Disclaimer: Nothing is mine. Except the story idea.
A/N: Another idea i've been playing around with for a while. I think it'll be three or four parts by the time it's done, though i'm not one hundred percent sure where it's going yet. Progress is slow, but hopefully will be worth it. :) Reviews are love. They fluff my ego and make me write more. True story. ;) But really, i'd love to know what you think of it/would like to see... generally just if i'm doing a good job with the characters. Title taken from the King's Of Leon song of the same name.
Cold In The Desert
Claire remembers when sunsets were beautiful.
It used to be her favourite time of day, when the sun would slowly disappear and colour the clouds with a smattering of oranges and pinks. Now she associates sunsets with the red of blood. Because while the dark was something she used to enjoy, she now knows the dangers that come with it. The groaning, staggering, blood-thirsty monsters that use the cover of night to drag themselves past too-tired watchmen. She knows that when the sun starts to ebb beyond the horizon, it takes any false sense of security she allows herself to feel during the daylight hours with it.
The gun is warm in her hands. She plays with it, shifting it from palm to palm and running her thumb along the ridges on the side of the butt, below the trigger guard. A gun hasn't felt foreign in her hand since the first time she managed to hit every single crumpled pop can Chris had placed along a peeling brown wooden fence for her to practise with. She hasn't been able to feel safe without one since before Racoon City. That thought used to disturb her, in the early days of the infection. It doesn't anymore.
Her eyes scan the area around her, fingers absently popping the magazine clip in and out of its sheath. There are only a few people left now that can say they've been with the convoy since the beginning. Since Claire hotwired the bright yellow hummer and took off in search of anyone left alive. She'd spent a lot of time wondering, daydreaming about finding people she knew. Friends she'd left behind when she'd first headed out to find her brother, thoughts of finding Chris himself and how happy the reunion would be. She'd had so much more hope back then. But things were different now. You could change a lot in five years, see too much, and she had. It had made her stronger in a lot of ways; her skin was thicker, her mind more easily capable of letting go of people she couldn't save - though she felt she would never be able to completely master that particular feat. She'd become a leader, and the people around her need her to be stronger than they are. Capable of doing things they aren't. She'd come to terms with that a long time ago, but she still has hope. While it might not shine as brightly as it once had, it's still there. Hovering inside her, glow dim but inextinguishable.
Her eyes drift over the scraggily dressed members of the convoy, her convoy, taking in each dusty face and bringing forth their names from some part of her mind that refused to let them go. Even when the people themselves had gone. She spots Mikey, sitting in the back of his van in front of the computer screen, double doors wide open and K-Mart perched of the van's bottom. She sees their lips moving, one set after the other in easy conversation, sees them smiling and feels her brow furrow. She remembers a time, when she was younger, when talking to people - maybe someone you could foresee entering into a relationship with, maybe just a friend - like she suspected K-Mart was talking to Mikey right now, was easy. Fun and exciting and new every time. She remembers the thrill of plucking up enough courage - something she never had too much trouble with - to just go over and talk to the person that had caught your eye the second you walked into the party, or the park, or the goddamn supermarket. She wonders if K-Mart feels that same thrill when she talks to Mikey. If Mikey feels nervous, the good kind, when he spots her approaching. She wonders if they ever had chance to experience that before the Umbrella shit storm hit, because now Claire can't help but think that there's isn't really enough time to feel all those 'first time' emotions. Not properly. Because by the time you've gotten past the sweaty palms and being tongue-tied, once you've contained the nervousness and the butterflies enough to be able to make your legs move towards the object of your affections, that person could have an infected hanging off their neck. They could be ripped from you just as you were getting to know them. She wonders if they still feel all that, but maybe rushed. Or maybe they're foolish enough to be taking their time anyway.
