Gas Mask

Ever the people-pleaser, Louis was trying to make conversation. In the cold comfort of a safe room down South, a little effort to break down the barricade that seemed to separate the survivors and the military 'new meat' should have gone a long way.

Somewhat unsurprisingly, it didn't.

'So. How long you been in the army?'

The question was directed at both Jeff and Annie, though neither seemed inclined to bother with a response. There was a long pause during which Annie might have rolled her eyes, and she shook out her tired legs as she replied.

'Six years this January, sir. I enrolled when I was twenty-two.'

'Oh.' He couldn't think of much else to say, and in retrospect, it sounded lame.

In another room, Francis gave an indistinct curse as Bill and Zoey tended his wounds. The soldiers had refused to enter and help, fearing too much the blood that would infect their systems in a heartbeat. Louis, for his part, had been assigned the job of keeping an eye on the two in the entrance area, something they didn't seem to appreciate.

He took a seat on a battered chair by the wall, resting his elbows on his knees and rubbing his temples for a moment. His dark eyes flicked briefly up to the pair, who had yet to even move away from the bolted door. Jeff, from what he could see of him, was clearly a tall and well built man. He was the more open of the two, more quick to ask questions about the quartet's experiences. Then there was Annie- stoic, professional and to the point. Medium-brown hair poked out from beneath her mask, making her tiny and lean frame all the more betrayingly feminine.

'How about you?' Jeff asked finally. 'How long were you working in... whatever the hell it was you did before all this?'

Louis chuckled weakly, glad at the small effort made. 'Five years in IT, man. Five long years.'

'Tell me about it,' the masked man replied. 'I had a brother in some computer technology lab. He always said it was-'

'That's enough, Jeff.' Annie interrupted huskily, voice muffled as ever.

Louis looked at her. 'Hey- what's the problem?'

'It's neither the time nor the place for chitchat. Sir.'

He didn't mean for his words to come out as snarky as they did. Well, maybe just a little. 'Look, ma'am- you ain't at your base anymore. We're all just tryin' to survive, and trust me... it helps to get to know one another. I mean, hell, I know more about those three in there than I did about my own family.'

'I understand that,' she said. She was still standing upright, though Jeff had since leaned against the wall with a bushed sigh. 'You'll have to understand, though. You folks are immune, and we're not sure if-'

'If we'll just up and leave you to die?' Louis guessed. 'Or infect you on purpose if you get on our nerves?'

She didn't respond. He took her silence as a yes.

'We ain't like that, Annie.'

Neither she nor Jeff could say anything before the door to the adjoining room opened. Bill and Zoey were followed by Francis, now sporting a tightly bound and blood-speckled forearm. None of them seemed not notice the stony atmosphere, or perhaps they just didn't care. Bill informed them gruffly they had four hours to rest up before moving out again. No one complained.

A bleak sort of rain had begun to smatter the dusty streets outside, fracturing the stagnant heat. Louis took first watch, though regretted volunteering when he heard the breathing of the others regulate and soften.

Bill's rifle still sat in his hand. Francis was sitting half-upright against a wall, arms folded and eyes closed. Next to him, Zoey had jackknifed herself closer to herself in some attempt at comfort. Jeff and Annie rested a little bit apart, closer to one another than to the others and yet not together.

It was during these kind of moments, these moments of gentle, heartbreaking silence that Louis allowed himself to doubt. Certainly, progress was being made- their journey south had been work towards something. What they were doing now, it was productive. Not just surviving day to day. A real, long-term plan.

But there were other factors, and the two soldiers across the room highlighted it. As people, Annie and Jeff posed a more immediate problem. The woman was right, after all- he, Zoey, Bill and Francis were carriers. A threat to them.

Lethal.

Louis frowned, mentally swatting at the idea like a pesky fly. What had happened at the station concerned him, though he had avoided mentioning it to the others thus far. Their condemnation as carriers was something of a taboo subject for now, it seemed. He strained to listen for the sound of infected shambling outside over the rainfall, trying not to imagine how many of them had become what they were today due to contact with a carrier.

Something shifted. Louis's breath hitched agitatedly and he twisted around where he sat. Annie had risen to a sitting position near the far wall, arms looped around her knees and face unmoving. It was disconcerting, really- not being able to tell where she was looking or her expression.

'Uh, hey.'

Her face moved ever so slightly more in his direction, and it was hard to tell if her muttered hello was intended to carry such a standoffish edge.

'Can't sleep?' he prompted.

'Not with the sound of... those things... out there. The base was reinforced enough that no noise got through, generally.'

'Mm.'

'Where are we headed for tomorrow?' Annie asked suddenly, tone solemn. 'If there's a plan, that is, sir.'

'Gonna need to ask Bill whenever he comes to,' Louis replied with a faint chuckle. 'He'll know what it is exactly we're doin'. Military guy himself once upon a time, 'case you didn't notice.'

'I did.' A pause. 'He doesn't want us here. The girl had to force him to stop that train. We saw.'

Was there resentment in her voice? Offense? Fear? Louis inwardly shook his head, giving up on any attempt at analysis he had tried on the woman before now. It was too damn hard.

'He's just careful is all. Bill don't trust too easily...' he raised an eyebrow, bravely giving her a slightly pointed look. 'Kinda like some others I know.'

'Considering the situation, sir, I think you'll find you're one of the only exceptions.'

Louis shrugged. 'So what, you guys thinkin' of leaving on your own? Find some other non-immunes or a sanctuary?'

Annie turned her head to look briefly at Jeff, then up directly at Louis. 'We've been talking about it. It may be the best option for us- perhaps coming here with you all was a mistake.'

'Guess it's down to yourselves, as long as you two keep safe,' Louis said honestly, a little abashed at his attitude earlier. 'Can't say it hasn't been nice, though. Having some new... uh...' Despite himself, he laughed once. 'faces around. Even if they are a little...'

Annie dropped her hands so that she was leaning back, listening to him attentively. He bit his lip, looking for the right word (or any word that wouldn't see him shot before the night was out) to finish with, but nothing appropriate would come.

'Cat got your tongue?' Annie asked dryly. Then, with an almost parodied emphasis- 'Sir?'

'Look, you wanna stop calling me that?'

'Seems quite becoming, considering the tie.'

'Oh, look who just made a joke, huh?' Louis cocked his head. Annie, after a short moment, bobbed her shoulders in a small shrug.

'Years of practice makes a solider unused to dealing with civilians in circumstances where they're in the same boat. I suppose it can make anyone come off as unpleasant. I assure you that if it does seem that way, it's not fully intended.' Annie said it simply, not as an apology but as a statement of fact.

'Ah, hell, you ain't that bad,' Louis said offhandedly.

Disturbingly close outside, something let loose a peal of manic laughter. Its noise stabbed into the night like a blade, jagged and unwanted, causing both of the conscious survivors to jerk in shock. As the cackling died away gradually, Louis became aware of the sound of Annie's breathing- quick, now, and uppity. Just like his own skittish inhalations as he fought to sooth himself.

'Shit...'

'Yeah.'

He looked up, and nervously grinned.

And in the silence that followed he couldn't really tell, but maybe underneath that big old mask, she was smiling too.