booo!"

"-down in San Diego!" Toye continues, now yelling over the cacophony. "Shut up, I'm still talkin'!"

"You still believe that garbage?" Tim shakes with derisive laughter against Eugene's arm. Eugene has no idea what they're talking about.

"What garbage?" he asks Tim quietly. Tim looks at him in confusion for a moment before he understands.

"Oh shit, you didn't hear? Yeah, for a while that was a major talking point, that the remaining Air Force, Navy, and Marines on the west coast were gonna gather at some Cali-based training camp, convert it into a safe haven for the living or some shit." He snorts and shakes his head. "Pipe dreams for desperate folk with nothing else to do but follow blindly."

The group had quieted to listen to Tim explain, but now a few of them- mainly Harry and Spina- go back to their teasing. A few more items like a lighter and a pen are thrown Toye's way and he dodges them, face breaking into an uncharacteristic grin.

"It's- a thought," says Nixon, voice shaking with badly-restrained laughter. "Uh- Dick? Any thoughts?"

The look Dick sends down at Nixon, lounging beside him on the hood of the car, is almost fond.

"I'm with you on this one," he says quietly as Nixon turns his head to look up at him.

Eugene almost wants to look away; amidst the rowdy heckling that continues in Toye's direction, it almost seems like a private moment, like Eugene's intruding on something that he shouldn't. It's strange and jarring after all the yellin' and fightin'.

They're still smiling softly, lingeringly, at each other, one of Nixon's feet nudging against Winters' shin, and Winters' shadow is falling over Nixon like it's shielding him from the danger of their surroundings. Like a caress, even.

Eugene feels like he's been hit by a lightening bolt, and wonders why he's only noticin' now.

Tim's watching him again but he just gives him a tiny shake of his head instead of answering the questioning look.

It's a revelation he'll keep to himself, for now. He doesn't know if he's right, doesn't know if it's something that's even resolved between the two of them (though judgin' by the way they act together, the slow heat and uncertain touches, he's pretty sure they aren't really even aware of it themselves), and anyway it ain't his business in the first place. He ain't got much experience with that sorta thing - had a few girlfriends in the past, none of them lasting long as they eventually realized his work would always come first - but he likes to think he's intuitive, and can't help but notice somethin' that's right in his face.

It's nice. Calmin', even. Like watchin' a lone flower bloom in a field burned after the crop's been harvested. It's good to know that something like this can develop amidst all the violence and death- something tender. Hopeful.

Eugene is shaken from his reverie as Winters begins to gather the map in, refolding it carefully.

"All right, let's get to it," he says firmly. "Everyone okay with Nix's plan? Joe? Great, okay. Lip, Nix, you two get some sleep. Me and- Guarnere? Spina?-"

Tim raises his hand.

"-thank you, Bryan- will trade off with you two and drive the rest of the way. Should take us about another 3 hours, so try to get some sleep. Doc, there enough room in the ambulance for them to stretch out?"

Eugene starts as he realizes that Winters directed the question to him. "Mais, if one o' the guys who rode with us on the way here don' mind switchin' t'ride in the car, don' see why not."

"Excellent. Joe, you just volunteered. Let's move out."

Toye is grumbling as they head back to the ambulance, but something about the past 15 or so minutes has changed his tone of voice. He's almost playful as he elbows Harry, who gleefully returns the favor, walking unevenly.

Eugene looks at Winters, who's back to his normal height and looking his usual gentle self again, and Winters glances back at him as though sensing his gaze. Winters gives him a nod and a warm smile, and Eugene returns it best he can.

Tim might still be bristlin' like a wounded caiman 'bout it all, but Eugene's starting to think that maybe havin' their new friends around ain't sucha bad thing after all.

**

The sun is beginning to rise as they arrive at their destination, and Eugene watches through the glass partition as the sky turns from pale grey to pink splintered with gold, then to multiple shades sliding from yellow to orange and finally the deep red of freshly spilt blood. It settles his restless mind, like sunrises always tend do to, and he feels peaceful as he glances left and down to Heffron, whose mouth is hanging open unattractively in his sleep. The sight stirs his insides in a strange way, and he can't help but reach out and brush away the red wisps of hair that have fallen out of place, across his eyelids. Red like the color of the sunrise outside, he thinks, then wonders when he'd started gettin' so poetic about strangers.

Heffron murmurs in his sleep and nuzzles his hand. Eugene freezes, unwilling to wake him.

"Sh-don' evenknow," slurs Heffron, obviously still fast asleep. "F-shw-fox, poin'y, likea foxshhhh..."

Eugene finally pulls his hand away, smile widening as Heffron's sleeping face gets considerably more unattractive. "You're definitely a weird one, Heffron," he murmurs down at him. Heffron smiles in his sleep like he can hear him.

A soft tap on the partition as the ambulance slows to a halt makes him look up. Tim glances back at him and mouthes "You coming?"

Eugene tries to tamper down his smile, which is still a little goofy from a lack of sleep and Heffron's sleep-talking, and nods back.

The air outside is cool and fresh when Eugene quietly climbs down from the ambulance, smellin' green and pure and wet with morning dew. Eugene throws out his arms, closes his eyes, and inhales deeply, his entire body tingling with happiness.

"The Great Outdoors," yawns Tim behind him. "Should've known you'd be one of those freaks that enjoys hiking and shit like that."

Eugene laughs under his breath, and doesn't bother to reply, just keeps breathing deep and looking around.

Winters has led them almost halfway up the decently-sized mountain, close to the shores of a small lake, and Eugene can hear the faint sounds of water lapping up against smooth stone. They've parked the cars in a small clearing in the woods that looks like a designated camping spot, complete with a barbecue pit, moldy bench, and a coupla half-decomposed corpses on the far edge of the clearing. There's an abandoned-looking tent in the distance, larger than an average two-man, and another smaller tent right behind.

Eugene nods in its direction. "Think the campers are still around somewhere?"

"Let's find out," says a voice to their right, and Winters strolls past, a large baton in his hand.

They follow him, Eugene pulling the crowbar from his pocket and Tim gripping his machete.

Once they reach the tents, however, it's clear that there's no need for weapons. The only signs of life amongst the rumpled sleeping bags and scattered personal items is a large mouse, nibbling away at a moldy looking biscuit.

"Looks good," murmurs Winters, kicking at the mouse. It scurries away without even dropping the biscuit. "From the looks of their car and personal items, this was a family of 5- two parents, two teenagers, and a younger one... probably about 5 or 6 years old."

They all look at the sprawled corpses nearby, five in total. One of them is that of a young girl, pigtails still intact. Eugene is the first to look away from the bodies.

"You think they attacked each other?" Tim asks softly.

Winters looks uncertain. "They haven't travelled far from their tents. No signs of forced entry, though one of them was obviously inside when they were attacked." He points to the smears and handprints all over the inside of the larger tent, at what were obviously once the dark red of arterial blood, but which have long since faded to a light brown. "Points to the victim knowing the attacker, may have opened the tent for them, wondering what was wrong? If one of the kids had been infected and the symptoms were late to show, makes sense that the parents wouldn't immediately move to kill them, but instead try to help them."

Tim nods, looking impressed with his deductions. "What if it wasn't, though?" he asks, stating the obvious next question. "If they'd been sitting together, maybe - I don't know, eating dinner? And a few zombies came out of the woods. And in any case, wouldn't someone have had to come back to finish them off?"

Winters smiles weakly. "Well, your guess is as good as mine, but that is highly probable as well. Guess we'll know soon enough: if there are zombies or other life forms in the area, they'll be drawn to us. Whichever the case, we'll definitely have to work on light and noise discipline tonight."

They all walk thoughtfully back to the cars and their sleeping companions. Eugene looks around them, marveling at the stillness of the early morning. It's a nice feelin' to be the only ones awake for what seems like miles. Kinda isolatin', in the best possible way.

"Think we can manage a few hours of shuteye," Winters says, and pats Tim firmly on the back. Tim looks startled but not displeased. "We'll need to keep up our strength, and it's been a long day." He turns to Eugene then, with his hand outstretched. "Oh, and I didn't get a chance to say it earlier, but... thank you, Doctor Roe. Without you and your quick work, despite the fact that you were obviously injured yourself... well, our boy could've ended up in a far worse condition, and it's something none of us will ever forget."

Eugene swallows. The calculated way Winters is keeping his voice even is more telling than if his voice had broken mid-sentence. "It was... hones'ly my pleasure," he replies, grasping the offered hand. "Heffron's a helluva guy. I'm lookin' forward to gettin' to know 'im. ...And you."

**

When they all rise one by one to mill about the clearing, it's almost noon and the sun is high in the sky. It's beyond beautiful, the calls of birds and insects in harmony with the rustle of leaves overhead, and Eugene sits on one of the a long logs around the fire pit and stares up at the wispy clouds in the sky, blissfully not thinking of anything.

Lipton pulls Winters aside after they've all had their morning cup of coffee, courtesy of Joe Toye. Eugene ain't straining to eavesdrop or anythin', but the voices float over to him anyway.

"-boarding house over in Huntington," Lipton is saying quietly to Winters, who nods in an understanding way. "Just... I know it's not smart, and I'll try to make it back before sundown, but... now that we're so close by..."

"You don't have to explain. I did the same thing back in Pennsylvania, before Nix and I joined the others," Winters says. "You go. Take someone with you. I'm sure Tim or Gene would jump at the chance."

"They're good guys. I'm lucky to have them with me," Lipton agrees. Eugene carefully looks down into his coffee in case they see him sitting there, listening. "I'll ask Tim. Gene should stay here, for Babe."

"Okay. Take all the time you need- and this goes without saying, of course, but... be careful."

They clasp hands warmly, and Lipton strides over to Tim to murmur something. Tim doesn't look surprised, just supportive, and motions in Eugene's direction. Their whispered conference continues and Eugene makes himself look away again.

Lipton's mother and brother live in West Virginia, he remembers with a pang. Lipton had divulged this one quiet night back in Center City, both of them exhausted and fighting to stay awake during their turn on watch.

Eugene had thought of Louisiana then, too, of refreshing the bouquet of wild flowers at the foot of the mossy tombstones of his parents with his grandmére, with only a child's vague understanding of death as his fingers followed the curve of the engraved names.

He'd want t' go back, too, if he had anythin' to go back to.

**

Heffron's awake and looking grumpy when Eugene returns to the ambulance for a bottle of water.

"Mornin'," Eugene says cautiously. Heffron's red hair is burstin' all over the place against his pale skin, and his face is screwed up into a scowl.

"Gene, my shoulder hurts, I gotta piss, an' my teeth feel slimy," he whines, but the look on his face turns from bad-tempered to slightly mollified when he sees Eugene.

His shoulder hurtin' ain't the best sign, but then it's been a while since Eugene reapplied his meds. With a grunt, he pulls himself up and grabs into his backpack for one of the many orange pill bottles. "I can help y' with all that, but y'gotta eat somethin' first. C'mon."

It's slow goin' getting him outta the cot, with Heffron unwilling to put much weight on his leg and Eugene tryin' not to jostle his right arm, but with Eugene keeping a firm grasp around his hips and Heffron throwing his left arm over Eugene's shoulders, they make it out into the sunshine in one piece.

"Goddamn," Heffron whistles low in appreciation for their surroundings. "This is like the Garden of Eden or some shit."

Eugene can't help the laugh that escapes him. Heffron looks down at him, startled but pleased. With his face up close, and the sunshine lighting up his face, Eugene is suddenly aware of the gentle sprinkling of freckles across his nose.

Heffron's pale skin is also startin' to slowly turn a light shade of pink.

"Y'okay with walkin' like this?" Eugene asks, immediately concerned at the sight. "Lemme know if y'get tired. You lost a lotta blood yesterday."

"I'm fine, I'm fine, Gene," Heffron says hastily. "Uh-I still gotta..."

"Right. Okay, uh." Eugene leads him around a large bush at the edge of the clearing. "Here okay?"

"Yeah." Heffron pauses. "Listen, couldya- I hate to ask, doc-" He motions with his chin to his fly.

Eugene doesn't answer him, just nods and steadies him as he helps him undo his fly. Heffron's face is burning red, now, and it clashes fiercely with his hair. Eugene looks away to give him a false sense of privacy as Heffron sags gratefully against his side, the trickle of liquid starting up.

"This is humiliating," mutters Heffron. "Like one a those dreams, ya know? Of bein' at a pep rally or somethin' and suddenly realisin' you're naked in frontta the whole school."

Eugene smiles to himself and shakes his head. "I'm a doctor, Heffron. Trust me when I say I've seen worse."

Heffron's still as red as a tomato, but he laughs a little, and sounds less embarrassed. "Yeah, I guess."

"Tell y'what," Eugene says, an idea suddenly striking. "I gotta extra pair of scrubs, it'll be easier than jeans t'get undone wit' only one hand. 'Sides-" He motions to Heffron's left leg, which is bared to the soft summer breeze from where Eugene cut the fabric away so he could fix his wound up. "Better than this mess."

"Yeah, thanks, Gene! That's real nice-a ya!" Heffron beams at him, and doesn't seem as bothered this time when Eugene helps him zip and button his fly up again.

With Heffron situated on a log for now, Eugene asks a sleepy-looking Spina to help him get the cot down out of the ambulance. Looking disgruntled but unwilling to refuse him, he relents, and soon Heffron is sitting up in the middle of the clearing, looking mighty pleased with himself.

"I feel like a king," he exclaims. He lifts his eyebrows, half-closes his eyes, and affects a deep voice that sounds absolutely ridiculous. "A King's time as ruler rises and falls like the sun-"

"Ah geez, doc, look, you've only encouraged him!" Guarnere, tin cup of coffee in hand, smirks down at Eugene.

Eugene looks up at him and shrugs. "Don' seem like that boy needs any encouragement at all, f'y'ask me."

He still feels a little uncomfortable around Guarnere. Someone as volatile as him, around someone as distrusting and quick to anger as Tim... well, if the time ever came for sides to be picked, Eugene knows where he'll be, and that makes him feel a little uneasy.

But right now Guarnere's cackling, and he's sitting down right next to Eugene on the fallen log, and Eugene brushes thoughts of the future out of his mind as Guarnere's leg brushes his own casually. No more careful movements, like a lion around its prey: just laughter and playful jeering, like nothing is wrong.

Probably helps that Tim isn't currently nearby.

"You know what I think?" Harry announces, interrupting Heffron's reenactment of the Lion King. Eugene's not sorry - Heffron's imitation of Scar had been spot-on and frankly hilarious, but watching him (so animated, so young) had started up that strange feeling in his gut again, and he's glad to have something other than Heffron's face to focus on.

"Aw c'mon, I was just gettin' t'the good part!" Heffron protests.

Harry holds up a hand to staunch the words and sucks air through the gap in his teeth. It makes a little whistlin' sound.

"You know what I think?" he repeats, grinning. His eyes flick to Kitty and his cheeks grow slightly pink. "I think it's about time we make use of that lake! Who's with me?"

There's silence as 8 faces peer at him, uncomprehending at first. Then there's a sudden mad scramble as every one but Winters, Nixon, Heffron and Eugene rushes to stand up, Guarnere already pulling his filthy t-shirt over his head.

"Last one there's a rotten- hey, that's not fair!" Harry cries out as Spina deliberately trips him up, and they all run, whoopin' and cheerin', down the wooded path leading to the edge of the lake.

Winters, who's almost halfway done shaving his face in the side mirror of the ambulance, turns to look at Nixon.

"Not gonna join?" he asks.

Nixon slowly smiles back at him, and then whips off his own shirt and throws it directly at his face.

"Race ya," he laughs loudly, tanned chest gleaming in the bright sunlight, and he sprints to follow the rest of them.

Winters, after a slight moment of shock, looks at Eugene.

Eugene nods at him. "I'll stay."

"Thanks, Gene."

Winters pulls his gun from its holster, nods at Heffron who looks forlorn now sitting alone in the middle of the clearing, and jogs out of sight.

"Goddammit," sighs Heffron.

Eugene pulls himself up to move to his side. "Let's get some food an' meds in you 'fore we start thinkin' bout lakes an' such, a'right?"

Heffron groans, but accepts the proffered can of chicken noodle soup without further complaint, and they sit in companionable silence, listening to the faint splashes and yells in the distance.

Chapter Text

The larger of the two tents is definitely not usable - in fact, Dick's of half a mind to drag it over to where they've half-buried the bodies of the campers a discreet distance from their camp, and just burn the lot - but, upon closer inspection, the smaller 2-man tent is perfectly decent.

Dick sighs and straightens up, brushing dirt and a few lingering twigs from the knee of his uniform. He hadn't joined in on the swimming earlier in the day- just watched from the shore as his men splashed around like little kids. He hadn't felt comfortable at the time, out in the open without having fully scoped out the surrounding area, but now he's beginning to regret it. The thin layer of grime coating his body isn't doing him any favors, and frankly, he's beginning to smell.

His men.

If Nix could hear him, he'd scoff and say something derogatory about how being promoted had really changed him or some nonsense. The thought makes Dick smile, as does the memory of Nix walking out of the lake (water-logged pants squelching with his every step), looking like a cat that'd been left out in the rain. Well, a good sight happier than a cat would be in that situation, actually. They'd all been deliriously happy to be clean again.

Except Dick, who is now satisfied that they have no unwelcome neighbors, but whose underarm hair feels matted and greasy, and who can't move without the smell of dried sweat wafting up from under the collar of his shirt. Great.

By the time he returns to the clearing, the sky is darkening rapidly above him as the sun sets. Harry and Spina are arguing- without any heat, Dick is relieved to see- over a large pile of bedding and sleeping bags.

"We only brought enough for the four've us," Spina is saying, gesticulating wildly.

"Yeah, well, we didn't exactly have a huge ambulance to carry our stuff around," Harry says, scratching at his hair, which has dried to an astonishingly fluffy volume around his ears. "So unfortunately we had to leave the king-sized bed at home!"

When Dick walks into their line of vision, everyone immediately lowers their voices a fraction. It's a little unnerving, but nothing he's not used to.

"I get that, and I'm real sorry for ya, Harry, but when Lip 'n Bryan get back-"

Dick clears his throat. "Anyone seen Nix?"

"Nah, sorry, lieutenant," Spina tosses over his shoulder.

Dick is impressed that he's either familiar with police rank insignias, or has had the courtesy to remember something someone has said in passing. He tucks this information about the scruffy nurse away for later.

"Call me Dick," he tells him, and fingers the silver bar pinned to his dark blue uniform. "This doesn't matter out here anymore."

Spina grins at him a little, revealing nicotine-yellowed teeth. "A'right, Dick."

Harry turns pleading eyes to him. "Dick, listen, Kitty mentioned being uncomfortable out in the open like this, and I asked Doc Roe if he'd mind clearing the back of the ambulance out for her to use, you know, for sleeping and girly stuff, but he wouldn't listen to me-"

Dick glances over to where Gene is standing, arms folded and expression stony. "Doc?"

"No way," Gene says flatly. "I want Heffron somewhere-"

"Dammit Gene, I told ya ta call me Babe!"

"-where I can keep an eye on 'im, leas' till I know 'is fractured bone ain't gonna shift outta place."

Gene completely ignores Babe despite being less than a foot away from him, and Babe huffs and slouches back down against the cot.

Dick lifts his hand so that they can see what he's holding, and does a swift head count. Yep, just Nix unaccounted for.

"Is that what I think it is?" Harry asks. He sounds delighted as he pushes Spina out of the way and grabs at the tent poles in Dick's hand. "Oh, awesome, Dick! This is perfect! You think of everything! And it doesn't even have any zombie bits on it!"

Kitty looks absolutely embarrassed as she watches the scene.

"It's a two-man tent, so you'll have a covered place to sleep and a little privacy," Dick tells her quietly as Harry runs off to a corner to set the tent back up. He looks incredibly confident in his tent-making abilities, despite making it known earlier that he's never gone camping in his life. "Its former owners won't be needing it anymore. Don't worry, I checked, and it's clean. Barely used, looks like."

Kitty bites her lip. "I didn't mean to cause any trouble," she says, tucking a flyaway strand of curly blonde hair behind her ear. "It's not a big deal at all, and I know that there are others who need it more- it's just that Harry sort of, well, he's so sweet, he kind of blew what I said out of proportion."

They watch as Harry drags Joe excitedly to his side to help him drape the tent cover over the poles. The frame looks a little wobbly, but surprisingly everything looks like it's in its proper place. Harry shoots an eager look over to Kitty, like he's making sure she's watching him be her knight in shining armor.

"He's...a bit much, sometimes," Dick says slowly, not really knowing what he's stepping into but having an inkling. "He's... got a few old-fashioned ideas about gender roles, maybe, but his heart's in the right place. I think he just wants you to be happy."

Kitty looks confused but a little pleased. "I know," she says. "I am- as much as I can be, given... you know. He's made sure of that this whole way, ever since you lot found me in that caved-in basement."

Dick has been keeping an eye on the way they've been acting towards each other, Harry's unapologetic courtship and her slow but steady acceptance. He has no doubts that it'll come to fruition soon.

Where in God's name is Nix?

"I'm going to go down by the lake," he tells her. "Remind everyone for me to keep it down, and have their weapons close to them in case of trouble. I think we can risk lighting a fire, but don't make it too big."

She nods solemnly. "Got it, Dick. I'll tell them. Need some company?"

Dick pauses. She's right, it would be safer to move in twos. Now, if only he could get Nix to understand that, then he wouldn't have to go off into the darkening woods to look for him in the first place. "Thanks, but I won't be alone down there, I don't think."

"Okay," Kitty smiles and waves him off. "Go on, I'll take care of our boys."

Our boys. See Nix? I'm not alone in thinking the way I do about them.

Dick thinks about Kitty Grogan as he heads down the lightly trodden path that weaves through the trees, aware of every snapping twig and rustle of bushes around him. She's tiny and unassuming and not very outspoken, preferring to let her testosterone-driven companions lead the way, but Dick knew from the moment he first saw her fierce eyes peering at them from under the rubble of her friend's house that her outward appearance was nothing to judge her by.

He ducks under a low-hanging tree branch and parts the leaves of another to reveal the dark expanse of water, rippling under the dim moonlight.

The men haven't learned yet not to underestimate Kitty, thinking that her youth and relative lack of body strength means that she's the runt of pack. Dick chuckles low to himself. They may be slow learners, but he has a feeling it won't stay that way for long.

"Dick? That you?"

He starts, hand automatically flying to the handle of the gun strapped to his belt, and then relaxes. Just Nix.

Dick walks out of the woods and down the gentle slope, to where Nix is lying down, face hidden by the grass.

"Hey, mister, you seen a man about yea high, terrible case of overgrown stubble, Yale vocabulary? He keeps wandering off on his own, may be a case of light brain damage." Dick lowers himself next to Nix, who flicks his cigarette ash at him. "Wow, don't get violent, now. I'll have you know I'm armed."

"Oooh, officer, don't hurt me!" Nix pleads in a high-pitched voice. Dicks lightly kicks his leg with the tip of his boot and leans back onto his elbows.

They're silent for a few minutes, just watching the water lap lazily at the grey sand. Dick can almost taste the smell of damp earth and moss as it washes over him like a cool, soothing breeze. The events of the day before seem years away.

"They should be back by now," Dick muses aloud.

"Who? Oh, him," says Nix. "Lip. And that snarly one, what's his face-"

"Bryan," Dick says. "Tim Bryan." He knows Nix is fully aware of the man's name, but plays along.

"Oh, yeah. Good ol' Tim." Nix's body shudders against Dick's leg as he heaves a long, deep sigh. "Can't wait for him to get back so you can break up some more fights with your sexy Lieutenant voice."

Dick kicks him again, only harder this time.

"Okay, gosh, sorry. Your sexy First Lieutenant voice. Forgive me, just a lowly Captain, for making such an unforgivable mistake."

"That's better."

It's good to just sit like this, Nix by his side. Feels like they've been doing this their whole lives, attached at the hip since the first day of cadet school so many years ago. Now everything is new and different and he doesn't know if he can even call himself a police officer anymore, doesn't know how he fits into this new world without law or order. All he knows is the solid weight of his best friend next to him, and the certainty that until one of them dies, he's never letting Lewis Nixon out of his sight again.

Like he can guess what Dick's thinking, Nix reaches up to fiddle with Dick's pants. "Hey, Dick?"

"Yeah, Nix?"

There's a pause, like Nix is grasping for words. It's unlike him, and Dick looks down at him, waiting patiently.

Nix's eyes meet his in a searching way, dark and familiar, and Dick can feel a warmth spread in his chest. Clamps down on the rush of feeling like he always does when it's just the two of them and he's let his guard down.

What they have is... it's something more than mere friendship. They'd take a bullet for each other, no hesitation. When Dick lets himself muse on their friendship, he's always reminded of that verse in the Bible, talking about King David and his brother in arms, Jonathan. How David said Jonathan's love for him was extraordinary, beyond the love of a woman.

Sometimes it feels like he and Nix are one soul, split between two bodies. Sometimes it feels like the voice of Dick's thoughts sounds far too much like Nix's lazy drawl. Sometimes he feels it's hard to know where his opinions on life end and Nix's begin.

And sometimes, very rarely, he lets himself feel like there's nothing he'd like to do more than sink his fingers into Nix's messy hair, tuck his head into the curve of his shoulder and kiss the warm skin of his neck.

Dick becomes aware that they're just staring at each other, not speaking. He softly says his name again.

Nix breathes in deeply and shakes his head on the exhale. He slaps Dick heartily on the leg and pushes himself up.

"Well, Dick, it's just that you fucking stink," he says cheerily, stretching long and loudly. "Didn't your mother teach you that cleanliness is next to godliness?"

"She never had to. Unlike Mrs. Nixon, her son was a walking advertisement for the wondrous effect of soap. C'mon, let's head back."

**

They can smell the fire before they even exit the woods. When they do, it's to the sight of cheery soot-stained faces and something bubbling on a rock planted in the middle of the fire.

"Where'd you find a pot?" Nix asks incredulously as they approach.

"Joe had it in his backpack," Harry says, his face looking the sootiest. There are black fingerprints smeared across his eye and down his cheek, giving him a slightly pirate-y look. "God bless the chef! Always gotta have a chef. You know, if you think about it, we're the perfect team! Police officers, doctors, nurses, chefs, beautiful caring women teachers, uh... Guarnere..."

"Yeah, whateva, Harry, we all know ya was an accountant or some bullshit 'fore D-Day, you're one ta talk-"

"I'll have you know I was the CEO of my own tech startup. Wait, I told you this already! Come on!"

"And I told you, I'm not a chef," Joe growls at Harry, but Dick thinks his chest puffs up a little in pride. "I was just a line cook, okay? The chef's the guy in charge. I just cooked what he told me to."

"But you know how to skin a rabbit!" Harry slaps his hand on his knee, like that declaration alone is enough to end the discussion. "You have impressed me today, Chef Toye."

"Yeah, yeah," Joe snaps and returns to stirring the pot, but Dick can see he's fighting back a smile.

Dick immediately spots the car parked next to the ambulance, and skims the heads until he finds who he's looking for. As Nix takes a seat between Spina and Kitty, he walks to a spot a ways away from the fire, where Bryan is leaning against a tree, machete held limply at his side.

There's a bit of brownish blood spatter on the shoulder of his scrubs that looks like it came from a zombie, but Dick can't tell if it's recent or not. He's steadily eating an unripe-looking apple, eyes far away, but he refocuses quickly when Dick stops in front of him.

Dick raises his eyebrows a little in question. Bryan just sighs and shakes his head.

"Oh."

"Yeah. Fuckin' oh." Bryan jerks his chin to where Lip is sitting with everyone but not talking, just cradling a cup in his hands and staring into the fire.

"The boarding house?"

"Destroyed," confirms Bryan grimly. "Looked like they put up a helluva fight. Seemed to comfort him some. Said his mama wouldn't have let her place be overrun by those things without taking them down with her."

"Sounds like quite the lady."

"Hm."

Dick shifts so that he's standing shoulder-to-shoulder with Bryan. He's worried, he'll admit it. He's glad it was Bryan that had accompanied Lip, protection-wise, but as far as emotional support... Bryan doesn't exactly seem the type for heart-to-heart talks.

"You know him a lot better than I do. Will he be okay?"

Bryan shrugs. "Would you be?"

Good answer.

Dick tries not to think back to Lancaster County, back to smoldering haystacks and half-eaten horses, but he can't prevent the quick flashback: himself, gun raised in a trembling hand, yelling at his pop to stay still, just stop, stop ripping into the limp neck of his only daughter. How Nix's warm hands had grabbed his arm and pulled him out of his childhood home, and later had cradled Dick's head as he'd wept remorse and heartbreak into Nix's chest.

He's okay, and Lip will be too. He just needs time.

He and Bryan watch from the sidelines as Joe triumphantly declares the rabbit stew to be finished, and is about to suggest they go grab some before it's all gone when-

Dick freezes as he feels the cold steel of a gun barrel against the back of his neck. A sharp inhale is the only indication that next to him, Bryan has felt the same.

"Move your hand away from your gun, officer," says a cold voice. "And you. Drop the machete. Slowly, and quietly. If you make any sudden movements, I'll pull both triggers."

Dick moves his hand reluctantly from where it had shot to his holster. He feels Bryan slowly lower his body so he can lay the machete down, and Dick hears a soft clink as it hits the ground.

"Good."

Dick looks frantically at the silhouetted back of Nix's head. Come on. Notice I'm not there.

Nix's head turns slightly to the right, and then to the left. Like he could hear Dick's thoughts, screaming at him, just now. Like he always seems to be able to do.

Come on. Get your gun out. Protect them.

"Dick, you're missing some fine-ass cooking over here!" Nix calls out, head still swiveling in search. "Only smells a little bit like dirty gym socks!"

"Yo, fuck you, Nixon, my stew would make Gordon fuckin' Ramsay weep wit' pleasure!"

"Man, I love that guy's show. He's so, like, unnecessarily aggressive, you know? Chef Toye, you wouldn't do well in Hell's Kitchen at all. You're way too angry, he'd see you as too much competition."

"Stop fuckin' callin' me that! I'ma line cook!"

The cold voice comes from behind them again. "Back away slowly," it commands. They obey, beginning to edge into the darkened woods.

Nix has gotten up now. Dick can read his body language, knows he senses something's wrong. He sees Nix casually pull his gun from its holster as he laughs loudly at something Harry says, drawing attention away from the slight movement. Turn around, Nix.

"You. You're wearing scrubs. You a doctor?"

Bryan growls low in his throat, and Dick silently prays that he won't do anything rash. Then the growl hitches in Bryan's throat, as though the pressure of the gun to Bryan's head has increased. Like it has on Dick's.

"Yeah, what's it to you?" Bryan says finally.

"What kind?"

"What do you mean, what kin- fuck, okay, I'm a fucking trauma surgeon, all right? Jesus."

"Keep walking. Faster now."

They continue walking backwards, hands half-raised by their sides, until the light of the campfire begins to dim behind the passing foliage. Dick can hear Nix's voice, louder now. Worried. Like he knows Dick wouldn't just disappear from his side without saying something to him, that something is definitely wrong.

They walk until the warm amber light of the campfire winks entirely out of view and their only source of light is the full moon, its cold liquid silver streaming ominously through the leaves overhead.

**

"You. Kneel, hands above your head. Eyes on the ground."

The cold voice has led them further up the mountain, making them walk for about 15 minutes. Dick's been counting, has been cataloging the route in his head as they've followed their captor (tripping over unseen roots and stones, cold steel ever-present against their heads) but he only has a vague idea of where the campsite is in relation to their new location. Everything looks the same in the dark, and their captor has made certain that they wind around identical trees and other plantlife in what must be a roundabout path. Like a man who's familiar with the area, and wants to confuse the two men who've only been there for a day.

At the tap of the gun between his shoulderblades, Dick kneels on the ground, looking around him as surreptitiously as he can.

He knows the many different voices of a suspect about to commit a violent crime- with crimes of passion, the voice is always shaky, incredibly emotional. When it's money or theft-related, the voice is a little more panicky, like they realize the risk they're taking, exchanging a life for material goods. The list goes on.

So Dick listens to the steady, unwavering voice of the man who's controlling their every move with a small amount of worry, but he observes their surroundings (Makeshift campsite: remains of a fire, empty pot, two stumps. Fishing gear and tackle to the side. No vehicle, one tent. Occupied?) and starts to deduce.

A man quick to catch movements like Dick reaching for his gun, knew how to get them away from their group unnoticed. Probably hadn't accounted for Nixon's unusually heightened awareness of Dick, but that still hadn't stopped him. Military? Or a military background, maybe. Calm and sure with his directives. Knows how to keep them under his complete control. Emotionless, hard, tactical.

Wait. Maybe... a little emotion?

Dick immediately picks up the subtle change in the man's voice as he strips Dick of his sidearm, no longer pointing a gun at Bryan, but keeping the other firmly against Dick's head. He barks at Bryan, "Tie him up against that tree."

Speech pattern a little more hurried now. Like he's... running out of time?

"Who's hurt?" Dick asks. His own voice sounds rusty and unnaturally loud in the silent woods; almost unfamiliar.

The man's movements cease completely behind him.

"Who's. Hurt," Dick repeats. Slowly. Enunciating.

Silence.

Dick can hear Bryan's breathing pick up speed, just a little. Can sense the man bracing for the gunshot Dick will likely receive for daring to speak aloud.

Somehow, Dick doesn't think so.

"My... companion. Fell down the side of a cliff just above us. Hit his head."

Like Dick predicted, the voice that had been like a solid wall of ice is now slowly starting to show cracks.

"It's bad," says Dick. It's not a question.

"Yes." A pause. To their left, it sounds like Bryan is holding his breath. "I... need you to look at him, Doctor."

"What makes you fucking think I'm gonna just do as you please?" says Bryan.

"Because," the man says flatly, "I'm going to put two bullets through your friend's fucking skull if you don't."

"What makes you think he's my friend?"

Absurdly, Dick wants to roll his eyes. God, Bryan. Not the time. Then again...

Dick recognizes what Bryan's doing. Buying time.

"What makes you think I won't just shoot him, and then go back there and start shooting your little friends, one by one, until I get to one that you care about? Like the one you came back with in the car an hour ago?"

He'd been watching them the whole time. He'd known that Dick and Nix had been alone. Probably overheard me and Bryan talking about Lip.