"Busy?" She hadn't heard her approach. So Claire's body jerks a little, startled by the unexpected voice, and her head snaps up. The lithe figure is cast in shadow, her back to the setting sun, looming over Claire like some ominous figure of doom. She squints against the glare of the light surrounding her until she can make out the raised eyebrows and questioning expression on Alice's face. Claire shrugs, gesturing with her gun towards the vacant spot on the overturned vending machine beside her. Alice's lips quirk, offering a half-smile and she drops down, sitting a respectable few inches from the redhead. The air is suddenly filled with the noise of someone inhaling sharply and Alice's shoot back upright, glaring down at the metal box. "Jesus!" Claire frowns up at her until she sees the blonde rubbing the backs of her thighs with the palms of her hands. She laughs and doesn't realise until later how long it's been since she's done that, really done that. Alice draws her eyebrows together but smirks a little, sitting back down beside the convoy leader, this time closer to the edge. "Hot." She says, as though it needs explaining. Claire nods, still smiling, and goes back to playing with her gun. For a minute or so, there is silence. Slightly uneasy, semi-charged silence.
Alice makes Claire uncomfortable. It's not something she's tried to mask or even really understand, it's just a fact. It's not every day you see a woman, who at first glance doesn't look like she's strong enough to fire a gun, mould the stream of a flamethrower into a sky-wide inferno, showering the ground below with the ashes of infected crows. It had been unsettling to witness.
"You doing okay?" Claire knows why Alice is asking, figures the other woman has probably had to bury a few of her own friends, mentally if not physically. What she doesn't know though, is why there's concern in Alice's voice. Real concern, not the fake; 'Yeah? You lost someone? We've all lost someone. But whatever, I'll ask because it's courteous' concern she's come to expect. Alice's asks her like she cares and Claire doesn't know what to do with that. So she shrugs again, letting the clip slide out of the gun and continuing the absentminded, monotonous motion. "Are you thinking about them?" Even though the question is barely a whisper, it hits Claire like a slap to the face. She bristles, shoving the magazine back in and shooting Alice a glare from the corner of her eye.
"No." Because of course she should be thinking about them. About how she could have made things different. Saved them. That should be the only thing that occupies her thoughts. "Look," and she can hear the annoyance in her voice, the frustration. "Did you want something?" Something clouds Alice face and then is gone too quickly for Claire to recognise it. She sighs and turns her head away, reaching around her body for something beside her. When she turns back, she's rolling a label-less silver can from one hand to the other. Alice is quiet for a few seconds and Claire is too stunned by what she thinks is about to happen to speak. She feels something like nerves claw at her insides.
"I saw you give yours away." The blonde admits, her raspy voice low and her unsettling eyes finally glancing up at Claire through the bangs of her unkempt hair. The redhead shivers and shifts her attention to the sky, still mottled with pinks and purples and reds, as if wanting to blame the action on the creeping cold of night. "The guy; Otto? He said it's pork and beans. Figured maybe you'd want to split mine with me?" Green eyes snap back to iridescent blue.
"Why?" It's harsher than she means it to be and some distant part of her brain asks, in a quiet, timid voice, why things always seems to come out wrong when Alice is around. The newcomer's expression doesn't change, but her eyes drop back to the tin she's still rolling from palm to palm.
"Roasting all those birds kinda took it out of me. I'm not all that hungry." And the simple explanation manages to make Claire feel like an ass. Maybe it's the way Alice says it, voice soft and tentative, or maybe it's because between her asking and receiving an answer she realised this is the first time anyone has ever called her on foregoing a meal so someone else can eat. It's the first time anyone has ever noticed. And realising that, and that it was probably both of those things combined, Claire takes a second to look at Alice. Really look at her. At a glance, she looks like any other traveller Claire might come across, only far more equipped. She looks just as tired as any of them - though she guesses that if she'd been the one controlling a firestorm, she'd have been out a lot longer than a couple of hours - and just as road weary. She looks like she needs a break and Claire, reasons unknown to her in the second it takes her to make the only semi-conscious decision, wants to give her one.
"Sounds good." Alice looks up at her, surprise parting her lips. It's a slip, and Claire would bet money on it not happening very often, because Alice's brain seems to catch up when the redhead pushes a 'thanks' past a knowing smile. The blonde smiles back and leans forward to rest her forearms on her knees. She gestures with the can, waving it towards the convoy leader and raising an eyebrow questioningly.
