The steady crunch of snow and gentle swinging back and forth lulled me into a half-asleep daze. I don't know how long we traveled. But it was still freezing when Fisher bent down and rested me on the ground.
My eyes hurt too much to open right away. I rubbed at them clumsily, blinking away the tears and smoke a few times, and my surroundings gradually came back into focus.
It was pitch black. I only knew Fisher was next to me because he kept his hand on my shoulder.
I tried to sit up, but it was like my muscles were frozen into place. A tiny whimper escaped my throat. The fingers on my shoulder convulsed.
He grunted. Our voices had a muffled sound to them. We were inside somewhere. But it didn't feel like home.
I swallowed past the raw taste and texture in my throat.
His hands slid along my sides and rummaged in my jacket pockets.
I winced. The dim light seemed unusually bright for my sore eyes. The beam fell on me and then darted away.
"Your lips," I said, one hand gesturing feebly. "What's...going on?" No, I needed a more specific question. "Where are we?"
He hesitated, then pointed the light towards the lower half of his face and leaned close. It took me several tries to read his lips through my watery vision. Luckily we'd had a month of practice behind us.
The corner of his lips twisted down into a sour look.
I swallowed again. Tried to clear my throat. It was like my insides had been stuffed and rubbed raw with cotton.
The hand on my shoulder lifted. He pulled off a backpack and rummaged around. In the beams of light, I saw a small, cramped room lined with metal shelves that held a variety of boxes.
The Hunter finally found the bottle of water he was carrying. I couldn't sit up on my own, and I wasn't steady enough to hold anything, so he awkwardly slid behind me and propped me up against his chest, holding the bottle to my lips.
Cold liquid trickled down my mouth. I coughed a few times, but soon I was drinking normally. For a moment, my mind flashed back to the upper class bedroom where I'd lain sick for days with Terrence. With a jolt I remembered that that had been Fisher's apartment, too.
"Thanks," I rasped, passing a trembling hand across my mouth.
He nodded, then laid me back down on the floor and stood. I was too weak to do anything else but turn my head and watch him pace away with the flashlight to a small, square window set on the wall. The light flickered off, and it took a few moments before I could see the faint outline of starlight coming through the broken glass.
It seemed like forever that we waited in the darkness. I didn't know what he was waiting for, but if we were here, then it meant it wasn't safe to go home. Which meant either the way back was dangerous, or home…
My heart lept into my throat. Home might be compromised. And Bradley...surely Fisher wouldn't have left Bradley alone somewhere if that were the case. But then where was Terrence? Why had Fisher been the one to find me and not my Hunter?
The voice that came out of my mouth didn't sound remotely like my own. But the Hunter's silhouette in the window hesitantly turned and then disappeared. A moment later, the light flickered on at my side, angled towards my feet so we both weren't blinded.
I wet my lips with my tongue and cleared my throat. "Is Bradley safe?"
"Is Terrence safe?"
He hesitated. Shrugged.
I felt like my stomach had opened up and all my insides had dropped away. The feeling must have crossed on my face, because the Hunter frowned, his brow furrowed in the way it did when he was trying to think of a word he could use for me. I clung to that expression with all the energy I had left to hope.
Finally, his lips moved.
I squinted, my exhausted brain trying to work through the numb pain and cold to figure it out.
He scowled and tried again.
"I…" It had never been this difficult before. "I can't…"
A soft growl escaped his lips. One of frustration.
I knew that one. He used it a lot.
"Wait," I repeated feebly.
Wait for what?
The Hunter returned to the window before I could think of a way to ask all the questions I wanted in a way he could answer. It was so frustrating. Like trying to grab mist.
I closed my eyes, pulling my jacket around me as tight as I could with numb, tingling fingers. The smell of smoke and blood filled my senses with every breath.
When I looked at the Hunter next, his hooded head was silhouetted against the soft grey beginnings of dawn. I jerked awake with an undignified squeak and all the pain from the night before shot through my body in a dull roar. Awake? I had fallen asleep? And we'd been here...how long had we been there? Until dawn?
The Hunter came back to my side. I couldn't see the details of his face in his hood, but the eyes glinting back at me were set and emotionless.
