Precipice

Part One

Tom staggered his way through the maze of cars pulled haphazardly outside the hospital, one hand clutching his ribs, the other bracing on whatever was in reach. He wasn't sure how far he'd come, hadn't paid attention when each step had been its own little agony. He wanted to stop, rest awhile, but didn't. Pain wasn't something he was a stranger to, so he breathed through it. He was alive, and his priority was staying that way. But he wouldn't be for long if he punctured a bloody lung, so he kept moving, steady but careful.

He pushed through the doors, noting in a detached sort of way all of the bodies littering the waiting areas. He'd expected to find someone alive here. It was a hospital. Yes, it was filled with the sick and the dying, but it was also filled with doctors.

He saw a number of men and women in white coats, as dead as the rest of them.

He made his way through hallways, stepping carelessly over corpses or pushing them aside if they were stacked too thick. He checked examination rooms and operating suites and found the same scene in each of them. Neither doctors nor their patients had been spared.

There had to be a supply closet somewhere, he thought as he made his way down yet another hallway. He'd clean himself up, and then he'd get the hell out of there. Weapons, he thought. Weapons had to be his first priority. If and when he came across other survivors, and they had to be out there somewhere, they weren't going to take him by surprise.

He stopped suddenly, eyes narrowing. Had he heard something up ahead? Some movement, some noise? There, there it was again. He braced his hand against the wall and moved as quickly as his breathing would let him. There was a door open up ahead, and a shadow moved inside. He saw a sliver of white coat, but before he could step into the doorway and make himself known, what looked like a handful of pills went flying, and whoever was inside let out an anguished scream.

Bottles and boxes of medications were swept off shelves in a fit of rage and grief. Tom stood outside the door and watched as the woman inside dropped to her knees with a cry of agony. She curled into herself and sobbed, overwhelmed and heartbroken. Tom watched her, wincing when the simple act of breathing made his ribs ache. He rubbed them absently, waiting while her sobs quieted.

When she stayed that way, curled on the ground for several long minutes, he got impatient and cleared his throat.

Her head shot up, her eyes widening in shock. She levered herself up and pressed her back against the cabinets. "Where…where did you come from?" she stammered.

"From outside," he said, his lips twisted sardonically.

She scrubbed her hands over her face, brushing away tear tracks and pushing back stray wisps of hair that had come loose from her braid. She was young, Tom noted, but didn't appear to have suffered from whatever sickness had killed everybody else. "If you can manage to pull yourself together for a minute," he said, "I could use some help here."

She stared up at him, her eyes going from dull with grief to offended shock. "Beg your pardon?"

"I'm in need of medical attention, and you seem to be a doctor. If you're still right in the head, I need you to take a look at my ribs."

"Right in the…" She pushed herself to her feet, using a hand on the counter to steady herself. "Are you always this way?"

"I don't have time for compassion. In case you haven't noticed, things are a little different now."

"Of course I noticed," she said dully. "I watched hundreds of people suffer and die last night."

"But you're alive," Tom told her. "And unless you plan on killing yourself by swallowing a bunch of those pills you've been tossing around, I could use that help now."

Her eyes darted away, and he bit back a curse. She had been planning on killing herself, he thought. Well, that wouldn't help anyone now. "If you're going to do it, could you take a look at my ribs first?"

She opened her mouth, but no words emerged. She shook her head, huffing out a breath as she spun around. He waited while she pulled herself together. "A time like this is exactly when compassion is needed the most," she said when she turned around again. She seemed to come to a decision, and crossed the small room toward him. "Stand up, quit slouching."

He watched her intently as she pushed aside his jacket and curved her hands against his ribcage. "What's your name?"

"What?" she asked, not looking up from her task.

"Seems to me if a woman's got her hands on me, I should at least know her name," he murmured.

She looked up at him, her eyes wide and luminous. All he needed to do was lean down a few inches and he could kiss her. Her lips parted slightly, and for a wild moment he considered doing just that. But then her fingers pressed lightly against his ribs, and the shard of pain distracted him.

"Anya," she said. "My name is Anya."

"Tom."

"How did this happen?" Anya asked.

"Got pushed from a car," he said. "I guess they didn't like my sparkling personality."

"Hard to believe," she muttered, the sarcasm earning her a quick smirk. She took a step back. "Well, Tom, you have a couple of broken ribs." She knelt down and searched through the mess she'd created. She picked out a small bottle and handed it to him. "These will help with the pain."

She searched through the shelves and came up with a roll of tape. "Lift up your shirt and I'll tape your ribs. It will help with your breathing."

She went about the task stoically, ignoring the way she felt his eyes on her, and stepped back when she was done. "There's not much else that can be done. You just need to be careful, don't strain yourself or they won't heal."

"Thanks for the advice, Doc," he said. "You got any water around here?"

She frowned at him, and he shook the pill bottle she'd given him. The momentary confusion cleared, but her eyes were haunted when she looked past him to the open doorway. She cleared her throat. "There's…there's a vending machine in the employee lounge," she said, her voice beginning to shake. "It has bottled water."

