The Sickness

By Starzki

-z-

4. Dig Through the Ditches and Burn Through the Witches

-z-

Sousuke turned away from the body as it slumped over. He was gone.

He turned to Kaname who couldn't seem to take her eyes off of her father's body. She was beyond pale, turning an ashen color. The muscles in her face were frozen in her final scream, eyes wide and panicked, trembling lips still pressed into an O. Sousuke could only guess at the chaos and grief Kaname was experiencing.

She turned to him. Her eyes beseeched him, asking why, accusing him of failing to protect her father, and pleading with him to make everything right again.

He knew he would never be able to fix it. He knew he'd feel guilty for the rest of his life. But he also knew that now was not the time for feelings. Kaname's scream and the gunshot were already attracting infected and they were slowly making their way to the fence.

Sousuke shook his head at Kaname. She seemed to be working herself up to a serious meltdown and they needed to move. She inhaled two hitching breaths, let them out. After her next inhale, it would be a wail, then sobs that would probably render her immobile.

So, with that inhale, Sousuke strode to her and pulled her roughly to him, embracing her tightly. The movement shocked her enough that she didn't cry out.

"I'm sorry," he whispered in her ear. "We can't. We have to run now." Kaname remained stiff in his arms.

Sousuke held her for just another second before letting her go and scooping up the hunting rifle and backpack Kaname's father had set aside. After a moment's consideration, Sousuke took the revolver from the dead man's hand and stuffed it in his pocket.

"Let's go," he said to Kaname as he loosed the ladder once again, balling it and stuffing it into his pack. She didn't make any movement. She stood rooted to the same spot.

"We can't just leave him," she said.

Three infected had reached the fence. Raw, blood-stained hands gripped with a furious power and began shaking the metal, bending it open.

"We have to go!" said Sousuke. He grabbed her hand and pulled her to the back fence that seemed infected-free for the moment.

"We can't just leave him!" she screamed, but she was running with Sousuke. He could feel the anger rolling off of her in waves. Sousuke didn't mind. In fact, he would be happy if she was angry at him for many, many years to come if it meant that she would survive the evening.

Sousuke dropped Kaname's hand and wrenched open the back gate. The ally was thick with infected to the west, so they ran east. For the first time, Sousuke was glad for the beeping car alarm. Except for the infected who had heard the gun shot, it seemed that most were more drawn to the continuous sound down the street. Unfortunately, a good number were still following them.

With darkness falling, Sousuke's eyes began to strain for any sign of safety. He wanted another fire escape, but the village had mostly two-story buildings that didn't need them. Ahead of them, the alleyway appeared blocked by a building, so Sousuke grabbed Kaname's wrist and began to pull her down an access road back to the main street. Kaname yanked her wrist free from Sousuke's hand and continued running straight down the alley.

"Kaname!"

"Come on!" she responded.

Sousuke readjusted his course and caught up to Kaname in a few seconds. He looked behind them and was dismayed to see that the alley had even more infected in it and that they were going to be cut off from the access to the street soon. "It's a dead end!" he said.

"No it's not! Look!" She pointed at the wall of the building in front of them. There was a mark of a safe house with an arrow pointing down and to the right. Once they neared, they saw a set of stairs leading down to a doorway to the building's basement.

They cambered down the stairs and opened the unlocked door. Relief washed over Sousuke as they entered the safe room and found it empty. He closed the solid metal door behind them, cutting off the rising volume of moans from infected that echoed down the alley.

-z-

The dim light from the lantern did what it could to penetrate the dark gloom of the windowless basement room. The area was smallish, crowded with metal shelves lined against the walls. What the shelves didn't cover of the walls, writing from other survivors did. Most were notes of where to go, what was safe and what wasn't. A few lewd remarks and bragging about number of infected killed in different styles of pens and markers also graffitied the painted bricks. Three chairs and cheap wooden tables covered with the detritus of the leftovers of other survivors left only a small space on the floor for the sleeping bag. Sousuke wished he could pace.

They were lucky. This safe room had a working bathroom. Kaname had locked herself in it soon after they had found the matches to light the lantern and Sousuke could hear her sniffles through the door. She was obviously crying, but doing what she could to keep it under control.

He took inventory of the supplies left in the room by the others. There were bullets, bottles of water, a few energy drinks, unlabeled cans of food, bottles of pills, and some bandages. Sousuke only really wanted the energy drinks for now. He put them in his pack.

