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The art of survival

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They found somewhere safe to spend the night and that was a cause for celebration. These days, celebration didn't look like much. It was mostly a small bottle of something thick, sweet and berry-flavoured liberated from the recesses of a cupboard and mixed with water. It was hard to tell whether its bite was from alcohol or age. Everyone looked a little brighter-eyed and laughed a little harder after drinking it, but Doyle suspected that was equal parts relief, exhaustion and placebo.

Their home for the night was a gîte several miles outside of Lyon. They were supposed to keep moving, but there wasn't another building in sight. No buildings meant no people, and no people meant safety, at least for a spell. That kind of security was seductive.

"I figure we can stay here a couple of nights," Doyle had said, eyes on Flynn. "Rest up a bit. Not like Switzerland is going anywhere."

They had heard a radio broadcast three and a half weeks ago, when Doyle had managed to hotwire a truck before it ran out of gas. There was a research centre outside of Geneva which thought it might have found an answer to Infection. Since then, Switzerland had become their goal. They had needed a goal, after Paris. 

Flynn gave him a long look before he nodded and turned away, inventorying their ammo. He didn't need to say it. Switzerland might still be there, but who knew what might happen to the research centre. 

Hope didn't last long in this new world of theirs.

But they had been travelling solidly since Paris. Everyone looked bruised with tiredness. Everyone was kind of broken in their own way. Doyle's back was still a mass of itching, peeling skin, burns healing with infuriating slowness. They needed to take a break and a breather, otherwise they were going to get sloppy and then they were going to get dead or worse. 

"We rest," Doyle had said, firm, and that had been that. Flynn had just coughed and nodded, and Tammy had limped out to see if the water pump was still working. 

It was. 

That had been another cause for celebration.

"You know," Tammy said, after they'd got a fire going. "We could boil some water and actually wash properly." She was half-curled up on one of the kitchen chairs, her bad leg stretched out and propped on another, smiling at them. Andy was sitting by her feet, his temple against her thigh, eyes already half-closed.

Doyle had to look away from her, because he didn't want to. Her smile was as bright and fragile as spun glass. 

"Probably should've boiled the water before drinking it," Flynn said gloomily. 

 

**********

Doyle took first watch. They were deep enough in the countryside that the dark was true dark, fistfuls of stars scattered like shattered glass across the night sky. It was beautiful, and if it hadn't been the goddamn end of the world, Doyle might have appreciated it a bit more.

He hauled himself up onto the roof of the small shed. It was muscle memory to set up his rifle, unroll a blanket between him and the cold roof, settling down to keep guard for the next few hours.

Nighttime in the countryside wasn't quiet. There was the wind sighing through the trees, the clicking chatter of hundreds of tiny insects, the occasional throaty sound of toads in the grass and the distant hooting of an owl, as well as a dozen other habitual noises that Doyle couldn't catalogue. He wasn't listening to them. He was listening for the chaos of uncontrolled footsteps, the wet coughing snarl of the Infected.

The gîte was still and silent in the dark. The four of them had done a good job of concealing their presence, dismantling old boxes and newspapers to cover the windows before they had closed the wooden shutters on the outside. 

Doyle hoped they had done enough. 

The Infected were drawn by light or noise. It could be something as small as a candle flame, as though their every sense were attuned to hunting for the unInfected. Doyle hadn't learned this on the road; it had formed part of the briefing they were given before they shipped out to the Isle of Dogs.

It had been heavily based on the reports given by the Manchester Three. Doyle had read them and called Flynn, wondering what kind of fucked up situation they were going into. Even the reports couldn't fully prepare them for the reality of the Infected, the strangeness of a country like the UK being effectively devastated by a zombie outbreak.

They're basically zombies, Flynn had said when Doyle protested, pointing out that it wasn't just a headshot that would take an Infected down and that they weren't technically dead. As good as, Flynn said. They're basically some fucked up fast-moving rage zombies.

It is some next level of FUBAR, Doyle had agreed, a week into clearing and annexing the Isle of Dogs. But it was surprising how quickly the situation started to feel normal, and he had been proud of the work they were doing. They were helping people return home. Making the world a safer place hadn't been the main reason Doyle had joined up, but it had been part of it, a lingering thought at the back of his mind that what you did was keep your people safe. That had been his family, then his brothers in arms, now it was Tammy, Andy, and Flynn. 

