A/N: I know, I know. It's been a while. My work and then completion of Battlesong has left me a bit burnt out, but now that it's done, I'll have more time to work on other projects - so expect updates to be a bit quicker from now on. Not super quick, you know me, but certainly more than the... 7 months it took to get this out. Thanks to Swinging Cloud, my beta while LeMas is off in Italy being really drunk. I know this story creeps you out, but thanks for looking it over anyway~
a week since last feed
It only takes the vague whisper of something greater to spur them into motion.
If you thought the compound was busy before, it's a hive now; people are always rushing back and forth, making you dizzy with their constant movement. Raids are more frequent and take more time, precious supplies being hauled inside with faces grim yet hopeful. Backpacks, rations, water cans – almost dry, almost wasted, an ever-spreading circle of empty stores around your base. Two red cans sit in the far corner of the sleeping area, dared not to be moved lest they fall out of sight. Gasoline, your ticket away from the city whose bones rattle with the call of the dead. The deserted streets call to you sometimes, beckoning, but you resist. You don't want to get lost again, not when there's a chance they could leave you behind.
Tina hunches over a map they'd found, your location marked with a bright red x. Her good hands trace lines and pathways, subways and sideways, muttering under her breath as she plans the best route from your position. North, they say, we have to go north, but they know as little as you do about what north holds.
She smiles when she sees you and beckons you over, gently grabbing your wrist and placing your slender fingers on the paper. It's rough under your touch and some parts are faded and smeared under stains of things you'd rather never know but you let her guide you through your journey until you rest again upon the base.
"That's the route we're thinking," she confides, voice low with worry. "Puck says the trucks can get through."
A bus had been immediately shot down, too many memories of the one that took them to this place to begin with. Mike says Puck still wakes up in the night with his sister's spine seared into his memory, forehead damp with sweat.
"We don't have trucks," you mumble, hoping she forgot what she asked of you earlier in the week.
Her eyes burn into you the way her tweezers burned your temple and you bite at your lip, worrying the cracked flesh between your teeth.
"I don't want to do it," you tell her, so softly she has to lean to hear you, your fingers tracing invisible pathways that always lead back to the haven that's become your home.
"I know, Britt," Tina replies, taking your hand. "But you're our best shot. We were going to send Puck and Santana, but... with her arm the way it is, it's not going to happen."
The thought of Shadow in danger stirs something unpleasant in your gut, the phantom feeling of worry that pangs too sharp to be ignored. You remember the full curve of her lips as you tended her wounds, the gentle hiss of her breath that granted life to her body that felt so warm and soft against you. Even though the curve of her pelvis can be seen from under the low ride of her jeans – just like everyone else, wasting away – she's still infinitely softer than you.
You're so still for a moment Tina fears you've wandered off into your mind again, but you lick your lips and curl your hand over the map in acceptance. But still...
Tina's eyes flicker over your shoulder for a moment, a thunderhead that gathers and vanishes all within a moment. She squeezes your shoulder and whispers her luck into your ear before departing to the other side of the compound – no doubt to argue with Quinn over what should be their main priority. You're still looking at the map when another hand touches your back, and though you stifle your scream you whip around so fast you almost fall over.
Shadow raises her eyebrows at you incredulously. "I thought you'd stopped being so jumpy and shit."
"You don't have good hands. Not yet."
"But I have a good body, right?"
Her grin fades as you avert your gaze, ending with a sigh. "Why do I even try?"
You have no answer for her, and her mouth opens to reply but another beats her to it. They beckon you outside where the others have gathered, assessing their supplies away from the white walls that have become oppressive in their sameness. She sighs, and whatever she was about to say dies upon her tongue.
Together you wind your way into the courtyard where the summer's sun beats down upon your face. On these days the rot that has taken the city hovers like a sweltering shroud, bringing its stench until it entangles itself into all that you are. The compound reeks of death and the decay it brings, a scent that begins to itch at even your nose. You wonder what it must smell like to them.
The backpack slung over your shoulders digs into your fragile bones, the crowbar buckled to the side pulling you lopsided. Mike smiles as he sees you, his messy black hair an oil-slick in the sun, and presses a pistol into your hands as you pass. Just in case, he whispers, and your smile thanks him in ways your tongue is unable. It is tucked into the pocket of your loose cargo pants and blends with the folds until only you are aware of its cold, invasive weight.
The bodies here have split open and leak their poison into the area. Even without your supplies dwindling, it poses such a health hazard you know you would have had to leave sooner or later lest they get sick and drop one by one, their feeble immune systems unable to fight everything at once. Puck rolls one towards the wall and stumbles back, gagging, when its distended belly tears open and leaks everywhere. Various calls of complaint come from the other members of the group as the stench settles around the space.
"Britt? You all there?"