"You got a can opener?" Claire laughs. It's a little over exuberant and a tad louder than necessary, but for one utterly weird moment, she doesn't care. It feels too good for her to care. She hears Alice chuckle low in her throat and plucks the can from the other woman's grip, unclipping her knife from her belt. She holds it blade up, still grinning.
"If the world going to Hell has taught me anything, it's how to improvise. Seems like can openers were one of the first things to be horded." She pauses, placing the tin onto the flat metal in the space between them and tracing the circular depression around the edge on its top with the knife tip. "And then thrown into some bottomless pit, never to be seen again." She huffs, then lifts her hand, counts to two, and rams it into the top of the tin with just the right amount of force. "I wonder what happened to those things." Claire frowns, using the sharp edge of the blade to widen the incision. "Can openers, nail files, wrenches. Such stupid things that we used to take for granted that people would give their right arm for now." She's created a crude opening at the top of the tin and, gripping the container in one hand, pries the metal back, exposing the slimy, orangey insides.
"Huh." Alice says and it's almost a gasp, one that sounds suspiciously close to one of surprise. From what Carlos had told her, she wouldn't have pegged Alice as someone who could be taken by surprise twice in the same day. "How does he do that? How does he know?" Claire's lips curl in a resigned smile and she shrugs her shoulders.
"He says its a gift." She places the tin back down between them and pulls a rag that looks like its seen better days out of one of the pouches on her belt, using it to wipe the thick sauce from the blade of her knife before she re-sheaths it. She clasps her hands together and rests her forearms on her knees, unconsciously mimicking the tawny-haired woman's stance. "Your powers don't extend far enough past controlling fire to reach guessing tin can contents, huh?" If she hadn't been watching for it, she would have missed the way Alice's entire body froze for a second, as if she were anticipating some kind of impact. It's only when she realises no blow is coming that she loosens her body enough to let out an amused breath.
"I think I pretty much tap out where you saw me." She wants to ask, wants to find a way to do so without causing a more fatal, potentially explosive, freezing reaction. Because she's curious - who wouldn't be? - and as much as Carlos has talked about Alice, he hasn't really explained a lot. Maybe even he doesn't have the answers Claire suddenly finds herself wanting.
"How-" The instant she starts to form the word, she sees Alice's eyes cloud over. Darken. Her face drops all expression, closes up, and Claire feels the air grow cold. She doesn't spare a thought as to whether or not the temperature change is all in her head, she's too focused on wanting to raise it again. She glances down at the food between them, then meets unsure eyes that have turned a blue-green in the dying light. "How do you wanna eat this?" Alice's expression morphs, her eyes twinkle with some hidden secret that makes Claire instantly want to know what it is, and then green eyes blink and suddenly Alice has something in her hand. And she's offering whatever it is out to her like a prized catch. There's a genuine, almost child-like air of something akin to excitement about the quiet loner and Claire feels herself charmed by it. Made all the more curious by it. She takes her inquisitive, lingering gaze from the other woman's face and drops it to her outstretched hand. An off-yellow plastic fork and spoon are clasped in a pale palm and Claire lets out a choked laugh when she realises what she's looking at. Inexplicably, she feels tears pricking the backs of her eyes and she swallows hard to keep them down. A quick glance back up lets her know that Alice has noticed, but isn't about to call her on it.
"Take your pick." So Claire does, taking the fork into her own hand and looking at it like some holy relic. She laughs again.
"You can set the sky on fire and make cutlery appear out of thin air. Anything you can't do?" Alice's lips curve into an amused smirk and she picks up the can, gesturing with the spoon before dipping it into oddly appealing mixture and stirring it thoughtfully. She lifts a mouthful to her lips and parts them, sliding the spoon inside and humming appreciatively. She offers the container to Claire, who takes it with a grateful smile. For a few seconds, she looks at the fork in her hand as if trying to remember how to use it. Then she shakes her head, bemused, and tries to skewer a sausage onto the end of it.
"You know that thing people do with their tongues?" Claire chokes, the sausage only half-chewed being inhaled the complete wrong way. Her wide eyes water and she lets out a few strangled coughs, before she feels a strong hand thump her on the back, freeing the uncomfortably lodged food and allowing her to drag in a few gasps of air.