He stepped aside and extended a hand toward the door. "I'll let you lead the way."

* * * * *

Anya took a deep breath as she looked toward the shadowy hallway. She didn't want to go back out there, didn't want to face the devastation that waited for her.

She felt hollow, used up and useless. How could she have survived when so many others had died in agony? Not just strangers, but people she knew, people she cared about. Her patients, her colleagues and her friends. How could she be the only person in the entire hospital still alive? It didn't make sense, but she didn't have the energy to figure it out.

"Come with me," she told Tom, and stepped into the hallway. She blanked her mind, rigidly calm as she led Tom toward the lounge.

They stepped over bodies, because there was nowhere to put them. She had to swallow past the lump forming in her throat. She told herself not to look at them, not to think of them.

What an impossible task that was.

She opened the door to the lounge and let Tom through. He had a look around while she skirted the edge of the room, heading for the vending machine. Moments later she heard him grunt, and turned to see if he'd somehow injured himself again. "Don't!" she half-shouted, sickness and grief welling up, pounding at her head. When he stopped trying to pull the body from the sofa, she took a deep breath. "She was my friend," she told him quietly. "She died in my arms. Leave her where she is."

Tom shrugged, and she indicated the vending machine. "Water," she said. "We just need to find something to break the glass with."

Tom looked around, then nodded back toward the door. "The extinguisher," he said. "It has enough mass to get the job done."

She retrieved the extinguisher herself, because she was afraid Tom would aggravate his injury if he tried. She took it back to the vending machine, holding it in both hands and taking a deep breath before she turned her head, squeezed her eyes shut, and slammed the heavy cylinder into the glass. Even though she was prepared for it, the sound of the glass shattering made her jump a little, and the impact sang its way up her arms and into her shoulders.

She dropped the extinguisher and let it roll away as she brushed glass fragments from her coat and hair. She took one of the bottles and turned to give it to Tom, gasping when she saw he'd silently come up beside her. She held it out to him, her half-smile looking more like a grimace, and took a step back. There was something vaguely menacing about him that made her nervous, while at the same time a part of her desperately craved real, healthy human contact. She craved meaning in the nightmare, a reason to go on.

"Thanks," Tom said as he unscrewed the bottle cap and took a swig.

"The pills will help with the pain, but you need to take it easy and give your ribs a chance to heal."

"In case you haven't noticed, nothing is easy anymore," he said.

Involuntarily her gaze moved toward the sofa, but Tom shifted his stance and blocked her view. She looked up at him, wondering if he'd done it on purpose. He'd already said he had no time for compassion, but something in her wasn't quite so sure now.

"Wait here," she said. "I'll be right back."

She went through an adjacent door that led into the women's lockers and changing room. She found the old knapsack she used to hold a change of clothes and emptied it of its contents. She took it back with her and noted that Tom was still blocking her view of the sofa. "There's not much left, but we should take what water we can," she said.

"We?" Tom inquired.

She opened her mouth, closed it again. She looked up at him where he stood, stoic and cold. She shrugged. "I thought we should stick together, at least until you find somewhere to rest."

"You're going to protect me, is that it?"

She felt herself blush in the shadowy light filtering in through the windows. "Safer in numbers, that's all," she said. "We don't know what's out there now."

"All right," he said finally. "We'll stick together until I decide where I'm going. After that, you're on your own."

"We're all on our own now," she murmured, then hefted the knapsack onto her shoulder. "My flat's not far from here. We should rest for the night, have something to eat. We can…figure out the rest later."

"How long will it take my ribs to heal?" he asked.

"Bones don't knit overnight," she said. "It should take a few weeks for you to get back to normal, and that's if you take it easy. If you push yourself, if could take longer."

She tried to look around him, to get one last glance at her friend as her eyes filled with tears. But he put a hand on her shoulder and turned her away. "We should be going," he said. "I could use a decent meal while such a thing still exists."

She nodded silently and led the way out of the lounge. A tear spilled down her cheek, and her breath hitched in her chest. She bit her lip and forced her mind to blank as they navigated the hallways. The bright glow of sunlight beyond the exit doors was a beacon. She pushed through the doors, stopped and stared at the tangle of cars pulled haphazardly in front of the hospital.

Instinctively, she dropped the knapsack on the ground and shrugged out of her white lab coat. She tossed it on the ground and took a deep breath, then looked up to find Tom watching her with unreadable eyes. "I don't need it," she said. "I'm not a doctor anymore."

Tom said nothing, and she turned away to wind her way through the maze of cars. The chirp of birds was a stark contrast to the haunting silence of the day. There should have been noise from people, cars, life. But there was only devastation and death.

Delayed shock had numbness soaking into her bones. She kept moving by sheer instinct and force of will. Besides Tom, she didn't see a single other living person. There had to be more, she thought desperately. If she and Tom had survived, there had to be others. They would find each other, she thought. Somehow. There had to be good people left who could work together and forge some kind of life. If instinct had kept her from ending her life, then determination would help her find a way to live again.