It's a slow but sudden sickness that creeps up like cancer and attacks like Ebola.
It's a cough, a fever, a nosebleed. It hides behind a façade of harmlessness. The symptoms are run-of-the-mill. Innocuous. Benign.
Until they're not.
Until chunks of lung expel with the phlegm, until fevers burn so hot they fry the nerves, killing the ability to sense anything except excruciating pain, until blood trickles from every orifice like lava down the side of a volcano, thick and corrosive.
And then there's nothing anyone can do except wait for the merciful end.
The first American victim is a grumpy Georgian man in his sixties. He dies alone in his home. His neighbor finds his body three days later.
The second victim is a suburban housewife living on the outskirts of Detroit. She's making dinner for her family when her chronic cough turns violent. Her son dials 911 in a panicked frenzy, and she makes it to the hospital before the bleeding begins. Doctors manage to keep her alive for fifteen hours.
The third victim is a high school freshman from Seattle. His body temperature skyrockets out of the blue. He goes blind before he becomes delirious. And then he stops moving altogether.
The fourth victim is a mail carrier in Colorado with four kids and a demanding wife. He's in bed with his mistress when it happens.
The fifth victim is a tiny third-grader with white-blond hair and innocent blue eyes. She's breathing laboriously into a respirator when her sunken eyes and inflamed cheeks make it to national television, one teary parent on either side of her bed.
CNN is streaming a live feed from her hospital room in Valencia, California when blood trickles out of her left eye and snakes a path down her cheek.
That's when the panic begins.
The quarantine reaches Lima on a Sunday in June.
It's a lot of government bureaucracy that Santana can't be bothered to understand, and as far as she's concerned, it's probably just a couple of junkies doped up on meth and a police force with an overactive imagination. The end of the world? Just a story made up by a bunch of lunatics to terrorize those dumb enough to believe it. She'd know a little something about that.
But then someone from Carmel High gets infected, and Santana feels the slow crawl of dread seep into everyone's bones.
Santana's father is an immunologist and explains to her the dire consequences of not finishing an antibiotic prescription. Superbugs bred by carelessness and human arrogance. Something about genetic mutations and resistance.
The virus is not airborne, not waterborne, not anything the lab coats and their expensive microscopes can understand or explain. They can't figure out how it transmits, just that it does. Quickly. They know only that it starts with a cough and ends with a violent death.
Truth be told, Santana Lopez has other shit to worry about besides some mutant virus that will probably die off in a month or two. She's pretty sure that by the end of the year, everyone will be vaccinated, and it'll be just another SARS, or another H1N1. A lot of unnecessary panic, a sudden influx of unfortunate deaths, and then it'll be over.
So she thinks.
School's been out for barely a week—because it's summer, not because of this infection—and Santana is already bored out of her mind. Her father has been pulling sixty-hour work weeks because of the outbreak, and her mother has taken to Jesus. No, seriously, she's been going door to door preaching the merits of prayer in a time of widespread strife, which, whatever. Santana's dealt with her mother's crazy her entire life, and she kind of likes having the house to herself. Except the boredom is probably going to kill her before this virus or whatever has a chance to.
Things have been strained with Brittany since—well, for a while. She doesn't really want to talk about it because it gives her a goddamn heartache and she just wants everything to go back to before it got so complicated.
She starts hanging out with Puck and Sam, and that's not too bad, even if Puck makes at least two passes at her a day. Whatever, she totally soaks up the attention. Sam's dad had been offered a job back home in Tennessee, so Sam's parents and siblings had moved out there a couple weeks back, dodging the start of the quarantine. Sam had been working part-time at the Hummel garage, and Burt had figured out a deal with the Evans to keep their son in Lima for the summer so he could keep working. He shares a room with Finn, which is all kinds of awkward, but he seems to like the arrangement.
Santana figures that maybe this summer, she'll have some down time to sort her shit out. She's locked into this cow town, anyway. Not much else she can do.
The situation worsens. Hospitals are filled to the brim with dying people, phone lines are jammed 24/7, and sometime around the fourth of July, Lima starts sporadically losing electricity.
It's like some fucked up science fiction movie, except instead of zombies or whatever roaming the streets, corpses begin piling up on the sidewalks. Parks turn into makeshift cemeteries, and gradually, looters overtake law enforcement. Stores are ransacked, homes broken into, people who haven't been inflicted with the illness end up dying at the hands of those corrupted by power and desperation.
The safest place is indoors. All things considered, that doesn't mean a damn thing, but Santana lives in a mansion with some pretty high-tech security. Like, her windows are fucking bulletproof, so that helps.
She wanders outside a couple times, but she barely gets down the street before she's pushed back by thugs waving guns and machetes, and yeah, she's not an idiot. She isn't even really scared or anything, just kind of numb and a little annoyed. These jackasses are ruining her summer.
In between the bouts of blackout and overworked wireless towers, Santana manages to squeeze a few texts through to the other members of the Glee club. She doesn't know how to feel about the fact that she checks up on those losers first. Other than Brittany losing track of Charity, they're all fine, so whatever.
Santana decides to just stay inside and wait until this shit blows over.
This shit does not blow over.
TV stations are the first to drop. There are rumors about the government collapsing under the weight of the epidemic, but nobody in Lima really knows because a few days after the stations go, the power completely goes out across Ohio, taking with it the internet, the radio, and cell service.