And all the while, his mind must have been on his friend, dying alone in a tent in the Appalachian mountains.

"Because your friend is dying, and you're running out of time," Dick answers simply.

The gun at his head twitches like the man's clenched his fingers around it, an involuntary reaction to the words.

"He isn't the only doctor we have. You know that, you've seen the others. You happened to get lucky when he came back and didn't join everyone, just stayed on the outskirts. Even better when I showed up, now you had leverage. But besides him, there is one other trauma surgeon, a nurse practitioner, and a neurosurgeon, and we can help you."

A movement again, another clench of the man's fingers. "How do I know you won't turn on me."

Dick slowly raises his head to look at Bryan. Bryan returns his gaze, and- amazingly -nods.

"We give you our word," Dick says. "I'll stand still and let you shoot me point blank if we back out on it. On my life, I swear to you, we'll do whatever we can to save your friend. But we won't be able to move as fast if you keep having to hold guns to our heads."

After what seems like hours, the gun that's been digging into his scalp finally, finally lowers. Dick hadn't realized he'd been holding his breath until oxygen fills his burning lungs in a sweet flood of relief.

"I have your word," the man says, walking around Dick and heading towards the tent- and then pauses. Turns on his heel to look straight into Dick's eyes.

The planes of his face are cast in shadow. Dick can't make out any features, but his eyes gleam like a madman's in the silvery moonlight.

"You do," Dick says, pulling himself off of his knees, and before he can persuade himself not to- "I'm Winters. Dick Winters."

The gleaming eyes flick down to the guns he's still holding, and suddenly there's a flash of white as he smiles at Dick. A smile with no warmth. The kind of smile a man gives during those final moments sitting on an electric chair.

"Speirs," he replies. "Ronald Speirs."

Chapter Text

If someone had asked Carwood what he was doing, staring into the campfire like it held the keys to the universe... well, it would've been mighty hard to answer.

The voices of those around him swirl together in a mess of happiness and camaraderie, but the inside of Carwood's head is tangled... like the summer-green vines that had grown along the rail of the back porch of the boarding house he'd grown up in. The boarding house he and Mama and Ben had worked their whole lives to keep full and prosperous, that now lay empty and broken on the edge of the deserted Jewel City.

Huntington, West Virginia: a city with a population of close to 50,000, all either dead, turned, or fled.

It's hard to believe his companions can even feel like laughing. Feel something other than the cold, wet blanket of despair that is casting his entire world in shades of grey, bleak and hopeless.

Carwood isn't stupid. Live longer than 30 years (quite a bit longer in his case), you start to understand the way life works. It feels selfish to mourn, to brood in a corner when every single one of his traveling companions - both chosen and unexpected - have lost those closest to them.

But he feels selfish. Greedily holds close to his heart the memories of his Mama and baby brother, only 22 years old- the miracle baby. Benjamin Lipton, who'd always viewed Carwood with something like awe, goin' off to the big city far away for university.

Ben, whom he'd found lying beneath the bodies of five limp undead, hunting rifle still in his hand. There was a bullet hole in the exact middle of his forehead, gunpowder residue messily hugging the small hole, that looked a lot like it'd been caused by the compact handgun Mama always secretly kept in her desk drawer. For emergencies.

Carwood carefully doesn't think of the other body. The one out on the front porch, a trail of butchered undead in its wake.

He barely notes the return of Dick and Nixon, but Nixon comes to sit next to him, and when he heaves down onto the log he pats Carwood's shoulder. Gentle, as though he can read the mess in his head and just wants him to know he's there. He doesn't talk to him, just lets Carwood stare into the fire as Nixon joins in the banter.

Dick had mentioned that Nix had accompanied him to Pennsylvania. Besides that, Nix is a high-ranking police officer. Higher even than Dick. His job, back when it mattered, must have been more office work than field work. Paperwork, reports, and most importantly: team management.

He'd probably dealt with members of his police team after a hard case, Carwood thinks distantly. Maybe lent a shoulder or word when needed. Not like Dick- no, no one in the world felt more responsibility for the men in his charge than big softie Dick Winters -but in his own casual way.

Carwood prefers the brief touch to his shoulder to someone attempting to draw him out of his shell, for now.

"-fuckin' callin' me that! I'ma line cook!" Joe Toye's loud voice slowly pierces through the muddle of his thoughts, and Carwood looks up through the haze of smoke.

"You know what, Chef, you really have to stop shirking responsibilities like this," Harry Welsh says, looking patronizingly up at Joe. "A true cook would gladly step up to the challenge. Think like a reality show contestant. In a matter of weeks they go from lowly cook to the head chef of a restaurant in Las freakin' Vegas. Do you have what it takes? What if Chef Ramsey decides to put you on the girls' team, huh, what then?"

"I'd kick their asses, s'what I'd do."

"No, no, oh my god!" Harry throws up his hands and rolls his eyes dramatically. "You're missing the point! That's not why Chef Ramsey puts boys on the girls' team or vice versa! Do you even watch the show?"

Beside him, Nixon's risen from the log. It looks like he's stretching, shaking out a cramp from his leg. He laughs out loud at Harry, who grins delightedly up at Nixon.

His body is so languid and casual, his cheerful laugh so loud, that if Carwood hadn't been sitting right on eye level with Nixon's holster he would've missed seeing him pull the gun out, holding it tight against his leg.

"Harry, when will you realize that none of us are as obsessed with reality shows as you are?" Nixon says, and Harry erupts again into talk of a show Carwood's heard of but never had time to watch.

Carwood watches the way Nixon's scanning the surrounding woods, and belatedly realizes that Dick hadn't answered Nixon's earlier words.

"Nixon?" he asks cautiously. He looks around himself, twisting his body to peer into the darkness behind them. "Nixon, where are Dick and Bryan?"

"That's what I'm trying to figure out," says Nixon through what sounds like gritted teeth. "Dick?" he calls out.

The playful arguing dies down. All of them strain to listen for a reply, but there's nothing but the faint rustle of the warm summer breeze through the trees, the distant sound of a splash- a fish maybe, jumping out of the water. No growling, no stench of decay, but most noticeably no answering voices.

"He's probably just peeing behind a bush or something," Harry begins doubtfully, but Nixon shakes his head along with Carwood.

Nixon is holding his gun blatantly out in the open now, held at a precise angle away from his body. Carwood hears the slight click of Nixon thumbing the safety off.

Carwood stands as well. "Neither of them would just leave without saying anything," he voices to the others, volume low.

His mind is suddenly crystal clear, no longer a mess of loss and memory (either hoarded or suppressed), and he feels focused on his surroundings for the first time since setting foot onto the property of his childhood home.

Nixon nods. "Something's definitely up." His expression is calm- professional and firm- but his eyes look a little wild. "Let's spread out, and I want guns locked and loaded. Carwood, Kitty, with me. Roe, get Babe into the ambulance and lock the doors behind you. The rest of you, check the lake, and the perimeter to our west. We'll go east."

This is all said very quickly and very firmly, like Nixon doesn't even have to think about the orders. No one questions him, and there's a scramble as weapons are pulled out of pockets and off the ground. Carwood hears Toye sigh morosely as he sets his stew aside and picks his rifle off of the ground.

They spread out towards the edges of the woods, and it's Carwood that steps on something that gives a metallic clink under his boot. He leans down to pick up what is unmistakably the machete that Bryan liberated from God knows where back in Center City.

"Nixon. Over here."

He's at Carwood's side immediately, gun cupped over his flashlight in a way Carwood's seen in movies but never in real life. It makes everything feel more real. It makes Lewis Nixon suddenly look every bit the formidable police officer he must have once been, before getting locked behind a desk. Without his usual mask of indifference and lazy sarcasm.

"Two sets of prints... theirs. Unfinished apple and machete dropped here, one set of prints behind them... okay," Nixon mutters, searching the ground around them. "Probably had a weapon on them. Then here... walking backwards. Weapon still on them- I'm thinking gun. Otherwise Dick would've tried to fight them off. Fuck." He scrubs a hand over his eyes, still with that slightly wild look about him. "Kitty, how are you with guns?"

"Not the best," Kitty admits. "I'm handier with a knife."

"Right, well, against a living human, we'll need another gun- sorry, you know I trust you."

"I get it," she says quickly. "Bill?"

"Yeah. "

She immediately turns and runs back in the direction the other group has headed to.

Carwood adjusts his grip on the hunting rifle passed down to him when his Daddy died, which he'd taken from Ben's hands (softly, reverently, like a whispered prayer in an ancient church) back in Huntington.

"We're gonna find them," he tells Nixon, in what he hopes is an assuring way. Doesn't really know what else to say.

"Yeah... yeah. I know."

**

Turns out they don't even have to walk more than 5 minutes before they hear someone or something coming towards them.

Slightly ahead of Carwood, Nixon flicks off his flashlight, raises a hand in the air, and then lowers it, his palm parallel to the ground. Carwood lowers his body into a crouch behind the nearest tree, and feels Bill behind him doing the same.

They wait silently until the sound of snapping twigs and rustled leaves grows nearer. It doesn't sound like someone trying to stay quiet as they walk through the woods: more ungainly, clumsy, like they're stumbling blindly.

Then, without warning: "Fuck. Sorry."

"It's fine, Bryan, keep going."

Carwood sees the dark, huddled figure of Nixon in front of him give a jerk as the very familiar voices in the near distance cut through the silence.

"Flash!" Nixon calls out, his voice a husky whisper.

"Thunder!" is the immediate reply. "Nix?"

"Fuck." Nixon chokes on the word. "Yeah, it's me."

The obvious relief in Nix's voice at the sound of Dick's reply reflects the feeling that rushes through Carwood's body. Guarnere gets up from behind them to walk over and stand next to Carwood.

"Christ, Dick," Nixon calls out, and switches his flashlight back on. "You fucking asshole, next time say something before you run off to elope with Bryan, will you? You nearly gave me a heart-"

His voice apruptly cuts off at the exact same moment his flashlight moves from Dick to the figure standing beside him, illuminating an unfamiliar face.

Carwood, Guarnere, and Nixon immediately whip their guns up from their sides and aim directly at the man, who doesn't react; merely stares back at them, unblinking.

"Hold your fire!" Dick says urgently over his shoulder. "Nix, don't shoot. We're fine, Speirs is with us. I'll explain later, but right now we need to get back to camp as fast as possible."

Carwood and Guarnere lower their guns at his words. Dick shifts to the side, and reveals what he, Bryan, and the stranger are carrying between them.

"Is that..." Nixon begins to say. He still hasn't lowered his gun.

"Nix," Dick says. It's both a warning and a plea.

"All right." Nixon says after a beat, and then tucks his gun back into its holster. "Let's get moving, then. Guarnere, Carwood, help me."

"Aye aye, captain," Guarnere mutters. He doesn't sound happy, but moves with them towards the three men and their unmoving burden anyway.

In their arms lies the limp body of a man who appears unconscious. When Carwood reaches out to help Bryan carry his legs, the unconscious man's pants leg shifts up so that Carwood has direct contact with the skin underneath. The skin is burning hot, far hotter than could possibly safe. Feels like a fever above 104 degrees Fahrenheit.

They move through the dark woods a lot easier now, with three extra men and a flashlight highlighting their path. Nixon occasionally calls out instructions, but otherwise says nothing more to either chastise Dick for his disappearance or to question.

Carwood, on the other hand, is worried. A fever this high points to a much larger danger, and he knows he needs to get as much information as he can before they reach the camp.

"What's wrong with him?" he asks the silent, unblinking stranger that Dick had referred to as Speirs. "He's burning up. How long has he been like this?"

"Half a day," replies Speirs. His voice is clipped. "Fell off a cliff this afternoon, hit his head. I managed to stop the bleeding, but he's just been getting worse."

"Has he regained consciousness since the blow to his head?"

"No, just shifts and murmurs sometimes. He won't respond to his name, body contact, anything like that."

Possible internal bleeding, swollen brain tissue. Hard to know the damage without taking a look.

"Is he hurt anywhere else?"

"A considerable injury to his side. Didn't bleed as much as I thought it would, though."

"What's his name?"

Speirs doesn't answer his last question. In the distance, the light of the campfire is growing brighter as they near the clearing. Around them, the trees are beginning to thin out as well.

"Mr. Speirs," Carwood presses. "I need to know any personal information you have, and that includes his full name, date of birth, where you came from last, and anything else you can give me. He may have brain damage, amnesia, and if we can get him to respond I'll need to ask him personal questions."

"...George Luz," Speirs says reluctantly. "Born June 17th, 1990, in Fall River, Massachusetts. Worked in New York as a radio presenter till the fallout, moved down through Pennsylvania with me. Been here for a week."

It's more information than Carwood thought he'd get on the first try, and he's grateful to Speirs for letting his guard down.

**

The next 6 hours are the longest of Carwood's life.

When they stumble into the campsite, Gene and Spina are immediately at his side at the sight of the body.

"We've got a TBI, patient unresponsive since this afternoon," Lipton briefs them quickly. "Gene, I'm sorry, we need the back for this."

"Y'got it, Lipton. Heffron'll live."

While Gene is gently but firmly herding a wide-eyed Babe out of the ambulance, Lipton turns to Spina.

"You have any experience assisting brain surgeries?"

Spina looks pale in the warm, flickering light of the fire, and his nod is a little hesitant. "Only a month with Dr. Jane Carter at the beginning of my NP fellowship, before transferring to Methodist ER, but-"

"That's more than enough," Carwood assures him, relieved. It's better than nothing.

He pulls out the small penlight he's been keeping in his pocket, and gently lifts George's eyelids so he can check his pupils. Spina and Bryan lean in to look as well.

"Okay, boys, pupils equal and reactive, but... yep, pretty sure I'm detecting a bit of swelling on the optic," Carwood tells them.

He's relying on his gut instinct; without access to an MRI or a CT scan, he has nothing but his knowledge and experience to back up his diagnosis. He draws strength from the two men beside him and, taking a deep breath, continues.

"Hopefully it's just cerebrospinal fluid, not blood, that's causing it, but we'll have to move fast either way. Spina, start up the engine for power, and get Gene's help sterilizing the back of the ambulance best you can. We'll need the cuffs, respirator, monitor if it still works, and the necessary instruments for a ventriculostomy, possible craniotomy - or, worst case scenario, a decompressive craniectomy. Let's hope it doesn't come to that. I packed a kit, but anything we're lacking...we'll just have to make do."

"Gotcha," Spina says quickly, and the slight pressure of Spina's arm against Lipton's side releases as he sprints to the ambulance.

Kitty appears beside them, wide-eyed. "Carwood, Tim, is there anything I can do?"

Carwood glances up briefly at Bryan. He looks pleased, probably not having expected her initiative.

"We'll need to boil some bottled water to sterilize the instruments Lip will be using," Bryan tells Kitty as Carwood shines the light into the wound on the side of George's head. "Go ask Spina, he'll give you what we'll be needing. Does Toye have another pot? No? Right, then we'll have to toss the stew-"

"No fuckin' way!" Joe's voice comes from behind them.

Carwood closes his eyes for a second, hoping with all his might against another drawn-out argument.

"Don't toss it! Here, I gotta plastic bag, put it in here. Ya doctors gotta keep up your strength, an' that means eatin'."

Carwood sends up a silent prayer of thanks to Whoever's listening.

"Fine, I don't give a shit," Bryan says, sounding annoyed. "Kitty, wash out the pot as good as you can, there's soap in Roe's bag, then toss in the instruments and boil the living shit out of them. Remember: bottled water, not the lake water Harry collected earlier for who fucking knows what reason."

"I'll build a bigger fire," Harry offers. "Get the water boiling faster. And that lake water was- I thought we could use it as dish water or something, okay!"

"Whatever. Like I said, don't give a shit."

"It's really useful, don't listen to him. He's just under pressure," Carwood can hear Kitty reassure Harry as they rush away.

"No, I just genuinely don't care!" Bryan yells after them.

With the help of the remaining men, Carwood strips George down to his underwear, wipes him down, and moves him onto the cot Babe has recently vacated.

Then he sets to work, and the world becomes a blur around his sole focus: saving the life of the man lying deathly still beneath his fingertips.

**

When Carwood finally steps down from the ambulance, his throat is dry and his eyes feel itchy. He feels dehydrated, having sweated profusely from being cooped up with Tim and Spina in the cramped back space of the ambulance, its doors shut against possible outside contamination. The late August night at this altitude is pleasantly cool in comparison, and the breeze feels damn good against his sweaty skin.

Gene hadn't liked not being inside to assist him - really hadn't liked it - but their cramped quarters had forced Carwood to pick from the three other medical professionals, and Gene had drawn the short straw. Now, as Carwood walks wearily to the remains of the campfire, Gene springs up from his seat next to Babe, tense and worried.

He looks at Carwood expectantly. Carwood gives him a smile, and Gene breathes out harshly, shoulders relaxing, and heads to their makeshift operating room to take Carwood's place.

"Ya'll okay out here?" Carwood asks the remainder of their group, who haven't lept to their feet like Gene, but still look just as expectant as he had. "No disturbances?"

"One zombie wandered inta the camp, but Kitty got 'im straight between the eyes," Guarnere says, with a hint of respect in his voice. Kitty grins at Guarnere and ducks her head, hiding behind the curls that fall into her face.

"Good." Carwood takes a seat on the ground. Gene hands him a bottle of water, and he accepts gratefully, closing his eyes and downing half of it in one long gulp.

When he opens his eyes, Speirs is suddenly standing in front of him. His face betrays no emotion, but when he crouches in front of Carwood, there's a small glint of what may be fear in his eyes. "Luz...?" he asks.

Carwood smiles at him a little. "He'll live."

Speirs runs a hand over his face and stays in his crouch, head bowing for a brief moment, as though in prayer.

"He's still unconscious, and his fever is still high, but the damage to the brain itself wasn't extensive. He should recover with minimal side effects," Carwood says. He reaches out without thinking, and pats Speirs twice on the knee, then freezes, unsure how the man will react.

Speirs looks at the spot on his knee that Carwood had touched, then slowly up Carwood's body till he reaches his face.

To hide his discomfort, Carwood takes another pull from his water bottle, aware the entire time that Speirs is still gazing at him intently.

"Thank you, Doctor Lipton," he says finally. "I'm... grateful. We were lucky that you were here-"

A very loud snort of disbelief interrupts Speirs.

"Yeah, so... about that," Nixon drawls, with what appears to be a carefully constructed air of nonchalance.

Dick clears his throat. "Nix," he chides.

"No, no, don't get me wrong, Dick - love the fact that he, you know, held you and Bryan at gun point and threatened to kill you and uh, all of us and all that, that's all peachy," Nixon says. "I love making new, violent friends. In fact, I love it so much, I feel like breaking into a rousing chorus of Kumba-fucking-ya, pass the peace pipe, yada yada." Nixon stretches and drinks from his flask, which looks almost empty. "I was just wondering what Mr. Speirs here is planning to do, now that he's so grateful and his friend is gonna make it to see another beautiful zombie-filled day."

Speirs stirs, but Carwood shoots out a hand to stop him, grasping his arm this time. Speirs looks down at his hand again, like he's magnetically drawn to the sight.

"I was happy to help," Carwood says to him seriously. It suddenly feels incredibly important to make him understand. "And I'm happy to continue to monitor his condition until it improves. You don't owe us anything."

He's holding onto Speirs for too long, he knows it, but he doesn't want to let go until he's sure Speirs understands. Truly understands. Saving a life will never be merely an obligation to Carwood, even under the strange circumstances they've found themselves in.

"Lipton's right, Speirs. You did what you had to do," says Dick, sending a quelling look Nixon's way.

Nixon just rolls his eyes, mutters "Freakin' saint," under his breath, and drains his flask.

Speirs closes his hand over Carwood's (it tingles on contact, and Carwood doesn't know what to make of it), and gently removes it from his arm. His dark eyes stay locked with Carwood's when he speaks.

"You saved his life, and I owe you. And as soon as it's safe to move him, we'll be out of your hair."

"Have you eaten?" Carwood asks Speirs, the thought suddenly occurring to him.

Speirs' gaze wanders over his face, and Carwood tries to shape his own expression into one that Speirs can read without trouble. An expression, Carwood hopes, that tells him he's welcome to stay.

"I'll be back in the morning, if that's all right with you," says Speirs, instead of replying. "To check on him."

"You sure?"

"Positive."

Speirs suddenly smirks. It lights up his face, an almost mischievous expression, and Carwood realizes with a jolt to his gut that Speirs is incredibly...

Incredibly what, Carwood?

"Don't want to overstay my welcome," says Speirs, still smirking.

Incredibly handsome.

"Right," says Carwood quickly, but Speirs has already gotten to his feet. Nixon doesn't bother moving his legs, which are blocking Speirs' path, but Speirs just steps smartly over them without looking down.

He stops momentarily to exchange a muttered word with Dick. Dick looks as gentle and forgiving as always, and holds out a hand. Carwood watches Speirs grasp it firmly before disappearing into the woods, and feels shaken without any reasoning behind it.

**

The mist hangs low in the air as the sun lazily rises, and the remains of the campfire smolders in its small hollow in the ground. Carwood's clothes reek of its smoke, but it's not unpleasant. The musky smell reminds him of his childhood, of sitting in front of the warm, crackling fireplace and listening to the radio with Mama knitting in her rocking chair beside him.

Carwood had only been able to sleep for an hour or so, and even then had tossed and turned in his sleeping bag. His dreams, though brief, had been vivid - flashes of blood and violence, the acrid smell of gunpowder, trying to keep his hands from shaking around a scalpel as unknown monsters tried to batter down a door. A shadowy face smirking at him, backlit by a campfire.

Giving up on sleep entirely, he'd eventually convinced Harry to let him take watch, and given the other man his sleeping bag. Everyone else was and still are sleeping peacefully, except for Spina, who'd volunteered to keep watch over their new patient.

God bless Spina, Carwood thinks as he stares out into the hazy woods. Spina had assisted him perfectly, aware of his every move and staying calm by his side. He was every bit the excellent NP that Carwood had been sure he was, even if the man himself didn't think it.

Carwood never wants to operate on another wounded man again. Not like this. Not out in the open, where even if he succeeds to save someone from dying, all of his work could unravel if somehow the wound gets contaminated. There are too many unknowns outside of the sterile operating rooms he's built a career for himself in.

But Murphy's law is firmly in place in this apocalyptic world, and Carwood knows this won't be the last time.

It all just... seems so unreal. It doesn't make any sense. There is absolutely no scientific or biological explanation that can justify a dead human being simply switching back on and walking around. The brain doesn't function like that. He's studied the human brain his entire life, and he's intelligent, well-read, and had been respected by his peers as an expert at his craft - and yet, it still baffles Carwood in a way nothing else ever has. No amount of pop culture homages could have prepared him for something like this happening in real life.

He doesn't know how long he sits there, rifle in hand and deep in thought, but before he knows it the mist has cleared and the sky has turned from the pastel shades of dawn to the clear blue of morning.

"You haven't slept."

Jesus, Joseph, and Mary.

Carwood's entire body jolts in shock, as hard that he almost loses his balance on the log. "Christ, Speirs, you scared me."

Speirs stands in front of him. How he got there is a complete mystery to Carwood. Must've been more out of it than I'd thought.

"Don't worry, your secret is safe with me. Can't have your friends second-guessing their ability to pick a good watch," says Speirs.

He isn't smiling, but in the light of day he doesn't look as harsh as he had hours earlier. Carwood follows the line of Speirs' smooth jaw as the man takes a seat on the table of the bench-set next to the log Carwood's sitting on, and wonders if Speirs shaves every day or just naturally doesn't grow facial hair.

"You want some coffee?" asks Carwood. "You don't look like you've slept, either."

"No, thank you."

"Okay."

They sit in silence, eyeing each other. Carwood's curiosity grows with every passing second. Speirs looks comfortable just running his eyes over Carwood's face.

"I..." Carwood says. Stops.

"You want to ask me, don't you."

"Ask you what?" asks Carwood, surprised.

Speirs shrugs. "Why I approached this... this, the way I did."

Carwood thinks he understands what Speirs means. He is curious, though he knows something about what would drive a man to do what Speirs did.

Carwood would like to hear Speirs explain himself, though, so he nods. "Guess I do."

Speirs' gaze is so fixed, so intent on him, that Carwood feels like he's been pierced through the chest. Pinned to the log he's sitting on. Speirs doesn't speak for another minute or so.

"Do you... your friend," Carwood continues, unsure how to phrase his question, and unsure whether Speirs is really going to answer. "You love him."

It's subtle, but Carwood sees Speirs twitch a little.

"Funny, how love works," Speirs says quietly. "If you'd asked me that a day ago, my answer may have been different. But... yes. Faced with his possible death, maybe it was love that drove me to your camp. Maybe it wasn't."

It's not really an answer, but Carwood will take it. "I take it you have a hard time trusting people you don't know," he guesses.

"Doesn't everyone?"

"Depends on the context."

"In this new world, it's smarter to assume the worst in people."

Carwood smiles at that. Can't help it. "You don't strike me as someone that suddenly decided to think that way, just because the world as we knew it ended."

To his surprise, Speirs smiles back, and Carwood watches with the same almost-awe he had yesterday as the small action transforms Speirs' face in a wondrous way. Like the sun emerging from behind a storm cloud, or a light switching on in a darkened room.

"How's Luz?" says Speirs.

Inwardly, Carwood shakes himself out of his reverie. "You can see for yourself. I was just thinking I should check in with Spina - that is, the nurse you met yesterday. The one in the maroon scrubs. He would've let me know if there had been any change in George's condition, but I'm sure you'd like to see him for yourself."

"I would. Thank you."

Spina looks exhausted when they open the ambulance doors, and Carwood immediately orders him to get some sleep. He complies without argument.

"Anything?" he asks, as Spina hops down from the ambulance.

"His fever's gone down a few degrees," yawns Spina. "But no sign of consciousness. Gonna hafta wait a bit. I've got him on the drip an' respirator still, should do the trick."

"Thanks, Spina."

Speirs pulls himself up, and Carwood follows him in, closing the doors halfway behind them.

George Luz looks pale and small in the cot, face half-covered by the respirator and the blanket pulled up to his chin. Speirs looks down at him, and his fingers lightly brush the spot where the IV needle is taped to the skin of George's arm.

"It's strange, seeing him this still," Speirs says under his breath, like he's talking to himself, not to Carwood. "When he's awake, he's always moving."

"He'll be back to his old self," says Carwood. He's not just placating Speirs; he knows the other man would be able to sense if they were just empty words. "Just give it time."

"Thanks to you."

Carwood begins to shake his head, but Speirs pierces him with his gaze again.

"You might be too modest to admit it, but it's true. He owes you a life debt. When he wakes up, I'll be sure to tell him exactly who it was that brought him back from the edge, despite not knowing a thing about either of us, and he'll agree with me."

"It's who I am," protests Carwood. "He needed my help, I helped him. And I wasn't alone in doing-"

Speirs makes an aborted movement towards him, then grips the side of the cot, so that the blanket bunches under his hands. Carwood makes himself stop talking.

"You're an interesting man, Doctor Lipton," Speirs says. Slowly, like he's solving a puzzle.

"The feeling is mutual, trust me," Carwood says, and feels an incredulous laugh bubbling in his throat. He lets it out. "Call me Carwood."

Speirs' eyes glint. "I will, if you call me Ron."

"I'd... like that. Ron."

Speirs nods, and holds out his hand. "Carwood."

Carwood takes his hand. Ron's grip is firm and warm, and he doesn't let go right away.

"I'll be back tonight, Carwood. If that's all right."

"I'll see you then, Ron."

Speirs is about to open the doors when he pauses, and looks over his shoulder. "Oh, and- Carwood?"

"Yes?"

Speirs gives him a smile that feels loaded. "I only trust the people who I feel have earned it."

"Yeah," replies Carwood, "That sounds about right."

There's a flash of teeth as Speirs' smile widens. "I think we can both agree that I can trust you. Don't you?"

Before Carwood can answer, he's gone.

Chapter Text

4 days later

Eugene Roe, 29 years old, summa cum laude graduate of John Hopkins University, and formerly chief resident at the Thomas Jefferson University Hospital in Philadelphia, has up till now only blushed 'cause of a patient once in his life.

Right now, as he helps to lay Heffron gingerly down onto a tarp over the damp earth of the lake's shore, he's experiencin' a significant amount of deja vu. Not 'cause of their surroundings- no. The sunlight glintin' off the calm surface of the water and the flutter of wings as a heron takes flight right across from them, that ain't a sight Eugene's seen enough of in his life. Rather, it's the feelin' of blood rushin' to his face as he helps Heffron outta his pants that's causin' flashbacks.

"Isn't a nurse supposed to be doing this?"

Eugene looks up from his bowl and washcloth and feels himself flush. "I'm... s'my first day doin' rounds. I'm, I've just started my residency here."

His patient, 25 year old Burton Christenson (motorcycle accident), smirks at him. It makes Eugene flush harder. Somethin' 'bout that mouth, the way those lips curl 'round that smirk, reminds Eugene of obscene, unspeakable things that almost makes him lose his grip on the wash cloth.

"I'm not complaining," Christenson says, smirk widening into a lascivious grin. "Fuck, I don't even feel bad about being stuck in here with a shit load of broken bones anymore, if it means you get to come in here and give me a sponge bath everyday."

"S'just for today," says Eugene, swallowing hard.

"That's a pity," says Christenson. He leans back against his pillows and attempts to put his hands behind his head, but stutters to a stop, wincing in pain.

Eugene rushes to steady him. "Hey, now, y'gotta slow down, y'ain't recovered yet. Those ribs must still be mighty tender."

He backs away quickly, out of Christenson's personal space, but then has to lean in again to pull the washcloth against his skin. The way he can feel Christenson's breath on him, hot against his neck, and the way his heart pounds in his ears as he first washes Christenson's chest, and then his stomach, over the fine trail of hairs... He ain't never felt this before, not even with a girl, and Christenson's hips push up a little as Eugene lowers the blanket to reveal a significant bulge in the lower half of Burton's hospital gown-

"Hey! Gene! Ya heard a word I said?"

Eugene starts, mind reeling his thoughts back to the present. Heffron's looking at him in exasperation.

"I said, ya sure I can't go in the water?" Heffron repeats, pouting a little. "Not even just up to my waist?"

Eugene breathes out calm as he can, willin' the blood out of his hot cheeks. "I don't wanna risk the stitches on your leg gettin' too wet," he tells Heffron flatly. "I told y'before."

"Dammit, Gene," sighs Heffron, but it's without heat. Eugene pulls his pants and shirt off for him, careful as he can with Heffron's bandaged shoulder. Finally, Heffron's just in his underwear, blinkin' up at Eugene.

Eugene's heart gives another lurch as, for a second, red hair becomes light brown, and pale freckled skin turns a darker tan. Then, he blinks, and it's Heffron again, but for some reason Eugene's heart don't stop racin'.

It's been nearly 8 years since the first and last time he blushed over a patient, and Eugene can't believe it's happenin' all over again.

"Now, you hush, and lemme do this," he says firmly. Too firm: it comes out brisk, and a little cold. Heffron looks taken aback.

"I can do this myself!" Heffron snaps, and snatches the torn up rag from Eugene's hand. "If it's so much damn trouble!"

Merdé. Eugene, you idiot.

"Sorry, Heffron," Eugene apologizes, gentle as he can. "It ain't your- I'm jus' not in the greatest mood. Here, gimme that, it'll be easier if I do it. And if we scooch you down, y'can dip your feet in the water, see?"

With Heffron slightly mollified, Eugene dips the small basket made outta woven bark into the shallows of the lake, and begins on Heffron's chest.

Heffron ain't built like, say, Joe or Guarnere- those two can spend hours arguin' over who can deadlift more'n the other- but the slight definition of lean muscle is somehow more appealing. It lends him a slender, lithe look, and it suits him better than giant steroid muscles ever would.

Eugene definitely ain't thinkin' this as he rubs the filth off of Heffron's chest.

They should be talkin'. It shouldn't just be Heffron watchin' Eugene as Eugene crouches over him, his body shieldin' Heffron from the glare of the late August sun. It shouldn't feel like the air 'round them has thickened, like he's been ejected into space and is slowly losing oxygen.

Heffron's pale skin has begun to turn a deep shade of pink under the cloth.

"Am I rubbin' too hard, Heffron?" murmurs Eugene. He doesn't wanna speak any louder, feels like something may break if he does.

Heffron seems to feel the same way, because when he speaks it's barely above a whisper. "Nah, you're good, Gene."

"'Kay, good."

Eugene pulls away after another minute; his face is hot and his fingers are startin' to tremble for some reason. He turns to rinse the cloth out, leaving the water in the basket a light brown.

"Pass the soap?"

"Yeah... here."

Eugene's careful not to work up too much of a lather with the soap, would just take longer to wash off, and his breath starts to get all irregular again when he reaches the lower part of Heffron's stomach.

Get a grip, Roe.

Suddenly, Heffron laughs shakily. His stomach muscles flex under Eugene's hands, and the feelin' makes him blush harder.

"What's so funny?" asks Eugene, suddenly scared that Heffron's caught on to what's goin' through his mind.

"Just... what you just said," says Heffron, and his laugh is a little wild. He lowers his voice to a timber closer to Eugene's. "Am I rubbing too hard? I just thought, that's what she said, ya know?"

It takes a moment for Eugene to get it. "Jesus Christ, Heffron," he says under his breath, and Heffron's stomach clenches under his fingers again in laughter. This time, it don't affect him as much.

That's what she said.

She.

Maybe Heffron had a girl once, 'fore all this started. Maybe she was still out there somewhere, tuckin' a picture of him into her pocket, clingin' to hope. Maybe Heffron is thinking of her now, while Eugene's chokin' on his own tongue just 'cause of the feel of Heffron's bare skin beneath his fingers.

Eugene ain't never asked, and he's startin' to realise now that maybe that was for a reason.

They've lapsed back into silence, and Eugene begins to wash Heffron's legs. The hair there is incredibly fine, to the point where in the sunlight it looks more blond than red. Heffron's calves are well-defined, like he runs or cycles on a regular basis, and the muscle's smooth and hard 'neath Eugene's touch.

Eugene definitely does notthink of this as he rinses the soap off Heffron's skin as perfunctorily as possible.

"Hey, Gene? Why dontcha ever call me by my name? Y'know it, right?"

Eugene pauses. "I... I know it."

"Then what is it?" Heffron presses.

