"This is what you call a decent meal?"
Anya looked up from where she was crouched next to her coffee table. Tom reclined on her sofa, a pillow behind his back giving him extra cushion. And even so, she saw the lines of strain on his face. His jaw was tense, and a thin sheen of sweat covered his forehead. Making even the short trip to her flat had been hard on him.
"There's no power and no gas to cook with," she said. "You're lucky I have this so at least we can have something warm." She indicated the single-burner camp stove she'd unearthed from a closet and went back to stirring the can of baked beans she'd dumped into a saucepan.
Tom said nothing, and soon silence engulfed them. It was a silence so deafening it worked its way into her bones, into her soul. Absent now was even the normal white noise she was used to; appliances running, and the sounds of other people moving around in other parts of the building. She squeezed her eyes shut and dipped her head down. She took a quick, shaky breath. She couldn't let the horror take her under again. Not here, not like this.
"Excuse me," she said suddenly, pushing to her feet and leaving the room without another word. She hurried down the hall and closed herself into her bedroom, leaning back against the door and squeezing her eyes shut.
She had been trained as a doctor. She was educated enough to know what survivors' guilt was. But knowing what it was and stopping it were two entirely different things.
She let the tears come, silently now, purging herself of what seemed to be an endless well of grief. It ate at her, threatened to consume her again. Her legs weak, she slid down to the floor and wrapped her arms around her knees. She knew she couldn't keep doing this. She had to find a way to stop it. If she kept on this way, she would make herself sick, and being sick in what was left of the world was not something she wanted.
When the storm was over she sat on the side of her bed and used the corner of her quilt to dry her face. She was sick at heart, but if she was going to live, she had to live. Not some strange half-life where grief controlled her every thought and action, but a real attempt to find some normalcy, if such a thing was possible anymore.
She took a steadying breath and opened her door. There was a man out there, however surly and rude he might be, who needed her help. She would take care of him, until she found someone better suited for the job. She meant what she'd said to him earlier; she wasn't a doctor anymore. She couldn't be.
Tom had managed to sit up while she was gone and take over stirring so the beans wouldn't burn to the bottom of the pan. She took the spoon from him, dousing the small flame and dividing the contents of the pan into bowls. She put a spoon in one and handed it to him, along with a can of soda that had lost its cold when the refrigerator shut down. She took the same for herself and sat on the other end of the sofa. She tried to eat, but found the food stuck in her throat. She set the bowl on the coffee table and sipped at the soda instead.
"You should eat that," Tom said, making no mention of her reddened eyes or splotchy skin.
She looked over at him, but he was scraping the last of his own bowl clean. "Are you sure you don't want it yourself?"
"I'm guessing you haven't eaten in at least a full day," he said. "If you don't eat now, you'll collapse soon, and I'm not carrying you on my back to go find help."
She shook her head, almost smiling for the first time in what felt like years. In a world gone mad, Tom's bluntness was something she was beginning to think she could depend on. He was a cold man, and she sensed a certain darkness in him. This was a man with secrets and shadows. He would be a formidable opponent if anyone crossed him.
Now, she just needed to decide what was stronger; the natural wariness he made her feel, or the moth-to-a-flame instinct to stick close to him.
She picked up her bowl and forced herself to eat it all. He was right; she needed to keep up her strength, and eat what she could when she got a chance. Food would not always be so readily obtainable.
"This is the girl from the hospital?" Tom asked.
She looked over at him, saw that he was holding the framed photograph that had been sitting on the table beside him. She'd been so happy that day, with the two friends who had died in her arms. The two friends she had shared so much with, and would never see again. She took the frame from him and stared down into the face of her heartache. It was useless wishing she could go back and change things, she knew. Nothing was going to undo what had been done. Wishing for things that were impossible was only going to kill whatever spark had kept her from swallowing all of the pills back in the hospital's storage room. In that deep pit of desperation, something had kept her from ending her life. With seemingly nothing left to hold onto, her soul hadn't let her quit on herself.
She lay the picture frame face down on the coffee table and turned away.
* * * * *
Tom watched as she turned away from the photograph. His personal connections had been few and far between; what the hell did he know about the kind of connection that could cause the amount of pain she seemed to be in? He opened his mouth, but decided not to chance saying anything that could make the situation worse. For the moment, they were stuck with each other, and having her go into hysterics wouldn't help either of them.
"Do you have a gun?" he asked instead.
"Was there anyone in the building who had one?"
"I don't know," Anya said. "It's not the kind of thing I made a point of asking."
"It would be better if we had a gun. There are going to be desperate people out there who will take advantage of anyone they can."
"Like the people who pushed you from their car?" she asked.
Tom knew that the question was more than a question. It was an opening, a chance to give her the whole story about how he'd received his injuries. But he wouldn't, couldn't, tell her the truth. She was a stranger to him. She shouldn't matter worth a damn, except for what he could get from her. He wasn't a man given to sentimentality. He looked out for himself and shoved any obstacles out of the way.
But still he didn't say the words that would surely put disgust and censure in her eyes. "Yes, like that. We should both get some rest now. The sooner we can get moving again, the better."
She watched him for a moment, and Tom couldn't read what was behind her eyes. He tried, because he'd always believed that knowing your opponent and what could anyone in this new world be other than an opponent? was the first step toward beating them. But other than the enormous burden of grief she seemed to carry, he couldn't read her. And he didn't like that one bit.
"You should take the bed," she said finally. "You need it more than I do."