That's when Santana really knows that they're all shit out of luck.
Puck shows up at her door at the end of July with a bloodied baseball bat gripped tightly in his hands. His jaw is tight, his eyes red and swollen, like he'd been crying. Any other time, Santana would've mocked him.
"My mom and sister, they—"
Santana pulls him inside and locks the door. She doesn't make him explain, but he does anyway. Three days ago, he had found them in the kitchen, puking up blood. He'd done his best to ease their pain, but…
"There was nothing you could've done to save them, Puck." It's small reassurance, Santana knows, but she has little else.
"Yeah," he exhales. He wipes clumsily at his damp cheeks with his wrist. "Fuck this shit, man."
Santana doesn't tell him that her own parents have likely suffered the same fate. Her father hasn't been home in weeks, and judging by the breakdown of the medical system… She forces herself not to go there. Her mother had left the safety of their home a couple days ago to restock their thinning pantry and had simply never returned.
He figures it out that night when she erupts into tears as they're lying on the floor of her living room, trying to catch some shuteye.
He holds her against his chest until she falls asleep and doesn't even try to feel up her boobs.
"You think our friends are still alive?" Santana asks him the next day as he's making himself a peanut butter sandwich.
Puck glances up. "Dunno. Didn't stop to check on my way over, but it was damn near impossible to cut across to the other side of town where Finn and the boys are. I headed straight here as soon as I got blocked."
Santana watches the locked door and drawn blinds as though expecting someone to break in. "Brittany lives nearby; we could—"
"Don't even think about it, Lopez," Puck cuts in, screwing up the peanut butter jar and tossing the knife in the sink. "Britt's fine, and even if she isn't, there's nothing we can do."
"Trust me on this one. You won't get halfway down the street before someone tries to mug you, or worse. You won't be any good to her if you're dead."
"You're fucking spineless," Santana fires back. "You don't care about anybody but yourself, and coming from me, that says something."
Puck slams his hand down on her kitchen counter. "You think I'm being selfish? You think I don't give a shit about where my boy Sam is, or that I haven't spoken to Lauren in weeks?"
Santana rolls her eyes. "Oh please, as if you care about that whale beyond getting your rocks off."
"You're a bitch," Puck mumbles, and he actually looks miserable. "I don't do that thing where I stay with someone I don't even fucking like."
"Maybe that's because you have no idea what it's like to be a closeted lesbian!" Santana blurts out.
Immediately, Puck falls silent and stares down at his sandwich. She's pretty sure it's the first time she's admitted it to him out loud, but he doesn't look surprised or grossed out. He just stays quiet.
"Look," Santana continues, shaking it off, "if you're going to stay here, there are some ground rules. One, don't piss me off. And two, don't be a dick."
Puck finally looks up. "It's really dangerous out there," he reiterates, breathing a sigh as his shoulders hunch over. "I watched my family die, Santana. I just don't want you to—you know."
"Yeah." She doesn't tell him that his stupid admission actually means something to her. "This is so messed up."
Puck pries the sandwich in two and offers Santana one half. "Priority number one is to stay alive. We gotta lay low."
Santana lays low for two weeks.
Living with Puck turns out not to be as awful as she'd imagined, which in itself is pretty awful. But he's either trying not to piss her off for fear of getting kicked out or he's actually attempting to not be a fuck-up. Whatever the reason, he stays out of her way, doesn't make any attempts to get in her pants, and gets way too good at juggling fruit.
"We need to go check on Britt," Santana says, watching as Puck tosses an overripe peach in the air.
She's been thinking about it for a few days. The isolation has been slowly driving her mad, and she's become restless doing nothing while the world outside rips itself apart. Her home is not a fortress. They've done pretty well barring up the windows, and it appears the looters have trashed all the heavy machinery Lima owns on warehouses and businesses, but it's only a matter of time before a new wave passes with bigger guns, better equipment. Then they're really fucked.
Puck catches the fruit and turns to her. "You're suicidal. It's a war zone out there."
"Shit, Puck. She could still be alive."
Verbalizing it only strengthens her resolve. Forget everything else. If this had happened last summer, she would've been by Brittany's side from the very beginning. Lived with her and died with her. She hates that this summer, everything's different, and she doesn't even mean humanity fucking itself in the face.
"She could also be dead," Puck fires back, more agitated than Santana had thought he'd be, "which is exactly what we'll be if we venture out there."
"I don't care." Santana's standing, too, but she isn't nearly as physically imposing as she'd like to be, and the limited rations and lack of sunlight have made her weak. "Look, we'll be out of food in a week, dead in two. We can't stay here."
"If we leave this place, we're not coming back," Puck says slowly. "You get that, right? I don't just mean your house. I mean Lima. I mean Ohio. If we can get through the bozos, we're hightailing it the fuck out of here. I bet they're not enforcing the quarantine anymore."
Santana nods. "Okay, here's the plan…"
The plan is to eat and bathe.
They won't be able to carry a week's worth of food with them, and it'll all go to the looters anyway if they don't eat it. They need to build their strength. And even though there hasn't been running water in Santana's house for weeks now, and the tubful of water that her mother had filled before she disappeared has mostly gone murky, they do the best that they can.
The plan is to eat, bathe, and not get their brains blown out.
Santana's father owns two hunting rifles and a handgun, which Santana finally shows Puck.
"Fuck, Lopez, why didn't you say something about these babies earlier? We could've geared up just in case."