Eugene rocks back on his heels and busies himself with the basket of water again. "Your name's Edward Heffron. Edward. I know your name."

"Edward?" sputters Heffron, "Really, Gene?"

"Uh," replies Eugene.

"Only the goddamn nuns call me Edward!" says Heffron loudly.

"I-"

"You've heard everyone call me Babe! I tell ya to call me Babe every goddamn day!"

"It's-"

"You call Bryan by his first name!" exclaims Heffron. "You call him Tim! Tim! He don't even look like a Tim! Fuck, the only other person in this group that calls him Tim is Kitty, and that's 'cause she's a goddamn gift from God, and ain't nobody gonna tell someone that beautiful and sweet that she ain't allowed to call them by their first name!"

Heffron's breathin' so hard that his chest is heaving with effort. Eugene feels entirely at a loss for words. Water's dripping, a steady pat, pat, from the cloth onto Heffron's thigh, but he don't seem to feel it, just keeps glarin' at Eugene.

"It... I don't know," Eugene confesses. Heffron just continues to look at him angrily. "I'm sorry. It's... jus' my nature."

"Yeah? Well, then, your nature sucks," snaps Heffron. "It's fuckin' alienating, ahright? I thought we were friends."

"We are," says Eugene, feeling desperate. "I think of you as my friend! I care 'bout you! It ain't about that at all!"

Heffron's glare finally collapses into something less angry. He looks away from Eugene, gaze traveling over the lake and its surrounding trees, and when he finally looks back at Eugene again, his mouth is less tight around the edges.

"So... you're a little messed up," he says slowly.

Eugene breathes out hard from his nose, and reapplies the cloth to Heffron's right thigh. He tries not to concentrate too hard on the blush that creeps back up his face when his hand brushes the tip of Heffon's boxer shorts. "Guess y'could say that," Eugene says.

"And you-" Heffron's voice hitches, just a little, as Eugene lifts his leg to run the cloth over the underside of his thigh. "-obviously have a thing about nicknames. Fine. I get it."

Heffron's entire body except for the area covered by boxer shorts is now clean.

"But... I care about ya too, ya know?"

Eugene can't help but look up at the words. "Yeah," he replies. Heffron looks contemplative, his gaze a little searching as it matches his own, but then Heffron smiles, and he can feel the corner of his mouth liftin' in return.

"Okay. I'll let ya off the hook for now, then," Heffron sighs. "And... thanks, for this."

"All part of the job description." Eugene waves a hand inelegantly towards Heffron's boxer shorts. "Let's get this over with."

"Aw geez, Gene, ya really gotta wash my nuts for me too?!"

**

In the end, with a lot of blushing on both of their parts, Eugene does indeed do most of the washing of Heffron's nuts, though to hear Heffron tell it, it was a collaborative effort.

**

When they get back to camp, Heffron's arm slung over Eugene's shoulders for support, there's a commotion on the opposite edge of the clearing.

"Everythin' okay?" Eugene asks Joe, who looks to have been in the middle of gutting a mound of freshly caught fish.

"Oh, yeah," Joe says, hands on hips and squinting in the direction of where Harry, Kitty, and Guarnere are standing. "Just a coupla dead ones wandered in again. They got'em, but that's already the third time since last night. More'n the past four days already. Dick's callin' a meeting later today 'bout it."

"Hey, where'd the fish come from?" asks Heffron. "They look fresh!"

Joe sniffs. "That weird guy Speirs brought 'em this morning. Gave 'em to Lip in a cooler box that came from fuck knows where. Probably poisoned them."

Heffron laughs gleefully in Eugene's ear. It's loud and makes him wince. "Who cares! I can't remember the last time we had meat that wasn't canned-"

"Day before yesterday, fucknuts, I cooked you ungrateful bastards a fuckin' beautiful duck-"

"-so who cares if maybe Lip's new suspiciously silent boyfriend poisoned them!" finishes Heffron, happily raising his voice to talk over Joe.

"Yeah, really, though, I've only ever seen Speirs talk to Lip," muses Joe, as Eugene helps Heffron sit on the bench. "'Cept a few times to Dick. Why do ya think that is?"

"Well, I don't blame 'im!" exclaims Heffron. "Lip just has that trustworthy face, ya know? Like the most dangerous thing he'll do to ya is tuck ya into your bed an' read ya a bedtime story. Reminds me a bit of my ma."

Eugene smiles to himself and leaves them to their snickering. He walks past Winters and Nixon, who are sipping at tin cups of coffee, and accepts a pat on the shoulder from Winters and a lazy lift of the chin from Nixon.

When Eugene reaches the ambulance, it's in time to see Lipton crushing a cigarette butt under his heel.

"Morning Gene, glad to see you made it back from the lake in one piece," says Lipton, smiling in greeting.

"Mornin'," says Eugene, and pointedly eyes the smashed cigarette butt.

Lipton looks rueful. "I'm not gonna make it a habit," he says quickly, looking more like he's trying to convince himself than Eugene.

Eugene just lifts an eyebrow and shrugs. "Didn't say anythin', Lipton. How's the patient?"

Lipton smiles widely. "Well, he's sitting up now. No signs of long-term memory loss, just doesn't remember the past five days or so."

"No other signs of amnesia yet?"

"Not so far," says Lipton, almost proudly. "He can remember personal details about himself. Even recited his high school locker number to me earlier. All points to a full recovery. His wounds are looking good, too. You mind checking his side, later?"

"No problem. An' I'm sure Speirs'll be pleased. Heard he came by this mornin'."

"Yeah, to check on George. Even brought us some fish he caught." Lipton shakes his head and smiles to himself. "Almost didn't believe it at first."

Eugene glances round the side of the ambulance. The doors are open and latched to the sides, and Spina's sittin' on the edge, smokin' a cigarette.

"Need me t' trade off with either of you?" Eugene asks Spina.

"Nah, we got it. Ask again in an hour, though, now that he's awake we can't get him to shut up, and frankly it's exhaustin'."

"Hey, I can hear you, you know!" yells Luz from inside. "Jeeesus Christ, this kinda rude behavior is hard to stomach before breakfast, which, by the way, you promised me half an hour ago!"

Eugene peeks 'round and sees George Luz, sitting up and looking rumpled and unshaven, but cheerful. Eugene's only exchanged a few words with Luz since he regained consciousness two days ago, but from what he's seen he ain't surprised at all that Luz is feeling well enough to talk so loudly. Eugene doubts Luz would let somethin' like a near-fatal head wound get in the way of yelling at Spina. It appears to be his favorite thing to do, 'sides moan 'bout how his ass is bruised and tell dirty jokes.

"I promised ya nothin', and ya can't eat solid food yet, so stop askin'!" Spina yells back.

"Your mother would stop askin'!"

"That don't even make any sense, Luz!"

"How do I know why your mother does these things, huh, Spina? She doesn't explain anything to me during our pillow talk sessions. She's a fuckin' mystery woman."

"I'm gonna strangle ya in your sleep tonight, Luz, I ain't kiddin'!"

**

Eugene is sittin' on the fallen log and thinkin' of making himself a cup of coffee, just to distract him from the memory of Heffron's thighs, when he feels a familiar presence by his side.

"Mornin' Tim," he greets softly. Tim merely grunts and takes a seat next to him. His face is clean-shaven for the first time in weeks, and it's almost a shock to see him. Like the man Eugene's gotten so close to recently ain't the man now sittin' next to him, lookin' tired and disgruntled 'bout Lord knows what.

Like it almost ain't right to keep callin' him Tim.

Eugene shakes the weird feeling off. His mind ain't right, is all, after Heffron yelled at him earlier.

"Have a nice swim this morning, Gene?" asks Tim softly. He's holding a massive piece of beef jerky in his hand, and Eugene watches him catch it between his teeth and pull, movements sharp and almost violent.

"No, didn't go in," Eugene replies, unsure if he should ask what's wrong. He looks up at the sky; clouds are gatherin', for the first time in weeks, and it'll probably rain tonight. Good; they should stock up on water, so they won't be caught empty-handed when they need it most. "Looks like rain."

"Hm."

Eugene feels concerned about the way Tim feels next to him, rigid and upset. He can read his body language after 4 years... though it ain't exactly like Tim's tryin' to hide it. But he can't think of what could be wrong. Tim has always been grumpy in the morning, hates wakin' up before noon, but half an hour of mopin' around, grumblin', and then a cup of coffee, always rights him eventually.

"Y'had coffee yet? Was just about t' make some."

Tim sighs. "Yeah, okay."

Maybe that's all it is, just sleep deprivation. They're all feelin' it, Eugene can tell just by lookin' at the bags forming under everyone's eyes, at the heavy way they carry themselves. Hard to sleep, feelin' unsafe and vulnerable all the time- even with someone always on watch, the knowledge that you could die any second due to one mistake, one inattentive moment, is like a big thundercloud always on the horizon.

But even after Eugene's made two cups of coffee and Tim has drunk all of his, Tim's gotten even moodier if anything, glaring at something behind Eugene.

Eugene peeks over his shoulder to check. It's just Joe, who's finished cleaning the batch of fish for tonight's dinner and is sitting, chatting happily with Heffron. Babe.

Why would Tim be angry with Joe? The only one Tim's openly clashed with is Guarnere, and they've been givin' each other a wide berth ever since the gas station. Don't make much sense. 'Cept for the fact that Tim still don't seem at peace with the fact that their numbers have more than doubled, he ain't shown any outright dislike towards Joe.

Till now, anyway. Eugene feels like he'll burn from merely bein' in close proximity to Tim's glare.

It ain't his business, but he's concerned, dammit, and so he lightly nudges Tim with his shoulder.

"Y'okay?" he asks softly.

Tim just redirects his glare to Eugene, flicks a cigarette from his crushed pack, and shoves it into the corner of his mouth. He opens and lights his Zippo one-handed, a smooth, quick gesture that Eugene's seen a hundred times.

Instead of answering, he offers Eugene another cigarette from the pack. Not knowing what to do, Eugene accepts, and Tim leans in to light it for him. His eyes linger where Eugene's mouth is closed over it, probably surprised he'd accepted.

Makes sense. Eugene rarely smokes, only when he's stressed or drinking. Tim hasn't seen him smoke much, even when they'd go on break together back at the hospital. Back then, Eugene had normally declined when Tim offered, preferring to watch the haze of smoke curling into the air, and the way Tim's body would slump a little with pleasure as the nicotine hit his system.

Eugene exhales sharply, smoke billowing out and floating over the ground, when he feels Tim's fingers in his hair.

"It's healing nicely. The stitches are already starting to dissolve. Does it hurt?"

His fingers lightly smooth over the healing scar on Eugene's head. It makes Eugene shiver.

"Not much. Aches some, when I lie on it. Try not to."

"That why you didn't go in the lake?"

Eugene blinks at the odd segue. "No, I've been in before. This mornin' I was jus' helpin' Heffron get clean, is all."

"Ah. Right. So, tell me, I've been wondering- does the carpet match the ginger drapes?"

It makes Eugene laugh, surprises him. Tim don't usually make those sorts of jokes. "Ain't nobody's business but Babe's, Tim, y'know that. Don't know what's gotten into you."

He expects Tim to laugh with him, but when he grins over at him, Tim isn't smiling.

"Babe, huh," he says, so quietly Eugene almost misses it.

"What?" asks Eugene, puzzled by the way Tim's acting.

"...You know what? Never mind."

Tim abruptly rises to his feet, taking a last pull from his cigarette and then flicking the butt into the fire.

"Tim..." Eugene's at a loss for words. Maybe it' ain't Joe that Tim's mad at. Maybe it's Eugene.

That unsettles him, deep to his core.

"Forget it, Gene. Just... forget I fucking said anything. I'm gonna go take a piss."

He walks away from Eugene without lookin' at him, and Eugene watches him stride off, flabbergasted.

**

"We all here? Good," says Winters. "It's time we talked about our situation."

They're all gathered around the fire, a few of them eyeing the sky and its darkening storm clouds dubiously.

Winters continues. "We've been switching off sleeping in the cars and out in the open, and it's worked for the past few days, but with rain coming and the increase of undead wandering into camp, it's time we made some adjustments. I've talked with several of you about this already, but if you have any more opinions, don't be afraid to voice them. So, Nix, Harry?"

Nixon clears his throat roughly. "Well, what we've come up with is pretty simple. There's a town at the bottom of the mountain, we drove through it on the way here. It's small, but Bryan here saw a couple of RV's, so what we want to do is go down and see if they're salvageable. Try to grab some tents and supplies while we're at it."

Eugene glances around. Everyone's noddin' in approval. He tries to catch Tim's eye, but the other man's looking steadily at Nixon, arms folded over his chest.

"This means we split up," Harry says, picking the thread up from where Nixon's left it. He looks more serious than Eugene has ever seen him. "A team to take the car down, and a team here to try and fortify this clearing. I've drawn up some plans that I think will do for protection, for now. So now we decide who goes where. So. Volunteers for Mission RV?"

Several hands raise immediately. Among them are Tim and Guarnere, who eye each other warily.

Eugene raises his hand as well. If Tim's goin', he should too. He wants to see if he can get more out of Tim, and even though he ain't good with a gun, he knows he can hold his own against the undead, even if all he has is a knife and a crowbar.

Tim sees him raise his hand and immediately snaps, "No."

Harry looks around, pleased, ignoring Tim. "Looks good," he says to Nixon and Winters. "Bryan, Bill, and Gene. That work for you?"

Winters looks at each of them, stroking his chin thoughtfully. "Only if you're all sure," he says slowly. "This'll be risky. We don't know what's out there; it's been almost a week since we've been down there, things may have gotten a lot worse in that town."

"All due respect," Tim cuts in, "I refuse to have Roe join us, Winters."

What.

Winters eyes him thoughtfully. "Any particular reason? Having Gene with us would only make us stronger."

"It ain't your call, Tim," Eugene warns him, trying not to let his building anger show in his voice. "I'm goin'."

"No, you're not."

Nixon sighs. "How about you two hash this out between you. Joe, Spina, Kitty, Lip- you're good to stay and work with Harry?"

There are nods from all four of them.

"Okay, this is good," Winters says, a note of finality in his voice. "Team RV, we leave in half an hour. Prep your weapons, and bring an empty bag for supplies. Gene, Bryan..."

Tim growls and turns to walk away.

"You talk about this with him, settle things," Winters says to Eugene. He looks worried. "I don't know what's happened between you two, but this run is important. We need you both. Work it out."

Eugene nods, feelin' helpless, and jogs after Tim's receding back.

**

"The hell's the matter wit' you Tim?" demands Eugene. Tim's been walking steadily for a few minutes, and they've strayed further than Eugene is comfortable with into the woods.

Tim takes an angry drag from his cigarette. "You told me you fucking hate guns," he spits over his shoulder. "And now you want to put your life on the line to get some stupid RV's? What happens if we're overrun, think a crowbar will be enough against a horde of undead? You want us to protect you? Huh?"

Eugene can't believe what he's hearing. "Y'know damn well I can take care of myself," he hisses, and reaches out to grab his arm. "Tim! I've fuckin' saved your life before, remember? Back in Center City, that first supply run we did, when those zombies burst outta that supply closet?"

Tim pulls his arm roughly out of his grasp, but finally turns to look at him properly. "And I've saved your life, too," he growls back. "That day Jackson bit it. And before that, the first day. D-Day. That zombie that grabbed you by the foot from under the car, nearly fucking dragged you down with it?"

Eugene remembers. Bombs had been goin' off in the distance, dropped by Air Force jets that screamed overhead. He'd been unable to hear the growlin' of the zombie that had grabbed at his ankle, unable to kick it off.

Tim had saved him, then. When he'd thought This is it, I'm gonna die. Here. Like this, Tim had reached down, put a bullet right through its head, and pulled Eugene up, yellin' at him furiously the entire time that he wouldn't let him fucking die.

"This isn't a fucking contest, Roe," Tim continues. "I don't give a shit about all that. I'm just telling you, I will not let you go with us. I will literally knock you the fuck out if you try."

"Why."

They're both breathing heavily now, Eugene 'cause he's furious and desperate and don't wanna fight, not with Tim. He can't stand not knowing why Tim's mad at him, can't bear the thought that Tim thinks he's a burden.

"You 'fraid I'm gonna get y'killed? 'Cause I'm so damn weak?" he challenges Tim.

"I'm afraid you're going to get yourself killed, and I wouldn't be able to fucking live with myself if that happened. Okay?"

Oh.

"Why're you so angry with me? What did I do?" Eugene asks, anger leaving his body. He feels exhausted. "Just tell me, I'll try... I'll try t'fix it."

Tim turns his face up, and closes his eyes briefly. "It's not something you did, Gene. Forget about that. Just... promise."

Eugene says nothing.

"Please."

He looks rough around the edges, like he's barely holding himself together. Eugene's never seen his like this, and if it means so much to him...

Eugene'll figure this all out. When Tim gets back. He'll talk to him again, when his mind ain't whirrin' with confusion and anger.

"Fine. I promise."

Chapter Text

Once they reach the bottom of the mountain, Nix’s complaints about the stench inside the car have reached a level of intensity that even Dick is surprised by. He’s been listening to Nix complain about things for what seems like more than half of his life, but never has he been this vehement. Well, except for the Rotten Goat Cheese Debacle of 2014, before Nix had been promoted.

Before he’d been torn from Dick’s side to transfer to D.C., to be a consultant for the top brass at the Pentagon. Some subsection devoted to Special Units, comprised of people like Nix. His Nix. Too smart, too skilled in certain areas for mere traffic duty, routine patrols, and stale donuts.

My government needs me, Nix had said, a sardonic smirk masking what he must have really wanted to say, when he’d broken the news to Dick. Dick had read between the lines and ignored Nix’s outstretched hand, grabbed him into a rough hug that had lasted too long.

That’s the thing about this new world: there’s one upside, just one. Dick doesn't know how Nix managed to get away and seek him out again, he doesn't like to talk about it, but...

Dick will never admit it, not even to Nix himself, but he’s so glad to have Nix by his side again, where he should be, that even the loss of the sleep, the loss of friends and family, and the constant niggling warning on the edges of his periphery all seem almost worth it.

God, what’s wrong with you.

It makes Dick feel guilty as hell just thinking about it, so he tries to stop.

The sunglasses on Nix’s face are balanced slightly crooked, and his legs are splayed across the dashboard, arm dangling out the open window.

“—And anyway, the fact of the matter is that even if we get the blood completely out of the seats and carpets, there’s no way we can get rid of this godawful smell, because it’s fucking seeped into every inch of this car. Like when you spill coffee onto your phone. You can try to air it out, wipe it down, bury it in uncooked rice or whatever lifehack you find by Googling it, but it’s gone for good. No saving it. Just gotta live with it.”

A glance at the rearview mirror reveals that Guarnere and Bryan are looking annoyed in the back seat. They probably won’t stay quiet for much longer, and Dick is very aware of the way Bryan’s hand keeps twitching towards his machete.

“Well, Nix, it won’t be for much longer,” Dick says, timing it so that he speaks just as Nix stops to take a breath. “We’ll get the RVs, and we can ditch this car and the smell for good.”

“Yeah, you’d think things always worked out just the way we planned,” Nix says darkly, slanting a glance at Dick over his crooked sunglasses. “’Cause if Dick Winters wants something to go a certain way, you bet the universe will collapse in on itself– create a black hole, bend the space-time continuum– just to make it happen.”

Dicks snorts and checks his mirrors, makes sure they don’t have unwanted company. The view outside the windshield is growing less green and more civilized, dirt trails flattening into asphalt and concrete sidewalks.

The next street he turns the car onto is picturesque, like a town out of Pleasantville, all white picket fences and neat flowerbeds. It would be a pleasant sight, if not for the gathering rainclouds on the horizon, which are moving forward to cast the town in shades of grey.

Of course, Pleasantville probably also didn’t have corpses scattered across lawns and skewered like slabs of meat on picket fences, the flaking white paint streaked with reddish brown.

“Stay alert,” Dick warns the others, slowing the car down a little to veer around a lone zombie staggering down the street. Nix’s feet finally come down from the dashboard.

Bryan leans forward in the back seat, his head popping up at Dick’s shoulder. “You taking the same way we came up?”

“Yep. Recognise it?”

“Yeah, it’s coming back. Turn left up at the building that looks like a saloon.”

The building does indeed look like a tacky version of something Dick’s sure he’s seen in an old western, and he carefully turns left, aware of every movement on the streets and behind curtained windows.

"You sure about this?" Dick asks Bryan. It's not as though he doesn't trust him, but he himself hadn't seen the RVs on their drive up. How Bryan had seen two is bugging him a little.

Dick can feel the heat of Bryan's glare on the side of his face without looking at him.

"I'm running blind here," Dick tries again, keeping his voice humble. "Just double-checking."

"I've got a near photographic memory when it comes to directions and shit, all right? Jesus," mutters Bryan, "And on the drive up I was keeping an eye out for a vehicle other than this jizzpile."

That makes everyone chuckle, including Dick.

The next turn Dick takes, every nerve in his body is called to attention at the sight of movement.

“Shoot. Hold on to something!"

A zombie missing half of its face appears from nowhere, lone arm dangling in front of it as it hobbles into Dick’s line of sight. He swerves to miss it, and barely manages to do so. The tires scream on the asphalt and Bryan and Guarnere curse under their breath.

“Well, so much for the element of surprise,” Nix drawls, but he sounds worried.

“Right up there,” Bryan says, pointing ahead and to the right. “After that turn, should see the first one. It was behind the house with the red roof.”

Dick checks the mirror again. The zombie he’d narrowly avoided is slowly turning to watch them drive away.

“Shoulda just ran ‘im ova,” mutters Guarnere, also looking out the back.

“Don’t want to risk getting rotten body parts in the engine,” says Dick.

“Smart,” says Bryan, and Guarnere pointedly doesn’t look at him, just snorts and leans back in his seat, staring out the side window. “There. RV. You can see it in the back yard.”

Dick slows the car to a halt outside the house with the red roof. Its mailbox is hanging off of its hinges, and the front door has clawmarks all down the middle. It sends a shiver down Dick’s spine.

“You got the gas?” he asks Nix, who is putting his sunglasses away, and Nix squints at him.

“It’s in the back. Wanna check if we even need it first?”

“Yep. Let’s get this show on the road.”

The fence door creaks when Dick opens it, the sound carried off on the wind and down the silent street. He crosses the lawn with Nix, Bryan, and Guarnere trailing after him, weapons at the ready. He pauses once they reach the side of the house, flattening his body against the warmed wood. The others follow suit.

Dicks strains to listen for any sound coming from around the house, but all is quiet.

“Nothing,” he mutters to Nix, who pats him once on the side in response.

When Dick cautiously circles to the back yard, however, the hairs on his arm stand up. He doesn’t get any other warning before a hand shoots out from a grate on level with the ground. He loses his balance and hits the ground like a sack of flour, landing painfully on his left wrist.

Dick,” he hears Nix yell frantically, voice too loud.

It mingles with the horrible growling coming from inside the grate, which looks like it’s been kicked in. The grey hand with the vice-like grip on his ankle is covered in putrid open sores.

Dick feels his gorge rise in horror. He struggles against its grip, to no avail. The face that appears a moment later is that of a dead woman, stringy blonde hair flat against her gaping mouth. Dick looks into the empty, rotting eyes and kicks out as hard as he can with his left foot.

The first kick lands squarely on the zombie’s mouth, shattering the jawbone. It swings loosely to the side, teeth flying out in a trail of slime and gore. Nix and Bryan have a hold on him now. The zombie still hasn’t let go of his ankle, and its groans intensify as it lunges further out of the broken grate. Its head bows down too close to Dick’s uncovered skin.

“Pull, goddammit!” Nix roars by his ear.

Dick’s second kick manages to cave in the zombie’s skull, and he is abruptly released. Nix and Bryan are sent flying backwards. They lie on the ground, panting, as Guarnere leans down and thrusts his knife into zombie’s forehead. The wet sound of steel sliding through skin and bone is muted, but Dick feels it in every nerve in his body.

“Fuck,” Bryan laughs behind him, still breathing heavily. “These things are strong motherfuckers.”

Dick struggles to his feet, left wrist pulsing in time with his racing heart.

“Thanks,” he says to Nix and Bryan, who are getting to their feet as well. “And you, Guarnere,” he says, turning to Guarnere.

Guarnere shrugs and bends to wipe his Bowie knife on the grass. “Don’ mention it,” he mutters, and truly sounds like he doesn’t want Dick to mention it.

“You okay?” Nix asks. His eyes are searching Dick’s body frantically, as though making certain that he hasn’t been bitten.

“Solid,” Dick says. He gives Nix what he hopes is a reassuring nod. “Just landed on my wrist. It’ll keep.”

“Uh huh.” Nix sends him a knowing look. “I’ll get back to you on that one. Well, Bryan, you were right” He claps Bryan on the back, and sweeps him arm out expansively in the direction of the large white RV parked in front of them. “We have our first prize, ladies and gentleman! I call shotgun.”

“Ha! Nah, you’re drivin’,” Guarnere says with a bark of laughter.

“First we gotta see if this lady even works,” Bryan reminds them, walking over to the driver’s door. “Key’s probably in the house.”

“Check the flap. This is a small town, I wouldn’t even be surprised if the keys are in the ignition,” says Nix. “Worst case, I’ll wire it.”

Dick rubs his twinging wrist and watches the back door to the house as the others crowd around the RV. It doesn’t sound like there are more in the basement, which must be what’s beyond the broken grate. That means the other inhabitants of the property – if they haven’t escaped or died – have probably turned and are loose somewhere in the main rooms of the house.

“Guarnere,” Dick calls over his shoulder. “Want to help me raid the house? Might be water, food.”

“Yeah, ahright,” says Guarnere.

The back door is unlocked, and there are no signs of disturbance inside the house. The silence is unnerving. Dick leads the way inside, baton held cautiously at the ready.

“Ya think the others got out?” Guarnere asks behind him. He sounds casual, like breaking and entering a house possibly full of undead is just another day at the office. “The one what almost got ya, she looked like one a them country housewives, ya know? Apron on, casserole in the oven.”

“Well, there are a few bedrooms upstairs,” Dick says, trying to keep his voice low, just in case. “But… could be the husband got the kids out.”

He picks up a discarded rubber dog toy from the ground. It’s bright blue, in the shape of a bone, and looks like it’ll make a squeaky noise if Dick squeezes it. He lays it gently on the lace-covered couch in front of the TV.

“Jackpot!” crows Guarnere from the kitchen.

Dick looks up. Guarnere is grinning toothily, holding up two cans of refried beans in triumph. Dicks feels a smile widening on his own face.

“Nice find. Here, take my pack.” Dick removes his backpack and hands it over to Guarnere, who begins shoveling in more cans and boxes of cereal from the cupboards. “See any bottled water?”

“Nah.”

Dick surveys the living room and dining room, and walks over to the mantle above the fireplace to take a closer look at the family photos displayed there. There is a picture of a grizzly man with a beer gut, with one foot on a dead boar and a rifle in his hand, plus a graduation photo, a wedding photo. Just another average middle-class white family: two parents, two kids. In one of the pictures, a little boy is missing his front tooth and dressed in a Little League uniform. Baseball bat. Good. The blonde woman behind him in the plaid dress is smiling happily with a basket on her arm, and bears little resemblance to the thing that had gotten ahold of Dick minutes earlier.

Rest in peace, Dick thinks heavily, and makes himself turn away from the smiling, framed faces.

“Yo, Winters, we good to go?” asks Guarnere, stepping out of the kitchen with Dick’s backpack on his shoulder. It looks heavy and stuffed to the brim, Dick notes with satisfaction.

“Just want to check upstairs,” Dick tells him. “If there was that much left untouched in the kitchen, that means no one’s come in here since…well, since. Might be a gun up there. Husband looks like he hunts.”

“Well, by all means, lead the way!” Guarnere strides over to the open back door and, yelling “Heads up!”, tosses the full backpack down at an unsuspecting Bryan, who flings himself out of its way. It lands with a loud thunk by his feet, and he scowls and flashes Guarnere the finger.

Dick walks slowly up the stairs, Guarnere at his heels, listening carefully for any movement, any groaning or dragging of feet from behind the closed doors. One is open, and Dick can see himself reflected in the sliver of mirror that is revealed behind it. Bathroom.

Checking that Guarnere is ready, Dick raps his knuckles hard on the first closed door and steps back, clenching his fingers around his baton. No sound comes from inside, and so he slowly opens it. It’s the daughter's room, most likely, judging by the color scheme and the boy band posters on the wall.

“Clear,” he whispers to Guarnere, who nods.

They do the same with the next door, which opens to an empty room that looks like the master bedroom. A quick sweep reveals a closet full of hunting gear, namely two rifles shined so perfectly that Dick can almost see his reflection in the barrel, plus a short-barreled shotgun and three boxes of ammunition.

Guarnere whistles low. “An’ I thought we got lucky in the kitchen! God bless mountain folk, they do love ‘em some heavy duty firepower.”

Dick rummages through the closet and finds a coil of nylon rope. Good. Could prove useful. “We’re definitely lucky that no one’s raided this house yet.”

There’s a thump against the adjoining wall to the last room, and they both freeze.

“Aw, shit,” mutters Guarnere.

Dick holds a finger to his lips for Guarnere to see, and pulls his baton out of its sheath. He walks as quietly as he can out of the room and down the hallway. There’s another thump, and a loud growling sound.

Dick pauses for a moment with his hand on the doorknob, and looks over his shoulder. Guarnere gives him a nod.

Here we go.

As soon as Dick opens the door, the zombie is on him in a rush of teeth.

“There’s another one!” Dick warns Guarnere, and grabs the zombie that’s lunged for his shoulder by its neck. He forces it as far away from his body as he can. It’s the reanimated corpse of the man with the beer gut from the pictures downstairs, and it almost overpowers Dick with sheer mass.

He smashes it over the head once, twice, three times with his baton. Finally it crumples to the ground, brains oozing from its smashed-in skull.

Guarnere has already sunk his knife into the head of the smaller zombie, and they both watch it flop to the ground.

“Easy to see how this one went down, huh?” Dick pants to Guarnere. They both look down at the smallest corpse lying on the Toy Story bedsheets, decomposing messily. The stench is overwhelming, and Dick is tempted to pull his shirt over his nose. “Kid probably got it first.”

“Yeah, whateva,” mutters Guarnere. The muffled sound of an engine starting up makes them both turn. “We should get outta here.”

A movement in the corner of his eye catches Dick’s attention. He looks out the window to where their car is parked out front, and feels his stomach drop.

There are zombies coming from both sides of the street, headed directly for the house.

“Good idea,” says Dick. “We’ve got company.”

**

“Nix, we gotta go!”

“Yeah, we’re good,” replies Nix from the driver’s seat. Bryan is also inside, strapped in.

“We go with the plan,” Dick says, handing him the rifles and ammunition. “You go out the back, join up with us at the crossroads. We’ve got a horde coming in.”

“Shit,” Nix swears under his breath. “Knew this would happen.”

Dick leans his head through the open window. “You said the other one was three blocks down?” he asks Bryan.

“If something goes wrong, just find the house with the gnomes,” replies Bryan with a mirthless grin. “Trust me. You’ll know it when you see it.”

“Got it.” Dick pauses. He knows what he wants to say next, but he already knows what Nix’s reaction will be. He tries anyway, speaking as quickly as he can. “Listen, if Guarnere and I don’t meet up with you at the crossroad, just go on ahead. Between the two of you, you can get the RVs and supplies back up the mountain.”

Without warning, Nix reaches up and smacks Dick across the face.

Dick reels back from the blow, cheek stinging. He feels stunned and it’s a moment before he can speak. “What in God's name-”

“You shut the fuck up,” Nix growls at him, pulling him in by his collar. His face is too close, and his dark eyes have grown even darker with sudden anger. “You hear me? Get your ass there, we will wait for you.”

Nix's breath is hot on his face, hotter than the sting from the blood rushing to Dick's cheek. Dick tries to swallow, but finds his mouth is completely dry.

“Hate to break up the party,” says Guarnere, not sounding sorry at all, “But we gotta move, Winters!”

He’s right. The growling, moaning sounds coming from beyond the house are growing louder with every second.

With one last look at Nix, Dick tears himself away, patting the side of the door. “Good luck!” he says, with as much feeling as he can. The side of his face still smarts, a painful reminder of Nix's words.

“You too, idiot,” replies Nix, and aims the RV towards the small fence door leading out the back gate.

**

There are at least ten zombies stumbling onto the front lawn. At least a dozen more have appeared from God knows where, surrounding their car and blocking their view of the street.

“I’ll draw them away,” Dick breathes to Guarnere. They’re flat against the side of the house again, just out of view. “You think you can get into the car?”

“Ya sure?” mutters Guarnere.

“Positive.”

Guarnere hesitates, then nods. “Piece a cake. Go get 'em.”

Dick takes a deep breath, and then sprints out onto the lawn.

“Come on!” he yells, smacking his baton against the porch railing. There’s a zombie directly in his path. He smashes his baton against its head and it falls. “Come and get me!”

Drawn by the noise and movement, they start to follow. The zombies on the street are drawn in as well until they hit the fence, flailing against its pristine edges.

The ones remaining on the lawn stumble towards him. Dick nails another one just before it grabs him. He leads them to the other side of the lawn, and he can see Guarnere tensed to run.

“I’m right here!” Dick shouts. Another zombie lunges at him. Dick musters his strength and whacks it as hard as he can. It falls.

He’s at the far corner of the lawn now. Another few steps back and his back will hit the bushes lining the fence separating him from the neighboring house. Two zombies lunge at him at once. He kicks out at one, and it stumbles back, giving him time to brain the other.

There’s too many, and they’re closing in fast. Dick knows his baton won’t be enough. He switches it to his left hand, wrist pulsing in protest, and pulls out his gun.

Bam! First shot lands dead center in the next zombie’s forehead. It drops.

Bam! Half the zombie’s face is blown away. Blood sprays across Dick’s face, but he has no time to wipe it off before the next one is on him. He angles the gun under its chin and pulls the trigger.

Bam!

Dick empties half of his magazine before he hears the sound of the car engine roaring to life. The gunshots are luring more in from the street, but they’re hindered by the zombies already piled against the fence. A few of them turn at the sound of the engine, but Dick shoots his gun again to redirect their attention.

Five bullets left.

Bam!

