Chapter 1: Chapter One
Sophie sipped on her flute of champagne and smiled up at the mark. He was a floozy businessman who had recently allowed his company to fold; it was like Enron all over again, and he had gotten away with it. Sophie's eyes flickered over to where Nate was lounging at the bar. Well, he thought he had gotten away with it.
Panicked screaming overpowered the soft ministrations of the string quartet in the corner of the room, and Sophie locked eyes with Nate.
"Stay with the mark," he instructed, placing his drink on the bar. "Hardison, what do you have for me on the cameras?"
"A lot of people are running from other people," Hardison replied from where he was holed up in Nate's apartment with two empty bottles of orange soda on the floor. He opened a fresh bottle he had just pulled from the fridge. "It's hard to tell what's going on. But, whatever it is, it's headed straight for that party."
"Do you need me to help you out?" Eliot butted in. He was a few blocks over with Parker. They were in the middle of pulling the businessman's files and exposing all his dirty laundry. "Parker, are you almost done."
Parker gritted her teeth. "I'm working as fast as I can. I need another couple of minutes."
Nate shook his head. "Stay where you are. I think we can ride this out."
The mark turned to Sophie. "Do you hear that noise?"
"I'm sure it's nothing," she replied with a light laugh.
The doors to the ballroom burst open, and she pulled the mark out of the way as people surged inside. Nate cursed when he lost sight of Sophie, and he dove into the crowd to hunt her down.
"Nate, what's going on?" Eliot growled.
"Um, Eliot? You and Parker need to clear out, like, now," Hardison said, flipping through the security feeds for the office building. "The security guards were on their way up, but they've been attacked."
"I have no idea," Hardison replied. "But, I think whoever these crazies are, they're headed in your direction next. And, they just took out six armed guys with their bare hands. And teeth, I think."
Sophie kept tugging on the mark's arm to pull him away from the lump of frightened people. She tripped on the hem of her dress, and he tumbled with her to the ground.
"Bollocks," she huffed, shoving him to the side.
As she was attempting to stand up, someone pounced on top of the mark and tore into his neck, biting through skin and bone. She watched, horrified, and the man turned his attention to her, blood dripping down his chin. She screamed, and when hands grabbed her from behind, she struggled against the unwelcome restraint.
"Damn it, Sophie, it's me," Nate grumbled.
She stopped moving and craned her head around to glance at Nate. "Well, you were a bit late, weren't you?"
Nate rolled his eyes. "Hey, guys, the con is off. Find a safe place and stay there until we figure out what is going on."
"You want us to split up?" Eliot asked. He was running with Parker down the street to his car. "Why can't we just go back to your apartment and regroup?"
"Because we've got the same problem downstairs in the bar," Hardison volunteered. "Listen, Nate, the same crazies are tearing the place up down there, and there's no way any of you can make it through them."
"It's settled, then," Nate said as he and Sophie sidled to the nearest exit from the ballroom. "Eliot, you and Parker stay together. Hardison, stay where you are. Sophie and I will find somewhere to go."
"We could go to my warehouse. It's not much, but it will do for right now," Sophie offered. She followed Nate down the stairs and out the front door.
The street was in mass panic. People were running in all different directions, and crazed humans just like the ones taking over the ballroom were chasing down helpless victims and tearing into them like they were a buffet.
Nate pulled Sophie to his car, and he managed to navigate his way past the madness to get to an open stretch of road.
"Okay, how far away is this warehouse?" he asked.
She shrugged her shoulders. "About thirty miles, give or take some. You can go straight here."
He rolled his eyes. "How are the rest of you doing?"
"Parker and I are headed to her place right now," Eliot responded. "We should be fine for a couple of days."
"Hardison?" Nate asked.
Hardison stopped his furious typing to survey the couch and table against the door. "I've managed to barricade the door. And, it's locked, so I should be fine. I've been searching to see if this is happening anywhere else, and some weird shit is going down all over the world. The same problem: crazy people are in attack mode, and they're basically attempting to eat normal people."
"Turn here," Sophie interjected, pointing out a side road to Nate. "Sorry, Hardison. Go on."
"I don't have much else. All the news networks are in a panic. Their reporters are getting attacked, and one station has shut down completely because it was overrun by the crazies. I know this sounds insane, but I think we're dealing with zombies here."
"Get real, Hardison," Eliot snorted.
"Yeah, aren't zombies from the movies? Does this mean other made-up stuff is real?" Parker piped up. "Like, aliens?"
"I know it seems crazy, but, you guys saw them. It isn't normal for people to start eating other people."
"Hardison does have a point," Nate said as he swatted Sophie's hand away from his glove box. "Don't open that."
"Why?" Sophie replied. "Is there booze in it?"
"No, it's just…." He sighed when she opened the glove box and papers and other junk poured into her lap and the floorboard. "It has a lot of stuff in it."
"Hey, can we focus here?" Hardison interjected. "Zombies, people. This is serious stuff."
"Except that zombies aren't real," Eliot said.
"Can I drive?" Parker asked. When Eliot rolled his eyes at her, she crossed her arms over her chest and slumped down in her seat.
"I think the crazies out there eating people are pretty real," Hardison shot back.
"You know what, it's not really that important," Sophie said as she shoved the stuff in her lap to the floor of the car. She ignored Nate's sigh of disapproval and continued, "Eliot, let Hardison call them zombies. After all, they are acting like zombies. Now, Nate, do you have a plan?"
"Not yet," he mumbled. He cleared his throat. "Okay, here's what I need you all to do. Once you get to your destination, let me know. Other than that, I don't really have anything I need you all to do. Just stop all this bickering."
They all lapsed into silence, and Nate smiled. Sophie turned her head to look at him.
"You do know this quiet is only going to last for five minutes, right?"
When Hardison spoke up to protest Sophie's assessment, Nate groaned.
"Well, here we are," Sophie announced, climbing out of Nate's car to approach the line of desolate warehouses.
"It doesn't look very inviting," he said as he followed her.
"That's sort of the idea, Nate. I've stocked some supplies here, though, so we should be fine."
She punched in the key code and allowed Nate to pull the door up so she could step inside. He followed suit, allowing the door to drop back down. She edged her way around crates to the back of the warehouse.
"I think I have an air mattress back here," she called back to him.
"Why would you have that?"
"I don't have a safehouse nearby, so I decided it would be a good idea to capitalize on space I already had. After all, who would suspect me to hole up in a warehouse?" she replied, bending over a cardboard box. "Aha, here it is. Blow this up for me, will you?"
Nate caught the package that came flying at his face, and he crouched to the cement floor to open it. She continued to rummage around, mumbling to herself as she produced boxes of food, a case of bottled water, flashlights, and two handguns.
"Did you ever plan on using those guns?" he asked.
She turned around to face him. "Nate, you of all people should know that I not hesitate to shoot when I'm trying to get away. Oh, I've got some clothes for you."
He frowned. "Why do you have my clothes in your warehouse?"
"Never know when things might come in handy," she responded with a shrug of her shoulders. "How's that mattress coming?"
Nate set back to work, looking up to ask her a question, but the thought escaped him at the sight of her bare back.
"What are you doing?" he stammered out.
Sophie turned her head to smile at him. "I'm changing out of my dress. Is that all right with you?"
He opened and closed his mouth before saying, "Um, sure."
He returned his attention back to the air mattress and focused on making it blow itself up. When he finished filling it with air and had unhooked the small machine responsible for producing the air, he looked up to see Sophie standing over him with sheets and blankets in her arms.
"We're going to have to share a bed," she said slowly, chewing on her bottom lip. "Are you okay with that?"
He nodded his head. "Sure. Do you need any help with those?"
"Actually, I thought you should call Maggie."
"Have you forgotten about the crazy people out there? You need to make sure she's okay."
"Right." Nate stood up and pulled out his cell phone. "I should probably do that."
As he moved to the other side of the warehouse, she rolled her eyes and started to make their bed up.
Nate looked down at the phone in his hands and saw that the number had already been dialed. He considered turning around to ask Sophie how she knew Maggie's number, but decided against it. He had discovered there were some questions he never wanted the answers to. Punching the send button, he took a deep breath.
Maggie picked up on the second ring. "Hello?"
"Um, hey, Maggie?" Nate stammered out. "It's me, Nate."