"I'm fine here," he murmured.
She shook her head. "You're not doing your ribs any favors by being a tough guy and staying on the sofa. Whenever you have a chance for a comfortable rest, you need to take it. You'll heal faster."
"You know, for someone who isn't a doctor anymore, you're trying awfully hard to take care of me."
Anya closed her eyes, and as he watched her struggle with herself, Tom felt a twinge of something he wasn't sure he'd ever felt before. Regret.
"Sometimes it's hard to fight your instincts, no matter how much you want to," she said after a moment. "Take the bed. Please."
"All right," he said, and let her help him off the sofa.
Hours later all he'd managed was a short nap here and there, but not the restful sleep he knew he needed. He sat up carefully and leaned back against the headboard. It was sometime in the early hours of pre-dawn, he thought, and he couldn't see a thing. If he had a flashlight, he could take a look around and try to figure Anya out, although why he cared he wasn't quite sure.
But instead he levered himself to his feet and made his way back down the hall, keeping a hand against the wall to steady himself in the unfamiliar environment. The pain pills she'd given him had worn off, and the restless night was making itself known in the twinges his ribs were giving him. He took the bottle of pills out of his pocket as he made his way into the kitchen. He took another warm soda from the refrigerator, which was already starting to smell ripe.
Pills taken and soda in hand, he stopped in the doorway to the living room and leaned against the wall. He could see Anya's shadowy form as she lay curled on the sofa. She twitched with restlessness. Not a good night's sleep either, apparently.
He wasn't sure if it was irritation or the compassion that he claimed he didn't have that got him moving when she began whimpering softly in her sleep. He stopped beside her and reached down to lightly shake her shoulder. "Anya, wake up."
Her eyes flashed open, filled with confusion and a trace of fear. Adrift. "What…" She cleared her throat, dragging a hand through her hair as she sat up. "What time is it?"
"Sometime before dawn. We need to get moving, cover as much ground as we can. So pack a bag, take what you can carry. I'll find a car."
"Where are we going?"
"As far as the petrol will take us." More than a little uncomfortable with the lost look he could see in her eyes even in the shadowy darkness, he skirted the room and went for the door. "Hurry up, or I'll leave you behind," he told her and left her alone.
He tried each of the three other doors in the hallway and found them locked. He stopped at the door on the far end of the hall and threw his shoulder into it, grunting when pain flared in his ribs. The door rattled, but didn't otherwise move. He took a couple of deep breaths, mentally preparing himself before giving the door another solid shot. The door frame started to splinter, and with the third hit it gave way completely and the door flew inward.
It was like a shot in the heavy pre-dawn silence. He clutched at his ribs, the ache vicious and sharp now. But he could breathe, so he figured he was all right. He edged his way through the flat, checking tables and shelves, hooks and cabinets for anything he could use. He took a duffel bag out of the hall closet and filled it with bottles of water and cans of food, along with a pair of pants and a couple of shirts from the bedroom.
The two bodies on the bed were long dead, and Tom felt no compunction going through the woman's purse, where he finally found a set of keys. He palmed them and turned his back. He wasn't a man to waste emotion on things that were useless. The dead wouldn't give a shit if he took their things. It was all about survival now, for everyone who was left. He wouldn't be the only one looking to take what he could get. He just intended to get what he wanted first.
It was a shame, he thought as he hefted the bag with one hand and clutched at his ribs with the other, that he was going to have to rely on Anya to help him get those things he needed. He'd learned the hard way to rely on nobody but himself.
She was waiting in the hall when he left the flat. She held a flashlight in her hand, with two bags on the ground beside her. She had changed into different clothes and carried a determined air about her now, overriding the grief that had ruled her during the previous day.
"You've hurt yourself again," she said.
He dropped his hand from his ribs on principle. "I'm fine," he told her.
She shone the flashlight past him and illuminated the broken door frame. "You broke the door down."
"Knocking politely wasn't going to help," he muttered. He jangled the keys in his hand. "We need to find the car these belonged to."
Anya took a deep breath. "I knew them. They drove a dark blue saloon."
"Then we'll find ourselves a saloon."
They found it in the second row of the car park, the tank still three-quarters full of petrol. Tom nodded, satisfied, and eased himself down into the driver's seat. His ribs ached, but he did his best to ignore the pain. He couldn't afford to indulge himself until he got a better handle on the situation. He needed to concentrate on finding a place to stay so he could begin stockpiling supplies. He knew ruthlessness. He knew desperation. He knew that survival now would come to those who were willing to do what needed to be done.
He glanced over at Anya from the corner of his eye as she slid into the seat next to him. Shell-shocked, he thought, but attempting to bear up under the strain. That was good, because he had neither the time nor the inclination to coddle her. He needed her strong and focused on the task at hand. Until his ribs had a chance to heal a bit, getting by on his own was going to be a struggle. Like it or not, he needed her help.
They said little as they traveled the eerily deserted streets, but as they passed through the city, Tom saw signs of looting, of life. A broken door or window, and recent trash littering the streets. There were others out there, hidden, already beginning to scavenge for whatever they could find. Tom felt a thrill in his blood. There was challenge, of the life-and-death variety, lurking in every corner of this new world. He would relish it, and he would live life on his own terms now.
Whatever the cost.
Author's Note: This story is going to end up being at least three parts, rather than just two. I can't seem to help myself. Thank you to those of you who have written reviews. Positive encouragement always makes me want to write more. :)