The next zombie Dick shoots falls to create an opening. It’s now or never. He bolts through the growling mob and towards the open fence gate, powered by another rush of adrenaline that makes him shake.

Only one zombie between him and the car now. He thrusts his baton through its eyesocket, forcing it all the way through and out the back of its head. His wrist burns and the searing pain makes him gasp.

The car is already moving down the street, and he has to speed up to reach the door handle.

Thank God.

“Thought ya weren’t gonna make it for a second,” Guanere cackles as Dick pulls himself into the car, and fastens his seatbelt with trembling fingers. “That was some stunt ya pulled!”

“Thankfully it worked,” says Dick, trying to regulate his harsh breathing. “You okay?”

“Ol’ Gonorrhoea wouldn’t let somethin’ like a few corpses stop him!” Guarnere says, with another bark of laughter. He glances at Dick briefly, and he looks… almost respectful.

Not wishing to look a gift horse in the mouth, Dick just smiles back at him quickly and glances back over his shoulder. The zombies that had crowded against the fence are now peeling off, trying to follow them.

“We’ll have to forgo raiding the next house for supplies. Just grab the other RV and go,” Dick says, more to himself than to Guarnere. “The gunshots probably have the entire town’s worth of zombies heading our way.”

“Eh, well, couldn’t be helped,” Guarnere agrees. Up ahead at the crossroad, the RV holding Nix and Bryan is waiting.

**

“We heard the gunshots,” says Nix, lowering his window. The house they’ve parked in front of does indeed have a lawn covered with dozens garden gnomes in all sizes. Their garish faces smirk at them mockingly. “You guys okay?”

Dick pats the window in reassurance. “Just fine. Stay here, keep this thing running.”

“You got it, boss.”

Dick sends him a look, but Nix just smirks and winks in reply.

To Dick’s relief, the second RV is parked in the driveway, not in the back yard, and it doesn’t take long to find the keys stashed beneath the front seat. There’s a thumping sound from the back, but Bryan jumps in and makes short work of the zombie inside.

Dick pulls himself into the driver’s seat and tries the engine. Nothing.

“Fuck,” says Bryan.

Dick tries again. The engine gives a half-hearted sputter before dying again.

“Battery?” Dick guesses.

“I’ll take a look.”

Guarnere hauls the jerrycan from the trunk of the car as Bryan flips open the hood of the RV. Dick looks nervously out the open door on his side. No sign of the mob headed their way yet, but it’s only a matter of time.

“Winters!” yells Bryan, “Could you check under the steps? There should be a compartment where the extra battery is kept.”

Dick jumps down from the driver’s seat, searching for what Bryan means. He feels around the steps leading up from the side door, and true to Bryan’s word, a hidden compartment flips open.

“How’d you know?” Dick asks, handing the battery to him out the open window.

“My Dad owned one of these,” says Bryan with a look of satisfaction. “Almost every RV has one of those compartments. Handy, no?”

“Very,” Dick agrees.

“Dick,” says Nix warningly from the other RV. “Dick, we’ve got incoming.”

“Almost done,” Dick calls back. Guarnere drops heavily into the seat next to him.

“Try it now!” yells Bryan.

Dick! They’re coming!”

Dick turns the key in the ignition, and relief floods him as the engine sputters only once before roaring to life.

“Thank Christ,” mutters Guarnere next to him. Dick slams his door closed and rolls down the window. He's sweating so much that his back squelches against his seat.

Bryan slams the hood shut and runs around to hand the dead battery to Dick.

“Fuck,” Nix yells, and leans out of his window, rifle in hand. The horde of remaining zombies is closing in, fuelled by the sound of the second engine and their voices. Nix brings the rifle sight up to his eye, aims, and fires.

The zombie at the head of the horde nearing the RV on the street is catapulted back, the back of its head exploding out. The momentum sends it toppling into the zombie behind it, and the domino effect fells two more.

Bryan, his own gun held firmly up in a manner that shows he’s very familiar with how to use it, shoots twice in rapid succession. Two more zombies fall to the ground.

Dick pulls his Glock from its holster and aims.

Bam! Bam! Bam! Bam!

He misses once, but three more zombies fall, giving Bryan enough room to move around to the passenger side.

Click.

“Dammit,” Dick growls under his breath, and drops the gun into his lap. He feels around for the emergency brake, not taking his eyes off of Bryan.

Guarnere cackles from beside him.

“What is it,” Dick asks, watching Bryan with his entire body tensed. He only relaxes when it becomes clear that he’s going to make it inside.

“Jus’ nevah thought this day would come,” says Guarnere. “Dick Winters, cursin’! Didn’t think ya had it in ya! Hell must be frozen ovah.”

It makes Dick smiles against his will. “Shut up Guarnere.”

“Shuttin’ up, Lieutenant,” says Guarnere, still snickering.

With Bryan safely situated in the passenger seat, Nix backs his RV up, kicking up dust in a squeal of tires. Following his lead, Dick presses his foot on the accelerator, and braces himself as the front of the RV rams into the fence surrounding the property. The entire RV shudders in protest, but the fences splinters and gives. They speed down the street to freedom, leaving the groaning, stinking mess of undead behind.

It's begun to rain. In the distance, lightening rends the sky, illuminating the dark storm clouds for a brief moment. Thunder follows a while later, a deep growl that sounds like a warning.

**

When they pull back up to their camp, Dick and Guarnere in the lead, it's raining so hard that visibility is at a minimum, but Dick can still make out someone standing where the campfire used to be.

It's Gene. Rain is plastering his hair to his forehead, and he's holding a limp body in his arms.

Chapter Text

“Oh God, oh God, there’s more of ‘em! They ain’t stoppin’!”

“Spina, ya gotta calm down, stop waving’ that thing around-“

Bam!

“Save your bullets, dammit! Joe, watch Spina’s back…”

“Watch it, behind ya!”

“Fuck, thanks!” Thwack. “That was a close one.”

“Where are they all coming from?”

Thwack! Thunk.

“Kitty, oh, thank God, I was so worried! Are you okay?”

“I’m fine, I’m fine, what’s going on? If Babe and I hadn’t heard the gunshots… Harry, it was really loud even from where we were. I’m pretty sure that more will be drawn to us any minute!”

“Yeah, I know. It was Spina, he panicked. Where’s Babe? Didn’t he go with you to collect the firewood?”

“I…” Pause. “I don’t - Harry! He was right behind me!”

“Heyyyy, welcome to the party, Kitty! You missed the first act, but luckily, looks like the second will be startin’ up reeeeal soon.”

“…Um, thanks, Joe.” Whizz. Splat! Thunk. “Bloody hell, I got blood and crap down my shirt. Ugh, gross, it stinks like hell.”

Growl. Thwack! Thud.

“Kitty, why ain’t Babe wit’ you?”

“He was right behind me, Gene, I swear. What happened?”

"I dunno. Came outta the ambulance, suddenly there was ‘bout thirty of ‘em, all ‘round the perimeter. Y’don’t know where Babe is?”

“No, I’m sorry.”

“Shit.” Deep breath. “Babe? Babe! Where y’at?”

Growl.

Bam!

“Stop firing that thing, Spina, you’re drawing more to us-“

“Lip, I hafta, there’s too many, we won’t make it-“

“Fuck, I don’ hear him, I gotta go find ‘im-“

“Gene, you stay right here. Lip, is Luz secure?”

“I locked the doors, Harry, he should be okay. It’s getting worse out here.”

“Yeah, tell me about it. Joe! Our perimeter won’t keep all of them out for much longer, they’re piling up on the stakes. You and Kitty get everything valuable into the ambulance and be ready to move out.”

“But Harry… the others, they ain’t back yet.”

“We have no other choice. At this rate, we have minutes before we’re so outnumbered we can’t hold them off.”

“O…okay. Okay! Kitty, come on!”

“Harry, I gotta fin’ Babe, he’s out there somewhere an’ he only got one workin’ arm-“

Schwing! Splat.

“Shit. You’re right. Then I’ll go with you, we’ll find him. Lip, you and Spina, you got this?”

“For now. If you start hearing gunshots, though…”

“Got it. Hubba hubba. Let’s move out. Babe, we’re coming for you!”

Laughter. “Shit, that ain’t even funny, why’s that so funny.” Light sobbing.

“You’re going into hysterics, Spina. Hey, Kitty! C’mere and trade with him, will you?”

“I- oh, sure. Ralph, would you mind loading this water bottle into the ambulance for me?”

Deep inhale. “Y-yeah. Yeah. Sorry, it’s - it’s jus’ been a bit too much, ya know, after… after Jackson, b-back in Philly…I just don't wanna die, ya know?”

Pat, pat. “I get it, Ralph. I really do. But right now I have to go over and help Lip, is that all right? Can you do this?”

Exhale. “Yeah. Yeah, I’m good. Shit.”

“Okay. We’ll get through this, trust me. We’re counting on you, okay? Stay alert, some might come through.”

“Thanks. Okay. Thanks, Kitty.”

“Be careful.”

“Kitty! Come on!”

“Coming!” Squelch, squelch.“Lip, here. Bill left his baseball bat.”

“Thanks, Kitty.” Thunk! “These stakes aren’t gonna hold them off for much longer. Harry’s right.”

Thunk! Splat! Thwack!

"I’m gonna go over there, it’s not as well fortified. You okay over here?”

“Go, go. I’ve got it covered.”

Growl. Thunk!

Scream.

“Kitty!”

“I’m fine, Lip, you have to stay there. Joe, they’ve gotten through over here!”

“I’m comin’, hold on!” Thud!“You don’t know what you’re in for, ya suckers.”

“Ngh.” Panting. Thwack! “You got that one?”

“Yeah, you get that one!”

“Okay!” Thunk! Splat. “That’s most of them. Do yo-“

Growl.

Scream. Bam! Bam! Bam!

“Aughhh!”

Loud scream. “Fuck! Ralph! No!”

“I’m gonna- Kitty, stay here! Spina!!“

Sobs. “Joe, it’s too l- you can’t-“ Hard sobbing.

“Nooooo!”

**

Babe is thoroughly up shit cheek. He is up a tree, he’s so fucked. Like, he is literally up a tree, trying to kick away the grasping hands of three zombies. Also, it’s started to rain, a sudden outpouring like God’s dumpin’ a bucket of water on the mountain. It’s hard to see anything clearly.

“Ya bastards ain’t gonna get me,” he snarls down at them. All they do is growl back, louder, and he’s starting to get a little worried. Kitty had run back towards the camp when they heard the gunshots, not realising that although he was healin’ okay, his leg still wasn’t up for any Olympic-level 100 yard dashes. He was soon left in the dust.

Anyway, now he’s all alone, his shoulder hurts, and there are red ants on the branches by his head that look dangerous. They don’t look bothered by the rain as their little red legs crane towards Babe’s shoulder. Babe leans his head away, but that just makes his body sag down towards the snarling zombies. They look encouraged and snap their gross rotting teeth at him even louder, making him yelp and try to scramble higher up into the branches.

“Fuck, maybe ya are gonna get me,” he mutters. The zombie closest to him with the scarily long reach is an ugly lookin’ motherfucker, the skin peeling off its face and hands. It also has the largest ears Babe has ever seen on a human - uh, well, former human, that is. Looks like Dumbo and smells like a wet asscrack.

Also, he’s pretty sure that he’s seen those ants on the Discovery Channel, in that one episode where they take down an entire freakin’ buffalo.

Focus, Babe! Gotta focus!

Why’d he have to go and drop his gun when he’d climbed up here?

“Help!” he yells, loud as he can. He kicks out again and manages to hit one of them, but it just gets back up and continues lunging.

The red ants are starting to crawl onto his shirtsleeve and he suddenly feels itchy all over.

“Help!” he yells again, trying to kick and brush the ants off at the same time. “Somebody! Anybody? Fuck!”

Suddenly, Dumbo’s growls are silenced. The tip of a knife bursts out from one of its eyes, spattering Babe’s foot with gore. Babe screams in shock as it falls, and looks around frantically for his saviour.

A pair of piercing green eyes appears at his feet, belonging to none other than that creep that had kidnapped Winters and Bryan. Speirs. Babe watches as Speirs makes quick work of the other two zombies, which are too slow to react and are systematically skewered on his huge-ass knife.

“Whoa,” says Babe. “Thanks, man.”

Speirs looks up at him for a moment, and Babe thinks his expression is a little too disdainful for someone who’s in their group’s debt.

Babe clears his throat when Speirs remains silent. “Hey, ya mind helpin’ me down?” he tries.

“I heard gunshots,” says Speirs. He still hasn’t moved to help him. “Coming from your camp.”

Frustrated, Babe exhales through his nose and starts to search for a foothold. “We heard ‘em too, but I kinda got a little sidetracked, ya know? By the flesh-eatin’ monsters? I dunno what’s goin’ on, but it ain’t good. I gotta get back.”

Speirs turns and sprints in the direction of the camp. In moments he’s disappeared into the woods.

“Really?” Babe yells after him, incredulous. The asshole! “Ya gonna just leave me here? Fine! Okay! I can look afta myself! Don’t need your- ah, shit!”

The branch below his foot snaps, and Babe’s stomach lurches as he falls unceremoniously out of the tree. A screech is wrenched from his throat and he flails his good arm, automatically trying to break his fall.

Splat.

Ah geez. Gross.

“Babe? Babe, is that you? Holy shit, Gene, I found him!”

Babe blinks, but he can’t see anything with the rain falling directly onto his eyeballs. He recognizes the beautiful nasal tones of Harry’s voice, though, and he laughs in relief.

“Harry, help me outta here! These guys fuckin’ stink!”

Babe hears two pairs of footsteps pounding towards him, and then Gene’s face appears above him, looking worried as hell.

“Whoa, deja vu,” says Babe faintly.

“Y’all right?” asks Gene worriedly. Then he pauses. “Uh, Babe, why you- why you lyin’ in a pile of zombies?”

“Long story, explain later,” mutters Babe in embarrassment, and accepts Harry’s outstretched hand, pulling himself up. “Right now, I’m more interested in what’s goin’ on over at the camp.”

“Bad things,” Harry says quickly. “Zombies, lots of them. We gotta get back, and fast. Can you walk okay?” He looks so serious that Babe almost doesn’t recognise him.

“Yeah, yeah, I’m okay. Lead the way.”

Gene is patting him down concernedly, and Babe feels himself flush, despite their situation.

“Uh, Gene, I’m ahright.”

“Sure?” Gene asks sharply, wet face intent and inches from Babe’s. “Your shoulder?”

“The zombies broke my fall,” Babe says quickly, “It’s all good!”

“Your what?”

“We don’t have time for this!” Harry snaps. He’s already a few feet away, striding back towards the camp. “Come on, Gene!”

Babe swoops down to scoop up his gun, and follows. With Gene’s help, he can go fast enough that they’re almost jogging. There are more gunshots in the distance, and a scream.

Sounds like Kitty. Shit.

Harry puts on a burst of speed ahead of them, and disappears into the trees. The rain is torrential, now, and Babe has to wipe at his face to see properly.

“What’s goin’ on?” he pants into Gene’s ear. “That Kitty? That’s Kitty, ain’t it?”

“They just came outta nowhere,” Gene grunts. “More’n two dozen. Prob’ly were movin’ in a pack, stumbled on our camp. The sounds are drawin’ even more.”

Babe swears under his breath. They’ve almost reached the clearing, and he can see movement between the trees ahead. “Didn’t even give us time to finish buildin’ our goddamn defences up,” he mutters. Gene doesn't seem to hear him.

There is a wall of growling undead, three-deep, between them and the desperate face of Kitty, who has a knife in both hands and is felling the things left and right. Babe can see her yell something over her shoulder, and Joe runs into view, baseball bat in hand. There are gaps in the perimeter of stakes they set up only hours earlier.

Too many gaps.

A few have turned, drawn by Harry attacking from behind. Gene decapitates the nearest one with a deadly swing of his crowbar. Babe clumsily stabs one through the throat. It doesn’t stop advancing, and Babe fiercely wishes he were ambidextrous. He barely manages to yank the knife out and stab again, thankfully hitting his mark this time. He leaps back as the zombie crashes to the ground at his feet.

Gunshots tear through the air, and this time it’s Spina that screams. Loud, terrified. It sends a chill down Babe’s spine.

He knows that scream. It’s the scream of someone staring death in the face.

Gene has gone completely ashen underneath the rain on his face. Seeing an opening, Babe lunges at Gene’s collar and drags him through to the other side.

“Where is Spina?” Babe screams over the cacophony of the rain and the horrible hungry growling, but Kitty and Joe don’t hear him. Kitty looks like she’s crying, but the tears on her face are disguised by the rain. She and Joe look over their shoulders at something, and Gene suddenly sprints from his side and towards the other end of the clearing, where the ambulance is parked. Where Spina is…

No.

Kitty’s screams fill the air, mingling with the horrible sounds Spina’s making, and Spina is caught between two of the rotting things, one has him by the arm and the other…the other…

Babe can do nothing but look on as the zombie tears into Spina’s neck, teeth pulling at his flesh, and then the tendons, and there’s so much blood, and Spina’s still screaming, why, why did it have to be him, why did it have to be any of them…

Babe is suddenly pulled back by his right arm, and a searing pain runs through his body, starting at his healing collarbone. He stumbles back, and the growling is close, dangerously close to his right ear, and—

There’s a sudden pressure on his bandaged right arm.

“Babe!” screams Kitty. Babe looks down at the zombie gnawing fiercely at the bandage, and yells at the top of his lungs, trying desperately to fling it off of him.

“You fucka! You mothafuckas!” he screams, and with a burst of fury he stabs down as hard as he can, barely missing his own arm as the zombie suddenly goes limp against him, the dull pressure of teeth subsiding. “You fuckin’ killed Spina, I’ll kill alla ya!”

Babe’s started to cry without realising it, taking big burning gulps of air as he stabs at every zombie in reach, sometimes hitting his mark, most of the time not, just wanting to do something, anything to bring him back. Spina’s contagious laughter echoes in his ears as brown-red zombie blood runs down his arms to merge with the rain.

Ralph Spina, always joking around with Babe when he’d help him change his bandages, staunchly refusing to help Gene give him a sponge bath, making faces at Joe’s cooking. His other South Philly brother.

He’d just begun to get to know him.

Babe is crying so hard now that his vision is completely blurred, his body wracked with sobs, but he pulls out his gun anyway and fires into the remaining zombies. Someone is shouting his name, but he ignores them, image after image of Spina’s helpful, laughing face flashing through his mind. Images of his ma, his baby brother. His friends.

The sound of gunfire other than his own brings him back to himself. Sounds like the type of ammunition a helluva lot bigger than their handguns.

Babe hiccups as his sobs subside, and he blinks away his tears. The zombies that had been in his path are all on the ground, dead or hobbled, and more are falling from headshots.

It’s over.

The sound of rumbling engines helps to shatter the remainder of the bubble of misery that had engulfed him, almost drowned him. Babe turns to see two massive RVs at the edge of the clearing, and Gene in the middle, cradling Spina’s torn and broken body like a child grips a ragdoll. His head is bowed and he’s shuddering, face hidden in Spina’s shoulder.

“Fuck. No!”

It’s Bryan. He jumps down from a still-moving RV and runs towards Gene. Gene looks up at Bryan, and his eyes are so devastated that Babe wants to cry again.

"Is he... is he..."

Lipton is sprinting towards them as well, but he's too late to do anything, just like Babe was. One by one, they all gather around Gene, whose face is stark and white as a sheet, but free of tears.

Always the strong one.

"You need to put that thing down," speaks a cold voice, ringing out too loud in the bleak silence.

Speirs strides into view, emerging from behind the ambulance. Near where Spina had... he'd...

"Shut the fuck up," snarls Joe, speaking at the same time as Bill and Bryan, who also begin shouting at him. Joe's eyes are just as red as Kitty's as he speaks through gritted teeth. The muscles in his neck are stretched taut, like he's physically restraining himself from launching himself at him in anger. "Just shut the fuck up, Speirs."

"He's right," says Gene. His voice is so quiet it's drowned under Bill's cursing, but apparently Bryan can hear him as well as Babe. He shoots an arm out to grab Bill, silencing him.

Speirs has his knife out. Rain drips ominously down its length and off the tip.

Across from Babe, Winters and Nixon have their guns out.

"He gonna turn," Gene says, choked. He's looking at Babe now, eyes pleading. For what, Babe doesn't know. "He's right, we... we..."

Babe can see Spina's eyelashes begin to flutter. He feels like he's gonna puke, but firmly pushes the feeling down.

When Spina opens his eyes, they're cloudy and white and he's not... he's not Spina anymore, the growling sound coming out of his mouth is too familiar but nothing like Spina's voice... A wave of horror washes over Babe because Spina, no, the thing that used to be Spina's teeth are way too close to Gene's neck.

"Get away from him!" Babe yells, but Spina's hands are already reaching for Gene, and Gene ain't moving away, he looks frozen in horror...

There's a sickening, wet sound as Speirs strides forward, pushes Gene aside, and sinks his knife into Spina's head.

This time, Babe does puke. A lot.

**

The drenched earth is easy to dig into, even if they don’t have a proper shovel to work with. Although Babe can’t help with the manual labor, he helps Kitty bind Spina’s body in one of the blankets.

When they lower his body into the grave, Babe doesn’t feel like he’ll ever laugh again. The smell of decay is heavy in the air, from the countless bodies strewn around the clearing and the gore most of them are covered in. Just another reminder.

Kitty clears her throat. Her eyes are rimmed with red and her voice is thick with tears. “Would anyone like to say a few words?”

Babe looks around. He doesn’t want to speak, doesn’t feel like saying anything right now, but it’s Spina. He owes him. Hell, he helped Gene save Babe’s life, helped Lip save George Luz’s life – and not only that, he’d been a damn good friend. Babe is readying himself to speak when Bryan steps forward.

“Spina was-“ Bryan clears his throat. “Ralph was one of the first people I teamed up with, after this… this whole clusterfuck started. I admit I didn’t try hard to get to know him, and I wasn’t even that thrilled when he joined our team out of Philly…”

Babe shoots Bryan an annoyed glance. He’s supposed to be sayin’ shit in Spina’s memory, not insult him.

But Bryan continues. “However, he proved his worth. …Even when he didn’t have to. He was an excellent nurse, and an even better human being. I’m sorry I ever underestimated him.”

Bryan looks down into the grave, sighs heavily, and lowers his body into a crouch, mud squelching beneath his boots. He reaches up and pulls his bandana off, kisses the soaked material once, and drops it into the grave. “Rest in peace, motherfucker.”

Kitty bursts into tears again, and buries her face in Harry’s shoulder.

“He helped save my life,” Babe blurts next. He can hear the tears in his own voice, but his eyes feel dry. “And… he, he made us all laugh. Even when we didn’t want to. Stupid ass knock-knock jokes.”

Everyone laughs wetly.

“We’ll miss ya, man,” Babe tells the still figure under the blanket quietly. “Thanks. For everythin’.”

**

It feels good to sit, rest his sore leg, even if it's still sprinkling and he's starting to feel chilled. Babe can't help replaying the past hour in his head. Maybe he coulda done something. If he and Kitty hadn't been gone- if he hadn't been up that fucking tree, if Harry and Gene hadn't broken off to look for him-

Fuck.

Nearby, Speirs has reappeared, talking in a low voice with Lip. Whatever he's saying, sounds urgent.

Babe takes a special moment to glare at Speirs for abandoning him in the tree. And stickin' that knife into Spina. Even if... even if he had saved Gene in the process. It's just the principle of the thing.

The conversation is getting more heated, and Babe can make out a few words.

"...stay here... never seen so many up here..."

"That's not my call, and you... understand, but..."

"...ridiculous! You know it's... least find shelter, not sleep out in the open like this."

"If it's George you're worried about, the ambulance is the safest thing for miles, and anyway I can't leave him and you know that..."

"It's not just Luz I'm worried about."

Babe takes a peek, disguising the action as a quick bandage check. His bandages are torn and smeared with blood and bits of brain matter, but the skin underneath is clean and unmarked. Thank Christ.

His sneaky recon reveals that Speirs, for the first time, is showing emotion- lots of it. It's sorta overwhelming, all at once.

(Like givin' up smoking for Lent, and then feeling sick to ya stomach when ya take it back up again 'cause ya may be religious but ya ain't a saint.)
(Yeah, a little like that.)

Lip's face, on the other hand, has slackened into an expression of surprise. Babe smirks to himself. He don't blame him, especially since Speirs basically just proposed to him.

"Wh...what?" Lip stammers.

"It's not just Luz I'm worried about," Speirs repeats, drawing the words out slowly, like he's speaking to a particularly dumb kid. His hand rises from his side, like he wants to grab hold of Lip, but he lowers it again and clears his throat, looking away. "In any case, this place may look good on a map, but unless you build a fortress in a day, this will happen again, and you will lose even more men."

"He's right, Lip."

Babe takes another peek. Winters and Harry, looking exhausted and decades older than the last time Babe'd seen them, appear from behind one of the RV's.

"You agree?" Lip asks him, looking even more surprised.

"Well, didn't expect this to happen so soon, but it was inevitable," Winters says. "We grew complacent. It's partly why I wanted those RVs..."

He pauses, and he, Harry, and Lip all look miserably down at their shoes for a moment. Babe clears his throat around the sudden lump that's formed. He's watching them openly now, although they don't appear to notice.

"I was just going to talk to Carwood here about where George and I were headed," says Speirs, breaking the silence with no hesitation. "Before the... accident."

"All right. We're listening."

Speirs lowers his voice, so that Babe almost falls over straining to hear his low murmur.

"We had other traveling companions. Army. Out of Fort Campbell."

"Fort Campbell?" Harry asks sharply. "Kentucky, that's not far from here. You mean it's still standing?"

"They were on a mission. When we met them, they weren't in contact with the base."

"What happened?" Babe blurts without thinking.

Four sets of eyes snap to him, and Babe's ass muscles clench in a split-second reaction of pure terror.

"Aww, Babe," groans Harry, "What are you doing still out in the rain? Where's Gene?"

"I dunno, he ain't my babysitter," Babe replies hotly, struggling to his feet. His arm and leg twinge in protest. "And I wanna know! What happened to Fort Campbell? Ain't that like, the biggest, baddest motherfucker of all military bases?"

"One of them," Harry agrees. "Home of the 101st Airborne."

Babe stares at him, not understanding the reference. "Eh?"

Harry stares back. "You know, the Screaming Eagles? One of the most highly decorated units in history?"

Babe has no idea what he's talking about. "Nah, man, I thought ya meant the motorcycle for a second-"

"We'll have time for a history lesson later," Winter interrupts. "Sorry. Speirs, please continue?"

Speirs has his arms crossed, and for a second his heated glare reminds Babe a lot of Bryan, who ain't stopped lookin' at Babe like dogshit he's scraped from the bottom of his shoe, even now.

Speirs sighs. "It was only a few days after D-Day. Their chopper had crashed and there were- only a few of them had survived. They'd been on a retrieval mission. Looking for survivors."

"It's been almost a month since D-Day," says Winters sharply. "That's all the Army is doing? Just looking for survivors?"

"That was their squad's mission, at that point they hadn't been briefed on much else. But Fort Campbell was still standing at the time, and if it's still standing now..."

"Wait, wait." Lipton frowns at him. "Where are they now?"

Speirs wipes a hand over his face. "We got separated shortly after."

"Oh."

Winters looks troubled. Babe keeps his mouth shut, even though a million questions are buzzing around in his head. An Army base? Just one state over? Why hadn't they just gone straight there? How come they hadn't heard about this?

"It's something," Winters says thoughtfully. "Let's say we go, and they are operational, a safe place. Would they split us up? Take our weapons? Would they even let civilians in to stay?"

Speirs shakes his head. Babe can see a small smile on his face; it looks strangely out of place in such a serious discussion. "Maybe not any old civilians, but... I could get us in."

Babe isn't the only one staring at him in confusion: Harry's mouth is even slightly open as he gapes at Speirs.

"What are you saying?" Winters asks quietly.

"I'm saying," Spiers replies calmly, "That before New York, before working for Luz- I was an officer in the United States Army. And I can get us in."

Chapter Text

Part Two

”Hitman Two, this is Hitman Two One, how copy?”

Hitman Two One, this is Hitman Two Actual, reading you Five. Send your traffic, over.

“Hitman Two, we have enemy contact, six biters in Sector Four, ten o’clock, one klick, over."

Hitman Two One, this is Two Actual, you are cleared hot. Light ‘em up.

“Roger that. Lighting ‘em up. Out.”

**

“You know what this is? This is fucking bullshit, is what this is, homes.”

The scope of Sergeant Brad Colbert’s M4 picks up nothing but smoldering Infected remains as he scans the horizon. The most action they’ve seen in a week, and it’s over in ten seconds.

Brad definitely knows what this is. This is a waste of fucking resources.

“We’re out here on Whiskey Zulu patrol every fucking day. We're sitting in puddles of our own ball sweat, in this crappy excuse for a vehicle that smells like a zombie colon exploded in a public latrine, while those useless dicksucks in Command HQ sit back and drink Earl Gray with their fucking pinkies up each other’s asses! And for what?”

Brad’s finger twitches against the side of the trigger, itching to pull it.

An entire company of top-of-the-food-chain recon Marines, dangerous killing machines with years of active duty tours under their belts, doing nothing but this whiskey tango equivalent of target practice.

It’s all just so goddamn homosexual.

“For what, Brad! All so those dope-smoking, half-caff chai latte-loving San-Fran liberal pussy hipsters can eat all our food, piss in our water, and shit without having to worry about being chewed on mid-wipe? Fuck that shit.”

Corporal Ray Person’s bitching began the moment he started the engine of the Humvee at oh six hundred, and he hasn’t stopped for a breath since. It is now nearing the eighteen hundred mark and Brad’s ears are starting to grow numb.

"This is worse than fucking Baghdad, homes,” Ray continues, unfazed as always by Brad ignoring him. “At least over there, we had real action. I’d donate three inches of my dick to charity for a bunch of Hajis to come over that hill right now, screaming radical jibberish.”

It sounds like Ray’s gearing up for another chorus of Remember How Fucked Up and Awesome Iraq Was sentimentality, so Brad decides to comment.

“Ray, if you donated three whole inches of that shriveled little lump of foreskin you call a dick, you’d have nothing left to fuck Garza’s goat herd with. What are you going to do with all that extra time you’ll free up?”

Ray groans. “Garza’s fucking goat milk gives me the shits, man, no joke. It’s rough. Did I tell you he’s trying to make cheese? Got that farmer baby Walt helping him out. The barn smells like goat shit and road-kill intestine juice now.”

Brad glances to his nine. Ray’s face gets all lit up when he mentions the little baby-faced hick corporal that’s assisting Garza with care of the livestock.

It’s the gayest thing Brad has ever seen.

“Anyway, don’t knock a foreskin till you’ve tried having the girl giving you a BJ stick her tongue underneath it and suck at the same time. Oh, wait. Oh, my bad, Brad, I forgot you don’t have one so you’ll never fucking know.

Static bursts over the comms, finally shutting Ray up.

Hitman Two One, this is Hitman Two, over.

Brad straightens a little in his seat at the sound of the LT’s voice. In the driver’s seat, Ray shoots up and fumbles excitedly with the radio handset like it’s the first time he’s ever used one.

Brad makes sure his sigh of contempt is loud enough for Ray to hear.

“Standing by to copy, over,” Ray says into the comm. He turns to Brad with a shit-eating grin on his face. “LT to the fuckin’ rescue, homes!”

Brad can’t help but smile back. His stomach rumbles hungrily in anticipation of what’s waiting for them back at mess.

Two One, be advised, patrol relief is now Oscar Mike, and will be reaching you in ten Mikes. Have Two One Alpha report to me before chow, over.

“Copy that.” Ray pauses, then smirks. “Hitman Two, interrogative – any word on the menu for tonight? Over.”

Brad smirks as well as a long pause follows. Fucking Ray.

When the comms crackle to life again, there is a hint of exasperation in the LT’s voice. “Hitman Two One, Battalion HQ has offered no sit-rep as to chow status. Get your asses back here. Out.

Ray flips off the radio and stretches with a long groan. “Man, it’s about fucking time. Yesterday, too. Fucking two hours longer than our shift was supposed to be. Probably those POGs that came in last week, must’ve blown up another engine.”

He looks pleased when Brad snorts in amusement.

Brad utilizes their remaining ten minutes on Infected patrol– or Whiskey Zulu for “Zombie Watch”, as first termed by some idiot in Alpha—by doing one last sweep of the hills surrounding the camp. Beside him, Ray is blessedly silent and doing the same with his binoculars.

Despite it being hidden beneath layers of Ripped-Fuel-induced verbal diarrhea, Ray has a point. Brad takes advantage of the silence to analyze the point further.

Their talents are being wasted out here in the vast wastelands of the California desert. Battalion SOP apparently hasn’t changed since Operation Iraqi Freedom. This much is loud and clear.

It’s not like they have an army of Infected banging on their door. Heat doesn’t seem to affect the Infected in any way other than simply make them smell like the inside of a sewer filled with used tampons, but with the ocean on one side of the camp and endless stretches of desert on the other, few of the things even bother to venture out this far.

However, every day their numbers stretch with weeping civilians, useless POGs, and trigger-happy stragglers from other military branches, and the only ones Godfather trusts to protect their asses are his golden boys, the 1st Recon Battalion.

It would be something to feel proud about, if said protection wasn’t just 10 hour shifts patrolling empty fucking desert, playing rock-paper-scissors to see who gets to shoot the few biters that dare to show up.

The first week of this shit-storm had been fine. Hell, better than fine, it had been fucking spectacular. A few days preceding D-Day, Brad had been called in with the rest of First Recon before any other Battalion. After receiving their revised orders in time of emergency, he and Poke had spearheaded missions into the nearest cities, to evaluate their new threat and organize civilian evacs.

It had been no Al Gharraf, but Brad still remembers the beautiful feeling in his gut upon first contact with those things. The Infected. Zombies, biters, walkers, undead-- whatever they were.

He’d been leading point, clearing an office building in the middle of the night with Ray and Trombley at his six, line of sight lit by the comforting green of his NVG’s. Trombley had been the last to call clear as he exited the remaining side office, before he broke silence with a loud scream.

How that idiot had passed BRC training was one of the many mysteries of the universe. Brad had a moment to contemplate this as his bullet found its home in the skull of the rotting thing appearing from the supposedly clear side office, ripping into Trombley’s neck from behind.