"Okay." She paused. "What do you want?"
"Where are you?"
"What? Nate, you had better not get me into any trouble. Last time was more than enough excitement for me."
"Maggie, this is important. Where are you?"
"Why don't you just get your hacker to trace this call?"
"He's busy at the moment. Please, I just need to know."
"I'm at home." Sighing, she asked, "Nate, what is going on?"
"To be honest, I don't really know." He started pacing. "We were on a job, and these crazy people attacked the party where we were trying to con a businessman. It's happening all over the world."
"Crazy people attacking parties?"
"No. Crazy people attacking normal people. Hardison is convinced that they're zombies."
"Is everyone from your team all right?"
"Yeah, we're all fine." He stopped pacing and ran a hand through his hair. "Listen, I need you to stay home and lock the door. Barricade it and stay away from any windows. We'll come to get you when it's safe."
"I can take care of myself, Nate. I don't need to be rescued."
"Think of it as a retrieval, then. Be careful, Maggie."
Nate hung up the phone and turned around to see Sophie perched on top of a box. She tossed him a bottle of water.
"I take it that Maggie's still on the normal side of things."
"Yeah. We'll have to go get her after things calm down out there." He opened his bottle and walked until he stood in front of her.
She tilted her head to the side and nudged his thigh with her knee. "Did you take your earpiece out?"
"What do you think? You?"
"Eliot and Hardison were still arguing about whether to call the crazies zombies or not. Then, Eliot started yelling at Parker about how fortune cookies aren't a complete meal. Nothing unusual. But, I felt I needed a little peace and quiet."
He chuckled. "Get used to it. We're going to be stuck with them for awhile."
Yawning, she shook her head. "You get to be the babysitter, then."
"That's not part of my job."
"It is now." She hopped off the box and stretched. "I'm going to get some sleep. Come on."
He followed her to the air mattress and watched as she pulled back the covers and settled in on the left side.
"What are you waiting for, Nate?"
He shrugged and approached the right side of the bed, gingerly situating himself beside her. She rolled her eyes and turned onto her side, her back facing him.
She smiled to herself. "Goodnight, Nate."
He woke up a few hours later, disoriented. Somehow, Sophie had managed to roll over so she was facing him, and her upper body was draped across his chest, her legs tangled up with his. Her head rested partially on his shoulder, her nose nuzzling into his neck; he could feel her breath puffing against his skin. His hand was curled around her hip, his arm resting against the soft skin that was revealed from where her shirt had ridden up during the night. She mumbled something in her sleep, and he grinned as she shifted. He pulled her a little closer and allowed his eyes to close.
As Nate and Sophie pulled up to Parker's apartment, Parker galloped outside, her blonde hair bouncing against her shoulders. She didn't even wait for Nate to stop the car before opening the passenger door and flinging herself at Sophie.
"You're not a zombie!" Parker beamed.
Sophie unbuckled her seat belt and gently pushed Parker back. "Of course not. Where's Eliot?"
"He said something about making breakfast," Parker replied. "Apparently cereal isn't good enough for him."
"Do you have that kind I like?" Sophie asked as Nate climbed out of his side of the car.
"I have all kinds. Come on. Eliot said it's not safe to be outside for too long. Something about noise might attract the zombies."
"Did Eliot finally admit that they could be zombies?" Nate said, taking Sophie's arm as they followed after Parker.
"Not exactly." Parker glanced over her shoulder and grinned. "He and Hardison are still fighting about it."
Nate rolled his eyes. "Great."
Eliot poked his head out of the door to Parker's apartment/warehouse. "I'm not coming out to rescue your asses if you get into trouble."
Sophie rolled her eyes as she walked past him inside. "Happy? Parker mentioned something about breakfast."
"If cereal is what you're looking for," he sighed. "Nate, have you gotten up with Hardison?"
"Why haven't you talked to him?"
"If I have to hear about zombies being real one more time…"
"Yeah, yeah. I'll call him." Nate pulled out his phone and glanced over to where Sophie had pulled out a box of Cocoa Puffs. "You like that cereal?"
"What? You thought I ate something practical like Wheaties?" She smiled and started to hunt down a bowl. "Not a chance. Do you want some?"
"No thanks. Got a phone call to make."
Parker joined Sophie at the table and swiped a few pieces of cereal from her bowl. "What's the plan?"
Sophie shrugged. "I think we'll be getting Hardison soon. After that, we're going to have to get Maggie as well."
"Maggie? What for?"
"She's on her own," Sophie said as she spooned some cereal into her mouth. Parker took some more and crunched down on it. "Parker, if you want some cereal, just get your own bowl."
"I like it like this."
"You're stealing my food."
"Exactly. It's better this way."
Eliot shook his head and set a cup of coffee in front of Sophie. "Here. Parker, get off the table. Chairs were made for a reason."
"This is my place." Parker pouted, but she slid off the table and into a chair. "I want coffee."
"No." He delivered a cup to Nate. "You don't need any more caffeine."
"But, I want some," Parker whined. "It's my coffee."
Sophie nudged her cup in Parker's direction. "Here, drink some of mine."
Parker smiled in delight and sipped at the steaming liquid while Sophie kept eating her cereal. Nate walked back over to the table, shoving his phone back into his pocket.
"And, are we going to rescue Hardison?" Parker asked as she gulped down some coffee.
Eliot turned around from where he was putting away the cereal and groaned. "I thought I said no coffee, Parker."
Sophie ignored Eliot's glare and looked up at Nate. "Well, what's the plan?"
"Hardison said that the bar looks clear. I think we can go in to get him." Nate placed a hand on her shoulder. "We'll have to pick up supplies before we leave to get Maggie."
"Can I go by my apartment to get my stuff?" Sophie asked.
"No," Nate said hesitantly. "It's too dangerous." She started to frown, so he hurried to say, "However, we can go to a store to get you new clothes."
"How is that not as dangerous as simply getting her stuff from her apartment?" Eliot asked as he sipped at his own cup of coffee.
"We need weapons regardless. We might as well try to stay in as confined an area as possible. We don't want to flush out any zombies who might be wandering around."
"What makes you think they won't be at any stores?"
"They're after people, right? Therefore, they should be traveling to the largest supply of humans. In other words, hopefully, not anywhere around here."
Parker grinned. "It sounds like a great plan."
"Because something is wrong with you," Eliot said in a tired voice.
Sophie glanced up at Eliot. "Nate does have a point. There are more likely to be people still in my apartment building than in a shopping mall. It's our best bet."
"Are clothes really that important?"
"I don't have anything else to wear. It might not be important now, but it will be eventually."
Eliot sighed. "Fine. How long until we leave, Nate?"
"About thirty minutes. Do you have any guns here?" Nate looked around at the sparse furnishings and then back at Parker.
Parker jumped out of her chair and hurried over to her bed where she pulled a chest out from under it. She picked the lock and whipped out a few guns of varying sizes.
"Will these do?"
"You picked your own lock?" Sophie asked as she walked over to examine the weapons.
"You're all okay with Parker having guns in her possession?" Eliot said, preferring to stay where he was.
"Right now, this is a good thing," Nate replied. "You're going to need one of these, Eliot."
"No way. I don't use guns."
"Eliot, you can't punch a zombie and expect it to go down," Sophie said as she rolled her eyes. "We don't know if there is a virus that can be transmitted, or how it can be transmitted. It's a risk we can't take."
"Fine," Eliot grumbled. "Still don't like guns, though."
Nate eyed the one sticking out of Sophie's purse and frowned. "I'm not much of a fan, either."
Sophie stared Nate down until he turned away and gulped down the rest of his coffee. Parker sat on the floor, petting her gun of choice and whispering to it, her stuffed bunny tucked under her right arm. Nate dropped his mug onto Parker's bedside table and straightened his shirt.
"All right, time to go."
"Hardison, is there any sign of movement downstairs?" Nate asked as he waited outside the bar with Eliot beside him. Sophie and Parker were flanking them, just a few steps behind.
Hardison glanced over at his laptop. "Nope. There might be a few zombies lurking in the corners, but I can't see anything. You should be fine."
"For the last time, they're not zombies," Eliot growled.
"Official word is that they are," Hardison replied, a smug smile on his face. "Military released an announcement this morning via the Internet and any major news networks still operating. They are calling this an outbreak of a zombie virus. Put that in your pipe and smoke it."