In their place, he decided to leave the Smith and Wesson revolver. Kaname would never use it and it would only remind him of his failure to save her father. Maybe another survivor would have better luck with the gun than they had. He also left about half of the .38 bullets he was carrying, figuring he might trade the rest for something else in the future.

He held his former boss's backpack, unsure of what to do with it. Kaname might want to go through it, herself, but he wasn't sure she would be up for that this evening. After the stress and horror of the day, he was exhausted. He couldn't imagine how tired Kaname must also be feeling. In the end, he just stuffed everything from Chidori's pack into his own to let Kaname go through it some other time when she would be ready.

As he rezipped his pack, he heard the door to the bathroom open. The pervading darkness of the room couldn't hide Kaname's swollen, red eyes. She had tied up her hair and washed her face. The shadows made the dark circles under her eyes seem even deeper. She looked as though she hadn't slept in days. Sousuke immediately moved out of her way, motioning for her to lie down on the sleeping bag.

"There's no toilet paper," she said dully. "I had some tissues. We might think of looking for that when we move on."

Sousuke nodded, internally kicking himself for not thinking of that earlier. The mansion had been so well stocked that he just hadn't considered the fact it was probably a scarce commodity out in the rest of the world.

They stood in silence for a few seconds before Sousuke asked, as gently as he could, "Are you going to be okay?"

Kaname didn't react. "No," she finally said, then tilted her head a little to the right. "Yes."

Sousuke nodded again. He understood grief. There were times where you felt like you would never be okay again, but you knew that you were alive and could move forward even though it hurt. He guessed Kaname was feeling the same.

"You need to rest," he said.

She answered with an unhappy look before moving toward the sleeping bag. She lay on her side, facing the wall. She scooted over even more, obviously leaving room for Sousuke.

"I don't…" started Sousuke. Sleeping so close to Kaname after failing her felt wrong.

She sighed. "Just… lie down. We both need rest. We didn't survive today just to get bitten tomorrow because we're too tired to do what we need to do."

Sousuke couldn't argue, so he turned off the lantern and joined her on the floor, breathing in the smell of sweat and tears that other survivors had left behind. He was surprised that he began drifting away almost immediately.

"He's gone," Kaname murmured, drifting off as well, but maintaining authority in her voice. "We need to live so that someone remembers him."

"Affirmative."

-z-

Sousuke awoke the next morning in the darkness of the safe room. He stretched and worked the stiffness out of his muscles. Kaname's soft, even breathing beside him let him know that she was still sleeping.

He took advantage of her slumber and cleaned himself up in the bathroom, bringing the lantern with him. His watch's readout let him know that it should just be about daybreak outside. The safe room had served its purpose. It was time to move on.

Sousuke went back to the bed roll and regarded Kaname for a moment. She had turned onto her back sometime in the night and her lips were parted, forehead pinched with sorrow, even in her sleep. Still, she was stunning.

Rather than shake her awake, Sousuke opted for a more gentle method. He ran the back of the knuckles of his fingers down the side of her face, taking the moment to catalogue the velvety smoothness of her skin. It was the first time he could think of that he had touched her face. A pang of guilt echoed in his chest and he realized he was taking advantage, so he didn't repeat the gesture.

Kaname's eyelids fluttered a moment, then opened. Her brown eyes shined with hopefulness for a fraction of a second, then fell with remembered grief.

"Sousuke…" she whispered.

"We should eat something."

"Mm."

Kaname stood and stretched. She then made her way to the bathroom.

Sousuke went to work opening one of the unlabeled food cans. He was in luck. The first can was peaches. Kaname loved peaches.

The bathroom door squeaked open behind him. "Sousuke, we need to talk," said Kaname with an even, flat voice.

Sousuke felt his stomach drop. His first instinct was that Kaname was going to leave him. She was going to say that as soon as they met other survivors that they would then split up and go their own ways. He'd failed her too much already.

Sousuke sank into a metal chair. He wouldn't stop her if that's what she needed to do. He definitely didn't blame her.

"Okay," he finally answered.

Kaname sat in a chair next to him and folded her hands on the table in front of them. She took a deep breath and started.

"I'm going to have more of a say in what we do."

Sousuke looked at her carefully. "Okay."

"Until now, it was really just you and my dad making the big decisions. I didn't know what else to do, what else I should do, so I just went along with it. But now my dad is… gone. I have to take charge, take responsibility for what happens next, okay?"

Sousuke nodded, then startled when Kaname covered one of his hands with hers.

"Sousuke, you're all I have left, so you have to promise me that you won't die." Her voice held a mixture of authority and desperation.

Sousuke's answer was automatic, "Affirmative."