Her mind races for an excuse, but sometimes, unfortunately, Puck is sharper than he looks. The handgun is already loaded; his eyes snap up suspiciously.
"You little bitch, you were going put one in me, weren't you?" he asks, but he almost seems more appreciative that his partner in crime has brutal survival instincts than the fact that she might have actually considered shooting him.
"Only if you stepped out of line," she answers with a smirk.
Puck loads one of the rifles up with ammo and holsters it to his back.
"You know how to use this?" he asks as he loads up the second rifle.
"Oh please." She holsters up. "Pick one of your balls and I'll take it out from a mile away."
Puck and Santana slip into gray hoodies—Puck's is from Mr. Lopez's closet—and long pants. They're hiding more temperature-appropriate, beat-the-shit-out-of-someone-with-bare-fists-appropriate attire underneath, but from what they've been able to gather from a small unbarred window on the third floor, the streets of Lima have turned into a gang turf war: gray hoodies versus red bandanas.
Santana had dug out a few of her mother's red scarves, but in the end, they decide that the ability to hide shit under the hoodies is invaluable. They take the scarves anyway, figuring they can always swap sides if the need arises.
They've managed to bulk up by holstering ammunition, non-perishable food items and first aid kits to their torso, along with lighters, whistles, duct tape, anything small but potentially useful. If they manage to make it out of Lima, the food should keep them alive for four or five days, more if they're careful. After that, they'll have to rely on marksmanship and a little luck. But Santana isn't thinking that far ahead.
It's heavy, but Santana had once been a Cheerio, and if anyone thinks that Sue Sylvester is beyond strapping sandbags to her cheerleaders' bodies and making them run a mile uphill, they'd be wrong.
Puck pulls his hood over his 'hawk. "Ready?"
Santana mimics the motion and nods. "Remember, don't be quick to pull out the rifle, but if you're cornered, shoot to kill."
Puck nods. "Got it."
Santana grabs the keys out of habit, but she knows that chances are, she won't ever use them again.
The night air is cool and crisp, and it's so quiet that for a moment, Santana wonders if maybe they'd made up the entire thing in their heads.
But then the smell of rotting flesh hits her and she gags, her stomach coiling. Beside her, Puck makes a noise of disgust.
Yeah, this shit is fucking real.
The days and weeks have been bleeding into each other, but Santana figures it's probably only mid-August. She wonders absently whether the infection is still spreading or if the majority of the dead bodies are now at the hands of humans hankering for an extra loaf of bread. She'd always figured it would take longer for society to break down, but being caged in had spread mass panic and hysteria, which had been far more dangerous than any biological contaminants.
Santana leads Puck down the street. The sounds of her sneakers sound like bombs in the silence. They'd considered taking one of the cars parked in the Lopez's garage, but they hadn't wanted to attract attention. Brittany lives about four blocks away, and walking would be their best course of action.
Suddenly, Puck pulls her into the bushes, pushes her to the ground, and clamps his hand over her mouth. Her gut instinct is to beat the shit out of him because what the fuck, but then she hears footsteps approaching and keeps quiet. She watches as two men with red bandanas around their necks pass by their hiding spot.
As soon as they round the corner, Puck's hand drops from Santana's mouth. They crawl back out through the bushes.
"Close call," Puck mutters.
Cheeks flushed, Santana turns back to her route. "Yeah, thanks."
Brittany's house has been ripped apart. The structure is still standing, but the windows are broken and the front door has been torn down. Her car is sitting in the driveway, smashed to bits. Santana's heart pounds.
"All right, you got a look at the thing," Puck hisses into her ear. "Now let's go. We gotta get as far as we can while the sun's still down."
"No, she could still be—"
"Puck," she grinds through her teeth, trying not to shake, "you just don't fucking get it."
"No, you don't fucking get that the world has gone to shit and that we're dead meat if we stick around any longer."
Santana continues to appraise the ruin in front of her. "She has a basement. Maybe—"
That's when it happens.
Two masked bodies appear out of nowhere. One grabs Santana by the waist; the other's arms wrap around Puck's neck and jerks him backward. Santana manages to catch her attacker in the ribs with a swinging elbow before she's pushed to the ground. The impact, combined with all the crap attached to her body, knocks the air out of her. Her hands are quickly bound behind her back with a strip of something that feels like plastic. It cuts into her skin.
She opens her mouth to scream, but a damp cloth presses against her face and everything goes black.
When Santana regains consciousness, it feels like she's suffering from the world's worst hangover. As her mind clears and her memory slowly comes back to her, her eyes snap open and she jerks up. It's a terrible idea, because her head feels like it's about to split into two, and her stomach suddenly convulses.
She's lying on an open sleeping bag in what appears to be an empty room with a high roof, and her gray hoodie is draped over her body like a blanket. Judging by the light filtering through the shattered windows, it's early morning. Her torso feels lighter; someone has taken her supplies.
"Santana, you're awake."
Santana's head snaps up at the familiar voice. Her vision swims, but she manages to focus her eyes enough to make out the shape of a girl's head and a flash of blond hair. The approaching form lacks any signs of menace.
"Brittany?!" she gasps, her throat parched and aching.
Brittany's lips curl into a small smile as she sits down next to Santana and offers her a bottle of water. "Hi," she says softly.