Before I could work through my dry throat to ask anything, he bent down and hefted me up in his arms again. I didn't have the energy left to fight him, but I had enough left to stay awake as he shouldered open a partially frozen door in the back of the storage room and stepped out into the feeble light.
The sky was overcast, and light from the hidden sun was barely risen enough to cast our surroundings into a flat grayscale version of the real world. Maybe I hadn't woken up after all. It felt like a dreamscape.
The Hunter moved slowly through the snow, taking only a few steps before pausing and listening. He stayed close to the sides of buildings, halting as often as possible in doorways or behind abandoned dumpsters or next to cars. I struggled to place us based on the flat shadows of the buildings we passed, unable to move my head much in case it flopped back away from the Hunter's shoulder. After a moment of my eyes adjusting to the greyness, I deciphered the frozen front window of a dress store. An upscale urban recycled thrift store. A small French bakery.
My mind clicked a little slow. Fisher had taken us almost five blocks away from the office I'd been stuck in, and in the opposite direction of home. That meant we had at least eight or nine blocks between us and the house. Before the apocalypse, that wouldn't have been too much problem. But I was deadweight. It was dead winter. And there were a lot of things left out here that weren't quite as dead.
It felt like forever to travel three of the eight blocks down the streets. Whatever Fisher had been listening for, he hadn't heard it, and we had made slow but steady progress. At last, he paused in the partially-enclosed patio of an Italian restaurant, setting me down in the far corner, surrounded by stacked and iced chairs and tables that formed half a frozen fortress.
I took a deep, steadying breath through my scarf. Fisher's breath came out in short white puffs. The grey light had strengthened enough that I could see the pink tinge on his pale cheeks and nose. An unusual surge of affection warmed my chest.
"Thank you," I muttered as loud as I dared. "For coming to get me."
He shrugged, glancing behind us at the empty street.
I was grateful he had come to get me. But where was Terrence?
After a few minutes of rest, we were on the move again. Same process. Take a few steps. Pause in a doorway to listen. A few more steps. Pause and listen.
Another block fell behind us.
There was nothing out here. But there must have been so many things last night. I had heard them, unless they were dreams. Hallucinations.
But they couldn't be. Or Terrence would be here with us.
I blinked through the cold and grey light at the stores and office buildings lining the street. I knew where we were now. We were three blocks from main street. Once we turned right there and went two more blocks, then we could turn down the street that would lead us to our neighborhood. I didn't know how long we'd been walking already - long enough that the world around us had lightened considerably enough that shapes had returned to their three-dimensional statuses - but suddenly home felt just around the corner.
And the thought made my heart beat faster. Somewhere long before all this mess in another life, I had read somewhere that most car accidents happened closer to people's homes. That's when people get comfortable. They get lax. They stop paying attention.
Right now felt just like the calm before a car accident was meant to happen.
Fisher turned at the next street and started the slow walk down the last three storefront blocks. As if he'd read my mind, his pace seemed to slow and his attentiveness to our surroundings seemed to double. His head swung back and forth constantly, and for once he had pulled back his hood. He wore a featureless beanie beneath it, but his ears were uncovered, and thus his hearing completely uninhibited.
Unable to bear staring around at the white landscape, I glanced up at Fisher's face. The Hunter had kept his hair neatly trimmed on his own. I'd noticed all the guys' hair seemed to grow like weeds; it felt like I was giving Terrence a trim every week. In the dull grey light of the overcast day, the pink from the cold in his face was like an odd splash of color in an old photograph. His breath came out in a steady stream of white. I knew he was stronger than a normal man, but he was smaller than Terrence, and carrying me so far in the snow was taking its toll.
I breathed a slow, shaky sigh and curled my head inward against his neck. If something happened, I wasn't sure what I could do. I wasn't sure what he would be able to do. This was a different kind of helpless.
One block. Two blocks.
Fisher paused at a corner to the street, glancing behind us. We were just one block away from main street. His eyes scanned the rooftops. I braced instinctively, only to realize his movements were as methodical as every other listening break. But something else was different. After a few moments, he carefully stepped into the cover of a deep entrance and set me down on the front step, my back to the wall.