Trombley was the first of many casualties that long night, but none of the other fallen recon Marines’ deaths had been even half as colossally retarded as Lance Corporal James Trombley’s.

Rest in fucking peace.

Nevertheless. Besides the pain his subordinate’s ineptitude had caused- he may have been an idiot, but he was still a Marine- Brad had almost enjoyed himself.

His contemplation is interrupted by the sight of movement in the distance. Ray whoops loudly, the sudden noise making every muscle in Brad’s body contract for a millisecond.

“Yo, took you guys long enough!” Ray shouts out his open window as the new arrivals slow to a halt beside their Humvee.

“Sorry, bro,” calls out the driver, who’s wearing Air Force colors. Of course. “Bit of a mixup. We’re here now, right?”

Brad doesn’t recognize him, but that’s no surprise, since Brad has recently developed an allergy to learning the names of anyone outside of First Recon.

“Whatever, enjoy your nighttime Whiskey Zulu,” yells Ray. “Call me when you fucking piss your pants with fright and accidentally shoot a coyote.”

“Hey, fuck you, bro!”

“No dice, homes, that coyote already called dibs on you, and I don’t do sloppy seconds.”

Ray drives off quickly, no doubt wanting the last word. The evening air washes over Brad and he grins, cheek pressing into the cool metal of his rifle.

“Since when do you not do sloppy seconds?” he asks Ray.

Ray just blows him a raspberry and starts up the first line of Sexual Healing.

**

“It’s been a week since we’ve had any contact. Seems our clearing of the nearby cities did some good,” says Lieutenant Nate Fick. “All that to say- great job today, Sergeant Colbert.”

“Thank you, sir, but even the most buttfuck POG we have could’ve done what we did out there.”

The LT sighs, and Brad is confident that another bullshit moto speech about The Greater Good is on the tip of his tongue.

As much as he privately enjoys speaking with the LT, right now Brad is just way too hungry to endure another one of those.

Recently, even the LT seems tired of his own words. He hasn’t even put in the effort to mix in any new metaphors.

But nothing follows the sigh this time, so Brad leans against a shelf as the LT begins to pace the length of his small quarters. He keeps biting down on his lower lip, and it swells blood red against the pressure of his teeth.

Brad carefully readjusts his gaze to fall anywhere but on that mouth.

“I know what you’re feeling, Sergeant,” the LT says, finally. “I’m not deaf, and I’m not stupid. I’ve taken this up with Battalion CO too many times to count, but every time it’s a no-go. Godfather wants you out there, even if that means his best men spend their whole day twiddling their thumbs in the September heat.”

Huh.

Well, Brad agrees that the LT’s not deaf and most certainly not stupid, but Brad never thought he’d get him to admit that Godfather’s decision-making skills have been questionable of late.

It’s also highly probable that the bags under the LT’s eyes have been growing darker at such an exponential rate because Brad won’t stop bringing this subject up.

If Brad were a lesser man, he might feel guilty. Instead, he straightens his body and takes a step forward.

“If I may, sir,” says Brad pleasantly, “Perhaps Godfather simply isn’t aware of the newest additions to our ranks. I hear a fresh batch of Squids was delivered to our doorstep just this morning, sir. ”

For the first time since Brad stepped through the door, the LT cracks a half-smile. “Don’t call them that, Brad. ”

“I’m afraid I don’t know what you mean, sir.”

“You-“

The LT licks his lips and visibly struggles to stop smiling. To keep himself from staring inappropriately, Brad focuses on the LT’s forehead, and the beads of sweat collecting there. The room has still retained some of the heat of the late afternoon, and the new lockdown on generator use only allows for the use of air conditioning between eleven hundred and fifteen hundred.

Brad’s own back is drenched with sweat and he tries not to think of how he must smell. Marines make do.

“Yes, Godfather has been made aware of the newcomers from Naval Base San Diego. The fact that only 64 of them survived is a tragedy he made a point to acknowledge at the briefing this afternoon.”

“And I am certain he addressed the influx of Chair Force refugees in equal measure, sir,” says Brad without inflection.

Brad.

The LT sounds exasperated, but Brad can see his mouth twist against the urge to smile again. The sight gives him a small measure of satisfaction.

“We knew this would happen. We have the room, we have the resources, and we’ve been upfront from the start about our intentions to run this camp as a safe haven for any survivors. The men like to complain under their breaths, and that’s fine, but I’m relying on you as platoon leader to keep it that way.”

“Keep the bitching to a minimum. Roger that, sir.”

Those bags under the LT’s eyes continue to grab Brad’s attention. The LT notices.

“Anything else you’d like to report before you attend to that growling stomach, Brad?” he asks.

"I don’t wish to overstep, sir,” Brad lies.

He takes a step closer. The LT’s eyes widen an infinitesimal fraction.

“But if you, one of the only sane, competent officers left to command this camp, are not getting proper shuteye, and your health fails as a direct result…”

One more step and Brad will be right up in the LT’s personal space. Brad takes it.

“…Then not only will we as an entire company be fucked, we will be fucked in the ass, sans lube, in front of hundreds of sub-par certified Special Ed POGs. You will be directly responsible for the most painful dry-docking spectacle of the 21st century, which POGs camp-wide will gossip about while they suck each other’s cocks under cover of night. The Legend of Camp Pendelton. It will live longer than we will.”

The LT’s eyes are so wide he could pass for a Keane painting. It’s discomfiting to see up close.

“Solid copy, Sergeant Colbert,” the LT says, low. Brad can feel the slight puff of his breath, warm on his chin. He refocuses this time on the slim curve of the LT’s ear. “Although I don’t see how planting such vivid imagery in my head is supposed to help me sleep better.”

Brad likes the way the LT’s eyes flash down to his mouth whenever he smiles, and so he smiles now, wide and toothy. As if on cue, the LT’s gaze dips down, then back up.

“Permission to leave now, sir," Brad says.

“Granted, Sergeant," says the LT. "Get some food in you. Movie night’s being held at twenty hundred.”

Brad says, “Oo-fucking-rah, sir.”

**

Brad’s cleared every Psych Eval the Corp has forced him through, but he’s still pretty sure Iraq fucked him the fuck up.

He doesn't wake up from nightmares drenched in sweat, or dive to the ground whenever a car backfires. The first night back on US soil, he hired a whore with wide green eyes and a beautiful cocksucking mouth, drained a six-pack, and slept like a baby.

No. He understands why some men suffer PTSD, and he holds nothing against them for it, but he just simply isn’t built that way. He’s the Iceman, after all.

What he, the Iceman, could not have predicted, however, was what he did bring home from Iraq, and that is the inability to satisfactorily jerk off indoors.

Oh, he has no problem with fucking indoors. He did a lot of that, the first few weeks back. Nothing wrong with the plumbing.

It was only when he was in the shower one morning after his run, lazily stroking himself as the warm water beat down on his back, that he’d flashed back one of his particularly spectacular combat jacks.

He distanced himself from the Humvee, behind some sad excuse for a bush, already half-hard in anticipation, when the LT called him over.

Brad stood and listened, watched the LT’s mouth move, his intent expression under that helmet that somehow always looked stupidly big for him, and went from half-hard to hard as nails before he fully understood why.

When he finally got to take himself in hand, moving the lube roughly up and down his dick, Yasmine and her beautiful big tits were replaced by soft, dirtied lips and long-fingered hands.

Bracing a hand against the shower tiles, he’d thrust frantically into his fist, orgasm hitting him fast and hard at the memory, and after that—well. He was well and truly ruined for jerking off in the shower.

Or his bed, for that matter, or his couch; even hotel rooms.

None of the shrinks he saw ever heard about it, he’s made sure to never mention it, but sometimes he’s genuinely worried.

Which is why, now, despite having a perfectly good bunk, he’s leaned up against the side of a pre-fab, breathing harshly.

Dust stings his nostrils, but he’s rock hard and panting into the fist not around his dick, forehead pressed firmly against the side of the building, and it’s good. It’s really fucking good.

The smell of the air isn’t the same, but that doesn’t matter. There’s sand in his boots and his skin still smells like gunpowder, and it’s enough.

His hand can feel like someone else’s if he concentrates, the fingers slim and unfamiliar as they slide over the head of his dick and he can just imagine what those lips would feel like wrapped around-

“Brad?”

Fuck, Nate.

Brad jerks and silently comes all over his hand.

“Oh. Shit. Thought that was you.”

The LT looks embarrassed, which confuses Brad for a moment, still lost in a post-coital haze.

Then he realizes that although they are technically in an active war zone, combat jacks can still be held in privacy. Indoors.

Of course the LT is thrown for a loop.

Brad refuses to feel embarrassed as he tucks himself back into his uniform and wipes the cum off his fingers with a wet wipe.

“Not watching the movie either, I see," he says. "Not a Bruce Willis fan, sir?”

The LT shrugs, but maintains eye contact. His initial embarrassment appears to have faded quickly.

“I’ve seen it," the LT says. "Once is enough.”

“I assume your taste runs more toward cinematic masterpieces like Straight Outta Compton, sir," says Brad.

It’s a joke, and the LT half-smiles in acknowledgment. “Hard not to appreciate a tasteful documentary.”

“With your ringing endorsement, maybe the director’s next work will feature the glorious work we’re doing here. Straight Outta Oceanside.”

“As long as Jay-Z’s on the soundtrack.”

The LT turns to walk back to his quarters, and Brad falls easily into place beside him. The aftereffects of his combat jack haven’t left him yet, and he feels languid and loose as they walk in silence.

“I slept on the floor for a week after we got back,” says the LT out of the blue.

Brad doesn’t reply, just thinks back to how he’d thrown his pillows off his bed the second he’d returned home. Both times.

They stop in front of the LT’s building. Brad waits for him to go inside, but he doesn’t immediately.

Instead, he looks into Brad’s eyes for almost a full Mike, firm and serious. His pale skin reflects the moonlight in a way that makes him look almost naturally iridescent, makes Brad’s fingers ache to touch him.

The mere thought is so fucking gay that Brad wants to punch someone in the face.

“I’m just saying… I get it,” the LT finishes simply.

Brad doesn’t reply, because he knows the LT doesn’t expect him to.

 

**

“Brad! Yo, Brad, wait up!”

Brad continues to walk out of the mess hall, keeping his strides long. This does not deter Ray, who jogs up behind him.

“Morning, Brad.”

Brad grunts. He’s assigned to Whiskey Zulu with Poke at oh nine hundred, so he sees no good reason for why Ray is so anxious to speak with him.

“Did you fucking hear, homes? Scuttlebutt is Godfather’s taking First Recon off Whiskey Zulu!”

This is enough to give him pause. He stops walking so abruptly that Ray runs straight into him like the inbred moron that he is.

“And where, exactly,” Brad says slowly, “Did you get this valuable intel, Corporal Person?”

Ray runs around to stand in front of him. He has the remains of scrambled eggs all around the edges of his mouth and his eyes glow with excitement.

It’s an infuriating sight, but Brad restrains himself from commenting.

“I had to jerk off an officer, but it was fucking worth it, yo!”

He doesn’t believe Ray for a second, and so he starts walking again. Same old bullshit everyday. Someone heard from someone’s brother’s boyfriend’s whore that Battalion was finally getting their shit together. Brad won’t believe it until the moment he receives word from the LT himself.

“I’m serious Brad, it’s the real deal this time! Godfather arranged an emergency briefing at oh seven hundred today-“

“Ray, stop wasting my time. That briefing was about our lack of medical personnel.”

Ray runs around to stand in front of him again, forcing him to stop walking. This is getting tedious.

“Well, I’m not surprised the Iceman’s already heard about this, although I’m a little hurt that I had to waste my best handjob tricks to hear about it myself,” says Ray, not looking hurt in the slightest. He is visibly vibrating with glee.

Brad attempts to start walking again.

“Okay, okay, okay! I’m serious, Brad, we’re going out to find us a Doc!”

That actually sounds legitimate. Brad is almost ready to believe him, so he stops and squints up at the bright blue sky; feels himself smile.

Ray whoops and claps him on the shoulder. “See, I told you it was legit! Hey, look, there’s the LT, he’s probably wants to tell you himself. Straight from the fucking horse’s mouth!”

“Speaking of fucking horses,” says Brad, tracking the LT’s movement towards them, “Don’t you have a date with Bessie over in the barn, Ray? She won’t take kindly to you ditching her to suck some officer’s cock.”

“Whatever, Brad, just remember– you heard it from your pal Ray-Ray first!”

Ray skips off to lick Hasser’s ass or whatever it is he does before assigned patrol. Brad stands in the middle of the street and waits patiently for the LT to stroll towards him.

“Morning, Sergeant Colbert,” he says.

His soft cover makes him look more like a twelve year old on a field trip than the competent thirty-something officer that he is. It’s fucking adorable.

Brad nods. “Sir.”

“You and Sergeant Espera are being taken off Sector Ten today,” says the LT, and Brad detects a hint of a smile. “You are to trade your oh nine hundred with Petty Officers Johnson and Lester.”

“Sir?”

“All other First Recon personnel designated for patrol today have also been swapped with replacements," the LT continues. "Inform your men that, instead, a briefing will be held at oh nine hundred in Building H.”

An actual smile spreads across the LT’s face, and it is goddamn beautiful.

“It worked, Brad," he says. "Godfather listened.”

Brad’s heart skips a beat, and his dick swells in his camis. Motherfucker.

“LT, if I believed in your Christian God, I’d say you were a goddamn miracle worker.”

The LT actually laughs. Brad hasn’t heard that sound in far too long, and lets himself revel in it.

“Don’t thank me yet, Sergeant. We have a lot of work to do. Spread the word. Oh nine hundred sharp.”

“Wilco, sir.”

Brad snaps off a salute, and the LT shakes his head in amusement as he walks away.

They’re about to fucking get some.

Chapter Text

Chapter 12 - D-Day + 26

The way Ray spits onto the wires of Nate’s comms, wires he’s holding between his bare naked fingers, makes Nate feel incredibly uncomfortable. It always has.

He’s never sure what to do. Wants to hover, prepared for the moment Ray inevitably gets shocked, yet also aware that he should just keep his distance, let Ray do his job as—as Brad puts it—the best motherfucking RTO in existence.

Well. That may be a slight exaggeration. He's taken some liberty with the words, based entirely on Sergeant Colbert’s tone of voice whenever the subject arises. Proud and fond; often sarcastic, but never mocking.

It’s just his way, feelings professed in a complex language that Nate’s far from fluent in.

The language of Brad Colbert is a linguistic field of buried landmines that would take decades of immersive study, strategic planning, and the mind of a genius to navigate masterfully. Most of the time, Nate feel likes he’s holding an Idiot’s Guide in one hand and a dictionary in the other, a helpless tourist in a foreign country.

It’s not a feeling he likes.

Ray hawks loudly, and Nate watches him carefully to make sure he isn’t lubricating the mess of wires with his tobacco-brown phlegm. No matter how good an RTO Ray may be, even Nate knows that’s a bad idea.

Ray spits onto the ground outside the Humvee.

“Sir, may I presume to ask why the fuck command keeps deciding to fuck with the fucking frequencies, sir?” he asks.

Nate clears his throat. Here we go again. “Battalion Command has assured me that it is the most tactically sound way of preventing possible enemy interference, Corporal. Same as any other war,” he tells Ray, and then adds quickly, “I am assured of this.”

“Uh huh, okay, sir,” Ray says, but his expression remains doubtful. “Um, interrogative, sir, is it even a logistical or biological possibility that in this war, the enemy—that is, sir, the zombies-- will be interested or even capable of—“

“We don’t call them zombies, Corporal,” Nate reminds him gently. “They are the Infected.”

“—yessir, sorrysir, the Infected, are we to expect armies of them to fucking just randomly hack into our frequency and decipher our code, sir?”

Nate knows Ray only uses this many honorifics with his superior officers when he’s angry. He can see it now in Ray’s movements, jerky and harsh as he snaps a piece of plastic back into place, even if his tone of voice is almost pleasant.

Nate was the first to voice this same doubt during a briefing back in the early days of The Infection. Godfather had shot him down immediately, looking disappointed.

He doesn’t tell Ray this.

“It’s our job to adhere to SOP,” he says instead. “Nothing will ever be solved by wasting time and brain power questioning our orders. We have to remember, we can’t see the bigger picture.”

Ray mutters something derogatory under his breath, spitting again, haphazard. Nate pretends not to hear him.

Around them, marines weave in and out of the motor pool, slapping backs and shaking hands. The Humvees are loaded and ready for rollout, and now all that’s left is goodbyes. Nate spots Brad in the distance, exiting Building Q with a rolled up magazine and a roll of toilet paper.

He flashes back to accidentally catching the finale of Brad’s combat jack two nights ago, and then desperately tries to think of anything else.

After a while, Ray speaks again.

“Relays are still fucked, I’m guessing nationwide," he says. "I’ve matched our frequencies with Alpha and Charlie, but once we split up it’ll probably be touch and go. Definite neg on any long distance communication, which means no contact with HQ without a SAT. Once we’re Oscar Mike I’ll see what I can do about contact with any bases we hit on our way up.”

“Thank you, Corporal,” Nate says. It’s what he’d suspected, but Ray doesn’t sound defeated, so maybe there’s hope. “I’ll be calling on you again.”

Ray climbs out of the driver’s seat and tosses him a wink. It appears his anger has dissipated.

“Feel free to call on Ray-Ray any time you like, sir," he says.

Nate bites his tongue against a smile and simply nods. Ray saunters off, offering one last saucy wink over his shoulder as he disappears into the maze of vehicles.

“’Bout time to get this show on the road, don’t you think,” says a voice from behind him, and a hand lands heavily on Nate’s shoulder. He turns to find Bryan Patterson of Alpha grinning at him, wide and happy.

“See you on the other side, Captain,” Nate says, respectfully grasping his proffered right hand. “It’s been an honor.”

“Nate, c’mon, you know that’s bullshit,” Patterson says with huff of laughter. “I told you I don’t intend to live through this. And we’ve shared cramped quarters for over a month now, least you can do is call me by my God-given name.”

Nate can’t help but laugh with him. It’s either that or scream. “You know what I mean, sir- Bryan.”

“Yeah. I do.” Patterson lets go of his hand and salutes him once, crisply. Nate’s taken aback, but returns the salute. “And I feel the same, for what it’s worth.”

“Thank you, sir. Bryan." he replies. Then, "You feel good about this?”

He shouldn’t question, shouldn't acknowledge the shadowy doubt creeping in the back of his mind, but he can’t help it, and they’re out of earshot of everyone else anyway.

Patterson shrugs. “You know, as far as suicide missions tossed to us by Godfather go, I actually have a little faith in this. My men are more than capable—hell, Alpha cleared Fallbrook, Bonsall, and even most of Vista with only three casualties and no help from you chicken shits, either.”

“And—McGraw?” Nate says, cautiously.

A loud snort is his only reply.

“I’m serious, sir!” Nate hisses, drawing him in closer. “I was fucking worried for Third Platoon in Iraq, and I’m fucking worried for you now, having to team up with him. How that man has survived, much less stayed in command, is something I lose sleep over. If Captain Schwetje-”

“We shouldn’t even be with these men,” Patterson interrupts, low. Like he knows what Nate was going to say. “Fuck, they’d all be better off if they were allowed to operate the way Recon Marines are supposed to, without us officers bogging them down. But now thanks to OIF and this Charlie Foxtrot of a situation, it’s SOP and we can’t do anything about it.”

“Yeah. Yeah, I know.” Nate says, then sighs and scrubs at his face. It’s been barely 5 hours since he took his morning shower and already his skin is rough with grime. “Well... Godspeed.”

“To you too, brother,” Patterson says.

Nate watches him walk away with a sinking feeling in his gut.

**

The fact that 2nd Platoon is acting solo in this upcoming mission doesn’t bother him. Godfather had specifically dictated his wish for Nate to lead them in a search for medical personnel, either military or civilian, which meant them breaking off from Alpha, Charlie, and the rest of Bravo company, who had been assigned clearing missions for the rest of the neighboring cities.

The men of 2nd Platoon had strutted around camp after their initial briefing, rubbing their balls in the faces of the other Marines, boasting about how they were gonna do some real shit. What they were trained for.

In turn, the others jeered back at his men, joking that Godfather was babying them, protecting them from the Big Bad lying in wait in Anaheim and San Diego.

It was all in good taste, he knows, and everyone seemed satisfied with their missions. Anything to get off patrol, get their hands dirty.

What worries him is that Godfather has done nothing about the previous actions of Captain Dave McGraw, who managed to get five men in his platoon killed by Infected on D-Day, due to losing his head in the field. With Schwetje somehow managing to withdraw from their current mission, now Dave and Gunnery Sergeant Ray Griego (Nate has to struggle not to think of him as Casey Kasem) are sharing command of Bravo.

It makes Nate sick to his stomach.

Godfather seemed assured that they would get the job done. Thus, Nate should also feel assured.

Nate does not feel assured of this.

**

Neither Dave nor Casey Kasem (Dammit, Fick) come anywhere near him before rollout. Nate has shaken the hands of most of Alpha, Bravo, and Charlie— still about a hundred and change recon marines, despite the losses they’ve taken since D-Day—but has seen neither hide nor hair of either officers.

It makes the knot in his stomach tighten.

He walks to their lead vehicle, without any real reason to speak with Brad besides the wish to ease his feeling of helplessness. He finds that Sergeant Espera has already beaten him to it.

Espera’s leaning against Brad’s side of the Humvee, looking contemplative.

“…But you know what really fucks with my head, dawg?” he is saying as Nate draws closer.

“Enlighten me,” Brad drawls from inside the Humvee.

“We spend all day and all night shooting these cholos, but any day we could all suddenly switch sides. Boom, just like that. I just think, like, dawg, isn’t that fucking crazy? We can hate on these motherfuckers all we want, but in the blink of an eye, I could turn on you and then suddenly I’m the motherfucker you gotta shoot.”

“You’d think that by now you’d be comfortable with the ideology behind switching sides, Poke, considering the way you've happily disowned your filthy spic brothers.”

“Shut up, white boy, don't you have a bland tuna casserole to bake?” Poke spots Nate and nods respectfully. “Hey, LT, we Oscar Mike soon? My boys are getting antsy, sir.”

“Should have the go-ahead within ten Mikes. Prepare your Victor, have comm links open and ready to receive.”

Poke touches his soft cover in a lazy salute and taps the side of the Humvee once. Nate hears Brad grunt in acknowledgment.

"Brad," Nate says.

"Sir," replies Brad.

Nate leans up against the Humvee, mimicking Poke. Brad's eyes flick up from the map on the screen of his Blue Force Tracker and land solidly on him.

His gaze feels like an electric shock. Nate makes sure not to let Brad see any reaction.

"Good to go?" Nate asks.

They stayed up late last night, he, Brad, Mike, and Espera-- poring over maps, arguing logistics, strategies. Their mission is mapped out to the finest detail. There's no need to talk about it further, only the need to get the fuck out of Pendelton.

Brad knows this, just as well as Nate. Still, he says nothing, just nods and leans out the window, elbow on the sill. His expectant eyes never stray from Nate's face. Under the bright summer sky, they are two glowing orbs of blue fire.

Beside him, Ray has his sunglasses on. His body is at an awkward angle as he stretches half of it out his window, sunning his face and neck.

It takes a large measure of self-control to hide his smile. Brad's eyes tell him he didn't manage all the way.

Nate wants to say a lot of things. He wants to tell Brad that last night wasn't the first time he's seen him angle his body against a building or fence outside, thrusting into his fist. Wants to tell him that sometimes Brad's an abstract figure in Nate's dreams.

Maybe tell him he wouldn't be back in the Corps if it weren't for Brad.

Godfather had called him personally, informing him of what he was planning for First Recon, the unusual circumstances. Everything leading to offering Nate his place in the team back. His place in the recon family.

Nate had looked over at the mess of paperwork on his desk, the plane ticket to New England, and thought of Brad fighting those things and not knowing of Brad's fate. Possibly ever.

He'd accepted with only a moment's hesitation.

Nate becomes aware that Brad is still expectantly leaning out the window, watching him struggle internally.

"I'm expecting excellence today, gentlemen," he says instead.

Brad's eyebrows rise slightly.

Nate clears his throat and says, "Remember, the quicker we get this done, the quicker we get back here."

Ray pulls his upper body back into the Humvee and snorts. "LT, is that supposed to be some sort of incentive, sir? 'cuz if so that's the most fucking retarded-"

"What Corporal Person means to say, sir," Brad says, smoothly interrupting and shoving blindly at Ray, "Is that you're letting loose a platoon of stir-crazy recon marines. We'll get the job done, but no one's eager to be back here for at least a good two weeks."

Whenever Brad smiles, it's always with a flash of teeth so white they gleam brightly. Even at night. He bares them now in a grin that could be predatory.

Nate feels his gaze pulled down as though magnetized.

"Duly noted, Sergeant," he says.

Brad's smile is almost hypnotic. Nate takes in the way his lips curl, the way his eyes crinkle at the edges. Little details like the faint smattering of freckles on his nose, from near constant sun exposure.

He thinks about how Brad had looked two nights ago, loose and lazy in the moonlight.

(He'd thought about how Brad would taste, then; a fleeting thought that had burned him from the inside out.)

The crackle of the comms interrupts his line of thought like a godsend.

"Hitman Two One, this is Hitman Two, I need Hitman Two Actual on the line, over," Mike's voice drawls.

The motor pool suddenly hums with sound as the engines of Alpha, Bravo, and Charlie Humvees roar to life almost in unison. Brad passes Nate the comm. Nate confirms with Mike what he already knows from the spike of his heartbeat.

They're Oscar Mike.

**

He's still not used to the sight of deserted streets and abandoned cars. When they pass through Fallbrook, which they'd cleared weeks ago, the sound of engines and debris crunching under tires echoes off empty houses.

The silence is eerie.

There's no movement, other than a few stray dogs digging through the smoldering, blackened piles of bodies littered throughout the city, left by Alpha on their last visit. Neon lights flicker in empty bar windows, no longer inviting.

They drive past lawns dark with old blood. There's a broken pink tricycle, lying on its side. A raven balances on a glittery handlebar, a ripped flip-flop clutched in its beak. When they pass, it flies off in a flurry of glossy black wings, cawing as though offended.

When they turn onto I-15, Nate opens comms to remind his men to be on the alert. They're driving out of the cleared perimeter of Pendleton: no man's land from here on out.

The back of his neck is hot under the sun; he'll probably burn. Through the scope of his M16, he carefully scans every vehicle they pass.

They drive slowly around overturned trucks and scattered personal belongings, the occasional torn and bloody corpse. A little ways down, they pass a lone shoe with large stains, abandoned on the side of the road.

In the back of his mind, Nate distantly wonders how the owner died. If it'd been a slow, painful death; lonely, under the hot Mojave sun. Maybe a trucker, just doing his job, swerving to avoid a limping, growling monster on the road. Thrown from his seat on impact.

Possibly dragged out of the window as he pleaded for his life, words fading unheard into the dry air.

Nate shakes himself, once, trying to clear the image from his mind.

"You good?" Mike asks. Nate hears concern in his voice.

"Just thinking," he says. "It's all fucked up, Mike."

"I know, Nate," says Mike. "But we'll get through this okay. Our boys are too good to lose this war."

"How do you know?" Nate asks him quietly. "What if we're on the losing side, this time?"

He's aware of Stafford and Christenson, alert in the back. He shouldn't be voicing his thoughts like this, not in front of his men. He hopes they can't hear; a glance in the rear view mirror reveals that they're not singing anymore, instead concentrating on scanning the terrain.

"I guess we'll find out, won't we?" Mike says, voice equally quiet.

**

Godfather has changed the ROE for this mission: under Nate's jurisdiction, any open area like the interstate they're moving down now is a free-fire zone. In Godfather's opinion, no human survivor is going to wander aimlessly around in the open- not now, over a month into the apocalypse. Not unless they were fucking stupid.

Nate personally feels that someone desperate enough, someone starving and scared in a city overrun by Infected, may possibly risk exposing their position long enough to search for an abandoned vehicle with a working battery. Enough gas to get them the fuck out of the city.

And this freeway is fucking clogged with abandoned vehicles.

The knowledge that under the new ROE, one of his men could unknowingly shoot a survivor, thinking they were one of the Infected, weighs heavily on him.

**

The first shot rings out as they drive past the exit to Temecula. It comes from ahead, possibly Brad's vehicle. Nate checks through his scope. Up ahead to the right, a body falls to the ground.

The knot in his stomach releases a fraction when he sees the torn, mangled skin on a disjointed arm, how it almost seems to hang off the bone.

Not human.

When they reach more populated areas, he knows the distinction will be much less clear. He won't have the time to check every single body. He tries not to think about it.

More shots ring out.

Behind him, Stafford yells, "Screwby!" The rat-tat-tat of his M16 on full auto mingles with his whoops.

Through his scope, Nate watches two more rotting bodies fall. He wonders idly what Eugene Stoner would've thought, seeing the weapon he developed used in this way.

Probably would've been damn proud.

Spying movement a few hundred yards out, he takes a moment to check for viable life signs; finding nothing but staggered steps and decaying flesh, he fires.

A perfect headshot.

He feels nothing but the knot in his stomach loosening further as the thing collapses to the ground, the contents of its head spraying out over the sand.

One down; millions to go.

**

The drive to Edwards Air Force Base that should've taken less than three hours is taking them five hours and counting, and they're not even halfway to their objective. Nate commands all Victors not to slow their vehicles, but it's difficult to maintain a steady pace when every few hundred yards they have to maneuver around abandoned cars and trucks.

An enormous pileup at Murrieta Juncture forces them to detour off I-215, adding even more hours onto their drive. Frustrated, Nate quotes Neptune's Daughter at Mike, who again just eyes him with what looks like concern:

"To detour is to take the bad road when the good road is unavailable."

**

Rifle fire is near-constant every time they near an exit. Near Eastvale is the worst, so thick with Infected that Nate almost has them turn around, take the 91 through Riverside instead.

Not that the 91 would've been much better. Previous Nighthawks reports had stated that Riverside had been overrun weeks ago. They're safer staying on the interstate- at least it's wide open, easier to spot enemy targets.

The reports are confirmed when they turn back onto the I-215 and wind through Riverside. Smoke is thick in the air, billowing from distant buildings. Half the city has crumpled into ash and debris, but the streets visible from the freeway are alive with a mess of slow-moving bodies.

They drive on.

**

Nate has seen the Santa Ana River a number of times, even camped there once. There was a small bicycle trail that he'd jogged along, watching the sun rise over the distant mountains.

Then, the river had been small but beautiful, water running clear. Now, it's a deep, oily brown, and even from far away it smells like a sewer.

Nate closes his eyes, briefly, and doesn't look again.

**

"All Hitman Two Victors, we are pushing on to San Bernardino. Maintain 20 kph. Maintain dispersion," Nate says into the comms.

The sky is darkening as the sun threatens to disappear to their nine o'clock. Nate checks his watch: nearing nineteen hundred hours, and they're still about three klicks out from San Bernardino.

He knows what they'd face there if they stop, what they'd face in any city as large as the one plastered over every green freeway sign they pass. According to their small glimpse into Riverside, San Bernardino is no doubt a writhing mess of enemy bodies, lying in wait for their meager platoon.

Nate thinks back to what Mike had said earlier; inwardly steels himself. His men will be fine. They'll make it through this.

The comms crackle.

"Hitman Two, this is Hitman Two One Alpha," says Brad's voice. "Interrogative: will we be pushing past San Bernardino? Over."

Nate sighs. Mike wordlessly hands him the handset.

Brad had argued last night that they should stop briefly, assess the situation in the large city. Nate had understood the reasoning behind it. From a reconnaissance point of view, a lot could be determined from a short stop there: it's potentially a goldmine of information. But it's too risky, and they have a mission.

Brad had brought up the possibility of civilian doctors still alive in one of the city's many hospitals. Nate had accepted it as a last ditch resort. Brad hadn't been pleased, but he'd given no outward complaint. Till now.

Bringing it up now means he's hoping Nate has changed his mind. Brad shouldn't be questioning orders, not now, and especially not over the comms.

"Hitman Two One, this is Two Actual," Nate says into the radio, clenching it so hard it digs uncomfortably into his palm, "There will be no stopping, I say again, there will be no stopping, under any circumstance. How copy, over?"

"Two-one copies loud and clear," Brad's voice bites back.

Nate slumps a little in his seat. Behind him, Stafford and Christenson are muttering, "Well I ain't sayin' she's a gold digger/but she ain't messin' with no broke biter," their official anthem for Operation Medical Retrieval.

It's the twenty-fifth time they've sung it in a row.

Nate's head throbs in protest. At least Christenson stopped mimicking Jamie Foxx's voice and inflection sixteen repeats ago.

**

Their surroundings are starting to change from empty stretches of desert into rolling hills and sparse vegetation when Brad's voice crackles through again.

"Hitman Two, this is Two One Alpha, be advised, we've detected an obstacle in the road approximately 300 meters up ahead, how copy, over?"

Nate exchanges a look with Mike. His features are barely visible in the growing dark, but Nate catches the slight shake of his head.

"Hitman Two One, this is Hitman Two Actual, please define obstacle, over," Nate replies. Already the vehicle in front of them is slowing down. He switches on his NVG's and scans the surrounding hills. No movement, but there are enough bushes and large boulders to hide behind. Enough to make him nervous.

"Hitman Two, this is Two One Alpha, looks like an overturned ten ton in the middle of the road."

Brad sounds as calm and collected as always, nothing to go off of. He could be alone and surrounded by hundreds of Infected and Nate would wager a bet that he wouldn't even break a sweat. It's both comforting and frustrating at the same time.

Nate switches his comm frequency, already preparing to exit the vehicle.

"All Hitman Two Victors, this is Hitman Two. Hitman Two One has detected an obstacle in the road. Break. Halt your vehicles and assume defensive positions; stay frosty, over."

As soon as Mike stops the Humvee, Nate leaps down, asphalt hard and grounding beneath his boots. He feels oddly light as he runs to the front of the convoy, voices from each Humvee shouting at him nervously as he passes: "LT, what's going on?" "Why we stopped?" "Is it zombies, sir?" "Fucking zombie ambush, man, I told you!"

Hasser looks down at him nervously as he approaches. "LT's here, Brad!" he calls out.