"Good. Now, next, we'll have breakfast, find a way out of this building, then make our way to the water treatment place. That's the plan, right?"

"Yes."

Then, to Sousuke's surprise, Kaname gave him a small smile. It was then that Sousuke understood that from that moment on, they were going to be a team.

-z-

Sousuke's legs pumped the pedals of the bike in a steady rhythm. They were making good time.

After they had left the safe room out of the exit that took them through the abandoned building, they had stumbled onto a bit of luck. For one, the infected of the evening before seemed to have mostly dispersed. Sousuke guessed that they were all gathered around the area of the now-silent car alarm. The battery must have died some time during the night.

Also, just a few paces away on the sidewalk, they had discovered a bicycle. The blood spattering its white paint communicated a bad end for its previous rider, but it was still in good working order. It had a ledge behind the seat for bags or other items that also could be used as a second seat for a passenger.

They took advantage right away, navigating down the sidewalks and any clear areas of the street. Kaname kept her bat on her lap and was able to at least push away any infected who got too near to their bike. They had made their way through the village in less than two hours.

Rather than take the highway into the city, Sousuke knew of a lesser-used country road that had more hills and winding areas that fewer people would think to take to escape to the city. He guessed that this route would be less clogged with cars, traffic, and infected.

The road took them through by farms whose fields were untilled and becoming overgrown with weeds. It did have the advantage, however, of good sightlines to any infected in the area. Sousuke and Kaname avoided any confrontations with relative ease. In the hours since leaving the village, they had only seen three infected roaming the fields.

Sousuke breathed in the sweet air, gloriously free of the smell of decomposition. It was another beautiful warm spring day. If the world around them wasn't falling apart, it would have been really nice. It was the type of scenario that Sousuke never had let himself consider before. Going on a ride in the country with the girl he had loved for years would have seemed like an impossible dream. Instead of a dream, though, it seemed more like an impossible nightmare.

The country road from the village to the city was longer than the highway, about 12 miles. They stopped about once an hour to give Sousuke a rest and to let Kaname find a bush or tree so that she could relieve herself. She had let him know that there wasn't anything wrong with her; it was a common effect of pregnancy. Yet despite the frequent stops, Sousuke guessed that they would reach Western City by mid-afternoon, much earlier than he had previously guessed.

-z-

"Sousuke, I don't like this."

"I know."

The sky above the city was black. Smoke from various building fires stained the clouds and rained soot down on the streets.

Sousuke knew that these streets had never been particularly clean to begin with, but the landscape that spread out before them looked threatening and alien.

They were on the outskirts of the Basin, the low-lying ghetto at the far southeast end of the city. Sousuke knew it well. He had, in effect, grown up on these streets. They looked as unforgiving and dangerous as they ever did.

Once entering the Basin, the feeling of dread had forced Sousuke and Kaname off the bike. They stalked carefully down the street, edging around the outside of the Basin because high ground seemed more defensible. They were already seeing infected bumping off of buildings and doorways. Dead bodies littered the streets. People here had fought back against the infected, but the place appeared just as abandoned and dangerous as the village had. Sousuke readied the M16 rifle and pointed it carefully down the road. Kaname walked the bike after him, her head swiveling from side to side to keep track of the movements of the city's infected.

They had made it nearly a half mile through the city streets when the sound of echoing gunfire filled the air.

Gunfire meant other survivors. However, if they were shooting, they were probably under attack and Sousuke needed to find an area to observe without the risk of being caught by a stray bullet.

The gunfire was definitely coming from down in The Basin.

"You hear that, Kaname?"

"Yes. What is it?"

"It sounds like automatic fire, probably from an assault rifle."

"So?"

"It may be military."

"Oh. Is that good or bad?"

"I'm not sure, but I think we should check it out."

Kaname considered it for a moment before nodding her head.

Sousuke led Kaname to the street that would take people into the very heart of The Basin. From their vantage point at the top of the hill, they had a clear view of the entire street below. They could see a mass of hundreds of infected gathering around what appeared to be a gas station about 150 yards away.

Sousuke pushed Kaname behind a building, "Watch my back, please. I'm going to try to help him out and the gunfire might attract the infected to here."

"Got it."

Sousuke leaned the M16 next to a mailbox and unslung the hunting rifle from his shoulder. Long distance shooting wasn't his specialty, but he was proficient enough at this distance that he was confident he would be helpful to whoever was pinned down.