Hands shaky on the bottle, Santana drinks greedily, then wipes her mouth on her forearm. Santana's vision begins to clear. Brittany looks different, somehow. Her normally pale skin is a little darker from the sun, meaning she likely hasn't been cooped up inside like Santana has. Her hair is pulled away from her face in a high ponytail. A dark red tank top covers her torso; a pair of shorts that Santana imagines had been white hugs her hips. Her feet are encased in gigantic boots.
It sparks something in Santana. Her stomach flips when Brittany reaches out and wipes a bead of sweat from Santana's forehead. Her body has been trained to react a certain way to Brittany's touch, and she doesn't know how to stop it. She turns instead to anger.
"Where's that bitch who tied me up and chloroformed me?"
Brittany's face falls. "Sorry about that."
Santana leaps to her feet, holding out her arms to steady herself when she feels the room tilting. Brittany follows her up and offers her a steadying hand, which she shakes away.
"What the hell, Britt? Why?"
"Take it easy, Santana," someone behind her says.
Santana pivots to the voice, nearly falling over from the sudden movement. Sam and Puck are standing there, both looking a little disheveled. Puck's shed his hoodie too, but his rifle is still strapped to his back. Sam is in a dark undershirt and a pair of khakis. He's holding Santana's rifle in his hands and smiling.
Puck tilts his head in greeting. "Nice of you to finally wake up, Lopez."
Santana's head spins. "I'm going to throw up. If you don't explain what the hell is happening here in the next thirty seconds, I'm projectile vomiting all over you."
Brittany's palm is gentle on Santana's elbow as she guides her back down to the sleeping bag spread across the floor. Sam and Puck sit down across from her, just far enough so that Santana probably couldn't reach them if she actually threw up. Wimps. Brittany though, she plants herself next to Santana and takes her hand.
"I'm really sorry about tying you up. Usually when we do that, I make you come after, but—"
"Brittany," Santana cuts in, flushing hard.
"We didn't know it was you," Brittany explains. "You were wearing those hoodies… we couldn't tell."
"We thought you were just common thugs," Sam continues. "We were going to rob you and run. That's how we've been surviving."
"Start at the beginning," Santana says, taking another drink of water.
"My sister got sick." Brittany's eyes lower as she recounts her story. "She—my parents took her to the hospital, but they never came back. Someone broke into my house a few days after that. She had a gun. I escaped through the back door."
Brittany's eyes are squeezed shut and her breathing grows quick. Instinctively, Santana drapes an arm over her shoulder and pulls her closer. Brittany lets out a sigh of relief and presses her face against Santana's neck. Puck and Sam are both staring at their feet.
"Sam," Santana says quietly. "You go first."
Sam nods. "Well, you know the part where my parents are in Nashville. Or—I don't know if the quarantine reached Tennessee. Anyway, Burt and Carole, they took turns guarding the door at night while us boys slept. One night, probably three or four days after the power totally went out, shouting woke me up. These men in gray hoodies were threatening Burt, waving an axe at him. We grabbed some stuff and wanted to jump in, you know, kick the crap out of these guys, but Carole made us run for it. She's—" Sam hesitates, his breath heavy as he tries to maintain his composure. "None of us wanted to. You gotta believe me when I say that none of us wanted to run."
"I believe you," Brittany reassures from Santana's shoulder, even though Santana's pretty sure she's already heard this story.
Sam takes a deep breath and continues, "Finn, Kurt and I, we weren't prepared for what waited for us outside. It was like we were living in a movie. People were dying, and those who weren't were killing or pillaging. It was like—you know that video game, Infamous? It was like everyone was Cole MacGrath and they were all after evil karma."
The reference is lost on Santana, but she's seen what people are capable of in times of desperation. It's not good. Brittany, still tucked against Santana's neck, rolls her hand casually up Santana's ribcage, but the flesh there is still tender. Santana winces and tries to focus on Sam's story.
"We got split up. I lost the others in the crowd. I swear on my life, Santana, I got distracted by something and just lost track of them." Sam swallows hard. "I crawled into an abandoned house and stayed there until morning. Once the sun started to rise and the way seemed clear, I walked back to the Hummel-Hudson's place, but—" He hangs his head. "—they were gone."
"Their car, too. Maybe they took Burt somewhere to get medical care, or maybe they just decided to try and break through the barricades. I don't know." Sam shrugs his shoulders. "I looked around a little for them, but I didn't want to wander far. That's when I found Brittany. We've been sticking together ever since."
"God…" Santana mutters, trying to process the story. She looks around the large room. "Where even are we right now?"
"Abandoned warehouse," Brittany answers.
Santana rubs her eyes as she attempts to process the information. "What else do you know?"
"Barricade was broken a couple days ago," Sam replies, "but people have been escaping through the unmonitored sections of the border for weeks. That's why the streets have thinned out. There's nothing more for them to take."
Brittany stirs. "We were going to wait a couple days, collect some useful stuff—Sam has a list—by stealing them off unsuspecting Hoodies and Bandanas in the middle of the night, and then we were gonna get the heck out of here and hope for the best."
Sam looks sheepish. "You two looked just like them. It was tough to tell in the dark. Sorry about jumping you."
"Okay, so let's just—" Santana shuts her eyes for a moment. "What's the plan? Are we sticking together? Are we splitting up?"
"There's strength in numbers," Sam replies. "I say we stay together, at least until we break out of here."
"Watch out," Puck warns, nudging Sam by the arm, "Lopez won't hesitate to blow your brains out if you get in her way."