Brad still hasn't exited the vehicle; he's peering through his rifle scope, body tensed. True to his word, a large truck is collapsed on its side a few hundred meters ahead, its length stretching over both sides of the highway, leaving too little room on either side for them to pass.

"Accident?" Nate says.

"Sir," Brad says slowly. He pushes out of his seat and stands next to him, still peering through his scope. "The manner in which this truck and the vehicle behind it have been positioned suggests otherwise. Not to mention the blown-out street lights."

Nate breathes out, harsh. Brad just confirmed his suspicions. It's too clean.

"For us?" he says.

"Unclear," replies Brad. "Permission to assemble a small foot patrol team, sir."

"Do it," Nate says quickly. Then, "You're cleared hot for movement without heat, but otherwise hold your fire till hostile intent is loud and clear."

"Roger that, sir."

Nate grabs his comms to inform his men of the change in ROE- tells them to abandon vehicles and get the fuck off the road, out of what's looking more and more like a kill zone. Like that bridge by Al Muwaffaqiyah.

He has a bad feeling about this.

Chapter Text

The rolling hills surrounding them are dark silhouettes against a purple-black sky, constellations faint and hidden by light pollution. The lack of moonlight is in their favor tonight- aided by their thermals, they'll have an advantage over whomever or whatever set this trap they've unwilling fallen into.

The LT looks uncharacteristically shaken when conferring with Brad. Not, Brad knows, because he'd assessed the situation differently from Brad- the LT is too smart for that- but because this has happened to them before.

The magnificent clusterfuck that had been Al Muwaffaqiyah had been the kind of epic retardation that most of them have sworn to never submit to again... and yet, here they are.

Brad reads all this in the tight line of the LT's mouth and understands.

At least this time, they can do it right.

**

Details flood Brad's senses with heightened clarity: the staccato of the LT's voice filtered through the comms, the quiet sound of Poke's breathing at his nine; the clump of dirt wedged between the seams of Lilley's boots, the way the strap of his Kevlar digs into his chin.

Brad notes the shapes of the larger boulders framing their position, and the way the road curves into shadow beyond the metal underside of the truck.

He absorbs this flood of information as he crouches beside the obstacle in the middle of the road. The cheery bumper sticker on level with his face is incongruous with the alert and wary expressions his men wear.

Brad feels hyperaware of every inch of fabric resting against his skin. His rifle throbs in his grip, as though it's as alive as he is. The night air tastes of dirt and gun lube and California. It lacks the distinct smell of rot. He notes this as well.

Brad breathes out, slow. This is not Al Muwaffaqiyah, he tell himself.

This time, we'll do it fucking right.

Brad gestures for Poke to take Leon and Manimal in a flanking maneuver around the other side. Poke nods. They disappear from sight. Adjusting his scope, Brad slides into the darkness beyond. Lilley and Garza follow, silent Devil Dogs stalking their prey.

Brad's earpiece crackles: Pappy confirms sniper position and fallback position set.

"Copy that," Brad breathes into his mic.

The road stretches ahead, empty of heat signatures except those of Poke, Leon, and Manimal.

Brad thinks: Too quiet.

Then, there's a sudden shift in the atmosphere and the air feels subtly different on his tongue. Brad points his rifle higher, aiming where the top of the hill they're hugging cuts across the sky. His spine tingles.

They're being watched. He can feel it in his gut. They're being watched, and whatever's doing the watching has the high ground.

Brad's earpiece clicks again; in the silence, it's almost too loud. He has to trust his Kevlar to absorb it.

"You feel that, dawg?" Poke asks; his voice through the comms is so quiet the words are barely audible.

"Above, maybe three o'clock?" Brad breathes back.

"Yeah, and to our ten, possibly our eight. Got sights yet, Pap?"

"Negative," Pappy's voice comes in, low. "Scoping high, over."

A tiny pebble rolls down out of nowhere; it knocks gently against the tip of Brad's boot and stills.

Gotcha, Brad thinks.

He aims up and holds fast, waiting.

There's a flicker directly in his line of sight, and then the bright white flame of human body heat emerges from behind a bush a split second before gunshots rend the air.

**

During training, Brad once had to endure a moto speech by his drill-instructor- an overenthusiastic R. Lee Emery wannabe with an additional MOS of 0911-bullshit- about the "music of a firefight".

The speech went something like this:

When a Marine is being shot at, he becomes the conductor of his own orchestra of death. The rat-tat-tat of an AK is his percussion, the high-pitched zing of a NATO round his string section.

Every bullet whizzing by is in harmony with another- musical death in a full metal jacket. Only when a Marine sets aside his panic and nerves can he gain full control of the symphony, grab death by the fucking balls and twist it to his will.

At the time, Brad had inwardly rebelled against what he'd considered the most homosexual speech ever given in the history of the military, and then pledged to forget it'd ever happened.

He's never been on the end of enemy fire since without recalling that drill instructor's words.

**

"Contact two o'clock," Brad yells. "Garza, to our three! Take cover!"

Bullets whistle past their heads, too close. Through his PAS-13, the artificial black and gray of his surroundings blush white as figures appear out of the dark above their heads.

The ROE are firmly in Brad's head as he dives behind a nearby boulder, Poke bellowing from the other side of the road, "Don't fucking shoot, motherfucker, get your ass down! "

His earpiece lights up with the LT's sharp command for a sitrep.

Brad switches his comm frequency and says, "Hitman Two, this is Two One Alpha, we have contact. We are taking enemy fire--"

His face stings as a bullet fragment tears through the skin of his cheek. Warm blood drips onto his chin.

"--Break. Foot mobiles on the right hill, fifty meters, how copy, over."

He steels against the urge to fire back, Poke still yelling for Leon to get the fuck down.

"Hitman Two, this is Two One Bravo, I count six foot mobiles on the left hill, one hundred meters, how copy," Poke yells, the sound from across the road overlapping with his voice filtered through the comms.

The negative image of a face appears in the dark above him. Brad ducks back down as another burst of death-blossom gunfire sparks against his cover.

"Hitman Two One, this is Two Actual. You are cleared hot. Aim to maim, not kill, over," replies the LT. His voice is sharp, spiking against Brad's ear.

Brad raises his voice to a shout. "This is the United States Marine Corp, desist firing your weapons. I say again, stop firing! We are not here to hurt you!"

Another flurry of bullets is the only reply. Brad thinks he hears laughter. It could be his imagination.

Garza dives into the dirt next to Brad, hand on his helmet. "Brad, I count three on this side."

"Four," Brad corrects.

He exhales, once, then lifts from behind their cover, aims, and fires.

He hits his target, a rock inches from the foot of the nearest figure. The figure trips, screaming, and falls tumbling down the hill. Brad says, "Lilley, snatch and egress. Go!"

Lilley dives onto the body of the figure scrambling on the ground, disarms then with an efficient joint lock. Next to Brad, Garza aims his rifle and fires; another figure goes down, clutching their arm. The screams are that of a woman.

Brad fires again. A calculated graze, another scream of pain.

To his six, Brad hears Manimal roar, and then the heavy thud of a body hitting the ground.

"Hitman Two One, this is Two One Bravo," we have a man down, say again, Team Two has a man down!"

"This is a fucking turkey shoot!" Garza yells, "And we're the fucking turkeys!"

"Shut the fuck up," Brad says irritably.

Brad tenses as he searches the hill for the fourth ambusher, who's vanished from sight. Poke's team is still under fire. Brad can hear Manimal grunting in pain.

"Hitman Two One, this is Hitman Two, what is your status? I say again, what is the status of your man down?"

"Manimal got hit in shoulder, over!"

There's a pause; Poke's team is still being lit up. The smell of gunpowder stings Brad's nostrils on the inhale.

"Hitman Two One, this is Hitman Two Actual, get him the fuck out of there. I'm sending backup, over."

"Roger that," Brad says. He repeats the order to Garza and Lilley.

Garza looks furious as he holds the lightly bleeding arm of the screaming woman twisted behind her back.

"These pendejos sure ain't aiming to maim, Brad!" Garza yells over her screams. "They just have fucking bad aim! They woulda shot us in the heads if their aim was--"

"Garza, don't make me repeat myself," Brad snaps. "And shut her up as well."

Brad's still searching for his fourth target. This one's less of a bumbling retard than the others- must have caught on to their use of thermals, Brad thinks.

Under his breath, he sing-songs, "Come out, come out, wherever you are."

He feels lean and hungry, a mountain lion crouched and ready to pounce. His senses are still heightened, and he feels every burst of gunfire from behind him solidly in his bones, tastes the metal tang of blood in the air.

All the better to hear you with, my dear.

He's still searching when Poke pats his shoulder and tells him it's over.

**

The LT's eyes are so wide they're threatening to burst.

Brad hopes the smugness he feels isn't showing on his face like it is on Poke's.

"Lilley, get Corporal Jacks to my Victor," the LT snaps. He wrenches his own tourniquet off from around his neck and practically hurls it at Garza, who barely manages to catch it before it slaps him in the face. "And get that woman tied off before she bleeds out all over Brad's cami nets."

Brad smirks.

"Lovell, go assist Pappy and Rudy with cleanup. Go!"

"Sir!"

Then the LT whirls on him, expression sharp. Brad feels his smirk fade away. "Team Leaders-- after-action debrief. Now."

Poke exchanges a glance with him that says, What's he being a pissy motherfucker about?

Brad shrugs minutely in return and falls into place at the LT's side. I guess we'll see.

"Sir, we successfully navigated what could have been a devastating ambush-" Poke begins in his Bullshit the Command voice. Fick's having none of it.

"You barely made it out intact," he snaps, still striding stiff and angry away from the Humvees. "You are recon marines, and here we are, a fucking man out of action and five fucking civilians dead."

He turns suddenly on his heel. Brad stares straight into his eyes and holds fast.

Five fucking civilians dead.

Brad thinks, How.

His head hurts. He feels none of the smugness of the previous ten minutes.

"Explain yourself," says the LT. His gaze slides to Poke like he can't stand to look at Brad for more than a second.

Poke looks as shocked as Brad feels. "Sir, I assure you, we kept within the bounds of the ROE-"

"The revised ROE where you were supposed to not be aiming for clean head shots ? Or are you suggesting that you decided to stick with Godfather's free-fire ROE?"

Brad hasn't see the LT this angry since Iraq: he's physically shaking with it.

Brad doesn't understand.

Poke says, "I'm telling you, LT, we didn't-"

"You will fucking address me as sir when you speak to me, Sergeant!" snaps Fick.

Poke looks like he's been pistol-whipped. He adjusts his posture and stands at attention, staring over Fick's shoulder. "Sir," he says.

"Sir," says Brad carefully, "Due respect, I second Sergeant Espera. All team members strove to avoid casualties. I was under the impression that we had been successful."

"Well, you thought wrong," says the LT. He's still not looking at Brad.

"LT! LT!"

They turn. It's Hasser; he's pointing the Mark 19 in the direction of the overturned truck, binoculars raised.

"We have incoming, one foot mobile, twelve o'clock, three hundred meters!"

The Marines not guarding the disarmed ambushers assemble in seconds, assuming defensive formation. Brad runs with Poke and Fick to the front of the line, weapon at the ready.

"What do you see, Walt?" the LT calls out.

"It's just... a guy, walking down the middle of the road. He... his hands are up, he's holding a gun... the gun has a silencer attached, sir, but he's holding it up, not aiming it."

Poke conveys a range of emotions using just his left eye muscle, looks at Brad. Brad ignores him.

"He's still coming... LT, he's signaling something," Hasser says. Then, "Shit. He just threw his gun away."

"What the fuck?" mutters Ray. Brad hadn't noticed him; he's on one knee at Brad's four o'clock, on the far side of the defensive wall-- silent, for once.

"I see him," the LT says calmly, and then he's stepping forward, walking to meet the newcomer. He's no longer aiming his rifle, just holding it tight against his side.

For a moment Brad forgets to breathe. He imagines the intruder pulling out a hidden weapon, firing two shots into the LT's heart, the LT's blood seeping over the asphalt.

It doesn't happen.

The intruder is close enough now to be dimly illuminated by the LT's flashlight, close enough for all of them to see the shape of his mouth, curled in a crooked sneer.

His hair is dark and flops messily into his eyes, and there's blood spattered all over his face and torso. His elbows jut from his long skinny arms with the bony awkwardness of a teenager, but he walks like he's got a ten inch dick and a ballsack the size of Texas, unafraid in the sights of twenty trained Recon Marines and the business ends of their rifles. He doesn't look it, but he's probably in his mid-twenties.

Brad thinks: he's either incredibly brave, or incredibly fucking Special Olympic shitstark stupid.

"Don't shoot, I come in peace," the man (boy) says, sarcasm dripping.

"State your intent," the LT says. Then, "Are you here for your friends?"

The kid spits angrily. He's still walking towards them, hands raised, almost mockingly. "Those are not my friends," he sneers. "You're Marines, right? Aren't you supposed to help civilians offering themselves up to your protection?"

"Stop right there," the LT says, voice clear and cold. "You're covered in blood, and walking out of an ambush site set up by your- whatever they are. Don't play fucking stupid. You were there when my Marines were fired at."

The kid stops walking. His sneer stretches into a grin, but not one of amusement. "Yeah, no shit I was there. Who the hell do you think killed the guys doing the firing?"

There's a rustle of material as Marines up and down the line shift in response. A few lower their rifles in surprise; Brad makes a note of every single one without removing eyes from the blood-covered little shit that's still grinning widely at the LT.

It all adds up- the unaccounted-for casualties despite their strict adherence to the ROE- but Brad doesn't want to admit that he missed seeing this pre-pubescent arrogant little SOB take out five fucking men, right under his nose.

Even under heavy fire, that kind of slip is unfuckingacceptable. The fact that they'd been thwarted by this undernourished cocky little imperforated colon just makes it worse.

The LT says, "Lower your weapons, men."

Brad takes exactly a tenth of a second to adjust to the order, then reluctantly obeys. The movement all down the line behind them tells him the others have done the same.

The little shit looks pleased, even as Fick walks forward and roughly spins him around, ties his hands behind his back. He even winks at Brad when the LT hands him off. Brad is so affronted by this that he forgets to breathe again.

What the fuck.

**

The reaction of the other ambushers at the sight of the newcomer is violent.

"You! You son of a bitch!" screams the dark-haired woman whose arm Brad had wounded, when he marches the kid by her and her accomplices. Her voice cracks with hatred, eyes fever-bright. She looks fucking possessed.

She launches herself off the ground, hissing and spitting and screaming curses Brad is surprised and delighted to hear come out of a civilian's mouth.

"You fucking pussy-faced son of a whore backstabber kike motherfucker," she continues to scream, "I'm gonna kill you! I'm gonna rip your fucking face off and shove it so far up your ass--"

"-I'll choke on my own esophagus, yeah, yeah," the cocky little shit in Brad's grip interrupts, sounding bored. "What else is new, Sandy. I shoulda fuckin' shot you before any of them."

The woman- Sandy- screams again with rage and it takes both Rudy and Lovell to hold her back. Her accomplices are both men, but they just stand still and glower in the kid's direction.

Sandy looks like she calls the shots in this group. Brad thinks about how Poke likes to say, it's always the women who are the fiercest.

Brad notes the way Sandy had spit the word kike, like it was so filthy she couldn't stand for it to be on her tongue for more than a second. Like the kid in his possession being a Jew is the worst insult she could think of.

Brad thinks of his parents, the effort they'd put into his bar mitzvah, his Hanukkah presents. Thinks of his Rabbi coming over for dinner, of Friday nights spent without TV.

His blood boils. He keeps his face calm and cold.

"Rudy," he says, "Shut that bitch the fuck up."

**

The LT still doesn't meet his eyes when he and Poke join Brad to question the kid.

Brad keeps his face calm and cold.

**

"Listen, just fucking listen to what I'm telling you, all right? Jesus. You're an untrusting bunch of assholes, aren't you."

"You may be right, dawg, but we're the untrusting assholes with a lot of fucking asshole guns. Answer the lieutenant."

"Like I said, I travelled with them, that don't automatically make me a fuckin' psycho bitch like foam-mouth over there, or a rapist thief like that piece of shit blondie here almost shot in the foot."

"If you hate them so much-- why, then?"

"Why? Protection, that's why. They escaped from the Base with lots of pretty guns and fight like LA gang members, what did I have to lose?"

Brad had remained silent during the questioning so far, but this catches his attention. "They escaped from Edwards?"

The kid lolls his head lazily to look at him. "Yeah, a week ago," he says. The way his mouth moves around the words gives him the appearance of a gum-chewing indifferent high schooler back-talking a teacher.

Brad wants to give him a good slap. He does not.

"Did they tell you why?" asks Fick.

The kid sighs. "Apparently there was a massive outbreak outta nowhere. Too many civilians, not enough military left. The base was fucked in a day. Said something about the military not properly checking for bites on survivors they let in."

Poke and Brad exchange looks. The LT says, "Fuck."

"And you, motherfucker? You weren't at the base?" Poke asks.

Suddenly the kid's face closes up, and he looks down. "Nah, man."

"Ah, ah, ah," says Poke, and nudges him with his rifle. "Don't clam up on me, dawg, answer the question."

"Well, it's none of your fuckin' business, is it, dawg?" he shoots back.

The LT steps in. "Hey, hey," he says soothingly, "We're here to help, okay? It may not look it from where you're sitting, but we are. It's important that we know. Are you from San Bernardino?"

The kid looks mulish. "San Francisco," he mutters. "When shit hit the fan, I drove my cab down here. Lookin' for family."

The look on his face tells them immediately that his search was not successful.

"I'm sorry," says Fick.

"Yeah, well." The kid shrugs the apology off. "That's just life, right?" Then he squints. "Fick? That your name, Lieutenant?"

The LT looks briefly down at the threads of his name on his uniform. "You can call me Nate," he says. "What about you? You got a name?"

"Nate, you don't look like a Nate," the kid says, grinning again. Deflecting. "Should be something that sounds less middle class. Then again, I guess Nathaniel is old money enough. What about you, silent giant?"

Brad feels himself bristle. "You may address me as Sergeant Colbert," he says coldly.

"And I'm Sergeant Espera," Poke says irritably. "Now, you gonna finish the happy introductions?"

"Liebgott." The kid smirks. "Pleased to make your acquaintance."

**

The LT pulls him aside, after. "What do you think?" he says quietly. "About Liebgott. You think he's telling the truth?"

"I think he's an irritating little whiskey tango cocky motherfucker, sir," Brad says. "I also think he could be a liability."

"But is he honest?"

Brad looks at the LT. Even in the dark, exhaustion is evident in the slump of his shoulders. "Sir, he killed five of the men he was traveling with point blank, without a trace of remorse. I feel trusting him would be negligent on our part, sir."

The LT's eyes are too dark under his Kevlar for Brad to read.

Brad continues, stepping in closer. "However, he did not appear to be outright lying. Whatever the case, sir-- I trust your judgement."

"Like you were going to trust me when I wrongfully accused you of disobeying a direct order?" the LT asks. His voice is neutral, but is betrayed by a hand curling into a fist by his side.

"I said that I trust your judgement, sir, not that I expect you to be infallible."

The LT looks up, meeting Brad's eyes for the first time in over an hour. "Brad," he says. There's a tinge of desperation in his voice, an apology. "I..."

"You're doing your job, sir," says Brad. He leaves the rest unspoken.

The LT- Nate- stares into his eyes, searching, like he can't believe what he's hearing. The desperate, almost-broken look is still there. He looks like he's waiting for Brad to say something else, and Brad is gripped by the urge to grasp his neck and pull him in closer, close enough to brush his lips against that mouth and repeat, Nate, Nate, I trust you, Nate,-- until he believes it.

Then Nate blinks, and he's the LT again.

"I'm going to detach a team to take Jacks and the civilians back to base," he says, almost a whisper. "We'll find another way to Edwards, and if not, we go on foot."

"Sir," Brad murmurs, "What if there's nothing left?"

"Then we keep going," the LT says, firm. "We keep going until we reach our objective. We have a mission. We're not going to let this stop us."

Before the LT walks away, he adds, "Have Ray get the SAT phone online and check in with Godfather."

"Roger that, sir," says Brad. Time to find his RTO.

Chapter Text

"No," says Nate firmly.

"But--"

"No."

Liebgott is staring at him stonily, arms crossed stiffly across his chest and expression mutinous. Not, Nate thinks, unlike a teenager being grounded by a parental unit.

Nate shifts his weight from his left foot to his right. He's endured glares from worse: captains, colonels. Entire platoons. Brad. His mother. He shouldn't feel so uncomfortable. He refuses to believe that he’s being unreasonable in this: Liebgott is a civilian, not to mention Nate doesn't like the way he just suddenly appeared out of thin air, acting so casual despite still being covered in the blood of the men he'd been been running with for a week.

"It'll make more sense then sending me back with those assholes," says Liebgott sullenly.

Liebgott has a cigarette pinched between his thumb and middle finger, hand curled protectively around it. He punctuates his point with a cloud of smoke. Nate resists the urge to cough.

"At this point, nothing else makes more sense," Nate says firmly. Liebgott’s only response is to - of course- roll his eyes.

Nate's inner Brad sense pings; Brad is off by Team Two's Victor, talking to Ray who is gesticulating violently, but Nate can still feel Brad's gaze flicking to him. Waiting for orders.

Liebgott flicks his cigarette, and it lands by Nate's foot, drawing Nate’s attention back away from Brad. Liebgott looks up at Nate through messy black fringe; despite the slouch of his bony shoulders, Nate can see the underlying quiver of tension.

"I went back with them to Edwards, you know,” Liebgott says. “Two days after we joined up."

It sounds like he's reaching, but Nate can't help but reply, "How was it?"

Liebgott looks at him for a minute, silent, like he's weighing his options. "We didn't go in," he says finally, "but we got a good look around. They have shit like gas tanks, helicopters. Pretty good food storage, according to Sandy, though you’ll have to take her word for it. She said the organization was fucked, but supplies were still pretty good when shit hit the fan. So I know where shit is, and it'll save time having someone like me with you, someone who knows where to find what you're looking for."

That's not all, Nate realizes, watching the way Liebgott's eyes dart from Nate to his hands to the other men standing around, waiting on orders. Liebgott is hiding his real reason for wanting to go forward with the platoon, not back to Pendleton.

Even if Liebgott himself hadn't been at the base, he'd mentioned having family in San Bernardino. It's a possibility that he wants to find them, that he is holding on to the pipe dream that most of them can't even afford to think about.

"You don't know what we're looking for, and you don't care," Nate guesses, watching Liebgott carefully for tells. "You need to get back to the base, don't you? Tell me why."

He's utilizing what the men call his officer voice. He watches Liebgott unconsciously straighten his posture with some satisfaction.

"I just figured you need the help," Liebgott shrugs. His voice is unconvincingly casual.

Jesus, Nate doesn't have the time for this. He turns to walk away.

"Wait, wait, dammit!" Liebgott says, a tinge of panic in his voice. Nate pauses. "I'm pretty sure my sister is there, okay?"

"Your sister."

"She was a doctor, worked out of a clinic right outside the base," Liebgott says urgently.

Nate closes his eyes. Shit. "A doctor?"

"Yeah. And she's fuckin' resourceful, okay, I know she didn't let herself get run down by those things. It's the reason I was in the area, I was trying to get up there when I bumped into Sandy and her crew."

Nate is aware of Manimal in the Humvee next to Liebgott, slumped and sedated. They need to get him back to Pendleton. Pappy and Rudy managed to patch him up with their rudimentary field medicine knowledge, but his shoulder is messed up enough that stalling his cas-evac any further would be problematic.

And here is Liebgott, offering up their objective on a blood-spattered silver platter without even knowing it.

His mind takes less than a second to compile all of this information; to Liebgott, Nate just replies: “We’ll see,” and leaves, walking towards the front of the convoy where Ray is flailing his limbs so spastically at Brad that it looks like he's being electrocuted.

No luck with SAT comms, then.

"LT!" Ray shouts when he nears. He angrily waves a fist with the blocky black satellite phone enclosed. "The SAT's being a prissy little prude bitch, LT, opens her legs to let me finger her but won't fucking let me go all the way. This kinda shit takes me back to band camp."

"Don't be fooled, sir," Brad says calmly, arms crossed against his chest. His derisive tone is somewhat undercut by the amused twitch of his mouth, barely visible in the dim moonlight. "Person may have himself convinced that he came anywhere near real pussy outside of his computer screen before he lost his virginity to his cousin last year, but that doesn't mean that you have to be taken in by his venal lies as well."

Nate meets Brad's gaze with some reluctance, the guilt from earlier still spiking low in his belly. He can't read anything in Brad's expression. Nate needs to talk to Brad, alone, pick his brain. He needs hours to himself to figure this all out-- hours he knows he doesn't have.

"Don't be jealous I got so much fucking pussy despite not being some seven foot giant with a monster cock and a crotch rocket, homes," Ray shoots back rapid-fire at Brad without looking at him, still waving the phone in Nate's face. "I was fucking knee deep, LT, I'm serious. Those flute chicks were so damn wet for my guitar playing ass, and they were up for the kinkiest shit, too."

He knows Ray is just looking for a reaction, but Nate can't even muster up a smile. "No contact with Battalion HQ?" he interprets, trying to steer the conversation away from anymore talk of Ray's sexual history.

Ray nods, movements jerky. Nate wonders how much ephedrine he's managed to ingest since they stepped off; most likely a lot more than Nate wants to know about.

"I can get Alpha on the line, but I highly doubt they'll have any more luck," Ray confirms. He spits out the side of his mouth, a brown stream of tobacco juice, and puffs out his chest a little. He looks a little like a manic penguin. "Why, you ask? They ain't got a fucking miracle worker like Ray-Ray on their team, is why!"

"Now, if only you could apply said miracle-working powers to the job at hand, Ray," says Brad, "then maybe we wouldn't be standing around here in the middle of buttfuck nowhere Californian desert with our fucking dicks in our hands."

"You know it makes me fucking lose the will to live when you say negative shit like that, Bradley! It ain't my fault and you know it!"

Nate bites his lip and does a sweep of the AO, stalling. The overturned truck is a dark smudge in the distance. The wounded and snarling civilians, wrists tied, are in the back of Lovell's victor. Liebgott sits sullenly where Nate left him, glaring at nothing.

"We'll save Alpha for a last resort. Keeping trying the SAT, Person," Nate says, making his decision. "Sergeant Colbert... we go back to the turn-off, take Lone Pine. Oscar Mike in ten."

"Lieutenant," Brad nods. His gaze is sharp, pinning Nate to the spot.

His words from earlier ring in Nate's ears: I trust your judgement, sir.

It's all Nate has, for now.

"Oh," Nate adds, hesitating before he turns away. "And I'm putting Liebgott in your victor."

Brad's mouth thins expressively, and Ray lets out a squawk.

Nate should probably explain, but they've been out in the open for too long, and Manimal is in the forefront of his mind, feverish and bleeding.

"I'm assigning Stafford to your team to keep an eye on him as well. We push on to Edwards. If we're lucky, we'll reach it before dawn."

Brad still looks like he wants to say something, but instead he punches Ray lightly in the shoulder, effectively shutting him up.

"Sir," he answers. Nods briskly.

Nate can feel Brad's gaze hot on the back of his neck as he walks away.

**

They've been Oscar Mike for less than an hour when their pace slows. Nate exchanges a glance with Mike and switches on the comms to check in with Brad, but he's a second too slow.

"Hitman Two One Alpha, this is Two One Bravo," Espera's irritated voice crackles through, beating Nate to it. "Interrogative: Person, why the fuck you driving like you're in the middle of getting the best road head of your life? Over."

"Not again," groans Mike. "The hell did Brad do to piss off Person this time 'round? Was hopin' they'd left that bullshit behind in Iraq."

Nate bites back laughter at the sheer weariness in Mike's easy-going drawl. He cranes his neck and peers through his scope towards the front of the convoy. Their lead Victor is careening drunkenly from side to side, vehicle shuddering. Nate imagines Ray crouched furiously over the steering wheel, tapping his foot on the brake just to fuck with Brad. If they weren’t in blackout mode, his brake lights would no doubt be blinking enough to set off an epileptic fit.

He’d laugh it off, leave them with a simple warning order to knock it off, if he didn't suspect that maybe this time it wasn't simply another marital spat between team leader and RTO.

Nate sucks in a breath. "Maybe I shouldn't have been so quick to put Liebgott in with them.”

Espera's voice continues to filter through the comms, commentary growing bitchier with every swerve of Brad's vehicle.

Mike shrugs expressively. "The kids have to learn to get along some time."

The more he thinks about it, the more Nate starts to itch under his skin. Violent scenarios rush through his mind as they drive slower and slower through the dark mountains; he compulsively tightens his grip around his rifle as he remembers the colorful range of emotions that had flitted across Brad's face upon first contact with Liebgott.

Shit. It's becoming more and more clear that he's fucked this one up.

"Gotta trust Brad to unfuck this 'fore it gets any worse," Mike says calmly.

Nate shoots him a look; Mike returns it, the corner of his mouth lifted in amusement.

"I don't even know why I listened to Liebgott in the first place," Nate says, half to himself. His jaw aches from clenching it. "Everything we've seen of him so far points to him being untrustworthy and dangerous. Why the fuck did I..."

"Nate," Mike chides.

"What if he's lying, Mike?" Nate says, temples beginning to throb. "What if he doesn't have a sister? Am I leading this platoon into a trap by going by his word?"

"You're not gonna make things any less FUBAR by moanin' 'bout it, Fick," replies Mike, grabbing the tin of Copenhagen from the dashboard. "You made a decision under pressure, just like I've watched you do for years. Shit'll unfuck itself, same as it always does. That kid might be trouble, but far's he knows we ain't got a specific reason to be goin' to Edwards. He didn't have any ulterior motive to lie 'bout havin' a doctor for a sister. "

As always, Mike's words calm his frayed nerves. Nate thumps his foot against the floor of the Humvee twice, trying to shake feeling back into it. He's starting to feel the familiar exhaustion that comes from sitting in a cramped space for too long.

"You're right," Nate sighs. He feels marginally better. "But I still should've had him ride with us."

Mike snorts. "What, have him in the back with just Christenson and Stafford? It was the best option available, Nate, stop second-guessing your decision."

They both fall into silence for a few minutes, listening to the bickering over the comms that has intensified while they've been talking. Espera has been joined on the comms by Pappy, who is now countering every one of Espera's insults with a nugget of wisdom.

"--just 'cause he got a stick up his lilly white ass don't mean he gotta fucking drive like some cokehead frat boy motherfucker down in TJ, dawg."

"Might be best to just let it lie, Poke. Like rheumatism and happiness."

"You're gonna make me guess, aren't you, Pappy. Fuck, Person! Quit hitting the fucking brakes, you crazy motherfucker!"

"Just sayin', they both get bigger if you keep tellin' folks about 'em."

Nate stifles a groan in the crook of his arm, and wistfully thinks back to how comparatively less stressful it had been to drive through roads thick with infected. Everyone had been focused. No one had bitched over comms. So peaceful.

"Think it's about time for Mama Bear to step in and assign timeouts, don't you?"

It takes a second for Nate to get it. "Mike, are you implying that I am the mother of Bravo 2?"

Mike leans his head out the window and spits tobacco juice neatly through his teeth, then turns back to grin widely at Nate. "You implyin' that you're not?"

"I don't... That isn't... Why am I not the dad?"

"Colbert's the dad," says Mike decisively.

"What?"

It takes two and a half mikes before Nate can stop sputtering enough to even consider speaking over comms. He's just about to muster up his Voice of Authority when Brad's voice finally joins the fray and effectively ends the bickering with a few choice insults.

Mike flicks a sly look at Nate.

"Dad," Mike says smugly.

"Fuck off," replies Nate.

"I'm not wrong, though."

"Fuck off, Mike."

**

They drive through the night and into the early morning as hills give way to valleys, and then again to desert in every direction as far as the eye can see. Nate stops the convey once, orders a swap so the drivers can get some sleep.

The wail of the alarm rides towards them on the wind before they even breach the perimeter of the base.

Nate clenches his fingers around the steering wheel, feels the shudder of the Humvee through to his bones. The cool air flowing through his open window should be soothing, but sweat gathers at the base of his spine at the warning sound. He turns his head from side to side to watch the sides of the road, vision tinged green through his NVG’s, scanning for movement. Out of the corner of his eye he sees Mike shift and open his eyes.

"How far?" Mike murmurs.

They pass a highway sign, moldy green with rust creeping up the edges.

"Two klicks."

"Well, shit," says Mike sleepily, then pulls himself out of his slouch and stares out of his window. "Wonder how long that's been going on?"

"Without personnel to switch it off?" Nate presses his lips together and looks out the window without really seeing anything, thinking hard. "With generators running, the alarms back at Pendleton could sound for a straight month."

"Damn."

There's a small thump as Mike maneuvers his rifle to rest against the edge of his window.

"Yep."

"So every biter in a two klick radius has been drawn to the base for the past- how long did that kid say, a week?"

Nate hums agreement.

"Well, don't that make things even more exciting," Mike says dryly. "Bet you I can guess what's on every Marine in this platoon's mind right about now."

Nate thumps a palm against the steering wheel in frustration. Even without looking, he knows Mike is giving him one of his weary looks.

"We've only got a klick and a half left to make a decision," Mike warns. Like Nate didn't already know.

"Fuck," Nate whispers.

**

The dusty sprawl of the base spreads before their parked Humvees, a seemingly unending plateau of concrete and sparse desert vegetation. The clean lines created by innumerable runways are occasionally broken by a hangar or a building, their military-sharp corners catching on the edges of the sunrise.

Their position is tactically sound: close enough for the wailing alarm to be ear-numbingly loud, far enough to remain detached and for their movement to remain undetected. Relatively safe. Perfect for reconnaissance. Not as much cover as Nate would have liked, but wishing for some sort of hilltop vantage point is a sort of moot point out here in the desert.

Through his binoculars, Nate scans the black ant-like smudges wandering aimlessly among the parked aircraft. Beside him, Mike grunts and lowers his own set of binoculars.

"No fence," he notes grimly, and Nate nods. "Can't be where the survivors holed up. Any word from Team Two yet?"

Nate fiddles with the mic strapped to his head, fabric itchy under his Kevlar. "Negative. I'm giving them another five mikes before I check in for their sitrep."