"Excuse me?" She manages in a rough voice, eyebrows almost hitting the top of her forehead. Claire hears the soft sound of quick rhythmic exhalations, sees the other woman's shoulders shaking just slightly, and realises Alice is laughing at her. Albeit quietly. And the look Alice gives her, almost coy and definitely teasing, makes her feel like she should be embarrassed. The chuckle that rumbles low in her throat makes her feel confused.
"Carlos didn't mention that you have a dirty mind." Claire's heart thuds a few beats faster in her chest and mortifyingly, surreally, she feels her cheeks redden. Thankfully, Alice's jibes go no further and she slips the can out of Claire's hand. "I meant... you know when people kind of roll it in on the sides and-" Grinning, Claire sticks her curled tongue out of her mouth and Alice's stops mid sentence, pointing the spoon in the redhead's direction. "That. I can't do that." She takes a spoonful and hands the tin back. There is silence for a few, long moments. It's amicable, comfortable even, and both women pause briefly to think about whether or not that's strange. That they can slip so easily into something that should feel alien, but doesn't. That they can feel comfortable around someone they hardly know. Neither are awarded an answer.
"I feel so civilized." Claire remarks, breaking through the quiet of the mainly still camp around them. Most people have stopped to eat. Her eyes have found only Carlos up and moving around from one end of the camp to the other, not yet ready to take a break. She passes the can to Alice, who glances down at it but doesn't take her turn. When piercing blue eyes fail to move from her face, Claire waves her fork from side to side. "Cutlery. All we're missing are the dinner plates."
"You're forgetting fancy napkins." Alice wonders if there's a fancy napkin to be had left in the world. Outside of Umbrella. "I won't let the end of the world turn me into someone who slurps from tin cans." Her eyes slide to their corners, shooting her seatmate a wry look. "No offence." Claire's mouth splits in a grin that shows her teeth, so wide she can feel it pulling at the corners. It cracks a little. It feels good.
"None taken." There's a moment that's too long during which they just look at one another. Really look. They make it past all those first impressions, all the fire and brimstone and questions of moving on. "Look, what I said earlier? About you leaving-" Alice shakes her head and drops it, resignation clouding her face. A look of total understanding that pulls at Claire in a way that makes her want to scream. And she doesn't know why.
"I understand. I'll help anyway I can and then-"
"I was wrong." It isn't something Claire Redfield readily admits to. Usually. She lift a hand to her head, combing her fingers through her hair and away from her face. Alice's eyes are look like ice when they meet hers this time, and she feels like they're stripping something away inside her. She wonders what other abilities Alice has. "I don't make a habit of turning people away. Especially when they save the lives of members of my convoy. Whatever anyone else may feel, first and foremost they should be thankful." Alice's eyes flicker as something Claire can't put her finger on shines in them for a moment.
"If i'd gotten here earlier I could have saved more." It's barely above a whisper and Claire has to strain to hear it, but the self-deprecation comes through loud and clear. It shakes something inside her.
"Alice..." She isn't sure how to continue, how could she be? There's something so broken about the tawny-haired woman, blue eyes staring at nothing - or maybe something just too distant for Claire to see - looking solemn and regretful. She wonders how much pain is bottled inside Alice. She wonders if she ever lets it out. Tentatively, against any better judgement she might feel, Claire reaches out. "Alice, there was nothing more you could have done-" The second Claire's hand makes contact with Alice's arm, the newcomer snaps out of her reverie, violently yanking it out from under the redhead's touch. Shocked, Claire pulls her own hand back and stares at Alice. She doesn't know if she's silently apologising or begging for an answer, but whatever Alice reads on her face sends her upright. Alice looks down at her, darkened sky framing her body, and holds the can out for Claire to take. Still somewhat numbed from shock, the redhead's hand closes around it automatically and she brings it to rest on her knee, gaze never leaving Alice's schooled blank face.
"Thank you." Quiet and all too calm, they are the last words Claire hears before the other woman turns and walks away. Boots not making a sound as they cross the billions of grains of sand beneath them.