Standard Year 2517

Chuck still hears the gunshots.

Blended together in a violent cacophony, a murderous symphony, he hears timeless echoes of hot lead slicing brutally through raw flesh. They're only memories, but he hears the meat packing factory sounds of bullet impact against Kevlar like they're playing out on a diorama in his lap. The war is long over, but he still hears rallying cries and trumpet calls and a thousand other calls-to-arms that were really calls-to-death.

Sarah shifts against him, snapping him back to the present. They're huddled in the rubble of an abandoned office building, third floor, pressed against a pillar that was once an upstanding example of modern, sterile clean but now features the cracks and dirt, the grit and insect infestation, of modern ruin. It's a microcosm of the whole city. Which is a microcosm of the whole nation. Which is a microcosm of the whole, which is a microcosm of the whole, which is a microcosm of the whole...

He lets her lean against him and he knows he shouldn't. They've been over this before. Shipboard relationships complicate things.

He doesn't sleep much anymore. Memories of gunshots aside, it's just not a good idea. He and Sarah and Casey, they take two hour sleep shifts, one at a time. One sentry stays with the sleeper, one sentry patrols.

They called the patrolman the early-warning system. If they died, it was an early warning to the others.

The Reavers are another few suburbs out, far as they can tell. Casey has become pretty good at guesstimating the distance of a pack based on a variety of factors. Like counting the seconds between the lightning and thunder to tell if the storm is coming or going.

They've had a lot of practice.

"Bartowski," Casey growls. "You're supposed to be sleeping."

Yeah, well, the last time he fell asleep Casey ended up with a solid square foot of flesh missing before he and Sarah managed to get the lone Reaver off of him.

He shrugs, and pushes himself up the pillar, his battle-worn and torture-scarred combat gear gathering the dust of abandoned buildings and dried blood on its upward travel. His adjustment stirs Sarah, and he neither ignores nor draws attention to the fact that she had been sleeping next to him.

He tries to forget that he could practically feel her warmth through their layers. He fails.

"My turn as early-warning." He tries to make it a joke. He fails.

He watches as she tries to match his level of faux levity. "My turn as babysitter, then."

Casey grunts and tosses his burly frame unceremoniously down on the pillar, intentionally on the exact opposite side from Sarah. She rolls her eyes and Chuck smiles, or at least the muscles that control the corners of his lips pull upward. It's hard to actually smile when almost everything smells like rotten flesh and burning hair.

"Be careful," Sarah says. He tries not to laugh.

What good is careful going to do?

He walks around the perimeter of the floor, checking the ruins in the distance for movement. The building they're in, it used to be twenty stories. Now you could see sky from the fifth. There are stairs that lead to nowhere and walls that crumble into modern art. The building's original ceiling is now laying in pieces around the building's ground floor, or crushed fine beneath the soles of so many shoes.

It's as beautiful as it is distressing.

He stretches, reveling in the cricks and cracks of his various limbs. They're almost a more present reminder of the war than his actual scars. The scars, after all, don't hurt anymore, whereas the muscle aches - the way joints lock up or lack response or simply hurt - are there in every movement. Each time he turns too quickly, his knees talk. Every time he throws too hard of a punch, it reverberates through him like a masochistic version of "Dry Bones." The leg bone's torturing the knee bone. The knee bone's torturing the thigh bone.

The stairs from the fifth floor are still there, leading up into a space that used to be the sixth floor but now isn't. He's supposed to patrol, but figures having higher ground and three-hundred-sixty degree visibility works just as well. He sits on the top step, letting his legs dangle where the sixth floor is supposed to begin, where something more than nothing once stood.

He doesn't watch the ground like he's supposed to either, so he figures he's a pretty lousy sentry. Instead, he gazes up at a night sky that looks enticingly benign. He sees no clouds and, when he looks straight up from his spot, no rubble. The peacefulness is an unfamiliar feeling, and probably the most relaxed he'll feel in weeks, or maybe even ever again.

He hears Sarah's footsteps coming up the staircase, knows they're Sarah's from their carefully hidden delicacy. He doesn't look at her.

"Hey," she says. Casey would say something about him not patrolling, but Sarah doesn't. He moves his gaze forward, but not toward anything in particular.

"Hey." He wants to ask her why she's there and not with Casey. Was it the man's snoring? Was it restlessness? Was it him?

He stays quiet.

"Anything out there?" There's subtext to that question that he ignores.

"I don't know." An honest answer.

He looks at her then, and just a short shift from looking straight ahead to noticing her in his peripheral vision, sitting two steps below him and letting her own legs dangle into the ether. Her hair is matted and dirty, with blood and skin crushed into it. Her face is sooty, scratched and tired. She's wearing about eleven thousand pounds of gear. She looks beautiful.

"What were you looking at?"

He almost answers "You." Almost reaches out to touch her. But he doesn't. Shipboard romances complicate things.

He changes the subject. "You think Ellie and Devon really are with their beacon?"