Shadow's question startles you from your observations and you blink, following where your eyes have landed. Sam laughs as he's jostled by Puck, both of them glancing over at you. The mohawked boy whispers something into his companion's ear and Sam pushes him away, pink tinging his cheeks. You chew again at your lip.
"I don't want to go," you say softly, curling your hand around your backpack strap.
She frowns, her dark brows drawing inwards. "Why not?"
"I don't like him."
Shadow follows your gaze until she spots Sam, too, making final checks in his bag.
"Who, Samantha? He's harmless."
You make to correct but notice the smirk curl at the edges of her lips and realize it's just her keeping her namesake. For the longest time you wondered why they called her Satan, but the way her mouth twists is nothing but sinful. You'll nod along at her jabs if it means seeing it again.
"He has bad hands."
"So do I, right?"
You don't mention the way he watches you while everyone else sleeps, and how your inhuman eyes can see in return.
"It's not the same."
The final preparations are made and Quinn unceremoniously cuts between the two of you, smoothing her tangled hair from her brow.
"It's time to go, Brittany. You ready?"
Not really, you want to say, but it wouldn't make a difference, so instead you allow her to lead you to the entryway where Sam stands waiting and willing to strike out into the world beyond. The eager gleam in his eyes makes you wary, but the way he licks his lips as he spots you only worsens it. You tighten your grip on your bag and wonder if you'll make it home.
Tina fans out a map, and the three of you grip it close. The summer's sun casts a bright sheen on the faded paper and some roads blur out entirely, but she still circles a junction not too far from your current position.
"A major pile-up happened here," she informs the two of you, "and a lot of the cars still have keys in them. That's your best shot."
Sam nods excitedly and stuffs the map in his bag, but Quinn grips his bicep before he can wrench away. In the sun her eyes are burning, gold like the very thing that illuminates them; she looks ethereal, made of the smoke that hovers in the deep crevices of your head.
"Three hours, got it?" she demands in a tone that leaves no room for negotiation. "If not, we're gonna send out a search party, and you fucking know how much I hate putting more people at risk."
He gently pries her hand away, rubbing over the imprints of her fingers.
"I got it, Quinn. Me and Britts here will be faster than The Flash."
He ignores you and claps Puck on the shoulder – the other boy presses a pistol into his hand. You wonder if there existed a world other than this, and what role you had played in it before.
Mercedes gently nudges you forward.
"Bring him back safe," she breathes into your ear, and it's a burden you'll shoulder for her sake rather than his.
She smiles, and together you and him walk out into the unknown.
The map is followed, though Sam has no qualms about making a few detours into a store or two to see if there's anything of use. It's long been picked clean by vultures and the dead, and your heart beats in your throat every time he pokes his head through a broken window to check, yanked away more than once as you hear the rattling wheeze of rotting lungs in the dark depths of the shadowed rooms. You even hear a heart once, slow and sluggish, and doubt it will beat still once you return.
He's overly cheerful for a boy thrown into a dying world. His gait is long and confident next to yours, and his glances are cursory as you approach an alley where things may lurk. You think his voice is too loud, but recently, so is everything else.
"So, is it true you don't remember anything before waking up?" he asks, all wide eyes and eager smiles. "I heard Puck talking about it, but he's full of shit, yknow? Santana told me to mind my own business, but... it's just so cool! You're, like, a mystery superhero."
"It's not cool," you mumble, drawing him into a side alley to avoid a cluster up ahead. The two of you pick through trash as gingerly as you can, struggling to avoid giving away your position.
Sam scoffs, throwing away your opinion. "It totally is. Don't you like being special?"
You clamp your jaw shut and look away, the wound on your arm a stark reminder of how very special you are.
He chatters on about nothing in particular for a few long minutes, and you wonder if the attempt to fill the silence masks how nervous he is. Now that you hurry along and he stumbles to catch up, there's a stiffness that you hadn't noticed before, a tenseness. It doesn't carry itself upon his jaw like Shadow's, or his shoulders like Puck, but it lingers regardless. He holds his breath every time he looks into a store, confident but not carefree.
Youth always think they're immortal.
(You remember the tower and how it was true to start.)
You decline when he offers you a bag of chips he found, your stomach rumbling for something else. Specks of salt gather upon the edges of his mouth and suddenly Shadow's nickname for him makes more sense. You saw a guppy when you went to the museum – maybe they have a common relative somewhere.
"C'mon, Britt," he complains, muffled from his mouthful, "you can't ignore me for this whole trip."
"I can try."
The hurt splays itself across his expression but you ignore it, chewing at your lips. The heat is stifling, smothering, and his presence brings with it the smell of a body unwashed. It doesn't bother you, but the distant scent of stale blood does. Your teeth ache.
You stride ahead again and he jogs to catch up, grabbing at your bicep. A panic grips you and prickles the edges of your jaw so strong you wrench away, stumbling forward a few paces. He looks at you like you shot someone, his hands raising in the air.