"Eliot doesn't smoke pipes, Hardison," Parker piped up.
Nate ignored that remark and turned to Eliot. "Lead the charge. This is your area, after all."
Eliot shrugged and turned off the safety on his gun as he edged his way into the bar. The floor was littered with broken glass, and he kicked one broken bottle away from his feet. When there was no response to the sound of the shattering glass, he relaxed a little.
"I think it's clear," he said, looking back at Nate.
At that moment, a zombie lunged at him from under a table. Eliot whipped his head back around and shot it in the head, reaching out to nudge the body with his foot to make sure it was dead. He let out a breath when he was satisfied the thing wouldn't get back up, and he took the time to evaluate the rest of the group. Nate had a grimace on his face, Sophie was white as a sheet, and Parker was looking at him with a disturbing fascination.
"That was awesome," Parker breathed out.
"Hey, what's going on down there?" Hardison asked over the comms, a little frantic. "Is everyone okay?"
"Yeah, we're fine," Nate responded automatically. "We're on our way up."
"Well, are we ready to go?" Eliot asked, itching to get out of the vulnerable bar.
"There's still the matter of transportation to be settled," Nate said as he sipped at a glass of water. He had tried for scotch earlier, but Sophie had confiscated it.
"We should take Lucille 3.0," Hardison said, looking up from where he was going through his computers and equipment. "It's big enough for all of us."
Sophie wrinkled her nose. "It smells funny in there. Can't we take Nate's car?"
"It's not big enough for all of us," Parker pointed out.
"Lucille does not smell," Hardison said, offended.
Parker turned to look at him, a condescending smile on her face. "It does."
"I just got her."
"Maybe it's just a thing with vans named Lucille."
"That makes no sense."
"The van doesn't have enough seats for all of us, anyway," Nate cut in. "We can take it, and my car. Eliot, do you mind driving the van?"
"And be stuck with Hardison for hours?" Eliot asked. He shook his head. "No thanks, man."
"I can drive it," Parker offered.
Hardison blanched. "No way, mama. I am not letting your crazy ass anywhere near that driver's seat."
Nate cleared his throat. "Eliot, you'll drive the van. Sophie, are you going with me?"
"Yes," she responded automatically. "What about communication? Do we have to leave our earpieces in the entire time?"
Nate thought about that; it would be safer to keep tabs on everyone at all times. However, the amount of arguing that went on when there was nothing for the team to do would end up driving him insane.
"How about this: we can take out the earpieces and check in every two hours," Sophie said. "Does that sound okay?"
Nate nodded. "Sure. Okay. Let's get out of here. We're driving straight to L.A., so Hardison, you and Eliot might have to take the driving in shifts."
"Roger that, boss," Hardison said, gathering up his bags. "Come on, Parker, let's get settled in the van. I've got it set up so we can play some games."
"Like that shooting game?" Parker asked as she followed him out the door.
Eliot groaned and looked at Nate. "You owe me."
Nate chuckled as Eliot left the apartment and turned to Sophie. "Ready to go?"
She held up the bag of her clothes that she normally left at Nate's place in case of emergencies and smiled. "Ready as I'll ever be."
He held out his hand. "Then, come on."
For the most part, they traveled without incident. Nate and Sophie swapped driving duties every twelve hours; Hardison and Eliot followed suit. Parker petitioned multiple times to be allowed to get behind the wheel. She was denied every time, but Hardison smoothed her ruffled feathers by providing games for her to play. It was nearing midnight when they reached Los Angeles, and they were all exhausted.
"What's the plan, Nate?" Eliot asked as he glanced out his window.
Chaos reigned over the city. There were cars abandoned in the middle of the street, broken glass scattered over the pavement. Most houses and buildings were dark, an empty foreboding. Figures skirted past their vehicles, and Sophie let out a small cry when they realized the group was actually a small child pursued by zombies. Eliot grabbed his gun from the floorboards and clicked off the safety. He started to barrel out his door, but he was too late. They all watched in horror as the zombies pounced on the boy and tore into his skin. Her face blank, Parker opened the back of the van and approached the feasting zombies.
"Parker, get back in the van!" Hardison hissed.
Parker ignored him, took aim, and opened fire. One zombie dropped with a bullet through its head; another took a hit to its chest, and sufficiently distracted from mutilating the boy, it charged Parker. She raised her gun to shoot it, but before she could squeeze the trigger, it dropped in its path, a bullet wedged into its forehead. She glanced over her shoulder to see Eliot a few feet back. He nodded his head and finished off the last two zombies. Parker didn't fight him when he grabbed her arm and forcefully directed her back to the van. Hardison reached a hand down to help her up; she took it.
Nate let out a long breath as he watched Eliot reclaim the van's driver seat. "This isn't going very well."
"No, it's not," Sophie agreed. She raked her fingers through her hair and bound it into a ponytail. "We should probably keep moving. We can stay at Maggie's apartment and figure out a new plan."
"What do you think the chances are that we won't have to fight through a horde of zombies?"
"I think that would qualify as a miracle."
Maggie was pulled from uneasy sleep by the sound of gunshots. She blinked and flipped on her lamp, grateful that the electricity hadn't been shut off yet. The staccato beats were too close to be outside. She grabbed the baseball bat she kept in case of intruders from her closet and moved to her living room; she was not about to be taken advantage of, rescued or not.
"Someone pounded on the door. "Maggie, open up!"
The familiar British lilt prompted her into action. She pushed the mostly empty bookcase she had used to barricade the door aside and whipped the locks open in time to look up at a terrified Hardison.
"Do you mind if we drop by?" he asked as he slipped inside, letting out a nervous laugh.
Parker whipped into the room right behind him. She was covered in blood. Hardison blanched as Maggie shouldered her bat and sighed.
"You'll need to clean up." Maggie pointed down the hallway. "The bathroom's that way. I'll get you some clean clothes."
Parker cocked her head to one side, and Maggie caught the glimpse of a smile on her face before she disappeared. Hardison had moved to her kitchen and was banging the cabinet doors open. Maggie shook her head and moved to the doorway to check on the others.
Eliot was at the top of the staircase at the end of the hallway, two guns in his hands as he shot down the stairwell. Sophie was hovering in the middle of the hallway, torn between getting to safety and leaving behind Eliot. Nate was nowhere to be seen.
"Nate, stop playing the hero!" Eliot bellowed as he paused his shooting long enough to put new clips into the guns.
Nate appeared at the top of the stairs a few moments later. Eliot and he ran down the hallway as Sophie whirled on her heel and dashed for Maggie's apartment. Maggie moved out of her way and waited as Eliot ducked inside. Sophie stayed right outside the door, waiting for Nate. At that moment, a zombie who had managed to stagger up the stairs lunged at Nate, falling on him and taking them both to the floor.
"Nate!" Sophie lifted her gun to shoot the zombie, but Nate managed it first, blowing the zombie's head to pieces.
It made a revolting mess; Sophie rushed over to Nate and knelt down beside him. She helped him up and the two rushed into Maggie's apartment. Eliot was waiting and as soon as they cleared the threshold, he slammed the door closed and locked it, dragging the bookcase back in front of it just as fresh zombies threw themselves against the resilient wood.
Maggie looked them over. Nate now had zombie brains all down his front mixed with blood; Eliot was mostly clean except for a few patches where he had probably been a little too close to the kill; Sophie's hands were covered in what was all over Nate.
"Parker's in the shower right now, but when she's done, you can use it," Maggie offered.
Sophie moved to the sink to wash her hands. "That would be wonderful."
Eliot tossed a duffle bag onto the ground. "Glad I grabbed this. There's some clean stuff in there for us, Nate."
Sophie looked at Maggie. "You wouldn't happen to have…"
"Of course," Maggie replied before Sophie even finished. "I was about to go get some fresh things for Parker."
Nate shuffled his feet and managed to fish up a smile. "Sorry about the mess. We didn't expect that many to be outside."
"Maybe you should call me next time." Maggie shifted her bat and smirked when he eyed it nervously. "I've been watching them for the past four days. They got most of the apartment building."
Sophie shuddered; Hardison brushed past her, brandishing a carton of ice cream and a box of cereal.
Eliot eyed the combination. "Are you serious?"
"Comfort food for the ladies," Hardison replied. "There's other stuff in there."