I took the chance to stretch out the painful kinks in my sore back and ankle. The pain had gone down, but it still throbbed like hell. Thankfully, my thick boots and socks seemed to be acting like a brace on the sprained ankle; it would not be fun to get it off, though, and I probably wouldn't be going out on scavenging missions any time soon.
My head thudded back against the wooden door behind me. My body ached. My stomach ached. My throat burned. But hey, you know, we were still alive.
Fisher sat with his back to me, his gaze continuing its constant back and forth surveillance. He had probably stopped to regain a bit more strength and energy before making the final stretch.
But after only a few minutes of rest, he stood, stretching out his arms like a man recently awoken. When he turned to me, he had unzipped the front of his jacket and reached for something strapped onto his side. He growled when it seemed to give him problems, and I was on the verge of offering to help when he finally managed to pull it out and held it up to show me.
I froze before my brain had even finished registering what it was. A gun. A handgun. After a moment, his fingers closed around the top of it, pulling it back in one deft movement. There was a click - a bullet loading into the chamber. He turned it so I could see the small switch on the side. The safety was still on. But the gun was loaded.
He caught my gaze, then turned and slid it back into the holster under his arm.
I clenched my teeth. The majority of accidents happen close to home. Lots of times, it isn't even your fault. You just travel near home the most. But you still had to be ready for it to happen in case it did.
Why was he showing this to me now?
The Hunter hefted me up into his arms again. But instead of continuing down the storefront sidewalk, he looked once, then twice, up and down the road, and darted quickly across the street.
My heart leapt into my throat. Not only were we out in the open of a three-lane road, but we were going the opposite direction of home. I looked up at him, but his gaze was set ahead, watching for trouble. I didn't dare make a sound, and I didn't even breathe until we had reached the cover of the opposite side of the road.
Fisher headed straight to an empty store set a couple buildings down from main street. It had a large "For Rent" sign set askew in the partially boarded-up front window, and because of it, I had never been in the building before. But to my surprise, the Hunter went straight for the door. It swung open easily to his touch.
We stepped across the threshold. I gasped. I had expected to see nothing but the dusty interior of an empty storefront that I had glimpsed on my first exploration down this street. The edges of the room were lined with a variety of odd objects -what looked like a dozen oxygen canisters that came from the medical equipment rental place a block up and over, several red gas carriers from the gas station down the street, and piles and piles of newspapers and old rags and flammable stuff fro who knew where.
My body tensed instinctively before my brain had time to catch up. Everything was too well organized. The oxygen canisters were divided up between the four corners of the room. The gas tanks stood ready and waiting by the back door. A strong but not quite overpowering stench of gasoline permeated the air.
Fisher set me down next to a pile of clothing. He tugged at the zipper on my jacket, and then pointed at one of the jackets sitting next to me. I took the hint and quickly made the switch, eyeing Fisher as he disappeared through the door in the back with a couple of the gasoline cans. My ears strained to pick up any sound of what he may be doing, but he returned a couple minutes later as silent as a cat.
I zipped up the new jacket, shivering and struggling between wanting to ask a million questions and keeping silent. The Hunter crouched down in front of me.
He gestured around at the room. Then picked up my discarded jacket and tossed it towards the back entrance near another pile of random stuff.
"This is a trap?"
The Hunter nodded gravely, picking up a shirt from the pile. He pulled out the bottle of water again and motioned like cleaning his face before handing it to me. Confused, I took it from him, only to balk.
"Dude, is this my shirt?" I whipped around, looking at the pile of clothing next to me. Some of it was new, but there were more than several pieces I recognized. Around the room were other familiar objects - the blankets Terrence and I had been sleeping in for the past couple weeks. More laundry. Some of Fisher and Bradley's things.
My gaze fell and stayed on something near my recently discarded jacket. It was a hoodie, badly ripped and shredded. Dark and stained. The same one I had helped Terrence put on before our stupid exploration yesterday.
Fisher slapped my shoulder to get my attention and pointed at his wrist. He wasn't wearing a watch, but I got the idea.
"Fine, I hope you know what you're doing," I muttered. It had taken a long time to find the right clothes I liked that fit me.
I scrubbed at my face, wincing as it passed over my nose and cheek. I forgot. The Infected from last night had swiped me across the face. The shirt came away almost black with dried mixed with smoke.