"Hey, I just-"
"Don't touch me," you mutter, cradling your arm close.
Sam eyes you but finally sighs and throws the bag away, stuffing his hands in his pockets. Some part of you wants to apologize, but the phantom feeling of his hand against your bare skin keeps your mouth shut tight.
The two of you walk along the deserted roads in silence – every so often the map ruffles as he takes it out and peers close, but aside from that there's nothing save the shuffle of your feet against the worn pavement. It's soothing, and you lose the hard edge that followed you since you caught him watching you like the boy on the roof.
You reach the pile-up; a mess of broken down cars and twisted metal greets you, picking your way through the mix of machine and man splayed across the space. Some only have dents and some are crumpled beyond use, but most have bloodstains that paint them a patchwork picture of what could have transpired.
Regardless of the details, you know the answer.
Sam runs his hands along the side of a sports car, fingering the metal peeled back from the hood. The bright yellow clashes with the crimson splashes placed as bloody handprints.
"We need a truck or an SUV," he says, peering into the back. "Two. I don't think anyone knows how to hotwire a car, so... keys would be good."
You know next to nothing about cars but part ways regardless. The metal burns at your touch and sometimes the owners are still strapped in, eyes frozen wide open as they stare into an abyss you've yet only to glimpse, somewhere in another life. You close them gently and carry on.
The only SUV on your side of the intersection has an axle so twisted you doubt it will ever roll again. Gingerly, you pop open the back door and glance inside at the glint of packaging you thought you saw underneath the seat, bending down to take a closer look. A slight noise makes your head snap up so quickly you think you broke it; frozen, stuck in an awkward crouching lean, you trace the sound back to the body you thought had long since passed. Your being relaxes before pity takes you.
The girl couldn't have been older than six, and now her filmy eyes are the same as her father's in the front seat. She mouths silent things at you, the wheeze of her breath loud for one so small, and you see the festered crescent on her neck that mirrors the one on your arm. Her hands still limply clutch the teddy bear in her lap, his fur matted with blood.
"Hi there," you coo softly, crawling the rest of the way into the back seat. "I'm Brittany. Do you have a name?"
She looks at you mindlessly, and you know well enough that you won't get a response. Still, you brush one of her pigtails off her shoulder, ridding it the best you can of the gore that clings. She had the most beautiful blonde hair.
"That looks like it hurts," you continue, tracing her bite with your finger. "I guess the sick people got to you too, huh? I'm sorry you had to go through that."
The little girl mumbles and you let her take your fingers into her mouth, her cold tongue touching at the gloss of your nails. It soothes her restless shifting and she stills until her whole body seems to sag, silent.
"How long have you been here?"
She wheezes around your fingers and you frown.
"That's a long time."
Your other hand goes to unbuckle her seatbelt but a shuffling behind you has both of you looking over, her mouth falling open soundlessly. In the mirror you can see it's Sam, his eyes shamelessly following the curve of your ass as you bend at the waist, and you clench your teeth so hard stars pop behind your eyes. The feeling comes back, tense and unhappy. You berate yourself for letting your guard down.
"What're you doing?" he asks, voice distracted as you begin to shuffle your way out. "Did you find something?"
A deep, rattling moan pulls itself from the little girl and he starts, whole body shivering like a frightened animal. His hand grasps the back of your shirt and wrenches you from her; you watch, pressed against his front as she reaches for him, bear tumbling to the floor to lie forgotten.
Your breath holds in your lungs until they strain and begin to burst, the warmth that comes from his skin smothering. Under your breasts you feel his forearm and upon the curve of your hip his opposite hand, heavy and bruising – it doesn't feel like when Shadow drew you in so softly, a spider weaving her web – and your heart hammers with much of the same strength he holds in his fingertips. It pounds against the flesh of his forearm, mixing your pulses together until you feel the phantom rush of blood that comes when his chest presses against your back with an inhale.
Caught frozen you swallow when his hand skates down, squeezing momentarily at the curve of your ass. His hair tickles the back of your neck as he moves, his cheek pressing against your ear. You wonder if this is what the little girl felt like in the moments before she died, caged in the arms of a stranger.
She groans again and the sound distracts him enough that you wrench free, leaning heavily on the truck. Sam blinks as if waking himself, looking around for a moment before refocusing on you. It looks like he wants to say something, but the words he wished to weave into your ear unravel in the open air, so instead he shakes his head and reaches for his pistol. He's focused on the girl now, anything to not look at you - you remember Puck, his weapon opening the skull of the man caught tangled in the wires of the store, and wonder if she deserves the same. She's just another victim caught in the cycle of death humans seem to bring, but being trapped there for the rest of her days is no way to exist.
(And that's all it is, really; existing. The will to survives implies a will for anything at all.)