"Help yourself," Maggie said dryly.
"They tend to do this," Nate told her, a wry smile on his face. "It's part of the package deal."
Parker appeared in the living room, wrapped in a towel. Hardison dropped the ice cream as he stared at her, and Eliot growled in irritation when he had to bend over to grab the carton. Parker shuffled her feet and stared at the floor.
"Can I have some clothes?"
Maggie moved immediately and guided her towards the bedroom. "Yeah. Whoever wants to use the shower next can go ahead."
Sophie nodded her head. "That should be you, Nate. You're kind of a mess."
He nodded his head and left for the bathroom. Sophie sighed and sat down at the counter, tugging the ice cream out of Eliot's hands. He gave her a spoon, and she took a small bite. Parker padded into the room and claimed the seat next to Sophie, accepting the box of cereal Hardison offered her.
"No milk?" Parker asked as she opened the box.
"I've been stuck in my apartment for the past four days," Maggie said as she walked back into the room, carrying a small bundle of clothes that she dropped on the sofa. "Those are for you, by the way, Sophie."
Sophie smiled in thanks and dug out a larger spoonful of ice cream. Maggie grabbed a spoon from the counter and joined her.
"So, sleeping arrangements?" Eliot prompted. "How're we going to work that out?"
Maggie shrugged. "I have a queen-sized bed. The couch pulls out into a bed. And, I might have an air mattress. We'll have to double up."
"Who pairs up with whom?" Sophie said quietly.
"Eliot and I can share," Hardison offered.
"And, I'll share with Maggie," Parker decided.
Sophie raised an eyebrow. "You want me and Nate to share?"
"You did at your warehouse." Parker grinned. "Don't pretend to be mad or anything. You know you want to."
Sophie let her spoon fall to the counter, and she left her chair to head towards the couch, pulling the cushions off of it.
"Nice going, Parker," Eliot hissed, stalking off to help Sophie pull out the sofa bed.
Parker frowned and dug her hand into the cereal box. "I don't understand. Did I do something wrong?"
Hardison shook his head and glanced at Maggie; Maggie, for her part, just took another spoonful of ice cream. She had an inkling about what had upset Sophie, but she wasn't up to a conversation with the other woman yet. That would probably be one best left for the morning and when they could have more privacy. She had a feeling Sophie would not appreciate discussing anything to do with Nate with Maggie when the man himself would find it too easy to eavesdrop.
They passed the next two hours in relative quiet. Maggie was the constant in the living room as they all rotated out for their turn in the bathroom, and when everyone was finally clean and in a new set of clothes, she gave out gentle instructions for how the night was going to go.
"Parker and I are taking my bed," she said. "Eliot, you and Hardison have the air mattress. Nate, you and Sophie are on the couch."
She started to leave, but Nate called her back. "Me and Sophie? Are you serious?"
Maggie turned from where she was standing on the threshold of the hallway. "Didn't you hear, Nate? Girls don't have cooties anymore. I'm sure the two of you can manage for one night. Unless you would prefer the floor."
Nate ran a hand through his hair and mumbled something about how sarcasm wasn't very useful, but she ignored him. Sophie was pointedly not paying any attention to him and had crawled onto the right side of the sofa bed. Hardison and Eliot were busy settling onto the air mattress; she felt a little bad for them because the thing was a little small, but they both looked so tired that she didn't think it would be a problem. Parker had already left for the bedroom.
Maggie smiled at the four left in the living room. "Goodnight."
A low chorus of responses followed her out of the room. She sighed as she entered her bedroom and closed the door behind her. Parker had curled up on the left side, a stuffed bunny held tightly in her arms. Maggie stifled the urge to kiss her forehead and simply collapsed onto the bed beside Parker, exhaustion washing over her.
Maggie woke up the next morning alone. She thought for a moment that the previous night had just been a very vivid and strange dream, but when Parker appeared in the doorway, shoving handfuls of cereal in her mouth and chewing loudly, Maggie decided that it really must have happened.
Parker swallowed. "Everyone else is awake. We've been waiting on you."
Maggie sat up and rubbed at her eyes, stretching. "Someone could have woken me up."
"Nate said to let you sleep." Parker shrugged. "Hurry up. Everyone's weird out here."
Parker left. Maggie stared after her; shaking her head, she got out of bed and moved to her dresser. She pulled out a pair of jeans and a plain long-sleeved T-shirt. Two minutes later, she was dressed and padded her way to the living room, pulling her hair back into a loose ponytail.. Sophie, Parker, and Hardison were seated on the couch; Eliot was in the kitchen area going through her cupboards, and Nate was pacing along the back of the couch. Maggie noticed that his hand kept trailing along Sophie's shoulders when he passed her. Sophie looked incredibly uncomfortable and kept shifting her position, causing Hardison to shoot an exasperated look in her direction.
"Jesus, Sophie, chill," Hardison said as he opened his laptop. "You're worse than Parker."
That earned him a glare from Sophie and a hard poke in his side from Parker. Maggie smiled and moved to perch on the arm of Hardison's side of the couch.
"So, is there a plan or something?" she asked.
Nate looked up at Maggie's question and stopped pacing. "Oh, you're awake. Okay. Hardison, run it."
Hardison nodded his head and tapped away at his keyboard. A map appeared on Maggie's television. It was blanketed with flashing dots of various colors. A few lines criss-crossed over the map.
She leaned over to Hardison. "How do you manage to do that?"
He grinned. "Age of the Geek, baby."
"Damn it, Hardison, just get on with it!" Eliot growled from the kitchen.
"Okay," Hardison continued. He mumbled under his breath, "Someone shouldn't be so grumpy because he wasn't the one kept awake half the night by someone's snoring."
"I heard that!"
Nate groaned. "Hardison, let's just try to get this done."
"All right." Hardison gestured to the map. "I've been pulling the most recent information from the Internet, and I've gathered two main points: the government has collapsed since at least half of Congress is made up of zombies, which I think is an improvement, and the military is now very active. The yellow dots are the military bases that are zombie-free. These places are open to provide shelter to those who need it. The red dots are the cities that are heavily infested. The blue dots are areas, mostly rural, that the smallest amount of reported zombie activity. Now, the lines represent routes that Nate feels would be the safest to take."
"Nate, one of those lines goes straight to a military base," Sophie interrupted. "You can't be serious."
"It's not my first choice, but it's a possibility," he replied.
Maggie frowned. "What would be wrong with going to a military base? Wouldn't they provide protection and stuff?"
Parker shot her hand up into the air. "Ooh, I know this one!"
Nate ignored her. "We're thieves. They're the law. It's instinct to run from them. Besides, we don't know if they'll run any of us through a database and try to arrest us."
"Is that really an important issue for them?" Maggie replied.
"What would you do if you were a normal person who had gone to a military base to be kept safe and then found out you were sharing the place with thieves?" Eliot asked as he walked out of the kitchen, bearing a plate filled with toast. He set the plate down on the coffee table. "We can take care of ourselves. By the way, I used the last of your bread."
Parker poked at the stack of toast. "Where's the butter?"
"Get your own. Besides, it's bad for you."
Parker whipped her head around and stared at Hardison. He looked up from his computer, sighed, and left for the kitchen; Eliot promptly took his seat on the couch. When Hardison got back with a carton of butter and a few knives, he frowned.
"Aw, come on, man!" Hardison protested, throwing the carton and silverware onto the table. "I get up and do something nice, and you go and take my seat. Not cool!"
"You know what else isn't cool? Kicking me all night long." Eliot glared at Hardison. "That's. Not. Cool."
"Boys," Sophie admonished, but there was no strength behind her voice. "So, when are we leaving?"
"We're going to have to gather supplies." Nate pointed to the map. "If you'll notice, L.A. is one of the red dots. So, anything we need will have to wait until we get out of the city."
"How are we getting out of this apartment?" Maggie asked. "I don't know if you've looked outside, but I think there's a mob of the undead standing on my front step."
Nate smirked. "Eliot, how do you feel about posing as bait?"
Two hours later, they were on their way. Nate's plan had either gone smoothly or been a complete disaster according to who you asked. Regardless, no one had been bitten, so they all chalked it up to luck and just decided it would be best to not talk about it. Especially since Eliot was still a little grumpy about being charged by an entire horde of zombies without much warning; Hardison had a good time laughing about it, and Parker kept going on and on about how he was like Batman. That took some of the sting out of Hardison's ribbing.