He was going to get them all to Switzerland.

When Flynn came outside to relieve him, Doyle headed back inside. The moment the warmth of the fire hit him he realised how chilly it had been outside. Tammy glanced over her shoulder at him with a quick smile, her eyes meeting his too briefly before darting away again. The fire limned the curve of her jaw with gold, lit her hair against the dusty dullness of the room. 

"Where-" Doyle started, and then he saw Andy, who was under the dining room table, curled comma-shaped underneath two rough blankets, his face flushed and soft with sleep.

"He just fell asleep," Tammy said quietly. The look she gave her brother was helplessly fond, so openly vulnerable that Doyle felt it right below his sternum like a punch. "I didn't want to wake him." Even softer, she said, "I think he feels safer there."

"What about you?" Doyle asked her, low, crouching near. He kept his eyes on Andy, but the kid didn't so much as twitch a muscle. 

From the corner of his eye, he saw Tammy tuck her hair behind her ear, then untuck it, curling her hands into her lap. "It's good that he feels safe," she said evasively. "He's been having nightmares."

"That's not what I meant," Doyle told her gently. 

Tammy looked at him with those remarkable pale wintersky blue eyes. Doyle had seen wolves with eyes like that. She said, soft and full of steel, "I don't need to feel safe. I need to be able to look after my brother."

There were shadows pressed like dark thumbprints beneath her eyes. 

Doyle wanted to reach out and touch his fingers to them. He held himself back. He wanted to take that look out of Tammy's eyes, that look which said she had seen Hell and she was prepared to sacrifice herself there if it meant getting her brother through it. She was eighteen. She should have been studying for her exams and getting ready to go to university. But he didn't know if tracing the curve of Tammy's cheek would help things for either of them. It would just mean Doyle would stand guard every night knowing exactly how soft and smooth Tammy Harris's skin was.

He let out a long, slow sigh instead, hooking his arms over his knees. The fire crackled pleasantly at them. "You can look after your brother," he said, "and still get to feel safe, Tam. You've got me, and Flynn. We're going to get you to Switzerland. Gonna walk you right up to the damn doors of that Centre, if it comes to it. That's our job."

Tammy gave him the ghost of a smile. “Is that all we are to you?” she asked, without rancour. “A job?”

Doyle coughed a little, ducking his head. It was on the tip of his tongue to say something he thought he’d probably regret come the morning, if only because he thought Tammy might regret it. But he couldn’t lie to Tammy- no, he didn’t want to lie to her.

“No,” he said quietly. “Not just that.”

Tammy’s smile grew, brief and luminous, before she turned back to the fire. She hugged herself, her eyes on the shiver and dance of the flames. “Good,” she said softly. “That’s good.”

Doyle swallowed and motioned to her propped up leg. “How’s it feel?”

Tammy bit her lip. “If I don’t move it, it’s fine.”

That wasn't good. She had been limping since Paris. What she needed, what Doyle thought Major Scarlet Levy would've recommended, was rest and ice packs and keeping it elevated. Instead they had spent over a month running for their lives, sometimes literally. They hadn't had much time for anything more than emergency medical care.

But they had tonight.

"Want me to take a look?" Doyle asked. "I'm no medic, but we all got basic training. Part of the job."

"Um," Tammy said hesitantly. "Sure."

Doyle got up and got another chair from the table, moving carefully so as not to disturb Andy. He set the chair by Tammy and sat down, gesturing to her foot. "Shoes and socks off, please."

He got a doubtful look from her, but she leaned over to pull off her shoe and sock, biting her lip. The bruising around her ankle bone and the top of her foot had faded but it was still there, shadows beneath her skin.

Tammy held her foot out to him. Underneath the layer of grime they all wore from weeks travelling, she had gone distinctly pink. "Sorry," she said. "My feet must stink."

Doyle snorted. "Darlin'," he said, sliding one hand gently under her heel to steady her foot on his lap, "we all stink. Your feet ain't no worse than mine."

Her ankle was still swollen, although less distorted than it had been. She had done it tripping on some steps on their frantic dash out of Paris and away from the domino-effect of Infection crashing through a city population. She had picked herself up straightaway and started running again, tears streaming down her face.

Doyle had shot every Infected that came near her, that came near them.

And they had made it out.