You may never have known her, but she's worth more than a bullet from a boy who doesn't know enough to care.
"Don't," you mutter, pulling the heavy crowbar from your belt. "It'll make noise."
His nod is rough and you whisper your apology as you open her side of the car, grip tight and unforgiving on your weapon as you send her to the same place that Shadow sent your sister.
The silence returning to base is so quiet it unnerves even you.
You'd found what you were looking for amidst stilted conversations and glances caught between apology and anger. X marks the spot of your new vehicles and the body of a little girl whose face is splattered all over your crowbar, and you ache to return to a place where you can hide away from his gaze. The keys jingle, loud in a dead world.
Sam veers off course again and you don't have it in you to reprimand, instead following him inside. A small pharmacy whose shelves have been stripped of goods welcomes you with shattered windows, scattered glass crunching underfoot. The back of the store looms an ominous dark, and even though you can't hear the sick, you can smell them. It's a different scent than just rotting flesh and you've long given up naming it, but it lingers with them as well as a perfume lingers on the living. It's stale, but any scent at all is worrying.
The shelves have the odd snack yet unstolen – nothing filling, but with the stores as low as they are it's better than nothing. Tina told you how worried she is over the next trip despite being one of the first to endorse it. Over bites of a shared soup can, feeling like a thief stealing calories you don't deserve, she recounted how they had almost starved the first time when they were stranded in the city, how Mike had started seeing things that weren't there because he was so dehydrated from the added burden of carrying Artie for so long. This is the healthiest they've been in a long time, taking and taking from your supplies, but health is such a fickle thing – who knows how long their trip will be?
(Though, she whispered softly, she doesn't expect their good fortune to last. It will be the end of the road for some, no matter how much they try to delay it.)
You find a brightly coloured box, full and unopened, and waste no time with devouring its contents. It's a forgotten taste that instantly raises your spirits – you vaguely remember how someone used to give you these as a reward, how you'd sort them and savour them one by one, but there's no savouring now. It gums up your teeth and you relish in every ounce of sugar you didn't think you'd taste again.
"Not gonna share?"
You slowly stop chewing and glance over your shoulder; too caught in your sugar-rush you hadn't noticed him creep up on you, his steps oddly silent. The feeling amplifies, thrumming hard in your chest. It aches.
"No." Your voice is muffled through the candy but he doesn't seem offended as you swallow – almost amused. He crosses his arms, shifting from one foot to another, and runs his tongue over his teeth. You don't feel like waiting, but it would only get worse if you turned away.
"I, uh, wanted to say sorry," he starts, rubbing at the back of his neck, lips stretched into a sheepish smile. "About earlier. I shouldn't have done that."
Then why did you, hangs at the tip of your tongue, but the connections that have been improving between your mind and mouth collapse. You frown a little, chewing at another candy. He takes that as a good sign.
"I didn't mean to... it just... it felt so good, you know? It's been a long time since I felt anyone like that. It took me by surprise."
His smile stretches into something else and you can't ignore the bad feeling any longer, backing up a little to make it to the cash register. You want to put the counter between you but Sam follows, leaning on the edge. Your knuckles turn white where they crush the box of your candy, and that animal thing inside of you that grows louder with each day you don't eat is screaming, howling, but you suck air in through your nose and ignore it. He's harmless, Shadow had said, and you try to believe her.
"Didn't it feel good to you?" he presses, studying you. "I bet it's been even longer since you've been with someone."
"I don't remember," you mutter, distractedly flipping through the register. So much money you would've taken without a second thought had it any use, but all you can do now is burn it.
His eyebrows raise high on his forehead. "Seriously? You can't remember the last time you even touched someone?"
"I touched Tina."
"You know what I mean, Britt."
There's the name again, the one you hate coming from his mouth. You grit your teeth and back up further but he's in the same space now, not taking the hint your feet are sending. Boys seem to be like that.
"I don't remember anything. I don't want to. It hurts my head too much."
His gaze catches on Shadow's shirt that you still wear, cut through the middle – he can see your hip-bones from where your tank top rides up and he wets his lips momentarily, almost too subtle to notice. But you do. You always do.
"Well... maybe I can help you make new memories."
It's so nonchalant that you think he's joking and you snort a little no, shaking your head. You expect him to laugh too and frown when he doesn't, looking up into his startlingly eager eyes. He's closer now, angled so that escaping means pushing past. Your barrier has become your trap, and if you had the thought you'd curse at your own stupidity.
"Think about it – people tell me I'm pretty good. And you're pretty... pretty." His cheeks colour a bit at the lame compliment, but he continues. "No one else has to know. It could just be me and you."
You swallow, fingers gripping the counter.
"What about Mercedes?"
The question seems to take him by surprise. "What about her?"