Brittany lifts her head from Santana's shoulder. "Is that true?"
Santana rolls her eyes. "No. Shut up, Puck. I wasn't really going to shoot you unless you came at me first."
"We have to trust each other," Brittany cuts in suddenly, eyes unrelentingly serious. "Sam and me, we made a pact."
"What, like prick your finger, blood oath, that kinda stuff?" Puck asks.
Sam shakes his head, his scraggly hair flying as he does. "No, we just promised each other we'd have each other's backs, no matter what. You hesitate one moment out there, you're done for."
"You've been reading too many comics," Santana interjects. "My trust is earned. It's the end of the world. It's every man, woman, and child for him or herself."
"Santana," Brittany says softly.
Santana ignores her, shaking away the part of her that's never been able to not feel guilt for pushing Brittany away. "How much more stuff do we need?"
Sam looks anxiously at Brittany, then pushes himself to his feet. "C'mon, we'll show you."
Santana rises slowly to her feet and tries not to notice that Brittany maintains her distance, busying herself with rolling up the sleeping bag they'd been sitting on. Sam leads the others around a corner and through a door with a broken padlock. In the corner, under a blue tarp, are boxes filled with stuff she and Puck hadn't even thought about: a pair of tube tents, another sleeping bag, ponchos, orientation gear—a compass, trail maps, even a survival manual that they'd probably lifted from the library, judging by the sticker still affixed to the spine of the book.
When Sam reaches inside and lifts out the tents and sleeping bag, there's more underneath: water bottles, ropes, toiletries, a sewing kit, a couple Swiss Army knives, a hatchet, and a folded net.
"Damn," Santana murmurs, pretending not to be impressed, "you're prepped for this."
Sam smiles a little. "I'm kind of an end of the world junkie."
Santana looks up at him and scoffs. "Well, you must be jizzing yourself now, huh?"
"Hey," Puck cuts in, "you think you could cool the bitch act?"
Still slightly dizzy, Santana takes a step toward Puck, a hundred insults at the tip of her tongue. Brittany immediately slips between them and nudges Santana back, her fingers gripping the front of Santana's shirt.
Her voice is firm, and Santana gets distracted by Brittany's hands touching her. Even through fabric, the pit of her stomach tightens. Brittany's eyes are harder than Santana remembers, but they are pleading.
"Santana, we all have to get along."
Santana nods and lowers her eyes. Brittany hesitates for a moment before releasing Santana's shirt.
Sam clears his throat. "Uh, we've been hoarding for two, but most of this stuff, we can just share. Probably best to grab two more sleeping bags though."
"How are we going to carry all this crap?" Puck asks, peering into the boxes.
Brittany pulls a large backpack from one of the boxes, then another. "By working together."
With the supplies that Puck and Santana had taken from the Lopez home, they've got pretty much everything they need. Sam and Puck leave the warehouse to dig through whatever's left in the shops, hoping to pick up at least one more sleeping bag and a few more backpacks, while Brittany and Santana stay behind to guard the boxes. The sunlight is starting to filter in, and that means it's no longer a safe bet to leave their stuff unprotected. All things Brittany and Sam had learned while Puck and Santana had been hiding in the Lopez mansion.
With the boys gone, Brittany quietly starts loading up the backpacks, dividing up gear as equally as possible. Santana, still a little unsteady on her feet, leans against the wall and fiddles with her handgun.
"So you and Sam have just been living here, huh?"
"For about a week. We have to take turns sleeping, but—" Brittany shrugs. "We were doing okay."
"You should've come stay with me," Santana says quietly. "You know my house; it's like a fortress. We had food."
Brittany's eyes flicker to Santana for a moment. "We tried. Couldn't get through."
There's something different in Brittany's stance, something different about the way she's projecting herself. Santana's always known that Brittany isn't as dependent as everyone seems to think she is, but the chaos has changed her, toughened her up, maybe. Brittany turns and smiles, but it doesn't quite reach her eyes.
"Brittany, I—" Missed you, she wants to say.
Brittany zips up one of the backpacks and lowers her eyes. "I thought you were dead," she admits quietly. "I thought I'd never see you smile again, or hear you sing, or get to kiss you…"
"Britt—" Santana shuts her eyes. Her heart squeezes.
"I really liked doing that," Brittany continues, sighing.
Santana presses the back of her head against the wall and involuntarily licks her lips. "Me too, B."
Brittany starts packing the second bag, and Santana picks up her ankle holster and straps it to herself, then carefully slides her handgun into it. Santana straightens up and watches Brittany for a moment, trying to figure out how she can help.
"You don't have to be strong all the time," Brittany says without looking up, seemingly out of the blue.
"I—" Santana swallows hard. "Yeah, Britt, I kind of do. Especially now."
"Everyone's strong in their own way." Brittany shrugs. "Puck's got more muscle than any of us, and Sam knows everything about outdoor survival. We're going to be okay."
"You don't know that."
Brittany pauses for a moment, thoughtful and sad. "Santana, I can't find my family."
"They—they're probably okay," Santana says, falling just short of reassuring. "They could've escaped, and I mean, your sister—"
"You don't know that," Brittany interrupts pointedly, echoing Santana's earlier words. She deflates slightly and motions at the half-filled backpack. "We've got this stuff and we've got a little bit of hope; that's it. Are you really going to take that away from me?"