He propped the Remington 700 on the mailbox and looked through the scope. The gas station had a chain link fence fifteen feet high that surrounded its four pumps. Two figures within the fence were struggling to fend of the horde that was intent on tearing through. Well, Sousuke amended, one figure, a blond man in military fatigues, was trying to fend them off with a Heckler and Koch G36 assault rifle, while the other was hunched over something he couldn't see.

The man with the rifle was doing a fairly good job of mowing down the infected in front of him, dissolving their heads with bullets, but he didn't seem to see the others behind him that were nearly breaching the fence. Sousuke took a deep breath, steadied his aim, and fired. He saw its head disappear with a splash of black blood, then turned his attention to the other creature that had taken its place. In a fraction of a second, that infected was dead, too.

The blond soldier looked around wildly before spotting Sousuke. He then looked over his shoulder at the dead infected and the gaping hole in the fence before waving at Sousuke in thanks.

Sousuke waved back.

The soldier reloaded his rifle before shooting into the crowd once again. The horde surrounding the gas station seemed endless.

For the next five minutes, Sousuke did what he could to help. He kept his eye on the back of the station's fence where only handfuls of infected were attacking. He could take his time with his aim and not waste ammo. He occasionally heard Kaname's quick, light footsteps rush off, followed by a soft grunt and a cracking sound. She was protecting him like he was protecting the two strangers down the street. He only hoped that they could take care of the horde before he attracted one of his own.

Suddenly, the stuttering from the assault rifle down the street was replaced with sharp cracks of a handgun. Through the scope, Sousuke could see the large weapon tossed aside, probably because it was out of ammo. The soldier was yelling at the other figure as he fired wildly into the crowd.

Sousuke wasn't sure what to do. There were at least 50 infected still surrounding the gas station and there was no way a handgun, even with Sousuke's assistance, was going to save them. There was the option of going down with the M16 to take the infected out from behind, but it seemed dangerous. The horde would probably turn on him, turn on Kaname. That was out of the question.

But he couldn't leave them either. He did what he could to take out the infected that were closest to opening the fence, buying the two a little bit of time whenever the soldier paused to reload.

The situation seemed dire. The infected were working simultaneously on four different entry points and with every one that went down, two more took its place. It would only be a minute before they would be completely swarmed.

Sousuke was about to despair when he saw the other figure stand up. It was another soldier, only a woman with short, dark hair. She was holding some kind of pack and what looked like a long, metal rod. Even from 150 yards away, he could hear her whoop as a long flame shot out from the metal rod, dousing the infected near her with killing fire.

After a few adjustments, she got the flame thrower to reach twenty feet out. The smell of burning flesh wafted up the street.

"Oh my God," breathed Kaname. She brought her fingers to her lips, turning green.

"It's working," said Sousuke. The horde was completely engulfed in flames. Infected would stagger, often bumping into fellow infected, spreading the fire, before falling to the street, twitching for a few seconds before going still.

The fire died down in a matter of minutes. The two soldiers unchained the gate of the fence and hopped carefully over the smoldering remains of the dead. They made their way up the street, both wearing toothy smiles.

Sousuke set aside his rifle, but still carried his Glock. He stood stiffly in front of them, Kaname at his back.

"Nice shooting back there! You saved our asses!" the woman exclaimed with a friendly punch to Sousuke's shoulder.

The other man joined in, "No kidding, Sis. I thought I was a goner with you taking your sweet ass time with that flame thrower. Nice job, man. Thanks!"

"You're welcome," Sousuke answered. He was at a bit of a loss at the lack of military formality between the two, especially since the woman seemed to definitely outrank the man.

The female soldier didn't seem to hear Sousuke. Instead she whirled on the young man beside her. "My 'sweet ass time?!' Well, I wouldn't have needed all that time to syphon gas and repair the thrower if a certain idiotic Sergeant hadn't alerted every Whisky Delta in the area to our location!"

The blond man looked chagrined at this response and scratched the back of his head.

"Who are you two?" Kaname asked.

"Oh, hey there pretty lady. I almost didn't see you," the soldier responded.

The woman elbowed him on the top of his head, effectively dropping her colleague for the moment. "Sorry about that. The idiot on the ground in front of you is Sergeant Kurz Weber. I'm Sergeant Major Melissa Mao. And not to cut these introductions off too quickly, but there seems to be another horde gathering down the street, so maybe we should find some place safe to hole up while they forget we were ever here. Sound good?"

TO BE CONTINUED…


Author's Note: Discussion for this chapter can be found on my Dreamwidth and LiveJournal accounts. I also welcome any feedback you care to give. Thanks so much for reading!

ETA: Re-edited 10/25/13