"Aren't you two..." you make shaky gestures with your hands in the air, but he gets your point.
"I want her first time to be special, you know? I can't do that if we're scared all the time."
Sam gets closer again until his knee knocks against yours and you feel his breath on your neck, searing. It burns at your skin to expose the meat of you, acid that eats away. Wherever the fabric of his clothing brushes against you feels like agony.
"Just let go a little. I promise," he puts his hand on your hip again, squeezing, "it'll be our little secret."
Your panicked body acts before your mind and you shove him, your candy scattering everywhere. He stumbles, off-balance, and you charge to the other end of the counter. Your chest heaves and you can hear your diseased blood rush through your ears in a frantic pattern, unsure of where to go next. You feel like that too.
(He'll die here on his own. You can't leave.)
Sam recovers and looks around at your treats scattered about his feet – his brow pulls into a thundercloud, dark and angry. "Dude, you just wasted all that food."
"You shouldn't have touched me."
He bends down to pick up a Dot, grimacing as it comes back fuzzy from the floor. "You could've just said no."
His scowl turns deeper. "No, you didn't."
You know you should stop, you do, but you're so tired and nervous that it makes you angry. It's foreign and you don't know how to control it; your body goes hot and tense and you sputter, trying desperately to rebuild the bridges between your mind and mouth. "Yes, I did!"
Sam snarls and storms towards you – you remember the roof and the boy and his face as he threw himself from the edge – with the ruined Dots clenched tight in his fist.
"Why you lying, huh?" he demands harshly, slamming the candy on the counter. "Why you trying to make me look bad? You're the one who threw a damn meal everywhere!"
"Just because you think I'm crazy doesn't mean you can touch me!" you yell back angrily, almost shoving at his shoulders, but his body underneath your hands sounds like the greatest punishment you could inflict upon yourself. You pull at your hair instead, fingers raking at your stitches until blood bleeds freely from the wound. "I'm not all of a person but I am a person! The things I say are real things!"
He surges forward and pins your hips with his, his rough hands circling your wrists. You see an animal in his expression, far removed from the smile you know. You struggle, but you're no match.
"It's not good to lie. Friends don't lie to each other."
"I'm not lying!"
"Puck said you'd play hard to get," he hisses into your ear, "but I didn't believe him. I thought you'd jump at the chance."
Sam tilts his head back a bit to look at you and you slam yourself forward, cracking open his nose with your forehead. He howls, dripping blood over the floor, but his grip only tightens, angry nails digging so hard into you they break the skin and leave red, red moons.
Your anger has drained, melting into panic, made only greater when his presses further still and you can feel the bulge in his jeans between your legs. You hear his tone soften though his grip stays so firm it crushes, breath heavy on your ear.
"C'mon, Britt, you know I didn't mean it like that. I could make it so good for you, you know? I don't want to hurt you... don't you think I know how you watch me too, huh? All the time. I know you want it too."
His coaxing, eager voice doesn't distract you from the way his right hand skates down your side and presses through the waistband of your cargo pants, running the calloused pads of his fingers along the bare flesh. You feel filthy as he touches you and you jut your hips forward to halt his descent, but it only presses you further into his dick. You're caught between two types of hell, and you don't have enough power to fight as he forces his hand further.
"I know you think you're not, but you're actually pretty hot. Just let me show you – there's no point fighting. It's gonna happen anyway and I promise it'll feel real good after."
(Distantly, your senses note something amiss. A shift in the air, a taste on the wind, but your fear erases it long before it reaches your mind.)
He cranes his neck to see over you, hands manipulating to flip you onto your stomach. The sick thing inside you, the one that makes you do bad things, rears up – it burns through you like a fever and you lunge forward, giving into its desires. You open your jaws under its command and next thing you know there is flesh in your mouth and blood upon your tongue, hot and thick, sliding and coating and warming. Sam shrieks, wrenching away so quickly he hits the opposite wall, and all too soon the feeling is gone – that sharpness is back in your mind, one that aches for more, but... he's not a stranger. Despite what he's done, you just can't.
He covers his neck with his hand, blood dribbling out between the closed creases of his fingers. "Fuck!" he swears, twisted awkwardly as he brings his shoulder closer to himself. "What the fuck was that? What is your problem?"
"I told you not to touch me," you mumble, startled by how deep the bite is. You can almost see the glint of his bone and wonder if you broke any tendons.
"So you bit me?" It's leaking down his arm now, dripping off his fingertips, and he pushes himself from the wall. His blood stains the unfeeling drywall in patterns all too familiar. "I thought Puck was talking shit when he said you were nuts."
His anger makes him into something unrecognizable, rejection humiliating and infuriating, and it's with a grimace that he whirls on the spot, intent on returning to the compound where his wound will be tended. The keys jingle and his bag rustles but it doesn't drown out the undeniable shuffle of something else from a door to his right.