Santana sighs and pushes herself off the wall. Her head has mostly stopped spinning. She takes a step toward Brittany, then another, until she's close enough to slide her arm around Brittany's waist and pull her closer. Immediately, Brittany curls into Santana's embrace, her face burying in Santana's neck as she breathes hard.
"We're going to be okay," Santana murmurs against Brittany's hair, squeezing back tears because shit, it's the end of the world, and this is all they've got: each other, and a pair of boys who are just as lost, just as confused. Santana shuts her eyes. Brittany's body feels warm, and Santana's arms ache with how long it's been since she last held her. "We're going to be okay, Britt. I got you."
Brittany lifts her head long enough to smile and shake her head. "No, I," she corrects, "got you."
It's one of those things a person never has to be taught: when someone holding a gun tells you to run, you fucking run, even—and maybe especially—if that person happens to be a friend.
Brittany hears the yelling before Santana does, but it's unmistakable. Puck and Sam, followed by a gunshot, then anguished cries that thankfully don't sound like either of their friends. The shouting continues.
Brittany hands Santana one of the backpacks and straps the other one on. Santana does the same, then quietly follows Brittany to the front of the warehouse. Staying low, Brittany cautiously peers out one of the broken windows. Santana finds a hole in the battered wall just large enough for her to look through.
Puck and Sam are about a hundred feet away, their handguns pointed at a group of seven or eight scattered in front of them. Each is sporting a red bandana and holding a weapon of some sort, though as far as Santana can make out, they're primitive—hockey sticks and golf clubs—and unless one of them decides to throw one at either Puck or Sam, the two are pretty much out of reach. But the boys are decked out in gray hoodies, and the rifles have limited ammunition, and Santana knows that neither of those things works in their favor.
The standoff lasts only another few seconds, however, before the red bandanas are retreating into what's left of the street. Immediately, Sam and Puck turn around and start running toward the warehouse. Brittany heads to the door and pulls it open for them.
"Run!" Sam cries as soon as he enters, waving his rifle wildly. "Out the back! Go!"
He and Puck are both carrying large backpacks, though Puck's looks mostly empty. Brittany grabs Santana's wrist and leads her to the back. They heave open the door and run outside.
"Where are we going?" Santana asks, turning to look at the boys. "What the hell kind of trouble did you get into back there?"
"Took some stuff that they thought rightly belonged to them," Puck calls back. "Chased us back here before Sam scared them off with a gunshot."
"Said they were gonna come back with guns," Sam continues, sounding out of breath. "We'd be badly outnumbered. We should make a run for it. If we can disappear into the farmland outside Lima, we should be good for the night."
Santana stops short. "Hold up. We're not doing this on foot."
"We don't have time for this," Puck says impatiently, motioning for her to pick up the pace.
"No, listen, my Wrangler's still in my garage," Santana explains. "Whatever's left in the tank should carry us two, maybe three hundred miles outside Lima. Beats trekking it out of here carrying this crap on our backs."
The others slow to a stop and turn to look at Santana. Puck readjusts his rifle.
"You think we can sneak back there?" Sam asks. He looks up at the sky. "It's light out. We're gonna have to watch our backs."
"You guys don't have to come with me," Santana says, taking off her backpack and tossing it toward Puck. "Head toward Harding. I'll grab the car and—"
"No," Puck cuts in, exchanging the heavy backpack with the nearly empty one on his back and throwing that one back to Santana. "We stick together."
Santana slides the lighter backpack over her shoulders and reaches down to grab her handgun. Without another word, she leads the others back around the warehouse. Avoiding the actual streets, she carefully cuts between buildings until she nears her property. The mansion is still standing, but it's beaten down, debris lying in the driveway, broken bricks falling from the walls, withered grass covering the lawn that had once been a lively green.
For a moment, Santana considers just crawling back into her home and staying there, because fuck, for all her talk, she feels unprepared for this, off-kilter. The end of the world is supposed to be swift—a day of judgment or whatever, where some holy being decides whether she's lived a good enough life to be sent upstairs. Something like that; she never did pay that much attention in church. But she knows that none of the scriptures described it quite like this.
Brittany steps up to her and touches her wrist. "You okay?"
Santana nods, shaking off her insecurity. "I'm fine. Stay low."
The four discreetly sidle up to the door at the side of the garage. Santana reaches into her pocket and pulls out her keys, the ones she'd thought she'd never again use, and shimmies it into the lock. Making a quick check of her surroundings, Santana pushes the door open and steps inside. Everyone else follows, and she shuts the door behind them.
The garage smells like garbage, and Santana immediately covers her nose at the stench. She'd almost forgotten that she and Puck had been disposing their trash in the garage, a decision she now regrets. It's dark, too, which makes navigating a little tough, especially with their backpacks swinging around all over the place, but Santana feels her way to her vehicle, unlocks the door, and climbs inside.
She fiddles around for a moment before starting the engine, and the Wrangler roars to live under her. The headlights flip on, illuminating the garage. Squinting, Puck squeezes himself into the passenger's seat, and the other two fill up the back. All the backpacks get juggled into the backseat.
Sam grunts as he shuts the door. "Santana, this—the seat's gotta go."
"Oh," Brittany replies easily, "I know how. Sam, help me flip this up."
Santana watches as Brittany guides Sam through the steps of removing her backseat. It only takes them a moment, and Santana pops her trunk so the two can carry the seat out. They leave it propped up against the side of the garage and climb back in.