The answer is no. It would be stupid of them to stay where anyone with a locater could find them. Even if Reavers had wiped out everyone who actually had the mental faculties to use a locater. Chuck knows that Sarah knows that the best bet for Devon and Ellie is to find a deep dark hole and try not to starve to death.

"Yes," she says. They both know it's a lie. "What's the plan?"

Before the war, she never asked him what the plan was. He was always the one asking her. Things change. He's the captain now. He's supposed to say that they'll cut across the face of Reaver territory, find Ellie and Devon at the beacon, then sneak back to the ship. He's supposed to be confident.

"Get to the beacon. Hope there's enough of Ellie and Devon to recognize."

"Chuck." She says it sharply, but with a deep inhalation of breath that betrays just how likely his scenario is. Still, the admonishment stirs up his blood. Maybe he will finally turn into a Reaver, like every other Intersect host of the past hundred and fifty years.

"What do you want me to say, Sarah?" He turns toward her, his legs moving to the step that separates them. "That we'll find them in a fort made of couch cushions, eating protein and playing cards?"

She doesn't say anything. What can she say? He watches her eyes as they switch between fire and ice, and he can hear each one speak. First: how dare you question your sister and brother-in-law's survival skills, they'll have made it. Then: we need to have some sort of hope, even if its a fool's hope.

She turns away from him, her legs hanging petulantly over the side of the staircase. He tries to say something, but any words he has would cross a line they've been toeing since they first met. Maybe if it hadn't been for the war, maybe if he wasn't the captain. He, too, turns away.

Her voice is so soft he thinks it may be a ghost or a daydream. "They'll be okay." He hears it, knows it's a lie. Or at least something she can't know. He can hear the rest of her sentence even if she doesn't say it: It won't be like with Morgan.

"No. They won't."

"Chuck..." He hears her move, thinks he feels the phantom of her hand over his shoulder before it pulls away.

"Sarah, just..." He looks over his shoulder, back toward her. For a split second, he sees her before the war. It's either a memory or a dream he's confused for one, but it doesn't matter. She's running alongside him, and her gait is gazelle-long, stretching out in hurdler strides. She's got a laser pistol in one hand, held tightly in her fierce, protective grip. She looks angry but she looks gorgeous. She's running toward something because she never - never - runs away from anything. He doesn't know what it is, but he knows that she's protecting him from it.

On the stairwell, he sees this memory of her and the real her blur together and maybe forgets for a moment why shipboard romances complicate things. He sighs. "Sarah, there are at least three hundred Reavers between us and the beacon. We have to circumnavigate them, making what should be a seven mile trip at least fifty. We have rations that would only last me a day, and we have to feed you and Casey with them for five. Then we have to get back to the ship, remove the land lock, and get it repaired, all without attracting Reaver or fed attention." He snorts. "Do you really think we're going to make it out of that alive?"

The answer is no. They both know it.

"Chuck..." She huffs in frustration, which would be comical in any normal circumstances. "You should... You should just kiss me."

He doesn't let the surprise on his face show. Instead he smiles, wan and broken. "What sort of incentive would I have to survive, then?"

The silence and stars are a cold blanket, pulled across both of their laps. She wants more than he can give her. Wants something to hold on to. But he's an apparition now, has been since the war. There's nothing tangible to grasp, to have. She just doesn't see it.

Her hands pat her knees with something that attempts to approach finality, but comes off half-hearted.

"I should get back to Casey. Make sure he hasn't died."

He nods, and his head moves against his will just the slightest bit towards her. She notices. "Might be better if he had. He'd be enough food for us to make this trip."

Her expression darkens. "Don't say that."

He nods. Doesn't apologize, but recognizes his error.

He looks away again, into the ruins of affluence that surround them. He hears her boots clack and echo against the staircase as she retreats down it. It sounds like it lasts forever. Maybe it does.

"Sarah." It comes out of his mouth before he can stop it, and his body seems to turn back to her not of his own volition. He hears one last clack of a footfall, and sees her turn back towards him in kind.

She's crying. Not exactly crying, actually, just the faint glaze of saltwater in her eyes. They seem bluer than he's ever seen them.

None of the tears fall.

"I've never asked you for anything, Chuck." There's passion and pain and a hundred other emotions he's forgotten in those words. "I never wanted to. But I'm asking for this: I'm asking for you to have some God damn hope, okay?" She even stamps her foot when she says it, and it would be adorable if it wasn't so sad.

"Okay." It surprises him when he says it. It shouldn't. He's never been able to say no to her.

"Okay?"

"Okay."

She smiles then and she looks like a girl. She doesn't look like a survivor or a fighter or a veteran of war. She doesn't look like a colleague or a partner or a crewmate. She looks like a girl.

She's about to turn around again when he says it: "Sarah?"

"Yeah, Chuck?"

"I will... I'll kiss you. Okay? When we get out of this. I'll kiss you." It's not much. It's not real. It's not something to hold onto. But it's all he can offer her when the air is filled with the sweat of a thousand daily murders.

She nods, still smiling.

"Looks like I have some incentive to survive, then," she says.