"What, you changed your mind?" he turns around, a mocking sneer twisting his usually smiling features. "I hate to tell you, Britt, but you lost your chance to get on these abs when-"
The door slams open and bodies pour out, stumbling over themselves, knocking you over as they come from behind as well. You hear his scream get caught in his throat as they reach him, his weapon caught and useless in his belt. He reaches for his gun but they surround him before it can be used.
Stunned, you rock yourself into a kneeling position. Four of the dead men gather around his flailing form with mouths that seek much like your own, ripping and tearing and destroying, following him down when he loses his balance. Blood begins to spatter on the counters and you swallow thickly, hand creeping to your crowbar.
The first one slumps to the side when you strike it, falling on Sam's legs. The second wobbles backwards for a moment before crumpling against the wall, but your hands are shaking too much in order to take out the other two. Sam's cries have gone silent though you can still hear the beating of his heart, fluttering weakly in the cage of his chest. Mike's pistol trembles in your grip as you line up the shot and splatter the third's head all over the far wall. The fourth finally realizes something is amiss and looks up, a chunk of flesh clenched in its fists.
The gun clatters to the ground as you freeze, and for an endless moment the two of you watch each other. Sam's wheezing breaths come with blood bubbling, spilling out onto the ground, but all you know is the way it looks at you blankly, milky eyes expressionless. You can't hurt it without a weapon, not just you, but you bare your bloodied teeth in a gesture not entirely your own and let out a possessive snarl that scrapes at your throat.
It sways for a second, quietly, before heeding whatever your warning meant and shuffling away.
You sink to your knees beside him and push a lock of hair from his eyes – he gasps, and you watch his lung inflate from where his ribs have been pulled away. His body is a canvas of teeth marks and yours looks small compared to the great wounds gouged in him, a gaping hole where his abdomen should have been. Most of his entrails have been eaten away and leave him hollow just like you.
"I'm sorry you didn't listen," you whisper, cupping his pale cheek in your palm, "but you were too loud. They heard you."
He wheezes, his hand limply grasping for yours, and this time you allow him to take it. A sadness pulls at you despite all he's done, one that settles in the pit of your chest like the people you've eaten.
Tina said that once the sick ones bite the disease spreads and they lose their minds, too. No one deserves to wander like that. Your hand goes for the gun that lays by your side, intent on pressing it to his head and turning his thoughts blank and clean, but putting the metal to his temple triggers a memory so strong you flinch back, gasping. Your own head pounds as you remember someone else doing the same, whispering to you while you lay crying, before the pain just... cuts away. You remember a bang and split second of clarity before it all turns to silence.
You try to shake the imprint of the hand against your face away but it stays, taunting you. Your hands shake too much to grant him the same mercy once afforded to you... what did Mercedes say? No one gets left behind?
You remember your promise to her – a promise you've failed. An uncomfortable ache starts behind your eyes as you imagine her face and you startle as you wipe away tears.
No one gets left behind. You're going to bring him home.
A quick and reckless scrounge reveals a cardboard box that you flatten and carefully slide under him – Sam's cries are muffled as you roll him a little to shuffle the rest of it, the squelch of his broken insides loud as his body settles back into place. You stroke his spine that peeks out from his abdomen in apology before looping a skipping rope through the straps in his backpack, giving you something to hold onto.
And then the pulling starts.
It's a slow, agonizing process. Your malnourished body burns as you tug him laboriously through the abandoned and uneven city streets, sweat stinging your eyes (but it's better that way, you can't tell if you're crying). Every slight jostle brings a tortured cry from his bloodied lips but the sick ones must smell the death on him like you do, how it seeps into every pore of his body, because they leave you alone in your quest.
The sun has begun to set by the time the compound comes into view, and your throat aches from breathing too hard. Sam has gone still and quiet, the beat of his heart almost non-existent, and it's a mystery how he's lived for this long. Every muscle in you throbs together and your vision swims, long past the point where you should have given up, but you bring yourself and your dying comrade into the courtyard where he will soon become one of those lying silent under the blanket. It's sobering and makes that heaviness feel all the more potent.
You collapse in the courtyard, falling heavily to your knees. A scuffle of activity comes from within and next thing you know Mike is crouching in front of you, others not too far behind. "What happened?" he asks, searching for answers, before his eyes float over your shoulder and he gets all the answers he doesn't want. You use his frozen shoulder for leverage and stagger upright, unwilling to watch them mourn.
You reach Mercedes last, and you don't dare touch her lest his blood sully her hands. You stand crooked, cradling yourself, and that ache in your eyes returns with such a force that you don't try and stop it this time.
"I'm sorry," you say hoarsely, throat raw from exertion. "I tried t-to tell him no, but he didn't listen."
She looks at you, how you're covered in gore that isn't your own, and you watch the pallor of her face pale until you can see the ghosts in her eyes.