Puck looks thoroughly impressed. "How'd you know to do that?"
Santana clears her throat. "Never mind that," she deflects. "The garage door weighs about two tons but it has to be manually opened because there's no electricity. We gotta be ready to shoot our way out in case some assholes decide to ambush us for the vehicle. Protect the tires at all costs. I've got one spare and that's it. Roll down the windows. It'll give you more room to wave the guns around, and we don't want any broken glass."
Sam raises his hand. "I'll go pull up the door," he offers, exiting the vehicle with one of the rifles held tightly in his hands. Puck follows him, leaving the passenger door open.
Santana slides her handgun back into its holster and grips the steering wheel. "Jump back in as quickly as you can," she instructs.
Sam signals the thumbs-up and grabs hold of one of the handles on the garage door. Puck takes another. With a heave, the garage door creaks open. The boys pull the thing as high as they can and dash back into the car, quickly shutting their doors. Santana takes her foot off the brake and reverses out of the driveway.
The sound of the garage door opening has attracted a few visitors, but Puck waves the rifle around and they mostly scatter. Once on the street, Santana shifts to drive and presses on the gas pedal. The damaged roads make it difficult to accelerate, and as they're driving past the abandoned warehouse, the group of red bandanas that Sam and Puck had confronted earlier ambushes them.
They hadn't been lying; they're back with guns.
Luckily, they're fairly poor shots, and only two manage to hit the vehicle, both bullets embedding harmlessly into the shell. Puck crouches down on the floor of the vehicle for cover and pulls Santana as low as she can go on her seat.
"I can't fucking see the road!" Santana calls out over the sound of gunshots, trying desperately to keep her foot on the accelerator.
Puck rises just enough to take a shot at their attackers. "Use the rooftops and trees as reference," he calls back. "Where's the ammo for this thing? It's got like three shots."
Santana grips the bottom of the steering wheel as the vehicle rolls over a huge pothole. "In one of the bags, I don't fucking know!"
Suddenly, Brittany hovers over the console, her body draping over Santana's. Brittany's hand slides down Santana's thighs, over her knee. Santana nearly jerks out of her seat and kills them all before she realizes that Brittany's reaching for her handgun. Brittany grabs the gun out of the holster and returns to the back. She takes a shot; someone groans and falls.
Santana's hands are shaking, and she can't see shit. "Fuck this," she mutters, rising slightly in her seat.
Brittany takes a few more shots before Santana manages to drive them out of range. The firefight had only lasted for a few seconds, but Santana's sweating heavily by the time it's over.
Puck pats her on the shoulder. "That was—"
"—kind of awesome," Sam interjects, high-fiving Brittany.
"Only 'cause you didn't get your head blown off," Santana mutters, trying to calm her pounding heart as she repositions herself in her seat.
She glances in the rearview mirror and catches Brittany looking at her. Brittany offers a small smile, and Santana reciprocates before returning her attention to the debris-ridden road in front of her. She hadn't known that Brittany is a good shot. There are a lot of things about Brittany that she doesn't know at all, she realizes. They'd spent a lot of time macking on each other, but not nearly enough talking. And the few times they had, it usually lead to—well, more macking.
Santana blames her flushed cheeks on the close encounter instead of whatever the hell is still happening between them. Survival comes first.
Soon, the vehicle is crossing outside Lima. Santana can still make out the stations they'd set up in an attempt to keep the town under quarantine, except now, they are knocked down and deserted. Santana slows her car as she pulls up to the border. The corpses of a few National Guard soldiers, some barely older than Santana herself, are lying on the ground. A handful show clear signs of the affliction that'd swept into the town, but others appear to have been beaten or shot.
"Santana, we gotta move," Puck tells her.
Santana clenches her jaw and hits the gas, leaving Lima, the only place she's ever called home, behind. She doesn't look back.
They're about ten miles outside Lima when Santana realizes that she has no idea where they're headed.
"We can't just burn gas," she tells the others. "We don't know if any of the gas stations are still working, and my tank's not even full. It'll get us somewhere, but we can't waste it."
Puck glances out the open window. "Columbus is the closest city, but I doubt it's in much better condition."
"We should make our way to DC," Sam suggests, fidgeting. "Either that or Canada."
Santana checks the dashboard. "Not enough gas to make it to Washington. Might make it up to Detroit."
Brittany, legs crossed under her, looks out the window. "Do you think Canadians are sick too?"
"This thing's probably international," Sam replies, "or else the UN or something would've come by now."
Santana slams her hands angrily against the steering wheel. "Then what the hell's the point? We're fucking dead anyway."
"We should go to Nashville," Brittany pipes up. "That's where Sam's family is, right?"
Santana rubs her eyes with one hand. "We don't have the gas to make it to Nashville."
"Then we'll walk," Brittany insists. "We have backpacks."
Sam shifts uncomfortably. "Brittany, we don't have to do that." He shrugs. "It's not a big deal."
"Sam," Brittany says gently. "But what about Stacy and Stevie?"
Sam goes silent.
Santana sighs. "Trouty Mouth, you want to check it out?"
"It's not a big deal," he says again, with much less conviction.