Maggie had opted to ride with Nate and Sophie. It was…awkward, to say the least, but she had decided it would be better than squeezing into the back of that van. She had a tendency towards motion sickness, and she felt it would be best to not tempt her stomach; in between the smell in the van, which Hardison kept insisting did not exist, and the fact that it was already cluttered with most of their possessions, Maggie had managed to finagle the backseat of Nate's car. So far, things were going smoothly. After they had left the city, zombie sightings had grown rarer. She hoped that would last.
"Hey, what are you doing?" Parker's voice drifted through the earpiece Hardison had given Maggie.
Maggie started and then relaxed. "Sitting in the car. Why?"
"I'm bored. Entertain me."
"She's not the circus, Parker," Eliot growled. "Take out your comm. We're only using those to check up every couple of hours."
"I'm bored," Parker whined again.
Sophie rolled her eyes and tilted her head towards the window. "Hardison, what happened to those video games?"
"She's doesn't want to play them," he replied. "Me, I'm cool with shooting up imaginary people all day long."
"We could always make out," Parker offered.
As Hardison spluttered in an attempt to find an answer, Eliot said, "No way are the two of you doing that while I'm driving. No. Way."
Maggie laughed and took out the earpiece. They were entertaining, but the constant back-and-forth bickering was going to give her a headache. Sophie did the same and stretched a little, turning her head to look at Nate.
"Are we going to stop soon?" she asked.
He looked at her and smiled a little. "Um, we can, if you need to. Do you need something?"
"A bathroom would be nice." Sophie's lips quirked. "And, I think I could use a turn at the wheel."
"Are you bored?"
"Considering the stimulating conversation that we've been having…" Sophie turned her gaze back to the road.
He sighed. "Fine. You can tell Eliot, though. I don't want to listen to his complaints about people with small bladders again."
"I'm surprised Hardison doesn't need to stop more with all the orange soda he drinks," Maggie remarked.
Sophie let out a laugh. "He hasn't been drinking all that much recently. Can't afford to waste it in the middle of the zombie apocalypse." She put in her earpiece. "Hey, guys, we're making a stop in a little bit."
"Again?" Eliot asked. "We stopped only four hours ago."
"Well, not all of us have bladders the size of Texas," Hardison interjected. "Besides, Parker is going stir-crazy. She needs to get out of this van."
"Because letting her out in the middle of zombie-infested territory is such a good idea."
Parker stretched languidly. "I'm a better shot than Hardison. Don't worry about me."
Eliot laughed at that. "She's got a point there. Okay, I think I see a gas station up the road. That cool with all of you?"
Sophie wrinkled her nose and sighed. "Yes, that's fine."
"Better shot than me," Hardison grumbled. "Who's the one always winning at Halo?"
Parker grinned. "I like blowing myself up in that game."
"There's something wrong with you," Eliot muttered as he pulled into the gas station.
Nate shut off the car as he grabbed his gun from the glove box. "Everyone, be on your toes. Eliot, you going in first?"
"Of course," Eliot answered, getting out of the van and approaching the gas station.
The others gathered around the van. Maggie held the gun limply at her side; she still wasn't used to the idea of using the thing. Parker leaned in and petted Maggie's hair. When Eliot came back out, he motioned for them to follow him inside.
"We're clear," he announced.
"Really?" Hardison asked as he stepped forward. "Because you know, we couldn't figure it out since…"
"Shut up," Eliot growled. "We need some supplies, Nate."
"Yeah, I was thinking about that." Nate sighed and looked at the group. "Okay, everyone use the bathroom. Rotate out and keep a guard posted just in case. Grab what you can carry. Try to pick up practical stuff. We don't need twenty boxes of cereal, Parker, or gallons of orange soda, Hardison."
Parker looked offended at the idea that no one else wanted to live off cereal, so she huffed her way into the bathroom. Eliot posted himself at the front and nodded at Hardison. Hardison slipped into the men's bathroom. Fifteen minutes later, they were all refreshed and loaded down with armfuls of food. Parker had restrained herself to five boxes of cereal; Nate decided it was best to not say anything. While they loaded everything up into the back of the van and Nate's trunk, Eliot and Nate filled the gas tanks and also some spare gas cans they had grabbed from Nate's apartment before they left. They continued on their way.
They ended up stopping at a house outside of Reno, Nevada. Eliot liked it because it wasn't in the city, which meant plenty of open land to see any possible zombie intruders long before they could attack; Parker just liked the fact that she could dangle out the windows on the second floor. The others could care less as long as they could get out of the vehicles. It was getting a little crowded, and after the third game Parker had played of "Get Sophie and Nate Together," Sophie was about to go insane. Nate wasn't talking to anyone, and Maggie didn't know whether to find it all amusing or disturbing.
Eliot climbed out of the driver's seat of the van. "Okay. We need to work fast if we want to get everything inside before it gets too dark. I'll check to make sure the place is clear. Wait here."
"Won't you need help?" Sophie was edging her way away from Nate and Maggie. "It could be dangerous for you to be in there alone."
"I think I'll be fine." Eliot gave her an amused look. "Don't worry. I've handled worse."
He headed off towards the house as Parker sidled up to Sophie.
"So, I have an idea," Parker started.
"Parker, I swear to God that if you start up your silly ideas again, I will not be responsible for my actions," Sophie interrupted.
"I was talking about using my rig to fight off zombies, but if you don't want to hear about it…" Parker's voice trailed off as she scuffed her shoe along the ground.
Sophie sighed. "I'm sorry. Tell me about it."
Hardison hauled a large box out of the back of the van. "Hey, Nate, can you help me out? I have a lot of equipment to get inside."
"Is all this really necessary?" Nate surveyed the interior of the van. "It looks like you brought your entire apartment with you."
"This is for any possible emergency. I even have a couple of satellites in case I need to rig up a decent Internet connection." Hardison grinned.
Eliot came out of the house, his gun slung across his shoulder. "It's all clear inside. Whoever was here left in a hurry, so there's even food in the cupboards."
"Cereal?" Parker asked, her eyes hopeful. She had run out of her supply three hours into the trip.
"You have a problem," Eliot replied. "But, yeah, you can check." She started to run off towards the house. "After you help get everything inside."
She turned around and glared at him, but she grabbed the box Hardison was struggling with and marched off to the house. Hardison stared after her, and Eliot laughed. Sophie reached into the trunk of the car she had been in and tossed out a few duffle bags. Maggie scooped up two, and Sophie slung the remaining three over her shoulders, leading the way to the house.
Eliot looked at Hardison's array of equipment. "Traveling with a geek is such a pain in the ass."
"I'll have you know that this is the only way we can stay connected to the rest of the world." Hardison shoved an armload of wires into Eliot's chest. "The least you can do is help carry it around."
Eliot growled. "Not my department. Don't people just use radios anymore?"
Hardison adjusted his grip on the tangled wires and said, "Nobody, man. Well, maybe third-world countries and backwoods militia men. Excuse me while I go set up my stuff that could save your pathetic ass."
"I wouldn't count on that."
Parker dangled out of a window on the second floor, her knees hooked over the sill. "Hey, are we going to wash clothes or something? I'm fine, but Sophie's almost out of underwear, and I don't think she'll just not wear it like me."
Sophie glanced up as she walked outside and continued onto Nate. "I don't have clothes appropriate for this anyway. Everything I have is…impractical."
"Aren't all your clothes impractical by nature?" he asked.
"Not for my job. I've never heard you complain before."
"You must have not been listening."
Hardison craned his neck to stare up at Parker. "Do you think she really doesn't wear underwear?"
Eliot shrugged. "I actually didn't ever want to know. Don't think too hard about it. Probably a little too much for your little virgin brain."
Parker waved to the two men and called, "I'm sure Hardison isn't a virgin. He's at least watched porn."
Hardison spluttered as Eliot laughed, slapping him hard on the back and heading into the house.
Nate looked away from the exchange and focused again on Sophie. "We can venture into the city tomorrow. We're going to need more weapons and supplies anyway."
Maggie had disappeared into the kitchen, and she examined the contents of a cupboard, noting the varied boxes of cereal. Parker would be pleased. She smiled at Eliot when he walked into the room.