Mike huffs out a laugh and raises the binoculars back up to his eyes. "Don't wanna breathe too hard down their necks, Mama Bear?"

It's a struggle to keep from elbowing him in the ribs, especially when a loud snort from Nate's other side tells him that Liebgott has overheard. "If you mean, do I trust Brad to not lead his team directly into the waiting arms of the infected within the first twenty minutes of their recon mission? Then yes."

Again, his words are punctuated by another wet snort at his nine.

"Need a tissue, son?" Mike asks wearily, without taking his eyes off the AO.

"Nah, man. Just wonderin' how long it'll take you to realize how freakin' big this damn base is."

Nate thinks back to hours in a dim map room, countless cups of burnt coffee, Brad's excited eyes across the table as they poured over maps of their new AO, and wonders if Liebgott actually has a point to get at or if he just revels in being obnoxious.

Neither he nor Mike bother to answer. It takes Liebgott approximately ninety seconds to tire of the silence.

"So, a couple blocks down from the museum is where my sister worked," Liebgott says finally.

Nate can tell that he's aiming for nonchalance, but the tense undertone in his voice speaks volumes. He finally looks over his shoulder at Liebgott, sees him scowling down at the scuffed leather tips of his worn biker boots.

"If I show you a map, can you pinpoint exactly where?" Nate asks. Beside him, Mike shifts his weight, and Nate knows without looking that his binoculars have lowered.

Liebgott's head shoots up; Nate catches a flash of emotion, and then the exact moment when Liebgott slams a neutral mask down over it again. Like someone squatting in an abandoned house at night, snuffing out a sputtering candle flame so those outside won't catch onto their presence. The ease with which Liebgott's eyes go from wide and hopeful to half-closed and laconic suggests that he's no stranger to hiding. To subterfuge.

I feel trusting him would be negligent on our part, sir.

"Yeah," says Liebgott, in that carefully regulated drawl. He breaks Nate's gaze and looks down again, scratching idly at a smear of dirt on the back of his pale hand. "Yeah, I could do that. Been here to visit a couple times."

Nate tries not to stare at him too incredulously, but feels something inside of him snap anyway. "Well, thank you for sharing that little nugget of information with the class."

Liebgott shrugs and rolls his eyes so dramatically that Nate is surprised that he doesn't pull a muscle. "Right, 'cause you soldiers with your maps and your missions and all your heavy duty death-dealing machismo bullshit desperately needed to know that I've crashed on my sister's couch once or twice. Uh huh. Yeah. Sorry about that."

His headset crackling suddenly with static makes Nate swallow the words he'd been about to spit out, words that would have no doubt instigated some sort of petty violence. Grateful yet again for the distraction, he steps closer to Mike and hunches down, hand pressed over the frequency switch pinned to the front of his flak jacket.

Below them, the black dots continue to swarm the runways like a colony of insects readying for war.

"Hitman Two Actual, this is Hitman Two One. We have sights on the east perimeter, how copy?" Brad's soft voice presses against Nate's ear, feeling like a caress when it absolutely, definitely should not.

Nate doesn't realize he's closed his eyes until he's opened them again and Mike's curious, cocked head snaps back into view. He has to clear his throat for the words to come out right. Fuck, he must be more tired than he'd realized.

"Hitman Two One, this is Two Actual," Nate replies, inwardly kicking himself, "Receiving you loud and clear. Send traffic."

"Two, this is Two One. What we've got here matches up pretty tidily with previous civilian reports, sir. Walled in, looks makeshift, but good barbed-wire action. Two gas tankers in front of what appears to be a fairly regularly-used gate, and what looks like the remains of a ratfucked water reclaimer. No sign of life. Over."

Nate drags a hand over the grit on his face. "Copy that, Hitman Two One. Interrogative: what numbers of Infected are we looking at, over?"

Brad's reply is flat and tinged with irony, like he's reading from a script that he deems beneath his interest. "Enough to make an entire Air Force Battalion shit themselves on sight, sir."

“I’m gonna need that in legit numbers, Sergeant.”

”Apologies, sir. Make that the approximate number of Air Force recruits required to take down a single Recon Marine.”

Nate can hear Brad grinning. Cocky bastard. At least if Brad feels like he has enough leeway to fuck around, it means that there is no immediate threat to their position.

“Sir, I’d estimate a couple dozen in front of the gate, about another 50 lining the fence. This marine foresees no difficulty maneuvering past them to enter the base, over.”

“Solid copy, Sergeant,” says Nate. “Hold position until further notice.”

”Roger that.”

Still trying not to smile considering their current situation, Nate switches networks. “Hitman Two One Alpha, this is Two, how copy, over.”

There is a burst of static, loud enough to make Nate wince.

“I say again, this is Hitman Two; Hitman Two One Alpha, do you copy?”

Static is the only reply. Coupled with the continued blaring of the siren, it sounds eerily threatening.

“They not on comms?” asks Mike, brows drawn down as he frowns.

“I don’t know,” says Nate, and hits the freq switch with more force than necessary in his frustration and sudden panic. “I say again: Hitman Two. One. Alpha. Do you copy.”

Static.

Then –

“Shit, fuck! Fucking useless piece of- Hitman Two, this is Two One Alpha, how copy?”

Relief floods Nate in a tidal wave, and he grasps his headset like a lifeline.

“This is Two, solid copy,” Nate says in a rush. “What’s going on over there, Sergeant Espera?”

”Sorry sir, seems like something’s fucking with our comms but- listen, you’ve gotta get down here, stat.”

A chill rushes down Nate’s spine.

”We’ve got eyes on a building on the west perimeter, and… well, sir, it’s weak, but we’re detecting heat.”

“Stay where you are, Sergeant,” Nate says, meeting Mike’s eyes and nodding. “We’re coming to you.”

**

“Second floor, fourth from the left. Not one hundred percent positive, sir, but looks like a weak heat signature,” Espera says, nodding briskly at Nate as Nate climbs onto the Humvee. “Otherwise, we got major movement on the ground: no heat, all Zulu. My boys count at least three hundred in a two mile radius.”

“I need more than a maybe to go on,” Nate says, reaching down into his drop leg for his DRS thermals. “Just one?”

“Looks like,” Espera grunts. “But, sir, I’m calling a ninety-proof positive on this one. See for yourself.”

The building pointed out to him by Espera is a military-typical sturdy concrete structure that Nate has seen on bases all over the country. More than anything, it reminds him of the barracks at OCS. It is situated a block down from the gate to what looks like a hastily constructed wall, which winds around a small section of the base. Glassing the ground flour first, he can just make out twisted metal and blackened windows, indicators of some sort of fire.

Nate focuses next on the window pointed out to him by Espera. No movement. He reaches up to adjust the binoculars, and—

Wait. There.

Weak, certainly, and whatever’s snagging on their thermal imagers isn’t visible from their vantage point just by glassing it, but it’s enough.

“That looks legit,” Nate murmurs. (The sound of his own voice is startling; Nate almost doesn’t recognize the steady, certain cadence of it, compared to all of the nagging worry and self-doubt building up in his head.)

Espera doesn’t seem to notice. He looks eagerly at Nate. “LT, we going in?”

“We’re going in,” Nate confirms. “Gather your men, I’ll get ahold of-“

“No need, sir.”

Brad appears beside the Humvee, head on level with Nate’s knees, as though out of thin air. Nate inwardly curses his own lack of situational awareness. He hadn’t heard Brad’s approach.

“Nice timing,” Nate nods at him.

Brad looks expectant. “Poke filled me in, sir. What are your orders?”

“I actually need you for a separate mission,” says Nate, and then quickly corrects himself. “I need your team.”

With raised eyebrows, Brad waits.

“We still have our primary mission, and I can’t in good conscience ignore a possible lead,” Nate says slowly, watching the recognition dawn in Brad’s eyes. “I need Two One Alpha to search the off-base clinic for possible survivors.” Nate bends down and holds out the dusty paper map he’d liberated from HQ, on which he’d had Liebgott mark their target.

Brad looks down at the map like Nate is handing him a pile of dogshit with a bow attached.

“This isn’t babysitting duty again,” Nate says quickly. “Liebgott will not be accompanying you. I’ll have Christenson keep him clear of the AO. This is just… it won’t hurt to check.”

He watches Brad swallow. With a small shift of weight as he straightens his posture, Brad takes the map, tucking it into his vest pocket. “Roger that, sir,” he says, expression unreadable.

“You have the lead on this one,” Nate says. “Just a quick sweep, you don’t have to go too deep. I trust you to assess the risks as you go.”

It’s an unnecessary thing to say, Nate reads in Brad’s small smirk: however, Brad lets it slide, and with a short, snappy handshake with Poke he disappears again.

“All right, boys, it’s time to lock and load.” Poke jump smoothly to the ground, chewing the words around the Swisher Sweets cigar wedged in the corner of his mouth and held in place by his teeth. “Swift, silent, and motherfuckin’ deadly, dawg.”

“Ooh-rah,” murmur Garza and Chaffin in reply.

**

The only upside to their enemy being brainless, reanimated corpses is the lack of arty to worry about. Of course, there are Marines in his unit whose opinions differ greatly on this subject-- but from a commanding officer’s point of view, Nate thinks that his men not having to dodge a forty mike-mike while attempting a Blitzkrieg strike is solidly in the “win” column.

Another point in their favor is the continuing alarm. Nate’s throbbing eardrums are almost adjusted to it now, and it swallows whatever sound they or their Humvees have been making.

With Sergeant Espera’s team in the lead, they slowly take the last couple hundred meters on foot, fanning out in a loose formation. The dust they kick up with their boots rises on the wind; Nate shifts the weight of his M16 fully to his right hand and pulls the handkerchief around his neck up and over his nose and mouth with his freed left hand. Even then, it stings his eyes, causing them to water. At Nate’s three o’clock, Garza uses the hilt of his M16 to shatter the skull of a wandering Infected that clocks them before any of the others.

They make it to less than a hundred feet away before the rest of the Infected, clawing feebly at the wall, begin to notice; by the time they do, it’s too late.

Nate takes in a short breath, exhales, and takes the first shot. An Infected, wearing bloodstained fatigues, drops. On cue, the rest of his men open fire. Growling corpses fall in half-dozen waves as steady beads of five-five-six rounds shatter bone and pierce non-functioning organs.

They move slowly, inexorably forward. Aiming carefully to save his bullets, Nate finds himself keeping count in his head as he shoots: two, an Infected with a sagging ponytail of dirty blonde hair. Three. Four. Six. Eight. Number ten is small, what could’ve been a preteen. The smell of rot in the air grows almost unbearable.

Espera and Christopher reach the gate first. Espera fires methodically, clearing the space, as Christopher quickly pulls the bolt-cutters from his ruck and starts in on the heavy locks keeping them out.

It’s almost too easy. In-between shots, as more Infected are drawn in by the movement and sounds just to be systematically mowed down, Nate wonders how a base of this size could possibly have been overrun so quickly. Surely a military force, no matter how small, could have taken out a spreading threat of infection within minutes. It’s hard to imagine how Edwards had so quickly turned from a bustling outpost to… this.

Espera frantically signals the A-OK, and they’re in.

**

Stepping through the gate is like stepping into another world.

The horrible smell of dead bodies rotting in the heat is expected, but with it comes the additional smells of burnt rubber, melted plastic, and shit. The latter is explained by a large hole in the ground trickling putrid brown liquid onto the street.

Most likely some sort of arty hitting a sewage main, Nate thinks idly.

Around him, his men gag and spit, but have no time to cover their noses like Nate. Almost immediately, dozens of Infected turn curiously at their arrival, and many stagger forward, bearing down on them.

“Get your team to the objective, Espera!” Nate shouts. “We’ll cover you!” Espera gives him a thumbs up.

Nate’s M16 is beginning to feel light; even conserving his ammo, he’s nearly used a full magazine. Animated corpses are staggering out from every direction, from inside buildings and from underneath overturned vehicles. Dozens of them. Then more, and more, and suddenly the streets are filled with hundreds of groaning, grasping bodies snapping their blackened teeth at thin air.

Suddenly, horribly, Nate starts to understand what he’d been utterly confused by just minutes ago. Even with him and his men firing consistently into the fray, every rotting body that drops to the ground is replaced by another, and another, and another, with no reprieve. Espera’s team didn’t manage to get much farther ahead of them, too caught up in shooting to move fast enough.

Nate realizes they’ve stopped their forward momentum. If anything, they’re slowly, almost too slowly to notice, being pushed back toward the gate. Time seems to slow; the sounds of gunfire and growls and alarms fade.

Is this how they felt? he thinks in the sudden silence. Were the last moments of those men posted here spent like this—surrounded on all sides?

The effect lasts for less than a second. Nate’s body continues to move on automatic; his finger pulls the trigger, a bearded Infected in civvies in his M16’s crosshairs, and the kickback jolts the world back into focus.

Nate knows what he has to do next. It’s so stupid that it might just work.

“Mike!” he yells, as loudly as he can. “Get the men behind some cover, I’m gonna 203 them!”

“You sure that’s a good idea?” Mike shouts back.

“No, but it might be the only way to get through. Get them out of the kill zone, now! That’s an order, Gunny!”

Mike is shaking his head, but Nate doesn’t give him a chance to reply, just turns and sprints, pausing every few meters to crouch and knock an Infected out of the way with the side of his body. Once he reaches the overturned deuce and a half off to the side of the street, Nate flips his rifle back onto his shoulder.

Nate grasps the bottom of the cab of the truck and pulls himself up. His arms burn under the weight of his rifle and his ruck, but excess adrenaline gives him a sudden burst of strength, and he uses his momentum to jackknife the upper half of his body through the open window. Scrambling for purchase, Nate kicks off the steering axle between the front tires and manages to swing himself up all the way.

Breathing hard, Nate checks for Mike’s progress. Seeing nothing but more Infected emerging from the buildings, Nate checks in. “This is Hitman Two Actual,” he says into the comms. “Poke, do you copy?”

The signal is static-y and unclear, but Nate can just make out Espera’s voice. Espera makes no mention of Nate’s slip up regarding his nickname, just shouts, ”We’re good, sir. Feel free to light those motherfuckers the fuck up.”

Trying to keep his hands steady, Nate detaches a grenade from his vest. He feeds it into the M203 tube. Shit. This had better work.

As he works to establish a firm footing on the truck, Nate flashes back to snippets of one of the earliest mandatory briefings about the Infection that he’d attended:

One of the first things that has been observed of these… so-called “Infected”… is that they are first and foremost drawn to noise. Any kind of noise. Their hearing is inexplicably keen for not having any apparent working brain function. Reports have been unanimous on this subject. The Infected flock like roaches to shit to gunfire, human voices, engines. Anything.

Nate balances his weight with one foot gingerly on the soft canvas cover of the cargo bed and one on the very edge of the cab. Below him, the Infected swarm hungrily, the smell of fresh meat galvanizing them.

Secondly, these things are drawn to light. Reports on this are less clear, but this much is obvious: turn on your lights, they’ll come to your house. If you blow something up, they will absolutely head in the direction of whatever’s left to burn.

This had better fucking go the way he hopes, Nate thinks desperately. He looks down at the grenade launcher tucked neatly beneath the barrel of his rifle and recalls a different monologue, from a class that it feels like he took a lifetime ago:

The M406 has a casualty radius of one hundred and thirty meters. It has a kill radius of five. Gentlemen, you do not want to be within five meters of, or- heck, anywhere near- this grenade when it goes off. Fire carefully.

Nate fires.

Chapter Text

At first, when the explosion shakes the building, it almost feels like a small grade earthquake.

“Whoa,” Walt says, looking up from the mess of files he’s pushing around with his rifle. “You think that was us?”

Brad walks over to the window and carefully pulls the blinds down an inch. There’s black smoke issuing from a point to the west, where he knows the other teams are. He’d have to physically get out of the abandoned clinic to ascertain the cause of the explosion, but Brad does know one thing: whatever it is, it can’t mean anything good.

“It’s not enough that that fucking alarm is acting like a fucking neon party beacon anyway,” Ray bitches from the door where he’s standing watch, “someone just had to get a little trigger happy with an RPG. Great! Fucking amazing idea. Let’s get every Zulu in SoCal to come help us suck our own dicks, not like we needed the help—“

“Ray,” Brad interrupts. Ray is a nervous talker. After all these years, it should help him think, just stay background noise. It doesn’t. When Ray opens his mouth, Brad loses all power to concentrate on the task at hand.

It’s a fucking nuisance.

There’s a tinkle of glass as another muted explosion makes the building shudder once more.

“But for real, homes, what was the LT thinking when he sent us here? He totally knew the only thing we’d find here was jack and shit, and now someone’s blowing them all up into bite-size pieces of Zulu chow without the Iceman there to stop them.”

“Give it a rest, Ray,” Brad snaps, but he’s moving towards the exit without thinking anyway. He shoves a chair out of the way with a little too much force; it slams into a desk and scatters papers everywhere. “Hitman Two, this is Hitman Two One Alpha, do you copy?”

Static.

“Hitman Two One Bravo, this is Two One Alpha, how copy?”

Static.

“Dang,” says Walt, wide-eyed as he watches Brad try the comms with no success. He fumbles a bit with his Kevlar, nose scrunched. “That ain’t a good sign.”

Brad meets Ray’s eyes. His mouth is shut, but his eyes are screaming, Let’s go, let’s go, let’s go.

Brad concurs.

“There’s nothing for us here,” Brad grunts. “Let’s go see what the rest of Hitman have gotten themselves into.”

“Fucking finally,” Ray says, and Brad has nothing to say to that, because it’s true. Just another block of time they’ll never get back, even if the LT’s intentions were well meant. There was nothing to suggest that there would be survivors in this shithole excuse of a clinic in the first place—it’s nothing more than four paper-thin walls lined with browning posters advocating the use of condoms to prevent STDs, and a few fold-up chairs in a claustrophobic waiting room smeared with bloody handprints.

Jack and shit.

When they’d approached the building, they hadn’t even encountered any Infected. Even the Infected knew that there was nothing to be found here.

“Hold up,” Ray says suddenly.

Ray is looking out the door, body braced against a bright blue poster with the image of a Marine in full dress blues, face turned down and shielded, his hands over his junk. At the bottom of the poster, it says simply: Keep your priorities covered.

It’s a fucking disgrace; Brad feels the strange urge to laugh.

“Talk to me, Ray,” he says instead, and hits the opposite wall, rifle held snugly in position.

“Foot mobile approaching the building,” Ray says in a low voice. “Looks like- oh, goddammit, you stupid motherfucker.”

“Ray.”

“It’s fucking Liebgott, Brad,” Ray says hotly. “That annoying piece of shit, I thought you said Christenson was on him!”

“He was supposed to be,” Brad replies, and pushes off from the wall. In two strides he’s by Ray’s side.

“Who the fuck is this guy, anyway?” Ray whispers. “How’d he get here so quickly?”

“You saying he shook off my boy?” Q-tip says incredulously from across the room.

“He’s looking for his sister,” Walt says quietly, joining Brad against the wall. “Why are you surprised?”

“Let’s roll out, gentlemen.” Brad exchanges a look with Ray. RPG’s are being fired and now they have to babysit a fucking civilian again. Just perfect. “Ray, how are we looking?”

“All clear, dude.”

“Walt.”

Walt nods, and with a tap to Ray’s arm, he slides quietly out the door. Q-tip follows closely behind him without a word, hunched over his rifle.

“The fuck are we gonna do with this guy?” Ray hisses. “We gonna take him with us?”

“I don’t fucking know, Ray,” Brad mutters.

“We should just fucking leave him here to sort out his shit, you know? He wants to find his sister, like, so fucking what? I wanna know if my family made it out too, but do you see me going AWOL and hitchhiking through zombie wasteland to find them? No, because I’m not a fucking pussy bitch, crying into my pillow every night for my mommy. Jesus fucking Christ.” Ray spits forcefully, and looks at Brad over his shoulder, eyes wide and dark with anger. “It’s not the zombies that are gonna end us, Brad, it’s the freakin’ civilians.”

The emotion in his voice takes Brad by surprise. It’s easy to forget that, beneath the constant verbal diarrhea, sarcasm, and lighthearted hick bitching, Ray actually feels.

Instead of answering, Brad hikes up his rifle and follows Q-tip out the door.

**

“Get in the Humvee.”

“No.”

“That’s not a request, buddy.”

“Yeah? What are you gonna do, shoot me? Do it. Go ahead. Fuckin’ shoot me, then.”

Brad deliberately points his rifle to the ground, one hand on the open Humvee door. “Get in the vehicle, or I will have Walt over there come over, knock you out, and strap you to the roof.”

“Do you not speak English, asshole? I said I’m not going back till I find my sister.”

“There was nobody there, you idiot,” Ray yells angrily from the driver’s seat.

“Ray, keep your voice down,” Brad snaps, and does a quick scan around where the Humvee is parked outside of the clinic. “Just because we can’t see the enemy doesn’t mean they aren’t there. Utilize your situational fucking awareness.”

“Like they’re gonna hear us over the alarm,” Ray mutters, shoving his Kevlar on with such force that he knocks over the tin of Copenhagen from the dashboard.

Brad looks over Liebgott’s head; the smoke billowing from the west has intensified, haloing the area like a dark storm cloud. No explosions have followed in the five or so minutes since the second one went off-- Brad has no idea what that might mean.

“We searched the whole building,” he tells Liebgott. “You risked your life driving here without your Marine escort for nothing. It’s over, kid. You won’t find anything.”

The stubborn look on the boy’s face crumples momentarily. He suddenly looks five years younger.

“I’m sorry,” Brad adds, without meaning to

Ray starts up the Humvee. The roar of the engine turning over makes Liebgott jolt.

“Give me a gun,” he says suddenly to Brad.

Brad stares at him. “No.”

“Give me a gun, and I’ll get in the Humvee.”

"How about I don’t give you a weapon, and you get in the Humvee because I’m ordering you to get in the Humvee?”

Fuck it, Brad thinks when Liebgott just glares back at him with his arms crossed over his chest, the stubborn little shit. Brad moves forward in one swift movement, grabs hold of Liebgott by the arms and, bracing his lower body, bodily lifts him and tosses him into the victor.

Q-tip lets out a whoop as he passes by. “Screwby,” he says in admiration.

“Goddammit,” Liebgott yells, scrambling to keep himself from falling off the seat. “You’re a fucking asshole, you know that, Colbert?”

As Ray laughs uproariously, Brad slams the door shut and lifts himself into the passenger seat. “I am aware,” he replies without looking back. “Where is Christenson?”

“He ran off when the bomb or whatever it was went off,” Liebgott says sullenly.

A rough thump against the back of Brad’s seat jolts Brad forward. To keep from outright shooting Liebgott in the face for his irritatingly passive-aggressive, childish behavior, he leans out of his window to check on Walt and Q-tip’s progress with the Humvee Liebgott had apparently stolen to get to the clinic.

Liebgott is still talking. “And you know, Jesus christ, I don’t blame him. Your guys went into that compound with a hundred fucking zombies to a man, and Christenson freaked and took off because, apparently, Nathaniel hadn’t said anything about setting off a freakin’ bomb, which means something went wrong. So, like I said: give. Me. A gun. I can help.”

Something about the way Liebgott says the LT’s name so casually makes Brad suddenly, viciously angry. He clenches his jaw. “Whenever you’re ready, Ray.”

“Aye-aye, captain,” Ray says, and shifts to drive just as the comms crackle to life.

“Wait.” Brad holds up a hand.

”Hitman Two, this is Two One Bravo,” Poke’s panicked voice fills the Humvee.

Brad’s blood turns to ice.

”LT, do you fucking copy? LT? LT!”

Ray’s eyes are wide as saucers as he stares back at Brad.

“I say again, Hitman Two, do you copy? Fuck. All Hitman teams, this is Two One Bravo, does anyone have eyes on the LT?”

”That’s a neg, Two One Bravo. Keep your team on your objective, Rudy and I are on it.”

”Roger that, Two Three. Brad, if you’re listening- you’d better get down here ASAP.”

Ray is hitting the accelerator before Brad says a word.

**

The black, noxious smoke rising into the sky leads them straight to the rest of the platoon. The makeshift gate is half shattered and blocked by stumbling, groaning Infected. The sight sends Brad’s blood pressure through the roof, and he exhales slowly through his nose to try to calm his pounding heart. It doesn’t help.

Without a word, he gets out of the Humvee, walks around to the back, and reaches past Liebgott for his Beretta.

“Don’t make me regret this,” Brad says sharply, and-- before he can change his mind-- checks the safety before tossing it onto Liebgott’s lap. “If you do, I will not hesitate to put a bullet between your eyes.”

“Uh,” Liebgott says, staring down at the pistol. “Seriously?”

“Stay close.” Ray tosses over his shoulder, then casually adds: “Oh yeah, and if you shoot me in the back, homes? You won’t have to wait for Brad to kill you before you find my fist shoved up your asshole, ripping your fucking guts out.”

Brad signals to Walt, who abruptly parks the other Humvee in a spray of sand ahead of them.

“All Hitman teams, this is Two One Alpha. We are entering the compound.”

**

It takes them half a clip each to clear the Infected clawing at the gate. It takes Brad three steps into the compound to see the cause of the smoke.

And it takes Brad all of five seconds to understand why Pappy and Gunny Wynn, faces contorted with panic, are on top of the smoking, twisted pile of metal that looks to have once been a military-issue deuce and a half.

“Ray, Walt, go assist Rudy and Budweiser in clearing the street,” Brad snaps. “Q-tip, watch the gate. Liebgott, take cover.”

“Wait, you—“

“Do not fucking argue with me, take cover or I will break your legs and throw you over the wall.”

“Motherfucker,” Liebgott mutters, but obeys.

Brad breaks into a run.

His limbs feel so heavy, his senses so dulled with panic, that he feels like he’s running in a dream: wanting, needing to run as fast as he can, only to find his limbs uncooperative, the air thick and hampering his movements.

A lone Infected gets in his way; it has a ragged hole in its chest but it is still moving, dragging its feet through the bloody pieces of countless other Infected. It’s wearing Air Force colors, but Brad only sees the blonde-brown high and tight, and he desperately, foolishly thinks: Nate.

He doesn’t even bother with a bullet. With one angry blow, the butt of his rifle cracks open its skull.

“Brad!” Pappy calls out, sighting him.

“Talk to me.”

“Poke tell you?”

“A 203.”

“Two,” corrects Gunny with a grimace. There’s so much grime and blood on his face that Brad can barely make out his features. “The LT fucking stood on top of the truck and fired two fucking M406’s into the street.”

“Shit.” Brad slings his rifle onto his shoulder with shaking hands. “He under there?”

Gunny nods grimly and throws the twisted remains of a truck door to the side with a wince of what looks like pain. Brad climbs onto the wreckage and realizes why: the metal is so hot to the touch that the skin of his fingers tingle when he reaches down to help.

“Hang on, Nate, we’ll get you out of there,” Gunny yells. “Just hang on.”

“Fu--fucking,” says a weak voice from beneath the rubble, “fucking hurry the fuck up, Mike.”

Brad’s heart leaps into his throat.

“Yeah, you got it, Nate,” Gunny says, and laughs, almost hysterically. “You crazy bastard.”

When Brad uncovers the filthy hand under the next scrap of metal, he feels absolutely nothing as he grips it as tight as he can and pulls, and when the LT’s face emerges, a long and jagged cut above his right eyebrow oozing blood, Brad bites down on his tongue and concentrates on the burn of his arm muscles as he and Pappy haul him out.

“Jesus, Nate,” Gunny mutters, bending over him and patting him down.

“Yeah,” the LT coughs weakly. “Thought I died there for a second.” He looks up, past Gunny’s head, to meet Brad’s eyes, and the corner of his mouth quirks up. “All’s well that ends well, right?”

It’s suddenly all too much. Brad has a vivid image of the LT, standing on the truck with nothing but Infected below him, not thinking of the danger of what he was about to do. Only thinking of the safety of his men.

It pisses him the fuck off.

Brad turns away furiously, a finger on his comm switch, looking anywhere but at his LT and his bloody, blackened face.

“Brad?” Gunny calls after him.

“I’m pulling my team to rendezvous with Two One Bravo,” Brad says, keeping his voice flat.

“Right,” says Gunny. He sounds like he wants to say more, but simply adds, after a pause, “Clear the building and report back ASAP.”

“Roger that.”

Anger at the LT’s stupidity still coursing through him, Brad walks away and signals to Walt and Ray, who are standing in the middle of the road a few paces away firing at the Infected left standing. There aren’t many.

“Hitman Two One Bravo, this is Two One Actual. What’s your 20, over?”

”Bout time, papi. We’re up four blocks from you. The LT okay?”

“He’ll live,” Brad says shortly. It’s hard to speak over the furious rush of blood in his ears. “I’m bringing the civilian. Try not to shoot on sight.”

”Like hell! That white boy is the only amusement we got out here. But, hey, dawg- you sure that’s a good idea?”

“No,” Brad replies honestly, watching Ray in the distance drop a torn up Infected with a clean headshot. Poke’s loud laughter makes his earpiece whine in protest.

**

“Holy shit, you weren’t kidding,” Poke whistles when they approach. “You actually brought white boy with you.”

“Well, technically,” Ray says cheerfully, “little Liebgott is a full-on, menorah-toting, break-a-glass-at-the-wedding bacon-eschewing Christ killer like our Bradley here, which means he actually isn’t a white boy. He’s like, fucking, off-white or some shit.”

“Ray?” Brads says, kneeling next to Poke by the entrance to the building. “Guess what time it is?”

“Time to shoot some more Zulu motherfuckers?” Ray asks, grinning crookedly and nudging Walt in the side. Walt bites back a smile and nudges him back.

“That too,” Brad replies calmly. “But mainly it’s time for you-“

“I eat bacon,” Liebgott protests. “I’m agnostic!”

“-to shut the fuck up. You too, kid.”

“White is white, dawg.” Poke shakes his head at Ray. “Ya’ll just different shades of white sons of bitches in the eyes of a black man.”

“Jesus Christ,” Brad mutters to himself. “Any day now, Poke.”

Poke grins through the Infected blood and dirt on his face. “Count it.”

Brad complies. “Three, two, one-“

They haul ass one by one through the narrow side door to the building. The ground floor lobby is in blackened ruins, the floor eaten clean through by fire, its concrete foundation naked and exposed. There are dozens of bodies littering the ground, burned beyond hope of recognition. At first there’s it’s difficult to tell if they were civilians or military, but then Brad spots the dull glint of a rifle barrel poking out from beneath one of the bodies.

“One hell of a barbecue,” he hears Ray mutter from behind him. “Bit of an overkill, don’tcha think?”

Poke gestures with his head towards a door that looks like a fire escape. Brad nods and motions for the others to follow Poke, and takes up a position by one of the smashed-in windows.

From his position, he can’t see the main gate, or the truck remains beside it. He feels a rush of renewed anger and tries to push it down, scanning the perimeter of the building for movement.

Fucking Nate. Fucking Nate. Un-fucking-believable.

Brad counts five mikes in his head, standing guard with a silent and surprisingly solemn Liebgott nudging at the burned bodies with a foot, before Poke checks in.

“Two One Alpha, this is Two One Bravo, how copy?”

“Send it.”

“We found something.”

Keeping his eyes on the road leading past the front of the building, Brad replies, “Heat?”

“Yep. Motherfucker was hiding in the cupboard, smells like you wouldn’t believe. We’re bringing him down, he’s out solid. Fuckin’ fainted when we opened the closet. Think he’s in shock or something.”

“Did you check for bites?”

“All clean, dawg. Just dehydrated, looks like. Probably been shut up in here for like, a few days?”

“Roger that.” Brad switches frequencies to one that makes his fingers itch. “Hitman Two, this is Two One Alpha, how copy?”

“Loud and clear, Brad, go ahead,” Gunny replies in lieu of the LT. Despite anticipating it, Brad experiences a dull twist in his stomach at the sound of Gunny’s voice.

“We are transporting one unconscious and dehydrated civilian from our target, ETA to rendezvous point five mikes, how copy?”

“Solid copy, Sergeant Colbert. Good work.”

When Poke and the others reappear, carrying the slumped and unconscious body of a man between them, Brad asks, “Building clear?”

“Couple lone Zulus on the upper floors, but nothing to worry about,” Poke replies. “Fire down here probably drew most of ‘em down.”

Brad looks down at the unconscious civilian. He’s filthy and disheveled, with days’ worth of black stubble, and reeking to high heaven. Underneath the film of filth and neglected body hair, though, he looks young and undamaged, like a baby-faced college student that maybe picks up a few modeling jobs on the side to help pay off his student loans.

Brad is also pretty sure he saw a male stripper in Vegas once that looked almost identical to him. Just another west coast pretty boy with cocksucker lips, in the wrong place at the wrong time.

“How the fuck did this pretty boy live through this mess is what I’d like to know,” Ray says loudly, somehow vocalizing exactly what Brad is thinking. “Musta sucked some hella good Zulu cock to make it this far.”

“Don’t even fucking go there, Ray, you disgusting hick,” Walt says in annoyance, although he’s hiding a smile. “That’s fucking awful.”

“Don’t deny it, Walt, you were totally thinking it too.”

“Course I wasn’t, you freak of nature.”

“Mm, yeah baby, talk dirty to me.”

“I fuckin’ hate you, you know that?”

“Hey, wait a minute,” says Liebgott suddenly. He’s staring down at the man with a furrowed brow. “Hey, I fuckin’ know this guy.”

Brad waves at Poke to continue carrying him out. “What?”

“Yeah, man, he’s like- I think he’s the guy that picked a fight with me at some shitty college bar near here. What the hell, man.” Liebgott looks a little lost, staring after the others who have already carried College Boy out of the building. “That’s fucked up.”

Somehow Brad isn’t at all surprised. “Well, then. You can be there when he wakes up. So he can see a friendly face.”

Liebgott blanches. “I can’t,” he says, a little wildly. “I- I’m pretty sure I punched him in the mouth and called him a pussy Ivy League faggot.”

Interesting. If he didn’t despise Liebgott’s very existence to the extent that he already did, Brad might even be impressed.

Brad walks past him and out of the side door.

“I’m serious, Colbert, he-“

“Sergeant Colbert,” Brad corrects absent-mindedly, stepping out into the sunlight. A zombie shuffles toward them from around the corner of the building, arms outstretched. He reaches over, grabs his pistol out of Liebgott’s hand, and fires.

Headshot. The zombie falls.