"W-what are you..."
Mercedes trails off as Puck angrily throws his axe across the courtyard, running his hands through his hair and kicking the wall so hard you're sure he'll bruise his toes. Rachel is tucked into Finn's side, face hidden in his shoulder, and Quinn's mouth is drawn into a grim line. Nobody speaks.
"I couldn't do it – n-not like you asked. I couldn't keep my promise."
She rushes past you and you let her knock your shoulder away – your body sways for a moment before your feet take you on a stumbling path inside. You hear her cries from outside and the sound is shattering in a way that his broken body couldn't be, tearing at the pieces of you that still try to care, still try to be human. His blood is all over you and there's no shower to wipe it off and you can still feel his hands, hands all over you, hands that are dead now because of you and Mercedes, she-
Your back hits the wall of the shower stall and you slide down, uncaring of the residual wetness that soaks through your pants. You wish that sharpness could come, the one that holds the world hostage on the edge of a glass knife; anything not to feel this overwhelming guilt that eats away at the heaviness until they merge in on themselves. You spent so long wanting to feel anything that it's all too much, too much sadness and resentment and anger – everything was so much better with the nothingness. Feeling human is too much hurt and not enough happiness.
Her cries cut you open and you bleed all the crooked reasons why you should have saved him.
(None of them lead to him, but to her instead.)
A presence makes itself known, and you smell Tina's hair as she settles down beside you in the dark. The first good touch since his makes you breathe a sigh of relief, sinking down into her embrace that doesn't shy away at the blood soaked into your clothing. She's soft and warm and you think you could sleep for the first time in days, safe in her hold and the comforting boom of her pulse by your ear.
After a while, you note another person lingering in the doorway. Hesitant, it creeps its way through the quiet bathroom before hovering above you, steps feather-light and unsure. Tina nods and you hear the swallow as it sits down, too far to touch but you feel the heat regardless. You always do – it follows you into the dreams that come, lingering when you wake. It never ceases.
Over time the presence inches closer until they are pressed up against your thigh, burning through your clothing, cleansing you of the heaviness and the guilt. It's almost enough to forget, but a shot is fired from the courtyard and you flinch despite Tina stroking your hair. Mercedes sobs, and you cry silent tears with her.
But Shadow places her good hand on your knee, anchoring, and it's enough.
The rest of the night is silent, and you must spend hours in the dark with your two companions by your side.
(Friends? Can you call them that?)
Mike comes in to check on you, eyes a glimmer in the darkness, and hands Tina food to soothe her growling stomach. You decline, what was left of your appetite gone with the lingering taste of Sam's blood thick on your tongue. Shadow takes the pieces you don't want, the pressure of her forearm on your thigh burning through your pants until she imprints herself on every cell of your being, every broken juncture of your brain. She keeps the badness away and places something else in its stead, something impossible to put into thought.
You touch her knuckles to see if it's real, but when she goes to pull away you grasp onto her hand – without her Tina's presence can't keep the emptiness at bay, and you hear her gasp as your fingers curl over and over, enclosing her palm in your long fingers. She stays, though you feel the tremor that runs through you both.
"You're touching me."
You contemplate your answer, rolling it around in your mouth.
"Your hands are good now."
The tense line of her shoulders sags at your confession. Her skin warms even still as it presses more fully against you, and her hand carefully closes around your own like she's afraid it will splinter. Something changes. You taste it in the air that she has breathed before.
The three of you fall asleep like that, together in the shower stall, and it's to Quinn's somber features that you wake hours later.
Tina rubs at her eye blearily, wincing at the kink in her neck. You touch it in apology, but she smiles and accepts it though you know she doesn't blame you. "What time is it?"
Her voice wakes Shadow whose forehead had fallen upon your shoulder in the night – your hands, still clasped together, slide apart as she stretches. You miss her instantly.
"Late," Quinn says softly, "close to noon. We let you sleep in."
"Noon?" Shadow rumbles, rubbing the grit from her eyes. "Shit... I haven't slept that late since being back home." She blinks, her lips pulling into a frown. "How's 'Cedes?"
"She slept upstairs last time... I think she wanted to be alone."
You bite your lip, hyper-aware of their friend splattered all over your front. Moving him was messy work and he'll linger in your hair for weeks, until the wear of the world rubs him away and he becomes nothing but one of the silent million in this city. Quinn studies you as she says this, but there's no accusation in her eyes. You're not so hopeful for the rest of the compound.
"We've decided we're moving earlier than we planned. After this, none of us feel like staying here is the best option. It's too dangerous."
Tina frowns, sitting up against the stall. "But what about food? Fuel?"
"Another party went out this morning and found a few cans... it should be enough to fuel us for at least a few days. The longer we stay here, the less food we'll have."