"Are they always like that?"
"Hardison and Parker? Yeah, basically. The two idiot kids can't figure out what to do with each other. Of course, they've got nothing on Nate and Sophie." When Maggie stiffened, he said quickly, "Sorry, shouldn't have said that."
She waved him off with an impatient look. "No, it's fine. It comes with the territory of running around the country with my ex-husband."
"Do you want to talk about it?"
"With you? Not really."
He shrugged. "Okay. But, I'm here if you ever do. I'm going to find some wood to board up the windows on the first floor. Might get Hardison to help me even though he's useless with a hammer."
Maggie laughed. "I'll come help in a moment."
"Don't worry about it." He smiled. "But, I bet you'll do a better job than Hardison."
She grinned in response as he left the room. Sophie swept through the door next, and when she saw Maggie standing there, she started to back out of the room.
"Hold it." Maggie braced herself against the counter and waited as Sophie turned around. "Okay. We need to talk."
"What about?" Sophie shifted her feet and pushed her curls behind her ears.
Sophie jutted her chin out in defiance. "There's nothing to talk about."
"There shouldn't be," Maggie corrected. She sighed and folded her hands together. "He's my ex-husband, Sophie."
"I know that." Sophie's dark eyes were large and shiny. "I understand that."
"I don't think you do. I divorced him. He isn't my husband anymore, which means that whatever is going on between the two of you is okay. It's more than okay, actually."
Sophie gave her a tired smile and shook her head. "Don't bother lying to me, Maggie. I won't fall for it. It bothers you."
Maggie huffed and crossed her arms across her chest. "Fine. It does bother me a little."
"You know, he never cheated on you. He didn't even think about it."
"Now who's lying." Maggie gave her a tight smile. "I've never been a fool. He didn't do anything wrong, but that doesn't mean he never thought about it. Chances are that he did. It doesn't have anything to do with now, though. Nate is not the man I married. I'm not in love with him. The rest is up to you."
Maggie nodded her head firmly and headed for the door; she was going to find Eliot to see if she could get hold of a hammer. Hitting something sounded like a very good idea.
"I'm sorry. For everything. I'm just…so sorry."
Sophie's voice cracked on the last few words. Maggie considered staying, but she kept walking. Sophie sniffled and took a deep breath. The tears pushed aside, she left the kitchen as well.
Eliot was surprised at Maggie and Sophie's willingness to help saw the wooden tables down into rough boards. Hardison had disappeared on him awhile ago, but these two worked in vicious silence.
"You know, Sophie, hard labor can create calluses," Eliot mentioned as he watched her shove the saw deep into the wood.
She shrugged and blew some hair out of her face. "It doesn't matter. I don't have to impress anyone."
Eliot just stared at her. This was not the woman he remembered starting this journey with. Sophie Devereaux always shied away from manual work; he could count on one hand the number of times she had washed the dishes. Of course, now that he thought about it, that could have something to do with Parker's obsession with cleaning the dishes. He studied the women, and he wondered at the cause at what was causing this kind of rage in them. He would put his money on Nate. That man was the only one who could send Sophie into such a spectacular snit, and he suspected the rule might stand for Maggie as well. Eliot was determined to not get caught up in that mess, so he didn't ask anymore question and just took the boards to nail them across the windows.
Parker appeared beside him, and he almost dropped his hammer. "I don't understand why being outside in the dark is such a big deal. It's not like the zombies only come out then like vampires."
"It's harder to see them at night," Eliot grunted as he finished pounding a nail into the wall. "Bigger risk, especially with people who can't handle a gun."
"I can shoot just fine."
Eliot gave her a sly grin. "Hardison can't."
Parker just leaned against the wall and pouted. "I wanted to use my rig. I just finished fixing it, and Nate won't let me test it."
"Cheer up. We're going into the city to get supplies tomorrow." Eliot motioned to the pile of wood on his right. "You can help me for now. Grab a hammer and some nails. Don't put them in your mouth."
Parker wrinkled her nose as she looked at him. 'You do. Why can't I?"
"You could swallow one. It could go down wrong and kill you because we can't just take you to a hospital."
Her eyes lit up, and she grabbed a handful of nails from the open box. "Cool."
"Don't give her any ideas, Eliot," Sophie warned, sitting back on her heels to survey her work. "I've run out of wood."
"How much wood can a woodchuck chuck?" Hardison asked as he wandered into the room, phone held aloft.
"Can woodchucks even throw wood?" Parker wondered as she hit a nail enthusiastically with her hammer.
"What are you doing?" Eliot said and gestured to the phone in Hardison's hand.
Hardison sighed. "I'm trying to get an Internet connection. It looks like someone picked the one house that still uses dial-up. I mean, seriously? Who in the twenty-first century still uses dial-up?"
Parker rested her hammer against her shoulder. "How did the woodchuck get the wood?"
"Parker, it's just a…" He shook his head and looked back at Hardison. "I didn't even have an Internet connection at my place."
Hardison's eyes went wide. "Seriously, man? What is wrong with you?"
Sophie chose that moment to leave. She ran into Nate on the stairs.
"Hiding out?" He sank onto a step, leaving enough room for her to join him.
She sat down beside him, wincing at the tight squeeze. "It's the same as always. Apparently, Hardison feels that Eliot's lack of appreciation for technology is more pressing than the zombies that could be outside."
"Just a normal night."
"Yes, I suppose so."
"Maggie didn't feel the need to escape?"
"She's still fascinated by their bickering. I suppose it is amusing if you haven't listened to it every single day for the past three years." She sighed and attempted to stretch her back. "Did you look at the sleeping arrangements?"
He scooted back a step and started to massage her shoulders. "We have four bedrooms, four beds. I was thinking we could keep similar arrangements to when we were in Los Angeles, and give Eliot and Hardison their own beds. I'm tired of listening to their complaints about that issue."
Her muscles tensed under his fingers, and she stood up. "I'll share a bed with Parker. Give Maggie her own bed. You can share with one of the boys."
"Did I miss something?" His forehead creased as he studied her. "You didn't have a problem sharing with me before."
"It's not the best idea right now."
"I don't understand."
She started up the stairs. "Figure it out, Nate. You're not stupid."
"I just don't see the issue here." He got up to follow after her.
"And, that's the problem." She gave him a sad smile. "I'll leave it to you to tell the others."
She continued up the stairs; he groaned and ran a hand through his messy hair. Apparently, this would be a very normal evening, complete with him sticking his foot in his mouth and upsetting Sophie. He wondered for the umpteenth time if bringing Maggie along with them wasn't causing more problems; of course, it wasn't like they could have just left her on her own. Maggie wandered up the staircase towards him, her hand trailing along the banister.
"Need something?" he asked, sagging against the wall.
Her mouth turned downwards. "I take it that things aren't going well with Sophie?"
"If they're even going at all." He gave her a rueful smile. "Not that you really want to talk about that."
"I wouldn't ask if I didn't want to discuss it."
"Well, let's just drop it."
"What should we talk about, then?"
"Are we okay?"
She shrugged. "I think so." When she looked up at him, she sighed and laid a hand on his arm. "Our marriage is over, Nate, and it has been for awhile now. I'm over you."
"Good to know," he muttered as he moved out of her reach.
"I'm trying to help you." She could feel the migraine throbbing in the back of her mind. "Make up your mind about what you want."
"I have." His face crumpled for a moment, and he met her gaze with an open, boyish look that reminded her of their early married life and Sam. "At least, I think I have."
The pain clenched around her heart; she almost stumbled off the stairs. "I have to go."
"Just, please, Nate."
She made her way down the staircase, her legs barely holding her weight up. Nate sighed, a long hiss of breath that didn't help at all with the heaviness weighing him down.
Parker cracked the door in an attempt to get a better look at the stairwell. "They stopped talking."
"Really? I hadn't noticed." Eliot moved away from the door. "Come on, get back to work."
Parker turned her head to look at Hardison, not noticing when her hair whipped Eliot's face. "Why are they all upset?"
"Go ask Sophie." Hardison brandished his phone and motioned to the door in front of him. "If you'll excuse me, I have an Internet connection to establish."
Parker moved out of his way, but she grabbed onto his hand and held on for a few moments, giving his fingers a small squeeze. Hardison gave her a small grin; Eliot cleared his throat and motioned to the half-finished windows.