The bruising around her ankle had faded, although Doyle could still see a shadow of its lividity under her skin. The top of her foot was puffy too. Tammy hissed when he ran his thumb carefully around the swollen joint of her ankle, feeling where her body had tried to protect the damaged ligament.

He glanced up at her. "Okay?"

She nodded at him. She pressed her knuckles lightly against her mouth, her eyes brilliant. "Okay," she whispered.

"I'm gonna press a little harder," Doyle said quietly. "Try to get some of this swelling moving. It gets too much, you tell me. Okay?"

She just nodded.

He was slow, and careful, and thorough, massaging her foot and ankle with firm circular movements and paying close attention to every minute flinch so that he could back off before it became too much. Even so, by the time he felt like the freeness of movement was coming back into the ankle joint, Tammy was pale under the layer of grime on her face and tears trembled caught on her eyelashes. She was breathing hard against her knuckles pressed tight to her mouth. She was so determined to be strong.

"Right," Doyle said, setting her foot carefully back on the chair she used to prop it up. "Now, wait here."

He left her to collect herself. Saw, from the corner of his eye, as she swiped at her eyes impatiently with the sides of her hands. He checked through the cupboards in the adjacent kitchen, leaving the door open. He struck lucky with the third cupboard he opened. There was a large metal bowl in there. He filled it with water from one of the buckets Tammy had pumped earlier, refusing Doyle's offer of help and sending him off to check the barn for any other supplies they could requisition. Her word, not his. Doyle had bit back a grin at the order and complied, wondering internally if all 18 year olds were that bossy or if this was the alchemy of loss working its strange magic on Tammy Harris' character and uncovering the steel will that might have taken longer to emerge otherwise.

"Right," he said, taking the bowl full of water and rigging it up over the fire carefully while Tammy watched him curiously. Each time a drop of water fell into the hearth the flames snapped and hissed. "It's not exactly a hot bath, but I figure it'll do."

"God," Tammy breathed, reverent. "I can't believe we're actually going to be clean."

Doyle left her to watch over the water while he went on a hunt for towels or cloths, anything they could dip in the water. He came up with some kitchen towels and an old checked shirt on the back of the pantry door, which he tore into strips. It was in the toilet under the stairs though that he truly struck lucky. There was a small first aid box which, when Doyle opened it up, turned out to have athletic tape, gauze and surgical tape along with painkillers, saline and plasters.

He took it back to show Tammy. "We'll tape your ankle," he said. Then he grinned. "After you wash those cheesy feet."

He wouldn't think about offering to wash her feet for her. That would be weird.

"You said we all smelled bad," Tammy reminded him primly, but he saw her dimple flash as she bit back a smile.

"Yeah, well," Doyle said, "I had time to think about it." He wrapped his hands in the kitchen towels and moved the bowl to the stone hearth, pushing the fireguard in front of the fire. "Come on," he dipped a towel in the steaming water, folding it over and over to squeeze the excess out before passing it up to Tammy. "Better than nothing."

"It's amazing," Tammy corrected him, muffled. Doyle looked up to find she had buried her face in the towel, hair spilling around her hands. She made a quiet sound of utter luxurious delight.

It was possible, Doyle allowed, that he hadn't thought this through.

He tore his eyes from the drops of water running down Tammy Harris' bare wrists, soaking into her pushed up sleeves. He pressed his own hot towel against his face, and then he understood why Tammy had groaned like that. The heat was all encompassing, seeping into his tired eyes. Doyle was pretty sure he heard himself groan out loud too.

Then fingers touched the back of his neck and he jumped.

"Sorry," Tammy said. Her face was clean and bright from scrubbing, her cheeks rosy with the heat. She gestured at his collar, a little uncertainly. "I saw... it looks like some of your burns still haven't healed properly."

Doyle shrugged. "It's not so bad anymore," he said. "Just itches, mostly. My pack. My gun. Not like I'm giving either of those up."

"I could help you," Tammy said, after a moment.

Doyle's eyes crinkled. "You've got your own pack, Tam. And, no offence, but I ain't giving my gun to someone else."

"Fine," Tammy said. "You should at least wash it. The back of your neck is filthy and I bet the rest of it under your shirt isn't much better. You could get an infection."

Doyle raised his eyebrows."Trying to get me out of my clothes?"