“Sergeant, yeah, right, uh, Sergeant Colbert. I mean, I don’t even know if that was him, you know? I mean, he didn’t have those pubes on his face last time I saw him, I mean, that was months ago, but still…”

Liebgott rambles all the way back to the main gate, eyes fixed on the men in front of them, apparently not even noticing that he’s no longer holding Brad’s pistol in his hand.

Brad lets him. It helps him keep his mind off of the way Nate had looked at him when he’d emerged from beneath the ruins of the truck—like he never thought he’d see Brad again, and was drinking in the sight of him like Brad was an oasis and Nate was dying of thirst.

The mere thought is, again, so goddamn homosexual that it makes Brad even angrier at the entire world and this whole fucked up situation, so he just tunes in to Liebgott’s panicked stuttering and tries to forget about how he’d felt when he’d thought he’d never see Nate again.

**

“Wh-wha?” says College Boy blearily, blinking rapidly. “Where am I? Am I dead?”

“Yeah, dude, welcome to paradise,” Ray says in amusement.

“They got me,” the man says faintly. “I- no. I thought they fucking got me. They didn’t. I’m- I’m alive.”

“Jesus,” Ray whispers, slanting a gleeful look at Brad. “This guy’s fucking gone ‘round the bend. What’s your name, crazy?”

Brad looks over to the back seat; Liebgott is shrinking away from the man, looking terrified that he’s regained consciousness. In one hand Liebgott is holding the clear plastic pack for the intravenous hydration drip attached to the man’s left arm, and he looks close to dropping it in his desperation to put as much space between them as the small Humvee will allow.

“David. Webster,” the man croaks. “Water.”

“David Webster Water?” Liebgott asks dumbly. “The fuck kinda name is that?”

“No,” rasps David Webster irritably. “Water.”

“Liebgott,” Brad says sharply. "Give the man some water."

“Oh! I thought you meant-yeah! Shit!” Liebgott yelps, and carefully sets the bag down onto his lap before unscrewing a bottle of water. He holds it to the man’s lips just as Ray happens to drive over a lump of desert shrub.

Half of the bottle neatly empties onto Webster’s face.

“Pffffftttttt,” Webster splutters, looking shell-shocked. Liebgott swears loudly, fumbling with the bottle.

Brad very carefully looks back out of the front of the Humvee and does not smile. Ray, however, freely shrieks with laughter.

“Are you kidding me right now?” Webster gasps. Any more melodramatic and he could snag a spot on one of those day-time soaps that Brad’s mother always used to secretly watch.

Come to think of it, Brad’s pretty sure there was an actor that also looked exactly like Webster on Days of Our Lives back in the day. Either Webster just has an incredibly generic Pretty White Boy face, or Brad is suffering from false memory syndrome.

“That was totally not my fault!” Liebgott says loudly. “You needed a fucking shower anyway, though, so- you’re welcome.”

“I’m recovering from nearly dying,” Webster starts dramatically.

Ray howls, nearly driving them off the road. Brad firmly grips the dashboard with the hand not holding his rifle and sends Ray a warning glare.

“How did you not die, anyway?” Ray tosses over his shoulder once he’s finished crying with laughter, and peers at Webster in the rear view mirror. “Like, dude, that place was a freakin’ mess, the lobby was burnt like a Texas barbecue with like, a shitload of dudes inside it, and you were all alone upstairs shitting all over yourself in a tiny little closet. And you survived. Major props, homes, it’s a fucking miracle.”

“Did you notice the way the room smelled?” Webster asks, fucking randomly.

Brad raises his eyebrows, resisting the urge to send an incredulous look to the back seat.

“Uh,” Ray says, and snorts into a fist. “That’s not a weird fucking question at all, but okay, I’ll play ball. I don’t know, it, uh, smelled like your piss? I guess?”

Webster makes a little noise that sounds a little like ‘ugh’, although Brad can’t be sure. “You couldn’t smell the cologne?”

The Humvee is silent. Then Walt shouts down, “Hey, yeah! I thought I smelt cologne when I first went into the room! And there were a bunch of smashed bottles in the doorway.”

“Seriously?” Ray asks incredulously.

“That’s how they didn’t find me,” Webster says, a little smugly. “Can I- thanks.” He pauses to drink. “I figured out in the first week that they have a heightened sense of- well, everything, but mainly smell. That’s how they find their prey. Ever had a zombie search an empty building for you, and pinpoint exactly where you’re hiding?”

There’s another silence.

Then: “Yeah,” Liebgott says softly. “Goddamn.”

Ray looks over at Brad again, brow furrowed. “Yeah, we were briefed about that shit, too.”

“Well, the cologne masked my scent. Surprised the fire didn’t get me, though.”

“Where’d you get the cologne, though?” asks Ray.

Webster doesn’t answer right away. Brad thinks the silence is a little shifty.

“It was all yours, wasn’t it,” Liebgott says suspiciously.

“I like to smell good, okay!” Webster bursts out, voice grown surprisingly strong, no longer reedy and sounding close to passing out. “Are you seriously giving me shit for owning more than one brand of cologne?”

“I mean, you gotta admit, man- ten? That’s a little gay.”

“What, you’re using gay as an insult, now? It’s the twenty first century, and we are in the middle of an apocalypse, and you’re clinging to that prepubescent Youtube commenter mindset?”

“No, I mean- it’s just gay. That’s all. You ain’t gotta get all deep on me and shit. ”

Webster scoffs and holds out his hand. Liebgott rolls his eyes, but opens a fresh bottle of water for him anyway.

“What else can you tell us about the Infected?” Brad asks.

“A lot,” Webster replies, and gestures with his chin at Liebgott, who feeds him the water bottle with another eyeroll.

"Oh, gee, you don't say,” Ray says.

“I was on the research team on base,” Webster continues quickly. “A couple other like-minded scholars and myself- we started a think-tank, and conducted a series of preliminary tests on a couple corpses. That, coupled with my street experience, gave us a lot of information that the upper echelon on base planned to present to what’s left of our government. I have some of my notes with me.”

“Get outta here, you serious?” Liebgott says, almost admiringly. “What you study in college, science or some shit?”

Webster doesn’t answer immediately, just clears his throat and adjusts his seating position. “Literature,” he says in a small voice.

“Je-sus Christ,” Brad mutters to himself. Fucking unbelievable. Street experience. Asshole.

“I went to Harvard,” Webster says defensively, as if he expected that to matter. “I’ll show you my notes. At the base we had just formed a tentative hypothesis about how this all started in the first place. I’m sure your superiors would find it very enlightening. Those zombies, the ones you guys dealt with out there today? They're not the ones you have to worry about.”

“If our superiors manage to make it out of this without fucking dying from internal bleeding,” Ray mutters, and then shoots Brad a look that’s almost terrified. “Uh, sorry, Brad. I mean-“

“When we find a place to camp for the night,” Brad says, ignoring Ray and the tight feeling in his own chest, “I and my Gunnery Sergeant will debrief you properly. Until then, it’s probably best that you keep this information to yourself.” Brad leans in to meet Webster’s eyes in the rearview mirror. “Understood?”

Webster swallows. “Y-yeah, okay.”

“Get some rest.” Brad leans back over his rifle, watching the desert roll by. “You’re gonna need it.”

Chapter Text

“You know there was a scientific study stating that playing video games makes you a better soldier?”

“Yeah, no shit. A better soldier and a better psycho. Where did this come from all of a sudden?”

“Nowhere. …It’s nothing.”

Braaaaaaad.”

“…Just. Nothing.”

“….”

“…Just thinking about Trombley. You ever do that?”

“I guess. Happens sometimes. Know what I do?”

“If you answer your own question with something obscene, Ray, I swear on the life of the deadbeat five-dollar-crack-whore-frequenting hemorrhoidal truck-driver father you’ve never met that I will—“

“—See, what I do is I take a piss, ‘cause then I focus on my dick and not our psycho son. Ex-son. Fuck, I dunno, what do you call a fake son that goes off and gets eaten by monsters?”

“—dump you on the side of the road and shoot you. Execution style.”

Whoops. Should’ve let you finish your sentence, huh. Now I have to fear for my life and drive at the same time.”

“Nevermind. I brought it up. Maybe I’m to blame. ”

“Yeah, Bradley. Maybe think before you speak next tim- whoa, whoa! Not cool, dude!”

“I did nothing.”

“Whatever, don’t pretend your finger didn’t just twitch towards the trigger there, buddy. I’m gonna go tell the LT I feel unsafe and uncomfortable in the same victor as you.”

“I feel unsafe and uncomfortable when you get unnecessarily graphic about the disease-ridden barnyard mating rituals you undergo with your various pig-farming girlfriends, but that doesn’t mean I go crying to command. Kids these days, too coddled.”

“Coddled schmoddled. I’m kinda surprised we didn’t get our heads shrunk after that mission, though. Having your adoptee get his face chewed off right in front of you can cause, like, serious psychological issues, you know? I’m probably gonna jump you one day out of the blue, taking out all my nervous PTSD energy.”

“Stop referring to Trombley as our son, Ray.”

“Yeah. …hey, Brad?”

“Yes, Ray.”

“When you say thinking about Tombley, do you sometimes think… Like, you know, was it our fault? …Brad, did you hear what I just-“

“I don’t know, Ray. Casualties in war are an inevitability.”

“Man, that’s fucking bullshit, and you know it.”

“What do you suggest we could have done?”

“I… fuckin’, I don’t- prepared him better? Had him stay in the Humvee? Not have him take up a rear position? Jesus, Brad, anything.”

“Not anything. Nothing. It was inevitable, like every other meaningless death in this incomprehensible war. It’s been over a month since patient zero, right? Since then, military personnel have been dying in the hundreds of thousands. As far as we know, only 15 percent of active duty personnel in all branches of the military across the nation are left. 15 percent to search out surviving civilians, keep them safe, and battle an enemy force that is growing in numbers every second.”

“We have, fuckin’… bombs. Missiles-”

“Scattered all over the country. With limited access.”

“Yeah, but-“

“We have such limited reserves of aviation fuel that we couldn’t even cas-evac one of our own. We are physically driving across the country to find a doctor because radio relays are FUBAR, satellites are locked down, and we can’t communicate with other bases.”

"I know."

"I know you know, Ray. You may act it, but you're not genuinely mentally deficient."

“…We still could have done something.”

“Well, we didn’t.”

“Brad?”

“Yes.”

“We’re gonna die, aren’t we.”

“….”

“The President had a bunker. A bunker, and a whole fuckin’ Secret Service Unit, and a handful of military generals in the bunker with him. He died.”

“…Yes.”

They all died.”

“Yes.”

“And… shit, hold on.”

“My breath is baited.”

“No, no, Brad— Brad. You hearing this?”

“…Is that what I think it is?”

“Yeah. That’s a fuckin’—that’s a fuckin’ signal! What was that you were saying about radio relays being FUBAR?”

 

**

A stabbing pain, somewhere near his esophagus, punctuates every breath Nate takes. It’s bad. It’s really bad- he knows this, feels it with even the tiniest movement, ice-hot daggers slicing nerves. Mike slants him looks that are lectures in themselves, but doesn’t do much other than hand him a lukewarm bottle of water every time Nate starts to wheeze too hard.

Sometimes, Mike forgives him for far too much.

Since it’s difficult to stand on legs that lazily ooze blood from multiple wounds every time he so much as coughs, he’s now sitting awkwardly in the back of the Humvee with the Team Leaders gathered around him. Dust tickles the back of his throat; everyone looks exhausted and a little manic, running on no sleep and leftover adrenaline from the battle.

Everyone’s looking at him like they’re afraid he’ll collapse and die right before their eyes.

“It’s true,” Ray is saying eagerly, a trembling, glowing mass of excitement pinned by the cold gaze of Brad beside him. “It was rough, but I swear it was legit, sir, an encrypted distress signal on the 25 keg over the SINCGARS—which is, like, totally fucked up because there’s been no one on that frequency for weeks, I've been monitering it, and-“

“Ray,” Brad interrupts him quietly.

Ray bristles, then shakes his head- a brisk side-to-side, like he’s trying to wake himself up- and leans in, balancing his weight on the back of the Humvee, his sunburnt hands gripping the edge of it like a lifeline.

“It was an airborne link, LT,” he says. “Army. Fort Campbell, though why they’re all the way out here is insane and who the fuck knows why. Anyways. From what I could decipher from the codes, sounded like a downed C-17. Also weird, since I thought that the 101st use Black Hawks or some shit, but who am I to judge in these crazy times?”

Everyone exchanges looks, mostly dubious.

“They’re close,” Ray finishes triumphantly. “The distress signal is looped, but it also wasn’t there half a day ago.”

As Nate takes a moment to digest the new information—with his body still not recovered from engaging in actual war mere hours earlier- he notes abstractly that Ray still has the remains of instant coffee crystals on the side of his mouth.

“Noted, Corporal,” Nate replies, exchanging a glance with Mike, who is looking dubious. “Thank you for your swift action in relaying this information.”

Ray is still vibrating. “So, are we gonna do something?” he asks. “This is our first contact with a military base from outside the state since this shitshow began, LT, aren’t we gonna-“

Brad lays a hand on Ray’s shoulder, stopping him in his tracks, and gives him a minuscule shake of his head. “That’ll be all, Corporal,” he says calmly.

A muscle in Ray’s neck twitches, like his actual body is trying to reject the gentle command. He says, “Wait, seriously? We’re not gonna do anything? LT?”

“We will, Ray,” says Mike gently, “so hurry up and wait while we sort this stuff out. We got enough on our plates right now without you pissin’ off the LT while he’s sat here sufferin’ from savin’ all’y’all’s asses. “

With wide eyes, and Brad’s hand guiding him, Ray turns and stalks away, muttering under his breath.

“We’ll make that first priority,” Nate says to the Team Leaders once Ray is out of earshot. “Once we near the source of the signal, Sergeant Espera, I want you to lead a small recon team with rations and med packs, just in case we’re dealing with survivors.”

“What are we going to do if we do end up with a bunch of injured soldiers, LT?” asks Espera blankly.

“We help them to the best of our ability,” Nate replies calmly, shifting to sit up a little straighter. He immediately regrets it as his body seizes up in pain, and his vision blurs. “Then we continuewithourmission,” he finishes, words coming out on a wheeze.

His men are looking at him in terror.

“Playing the Good Samaritan is great and all, LT,” says Pappy slowly, an arm outstretched like he’s trying to support Nate from afar, “but it ain’t worth it if we end up losing you ‘fore we find a doctor.”

“Thank you for your concern.”

Mike clears his throat. “You heard him, gents: we’re Oscar Mike in ten. Gear up.”

“No use standing around here with our dicks in our hands,” Brad agrees. He shoots Espera a look that Nate can’t read, but Espera apparently understands, because Espera huffs and- with a last worried look at Nate- returns to his victor. Pappy and Rudy follow, brows furrowed and murmuring to each other.

Brad stays where he is. His brow is furrowed.

Nate, trying to get his breathing under control, says, “Was there—something else—Sergeant?”

“I hate to add more to the… plate,” Brad starts, then pauses, not looking directly at Nate. He focuses instead on Mike. “But I have a small matter to report regarding our newest civilian parasite.”

“Can it wait?” asks Mike, sounding weary.

“Probably.” Brad shifts, looking uncomfortable. “David Webster claims to have vital information about the Infected. He wishes to speak directly with the lieutenant.”

The lieutenant who is sitting right here in front of you, Nate thinks in irritation.

“Thanks Brad,” he says aloud. “I’ll talk to him when Espera’s team is on the move and we’re situated in a safer position.”

Brad nods. “Sir.” He turns stiffly and walks away.

Stubborn bastard. Nate breathes out sharply through his nose.

“Colder than Kandahar up in here,” Mike notes casually. He adjusts his Kevlar and leans up against the back of the truck. “Something you’d like to get off your chest?”

“Besides the elephant that’s apparently sitting on it?” Nate sighs. “I’ve been getting the cold shoulder so much recently that it almost feel normal, now.”

“Speakin’ of them elephants- let’s get a look.”

With Mike’s help, Nate pulls the edge of his fatigues up with slow, painful movements, and Mike lets out a slow whistle. “Damn, Nate. What did you do, blow up a truck with you still on top of it?”

“Very funny.”

Nate’s stomach is blotchy with fresh bruising, skin reddened and swollen under the flesh wounds. He touches a tender patch by his belly button, awed by the flash fire of pain that rushes over his nerves at the simple brush of fingers.

“’Least you ain’t pukin’ or shittin’ blood yet. Any sign of decreased blood pressure?”

“Not so far.”

“Wish there were a more obvious way of diagnosin’ internal bleeding,” Mike mutters. “Hate just sittin’ here, waiting for you to pass out and drown in your own blood.”

They both take a moment to stare at the damage slowly tearing his body down. Around them, the convoy roars to life one engine at a time. Nate sighs, and covers himself up with effort. “Turn it over, Mike. We’ve got a long few days ahead of us.”

“And I’m keeping you chained here in the back,” replies Mike, patting him gently on the shoulder, “‘case you get in your mind to blow yourself up again.”

“Thanks. Your bedside manner is great, by the way. Have I said that yet?”

“Twice. Must be the short-term memory loss.”

“Just start the Humvee, Mike.”

**

When Espera comes to him later, soft cover in his hands, Nate knows before he opens his mouth what he’s going to say.

There were no survivors. The recon team discovered signs of dozens of civilian passengers as well as military personnel, but only the bodies of the crew remained in the plane or scattered around the scene. They’d managed to retrieve the cockpit voice recorder for Ray to dismantle and hack into with some spit and a prayer, but otherwise… nothing.

Espera looks weary during his debrief; Nate thinks they’ve all seen too many dead servicemen, too many warriors killed in a war impossible to win. There’s a ragged cut on Espera’s cheeks, dried blood smeared across his jaw. His hands are filthy, dark with soot and something shinier. Redder.

“What do you have planned for them?” Nate asks softly, when he’s finished speaking.

Espera looks startled. “What’s that, LT?”

“The dogtags you collected from the paratroopers.”

“I… thought of making a memorial when we get back to Pendleton,” replies Espera. He looks shaken, staring at Nate incredulously. “How’d you know?”

Nate gestures to Espera’s hands with a tip of his chin. The action activates at least five damaged muscles in a chain-reaction of pain. Through it he grits out, “Just a hunch. Can’t get that much blood on your hands by just retrieving a CVR.”

“No, sir. Good hunch. Hope it won’t be a prob-“

“Don’t be ridiculous,” Nate says sharply. “Keep it up, Sergeant. Gather as many as you can. Spread this word, I want the whole platoon doing the same. I wish I’d thought of it myself.”

“Thank you, sir,” Espera nods, eyes bright. He reaches up to touch the slightly-bulging breast pocket of his Kevlar vest; a brief, unconscious movement. “Roger that.”

**

Nate makes it to nineteen hundred hours and their next pit stop before the chills set in.

“Crap, it’s starting,” he hears Mike say, from somewhere far, far, far away, but it’s too cold to understand, so cold his bones hurt from his teeth clattering too hard, they’ll shatter if someone doesn’t turn the heat back on soon, and where’s Brad? He hears Brad. What’s starting?

He wishes it weren’t so cold. The pain would be easier, then.

Something touches his forehead, a shadow, a cool relief that somehow warms his body at the same time. He doesn’t know if it’s dark outside or if he just can’t see. Hours bleed into each other as he grows colder and colder.

Did the downed C-17 have any survivors? Sergeant Espera never came back to tell him what happened.

He needs to ask when the heat comes back on. Heat is a commodity here in Camp Pendleton, he knows they need to ration out generator use. He does. He’s just so, so cold, and everything is dark, and he needs to be up tomorrow at 0700 for a briefing. Godfather will be furious if he’s late.

No, wait. Espera did tell him what happened. They’re dead. They’re all dead. They’re not in Pendleton anymore, they’re out in the desert, all of them, and there was nothing they could do.

He can still hear Brad speaking to him. He hears Brad say his name. He tries to say Brad’s name back to him, tell him how cold he is, ask him why he’s here… but then something soft briefly covers his mouth and he can’t speak. His body is warm for a full minute after. Finally, finally warm.

The world drops away from under him, and he is floating.

Nate closes his eyes.

**

Somewhere—miles and miles away— a raven caws its frustration out into the darkening twilight. The wind picks up the sound and carries it over hills and valleys and abandoned fields, through empty towns and under crumbling bridges.

Somewhere in the distance a raven caws, and Dick Winters opens his eyes.

Chapter Text

D-Day +23 (West Virginia)

 

Dick used to like driving. Used to like plotting routes, used to like to watch the road stretch ahead like a promise. Driving meant getting somewhere, meant goals, destinations, plans. His hands on the wheel, the engine a thrumming live beast beneath his foot—it all means nothing so symbolic anymore. Maybe it still can, maybe there’s a possibility there, but Dick can’t feel it.

They have a goal, at least. A semblance of one. The faces around him are set in determination, set in expressions that aren’t exactly hopeful (no, none of them are so naïve anymore,) but still speak of something other than the despair that continues to linger like a dark cloud.

Nix doesn’t say much, though it’s not like he ever really needed to. While Dick drives, Nix climbs across the resting limbs of those recovering from night watch and sits beside him, legs kicked up on the dashboard and only a small indentation between his eyebrows. When they’re together like this, Dick can breathe, and for a few precious moments, the dark cloud gives way to sunshine.

 

D-Day +24 (West Virginia)

 

 

“Anything?”

“Nope.”

Luz huffs through his nose and nudges the walkie-talkie with the screwdriver in his hand. “Lip has a Kindle with 500 million books on it, and no Walkie-Talkies Mechanics for Dummies? Geez. It’s probably all just porn or somethin’.”

Toye shrugs and takes a seat next to Luz’s cot. “Can you even watch porn on a Kindle?”

“How the hell should I know, Joe? I look like I’m the kinda guy that watches porn on my Kindle? Ask Lip.”

“I don’t watch porn on my Kindle,” comes Lip’s voice from the back of the RV.

“See? Told you he’d know.”

“Yeah.”

There’s a beat, and then Joe takes the walkie-talkie out of Luz’s hand.

“Hey, man! Not cool!”

“Yeah.” Toye takes the screwdriver next.

“Goddammit,” Luz mutters. “What do you know about tech stuff anyway, huh? Aren’t you a chef?”

“Cook.”

“Whatever. Don’t break my walkie-talkie.”

“Shut up, just lemme look at it a second, will ya? And it’s already fuckin’ broken!”

Eugene sighs and pulls his blanket up over his ears to block out their bickering. It’s hard to tell if they actually enjoy each other’s company or not, what with all the arguin’ and such, but Toye hasn’t left Luz’s bedside since they moved out of the campsite, so… there’s that, anyway. They’re driving everyone in the RV insane, although Babe is sure giving them a run for their money, far as Eugene’s concerned.

Through the blanket covering his body, Eugene feels a poke in his side. Speak of the devil.

“Not now, Babe,” Eugene says. It comes out a growl.

Another poke, this time more insistent.

Heffron—“

“Aw, c’mon, Gene. What if I were dyin’, huh? What if I had some, some infection that’s creeping into my eyeballs, about to kill me, an’ you were ignorin’ me just ‘cause you wanted to sleep? Huh?”

Holding in another sigh, Eugene flings the blanket from off of his head. Babe’s eyes are wide, hopeful circles in his freckled face.

“What,” says Eugene. It comes out terse. He’s too tired to care.

Babe bites his lip. “Can I have some orange juice?” He curls back protectively, but still has the gall to stick his lip out in a puppy-dog pout, stroking a hand pointedly over his bandaged shoulder.

In the background, Toye throws the walkie-talkie at Luz’s head. The ensuing uproar is enough to distract Eugene from the twinge his stomach gives at the sight of Babe’s mouth all puckered up like that.

“I swear I’m gonna kill you one o’ these days, Babe,” he mutters, and Heffron uncurls to beam at him.

**

They stop the RVs on a grassy field overlooking an apple orchard. The trees are heavy with unpicked fruit, the ground beneath littered with juicy, fermenting remains. The air is heavy with the sweet-sour smell, enough to make a man punch-drunk, and Carwood inhales it like he’s breathing oxygen for the first time in a week.

“That’s gonna be a mealy crop,” says Speirs as they unload from the RV to stretch their legs, but he’s grinning, smile stretching from ear to ear. Carwood nearly stumbles over nothing just at the sight of it.

“And just what makes you an expert on apple pickin’, sir?” Carwood asks, teasing. He stretches, hands at the small of his back, and groans when his back cracks neatly in five places at once. Pop pop.

Speirs watches him without saying a word, his grin fading to a smaller smile, lingering and almost sad.

Carwood moves on to stretching his arms, trying to ignore the staring. He should be used to it by now, but Lord knows it’s been weeks and he still gets lightheaded. “My mama had apple trees on her property. I picked them with my brother every August, rain or shine. Mama’s apple jam was famous county-wide.”

Speirs folds his arms neatly across his chest, still watching with a small smile on his lips. “You can make jam out of apples?”

“Among other things. Her preserves were great, too.”

“Aren’t those the same thing?”

Carwood looks up at him a moment, up from under his lashes, and laughs when he sees that Speirs looks completely serious. “Apple butter, apple chutney, applesauce—there’s a million things you can do with apples, sir, and they’re not all the same by a mile. Heck, we gather enough apples and I’ll show you myself.”

“Don’t think I’ve ever tasted apple butter,” Spiers muses. He looks out over the orchard, away from Lip. “I’d like that.”

“Jesus Christ,” someone mutters as they brush past him, “if ya ever see me flirtin’ by talkin’ ‘bout applesauce, Harry, you shoot me right between the eyes, ya hear me?”

“Copy that.”

Carwood stutters on his next words as Guarnere and Harry pass them, snickering to each other, but Speirs just keeps smiling that strange little smile.

“You don’t have to call me sir, you know,” he says to Carwood, after a minute of quiet.

Carwood swallows. “Yessir,” he replies. “I know.”

The hills ring with the sound of joyous yells and rotten apples flung at unsuspecting heads. It’s a small respite from the nightmares and memories, but it’s more than welcome, and Carwood holds his pistol at the ready as he follows Speirs down into the orchard.

**

“You ever make apple cider before, Kitty?”

Kitty’s cheeks are a pretty pink as she bites into an apple. It’s so soft that it doesn’t even make a sound, but she moans with pleasure anyway, wiping at the juice dripping down off her chin with a giggle. “No, never. Have you?”

Harry grins at her, wanting to show her how deeply invested he is in both their conversation and also his willingness to share with her every single piece of information that he knows, including information on his past and their possible— no, almost-certain future together. “Yep, I’m an apple cider master. I also brew IPA, but that’s always a little iffier. Only one success in 100 so far.”

Kitty scrunches up her nose, and she is so adorable that Harry wants to propose immediately. “What was wrong with the other 99? How’d they turn out?”

“Undrinkable pond scum,” Harry admits cheerfully. “My cider was always a hit, though. No one ever said it tasted like cow piss, not even once!”

Kitty takes another bite of her apple with a knowing twinkle in her eye. “The IPA?”

Harry sighs. “Yeah. Never could get rid of the piss taste.”

“Those are some pretty manly hobbies,” she says, reaching up for another apple. “Anything else, by chance? Olive oil-pressing? Cow tipping?”

“Er… I did Crossfit?”

“For how long?”

“Like, two days,” he confesses, just to see her laugh again. He’s been working up the courage to kiss her for weeks, now—hell, ever since meeting her—but the timing has never seemed right.

Right now, though? Apple orchard. Chirping birds. A perfect blue sky. It seems like the universe is giving him a sign, and he’s gonna run with it and try not to overthink. Much.

It’s time.

“I have… something I’ve been meaning to say to you, Kitty,” he blurts out. Her eyes shine, bright and beautiful, and her perfect and soft-looking lips curl up again in that ever-present smile. He loses his train of thought and holds up a finger, even as she swings around the trunk of the tree to get closer to him. “Don't try to distract me!”

“I’m not,” Kitty says slyly. There’s a piece of apple in her short blonde curls, glistening, and he’s about to mention it (just to get it out of the way before he confesses his love), but then her arms are around his neck and her lips are on his and he honestly forgets every single word in the English language for the next half an hour.

 

D-Day +25 (West Virginia-Kentucky)

 

They’re just crossing the state line when something barrels into the side of the RV.

“Hold on!” Dick shouts, loud as he can, and pumps the accelerator and brakes in turns in an effort to regain control. The RV careens to the side of the road, threatening to topple over and take them all with it.

“Hold on to something!” Nix repeats to the others over his shoulder, struggling with his seatbelt. “Fuck, Toye, grab that bag before it falls onto— nevermind.”

There’s a yelp from the back, as well as the sound of hundreds of apples emptying out onto the floor.

“What was that?” Nix asks him, barely audible over the sound of screeching tires and the chaos behind their seats. Dick’s heartbeat hammers in his ears as he struggles to regain control, all the while on the lookout for what crashed into them.

“I don’t see a car,” he yells back, straining to look in the side mirrors. “Beats me, Nix! Whatever it was, it’s gone now!”

Whatever it was, it had come out of nowhere—no side street, nothing; they’re surrounded by endless miles of empty fields. The steering wheel shudders under Dick’s hand, and then a little less, then almost nothing, and then—they’re stopped.

Dust and smoke billow around him as he flings open the door, stinging his eyes. He coughs, waving his arms in front of his face, and jogs around to where the second RV is parked behind them.

Bryan jumps out with his scrubs pulled up over his nose and mouth and sprints over, meeting him halfway. “Fuck, Winters.”

Dick nods. “Yeah. You see anything?” he asks, and it’s only then, when Bryan pulls his scrubs down off his face, that Dick realizes Bryan’s face is as white as chalk.

“You… you didn’t see…?” Bryan swings his rifle up and crouches down, checking the magazine. “Dick, that was a fucking zombie back there.”

It takes a moment to digest. Dick looks around the RVs, at the silent hayfields and the blue sky, and feels his gorge rise.

“That’s impossible,” he says. Softly.

Bryan shakes his head, quickly, fearfully. Dick notices his hands trembling as he clicks the magazine back into place. “I’m telling you,” Bryan says, and his voice is trembling as well, “that was a motherfucking zombie, and it was running.”

“That’s…”

“…Impossible, I know, just shut up—just shut up for a second.”

Dick’s mouth is dry as Bryan rises to his feet and jogs around to the side of the road, to the side of the RV that the, the whatever it was, ran into. Bryan points to it. He’s still trembling. “See this?”

Dick doesn’t want to see anything. He doesn’t want to consider what a running zombie could possibly imply. “I don’t think—“

Dick,” yells Bryan, chest heaving, and then he visibly calms himself down, chin to chest, shoulders forced to relax with a deep exhale. “Dick,” he repeats, quieter. “Just look at this, will you?”

Reluctantly, Dick walks slowly around to stand beside him, trying to look anywhere else but where Bryan is pointing; first at the dusty road that runs on ahead of them, far as the eye can see, then the distant mountain range, cutting off the edge of the sky.

Then, slowly, around to the dent in the side of the RV. The dent roughly the size of a human being. The dent brown with brown-black blood and rotten tissue.

Impossible,” Dick breathes.

“We’ve got to fucking get. Out. Of. Here. Now.”

“Yeah, we’re leaving,” Dick agrees, and runs back to the wheel, brushing Nix and his questions aside. His shaking hands make the keys clink together as he reignites the engine, and Nix is still asking him what the hell happened, why he looks like he’s seen as ghost, but Dick ignores him.

They’ve almost reached their goal. They’re so close. God help them, they’re so close. He doesn’t have the time to think about anything else.

 

D-Day +26 (Kentucky-Tennessee)

Fort Campbell

 

The outskirts of Fort Campbell are littered with ash and ruins. The blackened skeletons of dozens of buildings are silhouetted against a crimson sky by the time they reach their destination, and it’s nothing and everything like Dick was expecting.

“Ron,” he says, quietly, and the man is by his side instantly.

“Dick."

“Ball’s in your court, now. You want the wheel?”

Speirs waves him off without looking away from the gate filling the windshield. “I’m getting out. I’d appreciate backup, but only if you think it would be wise.”

“Don’t be ridiculous,” Nix interjects without hesitation, “you’re not going in alone. I’ll get up on the roof, and let’s get Toye to send a message to the other RV.”

That gets Speirs’ attention, and his head snaps to look to Nix. “Message?” he asks sharply. “He got the comms running?”

“If by running you mean completely dismantled and scattered around the place—,“ Nix drawls with amusement, but clears his throat and changes direction quickly when Speirs makes an impatient sound, “—no, he absolutely has not. We’ve gotta go old school: writing on paper, show it through the back window.”

Speirs returns to his crouch. “Good. That’ll work. Tell Bryan I’d like him to cover for me, as well, but Carwood should be ready to get out them of here immediately if the situation goes badly.”

Nix nods. “That should fit on a piece of paper, yeah.” He gets up and squeezes past Speirs.

Dick leans forward on the wheel, scanning the perimeter. The gate is broken down, no barricade in sight, the guard booth smashed in and smeared with old blood. The pale orange walls leading up to it on either side have the words “Home of the Screaming Eagles” spread proudly on the sides, but half of the letters are blackened or missing. Dick feels a pang in his chest at the sight.

“If anyone’s left, they must have withdrawn to the barracks,” says Speirs softly. “They’d’ve left this area without a proper defense, too much ground to cover. This place is bigger than it looks; try driving all around it when you’ve missed curfew and the gate is closed.”

Dick looks at him pointedly.

Speirs shrugs. “You know what I mean.”

“All set,” says Nix, joining them with Dick’s rifle in hand. “Going in?”

“Yep.” Speirs looks down at his hands, sighs, and then pulls out his guns. “Take these.”

“What? No.”

“Take them,” Speirs growls, and shoves them into Dick’s lap anyway. “I’ll do some recon, and if it looks too dangerous, I’ll be back here without them even knowing I’ve—“

Suddenly and without warning, dozens of intensely bright lights turn on at once with a dull thunk of metal on metal, streaming in through the windshield and blinding them. Dick throws a hand up to shield his eyes, and can barely make out a figure standing in front of the RV. The person is holding something in their hands, and after a second it’s clear that it’s a megaphone.

“Step out of the vehicles with your hands over your heads! I repeat, step out of your vehicles. Now!”

Dick turns to exchange glances with Nix and Speirs, whose expressions both mirror his own.

They’ve just walked into a camp full of absolute idiots.