Santana glances at the back. Sam and Brittany are giving each other looks that Santana can't figure out. She's never been particularly close with her family, and being an only child, doesn't get the big deal about siblings. Aren't they just people who eat your food and take your clothes? But she's seen first-hand the way Sam had been around his brother and sister, how tender and loving and totally lame, but—her heart unexpectedly squeezes. Her line of sight shifts briefly to Brittany, who probably understands Sam's loss.
"Okay," Santana says quietly. "This car'll probably only take us halfway across Kentucky, but… we're heading to Nashville. Puck?"
"Sounds good," he replies, staring straight ahead.
Santana has no doubt who he's thinking about: his own bratty little sister who will never get another chance to be a pain in the ass.
The drive down to Dayton, Ohio takes them nearly two hours because Sam insists that driving in excess of fifty-five miles per hour depletes the gas mileage. Santana doesn't bother reminding him that they're in a freaking Wrangler, which consumes fuel faster than Zizes consumes a dozen Big Macs.
Dayton, they quickly discover, is no better than Lima, though surprisingly more eerily silent. The virus or whatever appears to have hit worse here. Decaying bodies line the streets, their stench tough to stomach. Santana gags, remembering then that she hasn't eaten since the night before. She suddenly feels faint. Her eyelids flutter.
"Puck," Brittany says. "Can you drive?"
"Yeah, but—" He glances at Santana. "Shit, Lopez, you look like you're about to pass out."
"I'm fine," Santana mutters, her vision blurring slightly.
"You're not," Puck insists. "Stop the car. You're gonna get us all killed."
The car jerks abruptly. Santana hits the brake out of instinct, nearly ejecting Puck from his seat. It takes her a moment to figure out that Brittany had engaged the handbrake. Santana leans back against her seat, silently fuming. She turns around to bitch, but Brittany's already opened the door and exited the vehicle. Santana watches as Brittany rounds the car and pulls open the driver's side door. She reaches over and gently removes Santana's hands from the steering wheel.
"Come on. Let Puck drive for a little while."
Santana rolls her eyes, but she ducks out of the vehicle. Puck pushes himself over the console and takes the driver's seat. Sam climbs into the seat Puck had just abandoned, leaving the back empty. Brittany guides Santana inside and starts digging around in one of the backpacks. As the vehicle starts rolling again, she hands Santana a container of applesauce.
"Are we five?" Santana asks sarcastically, but she takes it from her and pulls the top about a third of the way off.
"Seventeen," Brittany answers. "Did you forget too?"
Santana grins. "I'm fine, you know."
"I know." Brittany smiles back. "We don't have any spoons, so you'll just have to suck it out."
Puck snickers from the front seat, and Santana slaps him on the arm. She brings the cup to her lips and drinks the applesauce. As much as she hates to admit it, the sugar helps with her dizziness.
When she's done, she leans against the side of the vehicle and looks anywhere but at Brittany, who seems intent on staring her down. There's always been something tugging them together, keeping them close, and Santana's not a believer of fate or whatever, but she knows that the tie there is fragile and frayed. The thought that the world is going to end without her getting a chance with Brittany coils horribly at the pit of her stomach, but the thought that it takes the world ending for the two of them to get that chance is almost worse. If they hadn't done it right when the universe hadn't been fucked, what chance do they have now?
Brittany moves toward her, a hand reaching out for her leg, and Santana pulls her knees in defensively. Brittany purses her lips and drops her arm.
"I'm just—" She shakes her head and slides something toward Santana, then backs away. "You clip it in yourself, then."
It's the handgun she'd taken earlier. Santana feels like an idiot as she picks it up and checks the safety before sliding it back into her ankle holster. The Wrangler rolls over a bump.
Santana clears her throat. "I didn't mean—"
"It's okay," Brittany cuts in.
Santana bites the inside of her cheek. She hates the discomfort, hates that she can't help not knowing whether she wants to push or pull, but mostly, she hates that Brittany's caught in the middle of her emotional tug of war with herself. She turns to Puck, who seems to have navigated them safely through Dayton and back onto the interstate.
"Hey, let me drive."
Puck glances back. "You can have it back when we hit Cincinnati. Take a nap."
"How about I give you a permanent nap by putting my fist through your skill?" Santana fires back. "Give me. The car."
Brittany shuffles closer and takes Santana's hand in hers, gently interlacing their fingers. "I'll nap with you. Is that okay?"
Santana takes a deep breath, attempting to quell her stupid feelings. "Whatever," she mutters, not trusting herself to say much else. "I'm not sleeping."
Brittany releases Santana's hand to open up one of their sleeping bags, which she unzips and drapes over Santana's legs. She curls under the sleeping bag herself and lies down, her own legs curled at the other end. She shuts her eyes.
Santana resists for about two minutes before sighing and lying down next to Brittany. The floor of the vehicle is hard and a little uneven, and the motors underneath are irritatingly noisy, but then Brittany turns around and coils an arm around Santana's waist, and her body reacts, pushing slightly into Brittany's warmth. A small smile plays across Brittany's lips.
"I knew how to remove the backseat because you took me stargazing once, remember?" she whispers.
Santana's heart flips. "Brittany, I don't want to talk about that."
Brittany nuzzles against her neck. "Okay."
"But yeah," Santana breathes out, "of course I remember."
Santana closes her eyes, and for a moment, it's the middle of the night and she's under the stars, holding Brittany against her just because she can and wants to. For a moment, they are younger, and everything is simpler, and their families and friends aren't dead or missing.
Brittany tightens her grip, and Santana remembers to breathe.