He took the shirt and threw it in the middle of the room as well. Again he left my side, and to my continued surprise, pulled what looked like an mp3 player and a speaker out of his bag. He set it in the back of the room and turned it on, and the sound of one of the podcasts he had been listening to from one of the house's computers spoke jarringly loud into the small space.
"-you have to consider, it's not that people are smarter nowadays, it's just information is more readily available-"
Without a second's hesitation, he picked me back up and headed towards the back entrance. Through the darkness, I could barely make out a small back storage area and a narrow staircase.
But instead of going further through the building, the Hunter turned around to face the main entrance door he had left wide open.
"-we've made advances in medicine that we couldn't have even dreamed of less than a-"
He huffed. Grunted. And then shrieked.
The sound was as deafening as it always was. I cringed, my ears ringing. The arm around my shoulders nudged me, and I caught his gaze. He nodded at me and opened his mouth.
I searched his expression. "What, you want me to scream, too?"
I stared at him. He snarled.
"Okay, okay," I said nervously, glancing at the open door. I cleared my throat. Wet my lips.
"-who knows where we'll be a year from now? A decade from now?"
Another snarl. But this was a lot more difficult than he made it sound. I'd spent the last few months trying not to draw attention to myself from things purposefully. And the podcast was just so loud. We'd been living for so long in quiet.
He nudged my shoulders again, this time more roughly. I hesitantly opened my mouth.
"Humanity is about survival. It's what drives discoveries-"
My feeble voice fell deadened and timid into the musty room.
Fisher's gaze narrowed. His lip turned up into a snarl. Then he leaned his face down and shrieked once again straight into my face.
Instinctively, the old flame of anger that had kept me alive so long kicked in out of nowhere. And I screamed back. Once it started, it was difficult to start. All the helplessness. The fear from last night. The pain in my ankle and my back. The biting cold and hunger. I screamed until my throat was raw and the sound faded to a strangled gasp.
"We will never stop pushing the boundaries of science and discovery until we've solved them all, or until our discoveries destroy us-"
The Hunter bared his teeth in a smirk. But just as quickly, his head whipped up to look at the door, the expression gone. My instinctual anger with him did a complete 180 to fear.
Fisher's muscles went taut against me. His feet shifted. I forced myself not to squirm. I hated this. I was useless. I was pathetic.
I was bait.
"Do you think we'll ever reach that point?"
"Hahaha, reach it? I think we've blown past it years ago."
Something roared, distant but much too close for comfort. Fisher snarled and let out another shriek, backing up a step into the hallway. He glanced down at me, but I was too anxious to do much but shout.
"And once it's passed, you can't go back."
A Hunter's shriek rent the air not too far from us. Didn't sound like Terrence. Through the slits in the haphazardly-placed boards on the windows, something moved across the street. It wasn't fluid. It was big. Meticulous. Fisher turned and darted into the back room, kicking the door shut behind him as he went. He took the stairs two at a time.
Something crashed into the front of the building with the force of a car just as we reached the next landing. The impact sent shivers through the structure, but Fisher didn't miss a beat. Somehow, he knew exactly where to go through the narrow hallways on the second floor. He sprinted on cat's feet through an open doorway. By the change in paint and style, we had entered the building next door.
Behind and below us, something roared. Fisher picked up his pace. Through another hallway. Another door. Then a sharp turn into a small back room with a tiny window and just enough light to see silhouettes. He all but dumped me on the ground, then turned around and crouched in front of me, patting his shoulders.
I quickly assumed what he want and threw my arms around his neck, latching my knees against his side. He jumped up like the weight was nothing and he hadn't just been carrying me all morning and flung himself at the wall. It wasn't until he was climbing that I realized there was a ladder. And above us was the access to the roof.
The grey light was nearly blinding when we poked our heads up into the outside. Fisher took a precious moment to cock his head and glance around before flinging us up and behind a small metal shed on the farthest edge of the building. To the side of us was empty space and a two-story fall to main street.
Not a moment too soon.
The sound was deafening. Beneath us the connected buildings shuddered. My grip on Fisher tightened instinctively, but I bit back a yell until my lip bled.