He kicked himself for it immediately. If she'd been Flynn, he could have made that joke scot free. But he'd been trying not to even think this kind of banter around Tammy. She was eighteen and she had just lost both her parents and all the life she ever knew. He wasn't about to take advantage of that kind of vulnerability.

Still pink, Tammy said flatly, "Maybe I'm just tired of living with the stink."

Doyle ducked his head a little, trying to read her face. He didn't like the way his heart had just dropped, like the idea that he might have upset her had a direct line to its power to keep beating. It was hard to tell. Damn the way the British seemed to have made being straight-faced part of their national character.

Then Tammy's lips quirked a little and she looked away and said, so soft he thought he might be mishearing her, "I'm not sure I'd have to try that hard, actually."

Well, shit.

Apparently, he wasn't the only one paying attention. Doyle thought he'd been pretty damn discreet about not looking at her too often, or too long, even though it felt more and more as though he were constantly hungry for the sight of her. He had allowed himself to look at her the way he might have allowed himself to sip water in the desert. That was it. That was all he allowed himself. He didn't even let himself think about her in the warm still moment before he slipped into sleep.

He had no idea what to do now.

He looked at her and she was staring fixedly at the fire, her face flushed. Then he saw how her fingers twisted against each other in her lap, saw the pulse beating hummingbird-fast at the side of her throat. She was so nervous.

Doyle closed his eyes and swallowed hard. "Tammy, you need to tell me what to do, here."

She took a deep breath. "Take your shirt off," she said, without looking away from the fire.

A low shiver crawled down Doyle's back. He took his shirt off.

Tammy glanced at him then, her eyes skipping across his broad shoulders, his bare chest, then darting away and back again. She swallowed hard. "Turn around," she said, barely a whisper.

Doyle did, standing up and turning to sit with his arms braced against the chair back. He heard Tammy take another deep breath, then he felt the towel against the back of his neck, hot water trickling down his spine and cooling as it went. He shivered again and was sure she saw it.

She ran the towel across his back in smooth circular sweeps. She was incredibly gentle, mindful of the healing scar tissue from his burns. Doyle kept breathing, slow, even and deep. It must have sounded like he was trying to breathe through the pain because she paused abruptly. The towel was lifted away from his back.

"Am I... is it hurting?" Her voice was hesitant.

Doyle swallowed again. "No," he said, a little hoarse. "It's fine."

She stayed still for a moment longer, then he heard her dip the towel in the bowl of water again. This time she pressed the towel against the tops of his shoulders, the heat seeping into tight trapezius muscles. Doyle bit back a groan and dropped his forehead against his forearm.

"Your shoulders are really tight," Tammy said, dispassionately. Goddamn her, but she almost sounded professional about it.

Doyle was all ready with a smartass response but then Tammy touched the nape of his neck with the tips of her fingers and traced them up right to the base of his hairline, and every single word Doyle had ever learned just flew right out of his damned skull.

He was pretty sure he wouldn't be able to stand up for a bit, at least not without embarrassing himself. If Flynn walked in now, he was so fucked.

When Tammy moved her hand away, Doyle made himself lift his head to look at her. He wanted to make sure she was still okay with this, that she wasn't feeling like she had bitten off more than she could chew. Doyle's whole body might have been singing at her touch and he might remember the softness of her hands on his skin for the rest of his goddamn days, but that wouldn't mean anything if she was already regretting it.

She stood there, spine very straight, shoulders back, as though bracing herself for something. Her hands were clasped lightly in front of her. The ends of her blonde hair were dark with water. She looked uncertain, and it made Doyle's heart twist.

"Tammy--"

"I want you to kiss me." Tammy took a deep breath. "And I think that you want to, too."

He could have told her she was mistaken. He could have told her that he was too old for her, that this wasn't the time for teenage crushes, that it would be a distraction when they were trying to get through the end of the world as they knew it. He could have told her any number of things in any number of ways and hoped that none of them would leave her crushed or humiliated.

As though privy to his inner thoughts, Tammy folded her arms.

"If I'm wrong," she said, "you can tell me. But don't lie to me and pretend it's for my own good."

Doyle swallowed. "What if it is for your own good?"

"I get to decide that,” Tammy said. "Not you. I want... I want something that's good, in all of this. Something that isn't just surviving." She touched his cheek very lightly, just the tips of her fingers, and Doyle was done for. She held his gaze. "I want you to trust that I know what I want. I'm not a little kid that you need to protect, Doyle."