(You remember your Dots, smeared into the carpet and forever lost.)
A door slams, and all four of you flinch a little.
"How are we getting the cars here without bringing the whole damn city down on us?"
After a few moments of silence, Shadow rolls her eyes in exasperation. "Cut it with the mysterious crap, Q, it's been a shitty night."
"If you were listening when we went over the plan, you'd already know it, Santana," Quinn snipes back, her nose turning up ever so slightly. You see the phantom of the cheerleaders they used to be; Tina told you about how they were always at each other's throats, alternating between helping and hurting, but they've grown so used to the nuances in each other's expressions that Shadow's lips curl in at the corners as her friend scoffs. "But, as I was about to say, we're bringing the supplies to the truck. The fewer times we have to start up the engines, the safer it'll be for us."
"Hauling a bunch of supplies through an infested city is safer?"
"You have any better ideas?"
At Shadow's grunt, she smirks. "Good. We've almost finished packing, so pick up your shit and join the waking world."
The three of you stumble up as she leaves, bones creaking and muscles aching. No part of you wants to join them and you entertain the notion of staying in the compound, remaining with the quiet dead as you had for the countless days before they unearthed you and brought you into the light, but... you have things to breathe for now, and things that would miss you if you leave. These bodies are forever your friends, but you belong as much to the world of the living as you do to the dead.
(Maybe it's time to start living, but you'll settle for surviving. It's all your broken brain can handle right now.)
Tina goes to find Mike with a final squeeze of your hand and Shadow turns to leave, too, but your hand circles her wrist and that same current passes through the two of you; her jaw twitches as you both electrocute and ground her.
She looks back and her stare decomposes the words on your tongue until they melt back into your blood, safe and sound.
A small thank you is all you can manage.
Her eyebrow quirks and your cheeks redden, hot as her weight against you.
"For staying," you clarify softly, not meeting her eyes. "You didn't have to."
Shadow pauses, her tongue running over her lower lip.
"No, I didn't."
Something meaningful passes between you, just out of your reach, and she gently pulls away to leave you alone.
You don't forget the way she smiled, not even as you robotically stumble into the main hall to aid with the rest of the packing. The repetition calms you, kills the strange knots your stomach has started to turn into when she looks in your direction, and your hands are rubbed raw by the time you crank the last strap into place. It's easier than turning the softness of her skin over and over in your thoughts until you lose your mind all over again.
(You don't recognize what she makes of you, but you're starting to wonder if you want to find out.)
Five little wagons are piled precariously with supplies, strapped down and down again – Artie sits in one with a rather timeworn pair of pilot goggles perched upon his forehead and his nose buried in paperwork, faithful Mike ready to haul him along. Various others take up positions to pull – Puck and Finn remain wary despite hands occupied with the handles, eyes darting from road to road, brow already slick with sweat. Tina and Quinn murmur in low voices, keeping a close watch on Kurt and Rachel who silently hold Mercedes' hands. Her eyes are bloodshot and sleepless, the same haunted look you've seen on yourself so many times before.
You contemplate going up to her, but you find you've run out of words to say. Silently, your steps take you ahead of the wagons where the street is laid out in front of you, beckoning and waiting. The city is oddly quiet tonight – perhaps the sick ones will grant you safe passage.
"You gonna be our guide, blondie?" Puck sneers, adjusting his grip on the wagon. "You did a great job the first time. Maybe you can drag us the rest of the way there too."
"Lay off, Fuckerman," Shadow snaps, a thunderous scowl drawn over her brows. "You don't know what happened."
"Neither do you. You know what goes on inside that head, Satan?"
Her jaw clenches and your shoulders pull in on themselves, stuffing your hands in your pockets. You know he thinks you deserve it, and for that you'll keep the handprints on your hips a secret. Puck wouldn't believe you anyway. (Would any of them?)
"Fact, who's to say she didn't do somethin' to start it? We all know she likes those fuckin' zoms more than us; what if-"
"Puck," Mercedes says, whisper-soft, but he immediately goes still. "Be quiet."
His nostrils flare as he glares at you with a power that threatens to cleave your spine clean in half, but her tired eyes keep his lips firmly shut. She blinks at looks at Quinn, gaze floating momentarily over her shoulder to a cleaner shawl that covers a newer body, one large sneaker poking out from the sheet that doesn't cover its entirety. "When are we going?"
"Anytime Britt says go, 'Cedes."
Your gaze travels over your new family, your old home, and your possible future. The keys dig into your fingers and the pain is grounding, anchoring you though you threaten to spiral away.
(Though you welcomed it earlier, the sharpness has begun to return, creeping up in the insides of your skull. You don't know how long you can resist until it makes a monster of you.)
Shadow's gaze on your back gives you the courage to take the first of many steps into the unknown, and like the faithful of the God that has long since abandoned this world, they follow.