"Do the two of you want to help me finish this up so zombies won't snack on you in the middle of the night?"
Hardison shook his head and waved his phone through the air. "Na-uh, man. I have, um, important things to do. I might have to rig up a satellite or something. Yeah. But, good luck with your little project. All working together for the greater good, am I right?"
He raised his hand for a high-five. Eliot stared at him, a hammer cradled loosely in his fingers, until Hardison glanced around nervously and backed out of the room. When Hardison was gone, Eliot looked for Parker. She had disappeared.
"Nate had better give me my own bed," he grumbled as he lifted the hammer to pound a nail through the wood into the wall.
Sophie checked her array of weapons and started to strap them onto her body. She had two handguns, one in a holster on her hip and the other attached to the top of her left thigh over her jeans. She stuffed extra clips into her back pockets. She also had three knives; one was a wickedly long blade that slid under her holster. The other two she stuck into the strap on her thigh. She stood, waiting on Parker and Eliot who were arming themselves in the same manner.
Nate, Hardison, and Maggie had taken the van into the city thirty minutes later. They were in charge of bringing back more weaponry and supplies. She would be leaving any moment with Parker and Eliot in pursuit of clothing and entertainment; they had all discovered after one day in the house together that they needed more to do than simply sitting around with each other.
"Ready?" Eliot turned to look at her, his face serious and dark.
Parker grinned. "I'm ready."
Sophie sucked in a breath and tried not to think of all the ways this could go horribly wrong. "I'm ready."
Eliot nodded his head and started for the door, talking as they followed behind him. "We stay together. Parker, do not wander off. We get what we need and get out. We have to be back here before dark."
She could see the tension in his muscles, so she tugged gently on his arm and gave him a calming smile. "Eliot, take a breath. We're going to listen to you."
"And, we've got your back," Parker chimed in. She bounced out the door. "I'm driving!"
Sophie blanched at the idea and hurried after her. "No, Parker!"
The deserted city gave her chills; the day was hot and cloudless, and there was more than enough evidence that the zombie epidemic had raged through the area. Abandoned cars, broken windows, looted storefronts, and dark stains that looked like blood and made bile crawl up the back of her throat.
In the end, Eliot had ended up driving, and she focused on him, his fingers so tight on the steering wheel that his knuckles had turned white. Parker was in the back, fidgeting; Sophie knew the girl was impatient to get out and do something because Nate had been adamant that they couldn't risk letting her outside. Sophie hoped things would change soon, not only for Parker's sake, but for everyone's sanity as well.
As they pulled up into the fire lane outside a shopping mall, Parker let out a reverential whispered, "We're here."
Sophie waited for Eliot to stop the car and get out; once he had surveyed the area and determined there was no immediate danger, he motioned to them to join him. Parker practically bolted from the vehicle. Sophie took a little more time, scanning the building in front of them.
It might have just been her imagination, but the mall looked derelict and like it had been abandoned for a long time. Of course, the feeling that they were walking through a ghost town wasn't helping. Parker led the way to a side door with Eliot and Sophie flanking her. She tried the door and grinned when she realized it was locked.
Parker knelt and slipped out her lockpicking kit, getting straight to work. Eliot rolled his eyes.
"We should just break it down."
"No. Noise attracts the zombies," Parker explained as she fiddled with her tools and the lock. "Besides, this way, we can lock it back up after we leave to keep zombies out. In case we need to come back for anything."
"That's a very good plan, Parker," Sophie said in a knee-jerk reaction.
Parker turned a blinding smile on her and pushed the door open. Eliot stepped into the dark void first.
"All clear." He stuck his head back out and motioned to them. "Stay behind me. And don't forget to close that behind you."
Sophie moved gingerly, slipping her gun from the holster on her hip. Parker clicked on a flashlight, and even though there was a good bit of light coming through the windows, she was grateful for the little yellow beam. They had come in on the right side of the mall, so they were only a few feet away from a large department store. Looters had been there before them; they crunched glass from the windows into the carpet.
Sophie and Parker worked quickly to gather clothes for everyone while Eliot kept watch. After they filled the three duffel bags, Parker slung two over her shoulders and Sophie took the third. They didn't talk while on the move for a store that could provide entertainment.
"I think we should head to the other side," Eliot said after a few minutes of walking.
They all stopped, and they heard the distinct sound of something breaking inside a store. Sophie grabbed her gun and aimed it in the store's direction.
"I had forgotten how hot you are with a gun in your hands."
Tara stepped out of the store, and Sophie holstered her gun, taking off in a run to Tara. She swept the blonde woman into a crushing hug.
"Where have you been? I tried calling you, and I never heard from you." Sophie was vaguely aware of Eliot and Parker getting closer, but she stayed wrapped up in Tara's arms.
Tara chuckled. "I dropped my phone into a puddle that was more of a lake while I was being chased by zombies, but I had already gotten your message that you were heading in this direction. I've been squatting here for the past week."
"No wonder you look so awful," Sophie replied with a grin. "I'm just glad that you're safe."
"Same here, darling."
Tara smiled at her and tilted her head down, capturing Sophie's lips in a soft kiss. Sophie leaned into her before remembering the others standing right there, and she pulled away.
"We should probably go soon." Sophie wiped at her mouth and picked her bag back up.
"I need to get my things." Tara started to back up in the direction she had come from. "Can someone come with me?"
"I'll go with Tara. You and Parker find what we need and meet us back at the entrance," Eliot instructed. He turned a glare to Tara and stalked into the store. "Come on."
Parker watched him leave and shrugged, taking off at a brisk walk. Sophie followed about a foot behind.
"So, you never mentioned anything about Tara being your girlfriend," Parker piped up after a couple of minutes of silence.
Sophie sighed. "She's not my girlfriend."
"She kissed you, and you kissed her back. What is going on?"
"We've been friends for a long time."
"People who are just friends do not kiss each other." Parker grinned wickedly. "Because that means we should start kissing."
"Would you like that, Parker?"
Parker stopped and looked at her, narrowing her eyes. "That's not the point. I don't care if you're in love with Tara or Nate. I just asked a question."
"Friends-with-benefits. That's what our relationship has been for years."
Parker nodded her head and kept moving, bouncing when she spotted an electronics store and a bookstore beside each other. She chewed on her lip and considered their options; they didn't have enough time to go through both together.
"I'll take electronics, you do the books," Parker decided, already halfway into the electronics store.
Sophie sighed and headed into the bookstore; it had already been a long day, and they hadn't seen a zombie yet. Hopefully their luck would hold out.
Eliot watched Sophie pace the length of the living room. The sun had set two hours ago, and Sophie had steadily gone from worried to pretty much batshit crazy since Nate and the others hadn't returned yet.
"They should be back by now." Sophie chewed on a fingernail and glanced again at the door.
"Soph, they had to go twice as far into the city as we did," Eliot said gently. "They're probably almost here."
"You said that an hour ago," she mumbled, glaring at him.
Parker looked up from the padlock she was picking. "Nate wouldn't let anything happen to them."
"He's not God, Parker. He can't stop every bad thing from happening," Sophie snapped back.
"He might not be God, but he's certainly good at pretending," Tara put in as she stepped into the room, fresh from her shower.
Eliot surveyed her outfit; she had picked some extremely short shorts that barely covered anything and a tank top that was riding up her flat stomach. With her wet blonde hair already drying into soft curls and that smirk on her face, he was pretty sure that this was either a ploy to seduce Sophie or distract her. Which might just be working, if the look on Sophie's face was anything to go by. He didn't like the idea, but he had no intention of interfering with that clusterfuck of a relationship; once Nate got a hint of what was going on, there would be hell to pay.
"You could at least put some clothes on," Sophie told Tara, though she didn't look as irritated as she was pretending to be.
Tara lifted her arms over her head and stretched languidly, her tank top sliding up even more. "I like being comfortable."
He glanced at Parker and was surprised to see the glare she was directing at Tara. Then again, maybe it wasn't that unusual. Parker was pretty invested in the idea of Sophie and Nate ending up together.
Tara collapsed onto the couch, pulling Sophie into her lap. Eliot raised his eyebrows, but neither of the women was paying attention to him. Tara combed her fingers through Sophie's hair and rested her head on Sophie's shoulder, winking at him. Parker shifted restlessly beside them; he caught the motion of Parker's foot poising to deliver a swift kick to Tara's leg.