I want to anyway, Doyle nearly said. But the look she was giving him was steely with resolve and if Doyle had learned one thing in the apocalypse it was that you picked your battles.

“Okay,” he said softly, reaching out to take one of her hands, where they cupped her elbows white-knuckled. “Okay.”

She looked down at him. Her fingers curled a little against his palm, uncertain. “Okay?”

Doyle rubbed his thumb over her knuckles. His heart was pounding, but he kept his touch gentle, his voice lazy and relaxed when he said, “Yeah, okay. C’mere.”

Her eyes widened a little. She leaned down slowly, and Doyle stretched up to meet her. Her hair fell in a dirty blonde curtain around them and Doyle used his other hand to brush it back as their lips met.

They kissed.

Tammy’s mouth was soft against his. She smiled against him when he stroked her hair back behind her ear, so he trailed his hand down the soft curve of her neck, held his palm against the rapid flutter of her pulse.

They kissed.

When they separated, it was a gradual parting.

Doyle exhaled hard, and sat back. His whole body ached with wanting her and he was painfully hard, but he also felt strangely more relaxed than he had in a long time. He kept hold of her hand and looked up at her. “Okay?”

He didn’t really need to ask. Tammy’s cheeks were flushed and her eyes were brilliant. She kept smiling and trying to rein it in, but it stripped the exhaustion from her and lit her face with pleasure. If Doyle had known that kissing her would do this, he would have given in and done it sooner.

“Okay.” She told him firmly.

Then she kissed him again.

At some point, Doyle shifted in the chair so that Tammy could end up in his lap. Doyle had one hand fisted gently in her tangled hair, the other pressed against the base of her spine to steady her against him. Tammy licked into his mouth with delicate insistence, her tongue finding his.

Doyle started underneath her when she slid her hands under his t-shirt, her palms warm against the muscles of his stomach. She traced them with her fingertips, found the line of hair that ran from Doyle’s belly button underneath the waist of his pants. Doyle’s fingers tightened abruptly against Tammy’s back. It felt as though he had been hard for years, and it was only iron self-control that kept him from rocking up against her. If he started that, then he was going to think even more about slipping his hand down Tammy’s filthy jeans and seeing what her face looked like when she came. And then they were definitely going to make enough noise to wake Andy.

As though she had been thinking the same thing, Tammy pulled back with obvious reluctance and cast a look at the table under which her younger brother slept. “We should stop.”

Doyle tipped his head back, breathing hard. “Okay.”

Tammy gave him a hesitant look. “…Is it?”

Doyle reached up to cup her face, his palm against the curve of her cheek. “Yeah,” he told her, smiling slow and sweet. “Everything you want is okay with me, darlin’. Anything and everything. Okay?”

“Okay.” Tammy murmured. She touched the edge of his smile and Doyle turned his head just enough to kiss her thumb, where it brushed the corner of his mouth.

They set up their beds after that. Doyle got some couch cushions to lay on the floor for Tammy and he lay down beside her, curled up on a folded blanket with his jacket over him. His gun was in easy reach and he had a sightline to the door.

He estimated he probably had an hour or so of sleep before he had to relieve Flynn.

When Tammy lay down next to him, he reached out anyway to stroke her hair back from her face. She smiled at him, her eyes sleepy.

“On the move again tomorrow, sweetheart,” he told her. “Switzerland calls. Your ankle up to it?”

“I think so.” Tammy shrugged. “It has to be.”

They lay there in silence, the fire crackling gently. Doyle’s eyes were just beginning to close when Tammy spoke again.

“Doyle?” she asked.

He made a hmm sound low in his throat.

“What do we do,” she said, “if Switzerland is Infected too? If the centre isn’t there anymore?”

Doyle opened his eyes. She was watching him, one hand curled under her cheek. She didn’t look worried, but Tammy could be inscrutable, even when she was half-asleep.

“We find somewhere else,” he said. “We stay together and we make a new plan. We’re going to be okay, Tam. All of us. We’re going to live, whatever else happens.”

She smiled a little, her eyes drifting closed. “Okay.”

Doyle could have watched her sleep forever, but he had to take watch in less than an hour. He closed his eyes. They were going to be okay.