Even through the ringing in my ears, I could hear something roaring in rage and pain. Fisher stood unsteadily. The building shook again and he lurched forward. Straight to the low edge of the building.
And then over.
I didn't have time to scream. The surge of adrenaline from falling momentarily blinded me. Oh my god, we were going to die.
At the last minute, the Hunter twisted around with an inhuman agility and flung his elbows over the edge of the roof. My weakened legs went flying behind us. Gravity threatened to undo my hold on his neck. I gasped deep breaths of cold air. Shit. Shit!
Above us, the sky was filling with black smoke. The building shook again. And again. Like a bulldozer running rampant. Every shake dislodged Fisher another inch. He snarled in fear and frustration, his muscles straining to pull us back up.
I threw a glance down below us. There, a chance!
"Drop!" I squeaked into his ear. "Drop!"
He hesitated, his muscles shaking with the effort of holding us up.
A second, smaller explosion rocked the building accompanied by panicked shrieks I didn't have time to think about.
Fisher gasped down a deep breath and let go.
We crashed together onto the frozen wood of a narrow balcony. Renewed pain shot through my ankle.
The enraged roar was almost as deafening as the explosion. And it was right below us.
And it had just run into the balcony supports.
The wood beneath us cracked and tilted it, not enough to dislodge us but just enough to slam us against the wooden railing. I turned in time to brace myself against the wood, only to have Fisher land on my back.
Gasping for air, my eyes watering, I had the perfect view for the chaos below me.
It was a Tank. Grotesquely large. And on fire.
The creature roared into the air, flailing madly at anything around it. It charged into a car, lifted it, and flung it into a nearby building. Smoke and the smell of burnt flesh rose into the air.
Gagging, I gasped down a putrid breath and tried not to breathe, my eyes locked on the ominous, rampaging form. I didn't notice the hands yanking me up until I was slipping and sliding onto my feet, bracing myself against the flimsy railing below me. Claws dug into my skin. I flapped my arms around weakly, caught in between watching the Tank below us and trying to figure out what had me. Then the grip on me tightened. Powerful arms slid me on the snow and ice to the side. I rolled. Ice scraped at my wounded face. Went into my mouth. My back slammed into the railing again, but the ground beneath me was level.
The balcony where I had just been buckled and crumbled as the Tank hurled something right below where I had just been. And where Fisher still was.
The Hunter shrieked. His powerful legs kicked against the railings with enough force as they went down that he bounced up into the wall. He latched onto the window sill behind him with both hands, his feet braced against the siding. Below him, the Tank stumbled back in our direction, attracted by the noise. A giant boulder of smoldering flesh and rage. It roared. Snatched up the remains of a car it had demolished.
Fisher's feet slipped as he tried to get enough of a grip to jump up to the roof.
The Tank reared back for the throw.
"HEY!" I yelled. "HEY UGLY!"
The Infected turned mid-throw. In the corner of my eye, Fisher got the grip he needed and launched himself into the air. Caught the lip of the roof. He rolled. Jumped to his feet. Sprinted towards me.
The Tank screamed in rage. Cocked back its grotesque arms and load and threw.
Adrenaline pumped through my body as I gathered my feet below me and launched myself straight up in the air.
The mangled half of the car demolished its way through the rest of the balcony. Something slammed into my good leg, and I felt it slice through cloth and into skin. Strong claws dug into my forearms like a bear trap and yanked up. With my momentum and Fisher's combined strength, he dragged me up onto the roof next to him.
We laid there on the iced roof gravel, gasping for air. The Tank roared again. Something else crashed. Another throw, maybe. It went on for what felt like ages, but at a distance.
And then, suddenly, it was gone.
I gathered what strength I had left as the adrenaline ran its course and crawled on my stomach to the edge of the roof.
Below us, the street and storefronts were a mess. So hard to believe that one creature could destroy so much in such a short time. And in the middle of the street lay a mound of smoldering flesh. The fire had killed it. And it had almost killed us. Almost.
Fisher dragged himself next to me, crouched in the way that Hunters do. His breathing was heavy. Loud, even, in the sudden silence.
I dropped my head heavy onto my shaking arms.
The Hunter patted me on the head.