The door opened at that moment, and Eliot let go of the breath he had been holding. Sophie leapt out of Tara's embrace and raced to the door; he followed after her and nearly ran into her back when she pulled up short.
"Thought you weren't coming back," Eliot told the group with an easy smile.
Nate nodded his head. "It took a little longer than we expected. All of you came back okay?"
"We brought back an extra," Eliot replied, jerking his head in Tara's direction as she walked up behind him.
Tara waved. "Hey. I've already been checked for bites."
Maggie and Hardison smiled at the sight of Tara, but Nate's brow furrowed, his eyes flicking between Tara and Sophie. Eliot groaned under his breath and pushed his way forward to grab some bags out of Maggie's hands.
"Nate and I can unpack those," Sophie spoke up suddenly.
Eliot handed her the bags without speaking and shook his head at Tara when she opened her mouth. She snapped it shut and disappeared back into the living room. Parker appeared to take her place, the lock falling from her fingers when she saw the three unharmed.
She flew into Hardison's arms, knocking the wind out of him and making him drop the bags in his hands.
"You came back!"
Hardison grinned and wrapped his arms around her waist. "Of course I came back, girl. Where else would I go?"
Sophie picked up the bags Hardison had abandoned and moved to the kitchen, Nate trailing after her. Eliot followed in their wake and deposited the stuff he was carrying on the table before leaving them to talk. He wasn't stupid, and he knew Sophie was probably going to head off whatever was brewing in Nate's head. It was best to leave them to handle themselves.
Sophie watched Nate as she sorted through the bags. They had set up a system; bathroom supplies in a pile on her right, medicine and bandages in front of them, food on Nate's left, and any odds and ends between them.
"You were worried." He didn't phrase it as a question, which meant he had been studying her; she didn't know if that was a good or bad thing.
"Of course I was worried." She rattled a box of tampons just to make him uncomfortable and set them down. "You were supposed to be back before dark, and we had no way of communicating with you."
It was one of the first times she had realized how much all of them depended on the earbuds to let them know what was going on; it felt odd now to be cut off from the rest of the team. Nate brushed his fingers against her upper arm and reached over her to grab some canned peaches.
"I'll get Hardison to get the earbuds working again," he said quietly.
Her fingers strayed against a box of condoms, and she picked them up, raising an eyebrow at Nate.
He blushed. "Maggie insisted. She said something about, um, me needing them in the future."
Sophie laughed, both embarrassed and amused. "Your ex-wife is pimping you out."
"You make it sound…dirty."
"Think about it, Nate. Something is wrong with the whole picture of your ex-wife trying to get you to hook up with me."
"She's a big fan of you," he murmured. "Seems to think you're good for me."
"And, am I?" She knew as soon as she asked it that she was pushing too hard, but her words were already out there.
He gazed down at the table and traced his fingers along the wood, and she knew that he would try to change the subject. "It was a lucky thing that you ran into Tara."
She was right; something in his voice gave her pause, and she looked up at him, narrowing her eyes. "Yes, it was."
"You never mentioned your…unique relationship with her."
So that was it; he knew. She let out a long sigh and separated out a pile of make-up from the plastic silverware Nate was fumbling with. She tucked her tongue into her cheek and organized her thoughts as she organized the shampoo by type and color.
"It's not something that comes up in casual conversation," she finally said. "It's nothing to get worked up about."
"What is it, then?"
"Friends-with-benefits. Just sex."
His eyes snapped up to her face, and she could see his jealousy and the hurt that he hadn't known about this. Damn it. Real friendship, even with him, came harder than it should, and she always forgot that at the most inconvenient times.
She shrugged. "It gets lonely being a grifter. Sure, you can have lovers or boyfriends, but they don't last long. Can't last long." Her thoughts wandered back to William and all the mistakes she had made with him. "I found that out the hard way. Tara and I had an understanding, and it worked out."
"So, this means that you're…" He coughed and ducked his head.
She rolled her eyes. "Bisexual is the word you're looking for, Nate."
"And you seriously never thought that was important enough to mention?"
She looked at him, then, careful to keep eye contact; her voice trembled a little. "When you already know who you want, everything else doesn't matter as much."
She watched his eyes widen with the weight of her words, the knowledge she had just handed him, and she looked away; this kind of exposure made her squirm, uncomfortable in her own skin, because of how easily he could throw it all back in her face.
"Sophie…" His voice cracked, and she looked back up at him.
She barely had time to register his lips being so close to hers before he kissed her, his hand landing on the back of her neck to hold her against him. She gripped the front of his shirt, almost pushing him away out of instinct, but she slanted her mouth under his, moving closer even as a small whimper escaped her.
His other hand closed around her right hip, his fingers sneaking underneath her shirt to rest against her heated skin; he traced his tongue along her bottom lip, pressing gently. She opened her lips and slipped a hand into his unruly curls as his tongue rasped against hers, delving deeper into her mouth even as he groaned and shuddered against her.
"Well, hot damn."
Hardison's voice broke against her fuzzy brain, and she fumbled as she tried to slip away from Nate even as he pressed closer; he snapped to attention a moment after her, and they both turned to glare at Hardison.
Hardison just waved a camera in the air and snapped a picture. "Just for the future generation," he explained, already backing out of the kitchen. "You two get back to business, and we'll make new sleeping arrangements."
He slipped out the door, and Sophie tilted her head back to catch Nate's eyes. Red crept up the back of his neck, and she giggled at the sight; Nate's gaze landed on her, and he smiled softly, stepping forward and nuzzling his nose into her neck.
She sighed. Now, this, this was something she could get used to far too quickly.
"We never can find any privacy," he murmured, angling his head and pressing light kisses along her jaw.
She hummed in the back of her throat at the attention and smiled. "It could have been worse. At least they're all happy about it."
"True." He took a step back from her, but he slipped his arm around her waist. He leaned his forehead against hers, a smile teasing at the corners of his mouth. "So, Miss Devereaux, I have a question for you."
"I'm listening." She shifted enough to press a soft kiss to his mouth.
"Will you be my girl?"
The absurdity of the words made her laugh, but her head still spun giddily with what he was giving her. She locked her hands against the back of his neck and kissed him, teasing his lips with a quick dart of her tongue before pulling back.
"You're a silly man, Mr. Ford."
Maggie smiled as Parker bounced around the room with the camera she had swiped from Hardison. For all that she had conspired with Hardison to push Nate and Sophie together, she hadn't expected it to happen so soon. However, with zombies wandering around outside…. She shuddered.
Tara took a seat next to her after examining the photos Hardison had managed to get, and she smiled at Maggie. "You know, not all women would work so hard to make an ex happy."
"He's a good man. He deserves some happiness," Maggie replied. "Unless you disagree?"
"You won't hear any argument from me on the subject. Besides, Sophie's happy, too, so it's all good." Tara relaxed back into the couch. "So, do you want your own bed or is Parker going to take it?"
"I was thinking you could have the bed to yourself." Maggie had gotten attached much too quickly to Parker sleeping beside her.
"If that's what you want. I think Parker will be thrilled."
Maggie smiled at that. "Maybe we should work on her and Hardison next."
"Are you proposing that we start some sort of matchmaking service?"
"What else are we going to do?"
Tara's eyes sparkled with her amusement at the idea. "I think we can manage that in between target practice."
"Are you suggesting that we all use the zombies as a way of becoming better shots?"
"They have nothing better to do."
Maggie laughed until tears streamed out of her eyes and down her cheeks as Tara did the same. Parker approached the couch and poked Maggie's shoulder.
"What's so funny?"
Tara shook her head. "I think it was a matter of the moment, Parker. Probably wouldn't be funny to you."
Parker poked out her bottom lip and stared at Maggie until Maggie sighed; she was powerless against the blonde thief.
"Tara was suggesting we use the zombies for target practice," Maggie explained with a wide smile.
Parker's mouth curved into what could only be described as a shit-eating grin. "When do we start?"
Maggie raised an eyebrow and glanced over at Tara. "Tomorrow morning."
Parker nodded her head. "Good. Hardison needs the practice."
She whirled around and crossed the room, presumably to explain her plans to Hardison, and Tara caught Maggie's eye. Maggie ducked her head and laughed softly.